I just returned from one of the best conferences in the field of literature and culture, the International Conference on Narrative held this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Founded in 1986 at Ohio State University, the International Society for the Study of Narrative engages in cutting edge analysis of many forms of narration including literature, history, biography, film, graphic arts, music, medical case histories, and legal writing. In recent years there has been an increasing focus on the study of digital culture, and the setting at MIT offered special opportunities for interchange between computer scientists and narratologists.
Shortly before the conference, I received the unexpected good news that an article I had published in the Society’s journal Narrative was part of a cluster of three articles on digital narratology that would be jointly awarded the James Phelan Prize for the best contribution to the journal in 2013 at the conference. The seeds of this cluster began at the 2010 MLA conference in Los Angeles where two scholars from Germany, Dorothee Birke and Birte Christ, led a panel on Gérard Gennette’s theory of paratexts--the framing elements inside and outside texts that shape the reading experience such as book covers, dedications, footnotes, reviews and author interviews. Two of the presentations at that panel focused on digital culture: Paul Benzon of Temple University analyzed the new paratexts of DVDs and I studied the expanded paratexts that shape reading on portable devices such as the Kindle and iPad. Birke and Christ asked us to do articles based on these presentations and wrote the introductory essay “Paratext and Digitized Narrative: Mapping the Field,” creating a cluster of three articles that won the prize. Here, group collaboration trumped the usual emphasis on individual work in humanities research, and Genette’s path breaking theoretical model invited expansion in new directions that allowed us to see important cultural framing devices in new media.
Sessions at the 2014 conference analyzed the paratexts of convergence culture in which old and new media combine; narrative networks and navigation in novels by Junot Díaz and John Dos Passos; and “unnatural narratives” that are anti-realistic, representing the improbable or impossible. Pioneer narratologists Jim Phelan, Brian Richardson, and Robyn Warhol presented three fresh approaches to a Robert Coover story and then intriguingly critiqued each other’s analysis. Two scholars from Aarhus University analyzed what they term “fictiobiographical” TV ads in Denmark featuring George Clooney and Madonna, and Bob Hope’s role in ad strips for Pepsodent toothpaste in a 1940s newspapers. In this genre of ads, imaginary stories from the stars’ lives entice us to buy products such as coffee, cars, and toothpaste.
Armed with evidence from empirical studies in cognitive science, Lisa Zunshine warned of the dangers of the 50% decrease in the amount of literature that students read under the Common Core Standards; the program’s emphasis on teaching complex vocabulary ignores the evidence that reading fiction involves a higher metacognitive function than non-fiction. Scholars from Spain and MIT presented computational models for studying literature and their attempts to teach computers to perform Vladimir Propp’s structural analysis on other literary works.
Continuing her groundbreaking work on the ways in which fiction creates empathy, Suzanne Keen discussed the socially constructed differences in male and female responses to various kinds of stories and the difficulties in overcoming inter-group bias that reduces empathy. Theresa Rojas analyzed the visual rhetorical strategies used to portray the highly charged U.S./Mexico border in the TV show and iBook The Bridge. Frederick Luis Aldama demonstrated how U.S. Latino comic books geometrize stories and invite readers’ eyes to move across the pages through the structures of visual composition.
Three full days of rich, imaginative papers like these drew hundreds of scholars from the U.S. and Europe, sending us all home with fresh insights for our research and teaching. As my colleague Porter Abbott noted, “It’s the best conference!” And who can forget the Saturday night dance where we stopped analyzing for a while and did the Twist with Chubby Checker at the top of the postmodern MIT Media Lab overlooking the Charles River and city lights!
Check out the conference program:
and Liza Zunshine’s article: