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A novelist's tigers

Novelist J.M. Alonso, who teaches at Tufts University, looks at realism, fantasy, and the Nonfiction Novel - and comes up with a new term, Fake Fiction.

NOVELISTS are praised in dust jackets and reviews with the word ''realistic.'' And students in writing courses usually show up believing that there is some sort of guarantee of high seriousness in writing in the mode of realism - which is only that, of course: a mode. As jazz is a mode, or country western, as are fairy tales.

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The problem in fiction is that one mode has been so dominant for so long that it has taken over a value judgment with its very name: realism. Therefore, the prejudice of writers tends to be that, when they are writing in the idiom of ''realism,'' they are being ''serious.''

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to find people writing fantasy when they are not being ''serious,'' believing they can turn out stuff free from having truth to life of any kind. Pretty worlds without real conflict, as far from Greek tragedy as one can get. As if the imagination were meant for giving us holidays in a nature without serious tigers. To be sure, there is a familiar corollary fantasy vision replete with violence and splashed with blood, as in the likes of ''Star Wars'' or its ahistorically medieval Dungeons and Dragons manifestations. But since these usually have to do with Evil Empires, alien species, and the like, the real human conflicts - moral ones - are escaped.

When returning to realistic ''serious'' fiction, however, we find a most peculiar attitude, considering it is fiction we are talking about. Here is the spectacle of writers doing their best to imply somehow that they have not made up their stories at all. And the aforementioned dust jackets often go along, having a familiar way of telling us we are not wasting our time as readers because the novelists have experienced lives much like what their stories tell. So we then have a disclaimer inside telling us not to confuse the characters with real people, living or dead, while the dust jackets outside give us a traditional wink assuring us that the supposedly made-up world is in fact true, pretty much, and told from experience by our usually thinly disguised author/hero. And if not that, then it is the product of dogged, no-nonsense research.

The ultimate product of this implicit public rejection of the imagination in the name of seriousness, it seems to me, is the Nonfiction Novel of recent years , from Truman Capote's ''In Cold Blood'' to Norman Mailer's book on Gary Gilmore , ''The Executioner's Song,'' where the researched facts can pretend to speak for themselves. Since, of course, they do not, having been carefully selected and arranged, there are those who have dismissed the Nonfiction Novel as convincing neither as fact nor as fiction, when you come down to it, being the kind of literature where only the names are real. In short, Nonfiction as Fake Fiction.

However, curiously enough, it is Norman Mailer, probably the champion practicant of the Nonfiction Novel (which he refines to True Life Novel), who most freely admits to imagination, to having relied on a subjective technique of ''filtering'' events ''through his ego,'' if not sometimes freely inventing. And even when he came to ''The Executioner's Song,'' which he claimed not to have invented at all, having - he said - learned to ''subordinate his ego'' to his data, he still insisted, just before publication, on calling the book a novel, albeit a True Life Novel, and in giving lots of praise to the powers of the imagination. The text is even accompanied by the usual disclaimer about people living or dead. This may not sound like a very scientific way to present data, but it does bring us back to reconsidering the imagination as a way of exploring reality, rather than evading it, if we are going to value Mailer's work at all. That is to say, do we accept admitted fiction as a serious pursuit?

Relying on the imagination, especially in this age of science, may not seem at first a very likely way of saying anything seriously worthwhile. But, in my own faith in the imagination, and in fiction as a serious pursuit, I do take comfort in knowing that none other than Albert Einstein believed that formal theory does not describe the facts of experience but the reality behind it, reaching through with what one would call the imagination.

He believed, as he wrote Max Born, that he was after the ''perfect laws in the world of things, existing as real objects, which I try to grasp in wildly speculative ways.'' And if one insists on the primacy of science, Einstein should be scientific enough for most anyone.

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