The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative by H. Porter Abbott

In stark contrast to the academic tome I recently undertook, this one was an absolute joy. (It was also much shorter.) I’ve been looking for something to help me understand my enjoyment of certain television shows, and went looking for a guide-to-narrative, which oddly (given my MFA) I seem to have skipped along the way. This book caught my eye as it claimed to take on various fictional formats, not only books but theatre, film, and television (among others). It delivered. I was often thrilled with the examples of the concepts it set up. And I’m now excited by narratology, or narrative theory. There may be more of these in my future.

I like Abbott’s broad approach, how he begins with narrative as it exists, ubiquitous, in our lives (as I tell my students that stories are everywhere, that writing is everywhere). He defines narrative broadly; at every stage he samples the literature and signals where he follows standard understandings or argues for his own. This book really does make an excellent introduction to a field of study; it’s only 213 pages (plus notes and supplementals), so it necessarily serves as a survey, but it felt very complete in that function. Chapters cover narrative frames and paratexts; masterplots and types; closure; narration (so much to explore!); interpretation (problems, styles, main types); adaptations across media (this is an area I’m very interested in); “narrative and truth” and the blurry space between fiction and nonfiction; narrative worlds; and competing narratives (as in political campaigns, legal trials, and more). I was constantly excited to recognize ways I think about stories and storytelling and the ways we experience stories, and to have my beliefs, theories, or experiences spelled out for me in new terms. I would never have thought a work of academic theory like this could be so gripping.

I was pleased to learn of Marie-Laure Ryan’s ‘principle of minimal departure,’ for our tendency to assume that a fictional world will mimic our ‘real’ one, until we learn otherwise. I appreciated a few small, apt examples of narrative differences as examples for my Short Fiction class. I loved all the examples of primary texts (narrative works that exemplify the concepts Abbott was teaching) and secondary sources (other studies of narrative on his various topics). I made note of a few books and movies to put on my lists. Abbott’s examples are disproportionately written by men, but by no means to the radical exclusion of non-men that so irritated me about Gardner’s work.

Call this a tantalizing foray for me into a new way to study and think about stories. This is great fun and I can’t wait to learn more.

Rating: 8 adaptations.

6 Responses

  1. Good Morning, Julia. Can’t sleep, so I’m reading email. What an interesting idea to study storytelling. I’m reluctant to let this concept into my thoughtstream–I’d be apprehensive it would interfere with my enjoyment of reading. I’m a typesetter and editor by trade and those two skills already impede my pure experience of reading. I don’t want to think about it too much more. As it is, there are moments when I become paralyzed by a paragraph, when I can’t comprehend how the writer formulated such an intricate description of a character’s thoughts or life experience. I put my finger in the book to hold my place and gaze into the distance, letting my eyes of out of focus, breathing until I can suspend my shock at the sheer mystery of creation and relax enough to return to the story. Sigh!

    • I definitely know what you mean. There are a huge number of levels upon which we can concentrate when we read, and it can be hard to turn off some of those levels. (Teaching composition and marking up student essays definitely gets in the way of my enjoyment of reading other stuff sometimes.) Learning too much about beer, or wine, or food, or probably lots of other things, can limit our enjoyment. You don’t have to go down this route!

  2. hey, I definitely appreciate the validation and encouragement. I just picked up an astonishing novel by Peter Heller, The Dog Stars, about the devastation of humanity by a virus, written in 2012. Disturbing on many levels but gorgeous nature writing, which he is known for. May we all keep on reading. and writing about books!

  3. […] Not sure what prompted me to take in this classic – it might have been The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. […]

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