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Updated Up To 23/01/2018
Volume 4, Number 2 (June 2006) : 19--40
Against Narrative ("A Boring Story")

Pekka Tammi
Rubric A: Narrative as a Way of Thinking


The celebrated ubiquity of “narrative” in culture is both a fecund premise and the bane of narrative studies today. While not outright against narrative, nor narrative studies, the present paper aims to remain skeptical towards broad, overly enthusiastic uses of the notion: not necessarily the most promising stance in a narratological conference. What is more, and no less ominously, the paper might just as well be subtitled “A Boring Story” – though this is in fact the title of the Chekhov text (“Skuchnaia istoriia” 1889) using as an illustration.

The articles surveys some exemplars of the broad usage – albeit briefly: this has been done before – with special regard for repercussions on the domain of literary narratology. This is where the skepticism comes in: either (1) the notion of narrative is stretched disproportionately (“it is simply there, like life itself,” Barthes), becoming synonymous, say, with fiction (e.g. Palmer 2004: “in a sense we are all novelists,” an empty phrase); or (2), conversely, the expansion of narratological approaches to domains such as cultural studies or social sciences may lead to a narrow privileging of the “natural” or quotidian, linear, causal, realistic type of narrative (a bias discerned by Rimmon-Kenan 2002 in her work on illness narratives).

This may be all right for cultural studies. But for literary narratology the way to go seems to be in the opposite direction. Is not it the role of literary narratives to subvert, transgress, make problematic in a thousand and one ways the generalizations thought up by theorists? Chekhov’s “A Boring Story,” an illness narrative in its own right, displaying precisely those anti-linear, anti-causal, iterative features that are ignored by more sweeping definitions. Aside from being a poignant tale of a burnt-out professor, Chekhov’s story also emerges as a meditation on narrative and, if you will, narratology itself. Such subversive narrative tactics add up to what has been termed “weak” narrativity (by McHale 2001, 2004, with regard to a very different set of texts), narrativity sous rature. Possibly, this tendency is always already there, underlying not only post-modernist texts, but seemingly realistic, linear fiction.
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