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Tony E. Jackson’s The Technology of the Novel: Writing and Narrative in British Fiction undertakes an ambitious project: to reject poststructuralist approaches to the novel in favor of an approach rooted in “theories of writing as technology” (2). Using Walter Ong’s work on orality, literacy, and culture, Jackson attempts to trace the development of the novel throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Grounding his critique in careful close readings of the novels that he chooses, Jackson examines “the unavoidable contradiction of using written story to question, if not outright condemn, writing,” while at the same time he rejects poststructuralist approaches that “extrapolate from this necessary contradiction to make claims about language and representation in general” (36). In his sweeping account, Jackson aims to situate developments in the novel in relation to “the history of story” (192) and, most particularly, in terms of the movement from oral storytelling techniques to written storytelling techniques.
Central to Jackson’s project are two terms that he deploys to distinguish between storytelling approaches in novels: oralistic and alphabetic. “Oralistic,” says Jackson, “refers to those forms or contents in written story that do display features that are definable as characteristic of oral story. These are elements of story that can be reasonably seen as, at least, what Ong calls the ‘residue’ of originally oral story. For example, I call most elements of the supernatural or the impossibly perfect oralistic, even if they appear in written story” (18). In contrast, Jackson uses the term “alphabetic” to “designate those types of story or elements of story that can be reasonably explained as a function of the technological nature of alphabetography” (18). Jackson believes that novels engage both oralistic and alphabetic storytelling practices, and he takes care to clarify that he does not believe that one form of storytelling should be privileged over the other. Nevertheless, he asserts that he sees writing as the technology that “disembodies speech,” and alphabetic tendencies in the novel as facilitating “the disembodiment that is characteristic of written story” (20). Ultimately, Jackson believes that analyzing novels through these categories allows him “to show both what more we can learn about the novel as a genre from this theory of writing and what more we can learn about the theory by studying these novels” (36).
The trajectory of the monograph can be divided into three phases. First, in his chapters on Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, [End Page 445] and Bleak House, Jackson examines how nineteenth-century novels integrate oralistic and alphabetic storytelling practices and how those practices influence the reading practices of their audiences. In these opening chapters, Jackson explores the new possibilities that alphabetic approaches to storytelling afford the audience, while he also indicates the underlying disquiet that authors may feel about alphabetic storytelling and writing itself. Second, Jackson’s chapters on A Passage to India and The Waves focus primary attention on the anxieties that alphabetic approaches to storytelling produce. These chapters preserve a definitive break between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century fiction, and they reinforce a view of modernism that emphasizes primitivist impulses and formal experimentation. Finally, in his chapters on The Golden Notebook and Atonement, as well as in his concluding chapter on the American film Citizen Kane, Jackson most directly challenges poststructuralist theoretical approaches to language, representation, and writing. Jackson examines the ways in which alphabetic storytelling techniques have exhausted their utility, and he suggests that cinema comprises the next “world-historical event in the history of story” (192).
The Technology of the Novel purports to break new ground in the criticism of the novel by turning away from theoretical methodologies “most prominently associated with Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and poststructuralist kinds of theory” (2) and embracing an approach with liberal humanist roots. Jackson undertakes his analysis of the novels that he chooses with a methodology that values careful close reading, and that emphasizes how human beings tell and respond to stories. Most significantly, Jackson emphasizes the way that the practice of writing itself shapes the stories that we have...