What Do We Mean When We Say “Narrative Literature?” Looking for Answers Across Disciplinary Borders

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Literary language is reflexive.
Here is another quality, reflexivity, that is very commonly attributed to the literary as opposed to the nonliterary. Literature is said to be reflexive in the sense that it calls attention to itself as language. We are diverted from looking through it to meaning to looking at it and its artfulness. Here is a good example of the kind of writing that invites a reflexive response:
They are freemen, but I am banishèd.
And say’st thou yet that exile is not death?
Hadst thou no poison mixed, no sharp-ground knife,
No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean,
But “banishèd” to kill me?—“Banishèd”?
O Friar, the damnèd use that word in Hell,
Howling attends it. Shakespeare Coming on this fresh, someone unused to Shakespeare may have to wrestle a bit, but with persistence she or he can get through it to what is being said. Romeo is banished, which means he can’t see Juliet anymore this makes him so unhappy he’d prefer to die. In other words, you can look through this language and understand pretty much what I have rendered herein this quick translation.
You can do that, or you can dwell on the language. First, you can note the artful repetitions of the word “banishèd” (and there are even more in the surrounding text. You can note the extraordinary management of the five-foot line and the complex counterpoint created by the management of caesuras (one of Shakespeare’s great This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Oct 2021 08:16:29 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms

H. Porter Abbott but less commonly featured gifts. You can note the pun on mean (No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean, by which a means of death becomes not mean at all but quite friendly. And note, too, the extraordinary comparison of his own plight with the banishment of the damned, through which Juliet by inference is divine and her company like that enjoyed by the angels in heaven. And, finally, you would have to note how the conclusion of this whole tragedy is anticipated in the line no poison mixed, no sharp-ground knife Are these not, and in proper order, the means by which these two lovers will do away with themselves—first Romeo by poison, then Juliet by a knife?
Anyone who has tried to teach poetry knows how much of this rich tapestry of art, lying reflexively on the surface, can be missed by students intent on figuring out what it is Romeo is saying. Most students have to be taught to throw this particular switch. But the main point is that, once again, we have a toggle here. We can choose to attend to the language or choose to look through it. Just as we could throw the Instrumentality/non-instrumentality switchback and forth, so we can throw the Reflexivity/non-reflexivity switchback and forth.
This is true, I think, of all the qualities of the literary. Each operates as a toggle switch, and in each case we can be guided or taught to throw the switch one way or the other. Throwing the fiction/non-fiction switch has enormous consequences for how we take in a text. The literary canon is full of texts (the Iliad, the Bible) that have been taken in the pastas history and reconstructed later on as triumphs of the fictional imagination, that is, literature. Similarly, throwing the significant/
insignificant switch determines whether we see, say, Tender Buttons as a brilliant, disturbing, infinitely enjoyable linguistic tapestry or a bad joke, foisted on an academic market, hungry for literary business. Again, throwing the original/unoriginal switch in our still romantic culture has a major influence on whether or not we confer the honorific of literature on a text or discard it as a pastiche of clichés.
Further complicating the issue of what switches need to be toggled in order for us to feel comfortable calling something apiece of literature is that literature, as it is usually used and understood, is a “polythetic” concept that is, no single quality is a necessary quality, and in fact no two literary objects need have any of these qualities in common (though they must both share a quality or qualities with a third literary object. In this regard, literary objects share what Wittgenstein called a family resemblance For example, though reflexivity is widely seen as a literary trait, literature still encompasses language as clear and unadorned as William Carlos Williams’s This is just to say”:
I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which
This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Oct 2021 08:16:29 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms

What Do We Mean When We Say Narrative Literature
you were probably saving for breakfast
Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold Williams Of course, it can be argued (and has been) that Williams’s plain style, in the context of centuries of heavily embellished poetic diction, cannot help but call attention to itself. By its sheer simplicity, in other words, the poem is reflexively artful. Hemingway is famous for doing the same thing. Here is an example from his story The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”:
Dick Boulton came from the Indian camp to cutup logs for Nick’s father. He brought his son Eddy and another Indian named Billy Tabeshaw with him. They came in through the back gate out of the woods, Eddy carrying the long crosscut saw. It flopped over his shoulder and made a musical sound as he walked. Billy Tabeshaw carried two big cant- hooks. Dick had three axes under his arm.
(Short Stories But, however we choose to read these texts—however we throw the reflexivity switch—both of these authors were seeking a transparency in their language that is conventionally impeded by poetic attention-getting devices. Such, at least, is a case that has often been made for both of them. Moreover, to clinch the argument here, we can also make a negative case. Here below is what one might call academic, but certainly not literary, language:
The aporetics of subject articulation are such that the articulating subject is always subverted by the aporia of its own articulation.
With effort, I can translate this as Its hard to say who you are But I can also perform a literary reading. Note the symmetry of the triple repetition articulation
. . . articulating . . . articulation and its rhythmical counterpoint with subject . . . subject . . . sub . . .” and the bracketing of “aporetics . . . aporia . . . .” Unconvinced Neither am I. But I have nonetheless performed a literary analysis of this text’s reflexive surface.
The stretch to include everything and nothing in the polythetic family of literature can be awfully great. And this in turn has been grist for the common
SSSM (Standard Social Science Model assessment that what we call literature is something that belongs almost exclusively to our culture. Literature in other words, is a culturally specific term for certain narratives and other texts, and it functions as an arbitrary identifying label. This sense of the term literature is well worth examining, as long as we realize what level of analysis we are operating at the creation and sustaining through social influence of the variable and nearly arbitrary collection of texts we call literature. But if we want to get at the more molecular psychological mechanisms involved in this still mysterious transaction, we will need to breakup the large concept to address its component functions This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Oct 2021 08:16:29 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms

H. Porter Abbott through other modes of inquiry.
To summarize my central point so far we have two kinds of aptitude here, the platform and the toggle switch, a distinction that is worth pursuing in cognitive research. The first is always undeniably itself (you can’t turn narrative into non-narrative) and it can stay active even while the mind is engaged in apparently opposed activities. The other can be turned on and off, and as one does so, our sense of the whole text changes.
III. Instrumentality Reconsidered
Let’s look again at the list of literary toggle switches I produced above:
As an opposition of concepts, that between toggle and platform seems to work in every case here but one that of instrumentality/non-instrumentality. In making my case above regarding the instrumentality switch, I kept the focus on the toggle function, a focus that I think is valid. We seem to be able to turn on and off our perception of instrumentality, and as we do so, our perception of the text changes. What I neglected to address in that part of my argument regards whether this particular toggle, at least in one of its modes, can also act as a platform. The opposition between toggle and platform seems to work validly for every other quality for example, the perception of significance or the perception of originality is an either/or perception, but not necessarily for instrumentality.
There are, for example, many works of literature, that arouse many non- instrumental pleasures, but that at the same time wear their instrumentality on their sleeve. Satire is perhaps the most obvious example of this. There is also an abundance of frankly instructive (and hence openly instrumental) texts that at the same time take us to that space off where they make their own world. As the poet Horace claimed, they seek at once to instruct and delight William Bennett’s

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