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Reviewed by:
  • Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology
  • Jarmila Mildorf (bio)
Arthur W. Frank. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. 209 pp. ISBN 978-0226260136, $25.00.

Narrative research seems to have proliferated exponentially over the last two decades. The vast number of international collections of essays and monographs in the last three to four years alone attests to scholars’ unbroken, if not heightened, interest in narrative—across a range of disciplines that pose different research questions (consider, for example, Alber & Fludernik; Eakin; Heinen & Sommer; Herman, Basic Elements; Hyvärinen, Mikkonen & Mildorf; Hyvärinen, Hydén, Saarheimo & Tamboukou; Klein & Martínez; and Schiffrin, de Fina & Nylund). Given this research activity, one legitimate question is: If a new book is published, does it tell us anything innovative about narrative or about how we can/ought to deal with narrative? In other words, does the book offer new perspectives in the areas of narrative theory or narrative analysis? Arthur W. Frank’s latest book, Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology, claims to do both: Frank proposes a new theoretical approach, “socio-narratology,” and a method, “dialogical narrative analysis.” The main aim of this combined approach is to ask “what stories do” (2) rather than what stories are: “The emphasis is on watching them act, not seeking their essence” (21). One central metaphor used by Frank in this regard is that stories “breathe”—that is, they “animate human life” (3), they are “actors” (13) that shape social life and human thinking, and they “become humans’ companions” (43) in the sense that people grow up on stories, which have the power to work on people’s minds, yes, even to become their life models. “Many people are living ‘just like a story,’” Frank writes, and he further claims that stories are “the source of all values” (69). At first glance, such statements seem to convey ideas that we intuitively feel must be right. And many of Frank’s ideas do sound convincing—not least because of Frank’s knack for using imagery that creates accessible and memorable pictures in readers’ minds. The only problem is that these ideas are not new, nor are they entirely uncontroversial. Let me begin by pointing out some technical problems with Frank’s book, before I move on to a more detailed discussion of his arguments.

Frank defines the term “socio-narratology” as an expansion of “the study of literary narratives—NARRATOLOGY—to consider the fullest range of storytelling, from folklore to everyday conversation” (12; caps in original). This definition misconstrues narratology, which has for quite some time now broadened its agenda to include more than “just” literary narratives. In fact, the very term “socionarratology” was first used by David Herman in his 1999 article “Toward a Socionarratology: New Ways of Analyzing Natural-Language Narratives.” Had Frank taken this article into account (the only reference to Herman is to his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to [End Page 833] Narrative ), he may have noticed that Herman laid out a rather distinct sub-discipline of the so-called “postclassical narratologies,” which was to attend to formal, contextual, and cognitive factors, combining narratological analysis with sociolinguistic and conversation-analytic methods. Frank’s use of the term “socio-narratology” is particularly unfortunate since his own approach is as far removed from narratology and its main tenets as could be. Narratology has traditionally been concerned with a) the question of what constitutes narrative, and b) the formal features of narrative. Frank’s variant of “socio-narratology” instead “dispenses with the baggage of seeking any formal underlying model of competence” (13), and refuses to offer a definition of stories (21), thereby debunking two points so central to narratology. The term “socio-narratology” thus is a misnomer that misleads scholars potentially interested in narratological developments.

Instead of a definition of narrative, Frank offers a “working understanding” —“one thing happens in consequence of another” (25, italics original)—and he then focuses on the “capacities of stories” to delineate what narratives are (27–44). Some of these capacities are that stories deal with trouble but potentially also cause trouble, they “display and test people’s character” (29), present a certain perspective...