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If he's talking about the Internet ("cyberspace"), then I think Birkerts is clearly right. E-books, on separate devices such as the Kindle, strike me as a potentially different story.


Enjoyed your post, Daniel. You quote Bikert about serious literary and its levels and then parenthetically ask "why must the core element of fiction be its narrative premise?" In your opinion, are there core elements of fiction? Doesn't the "aboutness" of a story rank up there in importance? Lastly, is there a great novel whose narrative premise is either weak or altogether missing? Best, Kevin

Dan Green

Is the "core element" (as in "most important") of Ulysses the fact that we follow its protagonist over the course of a day? Or does its "core" lie elsewhere? How about Pale Fire?


We can follow the protagonists because Ulysses ia "about," among other things, the inner journey of three people in the course of a day.

Dan Green

But is the "narrative" of this one-day period really our "core" concern? I've certainly never read it in that way. I'm much more interested in the separate episodes and the various experiments in character and point of view that Joyce performs. More interested in the concrete details than in the way these details contribute to a "story." The story is just one thing after another.


As readers, we focus our concern or attention where we want, just as Proust focuses his on the little patch of yellow in Vermeer's painting. But without a thematic arc to organize its subject matter, there are no "episodes" or "experiments" or "little patches of yellow" to glory over. Cheers, Kevin

Dan Green

Well, now you've changed terms. I can't see that "thematic arc" and "narrative premise" are the same thing.

Bob Garlitz

Birkerts over-invested in this position with the book that made him who he is and he has to maintain some shred of the brand. A generation or two serious readers will indeed wonder why we doubted so much as we moved from paper to screens, but they will also wonder why on earth we forgot so quickly critics who wrote so much better than Birkerts does about reading --- for instance Wayne Booth's "The Company We Keep."


The terms aren't so important. The "parts" or "episodes" of a story are substantially defined by the "larger" whole of which they're parts. Vermeer's little patch of yellow works as it does because it's part of a larger gestalt. Same is true of Joyce's snot-green sea. Narrative fiction has a "shape," as it were, or a "trajectory" or an "aboutness" or a "plot" or a "narrative premise," call it what you want. Because of this larger shape, the bits and pieces of a story hang together as a coherent whole. Anyhow, I've blabbered on too long. Your use of Dewey, by the by, has got me thinking that I'll post on Schopenhauer's aesthetics. Cheers, Kevin

Dan Green

But Birkerts didn't assert the priority of "call it what you want." He specified "narrative premise," and it's his valorization of this element that I criticized.


On my reading of the passage you quote, B. valorizes the "engaged reader" who, because he reads with "directed concentration," eats with relish the inner organs of a Book. Not so for the dilettante, etc.

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