Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Truth Versus Verisimilitude, Part Two

Last night Mighty Reader and I watched the first hour of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." (Yeah, that's right. Just shut up about it. Sometimes you just want to make a plate of vegetarian burritos and watch mindless action on the telly. It doesn't make us bad people.) As happens whenever I am exposed to wildly-popular entertainments, I found myself wondering just what attracts people to it and how it is different from the sort of entertainments I usually seek.

One of the basic facts of my life is that I don't much enjoy the entertainments of the masses. I admit that I can have a good enough time sitting through the "Harry Potter" movies if I'm in the right mood, and I have a deep affection for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" (though Joss Whedon's other works leave me less than cold) and certain periods of "Dr Who." But a steady diet of that (and exposure to almost anything on network TV) gives me a headache and leaves me not only hungry for something different, but also irritated for the mass entertainments being so utterly not really what I wanted all along. What a vague fucking paragraph. I shall try again.

Mass entertainments (in which group I include most genre fiction) tend to be very much alike in terms of structure, story, characters, moral outlook and theme. In other ways as well, I'm sure. An audience comes to these entertainments expecting certain conventions and the creators--if they want to be successful--do their best to meet those audience expectations. In general, if the creators of these entertainments want to violate audience expectations, they do it via plot or special effects. They do not--and this is very important--challenge any of the audience's prejudices or challenge the audience's presumed opinion of itself. Mass entertainments reinforce the audience's prejudices and its opinion of itself.

None of this is new. Barthes talked about this in S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text. Texts written primarily to provide nothing but easy entertainment are, in Barthes, "texts of pleasure." They are created for essentially passive readers. Other types of texts (texts of "bliss," or jouissance as Barthes labeled them) require a more active reader, and do not exist to reinforce the reader's systems of belief. These texts often challenge the reader at more than one level (the moral, the emotional, the linguistic). So, to generalize dangerously, popular works and genre fiction tend to fall into the category of "texts of pleasure" and literary works tend to fall into the category of "texts of bliss."

Of course there are no hard and fast rules for dividing up the books into these two categories, and there are going to be different ways of reading the same book depending on the reader, and such a dichotomy is likely too simple to have a great deal of practical use anyway, but still. It's a starting point and I have to stand somewhere while I try to get to today's argument about truth versus verisimilitude. So let's just say that we can view novels in these two ways. It might not be the best way to talk about books all the time, but let's talk about them that way for the moment.

Where was I? Truth, that's right. I am going to propose that most texts of pleasure (entertainment/genre fiction) tell stories that are almost entirely based on lies. I am going to further propose that most texts of bliss (literary fiction) tell stories that are based on truth. Most people never read any literary fiction. You do the math. Very few readers, I am saying, expose themselves to truth while reading.

Tomorrow, possibly if I have the time, I'll define what sort of truth I am talking about.


  1. Scott, is this a cliffhanger post? I would like to read more please.

  2. Yeah, cliffhanger!

    I enjoyed reading this. I remember studying the pleasure vs. bliss ideas in college. A part of me really loves the texts of pleasure, but another part of me craves the bliss. It just depends on my mood. I didn't know you were a Firefly fan. :)

    Your vegetarian burritos sound really good. I'm making veggie-stuffed portobello mushrooms tonight. Yum!

  3. There's an African story to explain why people like stories... a meta story. True and Lies both went out among the people to tell them something. Lies wore a beautiful cape of feathers and shells, beads and bangles of gold. The people all fawned over him and listened to everything he said.

    Truth, stark naked, then tried to walk among the people and counter what Lies had said. But when the people saw the naked man, they laughed and threw stones and chased him from the village.

    Lies laughed. "What did you expect? What decent people would welcome a naked man into their village?"

    So the next day, Truth also made himself a beautiful robe of feathers and shells, in order to walk among the people and speak to them without being chased away. That robe was Story.

  4. Tara, that's amazingly amazing. Can I quote you in my post tomorrow (or whenever I get around to part three of this diatribe)?

  5. Tara Maya's retelling gets at what I've been trying to communicate when I say that the story is a vehicle to somehow communicate the message, that the story alone isn't enough.

    And, in all seriousness, when I was reading the comment, I thought that when Truth ended up dressed in the beautiful robe and feathers he had ended up transforming himself into Lies.

  6. Domey, I agree with you. There has to be that naked man behind the feathers, with something to communicate. I think that the robe is a compromise, maybe, but then again we'd be lying if we said we didn't love putting on the feathers and shells and strutting around, even if only to get attention before we flash the audience. Let's not conflate "truth" with "literary fiction." I claim that literature contains truths, but writing literature isn't Truth. Truth is bigger than all of us, and can get out of the robe when it wants to. Some truths are naked and obscene and don't come to us in the form of well-crafted narrative, etc. There I go, being too damned literal.

  7. *Agrees* *nods* *loves Tara Maya's comment*

    I have been reading this Math book and reading it gave me the same feeling that great literature does..sort of a glimpse of the truth/'momentary lifting of a fog' feeling..gotta love the many guises of truth..:)

  8. It may be moot at this point, but please feel free.