I’m used to seeing words used oddly or wrongly; almost always, I can figure out what the writer meant to say, but in this brief New Yorker review of The Lucky Ones, by Rachel Cusk, I am at a loss:

The women in these five linked vignettes are all connected to a journalist named Serena Porter, either personally or as readers of the weekly column she writes about her family life. While they struggle to understand their painful and awkward responses to lovers and children, she spins the raw material of motherhood and marriage into witty and topical dispatches. Of course, much of what Serena writes is factitious, both in its details (she freely appropriates an acquaintance’s experience as her own) and in the breezy complacency that it projects; Cusk seems to suggest that our true thoughts about love and family defy articulation. Such is her gift for capturing women’s psychology and their sense of their place in the world that the novel achieves what Serena’s column cannot: a fresh and compassionate portrait of a generation’s feelings about motherhood.

(Emphasis added.) I don’t think factitious can mean ‘artificial’ in the context of that sentence, but I have no idea what it might be intended to mean. Suggestions?

Addendum. I was going to do a companion entry about a bizarre usage by (of all people) Susan Sontag in her essay “Regarding the Torture of Others” in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine: “An erotic life is, for more and more people, that whither can be captured in digital photographs and on video”—but the offending “whither” has already been changed to “which” in the online version, so it was a simple typo, hardly worth the blogging except to lament for the thousandth time the execrable standards of proofreading now prevailing at the Newspaper of Record.


  1. Seems like “invalid” or “inauthentic” is meant.
    I think that your problem was that you actually knew what the word meant. I just looked it up, and found that I didn’t. I knew it was something bad, though — I only see it in polemic. I think that there has been an extension from “ad hoc special pleading”, which is the polemical use of the word I’m familiar with.

  2. OED’s meaning number 3 for factitious is “Got up, made up for a particular occasion or purpose; arising from custom, habit, or design; not natural or spontaneous”. This can fit, I think.

  3. In that context I feel like it isn’t the established word factitious, but rather a new one meaning “half-factual, half-fictional”. You know, like “mockumentary”.

  4. John G. Fought says

    I think she meant something closer to ‘fabricated’, but was influenced by ‘fictitious’ and probably thought that factitious was just a suitably fancy way of saying that. Perhaps she even meant ‘fictitious but fact-based’. Once you get way out there on the skinny part of the limb, who knows?

  5. I think she meant something closer to ‘fabricated’, but was influenced by ‘fictitious’ and probably thought that factitious was just a suitably fancy way of saying that.
    I have seen this happen in other places with the same word. At least, that’s what I think happened. When you’re writing a review for the New Yorker, hey, any extra pretense is good wherever you can get it, I guess.
    I think it’s becoming more and more socially unacceptable for people to admit that they don’t know what a certain word means. Nod and smile, but dear god, don’t actually admit that you don’t know. So we end up with these words, used in their proper context elsewhere, picked up by people — writers who don’t ever open dictionaries, I guess — and used in situations like this one.
    I’ve probably done it myself, but I try to look up definitions. I could understand not looking things up if it was a big hassle, but we have this here interweb thing now.

  6. Another vote for the “half-factual, half-fictional” interpretation. When I read the paragraph I immediately wondered whether it was a deliberate piece of wordplay — fictitious but with a leavening of fact.

  7. From the context, I read it as meaning that the work is “faction” – as Matt says, fact and fiction mingled (like mockumentary). However, I can’t see why Cusk should link it with “breezy complacency”, unless she’s somehow bringing “facetious” into the mix too.

  8. Yes, it was the “breezy complacency” that threw me completely off the rails. Thanks, everyone, for a very illuminating discussion!

  9. I took it as the half-fact, half-fiction also, or perhaps as docu-drama.

  10. Ray, you’ve summarized contemporary literature:
    … fact and fiction mingled (like mockumentary) … somehow bringing “facetious” into the mix too.

  11. Is it possible the reviewer meant “facetious”?

  12. Context would suggest that ‘factitious’ refers to something which is fictitious, but which is ultimately based on fact. The character in question appropriates factual events from other people’s lives and presents them as coming from her own.

  13. I’m thinking it’s just a typo.

  14. A typo for what? “Fictitious” doesn’t work any better in context. Furthermore, if it were a typo you’d think they’d have fixed the online text, as the Times did with the Sontag quote in the Addendum.

  15. Jonathan says

    The word “factitious” posed a problem for Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. Esther’s creative writing tutor scrawled the word on a short story she wrote; she didn’t know what it meant and had to look it up. The meaning Plath gives, if I recall correctly, is “artificial, a sham”.

  16. scarabaeus stercus says

    It has ben said before. “I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction”
    Aneurin Bevan

  17. Dictionary.com gives:
    2. Lacking authenticity or genuineness; sham
    – The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
    Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
    “Sham” in particular seems to make sense in context.

  18. yeah, journalists are leading the way to make “factitious” a kind of derogative, in the same way they have made “substantive” a meaningless intensifier. welcome to the TWENNY FIRS CENCHRY!

Speak Your Mind