The Pragmatics of Detection: Paul Auster’s City of Glass

All rights reserved on this article. If you are referring to this article in an essay of your own, please download the original published version from Sage (subscription required, but if you have any kind of connection with a university, where this kind of thing is read most, you’ll have one of those).

‘The Pragmatics of Detection: Paul Auster’s City of Glass’. Language and Literature, vol. 8, 1999. 241-253.

by Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge


In this article we intend to consider the agreed conventions that underlie linguistic interaction. In doing so, we will concentrate on literary texts, not because the language used in them is necessarily special in any way, but because the relationship between author and reader allows for pragmatic effects on meaning less commonly implemented in other communicative interactions. We begin with two premises, one originating in linguistic and the other in literary studies: first, that every linguistic interaction depends on a particular set of presuppositions; and second, that in literature, author and reader are engaged in an interactive discourse. The set of presuppositions on which the discourse of literature depends may be referred to as generic conventions. Paul Auster’s City of Glass can be used to demonstrate the extent to which in literature these presuppositions can be more freely adopted and abandoned than in other forms of discourse.

The notion of presupposition is concerned with the way in which information is presented. Perhaps the simplest way of defining presupposition is by means of the distinction between what is treated as ‘given’ and what as ‘new’ in a particular linguistic exchange, that which is presupposed being synonymous with that which is given or agreed. Before presupposition became a concern of linguistics, it had been discussed by philosophers, who treated it as a question of the relationships between statements, or assertions. Although our concern here is with presupposition in discourse, it is worth considering such logical accounts, because they necessarily underpin any discussion of how presupposition works and what happens when it fails. Famously, Frege and Strawson have discussed this issue in terms of definite referring expressions. Consider the following well-known examples: ‘The King of France is bald’, ‘The King of France is not bald’. While these two make different, and in fact contradictory, assertions, they share the same presupposition, namely, ‘There is a King of France’. Frege (1980: 69) argues that, ‘If anything is asserted there is always an obvious presupposition that the simple or proper names used have meaning’. Strawson (1950: 330) states of the same example, ‘The question of whether it is true or false simply doesn’t arise’. This assumption of meaning where none exists has been described as presupposition failure, a phenomenon which, as we shall see, is both illuminated by and illuminates Paul Auster’s City of Glass.

Presupposition has been adopted in linguistics with an emphasis on its significance for the study of language in use, and it is here that the significance of the given/new distinction has been discussed more fully. Grice gives the example of the statement ‘My aunt’s cousin went to that concert’ to demonstrate that it is not the case that a proposition – in this case that I have an aunt, and that my aunt has a cousin – needs to be ‘given’, in the sense that it is established between speaker and hearer, in order for it to be successfully presupposed, here by the use of a definite description. He suggests instead that a proposition need only be ‘non-controversial’, or ‘something we would expect the hearer to take from us (if he does not already know)’ (Grice, 1991b: 274). Grice’s definition in terms of uncontroversiality offers a more satisfactory account than one dependent solely on the distinction between given and new information, suggesting as it does that what is presupposed is to some extent controlled by the participants in a linguistic exchange.

However, the limitations of Grice’s approach are exposed by examples in which information not likely to be taken as uncontroversial is presented as such. For example, the utterance concerning Grice’s concert-going relative may be replaced by ‘My husband’s lover went to that concert’. In a situation in which the speaker’s husband is not known or expected to have a lover, such a statement may be considered to contain information that is ‘controversial’ in the Gricean sense. This presentation of ‘controversial’ information as uncontroversial may be striking, but the opposite effect, of explicitly stating what is given, is equally dis-concerting. For example, having thus committed herself to the presupposition that she has a husband and that he has a lover, it would be surprising for the speaker to add ‘I have a husband. He has a lover’, unless for rhetorical effect. We return to this point in more detail later and discuss it in relation to dialogue in detective fiction, which is often concerned with conveying meaning beyond the literal.

Such presuppositions as those discussed above constitute the deepest level of commitment because, so long as they remain unchallenged by those participating in the exchange, they cannot coherently be contradicted. Burton-Roberts (1989) describes them as the implicit commitments of the exchange, or the ‘limits to the debate’. Even to challenge a presupposition by explicitly negating the proposition presupposed is to step outside the agreed parameters of the conversation. An example of this would be for our speaker to be confronted with the assertion ‘But you are not married’. There is a sense in this of an objection more damaging than a denial of the statement that the husband’s lover went to the concert. The failure of presupposition is more significant than the exposure of a statement’s inaccuracy. If the presupposition that our speaker is married is false, then it is pointless to try to evaluate the truthfulness of her statement. In contrast, if her statement is shown to be simply untrue (the lover did not go to the concert), the presupposition that she has a husband is not under threat, and the conversational topic continues to have relevance.

Literature as Discourse

This distinction between the falsity of a statement and presupposition failure has obvious applications to the study of literary uses of language, and in particular to fiction. Despite being presented with a narrative in the form of a journal, it is not expected that the reader of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example, should believe that the events it relates actually occurred. Indeed, it makes no difference at all whether the story is true or invented. While the reader of a literary text need not be concerned with truth or falsehood, however, the same reader does have expectations that certain presuppositions brought to the story, such as those relating to chronology, geography, identity, will not be disappointed. It would be surprising to find, for example, that a character in Anne Brontë’s novel had undertaken a journey of 20 miles on foot in, say, half an hour.

Although the stability of presuppositions may seem crucial for successful linguistic interaction, it is our intention here to show that the particular nature of the discourse between author and reader in fact allows any number of those presuppositions to be abandoned. The resulting loss of truth evaluatability does no violence to the communicative process because, as we have seen, fiction arouses no expectation of truth or falsehood in either the reader or the author. A discussion of this point is offered in Searle’s article ‘The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse’ (1979). Bex (1996: 176) states that:

Writers … construct texts in conformity with perceived generic conventions because they intend their texts to have the particular ‘meanings’ associated with the genre and readers interpret such texts according to the same conventions because they are familiar with previous, similar texts and recognise the intentions.

The implication of this is that such conformity is a constant that governs the interaction between writers and readers. However, the conventions of a particular genre and the need to conform to them, far from being an essential property of the discourse of literature, are normative and therefore liable to violation. Since Anne Brontë is able to presuppose the existence of her fictional characters, she is also able to presuppose a conflation in time and space of Wildfell Hall and Grassdale. In this case, however, because of the normative demands of her time and the genre in which she is writing, Brontë chooses not to. By way of comparison, writers of Gothic novels were able to presuppose the existence of demons, walking spirits and unexpected variations in time and space. In other words, while the reader may have expectations that certain presuppositions will not be disappointed, there is no guarantee that those expectations will be fulfilled.

In order to explore this phenomenon in more detail, we intend to concentrate on Paul Auster’s short novel City of Glass (1988). Auster’s novel is interesting from the point of view of a study of presupposition in relation to generic conventions for three reasons. First, the linguistic interactions between Auster’s characters are often marked by the failure of presupposition. This is particularly prominent in the case of Peter Stillman Jr. Second, although Daniel Quinn, the central character of the story, begins with a conventional world view, he experiences a gradual erosion of the distinction between himself as subject and the world as object. This is expressed as a shedding of presuppositions, or rather a realization that their stability is not guaranteed. Finally, the reader’s experience is also one of shedding presuppositions, such as those of genre, and general questions of truth, fiction, subjectivity and identity. Paul Auster draws attention to literature’s discursive nature, and thereby enables comparisons to be drawn between it and other forms of discourse.

The difficulties experienced by the reader of Auster’s novel are compounded by the extent to which it appropriates and subsequently dismembers the conventions of the detective fiction genre. This is significant because that genre has been identified as being particularly reliant on its formal structures. Indeed, critics of detective fiction are explicit in the attention they give to questions of formula. John Cawelti, for example, entitles a chapter of his book Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (1976) ‘The Formula of the Classical Detective Story’, while Raymond Chandler in his famous essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1980) is able to dismiss A.A. Milne’s commercially successful The Red House Mystery (1922) on the basis of its formulaic failures. Despite considering it an ‘agreeable book’, Chandler points out:

Yet, however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction … If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be. If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce. (Chandler, 1980: 178)

In ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’, Todorov emphasizes the importance of generic conformity to the extent that, for him, to disobey the rules of the genre is to depart from it: ‘The masterpiece of popular literature is precisely the book which best fits its genre … The whodunit par excellence is not the one which transgresses the rules of the genre, but the one which conforms to them’ (Todorov, 1977: 43).

It is possible to express these formulaic requirements as a series of presuppositions shared by writer and reader. For example, in engaging with a typical detective story, the reader presupposes that it will contain such things as a detective, a mystery, a perpetrator, and a solution. The idea of the genre of detective fiction itself provides a pool of presuppositions with which both writer and reader approach the text, and which are therefore readily available for inspection. However, that is not to agree with Todorov that to violate the rules of the genre is to go outside the genre. Shared presuppositions, as we have seen, have no epistemological security. In describing the obligations of the detective story writer to the reader, Raymond Chandler refers not to ‘rules’ of the genre, but to a set of ‘implied guarantee[s]’ that the reader’s expectations will be fulfilled (Chandler, 1976: 38).

It is not within the remit of this article to set about the task of defining specific characteristics of detective fiction and its sub-genres; as we have shown, such work has been done elsewhere. Instead, our interest lies in the contingent nature of the agreed parameters of literary discourse and genre which enable writers such as Paul Auster to produce novels like City of Glass. While recognizably a work that might fall within the genre of detective fiction, City of Glass is striking in its progressive abandonment of many of the conventions on which the genre might be considered to depend, such as the viability of a deductive method, the competence of the detective and, crucially, the prior existence of a crime. Auster’s disregard of presuppositions concerning the genre of detective fiction is consolidated in his exploration of the failure of presuppositions in the linguistic interactions of the characters in the novel itself. In addition, we hope to show that Auster’s exposure of the instability of presuppositions within the novel validates our concern with revealing the extent to which the reader’s linguistic engagement with the text is normatively equivalent to linguistic engagements outside.

Peter Stillman Jr

‘No questions, please’, the young man said at last. ‘Yes. No. Thank you.’ He paused for a moment. ‘I am Peter Stillman. I say this of my own free will. Yes. That is not my real name. No. Of course, my mind is not all it should be. But nothing can be done about that. No. About that. No, no. Not anymore.  (Auster, 1988: 15)

With these words, Peter Stillman begins a lengthy monologue to Daniel Quinn, whom he believes to be a private detective, in which he tells the story of his life. He was an isolated child, subjected to almost total sensory deprivation from infancy until his discovery at the age of 12. The motivation behind this cruelty was linguistic research; Peter’s academic father had become convinced that by these means he could rediscover the first human language. As demonstrated in his monologue, he has been able in adulthood to learn fairly successfully the language of which he was deprived in childhood. His speech is odd not chiefly because of any grammatical deviance, but because of the way in which he conveys information. Peter reveals the true extent of his deprivation; he has acquired language, but not the assumptions which usually accompany the use of language. His speech is like that of a very young child in one respect; it lacks background. Peter cannot rely on the ‘givens’ which underlie most linguistic interaction. While he is able to name concepts and things, he seems to have no expectations of their having guaranteed properties, or even of their existence.

As a result Peter finds it necessary to assert facts which many people would assume were taken for granted by themselves and their interlocutors, and would therefore presuppose in their conversation. For instance, he asserts in this passage that he is speaking of his own free will. Peter is here violating J.L. Austin’s maxim of ‘normal’ conversational practice that speakers only qualify their statements in order to add unusual or unexpected information; Searle elaborates the slogan ‘no modification without aberration’ by explaining that: ‘Unless the action is aberrant, no modifying concept is applicable’ (Searle, 1969: 142). In other words, Peter’s qualification that he is speaking of his own free will seems strange precisely because any listener might be expected to assume that that is what he is doing. Searle (1969: 142) reports Austin’s observation that ‘it would be odd to say, in ordinary circumstances, “I bought my car voluntarily”, or “I am writing this book of my own free will”’.

Later in his monologue, Peter asserts other necessary truths. For example, he often lapses into tautology; ‘I will tell you. Or else I will not tell you’ (Auster, 1988: 15). Grice (1991a: 33) allows that tautologies are sometimes used to communicative effect. They convey meaning not at the level of ‘what is said’, that is, the ‘literal’ or ‘conventional’ meaning of the words used. Instead, meaning emerges from ‘what is implicated’; the hearer can rescue sense from the tautology by means of the assumption that the speaker is being co-operative. A tautology, by definition, cannot convey new information at the level of what is said and therefore contravenes Grice’s (1991a) conversational maxim of quantity: ‘Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange)’. However, as Grice explains, meaning may be rescued from a statement such as ‘War is war’, which is ‘totally non-informative’ at the literal level, since it is possible to explain why this tautology was chosen in a particular context. For example, the speaker may be trying to convey the inevitable consequences of military conflict.

Such explanations are more difficult in the case of Peter Stillman’s statement ‘I will tell you. Or else I will not tell you’ since the particular conversational exchange in which it occurs is one in which Peter is offering Quinn information, and not one in which he is being interrogated. An explanation that might have weight in the context of detective fiction is that Peter is playing a language game. Conversational exchanges in hard-boiled detective fiction are often characterized by the ‘wisecrack’, in which meaning is conveyed in a deliberately roundabout manner in order to confuse the hearer about the correct interpretation without lies being told. For example, in Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely detective Philip Marlowe attempts to distance himself from association with a man who has committed a violent murder by pretending not to understand the questions he is asked, and by stating the obvious:

‘What was you doing all that time?’
‘All what time?’
‘All the time this Malloy was twisting the neck of this smoke.’
‘Oh, that happened in another room,’ I said. ‘Malloy hadn’t promised me he was going to break anybody’s neck.’ (Chandler, 1975: 153)

Although in this last utterance Marlowe is apparently doing no more than stating what his interrogator, Nulty, might have taken for granted, his implicated meaning is that the original question is unfairly loaded against him.

In contrast, Peter’s role in Auster’s novel as the detective’s ‘client’ precludes the explanation of language games, since his role is to make his narrative as clear – if not as truthful – as possible. Yet not just in the use of tautology, but in general statements of facts which most speakers would regard as trivial and manifest, for example, ‘This is what is called speaking’ (Auster, 1988: 16), Peter fails to comply with the apparent purpose of the exchange within the detective story’s narrative. Unlike Marlowe, there is no sense with Peter Stillman Jr that he is conveying anything beyond the literal, making explicit that which would be presupposed in ‘normal’ conversation, and violating Searle’s principle of ‘No remark without remarkableness’ (Searle, 1969: 144). Peter in fact appears to describe his own lack of presupposition in the form of his lack of past, or of ‘givens’: ‘I am new every day’ (Auster, 1988: 18), ‘Each day is new, and each day I am born again’ (Auster, 1988: 22). Stillman’s failure in the role of detective’s client is best illustrated by the fact that, although he talks to Quinn for a whole day, he does not fully explain the case; this must be done by his wife Virginia. She speaks to Quinn afterwards, and explains that Stillman is afraid that his father, now released from prison, will try to find him and kill him; he is asking for protection.

Stillman’s pathology can be discussed in terms of Sperber and Wilson’s (1995: 158) ‘principle of relevance’ relating to communication which states that: ‘Every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance’. In other words, by the very fact that he is talking to Quinn, Peter Stillman Jr can be expected to produce utterances from which he intends sense to be extracted. Peter’s repeated statement of the obvious, and his non-reliance on presuppositions, may suggest that he is at least attempting to make himself understood, presuming the relevance of his utterances even though many of them in fact have no clear contextual significance.

However, although it is impossible to determine whether or not Peter presumes the optimal relevance of his own ostensive communications, his monologue does provide evidence significant for Sperber and Wilson’s (1995: 260) other ‘fundamental claim’, that relating to cognition: ‘Human cognition tends to be geared to the maximisation of relevance’. Stillman describes how he spends his days sitting and observing the phenomenal world outside his window: ‘Sometimes I look out and watch the things below. The street and all the people, the dogs and cars, the bricks of the building across the way. And then there are the times when I close my eyes and just sit there’ (Auster, 1988: 21). It seems that Stillman does not distinguish between the things he sees in terms of their significance in relation to himself or to one another, or even have any need to order them in constructing a world view: in other words, he does not seek relevance in what he sees. It might perhaps seem easy to dismiss Peter Stillman as a freak, so psychologically scarred by his childhood experiences as to be outside the norms of human behaviour. After all, he himself admits ‘My mind is not all it should be’. But as the novel progresses, Quinn himself is forced to abandon his own presuppositions in order to survive.

Daniel Quinn

The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable.
(Auster, 1988: 8 )

At the beginning of City of Glass Peter Stillman contacts Daniel Quinn, a writer of detective stories, looking for a detective known as Paul Auster. On the third telephone call, Quinn assumes the name of the person Stillman is seeking and, for the purposes of the investigation for which he is hired by the Stillmans, takes on the detective’s identity. The early part of the novel is concerned with establishing the potential insecurity of Quinn’s identity. We learn that he writes under the pseudonym William Wilson, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s story of that name concerning identity and doppelgangers, and that he identifies with the detective hero of his own stories, Max Work. However, at this early stage Quinn is assured of an identity which is not dependent on names; he is clear about the distinction between himself and the world, between subject and object:

The world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long. Motion was of the essence … all places became equal and it no longer mattered where he was. (Auster, 1988: 4)

Retreating from a world from which it is impossible to extract meaning, Quinn becomes a reader of detective stories, relishing their ‘plenitude and economy’: ‘In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing’ (Auster, 1988: 8). In this respect, Quinn adopts a view of the genre which is similar to Todorov’s, in seeing it as stable. Furthermore, he brings to his reading those presuppositions about genre which Bex (1996) suggests will necessarily be fulfilled, namely, that the text will have been constructed with ‘perceived generic conventions’ in mind. Indeed, Quinn’s perception of the stability of his own identity is predicated on his identification with Max Work, the fictional detective, whose stability is apparently guaranteed by his existence only in the stories he writes. In other words, Quinn writes himself into the apparently stable world of the detective fiction genre through the medium of Max Work:

[Quinn] had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real. If he lived now in the world at all, it was only at one remove, through the imaginary person of Max Work … It was not precisely that Quinn wanted to be Work, or even to be like him, but it reassured him to pretend to be Work as he was writing his books. (Auster, 1988: 9)

In assuming for Peter Stillman’s benefit the identity of the detective Paul Auster, Quinn himself becomes a fictional detective on two counts. First, he becomes a fictional detective within the world of the novel by pretending to be a detective in order to pursue the case with which the Stillmans present him. Second, by taking on the role of detective within the novel, he becomes a fictional detective in the world outside the novel, and the novel itself becomes a detective story. Paradoxically, having perceived the world depicted in the genre of detective fiction to be stable, it is at the point at which Quinn becomes a fictional detective that his identity becomes increasingly in doubt.

Having become a fictional detective, Quinn’s presuppositions about the world are limited to those presuppositions which writers and readers of detective fiction bring to the genre. Crucially, despite the fact that many of the structural necessities of the genre are absent, Quinn clings to the central presupposition that, as a fictional detective, he is working on a case which can be solved. For example, after the initial interview with the Stillmans, and despite dialling the telephone number he is given at the appointed time, Quinn is not able to make further contact with his supposed clients. Furthermore, Peter Stillman Sr, the supposed suspect, is never shown to be anything other than a retired professor. And finally Quinn discovers that he was never actually hired for the job; the cheque he was given bounces.

Despite these challenges to Quinn’s and the reader’s expectations about the novel as a detective story, both Quinn and the reader continue to maintain the central presupposition that Quinn is engaged in working on a case. These challenges to the story’s credentials as detective fiction are of the order of factual denials of assertions made in any linguistic exchange. To return to our earlier example, Quinn’s inability to contact his client, Virginia Stillman, may be compared with our speaker being told ‘Your husband’s lover did not go to that concert’. However, as has already been discussed, factual denials do not have a catastrophic effect on the viability of the exchange. Instead, only the explicit failure of a central presupposition – such as a demonstration that the original speaker is unmarried – causes a breakdown of the communicative process.

A breakdown of this order does occur in relation to Quinn’s identity as a detective, and hence to his particular world view, when he is explicitly told, by Paul Auster, that there is no mystery, and no case:

‘The cheque was no good.’
‘That’s absurd.’
‘Yes, it is. But is hardly matters now, does it?’
‘Of course it matters. I need the money to go on with the case.’
‘But there is no case.’ (Auster, 1988: 122)

Such an overt denial of the central presupposition on which the detective story depends, and Quinn’s acceptance of it, has the effect of undermining the basis on which Quinn’s identity, and the identity of the novel as detective fiction, are constructed. In response to this failure of presupposition, Quinn’s dissolution takes the form of an attempt to return to his life as it was before he adopted the detective persona. However, his return to his apartment after a considerable period of absence also ends in disappointment since the world beyond the detective fiction narrative in which he has been engaged has continued without him, and the apartment has been let to another tenant. Quinn’s only alternative is to continue in the detective persona but, given the absence of a case, there is no longer the possibility of his finding meaning in objects or events. As a result, he continues to note everything he observes, but with no imperative, and no intention, to construct from them a meaningful narrative. Lacking the presuppositional framework within which to find or construct meaning, Quinn becomes limited to his own subjectivity; reduced to stating the obvious and listing without discrimination, in much the same way as Peter Stillman Jr. Ultimately, Quinn himself disappears; all that remains are his
words in a red notebook.

Presupposition failure and the reader

The failure of presupposition which results in Quinn’s disappearance does not of course have quite so catastrophic an effect on the reader. Although the discourse between reader and text is altered, or at least shown to have been other than it seemed, it continues to operate despite the loss of generic security. As we have argued, generic presuppositions are never secure, but are normative and relative rather than absolute. Yet Auster’s novel demonstrates that when even these most fundamental presuppositions fail they may be abandoned without the breakdown of the discourse between text and reader; although Quinn’s career as a detective and his existence as such is concluded by the failure of a presupposition, the reader remains able to operate as normal during the closing stages of the novel after that event. Furthermore, the reader’s part in the discourse up until that point is not undermined; whereas Quinn realizes that he has not been operating as a detective, the reader is not disabused of the belief that he or she has read the novel.

The idea that presupposition failure is less significant for the reader of a fictional work than for a participant in a ‘real world’ discourse is not new. In their work on presupposition both Frege and Strawson mention the point that the reader of fiction is not concerned with the truthfulness or otherwise of the events the work describes. In commenting on this both consider only reference; names or descriptions which fail to refer to ‘real world’ entities or objects are commonplace in fictional works. For example, Frege explains:

In hearing an epic poem, for instance, apart from the euphony of the language, we are interested only in the sense of the sentences, and the images and feelings thereby aroused. The question of truth would cause us to abandon aesthetic delight for an attitude of scientific investigation. Hence, it is a matter of no concern to us whether the name ‘Odysseus’, for instance, has meaning. (Frege, 1980: 63)

Similarly, half a century later, Strawson (1950: 331) describes uses of sentences such as his famous ‘The King of France is bald’ example as failing to ‘say anything true or false’. He labels examples such as this as ‘spurious’: ‘And such spurious uses are very familiar. Sophisticated romancing, sophisticated fiction, depend on them’.

However, we have suggested here that any presuppositions can fail, not only existential or referential ones such as those considered by Frege and Strawson. The fact that fictional works by definition do not depend on the truth evaluatability of the assertions they make means that any of the generic presuppositions on which they appear to depend can fail without ruling out a continuing discourse between reader and text. Since the text is the writer’s contribution to the discourse and as such constitutes a single act of ostensive communication, the reader is inclined to reconsider early parts of City of Glass in the light of the late realization that the generic presupposition of the story as detective fiction has failed, and in fact was at no time applicable. Because the generic presupposition, which up to that point has been upheld successfully, fails when Quinn is told that there is no mystery, no other generic framework can be applied to the story from within which meaning may be constructed. While the reader may attempt to seek an alternative basis for the relevance of the events of the story up to that point, and for the text as communicative act, the loss of a presupposed generic framework reveals the text to be a series of statements from which no meaning can be rescued. Since, as Auster’s text suggests, presuppositions are normatively agreed, and liable to fail, it may therefore be possible for the reader to approach the text with its lack of coherence in mind, and, like Stillman and Quinn, simply observe objects and events as they are described with no requirement to construct meaning or seek relevance.

This possibility problematizes Sperber and Wilson’s claim that ‘human cognition tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance’ (Sperber and Wilson, 1995: 260). In the second edition of Relevance, Sperber and Wilson (1995: 261) are explicit in describing the maximization of relevance as an evolved cognitive process, and in doing so suggest that it is an essential feature of the human organism: ‘We start from the assumption that cognition is a biological function, and that cognitive mechanisms are, in general, adaptations. As such, they are the result of a process of Darwinian natural selection’. By defining the maximization of relevance as a cognitive process, and a biological function as such, Sperber and Wilson identify it ontologically with other evolved biological functions of the human organism such as feeling pain, breathing air and walking upright, in that the structure of the organism tends towards the performance of these functions. In other words, the maximization of relevance is an involuntary function of the cognitive process of the organism itself.

Until the point at which the generic presupposition of City of Glass as detective fiction fails, the reader has maximized relevance on that generic basis. If, however, generic structures are normative, rather than absolute, this maximization of relevance within the context of the novel has been adopted by the reader as a strategy arising from agreed convention rather than a human cognitive principle and is therefore optional in a way that evolved biological functions such as breathing air, feeling pain and walking upright are not. In the light of this, our earlier view of Peter Stillman as freakish and possibly insane should perhaps be revised. His strategy of observing and noting objects and events without regard for their contextual meaning may turn out to be an ideal approach to the novel itself, since it self-consciously abandons generic conventions and with them the requirement for the reader to attempt to maximize relevance.

As we suggested at the outset, the discourse between writer and reader is characterized by the possibilities it allows for pragmatic effects on meaning that appear less commonly elsewhere. Approaching literary texts through the phenomenon of presupposition makes it possible to draw comparisons between the pragmatic characteristics of literary and non-literary discourses, perhaps revealing a greater pragmatic flexibility in the former. In particular, presupposition failure might be expected to invoke the failure of the communicative process, yet in literature, as we have seen, it need have no such catastrophic effect. Indeed, in City of Glass presupposition failure is used self-consciously as a device that draws attention to the normative status of generic discourse conventions adopted by the reader for the purpose of interrogating the text. Literary discourse is an instance of linguistic interaction operating under the same pragmatic principles as any other; its apparent strangeness in relation to other forms of discourse lies not in the principles themselves but in the rigidity of the limits imposed on the debate.


Auster, Paul (1988) City of Glass, in The New York Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber.

Bex, T. (1996) Variety in Written English. London: Routledge.

Burton-Roberts, N. (1989) The Limits to Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cawelti, John G. (1976) Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Chandler, Raymond (1975) Farewell My Lovely, in The Raymond Chandler Omnibus. London: Book Club Associates. (Originally published 1940.)

Chandler, Raymond (1976) ‘Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story’, in F. MacShane (ed.) The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler and English Summer, A Gothic Romance, pp. 35–40. New York: Ecco Press.

Chandler, Raymond (1980) ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, in Pearls are a Nuisance, pp. 173–90. London: Picador. (Originally published 1950.)

Frege, G. (1980) ‘On Sense and Meaning’, in P. Geach and M. Black (eds) Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, pp. 56–78. Oxford: Blackwell. (Originally published 1892.)

Grice, P. (1991a) ‘Logic and Conversation’, in Studies in the Way of Words, pp. 22–40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Originally published 1967.)

Grice, P. (1991b) ‘Presupposition and Conversational Implicature’, in Studies in the Way of Words, pp. 269–82. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Originally published 1970.)

Searle, J. (1969) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, J. (1979) ‘The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse’, in Expression and Meaning, pp. 58–75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Originally published 1974.)

Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1995) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell. (Originally published 1986.)

Strawson, P. F. (1950) ‘On Referring’, Mind 59: 320–44.

Todorov, T. (1977) ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’, in The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard, pp. 42–52. New York: Cornell University Press.

Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge, 1999