The Grounds of the Novel
Daniel Wright



On What There Is in the Novel

Pegasus was the beginning of this book.

W. V. O. Quine’s essay “On What There Is” (1948), a field-shaping work for modern metaphysics, denies Pegasus’s existence, and I’ve always been enraged by that denial. I can see now that I began writing this book to explore that rage and maybe to locate its source. It was connected, I vaguely knew, to the moment I first read Quine’s essay as a queer philosophy major, probably twenty years old, being initiated into a field that seemed to me oppressively straight in its style of thinking, so precise and so inhospitable to the meandering lines of thought I desired more than anything. Pegasus is a metonym in Quine’s essay: his nonexistence stands for the nonexistence of all Pegasus’s fellow fictional beings too, and the nonexistence of the fictional worlds in which they live. I who had known fictional beings, I who had been to fictional worlds, could not follow in Quine’s certainty that they don’t exist, or that when we talk about existence we really must limit ourselves to actuality.

That was the beginning of this book: a young queer person wavering between philosophy and literature; a feeling that a certain mode of philosophical argument constrained the category of being in a way that made me panic, that foreclosed the paths I wanted to follow; a sense that I must defend Pegasus against Quine and his ilk; a burning, ireful conviction that if I allowed Quine to deny the existence of Pegasus, he would come for me next. If unreal beings didn’t exist, then what became of me? or, at least, what became of the queer parts of me that felt both electrically real and also always existing under threat of derealization? Quine’s essay was macho, aggressive, unquestioning, confident. I desired mess and not the sharpened clarity prized by philosophy. Pegasus couldn’t speak back, certainly not in that kind of language, and neither could I.

But there’s a twist to Quine’s argument that offered even me a way in, and that allowed the essay to remain present to me all those years, something that could rankle in my mind, difficult simply to expel. While Quine argues with imposing certainty that no, fictional beings such as Pegasus do not exist, he also includes in his essay two counterarguments, each delivered by a fictional character invented as if to be given the opportunity to speak in defense of his own kind. First, the fictional philosopher McX brings out an old saw, what Quine calls “the old Platonic riddle of non-being.” If Quine can deny the existence of Pegasus, there must in the first place be something called Pegasus for him to cast out into the void of non-being, and so by denying Pegasus’s existence, Quine inadvertently affirms it: “Non-being must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not?” Quine finds this line of argument frustrating. McX claims, Quine laments, “that I refuse to recognize certain entities.” But Quine refuses the very terms of the accusation: “I maintain that there are no entities, of the kind which he alleges, for me to recognize.”1 McX says that Pegasus exists because “Pegasus is an idea in men’s minds.” Quine says that “the mental entity is not what people are talking about when they deny Pegasus,” and that even McX “cannot . . . persuade himself that any region of space-time, near or remote, contains a flying horse of flesh and blood” (22). Because McX himself is a fiction, a “mental entity” like Pegasus, Quine has an advantage here. He gets to speak on behalf of “people,” and to declare that “people” don’t think figments of the imagination count when it comes to talking about being. But what about those of us disagreeing with Quine and pitying McX? Quine claims to speak on my behalf, and it’s at this point in my reading that I become claustrophobic, wanting nothing more than to escape the conditions of existence that Quine foists upon me.

The fictional philosopher Wyman then enters the scene. Quine thinks that McX’s argument is ridiculous, but he has high hopes for Wyman, whose way of thinking is “less patently misguided.” Quine remains committed to getting rid of Pegasus, no matter what either of these fictional people has to say about it; it’s only that Wyman’s kind of argument may be “more difficult to eradicate.” Wyman suggests that fictional beings such as Pegasus exist in a different way than the entities of the actual world exist. We might even use a different word, saying that while both have being, Pegasus subsists as opposed to the real horse who exists (23). While we real beings are actual and determinate, Pegasus is an “unactualized possible” (22). Nevertheless, Pegasus is.

Two fictional characters written into a philosophical essay partly about fictionality ask that fictional existence (i.e., their own) not only be recognized but recognized sensitively, with a close attention to its texture and its temporality. We might need a finer-grained vocabulary of actuality and possibility in order to grapple with Pegasus, or with Wyman—or so Wyman himself claims from his place in the realm of the unactualized. It strikes me as especially callous, then, when Quine brushes aside Wyman’s promising argument with a sneer. Wyman’s theory is unacceptable, Quine argues, because inelegant, perhaps even a threat to law and order; it generates an image of a “bloated universe,” “overpopulated,” “unlovely,” a “slum of possibles,” “a breeding ground for disorderly elements” (23). Quine’s metaphor, by which admitting fictional beings into existence leads to a dangerous overpopulation, and by which the metaphysician acts as a border guard who protects the territory of “what there is” from the huddled masses of the unactualized, is strikingly moralized and politicized.2 Quine is terrified of an uncontrollable incursion, the endlessly proliferating mass of “possible men” he suddenly sees accumulating in his doorway. “Are they the same possible man or two possible men? How do we decide? How many possible men are there in that doorway?” he asks, like someone in a gothic novel beset by ghosts (23). He thinks that Wyman’s ontology implies possible beings intruding everywhere at once, overrunning the boundaries of their slum, but that is nowhere in Wyman’s argument, which allows for different modes of being: Pegasus and those possible men “subsist” rather than “exist.” They are just fine in their fictional world, which clearly doesn’t have the same limitations as ours when it comes to space.

Who said that Pegasus wants to invade our world? Who said that all those infinite possible men want to squeeze into Quine’s doorway? Following Quine’s argument, these imagined threats seem ridiculous to me, and yet he takes them so seriously, understanding his duty to be the thinning of the herd of those who count as beings. We could try to “rehabilitate” Wyman’s wayward metaphysics, Quine concludes, but “I feel we’d do better simply to clear Wyman’s slum once and for all.” We could try to police Wyman, to keep his fictional world over there, cordoned off from our actual world over here, but Quine is satisfied with nothing short of annihilation.

This book began because I read Quine’s essay and felt its cruelty. But then, how can one be cruel to fictions, really? Quine has a point, I sometimes think: whether we decide that Pegasus or Wyman or any possible man exists or not is a mere philosophical exercise. Nothing is truly at stake here beyond the deciding of some questions about the proper job of metaphysics. For Quine, that job is to answer the question, “What is there?” (21). But if that factual question initially seems in Quine’s account so dispassionate, then how do we get to Quine’s metaphor of the disorderly slum and his anxiety about those possible men who haunt his doorway? The French philosopher Étienne Souriau, whose Different Modes of Existence appeared several years before the publication of Quine’s essay, already recognized the cruelty of the metaphysician who would cast “beings of fiction” out of reality, describing fictional beings as those “fragile and inconsistent entities” who “have been chased, one after the other, from every controlled and conditioned cosmos.”3 And Bruno Latour alludes to Souriau’s work in his similarly titled An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013), where he argues that fictional beings “possess full and complete reality in their genre, with their own type of veridiction, transcendence, and being.”4 In the line of thinking that runs from Souriau to Latour, we find a powerful alternative to Quine’s exile of fictional beings, but for all their passionate defense of the fictional, their work includes no analysis of works of fiction. Novels remain for Souriau and Latour hypothetical objects. Or in other words, they still focus on the “in or out” question, except that, as opposed to Quine, they argue for the “in” camp.5

If I identify with Wyman’s plea for recognition, it’s because Quine himself makes me see what’s at stake in Wyman’s exclusion from being: terror, disgust, exile, control. The question of existence, even when it comes to fictional being, even when it is framed as a simple problem of sorting and listing, comes attached to moral and political positions as to who is allowed admission into jealously guarded spaces and categories, about the distribution or hoarding of a limited resource called being, and about the extension or refusal of recognition.

This book began because I began to think that if Wyman fails to defend his own being against Quine’s determination to eliminate it, that’s because Wyman is an intentionally impoverished fiction, designed to serve a narrow function, to speak briefly and unsatisfactorily on the “in or out” question of being before being dispatched, never able to tell us what his fictional being feels like. Does it feel empty, like living in a vacuum, or does it hum with its own kind of unaccountable fullness? Maybe philosophy wasn’t the right context for thinking about the question of fictional being. Maybe instead I should look to novels themselves, not as developing a defense of fictional being against the possibility of its extermination but rather as doing their own thing, imagining being their own way, gloriously indifferent to Quine’s interrogation. I think of this indifference as a mirror image of the reader’s “ontological indifference,” which Catherine Gallagher describes as key to the slow historical process of fictionality’s coherence as a category distinct from lying. “Willingly entering the language game of fiction,” she argues, “enables a psychological state of ontological indifference, a temporary disregard for the fictional conditions of the pleasurable sensation.”6 But where Gallagher’s reader is secure in their reality, able to offer their reasoned and willing consent, to exchange their ontological sensitivity for pleasure only temporarily, disregarding rather than acknowledging that their real pleasure is caused by something unreal, I wonder about how the novel sometimes asserts its own ontological distinctness as a resource rather than understanding it as an embarrassment it must bribe us to forget. “Ontological indifference” in Gallagher’s account names a transitory and willed forgetting, in which we accept the fictional world for a little while as if it were real. I suggest that in place of indifference, we might think of the novel as cultivating an innate ontological pragmatism in all of us, a faculty that helps us to navigate the adjacency and overlapping of fiction and actuality even after we leave the novel’s fictional world. As Zadie Smith argues, the novel is “the place where things are true and not true simultaneously: the ultimate impossibility.” But to Smith the simultaneity of “true and not true” isn’t something we learn to disregard or to which we become indifferent, it’s rather what makes the novel “great.” Novels “free us,” Smith goes on, “into an understanding that the tension between true/not true might in fact be livable.”7

For example, as a queer person I must develop an ontological pragmatism that allows me to be queer and to feel real pleasure in my queerness without worrying at every moment, or at the beginning of every day, about whether or not “queerness” is real or fictional, a metaphysically fundamental difference or a social construct. Michel Foucault called that ontological pragmatism, that livable tension, “‘reverse’ discourse”: the world writes a fiction for us, but a fiction that also comes to feel indispensably real, the “legitimacy” and “naturality” of which we feel compelled to defend.8 That might be why I always understood Quine’s dismissal of Wyman as obliquely connected to homophobia. It wasn’t that I thought metaphysical violence or ontological marginalization were the same as actual violence and marginalization, or that the experience of being Wyman was the same as the experience of being my queer self. Rather, I thought there was a resource there, in the way that fictional being tries to resist derealization simply by insisting on its own terms (subsistence rather than existence, the unactualized rather than the nonexistent), a resource that helped me to imagine rejecting the in-or-out kind of metaphysics that arrogates to itself the authority to decide once and for all which metaphysical differences are fundamental and which are contingent.

After all, although Quine believes that the aim of ontology is to determine what there is and what there isn’t, there are other viable ways of conceptualizing the philosophical investigation of being. Recently, the philosopher Jonathan Schaffer has proposed a return to Aristotle’s idea that the primary task of metaphysics is not to determine what exists and what doesn’t—simply “to list the beings”—but rather to determine “what grounds what.”9 Schaffer points out that “Metaphysics so revived does not bother asking whether properties, meanings, and numbers exist. Of course they do! The question is whether or not they are fundamental” (347). The Aristotelian view takes a “permissive disinterest” in “existence questions,” seeking instead the fundamental ground against which all other beings are understood as derivative (352). Schaffer offers an implicit rejoinder to Quine’s “slum of possibles” by pointing out that if we follow the Aristotelian argument, “there is no longer any harm in positing an abundant roster of existents, provided it is grounded on a sparse basis” (353). The problem is not to figure out what does or doesn’t belong on that roster but rather to order it, to find its mechanisms of support.

In the preface we saw Willa Cather wondering about something similar in relation to the grounds of the novel: Could we toss the furniture of the realist novel out of the window and find the empty stage, the sparse ground, beneath?10

That preface represents my first, circling attempt to feel with Pegasus and Primrose and Mr. Darcy, to find a ground upon which to know that they are real, and to lay the ground for my own argument by offering an initial collection of philosophical and literary examples. In this introduction, I turn more fully to philosophy and novel theory, and to a more traditional argumentative language, to lay a different kind of ground, assessing what it might really mean to take the novel’s figuration of its metaphysical ground seriously, to read the novel for its metaphors of fictional being.

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This is a book about how the novel imagines its own ontological grounds through figuration. In the chapters that follow, I examine four metaphors of the novelistic ground: the groundwork in Thomas Hardy, the underground in Olive Schreiner and Colson Whitehead, the ground gained in Henry James, and meeting grounds in Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, and Akwaeke Emezi. As we’ll see, these metaphors do different things and suggest different ways of understanding the metaphysics of fictional being. The chapters of the book follow a roughly chronological order, and they are often in dialogue with one another, but they do not imply a developmental narrative: some chapters compare novels across historical periods and national contexts. Again and again, these novelists work in their different ways to make the grounds of the novel appear as insistently material, identified with the landscape, the earth, the painter’s canvas, the body, even when the tenor of the metaphor is a fictional abstraction, a shadowy support at the root of a conjured world.

In the actual world, the grounds, limits, or edges that support our sense of what existence means—the fundamental Being, the Absolute, the Totality that underlies or sates or surmounts it all and yet always eludes our grasp, just above or beneath us, just to the other side of the limit of our knowing—are given. Schaffer for his part argues that the ultimate ground of our actual ontology is “the whole concrete cosmos” (361). (We hear an echo of Souriau’s image of the metaphysician’s “controlled and conditioned cosmos” from which the beings of fiction have been exiled. Schaffer’s cosmos is much more welcoming.) It is for us to discover the grounds of our existence because we are part of the actual world these grounds ground. That discovery might never happen, might in fact be an impossibility, but only in a limited sense. We might think we’re not up to the task of understanding Being itself, or of grasping the sublime object that is “the whole concrete cosmos,” but it’s at the very least not a logical impossibility that I would come to comprehend or at least develop a clear picture of such things. I argue that novels, however, have their own figural vocabulary for imagining the grounds, limits, edges of fictional being, and that this vocabulary is necessarily different than the philosophical one we use to investigate the ontology of our actual world. In a fictional world, ontological grounds are cleared and secured, but also sometimes obscured, by metaphor—worked, reworked, opened up, painted over, buried. While for the most part the grounds of the novel can seem a merely passive support for our interpretive work upon the text, the taken-for-granted foundation that we mostly ignore, I show how novelists imagine the ground as an active pressure, something with breath and force and life even in its heavy stasis.

On the one hand, the pressure of the ground can be a comfort, a rapprochement, the ground that I press into pressing back as if in acknowledgment. On the other hand, pressure can be a resistance or refusal, the ground that shoves or heaves or erupts. Thinking about queer relationships to grounding and ungrounding, for example, Sara Ahmed argues that “the ground into which we sink our feet is not neutral: it gives ground to some more than others.”11 That is true of the grounds imagined and figured in the novel too. I worry that I have made the novel sound like a utopian escape from Quine’s narrow definition of being and his policing of ontological borders, but if his work shows us anything, it’s that no theory of ontology is without its painful circumscriptions, and it has been important to me to push back against those constraints. While this book and the selection of authors I consider in it make clear my scholarly training in the field of Victorian studies, the novels of that canon cannot allow us to see the metaphysics of fictional being with anything approaching wholeness or trueness. Victorian novels push questions about the metaphysics of Blackness, queerness, and transness out of view, and after all, those were the kinds of questions that first prompted the conceptualization of this book. We glimpse these problems at best obliquely in the work of Hardy, Schreiner, James, and Woolf.

As the book progresses, I turn to Whitehead, Smith, and Emezi as well as to metaphysical work in Black studies and in trans studies, to bring into view what Nahum Chandler calls the “metaphysical infrastructure of the discourse” that has centered whiteness and grounded white supremacy for hundreds of years; and to problematize a metaphysics that, as Cáel M. Keegan puts it in the context of trans studies, “might produce the feeling that one is being made into an impossibility.”12 I engage with these fields in acknowledgment of my positionality as a white cisgender critic, and also as a queer person in solidarity with their broader aim of understanding the metaphysics of marginalized being. The work of thinkers in Black and trans studies is crucial to the development of my argument, but I also hope that my argument about the metaphysics of fictional being has something to contribute in turn to these fields’ ongoing work of investigating the metaphysics of racialized, trans, and queer embodiment and identity. As I’ve already suggested, an attunement to the simultaneous reality and unreality of fictional being might help us to conceptualize other kinds of being that exist in the complicated tension between the actuality of lived experience and the fictionality of social construction.

Each of this book’s chapters focuses on a particular metaphor for fictional being. In chapter 1, I follow the metaphor of groundwork through Thomas Hardy’s fiction. Both a painterly metaphor (the canvas covered with primer before the painting begins) and an agricultural metaphor (the working of the ground before sowing), groundwork points our attention to the blank, colorless, but weirdly material and vivid ground upon or within which fictional being takes its specific shapes.

In chapter 2, I turn to the metaphor of the underground in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016). In conversation with the work of Fred Moten on blackness as “ontology’s underground,” its “ante- or anti-foundation,” this chapter thinks through Schreiner’s and Whitehead’s different approaches to the racialization of ontology’s foundational darkness.13

Chapter 3 examines Henry James’s metaphor of “the ground gained” by the novelist in his creation of a fictional world. I argue that James’s desire, as expressed in his New York Edition prefaces, to return as a rereader and reviser to the world of his past fictions, hoping to locate there the traces of the unworked ground that always seems to preexist the novel itself, an object of the novelist’s discovery rather than an object of his creation, is an ontological desire, a desire to get clear about how, in the context of the novel, ontological grounds can be crafted, created, broken, and reconstituted.

Chapter 4 thinks about the metaphor of the novel as a meeting ground that sustains and supports both fictional and actual realities. Through readings of Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, and Akwaeke Emezi, I wonder what is at stake in the novel and the theory of the novel when it comes to maintaining or dissolving dividing lines between fictional and actual being. I argue that what Emezi calls the novel’s “metaphysical dysphoria” helps us to imagine dysphoria’s metaphysics, and in turn a theory of being hospitable to those for whom “being” is aqueous, provisional, in-between, trans, nonbinary, nonhuman.

Finally, in a brief afterword, I look to the metaphor of the basement in both Walter Pater’s unpublished essay “Diaphaneitè” and the prologue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). My objects here are Pater’s “basement type,” a slantwise fictional being who bides their time below, waiting to emerge to regenerate the world; and Ellison’s narrator in his basement dwelling, describing what it is like to live as what Souriau might call a being of fiction, chased out of a controlled and conditioned cosmos, who nevertheless claims the being that is his right.

Insofar as the novelists I analyze in this book want to encourage us to think about the central ontological problem of fiction—not, as I’ve already suggested, whether a fictional world exists, but rather how it exists and what are the shapes and textures of its existence—they turn to the poetics of metaphor. They link the commonplace philosophical metaphor of ontological grounds, in which an object such as the whole concrete cosmos is the tenor, and ground or the act of grounding is the vehicle, with literary metaphors that are paradoxically more literal, in which some unknowable object, the basis of fictional being, remains the tenor, and ground remains the vehicle, but a vehicle made tangible and textured in images of the ground, the groundwork, or the underground. I try to feel how these novelists conjure a force akin to gravity, which keeps us as we read always delicately and sometimes painfully poised upon a razor’s-edge horizon between earth and sky, between the safe repose of groundedness and the vertiginous freedom of becoming ungrounded, or between the different theories of ontology appropriate to the actual and the fictional.14

In philosophy, discussions of ontology use images of foundations, hierarchies, grounds, and so on as what Hans Blumenberg calls “absolute metaphors,” and I suggest that they work in a similar way in the novel. He defines absolute metaphors, in fact, through his own metaphor of grounding: they work to clarify “foundational elements of philosophical language,” and therefore, as opposed to the merely rhetorical, decorative metaphors that we might think of as exemplifying “the inauthenticity of figurative speech,” absolute metaphors “resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality.” That’s another way of saying that absolute metaphors are dead metaphors—so deeply entrenched in our philosophical language that they no longer appear to be metaphors at all. Blumenberg wants to develop a science of “metaphorology” that can “burrow down to the substructure of thought, the underground, the nutrient solution of systematic crystallizations,” and he argues that absolute metaphors are the ones we would need to analyze in order to reach that absolute foundation of thought itself, because they “‘answer’ the supposedly naïve, in principle unanswerable questions whose relevance lies quite simply in the fact that they cannot be brushed aside, since we do not pose them ourselves but find them already posed in the ground of our existence.”15 Finally, absolute metaphors offer “a point of orientation,” “they give structure to a world, representing the nonexperienceable, nonapprehensible totality of the real.”16 If absolute metaphors represent, they don’t do so in the denotative or referential sense: they only orient us toward their nonapprehensible object, suggesting a structure that holds together what is always beyond experience and beyond apprehension, whether for us or for the beings of a fictional world.

It seems significant to me that in addition to his interest in the absolute metaphors that form the foundation of our philosophical language and “give structure to a world,” Blumenberg was interested in the ontology of novelistic being, although he didn’t draw explicit connections between these two aspects of his work. Blumenberg argues that the novel makes “a new claim of art—its claim not merely to represent objects of the world, or even to imitate the world, but to actualize a world. A world—nothing less—is the theme and postulate of the novel.”17 If absolute metaphors ground and “give structure to a world,” and if the novel claims “to actualize a world,” then it seems clear that we must think novelistic being and metaphorology together. We need to look beyond mimesis, Blumenberg suggests, to understand “the novel’s thematization of reality,” the way that by claiming to make a world where one didn’t exist before, the novel poses what philosophers would call metametaphysical questions about the scope and nature of metaphysics itself, and about the epistemological problem of how we know about being.18 As David Manley puts it in an overview of the field, “Metaphysics is concerned with the foundations of reality. . . . Metametaphysics is concerned with the foundations of metaphysics.”19 In making its “claim of art,” the novel develops a strikingly different concept of reality than the one that structures our actual being. Blumenberg describes it as “a reality that can never be assured, is constantly in the process of being actualized, and continually requires some new source of confirmation.” I’ve been following Blumenberg’s thought here in picturing the grounds of the novel as provisional and incomplete, and yet somehow sufficient, and in suggesting that the novel’s metametaphysical work, its status “not as a fiction of reality, but as a fiction of the reality of realities,” relies upon the work of metaphor.20 The novel’s ongoing actualization proceeds by way of figuration, reactivating and reliteralizing the figure of the ground as it feels its way over and over again toward a secure point of orientation for the being of a nonexistent world.

I argue that the novel’s elaboration of its own fictional being is not, in other words, an ontological problem to be solved but rather a genre of immanent ontological critique. In the novel, ontology is a project marked by incompletion and provisionality, resting upon blank or soft or liquid grounds, mere metaphors, rather than upon the absolute and actual foundations pursued by the philosophical investigation of ontology.21

And yet the choice between philosophy and literature still presents itself as nearly impossible. Confronting that dichotomy, we might feel something like what I felt reading Quine in college, or what Simone de Beauvoir felt when as a young voracious reader she tried to sort out her allegiances to philosophy and the novel as different modes of metaphysical inquiry: “After having thought out the universe through the eyes of Spinoza or Kant, I would wonder: ‘How can anyone be so frivolous as to write novels?’ But when I would leave Julien Sorel or Tess d’Urberville, I would think it useless to waste one’s time fabricating systems. Where was truth to be found? On earth or in eternity? I felt torn apart.”22 Looking for what we’ve seen Pater calling “the truth of earth” leads us, weirdly, to the grounds of the novel, as opposed to the abstract and universalizing systems of so many philosophical approaches to being.

Beauvoir goes on to describe how she and her fellow existentialists eventually came around to the novel precisely because of its concreteness of description, its unfolding in time, its narration of subjective experience, all of which allow for a depiction of metaphysics as an experience rather than an activity. “Metaphysics is . . . not a system,” she argues; “one does not ‘do’ metaphysics as one ‘does’ mathematics or physics,” that is, according to a law-bound procedure grounded in irrefutable axioms. “In reality, ‘to do’ metaphysics is ‘to be’ metaphysical; it is to realize in oneself the metaphysical attitude, which consists in positing oneself in one’s totality before the totality of the world.” To be metaphysical means to grasp intuitively the problem of being; it is to posit oneself as a whole being and to see one’s wholeness from the outside, as something engaged with a much bigger wholeness, the totality of the world, that exceeds the limits of one’s own knowledge. Where philosophers so often confront “metaphysical reality” and desire “to elucidate its universal meaning in abstract language,” with the goal of a “systematized,” “timeless,” “objective” theory of being, novelists are interested in “manifesting an aspect of metaphysical experience that cannot otherwise be manifested: its subjective, singular, and dramatic character,” or what Beauvoir calls “the original upspringing of existence in its complete, singular, temporal truth.”23 The novel’s metaphysics is idiosyncratic, provisional, uncertain, springing up from the ground rather than calmly awaiting discovery: we jump into any given novel not sure what grounds being there, and in that sense the novel can show us what it feels like “to be” metaphysical.

One aim of this book is to show how novelists do the kind of metaphysical work Beauvoir describes, and in this sense, although I often engage with the work of a heterogeneous group of philosophers and theorists (from Quine to Schaffer to Moten to Ahmed) throughout these pages as a way to sketch a larger context for certain metaphysical problems, I’m keen to prioritize the close reading of novels and theories of the novel, and to see novels as posing their own metaphysical problems, rather than taking up questions already posed by philosophers. As Beauvoir says, for the novelist, “it is not a matter of exploiting on a literary plane truths established beforehand on the philosophical plane.”24 The novel’s “plane” of being might be self-sufficient, preoccupied by problems of being that would never occur to philosophers living in actuality. Even Quine understood that the case for fictional being must be made by fictional beings; it’s only that he didn’t know how to hear them when they speak.

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Taken together, Schaffer and Blumenberg helped me to see how the absolute metaphor of grounds for being might yoke together the philosophical and novelistic conceptualizations of existence in unexpected ways. But I still wondered what it would mean to see the novel’s being as self-sufficient in the ways that I’ve described above. Certainly I don’t think that fictions are really real, nor do I want to venture the even stronger claim that fictional being is somehow more real or more complex than actual being. But I do want to take fictional being seriously and to find a vocabulary that would allow me to consider it as both continuous with and distinct from actuality.25 The work of Souriau and Latour can take us part of the way there: thinkers who take seriously the idea that there might be room for many “modes of existence.” Taking the “beings of fiction” seriously is part of the project of that kind of ontological pluralism. Two philosophers in more direct conversation with Quine—Alexius Meinong, who has often been suggested as a model for Quine’s fictional Wyman, and Rudolph Carnap, who offered a powerful rejoinder to Quine only two years after the publication of his field-shaping essay—helped me to think about how a flexible approach that sees being from multiple angles, in the vocabulary of philosophy, theory, and the novel, might be crucial to the kind of ontological pragmatism I described earlier.26 In Meinong’s work we find a nonbinary conception of being that refuses a simple division of “real” and “unreal” and urges us to attend to the overlaps between seemingly incommensurate fields of inquiry. In Carnap’s work we find a true ontological pragmatism that replaces what he sees as irresolvable questions about the nature of being with the idea of different frameworks for talking about being.

Meinong’s essay “The Theory of Objects” (1904) laments what he calls in the title of the essay’s second section “The Prejudice in Favour of the Actual” that characterizes so much work in the field of metaphysics.27 While it might be true, he writes, that “metaphysics has to do with everything that exists,” as Quine would later reiterate, there are many nonexistent objects that we can know of and talk about despite their nonexistence: “The totality of what exists . . . is infinitely small in comparison with the totality of the Objects of knowledge. This fact goes easily unnoticed,” he continues, “probably because the lively interest in reality which is part of our nature tends to favor that exaggeration which finds the non-real a mere nothing” (79). It makes sense that we humans are especially interested in reality, since it’s where we live, but despite this prejudice, the nonreal is not nothing, Meinong insists, and if we conceive of metaphysics as a philosophical science of reality, we exclude an enormous number of objects from consideration. We should be alive, he says, to the unexplored “neutral zone” between carefully defined fields of philosophical inquiry. Sometimes this means looking to a gap between fields, other times it means finding areas of overlap that can then “be investigated from both sides” (77). Nonreal objects find themselves lost in just such a neutral zone, somewhere between metaphysics and psychology, between the realms of being and nonbeing, that we illuminate in our reading and writing about unreal worlds.

Meinong’s approach is essentially nonbinary: there are the concrete things that “exist” (a wooden chair, my brain, my body), and the nonreal objects that only “subsist” (a right angle, my mind, Pegasus), but then there is a “third order of being,” he hypothesizes, a quality rather than a class of objects, “adjoined to existence and subsistence. . . . This sort of being must belong . . . to every Object as such” (84). This third order of being allows us to take an agnostic approach to the division between the real and the nonreal, and to conclude that it may not be as hard a division as the one Quine desires. Some quality that we call “being” extends across the boundary between the existent and the subsistent, between Quine and Pegasus. Think about the color blue, and whether it can be said to exist independently from actual blue objects, for example. Quine would respond with a decisive “no.” Blue things exist, but “blueness” does not. But Meinong wonders, what if “Blue, or any other Object whatsoever, is somehow given prior to our determination of its being or non-being, in a way that does not carry any prejudice to its non-being” (84). We must train ourselves out of our prejudice in favor of actuality, so that we can see all objects with an equally reverent and nuanced attention, whatever their modes of being. Whether something is “actual” or not is beside the point, at least in those many cases where the adjudication of being (Quine’s population control) is not our goal. Being belongs to all objects that can be thought, whether they exist or not. We can then see any object that presents itself to us, at least at first, as simply a “claimant to being” (85).

Meinong’s image of the “claimant,” and the legalistic framework it invokes, will remind us of Quine’s refusal of Wyman’s claim. And just as Quine responds to Wyman’s concept of the “unactualized possible” with his image of the “slum of possibles” that such an ontology would create, Bertrand Russell recalls in his autobiographical essay “My Mental Development” that his theory of descriptions, with its skepticism about the existence of fictional beings, developed out of “the desire to avoid Meinong’s unduly populous realm of being.”28 Meinong concludes his own essay by celebrating multitudinousness, wondering about the “specialized theories of Objects, their number scarcely to be determined” that might work, like mathematics, to investigate the strange in-between being belonging to unreal things. I would suggest that the theory of the novel could be added to that list, and indeed, in recent years, theorists of the novel have become more attuned to how the novel marks out a kind of ontological neutral zone. But such theories can still contradict each other in remarkable ways. In The Value of the Novel, Peter Boxall argues for the novel’s “unique ability to put the relationship between art and matter, between words and the world, into a kind of motion, to work at the disappearing threshold between the world that exists and that which does not, between the world that we already know and understand and that which we have not yet encountered.”29 More recently, in Free Indirect, Timothy Bewes makes precisely the opposite argument as he points to the contemporary novel’s “quality of not only refusing to connect the work and the world but of thinking, inhabiting, even forging the space of their disconnection.”30 My hope is to develop a theory of the novel in which both of these evaluations of the novel’s ontological claims can be true simultaneously: yes, the novel imagines a “disappearing threshold” that allows for the meeting and overlapping of fictionality and actuality, as we’ll see most powerfully in chapter 4; but also yes, the novel refuses to authorize its own being only by reference to the world outside of it, and in that sense it forges the kind of ontological disconnection between fictionality and actuality that Bewes imagines.

Carnap, unlike Meinong, is a skeptic about the usefulness of metaphysical arguments, aligned with what Manley calls the tradition of “strong deflationism” in metametaphysics, which holds that metaphysical debates are really “‘verbal’ or ‘terminological’ disputes” about “how to describe certain situations, rather than about how things really are.”31 In his essay “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology” (1950), Carnap rejects the metaphysical questions that interest Quine as essentially meaningless, aiming for impossible answers, and argues we’d be better served by thinking through the various ways we talk about being in different contexts. We might in certain situations genuinely ask about whether Pegasus exists, whereas in other situations (when sitting around a seminar table discussing Greek myths, for example), we take the fact of Pegasus’s existence as a given, so obvious that it’s not worth discussing at all. Carnap names these differing situations “frameworks”: “If someone wishes to speak in his language about a new kind of entities, he has to introduce a system of new ways of speaking, subject to new rules; we shall call this procedure the construction of a framework for the new entities in question.”32 When we start to ask questions about being, we do so in relation to a particular framework, so that the question isn’t simply “in or out?” but something rather more complex.

There are questions about being that are “internal” to any given framework: for example, from within the framework of “the thing world” we can ask, “Are unicorns and centaurs real or imaginary?” and we can determine the answer to that question by empirical investigation. But Carnap rules out what he calls “external questions” about “the existence of the framework itself,” since to exist simply means “to be an element of the framework,” to be something about which we have developed, at least provisionally, an agreed-upon way of speaking. Carnap’s approach is pragmatist at heart. When we need to get a job done—solving a mathematical formula, interpreting a novel—we adopt the framework that allows us to do it with “efficiency,” a keyword in Carnap’s essay, rather than getting bogged down in metaphysical perplexities that are decidedly inefficient since essentially unresolvable.33 If we’re constantly debating whether numbers exist or not, we’re never able to get to the work of doing things with numbers.

We as literary critics frequently adopt “the fictional world” as our framework, within which we don’t worry about whether Dorothea or the village of Middlemarch actually exists, but rather we simply get started with our work. But what would questions “internal” to this framework look like? Carnap suggests that when we ask questions about being in the framework of the thing world, we understand ourselves to be conducting an empirical investigation, simply looking around and seeing if the thing in question exists in the thing world, a version of Quine’s assertion that the central question of metaphysics is “What is there?”34 In the framework of “the system of natural numbers,” Carnap offers “Is there a prime number greater than a hundred?” as an example of an internal question; however he points out that in this case, we don’t pursue an answer “by empirical investigation based on observations, but by logical analysis based on the rules for the new expressions” that this framework introduces into our language.35 Each framework develops its own language and its own rules for dealing with questions about being, and so I wonder what questions might be “internal” to the framework “the fictional world of the novel.” I’ve already suggested that the question “Is Dorothea Brooke real or imaginary?” doesn’t fit the bill. To question her existence would be equivalent to questioning the existence of the framework as a whole.

I would argue that as readers and critics of the novel who have adopted fictional being as our framework, we ask questions about the terms and forms and shapes and structures and textures of fictional existence, not the binary “real or imaginary,” “yes or no” questions that Carnap takes as his examples, and we read novels carefully in order to begin answering those questions. Is that an “empirical” investigation? Sometimes I think it is. I look at concrete examples printed in a book and take them as evidence to substantiate my claims about the structure and texture of fictional being as the novel imagines it. I might also say that I pursue a creative or even affective investigation, drawing upon my own imaginative resources to speak in a particular novel’s language, to take on its vocabulary as my own, to use that merging of self and novel to tell you about the feelings that novels inspire in me. Either way, the problem of what kinds of questions about being are “internal” to this framework, and about how we would describe our method for addressing those questions, seem to me basic problems for the enterprise of literary criticism to which we are not always attuned. I have offered my own answers to these questions, but I think that Carnap’s emphasis on the collaborative process of constructing a framework can be instructive here: our ways of speaking about fictional being are provisional and contestable, already solidly constructed in some places but sometimes raising perplexities when we stumble upon problems we hadn’t anticipated, something like J. L. Austin’s idea of ordinary language philosophy as revolving around the endlessly complex question of “what we should say when, and so why and what we should mean by it.”36

If we take literary criticism in Carnap’s terms as a “way of speaking” developed to describe, interpret, and manipulate the framework of the fictional world, subject to its own rules, then to adopt this way of speaking and this set of rules does not mean to believe in the actual existence of Elizabeth Bennet. We occupy what Jonathan Kramnick has described in somewhat Carnapian terms as an “ontologically plural as well as populous” world, in which the formation of disciplines simply acknowledges that different kinds of objects require different metaphysical vocabularies and different kinds of analysis.37 Or as Anahid Nersessian puts it, “art doesn’t have to be about real things, and criticism doesn’t have to pretend that it is,” because “works of art have an ontology distinct from if not wholly divided from other kinds of things in the world.”38 Kramnick and Nersessian both echo Carnap’s argument that to employ multiple frameworks, to acknowledge the validity and uniqueness of multiple disciplines, is not to presume a multiverse of overlapping and contradictory realities. Rather, to accept a framework, Carnap argues, “means nothing more than to accept a certain form of language, in other words, to accept rules for forming statements and for testing, accepting, or rejecting them.”39

We are always at liberty, then, to reject the language of fictionality as nonsensical to our ears, incoherent or objectless in some way, but once we begin to take on its vocabulary, to discuss Heathcliff’s motivations, for example, we cede our right to question the existence of fictional characters and worlds. Because here we are, talking about them! At that point, to wonder about their very existence is simply a useless diversion. As Leo Bersani puts it, writing in a different context about the “virtual being” of dreams and comparing them to the virtual being of cinematic fiction, “To ask about the ontological status of the virtual is to risk having virtuality disappear into the question designed to establish its ‘reality’ . . . as if the notion of virtual being itself were nothing but a virtuality buried within realized being, an illusory potential for potentiality.”40 I want to insist upon the virtual ontology of the novelistic world as standing in a similarly paradoxical relation to the ontology of the actual, somehow primary rather than secondary—speaking its own language, pursuing its own problems, not as a dim mimesis of actuality but as a strangely independent world. We flatten and oversimplify fictional being if we explain it only in terms of, with reference to, or in opposition to actual being. Such an approach leads us again and again to the kinds of questions that interest philosophers but stop us short as literary critics: whether fictional beings exist or not; whether statements about fictional characters or worlds are “true”; whether claiming the existence of fictional characters requires us to elaborate theories of “possible worlds,” and so on.41 These are important and complex philosophical questions about the nature of fiction as it relates to or opposes or pluralizes reality, but they are interpretive questions only in a very limited sense.

Whether the world of a novel exists or subsists is a metaphysical question, in other words, that may be relevant in certain contexts but has no special bearing upon the work of literary interpretation. The novel claims the being that is due to it, the being that is its right. As we’ve already seen, however, such claims always risk refusal, the richness of fictional being spurned by an actuality that sees it only as thin, malformed, provisional, possible, disorderly. Opening his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno thinks of this as a modern problem, perhaps dating to the new experimentalisms that emerged on or about 1910: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.”42 It’s possible to read Adorno as making a narrow and concrete claim about a social problem: whether we grant art a right to existence in a society more and more indifferent to its impact, in which art has become a more and more esoteric pursuit. But given the direction of Aesthetic Theory as a whole, it’s clear that Adorno’s claim is at least inflected by the metaphysical problem of art’s being. Adorno’s “not even” indicates that he sees this problem of the right to exist as fundamental, the confusion we must get clear about in the first place before we can proceed to work out our uncertainties about art’s inner life and its relation to the world. But these confusions are tangled together, too, by Adorno’s paratactic listing: none of these things is self-evident any longer, and so examining the inner life of the artwork is one way of finding our way back to our lost certainty about art’s being.

That’s the route I take in this book, in which I argue that closely analyzing the “inner life” of the novel, its language and its form—description, figuration, omniscient narration, and so on—can help us to pose questions not only about a fictional world’s claim to being but also about how it grounds its being and gives that being a particular texture. On the one hand, looking at the novel itself and its own formal concepts, we could think along with Dora Zhang and Hannah Freed-Thall that “ground” is a “holding or undergirding element,” “the condition of possibility for representation,” a deeper version of what we usually call “setting.”43 On the other hand we could read novels closely and come to feel their peculiar groundlessness, precisely because the novel seems simply to ground itself, to emerge out of nowhere and nothing. Kevin Ohi, for example, thinks through the problem of the text’s “inception” or beginning in these terms: the “self-grounding quality of literary fiction,” a “groundless positing,” a “fundamental groundlessness” that we “mirror” in our reading, “forms founded after they have begun,” a “self-conscious fiat where texts as if call themselves into being.”44 Ohi has in mind something like the problem Adorno identifies when he says, electrified by paradox, that “by their very existence artworks postulate the existence of what does not exist and thereby come into conflict with the latter’s actual nonexistence.”45 We see that an artwork exists, and we must therefore acknowledge (along with thinkers such as Meinong) that by its very nature it makes a claim to being, a claim on behalf of the existence of actually nonexistent objects. But the claim can’t get fully away from the dizzying metaphysical contradictions that Adorno’s sentence dramatizes or that Ohi points to in his assertion of fiction’s groundless, self-positing being.

Or, as Audrey Jaffe has argued, perhaps this kind of paradox is exactly the point of realism and its formal conventions, if we follow her claim that “realism is a function of desire” in psychoanalytic terms: a desire that tips over into fantasy, its object the “real” that it can never fully possess, that might not exist in the first place, or at least not in the way that the novel wishes it would. Jaffe opposes her approach to those critics who remain “attached . . . to the idea of a real behind realism.”46 We might think here of Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt, who show how the novel functions as a theory of referential language, or a “denotative” genre filled with technical detail and specialized objects, always trying to point our attention to actual things and to the world outside of the novel. But even Freedgood and Schmitt insist that the denotative function of realism is not a matter of simple correspondence between word and referent: in many cases denotation leads us down a rabbit hole, chasing related bits of knowledge, so that really “we can only gesture at the denotative, the technical, and the literal as at a constellation of meaning at which we will probably never be able to arrive,” the denotative “gesture” inaugurating its own kind of fantasy of the real as endlessly linked trivia.47

I’m not all that afraid of infinite regress, a problem that could easily haunt this book, and that is opened up by Ohi’s idea of the novel as “self-grounding” or Freedgood’s more recent claim that the novel “is ruptured by its twin commitments to fictionality and reference,” and therefore characterized by “a vertiginous hetero-ontologicality” or “ontological flexibility” that teaches us to move deftly in imaginary space and so contributes to projects of “expansion and colonization.”48 (I return to Freedgood’s argument, and especially her treatment of metalepsis, in chap. 2.) Although the question “What grounds the ground?” will emerge at one or two points, I am generally content to take it as a red herring, since it represents to me the urge always to get outside of the novel in our reading of it, and a fear of staying put on the novel’s ground, which can sometimes feel like quicksand but is in fact perfectly capable of supporting a fictional world and even my intrusive temporary presence there.49 In this book, I do argue for what we might call, following Jaffe, a real behind realism. But where Jaffe finds an object of fantasy, to be reiterated again and again, ghosted forth but never realized, I find a fictional (but I argue no less “real” or “existent”) ground for realism. Seeking the grounds of the novel, I find novelists using figural language to evoke provisional, incomplete, obscured, even liquid foundations “inside” of the text rather than to point outside of the novel’s world to the foundations of actual being as if looking for a guarantee. Novels don’t give us the feeling of standing firm in relation to a solid and graspable reality but rather the feeling of standing upon the unfamiliar ground of nonbeing. If Freedgood sees the novel as hetero-ontological, ripped apart (much like Beauvoir is) by its inability to choose between fictional and actual being, I perhaps try to see the novel’s homo-ontologicality, its commitment to its own internal structures of being, when it seems to refuse or at least withdraw from reference and denotation into figuration.

The novel’s ground is thrillingly alive rather than threateningly unstable. That thrill of being held in a different kind of being, standing upon a different kind of ground: I argue that that’s precisely the pleasure and interest of novel reading, not a pleasure purchased by indifference to fictionality, to return to Gallagher’s terms, but a pleasure sustained by the novel’s satisfaction with remaining incomplete or impossible in its being.

Being incomplete is not the same as being shattered or unformed or unreal. Writing this book, I have kept in mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s own metaphor of the ground and its depths, by which he explains that all justifications for why we follow the rules of our various language-games simply must end somewhere. “Once I have exhausted the justifications,” he writes, “I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’ (Remember that we sometimes demand explanations for the sake not of their content, but of their form. Our requirement is an architectural one; the explanation a kind of sham corbel that supports nothing.)”50 To put this into my own language: in looking for the grounds of the novel, I believe we sometimes hit bedrock, and our spade is turned. We can conclude, this is simply what this novel does, what this novel is, how this novel works. These are the rules this novel follows in talking about fictional being. Explanations that move ever deeper, or that leap reflexively outside of the novel to look for a final metaphysical justification for the novel’s fictional being are sham corbels, ornamental rather than loadbearing. Certainly we can make such explanations, and they may be as beautiful as any decorative piece of stonework, but we don’t need them to hold up our edifice.

In advocating for an “internalist” approach to analyzing the novel on its own terms, I don’t mean to trot out a lightly renovated New Criticism, shutting out the world in favor of an exclusive focus on the text’s internal workings, its “unity” or its status as a “whole,” nor am I selling a rewarmed version of the deconstructionist commonplace that “there is nothing outside of the text.”51 My claim on behalf of close reading is a claim that fictional being understands itself, and that if I wish to understand it, I should look carefully at how it imagines and describes the conditions of its existence. If I am a formalist, it is only in the sense that I pay attention to formal features of the novel, particularly figuration, because they are there to be attended to, and I have found that they help me in my reckoning with my own perplexities. I don’t take form to be “ontological” in some especially material sense, as in Sandra Macpherson’s definition of “form as nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes.”52 I simply wouldn’t know how to read for that kind of form: Is metaphor a shape that matter takes? Certainly it arises out of words positioned on paper, but that material fact doesn’t take me anywhere as a reader of metaphor. Formal features and techniques and patterns can help me to see how the novel develops its own pictures of, and questions about, fictional being, but they are not themselves a material foundation.

I follow Toril Moi in her belief, inspired by her own reading of Wittgenstein, that “literary criticism . . . doesn’t have what we can plausibly call competing methods,” and that when we talk about our different methods, we usually mean something like “existential investments” or “thematic and political interests,” or “views of what is important in literature (and life).” “In the encounter with the literary text,” Moi continues, “the only ‘method’ that imposes itself is the willingness to look and see, to pay maximal attention to the words on the page.”53 Beyond that, we might say we hit bedrock, and our spade is turned. The justifications are exhausted. This is simply what I do.

The novel’s metaphors will of course lead us to actuality if we follow them far enough, but I would suggest it’s usually wrong to think of metaphor in fiction in that way. When Olive Schreiner says that existence is like a great tree with its roots underground, a metaphor I explore further in chapter 2, we understand the comparison because trees and the underground really exist in our world. But trees and the underground also exist in the fictional world elaborated by Schreiner in The Story of an African Farm, where her narrator and her characters live, and the point of the metaphor is not, I think, to denote actual trees and actual soil, but rather to pursue a metaphysical idea within the context of the fiction.

I don’t argue in this book that novels never look beyond their own internal structure to an actual existence beyond their limits. As Freedgood and Schmitt help us to see in their work on the novel as a genre of denotation, Zola’s description of the underground space of the coal mine in Germinal, loaded with rich technical detail, is quite different than Schreiner’s use of the underground as a metaphorical vehicle used to illuminate the tenor of fictional being.54 I hope, however, to show that when novels describe undergrounds, grounds, the seabed, the horizon, they often slip between the literal and the figurative. When novels denote, they are doing so not because pointing to the actual world is a necessary anchor for fictional being, but rather because novels imagine themselves as existing in an open-ended and porous relationship with actuality. I know that the world of The Story of an African Farm only exists in our heads as we read, but I don’t know that the narrator or characters of the novel imagine their existence in that way. My readings show what it feels like to “be” metaphysical, in Beauvoir’s terminology, within the novel.


1. Quine, “On What There Is,” 21. Further citations appear parenthetically within the text.

2. As Emily Steinlight has argued in Populating the Novel, the fictional imagination of the realist novel actually excels at population control. The wrangling of excess, unmanageable masses, is a fundamental principle of its form, and in the post-Malthusian moment of the nineteenth century, fiction took on the role of “revealing the accumulation of life perpetually surpassing society proper”; “realist art” in particular, with “its promise to make mass life affectively graspable,” takes the unrepresentable, uncountable crowd as a starting point (3, 11).

3. Souriau, Different Modes, 150–51.

4. Latour, Inquiry, 239.

5. Similarly, proponents of “ontological permissivism” take issue with the conservative approach characterized by Quine, with its tight control over the number of existing objects, arguing instead for the existence of a dizzying plenitude of objects, but they limit their thinking to the material world and are strangely indifferent to the question of fictional being. For an overview of debates between permissivism and conservatism in contemporary metaphysics, with the aim of defending conservatism, see Korman, Objects, 13–25. For an overview of the same debate, but with the aim of defending permissivism, see Fairchild and Hawthorne, “Against Conservatism.”

6. Gallagher, “Rise of Fictionality,” 349.

7. Smith, “The I Who Is Not Me,” 346.

8. Foucault, History of Sexuality, 101.

9. Schaffer, “On What Grounds What,” 348, 347. Further citations appear parenthetically within the text.

10. For an analysis of the problem of the stage as metaphysical ground in the context of theater history, and the development of the raised stage as “emancipation from the ground” (69), see Puchner, “The Problem of the Ground.”

11. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 160.

12. Chandler, X, 21; Keegan, “Getting Disciplined,” 6.

13. Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness,” 739. In my own prose I generally use “Black” and “Blackness” to refer to people, culture, and identity, but when analyzing the work of other critics and theorists, I mirror them when they use “black” and “blackness.” While this makes for some inconsistency, I hope that it also reflects the reality of an ongoing discussion in the field of Black studies.

14. In The Savage Detectives Reread, David Kurnick uses the metaphor of “gravity” along related lines to think about Roberto Bolaño’s particular kind of reality effect, the “impression of reality” generated by his fiction (13–14) and his way of making the reader feel at home in its fictional world: “part of the gravity effect of his writing was . . . the sense that I too was positioned, geolocated in the world mapped by his imagination” (22).

15. Blumenberg, Paradigms, 3, 5, 14, original emphasis. For another engagement with Blumenberg’s theory of metaphorology, resonant with my own, to trace the literary and philosophical history of the metaphor of “roots” and “rootedness,” see Wampole, Rootedness.

16. Blumenberg, Paradigms, 14.

17. Blumenberg, “Concept,” 513, original emphasis.

18. Blumenberg, “Concept,” 513n11.

19. Manley, “Introduction,” 1. For another useful overview of the field, see Bliss and Miller, eds., Routledge Handbook of Metametaphysics.

20. Blumenberg, “Concept,” 522, 524.

21. Elaine Auyoung asks in When Fiction Feels Real “how nineteenth-century novels invite readers to feel as though they have come to know unreal persons, places, and incidents in unexpectedly intimate and durable ways” (3), and my reading perhaps focuses on the “unexpectedly . . . durable” part of her formulation. How does it all hang together? What kind of durability sustains fictional being? Timothy Gao has recently argued in his analysis of the Victorian novel’s engagement with ideas of virtuality and play that “the famously ordinary realist setting occupies a magical or quantum existence we take extraordinarily for granted,” and that fiction in the nineteenth century comes to occupy “an alternative plane of reference, existing non-materially yet concretely, independently yet in parallel to the actual” (Virtual Play, 20). Part of my goal here is to cease taking that “magical” existence for granted but also to think in metaphysical terms about what the elaboration and figuration of such an alternative plane means for our understanding of being, whereas Gao wants to understand the vicarious and virtual quality of fictional “experience” through the history of thinking about play.

22. Beauvoir, “Literature and Metaphysics,” 269. For another reading of Beauvoir’s essay, much more extensive than mine, in relation to the history and theory of the novel, see Ong, Art of Being, especially 38–39 and 79–89. Ong and I share an interest in thinking about the novel’s special capacities for thinking about ontology, although her focus on the tradition of existentialism, a specifically “existentialist poetics of the novel” (34), and “the impact of novelistic form on existentialist thought” (35) means that she takes up a rather different set of metaphysical questions than I do, generally focused on “the problematization of aesthetic totalization from the perspective of the demands of first-person authority over existence” (34).

23. Beauvoir, “Literature and Metaphysics,” 273, 275, 274.

24. Beauvoir, 274–75.

25. For a particularly nuanced and imaginative account of this seemingly banal observation, that when we read we feel as if we exist in reality and unreality simultaneously, see Plotz, Semi-Detached. Plotz examines “the interplay between actuality and aesthetic mimesis” in a range of novels, films, and visual art in order to “shed light on how writers understood what it meant for readers to experience the world of a book as if it were real, while nonetheless remaining aware of the distance between such invention and one’s tangible physical surroundings” (3). Plotz is interested less in the metaphysical implications and more in the phenomenological complexities of this paradox.

26. See Parent, “Ontological Commitment,” for one example of the view that Quine’s Wyman is “Meinong in a thin disguise” (86). Parent also points out that Quine in private correspondence denied that McX and Wyman were meant to stand for any real philosophers (95n4) and in that sense insisted upon their fictionality.

27. Meinong, “Theory,” 78. Further citations appear parenthetically within the text.

28. Russell, “My Mental Development,” 17.

29. Boxall, Value of the Novel, 13.

30. Bewes, Free Indirect, 6.

31. Manley, “Introduction,” 3.

32. Carnap, “Empiricism,” 21.

33. Carnap, 21–23, 24.

34. Quine, “On What There Is,” 21.

35. Carnap, “Empiricism,” 24.

36. Austin, “Plea,” 7.

37. Kramnick, Paper Minds, 22.

38. Nersessian, Calamity Form, 2, 11. See also Kramnick and Nersessian’s cowritten essay, “Form and Explanation,” which extends their understanding of ontological pluralism to an argument that “form” can and should have different meanings as it pursues different kinds of explanations in different disciplinary contexts.

39. Carnap, “Empiricism,” 23.

40. Bersani, Thoughts and Things, 69.

41. I draw the items in this list from Livingston and Sauchelli, “Philosophical Approaches,” which offers a detailed overview of several ways philosophers have theorized the ontology of fictional characters. For more on possible worlds as a model for understanding fictional being, including a useful précis of the history of the possible worlds approach in narrative theory, see Ryan, “From Parallel Universes to Possible Worlds,” especially 643–51. For foundational work in this field, see Ryan, Possible Worlds and Doležel, Heterocosmica.

As I’ve already suggested in my citation of Bersani, my objection to possible worlds approaches lies in their emphasis on fictional being as only “possible” rather than in some important literary sense elaborating an account of its own unique mode of actuality. I agree with Doležel’s basic idea that the relation between fictionality and actuality is “a bidirectional exchange,” so that while fictional world-making draws upon the materials of reality, “in the opposite direction, fictional constructs deeply influence our imagining and understanding of reality,” but I disagree with him when he says, in a Quinean mode, that “we grasp fiction in opposition to reality” (x). That kind of approach, I insist, leads us away from close reading and literary interpretation, insisting on seeing fiction as problematic from the point of view of actuality, rather than trying to understand its being as it is constructed and elaborated in the form and figural language of the novel itself.

42. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1.

43. Zhang and Freed-Thall, “Modernist Setting,” n.p.

44. Ohi, Inceptions, 4, 11, 18. For a similar kind of reading, see Hayot, On Literary Worlds, which argues in a Heideggerian vein that in the creation of a literary world, “A world encloses and worlds itself as the container that is identical with its contents and its containing, as a ground for itself that does not exceed or reach outside itself” (24). Although Hayot’s concerns extend occasionally into metaphysics, he is most interested in the problem of “world” as it concerns the formulation of a new idea of “world literature.” We might also think of Anna Kornbluh’s “antimimetic theory of realism,” which imagines the realist novel as “a speculative projection of hypothetical social space” rather than primarily a representation bound to the status quo of the actual world (Order of Forms, 30, 13). For a further elaboration of this idea of antimimetic realism, focused on the fiction of Vernon Lee, see Yamboliev, “Vernon Lee’s Novel Construction.”

45. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 59.

46. Jaffe, Victorian Novel, 2.

47. Freedgood and Schmitt, “Denotatively,” 3.

48. Freedgood, Worlds Enough, 34, 99–100. See also Jones, Realism, Form, and Representation, for an argument focusing on the development of realism in the Edwardian period. Jones claims that Edwardian novelists developed a concept of “synthetic realism,” or in other words realism “not as the determined reflection of an established reality but instead as the overdetermined representation of unsolvable metaphysical dilemmas that disrupt the integration of reality” (3).

49. For a reading of metalepsis that brings together examples from film and metaphysics, see Kennedy, who points out that in classical metaphysics, metalepsis is a crucial figure for marking the hierarchical relationship between “the natural and the supernatural, what is part of human experience and what lies beyond it” (228). Metalepsis is about “a separation of realms of being,” or what I’m describing as an impulse to analyze one realm of being only by getting fully outside of it to another realm that lies beyond its edges. Kennedy’s reading of Christopher Nolan’s Inception explores the possibility that we might sometimes need to accept the terms of the reality we occupy rather than restlessly seeking confirmation of its actuality by getting outside of it.

50. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §217.

51. Brooks, “Formalist Critics,” 72; Derrida, Of Grammatology, 158. My thanks to an anonymous reader of the manuscript for suggesting the term “internalist” to describe my commitments as a reader.

52. Macpherson, “A Little Formalism,” 390.

53. Moi, “Nothing Is Hidden,” 34–35.

54. See Freedgood and Schmitt, “Denotatively.”