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Fact into Fiction: Documentary Realism in the Contemporary Novel.

Lars Ole Sauerberg's Fact into Fiction: Documentary Realism in the Contemporary Novel is an interesting investigation of the realist documentary mode that also explores the relationship between textual ontology and the reliance on outer references from the "real" world. Sauerberg's basic claim is that despite the tendencies toward fragmentary narrative and literary devices (vaguely compounded as the postmodern), the realist mode of representation still prevails. Indeed, it must prevail, considering that we share much the same obsession with the ontological condition as our nineteenth-century cousins. The continuation of bourgeois values into the twentieth century has meant that literary investigation and experimentation, indeed all forms of representation, have followed the basic patterns of realistic convention. The key to the continuation of literary realism (whether specifically documentary or not) rests with the necessity of language to represent and the obvious limitations that lie within this ground of representation. All fiction works on the level of representation, as does all nonfiction, and both rely on the naturalizing function of narrative. Thus whether the text makes the rhetorical conventions invisible or not, it inevitably assumes a construction insofar as the realist text is always present to allow cognition of events or character.

It would seem, then, that any separation between the truly fictional (the completely made-up?) and the real (the actual?) would inevitably collapse under the realistic conventions and impulses of the narrative structure. Yet Sauerberg insists that a separation between narrative functions can be made. While he maintains that traditional realism "assumes the fictional universe to be a satisfactory verbal rendition of an intrinsically coherent analogy to a reality which is seen to exist 'out there,'" documentary realism in contrast "explicitly or implicitly acknowledges borrowing 'directly' from reality, that is, from kinds of discourse intended for nonliterary purposes' (3). Clearly Sauerberg is on very difficult ground here, as "analogy" and "borrowing" seem to refer to the exact same process of metaphorical representation. Whether discourse is factual or fictional, it functions through a form of transference where representative language must take the place of the "actual." The larger question Sauerberg avoids is the political function of language and the extent to which specific rhetorical structures are responsible for particular versions or visions of reality.

Sauerberg's point is that swapping contexts, placing factual elements in clearly fictional modes, produces various reality effects that echo throughout the text and a differing level of cognition that registers as factual. Documentary realism represents a clash of sorts (partly within the perception of the reader, partly as a textual function), in which the factual elements erupt unambiguously into the fictional, producing a clear interruption of fictional flow. What is essentially a new set of textual coordinates produces a hybrid textual function with differing terms of reference, drawing attention directly to the problematic difference between the fictional and the factual.

Where traditional realism reduces the world of fact to a world of individual determination stabilized by the plot, documentary realism creates a discourse which refuses to surrender the totalization of realism, while preventing the reader from total immersion. In short, there is a distance imposed by the authority of the fact that scares off the unfamiliar reader, while he is simultaneously welcomed in by the reader-friendly and familiar narrative itself. Thus "the nonliterary text replaces reality and in the process of doing so pretends to lose its textuality" (44). And yet it is difficult to see or recognize exactly how dislocating the fact is, given that Sauerberg has already insisted that we have a fetish for the real and the realistic. What is more welcoming, or interesting, for that matter, than a text that purports to be real and offers a direct link to that reality beyond our experience?

Again, in many ways Sauerberg is trying to undo the Gordian knot of representation, and his definitions become increasingly unclear as to the different functioning values of fact and fiction. To be fair, he does tackle an area that lies at the heart of all textual study. Sauerberg offers an interesting theoretical discussion of the interlocking problems of fictionality and factuality, but he misses the importance of the openly political acts that lie behind the condoning of certain fictions as being more valuable and useful than others. Though his use of Jonathan Culler, H. R. Jauss, and Stanley Fish focuses the analysis partly on text and the socially constructed reader, Sauerberg never suggests possible ways in which the reader is politically constructed to accept specific fictions or to enter discourse communities. The actual "translation" of text into a particular readerly conception is a process that goes unaddressed.

Sauerberg's consideration of documentary realist texts is the weakest part of the book, offering normative readings that fail to use the concerns highlighted in the first half. Chapter 4 rushes through an analysis of the connections between history and fiction, relying too heavily on overlong chunks of text that never confound our most basic assumptions. Going back to Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, as well as more popular novels by Anthony Burgess and James Michener, Sauerberg never really does justice to the importance of history as fiction, and vice versa. His analysis of Holocaust texts (Schindler's Ark, The White Hotel, and Sophie's Choice) and biographical representations of Sigmund Freud are interesting, though in themselves these texts deserve more detailed consideration. Sauerberg's claim that "the fiction absorbs the history, and the history comes out patterned as fiction" (72) comes as no surprise considering that we see history in novelistic terms anyway. The world of popular figures, movements, and revolutions still creates a totalizing narrative vision, and perhaps the more important point to consider is this need for coherence. Novels, histories, and documentaries have always been dependent on textuality and narrative construction, and to suggest that texts function on several discourse levels is hardly new, because they always have.

If Sauerberg is concerned with realism and the representation of the fact, Christine Brooke-Rose offers an interesting metacommentary on the role and place of literary theory and the fictionalizing processes inherent in academic and intellectual pursuit. Ostensibly, her Stories, Theories and Things addresses the problems of represented thought, expressing concern about fiction stepping into fact and vice versa, as well as the problem critics face stepping into their own methodological systems. Stories, Theories and Things is a book about literary theory and creativity, with Brooke-Rose occupying the difficult position of critic and novelist, exploring how the critic reads as a writer and the novelist as a theorist.

For Brooke-Rose, "Reality is a scandal, it never quite fits" (16), and the problem, or game, is that all interpretive models are elaborate fictions that attempt to close reality, to unify experience. The critic is as creative as the writer she studies, and the difficulty connected with factoring out the critic is an early concern in this text. In following the view that "critical and creative writing have become one and are indistinguishable" (19), Brooke-Rose outlines the problems involved with "scientific" theories of textual analysis, showing that they inevitably fall back onto their own theoretical models to provide their legitimacy.

Through her initial analysis of theories as stories, Brooke-Rose examines the ways in which explanatory theories are no more than elaborate hoaxes, forced to cheat because their generalizations are always specific, never universal as the critic maintains. Critical and creative writing have come dangerously close, and the aim of creative scholarship seems to lie in fitting material into preconceived results, as in the complex diagrams of structuralism. As Brooke-Rose claims, "We have only lately become fully aware that what we talk of is identical to the discourse ... we no longer dare to speak (on the one hand) and can't stop uttering (on the other)" (161). Yet one can't help thinking that if this is the case, then what is the purpose of analysis in the first place? Are we to assume that Brooke-Rose's self-consciousness is supposed to make us more sensitive critics or more creative analyzers?

In many ways, and despite her clear-headed critical awareness, Brooke-Rose falls into her own traps, and her book becomes a contradiction in both terms and practice. In the early chapters she theorizes theory, while in the later ones she relies on the kinds of textual analysis she has poked fun at. Though her deconstructive readings of Stephen Crane, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ezra Pound, and W H. Auden are complex and insightful, they sit uncomfortably with her expressed concerns; the duality of writer and critic collapses the problems of fiction and reality until. they become unintentionally ironic. It is clear, however, that this double bind does not lie with some epistemological prank but rather illustrates the very contemporary problems of the clash between academicism and economics. A quick glance at the acknowledgments shows that all of the "chapters" have appeared before in various journals, indicating that this book emerged from a series of loosely connected articles and presentations. If Brooke-Rose is worried about the contradictory role of the creative critic, then Stories, Theories and Things illustrates the equally difficult climate within the academic world, where excessive repetitive publication and the cult of personality produce a distorted sense of reality within the university.

Yet despite this, Brooke-Rose's analysis is a complement to and sophisticated extension of the study offered by Sauerberg, and her own metacritical position and observations on writing as a "double bind" go some way toward sorting out Sauerberg's muddle. Rather than focusing on the specifics of "factual discourse" or communities of reception, Brooke-Rose's notion of writing and creativity is more flexible. As she states, writing "has a revealing/concealing structure since we reveal ourselves through utterance, but only to the limits of what can be articulated. It thus draws us IN and keeps us OUT, guessing" (112).

What we are inevitably left with are not the specific elements of fact or fiction, nor the ontological elements Sauerberg believes, but the broader systems of narrative and the rhetorical tropisms that constitute all forms of discursive expression, and the ways in which these systems reveal their own politics or ideology. Living history and lived experience become falsified through the fetishization of factual representation, and this process takes place in liberal and totalitarian systems alike. Both exploit history and create patterns of stories and events, and both have become increasingly inefficient on narrative and political levels.

There is little doubt that we will always have realism, as Sauerberg claims, but not in a classical realist sense, because the society that form was meant to study and depict "has lost all solid basis, all stability, all belief in itself, our vision of it has broken into fragments" (Brooke-Rose 173). It seems that all literary revolts are against the reigning form of realism in an attempt to find a "better" substitute. Yet what remains of the fictional and the theoretical is a logical need to develop a form of coherence through narrative that gives meaning to the historical moment. As Brooke-Rose states, "the novel is dead, long live the poem; the poem is dead, long live the text; and now: the text is dead, long live the fiction" (164-65). Inevitably, the decay of all representational verities, and the realization of this constant state of flux, leaves us with purely fictional ciphers and a zero degree of critical practice. Fact may become fiction, and fiction fact, but the politics of interpretation is always present in understanding the ways in which we must re-present.
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Author:Hansom, Paul
Publication:Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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