Book Review: Literary Fiction: The Ways We Read Narrative Literature by Geir Farner

Geir Farner, Literary Fiction: The Ways We Read Narrative Literature, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) x + 349 pp. £17.99



What can a linguist do for Americanist literary critics? Plenty.

As a rhetorician and cognitivist, Geir Farner brings more sources to bear on literary study than does the usual linguist. He offers not only revisions of old theories, but also shows how literary fiction communicates and what it communicates. As such, these new arguments bridge gaps between narratology in general, and cognitive theory in particular.

As is often the case with theory, there are a lot of terms to learn, a few of them unfamiliar to some Americanists. The easiest way to understand Farner’s terms is (borrowing from the social scientific format of linguistics) in a glossary that defines them in relation to each other and in the context of his argument.

Action: story (aka fabula) not plot (aka sjuzhet). The action is identical with the referent, not the signified. The action is an imitation of the extratextual (reality). What characters do constitutes the action. Characters do not exist in the text, only in the mental model; characters exist only as a projection of the mental model. Action is to mental model as the story is to the discourse. The action conveys the cognitive content.

Cognitive content: Like learning, the cognitive process is partly unconscious. Marxism, feminism, post colonialism, and cultural studies exemplify cognitive theories. There is no longer any controversy over whether or not there is such a cognitive aspect. Literary fiction refers to the extratextual (the real). Truth is equal not to the real but to the likeness to the real. It is analogous and parallel to the extratextual–it bears a resemblance, a similarity, a likeness to reality.

Discourse: How literary fiction is told. It includes the standard narratological categories of focalization, order, style, etc. As such, it is mimetic–extratextual. The reader can use fictional events as if they are real. Like the existentialists’ error that the message is that there is no message, notions that there is nothing outside the text derive from Saussurean fallacies. Furthermore, non-referentiality is inconsistent with psychological research.

Implied truth: The cognitive content, which is inherent in the work’s structure.

Indirect mode: The author’s presentation of the action through the mental model.

Material text: The marks on the page. It is the text, discourse, and signifier.

Mental model of the action (or “mental model” for short): Not the plot, text, or discourse. The writer creates events by first creating the mental model. The mental model’s structure is a form that overlays the action. The mental model is selective, incomplete, a minimalist reduction. As such it consists of a collection of conceptions about the action (story, fabula). The mental model consists of ways to present the action (focalization, order, style, etc.) but does not change the action. The mental model stands between the reader and the (fictional) action. The reader reconstructs the mental model of the action. It is shared by all readers. (This last assertion is perhaps Farner’s most controversial, and an ideal reader might be more useful). What critics scrutinize is the action’s structure and the mental model.

Message: The cognitive content. The structure of the text, action, and mental model constitute the message. The message is the effect of the mental model. The message is latent, and it consists of what readers receive. The latent message exists before the reader reads the work. It is inherent in the structure of the action. The latent message is that which is actually sent, and comes from the implied author. But the latent message is discoverable only through the received message. The received message is what each reader gets, but it is not shared by all readers, and it is not part of the work. Each interpretation is a different message.

Referent: The fictional entity that the mental model represents. The reader has no direct access to the referent, only the mental model of the action.

Clear and original, Farner’s study comprises an important argument in narratology and cognitive theory. It functions as such through an analysis primarily of mimetic and referential theories (especially historicism and feminism). As a result, this study will be helpful for a wide range of readers–from advanced students through senior scholars. In particular, Americanist literary critics and rhetoricians who are interested in narratology’s application to historicist and feminist matters will benefit from this study. And so will cultural and intellectual historians studying historiography, for this work is probably the most relevant exploration of literary form’s influence on narrative since Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973), The Content of the Form (1987), and Figural Realism (1999). As such, this work deserves a high place on the Parnassus of American Studies.

About Darryl Hattenhauer

I'm an Associate Professor of American Studies at Arizona State University West. I've published numerous articles on American literature, plus a monograph on Shirley Jackson. I'm finishing a monograph on James Purdy, and beginning a monograph on Paul Bowles
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