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A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Interesting essay on age-old issue: The relationship of fiction and reality

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Discussing fiction (and, more generally, art) and reality—and the relationship of the two—probably began with any seriousness in the first breakthrough modern novel, Don Quixote, which explores the relationship in many ways, including the first use of metafiction. So it’s not the sort of discussion that ends in a clear-decision. But still, it’s an important and an interesting discussion and often can help clarify our own views and experience. Noah Berlatsky writes in Pacific Standard:

Earlier this year I gave a talk to a college class about Wonder Woman, superheroes, and gender. The class was mostly engaged and interested—especially when they found out, to their mixed outrage and amusement, that I rather like Twilight. But toward the end, one student raised her hand and said, loosely paraphrased: “Why are we talking about this nonsense? Superhero films are just fictional entertainment that you’re supposed to sit back and enjoy. Why overthink it?”

That’s a response you get a lot when you write about pop culture—or any culture, really. What’s the point of discussing racism in Lovecraft, or violence in action movies? Shouldn’t we focus instead on real racism, or real violence, rather than talking about fictional representations which, by definition, aren’t real?

Sometimes these protests seem aimed at avoiding the conversation—people often have ideological reasons for not wanting to talk about sexism, and/or (perhaps like the student I spoke to) may just not be interested in critical approaches to entertainment. But still, the question remains: Does it make sense to criticize fiction in terms of real-world issues?

Critic Isaac Butler, in athoughtful and focused article, makes a strong argument that, at least in some cases, it does not. Butler is responding to a trend in criticism which he calls “the realism canard.” The realism canard is the idea that fiction should be fact-checked, that the critic’s job is to look at a film and point out the ways in which it fails to conform to reality. A critic working from the realism canard might point out that (contra Star Wars) you can’t hear explosions in space, or that (contra Orange Is the New Black) prisons do not systemically dump ill inmates on the streets through misguided compassionate release programs. “What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters createdfeels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes,” he writes. “It does not matter, for example, that the social and economic structure ofThe Hunger Games makes absolutely no sense. What matters is whether or not the world works toward the purposes of the novel rather than undermining them.”

Again, Butler’s point here is narrowly aimed at a particular kind of fact-checking. Butler himself has written astute criticism (at the blog I edit, among other places) about topics such as the political failings of V for Vendetta. He’s not demanding (as the student was) that we stop altogether using real-world rubrics to think about fiction. But it’s easy to see how his argument could end up leading in that direction. If the main criteria for The Hunger Games is whether “the world works toward the purposes of the novel,” how can you get traction to criticize the way the novel both disavows and revels in the spectacle of violence? If hyperbolic atrocities against children work toward the purposes of the novel, what grounds are there for criticizing it if you rule out references to real-world violence?

JEFFREY M. ZACKS’ NEW book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, provides some surprising answers to the problem of criticism in general and the realism canard in particular. Zacks is a neuroscientist whose research focuses on studying what happens in your brain when you watch movies. One of his most provocative discussions in Flickerfocuses on the relationship between memory and film.

Butler’s objection to the realism canard is based on the idea that reality and fiction are separate. This is obviously, even definitionally, true; fiction isn’t real. But while you know that, and I know that, Zacks presents strong evidence that our brains aren’t always so sure. He points to a recent psychological study by Andrew Butler (no relation to Isaac) in which test subjects were asked to read accurate historical essays and then watch Hollywood movies about the periods discussed in the non-fiction pieces. As is often the case with Hollywood, many of the movies distorted history substantially. For example, the Civil War film Glory presented the 54th black Massachusetts regiment as composed mostly of slaves, even though the actual regiment was made up almost entirely of Northern freemen.

So did the psychological subjects fall prey to the realism canard, and start fact-checking the Hollywood films willy nilly? Nope. Instead, they confused history and fact. According to Zacks: . . .

Continue reading. It gets even more interesting.

And the fact that films can override historical fact is why (a) propaganda is so important to governments that want people to view the present in a particular way, and (b) a sound education, including not only history but also critical-thinking skills, is so important to true freedom. (My view is that a person whose worldview has been manipulated by others to see things as they want is not someone who is truly free. If you can shape the premises on which he operates, his decisions will mostly go in the direction you have determined. Freedom ain’t in it.

As noted later in the article: “Getting history wrong in Hollywood affects how people see real history, which can have an effect on how they see the present.”

Do read the article.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 November 2014 at 11:53 am

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