The Man That [sic] Corrupted Hadleyburg is another odds-and-ends collection, this time pairing a long short story (there's a bit of an oxymoron for you) with a bunch of magazine articles about goings-on in Austria, where Twain was living at the time (1897-8).

I first encountered the title story in a narratology class taught by Seymour Chatman. We had to choose a short story from a list, read it, and then watch the TV movie adaptation of it down at the media library. I chose "Hadleyburg." I'd link to the essay I wrote about it, except the hard drive it is on is currently sitting in a drawer.

Speaking of that narratology class, though, there was recently a mild tiff online over a comment on Grand Text Auto that a certain review would have been improved "using the framework of narratology." There was skepticism on ifMUD about this claim which then spilled onto the comments section of the GTA page, culminating in the author of the original review writing, "As to using narratology, well, Iím not part of the academic tradition." As a one-time graduate student in English specializing in narratology, I figured I'd take this opportunity to chime in.

Literary scholarship has a pretty bad reputation among the general population, and I would submit that this reputation is well-earned. Though things may have changed in the past few years, what I found as a grad student in the mid-/late 90s was that English and literature departments were dominated by Theory. Theory is what had previously been called "literary theory," except then the literature dropped out of it. See, back in the day, long before my day, literature professors studied books, or at least narrative works like plays and movies and things. They did so using methods designed for the task: philology at first, then in the 1930s and onward, the New Criticism with its close reading of texts. But then some people realized that they could make new, insightful observations about literature by incorporating work done in other fields. Fair enough: though it meant that you had people without a background in economics interpreting Marx, people without a background in psychology interpreting Freud, people without a background in anthropology interpreting Lévi-Strauss, people without a background in linguistics interpreting de Saussure, so long as it's in the service of analyzing literature I figure it's fair game. To me, the fatal turning point came when the community of literary scholars decided that everything was a "text" and could therefore be "read." Few of my colleagues or professors in grad school seemed to be interested in books or narrative. They studied things like jazz singers and transsexuals and malls and the government of Indonesia. At this point, what are you doing in a literature department? If you're not talking about books, switch to economics or sociology or political science or whatever, because otherwise you're just being a dilettante.

Literary scholars are also routinely ridiculed for being terrible writers, and this is another charge that sticks. The charitable spin on this is that they're not actually trying to communicate ideas as one human to another, making their meaning as clear as possible — they're trying to encode information for storage, as densely as possible. Many was the time I'd be sitting in a seminar and the prof would take a sentence in a journal article and say, "Okay, let's unpack that." But again, that's the charitable interpretation. There is something to be said for the less charitable interpretation, to wit: if you're a physics professor at a cocktail party, chances are slim that a layperson is going to be able to follow anything you say about your work. If you're an economics professor, that layperson might try to engage you in a debate about taxes or something, but once you start trotting out arcane equations from your dissertation the discussion is over. But an English professor? If you're good, you should be able to communicate your observations about literature in a manner anyone in the room can understand, but the flip side of that is that everyone in the room is going to think he or she can answer you point by point — that is, they're all going to think they're just as smart as you are. This cannot be borne. Enter opaque writing, enter jargon, enter made-up words with punctation in the middle like "(dis)loc[a/u]tion." Often these techniques are employed to disguise the fact that the author doesn't actually have anything worthwhile to say in the first place.

So it's easy to see why some might bristle at the suggestion that something they've written isn't academic enough. But here's the thing. I don't think either of the charges above can be leveled at narratology. For one, narratology is aimed directly at one of the proper objects of a literary scholar: storytelling. What's more, though narratology does employ a lot of jargon, this isn't to obfuscate ideas that'd be more clearly communicated without it; narratology uses jargon because it's talking about the technical nitty-gritty of exactly how a story is constructed. Sure, you can analyze stories without knowing the narratological term for exactly what sort of flashback constitutes the twelfth paragraph. You can also analyze a basketball game without knowing what a pick-and-roll or a box-and-one is. But in both cases, you're probably going to end up reinventing the wheel to a certain extent, and there may be stuff going on that you miss.


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