Contemporary French and Francophone Narratology

Contemporary French and Francophone Narratology
by John Pier, Editor

The State University of Ohio Press, Columbus, OH, 2020
Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series
248 pp., illus. 1 b/w. Trade, $89.95; pdf, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8142-1449-7; ISBN: 978-0-8142-7844-4.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
January 2021

Narratology, the scientific study of narrative, has emerged as a new discipline in the 1960s and 70s in the slipstream of structuralism. Its French models and representatives, mainly Greimas, Todorov, and Genette, have dominated the field for more than two decades and even today Genette’s Narrative Discourse (originally published in 1972, translated in 1980) continues to be the starting point of any serious narrative discussion whatsoever (next to Aristotle, of course).

Yet times have changed since the heydays of structuralist story analysis. Postclassic narratology has abandoned formalism in favor of more context-sensitive approaches, with a strong interest in issues such as race, sex, gender, postcolonialism and intermedial as well as transmedial types of storytelling. Cognitive narratology has shifted its focus from narrative itself to our mental but also embodied processing of stories, with repeated attempts to turn narratology into a hard science via possible connections with the neurosciences. Literary studies in general are suffering a serious backlash and in their struggle for survival discard theory (narratology is often seen as the acme of theory in its most abstract form, at least in its French variants) in favor of socially more accepted uses of storytelling, such as advertisement, personal development, mental therapy, emotional intelligence, and why not also management and fund-raising. And last but not least: narratology has ceased to speak French and is now strongly dominated by global English, to the extent that many students and scholars outside Francophone areas seem to believe that narrative studies in France have not survived the end of the twentieth century.

The collection edited by John Pier, an exemplary bridge builder between Francophone and global narrative studies, is thus a more than welcome reminder of the vitality as well as the diversity and innovative power of Francophone thinking in the field. By the way, it is also a great pleasure to notice that nearly half of the contributions were written by non-French scholars coming from Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. The goal of this important and timely collection, published in what is nowadays the most prestigious series in the field, is not only to give an update and overview of recent and ongoing research in Francophone countries. It is also to understand why the work of so many French-speaking authors, some exceptions notwithstanding, is crudely discarded or ignored outside their own linguistic area. According to John Pier and the other contributors of this volume, the main reason is of course linguistic and has obviously to do with the decline of French in the global word, including the US where French used to be, but certainly no longer is, an important and also much chosen language in higher education. But there is also the distrust toward a continental version of a discipline that is often, but often erroneously, associated with the theoretical and political violence of the so-called “French Theory”. And on top of all that, there remains the destructive idea that Francophone narratology has never ceased to be abstract and formalist and that it has completely missed to broad move from classic to postclassic narratology.

This diagnosis, which I think is very sound, is critically discussed in the excellent introduction of the book and further examined in all individual contributions. All authors tackle the problem in a twofold way. First, they disclose the limitations and misunderstandings that surround the reception of Francophone research in the non-Francophone world and they all do so by challenging the idea that French equals abstract or formalist. Second, all contributors also suggest that much of the research being done in Francophone areas is capable of making a powerful input to the defense and renewal of literary studies, today under strong pressure all over the world, even in those countries where narratology (and literary studies in general) have completely been made subordinate to narrow practical goals (read: making money with storytelling).

More concretely, all the authors of Contemporary French and Francophone Narratology address these issues by following a path that is perhaps not typically French in itself but that exemplifies and reinforces a way of working that is much less present in the modern Anglo-Saxon tradition. That specific way is a combination of three major perspectives. The first aspect is history, that is the careful reading of the way in which concepts, methods, and theories have evolved in time and space (see for instance the excellent discussion by Sylvie Patron on the concept of “narrator” or the rediscovery of non-formalist aspects at the heart of several supposed die-hard French formalists as proposed in the chapters by Raphaël Baroni and Françoise Revaz). The second element is interdisciplinarity, more precisely the dialogue with disciplines that today’s global narratology tends to leave aside such as linguistics and discourse analysis (John Pier), semiotics (Denis Bertrand) but also sociology (Olivier Caïra) and performance studies (Benoît Hennaut). The closing chapter by Françoise Lavocat offers concrete models for constructive collaboration between narratology and other literary and humanist disciplines in a way that takes perfectly into account the burden of the past as well as the difficulties of the present permanently tempted by over-politization and a priori rejection of fundamental topics such as fiction and pleasure. The third dimension is that of theory itself, namely the refusal to reduce narratology to a mere toolkit only to be used for short-term practical and easily marketable purposes (the chapter by Richard Saint-Gelais is a good example of how to rethink the structuralist heritage by questioning the a priori divide between text and paratext).

Contemporary French and Francophone Narratology is a must-read for the obvious quality of its contributions. For non-Francophone readers, it should be an encouragement to maintain the dialogue with non-Anglophone forms of research. And for the French and other Francophones themselves, this book is also the proof that it makes sense to broaden and deepen one’s own theoretical and methodological strengths.