Fun With Rhetoric

As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve been slowly working my way through a book on rhetoric by James Phelan, Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progression, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative.

I’m taking great joy in reading this book and letting the concepts sink into my mind. It’s helping me to understand what happens in my mind when I read, and also giving me ideas of how that might help my writing.

Here’s a bit of what it’s all about:
“Although the theory behind the reading practice has multiple elements, I have chosen to focus here on the two concepts that I believe are most central to it: (1) judgments, which I break down into three main types, interpretive, ethical, and aesthetic; and (2) progressions, which I break down into twelve aspects….”

I think it’s thinking about “progressions” that will be most helpful for my writing.

“Although focused on progressions and judgments, [Phelan’s] interpretive analyses [of narratives] are not designed to give a blow-by-blow account of the experience of reading or even to offer comprehensive accounts of every element of each narrative. Instead, these analyses aim to give articulate expression to the multiple layers of what is sometimes explicit but just as often tacit, intuitive, and even inchoate in our reading experience and to do so through the focus on issues of judgment and progression that each narrative makes particularly salient.”

“We become engaged on Cinderella’s side because…we judge Cinderella positively and her stepmother negatively—we value her traits of character and do not value those of her stepmother. As Cinderella proceeds beyond its first paragraph, the narrative not only reinforces these initial judgments but also relies on them to influence significantly our hopes and desires for Cinderella to escape from the tyranny of her stepmother. When we become more advanced readers and encounter more sophisticated narratives, we meet characters for whom the simple labels “good guys” and “bad guys” are no longer adequate, but we continue to make ethical judgments of them and, indeed, of the authors and narrators who tell us about them.”

That bit makes me think about Voice–what it is, and what it says, and what it tells the reader. For example: “But as we judge this character [in a Ring Lardner story, “Haircut”] and this narrator negatively, we are also approving the moral vision of the implied Ring Lardner [the author] because we feel he is guiding us to make those judgments. In addition, we are tacitly registering Lardner’s skill in communicating these judgments to us while using only [the character’s] discourse.”

Here’s one last bit to chew on, what Phelan calls the threefold thesis of this book:
“(1) The judgments we readers of narrative make about characters and tellers (both narrators and authors) are crucial to our experience—
and understanding—of narrative form. By form I mean the particular fashioning of the elements, techniques, and structure of a narrative in the service of a set of readerly engagements that lead to particular final effects on the implied audience.
(2) Narrative form, in turn, is experienced through the temporal process of reading and responding to narrative. Consequently, to account for that experience of form we need to focus on narrative progression, that is, the synthesis of both the textual dynamics that govern the movement of narrative from beginning through middle to end and the readerly dynamics—what I have so far been calling our engagement—that both follow from and influence those textual dynamics.
(3) As key elements of narrative experience, narrative judgments and narrative progressions are responsible for the various components of that experience, especially the significant interrelation of form, ethics, and aesthetics—even as judgments and progressions do not totally explain everything we might want to know about ethics and aesthetics.”

Ohio State Press offers several of Phelan’s works for free online. You can check out a large sample of Experiencing Fiction here.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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2 Responses to Fun With Rhetoric

  1. Tisha Turk says:

    Oh, man, I love that book. Phelan’s insights into how we read have always seemed to me spot-on, but of course I’m an English professor; it’s so cool to hear that his arguments also make sense to a *writer* of fiction.

    For me, the book also helped make sense of some phenomena in narrative TV. One of the things that I like about long-form TV is that shows can show us how characters change over time. (They don’t *always* do that, but they *can*.) And this book helped me think about what exactly changes and how it affects my viewing experience: it’s not just that characters change, it’s that my judgments about them change (this is part of why I love redemption arcs so much!), and narrative progressions are what move me to adapt those judgments: new events and actions lead me to hope for new and sometimes different things for and from the characters.

    Also: if you like this book, you should read Peter Rabinowitz’s Before Reading, also available for free on the OSU Press site. It’s all about the conventions of reading, and it is SO COOL. I keep citing it in my work on vids!

  2. LOL, I bookmarked the Rabinowitz already! Also UNDERSTANDING NARRATIVE. I’m keeping an eye out for used editions.

    And thank you SO MUCH for the rec.

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