Major Approaches to and Theorists of Narrative

  • Suzanne Keen


One of the most striking commonalities of handbooks for writers of fiction and theoretical works for advanced students lies in the evasiveness of their opening gambits of definition. Narrative fiction … what exactly is it? Neither sort of work typically comes right out and states a plain definition of narrative fiction; both assume that readers already recognize narrative and, more particularly, the fictional kinds of narrative. For definitions the advanced student turns to dictionaries and specialized texts, and here the consensus begins to break down. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) refers the inquisitive to Scottish law, where narrative means ‘that part of a deed or document which contains a statement of the relevant or essential facts.’ (From this Scottish source, according to the OED, the words ‘narrative’ and ‘narrate’ enter common parlance around the middle of the eighteenth century.) This definition gives primacy to the documentary nature of narrative and clearly leaves out fiction. For narrative as fiction, the OED offers ‘[a]n account or narration; a history, tale, story, recital (of facts, etc.),’ which brings in oral narration and several examples of narratives real and fictitious. Finally, the OED offers ‘narrative,’ without an article, as ‘the practice or act of narrating; something to narrate.’ Here the emphasis falls on the implicit narrator: narrative is what the narrator does and what the narrator tells. Related definitions fill in more of the picture: in classical rhetoric, narration is the part of an oration in which the facts are stated; the etymology of the verb ‘narrate’ (to relate, recount) suggests derivation from a root meaning ‘skilled’ and ‘knowing.’


Open Access Journal Advanced Student Oxford English Dictionary Narrative Form Ethical Criticism 
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Further reading

  1. Abbott, H. Porter, Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd. ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2008). An excellent introduction to narrative broadly construed, not only narrative fiction. Provides a solid introduction to a wide range of issues in narrative studies, with thorough integration of film and visual narrative.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Charon, Rita, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2006). Charon directs the program in narrative medicine at Columbia; a detailed bibliography of contributions to this burgeoning field can be found online.Google Scholar
  3. Greimas, A. J., Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method (1966), trans. Danielle McDowell, Ronald Schleifer, and Alan Velie (University of Nebraska Press, 1983). A systematic account of structuralism.Google Scholar
  4. Herman, David, Basic Elements of Narrative (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). A useful textbook for studying the storytelling media and their modes of narration.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Herman, David (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 2007). An overview of current approaches to narrative in a variety of media.Google Scholar
  6. Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis (Ohio State University Press, 1999). As the plural in the title suggests, this anthology collects essays and excerpts illustrating a range of post-classical approaches to narrative. An excellent resource that makes a compelling call for interdisciplinary collaborative research in narrative studies, a call that has been heeded since 1999.Google Scholar
  7. Herman, Luc and Bart Vervaeck, Handbook of Narrative Analysis (University of Nebraska Press, 2005). Written and translated by Herman and Vervaeck, this handbook is most usefully employed by readers who start with the two stories the authors use as touchstones throughout.Google Scholar
  8. Lemon, Lee T. and Marion J. Reis (eds and trans.), Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 1965). The most useful supplementary text of Russian Formalists for teaching purposes.Google Scholar
  9. Martin, Wallace, Recent Theories of Narrative (Cornell University Press, 1986). A very useful survey of narrative theory from the 1960s through the early 1980s, with some attention to earlier twentieth-century approaches.Google Scholar
  10. Matejka, Ladislav and Krystyna Pomorska (eds), Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (Michigan Slavic Publications, 1978). A comprehensive selection of the Russian Formalists.Google Scholar
  11. Mcquillan, Martin, The Narrative Reader (Routledge, 2000). A superb anthology for graduate students, but it makes no concessions to those who are new to narrative theory. Densely theoretical.Google Scholar
  12. Page, Ruth E., Literary and Linguistic Approaches to Feminist Narratology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Page subjects the claims of feminist narrative theory to rigorous analysis.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Pratt, Mary Louise, Towards a Speech Act Theory of Literature (Indiana University Press, 1977). A good starting point for those interested in speech act theory.Google Scholar
  14. Richardson, Brian, Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Contemporary Fiction (Ohio State University Press, 2006). An accessible starting point for a student interested in testing the usefulness of ‘unnatural narratology.’Google Scholar
  15. Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Two feminist narrative theorists on a genre of narrative whose scrutiny has been a central task of feminist work in the field.Google Scholar
  16. Warhol, Robyn and Susan S. Lanser (eds). Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions (Ohio State University Press, 2015). A collection of essays from queer and feminist narrative theorists, representing a diversity of approaches and media.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Suzanne Keen 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Suzanne Keen
    • 1
  1. 1.Washington and Lee UniversityLexingtonUSA

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