John Holbo has recently posted two lengthy discussions of the concept of "fiction" as it would be understood using the tools of analytic philosophy. I am by no means well-read enough in analytic philosophy to assess these posts in technical terms, although I do think I know enough to follow along and perhaps make a few comments from a purely literary perspective.
Holbo is responding to a book that analyzes fiction as a "prop" readers use to engage in what this author wants to call "make-believe." Holbo believes that this view is too simplistic, reducing fiction to a device that prompts readers to create mental images, or that works to "prescribe imaginings." Holbo thinks that this simplistic view is especially infelicitous in describing our reading of novels, which do not provoke these kinds of "imaginings" in the same way that other, more explict games of make-believe do. As Holbo points out, reading a novel is not like playing with toy trucks.
It seems to me that Holbo is trying to say that works of literature have effects on us that cannot easily be accounted for by philosophical analysis. The words in a novel work differently than words in other contexts:
Now with regard to novels there is certainly at least a little something to the idea that, in at least some cases, there is at least something inessential about the prop, i.e. all the words - because the story is the thing, and any given story can be narrated any number of different ways. But indifference to the specifics of the narrative, i.e. all the words, is really not a standard attitude. You don't have to be much of a critic to care how a given story is told, i.e. to care about the prop itself, as well as what the prop makes us imagine (if it does make us imagine.)
I think this is exactly right, although, again, I couldn't provide an argument of my own that would satisfy most analytic philosophers. Part of the problem with approaching fiction from the vantage point of philosophy is that it excludes certain considerations that would otherwise help to explain what we in fact do enounter in reading fiction or poetry. (Although of course if these considerations were taken into account, the result would be literary criticism and not philosophy.) For example, I would argue that the novel, the literary category of "fiction" more generally, has developed less as a reaction among writers to the requirements of "story" per se than as a sequential reaction to what previous writers have done within the tradition of the novel or the short story as it is passed along from one cohort to the next. Sometimes this means thinking through the implications of narrative itself, sometimes ignoring story in order to concentrate on style or "stream of consciousness" or something else. In other words, most writers are at least as interested in what they can do with language itself as what they can do through telling stories.
A related problem is the need to collapse poetry and fiction (as Holbo does in an earlier post) into a single category of "imaginative" writing in which the arrangement of words works differently than in non-literary writing--it is less propositional, less laden with "information," etc., a difference that invokes the specific analysis of such writing as "fiction" in the first place. What is gained by looking at these modes through this fairly narrow philosophical lens (which is not at all neglible) is balanced by the loss of those other features of poetry and fiction that have appeal to us for other than their roles in the game of fiction-making or make-believe.
Perhaps the most significant drawback to considering "fiction" as more or less identical with "story" is identified by Holbo himself:
. . .The more paradigmatically story-like the representational content of a work, the more comfortable we are classing it as a work of fiction.
One exception: experimental literary works that strive to undermine narrative and story conventions – i.e. that willfully lack beginnings, middles and ends, characters, so forth – are usually quite easily classified as fiction (unless they seem to be turning into poems.) I take this ease of classification to be the result of a sort of grandfather-clause. Or maybe an Oedipus-like father-clause: if you are trying so hard to overthrow story, you must be story, ergo fiction. (A bit of a puzzle.)
I don't think this really is a puzzle. These kinds of experimental "fictions" are, in my view, precisely trying to undermine the reflexive association of fiction with story, although perhaps not completely enough that we would want to categorize it as something other than fiction. To this extent, "fiction" becomes simply a literary identifying mark, an acknowledgment of the tradition of prose writing from which it emerges, but no longer very helpfully describes what a work so designated does in terms of storytelling alone. But perhaps at this point as well such a work no longer lends itself very usefully to the kind of analysis a philosopher might want to do of the more ordinary understanding of the term.