Monday, November 16, 2009

Approach to theory

For a long time now I've been meaning to start reading, thinking about and blogging Narrative theories. More than anything else, I'm interested in it as a source of inspiration -- a tool set for accessing different voices and creative approaches to stories. A very important second goal is that Narrative theory provides a language for communication with the other writers, language that can be helpful to attenuate and pinpoint the unique aspects of a writer's voice, language that I can then introduce in a workshop setting to better explain my reading of another writer's story.

As a way to approach this ever widening field of study in the blog format, I think what I'm going to do first is to go through my notes from the Narrative Theory class I took with Professor Ellen Peel a couple of years ago and look through some of the the books that we used during that class. I'm hoping that this will be a good starting point from where I can branch out into reading and reflecting on different types of theoretical and critical texts. Reading theory is a demanding exercise, but one that seems to me to hold the greatest potential for a writer to keep increasing the level of awareness of her own subjective position and goals in writing, of reaching new depths (or lengths) of meaning.

Professor Peel, in her very systematic approach to teaching, started the conversation from discussing the definitions of crucial terms: fiction and narrative.

Fiction: from Latin "to fashion" or "to form" is related to "feign" -- or to pretend. In this, fiction is frequently contrasted with fact; the "truth value" of fiction is always in question. Fiction is not a lie, but it makes a different type of truth claim than fact. Fiction is not claiming that it's true, but it's not entirely a lie either. Fiction in its non-factual nature is a relatively recent distinction: fiction vs. history. Sometimes, the easiest way to define fiction as a genre is to contrast it with other genres: fiction vs. poetry vs. drama -- well, fiction is written in prose and not acted on stage.

Narrative: in its most basic, sparse definition, "narrative" is an account of events. Suzanne Keen quotes in "Narrative Form" (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) the definition of "narrative" from Oxford English Dictionary as referring to "the inquisitive Scottish law, where narrative means 'that part of a deed or document which contains a statement of the relevant or essential facts'," -- and that the word entered common parlance in the middle of the 18th C.

Interestingly enough, one might construe the definition of "narrative fiction" as being "the shaping of facts." And, of course, "narrative" does not have to be "fictitious." History is also a form of narrative -- and I guess so are some types of poetry.

In any case, narrative is an account of events, often opposed to lyric, where lyric tends to be about a single moment, not happening in time. Implication of this is narrative does happen in time and that time is one of the basic aspects of what we study when we study narrative.

Since events need to be told in some way, there needs to be a narrator. A further implication is that if there is a narrator, there also needs to be a narratee (or addressee, the exact term used depends on a given theorist): someone who is hearing the story. (This is a kind of postulate that really sets off my imagination. Must there be a narrator and a narratee? Can't we think of stories that break these rules? Christa Wolf's "Kassandra" comes to mind. She tells her story ostensibly to be forgotten. She tells her story exclusively in her mind. Her only possible narratee is herself -- but then, of course, it is a narratee.)

At the end of every chapter of her book, Keen provides a list of some excellent reference materials in narrative theories. I hope to have a chance to review some of them as I go along. Here's one, for example, Manfred Jahn's website, Narratology: A guide to the Theory of Narrative.

Here's what Jahn provides in terms of a definition of narrative: "For a simple answer let us say that all narratives present a story. A story is a sequence of events which involves characters. Hence, a narrative is a form of communication which presents a sequence of events caused and experienced by characters. In verbally told stories, such as we are dealing with here, we also have a story-teller, a narrator. This getting started section will mainly focus on narrators and characters." -- By "verbally told stories" Jahn also means novels. At least, his very first example comes from "Catcher in the Rye." In other words, his "verbally" does not mean "orally" -- the way I read it at the first glance. But it does highlight the important aspect of narrative: oral account of events or written, there is a difference. And there's certainly a difference when it comes to the question of narratee.

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