Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction

Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction

Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction

Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction

Excerpt

What do the shock created by James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and debates about the French writer Michel Houellebecq’s provocative work have in common? Frey’s book, published in 2003, was marketed and hailed as an authentic autobiographical memoir recounting the author’s recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Oprah Winfrey set it on her book club’s reading list and invited Frey to her show. Frey’s sales, as could have been expected, went soaring sky high. Suspicious, the website the Smoking Gun exposed central autobiographical facts represented in the book as made-up, causing consternation: Oprah was shocked, and so were audiences who had sometimes used Frey’s “authentic” work as a kind of self-help book, as attested in heated blog exchanges.

Houellebecq’s case is somewhat different. Critics from the start appeared hesitant about how to classify not just his work but also, even very much so, the author’s intentions and stance. Should the bleak views on Western society conveyed by his novels be taken as serious analysis, as satire, or more cynically, as just the next commercial cocktail of sex, violence, and stereotypes? Both Frey’s and Houellebecq’s cases raise questions regarding what I call the author’s ethos. In their attempt to determine their own classification of the work, and their own position with respect to it, critics often refer to what they perceive as Houellebecq’s deep-down character and intentions. But an author’s persona may be just as elusive as his or her work. Besides, interpreters are often sensitive to different clues and frame these in different modes.

In ancient Greek, ethos referred to a person’s or community’s character or characterizing spirit, tone, or attitude. Aristotle famously distinguished ethos as one of the three main means of persuasion, alongside pathos and logos. My use of the notion ties in with this rhetorical coinage, revised in the past decades in institutional art sociology and discourse analysis by scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, Ruth Amossy, and . . .

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