As James Phelan indicates in his preface, Narrative as Rhetoric is built out of a series of essays published between 1990 and 1996, all of which contribute to defining the central concept of narrative as a rhetorical action. Assuming that narratives are fundamentally rhetorical as locutions directed toward an audience with a specific purpose, Phelan approaches his interpretations by focusing on the interaction of authorial agency, text, and responsive reader in the reading process as a potentially transformative, or at least influential, event. Phelan attends to the textual techniques employed by the author, the various audiences encouraged, discouraged, and allowed to respond, and the ethical and ideological dimensions that arise from the rhetorical effort to influence or persuade specific types of audiences.
I came to this text with the ethical dimension being the part of its subtitle I considered the most important having just finished teaching Bakhtin’s Toward a Philosophy of the Act, and being heavily influenced by it. It is precisely in the ethical area, however, that Phelan’s work is the most uneven; nevertheless, he does make some valuable contributions to the gradually intensifying debate over the ethics of literary study and its modes of interpretation. [End Page 568]
Phelan develops the argument of each chapter around a single example, which he discusses in detail. He builds his consideration of Woolf’s The Waves around the contention that lyric and narrative, at least in fiction, ought to be distinguished by the attitudinal orientation of the reader in response to structural cues, thereby undercutting much of the theoretical work devoted to the idea of “the lyric novel.” With Vanity Fair he provides an insightful reading that emphasizes the evaluative role of a responsive reader and begins to enter the terrain of ethics, while in discussing A Farewell to Arms he clarifies his concept of an “authorial audience” and the decision of a reader to identify with such an audience. Following a persuasive chapter on Hemingway, Phelan’s discussion of The Great Gatsby suffers from his explicit decision to separate structural narrative analysis from ethical analysis without articulating how or why this particular text so frequently encourages just such a response from its readers. The Bakhtinian dialogics that Phelan invokes in the Hemingway chapter, but omits from the Fitzgerald one, provides an argument against such switching on and off of ethical criticism. Phelan is much better when addressing ethics in his chapter on The Secret Sharer and the responsibility of the reader in the face of an indeterminate text.
While I enjoyed the readings of The Waves and Vanity Fair, I think Phelan’s chapters on How, Beloved, and Wayne Booth are his most persuasive theoretically, perhaps because his stylistic experiments in these chapters emulate his own argument. In each of these his own rhetoric becomes more narrative even as he intensifies the argument about narrative as rhetoric. The discussion of the use of second person in Lorrie Moore’s novel is quite helpful, while the chapter on Morrison’s novel develops an excellent distinction between “difficult” and “stubborn” texts. The appendix, “Why Wayne Booth Can’t Get with the Program; or, The Nintentional Fallacy,” is a sheer delight as a metarhetorical narrative of a narrative rhetoric that is self-expository.
For me the book ends abruptly. Phelan’s calculated tentativeness and resistance to closure are particularly productive in his reading of Morrison but a liability in his decision to forego even a reiterative summary conclusion. Nevertheless, Narrative as Rhetoric is a valuable addition to the field of rhetorical narrative theory, particularly in relation to the concept of authorial audience, the ethics of reader identification with particular audiences, the function of second person address, and _EnD_the need to differentiate between the difficult and the stubborn. Phelan also provides some excellent interpretations of individual works that demonstrate the efficacy of his rhetorical approach, as well as being valuable acts of criticism in their own right.