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Fictional Minds (Frontiers of Narrative) by…
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Fictional Minds (Frontiers of Narrative)

by Alan Palmer

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I guess this is more of a three star book, but everyone else is giving it 5 stars, so I've adjusted downwards accordingly. Palmer's basic point, which could have been expressed in an essay rather than a book, is that narrative theory of a structuralist persuasion doesn't pay enough attention to the way that most people read most narratives: they/we treat characters and narrators as *people*, not as functions or some similar technical place-holder. He makes a number of nice minor points about speech category narrative theory (of the 'this is free indirect, this is direct, this is...' type) and the way that it doesn't take into account human actions. All this means that a large number of texts don't get analyzed by narratologists, i.e., anything that isn't obsessed with a character's thoughts. His writing is clear, which is quite an achievement for someone who writes about narrative theory. Anyway, so far so good.

Then, for no apparent reason, he launches into a discussion of cognitive science in the broadest possible sense, stretching from Searle through Dennett to an MIT encyclopedia. According to Palmer, understanding these theories helps us to understand how we come to treat characters as if they had minds. Sadly, this is not true. Everything he says of substance about the process of reading and the structure of literary texts can be said without any reference to this body of work; it can be said better with reference to less recent, less trendy and less technologically savvy philosophers and scientists; and it can be said best by just talking about books. When he does discuss texts, he gets nothing from them: he just points out passages and gives us the thumbs up: "See? That's a mind!"

Now if he was just interested in reading some cognitive science, that'd be fine. Sadly, he buys into it uncritically and whole-heartedly. Why is this a problem? Well, consider the difference between human minds of the middle ages and our own times. What does cognitive science have to say about these differences? Nothing. It's an experimental science. You can't do experiments on medieval minds. That's not much of a problem, since only elitist snobs* read medieval literature these days. But what about Victorian era minds? What about pre-war modern minds? What about the differences between fifties minds and contemporary minds? In fact, unless you assume that human forms of mind never change (a wild and crazy assumption, let's be honest), you can only analyze texts of the present era using cognitive science. But Palmer doesn't limit himself to that, and quite rightly, since that'd be really silly.

But this brings his whole approach under a bit of a cloud. Perhaps he'd be better off ditching the cognitive science and doing some reading in history?

So unless you're in thrall to the idea that only by using structuralism can you understand narrative, you'll probably come out of this book thinking "great. I kind of knew that. He puts it nicely I guess. But what the heck was all that nonsense about 'frames'?" And then get back to reading Trollope.

As a slight addendum, Palmer also claims that 'all' narrative is a process of understanding fictional minds. As a friend of mine points out, that's not even remotely true, unless you think narrative started with Defoe, ended with Joyce, and that it's all realistic.

*: note, I am just such a snob. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
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