Synopses & Reviews
Winner of the Modern Language Association's Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies
The border between fact and fiction has been trespassed so often it seems to be a highway. Works of history that include fictional techniques are usually held in contempt, but works of fiction that include history are among the greatest of classics. Fiction claims to be able to convey its own unique kinds of truth. But unless a reader knows in advance whether a narrative is fictional or not, judgment can be frustrated and confused.
In The Distinction of Fiction, Dorrit Cohn argues that fiction does present specific clues to its fictionality, and its own justifications. Indeed, except in cases of deliberate deception, fiction achieves its purposes best by exercising generic conventions that inform the reader that it is fiction. Cohn tests her conclusions against major narrative works, including Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu, Mann's Death in Venice, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Freud's case studies. She contests widespread poststructuralist views that all narratives are fictional. On the contrary, she separates fiction and nonfiction as necessarily distinct, even when bound together. An expansion of Cohn's Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton and the product of many years of labor and thought, The Distinction of Fiction builds on narratological and phenomenological theories to show that boundaries between fiction and history can be firmly and systematically explored.
"The Distinction of Fiction is an example of literary criticism's own grotesque redundancy. I had come to this book in the hope of finding a revitalized approach to narrative structure, and found instead a return to prestructuralist thought. There seem to be two essential problems with Cohn's book. First, The Distinction of Fiction shouldn't be a book; eight of its ten chapters have been previously published. There is little new substance here, and certainly nothing that could not be gleaned or intuited from these pieces as they originally appeared. The two new chapters—an introduction which surveys, 'the semantic multiplicity of the term fiction,' and a conclusion which justifies her project—are interesting but unessential, and the book as a whole adds little to the critical dialogue. Second, Cohn's narratological perspective, which fails to adequately synthesize theoretical advances (now somewhat dated but still valid) posited by post-structuralism, occupies only two isolated chapters, while six chapters apply her approach to specific texts—at times interesting and evocative though often verging on critical corpulence. Several smaller though no less intrusive problems abound; the author and editor miss several grammatical errors in the first chapter alone. At times insightful, Cohn has lofty and admirable aims. Unfortunately, The Distinction of Fiction fails to rise to the generic challenge thrown down by post-structuralist thought." Reviewed by Andrew Witmer, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)