While many considered the coronation of King Charles III pompous and theatrical, it was an interesting event to watch from the perspective of cultural heritage and ritual: the symbols (scepter, orb and ring) and ceremonies communicated about political leadership in a European tradition. Charles swore to uphold justice, mercy and peace. King and church in the UK are clearly more intertwined than they are in the Dutch monarchy. There was another reason for fascination as well: an interviewee on Dutch commercial television (RTL Boulevard) claimed after the ceremony that the ‘coronation seemed like a real episode of The Crown’. Apparently, it was confusing for people to decide upon the ‘realness’ of the event: what happened looked like a Netflix series. This ‘erosion of reality’ as scholars convey, has to do with the increased awareness of the media’s ability to edit the world, to show what someone else wants us to see instead of what is actually there (Castillo & Eggington 2017; 9). The relation between the media’s representation of the world and the reality people experience is complex and disturbing. Reality is removed from immediate perception, and the manipulation of truth(s) is performed and accepted. And, more concerning - for many today, the distinction between factual truth and falsehood has become irrelevant.
Media literacy is not enough to hold back the erosion of reality. It does not lead to an in-depth reflection on representation and reality, it does not make people conscious of fictional constructions in reality.
In media saturated public spheres there is an overload of information forcing people to automatic processing: there is too much news and it has to be managed in an efficient way. People try to keep up with all the information but at the same time risk ‘misperceiving the real world and understanding its true nature’ (Potter 2004). The media confront us with fake words and fake images, such as the AI-generated images that Amnesty International used to promote their reports on the Colombia 2021 protests. When asked ‘what is truth’ most people will agree that truth is: words in accordance with reality, utterances anchored to verifiable facts. But when facts are denied, truth becomes slippery. In current democratic societies, educators are convinced that media literacy is something that has to be learned. Media literacy implies the recognition that:
- all media are constructed,
- media messages shape perceptions of reality,
- different audiences have different understanding of the same message,
- media messages have commercial implications, and 5. media messages embed specific points of view.
Media literacy, however, is not enough to hold back the erosion of reality. It teaches students to be careful with sources and information channels, to be precise in references and be aware of the capitalist digital spheres. But it does not lead to an in-depth reflection on representation and reality, it does not make people conscious of fictional constructions in reality.
My line of argument is that we need ‘fiction literacy’ next to ‘media literacy’ in order to make people attentive of the complexity of reality and representation. A training in literary reading, the reading of fictional texts, could help in understanding the interconnection between media representation, and experiences of reality and truth. In discussing two case studies of reading fiction, I will elaborate my argument.
Machines like me
One of Britain’s most prominent novelists, Ian McEwan (b. 1948), published Machines like me and people like you in 2019. The novel centres around two interrelated questions: how to deal with the ethical anxiety of artificial intelligence, and what does it mean to be fully human in the context of the challenges of technology? The novel is fictional: it presents an invented world, but also offers several links to the ‘real’ world.
The plot of the novel, at first sight, seems simple: in London in the early 1980s, protagonist Charlie buys an artificial human (86.000 pounds plus a 470 page handbook on how to instruct him). He keeps the robot at his home where he also lives with his girlfriend Miranda. There are 70 of these robots: 35 Adams and 35 Eves. Adam falls in love with Miranda, but also acts against her, when he realises that she has misled the court in a specific case about abuse. Adam is, obviously, more morally rigorous than Miranda, and effectuates her imprisonment of six months.
This counterfactual novel also plays with history: in an alternative 1982 the United Kingdom experiences great losses in the Falkland conflict. John Lennon and John F. Kennedy are still alive, as is mathematician Alan Turing, the mastermind behind the ‘Enigma code’ and the creator of the ‘Turing test’, based on the question ‘Can machines think’? Adam, indeed, can think, and has an awareness of his shortcomings and of his feelings of love. Fascinatingly, he also has an awareness of his ‘body’ that he would like to save for research. This is what we read at the end of the novel, when Adam has asked Charlie to destroy him:
I was lucky to stumble on good reasons to live. Mathematics … poetry, and love for you. But they’re taking all of us back. Reprogramming. Renewal, they call it. I hate the idea, just as you would. I want to be what I am, what I was. So I have this request … If you’d be so kind. Before they come … hide my body. Tell them I ran off. Your refund is forfeited anyway. I’ve disabled the tracking program. Hide my body from them, and then, when they’ve gone … I’d like you to take me to your friend, Sir Alan Turing. I love his work and admire him deeply. He might make some use of me, or some part of me (McEwan, 279).
Reading this novel, we are confronted with the question if and how we could leave ethical decisions to machines. Adam is the opposite of the Frankenstein monster, he is the one who is in control, when Miranda is disturbed by emotions. But because the artificial human is so morally ‘perfect’, he is creating an unliveable situation for the three of them. The drama of the novel lies in the machine man’s inability to lie.
This fictional text combines history, ethical philosophy and imagination and invites us to respond to the existential dilemma that is presented here. The reader is asked to reflect, to be an active responsible thinker: these are issues that relate to us, even when the author has made them up.
Planet of Clay
The second fictional novel that will be discussed briefly is Planet of Clay, written by Syrian writer Samar Yazbek (b. 1970), who lives in Paris after having fled out of her home country. This novel is narrated from the perspective of a young woman in her early twenties, Rima, who is considered mad by others, due to the fact that she stopped speaking in her 4th year. She has the habit to run away, to walk endlessly, and therefore she is tied with a rope to objects in the house. From a psychological perspective, we could understand the girl’s behaviour as a disorder in the autism spectrum: she has difficulties with social communication and interaction, she has restricted interests – is obsessed by colours – and she demonstrates repetitive behaviour.
Rima is not capable of understanding the fear of others for the military violators, she refuses to hide when bombs are coming down, she has no idea of the political conflict and stances and starts to yell and scream when she watches how people are beaten. She certainly is vulnerable. Her lack of understanding, however, also gives her strength as a special form of autonomy. She does not pity herself and does not feel fear constantly. Her mental blankness makes her tough as well.
The narrative is told from the chronotopic position - time and space thickened as M. Bakhtin explained - of being locked away in a cellar of a former print shop, an improvised shelter in the Ghouta neighbourhood of Damascus. All other people who stayed there before have left, there is no water, no food, and Rima still is tied to the window bars (so that she can’t run away).
From within the cellar, Rima as the unreliable I-narrator starts telling about the day, about one month earlier, on which her mother was shot at a checkpoint in the city centre (which happened after Rima panicked and ran away for the military), and that story leads to another about a house in which she and her brother found shelter with other families, which was later bombed. Her narrating voice is fragmented and confused but at the same time down-to-earth.
While today the civil war in Syria is vanishing from our screens, Yazbek’s novel is bringing us into the heart of it by imagining a young female character who is caught in a part of Eastern Damascus when it is under siege by the Assad army. The Syrian Government started the blockade in spring 2013 and it lasted for more than 5 years in which thousands of people were killed as a result of bombing, starvation and a chemical attack. This attack took place on 21 August 2013 when the city was struck by rockets containing sarin, nerve gas. Estimates of the death toll range between 1400 and 1730 people among which many babies and children.
Yazbek’s novel relates to the reality of August 2013, and puts the spotlight on a disabled young person who is locked up in a shelter. The depressing story asks attention for war circumstances, and in particular for those people who do not have a voice or visibility. In her imaginary world Yazbek reports on war, injustice and cruelty.
Both fictional novels are constructing an amalgam of reality and fiction, of real issues and invented ones, of imaginary frames and perspectives that we as reader are accountable for. I consider fiction as symptomatic of the times: fiction demonstrates social and political insights in certain cultures and invites us to diagnose and react. Fiction lures us in the position of specific imagined characters: Charlie as a London middle class hero and Rima as autonomous tragic figure in war circumstances. The active performance of reading demonstrates that dimensions of reality and invention, reportage and fabrication are intertwined: the reader has to be flexible and creative in order to understand the real and imagined dimensions.
Two fictional novels, so is my argument, help us understand what ‘fiction literacy’ could entail. Several aspects must be acknowledged:
- all fiction is both a reference to the real world outside the text and the creation of a world in the text - fiction is an amalgamation of reference and invention,
- while fiction might refer to the actual world and offer imaginative manipulations of more or less well-known facts, it should not be subjected to simple judgments of truth and falsity,
- the principal process by which fiction alters the actual world is by implanting within it made-up characters,
- fiction is both dissensive and subversive – in its disruptive thinking fiction invites the reader to respond.
How can a literary training, or ‘fiction literacy’, help people to get grip on the erosion of reality? My argument is that when reading fiction, people are trained to suspend their disbelief and to go along with the presented story. Fictional narratives offer reality effects and imaginary scenarios while they are also critical and subversive --- it is the reader who should be an active respondent instead of a passive follower. Trained or educated readers would be capable of recognizing the permeability of factional and fictional elements in a narrative. As both McEwan in a specific ethical dilemma, and Yazbek in her representation of the trauma of war, demonstrate: the truths of fiction and reality are in the hands of the critical responsible reader.
Castillo, David R. & William Eggington (2017). Medialogies, Reading Reality in the Age of Inflationary Media. New York / London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Cohn, Dorrit (2000). The Distinction of Fiction. Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
McEwan, Ian (2019). Machines like me and People like you. London: Jonathan Cape.
Potter, W.J. (2004). Theory of Media Literacy: A Cognitive Approach. London: Sage.
Yazbek, Samar (2017). Planet of Clay, Translated from the Arabic by Leri Price. New York / London / Amsterdam: World Editions.