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Experiencing Fiction

Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative

James Phelan

“James Phelan writes about the theory and practice of narrative fiction with clarity and authority. Experiencing Fiction consolidates, extends, and enriches his earlier work, and it breaks new ground in its exploration of what Phelan calls ‘hybrid’ forms of narrative—‘lyric’ narratives and ‘portrait’ narratives. This is an important book from a major critic of narrative.” —Harry Shaw, author of Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot

“Experiencing Fiction is a highly useful and highly readable book, clearly organized and clearly written. It will benefit theorists and scholars of narrative fiction at all levels.” —David Richter, professor of English, Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center

In Experiencing Fiction, James Phelan develops a provocative and engaging affirmative answer to the question, “Can we experience narrative fiction in similar ways?” Phelan grounds that answer in two elements of narrative located at the intersection between authorial design and reader response: judgments and progressions. Phelan contends that focusing on the three main kinds of judgment—interpretive, ethical, and aesthetic—and on the principles underlying a narrative’s movement from beginning to end reveals the experience of reading fiction to be potentially sharable. In Part One, Phelan skillfully analyzes progressions and judgments in narratives with a high degree of narrativity: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In Part Two, Phelan turns his attention to the different relationships between judgments and progressions in hybrid forms—in the lyric narratives of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek,” and Robert Frost’s “Home Burial,” and in the portrait narratives of Alice Munro’s “Prue” and Ann Beattie’s “Janus.” More generally, Phelan moves back and forth between the exploration of theoretical principles and the detailed work of interpretation. As a result, Experiencing Fiction combines Phelan’s fresh and compelling readings of numerous innovative narratives with his fullest articulation of the rhetorical theory of narrative.

James Phelan is Humanities Distinguished Professor in English at The Ohio State University.

Sep 2007
Literary Criticism/General
249 pp. 6x9


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Theory and Interpretation of Narrative

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