Based on ‘Real Life’

In mid July of this year, we, as a collective human society, will have one more book to read by the novelist Harper Lee.  Written before her famous To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchmen is a ‘sequel’ to the former, set twenty years later.  While the publication of this book has brought with it a renewed interest in her writing, it has also inspired a bit of scepticism about the legality, even morality, in publishing it (considered problematic given Lee’s presumed health issues).  Within the former category, a recent article in the New York Times caught my attention, particularly in how the author, Laura Tavares, makes use of To Kill a Mockingbird in a way that elevates it above the restrictions of mere aesthetic media.

As a contribution to the New York Times’ “The Learning Network Blog,” under the category of ‘Text to Text,’ a cross-textual discussion that links similar textual entities via shared interests, Tavare’s article associates Chapter 15 in Lee’s novel with an article on the recent Equal Justice Initiative’s report on Lynching in America: “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names.”

Her intention, as described at the beginning, is to elucidate for instructors (who might be reading the article for the sake of using it in their classrooms) how such a novel might ‘speak’ to ‘real life:’

To encourage students to make these important connections, we’ve chosen to pair an excerpt from Chapter 15 of the novel with The Times’s article on the Equal Justice Initiative report, “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names,” with the goal of helping students more deeply understand “Mockingbird,” the world of the novel, and our own world.

Here’s a ready example.  In his “The Author as Anthropologist: Some West Indian Lessons about the Relevance of Fiction for Anthropology,” in Eduardo P. Archetti’s Exploring the Written: Anthropology and the Multiplicity of Writing, Thomas Hylland Eriksen distinguishes between two ways in which the novel might function ‘as an ethnography:’

First, novels may serve as ethnographic sources and may to this effect rank with informant’s statements. At this level, the author—whether he is a Mittelholzer or a Naipaul—more or less unwittingly reveals aspects of his society. As Bakhtin and many others have reminded us, the author is a prisoner of his own time. The author, known through the novel, is here seen as an aspect of the production of society. 


Second, novels may be read as ethnographic descriptions; that is, the formation conveyed may be taken more or less at its face value, as a kind of ethnographic documentation. (191)

In this way, he continues, the novel and the ethnography are ‘relevant’ to each other, but they are not the same thing.  To further delineate his meaning here, he states:

[Novels] cannot be used as plain ethnography since they do not profess to represent the truth and because their relationship to social reality is ultimately uncertain. Besides, if they are to be exploited as ethnographic sources (and not as evidence), the reader must be familiar with the society at the outset of the reading. They cannot, therefore, replace the ethnographic footwork either. It therefore seems a paradox that some of the best anthropological writings extant on Trinidad are works of fiction (cf. Melhuus, infra, for a Mexican parallel). In order to asses their validity, a reader must have first-hand experience of the society. (190)

However, and though his distinction here between the ‘source’ and the ‘description’ is a useful one in determining the differences between the way fiction might ‘function’ in a way exclusive of its existence as an aesthetic piece of entertainment, I would argue that he is incorrect in his strict separation between the ethnography and the novel.  This is especially the case with his opening remarks about the ‘simple distinction’ between the two forms of writing:

Fictional accounts, then, present persons and events which have been invented by the writer. Anthropological texts try to present a few aspects of social reality as accurately as possible, taking account of the limitations entailed by fieldwork, ‘cultural translation’ (or, if one prefers, cultural reduction) and attempts at linguistic representations of society.  Lies and deliberate misrepresentations are banished from anthropological scholarship, which should additionally—unlike fictional writing—try to present empirical material systematically and comprehensively and distinguish between description and analysis so that the reader may draw his or her own theoretical conclusions. (168-169)

I would further argue that he is quite mistaken here, particularly concerning the difference between ‘fictional’ and ‘anthropological’ accounts.  Both are artifice, meaning both are designed and dictated by choice.  Likewise, both are the result of a textual process, a ‘storytelling’ wherein the author has tried to re-create a discourse in a way that represents his or her subject in a manner ‘true’ to his or her interpretation.  In fact, I would agree in many ways with Clifford (1986) that ethnography is, in fact, a type of ‘fiction:’

To call ethnographies fictions may raise empiricist hackles. But the word as commonly used in recent textual theory has lost its connotation of falsehood, of something merely opposed to truth. It suggests the partiality of cultural and historical truths, the ways they are systematic and exclusive. Ethnographic writings can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned,’ the principal burden of the word’s Latin root, fingere. But it is important to preserve the meaning not merely of making, but also of making up, of inventing things not actually real [emphasis in original]. (Clifford, “Introduction,” Writing Culture, 1986, 6)

Beyond mere etymological determination, I think Clifford is correct here mainly because I think any and all textual representations are ‘fictional’ by their inherent ‘artificial nature.’  Eriksen can argue all he wants that fiction represents ‘lies’ or ‘deliberate misrepresentations,’ but I would again contend that this is equally a problem for the ethnographer for no other reason than the fact that he or she is, as Malinowski stated, ‘creating’ or ‘describing’ his or her subjects.  As intermediaries between subject and reader, the ethnographer is just as much an author of ‘fiction’ as the novelist inventing his or her own subjects.

Which brings me back to Tavares and Eriksen.  In my opinion, the former’s use of Lee’s novel and the latter’s differentiation between the novel as a source or description of ethnographic ‘truth’ share the same DNA.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to state that they are both siblings of the parentage between Ethnography (texts designed to present a cultural or historical representation of a certain people, time, and place) and the novel (a text designed to present a fictional creation of an author intent on representing a particular individual or individuals in the certain time and place).

However, this also brings forth an issue that I believe is perfectly exemplified by the image I used for this weeks ‘feature image:’

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 18.19.10

While I am quite willing to blatantly claim that all textual representations are fiction by means of their ‘artifice-ness,’ this of course brings us into a discourse where, like the notion of ‘everything is fiction,’ we get somewhat distracted by what might be ‘based on real life’ and what might be a story assumed by some as the same.  This is not equal, however, to a declaration that the story of Noah, which might be defined as both, either, or neither a myth and truth, is definitively one of these things.  Rather, my point of having it here, and the point of this post in general, is a reminder that when we declare ‘everything’ as fiction because of the role that artifice plays in the creation and presentation of interpreted ‘things,’ a movie about Noah and a movie about William Wallace are equally ‘based on real life.’  In other words, the distinction between what is ‘fact’ (quantitative data about lynchings in the US) and what is ‘fictional’ (Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) might blur into a perception where they become equal representations of some type of ‘truth.’

I, for one, am ok with this.


One thought on “Based on ‘Real Life’

  1. Pingback: Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review | everything is fiction

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