The consensus is that novels can be fully appreciated only through an experiential engagement with their well-formed instances. But what are the entities that serve as such instances? According to the orthodox view, these entities are primarily inscriptions—concrete texts written or printed on something or displayed on the screen of some electronic device. In this paper, I argue that this view is misguided, since (a) well-formed instances of a novel must manifest certain sonic properties, but (b) such properties cannot be manifested by inscriptions. As an alternative, I put forward the view that the entities that serve as well-formed instances of novels are readings and sums of readings and graphic elements.
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In this paper, by “novels,” I mean readable novels, or novels that can, in principle, be read aloud.
The same can be said not just about novels but about artworks of any kind (paintings, sculptures, musical works, works of dance, etc.).
Roughly, “a well-formed instance of an artwork” can be defined as “an entity that manifests all of the experienceable properties that must be experienced to properly appreciate this work.” A more accurate definition of “a well-formed instance of an artwork” is provided in Section 1.
Note that this view answers the question about the nature of instances of novels, not the question about the nature of novels themselves.
Accounts similar to the one presented in this paper have been put forward, however. According to one such account, advocated by Kivy (2006), well-formed instances of novels are readings and mental “voicings” (i.e., sequences of particular mental sounds, or sounds that are generated by means of imagination and can be “heard” “in one’s mind’s ear”). According to another account, implied by Urmson (2004)‘s theory of literature qua a performing art, well-formed instances of novels are readings and certain experiences generated as a result of reading novels silently (unfortunately, Urmson does not clarify what exactly these experiences are). (It is worth noting that neither Kivy’s nor Urmson’s account can be accepted. First of all, according to both accounts, certain non-visual entities—readings and mental “voicings”/experiences generated as a result of reading novels silently—can be well-formed instances of all kinds of novels. However, as will be shown in Section 3, visual novels, or novels that involve aesthetically relevant graphic components, cannot be properly instanced by any non-visual entities. More importantly, both accounts imply that certain mental entities (mental “voicings” in the case of Kivy’s account and particular reading experiences in the case of Urmson’s account) can be well-formed instances of novels. However, as will be demonstrated in Section 3, there is good reason to consider this implication false.)
An object manifests a property iff this property can be apprehended by means of directly perceiving this object.
Following Fisher (1995), I define “an indiscernible counterpart” as follows:
For all x and for all y, x is an indiscernible counterpart of y if and only if x and y share all manifest properties.
It is assumed that the original canvas of Black Square and the recitation of the poem “To Friends at Home” manifest the relevant experienceable properties that must be experienced to fully appreciate the corresponding works.
At the same time, according to Goodman and Elgin (1987), non-notational (analog) artworks, such as etchings and paintings, have instancesp, not instancese.
This kind of instancep/e can also be characterized as “strict,” or “genuine,” or “perfect,” or “ideal.”
Terminological note: If it is not specified whether the expression “instance” is used in the purely epistemic or the provenential sense, then this expression can be used in either of these senses. Also, it is assumed that, regardless of whether “instance” is used in the purely epistemic or the provenential sense, it is used in one and the same sense throughout the relevant passage.
Examples of sonic properties are “being sonorous,” “being mellifluous,” “having such and such rhythm,” and “sounding a particular way.”
Surely we can meaningfully say that we hear an inscription (for example, a printed copy of Pride and Prejudice). But when we say this, we do not mean that we literally hear it; what we mean is that we hear a reading of it.
Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing this objection.
It is safe to assume that all existent inscriptions of novels are physical. The argument, however, does not depend on this assumption.
Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this potential reply by a proponent of the objection being discussed.
For Margolis’s definition of the concept of embodiment, see Margolis 1977: 47.
Note that this objection to the response does not imply that inscriptions cannot embody objects (such as novels). In fact, an inscription—as it is understood in this paper—is capable of embodiment, as long as the notion of embodiment does not presuppose that x’s being embodied by y entails that x is part of y or y is part of x.
One might ask whether a mereological sum of an inscription and a particular mental sound sequence can be a well-formed instance of a novel. The answer to this question, I think, is “No.” As will be demonstrated in this section, an inscription simpliciter cannot be a well-formed instance of a novel. And in the following section, it will be explained why a mental sound sequence cannot be a well-formed instance of a novel. Meanwhile, if neither an inscription nor a mental sound sequence can be a well-formed instance of a novel, then clearly a mereological sum of them cannot be such an instance either.
I assume here that the specialists and non-specialists are trustworthy.
Here is an example of sentences, one of which (S k ) seems less natural, from a competent speaker’s viewpoint, than the other (S j ):
S j : John picked up his wallet.
S k : John picked up John’s wallet. [It is assumed that all of the occurrences of “John” refer to the same individual.]
Here is an example of sentences that can be said to differ with regard to the structure-based difficulty of comprehension:
G j : “My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun” (King 2000: 117).
G k : “My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it” (ibid.).
Surely G k is easier to comprehend than G j . And this is, most likely, due to the fact that the structural complexity of G k differs from the structural complexity of G j .
I assume that any paraphrase is typeset with the same font as the original sentence.
In this case, unlike the previous case, it may be less clear which of the sentences is preferable, from an aesthetic viewpoint.
Note that this, by itself, does not entail that those who do not hear the physical sound of a novel—such as those who read silently—cannot experience the novel’s sonic properties and, hence, cannot fully appreciate this novel. Suppose that to fully appreciate a novel, it is necessary to appreciate the novel’s sonic properties. Suppose also that these properties can be manifested not only by physical sound but also by mental sound, or sound generated by means of imagination. In this case, those who do not hear the physical sound of the novel may well experience the novel’s sonic properties by imagining and attending to the novel’s “sounding” and, hence, can fully appreciate this novel. (That the thesis that we must experience the sonic properties of a novel to fully appreciate this novel does not, by itself, entail that we cannot fully appreciate this novel without hearing certain physical sounds does not mean that we can fully appreciate a novel without hearing such sounds. In fact, in Section 3, I argue that a full appreciation of a novel requires listening to the physical sound of this novel.)
One might object that to fully appreciate a novel that does not have aesthetically relevant graphic elements, we must experience certain visual properties, since we must see its text. However, this objection does not work. Seeing the text of a novel that does not have aesthetically relevant graphic elements is not necessary to fully appreciate this novel. Suppose, for instance, that we do not have visual access to the text of some such novel, say, Pride and Prejudice. In this case, we can still fully appreciate this novel—for example, by means of listening to a reading of it.
If the so-called “graphic novels”—such as Arnold Drake’s and Leslie Waller’s It Rhymes with Lust, Gil Kane’s Blackmark, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus—are genuine novels, then they are also examples of novels with aesthetically relevant visual components. (Note, however, the question of whether “graphic novels”—which are, essentially, long comics—are, in fact, novels or even a form of literature is controversial.)
Note that the sense of “a reading” specified here differs from the two common senses of this word: the sense according to which a reading is an act of extracting meanings from syntactic sequences and the sense according to which “a reading” is synonymous with “an interpretation.” (In the latter sense, “reading” is used, for example, in the sentence “Two literary critics have different readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses.”)
Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this objection to the view that mental “voicings” can be well-formed instances of novels.
Thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing out this potential way of extending the view that well-formed instances of novels are readings and sums of readings and graphic elements.
If a song involves music, then neither readings (understood in the broad sense—as any verbal “soundings”) nor sums of readings and graphic elements can be well-formed instances of this song, for neither the readings nor the sums are capable of manifesting certain musical properties that must be experienced to fully appreciate it. Presumably, the entities that can serve as such instances are sums of readings and musical performances (in the case of songs without any aesthetically relevant visual elements) and sums of readings, visual elements, and musical performances (in the case of songs that have aesthetically relevant visual elements).
If the truth of the thesis that well-formed instances of novels are readings and sums of readings and graphic elements depended on whether we know what makes a reading a reading of a given novel, then, by analogy, the truth of the thesis that well-formed instances of musical works are performances would depend on whether we know what makes a performance a performance of a given musical work. But the latter kind of dependence does not hold. For, if it did, we would have to question the thesis that well-formed instances of musical works are performances—given the fact that there is no generally accepted theoretic answer to the question of what makes a performance a performance of a given musical work. But, of course, we do not want to question this thesis. (Surely musical works are properly instanced by performances.)
Suppose an answer does not allow for this. Then according to this answer, only sonically identical readings can be readings of the same novel. But this is too restrictive. Surely we would like to regard certain appropriate readings with minor phonetic differences (such as slight differences in intonation or in pronouncing [s] and [z]) as readings of the same novel.
See Footnote 1.
One might ask: What are then the entities that serve as well-formed instances of unreadable novels? To my mind, the best candidates for the role of such entities are inscriptions. Presumably in the case of unreadable novels, the only relevant experienceable properties that must be experienced to fully appreciate such novels are the properties concerned with the meaning of these novels and perhaps certain visual properties. So to be well-formed instances of unreadable novels, entities must be capable of manifesting both kinds of properties. And inscriptions, doubtless, are capable of that. Furthermore, inscriptions can stand in appropriate intentional-historical relations to the history of making of these novels. Thus, in the case of unreadable novels, on both the provenential and the purely epistemic accounts, inscriptions can be regarded as well-formed instances.
This is not to say, of course, that by apprehending War and Peace via a well-formed instance of its translation, one cannot apprehend some relevant parts of War and Peace—for example, certain characters, meanings, and compositional elements.
Note also that the objection being discussed applies equally to the orthodox view—the view that well-formed instances of novels are primarily inscriptions—and, hence, does not pose a special threat to the view that well-formed instances of novels are readings and sums of readings and graphic elements.
In jazz, which is, doubtless, a performing art, well-formed instances are normally produced without recourse to instructions.
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I am grateful to Jerrold Levinson, Andrew Kania, Lee Walters, David Davies, James Hamilton, Wesley Cray, and two anonymous referees for this journal for the very helpful comments, which have led to a number of substantial improvements in this paper.
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Aliyev, A. What Instances of Novels Are. Philosophia 45, 163–183 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-016-9742-7
- Instances of novels
- Philosophy of literature
- Ontology of literature
- Metaphysics of art