Genre shaping fiction

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoUm, I have to think through the logic of this a little (always part of the magic), but I really like the way Junot Díaz plays around with genre fiction in the creation of his character, Oscar Wao – one of those mirror in the mirror type constructions. The concept of genre shapes the character and the story, but then it also puts the shape of the story (its identity, if you will) in question… twisty. Consider the following moments in the book:

“I’m not entirely sure Oscar would have liked this designation. Fukú story. He was a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man, believed that that was the kind of story we were all living in. He’d ask: What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?
But now that I know how it all turns out, I have to ask, in turn: What more fukú?” (p.6)

…”anytime a fukú reared its many heads there was only one way to prevent disaster from coiling around you, only one surefire counterspell that would keep you and your family safe. Not surprisingly, it was a word. A simple word (followed usually by a vigorous crossing of index fingers).
Zafa.
…Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell.” (p.7)

The brief wondrous life of oscar wao“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having a pair of wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest!” (p.22)

“What can I tell you? In Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow.” (pp.245-246)

Ref: Junot Díaz (2008) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. faber and faber: London
[winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award]

The critics agree about the success of this blending:

“Diaz finds a miraculous balance. He cuts his barnburning comic-book plots (escape, ruin, redemption) with honest, messy realism, and his narrator speaks in a dazzling hash of Spanish, English, slang, literary flourishes, and pure virginal dorkiness.”–Sam Anderson, “New York Magazine”

“Funny, street-smart and keenly observed…An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose.”–Michiko Kakutani, “New York Times” (interesting metaphor!)

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Genre is a dialogic concept

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“The degree of abstraction necessary when working with a concept like ”genre” often glosses over the fact that no single text actually represents the abstraction in its entirety or perfectly developed form. Genre is a dialogic concept, emerging from a series of textual configurations in a process of constant revision by practitioners and theorists alike. Every individual text is synchronically and diachronically fragmented, containing traces of other genres, as well as traces of both surpassed and emerging stages of its own historical development.” (p.43)

Ref: Steffen Hantke (2002) ‘Monstrosity Without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities. 22(2), pp.34-54

smashing image against image

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Just going through a recent – and very interesting – issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (37(4)Winter 2012), which looks at comics and picture books. There is a great deal of interesting stuff about genre in these articles – as well, of course, as thought about comics and picture books. In their editorial, Charles Hatfield and Craig Svonkin write:

“Sergei …Eisenstein argued that meaning was created in montage not as Pudovkin thought, by linking image to image in a coherent, deliberate chain, but rather by violently smashing image against image, so that images juxtaposed in opposition to each other create a new dialectical meaning each image separately could never evoke. Eisenstein’s model fits our project, given that comics and picture books likewise perform dialectically. Of course, the dialectic of images in cinema is not the same as that of image and written text in static form; nonetheless, Eisenstein’s dialectical theory resonates with our work here, which focuses on the intermedial space between two types of literature—and on the ways the literature itself uses dialectics to evoke meaning in the intermedial spaces between text and picture, or between picture and picture, or among text, picture, text, and picture.”[1]

“Pursuing questions of ideology…, Michael Joseph focuses his attention on the power of genres to construct their audience. Specifically, he posits the graphic novel as a liminal object that has a special relationship with its readers—“liminal” in Victor Turner’s sense of something “in between” marked by the disturbance of established social structures. Comics, Joseph asserts, particularly alternative comics, have this power to disturb, because they resist the norms of book culture and thus subvert the very category of children’s literature. The graphic novel, in his view, is neither a book nor an art object in the usual sense, but rather deconstructs the form, utility, and cultural authority of the book itself. The genre invites an embodied and material reading practice, one that refuses the transparency which convention dictates is essential to reading, and thus encourages a critical and subversive reading attitude. The effect is to cede interpretive agency to the reader (an empowerment perhaps especially important to readers in the liminal state of adolescence). Analyzing a key page from Kim Deitch’s graphic novel Alias the Cat, Joseph shows how comics refuse transparency, call attention to their own framing, and playfully exploit “bookness.”” p.433 Hatfield and Svonkin

“Thomas, Jr. [shows…] how expectations of genre determine and limit the kinds of meaning we can make of a text—that is, how genre concepts work to shape and foreclose interpretive possibilities.” p.434 Hatfield and Svonkin

“Genres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact” (Political Unconscious 92).” ~ Frederic Jameson cited p.435 Hatfield and Svonkin


[1] 432 Charles Hatfield and Craig Svonkin (2012) Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books: Introduction Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37(4)Winter: 429-435

Harry Potter’s mix of subgenres – Saxena

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Vandana Saxena also asserts that: “J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, as a mix of subgenres of young adult literature, becomes an ideal text to study; the heroic quest, the boarding-school fiction, fantasy, magic and adventure – the series brings together all these narratives of boyhood, portraying youthful subversion as well as cultural containment and an adolescent’s negotiations through these conflicting forces. Secondly, the charges leveled against the series – that it is formulaic, that its popularity rests on aggressive marketing strategies rather than content, and that, in guise of its engagements with difference, it foregrounds conventionality and conformity – rather than working against the series, as we shall see, make it a suitable representative text of postmodern children’s literature.” (p.7)

“To an extent,” Saxena goes on to note, “the charges ring true. Harry Potter is after all a conventional hero of a late capitalist world. He is an orphan but belongs to an ancient powerful family of wizards. His Cinderella-like transformation from rags to riches is an oft-repeated fairy tale. Surrounded by aides and by virtue of owning some unique magical objects, the White English boy overcomes all evil to save the world. As a school story, Harry’s relationship with his friends and teachers eventually reassert the boundaries of gender and race that are inherent to the culture from which the text emerges.” (p.7)

Ref: Vandana Saxena (2012) The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, NC and London.

Vandana Saxena – the dynamics of adolescence in Harry Potter

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According to Vandana Saxena: “The subgenre of adolescent fantasy can be characterized as a mix of illusion, escape, entertainment, formula and also instruction and guidance. Fantasy and adolescence…reinforce each other. An adolescent can be seen as an ‘other,’ an outsider to the categories of child and adult, embodying the gap between the two states of being in the chronology of growth. Many critics agree that young adult literature expresses the trials of adolescence, the process of individual coming-of-age set against a specific social and cultural background. [-p.6] Sarah Herz and Donald Gallo point out the situational archetypes and themes in YA fiction, which include coming-of-age rituals, quest and search for self. The literature centers on the youthful protagonist as much as it centers on the cultural background that frames his/her growth.” (pp.5-6)

Saxena continues: “Robyn McCallum defines adolescent fiction in relation to the essential humanist ideology that traditionally underscored the idea of child and children’s literature: “preoccupation with a personal maturation … is commonly articulated in conjunction with a perceived need for children to overcome solipsism and develop intersubjective concepts of personal identity within this world and in relation to others’ (7). This feature of YA literature derives from the unique position that an adolescent occupies in society. On the one hand, an adolescent is an outsider to the social and political frameworks of the society. At the same time, s/he occupies an important position in the collective psyche – preparing adolescents to become responsible members of the community is a major cultural preoccupation. It is important to contain adolescence through the discourses of growth, development and maturity since an adolescent, by the virtue of his/her position on the cultural periphery, has the potential to question and subvert these very discourses. According to Roberta Trites, ‘the distinction between a children’s and an adolescent novel lies not so much in how the protagonist grows – even though the gradations of growth do help us better understand the nature of the genre – but with the very determined way that YA novels tend to interrogate social constructions, foregrounding the relationship between the society and the individual’ (Disturbing [the Universe] 20). Rowling’s series portrays this two-way relationship that characterizes adolescence. Adolescence …emerges not as a stage of life, but as a state of being – an existence on the margins and in a constant dialogue with the center, always challenging and negotiating with the attempts at containment. Thus, young adult literature emerges as a volatile field of engagement with institutional politics and dominant social constructions.” (p.6)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Vandana Saxena (2012) The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, NC and London.

From Dusk Till Dawn – Helyer

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I quite liked what Ruth Helyer had to say about Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn (which she compares to American Psycho):

American Psycho […] leaks into differing categories, demonstrating characteristics of comedy, autobiography, spoof horror, bleak social commentary, conventional horror, and pornography. When Patrick carelessly shoots a street musician, the action accelerates into a “cops and robbers” type chase, complete with tires screeching, bullets ricocheting, and innocent people dying. Patrick’s self-parody is complete as he finally begins to discuss his brutal actions in the third person, referring to himself as “Patrick,” “Bateman,” and “he,” when throughout the previous narrative he has been “I.” The potential for characters within modern Gothic narratives to parody not only the genre, but themselves
suggests that the title is no longer a convenient genre “label,” evoking affected eighteenth-century novels, but a new and modern representation, or rather a fissure between representations, through which we can look back, to multiple scenes. Patrick encourages this by constantly filming everything, including himself.
Quentin Tarantino’s film From Dusk Till Dawn shows a similar irreverent mixing of seemingly established genres, suggesting that their “established” status is under threat. This text alludes to the western, the thriller, the black comedy, romance, the horror/vampire movie, the road movie, the buddy movie, and other film genres. Like American Psycho, Tarantino’s film attempts to portray the violent excesses of criminality and its ruthless and perverted desires. Actor George Clooney, despite [-p.742] his matinee idol looks and his fame as a star in a hugely popular television show, makes a parody of his role as “hero” by robbing banks and killing people. The quality of camera shots of his breathtakingly handsome face are at times quite stunning, again undercutting our ability, or inclination, to view him critically. The glorious use of color and clarity remind us of Patrick’s insistence on graphic, visual description. Within the narrative the brother of Clooney’s character refuses to die, and in keeping with the postmodern Gothic demonstrates a “coming back,” a “re-visiting.” Like American Psycho, From Dusk Till Dawn exposes contemporary culture as a mix of violence and “apparent” reality.” (pp.741-742)

Ref: Ruth Helyer (2000) Parodied to Death: The Postmodern Gothic of American Psycho MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 46(3), Fall, pp.725-746

Romance, character, healing and the hero

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In her discussion of Romance, Joyce Saricks writes: “Characters rather than plots twists drive Romances. In a Romance the lovers must come to understand themselves and their relationships with each other. As readers, we see interior as well as exterior aspects of these characters, and we respond to them and their developing relationship. In her Contemporary Romances Susan Elizabeth Phillips explores complex family relationships and the difficult concepts of guilt, forgiveness, and grief. Although these affect the protagonists and force them to mature, these themes do not detract from the power of the Romance. In fact, it is because of the environment the Romance creates, one in which the characters feel safe sharing their deepest emotions, that healing finally comes.

This growth, however, is not limited only to Romances with a serious side. In almost all, the characters are forced to change, to relinquish preconceptions about themselves (often their lack of self-worth) and their partners before they are able to embrace the romantic union readers demand.” (p.134)

“That characters are written to a pattern is important, too, as it is in most genres from adventure to Women’s Lives and Relationships. the women are bright, independent, strong, and, perhaps surprisingly, not always beautiful but certainly interesting and articulate. The men must be strong, distant, and always dangerous, because the stronger the hero, the greater the victory when the heroine brings him to his senses and his knees. Conquering a gentle, affectionate, mild-mannered, sensible hero simply is not satisfying, either for the heroine or for the reader.” (p.134)

“One last important point about characterization is that we almost always get the point of view of both protagonists. This allows us to experience their inner dilemmas and follow their thoughts as they work out their relationship. This is not just her story; it is his as well. Romances are almost never written first-person; the reader and author require the third-person to create the full picture, to reveal easily the inner thoughts and struggles of both characters.” (p.135)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago