Narrative: A User's Manual

By Herman, David | Style, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Narrative: A User's Manual


Herman, David, Style


Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps. Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. xii + 352 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Beautifully written, meticulously researched, firmly anchored in data drawn from several corpora, and brilliantly insightful from start to finish, Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps's Living Narrative is, in the opinion of this reviewer, one of very best books ever published on the subject of conversational storytelling. To be sure, the book will have special appeal for scholars working in such fields as discourse analysis, communication studies, sociolinguistics, and anthropological linguistics. Recent work in narrative theory, however, posits a scale or continuum stretching between stories told in face-to-face interaction and even the most experimental, ludic narratives produced by avant-garde literary authors.1 Accordingly, Ochs and Capps's book is of vital importance to anyone interested in the forms and functions of narrative, literary as well as nonliterary, artistic as well as quotidian. Characterizing narrative as a mode of communication, a resource for cognition, a means of family-, peer-, and institution-based socialization, and an index as well as catalyst of psychosocial development, the authors' approach has broad interdisciplinary relevance. This book is therefore required reading for researchers in every field in which stories are an actual or conceivable object of inquiry, from sociology and rhetoric, to history and gender studies, to philosophy and education. What is more, Ochs and Capps's study constitutes a touch stone-provides a paradigm-for doing scholarly work that is at once carefully nuanced and eminently readable. Accessible to nonexperts, the book nonetheless provides, for specialists in the study of stories, a synoptic survey of previous scholarship, an innovative combination of research methodologies, and a wealth of new insights into narrative.

The first part of the book's title exploits a productive grammatical ambiguity, one that sheds light on the authors' holistic approach to narrative analysis. On the one hand, Living Narrative can be parsed as an adjective phrase, in which case Living functions as a modifier denoting the "living" (i.e., face-to-face, everyday, conversational) subtype of storytelling-as opposed to other subtypes that are fixed or written-down. As the authors put it:

Living Narrative focuses on ordinary social exchanges in which interlocutors build accounts of life events, rather than on polished narrative performances. The narrators are not renowned storytellers [...] the narrators often are bewildered, surprised, or distressed by some unexpected events and begin recounting so that they may draw conversational partners into discerning the significance of their experiences. [... The narratives told] are shaped and reshaped turn by turn in the course of conversation. (2)

Much of the book is devoted to a careful description of the features of such evanescent, living narratives and of the many contexts in which everyday storytelling plays a more or less overt role. On the other hand, however, Living Narrative can also be parsed as a verb phrase, in which case Living functions as a transitive verb with a progressive aspect.2 In turn, Narrative becomes a grammatical object, by analogy with the dream in a phrase like living the dream. In this second gloss, instead of being something that one encounters, now and again, as a variable and intermittent subtype of communicative practice, narrative becomes something that one lives in, through, or by means of, a constant and ineliminable factor in the process by which humans establish and maintain their (social) life. Note that the subtitle of the book-Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling-spans the semantic continuum linking the two grammatical interpretations just outlined.

The first chapter presents "A Dimensional Approach to Narrative" (1-58). …

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