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Narrative 12.2 (2004) 117-119
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Narrating the "Life" of Narrative
While reading the January 2004 issue of Critical Inquiry, the one given over to short essays on the journal's future by the members of its distinguished editorial board, I took special notice of two pieces that include some reflections on the journal's beginnings. I gave these articles extra attention in part because I was taken with the way the essays use narrative in the service of argument: this is how things were (or almost were, or how I thought they were going to be); this is how things developed; and, by the laws of logic and narrative progression, this is how things should be in the future. I also took special notice of these pieces for several other reasons. First, the essays are by two long-time University of Chicago hands, Wayne C. Booth and James Chandler, both of whom were on site during the journal's founding in the early 1970s: Booth was intimately involved with founding editor Sheldon Sacks's effort to establish the journal, and Chandler was a graduate student, one who was a year ahead of me in the English Department's Ph.D. program. Second, Booth's and Chandler's reflections about those early years are very different from each other. Third, my narrative about the journal's beginnings, constructed primarily out of listening to Sacks, who was my advisor, talk about it over a four-year period, is significantly different from either Booth's or Chandler's.
For the purposes of this column, the details of those differences are not important, and the fact of their existence is not at all surprising. We all know that differences in position typically produce differences in perspective and that differences in perspective typically lead to different narratives about the same events. And we know that, when two or more narratives about the same event are used in the service of two or more different arguments, the narratives are likely to diverge as much (or as little) as the arguments do. Nevertheless, the fact of the differences did start me thinking about (a) how I and others might tell the story of Narrative's beginning and [End Page 117] ongoing middle, and (b), more generally, what it means to tell the story of a journal's development/evolution/life. I use all three terms because I have become convinced that the phrase "journal's life" is a catachresis, and I want to call attention to the difficulty of finding a term or phrase to refer to what happens to a journal over time that is not a catachresis. Even "what happens . . . over time" is a problem because it fails to identify any agents involved in what happens, and part of the difficulty of telling the story of a journal's _______ is that there are so many agents involved. If I correct that problem by parceling agency out among the editor, the editorial board, the submitters, the readers, and the subscribers, I only underline the original puzzle: each of these multiple agents affects what happens, but there's a significant gap between this collection of effects and the idea of "a life" with its connotation of a single organism following an organic process of growth and development (not to mention decline and death).
I can illustrate the practical consequences of these logical and linguistic conundrums by showing what happens when I try to tell the story of Narrative's beginning and ongoing middle. I can get out of the blocks in good fashion by building on the narrative told by George Perkins on the website of The Society for the Study of Narrative Literature (http://www.narrativesociety.org). George, the editor of The Journal of Narrative Technique since its founding in 1971, notes that he and Barbara Perkins, the managing editor since 1977, became concerned about the declining financial support for JNT by their institution, Eastern Michigan University, and approached the Ohio State University Press about taking over the publication with me taking over as editor. I...