Study Guide

Gérard Genette Buzzwords

Don't be fooled by the appearance of simplicity with these buzzwords. Even though my definitions are not confusing, you do want to pay attention. If you can manage to wrap your mind around these buzzwords, you're in like Flynn.

Order

So, let's say you're reading a book, and all of the events happen in linear order (also known as chronological order)—beginning, middle, and end, and all that. But that's not always the way the story unfolds. Stories have flashbacks, flashforwards, and fantasies; sometimes they begin smack-dab in the middle (in medias res); and sometimes events in them are all happening all at the same time.

Narrators tell stories, forget details, and go back and add information. Sometimes, other narrators come along and tell the same story with new information. Allow me to present two other pieces of vocabulary that will help make an important distinction:

  • Narrative (recit)—that's the order of events as they unfold when you go from one page to the next—for example, Wuthering Heights begins in 1801 with the arrival of Lockwood at the home of the supremely cranky Heathcliff, pretty much in the middle of the action.
  • Story (histoire)—that's the real sequence of events, like if you pulled out all of the pages of the novel and put them in chronological order. Wuthering Heights would begin with the arrival of the stormy foundling Heathcliff at the Earnshaw home.

Frequency

Just as it sounds, this term relates to the number of times an event is narrated. So, as in the Wuthering Heights example, we have several narrators who offer different versions of events, meaning that we hear the story many times over from different perspectives. A key event can be described many times, demonstrating the old idea that five witnesses can see the same event and offer five different versions.

Of course, I like to break things down into categories, so I make an important distinction between the singulative, when a narrator tells a story one time in the right order; the repetitive, in which the narrator(s) tell the story several times (like Nelly and Lockwood in Wuthering Heights; and iterative, when the narrative is told in many ways by many people.

Duration

This little term refers to the amount of time taken up to tell certain events. So the author may skim through a decade in a matter of sentences or painstakingly describe a character's preparation of a piece of jam and toast over several pages. Modernists were well known for writing novels of hundreds of pages that cover only a 24-hour period—like Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses. So, to use my buzzwords, James Joyce's novel has a short narrative time (a day in the life of Leopold Bloom) but a long discourse time (700 or so pages).

Mood

Never take your narrator for granted—he or she has good days and bad days and may convey attitudes toward characters and events that are either covert or in your face.

I like to think of mood as something that depends on how close the narrator is to the events (is he or she objectively distanced or up close and personal?) and on what his or her perspective is on the events. You may have a vengeful narrator who takes sides with one character in the narrative, and in that case, you'd be getting a skewed version of events. I call what or whom the narrator focuses on the focalization of the narrative... you know, because it sounds really cool.

Voice

Who the heck is telling the story? I do a nice little typology for voice, breaking it down into two neat little categories: intra-diegetic: we are hearing the story from an insider's point of view; extra-diegetic: the narrator is hovering above the text, telling us what's going down (this voice usually has more information than an intra-diegetic voice, but it gives us a much less cozy feeling).

Paratext

It may be a dead giveaway that paratext is one of my favorite concepts, given that I have a whole book, called Paratexts—Thresholds of Interpretation, about it. The gist is that paratext is all of the stuff included in a book besides the main chapters; so, that includes the cover, the front page, indexes, acknowledgements, author photos—the whole kit and caboodle.

All of this material surrounds, contextualizes, and "ensures the text's presence in the world, its 'reception' and consumption in the form […] of the book" (source).

Transtextuality

This handy term literally translates as "across texts," and it refers to how all texts communicate with each other. You know—they have a relationship by using a common language, sharing references, and riffing off of each other.

There are lots of ways that texts do this. They may have allusions and quotations from other texts, or they may mimic or styles and genres of other books, or they may feature ideas that recall other texts (sometimes quite obviously, like when Jean Rhys riffs on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea).

The larger point of intertextuality is to point out that all books are part of a larger system.