The binder's blunder; or, where is narrative?

Citation metadata

Date: Winter 2016
From: Style(Vol. 50, Issue 4)
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 2,019 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

I would like to thank Brian Richardson and John V. Knapp for inviting me to respond to Richardson's essay. I am sympathetic with unnatural narratology's ambition to rethink the foundations of narrative theory, and I find its engagement with a wide range of noncanonical texts highly stimulating. Richardson's essay is a lucid and perceptive survey of a movement that has become, over the last years, a force to be reckoned with in narrative theory (and literary studies more generally). However, I think a mind-oriented perspective--the approach I adopt in my own work--can challenge some of the assumptions that lie at the core of unnatural narratology.

The title of this response is lifted from the anecdote appearing at the end of Richardson's Target Essay. I want to use this felicitous phrase--the "binder's blunder"--to raise a few questions about unnatural narrative and the theory that Richardson and his colleagues have been building around it. Richardson's anecdote is about an experimental text, Partie by Helene Cixous, a section of which is printed upside down, so that readers have to physically turn around the book in order to read it. Richardson realized that his library copy of the book had been taken apart and rebound in the conventional manner, probably because a scrupulous librarian had thought the layout to be a mistake--hence the blunder. I find this anecdote intriguing because it can be read as an allegory of another kind of blindness: namely, a blindness to how narrative is in itself a binding principle that can be foregrounded to varying degrees by different texts. When that principle is particularly salient, it makes sense to assimilate text and narrative, calling the physical object we are engaging with a narrative. But when that principle is weak (as is the case of many unnatural texts), the object-based view of narrative breaks down. My worry, to anticipate my argument in what follows, is that unnatural narratology is--paradoxically--stuck in an object-based paradigm even as it focuses on texts that challenge that paradigm at a very fundamental level. Let me stress, in passing, that not all unnatural narratologists are equally committed to this view of narrative: there are exceptions, most notably Jan Alber's focus on readerly strategies for making sense of unnatural texts. But, by and large, I believe the ideas articulated in this response do find purchase in work by scholars affiliated with unnatural narratology.

In the Target Essay, Richardson posits that unnatural narratology extends and complements traditional theories of narrative, which--he claims--are skewed toward mimetic texts. It is well known that the account of narrative temporality proposed by Gerard Genette in his seminal Narrative Discourse rests on the analysis of Marcel Proust's Recherche. Richardson implies that Proust's work is an example of a mimetic novel, or perhaps that Genette's reading of it is mimetically biased. I'm not entirely convinced of that reading of Proust (or Genette), depending on how one understands the word "mimetic." However, I think this move is not the most controversial aspect of Richardson's argument....

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A477339861