If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born [...] and all that David Copperfield kind of crap [...].
That’s Holden Caufield, getting us started in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden tells the story. But in another way, the story in Catcher is told by its author, J. D. Salinger; who, conspiracy theories aside, is not himself Holden Caufield. To name the difference, Salinger is the author, while Holden is the story’s “internal narrator,” a fancy term (“internal” and “narrator” come from Latin, and so might as well be French) that just means storyteller who belongs to the world of the story.1 Catcher’s story-world contains Pencey Prep and New York City and Ackley and Phoebe, and also Holden himself, telling us about them. Absent from that world is Salinger himself; he exists only out here, in reality. Almost all fictions with first-person narrators are like this: they have internal narrators who are different from the (external) author. David Copperfield’s internal narrator is David and not Charles Dickens (and the novel begins, of course, with a chapter titled “I am born”).
Does every (fictional) story have an internal narrator? With Catcher in the Rye the “I” who tells the story says things to, and does things with, characters in the story; taking him to be an internal narrator is unavoidable. But plenty of stories are written in the “third person omniscient.” There is no “I” or “we” in the narration, and even if we do take the words of the story to be somebody’s words, that somebody never interacts with anyone or anything in the world of the story. Maybe those stories have only an external author, and no internal narrator.
The case for thinking that, even here, every story has an internal narrator, has long seemed to me a slam dunk. Before teeing it up, though, it is worth pausing over our two options. Reading a story is setting out on an imaginative project. But the way that project works, if the story has an internal narrator, is miles away from how it works, in the (alleged) case of a narratorless story.
Properly appreciating a story involves imagining the things that are true in the story—that’s widely agreed. If, while reading Pride and Prejudice, you do not imagine that Elizabeth and Darcy get engaged, you are doing something wrong. Now if a story has an internal narrator, then the narrator says a bunch of stuff, X, Y, and Z, in the course of telling the story; and you, dear reader, imagine X, Y, and Z when you read. But since the storyteller and their telling are parts of the story-world, you imagine more: you imagine that the narrator has reported X, Y, and Z, and you imagine learning X, Y, and Z, and you imagine that you learn them by way of reading what the narrator said or wrote.2 And lo!—here what you imagine makes contact with reality as it is: you are, in reality, reading some words on a page; and this act of reading appears also in the scenario you imagine, smuggled in past the metaphysical customs officials. Page 3 of Catcher includes the sentence “There were never many girls at all the football games,” and when reading it you of course imagine that there were never many girls at the football games, but you only imagine this because as you read the words “There were never many girls at all the football games” you simultaneously imagine reading those words, and you imagine that Holden wrote them, and you imagine that you can trust him on this point.
What’s going on, if there is no internal narrator? None of all the extra stuff, presumably. If Middlemarch lacks a narrator, then when you get to page five and read “Dorothea [...] was taking her usual place in the pretty sitting-room which divided the bedrooms of the sisters,” you imagine that Dorothea was taking her usual place [etc], but you do not, and should not, imagine that anyone has recorded this in words, or that you are reading the words of any such report.
At this point please imagine that I am gesturing wildly at the chalkboard and awkwardly repeating myself in a near-shout: these are very different imaginative projects. In one, you imagine something about some fictional characters (Holden, Phoebe, etc), but also something about yourself, and part of what you imagine matches what you are actually doing: reading a book. In another, you imagine nothing about yourself, and your act of reading has no place in what you imagine.