Stops on the way to "Shiloh": a special case for literary empiricism.
This essay is about other semiotic moments, some of them in a short story by Bobbie Ann Mason, some of them in the history of short-fiction theory. I will be waving my arms too, but let me begin by listing my premises:
1) storying is a primary mode of cognition (counting, for example, is another);
2) the short story--that singly authored, culturally specific, densely signifying art form--is a primary site for literary investigation; it cannot be explained by an aesthetics based on poetry or a narratology based on the folktale or a script based on cultural studies although each of these approaches has contributed to short-fiction theory.
These premises have led to a kind of literary empiricism. This is not the same thing as an empirical approach to literature, a growing area of interest for many scholars in other disciplines. It does, however, mean an openness toward the findings of other people who do research on storying: namely, psychologists, discourse theorists, and cognitive scientists. This kind of literary empiricism is descended from three very central traditions in short-fiction studies: genre criticism, reader-response theory, and formalism. I will begin with a little of this family history, and then move on to a discussion of Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh."
"But genre criticism. isn't it--dead?" I often hear those words (or get that look) when I say I am interested in the short story. Perhaps it is too late in the day to ask, "What is a short story?" We can, however, ask a more primary question: "What is storyness?" In the 1970s, psychologists working with memory looked at regularities in what subjects recalled from the stories they had read and found that texts with a normative event structure were most easily remembered (Mandler and Johnson 111-15). In other words, storyness is a condition of narrative that fulfills a story grammar.
In the 1980s there were many challenges to these story grammars, and the emphasis shifted from a linguistic to a cognitive model or schema. According to many psychologists, stories are about people trying to solve problems or achieve goals; thus, a model for comprehending plan-based behavior should explain how readers or listeners comprehend stories. A variety of models was developed and, of course, allowed for subgoals, thwarted goals, and even negative or absent goals.
Then, in 1982, the same year Bobbie Ann Mason published "Shiloh" in book form, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, William F. Brewer, challenged both the story grammars and the plan-based comprehension models, saying that neither was truly specific to the experience of reading "stories." He had an understanding of both literary and rhetorical theory and knew that discourse has to be understood in the context of its function or purpose. So he claimed that stories are a class of narratives meant to entertain, and he developed experiments for testing the arousal, intensification, and release (or resolution) of three affects within readers: surprise, suspense, and curiosity (473).
For many reasons, his "structural-affect" theory, as he called it, is alien to the literary scholar. Still it warrants attention. Brewer was trying to anatomize story processing, trying to determine its stages: the sequence of its cognitive strategies and affective states. He was interested in the way readers determine the "storyness" of stories and wanted to test empirically for this intuition. I shared his goal, though not his method.
My working assumption was as follows: storyness inheres in any narrative segment that tells about a significant risk to some form of human wellbeing that is subsequently either lost or gained/regained. Storyness, so defined, could inhere in many kinds of short narratives or narrative segments, oral or written, or coded into visual or performative media. I confined my attention to single-authored written texts but did not insist, as yet, on the term "short story." Genre criticism is dead if it means a taxonomy of inherent features. So I was not interested in the classified text. I focused on the scanned text. I wanted to find out how storyness was read out of, or off of, a narrative text.
Already in this discussion, the word reader has occurred six times, and of course the second tradition that is important here is reader-response criticism. The question used to be, "What does the reader of a literary text experience?" In our professional discourse, we made the "reader" into a hypothetical creature--the "ideal" reader, the "informed" reader, the "competent" reader--all of whom bore a striking resemblance to ourselves. And nowadays, of course, we hear about the socially constructed reader, or the range of "reader positions" available in a culture.
To look for the "actual" reader would be presumptuous and naive. But it was important to start with flesh-and-blood people, as had I. A. Richards, Stanley Fish, and Norman Holland, the pioneers of literary "reader experiments." My emphasis, however, would be on genre, on the perception of storyness, and my notion of the "reader" would evolve from there.
I started with the conventional wisdom of short-story theory: "anticipating closure is the most distinctive feature of reading short narratives." But closure had already been studied to death in the 1980s. Besides, the role of a last sentence is too dominant. While we may be disappointed in the end of a story (it does not fit; it is too abrupt, too prolonged), we have to accept the author's decision to end at that point. The writing . . . just . . . stops. Our sense of storyness adjusts to coincide with the physical boundaries of the text.
How to avoid that pressure? How to catch the perception of storyness operating when the author's control was weakest, the reader's strongest? The answer seemed to be a kind of reader experiment necessarily and intentionally not scientific but able to capture reader responses in a real-time, nondiscursive, individualized, yet quantifiable way. Over the last few years, I have been asking students and sometimes colleagues to read texts and to identify every sentence they feel could mark the close of a story, in other words, to identify a series of preclosure points within the text. I have used a simple coding system to record a profile of each reader: training, experience, familiarity with the text, and so forth, as well as his or her preclosure choices.
Having replaced the classified text with the scanned text, I was now replacing the "ideal" reader with the "distributed" reader (a code word for the data or sets of differentiated data that I retrieved from "real" people). Yet all that this "reader" could do was to produce raw information, a pattern of preclosure choices. And that brings up the third major tradition bearing on this work: the kind of criticism that asked, "What patterns organize this literary work?" New Criticism comes to mind and, more generally, formalism, but so does deconstruction, which focused on the decay of meaning, the local slippage of the signifier over the signified, and of psycholinguistics and semiotics. My question was, "What patterns are tied to preclosure choices?"
To find out, I used a simple but detailed system for coding the features of preclosure sentences. Some of these features were structural, and some were rhetorical; some were local, and some were global. The point of the analysis was, of course, to learn why these particular sentences had triggered the reader's sense of whole storyness. Was this kind of cognitive assembling due primarily to local features, perhaps to an unusually high incidence of semantic and syntactic patterning in the target sentences? Or was the assembling controlled entirely by story schemata, incidentally complete at these points?
I took the middle ground, believing the preclosure sentences were somehow optimum points for confirming the fulfillment of story schemata. In other words, these sentences should help me understand how the distributed reader used a sense of storyness to scan and process a narrative text. I thought I would be able to see it happen--see the play of storyness over the storied text.
But first I had to wade through the data. The computer was essential for counting and sorting, but I still had to limit my focus. So, in each reader experiment, I decided to use only the four or five preclosure sentences most often chosen by the readers of that text on that occasion. I called these the target sentences.
Studying them did raise many interesting questions: how do differences among readers influence differences among preclosure choices within the same text? Do highly trained ("expert") readers choose differently from less-trained or untrained ("naive") readers? Do female readers choose differently from male readers? And what about different categories of texts? Do traditional stories provoke different kinds of responses than avant-garde stories do? What about stories drawn from one historical period or one national literature, as opposed to another? Some of these questions I have begun to answer elsewhere, but for now, I would like to emphasize another way of looking at the target sentences.
As the preferred choices of the group at hand, they were listed at first in the order of favor: the first target sentence was the one recognized by the greatest number of readers, usually about 20 percent. But if we shift back from the order of preference to the order of occurrence in the text, we can regard the target sentences as a series of highlighted points along the continuum of all the sentences in the text. These points, viewed as a series, mark off the prominent steps in a move to closure.
"A move to closure" has a seductive sound. All at once the data is not just a list of sentences. It is a list of terminal points for a series of putative texts, those that would be created if the text did end at this point or that point or the next. My scientific colleagues would smile at my compulsion to take charge of the data, to wrest from it a problem that interests me as a genre critic. But I had to wonder: what if the short story--as opposed to the novel or the ballad or the folktale--is the narrative form marked by significantly "stepped" closure? What would such a hypothesis suggest about the processing of short stories by either human or artificial intelligence?
Instead of one text, we now have four or five putative texts embedded in one actual text. What to call these apparitions? Is each a story whose ending the author simply overrode in favor of a different, longer story? It is intriguing to realize that the author wrote all the putative stories but "authorized" only one of them, the last one. The other texts are, in a sense, created by the experiment. For even though the distributed reader is responding to cues from the author, it is still this "reader" and not some ideal reader who identifies these texts. This reader has an address in my data base.
Such is the crux of literary empiricism or my version of it. Real readers, deploying their sense of storyness, provide empirical data. Simply quantified, this information gives the critic new leverage in many kinds of discussions about stories and their readers. Yet, admittedly, these are dangerous waters. Literary empiricism simplifies both the art it studies and the science it copies, all for the sake of learning more about the cognitive perception of storyness in action. So, am I signalling that all is safe, that the water is fine? Or am I warning my reader to steer clear?
Before making a decision, let us get to "Shiloh." I picked this story because it is contemporary, because it can interest both the general public and the trained reader, and because it targets issues of current interest in English departments: the literary representation of class and gender issues. I also picked it because it targets issues of current interest to the short-story community. How can the "new" minimalism keep readers interested, given the already synoptic nature of the short-story form? How can the so-called "K-Mart Realism" give readers a perspective on the postmodern world?
"Shiloh" is about the impending breakup of a marriage, and it culminates in a trip to the historic battlefield at Shiloh in Tennessee. Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt live in Kentucky. Like so many of the characters in the Raymond Carver tradition of story telling, Leroy is between jobs. He had been a truck driver, but he had had an accident four months before, and since then he has been staying at home. His wife works at the cosmetic counter in a Rexall drugstore, but she has begun a series of self-improvement activities: a class in body building and then a class in English composition. A restlessness that Leroy cannot understand seems to be driving her, and he knows intuitively that he will lose her. Meanwhile, he smokes pot; goes through an endless series of kitchy craft kits; tries to grasp what is happening to himself, Norma Jean, and their marriage; and focuses on the project of building a life-size log cabin. He wants to build something meaningful, a "real home."
There are many reasons for the malaise of these characters. The rural past has slipped over the horizon while the national chain stores, the pop culture of television, and the new suburbia dominate the inner and outer landscape (White 71). For the Moffitts personally, there is one tragic memory: the loss of their only child to sudden infant death syndrome, The pain and guilt seem harder to bury now that Leroy does not travel anymore and the parents see more of each other. In fact, Norma Jean is having a hard time adjusting to her husband's return, Like Leroy's building projects, her self-improvement classes are a symptom. Both characters are trying to deal with change, are looking for self-validation in ways that may be banal or comic, but are also painfully confused and searching, a state as close to profound as anyone can reach in a world of Rexall drugstores and Donahue segments.
Leroy's mother-in-law suggests that he take his wife on a trip to Shiloh. Her own marriage took place in the nearby town of Corinth, and she remembers visiting Shiloh the next day. She is clearly a woman of the past, the kind who is shocked to discover her daughter smoking a cigarette not because of the health risk, but because nice girls do not do such things. Nor do they get pregnant before marriage, as Norma Jean had, nor do they lose their babies unaccountably. It is no surprise that the pressure is building up in Norma Jean. She is trapped between a do-nothing husband and a disapproving mother.
The trip to Shiloh brings all these tensions to a head. As they sit on the ground near the graveyard Norma Jean tells Leroy she wants to leave him, and Leroy has to face some truths about himself. He thinks about changing. At the end, Norma Jean has walked off to a bluff overlooking the river, and Leroy gets up to follow her. He is hobbling on one leg that still hurts from the old injury and one leg that went to sleep under him as he sat. Mason does not like showy symbols, but Leroy is walking on a meaningful pair of legs. They are unsteady, but they are moving.
The reader experiment on "Shiloh" was conducted in an undergraduate class on the short story, which I taught at the University of Iowa. There were 36 students in the class, 23 women and 13 men. Twenty-four were seniors, 11 were juniors, and one was a sophomore. Four said they had studied Mason in another course, 19 had read the story before, 12 simply recognized the title, and one had never heard of it.
Evidently the mix of students was hardly neat, and the degree of prior familiarity was much greater than expected. It is also true that the women greatly outnumbered the men. Like most undergraduate classes at Iowa, it looked very white and middle class, although, if one could rate the socio-economic status of the parents, one would probably find a wide gap between the lowest and the highest. By any standard, and certainly by any scientific gauge, it was an imperfect sample. The biggest liability was the fact that many students had read the story before. Unfortunately, their preclosure choices might be influenced by some memory of the actual closure. On the other hand, knowing the story, they could concentrate on the experiment itself.
Two texts of "Shiloh" were prepared. In each one, paragraph and section breaks were eliminated, and the sentences were serially numbered (1 to 476). Each story text was prefaced by a different quotation from Lila Havens's interview with Mason at the University of Houston on February 19, 1984, two years after the story came out in book form. One quotation begins: "Right now I'm generally more interested in the cultural effects on men than I am the women characters in my stories because women are in an incredible position right now" (94). The other begins: "|M~y larger concerns are tending, I think toward a strong curiosity about the sympathy for the lower classes" (95). One quotation foregrounds gender issues; the other foregrounds class distinctions. About half the students got text A; the others got text B.
Readers were asked to list up to five preclosure points, starting with the one closest to the end of the story and working back toward the beginning. All in all, the group identified 30 different sentences. These were quickly reduced to five target sentences, which clearly stood out as the favorite choices. Each one had been picked by at least 20 percent of the readers, and no other sentences were noticed by more than 14 percent of the readers. These were the five points where "storyness" became apparent, marking off five putative stories on the way to the end of the actual story. Although no one reader processed the story in exactly these stages, the distributed reader favored this pattern.
The earliest target sentence occurs halfway through the story. A few moments before, Leroy has found his wife crying because her mother had caught her smoking. Trying to cheer her up, he suggests that she play a tune on the organ he bought her for Christmas. During a break in the music, he asks her what she is thinking. When she says, "about what?" his mind is already a blank. But then he "has the sudden impulse to tell Norma Jean about himself, as if he had just met her. They have known each other so long that they have forgotten a lot about each other. They could become reacquainted. But when the oven timer goes off and she runs to the kitchen, he forgets why he wants to do this" (9). Cut.
This sentence was probably chosen as a preclosure because it is followed by a shift to the next day. That is a very strong cue from the author, and a rather mechanical one, at that. But still, up to that point, the narrative segment has emphasized that Leroy's sense of meaning and direction in his life, and specifically in his marriage, is at risk. How can he regain or preserve well-being? The plan--however hazily formulated--is for Leroy and his wife to get acquainted again, to start over in their marriage. But by now we know that Norma Jean has begun to make over her own life without Leroy's help. He wants to build a new home; she wants to go to night school.
The main obstacle to his plan right now is not Norma Jean's separateness; it is Leroy's inability to focus and persist. He is neutralized by confusion and inertia. Is there an outcome here? If so, it is the unenlightened maintenance of the status quo. Though not a dramatic ending, storyness is achieved: a marriage is at risk; the husband has a plan for saving it; he does not act, so the opportunity's lost. The essential qualities of the story are ordinary people, a low-keyed plot, an anti-climactic ending, and a marriage slowly disintegrating in western Kentucky in the 1970s. We know what kind of story this is! It used to be called a "slice-of-life."
Mabel does drop by. Again, she has a negative effect on her daughter's confidence and composure. She retells a news story about a baby who died in an accident, and Norma Jean feels a pointed allusion to her own tragedy and her culpability. Later, as Leroy thinks about getting a truckload of notched logs for his dream house, Norma Jean diagrams paragraphs on the kitchen table. "Norma Jean is miles away. He knows he is going to lose her. Like Mabel, he is just waiting for time to pass" (11). Cut. Again, the break comes just before a time shift. But, again, we can took with interest at a newly bracketed segment of narrative, one that incorporates the first putative story, but continues on to a new ending: "Like Mabel, he is just waiting for time to pass."
Now our narrative shows two characters whose self-assurance and self-esteem are at risk. Norma Jean feels threatened by her mother's disapproval, and Leroy feels threatened by Norma Jean's new interests. Even for Norma Jean, the goal seems to be merely to fill time (she says night school is "something to do"). Husband and wife sit looking out at the bird feeder; they sit working at the kitchen table. Leroy has been thinking, "Norma Jean is miles away." There is nothing new about that realization. A period and a space and then: "He knows he is going to lose her." Something is very new; something is very significant about that observation! The outcome here is a gain of insight. Leroy knows something now that he did not know earlier in the story: the status quo is doomed. That is the segue into the preclosure point: "Like Mabel, he is just waiting for time to pass." What is Mabel waiting for? She is old; she is waiting for death, the ultimate change in the status quo. In this putative story, little has happened, but much has been realized. This narrative may be called a "dawn-of-recognition" story.
We arrive now at the most interesting preclosure point in the experiment. Mabel has suggested a cure for the marriage: a trip to the confederate graveyard at Shiloh, the site of the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War up to that time. Although the South might have won, the army was routed in the end by the Northern invaders. Furthermore, Norma Jean has told Leroy that her name invokes not only Marilyn Monroe but the Norman invaders who conquered the Saxons (Southerners?). The trip is on, the drive over to Tennessee is mostly silent, and the first impressions of the park are mixed. Husband and wife look at the log cabin with the bullet hole in it.
"That's not the kind of log house I've got in mind," says Leroy apologetically.
"I know that."
"This is a pretty place. Your mama was right."
"It's O.K.," says Norma Jean. "Well, we've seen it. I hope she's satisfied."
"They burst out laughing together." (14)
Cut. This is an unusual target sentence for a number of reasons. First of all, it is not followed by a big jump in time or venue, but only by a seamless shift to a few moments later. It is the shortest target sentence and is the one with the most active main verb and the most specific, concrete action. It has the lowest incidence of semantic and syntactic patterning except for the dramatic example of redundancy and bracketing: the sentence begins with "They" and ends with "together." This strategy is appropriate because this sentence is the only sentence showing the man and wife in perfect synchrony with each other, mentally and physically. It is also the only target sentence chosen only by women.
Once I realized this gender bias, I looked to see which text these women had been reading, A or B. The overwhelming majority of them--86 percent--had been reading A, the one with the gender-focused heading. Given the nature of the sample, it is impossible to answer definitively any of the questions that leap to mind. But let's ask them, anyway. Was the gender bias in favor of this preclosure point caused by the content and/or form of the sentence itself, by the kind of storyness found in the narrative segment up to this point, or by the prominence of gender issues in the heading or (as I believe) a combination of all these factors? Perhaps, instead of asking why women favored this point, we should ask why men ignored it. Designing the kind of experiment that will test for clearer answers to these questions is a project, I hope, for an English department, rather than a psychology department.
But, getting back to the inquiry at hand, what kind of story ends with this burst of laughter? Looking at the whole text up to this point, we can say it has been leading up to the visit to Shiloh. However, Mabel is the one who always wanted to make this trip and then wanted her daughter and son-in-law to go. She is the one who sees it as a "second honeymoon," a restorative for the marriage. Leroy simply latches onto this hope, adopting the plan as his own. But it never has been, and never will be, what Norma Jean wants. That is the truth she is capturing when she says, "Well, we've seen it. I hope she's satisfied!" It is a funny line, but it reminds us that the marriage itself was originally Mabel's idea, the only option she could imagine for a pregnant teenage daughter. Norma Jean's quip is almost a throwaway line, and yet it is the one moment in the entire narrative when the husband and wife communicate perfectly. They have exactly the same spontaneous reaction to the Mabelness in their lives.
Of all the putative stories, the one that ends here is the most hopeful, the most promising for the future of these two fictional characters. We say to ourselves, "Now, if they could just build on this moment. If they could just realize they have to define their own journey instead of retracing Mabel's." Is this wishful thinking? Do we know this kind of story, the kind that dangles a happy ending in front of hopeful sentimentalists? What layers of conditioning would be revealed if I called this a "woman's" story. That term is the trade label for the "love interest" story favored by slick women's magazines, but let's just call it a "genre" story.
The downbeat follows. The next target sentence is blunt and painful. "Without looking at Leroy, she says, 'I want to leave you'" (14). There is no change of time or venue after this sentence. Its preclosure power is self-contained. The incidence of alliteration is high, and the sentence contains two words that link up forcefully with the story so far: "Leroy" and "want." The sentence also has the single most definite closure word in any of the target sentences: "leave."
By this point, Leroy and Norma Jean have had their tour of Shiloh and their picnic. Leroy has commented on the battle of April 7, 1862, but "|t~hey both know that he doesn't know any history. He is just talking about some of the historical plaques they have read" (14). Silence, and then: "I want to leave you."
What is at risk in the story we have just marked off is a last chance for renewal--rededication--maybe through an encounter with the larger human history memorialized at Shiloh. But Leroy does not know any history. He cannot make a connection. We do not know whether Norma Jean can, but certainly from a feminist perspective, she does win this Battle of Shiloh. She takes a real step toward personal authority and freedom. Even though the narrative is told from Leroy's point of view, so that we sympathize more with his loss than with her gain, suddenly the story seems more hers than his. She has taken charge of it. What kind of story is this? Leroy would call it a "woman's lib" story. We shall call it a "message" story.
The last of the putative stories ends with Leroy trying to grasp what is happening and recognizing the limits of his understanding. Efforts to focus on the battle of 1862 lead to a dazed synopsis of personal history:
Mabel and Jet Beasley were married. . . . The next day, Mabel and Jet visited the battleground, and then Norma Jean was born, and then she married Leroy. . . . Leroy knows he is leaving out a lot. He is leaving out the insides of history. . . . It occurs to him that building a house out of logs is similarly empty--too simple. And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him. (16)
Cut. At first, this looks like another "dawn-of-recognition" story, with the pathos underlined by the relegation of Leroy to the object position: something "occurs to him"; something has "escaped him." Whose fault is it that he has failed to understand the "inner workings" of both public and private history? It is a cultural liability as much as a personal one, and Norma Jean has the advantage only because she is more in synch with the times, not because she is made of finer stuff. She has had her revelation that she can no longer live under the terms set for her when she was 18, and now Leroy has his: that he has missed the point. What is at risk in the story that ends here is no longer the marriage itself (that is almost certainly forfeited) nor Norma Jean's ability to restart her life (she is well on the way to doing that). What is at stake is Leroy's improvement as a processor of experience.
In those terms, the outcome is positive. He has learned something about his limitations as a human being. But they are the limitations of many Americans--perhaps mostly male--who were infantilized by old myths of open-road adventure, log-cabin romance, and dreams of "settling down" in a "real home" with "the woman |they loved~." What has escaped Leroy are the changes in the country since the 1950s; they flashed by the windows of his truck, but now that he has stopped moving, he is parked in the midst of them. The voice we hear at the end of this putative story is almost a choral one, the lament of a generation, a class, a gender or one part of it that got broadsided by the postmodern world. It is a "sociographic" story.
But Mason does not stop there. Leroy keeps hoping. "He'll have to think of something else, quickly." He even tells himself "he'll get moving again" (16). But, as I mentioned earlier, his legs are not functioning very well as he stands and tries to follow Norma Jean, who has walked off toward the river. "Norma Jean has reached the bluff, and she is looking out over the Tennessee River. Now she turns toward Leroy and waves her arms. Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles" (16).
This is another semiotic moment. Is she beckoning, and perhaps reincluding him in her life? Or is she exercising her chest muscles, signaling her independence, reexcluding him from her life? But what if this binary code is itself the trap? What if Leroy's only chance is to accept the ambiguity of her signal: the chance that it might mean either, both, or none of the above? The very next sentence is the very last one in the text: in other words, the actual closure point: "The sky is unusually pale--the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed" (16). The dust ruffle is beige, bourgeois, Mabel-made, and suggests that the marriage, tagged by such an image, is a sham, too. On the other hand, if we give Leroy even the tiniest bit of credit for making the analogy--perhaps even for intuiting its message--we must give him far more credit than we have ever given him before.
"Shiloh" turns out to be story about learning to look more sensitively at the signs and signals that communicate meaning. It is a postmodern story not because it depicts a society without depth or structure (although it does that), but because it shows that the slipperiness of the sign is not a function of misinterpretation (as in "The Open Boat") but of optimized interpretation.
The move to closure is a march to Shiloh, site of an historic drama of missed signals, changing fortunes, and civil trauma. We have moved through five putative stories on our way through the actual story, and of course this staged reading has been, in a sense, rigged. That is to say, we cannot prove any one reader divided the story this way although it is possible one could have. Rather, we can say that the distributed reader, on this particular occasion, tended to do so. My role, as critic, has been to characterize the putative stories, which I have chosen to do in terms of conventional "types" or subgenres of the short story: a "slice-of-life" story a "dawn-of-recognition" story, a "genre" story, a "message" story, a "sociographic" story, a "postmodern" story.
I do not want to argue for any one of these labels in particular, nor do I want to suggest that Mason has given us an anthology of-story types. But I do want to appreciate the extent to which her "new" story is empowered by "old" formulas of storyness. Recognizing the play of storyness over the story named "Shiloh" not only reveals a conservative deep structure but brings into relief the cultural scripts (represented as cliched story types) embedded in the discourse. They supply a richness of signification at odds with the plainness of the language, the apparent thinness and triviality of the cultural envelope, the deliberate "flattening" of the characters: in short, the story's minimalism.
The structuralists may have been the last to believe in a text "filled" with a meaning the reader decoded. Since then, we have been encouraged to view the text as, in a sense, "empty," waiting to be filled or constructed or deconstructed by an agent who is no longer a person with a coherent, centered individuality, who, in short, can no longer be addressed as "a reader" much less "the reader." I have been trying, once again, to "fill" the text, this time by means of the text-processing experience itself, and to reinvent the reader. this time as a human processor who comes into being through the differential acts of individually identifiable human beings but who is not identified as any one of them.
Preclosure study is not the only arena for the kind of literary empiricism I have been describing, but it is a natural segue from the 1980s work on closure in short-fiction theory. It has the advantage of turning intuitive judgments into quantifiable data, which can, in turn, be analyzed from a number of critical perspectives, ranging from the more conservative genre interests I have espoused here to the more fashionable interests in political and cultural textuality. And I am now one sentence away from closure, from one more semiotic moment. Is this just a hopeful but maybe doomed effort to save genre study in the 90s? Or, is it the end of literary study, its gradual cooption by politics or the soft sciences? The message is what you think it is.
Brewer, William F., and Edward H. Lichtenstein. "Stories Are to Entertain: A Structural Affect Theory." Journal of Pragmatics 6 (1982): 473-86.
Havens, Lila. "Residents and Transients: An Interview with Bobble Ann Mason |February 1984~ ." Crazyhorse 29 (Fall 1985): 87-104.
Mandler, Jean M., and Nancy S. Johnson. "Remembrance of Things Parced: Story Structure and Recall." Cognitive Psychology 9 (1977): 111-15.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. "Shiloh." Shiloh and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1982. 1-16.
White, Leslie. "The Function of Popular Culture in Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country." Southern Quarterly 26 (1988): 69-79.
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|Title Annotation:||The Short Story: Theory and Practice|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1993|
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