Human Fiction

Action – Creation – Critique

Defending and Defining Fiction

When creating Human Fiction, we decided that our only limit would be the theme of fiction. We want to write, talk about, and think about fiction as well as its place in our lives. What does fiction mean to us in a world so often obsessed with the “real”, or the search for an objective, scientific, fact-based truth?

In the past ten years or so, we have watched way too much reality TV (a lot of which goes beyond reality for most ofus), and even my university, the one I currently attend, has changed its name to become a “university of Human and Social Sciences,” leaving behind the term “Humanities.” According to this title, the work done on campus follows the rules of the scientific method and above all should be objective. It should deal with things that can be proven. Oasis frontman Neil Gallager claims to prefer reading history to fiction because he thinks it's more interesting to know what “actually happened.” And while reality can sometimes be stranger than fiction (as they say), what happened to imagination? And what about times where “what really happened” isn't clear, or can be seen in different ways?

In any case, a big challenge for our magazine is to define what fiction is. If we want to publish works on, about, or related to fiction, then we had better try and figure out what it is, right? A broad and kind of off-base first definition for some would be, “anything written that is not real.” Otherwise, we can take the dictionary definition (taken here from Oxford Dicionaries Online): it would first be written literature (they say “especially novels”?) “with imaginary events and people.” Second, something “invented or untrue.” Saying a couple is “keeping up the fiction that they were happily married,” would be a polite way of saying that their marriage is a lie. In this case, it is a convenient lie in the form of an ongoing story, that keeps the couple's lives stable or at least lets them appear to be so. While fiction can be the act of writing a story, in English (as well as in French, by the way) the word fiction is used to talk about deception, including narratives in real life that are easily maintained because of their attractiveness.

This set of definitions brings up one of the issues of how we perceive fiction: when the author of a fiction is upfront about the unreal nature of their story, the reader is happy to enjoy the story on its own right. They look for their own experiences in the story, more or less without demanding that the events be things that “really happened.” On the other hand, an imaginary story that is false but taken to be or presented as true is deceit, something to be suspicious of, or something to be corrected. If what politicians promise they will do turns out to be fantasy, we are quickly disillusioned. A historian's job is to bring new research to light in order to correct errors in the commonly accepted narrative of the past. What we think of fiction depends on the author's intentions. Whereas we can call anything that is a constructed narrative of events a “fiction,” if the author is trying to write a history, reconstructing the events of the past and giving them meaning, calling it a fiction may put its author ill at ease, because of their search for objectivity.

It's possible to see fiction everywhere if we define it as a constructed narrative. Every writer, whether historian, scientist, journalist or literary author, has biases that might influence the framework of their writing. As you can never retell everything that happened in a certain place or time, you have to pick and choose, whether you are writing history or literature.1 To be more specific, we could define literary fiction as something intentionally and openly constructed, a piece of art that means to show a particular point of view. At the same time, literature has not always been defined as something subjective or biased. During the Enlightenment, and even through the nineteenth century, some writers and critics such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw literature and fiction as a means to reflect and establish truths that can't be found through facts, or imagine ideal worlds.

Then there's the question of medium. Is fiction only the written word? Of course not, it can be a movie or a play. It does not have to have words. It cans be visual art —think of Liberty Leading the People, a famous French painting where Lady Liberty leads soldiers through battle carrying a flag and a rifle. It serves as a metaphor for freedom inspiring the people to continue the battle, not a literal account of a woman on the battlefield. Aside from paintings, most video games are based on imaginary worlds and made up characters. Maybe even some blogs are fake, the authors taking on fictional identities like an actor would play a role. Let's not forget Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie's tragic alien rock star.
So these are the general questions that well will be thinking about as to what we accept as fiction. All of our writers are free to agree, disagree, or develop as they like. We're not trying to set absolute rules, but instead start a conversation that should come through in a lot of what we publish here. Fiction is a broad concept that, in my opinion, implies an imagined, constructed narrative, a story involving characters that often develop over time, no matter the medium or artistic style. But maybe you disagree.

I will leave you with the following quote by Guy de Maupassant, from the introduction to his novel Pierre et Jean: “An intelligent critic should, on the contrary, seek out everything that seems the least like novels already written, and push young people as much as possible to try new ways.”2 We can seek out new ways of telling stories, or look at old ones with new eyes.


  1. “Telling everything would be impossible, since it would take at least one volume per day to give every detail about the multitude of insignificant events that fill up our life. So, a choice must be made, – which is a first challenge for a theory of whole truth.” (Raconter tout serait impossible, car il faudrait alors un volume au moins par journée, pour énumérer les multitudes d'incidents insignifiants qui emplissent notre existence. Un choix s'impose donc —ce qui est une première atteinte à la théorie de toute la vérité.) —Guy de Maupassant, Pierre et Jean, 1982, Gallimard, p. 51. 

  2. Un critique intelligent devrait, au contraire, rechercher tout ce qui ressemble le moins aux romans déjà faits, et pousser autant que possible les jeunes gens à tenter des voies nouvelles.Ibid, p.47. 

By Laura Deavers, on June 5, 2014. Top.

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