Genres as Fields of Knowledge

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Wai Chee Dimock asks: “If genres are vehicles that “actively generate and shape knowledge of the world” (Frow), what would students learn if literature were taught under this rubric?” (p.1383)

Far from being a neat catalog of what exists and what is to come, genres are a vexed attempt to deal with material that might or might not fit into that catalog.” (p.1378)

What exactly are genres? Are they a classifying system matching the phenomenal world of objects, a sorting principle that separates oranges from apples? Or are they less than that, a taxonomy that never fully taxonomizes, labels that never quite keep things straight? What archives come with genres, what critical lexicons do they offer, and what maps do they yield? And how does the rise of digitization change these archives, lexicons, and maps?

“Theorists from Benedetto Croce to Jacques Derrida have long objected to the concept of genre, pointing out that something as dynamic as literature can never be anatomized ahead of time, segregated by permanent groupings. “[I]nstead of asking before a work of art if it be expressive and what it expresses,” genre criticism only wants to label it, putting it into a pigeonhole, asking only “if it obey the laws of epic or of tragedy.” Nothing can be more misguided, Croce says, for these “laws of the kinds” have never in fact been ob served by practicing writers. Derrida makes the same point: “As soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity.” Such border policing is an exercise in futility, he says, for the law of genre is an impossible law; it contains within itself a “principle of contamination,” so much so that the law is honored only in its breach.” (p.1377)

Genres have solid names, ontologized names. What these names designate, though, is not taxonomic classes of equal solidity but fields at once emerging and ephemeral, defined over and over again by new entries that are still being produced. They function as a “horizon of expectations” to some extent (Jauss), but that horizon becomes real only when there happen to be texts that exemplify it.” (p.1379)

Wai Chee Dimock’s discussion of epic and how it exemplifies the problems around ‘genre’ is really interesting, but I don’t want to over-quote and don’t have time to synthesise… one point I did really like:

Switching genres is one of the most eloquent signs of political agency: the Ramayana now is a host of variants afloat in the generic pool. These effluences are just as striking outside India. As the Sanskrit epic spread to Japan, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Java, and Indonesia, it flourished as street theater, song-and-dance cycles, shadow-puppet shows, a pan-Asian vernacular tradition carried on for two thousand years and serving every conceivable political end (Iyengar; Raghavan; Blackburn). With immigration to Europe, these vernacular subgenres became European subgenres.” (p.1384)

Literary history is a history of kinship.” (p.1381)

“This kinship network, muddying temporal, spatial, and generic lines, invites us to rethink our division of knowledge.” (p.1386)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Wai Chee Dimock ‘Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge’ PMLA, Vol. 122, No. 5, Special Topic: Remapping Genre (Oct., 2007), pp. 1377-1388
http://www.jstor.org/stable/25501790

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!)

The Essay

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I thought this interesting (in terms of style, as much as content):

In its original literary use the word essay was intended to apply to a newly-created form of writing and to emphasize its experimental nature. The essay was supposed to be an attempt or a trial, and Abraham Cowley – sometimes called the father of the English essay – when his little collection of essays was published, gave it the title of Several Discourses by way of Essays, and proceeded to discourse of himself and the world at large in the most charmingly discursive way. ‘The word is late’, said that very great figure in the world of the essay, Francis Bacon, when he dedicated his essays to the Prince of Wales, ‘but the thing is ancient’, though Seneca’s Epistles to Lucilius which Bacon cited as examples of the essay were also described by him as ‘Dispersed Meditations’. And Addison in The Spectator spoke of ‘The wildness of those compositions which go by the name of Essays…’ and added that Seneca and Montaigne are patterns for writings of this kind. But from the time of Bacon the use of the word has been somewhat indiscriminate. It is now to be found applied to the most diverse forms of writing, from the solemn and learned treatise to the slightest and most ephemeral effusion of the moment. It is used, for example, to describe Montaigne and his ‘well-meaning book’, as indeed it should be, for Montaigne not only created the new form of writing, but attached the word essais to his first publication in 1580. But the same word is applied to Malthus and his Essay on Population, to Locke and his Essay concerning Human Understanding, to Pope’s Essay on Criticism and his Essay on Man (although they are both in heroic couplets), to the essays of Bacon, Macaulay, Froude and Carlyle, to John Earle’s Micro-Cosmographie, or a Piece of the World discovered in Essayes and characters, to Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetrie, to G.K. Chesterton’s Tremendous Trifles, to the ‘Prefaces’ of Bernard Shaw, to Hilaire Belloc’s On Something, On Nothing and On Everything, to Jeremy Taylor, to Steele and Addison, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Lamb, and to a thousand other vividly contrasted styles of writing and subject matter.
Michel de Montaigne started the fashion and English writers have adopted and adapted it to the lasting glory of literature in all the succeeding centuries. In the year 1571 he was 38 years old. He was well-to-do, and had quite deliberately turned away from ‘the eager and tumultuary pursuits of the life political’, as Lord Morley once described them, and had retired to the calm and quietude of his country home. Here it was, in ‘the tower raised above but not removed from men’s follies’, that he began  the composition of the essais that were destined to place him amongst the immortals. Had the hopes based on the peace of Saint Germain been fulfilled, Montaigne might have written no essays at all, but have spent his life in some form of political activity, for which in some respects he was well fitted. In that event, the stream of English literature might well have run in some other course that the course it followed after the publication of the first two books of Montaigne in 1580. In John Florio’s translation of 1603, the Essays were made more accessible to English readers, and in the ‘Address from the Author to the Reader’, Montaigne sets out the purpose of his mind. The memorable opening words are – ‘Reader, lo here a well-meaning book’, and he continues – ‘Had my intention been to forestal and purchase the world’s opinion and favour, I would surely have adorned my selfe more quaintly, or kept a more grave or solemne march. I desire therein to be delineated in mine owne genuine and simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is my selfe I pourtray.’
Whether this declaration is strictly true may be doubted; but Montaigne wrote of himself in the most startlingly intimate way and indulged his every thought and fancy to the uttermost. He seems to permit his mind to wander where it pleased and he gives the impression of writing as his mood dictates. He ornamented and embellished his fancies with grace and art, and wrote with solemnity or gaiety on things grave and weighty, or things excessively trivial. He wrote moreover with a seeming discursiveness that somehow never quite forsook the original theme. Perhaps Sir Edmund Gosse put the matter as simply as it can be put when he said – ‘It was in the chapters of his strange new book that Montaigne introduced the fashion of writing briefly, irregularly, with constant digressions and interruptions about the world as it appears to the individual who writes.’
As a large host of writers have followed Montaigne’s great example, perhaps it would be well to say that this air of discursiveness, so congenial to the essay, is almost always deceptive. Montaigne knew perfectly well what he was doing, and just as the modern after-dinner speaker is said to lie awake half the night considering how best to give the impression of being completely spontaneous in his speech, so Montaigne, it may be thought, with his elaborate quotations, his historical allusions, his curious speculations, and his quaint and most daring fancies, is not quite the casual and careless commentator he sometimes appears to be; but rather is he a man of some method and of great industry and of much forethought, with a plan and a scheme in all his writing.”

“The other equally great name in the history of the essay is that of Francis Bacon. He is utterly unlike Montaigne, but he is one of the chief glories of English literature. In the early part of the year 1597 he published his first volume of essays under the title of Essays. Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion. They were as different from the essays of Montaigne as anything could be. They were simple and direct, and were more akin to a collection of aphorisms, carefully gathered, and published without any ornamentation whatever.”

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Ed. S.H. Steinberg Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Literature. London: Cassell, 1953 [I forgot to note the pagination! Ooops]

Realism – Childers and Hentzi

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Realism, according to Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi:

“In its literary usage the term realism is often defined as a method or form in fiction that provides a ‘slice of life,’ an ‘accurate representation of reality.’ Such a seemingly straightforward definition, however, belies a number of complexities that inform the concept of realism. First, and perhaps foremost, is the extreme differences in style and form among the texts that are usually identified as realistic. The term, though applicable to contemporary works, is most often used in discussion of nineteenth-century novels. Among those considered realists are George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and George Gissing in England, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola in France, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy in Russia, and W.D. Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry James in the United States. For the most part, it might be said of these authors’ works that they focus on ordinary characters and the day-to-day events of those characters’ lives. The plots of these works encompass all social classes and tend away from excessive sentimentalizing. The characters’ speech and actions are appropriate for their education and social standing. Often these authors are extremely interested in the small details of experience, describing at length scenery, events, and seemingly unimportant objects. The representations of life found in these novelists’ works seem corroborated by nonfiction works that deal with the same subject matter. Yet at the same time that these works are categorized as realistic, one would be hard put to find common styles, techniques of plotting, or political agendas among them.
Another difficulty with the concept of realism has to do with the fact that it is applied to representations of the world. The concept of “realistic fiction” is rather oxymoronic, since ostensibly a text should be either “realistic” or a “fiction,” but it does not seem possible that it could be both. This contradiction is usually overcome by the response that “realistic fiction” attempts a faithful representation of concrete reality. Yet this too is a problematic assumption, since it begs the questions of the extent to which language, and thus fiction, actually constitute our perception of “reality.” This is not to say that realist authors were not aware of their own subjectivity or the ways in which experience is mediated through language, but they (and the critics who have unproblematically adopted [-p.256] “realism” as an analytical term) tend to assume that the nature of the material world is realtively stable and representable.” (pp.255-256)

“Another term that has been used in conjunction with discussions of realism is magic realism. Applied to a group of writers that include Latin American authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as German Günter Grass and Englishman John Fowles, magic realism describes the technique of combining realistic depictions of events and characters with elements of the FANTASTIC, often drawn from dreams, myth, and fairy tales.
In recent years realism has come under considerable attack by post-structuralists…. Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Colin McCabe have argued that “classic,” nineteenth-century realism, in its reliance on closure (or the resolution of the plot) and its effacement of its own fictionality, reinscribe both characters and readers as essential, autonomous SUBJECTS. The basis for this subjectivity, they argue, is a middle-class “norm” that is always presented as the obvious and true. Thus, for such critics, the realist novel is a tool of bourgeois ideology that affirms that ideology and the place (and activities) of the subject within it. Another poststructuralist theorist, Jean Baudrillard, has argued that while once realism may have been at a premium, existence today operates on the level of SIMULACRA. Because we live in a world in which representation is so easily produced and disseminated, it is these simulations themselves, rather than any sort of “reality,” that constitute our being and our world. For Baudrillard, we have become so enmeshed in simulacra that our references are only to other simulations.” (p.256)

Ref: (capitals and italics in original) Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi (1995) The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism New York: Columbia U.P.

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.