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  • Fiction and Its OtherThe Distinction of Fiction by Dorrit CohnReview by: Brian RichardsonNOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 3, Victorian Fiction after New Historicism(Summer, 1999), pp. 444-445Published by: Duke University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 11:36

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  • Fiction and Its Other

    DORRIT COHN, The Distinction of Fiction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 197, $42.00.

    Dorrit Cohn's new book, The Distinction of Fiction, is primarily devoted to examining the relation between fiction and non-fiction. This is of course a foundational distinction that, after having gone largely uncontested for centuries, has been undergoing systematic erosion for several years, often with surprisingly little genuine debate. Cohn carefully surveys the critical positions that have been set forth on this issue by philosophers of language and critical theorists and meticulously documents the limitations of contemporary stances that refuse to differentiate between fiction and nonfiction. The book also includes impressive investigations of connected or adjacent topics, such as the nature of historical fiction, the status of autobiography, and the insistent narrative features of Freud's case histories.

    This study, which comfortably occupies the boundary between narrative theory and critical theory, contains ten related chapters, five primarily theoretical and five others that center around examinations of individual novels, and both groups make distinctive contri- butions. The first chapter, which anatomizes the various meanings of the term "fiction" in critical discourse, shows Cohn at her best, scrupulously and methodically distinguishing between shifting and rival senses of the term "fiction" as it is used in contemporary critical discourse, namely "fiction as untruth, fiction as conceptual abstraction, fiction as (all) lit- erature, and fiction as (all) narrative" (2). Though each of these different senses is plausi- ble at some level, lumping them indiscriminately together creates unintended confusions and contradictions.

    The second chapter attempts to provide a set of theoretical norms for separating histori- cal from fictional narratives that center on individual lives, whether they are narrated in the first or the third person. This chapter ranges over a vast corpus of narrative examples, historical materials, and critical stances, carefully maintaining the sharp edges of her ar-

    gument as it does justice to borderline cases and apparent counter-examples, such as repre- sentations of the stream of thoughts of historical figures. She observes that works which

    merge the two kinds of discourse actually underscore the importance of the distinction, as the theoretical opposition articulated in the first chapter is fleshed out and clarified here.

    Other chapters extend her overall position further. "I Doze and I Wake: The Deviance of Simultaneous Narration," deftly analyses the curious nature of first person fiction nar- rated in the present tense, using J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians as a test case. A

    typical selection from the novel gives a sense what this technique can do: "As boldly as I can, but wincing despite myself, I mount the stairs .... I try to compose myself for a day of

    hiding. I doze and I wake, drifting from one formless dream to another" (cited on p 101). This is a type of narrative that, as Cohn observes, has been "neglected (if not denied) in the-

    ory, mis- or un-identified in practice, its anomaly falls between the cracks of established discursive norms" (101). Cohn breaks new ground in narrative theory with her study of this new, uncanny technique, which (as utilized by Coetzee) is possible only in fiction and further establishes its distinctive status.

    Another, more wide ranging chapter goes on to elaborate on the separate nature of fic-

    tionality, and identifies three "signposts" that enable one to differentiate fictional narra- tive from nonfictional types. The two claims most amenable to summary are 1) there is a dif-

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    ference between author and narrator in fiction (and only in fiction-in autobiography they are the same); and 2) only in fiction are the thoughts of another character perfectly known to the author; the writer of nonfiction must always merely guess. Cohn is certainly right on these points. In the final theoretical chapter, she turns her attention to some recent post- structuralist critiques of specific narrative forms. Here, she corrects the mistakes of those who have, it turns out, rather too simplistically identified the repressive features of the panopticon with third person narration.

    The other chapters illustrate the work's theoretical positions by a careful analysis of individual texts, examining Proust's Recherche and its ambiguous relation to autobiograph- ical theory, Freud's novelistic case studies (which are not to be understood as mere fiction), and Wolfgang Hildesheimer's curious pseudo-biography Marbot, an unusual novel dis- guised in the form of a biography. There is also a chapter on War and Peace and the histori- cal novel which ultimately confirms Alfred Doblin's observation that "the historical novel is, in the first place, a novel; in the second place, it isn't history" (153). Any reader inter- ested in these issues will appreciate Cohn's judicious interventions.

    In a chapter on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Cohn minutely traces the original closeness and gradual divergence in the sensibilities of the protagonist and the narrator, ul- timately arguing that the narrator becomes unreliable over the course of the text and that the "ideological simplicities" voiced by him should not be attributed to the author. This is a compelling reading that, when first presented in article form, contributed significantly to Mann criticism. I for one wish this later version went further and explored identities be- tween author and protagonist-behind the back of the narrator, as it were-that gay read- ings of the text during last fifteen years have disclosed. (Significantly, one of the lines artic- ulated by the character Aschenbach comes from Mann's nonfictional prose.) This would move the issues Cohn engages well beyond the parameters of formalism, and could explore hermetic self-representation within a fictional text by one who could only speak in code.

    The one absence in this remarkable work is a more sustained engagement with postmod- ern fiction, which typically attempts to bring into collision the distinctions Cohn demar- cates so authoritatively. And she can deal with this literature convincingly, as the chapters on Hildesheimer and simultaneous narration demonstrate. Precisely because she excavates and deftly explodes the fallacies of the "New Biography," popular in the twenties, one wishes to see her go to work on Norman Mailer and the "nonfiction novel," to fully engage with the claims of veracity made for documentary fiction by Barbara Foley in her study, Telling the Truth, or to discuss the status and identity of characters in a novel who bear the name of the author. Even if she has given us the tools to perform much of this analysis ourselves, one would prefer to observe her analytical precision and theoretical sophistica- tion at work. But this is ultimately a minor complaint about a closely argued book that makes impressive contributions to narrative poetics and critical theory and eminently per- forms its stated goal: to demonstrate convincingly the fundamental difference of fiction.

    BRIAN RICHARDSON, University of Maryland


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    Article Contentsp. [444]p. 445

    Issue Table of ContentsNOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 3, Victorian Fiction after New Historicism (Summer, 1999), pp. 303-458Volume Information [pp. 453-458]Front MatterMental Capital, Industrial Time, and the Professional in "David Copperfield" [pp. 303-330]Unuttered: Withheld Speech and Female Authorship in "Jane Eyre" and "Villette" [pp. 331-354]The Romance of Choice and "The Wings of the Dove" [pp. 355-383]Fetishizing the Flunkey: Thackeray and the Uses of Deviance [pp. 384-400]Almayer's Defeat: The Trauma of Colonialism in Conrad's Early Work [pp. 401-428]ReviewsRewriting the Rise of the Novel [pp. 429-430]Pudding or Poison? [pp. 431-433]The Ethical Challenges of the Theory Establishment [pp. 434-437]The Trouble with the Color Line [pp. 438-440]Taking Novels Serially [pp. 441-443]Fiction and Its Other [pp. 444-445]Modernist Libidos [pp. 446-448]Geography Lessons [pp. 449-452]

    Back Matter