Compiled and Edited by Jan Alber, Henrik Skov Nielsen, Brian Richardson and Stefan Iversen
Unnatural narrative theory analyzes and theorizes the aspects of fictional narratives that transcend or violate the boundaries of conventional realism. It affirms the distinctive nature of fiction, identifies nonmimetic aspects of ostensibly realistic texts, and gravitates toward unusual and experimental works that reject the conventions of mimetic and natural narrative.
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This term is usually reserved for particularly flagrant forms of unnatural narratives which violate conventional narrative practices; such works may have contradictory chronologies, collapsed narrative voices, or extremely opaque discourse. Examples include Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste , Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans , Beckett’s The Unnamable , and Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy .
An unnatural beginning occurs when a text defers excessively the presentation of its fabula (Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler ) or when the authority of a fabula’s onset is later undermined by another beginning (Beckett’s Molloy or Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth ). Many modernist texts display a frayed, self-problematizing inception that Melba Cuddy-Keane labels a “ragged edge,” which gestures toward but does not narrate numerous relevant events before the beginning of the ostensible story. J. Hillis Miller (1998), Brian Richardson (2009) and others have argued that all posited beginnings are fabrications and therefore to some degree antimimetic.
Unnatural causality occurs when ordinary causal laws or progressions are abrogated or violated. This can happen because of an excessive number of chance events or coincidences (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead ), the inapplicability of real world causal progressions to the world of the fiction (theater of the absurd), or the denial or reversal of realistic causal relations between events (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass ). See Richardson 1997.
Some authors present collective rather than individual subjects and tell the story of a group over time. Such an unnatural narrative can stretch across centuries and regions or continents. There is often a collective narrative voice (“we”), shared focalization, and the presentation of the thought and emotions of the group as a whole. This form is often used to depict groups in struggle, and is used by U. S. ethnic, feminist, socialist, and postcolonial authors. Representative examples include Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of ‘The Narcissus’ , Ignazio Silone’s Fontemara , Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons , and Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères . See Richardson 1996.
“Context" refers to extra-textual information about the real world or the “fictional world” that a reader brings to bear upon his/her interpretation of a narrative text. Unnatural contexts problematize the boundary of the text, blurring the distinction between what is linguistically represented or cued (the “textual”) and what is extrapolated or imagined (the “contextual”). Unnatural contexts may correspondingly present a challenge to the distinction between fictional-world and real-world contextual information and/or direct attention to the ways in which readers draw upon context in their understanding of a narrative (a process conventionally treated as implicit to narrative interpretation). Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders" might be described in terms of "unnatural context" because it is in many ways a story about the role of context in narrative interpretation. Its contexts are also unnatural in that they are self-consciously overdetermined: “Fall River” evokes (to parodic excess) and intermingles elements of prior historical and fictional accounts of the notorious Borden murders, and it manipulates the expectations of readers whose experience of prior historical or fictional versions (whose contextual awareness, in other words) is necessarily variable. -SM
This occurs when an author transfers the effects arising from the narration of one set of events to the narration of a second independent set of events. See Phelan, “Implausibilities”
Denarration occurs when events or aspects of a fictional world are negated or cancelled. It is an ontological rather than epistemological alteration: the narrator does not simply correct a misremembered fact or revise an incorrect judgment, but rather changes some part of the fictional world. An example of this would be: “On June 8th it rained all day in Deauville. On June 8th it did not rain at all in Deauville.” Particularly interesting examples of denarration occur throughout Beckett's "Worstward Ho," near the beginning of Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall , and at the end of Ian McEwan's Atonement . See McHale, 1987, 99-106; Richardson 2006, Ch 5.
Descriptions can be unnatural in a number of ways: such as the anti-mimetic depiction of a physically or logically impossible space (Danielewski’s The House of Leaves , Borges’ “The Aleph”); a self-negating description (similar to denarration); an otherwise self-contradictory description (frequently found in the works of Robbe-Grillet); or a description of a two dimensional image, such as a painting, that then becomes animated or allows a character to enter its world (Robbe-Grillet’s La Maison de rendez-vous ). See Nünning 2007, Ronen 1997, Wolf 2007. -CC
There is a fundamental unnaturalness in many embedded narratives. As Patrick O’Neill points out, Isabella’s oral narrative reaches the reader via Nelly Dean’s oral account which in turn is written down by Mr Lockwood. O’Neill asks, “who is really ‘narrating’ here?” and concludes that “the relationship between nested narratives is always one of mutual relativization: while the embedding narrative is always in a position to colour fundamentally our reception of an embedded narrative, it may itself always in turn be challenged or even displaced by the narrative it embeds” (65).
Endings can be unnatural in several ways: 1) when they flagrantly refuse to disclose a resolution to the instabilities and conflicts that lead up to the ending (David Lodge’s Changing Places , Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World . 2) When they offer different, mutually exclusive endings (Malcolm Bradbury’s “Composition,” numerous hypertext fictions), or 3) when and ending is established and then negated by one or more different, contradictory endings (John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman , Stanislaw Witkiewicz’ The Madman and the Nun ).
In nonfictional or natural narratives a consistent story can always be extracted from the discourse. Fictional works with unnatural fabulas refuse to follow this convention. Unnatural fabulas include an inherently contradictory story (Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy ), a circular, ourobourean story whose ending is also its beginning (Joyce’s Finnegans Wake , Nabokov’s “The Circle”), and self-negating or denarrated stories. See Richardson, “Beyond Story and Discourse.”; Richardson, “Unnatural Stories, 2013” See also TEMPORALITY, UNNATURAL
Numerous feminist authors have employed unnatural techniques, sometimes in order to create a distinctively feminist narrative. Many use collective forms of narration (“we” and “they” narration), alternate between first and third person forms, or invent new pronouns, such as Monique Wittig’s j/e in Le Corps Lesbien , June Arnold’s gender neutral na in The Cook and the Carpenter (1995), and Kathy Acker who, in her story “Humiliation” (1990), refrains from using pronouns. Feminist authors have challenged conventional plot constructions as a way to avoid or negate patriarchal ideology. Écriture féminine, for example, emphasizes “writing the female body” and fosters narratives that eschew traditional barriers of segmentation and hierarchy (Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva ). Feminist authors also deconstruct traditional characterization. See Lanser 1987, Peel 1989, Richardson 2006 Ch 4. –NS and BR
There is an “absent focalizer” (also known as a “ je-neant ” perspective in Robbe-Grillet’s La jealousie , in which all events are presented from the perspective of a character who is never described or identified, but whose existence can be readily inferred. “Pseudo-focalization” occurs when the perceptions from the perspective of a character, normally provided by a heterodiegetic narrator, turn out to be speculative reconstructions, as one character merely imagines the thoughts of another as if he or she were an omniscient narrator (Iris Murdoch, The Philosopher’s Pupil ; Ian McEwan, Atonement ). See also PSEUDO-THIRD PERSON NARRATION
Many aspects of hypertext fiction include unnatural elements, including the use of the second person and multilinearlity. See Tyrkkö 2008, Bell (forthcoming).
Interactive Fiction, a genre that gained popularity in the 1980s, can be defined as computer simulated game worlds that react to natural language input meaningfully (Nick Montfort 2003). The two key elements in IF are world models, which present physical laws, constraints, and rules for the user's interaction, and parser, which analyzes the user's natural language input. IF is distinguished from hyperfiction--another form of ergodic literature--in its use of puzzles and emphasis on problem solving. The genre's unique human-machine interface stipulates "unnatural," or anti-mimetic narration. Some of the "Crimes against Mimesis" that IF commits include placing objects and puzzles in contexts that are not plausible or realistic and in certain instances, even anachronistic, as was the case in Adventure and Zork (Dungeon), and presenting problems which require objects and solutions that are not always credible, as in the opening scene of Christminster where the particular object necessary to accomplish an action within the game would be redundant in a similar real world scenario (Roger Giner-Sorolla 1996). Thus, the world models in IF often defy or subvert real world logic and causality. In addition, characterization and the uses of natural language in IF reinforce the genre's unnaturalness. The use of language in the vast majority of IFs rely on second-person narration with the PC being referred to as "you." The user directs the PC with commands which omit the subject because the subject could potentially be referred to using both first and second person pronouns. For instance, a typical scenario in IF could be where the user learns, "To your right side is a black door and to your left a flight of stairs." To this the user would reply with "open black door" or "climb flight of stairs," avoiding the use of I or You. Such exchange provides room for ambiguity, forestalling the configuration of a clear relation among the narratorial voice, the PC, and the user. Also, the presence of hints and commands such as save, pause, quit within the visual and verbal space of the narrative in IF confounds diegetic levels. The prototypical IF is thus "unnatural" on multiple grounds. See Espen Aarseth, Nick Montfort -TG
Conventional narratives often present human or non-human figures exchanging exclusively mental impressions. Unnatural literary telepathy is distinct insofar as it strays from conventional practices and refuses any supernatural explanation of the act. Examples of unnatural literary telepathy include Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Quentin Compson and Henry Sutpen in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (1936), and character narrator Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). In each case, the text presents impressions which a character could not have had physical access within the space of his/her consciousness. Nicholas Royle (1991, 2003, 2012) and Jonathan Culler (2007) call for a reevaluation of such instances through the lens of telepathy; Jan Alber points to unnatural telepathy in Midnight’s Children (2013). See also “Narration, Telepathic,” “Paralepsis” -LH
“Any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narrate into the diegetic universe (or by the diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc) or the inverse” (Genette, Narrative Discourse , 234-35). Thus, if characters try to escape from or kill the author that created them (Raymond Queneau, The Flight of Icarus , Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds ), or a character in a book kills the reader who is enjoying it (Julio Cortazar, “The Continuity of Parks”). Nelles distinguishes different kinds of metalepsis, and produces the categories intrametalepsis and extrametalepsis and proleptic and analeptic metalepsis. Fludernik identifies four types of metalepsis, which she terms authorial, narratorial, lectorial, and rhetorical. See also Borges’ story, “The Circular Ruins” See Genette 1980, Pier and Schaeffer 2005, Nelles 1997, Fludernik 2003 -LG
Metaphors become unnatural when they lose their metaphoric function and begin to generate events in the storyworld. In Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, after Saladin Chamcha is viewed as a harmful or evil figure, he sprouts horns on his head and grows a tail. Other examples can be found in Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath her Feet, in Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight by Calvino, and implicitly in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. -RF
Traditional narratives have a main story line or set of intertwined story lines that can be readily arranged into a fabula (e. g., Tom Jones ). Multilinear narratives, by contrast, contain a number of disparate or contradictory narrative paths which the reader helps select and which vary each time they are constructed. In a hypertext fiction like Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story, the reader chooses among links to construct a single syuzhet out of numerous possibilities that yields a unique fabula as well. In addition to hyperfictions, multilinear narratives appear in lexicon novels (Milorad Pavi?’s Dictionary of the Khazars ) and print texts that invite the reader to select from among events (Marc Saporta’s Composition #1 , Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,”Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters) . See Tyrkkö 2008, Booth 2008. -PO
The sequencing of a text can be described as unnatural when the ordering of events, chapters, phrases, and/or words is nonplot-based or antiplot-based. Unnatural sequencing resists or eludes narrative unity and teleology; unnatural sequencing is directed by a force outside the plot. Unnatural sequencing can be driven by motif; number (Cortazar’s Hopscotch ); multiple reading options (referred to as forking paths, labyrinthine, hypertextual, alternative itinerary, or “opera aperta”), where the reader is given the opportunity to choose the order of events (discussed by McHale 106-109, Heise 77-80, Eco, Richardson, “Beyond,” 169-70). It may also be determined by the alphabet (Milorad Pavi?’s Dictionary of the Khazars ), repetition, or variation (referred to as serial, nodal, echoic, or simultaneous), when events are retold several times (discussed by Heise 50-51, Sherzer 13-36, Hayman 73-104); anti-chronology, when events are told in reverse order; a collage effect, in which specific elements are combined together in various arrangements; verbal (or lexical) generators, when select words generate the objects or actions they describe (see Orr 104-117); and antithesis (see Shklovsky). Aeshetic sequencing occurs when the arrangement of a text is designed to achieve some sort of formal symmetry; pure sequencing describes ordering with few connectors or textual generators; aleatory sequencing can be used to refer to texts with arrangements that are randomly assembled; reproductive (or imitative) sequencing occurs when the ordering of a text is guided by that text’s reproduction of the order of an earlier text (discussed in Richardson 2005, 168-76). See also Ireland 2001. -LG
In some sense, all narration of consciousness is telepathic. Further, all telepathic narration that is not narrated from the first-person perspective (i.e., that is not character narration) can be understood as unnatural in Jan Alber’s definition of the term. Focalized narration (What Maisie Knew ) and third-person heterodiegetic narration (Middlemarch [1871-2], The Corrections ), for instance, are telepathic inasmuch as they involve one or more minds seeing into one or more other minds. Emphasizing the unnatural therefore allows us to imagine the narrator as a human (rather than a god-like) construct, a perspective posited by Nicholas Royle in “The ‘telepathy effect’” and advanced by Jonathan Culler in “Omniscience.” When a character narrator can only report his/her own thoughts (“The Fall of the House of Usher” ), in contrast, it is the reader who miraculously sees into or through the mind of the character. More obviously anti-mimetic telepathic narration occurs when, for instance, a character (who might also be a narrator) in a predominantly realist narrative reports or presents mental impressions from the mind of another character to whose thoughts he or she could not have had access (Clarissa’s consciousness presenting Septimus Smith’s experience in Mrs. Dalloway ; Darl’s consciousness presenting Jewel’s experience in As I Lay Dying ), or when a narrator restricted to internal focalization presents the thoughts of a non-focalizing character (the narrator of What Maisie Knew presenting Mrs. Wix’s thoughts. See Holmgren, “Knowing Maisie.”) See also, “Literary Telepathy, Unnatural.” -LH
Narration becomes unnatural when something impossible in life is set forth in the text. This can be as common as the ability of a narrator to disclose the contents of the mind of another, as routinely occurs in third person “omniscient” narration. More unnatural (because more unconventional) is the disclosure of the contents of another mind by a character-narrator, as frequently happens in “we” narration and in the shared focalization of “we” and “they” narration. Unusual pronominal forms of narration, such as the second person (“you”), “one,” or passive voice narration are especially unnatural, since they cannot be sustained in ordinary discourse. See Fludernik 1996; Richardson 2006; Nielsen 2004; Mäkelä 2006; Heinze 2008.
A narrative that violates the conventions of nonfictional “natural” narratives (stories told by individuals to each other in a social setting) or other realistic or mimetic conventions. Alternatively, a narrative whose storyworld contains physical or logical impossibilities. See Richardson 2006 Ch One; Alber 2009, and Alber, Iversen, Nielsen, and Richardson (forthcoming).
A narrator who cannot possibly be responsible for the discourse attributed to him or her; an extreme, preposterous extension of the unreliable narrator. Examples include the impossible verbal sophistication of eleven-year-old Virginie in John Hawkes’ Virginie: Her Two Lives . See Richardson, 2006, 104-08.
This appears where a narrator discloses material he or she should have no way of knowing. See Phelan, “Implausibilities”
Rüdiger Heinze Heinze discerns five types of paraleptic narrators – illusory, humorous, mneumonic, global, and local. Through a further examination of these terms, Heinze ultimately concludes that only the final two forms of paralepsis contain epistemological violations of narrative perspective (285): “global paralepsis,” which are categorized by a narrative situated in an impossible frame (such as one who speaks beyond the grave as in The Lovely Bones), and “local paralepsis,” which is “situated within the natural world but, nevertheless, is assumed by a first-person narrator in a style that suggests epistemological sincerity” (286). -VB
The voices of different narrators that collapse into each other and merge; common in the fiction of Samuel Beckett and Robert Pinget. See Richardson, 2006 , 95-105
“Giving more [information] than is authorized in principle in the code of focalization governing the whole,” as when a character narrator reports “the thoughts of another character” Genette, 195, 207); the classic example is Marcel’s narration of the last thoughts of Bergotte who dies alone in Proust’s Recherche . See Genette 1980, 207-11, Rabinowitz (126-27), Nielsen 2004, Shen 2001, Heinze 2008.
A mimetically unmotivated change in a character narrator’s knowledge and sensibility. This occurs when, for example, a naïve narrator loses the naiveté essential for the effective telling of the story up to that point. See Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric, Ch 4).
The iterative frequency occurs when several events are related a single time in the text, such as, “For a long time, I would go to bed early.” In the pseudo-iterative, the richness and precision of detail of each occasion in the series require a willing suspension of disbelief since no reader can seriously believe they occur and reoccur in that manner, several times, without any variation. Genette 1980, 121.
In some texts, an ostensible third person narration will be revealed to have been told by a character in that story; the omniscience is feigned, there is only another character pretending to know more than a character realistically can. Classic examples include Woolf’s Jacob’s Room , Borges’ “The Story of the Scar,” Calvino’s The Non-existent Knight , Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil , and Ian McEwan’s Atonement . See Richardson 2006, Ch 1.
Unnatural reading is reading that assumes unnatural readers. Unnatural readers are readers that are unstable, indistinct, irretrievable, or seemingly infinite. Many postmodern and anti-mimetic texts provide inadequate internal evidence to establish an authorial reader, which problematizes conventional reading practices. Often, anti-mimetic texts tend either to collapse or to multiply narrative and authorial readers, or to establish an actual reader that is distinct from the narrative or authorial reader. Such texts often require a double reading, which Umberto Eco describes as two readings with distinct and incompatible authorial audiences—typically a naïve reader and a critical reader. The critical (or trained) reader interprets the activity of the naïve reader. See Alber, “Reading”; Barthes, Richardson in Herman et al,155-59; Mäkelä, “Reading”-AF
A narrator's apparently unmotivated report of information to a narratee that the narratee already possesses. See Phelan 2004, 1-30.
Natural uses of second person address include the apostrophe, speaking to oneself in the second person, and addressing an audience. There are three types of unnatural second person narrative: 1) the standard, 2) the hypothetical, and 3) the autotelic forms. The standard form is the most common. It identifies the protagonist as "you", rather than "I", "he", or "she"; early examples include Mary McCarthy’s “The Genial Host” (1947) and Ilse Aichinger’s “Spiegelgeschichte” (1954); its best known example is Michel Butor's La Modification (1957). The hypothetical form borrows the style of the guide book to recount a narrative and traces out a narrative based on a continuing series of possible choices, as in several of Lorrie Moore's stories: "Begin by meeting him in a class" ("How"). The autotelic form directly addresses the reader or narratee, as in the opening of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller : "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel." See Style 28.3 (Fall 1994), a special issue on second person narration; Richardson 2006, 17-36.
Unnatural syuzhets are those where the syuzhet is not simply the sequence of pages one holds in one’s hand or the flow of words and images in a fixed, linear sequence, but raw material to be reconstructed in an original manner. These include works that require alternative strategies of reading, such as Juio Cortàzar’s Hopscotch or Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters , which the reader must determine the sequence in which the works are to be read. This is the case in more extreme texts like Marc Saporta’s Composition # 1 or B. S. Johnson’s “novel in a box” The Unfortunates , in which individual pages or segments are to be put together by the reader in any order the reader prefers. This principle is often employed in hypertext fictions. Other texts alter the physical layout of the traditional book, such as volumes by Helene Cixous, Carol Shields, and Marc Danielewski that must be physically turned upside down and read in the opposite direction from that one began with. Still others re-order paratextual material (Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy , Alasdair Gray, Lanark , Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo ). Also relevant are participatory dramas in which the audience determines by a vote which events will occur next on stage. Such works have multiple or variable syuzhets. See Richardson, “Sequence” (forthcoming).
Many texts resist, reject, or sabotage conventional expectations of tellability, or the interest generated in the reader to learn what happens next in a story. A classic example is Beckett’s The Unnamable , occasionally referred to as The Unreadable for this reason.
Texts with unnatural temporality employ antimimetic or impossible kinds of narrative time. Such texts may present an antinomic or anti-chronological temporality, where events are presented in reverse order as characters move forward into the past (Amis’s Time’s Arrow ), or a circular sequence, where a series of events ends by returning to its beginning point (Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake ). Often works with unnatural temporalities precipitate logical contradictions. In texts with differential temporalities, characters within the same storyline experience time passing at different speeds (Woolf’s Orlando ), while in texts with dual or multiple temporalities, time proceeds at different rates in different plotlines, although these plotlines begin and end at the same moment (Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ). Texts with contradictory temporalities contain multiple event sequences that logically preclude each other, and yet nevertheless are presented as if each had occurred (Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy , Coover’s “The Babysitter”; discussed by Heise) and texts with conflated temporalities posit separate temporal zones of events that occur at apparently different times, which end up crossing over into each other, confusing categories of “past,” “present,” and “future” (Kundera’s Slowness ). Other variations of unnatural temporality include texts written entirely within the present tense (J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians , discussed by Cohn, Distinction , 96-108), the hypothetical future tense (Lorrie Moore’s “How”) or future tense (Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon ). Unnatural temporality can be found in the Medieval dream vision and works employing a Rabelaisian chronotope, many Shakespearean dramas, and a variety of postmodern works. See Richardson 1987, 1997 and 2009; Rabinowitz 2005; Heinze (“Time”). -JW
In this narrative mode, the third-person plural pronoun they is used throughout to denote either the protagonist or else a collective of characters. While it is rare to have an entire work written in the third-person plural, feminist authors such as Wittig (1969) and Swann (2007) have used this technique in an attempt to cultivate a strong sense of communalism in their texts, emphasizing the commonality rather than the individuality of the characters. In Wittig’s Les Guerilleres (1969), a feminist novel written as a series of related vignettes, the pronoun elles (in French, the feminine third-person plural pronoun) denotes a predominantly collective protagonist engaged in a war for gender equality. D.H. Lawrence’s short story “Things” (1928) is another notable example of they narration, as are George Perec’s Les Choses ,“Mario Vargas Llosa’s Los Cachorros (1969)”, and large portions of Conrad’s The Nigger of Narcissus (1897). See Richardson 2006 Ch 1 and Ch 4, Fludernik 1996, Margolin 2000 -NS
“We” narration occurs when a narrator consistently speaks in the first person plural. Unnatural “we” narration takes place when the speaker violates linguistic conventions by refusing to identify him or herself at appropriate moments, instead using a third person form to designate the speaker, e.g.: “There were four of us—Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Ann and Kate, sisters too” (Joan Chase, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia , 46). Unnatural “we” narration also occurs when the narrator describes the thoughts or perceptions of other minds that he or she cannot know, or when the “we” extends over many years and geographical areas (Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons ). Extreme unnatural forms appear when different components of a self are treated as individual voices, each saying “we” (Sarruate, Tu ne t’aime pas ). Classic examples of this strategy include Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ Ignazio Silone, Fontemara , Raja Rao, Kanthapura , Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying ., Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco . See Margolin 2000; Richardson 2006, 37-60.
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Henrik Skov Nielsen