GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

Dan Shen, Style and Rhetoric of Short Narrative Fiction: Covert Progressions Behind Overt Plots (New York and London: Routledge, 2014). 80 € (hardback), 175 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-63548-6—Federico Pianzola, ICI, Berlin.

Two reasons stand out for welcoming with enthusiasm this book by Dan Shen: firstly, though it appears in the series “Routledge Studies in Rhetoric and Stylistics,” it is also a very precious attempt to bridge the gap between those disciplines and narrative theory, showing how to fruitfully and sensibly put together theoretical and analytical instruments developed in different frameworks. Secondly, it is a great example of how analytic practice continuously feeds back into theory, prompting us to refine and revise the concepts we rely on.

The main thesis of the book is that, in narratives, 'our surface reading, or the way the overt plot moves, exists in tension with a very different and powerful dynamic that focuses, at a hidden and deeper level, on aesthetics and ethics, among other kinds of thematic import. This hidden dynamic, which complicates the audience's response in various ways, is what I call ‘covert progression’' [1]. Narrative is not all about plot but it definitely is about progression in time. This is what links Shen's rhetorical approach to narrative studies: the centrality of temporal progression for her analyses of literary texts. But narrative is a discursive property that cannot be isolated from the intra- and extra-textual context in which it occurs. In this regard Shen's approach is rhetorical inasmuch as the focus of inquiry is on the authorial ethos and on the audience response, both explored as they are perceived through or shaped by aesthetic means, i.e. style.

What I find remarkable is Shen's attention not to assume that the elements she takes into account are subordinated to or strictly bounded by others. Each instance is considered as part of a whole (hólos) and interacting with other parts, and is evaluated with respect to the 'artistic whole'. For instance, with respect to Edgar Allan Poe's poetics, the most important 'unity of effect' is not conceived as dampening the ethical engagement of the author's tales, rather her attention focuses on the relations between formal design and the tale's subject matter, offering an original contribution to Poe's criticism [29–31].

This book is a journey to the roots of literary and narrative theory: back to Aristotle, acknowledging the limits of neo-Aristotelian criticism and of many narratological approaches, which often exclude style and the sociohistorical context of creation from interpretation [13–20]. But it is also a step forward since, according to Shen, the artistic whole is more than what meant by Aristotle: beside characters, events and style it can also include the historical context and the biographical information of the real author, and even the intertextual relations with other literary works and discursive forms. This is because 'integrating style, context of creation, and intertextual comparison can help us became better critics of the text or better rhetorical critics of author-audience communication since the integration enables us to interpret more accurately the norms and functions of the text and the rhetorical purposes of the implied author' [21)] And being aware of the difficulty of such enterprise, Shen is extremely careful in confronting elements coming from different sources, always considering that the context is crucial for the evaluation of meaning.

Introducing her own work, Shen recalls Gerald Manley Hopkins's attitude in discussing Greek tragedy, who identifies an 'underthought' conveyed in lyric passages behind the 'overthought' of the tragedy [Hopkins 1995]. Moreover, I have also been reminded of a masterful reading of Racine's Phèdre by Francesco Orlando, in which a covert progression of ‘monstrosity’ is shown behind and intertwined with the overt dramatic plot [Orlando 1978]. Not surprisingly, being sensible to the ‘hidden’ complexities of texts like the two scholars just mentioned, Shen is lead to rethink two major concepts of literary criticism, plot and irony, since their established meanings and uses are too narrow to include all the forms of progression and irony that she wants to highlight. The main point is that behind the overt plot there may exist a parallel textual movement that runs throughout the text 'convey[ing] a different thematic import and often contain[ing] various textual details that appear peripheral or irrelevant to the themes of the plot' [3]. And among these possible alternative meanings there is a kind of irony that can subvert or supplement the irony of the plot development [7–8 and 23–25].* From now on literary scholars and narratologists should confront with Shen's reconceptualization of plot and irony because her remarks raise important methodological issues for literary and narrative theory, as well as for discourse analysis in general.

Concerning plot—commonly conceived as 'the development of a narrative's sequence of events' [3])—Shen states that it is a crucial concept in the study of 'narrative sequence, dynamics and progression' [2], but also claims that there is another 'significant principle of narrative structure' [12], namely covert textual progression, 'a continuous undercurrent running from the beginning to the end of the narrative' [9]. The main difference between this two kinds of progression is that the overt plot is evident to every reader, 'but the covert is not immediately noticeable and we need therefore make a conscious effort to search for it' [146]. In the 'Coda' of the book [145–49] Shen summarizes her work in eight thesis and in each of them it is clearly said that all aspects of the covert progression are dependent on the active role of the reader and that stylistic analysis is indispensable for uncovering them. Strictly speaking, many of the covert features that Shen highlights are constitutively dependent on knowledge that is external to the text, like the sociohistorical context of creation and the intertextual relations established with other texts. Hence, the uncovering of the covert progression is a process concerning hermeneutics and the possible meanings of the text, and since the covert progression is a 'significant principle of narrative structure' [12], then part of the narrative structure happens to be to some extent dependent on the reader activity. Furthermore, if the uncovering of the covert progression affects the overt plot, we may want to ask whether the whole narrative structure is to some extent dependent on the reader activity—e.g. which one of the plots proposed by literary critics reflects the narrative structure of Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'? Shen does not go deeper into this but her thorough analyses show how the interdependence between the 'rhetorical design' [145] of the text and the reader engagement with it are issues that need further attention and should be considered in the light of the matters pointed out in this book.

The power of rhetorical analysis is presented with great clarity, systematizing the variety of tools, concepts and perspectives in a model easy to grasp. Shen's analytical method is extensively illustrated in the introduction [1–26], taking into account the concepts from narratology and stylistics that are subsequently put at work in synergy. The overall impression is of a compelling cultural reading of literary texts, grounded in thorough stylistic and narratological analysis. Nonetheless, the anthropological and social functions of narrative are brought into play as well, since the 'dynamic textual structures' are always discovered through an act of reading, and sharing what we find in our readings is an important part of the understanding of the text [22; cf. Phelan 2007]. In this light, her perspective also shows new questions and lines of inquiry for longstanding topics. For instance:

In existing theoretical discussions of unreliability, attention has not yet been paid to the multiple interplay between the unreliable and the reliable, nor to the interaction between the unreliable and the reliable along the same axis, nor to the chaining interaction among the three kinds of unreliability (e.g. misreporting arising from the misinterpretation of other's people behaviour, which in turn is associated with the misevaluation of one's own behaviour) [49].

Beside the sound theoretical proposal, this book is worth reading inasmuch as it offers a great example of analytic finesse and of synthetic skills. The quality of the readings is excellent for those interested in literary hermeneutics, and the arguments will appear clear and convincing to those more interested in theoretical reflection.

* Cf. Orlando 1997 for a similar conception of irony, with the analysis of fifty extracts from French, Italian and English texts.


Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose. New York: Everyman's, 1995. Orlando, Francesco. Toward a Freudian theory of literature. With an analysis of Racine's Phèdre. Translated by Charmaine Lee. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. Orlando, Francesco. Illuminismo, barocco e retorica freudiana. Torino: Einaudi, 1997. Phelan, James. Experiencing Fiction: Judgements, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007.

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