restricted access Teaching Narrative Theory (review)
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Reviewed by
David Herman, Brian McHale, and James Phelan, eds. Teaching Narrative Theory. New York: MLA, 2010. 326 pp.

Narrative theory is a century old and still on the defensive, partly because, unlike the theory of poetry, it has not been sanctified by traditions spanning millennia. Narratologists are still likely to face students’ impatience with their filigree text analyses, often studded with terminology derived from Greek, Latin, Russian, and French.

And yet, narrative theory makes comebacks after different trends in literary scholarship play themselves out, and it often absorbs some of the best achievements of the passing trends. It can be taught as a subject in its own right or as analytic methodology for the study of other subjects. The [End Page 397] MLA collection of essays Teaching Narrative Theory outlines ways in which the potential of either option can be activated in the classroom.

In an article that shows how ordinary reading procedures connect with schools of theoretical thought, Robert F. Barsky notes, among other things, that narrative theory “has unfolded less as a single, grand conversation than as a series of different movements that have sometimes interacted and sometimes not” (35). This leaves teachers the freedom of designing their own courses rather than following codified syllabi. The collection contains a wealth of material about which texts can be most apt for teaching specific aspects of theory, as well as—reversing the priorities—which aspects of theory are particularly useful for the corpus of materials chosen by genre, theme, sociopolitical concerns, or interdisciplinary potential. Synthesizing the two methods, Susan Mooney’s contribution shows how one text, Joyce’s Ulysses, can be taught in such a way as to apply, test, and problematize different branches of literary theory.

The collection eschews mechanically systematic applications of theory to text; instead, it promotes a selection of analytic tools that help to ask questions leading to insights. By “tools” here, one means not separate concepts but systems of narratological distinctions. Jesse Matz’s article on teaching perspective shows, among other things, how some works of fiction point to the limitations of one narratological nomenclature and call for another. The subject that is less developed in the collection is the way in which analysis of a specific work may lead to a further refinement of a specific theory before one abandons it for another.

The volume contains several perspectives on the history of narratology in combination with comments on the history of separate narrative genres, such as the Western, the detective story, science fiction (Brian McHale), film (James Morrison), and digital media (Scott Rettberg and Jill Walkert Rettberg). In other words, the issues raised are also historicized phylogenetically. For example, John Gorman’s article about teaching character portrayal gives a historical retrospect on this vexed pedagogical problem and on the way in which the category “character” itself evolved through time. Gorman’s survey of structuralism’s struggles with this major aspect of narrative systematizes the signals and moves towards the borderline between narratology and the philosophy of literature.

Many of the participating authors share trade secrets—types of written assignments and classroom techniques. Suzanne Keen, for example, suggests exercises for counteracting naïve-reading phenomena (confusion between the historical and the implied author, the tendency of analyzing literary characters as if they were real people, reducing discussions of narratives to plot synopses). Such exercises, bordering on classroom performance or, in the practice of Marianne Hirsch, on creative writing, turn narratological thinking into a part of the undergraduates’ personal experience.

Some of the articles combine the mapping of the field with new theoretical reflections. In an article on teaching narrative “voice,” James Phelan raises an ethical issue: the possibility that reading the text from the position of what in Before Reading Peter Rabinowitz has called “authorial audience” (the audience [End Page 398] that cues up to the rhetoric of the text) limits the freedom of interpretation. Phelan believes in the need to try on the shoes of the “authorial audience” and then to evaluate the results. I would add that an evaluation should also follow resistant readings—in particular, one might ask whether the assertion of one’s interpretive freedom does not reduce...