Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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THE FORCE OF FICTIONS

Richard Walsh

I want to make a case based upon one kind of literary study, and confined to one kind (or mode) of literature, without prejudice in either respect to other possible affirmations of the value of what literary scholars do. The kind of study I mean emphasizes the continuity between literary artefacts and the broader domains of cultural discourse, scientific understanding and human cognitive faculties; it is the study of narrative theory, and my claim is that its central preoccupation with literary narrative is in no way at odds with the much larger scope of narrative in general as a distinct object of study. More specifically, my object is fiction, though I mean fictional narrative in a sense that accommodates not only the novel, but the drama (and indeed film), and a great deal of poetry too. Literary fiction, for my purposes here, is defined both etymologically (written fiction) and honorifically (fiction it is possible to credit as a significant contribution to culture, rather than just a symptomatic cultural product); at the same time, however, I situate this narrowly-defined object of study within a series of progressively more inclusive context that is, fictions in general, narrative discourse in general, and narrative as a cognitive faculty. The recursive relationship between these contexts secures a significant continuity between literature and the broad reaches of scientific understanding, while the distinctive contribution of literary study is provided for by the re-inflection of the concept of narrative with each narrowing and refinement of the frame of reference. Finally, in speaking of the “force” of fictions I am proposing to make some play with the relation between the notions of “force” and “value”, extrapolating somewhat from the framework of speech act theory in order to emphasize a performative quality of literary narrative, which arises out of the recursive logic I am proposing, and which can be extrapolated one step further, to the activity of study itself.

My thesis, then, is that the importance of literary fictions as objects of study can be understood to follow from the status of such fictions as the most highly elaborated instances of a mode of cognition that lies at the heart of what it is to be human (the human, I mean, as a social and trans

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