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January 2001
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Accuracy and the Conventionality of Artifice

In the rec.arts.books newsgroup I tossed off the following remark:

Be that as it may, accuracy in fiction is a dubious notion; the concept has an air of conventionality of artifice.
Someone asked what I meant by that. I replied in my palmiest style as follows:


Let us begin, he said, not at the beginnings for the very notion of a beginning is in itself artificial, all beginnings being center points in other tales. Rather let us begin at a particular place and time and let our inquiry spread out like spilled ink into blotting paper.

Consider if you will the production of a play. Upon the stage are actors mouthing words and gesturing just as though they were someone else. Behind them are painted flats, representing a scene, perhaps a city street. Heated words are exchanged, one person pulls out a gun, a shot is fired, and another falls dead. In less than an hour the city street has disappeared, the curtain falls, and the dead man and his killer bow before the audience, once again friends, as people beat their hands together to make noise.

We do not remark upon the miraculous resurrection of the fallen actor nor are we surprised that the events of several months took place within a few hours. We could be surprised - I have seen small children believe that the events taking place before them on the stage were real - but we are not. We know that it is all "make believe". Let us consider that painted flat a bit more. It displays a crowded street scene in Boston. A street sign informs us that the street is Jefferson street rather than Washington Street. The flat shows a fast food restaurant named Moxie's Place. There is no Moxie's Place in Boston (at least not within the confines of this posting.)

We have here some inaccuracies - the street sign that has the wrong president and the non-existent restaurant. Few would remark on the latter, it being admissable by convention to introduce non-existent establishments as long as they are *like* real establishments which are sufficiently profuse as to be generic. The off-putting street sign is more troubling. Here there are circumstances in which it is permissable to replace the real name with a similar name. We needn't enumerate them; intent rules here. If the change is intentional and the reason legitimate within the conventions that cover stage productions then it is permissable; otherwise it is an inaccuracy.

There is a much greater inaccuracy - the flat is not the street. We do not remark on this at all. The flat is understood by all to be as a simulacrum of the street. It is an artifact; it is not just any old artifact, a shoe tree for example. There are conventions that govern its construction and shape the artifice.

You may object, "That is a play; we were talking of written fiction." Indeed. Patience, little grasshopper, we shall get there yet. For the moment reflect that there is no such play; there never was such a play. It was all fiction, an invention to illustrate a point. You have entered the conspiracy between the author and the reader. Perhaps you feel cheated as the author rudely points to the metaphorical flat and says "that is just paint." Perhaps you feel illuminated or perhaps you are disgusted, saying, "that is such a banal truth." Whatever. The moment of exposure ends the play that is not unless, of course, the author and the reader determine between them that the play shall go on.

We were, however, speaking of novels and accuracy in novels. The play that never was exists but to make a point, to illuminate the role of artifice and convention and the ambiguities of accuracy. On the stage the issues are stark, illuminated by the spotlights on them as they occupy center stage. With novels it is otherwise. The role of artifice and the conventions that govern it are less visible, in part because they wear the mask of print and in part because they are engrained by the usage of custom. Let us look at some of those customs.

We start with a small one: Within most novels there is dialog. It is notorious that dialog within fiction is not an accurate representation of how people speak. The hesitations and false starts are pruned unless, of course, a particular effect is desired. Here accuracy is artifice, achieved by violating a convention. The dialog in print does not have the body language and intonation cues that is present in speech. The dialog within a novel is only a small fragment of the verbal interchanges between the characters, a fragment selected for dramatic reasons.

With the proviso, of course, that the characters themselves do not exist - they are shadows in print of people who may or may not have ever existed. That is the great lie of fiction, that the shadow people are real.

Another class of artifices - all the voices of fiction. A batch of prose within a novel will be narrated in a voice - first person, first person omniscient, third person, third person omniscient, et cetera. The very notion of writing within a voice is a grand artifice. The choice of which voice to use where and the implementation thereof are a matter of technique. There are conventions governing the use of voice, conventions which readers are accustomed to and expect.

And so on and so forth.

Fiction is a shadowland, populated by shadow people, set in a shadow world. The words are but symbols evoking imagined realities far larger than themselves. Author and reader conspire in a conspiracy of pretense in which the shadows gain substance. Artifice is everywhere - choose this word and not that, this sequence of events and not that, this conversation and not that, with the choices being governed by well rooted conventions. What then, is accuracy? It is a set of conventions about consistency between the shadow lands and reality. The conventions dictate which inconsistencies are to be ignored and which are not.

This is not to say that the conventions do not matter. They matter greatly. Without them the carefully crafted artifacts become meaningless lumps and the coherence of structure dissolves into chaos.


This page was last updated January 1, 2001.

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