State of the Discipline Towards Comparative Narrative Studies

Marina Grishakova


Comparative literature has an inherent capacity for self-revision and self-reflection, but due to the lack of a stable disciplinary framework it also involves a great deal of disciplinary insecurity. The birth of comparative literature coincided with the period of nation-building in 19th century Western societies, and this has had an impact on disciplinary preferences. However, comparative literature also developed a strong transnational dimension by articulating heterogeneity and difference, fostering transmission and exchange between cultures, relating and attuning to the disciplinary cultural or linguistic Other and by adopting a range of cross-cultural systemic approaches. From this perspective, comparative literature, not unlike comparative linguistics or comparative anatomy, may be conceived of as a systematic study of the forms and functions of literary artefacts across cultures and societies.


The growing influence of cultural studies has prompted comparatists to look for new models and methodologies. Highlighting the role of transfer and transmission as the most important factors of cultural production, Susan Bassnett has proclaimed translation studies the paradigmatic model for literary comparatism. Other scholars have envisaged the necessity of accommodating comparative literature in the postcolonial paradigm (for example Homi Bhabha) or the future of the discipline in comparative media studies (Katherine Hayles). However, the appearance of a new model always stimulates new developments in a discipline rather than imposing a new hegemony of the discipline in an “imperialist” paradigm – be it translation, postcolonial or media studies. In adding another theoretical framework to a series of already established models, I see the narrative approach as a perfect match to the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary propensities of the discipline and as a stimulating field for international teamwork.


The idea of comparative narratology was propounded by José Angel García Landa and Susana Onega in the introduction to their 1996 narratological anthology. Though Onega and Landa refer to interdisciplinary narratology as the basis for their comparatist project, the latter partially overlaps with comparative poetics: “A ‘comparative narratology’ – in the sense of ‘comparative literature’ – addresses such matters as the structural differences of given narrative genres or sub-genres, the phenomenological difference between narrative and other literary and artistic phenomena, and the comparative poetics of different cultures and traditions” (25). 


Recently, narratology has been undergoing rapid change and is fast becoming a truly interdisciplinary enterprise: a site for scholars of different disciplines, including literary studies, sociology, psychology, philosophy and others. Although a constructionist tendency is still dominant in the study of narrative (narrative as a means of construction of identity, gender, temporality etc.), the “cognitive turn” has revealed the cognitive and neurobiological underpinnings of storytelling. In this new postclassical paradigm, narrative is considered a specifically human mode of thinking that involves coming to terms with proximate environments rather than being a merely textual or discursive construct. From the cognitive perspective, narrative abilities are deemed to be among the defining characteristics of human intelligence. Narrative is regarded as being grounded in the human “embodied mind” while also being diversified through cultures and communities and integrated into various ways of world-making (see Nünning, Nünning and Neumann). The shared worlds of storytelling that emerge in various media, transmitted through various semiotic channels and embedded in various cultural contexts, create competing versions of reality.


Comparative narratology is expected to study various traditions and conventions of storytelling, typology of plots and characters, migration of stories across cultures and their impact on cultural sensibilities (see, for example, Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories by Patrick Colm Hogan, 2011). In his Structure of the Artistic Text (1970), Yuri Lotman distinguished between non-narrative texts (calendars, phonebooks, lyrical poems), which describe and validate specific “possible” worlds, with their own norms, hierarchies and inventories of things; and narrative texts, as representations of events that transgress borders, undermine hierarchies and break norms. An event deviates from the established order and engenders a plot, for example when scanning a telephone directory leads to a series of homonyms or defunct subscribers, or when a prince falls in love with a servant girl. Action, change and event make the basic components of storyworlds. What is to be considered an event in any particular storyworld depends on the system of norms and values established in that world: the event is related to systems of values such as honour, glory, career or erotic desire. Far from being simply representations of “reality,” stories provide access to the value systems embedded in social worlds of collective intention, joint action and shared emotion.


Comparative narrative studies may also focus on storytellers, storytelling acts and the communal values they epitomise. Examples of such storytellers include Walter Scott’s and Pushkin’s naive and simpleminded narrators, who often find themselves between two antagonistic camps and, who, due to this in-betweenness, provide an unbiased view of events; the distanced narrators of classical realist novels, ethically and epistemologically superior to those novels' characters; the invisible or elusive modernist narrators who yield the narratorial functions to the reflector consciousness; the fragmented or multiple narrators of experimental fiction. A narrator may be reduced to a disembodied voice or, as a human figure, be herself a part of the storyworld and committed to its values. The anonymous narrator in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981) oscillates between the impartiality of a reporter and the engaged empathy of a witness who shares the beliefs and values of the community. The narrating voice organises narrative communication and determines the mode of contact between authors and audiences.


The narratological concept of “voice” relates to several disciplinary frameworks. It was Bakhtin’s pioneering work that established the qualitative aspects of voice – its dialogic, hybrid, quotational quality and polygenetic origins – in the focus of scholarly discussion. In fiction, individual voices function as powerful “centrifugal forces” that considerably extend the “multiverses” of fiction by linking them with various discourses, genres and cultural contexts, by extending to the realms of the possible, hypothetical and imaginary, and by questioning the familiar, accepted and stereotypical. The Bakhtinian conception of voice becomes central also in narrative medicine and therapy. The dialogical approach considers self disorder as an unresolved dialogue between contrary modes of self-expression (see Hallam & Connor). By exploring convergences and divergences between the voices, the dialogical approach allows for a flexible conceptualisation and regulation of the self as an unmerged pluralistic communion of interlocking voices (see Grishakova).


Comparative narratology is also expected to scrutinise the difficult concept of fictionality and its variegation across cultures, as in specific forms of “porous” autobiographical fiction, such as French autofiction or Japanese shishosetsu, which encourage the reader to see the fictional and the referential space as a continuum. In contemporary Western cultures, fictional and nonfictional narratives stem from the same experiential frameworks out of the need to capture complex forms of contemporary experience. Fictionalized narrative forms (representations of thought and consciousness, dissociation of narrative voices and perspectives, forms of subjective mediation and metaleptic transgression etc.) keep filtering into nonfictional genres. New generic forms, such as the documentary drama or the novel, emerge in the intermediary zones between conventional pre-established nonfictional (memoir, diary) and fictional genres (science fiction, fantasy and disaster novels).


Comparative narratology is expected to study various forms of narrativity and user-engagement across various media: specific configurations of iconic and symbolic elements (graphia) in comic books, serial or sequential photography, various forms of recursivity that cue previous events and form a story-arch in TV serials, gameplay in videogames etc. (see Grishakova and Ryan). While delving into inter- and transmedial studies, comparative narratology may significantly contribute to the new understanding of media, intermediality and fictionality across the various media. Finally, comparative narratology should provide a comparative analysis of written and oral storytelling in various contexts: literary and historical narratives, courtroom narratives, medical narratives, and corporate storytelling. 


Comparatist projects, such as comparative translation, postcolonial or narrative studies, provide new perspectives on literature and allow for new and enriching contextualizations or reframings of literary artefacts. They suggest new conceptual perspectives, instead of the obsolete bilateral “comparisons,” new forms of disciplinary synthesis and new tools for reading. Literature becomes part of everyday communication, on par with other symbolic systems, while preserving its unique status of the imaginary or hypothetical. As John Gibson insightfully notes, the function of literature is acknowledgement rather than production of new knowledge (112). Acknowledgement involves articulation, problematization, (re)conceptualization, or bringing the new “knowledge” into the public sphere. This perpetually renewing knowledge has an impact on our social and individual ways of sense-making and our cultural sensibilities.


Works Cited


Bassnett, Susan. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1993. Print.

Landa, José Angel García, and Susana Onega eds. Narratology: An Introduction. London: Longman, 1996. Print.

Gibson, John. Fiction and the Weave of Life. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2007. Print.

Grishakova, Marina. “Fiction as a Cognitive Challenge: Explorations into Alternative Forms of Selfhood and Experience.” Cognition, Literature, and History. Ed. Mark Bruhn and Donald Wehrs. Publisher Pending, 2013 (forthcoming).

---, and Marie-Laure Ryan. Intermediality and Storytelling. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010. Print.

Hallam, Richard S., and K.P.O Connor. “A Dialogical Approach to Obsessions.” Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 75 (2002): 333-48. Print. 

Nünning, Vera, Ansgar Nünning, and Birgit Neumann eds. Cultural Ways of Cultural World-Making: Media and Narratives. New York: De Gruyter, 2010. Print.




Marina Grishakova is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Tartu, Estonia. She is author of “Toward a Typology of Virtual Narrative Voices,” in Strange Voices, ed.  P.K. Hansen, H.S. Nielsen et al. (De Gruyter, 2011), “The Voices of Madness: Performativity and Narrative Identity,” in Disputable Core Concepts in Narrative Theory, ed. G. Rossholm (Peter Lang, 2012), “Narrative Causality Denaturalized,” in Unnatural Narratives – Unnatural Narratology, ed. J. Albert and R. Heinze (De Gruyter, 2011), “Beyond the Frame: Cognitive Science, Common Sense, and Fiction” (Narrative 2009, 17:2, 188-189), The Models of Space, Time and Vision in V. Nabokov’s Fiction: Narrative Strategies and Textual Frames (Tartu, 2006), and co-editor (with Marie-Laure Ryan) of Intermediality and Storytelling (De Gruyter, 2010). In 2008-2011, Grishakova has been coordinating the Nordic Network of Narrative Studies. In 2008, she worked as a Fulbright scholar under the auspices of “Project Narrative” at the Ohio State University. Among her most notable grants are DAAD scholarship (2007) and British Academy visiting scholarship (2011-2012). She is currently General Coordinator of the European Network for Comparative Literary Studies (REELC/ ENCLS). 



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