April 1, 2017

Reflections on #Narrative2017

Days 2, 3, and 4 of the Narrative conference flew by last weekend in Lexington. (For Day 1, see here.) There was tons of great stuff, and not just the standard, ever-popular, "clever analysis comparing this thing I read to something else." I got to hear solid arguments about rhetoric, methodology, and classification, most often geared toward the study of novels, because Narrative 2017 was full of fiction connoisseurs. As we all know, people who love to read stories most often gravitate towards the largest section of the library.

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I may be here a while. Send food.

Most intriguing to me, from a theoretical perspective, was the continuing discussion on Fictionality, although much of it seemed to focus on usage(s) of the term, veering back toward classification, which seems to defeat the purpose. If I've gathered correctly, Fictionality is about moving away from generic conventions and seeking to identify some broader rhetorical mode(s). At any rate, the key benefit of being there in person is finding the nuance in these points of contention and figuring out where to dig next. For starters, I found Ten Theses about Fictionality on Academia.edu and I ordered The Rhetoric of Fictionality by Richard Walsh. I sincerely feel like there must be significant applications to take away from the comparison between modes of fictive and non-fictive discourse, and I hope I can find the time to get after it soon. Can anyone send me a few spare bags of money?

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The less cartoonish, the better.

There are lots of highlights worth mentioning. The most fun I had hearing a paper was when Emily Anderson became Socrates redivivus, arguing that the term "Fictionality" was a syntactically problematic misnomer, but allowing that in some ways it's been useful so of course we should keep using it. The Q&A after that could have lasted another hour, if I'd had my way. The second most fun experience might have been Porter Abbot's use of Math in discussing "Narrative Recursion", though I suspect the process of "Working Memory" might be the best way to theorize what he's aiming to consider, which is the reader's continual construction and reconstruction of the fabula while receiving a discourse. But above all, my biggest delight was probably talking to Mark Currie in the airport about his wonderful paper on suspense and surprise, and I've also ordered his book, About Time: Narrative, Fiction, and the Philosophy of Time. Btw, as it turned out, Mark's paper on "the Philosophy of As If" used that term (As If) in a different sense than I've been using here recently, but I'll have to explain that detail some other time.

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Like, so totally not just whatever.

Other noteworthy memories from last week include: finding out that cognitive scientist Vera Tobin has published on irony... hearing Marie-Laure Ryan playfully define Plot as "people manipulating each other"... hearing Lisa Zunshine say "Narrative is inquiry"... hearing Alison James talk about "an expansion or spectrum of fictions"... hearing Brian McHale talk about time travel... meeting others who care that Booth and Ricoeur discussed Dramatic Irony... attending an academic conference with a strong balance of female and male participants... and much more. 

Then there were questions I didn't get to ask, or conversations I didn't get a chance to start. When Carter Neal talked about "Sublime Spoilers" he pointed out that Shakespeare often spoils himself in prologues "or because you know English History," I found myself wondering about "the ironic sublime." That is, rather than experiencing the sublime moment along with a protagonist (which Neal said that spoilers, um, spoil), I wondered if dramatic irony allows you to watch the massive tidal wave coming in slowly, in advance. At another session, had I gotten the chance, I also would have loved to ask Marie-Laure Ryan if she's considered thinking about "Time" in terms of whether (sterotyped) "time periods" count as "story worlds" (e.g., "the old west" (U.S.), "Arthurian England", "ancient Egypt", or "Nazi Germany". How often do our minds reduce time to space? I didn't know how to do more than just throw that out there, so I kept it to myself.

I have only one critique, which I offer with sympathy. Despite the understandable fact that these were mostly professors of literature, I dearly wish they would give more attention to non-fiction narratology. It's wonderful that they've solicited contributions - both in past years and in the R.E.N.T. - from Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit, but I would merely suggest that perhaps one does NOT need to become a master of historiography and the philosophy of history in order to engage a little bit more directly with the dynamics of non-fiction narrative. Certainly, dealing with issues like Fictionality must at some point beg the question of "non-fictionality", but there seems to be a general willingness to remain specialists of fiction.

Then again, maybe the way forward is through! In 2005, David Gorman (not attending this year) concluded his article on Fictionality (R.E.N.T., 167) by saying: 
The significance -- indeed the urgency -- of the signpost question ['whether there can be markers in a stretch of discourse that identify it as fictional'] comes from what, for theorists of fiction, has been far and away the most important development in recent narrative theory: the dawning realisation (first articulated by Cohn and Genette) that narratology, despite its pretensions to generality, has so far been confined to fictional narrative. Extending the concepts and categories of what has become 'classical' narratology to non-fiction is not a straightforward matter. The restricting factor appears to be the poorly understood nature of factual discourse. If so, then the way to a truly universal narrative theory appears to run through the theory of fiction.
It may, indeed.

I felt privileged to be there and honored to join in the conversation ever so slightly, and although I don't think I can make it to Montreal next year, I eagerly await my next opportunity to dialogue with my new narratologist friends. Perhaps, sooner or later, I might introduce them to some of my friends who are scholars of the cannonical Gospels. I would love to see an interdisciplinary program unit in a few years called "Fictionality in the Gospels".

All in due time, perhaps...

Thanks for reading. Anon.

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