File spoon-archives/phillitcrit.archive/phillitcrit_2000/phillitcrit.0010, message 13

Date: Mon, 23 Oct 2000 09:17:56 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: PLC: true or false

James R. (Randy) Fromm wrote:

> What makes a story "true" or "false"? 

I have not read either Stevenson story recently, but playing with the
notion -- or sometimes the phrase -- "the truth of fiction" was a common
preoccupation of writers in the nineteenth century.

The standard explanation for this preoccupation is that fiction writers
were aware of the narrow grounds for "truth" in their social and
intellectual context -- a context which rendered "fact" as "true" and
"fiction" as "false" (and hence morally degraded).  (Mr. Gradgrind's
famous speech in _Hard Times_ can serve as illustrative instance....) 

Many writers proceeded on the conviction that "fiction" could be "true,"
so they tried various, usually unsuccessful, ways of defending that
notion.  Hawthorne's "Custom House" essay at the opening of _The Scarlet
Letter_ is a bit more successful than most.

[The overarching cultural debate in which this discussion had a role was
the debate between science and religion:  how could those miracle
stories in the Bible be "true" if it was "false" that people can walk on
water or rise from the dead or be born of a virgin?]

Stevenson has the reputation, at least, of having toyed with these ideas
only for their surface paradoxes and contributed little, if anything, to
the growth of a "defence of poetry" as "true."  He is reputed to have
shared the Victorian dualism of adult~fact~true and child~fiction~false; 
however, there may be more recent studies on Stevenson which call that
conventional critical opinion into question. 

To address your question more directly, I don't believe there are
standards for distinguishing the "truth" or "falsity" of a story which can
stand apart from a general theory of "literature" or "poetry."  (Some
critics like Yvor Winters have developed such theories which they believed
were theory-independent, but I think it has been shown conclusively that
their/his notions of reading were as laced with philosophical and
theoretical interests as everyone else's.) 

Don't take my advice as the last word, but you might consider exploring
the question from Stevenson's perspective: what makes "Markheim" true in
his scheme?....because it is based on "fact"?....or for some other reason?
If the conventional opinion on Stevenson is correct, would it be accurate
to say that Stevenson calls "Olalla" false because he considered it to be
a fantasy written for children? signal to his editors that it has
entertainment value? 

Or...was Stevenson using the "true/false" dichotomony to throw potential
censors off the scent and to waylay negative reactions to the fantastic or
sensationalistic (perhaps having to do with the supernatural?  or sex? or
violence?) aspects of "Olalla"? 

David Langston

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