This article introduces you to a popular literary genre, prose fiction. As the name implies, it is presented in prose form and it is an imaginative art. This means that it is a product of the writer’s imagination. In prose fiction, the writer tells a fictitious story to his readers to educate or entertain or to do both. In this unit, we are going to define prose fiction. This definition will guide our understanding of, not just the words “prose” and “fiction” but, prose fiction as a genre of literature. You will also be acquainted with the earliest forms of prose fiction.
We will start our definition of prose fiction with the definition of the two key words, “prose” and “fiction”. Thereafter, we will try to explain prose fiction as it relates to this course, which is as a literary genre.
Prose is the most typical form of language and it is derived from the Latin word prosawhich literally means ‘straight-forward.’ It is like talking to someone in a straight- forward manner and not in a sing-song or poetic way. This means that anything you say or write in prose is presented in a straight- forward manner. For instance, this course material is presented in prose.
There are many views on the construction of prose but the summary of these views is that it has a simple and loosely defined structure. There is usually no effort to present prose in any particular or special structure. This lack of formal structure makes it to be adopted as the general mode of communication in many formal and informal presentations like the spoken dialogue, speeches, factual, topical and fictional writing. This means that most of the books you read are presented in prose and that you also talk in prose form.
Prose is made up of complete sentences which constitute paragraphs in a narrative form. Prose reflects the pattern of everyday speech. If words are not presented in prose, they are presented in poetry or verse form that adheres to a particular metric form and definite structure. Poetry has a more systematic form of presentation than prose.
However, in prose the writer does not just present words whether they make sense or not. Words in prose are arranged in correct sentences and in a logical sequence for a meaningful understanding of the intended communication. In view of this, Samuel Taylor Coleridge insists in his definition of prose and poetry that; “prose is —words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.” (Quoted in Hall 62). Even in everyday speech, we arrange words in a proper way for the presentation to make sense in the language of communication.
In writing therefore, anything that is not presented in verse is presented in prose. Prose is the medium used, as stated earlier, in most written and oral communications. This is because of the advantage it has over verse which is in musical form. The dissemination of written information in text books, magazines in commerce dates back tothe 15th century when Monasteries sold edifying collections of saints’ and virgins’ lives composed in prose. Prose became in this environment the medium of silent and private reading (Whiteman 16).
Prose then, had an additional advantage for translators, who could go directly for meaning, where verse had to be translated by people skilled as poets in the target language.
Fiction is derived from the Latin word fictum which means “created”. Fiction is a term used to denote anything, mainly stories or accounts that are not real.Can you recall the fairy tale or other stories that your mother or grandmother used to tell you about animals, monsters, or even human beings that existed in faraway countries or in the primordial times. These are fictional narratives. Fiction is therefore any form of narrative which deals, in part or in whole, with events that are not factual, but rather, are imaginary and invented by its author.
Apart from the general meaning of fiction as non-factual accounts, it is also used to denote a major branch of literature especially the novel and also drama/ other theatrical presentations in the cinematic and musical mode. The important factor here is that the story or presentation is not factual or real.
We have learnt the meaning of the words “prose” and “fiction” as separate words. Now let us try to merge the two words to get the meaning in our present context, that is, as a genre of literature. What then is prose fiction? It is fictional work that is presented in a narrative form.
Fiction and narrative are words that distinguish prose fiction from any other form of narrative or fictional work. For instance, drama is fiction but it is presented in dialogue and not narrative. Prose fiction as a literary genre is made up of the short story, the novella and the novel. Prose fiction tells a story and the fact that the story is not factual distinguishes it from history.
Prose fiction is an artistic work that “has a personal narrative, a hero to identify with fictional inventions, style, and suspense – in short anything that might be handled with the rather personal ventures of creativity and artistic freedom” (Kermode 23). It may exaggerate or distort facts or the story may be completely an invention of the writer. It depends on the style of the writer and or what the writer wants to achieve. The story in prose fiction is invented by the writer but is presented in a realistic manner.
Prose fiction treats essentially personal subject matter which is open to various interpretations by the reader. What we read in prose fiction are events, incidents, and experiences that affect human beings. It relays human experience from the writer’s imagination and is seen as a field of “cultural significance to be explored with a critical and didactic interest in the subjective perceptions both of artists and their readers” (Whiteman 12).
The earliest form of literary presentation was in verse but as time went on there was a shift from verse to prose and this dates from the early 13th century. The ProseLancelot or Vulgate Cycle, collection of passages of that period, is believed to be the earliest form of literary presentation in prose. This collection indirectly led to Thomas Malory’s Le Morted’Arthurcompilation of the early 1470s. The collections were said to be from historical sources for the sole purpose of instruction and national edification (Wikipedia). Prose fiction in the contemporary period is expected to serve the same purpose. The novel has become the dominant form of prose fiction followed by the short story.
The development of modern prose fiction in its present form particularly the novelis traced to the development ofbelles-lettres(beautiful letters) which is associated with elegance and style. They included an amalgam of genres that included history and science in vernaculars, personal memoirs, politicaldiscourse, fiction and poetry. Gradually, prose fiction in this wider spectrum soon became a prominent medium for the creation of a distinct style of writing and communication. The style gave the artist an opportunity forartistic experimentation and originality needed to exhibit and market his or her style. The reading of prose fiction later became fashionable and it remained close to everyday language, “…to the private letter, to the art of “gallant” conversation, to the personal memoir and travelogue” (Maynard 22).
Prose Fiction and History
Sometimes, students feel that prose fiction and historical narratives are the same or are similar since both present human experience. It is important for us to show the relationship between the two. Both are narrative projects but history is based on actual events and real names of the participants, actual dates and places are mentioned. History is therefore an empirical social experience because the historian is concerned with empirical data, operating as much as possible at the level of facts in pursuit of specific truths. It is a factual documentation with the sole aim of education and preservation for posterity.
Early historians could include inventions in the factual account as long as they were rooted in traditional knowledge or in order to orchestrate a certain passage. Historians thus invented and composed speeches for didactic purposes (Whiteman 22).
On the other hand, the literary artist is concerned with historical data as long as they provide him with the experiences he intends to present in his art. However, the language of the literary artist does not subsist on hard facts. He mediates facts in pursuit of both specific and universal truths while trying to pleasein the process. The literary artist is therefore “…faced with the problem of disciplining history to obey his artistic purpose” (Chidi Amuta,89)
However, novelists depict the social, political, and personal realities of a place and period with clarity and details more than historians. History is factual documentation while prose fiction is a work of art. Prose fiction could be based on history but the author uses vivid and graphic representations of characters and incidents to present an entertaining story.
Writers of prose fiction like Historians could document and present facts but not as accurately as the historians because whereas historians present real names of the people involved, places, and dates, in prose fiction real names are not used though known places and dates could be mentioned. This means that a historical event could be presented in prose fiction but the writer manipulates the story in an artistically satisfying manner.
The writer here uses fictitious names to avoid litigation. In many works of prose fiction, the author/publisher indicates that the names are fictitious and regrets resemblance of any known person.
Prose fiction could use informal language for particular effect but historical language is expected to be formal and correct at all times. The language of prose fiction language is distinct and this enables the author to manipulatelanguage to suit his or her purpose/style and for the readers’ appreciation.
The relationship between literature and history. History is an empirical social experience; the historian is concerned with empirical data, operating as much as possible at the level of facts in pursuit of specific troths. On the other hand, the literary artist is concerned with historical data to the extent that they provide him with the experiences that constitute his art.
But the language of the literary artist does not subsiston hard facts. He mediates facts in pursuit of both specific and universal truths while trying to please or to disturb in the process. The literary artist is therefore faced with the problem of disciplining history to obey his artistic purpose. ChidiAmuta, “Literature of the Nigerian Civil War” 89 YemiOgunbiyi(ed.) (1988) Perspectives on Nigerian Literature 1700 to the PresentVol one Guardian Books Lagos
Prose fiction is a combination of two distinct words, “prose” and “fiction”. The former means a presentation of spoken or written words in a narrative manner while the latter means a nonrealistic account. Prose fiction is therefore an imaginary work that is presented in a narrative form. It is a literary genre that presents human experience to educate and entertain the readers.
It tells a story that deals with cultural, social and political issues in the world but the characters are not real (known) human beings but bear human traits and dispositions. Although the story in prose fiction is fictitious, it contains identifiable characters, locations and incidents and these add to make the story that is presented as realistic as possible. Prose fiction is different from history which is a documentation of past realistic events.
In this article we have tried to explain prose fiction. It is not a compound word and that is why we started by explaining the two words “prose” and “fiction” separatelyand later merged their meanings to arrive at the meaning of prose fiction as it relates to this study. We also tried to differentiate prose fiction from history since both of them tell stories. We also explained that prose fiction is an aspect of literature that is presented in a narrative form.