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  • Narrative Progression in the Short Story:First Steps in a Corpus Stylistic Approach
  • Michael Toolan (bio)

Framing Assumptions: Prospection, Expectation, Response

I am interested in the putative textual signalings of narrative progression, and thereafter the reader expectations that these foster; I am trying to identify such signalings (or narrative prospection, as it is also called) with new research methods, namely those of corpus linguistics. Research of this kind, blending a literary interest with use of corpus tools, is coming to be known as corpus stylistics (or more narrowly, corpus narratology). For readers of this journal I assume that neither explaining nor justifying an interest in narrative progression is necessary, so I will discuss this relatively briefly. I will spend a little more time outlining what corpus stylistics entails and what its limitations are; and then I will share some ways in which I have tried to make it useful in the pursuit of my research interest, the textualization of narrative prospection.

Narrative prospection is itself only a stage in the experiential sequence of interest to me. I assume that the text's prospections cumulatively and serially guide the reader to expect the story currently being read to continue and terminate in one way rather than others (at the least, the prospections will foster probabilistic expectations). The ways in which the subsequent narrative text confirms or flouts [End Page 105] these expectations, I hypothesize, are the bases of powerful cognitive-emotive responses, which are central to the reader's experience of the story. So in attempting to identify the textual sources of expectation, I am trying to work back to the textual roots of the reader's experiential immersion in a story. Equally, I am trying the better to model and understand reading a short story as a process and not merely as something leading to a product. The process is a phased one in which textual cues create expectations which in turn evoke feelings now of fear, now of suspense, now of surprise, menace, grief, anger, and so on, together with thoughts of unfairness, or futility, or disproportionality, or marvellous good fortune—the whole gamut of possible thoughts and emotions that fill our minds and absorb our attention in the course of our reading of an engaging narrative.1 And the text, processed in sequence, is here regarded as the chief source, although not the only one, of the progression of emotional and cognitive responses that the reader has. Literary narratives are particularly powerful at causing the reader to feel immersed in a textual world, a world which seems increasingly interpretable and predictable as the text unfolds. This immersion is necessary for the accompanying emotional engagement that readers often allude to.

The methods I use here can be called corpus stylistic, but the latter is so nascent a subfield of corpus linguistics that the designation is presumptuous. Corpus linguistics itself, however, is well established. It involves the rapid searching and sorting of electronic versions of texts or language samples, often assessed comparatively against an appropriate reference corpus, e.g., a large computer-searchable gathering of texts. Some versions of corpus analysis emphasize quantitative factors, and these can be important because of the unprecedentedly large data-sample on which the analyst's findings are based (Biber "Variation"; Biber et al.; Short and Semino; Hoover "Language"); in other uses, there is more interest in the ways that corpus analysis can underpin changes in our theories of text and language (and perhaps of style), with particular emphasis on the collocational properties of language (Sinclair "Corpus," "Trust"; Hunston and Francis; Louw "Irony"; Wray; Stubbs "Words and Phrases," "Conrad," "Corpus analysis"; Hoey "Lexical Priming"). A growing number of scholars are now working on corpus-informed analyses of literary texts, and their work is of particular relevance to the present study (Carter; Hori; Herman; Yevseyev; Dillon "Corpus," "Genres"; Mahlberg; Watson and Zyngier; Moon; and Hoover, Culpeper and Louw [forthcoming in 2008]).

Given an interest in prospection and expectation, can the rapid searching and sorting of word-forms and phrases enabled by corpus analysis, together with the theoretical commitments of corpus linguistics (collocation, phraseology, lexical priming), contribute to our understanding of the texture and structure of short...


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