On Mimetic and Maieutic Fiction
Some thoughts on recent conversations on the blogosphere. You may have to read the "Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality" entry to get what I mean by "quirks", "warp" and suchlike. But, hey, taking that stuff for granted I managed to keep this down to 2K. And most of it is quotes.
1. Mimetic fiction is to strange fiction as instrumental music is to any music with lyrics — choral / a capella or with a whole lot of instruments backing the vocals.
There's a minor tradition within the science fiction community of using mimetic and mimesis to mean the opposite of the fantastic. The oldest such uses that I could find (with a quick and profoundly less than exhaustive search) date to the early 1970s, and the casual employment of the term in those contexts makes me suspect that it has a longer history within the SF world as a way to point toward what more generally gets called within that community "mainstream" or (less frequently) "mundane" fiction. (Matt Cheney, The Mumpsimus)
Mimesis: Any narrative may maintain an alethic modality of “could have happened” (or “could be happening” or “could happen”, according to the tense of the narrative). This process of mimesis entails presenting nothing that is contrary to the strictures of logic, the laws of known nature, the details of known history, or the limits of known science. Purely mimetic fiction may have warp in other respects, but it excludes alethic quirks. (Me, ”Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality”)
Almost all genre fiction, of course, depends on the suspension of disbelief, so if we accept Sukenick's definition, then the vast majority of SF is, in fact, mimetic… This use of the term makes sense to me because it does two things. First, it does not deviate significantly from how the term has traditionally been used -- mimetic fiction in this sense seeks to give the reader a feeling, at least while reading the text, that there is a fundamental reality to the world conjured by the words. (Matt Cheney, The Mumpsimus)
Weft (or mimetic weft): Where warp is introduced into a mimetic narrative by an alethic quirk, the alethic modality of “could have happened”, “could be happening” or “could happen” may be said to persist in effect, in so far as suspension-of-disbelief continues despite the quirk, or to be restored with a return to mimesis. The disrupted process of mimesis woven through the narrative can therefore be considered a binding (mimetic) weft. (Me, ”Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality”)
Realist fiction: If we’re mapping “the fantastic” to alethic quirks (a dubious correlation given the muddled conventions surrounding “fantasy” and “the fantastic”; I prefer to use terms like “alethic quirks” precisely to avoid the complications and contradictions that arise), we need a value-neutral term for that wholly/purely/uninterruptedly mimetic fiction that excludes this type of feature. Terms like “literary” and “mainstream” are useless as neither actually exclude credibility warp. The term “mundane” does exclude the alethic quirks but also suggests an exclusion of determinacy or equilibrium warps; this is why it carries a pejorative sense of “dull”. The term “realist” is strongly associated with particular schools with a distinct philosophical slant, but it does fit a fiction dealing only in actual/material possibility without excluding the quirks of, say, tragedy or comedy. Until such time as a better term arises, (and suggestions are welcome,) it seems pragmatic to use “realist” in this general sense and distinguish the more ideological modes as Realist.
2. The introspection of “literary” realist fiction is a fundamentally rationalist approach.
In epistemology and in its modern sense, rationalism is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification" (Lacey 286). In more technical terms it is a method or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive" (Bourke 263). (Wikipedia, ”Rationalism”)
The thing is, in all these stories, by numerous authors of literary fiction, characters have this hyperreal awareness of their own misery, and comment upon it... That's a problem: subtext is not the end-all and be-all of human experience. You wouldn't know this to read the pregnant prose stylings of Amy Hempel. Every single character is almost crushed under the weight of the sea inside their own minds, where an emotion is spilling out. ((J.M. McDermott, Blog)
Different degrees of emphasis on this method or theory lead to a range of rationalist standpoints, from the moderate position "that reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge" to the radical position that reason is "the unique path to knowledge" (Audi 771). (Wikipedia, ”Rationalism”)
Academic fiction is constructed around a set of life experiences that are not universal. For instance, utter self-awareness is common among the hyper-literate examiners of life, but uncommon among the people that actually have a pretty good life, working, watching TV, and playing with their kids. (J.M. McDermott, Blog)
Reflectivity: The stories and substories of some narratives may be best described in terms of psychological dynamics, internal conflicts, the mimetic weft of the narrative focused on representing thought and memory — introspective reflection. Even where the emotional force of the fiction is intense it is under study, present in extreme because it is the focus of attention, the domain of the “real” that is to be detailed and made sense of. This rationalist approach falls within the project of realist fiction and is therefore prominent in those fictions labelled “literary” as part of the discourse of abjection surrounding warp in literature. However:
3. Reflective realism is only one subset of contemporary “literary” fiction.
In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot. (Wikipedia, ”Literary Fiction”)
For starters, most of the Spanish-language lit fic that I've read is much more extrospective than the Anglo-American counterparts. While there are moments of introspective moodiness, the stories in general tend to turn to outside events. (Larry, ”OF Blog of the Fallen”)
What distinguishes literary fiction from other genres is somewhat subjective, and as in other artistic media, genres may overlap. Even so, literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style ("literariness", the concern to be "writerly"). (Wikipedia, ”Literary Fiction”)
It's not a turning inward to explore an imagined person's reaction to a past that will capture readers in most cases, but rather that turning outward and including others, making them feel a part of the story, that tends to lead to more favorable reactions. (Larry, ”OF Blog of the Fallen”)
Academic fiction?: Reflectivity may be a substantial thread in the mimetic weft of a work of strange fiction, regarded as “genre” and therefore as not “literary” by the Academy, but quite possibly regarded as “literary genre” by the subculture of “genre” readers. Further, much (post)Modern fiction that argues with realism and its rationalist aesthetic is afforded the label “literary” by dint of its channels of distribution, regardless of its concern (or lack of concern) with reflectivity. Given the aspect of rationalist study entailed in reflective realism, the subset of “literary” fiction described above might be described as academic fiction. This is no less problematic than “literary” however, due to the implicities of the term, its associations with irrelevance and privilege. Nevertheless, “literary” is a dysfuntional term.
Literary vs Genre: All fiction is written. All fiction is in a genre. The terms have been appropriated to the historical and territorial discourse of mutual abjection, but abjection is, by definition, a horrified revulsion at that which is recognised as having been (or still being in some respect) a part of oneself. Neither “literary” nor “genre” fiction can ever truly, wholly, exclusively be that which they are derided as or that which they pride themselves as being. On examination of each we will invariably find the features that are the focus of abjection, rendering any attempt to treat these as genres nonsensical. “Literary” fiction will contain the “generic”. “Genre” fiction will contain the “literary”. Otherwise, we would not be identifying them as such.
4. The rationalist approach in reflective realism, at its extreme, renders it maeiutic fiction.
Maieutics (pronounced /meɪˈjuːtɪks/) is a procedure of pedagogy. It is based on the idea that the truth is latent in the mind of every human being due to his innate reason but has to be "given birth" by answering questions (or problems) intelligently proposed. (Wikipedia, ”Maieutics”)
Substory: As story is further abstracted to a general articulation, the result is a metanarrative of themes and subtexts, of which the story is considered a demonstrative example. This is substory. Substory becomes distinct from story where it is abstracted enough from specifying detail to acquire an alethic modality of “can happen”, when “This did happen to resolve this conflict” becomes “This can happen to resolve this type of conflict”. (Me, ”Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality”)
By its part, Maieutics is based in the theory of reminiscence. It is that if the Socratic Method begins from the idea of a prejudice, Maieutics is based in a knowledge that is latent in the conscience and that is necessary to discover. (Wikipedia, ”Maieutics”)
Dewey's description: "Reflective thinking requires the continual evaluation of beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses against existing data and against other plausible interpretations of the data" (King and Kitchener, 1994, p.7). An individual engages in reflective thinking to "perceive the state of her own mind." (Reflective Thinking Literature Review by student)
Maeiutic fiction: In some reflective realist fiction, this rationalism becomes an axiom of the substory. Introspective reflection is the subject of a theme or subtext that: experience is only the raw stuff that is to be observed and commented upon in order to reach understanding; it is not to be surrendered to as a direct source of knowledge, of gnosis. In maieutic fiction, the protagonist is faced with a problem that requires a reflective reevaluation of self, with resolution achieved not by action but by realisation, in an epiphany that is not gnosis but rather logos.
Reason vs Passion: Maieutic fiction begins in the abjection of the “self-delusional” aspects of romance by which the Rationalist/Realist/realist novel is, in part, constructed. Don Quixote’s final realisation of his own folly might be taken as a good starting point. This rationalism is dimissed by the Romantics, and in the Gothic fiction that develops from Romanticism. Their abjection of “realism” leads in the first instance to genres based on artificially heightened determinacy and equilibrium warps where introspective reflection may be accepted — fantastique and the “sensation novel” — but as it extends to popular dime novels and penny dreadfuls we see an abjection of “intellectualism”: experience is to be experienced, not reflected upon. The rationalist side of the dialectic responds with the abjection of this “sensationalism” by which “(proper) literature” is constructed. This is carried over in the 20th century in the abjection of “genre” by which “literary” fiction is constructed. The ultimate end-point of this, on one side of the dialectic, is maieutic fiction.