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Formalism and Felicity
Author: Peter Griffiths
Peter Griffiths argues that formalist criticism, combined with certain aspects of ordinary language philosophy, particularly Wittgenstein’s idea of "meaning as use" and J. L. Austin’s conception of "felicity" and "infelicity", can be useful in terms of the understanding and production of fiction.


This article puts forth the argument that formalist criticism, combined with certain aspects of ordinary language philosophy, particularly Wittgenstein’s idea of "meaning as use" and J. L. Austin’s conception of "felicity" and "infelicity", can be useful in terms of the understanding and production of fiction. When the reader and writer are educated in the formal devices of a piece of fiction and their place within the larger body of fiction, an instance of apparent infelicity can be turned into a felicitous one. The article takes a number of examples from fiction and discusses them in terms of the ways in which they might be considered felicitous or infelicitous, arguing that aesthetic considerations which may seem to be based on each individual reader’s experience are common to a wider body of knowledge. This both reader and writer must share if certain formal aspects are to be considered felicitous rather than infelicitous and if these devices are to be of use to other readers and writers.

Keywords: formalism, creative writing theory, ordinary language philosophy


“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet,” begins Joyce’s "The Dead", quite famously (173). I once asked a group of first year students whether they understood the use of the word "literally" in this context. A good number of students suggested that Joyce had made a mistake, but changed their opinion once it was suggested that this was in fact the intrusion of an item of Lily’s speech into the third person narration that comprises the rest of the sentence. We might say that for these students this served as an entry point into the world of the free indirect.
[i] Given that afterwards these students could not only see where this device occurred, but actually use it themselves if they chose to, we might even say that their induction to this community was a means of perpetuating the use of the free indirect in fiction. Importantly, I think, the problem could also have been solved inductively, that is to say that if a reader saw this "mistake" enough times they could conceivably identify it as a formal device. This is because the technique has an internal logic to it: while there are points at which it is debatable as to whether the free indirect is present, the argument will always be around whether it conforms to the "rules" set out by our previous exposures to the technique, or what these rules are, given that everybody’s experience of the technique is slightly different. Since there is no agreed formal rule by which this device functions, no "set text" to refer to, each conception of its characteristics is different, and yet on most examples, such as the one above, we can agree. If it were true that every response is totally different it would not be possible to describe the free indirect, using examples, and then predict that it will function in a certain way when used again. Even if, due to the differences between contexts, this functioning will never be identical, there must be enough similarity for each reader (and writer) to be able to identify the device at all.

The greatest proponent of the free indirect is currently James Wood, who explores it repeatedly in How Fiction Works, a text which “asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers” (Wood 2008: 2). This is an interesting thesis since it explicitly refers to a concord between two proposed individuals who, in much criticism (for example in Barthes’s idea of authorial death), have come to seem separated at a quite fundamental level. Wood actually goes further than this in his introduction, invoking Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing: “Ruskin begins by urging his readers to look at nature—to look, say, at a leaf, and then copy it in pencil. He includes his own drawing of a leaf … Ruskin takes his readers through the process of creation” (2008: 1). The suggestion here seems to be that a writer could actually lead a reader through the process of creation, using their own fiction, rather than picking existing examples. Wood does not actually do this, apart from a short pastiche of Graham Greene, and perhaps this is because it cannot be done in fiction as it can in drawing; notably, Wood refrains from telling us that it is his own work and not Greene’s until after the passage. Wood writes,

"Forget it", said the Professor. "Scotch?" he offered, pouring himself a generous trench of the liquid, and dropping in two ice cubes from the sweating plastic bucket. The amber fluid looked disconcertingly like his own urine. It tasted mildly better. He though again of Fiona, of Wentworth’s shabby amorousness towards her. He had expected better of him. And Fiona’s response? He could not be sure.
But that was always the way with second marriages. You had to be on your guard. The Professor was always on his guard; he had been so since the age of two, when his elder sister had stolen his favourite rosary. (2008: 173)

Quite why this is unsatisfactory is unclear: is it that there is nothing underneath it? Is it that, due to this new context, we read it differently? Is it lacking a form of what Walter Benjamin called "aura"?[ii] Is Wood’s Greene impersonation empty because it is a pastiche, or it is a mere pastiche because it is empty? Perhaps the answer is that formal devices are what we might call epiphenomenal, that is to say that the fiction, unless it is an extreme form of metafiction, is always about something else; after all, it is the Catholicism, the alcohol and the hint of adultery that are the biggest clues that the above is a pastiche of Greene. 

What Wood does offer is a tour of the formal properties of a wide range of western prose fiction in a way that could be useful to the writer; we might call this "practical formalism", since it can be put into practice. In its appeal to the general reader and aspiring writer this criticism is consciously pointed away from most academic criticism, which still carries with it most of poststructuralism’s central ideas: authors are dead, "texts" are considered systems of signs predicated on difference, texts are everywhere, etc. While it is difficult to see the relevance of this thinking to creative writers, practical formalism’s discussion of writing as it is used and its application of the circumstances and situations which will render this use "right" or "wrong" points to an approach more in line with ordinary language philosophy than any criticism derived from structuralism. 

Since "right" and "wrong" are inappropriate terms by which to classify fiction (as I will explain below), we should move more in the direction of the "felicitous" and "infelicitous". While J. L. Austin’s conception of performativity evolved past these two distinctions and, when it was taken on by John Searle and then Judith Butler, it became an altogether different thing, I think that it can still be useful in its earliest form. For my purposes, then, Austin’s initial distinction between the constative and performative will be adequate. In this conception, constative statements can be right or wrong ("Manchester is the capital of England", for example), whereas for performative statements: “it is always necessary that the
circumstances of the utterance should be in some way or ways appropriate” [emphasis in original] (Austin 1962: 8). This appropriateness or inappropriateness Austin calls felicity and infelicity.[iii]

Constative trueness or falseness is an inadequate distinction in fiction because even if a text states something that in the real world may be considered false, say, "Manchester is the capital of England", it is only incorrect if the text is adhering (as most texts do) to the idea that the text corresponds to reality. However, this in itself is bound by circumstance, which is to say that this is only "incorrect" if the text is assumed to be corresponding to reality and not if it establishes that this reality is one in which Manchester is the capital of England. Therefore, even though when we read most texts we assume this is not the case unless stated, we still cannot call this constatively true or false. This is further complicated when we look at violations of the assumed conformity to reality that are less obvious. The author has almost certainly not accidentally made Manchester the capital of England so we realign the rest of the novel to accommodate this development.

This thought originally occurred to me while I was reading Ned Beauman’s
Boxer Beetle (2010), though I might have chosen any number of pieces of fiction. The novel has two parallel strands, one for the 1930s and one for the present day; it skips between the two whenever the reader might be bored and ties them together at the end. During the part set in the 1930s, one of the characters refers to another as a "wanker" (2010: 68). This jars a little, for the reason that the word seems too modern for the period in which it is set. I continued reading though, since the jar was minor. However, it is followed by the use of the word, "wankered", to mean drunk, which appears more anachronistic and so sent me to the OED for confirmation. Sure enough, the word "wankered" dates from the 1990s, and "wanker" as a term of contempt, from the 1970s.[iv]

Although these observations were quite trivial, it was in attempting to classify them that the problems occurred. Is Beauman "wrong" to have used these words in a section of novel based in the 1930s? The problem seems to be that the novel made just enough concessions to the period for this to seem out of place. Also, as I mentioned, there is a problem with classifying anything in a piece of fiction as being "wrong". Moreover it seems that to have a character say "wankered" in these circumstances is only problematic because of the circumstances in which it was used. A fiction that has laid ground rules that would make this usage acceptable could exist, and indeed does, in HBO’s
Deadwood, in which the profanity has been updated so that it still carries the same weight that it would have in the nineteenth century. So this rightness or wrongness is circumstantial, and since right and wrong are somewhat inadequate terms here we should switch to different terminology: hence my suggestion of Austin.

So, which circumstances determine the felicity or infelicity of this term? As I suggested earlier, the preceding use of anachronous vernacular would have made this less jarring; and it would have been alleviated further had we been presented with a rationale for this. That is to say a time-traveller, or some sort of bleed-through between the present and the past would have made this usage not only consistent, but non-arbitrary and as such, less jarring. This in turn suggests some other ideas, such as that the text as we know it is, if not necessarily a rational construct, then at least a logical one. An interesting point here is that the more "wrong" the text is, the less jarring its infelicities seem, since that means that it is less likely to be a slip, such as we see here. How though can we say this with such certainty about a text that is, at the time of the jarring occurrence of the word, "wankered", only 88 pages old? The answer I believe is that this occurs by reference to pre-existing codes that we have in common, derived from the sum total of the novels that we have read. The question of whether Beauman is wrong is also dependent on whether a person who declared that they saw nothing amiss when they read his use of anachronous speech was also wrong. This in turn is surely dependent on the reader’s experience of the novel as a form, yet that line of thinking is heading towards the idea that there is a "right way" of reading this novel. It is very difficult to leave this way of thinking behind, though what we can do is try to understand the way that it works and understand further that there is an element of contingency here. The truth is probably that we all carry around the sum total of our knowledge of fiction, which provides us with our criteria for the felicitous and infelicitous. Of course, to actively be taught these general formal criteria is to take a shortcut to this knowledge. It is at this point it might seem that we are moving from description to prescription, but the possibility of the latter is tempered by the understanding that these "rules" of felicity are by their very nature contingent and furthermore operate by consensus. Explicit violation of the "rules" of fiction (and we are mainly talking about Realist fiction) is possible if obviously deliberate, whereas accidental violation is a case of ignoratia juris non excusat.

This idea of observing fiction in action and understanding the actual use of its conventions is of course similar to the view of the later Wittgenstein, when he states that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (1958: 20). If we define meaning in this way it suggests that only by observation of a device such as the free indirect within the framework of fiction is it possible to see how it works (all use occurring within the framework of the pre-existing conventions of fiction). 

Consider another example, or rather pair of examples, from two quite different pieces of criticism:

[Art] is based on no truth that exists before it; and one may say that it expresses nothing but itself. It creates its own equilibrium and its own meaning. It stands all by itself, like a zebra; or else it falls (Robbe-Grillet 1965: 43).

... the dream is still running in the reader’s mind. The writer distracts the reader—breaks the film, if you will—when by some slip of technique or egoistic intrusion he allows or forces the reader to stop thinking about the story (stop ‘seeing’ the story) and think about something else (Garder 1983: 32). 

Two very different writers: the first is a theorist championing the
Nouveau Roman, a repudiation of the Realist tradition; the second a creative writing pedagogue whose book is in many ways a defence of "conventional" fiction, that is to say a defence of Realism and all that that entails. Robbe-Grillet here is suggesting that a piece of fiction owes its "truth" to no previous fictions, yet if we consider Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, or the use of the term "wankered" once more we can see that its "truth" is closely tied to previous uses of the free indirect and anachronous word use and the tacit understanding that both reader and writer are aware of this. When either the reader is not aware of this or the text exhibits an infelicity then the film is broken and the reader is forced out of the dream.

A reader is beginning a piece of prose fiction. He or she opens the page and begins reading. From the first word it begins to establish its world, and every word thereafter further establishes this world and the rules that govern it, both within the reality of the world depicted, and within the rules and functions that it is created from in the prose itself. Here are two openings that establish two dystopian worlds in very different ways:

It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen (Orwell 1949: 3).

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none again (Hoban 1980: 1).

The famous Orwell quotation works by subverting a well-worn Realist trope—the establishment of place and time. Some of the sentence is, like the Marquise going out at five, semi-arbitrary filler that functions as code to the reader that not only are we seeing depicted a world that we know, but the manner of its depiction will also be familiar to us. The only detail of the sentence which is essential, the clock striking thirteen, is the one which is out of place. This is also interesting because place here is established through the establishment of time. We don’t know where the clocks strike thirteen, but it isn’t here. The rest of the details function by their very banality. The sentence is as effective if it is an unseasonably warm day in March and the clocks are striking thirteen. One might say that the time that the clocks are striking could be replaced too, but thirteen, an unlucky number, and just one more than we would expect, is the best way to have the desired effect on the reader. There is something amiss with this sentence, since it requires that either the number of hours in the day has been altered (yet not the names of the months) or that this is a world in which analogue clocks strike thirteen rather than one. In order to decide this we need to second guess what the author (the agency behind this art) of this world has done. The conclusion though is a metatextual one, since in all likelihood the author has forsaken mimetic realism for generic realism. This is to say that, at the expense of resemblance to the real world, the novel looks like a novel in which the world is askew, but not to the extent that it will cause too much discomfort to the reader.

Similarly, the reader finds comfort in this sentence due to its artistic banality: the content could hardly be more typical of a Realist novel if it began with Winston Smith waking up. We are secure in Orwell’s hands, secure enough to concentrate on the oddities of the dystopia he presents, without worrying about whether or not the narrator is going to give us any problems, or the prose style is going to become stylistically awkward. Newspeak may be collapsing the reality of Winston Smith, but readers, assured that they are reading a Realist novel, will be able to view it all through Orwell’s glass-clear prose. 

It is interesting then, to look at Riddley Walker’s opening sentence, which presents us with a reality already distorted, and does it using Riddley’s decayed demotic English. We are presented with a society that is not our own, with a coming-of-age ritual that is as foreign as a clock striking thirteen, but we are informed by the style of the prose, with its phonetic spellings and non-standard punctuation, that this language, and by extension this world, is the one that used to belong to the Orwell that tells us about Winston Smith’s world.

Just as the differences between these two openings are equivalent to the differences between the thoughts of Gardner and Robbe-Grillet, so too are the similarities. Both Orwell and Hoban maintain "the dream running in the reader’s mind", but Nineteen-Eighty Four does this by the understanding Orwell shares with the reader of the code of realistic fiction whereas Riddley Walker does it by "creating its own equilibrium" and indeed, "its own meaning". However, both, as I said earlier, build their worlds, word by word, and through a combination of style and content. This is not to say that Riddley Walker is superior because it builds its style, relatively speaking, "from the ground up"; the labyrinth of its language, even while successfully depicting a society that has devolved from our own, necessitates a world that is simplified because of its very language. Orwell, on the other hand, by using a style that is familiar to us already, can deal with content that is more complex. 

What I would like to suggest is that while these novels are dissimilar, in that one uses an existing rule set and the other goes some way to creating its own, these different approaches point to the notion that each work, word by word, builds a set of systems to which it must hold itself. The violation of these systems is the breaking of film or equilibrium as suggested by Gardner and Robbe-Grilllet, as well as of course, the conditions of felicity. The simplest example of this is continuity: In The Iliad, Manalaos slays Pylaimenes, who later on is seen to be alive to witness the death of his son, Harpalion (Homer 1987: 239). The Homeric Nod is a mistake; it should not be read into the fiction. Mistakes like this require the reader to commit the cardinal sin of guessing the author’s intent. We assume that Homer’s nod is not supposed to be part of the text and alter our reading to accommodate the slip. Of course, by doing this we are taken out of the dream. The author’s fallibility breaks our immersion and reminds us that what we are reading is a construct. 

If we view this continuity error as a violation of the rules that the text sets out for itself, then it is only because the preceding lines of The Iliad do not ready us for it. If we found ourselves in a poem where it is established that the dead come back to life, or if the poem explained Pylaimenes’s resurrection in some way, then the film would not be broken (or at least it would be broken to a lesser extent – explication that draws attention to itself also pulls us out of the dream). Similarly, if we were in a text like Gravity’s Rainbow (Pynchon 1975), where it is not clear what is real and what is fantasy, then we will allow for the unlikely, or even the impossible. 

In the example of Hoban and Orwell above, we might take spelling and grammar to be another example of rules that a text sets out for itself. A word misspelt in the Orwell is a mistake, a violation of the rules, but in Hoban it is not. This distinction is clear from the very first sentence. If Orwell starts spelling words in an idiosyncratic way after this, then it becomes less likely that we accept it. Hoban, on the other hand, establishes from the outset that the spelling and grammar will be unique to his text, and we accept this because it is made clear from the start. If Riddley’s voice becomes like Orwell’s halfway through the novel, then this will be regarded as infelicitous. It is also worth noting that Riddley Walker, in a manner that is analogous to the way in which a standard text’s rules work, uses a standardized spelling and grammar. If we consider this for a moment, it is unlikely that in "reality" the spelling and grammar that Riddley uses would be standardized, given that even our attempts at consistency fail. However, as with the regime that changes the units of time but not the names of the months, we accept this as part of the conceit; it is only if the text violates its own particular rules that we consider it to be at fault. 

As I have suggested, while a text creates its own rules as it goes along, if that text’s rules align themselves with what we often fail to call Realism, it allows the reader from the outset to make a set of assumptions about what the text will or will not do. When I say that Riddley Walker distinguishes itself against the Realist mode, I mean that this is only by degree. Riddley is presented as a person, so we expect him to act like one, unless it is established from the beginning that he will not. Despite the implication that this is not our world, the events and objects alluded to in the quotation above are close enough to our reality that we can relate them to things we know and thus infer that they will behave in a manner that is close to the things we know without us having to have those things set out for us. Gravity, human nature, the passage of time and so forth are all phenomena that we enter into a fiction assuming will be fairly close to what we know, either from real life, or from every other fiction we have already read (and of course these are often the same). While Riddley Walker’s rule set is different enough from what we expect to not count as Realism, it cannot truly build its world from the ground up, lest the map be the size of the territory. It is by attention to sets of formal understandings that the process of writing and reading can be considered in this way to be research, in that this attention both describes the formal use of devices and allows for their continued use. Both reader and writer draw on sets of assumptions that constitute a larger "meta-text" to which reference is made and on which the conditions of felicity rely. This is a fundamental part of what constitutes "reading a novel": all writers read this text and, to an extent, all readers write it. 

Though I have made use of Wittgenstein here it is worth noting that for him aesthetic discussions were pointless:

“You might think Aesthetics is a science telling us what’s beautiful—almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose it ought to include also what sort of coffee tastes well” (1966: 11).

I may not be able to show you how coffee tastes well (although given that some things are an acquired taste, I could persuade you to persevere instead of dismissing it), but it is possible to discuss how a piece of literature works and thus uncover how it might "taste well", as with “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”. If we are ignorant of the free indirect then it seems as if the narrator has confused the literal with the figurative, or else we think nothing of it. However, it is possible to make the seeming infelicity of this usage into a felicity by educating the reader (and writer) in the free indirect. If we are aware of the free indirect then we can see that Joyce here is describing Lily in the very words that she herself would use, and if we are not aware then we are left out in the cold, unable to make use of a technique honed and perfected by the many hands that have created the system of knowledge that is fiction. In a sense, then, we can become "better" readers and writers by understanding that every time we seem to engage with this system we are actually participating in it.

[i] I am here using James Wood’s definition of the free indirect as a collapsing of the voice of narrator and character: “What we hear is Lily saying to herself or to a friend (with great emphasis on precisely the most inaccurate word, and with a strong accent): ‘Oi was lit-er-rully ron off me feet!’” Wood discusses the free indirect in greater detail, and with further examples, in How Fiction Works (2008: 5-31).

[ii] Of course, this stems from Benjamin’s discussion of a different kind of reproduction: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (1973: 214). The parallels are nevertheless interesting.

[iii] Austin also categorizes performative statements as achieving something (the examples he chooses are statements like "I bet" or "I declare war"), but this is not relevant to the current discussion.

[iv]; [Accessed 10 July 2014].



Austin, J. L. (1962) How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Benjamin, W. (1973) Illuminations. London: Fontana.

Beauman, N. (2010) Boxer Beetle. London: Sceptre.

Gardner, J. (1983) The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage.

Hoban, R. (1980) Riddley Walker. London: Picador  

Homer (1987) The Iliad. Trans. M. Hammond. London: Penguin.

Joyce, J. (1914) Dubliners. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. London: Penguin.

Pynchon, T. (1975). Gravity’s Rainbow. London: Picador.

Robbe-Grillet, A. (1965) For a New Novel. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. 

Wittgenstein, L. (1958) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1966) Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Wood, James. (2008) How Fiction Works. London: Jonathan Cape.


D. Milch (Producer), Deadwood. New York: Home Box Office (HBO), Inc.

Peter Griffiths was born in Cardiff and studied English at the University of Exeter. He completed an MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University, where he is also about to complete his PhD. His thesis, entitled "Beyond Literary Consilience", attempts to reconcile literary theory, empirical research and Creative Writing practice. He has also just finished his first novel, which is a portrayal of sociopathy taking its formal cues from British experimental fiction of the mid-20th century.