History, Anthropology, and Fiction
June 21, 2007 3:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for any historical or anthropological studies of fiction. Any ideas?

What I am interested in is anything that studies how fiction has developed within our own culture, or anything that studies different forms fiction takes in other cultures.

What I mean by 'fiction' is any storytelling where the story is not necessarily assumed to be true. So, mythology (as in, stories that are assumed to be true) does not interest me, except in conjunction with the origins or nature of fiction. Nor am I entirely interested in the history of particular genres of literature -- it's quite interesting to learn how the novel became popular, and so on, but it's not exactly what I want. What I want is any sort of study of how different cultures treat untrue stories, or how our culture came to treat untrue stories as we do.

So far, I haven't been able to find anything close to this. So, even though I've already said what sorts of things I don't want, I'll take the best you can give me. I've searched Google and JSTOR extensively with no luck, so any suggestions you can give me would be deeply appreciated. Thanks.
posted by Ms. Saint to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I could recommend many, but I'll be brief:

Reading the Romance by Janice Radway is pretty widely considered one of the best anthropologies of a genre, and though you said you're not entirely interested in that, it contains a pretty solid literature review of the anthropology of fiction in general, which could be useful.

To the cultural comparison end (India, in this case,) Shoveling Smoke is a good read, though again about a genre (advertising and the televisual media in general) also contains a quite solid lit review, which again could be useful for footnote spidering.

And of course, there is the granddaddy of them all.
posted by ChasFile at 4:01 PM on June 21, 2007

One that was recently recommended to me (though I haven't read it yet!) is Madam Bovary's Ovaries. Might be worth a peek? Like I said, I haven't read it, but it came highly recommended by a fellow anthropology student.
posted by drycleanonly at 4:17 PM on June 21, 2007

On the flipside, I'd suggest Always Coming Home by Ursula LeGuin. It's fictional anthropology (which may shed some light on your interests).

Also, you may want to read more about the history & practices of African storytelling. Traditional stories (and myths) often come with a disclaimer, such as "This story may not be true, but if it was, it went like this...."
posted by gnutron at 4:42 PM on June 21, 2007

Mikhail Bakhtin's classic essays, "Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel" and "Discourse in the Novel," and Erich Auerbach's *Mimesis.*
posted by spitbull at 6:00 PM on June 21, 2007

You'll find bits and pieces of this in a lot of criticism, but I'm not sure of a single source that discusses is it in quite the way you are looking for. One that discusses it some, in the context of the history of the novel and its relation to journalism, is Davis' Factual Fictions. It does deal with how truth and fiction mingle in early journalism but the line gets more delineated as time goes on. And fiction, especially the novel, becomes a literary form based largely on factual sources (contra Romance). So it might be a good place to start.

Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel is a classic and does take a rather sociological/anthropological approach to the birth of that genre.

Of course, the nature of truth is a big part of the discourse of postmodernism, so you might find some inspiration in something like Hutcheon's The Poetics of Postmodernism. But I'm not sure if it covers a wide enough time period to hit your question head on.
posted by wheat at 6:18 PM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd highly, highly recommend reading Joseph Campbell. A lot of it deals with mythology, but he did work on a number of modern authors too. Incredibly interesting stuff.
posted by devilsbrigade at 8:13 PM on June 21, 2007

In particular, Hero with a Thousand Faces is a great place to start. Basically, it deals with the question, "every story has already been told, so what's the point in writing and literature to continue?"
posted by devilsbrigade at 8:17 PM on June 21, 2007

You should check out Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston. It is myths and folk tales, but her presentation of them within ethnographic context (i.e., recording the conversations and situations in which the stories are told) reveals a lot about how Southern blacks used, created, and embellished fictional stories.

Can you expand on what your actual research question is? "How fiction developed" is incredibly broad: are you interested in why humans tell stories? in how we came to distinguish a special class of stories that are "untrue" (which requires some exploration of the development of the modern concept of truth)? Something else entirely? Some more specifics might help with book recommendations, and we might also be able to brainstorm some different search terms for you.
posted by carmen at 8:38 PM on June 21, 2007

speaking as a scholar of literature, not of anthropology or history . . .

"anything that studies how fiction has developed within our own culture" describes vast, vast swaths of literary criticism and theory. Like carmen, I'd like to hear more specifics about what you are trying to learn and why. (That is not to say that I'll definitely know the go-to book for you even given more specifics.)

Right now I see you asking at least two different (very broad) questions: how fiction developed, and how cultures treat fiction. One question is about the emergence of a thing and the other is about how people "treat" the thing as and after it emerges. Nothing wrong with asking both questions, but be aware that this may make your search more complicated.

I think you may have trouble with searching by the term "fiction" and avoiding genre-specific studies. Medieval romances, English Renaissance ballads, eighteenth century novels, and twentieth century television sitcoms are all forms of "storytelling where the story is not necessarily assumed to be true" but they develop from different contexts, in different ways, for different reasons, and they are "treated" differently by their contemporary cultures (and later cultures).

I suspect that Aristotle, Sidney, and Wilde are not what you are looking for, but they are writing about "storytelling where the story is not necessarily assumed to be true," thinking about its origins, purposes, and treatment.
posted by Orinda at 11:20 PM on June 21, 2007

Seconding 'Mimesis' by Auerbach. It sounds like that's exactly what you want.

Not all mythology was accepted as true. That's still an open question.

Some secondary suggestions are, 'Theory of the Novel' by Lukacs and the 'Birth of Tragedy' by Nietzsche (There are some factual issues with these but they are both rewarding).

I also recommend the Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Calasso. It's not a scholarly work but it does talk about how the presentation of mythology changed over the years and through different genres.
posted by BigSky at 12:25 AM on June 22, 2007

I just read a stunning book from Elena Esposito (Sociologist, systems theory) about the historical transformation of how fiction is observed and it's connection to statistics. I'm afraid the book is only available in german or italian, though (it's called "Die Fiktion der wahrscheinlichen Realit├Ąt" in german). This link offers some information about her.
posted by tcp at 2:37 AM on June 22, 2007

Okay, so for clarifications...

What interests me is how people think the stories they tell relate to reality. So, we tell a lot of stories about this dude named Superman, but we are more than willing to say "Superman doesn't exist!" or "It's not true--there is no Superman." So, we tell a lot of stories to each other, and many of the stories aren't true, and we seem to believe there is a very firm separation between what actually occurs in the world and what occurs in the stories. I'm interested in how, and from what, this idea developed. From what my quick Google search just told me, Auerbach's Mimesis looks pretty spot on--awesome.

The second thing that interests me is how other cultures may think of the stories they tell. Gnutron mentions African storytelling, and how they start their stories seems to imply that they either do not see the stories as firmly separate from reality or just do not care to make such a distinction. I've also heard a bit about at least one group that simply does not understand the idea of fiction--there is truth, and if you're not telling truth, then you're being deceptive and lying. I'm interested in analysis of these cultural differences. I want to know the different ways that people have understood the connection (or lack thereof) between the stories they tell and the actual happenings in the world. I know that there are plenty of works that probably describe the storytelling practices of individual groups, but I'm not an anthropologist and wouldn't know where to look for the information I want. I'm also hoping that someone may have compiled data about many different cultures together into one analysis, giving me the exact information I want with the minimum amount of work on my part (heh).

Of course, it's not always possible to separate views on fiction's relationship to reality from questions of genre. For instance, Orinda points out that ballads and sitcoms, for instance, are treated differently. It's quite likely that how one views the relationship between "fiction and reality" (for shorthand) changes, depending on the type of stories you're dealing with. I know I need to delve into those sorts of questions, as well, so thanks for all of the suggestions. And sorry if my original post wasn't as clear as it could've been -- I chose to be concise at the cost of clarity. Oops.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:47 AM on June 22, 2007

I suspect that your difficulty finding this sort of thing, as with so many frustrating searches, has to do with the parameters you've set being faulty or at least misdirected. "Stories that are not necessarily assumed to be true" is a category that entirely depends on what any given culture defines as "true," and this varies not only between cultures but within a single culture over time.

The section of Karen Armstrong's book "The Battle for God" on "mythos" vs. "logos" would possibly help you clarify what it is you're looking for. It's relatively short (the rest of the book isn't particularly relevant), so you can read it in a bookstore, and her sources could point you to books that deal with how different cultures distinguish between stories that are "true" in the factual, empirical sense and those that are seen as "true" in some other way. I know her writings on this subject are based on the kind of study I believe you're looking for.
posted by Lauram at 10:01 AM on June 22, 2007

there is truth, and if you're not telling truth, then you're being deceptive and lying. I'm interested in analysis of these cultural differences.

You'll find that this was a chief concern for Plato. It has also been a chief concern at various points in the British and American literature. The fact that stories are made up and thus, in some sense, lies troubled more than a few commentators--and was one of the reasons Cromwell closed down the theaters.

You'll find a discourse, especially in the 19th century complaining about young people (especially young ladies) spending too much time engaged in novel reading that will remind you of the 1950s moral outcry against rock music. And, before the novel was invented, you'll find a still older discourse of social commentators complaining about people spending too much time reading chivalric romances. In fact, Don Quixote is a part of that discourse (and might be a fun place to start, come to think of it).

Of course, it's not always possible to separate views on fiction's relationship to reality from questions of genre.

I'd make that "not always" a "never." Fiction, in the broadest sense, is a genre. The central generic division, for most people is between fiction and non-fiction. But you don't have to read a lot of either to realize that the line between the two is fuzzy. And it gets fuzzier the closer you look at it.

A significant amount of ink has been devoted, in modern and post-modern literary criticism, to clarifying or further obfuscating (or, if you will, pointing out the impossibility of clarifying) that line.
posted by wheat at 1:27 PM on June 22, 2007

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