What we call literature classes are usually concerned with the reading of different kinds of fiction. The kinds of fiction — also called genres — include poetry, prose narrative fiction, and drama. Why should we consider these genres of literature as kinds of fiction? How does this way of defining literary genres as kinds of fiction affect how we read, interpret, and discuss literature? This essay will attempt to answer these questions.
Fiction is the imitation of communication as a form of artistic play, with the purpose, not of passing a message from sender to receiver, but of presenting a design made out of the material of messages, a design that provides a patterened program of surprises, revealing to the attentive reader a structure of paradoxes about both language and life.
This definition of fiction depends on a distinction between fiction and communication. Let us consider, then, how we should define communication, since the first point is that fiction is not communication, but rather the playful imitation of communication. When we use language in ordinary life, most of the time, we use it to communicate. We may define communication, roughly speaking, as the passing of information from one being to another. (The term being here allows for animals or even machines communicating with each other.) The most obvious case of such passage of information is when someone tells someone else a fact in the form of a declarative sentence (also known as a proposition): "I washed the dishes yesterday." By exension, questions such as "Who washed the dishes yesterday?" commands such as "Wash the dishes!" or "Please wash the dishes," and exclamations such as "Oh, no! So many dishes to wash!" — all of these, in some sense, may pass information of a sort from one person to another. While in case of the proposition, the information was the fact that the speaker had washed the dishes, the question passes along the information that the speaker does not know who washed the dishes and would like the addressee to tell him or her. The command passses along the information that the speaker wants the addressee to wash the dishes and feels that the addressee ought to do so. The exclamation informs the addressee about the mood of the speaker in finding the dishes unwashed — surprise, indignation, despair, etc. Insofar as they are all instances of passing information along from a speaker to an addressee, all four sentences are instances of communication.
A proposition does not have to be true or correct for it to serve as a message in communication. The speaker may be stating what he or she believes to be a true fact, within the extent of his or her knowledge, which later turns out to be incorrect — but the error was unintentional. After all, no one's knowledge of the real world around us is ever absolutely perfect or complete. Given the inevitable limitations on the capacity of all propositions to be entirely correct and complete, even incorrect statements, intended to inform truthfully, qualify as communication. Then again, the speaker may actually intend to lie or deceive the addressee. Even so, the message is still part of communication, since the speaker is engaging the addressee's attention in such a way that the addressee will receive the message as if it were valid. A speaker and an addressee may also, in an unspoken way, agree that one of them may say something quite different from what the addressee may assume is the truth according to what the speaker knows or thinks. This would be a case of irony, and, since both speaker and addressee are "in on it," the addressee knows how to take the words of the message correctly. Information is still passed, and they are thus still communicating.
In order for language to be used to communicate, two sorts of conditions are necessary:
1. A context of reality. There must be a real speaker, a real addressee, and a real world to which they may refer. In the above examples about washing dishes, the sentences make communicative sense if there are actual dishes, a sink, soap, etc. somewhere near the speaker and addressee, who must both be real. If, say, there were no addressee, the speaker would be assumed to be talking to himself or herself, and the term communication would not fit well. If the speaker and addressee were both wealthy enough to eat out for every meal and therefore never to have to wash dishes, then the sentences would tend to seem either like evidence of the speaker's insanity, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, a sort of game, in which the speaker is imitating someone who would say such things about washing dishes. Such a game would not qualify as communication, but as fiction. Now, suppose you saw a billboard poster declaiming in bold letters, "I washed the dishes yesterday." In such a case, "yesterday" cannot have its normal meaning as used in communication, since the poster will be up for many days, each of which has its respective yesterday, and since it is impossible to tell from the billboard or its context who the "I" is in the statement or whether there even is, or ever was, such a real person. In both the case of the restaurant diners and the case of the billboard, the lack of definite and real persons and things to which the words can refer pushes the language of the sentences towards fiction.
2. A context of exchange. In order for the sentence "I washed the dishes yesterday" to have meaning, it must be at least hypothetically possible for the addressee to respond — whether by nodding a wordless acknowledgment or by disputing — "No, I washed the dishes yesterday — you did the day before" — or questioning — "Are you sure?" — or in some other way. In practice, people do not always respond to speech — yet most of the time, the speaker will at least look to make sure that the addressee has an appropriate look of attentiveness, which is itself a kind of response. The context of exchange is necessary because language is inevitably ambiguous and potentially self-contradictory, so that, in order for language to approach the truth or otherwise to carry information, people must engage in exchanges that verify, revise, adjust, question, remind, debate, or otherwise extend a particular utterance. The exchange must be — again hypothetically — potentially endless, unless some physical action intervenes to serve as nonverbal communication or as a physical change in the situation. For instance, the addressee of "I washed the dishes yesterday" might ask whether, by "the dishes," the speaker meant the dishes there at home, or in some other place (a friend's house? a restaurant?), so that it is still the speaker's turn to wash the (home) dishes today. After several rounds of such questions, the speaker might simply grab the addressee's hands and put them into the soapy water in the sink to touch the dishes therein, saying "These dishes were the ones I washed," or might walk away. These actions might be considered "communication," but they also involve an actual change in the physical situation, and thus have nonverbal components. The nonverbal components are the elements that bring the exchange to a possible close. Verbal communication itself requires a potentially limitless exchange in order for the messages within the exchange to make sense, be clear, be valid, have the desired effect, etc.
The two contexts — reality and exchange — depend on each other. There must be a real speaker and a real addressee for an exchange to be possible. There must be an exchange in order to make references to things and people in the real world clear. Except for some proper names, words work by referring to whole categories or concepts — the word city refers to any city, to the city as a category of thing, although "New York" refers to a particular city. In order for such categorical expressions to refer to real things, people have to ask questions, verify, refine, and otherwise engage in exchanges — "I live in the city" — "Which city?" — "Springfield" — "Oh. Which Springfield? There are many cities called that." — "Springfield, Massachusetts." In this example, even the proper name Springfield is a generality that must be made more specific. The generality of language is not a defect. For one thing, the categorical quality of most words is what allows us to use language to make predicates, which are necessary parts of sentences. "Earth is a planet." The common noun planet refers to any planet, and therefore implies the idea that the Earth has something in common with Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the other known planets. Language works largely by making such implied comparisons, linking whole categories of things, actions, and ideas to other categories of things, actions, and ideas. But by the same token, in order for language to refer to the real world as it must do in communication, the people involved in communication must be able to question, check, refine, and otherwise add to their speech, trying to bridge the gap between the generality of language and the specific uniqueness of real things, people, and events.
In fiction, by contrast, the speaker, addressee, and world of reference are all imaginary. Even if a work of fiction refers to something real — say, a city by its name — the point of the work of fiction does not have bearing on the real city, nor the real city on the work of fiction. A story may say, for instance, that New York is forever dark. This is not literally true, but its untruth should not cause the reader of fiction to think that, therefore, the story were a bad story. Instead, he or she would keep reading to see how New York's being forever dark might contribute to other items in the story to make a pattern of some sort. Indeed, if a child were to ask whether the events in a fairy tale such as "Hansel and Gretel" are true, the most accurate answer is neither that they are true nor necessarily that they are false, but that it does not matter whether they are true or false for the story to be a good story. Thus fiction is not subject to the truth test. In this regard, ficiton is to be distinguished both from falsehood and from lying. A communicative statement that claims that something is true but that turns out to be false is either an incorrect, defective statement or a deliberate lie, intended to deceive — the statement can be judged according to whether it is true. By contrast, a work of fiction cannot be judged that way, but according to whether it works — whether it is effective as a work of fiction.
Likewise, a work of fiction is removed from any context of exchange. A person can respond to a poem, a story, or a play — by talking about it to another real person — but a reader cannot talk to the characters in a story and expect the characters to hear them. A fictional voice may speak in the second person, as if it were addressing the reader, but the reader should know that it would say the same thing no matter who the reader is, and will always be saying the same thing no matter how many times the same reader reads it. Insofar as the work of fiction is thus closed off from communicative exchange, it is also suspended from the categories of truth and falsehood.
The reader's or listener's engagement in a work of fiction arises out of recognition. The reader recognizes the sort of message the work of fiction imitates, and, hence, the sort of reality that would be the case if the work of fiction were a message. Yet, at the same time, the reader or listener of fiction must also remember the fictionality of the work of fiction, in order to follow its patterns and thus to grasp its artistic point. Accordingly, the reader must negotiate a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, he or she must read the work of fiction as if it were a message reflecting reality — for instance, he or she must read a narrative fiction as if the characters were real people and the events and situations real. On the other hand, the reader must pull back from this degree of engagement enough to recognize the design of the work — for instance, the plot of the narrative — so as to enjoy the work as a work. It is as a result of this paradoxical situation of the reader that one can read a "sad" story and enjoy it — one can take pleasure in reading a story in which characters suffer harships and pain. If the characters were real people, it would be cruel to enjoy hearing about their suffering. What the reader enjoys is not finding out about suffering in such a case — since the suffering is imaginary. Rather, the reader enjoys the discovery of the design of the plot, which gives the reader a feeling that there is a point to the suffering — the point being the design itself. But in order to grasp this design, the reader must have followed the elements of the plot — which means that he or she must have made as if the suffering were real suffering — for it to have the appropriate emotional sense within the larger design of which it is a component. Understanding this paradox is crucial to understanding what it is that we do when we enjoy a work of fiction.
Paradox is crucial to the understanding of fiction for other reasons as well. The paradox discussed just now is an instance of a series of paradoxes intrinsic to fiction by nature. Another example of paradox within this series has to do with the sense of time. A work of fiction is fixed, unlike a conversation, which is an ongoing process of exchange. Just as fiction is suspended from conversational exchange and from the truth test, it is also suspended from the passage of time — a story, a poem, or a play script always contains the same words, whether one reads the work now or later. A given work of fiction has built into it a prescribed order — a beginning, a middle, and an end — and yet, paradoxically, the end already exists while one is reading or hearing the beginning, and the beginning still exists (as a part of the work) when the reader or listener gets to the end. The parts of the work thus have a temporal order of succession, but they also co-exist at the same time, timeless, as if they were parts of a form or shape in space rather than in time.
The material of the work of fiction tends to reflect aspects of reality that actually involve conflicts, contradictions, and paradoxes. These contradictions are inevitable in life itself, but we do not generally experience them as opportunities for pleasure, but rather as sources of frustration, difficulties to be suffered and, perhaps, overcome. For instance, we all know that we are mortal — and yet it is impossible to run one's life, to make plans and decisions, to build relationships, or to make commitments, unless one acts as if one knew that death were somehow held in abeyance. Also, the very fact that you can say, "I know that I will someday die," suggests a feeling as if your mind and imagination could contain the thought of your own death, and therefore must be bigger than your death, and, hence, immortal. Likewise, you have beliefs and opinions, and yet you know that it is always possible to be wrong — yet you cannot know in advance that you are wrong — otherwise you would not willingly hold the incorrect opinion or belief. You must therefore be both sure and unsure of the same beliefs and opinions. These are examples of the contradictory thoughts and situations that arise in everyday life.
Fiction tends to play with these contraditory ideas and situations, making the chaos of contradiction appear as the pleasing order of an artistic design. Works of fiction do this by using the inherently paradoxical qualities of fiction — such as the engagement-and-distance of the reader, the "as-if" reality of the imaginary world represented, and the dual temporality of sequence and timeless form — matching these inherent paradoxes up with the paradoxes in the imaginary world of the work of fiction that, in turn, correspond to conflictual situations whose likeness we recognize in real life. It is in this game that works of fiction can be, as they are, simultaneously witty and fun, and yet profound, moving, and poignant.
Since fiction is made out of the imitation of communication, any kind of utterance in communication can be imitated as fiction. We can distinguish kinds of utterance — in both communication and fiction — according to various qualities, such as whether the focus is on a temporal sequence of events (narrative) or on spatial relations (description). These distinctions are particularly useful when it comes to talking about fiction, because they give us an idea of what the norms, the unmarked default assumptions, might be — against which any particular work will present a marked pattern of surprises. The pattern of surprises is the part that will enable us to recognize the paradoxes that will give us a sense of the point of the work. Kinds of utterance, defined by certain norms, are called genres. (The adjective derived from genre is generic.) The term genre can be applied to both commuication and fiction, and there are generic expectations in either case, against which the author or speaker may produce effects of surprise. But the play of surprises against a background of generic expectations is more crucial when it comes to fiction, precisely because the point of a work of fiction lies in its design, whereas a communicative utterance can have its point verified further by means of the ongoing process of exchange. Let us therefore consider some of the qualities that help to determine genre.
First, the content of the utterance may be oriented toward the unfolding of events in time, or it may be oriented toward the delineation of items in space. The former is called narration, the later description. Either one can characterize either a communicative utterance or a fictional imitation of one. A nonfictional, communicative narrative may be called a history. Journalistic reporting, personal diaries, and medical records are other instances of nonfictional narrative, whose generic differences depend on the contexts of their use. A fictional narrative is commonly called, simply, a narrative fiction. The same is true of description — there are nonfictional descriptive genres, such as museum catalogues, auction catalogues, sales catalogues, travelogues, and mechanical specification sheets; and there are fictional versions of any of these, as well as descriptions of imaginary landscapes forming passages within longer narrative works — such as the description of a setting or a character within a novel. This last example brings up an important general point, which is that a given genre may be found as a component within a larger item of some other genre.
Narration and description focus on the external world, whether real or imaginary. A genre corresponding to narration but having a more "internal" focus toward ideas or thoughts is an argument, where the sequence of elements is determined, not by the sequence of events in time, but by the logical sequence of thoughts, where one idea prepares for the next or leads to the next. There are communicative arguments, such as legal briefs and debating speeches, and there are fictional arguments, such as some love poems, including the first seventeen of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." If the inward-looking intellectuality of argument corresponds to the outward-looking narrative, a meditation would correspond to a description, "describing" thoughts and feelings rather than objects of external sense. Personal letters often involve such meditations, in which the writer attempts to describe his or her feelings about something. For fictional meditations, again, one might look at lyric poems, such as Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 (which has qualities of a narrative as well) or Emily Dickinson's "After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes."
Now, narration, description, argument, or meditation, whether communicative or fictional, may appear in the form of either prose or verse. Prose is the unmarked form of language, where the ordering of sounds and words is determined primarily by sense and not by sound. Verse is the contrary: physical features of the language — mostly sound — take precedence in the choice and ordering of phonemes, syllables, words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. Sense does not entirely disappear in verse. If sense were completely eliminated, the result would no longer be language at all, because language must mean something (in some way and to some degree) in order to qualify as language. What we call "nonsense verse" is verse where sense is unimportant or playfully incomplete by design. In the case of verse, then, there must be at least some sense, but the attention is drawn away from sense to mere sound (or to the look of the words in written form, or to some other physical qualities of the signifiers). Accordingly, verse divides the attention of the listener or reader between the sound of the signifier and the sense of the signified. It renders the utterance more opaque than the equivalent prose would be, because the attention is drawn toward the mere sound of the language.
Normally, communication is more effective, the more its language is transparent, so that our attention goes as much as possible to the sense alone. Anything drawing us away from sense in communication tends to be felt as a distraction. For instance, if someone is speaking to you, and his voice is so odd-sounding that your attention drifts toward its sound, you may well miss what he is saying, and then have to apologize for being distracted. For this same reason, verse is generally not an efficient vehicle for communication. Accordingly, verse tends to condition the listener to think of the utterance in verse as probably fictional. Verse works as a powerful, immediate cue to the listener or reader to start listening or reading with the expectations appropriate to fiction — to watch for a pattern of sense and surprises to develop, to assume that one cannot respond directly to the utterance, etc. Accordingly, utterances in verse are usually assumed to be poetry. Poetry is a traditional term for verse fiction. The term (or its ancient ancestor) originally meant, simply, "fiction," and many older works of literary theory and criticism use the term poetry to mean fiction, even prose fiction.
The split focus of attention between sound and sense in poetry is accomplished primarily by means of rhythm. In most places and in most times before the past 50-60 years or so, poets usually crafted their language to produce a regular, audible rhythm, which is called meter. But rhythm is also an instance of a more general phenomenon, parallelism, which characterizes many aspects of poetry. Rhythm is parallelism in sound. Poetry also tends to have parallelism in the sense of words (many parallel or equivalent terms), in syntax (parallel phrases, clauses, sentence structures, etc.), and in thoughts or ideas. Also, the figure of speech based on similarity, metaphor, tends to occur frequently and to have a controlling influence on sense in poetry.
Aside from the orientation of content and the relation of sound to sense (prose or verse), another determiner of genre is the presentation of the utterance — whether told or impersonated. In the first case, one may deliver an utterance in such a way that little or no attention is drawn to oneself as the speaker of the utterance and to who one is or is supposed to be. This is usually — though not always — the norm in communication. By contrast, one may draw attention strongly to oneself as speaker. In communication, one may do this by engaging in what we usually call attention-getting behavior, self-conscious joking, affectations, etc. In fiction, a typical example of telling is what we call the "third-person omniscient" form of narration, in which we harldy notice the presence of the narrative voice — the narrator is, as it were, transparent. By contrast, a third-person limited narrator gives us some sense of his or her specificity as an imaginary person, or character. A first-person narrator does so even more strongly. At the furthest extreme of this impersonation is the actual acting out of a character's speeches and actions in the form of drama. Just as descriptions may occur within a narrative or narratives within a description, impersonation may occur momentarily within a telling. For instance, whenever a specific character's speech is quoted within a work of narrative fiction whose events are primarily told by a transparent narrator, we may think of the quotation as a momentary impersonation — the narrator, so to speak, impersonates the character by acting out the speech. The same may occur in nonfictional, communicative narration, too: a newspaper article reporting an event would normally contain some direct quotations of people's speeches.
One important genre arises from the combination of verse fiction and impersonation: lyric poetry. The term lyric derives originally from the connection of this kind of poetry with song — sung to the lyre, a kind of portable harp, used in ancient Greece — which we should think of as the ancient Greek equivalent of the acoustic guitar in folk songs today. This connection between song and written verse helps to explain why the words to popular songs to this day are called lyrics. Lyric poetry should be thought of as the spoken (and hence written) imitation of song, which, in turn, is the sung imitation of communicative speech, where the pitches and rhythm of song imitate the natural intonations and rhythms of communicative speech, but draw them out, stylize them, and make them more orderly and pleasing, so as to ensure that the song is not mistaken for an actual message within an exchange. A lyric poem, in turn, may later be set to music, in which case the sung lyric poem is the sung version of a spoken imitation of a sung imitation of a spoken communicative utterance. Since lyric poetry is generally not sung, however, what distinguishes it from other kinds of poetry — such as narrative poetry (epic) on the one hand and verse drama on the other — is that it usually presents itself as the impersonated utterance of a single fictive speaker. A lyric poem may contain a narrative, a description, an argument, or a meditation — or any combination of these — but it will usually present its content with some attention drawn to the character qualities of the speaker, even If these qualities are left relatively vague. Thus, like epic poetry, lyric poetry generally has a single speaker; but, whereas the narrator of epic poetry is fairly transparent, the speaker in lyric poetry feels like a character, even if one with few definable features. In addition, the traditional connection with song ensures that lyric poetry tends to draw more attention to the sound of its language by means of verse rhythm than does story-telling, epic poetry.
Orientation of content, relation of sound to sense, and presentation are probably not the only determiners of content, but they are largely sufficient to describe the largest categories of genre, especially in fiction. Within them, more specific generic categories also become important. For instance, narratives have typical plot patterns, such as tragedy and comedy. A tragedy or comedy, in turn, may be told in the form of a tale, short story, or novel, or may be acted out, in the form of a play — or, with music, an opera. These particular genres will be treated in greater detail within the discussions on narrative fiction and drama. Kinds of meter and their generic associations will be treated in the discussion of meter.
Amittai F. Aviram — © 2001, all rights reserved.
Version 1 July 2000
This page last updated Friday, August 5, 2022 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot com. © 2000 by Amittai F. Aviram.