Lanser, Susan Sniader. Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.
Notes by Steven J. Venturino, aprofessorintheory.com
“Every narrative form is already a ‘content’ in that the fact of its existence sends messages” (279)
Who, finally, authorizes a narrative? Can the ultimate authorization of a work be considered as the “voice-over” that validates, contains, and incapacitates mere “stories”? And when that voice-over forms an insidious part of the narrative voice of the story itself, how can the story make itself heard over the programmed noise of its form? In fact, is there anything to hear but the form? By focusing on narrative, Lanser examines the extent to which voice is constructed by material and social factors, and the ways in which that voice then determines the (dis)appearances of narrative authority. Particularly concerned with “those whose voices have not been able to take their discursive rights for granted,” Lanser explores the various ways in which dominant modes of narrative discourse have been manipulated in literature by women over the past 250 years.
Lanser structures her book around three “narrative modes,” each of which—authorial, personal, or communal—describes a distinct narrative consciousness, “and hence a particular nexus of powers, dangers, prohibitions, and possibilities” (15). Throughout each discussion, Lanser also elaborates on two aspects of narration that she feels have been neglected with regard to the construction of textual authority. The first of these is the distinction between private voice and public voice; the second aspect involves the inclusion or omission of explicit narrative self-reference. Part one considers novels by Marie-Jean Riccoboni, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison, writers whom Lanser sees as creating an explicitly “authorial voice,” defined as those “narrative situations that are heterodiegetic, public, and potentially self-referential” (15). While the preponderance of epistolary novels by women may attest to the containment of women’s literature to a private and therefore less authorized form of narrative, Lanser suggests that the writers she discusses nevertheless authorize their own unique discourses by creating new narrative spaces.
In an example of the authorial voice, the narrator of Riccoboni’s L’Abeille refuses to translate the letters that would move the plot beyond the traditional ending of the courtship novel and into married life, and this “self-silencing” exposes the artificiality and inadequacy, the ultimate lack of authority, of female epistolary voice” (55). Lanser remarks that, “barred from achieving the Cixouian ‘s’ecrire’ (to write herself), [the narrator] takes the narrative power available to her: ‘s’arreter’ (to stop (herself))” (55). The effect of this move is not simply to express a “silence” as a silence, but to deny to the narratee the satisfaction which the novel itself takes to task for being predicated on the circumscription of female narrative. Eliot achieves a similar self-authorizing narrative voice through her use of extra-textual maxims. Woolf transforms the private, internal “thoughts” of characters into authorizing narration itself. And Morrison “undermines the conventions of narrative omniscience,” deconstructs “realism,” and creates an authorizing voice “not from superhuman understanding but from social experience” (130).
Lanser follows the personal voice from the epistolary novels of Charrière, Barker, and Haywood’s to the responses of Staël, Shelley, and Sand to the male romantic tradition, seen by Lanser as itself an appropriation of the (primarily female) introspective, personal, epistolary voice. Lanser examines Jane Eyre at length, noting that its otherwise admirable insistence of personal narrative authority comes at the expense of silencing other female voices. With regard to the hegemonic silencing in this novel, Lanser asks, ‘‘but what is Bertha’s voice if not the voice of the woman who refuses entirely both ‘women’s language’ and woman’s place?” (191). By empowering Jane’s voice through the silencing of another woman’s voice, “Jane Eyre unwittingly exposes the dangers of its own authority” (193).
Of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lanser points out that while most critics see the novel as a triumph of African-American personal voice, the narrative voice, in fact, does not authorize the central character Janie. Offering an explanation for Hurston’s textual expropriation of voice from Janie, Lanser argues that because Hurston could not expect an audience of black women, and was in fact faced with a “male-dominated Renaissance within a white literary establishment,” she allocates the character’s personal authority to an authorial frame. This, claims Lanser, creates “a private structure in which one black woman is alleged to tell her story to another, but using a heterodiegetic voice to authorize Janie’s story for a public readership presumed to be racially and sexually mixed” (205). In contrast, Walker’s The Color Purple develops the possibilities of the epistolary novel in order to realize the self-authorizing power of communication between two African-American women. Lanser suggests that by reclaiming the right to privacy and “restoring a black female audience,” Walker’s use of the epistolary form, as form, carries more authorizing force than it did for eighteenth-century white women.
In part three, Lanser discusses the communal voice, defined as that which articulates “either a collective voice or a collective of voices that share narrative authority.” (21) Lanser notes that she has not observed the communal voice as she defines it in fiction by ruling-class white men, “perhaps because such an ‘I’ is already in some sense speaking with the authority of a hegemonic ‘we’” (21). Her examples from later twentieth-century fiction present “more inclusive forms of communal voice . . . . in which difference is not subordinated to similarity” (254). In novels by Jewett, Morrison (The Bluest Eye), and Joan Chase, each “narrator” has in fact a “plural consciousness,” that authorizes itself without recourse to individualist, heterosexual validation. Works by Ntozake Shange, Louise Erdrich, Morrison (Beloved), Gloria Naylor, Pat Barker, and Amy Tan are shown to move beyond the constraints of a formally “individual” narrator by supplying multiple narrators either in succession or in simultaneous voice. Yet, Lanser concludes that the “very communality of such a narrative project means that certain values and norms may end up constituting their own hegemony” (266). That is, Lanser warns against idealizing the inscription of communal voice, a tendency that confirms “the insidious underside of the single author’s power to masquerade as a self-reinforcing community” (266).
As you read Fictions of Authority, consider not only Lanser’s arguments, but the narrative qualities, as you see them, of the literary examples Lanser offers. Can you support Lanser’s argument with a close reading of your own, or with observations derived from James, Booth, Hale, etc.? On the other hand, can you challenge a specific argument in a similar way? Also, consider the relevance of Nilli Diengott’s challenge that Lanser is actually investigating rhetoric or interpretation, rather than narrative theory as such.
– Steven J. Venturino