Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fiction as Authentic as Fact

I read "Robinson Crusoe" many times over the years before learning that the book has a longer name. The full title of Daniel Defoe's novel, first published in 1719, is "The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pirates."

(Image-)Fred Harper

The story has endured because it isn't nonfiction but feels as if it could be.
The title unfolds, like a pair of outstretched arms, as if trying to grasp the width of a world that was, in Defoe's day, dramatically expanding its sense of possibility. Exploration of the New World was all the rage, and the exotic content of "Robinson Crusoe" seemed deftly suited to the times. The story of literature's most famous castaway sold well among Defoe's fellow Englishmen shortly after its debut.

But something else appears to be at work in the wordy subtitle of Defoe's most celebrated work of fiction, which is also one of the first English novels. Carefully spading one detail upon another, Defoe sounds as if he's trying to plant the reader in a rich sediment of fact. From the first page, "Robinson Crusoe" conveys the documentary power of courtroom testimony—sometimes dry, but brightened enough by the promise of surprise to keep its audience following along.

Early critics—and some more recent ones—have accused Defoe of going too far in creating the novel's solid sense of actuality. After its release, many readers embraced "Robinson Crusoe" as a travelogue recorded by a real, flesh-and-blood Crusoe. Defoe (1660-1731), a journalist, promoted the illusion by telling readers that "Robinson Crusoe" had been written by Crusoe himself, including a preface, supposedly written by the book's editor, asserting the story as "a just History of Fact."
"'Robinson Crusoe' is Defoe's most famous hoax," modern-day novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker flatly declared. "We now describe it as a novel, of course, but it wasn't born that way." Mr. Baker reminds us that Joseph Addison, Defoe's contemporary, called him "a false, shuffling, prevaricating rascal."

More charitable commentators tend to excuse Defoe's tactics with a wink and a nudge. Because he was writing novels when the form was so new, an argument can be made that Defoe's casting of fiction as fact was simply a daring experiment within an emerging genre.
"Crusoe" endures because Defoe crafted a story that isn't nonfiction, yet feels as if it could be. His skill at capturing the texture of daily experience set a gold standard for future generations of novelists.
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