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Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction

by Liesbeth Korthals-Altes
Nebraska University Press, Lincoln, NE, 2014
The Frontiers of Narrative Series
344 pp.
Trade, $ 60

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Since quite some years, narratology is once again a ‘hot’ discipline, seducing large and diverse groups of scholars. One of the reason of its success is undoubtedly the fact that the study of narrative is one of the few literary approaches or methods that has proven capable to demonstrate its usefulness outside its original domain: narrative is ‘everywhere’, not just in belletristic writing, and narratologists have understood that the best way to further explore their field is to open and widen the kind of stories analyzed.  Another reason is that narratology is a perfect match for all those eager to find and develop tools for interdisciplinary research: here as well, the study of narrative presents a great array of challenges and possibilities that help advance joint research between disciplines that would never meet otherwise.

The flip-side of this success, however, and this comes of course not as a surprise, is the dizzying explosion and overproduction of publications and books that are not always very useful to the qualitative growth of the discipline. The vital need to distinguish oneself from one’s competitors on the academic market makes not all studies really necessary. In the best case, some of them are only overspecialized or focus too exclusively on very tiny case studies. In the worst case, they suffer from overlap and endless repetition.  It is, therefore, a great joy to see that Ethos and Narrative Interpretation not only avoids all these traps but succeeds in presenting a type of narrative reading that opens new directions, while never forgetting to have a new close look at the basic issues of the discipline (fiction, function, or genre, for instance).

Just as any other serious book on reading and writing, Korthals-Altes starts with Aristotle, whose distinction between ethos (the way in which the author presents and positions himself of herself through the text), pathos (the verbal and other features used by the text in order to influence the public’s affects), and logos (the way in which the text builds its argument, not just for the sake of the argument but in order to convince the audience and hence to contribute to shape the reception of the text) is still key to our contemporary understanding of what a text is and above all what a text does. Of these three basic concepts, that of ‘ethos’ had been most neglected during the heydays of structuralism (which had put between brackets the pragmatics of the text, reduced to a purely verbal and totally decontextualized object) and poststructuralism (which had emphasized too strongly the freedom of the reader’s creative reinterpretation of the text), but in recent scholarship its return is undeniable.  Korthals-Altes’s study is an attempt –a very systematic and convincing one– to link this existing scholarship on ethos, which is far from being reduced to narratology, with a global reframing of the stakes and questions of the study of narrative. More specifically, Korthals-Altes draws on the study of discourse analysis, the sociology of culture, cognitive study, and philosophy to sketch a new way of doing narratology. I prefer this expression to that of ‘method’, for I think the author’s goal is less to reinvent such a method from scratch, as certain narratologists have been tempted to do in their desire to supersede existing forms of narratology, than to offer a new and very ecumenical perspective on the already existing – a good example of this being the author’s claim that cognitive science oriented theories of narrative, which look with great envy at the prestige and robustness of hard sciences, is actually compatible with the personal touch of hermeneutics (and I open here a small parenthesis to thank the author for having based so much of her thinking on French and Francophone sources and for having shown the necessity of an interlinguistic and intercultural dialogue at this level as well).

The basic principle of the book’s reorientation of narrative studies has to do with the fact that Korthals-Altes claims, very rightfully I think, a central place for ‘ethos’, not as a purely textual phenomenon but as a necessary horizon for all readers. One misses a decisive dimension of the text if one does not construct during its reading (listening, watching, in short: experiencing) an image of the author and how he or she uses the text in order to communicate a certain meaning –that the reader may reject, but even this rejection will rely on the reader’s idea of the author (in all cases, a ‘negotation’ takes place). As such, this perspective is far from new. After all, it comes from Aristotle, and the influence of Aristotle on contemporary narratology is fundamental, at least in these strands of narratology that foreground the pragmatics of reading and the rhetorical structure of narrative. But Korthals-Altes manages very well to broaden this rhetorical principle, often reduced to discussion on authorial intention or the status of the implied author. Her take on the problem is, first, very interdisciplinary and, second, much more rooted in an overall approach of narrative, in which the ethical, rhetorical, pragmatic aspect of narrative is always carefully discussed within the broader framework of ethos + pathos + logos.

The broad perspective of the book has two major advantages. On the one hand, it transforms this study in a book that is useful for all narratologists and not just for those interested in matters ethical. In a time where the interdisciplinary ambitions of the discipline may seem weakened by internal fragmentation and overspecialization, this is a very healthy evolution. On the other hand, it has forced the author to adopt throughout a style that accepts to address the general reader, both by its discussion of all basic issues of the field (which are reread in light of the ethical perspective) and by its very readability (recent narratology can sometimes be very hard to read, as if jargon and abstraction were the final guarantees of the scientific character of the discipline). It is a pleasure to say that Ethos and Narrative Interpretation is just great reading, and not only for the examples of great literature that it discusses.

This last point is certainly open to debate. Korthals-Altes analyzes works that raise fascinating ethical questions in narrative studies without making a priori distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature. The study of narrative that she focuses on is not in the first place aesthetic, but ethical, which does not mean that the aesthetic is put aside, on the contrary, but that it is interpreted through an ethical lens. For certain die-hard esthetes, this may be hard to swallow, but Korthals-Altes is certainly right when she states that 1) even an aesthetic reading has an ethical dimension, which it would be absurd to repress, and 2) literature itself has changed, perhaps not as an object but as a cultural practice, and in this practice ethics are at least as important as aesthetics.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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