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Reading From a Distance in/and Canadian Cities: Negotiating the Stylistics of Locality

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 39, Issue 4, December 2013
pp. 113-144 | 10.1353/esc.2013.0051

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A reader attentive to narrative address will notice how the narrator of the following passage establishes for her audience a position distant from her own location. The narrator is here, in “this city”—a location soon after indicated to be Toronto—but her audience is elsewhere, attending to her story from some considerable distance.

This city hovers above the forty-third parallel; that’s illusory of course. Winters on the other hand, there’s nothing vague about them. Winters here are inevitable, sometimes unforgiving. Two years ago, they had to bring the army in to dig the city out from under the snow.… Spring this year couldn’t come too soon—and it didn’t.

This passage is taken from the opening lines of Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, a novel about the complicated social and cultural niche occupied by four young Torontonians, all of whom have parents who migrated there from an elsewhere far from the city. The novel thus begins with the narrator locating her city for her audience on a global map calibrated by lines of latitude. Noting that these are a cartographer’s construction, an illusion of mapmaking that figures lines where there are none on the ground, she shifts frames of reference to tell her audience about the embodied experience of living in this city: the “inevitable” force of winter cold, the longing for spring. At this moment in the narrative, features of style and narrative disposition suggest an address to an audience positioned at a distance—located somewhere southward, perhaps, where heavy snow is a story worth telling, and from which perspective degrees of latitude northward are the relevant scale for measuring Toronto’s distance.

In this paper, I consider narrative passages like this one, in which a geographical position relative to the story’s setting is established for the implied audience, and ask what our attention to the narrative style in such passages might allow us to add to recent critical discussions about the interpretive dynamics and the politics of reading from a distance. These discussions include work on regionalism and the reading of Maritime fiction from metropolitan centres in central Canada, England, and the United States; international readership, in particular the reading of Canadian work by European critics; and cosmopolitan reading. I will shortly offer a review of these discussions; such a review suggests that their emphasis has been on the interpretive powers and geopolitical positioning of certain reading audiences rather than on the audience-positioning effects of narrative style. I would like to contribute some consideration of the effects of style.

This paper is motivated, in part, by the sense that style must make some difference, for readers of Brand’s novel—readers located wherever they are: in coastal Canada, or the United States, or Germany, for instance. This motivation, in turn, comes from work in linguistic pragmatics and relevance theory: theoretical approaches to language, including narrative language, that see style as always at once reflecting and constructing particular social situations (see, for instance, Sperber and Wilson, Clark and Carlson, Clark and Marshall, Prince). Narrative style in novels, in this view, constructs a particular audience as addressed by the narrator at a given moment in the narrative (Banting): an audience positioned as knowing certain things (but perhaps not others), as likely to find certain stories interesting and relevant, and as having a certain, more or less defined, relationship to the narrator and the settings and events he describes. From this theoretical perspective, passages such as the one that opens Brand’s novel compel an attention to the social dynamics of what Clark and Carlson call “audience design” (218): the designation of a particular audience as the primary addressees of the narrative and the concurrent positioning of other audiences as addressed only indirectly, or not at all. Read in this spirit, Brand’s narrator’s selective address has the social effect of situating some audiences outside of her immediate purview, and it is this effect that leads me to argue that her style must make a difference to readers of the novel, in their particular individual locations and circumstances. It must make a difference for distant readers...



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