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reflexive writing, narrative voices,
framing and closure

reflexive writing

Reflexive (or self-reflexive) writing concerns the writer's feelings and personal experience. Such writers find a way to place themselves 'outside' of their subject matter and blend objective and reflexive approaches. This enables the writer to express a critical awareness of how they are writing about the subject. Rather too often it verges on ironic self-awareness and even cynicism. (Reflexive writing has nothing to do with sentences written using 'reflexive pronouns' such as 'myself', 'yourself', 'herself'.)

Reflexive writing originated in the 1980s for literary criticism and, by about 1990, was also adopted for cultural studies. Other disciplines has since adopted reflexive approaches as part of a search for new forms of written discourse. For instance Michael Ashmore has written a heavy-going discussion of how self-aware reflexive writing practice avoids the problems in scientists' accounts of their practices (Ashmore 1989).

Reflexivity may go so far as to reject the idea that observation and description are somehow detached from the processes of observing and describing. Some celebrate the self-awareness of reflexive writing, others find it difficult to evaluate the 'instabilities' this creates.

Geoff Cooper (1997) has written a witty yet incisive overview of reflexivity.

narrative voices

Reflexive writing brings with it notions of 'narrative voice(s)'. These give a 'voice' to one or more points of view. The technique is especially useful for giving fictionalised voices to real or imaginary dead people, and one 'early adopter' of such techniques among British historians was Patrick Joyce (Joyce 1991). (This idea of 'narrative voices' should not be confused with master narratives.)

The use of reflexivity and narrative have merged with other 'new' literary techniques that have come to the fore in recent years, such as irony and paradox. So-called 'fairy tales' – more properly termed 'wonder tales' – are rife with paradoxes, and often more than a little irony. Little surprise then that fairy tales have provided inspiration for a number of post-modern writers, and become a favourite topic for post-modern critiques.

Richard Kearney (2002) provides a delightful yet profound introduction to narrative.


Incorporating different narrative voices into the same piece of writing often introduces 'framing devices'. The framing devices we first get to know are 'once upon and time... ' and '... they lived happily ever after'. These 'ritualised' sentences serve to create a boundary between the tale and whatever else may be going on at the time the tale is being told. But 'framing' exists at multiple levels within the tales too. Once such ploy is a tale-within-a-tale. The ultimate exponent of this, where it becomes many-tales-within-a-tale, is the 'framing story' for Antoine Galland's well-known version of The Thousand and One Nights (1704–17), where Shahrazad marries King Shahriyar then uses her skills as a storyteller to cure his habit of each morning ordering the beheading of the wife he had married and deflowered the afternoon before.

Many stories and storytellers adopt more-or-less complicated 'framing stories'. Those old enough to remember the TV programmes by such comics as Dave Allen of Ronnie Corbett will recall the extended 'tales' that invariably nested framing stories one inside another like so many Russian dolls. Or the framing story may itself be humorous, as with Ciaran Carson's Fishing for Amber: A long story

    It was a stormy night in the Bay of Biscay and his sailors were seated around the fire. Suddenly the Captain said, Tell us a story, Captain. And the Captain began, It was a stormy night in the Bay of Biscay...
    (Carson 1999)
In some tales, especially ones originating in the nineteenth century, a different type of framing is used to 'wrap' a serious moral lesson within the tale. A classic example is the heavily moralistic the ending to Charles Perrault's 'Little Red Riding Hood' of 1697: 
    This story teaches that the very young,
    And little girls more surely than the rest,
    – sweet, dainty things, clothed in their Sunday best –
     should never trust a stranger's artful tongue.
    Small wonder if these guileless young beginners
    Provide the wolf with some of his best dinners.
    I say the wolf, for every wolf that roams
    Is not the same.
    Some, in appearance tame,
    Gentle, well-mannered, affable and gay,
    Trotting beside them in the friendliest way,
    Follow young ladies right into their homes.
    Alas, how many to their cost do find
    These plausible wolves are the most dangerous kind.

    (Translated Geoffrey Brereton, The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Penguin 1957.)

Clearly 'framing' is not restricted to folk narratives. Indeed, post-modern writing takes great delight in nested levels of framing, emphasising reflexivity, paradox or irony. In folk tales 'framing' or tales-within-tales is usually a simple conceit of the storyteller (as with One Thousand and One Nights) although there more complex instances that may serve to overload the mind's judgmental processes so alternative belief systems can be pursued within this 'suspension of disbelief'.

Storytelling subtly creates and utilises a complex concept of time quite distinct from modern 'rational' notions of chronology. In this 'other world' of 'other time' disbelief is easily suspended. This enables subtle – yet often complex – ideas to bypass much of our 'rational' thinking. For suitably trained and experienced counsellors and psychotherapists this can be a powerful technique (e.g. O'Connor and Seymour 1990: 128), and 'anecdotes' are the stock in trade of sales people who have been trained to use this as a way of putting across the 'benefits' of their wares while at the same time side-stepping the usual mental 'blocking' techniques that many buyers and customers automatically adopt when faced with 'full frontal' sales pitches.


Wonder tales and other 'folk tales' also provide good examples of 'closure'.

    The tale begins with 'once upon a time' or 'once there was' and never really ends when it ends. The ending is actually the true beginning. The once upon a time is not a past destination but futuristic: a timelessness of the tale and lack of geographical specificity endow it with utopian connotations – utopian in its original meaning designated "no place", a place that no one had ever envisaged. We form and keep the utopian kernel of the tale safe in our imaginations with hope.
    (Zipes 1999: 3-4)
Jack Zipes was writing about 'classic' fairy tales. In some literary genres the 'Once upon a time... ' is truly futuristic, although sci-fi fantasy genres have not been subjected to the same academic critiques as folk tales.

As previously noted, wonder tales have always been rife with paradoxes. One of these is the ambivalence in the way such tales accommodate 'revolt' against 'reality'. Yet, in the end, everything conforms again, so even the revolt is passed off as conformity. Or does it? François Flahault has proposed a more ambiguous model for understanding the 'closure' of such tales. Rather than an aspirational closing message of 'things must get better', folk tales adopt an acceptance – 'we have to live with the way things are'. Flahault considers that the dynamic tension between contradictory or opposing tendencies – such as between desire and satisfaction – are rarely resolved in folk tales. 'Flahault's model openly defies finality and closure.' (Seifert 1996: 13).

Building on Flahault's recognition of the ambivalent closure of folk narratives, and drawing on the analysis of 'longing' or nostalgia by Susan Stewart (1984), Siefert looks in more detail at the idea that such tales form a 'utopian kernel' as Zipes suggested. Rather than utopia, Siefert states that 'fairy tales reveal a central ambivalence or tension between nostalgia on the one hand and utopia on the other.' Nostalgia can manifest in different ways, such as the denial of the present as decadent and inauthentic, or as a wish for a location that is neither transcendent nor earthly.

Although, strictly, nostalgia is quite distinct from utopia in that the former looks to the past whereas the latter looks to the future, Seifert sees considerable ambiguity. At the end of a carefully nuanced discussion, he quotes from the philosopher Ernst Bloch who wrote that utopia '... draws images from the still valid past insofar as they ambiguously fit for the future... '. Seifert concludes that the tension between nostalgia and utopia in fairy tales creates a sense of 'nostalgic utopias' that embodies but does not resolve this tension. This 'non-closure', he suggests, reflects the crisis and transition of the period he was studying (French fairy tales between 1690 and 1715) and to all critical moments of cultural change (Seifert 1996: 13-18).

The ambiguous closure of fairy tales explored by Flahault and Seifert perhaps is symptomatic of the nature of what is meant by closure. Hilary Lawson's in-depth study, Closure: A story of everything (2001) is seemingly unaware of Flahault or Seifert's work but nevertheless his prefatory remarks make a suitable conclusion to this introduction: 

    This account of closure is a response to the chaos and confusion that surrounds us. For we are lost. Lost in a world that has no map, not because it has been mislaid or forgotten, but because we can no longer imagine how such a map could be constructed. In our post-modern relativistic age we find ourselves adrift in a sea of stories that cannot be fathomed nor anchor found. We find ourselves in a world without certainties; without a fixed framework of belief; without truth; without decidable meaning. We have no unique history, but a multitude of competing histories. We have no right or moral action but a series of explanations for behaviour. We have no body of knowledge, but a range of alternative cultural descriptions.
    (Lawson 2001: ix)

bibliographical references

ASHMORE, Michael, 1989, The Reflexive Thesis: Writing Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, University of Chicago Press.
CARSON, Ciaran, 1999, Fishing for Amber: A long story, Granta.
COOPER, Geoff, 1997, 'Textual technologies: New literary forms and reflexivity', in J.H. Collier and D.M. Toomey (eds), Scientific and Technical Communication: Theory, practice and policy, Sage.
DUNDES, Alan, 1980, Interpreting Folklore, Indiana UP.
JOYCE, Patrick, 1991, Visions of the People: Industrial England and the question of class 1848-1914, Cambridge UP.
KEARNEY, Richard, 2002, On Stories, Routledge.
LAWSON, Hilary, 2001, Closure: A story of everything, Routledge.
O'CONNOR, Joseph and John SEYMOUR, 1990, Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming: The new psychology of personal excellence, Crucible.
SEIFERT, Lewis C., 1996, Fairy Tales, Sexuality and Gender in France 1690-1715: Nostalgic utopias, Cambridge UP.
STEWART, Susan, 1984, On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection, Johns Hopkins UP.
ZIPES, Jack, 1999, When Dreams Came True: Classical fairy tales and their tradition, Routledge.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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