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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 547-549

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Book Review

Rhetorical Narratology

Michael Kearns. Rhetorical Narratology. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. xi + 207 pp.

Rooted in its formalist and structuralist origins, narratology has been left behind by the shift in literary studies from text to context, from a focus on formal features, rules, and codes to an investigation of social and political causes and effects. Taking a "strong-contextualist" position, Michael Kearns proposes to salvage the analytic insights of narratology by reformulating them in rhetorical terms, focusing on the interaction of texts and readers and trying to determine how narrative elements are experienced. The result is a practical success, a clear and cogent account that will be useful to many students and teachers of narrative, but one that leaves some basic theoretical problems of contextualism unresolved. [End Page 547]

Kearns builds on earlier rhetorical approaches to reading narrative but grounds them in the more rigorous concepts of speech-act theory, which formulates rules governing the production and reception of utterances and texts. Equipped with notions such as "display text," "the cooperative principle," and "markedness," he systematically redescribes the standard topics of narratology as components of the process of narrative transmission. In chapters on audience positions and narrative voices he develops his general approach, distinguishing elements established within the narrative (narrator, focalizer, narratee, and narrating audience) and those inferred or constructed by the reader from the whole text plus external knowledge (extra-fictional voice, implied author, authorial audience); he then applies his approach to four aspects of narrative: the relationship of plot and theme to narrative discourse, the gendering of narrative voices, the temporal structure of narratives, and the representation of both inner and voiced speech. With each of these topics, Kearns stresses the convention-bound process in which readers follow "scripts" that organize their expectations and responses. He concludes with two extended examples of such reading scripts, for J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, showing how his rhetorical narratology can "identify at least some aspects from which an actual audience is likely to construct implicatures and, from them, to make judgments about thematic, mimetic, and synthetic elements, ultimately arriving at an interpretation of the novel."

As his use of "at least some" and "likely" indicates, Kearns's own rhetorical performance depends on striking a balance between confidently arguing for the priority of context and modestly acknowledging the limitations of his approach. His premises, like those of other reader-response theorists, are resolutely anti-formalist. In such a view, narrativity is not constituted by objective textual features, nor are there "immanent plot structures that alone significantly control the experience of narrative." Instead, like all the other aspects he considers, they depend on context, emerge only in the process of reading, and always might be construed otherwise. Hence, even with his sustained effort at conceptual precision, his approach can only outline likely readings, not predict actual readers' responses. As he notes in conclusion, "The scripts I've suggested are plausible, and they do correspond fairly well with my experiences and those of students in my classes. But they're sketchy." [End Page 548]

Yet even these modest claims gloss over deeper problems in the strong-contextualist approach. As Stanley Fish has said, once you start down the anti-formalist road, there is no place to stop. Not only do narrative components such as plot and character lose any grounding in the text, but the thematic, mimetic, and synthetic elements from which readers are supposed to construct their ultimate interpretations also become radically unstable and contingent. Meaning may be context bound, but as Derrida argues in his critique of speech-act theory, context is boundless. For Kearns to practice his rhetorical narratology, he must continually reintroduce constraints and compromise his contextualism. Thus, he claims that though the functions he describes are subject to variable narrative situations, "because they relate to elements that are demonstrably in texts, they make possible a certain amount of objective formal analysis and some predictions regarding likely rhetorical effects." For a resolute...