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  • Editor’s Column:Spreading the Word(s)
  • James Phelan

We narrative theorists have many reasons to feel good about the current state of our field. Narratology, by which I mean the paradigm of classic structuralism, once on its deathbed, has benefited from blood transfusions and multiple organ transplants (donors include, among many others, rhetoric, feminism, cognitive science, and queer theory) and become Contemporary Narratology, a formidable multi-limbed, multi-headed creature whose roar we often hear in the pages of this journal (see the essay by Teresa Bridgeman in this issue) and in many other venues. Although I have not done a systematic study, my collection of anecdotal evidence indicates that the number of courses on narrative and narrative theory is increasing in the United States. Presses that keep at least one eye on the bottom line, such as Routledge, Blackwell, and Cambridge, are bringing out introductions, anthologies, encyclopedias (well, at least one), and companions devoted to narrative theory. And the study of narrative across the disciplines, "the narrative turn" in the academy, is still going strong and promises to continue generating important insights for years to come.

So, bully for us. But how are we doing beyond the walls of the academy? Consider these two excerpts from articles that ran less than two weeks apart in The New York Times in the fall of 2004. The first article, about the increasing sophistication of software for generating narrative prose, is by novelist Daniel Akst, who expresses his mock-serious concerns about being replaced by a computer. Here's the passage in which he invokes narratology: "What has been accomplished so far [with this software] is scary enough, and surely there is more to come, thanks to recent advances in computing power and the rise of 'narratology' (how stories are told) as an academic field of study, among other unwholesome trends that are making the novelist's life ever more perilous." [End Page 85]

The second article, about the increasingly widespread use of the term narrative and especially its use by Democratic pundits after John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 presidential election, is by William Safire. Safire quotes academic scholars (Robert Scholes, Peter Brooks, and me) with approval, but he also treats what narrative theorists do with an irony that announces his own distance from and skepticism about it. Here's his last paragraph: "There you have a story line with a nice twist at the end. . . . You were once a mere reader; at this moment—here at the denouement of this story of a word that fought its way to become first the cynosure of the literati and now the favorite son of the politerati—you have been transformed into the narratee."

Even if there is no such thing as bad publicity, there is surely such a thing as mixed publicity—and I think that's what we have here. On the plus side, in addition to the attention to our field itself, both Akst and Safire use their terms well enough that a good defense lawyer could get them off any charges that might be brought by the Narratological Usage Police. On the minus side, they each need some defense: Akst's gloss of narratology as "how stories are told" reduces it to the study of narrative discourse, and Safire's claim that the denouement transforms his reader into a narratee misses two points: (1) the very first sentence of his column, which is constructed as a narrative about narrative, is implicitly addressed to a narratee; and (2) the narratee and the individual reader remain analytically distinct. Even in a world with no such thing as bad publicity, a little learning can be a dangerous thing.

More important items on the minus side are the attitudes of Akst and Safire. Despite Akst's humorous tone, his sentence has a serious point: the findings of narratology enable software designers to write more sophisticated programs for generating narratives and the more sophisticated these programs become the more the narratives they generate resemble those produced by novelists. More generally, Akst's article, including its humor, depends on his construction of a binary opposition between computers and novelists, a binary that implicitly...


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