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In The Press

Thomas International Center
September 2005


Ralph McInerny


True to Life



Writers like Charles Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse are sometimes accused of creating incredible characters, mere caricatures who perform fantastic deeds in improbable settings. Perhaps. But as opposed to what? Surely, what is being invoked is largely a matter of degree. All fictional characters are, by definition, fancied, unreal, imagined. In telling a story, any writer must dispose of imaginary time and space and move his imagined characters through them. Is Hamlet real whereas the Man Who Was Thursday fantastic? Bertie Wooster unreal and Falstaff the man next door?

No doubt it is only a matter of degree, and we should be willing to consider a spectrum on which fictional characters can be located in terms of the extremes of lifelike and realistic, on the one hand, and fanciful and highly imaginative, on the other. No need of course to locate high art at either extreme, or in between.  But my point is that the most realistic fiction is light years from the real world.

Consider dialogue. Sinclair Lewis, the American novelist, was often praised for his dialogue, but the praise became unwelcome when critics suggested that he simply reported transcripts of actual conversations. Hence their effectiveness. Well, Lewis set up microphones in a room, invited in some people, and recorded what they said. Of course, the result was a jumble of uncompleted and overlapping sentences, a veritable Babel, the whole offensive to the ear and anything but aesthetically pleasing. Conclusion: Realistic fiction, like all fiction, reshapes the real to the purposes of art.

The truth of art is not to be found in its conformity to the raw materials from which it is fashioned. Art is an imitation of nature, yes, but of human nature, of moral agents fashioning their eternal future of weal and woe, as Dante pointed out to Can Grande della Scala. Flannery O’Connor meant the same thing when she said that all literature is anagogic. I think that is the meaning of Aristotle’s ‘plausible implausibility’ too.

Ralph McInerny