The Nature of Literary Being

Are characters in novels more than verbal representations of individuals or collective subjects?  ... more

Are novel characters more than verbal representations of individuals or collective subjects? The commonsense answer would be 'no.' Many readers believe that the essential difference between a person and a novel character is ontological: the former is while the latter is not. Counterintuitively, perhaps, this Colloquy will look closely and variously into the foundations of our assumption that the antithesis of flesh and word—inherent in the composition, legibility, and decomposition of novel characters at a reading’s conclusion—denies them being in any but the most fantastic, even specious, sense.  

To approach the question of fictional ontology, we might begin with a phrase taken from Jacques Rancière—"the suspensive existence of literature"—in his essay, "The Body of the Letter: Bible, Epic, Novel" (La chair des mots: politiques de l'ecriture, 1998). How might we understand this suspensive existence in relation to character? In the process of reading, could it refer to a crossing over of the reader’s material actuality with the character’s immateriality; if so, how does that crossing-over occur, what are its temporal and spatial conditions, and what are its consequences within and outside the novel? How do we evaluate the special properties attributed by some authors to the flesh of characters, their peculiar powers of embodiment, as when we read how some survive their own death, however briefly, in novels including Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and the extended afterlife J.M. Coetzee gives Elizabeth Costello. We hope this Colloquy will explore the crossings-over of word to flesh and flesh to word as they occur among the three subjectivities in play in the particular event that the novel both is and engenders: character, reader, and writer. What is the nature of our investment either in safeguarding the integrity of the antithesis of flesh and word or in violating it?

Nancy Ruttenburg's picture
Curator Nancy Ruttenburg

Ruttenburg teaches at Stanford University, where she is the William Robertson Coe Professo

Ruttenburg teaches at Stanford University, where she is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature. She is the author, most recently, Dostoevsky's Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2008).

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Not I

by Carrol ClarksonEssay
Through his use of the third person, and other narrative strategies of subjective displacement, J.M. Coetzee poses a challenge to the idea of supposedly stable “centres of consciousness," not least, the author’s centre of consciousness.... more

Persons and Optics

by Peter BrooksEssay
“Embodiment” surely does take place. But we still have everything to learn about how and why. more

Being in Love

by Claire JarvisEssay
For most of its short generic life, the novel has depended on marriage and childbirth as signs of sexual relationship, and has had a difficulty representing sexual life beyond marriage and childbirth without the assistance of figurative language. How do novels, especially those of D.H. Lawrence, represent sex? more

Being in Fiction: Recognition and the Ownership of Life

by Sylvia MolloyEssay
I find myself here in the rather awkward position of speaking from two different perspectives, one, that of the novelist, the other, that of the critic. For a long time I have argued against this notion of two perspectives, considering them simply different... more

​Probability and Literary Being

by Hannah Walser, J.D. PorterEssay
Why write a dialogue? The ideas that follow grew out of conversations between the two of us, and although they might someday find their way into a journal article or a book chapter, it seemed worthwhile to acknowledge them for what they are now: speculative and provisional, germinal, we hope, in both senses of that word. more