Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Catherine Gallagher reviews The Pace of Fiction

Brian Gingrich. The Pace of Fiction: Narrative Movement and the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 203 pp.

Review by Catherine Gallagher        

19 October 2023         

Brian Gingrich’s The Pace of Fiction: Narrative Movement and the Novel is a short book that makes big contributions to our understanding of both the novel’s history and its modes of shaping time. Its complex and engaging account of how novels have configured, represented, and produced the experience of temporal movement since the eighteenth century helps us understand the nature of one of the genre’s definitive terms: long, as in “long fictions are novels.”[1] It also practices a new kind of historical poetics of the novel, combining earlier phenomenological, structuralist, and historicist approaches to revive and reinvigorate our interest in the general topic of time and narrative.

Paul Ricoeur claimed that all narratives ultimately refer to temporality, and Gingrich argues that novels do so by putting readers through their paces, speeding time up, slowing it down, maintaining and varying its stride, skipping through it, and suspending it altogether.[2] Many critics have examined such effects in the stylistic analyses of novelists’ prose, but Gingrich identifies them with larger, common structural units. Pace, he claims, is a “large-forward-rhythmic-shifting-dynamic-temporal narrative movement” (p. 2). And so, despite his emphasis on the kinesis of the phenomenon, Gingrich grounds pace in a set of six relatively stable temporal categories identified by the structuralist narratologist Gérard Genette.[3] First, the two axes of time: “story time,” the chronological order of events (also known as histoire, fabula, erzählte Zeit, énoncé), and “narrative time,” the order in which they are narrated (also known as récit, sujet, Erzähltzeit, énonciation) (p. 143). And second, the four speeds in which novels create ratios between the two axes: ellipsis, in which any amount of time might pass in story time but the narrative spends no time (no pages) relating it; scene, which gives the impression that an event and its narration take up equal amounts of time; summary, giving a quick overview of some longer period of time comprised of events relatively unimportant to the narrative; and pause (descriptive, reflective, or digressive), in which the story time stops while the narrator continues to fill pages.

These basic elements of pace become far more than analytical categories in Gingrich’s book. They focalize his close reading of numerous individual novels, where he shows their concatenations to be the engines of textual flow, generating and controlling the experience of time, stretching and foreshortening it, varying our degrees of attention, alternating passages of anticipation and resolution, renewing and repeating patterns, even determining our sense of emotional distance or intimacy. Gingrich’s explorations of the plentiful ways in which novelists deploy these materials reveal his rare critical talent and sensibility. He demonstrates that successful novelists juggle these elements to elude our expectations, and his readings follow their example. Drawing on a large number of mainly British, French, and American novels, he clearly shows how important pacing has been in the making of canonical Western fiction, from the eighteenth-century experimental projects, through nineteenth-century realism, and into twentieth-century modernism. His aim is not to find forgotten, unfamiliar writers but to defamiliarize the greats by viewing them through an unfamiliar lens. 

Thus, he offers a historical-formal account of the genre’s development by tracking the novels’ changing configurations of the elements of pace. Most studies of pace, like Genette’s, have concentrated on single works or on comparisons within one era. In 1988, Michael Toolan suggested that it might instead be analyzed “intertextually, and sensitive to genre and period.”[4] Thirty-five years later, Gingrich’s is the first book devoted to that task. This is mainly an internal rather than contextual history of the phenomenon. Although he acknowledges many general circumstances operating in the background, the agents of his own narrative are writers interacting with the constraints and opportunities presented by the evolving genre. He references the theories of the many cultural historians who have specified the novel’s relation to capitalist modernity, but his ambition is to fill in the formal details of the history rather than to change the big picture. And instead of challenging previously established literary-historical generalizations—such as the eighteenth-century transition from intensive to extensive reading, the nineteenth-century consolidation of so-called classic realism, or the twentieth-century rise of modernism—Gingrich works inside them to show how much formal variety and fluid dynamism they allowed. He gives precise accounts of how writers created both highly individual effects of pace and the identifiable time signatures of their eras. Indeed, he insists, pace activates the deepest level of our historical intuitions, allowing an almost uncanny access to the past: “And if that story, comprehended by a reader in whatever moment, takes on certain attributes of pace . . . imagine: what closer experience does one have to a past ‘temporality?’” (p. 8). Novels from previous eras thus give us two dimensions of historical experience: our sense of their pastness in relation to our own time is informed by their internal period-specific rhythms.

Moreover, Gingrich traces not only the varieties of novelistic pace back to the eighteenth century, but also the very categories used to analyze them. Genette may have been the theorist who described their integration into a textual system, but Gingrich argues that eighteenth-century writers—specifically Henry Fielding and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—self-consciously adopted the modes of scene and summary from drama and epic respectively and began experimenting with their dynamic sequencing to create a new form. His history of the novel is thus also a narrative of how our analytic categories arose, a story that makes the novelists themselves seem as theoretically savvy as those who explicate them. And vice versa: just as novelists are cast as theorists and historians of the form, the critical traditions out of which Gingrich emerges are also taken up as strands of the phenomenon under discussion.   

All of this might seem dizzyingly metacritical if it were not for Gingrich’s gentle self-mockery; as a historian-narrator, he seems modeled more on Tristram Shandy than Jorge Luis Borges. And yet despite the frequent lightness of tone, by the end of the book we have gained a sense of the vital exchange of ideas between novelists and critics, who together have made the narrative traditions that determine our experiences of time in the novel.


[1] Howard Mancing, “Novel, The” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, ed. David Herman, Manfred Jahn, and Marie-Laure Ryan (New York, 2008), p. 399.

[2] See Paul Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” Critical Inquiry 7 (Autumn 1980): 169.

[3] Gérard Genette, “Duration,” Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980), pp. 86–112.

[4] Michael J. Toolan, Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction (New York, 1988), p. 61.