"Essential Reading": A Review of Daniel Punday's Five Strands of Fictionality

"Essential Reading": A Review of Daniel Punday's Five Strands of Fictionality

2011-03-12
Five Strands of Fictionality: The Institutional Construction of American Fiction
Daniel Punday
Ohio State UP, 2010.

Anthony Warde traces Daniel Punday’s analysis of the intertwining strands of contemporary “fictionality,” the different modes - from “myth” to “assemblage” - by which invented stories are legitimated. Punday’s work implies that the active construction of ‘life-fictions’ is becoming more significant in contemporary technoculture, a view that runs counter to the more pessimistic view of agency in Baudrillard’s Simulacrum America and other accounts of a wholly ‘virtual’ reality.

Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. -G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s wry remarks on Literature and fiction, and on their apparent distinction, serve as an apt summary not only of the various debates on literary tastes over the last century, but also of the changing emphases of certain critical theories more recently. While the notion of a stable canon of objectively great works of “Literature” has long been disputed (if not entirely dispelled), questions regarding the “necessity” of fiction, and the forms and functions of fictionality, loom large in contemporary critical study. Regardless of its register or respectability, fiction is a mode of communication that is recognised as being distinct from, but by no means less necessary than, the more fundamental narrative logic that is held to order our understanding both of our individual lives and our purportedly common “History”. The increasing emphasis on the distinctive nature and function of fictional is reflected in the reorientation of critical fields which had previously regarded the question of fictionality as being of only minor concern. Narratology, to name one of the most prominent examples, has undergone a transformation over the last several decades from its “classical” guise, in which the distinction between fictional and non-fictional narrative either overlooked or downplayed, to a more interrogative mode which attempts to highlight and uphold the distinctiveness of these respective forms.For an overview of narratology’s struggle to define fictionality in textual terms, see Prince (1991) and Cohn (1990). As Daniel Punday demonstrates in Five Strands of Fictionality: The Institutional Construction of American Fiction, however, the implications of authority, prestige and discretion which underpin the definition of “Literature”, although largely overlooked or obscured by more textual and formal approaches to narrative, are at the heart of contemporary articulations and analyses of fictionality.

While narratology attempts to define fictionality in terms of textual indices, Punday argues that it can be understood only contextually. Fictionality, in his view “is best defined by the operation of an institution that legitimises the creation of invented stories”; far from being an isolated topic of arcane academic debate, fictionality “reflects broad cultural issues that have special power in American literary culture” (16). Punday’s titular “five strands” provide him with a structuring motif for his survey of recent American fiction, in which he highlights “the contention between several different ways of legitimating the fictional, and that the contention between these strands marks a larger struggle between central and peripheral positions in regards to contemporary literature” (23). Punday’s use of the term position invokes Pierre Bourdieu’s work on institutions and, particularly, on the power that particular institutions assume as arbiters of artistic or literary quality (23). By characterising these various definitions of fictionality as “strands,” Punday also aims to emphasize the “interaction between different uses and groups operating within and outside of contemporary American literary culture” (26). This stance enables Punday to make a number of provocative remarks, such as his intriguing (and in my view compelling) claim that the postmodern age is more “fictional” than previous periods “not because we live in an age more suffused with entertainment and political spin”, but because “it represents a time when the institutions that justify knowledge and that organize disciplines for creating and disseminating that knowledge are especially subject to debate” (21).

Tracing his five definitions of fictionality in terms of their relationship to - and increasing distance from - “traditional literary institutions and practices” (26), Punday begins with the work of John Barth, building on the contention that “postmodern fiction in America has developed not in resistance to literary institutions but in the midst of them” (31). In an incisive reading of The Friday Book, Barth’s collection of literary essays, Punday demonstrates “how the concept of the fictional is made to do a certain kind of work that transforms the institutions from which this writing emerges” (33). More specifically, he argues that Barth’s career is marked by an attempt to resolve the question of the nature and purpose of fiction in contemporary writing, and that the author “finds this answer precisely in institutional frameworks like critical reviews and interviews with academic journals” (38). At the heart of Barth’s definition of postmodernist fictionality is myth, a mode and model that not only embodies some qualities that we associate with postmodernism (“the interest in the relativity of knowledge, the problematization of history, the questioning of individuality”), but is also an established concept in literary institutions, as reflected in the works of Leslie Fiedler and Ihab Hassan (50). Punday argues, however, that the reformulation of myth in the works of later postmodern theorists means that the trope becomes “less a matter of the usefulness of made-up stories than a lens for reading culture”, and therefore cannot serve Barth’s successors as a means of reflecting on the specific problems and possibilities of fictionality.

Upon its apparent exhaustion as a method of understanding fictionality, myth is replaced in Punday’s survey by a second strand, namely, the definition of fiction as an archive. While Barth’s reliance on critical reflection and his employment of a mythical mode apparently align him with literary institutions, the subjects Punday associates with this alternative form of fictionality, namely, Alice Walker and Andy Warhol, are viewed as attempting “to think about the use of the fictional that responds to the challenges of contemporary literary culture by looking outside of literary institutions for inspiration” (60). Unravelling Walker’s essays on Zora Neale Hurston, Punday proposes that the author’s pursuit of Hurston consists of two distinct narrative threads: an attempt to locate and mark Hurston’s grave; and an examination of the disappearance of Hurston’s writings from the literary canon, with the consequent call for a reassessment of her works (62). The former is a tale of misunderstanding, misappropriated identity and fabrication, on which Punday deftly draws to support his introductory characterisation of fiction as a form that revolves around “the idea of lying to get to the truth” (64). The latter story is one in which Walker’s (re)discovery of Hurston can be seen as “an exemplary act of archival foundation”, that is, the creation of an anchoring point “from which future work and thinking can be charted” (65). The notion of the “archive” employed here is drawn from Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, where it is characterised as “a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future” (Derrida 18; cited in Punday 65).By establishing an understanding of fictionality that emphasises futurity rather than dependence on the past, Walker not only challenges but circumvents “the traditional structure of canons and truth legitimation”, effectively neutralising the exclusionary forces that prompted her search (68).

Walker’s resistance to the disciplinary structures that endorse or exclude particular forms of knowledge is linked by Punday to Warhol’s work, which is characterised as providing “an alternative to the social conventions that usually define the value of art” (73). In place of “the language of ‘cultural capital,’ which accepts the aura as a principal value in artworlds,” Warhol, Punday argues, returns to “the principle of work”, that is, to “the very material nature of production” (73-4). This emphasis on materiality is also evident in Warhol’s employment of the “leftover”, objects and actions that are discarded or viewed as worthless. In Punday’s view, then, Walker and Warhol “rely on disorganized and neglected materials for new artistic work, and both must reject standard artistic practice whose rules dictate that these materials should be ignored” (81). From such marginal positions, however, both figures have been accepted (or appropriated) by their respective institutions “precisely because they so wholeheartedly criticized and in the process rejuvenated them” (60).

Punday’s third strand comprises writers who assume a position even further from the traditions and norms of literary institutions by defining fictionality as “a variety of lying” (87). In place of the simplistic and clichéd claim that “postmodernism is fascinated with lying because we have lost confidence in traditional notions of the truth”, Punday constructs a compelling case for viewing his highlighted authors’ appeals to lying as an index of their position “within a public sphere defined by the marketplace of publishing houses, small magazines, and university criticism” (88). From its early manifestation in the work of Howard Nemerov, whose term “fictive self” is construed as a Freudian-informed view of “the public nature of our private acts of fictional self-construction” (93), this strand of fictionality is traced through the novels of writers such as Gilbert Sorrentino and Steve Katz. The notion of fictionality as lying is identified in the authors’ metafictional reflections on the struggles and restrictions of artistic creation, from the “conception” of characters who are both types and individuals (“both public and private, inherited and invented”) to the “spatial” exploration of the printed page and of the book as a whole (110). In Punday’s view, the self-referentiality of these works, far from signalling a solipsistic emphasis of the textual at the expense of the contextual, in fact serves to highlight the institutional forces that (attempt to) set the terms of their production; they are not “hyper-verbal” but “hyper-institutional, obsessively concerned with their own printing and page layout” (115). The notion of lying, then, highlights a tension between the integrity and independence of the fictional text, and its “responsibility” and susceptibility to the contexts in which it is produced.

From his fourth chapter, Punday charts a course away from the traditional literary institutions that inform the first three strands to understandings of fictionality that draw from other contexts, beginning with science fiction. While in a certain sense science fiction reflects a “classic definition” of fictionality as an investigative and instructive “act of creating and exploring worlds that function as logical alternatives to our own reality”, Punday focuses on cyberpunk, a variety of science fiction whose popularity lies not in its positing of otherworld, but rather, he argues, in its style. In an provocative (and, I would argue, corrective) analysis of The Matrix, Punday highlights the limits of a simplistic application of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation to a film which is taken to epitomise the apparent postmodern malaise of a media-controlled hyperreality. While Simulacra and Simulation is cited in The Matrix, the computer-generated alternate reality from which the film’s central protagonists seek to escape is not coterminous with Baudrillard’s model of simulation as “an expansion of media representation as part of a capitalism in which use value evaporates under the pressure of omnipresent exchange value” (130). This literalizing and misreading of Baudrillard’s theory is ironic, Punday argues, “since so much of the appeal of the film depends on its spectacular action sequences and its innovative use of computer-generated imagining [sic] (CGI) technology” (131). The emphasis on visual style extends to the leather clothing and social settings favoured by the protagonists, which appears to establish “certain types of emotional links between the futuristic world of the film and the definition of the stylish in late-“90s America” (133). Punday argues that this shift in science fiction from speculative futurity to a style that is symptomatic of the text’s present is particularly apparent in cyberpunk writing. While the works of writers such as William Gibson engage with (and extrapolate from) contemporaneous technological developments, their popular and critical appeal appears to lie in their distinctive and unconventional verbal style (135-9). Punday suggests that “the foregrounding of style as reflection of the broader cultural conditions” extends beyond cyberpunk to the discussion of postmodern culture more generally: “many of the most popular statements about postmodernity treat the characteristics of contemporary texts as symptoms of changing social conditions” (141). While such a “symptomatic” reading is fraught with problems, it enables commentators to engage in discussions of popular culture “without recourse to particular disciplinary procedures”, and “without any formal framework for defining their aesthetics” (145). Consequently, the definition of fictionality as a style is located on the (now uncertain) boundary between literary institutions and popular culture.

Taking us further into the realm of popular culture, Punday’s fifth strand derives from role-playing games, which are “fundamentally narrative in nature” but “depend on a very particular understanding of fictionality” (152). Role-playing games not only allow individuals to take an active role in their respective encompassing narratives, but are also “directly connected to various subgenres of contemporary popular writing” (158). Indeed, Punday speculates, “part of the pleasure of these games is organizing and combining the various stories and subgenres that the players enjoy” (166). The definition of fictionality as role-playing is therefore distinctive not only in its distance from traditional institutional understandings, but also as “a form of cultural practice that allows players to intervene productively into popular genres of fiction” (167). Punday sees similar notions of intervention and agency at play in possible-worlds theory, which emphasises the objects that make up a narrative world “in order to ask the question, what do we (readers, critics, fans) do with the stories we love?” (168). In a cogent summary of the work of Marie-Laure Ryan, Lubomír Doležel and others, Punday proposes that by “paying less attention to texture and more to entities that make up their worlds, theorists interested in fictional worlds are able to make cross-textual comparisons more easily” (174). By defining a fictional text as an assemblage of objects rather than an instantiation of literary codes and conventions, fictional-worlds theory and role-playing games appear to reject structuralist and institutional understandings of fictionality, which would seek to restrict and arrest the free-play of their respective theoretical and creative engagements with texts (175-6).

Having highlighted his five strands of fictionality, Punday proceeds to examine the interaction of these competing definitions in electronic writing, which he sees as being “positioned on the boundary between several competing institutions that promise to legitimate it” (178). Punday attributes the uncertainty regarding key terms like “reading, text, and creativity” in discussions of electronic writing to the interface of different “protocols” in these works. Drawing on Lacan’s notion of suture (defined as the binding point in an ideological field that gives the whole coherence), he interprets Jim Andrews’ Asteroids as binding together “the features we expect of games and literary works by addressing the activity demanded by each” (183).Punday’s understanding of suture derives from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, as cited in Žižek (1989). Such sutures suggest that static institutional categorisations of the work itself should be replaced by the reader/player’s more mutable and experiential understanding of their own engagement and activity (184). Punday then briefly traces his five strands of fictionality through five electronic works: myth in the computer game Black & White (2001); archive in M.D. Coverley’s multimedia hypertext Calfia (2000); lying in Talan Memmott’s Lolli’s Apartment; style in Wes Chapman’s Turning In (1997); and assemblage in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995). While Punday’s commentary here is undoubtedly intriguing, I felt that the brevity of the respective analyses prevents them from achieving complete clarity or conclusiveness (although this may be due in part to my relatively recent foray into this field). In fact, I found the close analyses of the various works and games to be less compelling than Punday’s characterisation of fictionality in electronic writing more generally. For example, his argument that “the literary framework for thinking about fictionality is not immediately or fundamentally changed by the introduction of new technologies” provides a welcome corrective - or at least counterweight - to the notion that the future of reading and of culture is inextricably tied to the book as a physical artefact (216-7). Even here, however, his approach may be somewhat problematic for those whose interest lies in understanding the specific potential and problems of electronic writing, as his defence and description of the form is largely based on its perceived continuity with, rather than radical difference, more traditional literary forms.

Punday’s sceptical and somewhat irreverent comments on the “apocalyptic” equation of electronic writing with the dissolution of cultural life as we know it is typical of the tone of his work as a whole. As I have noted above, he offers compelling counterarguments to engrained positions and received opinions, forcing the reader into an active re-evaluation of key concepts (such as “postmodern” and “simulation”) which are in danger of degenerating from critical clarity into cliché. The scope of Punday’s argument is striking, as he ranges an analytical alphabet from Adorno to Žižek, and employs diverse and difficult critical concepts with remarkable clarity and fluency. However, there are certain points where the centrifugal forces and ambitions of the analysis appear to strain at the limits of the restrictive structuring motif. For example, although the grouping of Walker and Warhol under the archive heading highlights certain salient parallels between their respective projects, the absence of any commentary on their markedly different contexts (informed by social, cultural, gender and other factors) seems somewhat puzzling. In short, their textual contiguity here does not entirely dispel the sense of their contextual incongruity. Such isolated reservations notwithstanding, there is no doubting Punday’s achievement in constructing an argument which not only addresses the issue of fictionality from an incisive new perspective, but is also of enormous interdisciplinary relevance. Whether read on its own or alongside (and against) alternative models, Punday’s account of fictionality is, like fiction itself, essential.It is particularly productive to compare Punday’s account of fictionality with Richard Walsh’s The Rhetoric of Fictionality (2007). Fictionality, in Walsh’s view, is best understood not as “an ontological category” but as “a communicative resource”; it is “neither a boundary between worlds, nor a frame dissociating the author from the discourse, but a contextual assumption by the reader, prompted by the manifest information that the authorial discourse is offered as fiction” (36).

Works Cited and Mentioned

Andrews, Jim. Asteroids. http://www.vispo.com/asteroids/index.htm.

Barth, John. The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Black & White. CD-ROM. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts, 2001.

Chapman, Wes. Turning In. Diskette. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1997.

Chesterton, G.K. “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls.” The Defendant. 1901. Wildside Press, 2005.

Cohn, Dorrit. “Signposts of Fictionality: A Narratological Perspective.” Poetics Today 11.4 (1990): 775-804.

Coverly, M.D. Calfia. CD-ROM. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.

Doležel, Lubomír. Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. CD-ROM. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1995.

Katz, Steve. The Exaggerations of Peter Prince. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Memmott, Talon. Lolli’s Apartment. http://www.heelstone.com/meridian/memmott.html.

Nemerov, Howard. Journal of the Fictive Life. 1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Prince, Gerald. “Narratology, Narrative, and Meaning.” Poetics Today 12.3 (1991): 543-552.

Punday, Daniel. Five Strands of Fictionality: The Institutional Construction of Contemporary American Fiction. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001.

—. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Sorrentino, Gilbert. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. 1971. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1991.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harvest, 1984.

Walsh, Richard. The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2007.

Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). San Diego: Harcourt, 1975.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.