Brian Attebery and The family story as genre

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In an article I really quite enjoyed, Brian Attebery takes Elizabeth Enright’s work as the model around which to theorise about family stories as a genre. His argument, as he explains, accepts Enright’s work as a model because there is general agreement that it be included in this poorly articulated ‘genre’: however, he believes that the points he makes have relevance to other texts…

what I was wondering is how Attebery’s work might inform readings of much of the urban fantasy that is around (some of which is set among families, traditional and otherwise, and much of which draws on modern ‘urban tribe’ type social settings…???)

This is a connection Attebery makes himself. He points to the compatibility between family stories and fantasy (examples being Nesbit, Lewis, and Eager). “Indeed,” he writes, “fantasy seems to work as protective camouflage for the family story.” (134)

Attebery writes: “Caroline Hunt defines the family story as “a rather amorphous genre with many technical problems” (16), which pretty well sums up the state of discussion. I will return to some of those technical problems, which include multiple protagonists, episodic plot, and lack of obvious conflict. I believe these can be reframed as generic horizons or even as aesthetic opportunities. In order to do so, I will offer a more or less structural description of the family story, building on an analytical scheme proposed a couple of decades ago by Lois Kuznets. The examples mentioned above, along with the ways they are spoken of, suggest a working definition of the genre something like this: “Realistic works, often autobiographical, about growing up with a sizeable number of siblings in reasonably happy circumstances.” It is hard to imagine anything duller, at least in the wrong hands. Why should we care about somebody else’s nostalgia? Do we really want to be told that someone’s childhood was happier than our own? If that is all there is to the family story, then it is no wonder the form is in critical eclipse.

It is high time for a fresh look at the form and its functions. In place of the common-sense definition, which primarily concerns content, I propose one that touches on structure, aesthetics, history, and ideology. Since a genre is, among other things, a map for reading, I will take a test drive through one of the enduring examples of the family story. I hope my route reveals hidden charms and underlying geography easily overlooked along the reading-for-content highway to which the common-sense definition directs us. The patterns I identify in the [-p.115] work of Elizabeth Enright can be found as well in other family stories, including many works not hitherto identified with the form. Enright’s example points toward a definition of the family story as an essentially comic work with a collective hero, focusing on a family’s continual adaptation to internal changes and external circumstances. There are more features to the family story than these, but this definition shifts the focus away from realistic or autobiographical aspects to the dynamic nature of family relationships—something no other genre handles quite so well.” (114-115)

The technical difficulties and habits of the genre

Many of the problems’ with this genre became apparent to Attebery when teaching Enright’s The Saturdays. His students struggled with it, he explains:

“They could not see a point or a plot in its series of episodic adventures. They were looking for conflict where the book offers only discovery; they wanted a central problem instead of a set of comic interactions; they did not know which character was supposed to be the most important. In short, they did not know how to read a family story.” (118)

The technical difficulties of the genre that Attebery identifies “include focusing simultaneously on a group and on its individual members, giving shape and narrative urgency without violating the reader’s sense of probability, and, as Hunt says, managing to render “the minutiae that make up the very texture of family life . . . without becoming dull or, worse, sentimental” (23). Additionally, the successful family story must represent change within a stable structure—or stability within a changing one—and provide a conclusive ending without falling back on the adult fiction standbys of romantic love and violence. Enright’s solutions to these problems—her ways of making happy families storyable—provide insight into the inner workings of the form.” (125)

…”one of the technical problems Caroline Hunt identifies as endemic to the family story: “As soon as the writer imposes any real structure on the life of a family—gives it a beginning point, middle, and end, with a single major issue or crisis dominating—then the story begins immediately to seem false” (25). Any discernible shaping of plot can be condemned as reliance on formula, while a faithful rendition of everyday life can be dismissed as boring.” (118)

“Family stories are funny,” Attebery notes, “but the humor is rarely based on exaggerated situations or grotesquery; rather, it grows out of the characters’ foibles, insights, and interactions.” (125)

Family stories differ from other forms of bildungsroman in that there is no Romantic central figure, no Stephen Dedalus or Young Werther striking out against bourgeois conformity. Instead, each member of the family must simultaneously learn selfhood and accommodation, continually renegotiating his or her own relationship to the group. The discoveries made by one child are tested against other, rival insights. In Enright’s stories, this testing is a source of humor and of perspective; no one course of education is definitive or complete.” (126)

Attebery asserts that: “The tension between individual and group, along with the continually evolving resolution of that tension, contributes in large measure to Enright’s ability to transform small domestic disturbances and discoveries into compelling larger narratives.” (128)

The five points Attebery therefore makes about family stories are:

“1) A family story is a form of domestic comedy.

2) A family story is a bundle of parallel bildungsromans.

3) The protagonist of a family story is the family as a whole.

4) Each family story is an ethnography of a specific and distinctive tribal culture.

5) The family story combines a fantastic structure with a realistic surface.” (125)

Family types and Questions to think about…

Attebery’s analyses lead him to propose the following interesting questions:

How do family structures [-p.134] change over time? How will a family respond to apparent criminal activity by one of its own? How does family lore adapt to truly alien environments?” (133-134)

Most of the family stories that form the genre’s core,” he writes, “are about middleclass white families. This pattern reflects authors’ backgrounds as well as publishers’ expectations. The classic family stories from the 1930s to the ‘60s are mostly about comfortable families: kids who do not have to go to work, who can wander freely through city and countryside in ways that few black, Asian, or Hispanic children have been able to do in the past. Yet despite this class bias, the fictional families are not as conventional as they might seem, nor are the ideological implications of the genre as conservative. From the beginning, family stories have depicted many kinds of families. Indeed, as Kuznets observed of Streatfeild’s fictional families, the standard two-parent family may be the exception rather than the rule.” (134)

Attebery describes as well how the genre shifted with regards to perceptions of families. He explains that “Stories that were once […] merely “family stories” by 1993 had become “happy family stories.” The additional descriptor indicates that happiness is no longer the norm among fictional families. In the 1940s and ‘50s it was simply assumed that books for children would portray a reassuring world, [-p.119] whereas by the end of the twentieth century such portrayals stood out as unusual and archaic, if not downright inartistic.” (118-119)

He continues: “Tolstoy’s famous comment at the beginning of Anna Karenina illustrates the problem, not with family stories, but with misreadings of them: “All happy families are alike,” he tells us, but “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (1). However ironically Tolstoy may have intended his statement, it represents a widely held view, one which Ursula K. Le Guin advises us to call into question:  ‘Those happy families he speaks of so confidently in order to dismissthem as all alike—where are they? Were they very much commoner in the nineteenth century? Did he know numerous happy families among the Russian nobility, or middle class, or peasantry, all of them alike? . . . Did he know one family, one single family, that could, over a substantial period of time, as a whole and in each of its components, honestly be called happy?(35)'” (119)

“In the late 1960s the older style of family story began to give way to books about social problems, including dysfunctional, broken, and abusive families. As Avery says, “Fashion has now made it difficult to write unselfconsciously about happy families” (342). Families became something to cope with, or escape from, for the disaffected characters of S. E. Hinton, Julia Cunningham, Paul Zindel, and other writers of YA “problem stories.” […]  Even though earlier family stories were not immune from problems—Nesbit’s Bastables, for instance, coped with poverty, paternal neglect, and the death of their mother—the emphasis was always on the family as a source of stability and resourcefulness rather than on (or as) the problem itself.” (121)

Other questions Attebery’s discussion led me to think of include:

What (if any) is the key setting in this story? Who ‘belongs’ there?

What happens in that setting? To whom?

What does the importance of this setting reveal about the purpose of this story?

Is it the individual or the family that is the book’s protagonist (in spy fiction, urban fantasy, etc.)? (See p133 for Attebery’s discussion of this)

What makes this social grouping (family, urban tribe, …) interesting?

Ref: Brian Attebery Elizabeth Enright and the Family Story as GenrChildren’s Literature, Volume 37, 2009, pp. 114-136

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