IT’S ONLY A STORY – Against the Politicisation of Fiction.
by Brian Russell Graham
Culturally, we are somewhat obsessed with how we portray members of social groups in different kinds of fictional material: books, films and TV Dramas. Negative portrayals of social groups are of course representations which do a disservice to the groups in question. Certain representations are deemed to be inadequate: they simplify groups and caricature them. A focus on stereotypes is an organic concern in such commentary.
You might think that desirable representations of the members of social groups in this context would be limited to accurate representations of the members of such groups, but when we consider what the engineers of desirable fictions are talking about, it is more than that. What is advocated is empowering images of social groups, specifically role models for different members of those groups. Certain types of feminist commentary on the representation of women lead the way here. Many feminist commentators routinely speak of “strong women” in fictional works.
Characters who can be construed as “strong women”, to stick to that category for now, exist in our fictional heritage of course. Presumably, Shakespeare’s Rosalind is an example of just such a figure. And no one would object to more characters of this type randomly appearing in fictional material – though actually construing them as “empowering figures” is, I would argue, a pointless exercise. No: the problem is that the insistence on the part of campaigners that the only acceptable characters are empowering characters amounts to a dubious political project.
It is easy to reconstruct the logic of this project. This viewpoint places the same demands on the fictional and the non-fictional or “descriptive”, and has little or no use for the distinction between realistic and non-realistic. Just as descriptive material, when politically unappealing, features the wrong kinds of images of social groups, so fictional material, non-realistic as well as realistic, is full of the same kinds of negative images. Such images, it is argued, are in no way benign. Just as the portrayal of peoples in descriptive material shapes our perception of groups, so the depiction of them in fictional material influences our perception, too. Consequently, our fictional heritage, which is replete with negative images, is rather degenerate from a political viewpoint. We can, however, pin our hopes on a new mimetic culture. That new culture need not settle for accurate images of course – positive images serve political goals better.
Every one of these ideas is wrongheaded, and it is easy to critique them. Much of the time, we need to distinguish between fictional and descriptive material. The latter deals with social groups, but fictional material is populated by fictional types, which are utterly distinct from the social identities promulgated by identity politics. One implication of this important distinction is that it is wrong to assume that fictional material inevitably impacts on apprehension of social groups. If a novel leads a person to develop a misconception about a social group, that may be because his reading of the novel is rather quixotic – he has wrongly identified the characters as social rather than literary types. From this viewpoint, our fictional heritage is not “tainted” at all. With respect to “creators”, it makes no sense to demand empowering images. Again, in much fictional material, the characters are not representatives of social groups, and the question of whether they are “positive” or “negative” is meaningless.
Realism, we should admit, is a special case. Realistic fictional material can be thought of as media in which the fictional and the descriptive begin to converge, ultimately becoming the same thing. The implication of this is that in one area of fiction, the limited area where realism is the norm, fictional material does indeed have an obligation to be careful with respect to the representation of social groups. But here there is no reason to produce empowering images. It is only the descriptive imperative which is relevant.
The way forward is suggested by the foregoing set of corrections. We need to lift the injunction stipulating that “creators” produce empowering characters. In non-realistic fictional material, such social figures do not represent storytellers’ material, which are comedic types, tragic types, romantic types, etc. and in more realistic works there are no grounds for an insistence on role model figures. We also need to begin a rethink of how we train people in education to respond to all things fictional. In particular, we clearly need to foster a culture in which readers, viewers, etc. are capable of appreciating non-realistic fictional characters as fictional types rather than representatives of social groups. And, in order to forestall the argument that, without the identity politics perspective, fiction lacks social value, we need to recover a sense of how all fictional material is of social value in and of itself. The great paradox of fiction is that, although its characters are simply fictional, its stories are of social value. The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye is useful in this context. Frye is a great authority on the character types found in fictional material: he identifies them and discusses their characteristics. But his is not a purely aesthetic view; fictional material is of important social value as well. Crucially, Frye is of the view that fictional material, along with the other arts, provides us with a vision of the better society which can be achieved through ordinary work. Referring to poetry, but thinking of literature and the arts more generally, Frye boldly states that:
The efficient cause of civilization is work, and poetry in its social aspect has the function of expressing, as a verbal hypothesis, a vision of the goal of work and the forms of desire.[i]
Clearly, some will remain wedded to the idea of a thoroughly political fictional world. One could feasibly argue that even if the production of empowering images of social groups seems to be predicated on a series of ill-conceived assumptions, such images nonetheless serve an end, and we might justifiably encourage their production. Even if literature and the other arts have a social function independent of identity politics, might we not supplement one social purpose with another? The line of argument is coherent, but a problem remains, specifically what we might call the instrumentalisation of culture, whereby stories exist to advance the cause of a political grouping. In connection with this point, even apologists for identity politics might want to give this use of culture a second thought. They will do well to remember that, in such a cultural situation, there is nothing stopping reactionary forces from instrumentalising culture, too. What’s really at stake is a cultural situation in which the arts are politicised root and branch.
Of course, a great many academics and journalists today have accepted the notion that fictional material, realistic and non-realistic, will always betray one kind of political sympathy or another: at every turn, we come across positive and/or negative images of members of social groups. But this amounts to nothing more than an unconvincing theory of fiction. As I have argued here, fictional material comprises, firstly, one domain – probably the main domain – in which the canons of plausibility are of no relevance and the characters are fictional types, and, secondly, an area characterised by realism, where, with respect to critical judgement of the characters, the crucial opposition is not between “positive” and “negative” but “accurate” and “inaccurate”.
[i] Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 98.