Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 410-412
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Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames. Brian Richardson, ed. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 399. $84.95 (cloth); $26.95 (paper).
Brian Richardson's exemplary, indispensable new anthology collects 27 essential selections from the longer history of narrative theory. The selections are both foundational and revisionary, various in their critical and ideological perspectives, and a great mix of old and new. Richardson [End Page 410] has grouped them beautifully, according to the five aspects of "narrative dynamics," and he has introduced the five groups with short essays that together amount to a masterful survey of the field. Perfectly structured, the book as a whole is really a model of its kind, and will be a very valuable resource for research and teaching of every variety.
The "dynamics" in question here are the narrative "movements" of time, plot, sequence, closure, and framing. In each category, there are good old standards (including, for example, Bakhtin, Genette, Ricoeur, Forster, Propp, Frye, Brooks, Said, Derrida), exciting new revisions (from Susan Winnett, Robyn Warhol, Russell Reising, and Richardson himself), and much that falls gracefully between. The introductory essays amount to 40 pages or so of pure-gold information, and the bibliography, suggestions for further reading, and list of short narrative examples relevant to each category make Narrative Dynamics impressively comprehensive.
Narrative Dynamics solves a few of the problems that have made other such anthologies less than fully useful. Whereas others have cast their net too widely—claiming, for example, to take on "the theory of fiction" or the history of the novel or narrativity tout court—Richardson's anthology stakes out a better defined terrain, one it can survey more totally. Whereas others have embarrassed themselves over the allegedly excessive formalism of narrative theory, this one has discovered that a sharper focus can have it both ways—by cutting a deeper cross-section of ideological approaches. And finally, whereas other editors have had to limit themselves to whatever selections seem to them necessary, Richardson's superb introductions, which give exhaustive accounts of the work done throughout history on each topic, make his anthology also a fine survey of far more than what he has been able to include.
Richardson's introductions are a stroke of genius, since they cleanly and fairly separate narrative's proper dynamics from the vast incursions it potentially makes into matters of psychology, linguistics, cultural studies, politics, and anthropology. But this canny limitation does not mean that Richardson's selections and introductions avoid responsibility to these other aspects of narrative. It just means that questions of psychology, linguistics, and politics enter in where they are causes or effects of narrative movement. The distinction here is subtle but important, because it trades haphazard anthologizing for masterful clarity, and distinguishes many currents and debates that might otherwise be obscured. Under the rubric of "sequencing," for example, we get a stronger emphasis on the politics of form than we might get from an anthology that ranged around more widely, because we get Boris Tomashevsky, Hayden White, and Robyn Warhol all together. These disparate theorists tell us very different things about sequence, and in the contrasts among them we see, better than we otherwise might, just how diversely political, cultural, and psychological such a narratological distinction must become.
In effect, the book's five sections succeed each other in a way that amounts to an effective theoretical argument—more evidence of the mastery that abounds everywhere in Richardson's choices, arrangements, summaries, and speculations. Specialists will enjoy renewing their knowledge of the field under the guidance of a writer able to take them briskly from the earliest classical accounts through any number of recent revisions; graduate students will appreciate the way these surveys work just as well as a wholly lucid introduction to the field; and all scholars will benefit from Richardson's wide-ranging familiarity with the best recent work and from his no-doubt prescient suggestions for work that yet remains to be done.
Precisely because Richardson surveys and explains...