Local Fictionality in Nonfiction Narrative: Tobias Wolff's In Pharoah's Army

10 Mar 2021 10.00 AM - 11.30 AM Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public
Organised by:
Michelle Wang

In this talk, I explore the problem of how best to account for the uses of local fictionality (roughly, narration of things that didn’t actually happen) within global nonfictions (that is, narratives devoted to coming to terms with things that have happened). My method is to construct a feedback loop between a rhetorical approach to fictionality and the narratives of some remarkable storytellers. More specifically, I glance at the uses of fictionality in two graphic memoirs, Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen (2009) and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (2014), and then take a longer look at Tobias Wolff’s memoir about his experiences as a U.S soldier in the Viet Nam War, In Pharaoh’s Army. That feedback loop leads to a more precise definition of fictionality as “intentionally communicated invention, projection, or other means of directing an audience to imagine nonactual states or sets of events.” That loop also leads me to identify and investigate two subtypes, implicit fictionality and ambiguous fictionality. Along the way, I put forth a few other proposals about contested issues in fictionality studies.

  1. Figures of speech such as metaphor sometimes are and sometimes are not instances of fictionality.
  2. Although visual style in graphic narrative may appear to signal invention, it actually signals construction, which in turn can be put in the service of either fictionality or nonfictionality.
  3. A significant difference between generic fictions and local fictionality in global nonfiction is that only generic fictions give rise to a narrative audience.

The principle underlying the method and all the proposals is that focusing primarily on the nexus of author–audience–purpose gives us more insight into the workings of narrative than focusing on textual phenomena. In other words, rhetoric trumps formalism.


James Phelan is Distinguished University Professor of English and the Director of Project Narrative at Ohio State University. He has devoted his research to thinking through the consequences of conceiving of narrative as rhetoric. Among his many books are Reading People, Reading Plots; Narrative as Rhetoric; Living to Tell about It; Experiencing Fiction; Reading the American Novel, 1920-2010; Somebody Telling Somebody Else; and (with Matthew Clark) Debating Rhetorical Narratology. Since 1992, Phelan has been editor of Narrative, the journal of the International Society for the Study of Narrative. Since 1993, he has been a co-editor of the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative Series at Ohio State University Press. The International Society for the Study of Narrative has named him the winner of the 2021 Wayne C. Booth Lifetime Achievement Award.