Jahn, Manfred. 1992c.
Rev. of Chatman, Seymour, Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (London: Cornell, 1990). The European English Messenger 1.3: 50-53.

The predecessor of this book, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (1978), was mainly concerned with establishing the basic terrain of narratological inquiry and was correspondingly rigidly structured; the chapters in this new book hang together in a looser sequence, and although many of the old thematic threads are taken up in a continuing process of adjustment, modification and discussion with current opinion, the concern with philosophical foundations of literature and primary building blocks of narrative theory has moved into the foreground. At the same time, the scope that is now given to topics such as the implied author, showing and telling, unreliable narrators and "The 'Rhetoric' 'of' 'Fiction'" (thus the full title of the last chapter) testify to Chatman's ongoing involvement and struggle with Wayne Booth, an author whom he has "studied for many years" (197).

While the comments on narrative elements in films were merely adjuncts and excursions in his 1978 book, Chatman now requires that his "ideal reader not only owns a VCR [video recorder][...] but has a charge account at a richly endowed video rental store" (5). Three of a total of ten chapters are dedicated to an extensive discussion of narrative structures and techniques in films. This interdisciplinary approach is instrumental in helping him to define the concept of "text" (7) itself, and to devise a systematic hierarchy spanning all major genres. The common foundation for novels, plays and films is now seen to be their narrative character, and this comes as an arguable proposition, not just a pro domo conviction (117). Chatman also draws up a system of text types which includes the modes narration, description, and argument. These are all considered to be equals; and the first three chapters are concerned with a discussion of their interactions and cross-relationships. The basic thrust of Chatman's argument is that the text types should be viewed as complementary and "at the service" of each other, rather than as deadly rivals.

The adjustments made to the concept of the narrator (chapter 7) and the further thought given to point of view (chapter 9) addresses more technically minded narratologists. For Chatman (1990) non-narrated narratives are no longer admissible; he now assumes that all narrative texts issue from a narrator, albeit one who may or may not be human (the "narrative agency" may be a dumb recorder, such as a camera). Chatman goes on to suggest that the narrator - or "presenter" - can have two basic functions, that of a "show-er" and that of a "tell-er" (113), an interesting move whose viability certainly deserves closer assessment. Reiterating his criticism of the concept of focalization as used variously by Genette (1980) or by Bal (1985), he affirms and underpins his proposal of calling narratorial point of view "slant", and that of reflectors (character-focalizers) "filters". Whether these terms will actually replace their competitors is, of course, very much an open question; but certainly no serious theorist will be able to ignore them. [End of page 50]

"I welcome counterexamples from engaged readers", Chatman wrote in 1978 (p. 11), an invitation that is missing in 1990, not, one hopes, because he thinks the time for counterexamples is past. It is true that, in general, Chatman is very careful in his choice of terms and in his discussion of terminological minutiae. Thus he is, for instance, convincingly critical when he questions whether narrators ever "see" anything, or whether the term "voice" is accurate when applied to impersonally told narratives. This does not mean, however, that his exposition is totally free of unhappy definitions or inconsistencies. This engaged reader, for instance, was struck by three particularly vulnerable areas: (1) Chatman's concept of "temporal descriptions", (2) his revival of the implied author and (3) his interpretation of unreliablity as "a special type of irony" (153).

The most salient aspect of description is its relation to discourse time; according to Genette (and Chatman 1978) description is usually a narrative pause. Now, after emancipating description from being a subtype of narration, Chatman begins an investigation of descriptions that are not, strictly speaking, pauses in story time, and also of what he calls "temporal descriptions by a character" (45). I have no serious problem with the suggestion that in description story-time usually does, but occasionally does not, pause. Chatman shows that this is a question of the degree of plot involvement. Suppose, at the beginning of a text, or a film, you are shown a pigeon flying over a landscape (31). Clearly, this can be a piece of action serving a descriptive purpose, establishing setting, mood etc. And if it should turn out that the pigeon has a plot-relevant message strapped to its leg then the action turns into narrative. "Temporal descriptions by a character", on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish. Here Chatman moves on treacherous ground because such "descriptions" flagrantly involve both temporal and plot relevant activities. It is fairly obvious that what a character says/thinks "in dialogue or in the privacy of his own mind" (45) has no bearing whatsoever on the current mode of textual discourse. This is because the natural habitat of dialogue (and thus of description in dialogue) is story, whilst that of description is discourse. Of course, nobody knows the impenetrability of the barriers between story and discourse better than Chatman himself. There are even occasional warnings - "Description has no inner time dimension" (31); "Story-relevant events are only 'narrated', not described" (37) - which indicate that Chatman is perfectly aware of the potential pitfalls. Yet virtually his next step is to assert the existence of "temporal descriptions by a character".

As for the "implied author", Chatman's defence, or resurrection, inauspiciously begins by listing five of Booth's original definitions and straightaway discarding four as misleading. The one remaining, Booth's "core of norms and choices" (82), is claimed to be "essential to narratology and to text theory in general" (83). Chatman then showers the reader with a host of supplementary definitions in which the implied author variously appears as "codes and conventions" (83), "the text itself" (81, 83), "the inventor" (84), "the text itself in its inventional aspect" (84), "the principle which has invented the text" (84), "text implication", "text instance", [End of page 51] "text design", "text intent" (86), "the patterns in the text" (87), "the reader's source of instruction about how to read the text and how to account for the selection and ordering of its components" (83). More than anything else this long array of opaque and partly incompatible epithets demonstrates the inherent arbitrariness of the concept. Many insights deriving from such scholarly glossolalia will be truly mind-boggling:

Paraphrasing that in a hurry, one gets insubstantial inventors inventing themselves as patterns negotiable by readers; and it is painfully reminiscent of a Polonius exercising his mind on true madness or a Humpty-Dumpty beating time. Plainly Mieke Bal was right when she called the implied author a "remainder category, a kind of passepartout that serves to clear away all the problematic remainders of a theory" (1981: 209).

Further support for the implied author, indeed nothing less than a "test case" (90) is offered in the chapter on point of view. The relationship between unreliability and irony is represented in a diagram given on p. 150, reproduced below. The broken line, Chatman explains, "indicates the secret ironic message about the narrator's unreliability" (151).


However, placing the implied author in this popular multi-layered communication setting - Chatman uses the same illustration in his 1978 book - is not quite as straightforward as it may look at first glance. For instance, note that the implied author's place is that of an addresser, and that many of its proposed definitons (such as "the text itself") cannot here be meaningfully substituted for it. The implied author as an addresser ostensibly conveys a "message" to the implied reader, although "the implied author 'says' nothing", is "a silent source of information" (85). The contradictio in adiecto, though perhaps meant as meaningful paradox, actually entails quite a serious technical problem. Is this agency sending a signal or is it not? Heaping on it another contradiction (this time a fully-fledged one), Chatman admits that the implied author sometimes does speak, namely the title and possibly other paraphernalia (219 n.). Again, it is difficult to see how any sort of "theoretical clarity and consistency" (89) can derive from such shaky foundations. [End of page 52]

The crucial point about the implied author's place in Chatman's model is the argument from irony. According to Chatman, "in unreliable narration, the irony inheres in a secret message between the implied author and the implied reader at the expense of the narrator" (152). Contrasting the roles of different addressees, he adds:

Bent on proving the opposite, Chatman inadvertently admits that the irony of unreliability can be understood without receiving an ironical message. Chatman naturally assumes that the real reader's route towards understanding follows the one laid out for the implied reader: "if we [real readers] cannot accept his [the narrator's] account, we must infer that it belongs to someone (or something) else" (90). But there is no need to infer anything of the kind. The real reader's position may well be more like that of the narratee than that of the implied reader. In the absence of contrary evidence, the narratee, like any other natural addressee, must be assumed to be honour-bound to attempt to coordinate all textual clues leading to the narrator's intended message. At the same time, again like any other addressee, the narratee is under no injunction whatsoever to overlook inconsistencies, lapses, oversights and contradictions, or to leave unconsidered any other indications of unreliabilty. That is, he/she can process the text not only with a view to its message, but also with a view to its symptoms. This may lead him/her to understand and delight in an irony whose victim is the narrator, without having received an ironical secret message from "someone or something". True enough, he/she may possibly fail to notice inconsistencies and therefore miss an unreliability irony - indeed "may or may not understand it". But virtually all of the foregoing applies to addressees of all levels, specifically including real readers. In the final analysis, unreliability is an everyday phenomenon to be handled by everyday strategies, not by decoding secret messages from insubstantial inventors.


Bal, Mieke, 1985.
Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U. of Toronto Press.
---. 1981.
"The Laughing Mice: On Focalization". Poetics Today 2.2: 202-210.
Booth, Wayne. 1961.
The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.
Chatman, Seymour. 1978.
Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell U.P.
Genette, Gérard. 1980.
Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
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[21 Aug 2000]