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A Side-Step to Literary Theory

AyaSeaver's picture

  “It could be that we always need more stories because in some way they do not satisfy. Stories, however perfectly conceieved and powerfully written, however moving, do not accomplish successfully their allotted function. Each story and each repetition or variation of it leaves some uncertainty or co tains some loose end unraveling its effect, according to an implacable law that is not so much psychological or social as linguistic. This necessary incompletion means that no story fulfills perfectly once and for all its functions of ordering and confirming. And so we need another story, and then another, and yet another, without ever coming to the end of our need for stories or without ever assuaging the hunger they are meant to satisfy.“-- J. Hillis Miller "Narrative"

The fist comparative literature class I took at Bryn Mawr was Intro to Comparative Literature and I didn’t have to buy any of the books. Halfway through the class we took a five minute break and the student next to me was so frustrated she explained to me she could never possibly take the course and didn’t want to see the books ever again. I offered to buy them and she offered to just drop them by my room.

The kind of questions asked in literary theory are the annoying persistent unanswerable but I think in Miller’s Narrative (google books link) he does a very good job of addressing at least some interesting possible answers as to why we have stories, how they function in culture.

& how…does this relate to nonfictional prose? There are a lot of interesting points in the article, but something specific to talk about that I don’t think we have addressed is why write nonfiction? Why read, publish, print, review, order, and sell it?

To convey information? And why, do we come out with new dictionaries? With updated encyclopedias? Why, are we interested in things like a new memoir when we’ve read other ones? Because the information is different? New? Exciting?

Miller’s suggestion though, as to why we need new ‘stories’, shown below, is that they don’t satisfy our hunger, meet our needs.

Can’t we say—indeed haven’t we already said—we feel the same way about reference material? Ecological theory? Memoir/travel writing?

A second interesting point occurs when Miller discusses the ‘safety’ of literature.  Fiction specializes in indirect confrontation in a way that non-fiction has difficulty doing [perhaps].

Fiction has dangers, there have been burnings or books, authors have had their lives threatened, but non-fiction operates to a different perceived standard? (or does it?)

Just some areas I am interested in exploring.  I’m not very aware of films/film theory but--to the viewer?-- do documentaries suffer the same fate or a different one, because they are visual? Do they use fictional tricks like a narrative to convey information?

And if the analogy goes, movies are to documentaries what fictional texts are to non-fictional account what then? If nothing else I think it shows how deeply rooted the nonfiction-fiction genre gap is—this issue goes beyond how books should be organized in a store or a library--how they should be sold and marked. 



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