Fictionality in Narrative Theory

The ISSN’s  guaranteed panel at the 2018 MLA Convention in New York City will be on “Fictionality in Narrative Theory: A Re-examination of Core Concepts.”

Here’s the very short CFP posted on the MLA website: Papers addressing—or challenging—the claim that the rhetorical approach to fictionality (Nielsen, Phelan, and Walsh 2015) revises ideas about core concepts of narrative, .e.g. narrator, paratext. 250-word abstracts by 1 March 2017; James Phelan ( and Henrik Skov Nielseen (

And here’s the more expansive description of the panel, which was jointly composed by Henrik, Richard Walsh, and me.  Please let us know if you have any questions.

Fictionality in Narrative Theory: A Re-examination of Core Concepts


Fictionality theory has a long and varied history in literary studies, philosophy, and related fields.  A short list of highlights would include Vaihinger’s philosophical approach to “as if”; Walton’s concept of “make believe”; Dorrit Cohn’s attempts to identify the “distinction of fiction”; the possible world theories of Marie-Laure Ryan, Thomas Pavel, and Lubomir Dolezel; Daniel Punday’s investigations of fictionality and postmodernism.


Since the publication of Richard Walsh’s The Rhetoric of Fictionality in 2007, scholars working in the broad area of rhetorical narrative theory (see, for example, Nielsen, Phelan, and Walsh 2015) have suggested a new approach to fictionality founded on two key principles: a) a distinction between generic fictions such as the novel, short story, and fiction film, on the one hand, and the quality of fictionality, understood as a mode of discourse prevalent across genres and media on the other hand.  This distinction between fiction and fictionality makes generic fictions a subset of the large class of discourses (typically having some narrative dimension) in which fictionality is employed.  From this perspective, fictionality is a rhetoric not contingent upon the assumption that the discourse offers factual information.


The proposed panel seeks to explore the narrative theoretical consequences of this approach to fictionality by using it to re-examine core concepts of narrative.  Most of the concepts narrative theorists employ to analyze narrative were developed under the theoretical paradigm of structuralist narratology and its largely unexamined assumptions about the nature of fiction.  The panel asks how conceiving of fictionality as rhetoric can alter received ideas about everything from generic concepts such as metafiction and narrative poetry to intratextual concepts such as the narrator and the narratee and on to other concepts such as paratexts and intertextuality.  We welcome proposals that are focused on theoretical and case-based approaches to this central question.  We also welcome proposals that focus on one or more core concepts in order to challenge the claims of the rhetorical approach to fictionality.


Jim Phelan, Distinguished University Professor and Editor, Narrative

Director, Project Narrative
Department of English
Ohio State University
Columbus, OH 43210-1370
FAX 614-292-7816