- What Does it Mean to Work at Reading Narratives?
The Three Functions [of Reviewing], or, Why Many Reviewers Do Nobody Any Good: A. To Give the Ready-Made Reader an Accurate Report and a Clear Appraisal. B. To Entice the Indifferent or Hostile Reader into the Enterprise. C. To Advance the Inquiry by Vexing the Author (and others) into Thought.—Wayne Booth, "Three Functions of Reviewing at the Present Time," MMLA Bulletin, 11 (1978): 6.
In the Spring of 1978, the MMLA Bulletin published a special issue on "Reviewing Reviews," a striking collection of essays in which seven distinguished scholars examined the reviews of their published work. Most of the essays, after mentioning the obvious complaints against various forms of "unjust" criticisms, go on to consider what the function of a review of scholarly work should be. In Wayne Booth's phrase, the issue offers a meditation on "the functions of reviewing at the present time." Fifteen years later, in a different critical age, we want to offer a new meditation on reviewing. But rather than considering the question abstractly, we formulate it as the consequence of a particular set of [End Page 927] professional and personal circumstances. In 1986, James Phelan coordinated a conference at Ohio State University entitled "Narrative Poetics: Innovations, Challenges, Limits" and then edited a selection of the papers from this conference entitled Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989). Shortly after the book's appearance, Modern Fiction Studies asked James Sosnoski to review it. The volume had obvious relevance to the readers of MFS. It sought to show how recent theoretical work in narrative theory informed the practical criticism of narrative. Reading Narrative brought together the work of such well-known contributors to narrative theory as Wayne Booth, Seymour Chatman, Ross Chambers, the work of other well-known critical theorists such as Teresa de Lauretis, Terry Eagleton, Gerald Graff, and Shoshana Felman and the work of other less known but equally theoretically oriented contributors.
In beginning to work on his review, however, Sosnoski encountered a problem. He felt that there was little if any connection among the essays of the various contributors. Although many proceedings of conferences show little connectivity among the collected essays, Reading Narrative was set apart from other instances of its genre by its "Introduction": there Phelan made a case for the connectivity among the essays. In effect, Phelan claimed that the volume constituted important work in the area of fiction studies. Sosnoski wanted to challenge this claim but realized that if he made the challenge in a standard review, it would have the unintended effect of criticizing Phelan for doing in an exemplary way exactly the job the profession demanded of him. Sosnoski's objections to Reading Narrative had more to do with the generally accepted publication practices that he saw Phelan following than with Phelan's specific execution of those practices in Reading Narrative. When Sosnoski told Ellen Carol Jones about his problem and requested that Phelan be allowed to respond to his remarks, Jones offered us the opportunity to co-author a review essay. Accepting the invitation, we began to correspond with each other about the issues via e-mail. Through that correspondence we discovered that these issues were more complex than we had first assumed. Eventually, however, we found ourselves focusing more and more sharply on the question of connectivity: what counts as a connection between one person's work and another's? But, obviously, this question cannot be answered without also answering the question of what counts as work in narrative studies. Our correspondence hinged upon these two inseparable issues. Throughout it, we used Reading Narrative as our test case.
Since we believe that our dialogue has relevance for many others working in narrative studies, and since we have arrived at our final deadline without achieving consensus, our joint-authored review-essay is a presentation of the most salient points in our lengthy correspondence. We hope that employing a dialogical format in this essay will contribute both to a reconsideration of the function of reviewing at the present time and to larger conversations [End Page 928] about the...