Sunday, May 22, 2016

Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative by Peter Brooks

The lawyer is the arch-narrattee, and also the figure of the novelist: he who listens to, and enters into, all the secret, buried stories of a society. Yet like the priest and the doctor, the lawyer is sworn to professional secrecy: he is precisely the man who does not transmit stories but rather lets them die in his office, encrypted in vaults. Or rather: the lawyer--unlike the priest on the one hand, whose silence should be absolute, or the doctor on the other, who may give a full report if it is in the anonymous form of the case history--retells stories selectively in the litigation of his client's cases.

(that quotation has almost nothing to do with the book's main points; I just like it)

As promised in the comments section of my review of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I have dipped my feet farther into the waters of narrative theory. What I found was...a bit...too...theoretical. This is not Professor Brooks's fault. He is, after all, a literary critic. I should not have expected anything other than literary theory.

But honestly, sometimes I don't think I get the point of literary theory. Like, what do people do with this stuff (ahem, English master's degree folks)?

Brooks endeavors to discuss narrative as a distinct concept; he wants to start to explain narrative as its own form of conceptualization, in the same way that logic or math are ways of understanding. However, because he's writing in the 1980s, he also doesn't want to forget everything structuralism and poststructuralism have taught us (cough, cough, assuming they taught us anything), so he is less interested in defining rules than recognizing patterns.

His preliminary discuss, the first chapter, tackles the possibilities of "narrative" as its own form of discourse, and lays out basic principles. The most important are fabula and sjuzet. Fabula refers to "the order of events referred to by the narrative. Sjuzet "is the order of events presented in the narrative discourse." I know this is grossly simplifying what Professor Brooks meant, but as I read I basically thought of this as: "fabula = facts" and "sjuzet = meaning."

These two separate concepts are important because for something to have a plot it must have both. Facts without meaning are, well...just facts. We need meaning so that we know what to do with the facts. Brooks explains that what we do as plot-seekers is gradually have the meaning revealed to us as the facts are given to us. We are given more and more fabula; eventually--because the selection and ordering of the fabula--we get the sjuzet.

Professor Brooks then takes these basic concepts and explores them in more depth by adding new concepts to describe how the fabula and sjuzet work together. And he uses novels to exemplify his points.

I say this was a bit too theoretical for me because I do not know what I'm going to do with this information. My internal purpose for seeking more information about narrative was to find tools to assist with my legal writing (or, perhaps in my fantasy-future life, my novel writing). This, however, was far too theoretical for that purpose. Legal writing does not (and really cannot) embrace the nuanced and sophisticated approach to plot that Brooks creates.

This is not a slam against Brooks; it's more a warning to any lawyers out there who think they will find the book useful: it is useful, but the usefulness to time-spent ratio makes it a bit too much. I'd point people in the direction of the storytelling chapter in Minding the Law and call it a day.

That aside. It was interesting. Completely changed the way I think about Great Expectations, which I'd always considered an entertaining page-turner. Now, I agree with Brooks that it is a master work of plot.

For lack of any other concluding remarks, I'll attach a passage I enjoyed:
As at the start of the novel we had the impression of a life not yet subject to plot--a life in search of a sense of plot that would only gradually begin to precipitate around it--so at the end we have the impression of a life that has outlived plot, renounced plot, been cured of it: life that is left over.
In choosing that passage, am I making a statement about my relationship with narrative theory? Maybe, maybe not.


Christopher said...

This sounded interesting to me, but I read a pretty negative review of it and got scared away.

Anyway, as an "English masters degree type," let me answer your question: Literary theory is basically an argument about how we SHOULD read literature, but also an argument about how we read it when we're not even thinking about that "how." Narrative theory is interested in how we experience the plot of a story, and what kind of meaning that provides. The most interesting stuff I've ever read on narrative theory is Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, which is essentially about why we expect "an ending" to a story and how that maps on to other ways we think about life and history.

Randy said...

Perhaps I should have deferred to your recommendation of Kermode after I read Campbell. The only reason I went with Brooks was that he was a big influence for Minding the Law, which was basically the whole reason I started to take an interest in this stuff.

I think I need a break from literary theory. But if I decide to go down this rabbit hole again, I'm putting Kermode at the top of my list, which will certainly result in a review.

Christopher said...

Kermode is really knotty. I'm not sure I'd enjoy it if I wasn't already primed in this stuff. I recommend James Wood's "How Fiction Works" for a really good lit crit book on a more readable level. If you're interested in lit crit in general, Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory is a really good introduction.

Brittany said...

"But honestly, sometimes I don't think I get the point of literary theory. Like, what do people do with this stuff (ahem, English master's degree folks)?"

As an English master's degree folk, I would say we write lots of long papers that no one reads. As a teacher folk, I would say that it's a tool to show students how to think critically and logically about what they're reading, and it's convenient to already have schools of thoughts to have them practice their critique/logic out on rather than trying to get a room full of freshmen to invent their own literary theories.

I think you have to approach it not with your big fancy law degree but with your little overlooked philosophy degree. Literary theory isn't going to make you money or solve a real problem necessarily, but it shows you different schools of thought and analysis that you can use to approach media.