- Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction by Liesbeth Korthals-Altes
by Liesbeth Korthals-Altes. Nebraska University Press, Lincoln, NE, U.S.A., 2014. The Frontiers of Narrative Series. 344pp. Trade. ISBN: 978-0-8032-4836-6.
For the last few years, narratology has once again been a “hot” discipline, seducing large and diverse groups of scholars. One of the reasons for its success is undoubtedly the fact that the study of narrative is one of the few literary approaches or methods that has proven capable to demonstrate its usefulness outside its original domain: Narrative is “everywhere,” not just in belletristic writing, and narratologists have understood that the best way to further explore their field is to open and widen the kind of stories they analyze. Another reason is that narratology is a perfect match for all those eager to find and develop tools for interdisciplinary research: Here as well, the study of narrative presents a great array of challenges and possibilities that help advance joint research between disciplines that would never meet otherwise.
The flip side of this success, however—and this comes of course as no surprise—is the dizzying explosion and overproduction of publications and books that are not always very useful to the qualitative growth of the discipline. The vital need to distinguish oneself from one’s competitors on the academic market makes some studies unnecessary. In the best case, these are merely overspecialized or focus too exclusively on very tiny case studies. In the worst cases, they suffer from overlap and endless repetition. It is therefore a great joy to see that Ethos and Narrative Interpretation not only avoids all these traps but succeeds in presenting a type of narrative reading that opens new directions while keeping in mind the need for a new, close look at the basic issues of the discipline (fiction, function r genre, for instance).
Just as in any other serious book on reading and writing, Korthals-Altes starts with Aristotle, whose distinction between ethos (the way in which the author presents and positions himself or herself through the text), pathos (the verbal and other features used by the text in order to influence the public’s affects) and logos (the way in which the text builds its argument, not just for the sake of the argument but in order to convince the audience and hence to contribute to shaping the reception of the text) is still key to our contemporary understanding of what a text is and above all what a text does. Of these three basic concepts, that of ethos was most neglected during the heyday of structuralism (which had put between brackets the pragmatics of the text, reduced to a purely verbal and totally decontextualized object) and post-structuralism (which had emphasized too strongly the freedom of the reader’s creative reinterpretation of the text), but in recent scholarship its return is undeniable.
Korthals-Altes’s study is an attempt—a very systematic and convincing one—to link this existing scholarship on ethos, which is far from being reduced to narratology, with a global reframing of the stakes and questions of the study of narrative. More specifically, Korthals-Altes draws on the study of discourse analysis, the sociology of culture, cognitive study, and philosophy to sketch a new way of doing narratology. I prefer this expression to that of “method,” for I think the author’s goal is less to reinvent such a method from scratch, as certain narratologists have been tempted to do in their desire to supersede existing forms of narratology, than to offer a new and very ecumenical perspective on already existing forms. A good example of this is the author’s claim that cognitive science–oriented theories of narrative, which look with great envy at the prestige and robustness of hard sciences, are actually compatible with the personal touch of hermeneutics. (I open here a small parenthesis to thank the author for having based so much of her thinking on French and Francophone sources and for having shown the necessity of an interlinguistic and intercultural dialogue at this level...