A lot of narrative criticism revolves around conventional commitments about what shape good stories should take; this much is obvious, although some people may call it good judgment when it applies to their own criticism…
- People are often unconscious about these commitments and are just informed by them in terms of their feelings and opinions that are generated from them;
- People have implicit or explicit criteria for how a story should be, sometimes a long list, and deviations from that are felt at an emotional and intuitive level and are considered at a conscious level;
- Those who are more articulate can elaborate on what goes ‘wrong’ in a story;
- There are various stages of development, awareness and understanding associated with the above three, and psychologists have been trying to make us aware of all this for years…
This pretty well covers everyone in the distribution…
The obvious realities come first
The most obvious position to take is a conservative or conventional one, or a simple/simplistic one associated with the mainstream. The reason for this is that we’re bombarded with this reality from a young age and early stages of cognitive development are limited to it.
I see conservative/conventional narratology as a kind of limiting and assimilative scaffold that’s obvious to everyone as we’re inducted into a conservative establishment via our education and media exposure and social networks, and the broader structures of society.
What’s interesting about this is that it becomes extremely easy to identify with and to pick up conservative/conventional memes and paste them onto the scaffold as the opportunity arises; before you know it, you have a more or less elaborate system of statements that can be repeated on demand; importantly, during acquisition, it’s absorbed into the interpretative apparatus of the agent to the point that it’s felt as being their own opinion and quite natural to them.
What this results in for narrative criticism is a set of limiting conditions for storytelling, much of which makes sense to just about everyone, I should add, as we all identify with at least certain aspects of it wilingly or unwillingly…
What do conventional commitments do to alternative narratology?
What’s disturbing, though, is when experimental and alternative narratives, those that push the limits are criticised within the strict terms of narrative conventionalism.
It’s not just that certain aspects of the narrative are criticised as being in need of being augmented or rectified: this happens with conventional narratives that have gone slightly wrong as well, after all.
What happens in the extreme cases is that the criticism quickly turns global and targets the story at a fundamental level. This is an important distinguishing feature: this kind of criticism amounts to the idea that the story itself (its structure and the fundamental way it was told) shouldn’t exist because of deep deviations from the ’Golden Mean’ of narrative conventionalism.
A different story should have been told for for there to be any possibility that it could be considered good, acceptable or an exceptional example of storytelling.
This orientation goes beyond opinion and taste; it’s more than just saying “I don’t like it, but I’m sure there are plenty of others who do.” It appeals to ideological commitments about the qualifying criteria for good, better and best narrative forms.
From a conventional orientation, therefore, deviations from this Golden Mean are indistinguishable: ‘bad fiction’ is conflated with alternative fiction, essentially anything experimental that subverts the standards at all.
So how can we distinguish the good from the bad?
This gets us into merky philosophical territory. But we need to get into it to get anything out of it. Here’s the rub:
- Being a narrative conservative is actually easy; understanding narrative conventionalism is also fairly easy as it’s a readily available paradigm;
- Moreover, most of the time, you can forget trying to convince a conventionalist, in the short term, that an alternative approach has value; ideological commitments can be extremely resilient, making deviations just about impossible to compute in other terms;
- What’s needed is a paradigm shift, which isn’t an easy thing to elicite;
- Expanding horizons and creating space for more in positive terms is perhaps all that we can hope for anyone. Beyond those limits, no matter how far we’ve gone, lies ‘bad’ fiction for everyone except the most lenient among us; but would there really be anyone left way out in the extremes who is actually genuine and can be taken seriously? Maybe a couple in history;
- It’s because of this extension of the horizon and the demanding organisation of the lesser-known worlds that goes along with that that having a robust understanding of narratology that includes alternative/experimental forms in positive terms is more difficult to achieve, much more difficult. It’s also consequently more difficult to find in the readership, but it’s not impossible as alternatives and deviations also abound all around us. I still believe there’s a readership in the many millions.
But, it’s because of these difficulties and the skewed distribution of the population that alternative/experimental/non-conventional fiction is considered more or less marginal, right?
With a bit or marketing and the right support, though, it can still find a fairly solid audience; but that may take a bit of extra work.