Cognitive and unnatural approaches to literature take very different stances on the issue of fictionality. While cognitive approaches consider everyday nonfictional and literary fictional narratives to highlight their similarities, unnatural approaches to narrative stress the exceptionality of the fictional. This article investigates disagreements and potential points of mutual interest in a dialogue between Henrik Skov Nielsen, representing unnatural narratology, and Karin Kukkonen, representing second-generation cognitive narratology. The dialogue develops through close readings of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. In a first step, Nielsen defines fictionality for unnatural approaches to fiction as “invention.” Kukkonen argues that there are many mental operations that qualify as invented, such as thought experiments and flights of the imagination, but that do not yet amount to fiction. To arrive at a cognitive definition of fictionality, she proposes to revisit Wolfgang Iser’s notion of fiction as an “articulated gestalt” in the light of recent embodied and predictive approaches. In a second step, we discuss the so-called exceptionality thesis. The issue at stake here is whether fictional texts are fundamentally dependent on our general cognitive capacities (a position traditionally held by cognitive narratology) or fundamentally depart from everyday modes of thinking. We revisit the debate in light of the unnatural definition of fictionality as invention and the cognitive perspectives gained through embodied and predictive approaches and arrive at the position that the exceptional does not necessarily defy the cognitive.
Fictionality: Cognition and Exceptionality
Karin Kukkonen is associate professor in comparative literature at the University of Oslo. She is currently completing a project on probability, predictive processing, and literary narratives called Probability Designs. Her publications include Contemporary Comics Storytelling (2013), Studying Comics and Graphic Novels (2013), and A Prehistory of Cognitive Poetics: Neoclassicism and the Novel (2017).