John Pier (ed.), Contemporary French and Francophone Narratology, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, series “Theory and Interpretation of Narrative”, 2020, 237 p.

Thomas Broden

Purdue University, USA


Articles du même auteur parus dans les Actes Sémiotiques
Texte intégral

Do narratives require a narrator? Is fiction a subset of narrative or a separate, partially overlapping notion? Can non-verbal signs combine to constitute a story? What is the future of narratology? This seventy-sixth title in the OSUP series explores these and other questions posed by France-language researchers in the midst of the narrative turn and its investigations of storytelling in diverse fields and throughout society.

The book comprises ten essays on narrative theory written by colleagues who have dedicated much of their career to the topic. The anthology provides a smorgasbord of contemporary orientations and perspectives rather different in many cases from English-language trends. Eight of the texts appear for the first time in English, while six represent entirely new works never before published in any language. The volume brings together promising junior scholars and eminent senior researchers, including current or recent presidents of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, the International Society for Fiction and Fictionality Studies, the European Narratology Network, and the French Association of Semiotics.

Anyone interested in narrative will discover a medley of useful methodologies, a treasure trove of concepts, and a variegated array of cultural productions. Most of the chapters focus on discussing today’s theoretical issues, although four include more or less extensive analyses of works ranging from Don Quixote to detective fiction, from Greek myth to journalistic media sagas, and from postdramatic theater to live action role-playing games. None investigates music or how still or moving images express stories. The authors often integrate historical perspectives into their investigations, including periodizations of approaches to narrative theory, of specific narrative concepts, or of narrative devices, often examined within the wider intellectual and social context. Taken together, the lists of references for each chapter comprise an extensive bibliography of recent narrative theory. Polished when necessary by the bilingual editor, the chapters read like texts written directly in English by native speakers of Shakespeare’s idiom.

Note de bas de page 1 :

H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2008, David Herman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, Cambridge, 2007, Eric Bulson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Novel, Cambridge, 2018, Matthew Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Narrative Theory, Cambridge, 2018.

While the book’s title accurately suggests its contents, the anthology provides a much broader spectrum of work than the term “narratology” might suggest to some readers. For while almost all of the contributions concentrate on narrative, and many grant significant importance to relatively formal approaches, few rely primarily on concepts forged by the canonical figures of traditional narratology such as Barthes, Genette, Greimas, Propp, Todorov, and Tomashevsky. As John Pier notes in his introduction, interest in this “classical narratology” waned in French-speaking regions after the 1980s, and its ideas became integrated into or replaced by other perspectives on narrative. The present volume collects current explorations of narrative theory more broadly, with incursions into neighboring regions such as discourse analysis and non-narrative fictionality. The book aims neither to represent the full range of the field nor to serve as a textbook in the manner of several Cambridge University Press titles on narrative, including anthologies in its “Cambridge Companion” series1.

While most of the contributors are affiliated with institutions in France, four hold positions in Belgium, Canada (Québec), or Switzerland—whence “French and Francophone” in the title. The inclusion of areas outside of France fosters a welcome attention to these regions’ cultural artifacts as well as to their research, including the work of Jean-Michel Adam which can get unjustly neglected in narrative studies. The book does not include or discuss authors from former colonies in the Caribbean or Africa once governed by French speakers, lands that some English speakers may readily associate with things Francophone.

In keeping with the volume’s broad methodological scope, a few contributors label themselves “narratologists” and their topic “narratology,” while others do not. None undertakes a quest that would surely prove quixotic and self-defeating today, that of defining and circumscribing narratology so as to distinguish it from other theoretical investigations of storytelling, or from related issues in discourse and culture. Françoise Lavocat perhaps comes nearest to venturing a description of the state of the narratological arts when she proposes that “What characterizes French-speaking researchers working closest to narratology today is a particular configuration bringing together theories of fiction, history, hermeneutics, the cognitive sciences, and comparative studies against the backdrop of a certain scientific ambition inherited from structuralism” (p. 213). At the same time, she herself observes, “It is not easy to say where narratology stops and where other forms of narrative study take over” (p. 211). Pier prefers a more open-ended formulation: “What sets narratology off from other forms of theorizing about narrative is that it proceeds by critical examination of its premises, including those of its predecessors, and, where called for, by reformulating and adapting its own modus operandi appropriately” (p. 4, also see 216). This portrayal of a self-reflexive and dynamic scientific activity aptly describes the work in this anthology (and befits many other intellectual, scientific, and artistic endeavors as well).

Note de bas de page 2 :

Jan Christoph Meister, ed., Living Handbook of Narratology,, open access, 2011-2021, accessed 17 Nov. 2021, see also David Herman, Manfred Jahn, and Marie-Laure Ryan, eds., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, New York, Routledge, 2007, Peter Hühn, John Pier, Wolf Schmid, and Jörg Schönert, eds., Handbook of Narratology, (2009) 2nd ed., Berlin and New York, De Gruyter, 2014, and the concise classic Gerald Prince, A Dictionary of Narratology, rev. ed., Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Note de bas de page 3 :

Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov, Encyclopedic dictionary of the sciences of language, translated by Catherine Porter, (1972), softshell ed., Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, and A. J. Greimas and Joseph Courtés, Semiotics and Language. An Analytical Dictionary, translated by Larry Crist, Daniel Patte, et al. (1979), Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1982.

In spite of the authors’ expertise in the field, their prose does not bristle with specialized terminologies, and remains eminently accessible to a wide audience. Nonetheless, a reader desiring concise didactic treatments of terms and concepts such as metalepsis or dialogism can consult good dictionaries and encyclopedias of narratology and narrative theory, including the recent open access Living Handbook of Narratology online2. Comparable sources for Romance linguistics and semiotics can supplement a few chapters if needed3.

Readers of Actes sémiotiques can know that every contribution engages sustained discussions of concepts, methods, and issues directly relevant to semiotics, including narrativity, multidisciplinarity and transmediality, pragmatics, and the relation between enunciator, discourse, and enunciatee. Three chapters employ or examine extensively approaches particularly close to those often found in the columns of this journal: Denis Bertrand explores the relation between immanence, narratology, and narrativity; Claude Calame calls on Greimassian semiotics and enunciation theory to analyze a narrative poem by Pindar; while John Pier investigates discourse analysis in classical French narratology, Benveniste’s enunciation theory, and the work of Dominique Maingueneau. Established semiotic theories make cameo appearances in other essays (e.g., pp. 23-24, 77-78), but may appear conspicuous in their absence to some semioticians on other occasions (e.g., p. 104, 107).

Note de bas de page 4 :

David Herman, ed., Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis, Columbus, OH, The Ohio State University Press, 1999, Sylvie Patron ed., Introduction à la narratologie postclassique. Les Nouvelles directions de la recherche sur le récit, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2006, Jan Alber and Monika Fludernik, Postclassical Narratology: Approaches and Analyses, Columbus, OH, The Ohio State University Press, 2010, including the editors’ introduction pp. 1-31, Greta Olson, ed., Current Trends in Narratology, Berlin, De Gruyter, series Narratologia 26, 2011, and Arleen Ionescu, Laurent Milesi, and Biwu Shang, eds., Word and Text 9 (2019), special issue on Postclassical Narratology: Twenty Years Later,, accessed 17 Nov. 2021, including Ionescu’s introduction pp. 5-34.

Note de bas de page 5 :

Also see André Petitjean ed., Pratiques 181-182, special issue on Le Récit en questions, 2019,,

Pier’s “Introduction” opens with a brief history and description of narratology and narrative theory from formalist-structuralist narratology to more recent currents such as Anglophonepostclassical narratology” 4 (pp. 1-4, also see 210-213). In spite of their many parallels with the latter, few contemporary Francophone narrative theorists follow its adherents in defining themselves as postcolonial, feminist, cognitive, rhetorical, or “unnatural” narratologists, as this and other recent anthologies illustrate5. Paragraph-long summaries of each chapter follow, then a short list of websites, seminars, research groups, and journals in France and Switzerland devoted to the study of narrative (p. 9), to which English speakers can add the International Society for the Study of Narrative ( and its journal Narrative. Today’s theorists must sail between the Scylla and Charybdis of remaining open to exploring ever new varieties of narrative and always changing methodological contexts, on the one hand, and resisting “narratological imperialism” or losing the specificity of narrative, on the other. Pier concludes by observing that “While there is a growing interest in new approaches to narrative theory in France and other French-speaking countries, it cannot be said that a ‘school’ of narratology has coalesced or that any particular method or theory prevails,” leaving the field open, varied, and in continuous transformation.

Note de bas de page 6 :

David Herman, Story Logic. Problems and Possibilities of Narrative, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2002, p. 14, quoted here p. 14.

The first pages of Raphaël Baroni’s “Pragmatics in Classical French Narratology and Beyond” paint a dichotomous portrait of formalist-structuralist narratology as English-language postclassical narratologists characterize it, at times polemically, and “functionalist” postclassical narratology as its adherents present it (e.g., Meir Sternberg, Umberto Eco, Peter Brooks, James Phelan, Marie-Laure Ryan). Concentrating on the textual mimesis of action, the former “objectivists” hold that “a plot must be inherent in the representation and correspond to the logical structure of the fabula” (p. 13). Inversely, adopting a pragmatic stance, the latter argue that “narrative structures are important only if they are considered as devices aimed at triggering cognitive activities” (p. 13). This last perspective highlights the reader’s interest and their background, expectations, and hypotheses in relation to the text and context of their particular encounter with what may only be fragments or suggestions of possible narratives. The focus of narratology shifts from story to discourse and the “storyworld”6 conjured by the addressee.

Note de bas de page 7 :

Jacques Fontanille and Claude Zilberberg, Tension et signification, Sprimont, Belgium, Mardaga, 1998.

Note de bas de page 8 :

Raphaël Baroni, La Tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité et surprise, Paris, Seuil, 2007.

Baroni then proceeds to show that the most canonical classical narratological essays posit at the heart of their dynamics explicit nuggets of the pragmatic, interactional perspectives, including Tomashevsky who foregrounds “the reader’s expectation,” Todorov who founds his typology of detective fiction on the distinction between the reader’s “curiosity” and “suspense,” and Barthes who defines his cardinal function on the reader’s “uncertainty” and grounds his hermeneutic code in an “expectation and desire for” the solution of an enigma (pp. 18-20). These doses of pragmatic and cognitive perspectives remained admittedly modest, notably because French research on literature has generally considered matters like suspense and reader’s interest topics of concern only for low-brow popular fiction, not high culture. Yet such early germs inspired subsequent French-language research that formulates ambitious syntheses of the two paradigms, including the tensive theory elaborated by Claude Zilberberg7 and Baroni’s own functionalist theory of plot dynamics8.

Postclassical functionalists seem to be utterly unaware of the contemporaneous work in French so closely related to their own (also see p. 120). Baroni’s explanation for this lacuna remains critically relevant to many readers of Actes sémiotiques: “if, during the 1960s and ‘70s, a serious narratologist was supposed to be able to read French, today, it is quite the opposite: French narratologists are obliged to read and publish in English if they want to be heard by the international community of narratologists” (p. 24). All of the contributors to this volume have published considerable work on their topic in French, while most have also produced a significant body of work in English.

In “No-Narrator Theories/Optional-Narrator Theories: Recent Proposals and Continuing Problems,” Sylvie Patron argues for an “optional-narrator” stance that defines the narrator as a possible and frequent ingredient in narrative rather than as a necessary or defining component. She marshals arguments against the latter “pan-narrator” thesis widespread in classical narratology and newer work. She also sharply distinguishes her own position from any erroneous version of it presented as a “no-narrator” theory asserting that it is never appropriate to posit or identify a narrator in a text. The closely-argued essay formulates logical briefs in favor of its theory and describes inconsistencies and illogical claims found in pan-narrator statements and critiques.

Why and when has the notion of the narrator taken on such importance, and what does it accomplish? Patron asserts that “The need for the concept of narrator, as distinct from both the author and the other fictional characters, appeared with the genre of the memoir novel, a form of autonomous first-person fictional narrative that is not embedded within a third-person fictional narrative” (p. 45). On the other hand, Occam’s razor militates against postulating a narrator distinct from the author when the enunciator evinces “direct access to the mental states of other characters,” recounts fictional events that “occurred in the absence of any witnesses,” or withholds information about the characters or facts of the story (p. 41). In general, the critic or theorist gains nothing by inventing a narrator for third-person past-tense heterodiegetic narratives (p. 42).

Benoît Hennaut’s “Narrator on Stage: Not a Condition but a Component for a Postdramatic Narrative Discourse” continues exploring the concept of the narrator and questioning when to posit one or not, but now in the context of the theater. Drama was often excluded from classical narratology on the basis that narrative requires a narrator, rarely present in plays. Other theorists brought the performing arts within narratology’s purview by positing a narratorial instance (termed “Presenter,” “mega-narrator,” “super-generative” entity, etc.) that could assume a “dematerialized,” “disembodied and dehumanized” form, yet fulfill the same role as a traditional individuated narrator. Hennaut proposes to dispense with any such requirements and to assert instead that spectators can perceive narratives expressed through non-verbal performative components such as lighting, gesture and blocking, costume and décor, music and sound effects, without the aid of a narratorial instance or verbal script. In this view, “the performance as such is absolutely constitutive of the narrative discourse specific to a staged theatrical production […] without a narrator in the form of a disembodied super-agent” (p. 77). Most semioticians presumably agree wholeheartedly, and indeed may find it curious that so many literary or drama critics could consider the proposition rash—Marcel Marceau certainly conjured stories simply through gestures, without a single word.

Yet as it happens, in this essay, Hennaut analyzes plays that include an on-stage narrator—but selects non-mimetic “postdramatic” works that utterly subvert the organizing, explanatory, and clarifying function of the traditional theatrical narrator. Instead, these narrators proffer fragmentary, self-contradictory, or incoherent diegetic elements, see their very status contested and problematized by other characters on stage, and morph metaleptically into meta-theatrical instances. Rhetorical-phenomenological perspectives on narrative and approaches that foreground the addressee’s emergent, progressive construction of narrativity provide an effective theoretical framework for such performances (pp. 77-78).

Richard Saint-Gelais’s “Narration outside Narrative” examines a host of novels and short stories from around the world whose diegesis “spills over into” their paratextual elements, thus blurring foundational distinctions between narrative and book, discourse and physical object, narrator and author-editor-publisher, fiction and reality. Such metaleptic leakages between “internal” and “external” elements, between the “inside” and the “outside” of works can cleverly deconstruct facile assumptions about the impermeability of the different planes or principles of relevance. A chapter title or an epigraph that the reader attributes to the author can turn out to be the protagonist’s words, typographic variations may reproduce exactly what the sleuths in a murder mystery see and use to identify the assassin, and characters from Don Quixote to Sherlock Holmes and Maigret become readers and even critics of the fictions in which they star.

Saint-Gelais adopts Stanley Fish’s reader-response approach that grounds analyses in “interpretive strategies.” In this perspective, the essay introduces parafictionalization as the process by which a reader smooths out a jarring intrusion of the author or reality into a fiction by reinterpreting in imaginative ways the extrafictional or anti-mimetic element as a part of the diegesis (pp. 65-66). The reader who encounters Kafka’s description of the Statue of Liberty holding a sword rather than a torch in Amerika can dismiss the discrepancy as a factual error by the Bohemian writer, but can also interpret it as a fictional component such as a symbol of the United States in the narrator’s view, or a point-of-view presentation of the monument as seen by the protagonist in a “sudden burst of light,” a foreshadowing of his many misconceptions in the new land. Further research could explore whether units like epigraphs and chapter titles belong to the sphere of fiction, of the book, or of a third intermediate zone, and decide whether to tie the term text to the realm of fiction and narrative (p. 54), to associate it with book and author (65-66), or to define it as a complex term doing double duty, as does novel in the essay.

Emphasizing that each genre and subgenre entails its own narrative specificities as well as lessons for general narratology, “The Poetics of Suspended Narrative” by Françoise Revaz compares journalistic media sagas and comic strips as two examples of suspended narrative “characterized by its fragmentary mode of distribution: the sequential release of a narrative in installments” (p. 93). The essay focuses on three issues: temporality, unity, and generality-specificity. Whereas narratologists have highlighted the play between the temporal articulations of story and discourse, the suspension of publication introduces a third temporal factor that also affects how the other two treat temporality. Time all but stands still between comic-strip episodes, whereas it races ahead between the installments of media affairs devoted to politics, popular-culture icons, and so forth. The episodic segmentation also impinges on textual closure and unity, often considered defining characteristics of narrative. Revaz analyzes in detail how the two subgenres face different issues with respect to establishing a beginning and an end, and how each exploits such strategies as constructing elements present in every episode that serve as identifiers or “logos,” and inserting liminal or concluding “sutures” that tie the individual installment to the preceding and subsequent episode and to the whole. The essay also notes that along with the features specific to each of the two subgenres examined, “transmedial” characteristics typify the genre of suspended narrative across media.

John Pier’s “Discourse Analysis and Narrative Theory: A French Perspective” broadens the inquiry even further to survey research whose methodologies are in sync with narratology, and that poses some of the same issues, but that investigates all types of discourse and not just narrative. After identifying the main currents in French-language discourse analysis and features specific to Gallic work in the field, Pier investigates in some detail four problematics: linguistics beyond the sentence, the theory of enunciation, dialogism, and contemporary socio-pragmatic approaches to genre.

As of the 1960s, linguists and theorists such as A. J. Greimas and Teun van Dijk began to develop approaches to analyzing discourse beyond the sentence, including aspects of coherence and cohesion, and mechanisms by which texts elaborate new ideas, processes, and representations. Around the same time, Émile Benveniste formulated extraordinarily influential concepts of discourse and enunciation that offer avenues for analyzing individual speech acts, the role of the subject and intersubjectivity in language, the communicative context, and reference. The new orientation corresponds to investigating what Saussure had termed parole, in its widest sense, and to concerns explored and developed later in the context of narrative by postclassical narratology. Mikhail Bakhtin elaborated powerful concepts of utterance as a pragmatic, dialogic unit, and of primary and secondary speech genres as multifarious, culturally sensitive, and at times unstable guiding forces. Inspired by all of these innovations, Dominique Maingueneau has been developing an extensive and detailed approach that features discourse types and speech genres, investigates discourses that found authority and values for a society, and that highlights sociohistorical and technological conditions of enunciation. Pier’s chapter presents concepts useful for analyzing narratives, positions narrative in relation to other discursive types (e.g., description, argumentation, explanation, dialogue), and illustrates ways in which narratologists could extend their horizons into neighboring areas.

In “Regimes of Immanence, between Narratology and Narrativity,” Denis Bertrand examines in greater detail approaches to narrative elaborated successively by Greimas, members of his school, and fellow travelers. In the 1960-1970s, Greimas and his collaborators elaborated both general and socio-historically specific models of narrative operative in different media (language, visual imagery, music, etc.) and in various contexts, including myth and folklore, psychiatry and social psychology, and everyday life. Whereas narrative lay at the heart of his largely immanent semiotics in these years, his and his group’s subsequent research branched out into other problematics such as modality, aspect, emotions, perception, and aesthetics, suspending work on narrative properly speaking. In the course of these new explorations, members of the group also began to elaborate phenomenological, cognitive, and pragmatic bases for semiotics, complementing or displacing the immanent perspective.

Within this new orientation, Bertrand adapts Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of regimes of immanence to propose a multi-pronged theory which in the realm of narrative includes both a regime of “the narrative ‘said’” or enunciated operating in the narratological sense, and the regime of “the ‘saying’” or enunciation functioning on the basis of narrativity. An analysis of Cervantes’s Don Quixote shows that the novel weaves a complex play of metadiscursive strategies that pit the regimes against each other, and ultimately demonstrates that enunciation’s immanent processes worked out in act, perception, and the body underpin and determine the illusions of the narrative enunciated.

In “Fiction, Expanded and Updated,” ethnographer Olivier Caïra explores the sense of the term “fiction” based on the open-ended responses collected from asking participants to list what parts of their days could be considered fictional experiences. Whereas bookstores and academics often consider fiction a subset of narrative, the inductive and popular inquiry highlighted fictional games “meant to be played, not told or shown,” and that include static descriptions designed to activate the players’ own “narrative imagination.” And alongside mimetic, representational happenings, respondents also included many others like checkers and poker generated by autonomous logico-mathematical engines. Finally, whether purely axiomatic or based on simulations or mimesis, games including tabletop contests and live-action or digital role play represent performances rather than works, and foreground interaction unlike the mainly one-way communication of most novels, plays, and films.

Caïra argues that oppositions between mimetic and axiomatic fictions, narrative and non-narrative games, and fiction and non-fiction itself, comprise graduated continua rather than discontinuous binary judgments. In a pragmatic perspective, the presence or absence of the addresser’s commitment to truthfulness governs the tension between fiction and non-fiction, as do metacommunicative frames (cf. Bateson and Goffman) of fictionality present in cultural productions. Legal tussles as to whether a phenomenon should be declared fictional (non-actionable) or non-fictional (actionable) are decided not by fictional contracts, but by the interplay between such framing pragmatic instructions and sanctioning institutions such as courts.

Claude Calame’s “Narratology and the Test of Greek Myths: The Poetic Birth of a Colonial City” offers a masterful case study illustrating the successful synthesis of sociohistorical research and textual analysis intertwining narrative, thematic, and enunciative dimensions. The chapter examines in detail Pindar’s fourth Pythian Ode on the foundation and colonization of the Libyan port city of Cyrene. Select information on the genealogy of the characters, on the pragmatic specifics of the period performances, and on the geography and history of the places involved illuminates unsuspected links and flows among a host of discursive components. Whereas modern Western appropriations have composed Greek “myths” in the form of sustained, well-formed narratives, the essay emphasizes that ancient Hellenistic cultures instead knew scattered snippets about heroes, variegated accounts of cities’ origins, and local tales about events, all typically presented in staged political or ritualistic contexts that inflect the textual content.

Narrative syntax identifies the critical dramatic moments in the unfolding of the poem, while semantic analysis shows how the text weaves together three thematic and metaphorical strands of agriculture, procreation, and civic life. The mineral, vegetal, and human facets of these components are in turn associated with the triad of central deities in play. The verses of the poem reverberate with autochthony myths that trace the trajectory of the site’s inhabitants from origins in the ground or the sea to their transformation into civilization.

In “Policing Literary Theory: Toward a Collaborative Ethics of Research?,” Françoise Lavocat sketches key parts of the broader intellectual and social context in which narratology arose, evolved, and must progress today. While the field has always faced formidable challenges, a number of key features characterizing its present practices should enable it to grow and flourish in the face of contemporary institutional pressures.

Lavocat’s essay studies two recent examples of coercive control procedures that have aimed to assure the hegemony of one intellectual paradigm while repressing alternatives. In the 1970-1990s, intellectuals in France and elsewhere strenuously worked to assert “French Theory” and to undermine traditional literary history. The chapter presents the positions of the dominant current, its precipitous decline, and the state of literary studies in the wake of that fall from grace. As today’s academics know all too well, in this century, global institutional forces have striven to impose on all academic life a model designed for the hard sciences, especially the applied sciences, which features evaluation, accountability, branding, financial self-sufficiency, team spirit, a project culture, and the publication of research results in English.

In Lavocat’s view, this corrosive neoliberal transmutation of academic life bears within it a silver lining for contemporary narratology and theories of narrative more generally in that they maintain scientific ambitions, research a variety of cultural areas and historical periods, and thrive in collaborative research. Since 2000, narratology has emerged as an international pursuit replete with active transnational associations, and has elaborated transdisciplinary methods and concepts applied to a wide variety of fields and cultural practices.

Generalizations about English- and French-language research on narrative necessarily simplify and distort kaleidoscopic reality, but it seems to this reviewer that compared to recent Anglophone work, the essays in the present volume focus less often on point of view, and draw even less from formalist-structuralist narratology, especially Genette. They do not fit snugly into the postclassical paradigm, and do not treat perspectives one might expect in a comparable anthology from English-language researchers such as cognitive, feminist, queer, and postcolonial. Instead, the volume offers readers diverse new ways of posing questions and exploring narrative and related issues in a host of contexts.