"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

December 21, 2008

Jonathan Culler Reviews "How Fiction Works"!

“Identifying narrators is one of the primary ways of naturalizing fiction.  The convention that in a text the narrator speaks to his reader acts as support to interpretive operations which deal with the odd or apparently insignificant.  In so far as the novel is, as George Eliot says, ‘a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind’, the reader may treat anything anomalous as the effect of the narrator’s vision or cast of mind.  In the case of first-person narration, choices for which the reader can find no other explanation may be read as excesses which display the narrator’s individuality and as symptoms of his obsessions.  But even when there is no narrator who describes himself we can explain almost any aspect of a text by postulating a narrator whose character the elements in question are designed to reflect or reveal.  Thus, Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie may be recuperated, as Bruce Morrissette has done, by postulating an obsessed narrator with paranoiac suspicions so as to explain certain fixations of description; Dans le labyrinthe can be naturalized by reading it as the speech of a narrator suffering from amnesia.  The most incoherent text could be explained by assuming that it is the speech of a delirious narrator.  Such operations can, of course, be applied to a wide range of modern texts, but the most radical works set out to make this kind of recuperation an arbitrary imposition of sense and to show the reader how dependent his reading is on models of intelligibility.  As Stephen Heath has admirably demonstrated, such novels act by becoming thoroughly banal when naturalized and showing the reader at what cost he has purchased intelligibility (The Nouveau Roman, pp. 137-45).  In Barthes’s words, writing becomes truly writing only when it prevents one from answering the question, ‘who is speaking?’

However, we have developed powerful strategies to prevent texts from becoming writing, and in cases where we should find it difficult to postulate a single narrator we can appeal to that modern literary convention, made explicit by Henry James and the many critics who have followed his lead, of limited point of view.  If we cannot compose the text by attributing everything to a single narrator we can break it down into scenes or episodes and give meaning to details by treating them as what was noticed by a character who was present at the time.  This convention may be seen as a last-ditch strategy for humanizing writing and making personality the focal point of the text; and indeed it is noteworthy that the authors who are most frequently read in this way are those like Flaubert who attain an impersonality which makes it difficult to attribute the text to a characterizable narrator. 

R.J. Sherrington, who is one of the more extreme advocates of this type of recuperation, tells us for instance that the passages in Madame Bovary which describe Charles’s visits to the farm where he first meets Emma employ a limited point of view in that ‘only details which force themselves upon Charles’s awareness are mentioned.’  Entering the kitchen, he notices that the shutters are closed; ‘naturally, this fact draws attention to the patterns of light filtering through the shutters and coming down the chimney to strike ashes in the fireplace’.  Since Emma is standing near the fireplace, ‘then he sees Emma and notices only one thing about her: “little drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders”’.  How characteristic of Charles!  Full of admiration for Flaubert’s artistry in recounting just what Charles noticed, Sherrington neglects to explain what we are to deduce about Charles’s character from the fact that between the sentences describing the patterns of light and Emma there occurs one which displays considerable interest in the behaviour and death of flies: ‘Flies, on the table, crawled up and down the sides of glasses which had been used and buzzed as they drowned themselves at the bottom, in the dregs of cider.’  If we try to attribute this notation to Charles, we are engaged in recuperating details by a circular argument: flies are described because they are what Charles noticed; we know that they are what Charles noticed because they are what is described.

This is, in fact, simply another version of the representational justification which few sophisticated readers of novels would now allow themselves to employ: that a particular passage is justified or explained by the fact that it describes the world.  This is so weak a determination – everything vraisemblable is by this criterion equally justified – that it has fallen out of serious use; and the concept of limited point of view offers a determination which is almost equally weak.  The proof of its insufficiency is that when discussing novels like What Maisie Knew which derive from the explicit project of ‘giving it all, the whole situation surrounding her, but of giving it only through the occasions and connexions of her proximity and her attention’, we are not content to argue  that sentences are justified because they tell us what Maisie knew but require that they contribute to patterns of knowledge and form a drama of innocence.  The identification of narrators is an important interpretive strategy, but it cannot itself take one very far.”

—Jonathan Culler, from Structuralist Poetics:  Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975)


I’m pretty much in agreement with everything in the above, except for that last assertion.  Can’t take one very far?  On the contrary, I know one critic – our latter-day R.J. Sherrington – it has taken all the way to the New Yorker.

But wait – Culler didn’t mean professionally, did he.  He meant intellectually.

No comments: