• Two Conceptions of Experientiality and Narrativity: Functions, Advantages, and Disadvantages

In Fludernik’s Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, there are two different conceptions of experientiality, one broader and the other more nuanced, the coexistence of which is an ingenious design and one necessary for the book both to make the powerful cognitive impact on the field and to show how readers use different frames to interpret different types of narratives. Similarly, we can find two different conceptions of “narrativity” which, though distinct from each other, together form a balanced cognitive-textual equilibrium. This paper analyzes the features, functions, advantages, and disadvantages of the different conceptions, pointing out their different roles in the 1990s and the present day.

Monika Fludernik’s Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (1996) is ground-breaking in three interrelated respects: the integrated study of non-literary and literary narrative, the cognitive study of narrative, and the historical study of narrative. This paper will focus on two key concepts in the book: “experientiality” and “narrativity.”

1. Two Conceptions of Experientiality

Two different conceptions of experientiality are laid out by Fludernik, one broader and the other more nuanced. The broader conception figures prominently not only in Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, but also in Fludernik’s later essay, “Natural Narratology and Cognitive Parameters” (2003), which offers a neat summary that I shall draw on in my discussion of the book. According to the broad conception, experiential natural narrative forms the prototype of all narratives. Experiential natural narrative has the following characteristics: a) the storytelling forms a process that captures the narrator’s past experience; b) surprising events impinge on the protagonist and are resolved by his/her reactions; c) the sequence provides an illustrative ‘point’ to the story (through evaluation) and links the telling to its immediate discourse context (Fludernik 2003: 245; 1996: passim). Since this kind of natural narrative is taken to be the prototype of all narratives, narrativity is defined as “experientiality,” i.e., “the human reworking of experience in terms of its emotional and evaluative significance” (Fludernik 2003: 249; 1996: 12–13). By locating narrativity in “experientiality,” Fludernik hopes to provide “a cognitively anchored common denominator for all types of narratives, since experientiality equally determines narrativity in novels” (2003: 249).

However, the experiential type is not the only type of natural narrative. When discussing how natural narrative provides the cognitive source for the five cognitive frames classified in Towards a ‘Natural’ [End Page 263] Narratology, we get a more nuanced conception of experientiality. This stands out in the following passage:

the five frames also relate to basic constituents of natural narrative, i.e. conversational storytelling, which provides the cognitive source for these parameters. Thus, when one analyses natural narrative, one can clearly distinguish between non-experiential narratives (ACTION schema); experiential narratives of personal experience and experiential narratives of vicarious experience (TELLING and EXPERIENCING schemata); witness narratives (VIEWING schema); and narrative comment (REFLECTING schema). Both experiential types of narrative combine the TELLING and EXPERIENCING schemata since they have an on-the-stage narrator. Narratives of vicarious experience that are non-experiential combine the ACTION with the TELLING schema.

(Fludernik 2003: 247, my italics)

This more nuanced conception of experientiality accommodates the existence of “non-experiential narratives (ACTION schema),” a conception according to which both reportative conversational storytelling and written historical texts would qualify as “real narratives” (compare Fludernik 2004: 132–33). Significantly, this more nuanced conception treats experiential narratives only as one of several “basic types of natural narrative” (2003: 248), regarding the “EXPERIENCING schema” only as one of several cognitive schemata.

As a result of this classification by Fludernik of different types of natural narratives, we are led to see experiential natural narrative no longer as the prototype of all narratives. Instead, the various kinds of natural narrative must be seen as the prototypes of different kinds of written narrative:

Natural Narratives as Prototypes

(with Fludernik’s nuanced conception of experientiality)

Reportative natural narratives: the prototype of reportative written narratives (such as historical narratives)

Experiential natural narratives: the prototype of experiential written narratives (whether of personal experience or of vicarious experience)

Witness natural narratives: the prototype of camera-eye fiction or “empty deictic center” texts1 [End Page 264]

Narrative comment: the prototype of reflecting written narratives (such as postmodernist fiction, traditional essay literature, or the moralizing discourse of 18th-century authors)2

Narratives of vicarious experience that are non-experiential: the prototype of written narratives of vicarious experience that are non-experiential

Given this nuanced picture of different types of natural and written narratives, it is not possible to claim that narrativity lies only in experientiality, since experientiality is a defining characteristic of only one of these basic types of narratives. In fact, Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, when holding a nuanced conception of experientiality, does take the ACTING frame or the schema of actionality as one defining characteristic of narrativity:

ACTING also is one of the frames that readers resort to in the process of narrativization [imposing narrativity on the text], and this schema — visualized at level II — does not merely comprise understandings about goal-oriented human action but additionally invokes the entire processuality of event and action series. When readers attempt minimally to narrativize [End Page 265] texts that are highly inconsistent they may have to rely on the rock-bottom schema of actionality to tease out a rudimentary sense in story-referential terms.

(Fludernik 1996: 44, my italics)

When Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology holds a broad conception of experientiality, narrativity only lies in experientiality, not in anything else. With this conception, narratives without experientiality, such as historical narratives, are regarded as narratives with “zero-degree narrativity” (Fludernik 1996: 328).3 However, when the book turns to the more nuanced conception of experientiality, the EXPERIENCING only figures as one of the several cognitive parameters, including the ACTING parameter. As a result, narrativization can be achieved by way of “the rock-bottom schema of actionality.”4

The broader and the more nuanced conceptions of experientiality have their respective advantages and disadvantages. The broader conception carries a much stronger revolutionary force, a force that was particularly called for in the historical context of the 1990s. Before that time, narratology focused on the text, paying little attention to the cognitive aspect of narrative. By foregrounding experientiality, treating experiential natural narrative as the prototype of all narratives and radically subverting the traditional conception of narrativity with experientiality, Fludernik’s Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology made a strong impact on the narratological world, especially concerning the heretofore neglected cognitive dimension of narrative. But if we had only the broad conception of experientiality, we would more or less lose sight of the various textual and cognitive characteristics of different types of natural and written narratives. Moreover, we would be forced to expel narratives with zero- or low-degree experientiality such as report conversational storytelling or [End Page 266] historical texts from the realm of “narrative.”5 Interestingly, in an effort to cover report narrative in her 2010 essay, Fludernik adds “ACTING” to the diagram of “Different forms of constituting consciousness” and treats “report narrative” requiring the ACTING frame as a form “of constituting consciousness,” putting it on a par with “reflector-mode narrative” requiring the EXPERIENCING frame (209). But to me this is not a desirable move, since “report narrative” with the ACTING frame is marked by zero-degree or a low degree of consciousness and experientiality, forming an essential contrast with the reflector-mode narrative in this aspect.6

Significantly, and fortunately, the broad conception of “experientiality” is well balanced by the more nuanced conception which treats the “experiencing schema” as only one among five cognitive schemata, and “experiential natural narrative” as only one among several kinds of natural narratives — a prototype of one kind among several kinds of written narratives. Thus, all texts which are traditionally regarded as “narrative” — whether report/witness conversational storytelling or historical writing or neutral/impartial camera-eye fiction — qualify as proper or real narratives. Postmodernist fiction also finds its place in the realm of narrative through the REFLECTING and ACTING schemata.7 With this nuanced conception of experientiality, we can see how readers use different cognitive frames to narrativize or interpret different types of oral or written narratives. This point can be backed up by Fludernik’s historical considerations:

In a third, more specifically narratological move, these five basic types are then also argued to correspond to typical historical forms of narrative, with the ACTION AND TELLING frames responsible for most narratives until the eighteenth century and the EXPERIENCING and REFLECTING [End Page 267] frames emerging belatedly to come into their own in the twentieth century. The VIEWING frame, the most marginal of basic-level frames, makes a brief appearance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but never acquires the same prominence as the other schemata.

(2003: 247)

Twenty years ago, the co-existence of the two different conceptions of experientiality was a brilliant design, with the broad conception carrying strong innovative force and the nuanced conception offering a more accurate, balanced, and comprehensive picture — both synchronically and diachronically — of the different types of narratives and the corresponding different cognitive frames and strategies.

At the time, the broad conception of experientiality was particularly called for so as to rectify the neglect of the reader’s cognitive activity and make the necessary cognitive impact on the narratological world, an impact that would have been much reduced if the book had propounded only the more nuanced conception of experientiality. It is very important for us to realize the significant role the broad conception of experientiality has played in the history of narrative theory. Presently, the situation is very different, for cognitive narratology has become a central paradigm. It is time for us to pay more attention to Fludernik’s nuanced conception of experientiality and to investigate how readers resort to a variety of cognitive frames in interpreting different types of narratives.

It should nonetheless be borne in mind that the broad conception of experientiality remains helpful today for investigating the experiential aspect of those narratives primarily requiring the use of a schema other than the “EXPERIENCING” one. With the broad conception, Fludernik insightfully revealed the experiential elements in witness or camera-eye narratives (see, for instance, 1996: 172–76) as well as in early historical writing (2004). Such efforts can help to provide a fuller picture both of the characteristics of the narratives involved and of the cognitive activity of readers.8 [End Page 268]

2. Two Different Conceptions of Narrativity

As to the other key concept, that of “narrativity,” we also find two different conceptions in Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, summarized in Fludernik’s 2003 essay:

  1. a. The merely cognitive conception of narrativity: narrativity “is not a quality adhering to a text, but rather an attribute imposed on the text by the reader who interprets the text as narrative, thus narrativizing the text” (Fludernik 2003: 244).

  2. b. The merely textual conception of narrativity:narrativity is a function of narrative texts and centres on experientiality of an anthropomorphic nature” (1996: 26).

    For the narrator, not the reader, “the experientiality of the story resides not merely in the events themselves but [also] in their emotional significance and exemplary nature. . . . It is this conjunction of experience reviewed, reorganized, and evaluated . . . that constitutes narrativity

    (2003: 245).

The two conceptions of narrativity, one merely cognitive and the other merely textual, are complementary. As we know, cognitive frames for narrativization are not autogenic but have grown out of the textual features of existing narratives, such as the EXPERIENCING and TELLING schemata, arising from the textual features of experiential natural narratives.

To have a more comprehensive picture, we can take into account at once the production of texts, textual features, generic conventions, and cognitive strategies which are very much interrelated. This can be inferred from the following observation by Fludernik:

As genres proliferate and written texts appear on the scene, the relevant [cognitive] competence increases accordingly and also changes in kind. In the process of acculturation, particularly literary acculturation, potential audiences acquire generic models which decisively influence their reading experience. Genres, after all, are large-scale cognitive frames.

(1996: 44)

Generic textual features are a result of the storyteller’s or author’s creating the text in a certain way based on generic conventions and with the relevant cognitive strategies in view. Generic conventions arise out of the conjunction between textual features (such as those produced by authors whose writing helps make a new genre or expands an existing genre) and cognitive strategies (adopted by audiences and expected by authors). Moreover, cognitive strategies and competence are based on generic textual features and generic conventions. [End Page 269]

Let us return now to the merely cognitive and the merely textual conceptions of narrativity in Fludernik’s narratology. Despite a certain disparity between the two conceptions, their coexistence in Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology was a praiseworthy step forward in the 1990s. They serve different ends, with the merely cognitive adding to the cognitive force of Fludernik’s book, and the merely textual helping to redress the one-sided cognitive outlook. Twenty years ago, to make a strong cognitive impact on the field, we needed the one-sided cognitive claim of narrativity; twenty years on, we can now combine the cognitive and the textual in a more balanced way: narrativity resides both in textual features and in the reader’s narrativizing activity. Indeed, after the cognitive revolution to which Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology has so greatly contributed, we can now enjoy the balanced cognitive-textual equilibrium.

Dan Shen
Peking University

Works Cited

Fludernik, Monika. 1996. Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London: Routledge.
———. 2003. “Natural Narratology and Cognitive Parameters.” In Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Ed. David Herman. Stanford: CSLI, pp. 243–70.
———. 2004. “Letters and Chronicles: How Narrative Are They?” In Essays on Fiction and Perspective. Ed. Göran Rossholm. Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 129–53.
———. 2010. “Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology: Frames and Pedagogy: A Reply to Nilli Diengott.” JLS: Journal of Literary Semantics 39: 203–11.
Genette, Gérard. 1980[1972]. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Shen, Dan. 2016. “What are Unnatural Narratives? What are Unnatural Elements?” Style 50/4: 483–89. [End Page 270]


1. With the broad conception of experientiality which sees experiential natural narrative as the prototype of all narratives and which locates narrativity only in experientiality, Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology seeks to identify the experiential elements in “camera-eye” narratives and to show how readers narrativize these texts in terms of experientiality (see, for instance, Fludernik 1996: 172–76). But the more nuanced conception of experientiality sees witness natural narrative as the prototype of camera-eye fiction and calls for using the VIEWING schema in dealing with this type of narrative (Fludernik 1996: 46). It is arguable that both schemata often function simultaneously in narratives of this genre, but with different degrees of importance. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie (1957), the very title of the novel invites readers to interpret the observing camera as the jealous husband’s eye so that the experiential frame will play a much more important role than in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1927) or “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), where the observing camera is neutral and impartial and readers are not likely to take the focalization as internal. In cases like La Jalousie (where the viewing schema will still function even if the focalization is taken to be internal), it will be particularly fruitful to investigate the interplay between the VIEWING and the EXPERIENCING schemata. Moreover, apart from witness natural narrative, we can investigate how the VIEWING schema also comes from other cognitive sources including drama, film, and photography.

2. Fludernik regards narrative comment associated with the REFLECTING schema as the cognitive source of “postmodernist texts and traditional essay literature (Montaigne) or the moralizing discourse of Fielding, Sterne, or other eighteenth-century authors” (2003: 246). However, “narrative comment” does not form a kind of natural narrative in itself. Moreover, not a few postmodernist texts more or less undermine bedrock assumptions about what is natural (see Shen). In terms of traditional essays, they are essays rather than narratives. The moralizing discourse of 18th-century authors is usually by an external narrator, a kind of extradiegetic discourse that forms what Genette calls “pause” (99–106) and that does not take up any story time.

3. In “Letters and Chronicles,” Fludernik modifies and refines her argument in Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology by showing that what she “termed ‘zero narrativity’ in a rather blanket denigration of pre-nineteenth-century historical writing has grades and variant forms” (2004: 129).

4. The epithet “rock-bottom” is meaningful, for at this lowest and essential level, actionality forms the common basis for all narratives. The passage quoted is concerned with the interpretation of “texts that are highly inconsistent,” characteristic of the postmodernist genre. One of the aims of Fludernik’s use of experientiality as the defining feature of narrativity is to allow “modernist and postmodernist texts — which do not have a prominent plot function — to figure as equally ‘narrative’ as their realist precursors” (2004: 130). If the ACTING frame can still be resorted to when interpreting such texts, then the traditional definition of narrativity, as based on actionality, will not exclude postmodernist fiction. But of course given the difference of postmodernist fiction from realist texts, we also need to resort to the REFLECTING schema and sometimes also to an anti-mimetic framework (see Shen).

5. Fludernik’s “Letters and Chronicles” seeks to show that late medieval and early modern historical texts, “which are notnarrative’ in the sense of Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology” can be “demonstrated to grope towards greater narrativity” (2004: 133). But, as pointed out by Fludernik, narrativity “designates the complex of defining features that constitute a text as a narrative text. In other words, narrativity is determined by definitions of what is a narrative” (130). It is therefore not desirable to set “narrativity” in contradistinction to “narrative.”

6. The same applies to Fludernik’s putting on a par “neutral narrative,” “Banfield’s empty centre,” and “reflectorization” as three “forms of constituting [the viewer’s] consciousness” (2010: 209). The first two types form a contrast with the last type, since they are marked by zero- or low-degree viewer consciousness or experientiality.

7. Apart from these two schemata, the EXPERIENCING schema is often called for in reading postmodernist fiction, a genre that frequently represents characters’ consciousness through the reflector mode.

8. In reading a narrative, we may need to appeal to several cognitive frames, especially in the case of traditional omniscient narration where, in addition to the TELLING and EXPERIENCING frames, we may be prompted to resort to the VIEWING frame when the narrator feigns to be an onlooker without knowledge of the identity of the characters, or to the REFLECTING frame when the narrator indulges in moralizing discourse.

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