On Fictional Truth (First Impressions of Michael Riffaterre’s book)
In one of the classic works of the study of narrative, “Fictional Truth”, Michael Riffaterre makes the argument that fiction is, in fact, truth. This is not to say that Riffaterre argues that the events which transpire in any given work of fiction are as factual as recorded history, although at times this sentiment is certainly present, but he does make the argument that because fiction is grounded on linguistic forms, repetitive structure, mimetic considerations, representations of veracity, and what he calls “the suppression of verisimilitude and the suppression of the component of time”, it can be argued that narrative is, in fact, truth.
I find it hard to disagree with Michael’s statements. Indeed, fiction can be truthful, specially when considering the types of definitions of key terms that the Michael uses. His use of the term mimesis doesn’t come across as the Aristotelian use of “simulation of reality” that we have all grown accustomed to. Instead, he seems to most often use the term in a variation of the ludic sense established by Giner-Sorolla in 2006, referring to the internal consistency of the events taking place in a given narrative (the ludic use focuses on the internal coherence of play worlds).
Michael also argues that in order to unlock the truthfulness of fiction, all external references in a text must become devoid of cultural parallels and considered only within the context of the narrative. He writes that “exterior referentiality is but an illusion, for signs or sign systems refer to other sign systems.” In essence, he argues that narratives be self-referential. As someone who enjoys closed readings of texts, I see no fault in this. However, it is worth noting that this is only one of the many approaches available to critical readers when unlocking the meaning of any given narrative, and while many of us will favor one method over another and there are certainly trends regarding what type of critical reading is currently “cool” in academic circles, no single approach is inherently “better” or “more correct” than any other.
As far as Michael’s ideas go, they do make for an interesting, and by now well established, framework for the analysis of narrative structures and the consideration of fictional (not fictitious) truth. However, it’s not an approach that I would recommend using by itself, as its use, as shown by his examples, at times reads as different variations of “and here’s another example as to why fiction is truth”.
I was pleasantly surprised to find myself making connections between Michael’s ideas and the way in which games work, as a lot of his arguments are actually applicable to not just literary fiction, but to fiction of any kind. Personally, I can’t wait to see what kind of truths I can gleam from “The Last of Us” by using Michael’s approach.
My only problem with this text – and this is just nitpicking, really, is that Michael suggests in the introduction that to demonstrate how his version of narrative studies into the truth of fiction work, he will use “random” works. However, his examples fit so well into his overall argument that, it seems to me, these texts had to be carefully selected. That being said, his ideas are so universal, that no doubt any other texts not mentioned would have worked well as examples.
In the end, his book is a solid, if short, read, and certainly one that students of narrative, literature, theory, or – maybe – game studies should consider adding to their reading lists.