1. Why were you initially drawn to narratology or narrative theory?
In the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, narrative theory at English Departments in
2. What do you consider your most important contribution(s) to the field?
My first extended piece of research (well, a 26-page essay) was originally entitled “Frames, Preferences and the Reading of Third-Person Narratives” (1997), but Nünning with his sharp sense of all current “turns” immediately suggested adding the subtitle “Towards a Cognitive Narratology”. The main point of the essay was to explain attribution of narrative situations to narrative passages and to explore what Perry and Sternberg had called “literary dynamics”. The cognitive frames concept that was added to this was lifted from Marvin Minsky’s frame theory (an Artificial Intelligence approach), and the notion of preferences was imported from Ray Jackendoff’s Semantics and Cognition (1983).
My next project focused on the perceptional filtering of narrative information or “focalization” (“Windows of Focalization” 1996, “More Aspects of Focalization” 1999). The term itself and three main types had been distinguished by Genette, re-arranging and streamlining what had previously been covered under the labels of perspective and point of view. Bal and Chatman had come up with interesting proposals as to modifications and refinements, all more or less rejected by Genette, who now seemed to consider the topic exhausted as well as exhausting. I did not agree; Genette had successfully integrated focalization into the general framework of narratology, but focalization theory itself was fragmented and there was no consensus about its scope. Considering that no part of narratology is tied closer to cognition than focalization, re-assessment simply had to proceed from a cognitive grounding. I therefore began my treatment of the subject by outlining a simplified model of the perceiving eye. This model allowed me to graphically disentangle the two main meanings of focus as being (1) the perceptual zero point located within the perceiver, and (2) the perceived object itself, the object in focus. For what I thought would be a practical shorthand, I used the terms focus-1 and focus-2, respectively, but for some unfathomable reason these never caught on. Much to my delight, a famous piece of author-theory, Henry James’s metaphor of the million windows in the House of Fiction, fitted this model of focalization perfectly, as did Jackendoff’s account of the reading process in Consciousness and the Computational Mind (1987).
In my continued assessment of what focalization is and does I find that one of the most helpful concepts is “apperception” – that is, understanding a perceived entity in terms of previous experience. The term stresses the fact that our necessarily indirect perception of reality is the product of a good deal of personal interpretive processing. Apperception is the mental construct that makes us see (or from an interestingly different perspective: allows us to see) the world and what’s in it as something. Whether our seeing-as interpretation of the world is correct or distorted, ecologically viable or not, and how it agrees with other people’s apperceptions is a question that is clearly as central to life as it is to literature. Regarding the problematic relationship between narration and focalization I came to conclude that narration and focalization are mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing powers. A narrator’s narrative is shaped by his or her perspectival orientation both on the level of the how and the what, and deliberative storytelling will change a teller’s outlook on the world. From this I proposed that narration and focalization, rather than being prized apart, are best placed in a common cognitive framework which includes all major players tagged with their respective space-time co-ordinates. In this general frame, the narrator is grounded in a discourse here-and-now, the recipient in a reception here-and-now and the characters in the story here-and-now. Shifts to second or third-order (make that n-order) time-space coordinates can happen anytime. Narrators may imaginatively transpose to the story here-and-now or adopt a character’s view of the scene; characters may phase out to or return from daydreams or recollections; and readers may imaginatively hear the narrator speak and let themselves be transported into the world of action. I have found this scenario to be well suited to explaining a wide variety of techniques, styles and effects.
In real life, perception is such a habitual mental activity that its true workload and achievement goes largely uncredited. Our routine processing of sensual input freely and easily generates representations that serve to interact with the world without bumping into the furniture. Most of the time, that is, for there are also incidents when one is brought up short because a perception conspicuously misconstrues its input. This is readily illustrated by “The horse raced past the barn fell”, a famous “garden-path sentence” first submitted by cognitive linguist Thomas Bever. We usually need to be told that this is just as good a sentence as “The horse driven past the barn fell” - because it can clearly be construed identically and therefore makes perfect grammar and sense. However, it is precisely such cognitive hiccups that give us a glimpse into the mechanics of perception. Once alerted to the possibility of cognitive failure and its explanatory potential we can readily recognize similar but interestingly different cases. For instance, while we fail to make sense of the “raced past the barn fell” gibberish of Bever’s sentence, we just as easily fail to detect the nonsense inherent in an otherwise well-formed string such as “The book fills a much-needed gap”, an example invented by Philip Johnson-Laird. Because this time we do not notice the oddity - or did you notice that it is the gap that was said to be much-needed? - this second example is philosophically quite serious because it illustrates Wittgenstein’s fly’s way into the fly-bottle. Interestingly, pragmatic implicatures can be seen to kick in immediately, not resting content with what was actually said but freely producing an edited version that generates substance and sense where and when needed. Thus Bever’s sentence is often mentally revised to be about a horse that raced past the barn “and” fell, and Johnson-Laird’s sentence is mentally corrected to read what everybody expects it to read, namely that it is about a much-needed book that fills some gap. I have a theory that we do anything to read for maximal personal cognitive payoff. De te fabula narratur, the story is about you, the poet Horace said, and garden paths, which crucially involve the reader via the reading experience itself, can certainly be met in stories of all kinds, especially jokes and riddles, but also short stories, novels and films. In “Speak, Friend, and enter” (1999) (itself a garden path, naturally) I explore the narratological consequences arising from misunderstanding in garden-path stories and our attempts to learn the lessons coded via the reader’s garden-path experience.
Still bent on testing the narratological system by feeding it unusual story data I turned to “internal stories” (“Awake! Open your eyes!” 2003) - stories without form or substance (unless mental representations can count as such), untold stories, stories in the mind, stories in the making, dreams, and visions - as opposed to external stories, stories written on paper, told to an audience or shown in a film. Psychologically-minded critics have always been interested in internal stories because they have seen them as constituting a person’s “narrative identity”. But because of the fleetingness of the “data” there is no easy route of access to them from a narratological vantage, in fact, many commentators believe a narratological approach is out of the question. Can one treat an internal story as a hyponarrative? Surely not, since there is no teller and it’s virtually untold. Nevertheless, I stipulated that narratology can be let in by the back door by asking two questions: (1) Where do internal stories come from? (2) How do internal stories turn into external stories? They come, I argue, from online or offline perception (including the perception of external stories), and they are processed by procedures that enable us to store them in, and retrieve them from, memory. On these assumptions I drew a cyclical flowchart linking two input-output boxes called Internalization and Externalization. The Internalization box contains procedures such as emplotment and indexing, which prepare stories to be stored in memory, while Externalization procedures massage internal stories into an external form. For illustration I used Coleridge’s account of the external source story that preceded the dream that preceded the writing of “Kubla Khan” that preceded Coleridge’s own reading, re-reading, and assessment of the poem. In a second example I dissected Siegfried’s account of how he met Brünnhilde in Act III of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, a case of retrospective storytelling, simultaneous narration and direct perception, all in one. While much of the flowchart model is tentative and speculative, the test cases are significant in their own right because they challenge some basic narratological tenets and do so without taking recourse to any self-conscious postmodernist playacting. (Okay, a magic drink is involved in Siegfried’s story.) Even though I failed to comment on it at the time, an interesting by-product of the cyclical model is that it breaks the spell of focusing on input cognition - such as reading - to the exclusion of what I am now tempted to call output or creative cognition.
When publishers Routledge approached David Herman, Marie-Laure Ryan and myself to act as editors of the Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (2005) we decided to pursue what Herman calls a “postclassical” orientation, a stories-in-all-disciplines approach rather than one that narrowly focuses on technical terms, genres and models. This led to the inclusion of many entries called “narrative in X” or “X and narrative”, covering the treatment of stories in Xs as diverse as psychology, history, anthropology, law, medicine, religion, and so on. But as the entries arrived on our editorial computers we were often struck by two deficiencies. One was a lack of awareness of research done in neighboring disciplines, and the other was a lack of narratological basics. Even though the list of entries had been made public, contributors often left it to us to point out commonalities and parallels. In short, we found ourselves in the position of expert coordinators sitting at the center of a spider’s web of cross-references apparently only known to us. What became obvious at this point was how much was to be gained if the disciplines could come together on a different basis - not stumbling about in a maze of encyclopedic entries but coming together in an organized interdisciplinary meet-up, held for the explicit purpose of exchanging views and approaches.
Indeed, suppose authors, critics, lawyers, journalists, teachers, historians, psychologists, doctors, cognitive scientists, and others were invited to discuss the role of storytelling in their specific areas of practice, teaching and research. Just as in the Routledge Encyclopedia a team of postclassical narratologists might well act as organizers and coordinators. It so happens that dividing the world into “spaces” is a common strategy in cognitive science. The real world can be assumed to be such a space, as can the world of percepts, as can the many worlds of specialist and theory-based descriptions. While cognitive science is mainly interested in the processes that link real-world input to percepts, interdisciplinary narrative research can go a step further and take account of specialist and theory-based descriptions.
In fact, disciplines might meet as mental spaces in terms of Fauconnier’s mental spaces theory. Once such modalities are established and agreed on, it’s all very simple and straightforward. All one has to do is ask, How are stories of (for instance) personal experience handled in your discipline? What kind of evidence are they assumed to provide? Which types of stories do you distinguish? Which interpretive tools do you have at your disposal? Which theoretical and practical consequences result from your work? And in my mind’s eye I can virtually watch everybody sit up and take notice. Incidentally, encouraging the disciplines to talk about stories using their specialist descriptions does not mean that if one gets it right the other must have got it wrong. It is a possible outcome, certainly, but the far more likely outcome is that they both get it right, each on their specific focus of interest, or, indeed, that both get it wrong. But what better way to engage fruitful debate and research? I am happy to see that quite a number of university departments now encourage such meetings and that interdisciplinary symposia are becoming increasingly popular. In “Foundational Issues in Teaching Cognitive Narratology” (2004) my contribution to this was to sketch the organization of such an event – an interdisciplinary summer course - in some detail.
4. What do you consider the most important topics and/or contributions in narratology?
In my view the most important contribution of narratology lies in its ordering of a large body of significant data and its provision of a toolbox of terms, models and approaches. Narratology has always prided itself on being transparent and teachable, and there is a remarkable set of excellent textbooks which provide pleasant and instructive reading. Unfortunately, there is no state-of-the-art narratological bible in which all relevant basics are set in stone. Better make this “fortunately” - because if there is one thing that might stand as a necessary condition it is that narratology must remain open to new philosophical and cultural concerns and the paradigmatic stories that come with them. Very important, too, is narratology’s emancipation from its rigid structuralist orientation, which greatly aided its initial success and equally greatly contributed to its near demise. Finally, the interdisciplinary diversification which marks narratology’s move into the postclassical phase was a step that needed to be taken and has raised narratology to the level of interdisciplinary importance that it currently has.
5. What are the most important open problems and what are the prospects for progress?
Surveying the history of narratology I have often been struck by the non-linear character of its progress - our going one step forward and then one step back. Whether this is progress by Echternach procession, or the baby thrown out with the bathwater, or double fallacy as in Stanley Fish’s famous “affective fallacy fallacy” (which marks the birthplace of reader-oriented constructivism), the lesson is twofold: one, that one should not easily condemn anything as a fallacy, two, that some fallacies are well worth revisiting. I find it an encouraging thought that in recovering the baby, in revisiting a fallacy, we rarely go back in order to come to a final resting place but in order to go to places where we haven’t been before.
References to own works