Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan's Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics

In my continuing quest to read books about theories of literary criticism, I have read Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics from the series New Accents whose General Editor is Terence Hawkes.  Its author, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, publishes this book through Methuen of London and New York in 1983.  Rimmon-Kenan explains the constitution of narrative fiction and analyses the components making up this constitution.  She explores the characteristics of narrative fiction like story, text, narration, events, characters, time, characterization, focalization, levels and voices, speech representation, and reading.  She also refers to philosophers, linguists, and other literary critics associated with Russian Formalism, New Criticism, and Structuralism to delineate changing trends within the field of narratology in the twentieth century.  For those needing to understand the functions of narration in fiction, this book is a good introduction.

Rimmon-Kenan in her first chapter defines the somewhat obvious meaning of the deceptively simple phrase narrative fiction: “To begin with, the term narration suggests (1) a communication process in which the narrative as message is transmitted by addresser to addressee and (2) the verbal nature of the medium used to transmit the message.  It is this that distinguishes narrative fiction from narratives in other media, such as film, dance, or pantomime” (2, emphases in original).  Because narrative fiction resides almost exclusively in literature or books, it has to be understood within the realm of language, text, words, and letters.  Reading allows us to interpret these abstract concepts, extracting a meaning and a structure where we can be entertained or enlightened.  Language may accompany film, dance, and pantomime, but it takes a lesser or subsidiary role; therefore, Rimmon-Kenan disregards these media in her study.

Narrative Fiction also provides a type of handbook for the incipient literary critic of prose.  Rimmon-Kenan includes the ordinary reader as an example of how he or she labels certain events in the narrative’s timeline.  As readers gain more information as the narrative time goes by, they keep or amend the labels they have created and come to some form of conclusion towards the end of the story.  If readers make mistakes, it is not a problem because the fiction at hand does not require them to be responsibly correct.  “But more is required of the critic,” says Rimmon-Kenan, “or the narratologist: he must be able to abstract homogeneous paraphrases, providing a consistent representation of the logical and semantic relations among all the events included” (14).  Critics have the responsibility to piece together coherently the events of the story, thereby offering fresh knowledge and richness to the academic readership.

Although ordinary readers may not need to write reviews or critique literature like I have to do someday professionally, they can still take advantage of the power that the act of reading affords them.  Books need readers to exist and readers need books to read.  “This virtuality contributes to the dynamic character of the reading process and gives the reader a certain degree of freedom (but only a certain degree, since the written text does exercise some control over the process)” (117).  There is a two-way exchange of significance and value between the reader and the text in a type of phenomenological relationship.  But this cannot occur when a book is sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Moreover, readers cannot increase their enrichment or power if they postpone the act of reading.  Rimmon-Kenan notes, “Just as the reader participates in the production of the text’s meaning so the text shapes the reader” (117).

An interesting point in Rimmon-Kenan’s book is the ability for a reader to recognize narrative formulas.  A disgruntled moviegoer may complain that a certain movie is formulaic, but without these formulas, even the most successful movies would not be intelligible.  The same goes for readers.  Instead of dismissing narrative formulas, readers should try to seek out and categorize them.  They do this by guessing or positing the likely outcome and, like a scientist, analyze the resultant success of failure of the hypothesis.  Rimmon-Kenan describes the narrative time experiment in an Einstein-Rosen-like manner: “In addition to harking back to the past, reading also involves ‘leaps’ into the future, the reader often hazarding various guesses as to what ‘is going to happen’ in the sequel.  The past is now assimilated to the future, and the reader waits to see whether his expectations will or will not be fulfilled.  When they are, the effect is one of satisfaction but also of a lulling of interest.  When they are not, a sharp confrontation between the expected and the actual ensues, and this leads to an active reexamination and modification of the past” (122).  As readers hone these skills, they are able to connect the dots of narrative formulas effectively.

That is the gist of the book, but there are two more things that have caught my attention.  The first refers to the various levels of narrators and the second deals with mimesis.

In the first case, the author writes about the classification of narrators using The Arabian Nights as an example.  I wrote a post about my reading and interpretation of The Arabian Nights, which you can access by clicking here.  I classified how Scheherazade would fit into the system of narrators.  Rimmon-Kenan does too.  It comes as a pleasant surprise that Rimmon-Kenan validates my educated guess.  In her book, she says, “Scheherazade is a fictional character in a story narrated by an extradiegetic narrator.  However, in the stories she herself narrates, she does not appear as a character.  She is therefore an intradiegetic-heterodiegetic narrator” (96).  (Cue the sound of patting my own back.)

However, there is one slight modification that I must note.  In my review of The Arabian Nights, I included the prefix “meta” along with “hypo” as interchangeable morphemes.  Rimmon-Kenan clarifies that these prefixes cause misunderstandings.  She writes in her notes, “My discussion of narrative levels relies heavily on Genette’s (1972, pp. 238-51), but the examples are mostly mine.  I prefer Bal’s ‘hypodiegetic’ (1977, pp. 24, 59-85) to Genette’s ‘metadiegetic’, because the latter is confusing in view of the opposed meaning of ‘meta’ in logic and linguistics (a level above, not below).  Genette apologizes for this confusion on p. 239 n. 1.  See further discussion in Bal, 1981, pp. 41-59” (140, endnote 7).  So, if you are a graduate student or a literary critic, remember this distinction and you will not switch the two prefixes.  If you want to refer to Genette and Bal’s sources, look up Genette, GĂ©rard (1972) Figures III, Paris: Seuil; in English, (1980) Narrative Discourse, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; and Bal, Mieke (1977) Narratologie.  Essais sur la signification narrative dans quatre romans modernes, Paris: Klincksieck (from Rimmon-Kenan’s References, pages 151 and 147 respectively).

In the second case, I recently finished and wrote a book review about Plato’s Republic, which you can access by clicking here.  Rimmon-Kenan discusses the problem with mimesis in narrative fiction, and I think her reasons may help us understand the dialogue concerning mimesis in Plato’s Republic.  Socrates has a problem with traveling poets forming part of his ideal polis.  Poets cannot be portrayers of truth because their imitation of nature relies on creating an illusion.  But how would Socrates react if books chronicled the Iliad and the Odyssey instead of traveling poets?  The threat of corrupting the youth through mimesis would not be a problem, because they would have some control over the power of the text through reading.  According to Rimmon-Kenan, the “very notion of ‘showing’ is more problematic” because “no text of narrative fiction can show or imitate the action it conveys, since all such texts are made of language, and language signifies without imitating” (108).  Narrative fiction then becomes one stage closer to truth, and if there is mimesis, which is unlikely, it lies in the act of speaking.  “Language can only imitate language, which is why the representation of speech comes closest to pure mimesis, but even here […] there is a narrator who ‘quotes’ the characters’ speech, thus reducing the directness of ‘showing’” (108).  Rimmon-Kenan goes on: “All that a narrative can do is create an illusion, an effect, a semblance of mimesis, but it does so through diegesis (in the Platonic sense).  The crucial distinction, therefore, is not between telling and showing, but between different degrees and kinds of telling” (108).  The imitation of an imitation cancels mimesis out and only language remains to signify.  This counterargument, if it had been brought before Socrates, might have made him go back to the philosophical drawing board.

I recommend Narrative Fiction to any graduate or college student.  Her work is brief and clear enough; she does not dive into very specialized areas of theory or criticism.



  1. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan is a woman and not a man.

  2. Whoops! Thank you, Anonymous, for pointing that out. I have made the changes in the post.


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