On Being a Rhetorical Narrative Theorist

On November 19, 2014, Ursula Le Guin said in her acceptance speech for the National Book Awards honor of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, “Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art” (“The 2014 Medalist”). These words validate the very study of all literatures because we must continue to hold up literature that challenges our culture beyond its lucrative market appeal and conveys artistry through the articulation of human experience, knowledge, history, culture, and imagination. In the view of this rhetorical narrative theorist, stories act upon us by cultivating language, by examining and critiquing history, by holding up our cultural values to literary scrutiny, and because, most significantly, they are a dialogue between the reader, the author, and the imagination. Rhetorical theorists focus on that relationship because it considers all the ways texts move us, and because an understanding of rhetorical choices by the implied author allows us to share our experiences with a broader audience of readers.

This is very meaningful to me, because of my own personal history. I grew up very poor, sometimes abjectly poor, in a small rural town in Vermont. I don’t remember why or how, but I gravitated to books. I ate up books and they captured my imagination in ways that no real world experience did. I remember our middle school librarian holding onto books for me, when she realized how much I read, and recommending this one or that one. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn several dozen times. I related to that poor Brooklyn girl. I read Second Star from the Right, a book about anorexia, and understood the need for control (I was not and did not become anorectic) but was really fascinated by the idea that you have enough food to refuse to eat it. What a concept! Without books I surely wouldn’t be here, writing this paper for a doctoral-level course, but would likely have followed the trajectory of most of my family, which is both noble in its focus on survival and ignoble in that survival was really the only goal, not any different from most poor families. I would take any free books offered, and this is how I first read Homer, The Illiad and The Odyssey, when I was twelve. How magical they were, but I didn’t really understand them then. But I learned about gods and goddesses and war and lies and deceit. I learned that there was more. I learned that more wasn’t necessarily better. But I was just a child and it took me a long time to get here, a lot of deliberation of what I could really do as a scholar. I am afraid of being just a scholar.

As such, I see my role as a rhetorical narrative theorist as a researcher of affect, who enables broad categories of audiences to contemplate the affective experience of a work of literature, and to understand it from both a cultural sense of identity and from an individual sense of feeling and experience. This means encouraging a sense of readerly theory and to open discourses on the importance of stories, and their ability to affect rhetorical action, out beyond the halls of academia. As I note in my paper, “Stories that Move Us: Narrative Texts as Rhetorical Objects of Study,” this also means a consideration of “what texts in particular are the focus of rhetorical study, and why,” because genre certainly has been a limiting and exclusive domain of scholars, when we exclude work from outside our field and where lesser studied forms, such as popular literature like romance, science fiction, or fantasy, from the classroom or from literary theory. An example of how exclusive genre can be is discussed in PAB Post #7, as I explore Sarah Copland’s argument that short story theorists tend to exclude all other theoretical approaches because they argue that the short story form is so unique that other methodologies would somehow corrupt its interpretation and analysis. The short story form itself seems to suffer, by correlation, this narrow view of itself, as it is widely acknowledged in publishing markets that short story collections do not sell, especially not for little-known authors. There seems to be a wide chasm between scholarly interpretation and theory and lay audiences (even among the rhetorical theorists I’ve studied, who argue for readerly experience as valuable for narrative mean-making and yet rarely consider them in their research). It is perhaps here where I will find my niche.

Reading a book is much more than a form of escapism, though its value as a creator of worlds and means of communication between authors with a story to tell and reading communities who need stories is certainly important. But more than that, books create meaning, they provide cultural contexts, they imagine possibilities, they open paths to knowing something you wouldn’t otherwise know: science, math, space, love, pain, death, war, poverty…these things are knowable through narratives, the stories we tell. And as we study how they affect us, what intentions the implied author (which is the persona, or second self, that the real author affects as the writer/narrator of the story; the implied author makes the rhetorical choices of the character, the events, the action, progression, and judgments that act upon the reader, they are the teller talking to the told.). But can we trust these texts? Are they real knowledge? Or, as Dr. Heller asked in my interview with her: Do they shape culture, or are they shaped by culture? This is where narrative theorists come in. We analyze the impact of texts through various lenses (including formalist, cognitive, feminist, race/culture, postmodern and more), in an effort to understand their influence, the role of the author and how the author views the world (or mythologizes certain worlds, leaving out the bad and emphasizing the good – Shen). We might accept otherwise unacceptable ideas through literature (thinking of Nabokov’s Lolita) which seeks to investigate moral limits in relationship to real world ethics. Nabokov, as the narrator in his role as implied author, finds Humbert Humbert to be not just disingenuous, but genuinely convinced of the rightness of his relationship with Lolita. Nabokov was following the narrative of a true story, and, by fictionalizing it, was able to question the morality of the actors involved, test the motives of the implied author (as someone who has a story to tell and decides how it must be told), and consider the reaction of his audience, how to manipulate their experience without overt manipulation – a true art. Of course, it was widely rejected as smut, but did eventually find distribution. And why would we read this story, about an older man kidnapping, holding hostage, and raping an eleven-year old girl? Keeping her captive for two years and even maintaining a relationship with her, once she had run off with another older man? Today, this book tops many best books list. It is important as theorists to not just accept it as a piece of fictional material, but as a commentary on morals, on us, on our values, on the vagaries of life. Without thought and analysis, readers may only find the surface of such texts, and not the meaning, like my adolescent self. My interest, and how I see myself, is in bridging these experiences.

With stories, we are able to be genuinely empathetic to others when we can have no way of experiencing their worlds, such as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Sethe’s choice (if it was a choice) to kill her daughter and the context and consequences of that act would have never been understood as a real event. Morrison rhetorically acts upon us as the implied author, who has designs on our emotions and provides us with the ability to understand a certain moment in time and a certain person’s view of that time, the impossibility of it and yet the reality of it. It becomes real even as it stands as fiction. It also becomes safe. It’s safe to address wrongs, to question things, and to critique ourselves, in fiction. It’s safe, through nonfiction, to remove ourself from our life (as Phelan examines in Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I analyze in PAB Post#8, or, “In Defense of the Implied Author, Intentionality: The Case of the Nonfiction Narrative.”) and examine it. And scholars examine that examination. A reader who affects judgment of Sethe, or Didion, does so through the subtle rhetorical movements of the author. Morrison’s implied author does not judge Sethe, but she sets us up to make up our own minds about Sethe’s story, guides us to certain ways of experiencing the possibilities.

Meredith Privott raised the idea of listening, and having good intentions, especially when you are seeking to penetrate a field of study that belongs to a certain community, in her case, an ethnic community with very embattled history and a very legitimate concern for its representation. In many ways, this is what all of us should remember as we enter our various fields: listening, having good intentions, and respecting that we are conduits that may contribute to how our objects of study are represented. We are not tourists, but purveyors of knowledge. We have to expect to be challenged and to be able to respect alternate positions, like we teach our own students. And in narrative theory, the debates rage as fiercely as they do throughout the academy. In English Studies, there is the sense that we are preserving our disciplinary elbow room, and to allow in other views threatens that space.

So who am I as a scholar, and where do I see myself fitting into the field of narrative theory? Well, in many ways I don’t see myself fitting in as much as figuring out my own space. I recognize that there are conventions of academia and scholarship, and I respect those while also feel frustrated by them. I respect the debates and am not sure at this moment how I will enter them, there are times when I feel that many of the debates seem pedantic, and yet, without debate there would be little progress, especially the question of author intentionality, which I see as still relevant (or at least, still a debate) and which I am interested in as I consider the position of the author/reader relationship. While at times I feel the debates can muddy the waters for those who are outside the academy, and lend credibility to those who are critical of our internal bickering. Necessarily though, debate leads us to consider new and critical ways of seeing, and had not largely New Criticism died out in the 60’s, we wouldn’t be stridently defending and appreciating (implied) author intentionality today.

Who is questioning our legitimacy more loudly than us? And here is where I see clear areas that need to move beyond debate and beyond suggestion and beyond theory, and into practice. To me, this means how we bridge the ivory tower and the real world. Why and to whom does it matter if Kate Chopin is mythologizing white antebellum southern culture as benevolent and gracious in her short story “Desiree’s Baby”? Why and to whom does it matter to the reader, to the student, to a little girl reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that imagination and experience can be deliberate acts of storytelling? I, or we, understand through stories that life is unfair, that happy endings are more the realm of the imagined than the known, that there is beauty and magic that lives alongside pain and cruelty. This is where we learn ambiguity and complexity, and can embrace them. Here is where I want to be, as the person who studies and articulates the meaning of stories for the world, who investigates how stories – from ancient folklore, where meaning was truly made, to modern novels, where meaning is too often confined to literary criticism and sometimes the classroom (though one wonders how meaningful these texts are made for our students) – move us, make meaning, are critical to fostering imagination and progress in ways that science and technology could never do alone.

I’ve been thinking of proposing a course, which I mentioned in passing in class a week or so ago, called Investigating the Science in Science Fiction. I love sci-fi and steampunk literature, which has often existed in the literary margins, until perhaps the last decade. It is in the margins where I believe the bridge can be built. Many times the novel has been declared dead, most recently (to my knowledge) by author Will Self, in a lecture give on May 6 of this year at Gulbenkian theatre, St Cross Building, Oxford. He clarifies his obituary of the novel by explaining that “the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them” and by this he means that we have taken ourselves too seriously and made the form too fatal to enjoyment: we have lifted the novel and the art of storytelling beyond the simple pleasure it gives, the imaginative experience it could be, to be a form that must be analyzed and probed and understood and lauded in certain ways. This is why our students sigh at Shakespeare, balk at Hawthorne or Woolf or Joyce. This is why affect is critical, to bring literature back to life as something that is experienced, as something felt.


Thank you for reading.

I conclude with the words of Ursula Le Guin, who challenges the idea that literature must prove its legitimacy by this simple statement: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.” English studies, and the study of literary texts, offer us the chance to change the world. How stories bring change can be fostered by the work of scholars but I believe we must not forget that without considering readers, non-scholarly readers, our work is illegitimate. This chasm invites an opportunity for all of us, emerging scholars, to take up the challenge of meaning-making beyond academia. What might it take for a new generation of scholars, and I count myself, to revive the study of rhetoric, literature, English Studies, and all the humanities?


Works Cited:

Dalley, Julie. “Aristotle, Redux: Defending and Expanding Neo-Aristotelian Critical Theory.” 7 Oct. 2014. Web.

——–“Rhetorical Narrative Theory and Short Story Theory: Together At Last?” 28 Oct. 2014. Web.

——–“Rise and Fall, and Rise Again: Debating the “Social Turn” in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.” 30 Sept. 2014. Web.

——–“Stories That Move Us: Narrative Texts as Rhetorical Objects of Study.” 23 Oct. 2014. Web.

Le Guin, Ursula. “Acceptance Speech for the 2014 Medalist for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.” National Book Foundation. 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 2 Dec 2014.   <http://www.nationalbook.org/amerletters_2014_uleguin.html#.VHUW5ocUqT8>

Phelan, James. “The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative: Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-137. Print.

Self, Will. “The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s For Real).” Guardian UK. 2 May 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/02/will-self-novel-dead-literary-fiction?CMP=twt_fd>

Shen, Dan. “Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Narrative Study: Need for Integrating Style, Context, and Intertext. Style 45:4 (Winter 2011): 576-597. Print.Ursula Le Guin Acceptance Speech, November 19, 2014.

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Epistemology and Rhetorical Narrative Theory: Making it Fit

If the definition of rhetoric, at its most simple, is discourse that acts upon its audience in some way (and those ways may be under dispute)[1], then the study of rhetorical narrative theory necessarily involves analyzing narrative texts for the rhetorical effects they have upon their reading audience. What then, add validity and scope to this field, and, my question, what value does this have more broadly, beyond scholarly circles? Some scholars may see the value in rhetorical narrative theory in its ability to generate shared experiences of a text (Phelan), or its value may be understood to place narrative texts within the larger fields of cultural, historical, social, or political knowledge (Shen). Meretoja summarizes these divides between an epistemological understanding of texts, and their onotological value:

[T]heorists have been divided into those who conceive of narrative primarily as a cognitive instrument for imposing meaningful order onto human reality or experience (for example, Hayden White, Louis Mink, Daniel Dennett) and those who consider it to be primarily an ontological category that characterizes the human way of being in the world, that is, something constitutive of human existence. (89)

This then invites the major investigation of rhetoric theory: what is the relationship between the author and narrator (real, implied, reliable, unreliable) and the experience of the readerly audience, and what methods do we use to understand that relationship? How does a text act rhetorically upon its audience? If the implied author, sometimes in the voice of the narrator, has designs upon its audience, how can explicating those designs lead to deeper knowledge of the function of texts in our cultural and social worlds?

To answer these questions, it is necessary for the rhetorical scholar to be knowledgeable of the scope, validity, and methods within the field, however they might argue with each other. Though narrative theory and the rhetorical study of fictional narrative can have many epistemological factors that provide value and knowledge in our understanding of narrative texts, my own interests focus on the epistemological role of the narrator in narrative theory, and rhetorical narrative theory’s interest in the reliability of the narrator, how the narrator knows what she knows[2], and whether the role of the implied author creates critical knowledge in narrative study, or whether its debatable role distracts from more important foci that includes reader response and cultural truths/human experiences. And it may be that these philosophies need not be divided, and indeed many scholars have argued that methodological approaches should be integrated to form a unified field that allows us to “debate the similarities and differences, the commonalities and conflicts, among those methods” (Phelan, “Teaching Narrative” 218).

In attempting to bring together and place knowledge of narrative texts through a study of the debates, applied methodologies, and interpretive value generated by rhetorical narrative theory, I seek to really reveal how stories act upon readers through “the ways that authors use textual (and sometimes intertextual) phenomena to guide their audiences to respond to the communication in one way (or one set of ways) rather than another” (Phelan, “Cognitive Narratology” 310). But even that is not sufficient, as my interest is more deeply concerned with how these interpretations, whatever the methodologies, build knowledge of narrative texts beyond academia, into what Phelan describes as not just “the author’s private intentions but rather in his or her public, textualized intentions” and this “entails locating authorial agency in the implied rather than the actual author” (“The Implied Author, 127). As a pedagogy, this may bridge the academic realms of research and teaching, and allow deeper meaning-making of narrative and its role in our cultural, historical, and political contexts as what Meretoja terms the “complex interconnections between the ontological, epistemological, and ethical dimension of the relation between narrative and human existence” (90).

Debates are part of what generates epistemological value in the disciplines, but in some cases, it may be more valuable to recognize perspectives that may conflict with those reified through a specific critical lens.

Debates are part of what generates epistemological value in the disciplines, but in some cases, it may be more valuable to recognize perspectives that may conflict with those reified through a specific critical lens.

Finally, there remains the epistemology of interpretive methods and what objects of study can realize the author-audience dynamic of interpreting texts, and broader public interpretation of those same texts, or, framed as an academic question, can we experience texts in the same ways and how do those experiences build knowledge, values, and context in historical and modern culture? As we consider texts that range from fictional narrative, to the short story, to poems, and dramas, and nonfictional storytelling[3], we are really asking is if there are intentional actions put upon us as readers, in communication with the author. This casts into question the role of the real author, the implied author, the narrator (reliable or unreliable), the reader and the scholar, and are the major approaches concerned with methodizing our interpretation, both within the academy and beyond. Can a reconciliation of methods and theoretical approaches in rhetorical narrative theory “explain experience and organize knowledge” so that teaching and public discourse of texts addresses issues of cohesiveness and legitimacy in literary studies (Phelan, “Rhetorical Aesthetics,” 86)?


Works Cited:

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 1 (1968): 1-14. Print.

Booth, Wayne C. “How Many Rhetorics?” in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.

Covino, William A. and David A. Jolliffe. Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. New York: Longman, 1995. Print.

Heinze, Rueddiger. “Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction.” Narrative 16.3 (October 2008): 279-97. Print.

Meretoja, Hanna. “Narrative and Human Existence: Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics.” New Literary History 45.1 (Winter 2014): 89-109. Print.

Phelan, James. “Cognitive Narratology, Rhetorical Narratology, and Interpretive

Disagreement: A Response to Alan Palmer’s Analysis of Enduring Love.” Style 43.3 (Fall 2009): 309-21. Print.

——–“The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative:

Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-37. Print.

——–“Rhetorical Aesthetics and Other Issues in the Study of Literary Narrative.”

Narrative Inquiry 16.1 (2006): 85-93. Print.

——–“Teaching Narrative as Rhetoric: The Example of Time’s Arrow.” Pedagogy:

Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 10.1 (2009): 217-28. Print.

Zerweck, Bruno. “Historicizing Unreliable Narration: Unreliability and Cultural Discourse in Narrative Fiction.” Style 35.1 (Spring 2001): 151-78. Print.


[1] Wayne C. Booth explores the various definitions of rhetoric in his chapter “How Many Rhetorics?” and notes that Aristotle showed that “rhetoric has no specific territory or subject matter of its own, since it is found everywhere” (3). A thorough reading of the many definitions of rhetoric throughout time, premodern to postmodern philosophies, seems to bear up Aristotle’s premise, though Lloyd Bitzer’s definition may most fully give the scope of rhetoric as it acts within diverse domains in modern theory: “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (“The Rhetorical Situation,” 4). In addition, Covino and Jolliffe further define rhetoric as “primarily verbal, situationally contingent, epistemic art that is both philosophical and practical and gives rise to potentially active texts” but caution that within this domain there are certain limitations and ambiguities (“What is Rhetoric?” 5).

[2] See Ruediger Heinze’s article “Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction” for a comprehensive articulation of how narrators “know” the story they tell; this rather fascinating approach assumes that narrators of the first-person and the “knowledge they display is temporally, spatially, or cognitively” unknown to them. How, then, do we trust their narration? Phelan further argues that this unreliability is intention by the author, and thus creates a certain response by readers.

[3] See my two PAB Posts #7 and #8, which explores texts and their interpretation using rhetorical narrative theory and especially, authorial intention and narrator reliability.


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Rhetorical Narrative Theory: Methods and Debates

When researching rhetorical narrative theory, it seemed at first that most scholarship began with some sort of defense of its efficacy among critics. Narrative theory as a field involves generating knowledge and lending value to literary texts as they intermingle with culture, politics, ethics, and social systems. James Phelan defines the rhetorical methodological approach as,

[S]omebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purposes that something happened, and the definition seeks to account for narrative as having a textual dynamics (the telling of something that happened) and a readerly dynamics (the developing responses of the somebody who receives that telling). (“Rhetorical Aesthetics,” 88)

This definition includes the concepts of narrative progression and judgment, which are interested in the “synthesis of textual dynamics and readerly dynamics” because they “directly links textual and readerly dynamics: judgments are communicated by the telling but they are activities of a reader” (89), or as Sheldon Sacks asked, “Do we read the same books?” (qtd. In Phelan Experiencing, ix).


Aside from James Phelan and Dan Shen, few scholars seem to believe that methodologies can live side-by-side in the field.

Now, rhetorical narrative theory lies alongside a range of theoretical lenses[1] that can be applied to the study of literary texts, though its scholars seem to belong a rather narrow field within the broader discipline. Examining the application of rhetorical narrative theory includes not just understanding how it is applied to narrative texts, but also its finer points of study within the field as they continue to be debated, and so, most articles do begin by addressing criticisms. Dan Shen argues that the rhetorical approach “has been shedding significant light on the relation among the implied author, narrator, character, and audience” as it takes its place in narrative theory among other prominent approaches, including feminist, Marxist, formalist, and cognitive (576). And as a major critical theory, one of its most published scholars, James Phelan, argues that, “The rhetorical approach has no a priori commitments to such things as the nature of literary language or the relations between ideology and literature, history and literature, or politics and literature. Indeed, the approach’s only major initial commitment is to the idea that authors design texts as purposive communicative actions” (227). As an object of study within the field itself, the how’s and what’s that question its methods keeps the field fresh and the dialogue lively among its scholars.

The New Criticism, widely adopted throughout the mid-twentieth century, applied a rigorous objectivity to critical theory to literary texts (Yagelski, 300), and New Criticism scholars generally question the legitimacy of critical theory that moves outside “the text itself,” and the instead strive for generating meaning by a close reading of the language, style, and aesthetics of particular texts. Even those scholars who embrace the rhetorical approach to analyzing narrative engage in a vibrant debate of the role and relevancy of the “implied author,” defined as the “author’s second self,” or more fully, “the implied author’s image is one “implied by the text” for readers to infer, an image “the IA wanted them to find,”[2] (Shen “Neo-Aristotelian Criticism,” 583). Though there is much more complexity to the role of the implied author – such as its variable invocations and relationship to the real author, narrator reliability, even a debate about the historical-I of the real author, the narrated-I, the narrating-I, and the ideological-I and the role of the implied author,[3] and the complexity of the depth of analysis when applying rhetorical theory – the debate itself remains an active object of study among rhetorical narrative theorists. Finally, rhetorical narrative theory seems to be combating an ongoing deconstructionalist argument that “seeking to identify an implied author (indeed, the implied author^) of a literary work can surely only appear as a dubious endeavor to reduce the multiplicity of a text’s meanings to the totalizing unity of authorial intention” (Stefanescu 49). Deconstruction is mistrustful of rhetorical theory because it often includes the study of authorial intent, which has raised many criticisms about “intentional fallacy” and whether we can really know intention and whether authorial intention even matters to the reader. Dan Shen attempts to clear up what she terms “decades of misinterpretation” of who the implied author is by offering this definition and clarification: The difference between the “implied author” (second self) and the “real author” (first self) is the difference between the person assuming a certain air or a particular stance when writing the text and the same person in daily life out of the writing process. (“Implied” 142). She further argues that the real author and their historical, cultural, and political contexts, while not primary, enrich the rhetorical study of texts because they “do often exert influence on one’s stance in composing a fictional narrative” and Shen demonstrates this through three studies of a real authors whose historical, biographical, and socio-cultural contexts deepend our understanding of the texts (“Neo-Aristotelian,” 585).

Within rhetorical narrative theory rests the rising influence of affect: the readerly response to texts, the judgments and ethics we apply, and this concept also addresses the question of “Do we read the same books?” Dr. Dana Heller, Chairperson of the Department of English at Old Dominion University, agrees that the understanding the rhetorical effect of certain texts, “[W]ould be appropriate and I think it is appropriate.   But I think we need to look just as closely at the rhetorical effect of cultures on texts. This is a two-way street” (“Personal Interview”). Continuing, she points out the growing field of affect study across the disciplines, exemplified in such works as the omnibus reader The Affect Theory Reader (Duke U. Press 2010), which surveys the “enormous body of work” being performed in affective theory (Heller). Understanding how texts work on us as readers and how we can analyze texts by constructing critical approaches that include the concept that “an author…guides us to experience [the text] one way or another” underpins rhetorical narrative theory (Phelan Experiencing, x). As it is applied to texts of any genre, it addresses the question: can we experience, or read, the same texts the same way?

Approaching literature as a point of study for its rhetorical effect allows scholars to be liberated from strictly genre, language, or historical study, and instead blend narrative literature through its affect over time, in its historical period, and for its place among other texts that resonated emotionally in culture. Studying both the texts under scrutiny for its affective nature and the debates within the field of rhetorical theory as they are waged, allows the rhetoric scholar a very broad field of study as well as the opportunity to participate in relevant and important dialogue in critical theory.


Works Cited

Copland, Sarah. “To Be Continued: The Story of Short Story Theory and Other Narrative Theory.” Narrative 22.1 (Jan.

2014): 132-149. Print.

Heller, Dana. “Personal Interview.” October 3 & 14, 2014. Email.

Phelan, James. Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative. Columbus: Ohio

State University Press, 2007. Print.

——– “The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative: Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-137. Print.

Shen, Dan. “Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Narrative Study: Need for Integrating Style, Context, and Intertext.” Style 45.4

(Winter 2011): 576-597. Print.

——–“Implied Author, Authorial Audience, and Context: Form and History in Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Theory.” Narrative 21.2 (May 2013): 140-158. Print.

Stefanescu, Maria. “Revisiting the Implied Author Yet Again: Why (Still) Bother? Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 48-66. Print.

Yagelski, Robert P. “English Education.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComisky.

Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 275-319. Print.

[1] James Phelan notes in his essay “Rhetorical Aesthetics and Other Issues in the Study of Literary Narrative” that these approaches include: formalist, feminist, cognitive, rhetorical, psychoanalytic, Marxist, and others (86). He also discusses the interplay between these approaches and the issues now current in the field of literary narrative: nonmimetic narrative; digital narrative; the fact/fiction distinction; narrative space; and rhetorical aesthetics (86).

[2] See Dan Shen’s article “Neo-Aristotelian Criticism” for a fuller discussion and definition of the “implied author.” See also Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (U. of Chicago Press 1983) and James Phelan’s Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative (Ohio State Press 2007).

[3] These are the four autobiographical “I’s” as defined by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson in Reading Autobiography (2001).


Filed under All Papers, Paper #4, Uncategorized

In Defense of the Implied Author, Intentionality: The Case of the Nonfiction Narrative

Phelan, James. “The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative: Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-137. Print.

Barthes contention of "the death of the author" was introduced alongside "The Intentional Fallacy" and New Criticism's concerns with "the text itself." See footnote #1.

Barthes contention of “the death of the author” was introduced alongside “The Intentional Fallacy” and New Criticism’s concerns with “the text itself.” See footnote #1.

A discussion of rhetorical narrative theory must include an examination of its place within a large body of historical and modern literary theory. In so doing, it is appropriate to recognize the curious position of rhetorical narrative theory, which historically builds upon neo-Aristotelian and the Chicago School of literary criticism, as one that seems to invite equal parts passionate advocacy and critical questioning of its legitimacy. The position and application of rhetorical narrative theory includes discussion and debates around the implied author, the function of the narrator, and calls into question issues of intertextuality and intentionality, sometimes referred to as “the Intentional Fallacy.[1]

In large part, this article addresses many of the arguments against rhetorical narrative theory, and offers mainly the hypothesis that rhet-narrative theory should exist alongside these other theories because it adds a certain value that enriches our understanding of literary texts, including nonfiction texts. Phelan specifically addresses not only arguments that favor theories such as that our readings of texts are “mediated by our interpretive frameworks” with the view that “texts have an existence independent of those frameworks” (123). In addition, Phelan addresses the value of deconstruction as a theory that essentially rules out authorial intention because “language always undoes itself,” and again insists that rhetorical theory analysis of a text allows us to understand deeper contexts like irony and cultural contexts[2] (124).

Discussion is given to the relationship between Phelan’s argument for the legitimacy in analyzing intention and the theoretical analysis of the implied author, which argues that the implied author better positions intentionality because it considers authorial choice of “technique, subject matter, narrative sequence, ethical values, and so on;” considers differences in “ideological or ethical positions in texts by the same biological author;” illuminates differences between the real author’s discussion of her own text and the implied author’s “purposeful design governing the text;” and “our sense that we know an author through reading his or her text and that the author has a life independent of the identity projected in the text” (128). This gives the implied author an agency within the text that counters theory that treats the implied author as passively produced by the text or by reader interpretation.

Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is used by Phelan as an example of the deficiency of the narrating-I, the experiencing-I, and the implied author when considering reliability.

Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is used by Phelan as an example of the deficiency of the narrating-I, the experiencing-I, and the implied author when considering reliability.

In the final pages of this article, Phelan turns his analytical eye to applying rhetorical narrative theory to nonfiction, specifically Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Phelan outlines five proposals to argue that his analyses of both texts reveal off-kilter narration between the narrating-I, the experiencing-I, and the implied author. The main theme of these five proposals build on Phelan’s argument that, rather than the unreliability of the narrator, these examples show the deficiency of some narration, most revealed in analyses of the nonfiction memoir, because of the “factual status of the narrative” (133).


[1] James Phelan describes the emergence of the “Intentional Fallacy” in 1946, forwarded by scholars on theory established by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in the essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” which deliberately marginalizes and ignores the real author’s purpose and influence on any interpretation of her text. Phelan also summarizes subsequent work which coincided and endured with the rise and fall of New Criticism, including Barthes “death of the author,” and Stanley Fish’s argument that “the interpretive strategies of interpretive communities dictate the meaning of texts, then interpretive authority rests entirely with those communities — authors are essentially irrelevant” (122).

[2] Phelan uses Jane Austen’s famous first line in Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” to illustrate how a simple deconstructive reading of this line would only cause us to question language, when intention would reveal the deliberate irony caused by “he movement of the sentence from its initial signaling of some grand wisdom (not just “A universally acknowledged truth is” but “It is a truth universally acknowledged that”) to its final delivery of a dubious proposition” (124).

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Rhetorical Narrative Theory and Short Story Theory, Together At Last?

Copland, Sarah. “To Be Continued: The Story of Short Story Theory and Other Narrative Theory.” Narrative 22.1 (Jan. 2014): 132-149. Print.

A discussion of theory seems hollow without a sense of how it’s applied, and what artifacts are chosen for application. Rhetorical narrative theory seeks to interpret texts for their aesthetic, ethical, and affective elements, especially considering the role of the implied author, author-audience communication, and the contexts that inform the writing and reading of narrative texts. Sarah Copland, as a rhetorical narrative theorist, seeks to apply rhet-narrative theory to the short story form, and questions the relationship between short story theory and other narrative theories, querying why they have mostly been distinct.

Copland contextualizes her question by merging her rhet-narrative analysis of Alice Munro’s “Passion,” with that of five short story theorist’s[1]. Her intent is to explore answers to her question of what separates short story theory from other narrative theory, with the clarification that, as a rhet-narrative theorist, her methodology is “rooted in attention to facets of narrative that are shared by narratives across genres” which means applying,

[E]ffects of focalization on relationships among the author, narrator, characters, and reader; the progression of the narrative in terms of scripts, frames, and gaps; the interactions between the frame narrative and the main narrative and between the time of the telling and the time of the told; and questions about affective responses and narrative ethics. (135)


It’s on.

Before exploring the application of short story theory, and its relationship to other narrative theory, Copland identifies the premises that others have argued prohibits other narrative theory as legitimate for short story analysis. These include the arguments that other narrative theory is “overrun with jargon;” that “[w]ork informed by other narrative is somehow different from and inferior to ‘good old-fashioned close reading;” that it “tends to overlook some of the distinctive facets of specific short stories,” and that narrative theory will monopolize and overrun short story theory that will threaten the distinctive form and analysis of short stories (133). With this definition of her methodology and an exploration of the arguments against applying other narrative theory to short stories, Copland then engages in both an explication of the five theorists analyses of “Passion,” and then highlights the following claims that unfold within their analyses that define short story theory: “that the short story may be unique on account of its high concentration of gaps, scant characterization, and lack of closure” and particularly how these claims are applied to Munro’s “Passion” (145-46).

Copland then juxtapositions her analysis of “Passion” through examining the short story theorists interpretation of the reliability of the narrator and protagonist, Grace, and assumptions made by the theorists of the narrative gaps, assumed premises of Neil’s death as a suicide through the unreliable dialogue of the cook, and the interpretive depth of the narration’s internal focalization. She argues that they overlook the reliability of Grace’s narration because they do not consider that,

[T]he story’s characterization of Grace: when it comes to reading other people, Grace has, to put it simply, too much certainty based on insufficient evidence. She tends to believe that she knows people fully, deeply, and instantaneously… .By rendering the internal focalization in a way that consistently emphasizes Grace’s absolute certainty, Munro invites us to question that certainty. (136-37)

In this view, the narration of Neil’s nihilistic character through Grace’s judgment of his character is both understood and unreliable, especially because it sets up a reading that does not question that Neil committed suicide, when the text, Copland argues, never explicitly reveals that. Instead, Copland argues that Munro as the implied author leaves that assumed certainty to be ambiguous.

Copland differentiates between her analysis of “Passion” and those of the short story theorists by its a posterei position that does not pre-suppose that certain genres must share certain elements, which Copland acknowledges are “trends in the short story, often historically rooted, that are nonetheless only trends and not universals” (146). Copland agrees to a point that these trends in short story analysis are useful, when applying rhetorical narrative theory, because it allows us to analyze a short story for its “productive uncertainty, ambiguity, and conscious gap-awareness,” which leads to “more significant interpretive, affective, and ethical challenges” (145, 146). However, she doesn’t believe that a priori conceptions of a short story’s characteristics should always inform the reading and analysis of all other short stories because they would confirm the theorist’s biases. This is the main premise of her argument that short story analysis can benefit by applying other narrative theory and methodologies in relationship with genre-specific theory.


[1] Susan Lohafer, Charles E. May, Michael Toolan, Michael Trussler, and Per Winther. Their analyses of Munro’s “Passion” also seek to demonstrate unique elements of short story theory and compare it to other narrative theory. See the May 2012 issue of Narrative.

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Stories that Move Us: Narrative Texts as Rhetorical Objects of Study

Rhetoric may consider any sort of communication as a legitimate area of study: novels and short stories of every genre, communications that encompass speech, professional discourses, digital media, and even the debates that surround the study of rhetoric (what is rhetorical? How do we know? What definitions guide us?). Literary texts are one way of analyzing how rhetoric is applied, by narrowing the field of possible artifacts of study and by the choice of the theorist to work with these mediums.  Naturally, analyzing how and why texts move us rhetorically – through a consideration of their “affective, ethical, and aesthetic” qualities – invites the question of what texts in particular are the focus of rhetorical study, and why (Phelan “Teaching” 219).


Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis.

James Phelan provides an example using Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, first defining narrative as “somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose or purposes that something has happened” (“Teaching” 219). This definition is one that he uses to “direct our attention to tellers, audiences, and purposes as much as to the ‘something that happened’” (ibid). Working through his analysis, it’s clear he choose Time’s Arrow because it offers attributes that supports his argument that “our experience of literature is multilayered — typically involving at the very least our cognitive abilities, our ethical values, and our emotions…[and that] readers are capable of having similar experiences of the same text” (218). This novel, which is told using backward narration, from the death of the protagonist to his birth, explores the narrator’s attempts to consider the moral being of the protagonist, Odilo Unverdorben, who worked as a doctor in Auschwitz during World War II. It’s context alone invites ethical response, which may be a huge factor when selecting a narrative text for study.

Phelan has a large body of scholarship in rhetorically analyzing narrative texts, especially identifying affective texts that can be studied for their rhetorical properties. His book, Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative, analyzes “ten fictions that collectively constitute a very broad range of interpretive challenges and an equally broad sample of the ways in which narratives deploy judgments and progressions to affect (and,indeed, to effect) our experience of them” (xi-xii). These ten fictions are Ambrose Bierce’s “The Crimson Candle,” Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek,” Alice Munro’s “Prue” Ann Beattie’s “Janus,” and Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” (xii). One immediately notices that all of these texts are by well-known, established authors and many of these are fairly well-known stories that enjoy popular digestion. Judgments and progressions refer first to how we ethically value the characters (judge them) and how the narrative “influences significantly our hopes and desires;” that is, what we hope will happen and our willingness to follow the progression, or “paying attention to movement of a narrative from beginning to middle through ending,” in order to find out what happens (Experiencing xii, 2). These judgments extend to the author and narrator, and become more sophisticated as we become more advanced readers, so that “good guys” and “bad guys” are no longer sufficient as narrative devices, but our ethical judgments of more ambiguously moral characters remains. It would seem up to the teacher and scholar to be broadly familiar with a diverse field of narrative fiction in order to select texts that have these elements, or have some part of these elements, in order to successfully apply rhetorical narrative theory. And why would we select this critical approach when teaching or studying rhetoric or literature? Phelan argues that

[A]ttending to the various layers of our experience (especially the intellectual, the emotive, the ethical, and the aesthetic) and recognizing the sources of those experiences in authorial strategy and textual phenomena allow us to understand and value the power of fictional narrative. The reading practice and the associated critical approach ultimately want to give a plausible account of fictional narrative’s ability to reinforce, extend, challenge, or sometimes change what we know, think, believe, and value—and to that extent, its ability to reinforce, challenge, or even change who we are. (Experiencing xiii)


Atonement, by Ian McEwan

In addition to texts listed above, the following texts appear in many other analyses applying rhetorical and affective literary theory: “Desiree’s Baby,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Roman Fever,” Persuasion, and Beloved. In particular, scholars consider the author-audience communication, the norms of the implied author (IA), and, in some cases, the historical, contextual, and biographical means of these texts’ production. Thematically, the narratives analyzed cross genres, represent a diverse body of authors, and address different topics, regions, cultures, and more. The decision-making process behind their selection as objects of study are also diverse. Consider the novel Atonement, considered by some to be one of the ten “devastatingly” saddest novels: James Phelan includes this novel because it “makes judgment itself a major thematic issue, while employing a tour de force progression the effect of which depends heavily on a disclosure that is delayed until almost the ending” (10). He also considers it to employ mimetic and synthetic narrative components that make its analysis a broad survey of narrative forms (13).

What are you talking about?

What are you talking about?

There is seemingly an endless amount of narrative texts that could be analyzed for their rhetorical and affective impact on readers, and, in fact, this particular bounty also creates a sense of incoherence to the field of literary study as well as an abstraction for rhetorical study. What gets included? How do you choose one text over another? As rhetoric, composition, and literature meet in the first year composition classroom, the coherency of each field and what many have argued is a lack of definition and scope, its legitimacy and power within the academy, and the questions of what gets taught and how we assess learning remain prominent and ever-critical for the rhetorical narrative scholar. This reminds us of the criticism that the classroom reveals the instructors’ biases, and certainly text selection is part of that bias. Ultimately we choose, as instructors, texts that move us and that we believe exemplify the characteristics of a narrative that are most worth study. Our choice(s) of theory also play a part, as when I believe reading Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water,” or Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day,” or David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children,” will move my students as they moved me[1] and that their reading can lead to concrete rhetorical and affective structural study.

As an argument against the sterile analysis of narrative texts that seek to disregard the lay reader experience while privileging the academic scholar’s interpretation, studying narrative for its affective and rhetorical effect seems to poised to become a more widely recognized literary theory (as it spreads through other disciplines and intersects with many), it is also not touted as the “One True Path to pedagogical salvation for literary critics… [but] the approach has much to recommend it” (Phelan “Teaching” 226). Considering affect is a thing, becoming a major critical theory in many fields today [2]. Affect and the narrative text are analyzed through a close analysis of the implied author, the real author, and the author-audience communication, and is closely related to theoretical origins of studying narrative as rhetoric, the rhetoric of fiction, and shared reader experiences of certain texts.

Reader, what book affected you the most deeply? I’m interested in the fictional literary experiences of others, so please, leave your selection in the comments!


[1] Offered without deep textual analysis of their affective qualities, as I’ve made no formal study of these texts, though each has a poignant narrative to offer that suggests to me isolation, removal, otherness and they always resonant emotionally with my students.

[2] “Doctor: We Should Worry About the Flu, Not Ebola” a story based on public fear and how doctors deal with the emotional fears of patients and emotional epidemiology. The story interviewed Dr. Danielle Ofri, author of What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine (Beacon 2013).


Works Cited or Consulted:

Keen, Suzanne. “Introduction: Narrative and the Emotions.” Poetics Today 32.1 (Spring

2011): 1-53. Print

Phelan, James. Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical

Theory of Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007. Print.

—-“Teaching Narrative as Rhetoric: The Example of Time’s Arrow.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 10.1 (2009): 217-28.

Shen, Dan. “Implied Author, Authorial Audience, and Context: Form and History in Neo-

Aristotelian Rhetorical Theory. NARRATIVE 21.2 (May 2013): 140-58. Print.

— “Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Narrative Study: Need for Integrating Style, Context, and Intertext. Style 45.4 (Winter 2011): 576-597. Print.

Sprinker, Michael. “ What is Living and What is Dead in Chicago Criticism.” Boundary

2 13.2-3 (Winter/Spring 1985): 189-212. Print.

Stefanescu, Maria. “Revisiting the Implied Author Yet Again: Why (Still) Bother?” Style

54.1 (Spring 2011): 48-66. Print.

Taylor, Richard C. “Literature and Literary Criticism.” English Studies: An Introduction

to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComisky. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 199-222. Print.


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Hitting Us In the Feels: Affect and Fictional Narratives

Keen, Suzanne. “Introduction: Narrative and the Emotions.” Poetics Today 32:1 (Spring 2011): 1-53. Print



Me, reading “Incarnations of Burned Children,” by David Foster Wallace.

In this introduction to a special two-part Spring 2011 edition of Poetics Today, Suzanne Keen provides a very comprehensive survey of the study of literature and emotion, and how and why we would study literature for its affective effect on readers. This is a huge article and undertaking, but well done in terms of giving the reader an understanding of the criticisms against gauging emotional effect, and arguing for the legitimacy of studying the emotional effect of narrative. Essentially the argument is made that “the feelings generated by the deeds of writers prompt recognition and change in the recipients who experience them” (5).

What makes literature rhetorical? Keen argues that,

[N]arratives have the potential to transmit not just shared values but also disciplinary models of social control (including hierarchies, norms, and discriminating standards) on the societies that share them has been a commonplace of contemporary theory since at least Foucault. (12)

This “affective turn” in studying literature is the premise that “modes of narrative [evoke] emotional responses” (7, 14) and,

“What happens when we scrutinize narrative and the emotions in light of ancient and modern rhetoric, the age-old poetics of impact, empirical evidence of literary response, current cognitive, developmental, and social psychology, or recent neuroscience? (10)

#can'tholdthesefeelings .gif

Me, reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

While I cannot condense this entire survey of methodologies and approaches to considering the affective nature of narrative, I will instead provide some analysis of the section that considers how the Chicago School of literary criticism/neo-Aristotelian theory figure into studying the affective nature of fictional literature, and particularly how applying rhetorical methodologies can assist scholars in teasing out what elements of fictional narrative illustrates effective communication with the reader. Keen only devotes a small area to considering rhetorical critical theory, but does note that “[Wayne C.] Booth reintroduces the concerns of rhetoric into narrative studies, showing the way to both rhetorical narratologists…as an aspect of response and an elicitor of ethical engagement” (35-6). This particular theory intends to suss out the relationship between the author and the reader, and in doing, consider how the narrative structure, language, genre expectations, and more will affect the audience’s “intellect, psyche, emotions, and values” (36). As part of the larger two-part special topics edition of Poetics Today devoted to the topic of narratives and emotion, this introduction provides a grounding in considering specific texts through these lenses, such as “origin stories of Genesis to shared cultural narratives, from canonical novels to private letters to film comedies and jokes” (40). When considering whether issues around periodicity or specialization are limiting scholars in their scope of understanding genres of literature, this approach is more concerned with multi-textual examinations that consider emotion and affect from the Romantics to the Victorians, from the postmodernists to the contemporary.


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Aristotle, Redux: Defending and Expanding Neo-Aristotelian Critical Theory

Shen, Dan. “Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Narrative Study: Need for Integrating Style, Context, and Intertext. Style 45:4 (Winter 2011): 576-597. Print.


Author-Audience Communication is a central component of neo-Aristotelian critical theory.

Author-Audience Communication is a central component of neo-Aristotelian critical theory.

Second generation neo-Aristotelian critical theory arose in the early sixties as an extension of the Chicago School of Criticism, led by prominent scholar Wayne C. Booth in his seminal work, The Rhetoric of Fiction (U. of Chicago Press, 1961, 1983). Booth’s work extended first generation work by Robert S. Crane, which offered literary scholars a critical lens that considered the poetics of a text (how it functioned as a narrative structure within its genre, marginalizing language or “the text itself”) to the rhetorical nature of narrative fiction, with its “implied author” and author-audience communication.

Shen distinguishes the three generations of Chicago School, briefly outlining the Aristotelian premise of the first-generation and then focusing his argument on the second and third generation of neo-Aristotelian critics. His work here is mostly a defense and a definition of what Neo-Aristotelian criticism is, differentiating between rhetorical criticism’s focus on the “narratological distinction between story and discourse” (577), which distinguishes between “what” is written (structure) and “how” an author conveys the story (verbal) (578). This is essentially an argument about the function of character, event, discourse, and style, and how these choices create a norm for the “implied author;” that is, the “second self” of the writer that is revealed by an analysis of the narrator-author within the text (583). This gives us an opportunity to study the rhetorical relationship between the audience and the author, which further reveals the cognitive and affective elements of a text. The author-audience communication “investigates the communication between the implied author and her ideal, hypothetical addressee” (579). Indeed, much of third-generation rhetorical critics are using Booth as their central unifying force to argue for an how this approach enables scholars to understand how texts act upon the reader and what “means the author uses to persuade a reader” (583). This is important because it moves us beyond New Criticism’s focus on language out of context, but invites in those contexts by allowing a “communication between the author and the reader” as well as an investigation into how “flesh-and-blood readers’ different experiences, knowledge, and sociohistorical positioning lead to divergent readings” (583, 584). As an approach to analyze texts for their rhetorical impact on readers as well as how texts fit contextually within a genre, neo-Aristotelian criticism would seem to bridge many of the theoretical divides confronting literary studies.

Shen is able to give both a historical perspective as well as a current definition of this field of literary criticism, and offers as objects of study a critical approach that goes beyond “the text itself,” in that it argues for a more holistic look at the production and effect of fictional narratives. He draws not only upon the seminal work of R.S. Crane and Booth (first and second generation Chicago School critics), but synthesizes the current third generation work of scholars such as James Phelan. Shen spends a good amount of time with real examples of how this theory is applied to texts, such as Katherine Mansfield’s “Revelations” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (581-582). His argument here is to question the exclusion of the “real author,” because generally, no biographical data on the real author is used in rhetorical criticism, only the implied author. Instead, he argues that understanding the biography of the real author, such as knowing Kate Chopin’s biographical background when writing “Desiree’s Baby,” helps readers and scholars to understand the racial implication and the “mythologization of Southern racist culture” in this story[1], which, without that knowledge, would be obscured. Despite this argument, Shen emphatically goes on to assert the primacy of the text in any rhetorical analysis.

Finally, Shen discusses genre, noting Aristotle’s emphasis on genre and Booth’s argument that even the “least conventional story” will bring with a set of generic expectations on the part of the scholar/reader (588). This, Shen argues, “intertextual comparison” allows scholars to deepen their rhetorical analysis of texts even further, by comparing the “structure-style features between the text under investigation and other related texts” (588). Once again, this is to further understand the norms of the implied author, especially as we trace authorial movements between texts.


[1] Shen also discusses how using the real author’s biographical data can help us understand narratological events and characters such as the narrator in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In this example, he notes that analysis of this short story often tries to explain why the narrator “continuously insists on his sanity, a textual phenomenon that has received various interpretations but none appear convincing” (586). Shen observes that at this time there was a contemporary legal defense beginning to take hold in the United States: the “insanity defense.” This lends an even higher ironic element to the story that may not have been understood without this background knowledge (587).

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Rise and Fall, and Rise Again: Debating the “Social Turn” in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.

question marks

So many questions!

A major question in rhetoric and composition (hereafter rhet/comp) studies today  concerns the social turn in rhet/comp methodologies and its effectiveness as a pedagogy. The convening of the annual College Composition and Communication (CCCC) conference in 1964 raised the question of the place rhetoric held in composition instruction, pointing out that “the use of topics (“places” for discovering arguments) and status (finding the type of issue to dispute) helped students raise and investigate compelling questions” and that using rhetorical concepts such as Cicero’s Five Canons, the rhetorical situation, and kairos “encouraged the construction of a full composition curriculum with different aims of writing (Lauer 108). Over the next three decades, the “social turn” in rhet/comp recovered work in the rhetorical writings of women and minorities, previously overlooked or marginalized in rhetorical studies. Lauer describes this as a “rhizomatic spread of theory, research, and new pedagogy” which focused on sociocultural contexts in which students learned the strategies and rhetorical emphases of particular discourse communities, typically investigating their own (121). Scholars such as Lauer, Flower, Friere, Bizzell, LeFevre, hooks, and others argued for the contextual cultural, social, and political concerns of students as entry points for developing effective, empowering, and meaningful rhetorical discourse in rhetoric and composition studies.

If public discourse and civic responsibility were a major concern of colleges and universities in the late 18th and 19th centuries, as S. Michael Halloran argues, why did instruction in classical rhetorical traditions lose its importance? Halloran argues that the emergence of belles lettres as a component of rhetorical studies “distracted the gaze of rhetoricians from their central concern with public discourse,” reframing rhetoric as the art of orating the more aesthetic, or beautiful, elements of speech rather than those that addressed a civic issue (104). As well, the adoption of current-traditional models of rhetoric focused on “products rather than processes” which Halloran argues may be why the creative art of invention with emphasis on substance and content died out in favor of an emphasis on the four modes of the current-traditional model: description, narration, exposition, and argumentation (103). Sharon Crowley also observes that the rise of the current-traditional model led to more formulaic writing processes that emphasized invention and style, and she notes that this formula survived in collegiate texts up through the late eighties and can still be seen today in some writing courses (233). The historical question of why and how emphasis on the social and contextual nature of rhet/comp instruction rose and fell and rose again, has led to increased interest in the theoretical movements of rhet/comp methodologies over time, and whether the social turn has benefited the development of student writing.


Karl Marx.

Jeffrey Zorn openly condemns the practice of privileging student voice and socio-cultural contexts as “garbage,” claiming that is there is no evidence that these methods work to improve student writing (273). Although he doesn’t prove his case either[1] Zorn does seem to be leading the pack on critiquing social-construction as ineffective, or at least, not evidenced as more effective teaching pedagogy in rhet/comp courses. If improved student writing is the desired goal of a first-year composition course, and rhetorical tradition based on classical theories of invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory is a primary approach to teaching writing, then what part do student social and cultural contexts play in achieving those goals? Zorn’s argument is that we have gone too far in encouraging social/cultural studies in the writing classroom, at the expense of more tangible skills like “logic, organization, clarity, third-person exposition, Aristotelian rhetoric, Standard English, literacy itself, education itself, and writing instruction that aspires only to improved writing” (278). This sally invites the question of how rhet/comp instruction is transferred to other courses and the “real world,” as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) becomes a looming question in rhet/comp studies today. Does raising social consciousness and civic responsibility in first-year writing courses really bear out later in the students’ professional, academic, and social lives?


Betty Friedan.

Paul J. Johnson and Ethan Krase argue that, in their limited study of twelve first-year writing students, a focus on skills – “articulating and supporting claims” and properly supporting their arguments by using documented evidence – seems to be the most transferable to later courses (47). They do not analyze how topics and assignments are constructed in these student’s classes, and so maintain only that specific and direct instruction on articulating claims and providing valid evidence and support is a measurable skill that was transferred from first-year writing courses into later upper-level courses across a variety of genres. This moves us into questioning the relationship between Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and the transfer of writing ability to other courses. WAC questions seem to be appropriately placed in English Studies, since new fields in linguistics, literacy, technical communication, and other domains have integrated new genres that English Studies, and the rhet/comp field in particular, are most readily able to accommodate. In first-year writing, there is a lot of room for instructors to sample many different writing genres with their students, and as Lauer notes, rhetoric and composition scholars in the 1980’s began to argue that “teaching a rhetoric of inquiry in the disciplines helps writers ‘learn how knowledge has been constructed as well as what that knowledge is'” (123). WAC is also connected to how students transfer writing skills outside the classroom (“extracurriculum,” as termed by Anne Ruggles Gere)[2], and most particularly outside academia and in the community. Ellen Cushman notes in her article, “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” that we must encourage students to be active outside of the classroom, especially in their communities, and her own work as a doctoral student involved helping community members write resumes, fill out housing and college applications, and compose business letters (7, 13). Thus, students social contexts and using a social-constructionist pedagogy remains a major question in rhetoric and composition studies, but one I suggest is relevant to developing research in WAC and the transfer of writing skills as applied learning in the “real world.”


Paolo Friere.


Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. “The Current-Traditional Theory of Style: An Informal History.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 16:4 (Autumn, 1986): 233-250.

Cushman, Ellen. “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” College Composition and Communication 47:1 (Feb. 1996): 7-28. Print.

Halloran, S. Micheal. “Rhetoric in the American College Curriculum: The Decline of Public Discourse.” PRE/TEXT, 3:3 (1982): 93-115. Print.

Johnson, J. Paul and Ethan Krase. “Articulating Claims and Presenting Evidence: A Study of Twelve Student Writers, From First-Year Composition to Writing Across the Curriculum.” The WAC Journal 23 (2012): 31048. Print.

Lauer, Janice. “Rhetoric and Composition.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComisky. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 106-152. Print.

Zorn, Jeffrey. “English Compositionism as Fraud and Failure.” Academic Questions 26:3 (2013): 270-284. Print.


[1] Zorn argues that three things must happen in order to teach “remedial, core, advanced, or discipline-specific writing classes”: 1) dissociate composition teaching from literature teaching; 2) dissociate composition teaching from composition studies and composition theory; and 3) put writing instruction in the hands of practitioners – of whatever academic training and political leaning – whose only job is to guide student writers towards proficiency at the level traditionally associated with “higher” education.” (283, 272). Zorn offers no evidence that more traditional teaching practices had a greater learning outcome effect on student writing, and it begs the question that, if traditional forms were so wonderful, why they’ve been sidelined in favor of social-constructionalist approaches. Halloran does discuss this shift in his article, “Rhetoric in the American College Curriculum: The Decline of Public Discourse” (1982), but that only concerns the teaching of rhetoric for “effective communication on public problems, problems that arise in our life in political communities” (94). Johnson and Krase argue that focusing on specific writing skills does seem to produce more measurable transfer in student writing, but their sample is limited to twelve students.

[2] Gere, Anne Ruggles. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92. Print.


Filed under All Papers, Paper #2

Taking Rhetoric to the Streets

Cushman, Ellen. “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” College Composition and Communication 47:1 (Feb. 1996): pp. 7-28. Print.

As a counter-counterargument to Zorn’s piece (see PAB Post #3, above), Ellen Cushman takes us to the streets to where civic participation happens, beckoning us down for the ivory tower in order to bridge the distance between “critical theorists [who believe] that the primary means of affecting social change is to translate activism into liberatory classroom pedagogies” and instead “empower people in our communities, establish networks of reciprocity with them, and create solidarity with them” (7). She recognizes the “deeply rooted sociological distances” between the work of the academy, especially because of our focus on professionalization and specialization, and our local communities, which she speculates is why “academics have so easily turned away from the democratic project that education serves to ensure – civic participation by well-rounded individuals (8, 9). As a counter-counterpoint, her work recognizes the dissonance between course work and theoretical social engagement but also offers a means to blend civic participation and real world applicability with the goals of rhetoric and composition studies.

Cushman’s piece is useful because, unlike Zorn, she reminds us that these discussions of what is good writing, what is good reading, what is literacy, or rhetoric, or social action, take place in the privileged domain of the academy, where accessibility to resources and prestige is taken for granted. On the street level, teaching students to write letters for housing, resumes for jobs, fill out forms and understand systems has more immediate value to the community, and is proof of where civic participation is really located. Cushman argues that the daily interactions of people within their community have economic and political effects and that,

Often this type of social change would be overlooked or underestimated with the emancipatory theories we currently use. Those who choose to say resistance only counts when it takes the form of overt and collective political action might describe use as using nothing more than coping devices with this literacy.” (14)

Cushman is describing service-learning as an activist action that is observable and individualized with genuine empowerment effects. She uses the term “reciprocity” to provide a framework for working directly in a community, and as a moderating force.[1]

However, Cushman frames what she received from the community members she worked with – single mothers, low-income families with the “Black (their term) neighborhood in upstate New York” – as the gift of learning from them and getting to use their name and data for her dissertation work (7, 17). This is a fragile claim, as it’s unclear that the people discussed were aware of this reciprocal gift and viewed themselves as anything other than test subjects. In fact, what I know of service-learning pedagogy and research is that there is often a fear of paternalism, or a sort of condescending charity.[2]


How are we defining rhetoric? What counts as rhetorical?

What Cushman does not define is what role the rhetorician is playing in the model of activist learning she is presenting. Though her work is titled “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” we are not given a discussion on how rhetoric is defined, what forms it takes in the academic/community relationship, and how we might study particular rhetorical communications for what is most effective in rhetorical discourse with a community.


[1] She is particularly concerned with a mode of domination that could result from a one-directional “gift-giving” in the community. She cites Bourdieu’s definition of reciprocity in his work The Logic of Practice (1990) as a model of how reciprocity should work in a community, though notes that his work was in observing relational bonds between kin-people and tribal chiefs.

[2] This does not suggest that service-learning courses do not make a positive and welcome impact in local communities, only that the relationship must be carefully negotiated – as Cushman notes. I am still skeptical that the project that Cushman describes defines a truly reciprocal relationship. For an interesting case-study on the potential do-gooder effects of service-learning course design, please read, “The Impact of a Service-Learning Course Design on White Student’s Racial Attitudes,” (Sara Houshmand, Lisa B. Spanierman, Amanda M. Beer, V. Paul Poteat, and Laura J. Lawson, 2014).

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Filed under All PAB Entries, PAB Entry #4