Monthly Archives: October 2014

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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