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From Novel To Narrative

The most influential figures in the early theorizing of the novel were novelists themselves, particularly Henry James (1843–1916) and E. M. Forster (1879–1970). In "The Art of Fiction" (1888) and in the Prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels (1909–1910), James describes and defends his own novelistic practice. He argues that the artistry of the novel depends on its representation of "felt life," and, in the Prefaces, he describes, often with rich, extended metaphors, how he came to view the "treatment" (the technique) of his novels as even more important than their "subject" (their characters and situations). More specifically, James explains why he came to prefer the technique of narrating from the consciousness of his central character(s): such treatment highlights the impression of felt life even as it allows him to offer fresh ways of exploring his subjects. James's distinction between treatment and subject is a distinction between the how and the what of the novel that reappears in some form in every major theoretical approach to narrative. James's specific preferences soon became codified by his followers into a set of rules for good novelistic practice: use scenes rather than narrative summaries because they are more impersonal and objective; narrate from the perspective of a central consciousness rather than from the perspective of an external narrator because that treatment involves less rhetoric and more artistry. In short: show, don't tell.

If James is the theorist of treatment (the how), Forster is the theorist of character (one element of the what). In Aspects of the Novel (1927), he introduces a distinction between "round" and "flat" characters that is still frequently cited in the early 2000s: Round characters are capable of surprising in a convincing way, while flat characters can be summed up in a single sentence. Forster also distinguishes between story and plot (see sidebar), viewing the first as a kind of necessary evil ("yes, oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story"), and the second with its inclusion of causality as what makes the recounting of events worthwhile. But he regards character as the most important element of the novel. In fact, he sees plot and character as often in conflict—one requires closure, the other does not—and he laments those novels in which he thinks character is sacrificed for plot.

Contemporaneous with Forster's theorizing, the Russian Formalists, a group including Victor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Yuri Tynanov, develop ideas about the novel that provide an especially interesting comparison with James's. They introduce a more formal and ultimately more influential distinction between the what and the how, identifying the fabula as the abstract chronological sequence of events independent of their expression in the sjuzhet, the actual presentation of those events in the novel's text. This distinction explains one's intuition that there can be different versions of the same narrative: different sjuzhets do not constitute different narratives unless they also are based on different fabulas. The Formalists also go James one better by arguing that the purpose of literature in general and the novel in particular is not the representation of felt life but defamiliarization or estrangement: the purpose of literature is to renew or revise our perceptions—in Shklovsky's famous phrase, to make the stone stony. This view leads the Formalists to an account of literary change built on the formal necessity of innovation, especially in the how of the novel: novelistic forms that once provided estrangement gradually lose that effect as they themselves became familiar, and so the inventive novelist discovers new devices of estrangement.

The next significant literary critical approach to form, that of the Anglo-American New Critics, emphasizes the distinctiveness of literary language itself, and so focuses on the image patterns of novels (the how) as containing the key to their thematic concerns (the what) and, thus, their formal artistry. The rivals of the New Critics, the Chicago School neo-Aristotelians, though generally unsuccessful in their effort to unseat New Criticism as the orthodoxy of the critical mainstream, turn out to be more influential than the New Critics in the evolution of narrative theory. R. S. Crane, working without knowledge of the Russian Formalists, develops a concept of plot that distinguishes between its "material action" (the what, roughly equivalently to the fabula) and the "plot proper" (the synthesis of what and how in the service of a given purpose and set of effects—roughly equivalent to sjuzhet). Crane's student Wayne C. Booth reexamines, from the neo-Aristotelian perspective, the Jamesian rules for novelistic success and repudiates them with a method that transforms Crane's neo-Aristotelian poetics into a rhetoric. In The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), Booth argues that techniques of showing are as rhetorical as techniques of telling; the choice is not between impersonal art and inartistic rhetoric but rather between different ways of trying to influence the audience—in short, different kinds of rhetorical appeals. More generally, Booth's insight that the novel is rhetorical from top to bottom paves one road for the entry of ethical and ideological approaches to narrative.

Another Russian scholar of the 1920s, Vladimir Propp, provides a model for a different approach to narrative in The Morphology of the Folktale (1929). Propp identifies thirty-one functions that occur in invariable order (for example, hero perceives a lack; hero meets a magical agent) in every Russian folktale. But more important than his specific account of the folktale itself is Propp's insight that underlying the surface variety of the folktale is a single deep structure (an Ur-fabula, if the reader will). The structuralist narratologists of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Tzvetan Todorov, Claude Bremond, and, in one phase of his work, Roland Barthes, look back to Propp and to Ferdinand de Saussure in their effort to uncover the underlying structures of narrative. Saussure's distinction between langue, the abstract system of language that underlies any utterance and makes it intelligible, and parole, actual utterances, provides an analogy for the structuralist project of describing the grammar of narrative that makes any given narrative intelligible.

Strikingly the results of these efforts are not a comprehensive grammar but a number of conceptual tools that remain both useful and influential to this day. Chief among these tools are the story / discourse distinction, a new version of the what/how distinction, and Gérard Genette's analyses of discourse. Story encompasses the characters, events, and settings (or states, events, and existents) of narrative, and discourse encompasses all the devices for rendering the story in one way rather than another. Genette groups these devices into three main kinds: (1) those of temporality, which include order, duration (the relation between story time and its expression in discourse time, for instance, twenty years may be summarized in a single sentence, just as one minute may be treated in several pages), and frequency (the relation between the number of times an event happens in story and the number of times it is reported in discourse); (2) voice, the answer to the question "who speaks?"; and (3) vision, the answer to the question "who perceives?" Even more significantly, as the link between Propp and the structuralist project suggests, the emergence of narratology makes possible the shift from novel to narrative—that is, storytelling of all kinds—as the central object of study, even if literary fiction narrative retains a special status within the project. Genette, for example, develops his conceptual toolbox from his analysis of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927; Remembrance of things past). Consequently, in the 1980s the field of narrative theory emerged with a recognizable identity.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNarrative - From Novel To Narrative, Contemporary Narrative Theory: Contextual And Interdisciplinary Models, E. M. Forster's King And Queen And Narrative Across The Disciplines