a resource for studying literary theory


Genre1. When the Twin Towers came down on September 11th 2001, it was like watching a scene from a Hollywood movie.

2. That injury time penalty awarded to Spurs was an absolute tragedy for Arsenal.

Both these sentences employ genre. They use it figuratively to shape the way an experience is understood and both demonstrate a strange combination of the large and small, trivial and profound. The terrible events of 9/11 are compared to the special effects and action sequences of a particular style of film-making; in doing so, we detect a desire to make 9/11 paradoxically unreal, to undo its horrors, reducing them to moving pictures on a screen. A contrary desire underpins the comparison between football and tragedy; the significance of the penalty is magnified, and the game itself is couched in dramatic terms of devastation and loss. What is clear is that genre is never neutral. It is a ubiquitous feature of language and we use it to make meaning—to classify and comprehend.

Genre derives from the Latin root ‘genus’, meaning a ‘class or kind of things’ (OED). From the seventeenth century, scientific disciplines—such as zoology and botany—have used ‘genus’ to identify and describe groups of species. In the arts, the word ‘genre’ has evolved simultaneously. From the eighteenth century, it has been used to identify and describe particular works, from paintings to sculpture, poetry to prose. When we speak of genre, we speak to a human need for order and organization. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that critical studies of literary genres demonstrate a keen taxonomical urge. The first of these (and possibly the most influential) was Aristotle’s Poetics, an examination of generic properties written during the fourth century BCE. This treatise attempts to identify the ‘component parts’ of tragedy and epic; it seeks to understand how they differ in terms of ‘medium’ (how a thing is represented), ‘object’ (what is represented) and ‘mode’ (the voice and viewpoint adopted, e.g. a singular, coherent perspective vs. multiple characters with agency) (Aristotle, p. 17). Here Aristotle performs a textual post mortem, dissecting a body of works to establish their common anatomy. And the legacy of his method can be seen in other significant studies. In Morphology of the Folktale, for example, Vladimir Propp identifies thirty-one ‘functions’ of plot and character constitutive of fairy tales. Significantly, Propp’s choice of title returns us to genre’s root in scientific discourse: morphology is the study of organic structures and parts, how they relate to each other and how they relate to the whole. But such a forensic approach to literature and storytelling may seem, at first glance, to be strange and reductive. After all, what can morphology tell us about social, cultural and aesthetic significance? Propp anticipates this criticism and offers the following defence: ‘Not a single concrete fact can be explained without the study of […] abstract bases’ (Propp, p. 15). He claims that historically-specific uses and variations in genre cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of ‘abstract’ building blocks: ‘as long as no correct morphological study exists, there can be no correct historical study’ (Propp, p. 15).

Indeed the importance we invest in the so-called rules of genre can be seen when the form mutates or the rules are broken. In ‘The Autobiographical Pact’, for example, Philippe Lejeune attempts to define the genre of autobiography, to keep it separate from related forms such as biography and the autobiographical novel. As his title suggests, Lejeune’s solution was couched in legalese; autobiography requires a ‘contract of identity […] sealed by the proper name’ (Lejeunne, p. 19). In other words, the reader must trust in the shared identity of narrator, protagonist and author, and the reader must also trust in the relationship between events narrated and events in the autobiographer’s life. But promises and contracts are often broken. One need only look at the popular and critical reaction to autobiographies exposed as fakes, forgeries and hoaxes to see the moral and ideological weight that we still invest in genre labels. A famous example is James Frey’s addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Three years after the book was published it emerged that Frey had included fictionalized passages and made false claims. As a result, the book is now published with a prefatory note that acknowledges the fiction and apologizes for Frey’s breaking of the autobiographical pact.

But writers have contravened the rules of genre since pen first hit paper, and anxieties surrounding the task of categorization reveal its inherent complexity. It is not enough to say ‘this is a poem’ or ‘this is prose’—we specialize, we qualify, we sub-divide. For example, the label ‘prose’ can be refined into ‘novel’, then ‘gothic’, then qualified with many other attributes (such as ‘romance’ or ‘young adult’). What we produce is a kind of evolutionary tree: an acknowledgment that genre is complex in its many combinations. Mikhail Bakhtin was acutely aware of this in the case of the novel. Writing in the 1940s, he argued that the novel was ‘the only developing genre’ among others that were ‘long since completed and in part already dead’ (Bakhtin 1981, p. 4). For Bakhtin, the novel was special because it gave voice to multiple, simultaneous discourses, incorporating and reinvigorating other genres (e.g. the epistolary novel includes and makes use of letter-writing). Tzvetan Todorov, writing in the 1970s, took a more expansive view of complex genres. In ‘The Origin of Genres’, a title that invokes Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, he claimed: ‘A new genre is always the transformation of an earlier one, or of several: by inversion, by displacement, by combination’ (Todorov 1990, p. 15). For Todorov, this evolutionary process could be traced back to a point of origin in human speech and discourse, but his developmental model is also significant for its recognition of innovation and transgression as an essential part of all genres.

These arguments reach their (il)logical conclusion in the work of Jacques Derrida. In ‘The Law of Genre’ he exposed the paradoxical nature of attempts to demarcate and define. Derrida adopts a legal discourse (reminding you, perhaps, of Lejeune’s autobiographical pact) but he is not to be trusted. Rather he advocates a state of lawlessness—genre is subject to a ‘law of impurity or a principle of contamination’ and the relationship between genre and texts is one of ‘participation without belonging’ (Derrida, pp. 57, 59). For Derrida, categories of genre, in their very complexity and multiplicity, bring about their own undoing. When we call a text a poem, for example, the word ‘poem’ does not belong to that genre. There is an instant fracture, a gap, an opening—genre labels ‘[gather] together the corpus and […] in the same blinking of an eye, [keep] it from closing’ (Derrida, p. 65). And so, if a text participates across multiple genres, and if no genre is ever closed and complete, then what is the point of it all? What is the use of a labelling system where none of the labels quite fit? This question has troubled contemporary critics. Is it possible, then, to write of literature without employing categories and hierarchies of genre? Jonathan Culler, for example, has attempted to identify a ‘non-genre literature’, a radical body of ‘unreadable’ texts that defy categorization (such as James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) (Culler, pp. 51, 52). But inevitably the denial or rejection of genre is haunted by its own terms. The language of genre is seemingly inescapable. Marjorie Perloff, for example, points to the ‘paradox […] that the more radical the dissolution of traditional generic boundaries, the more important the concept of genericity becomes’ (Perloff, p. 4). In other words, genre must exist before it can be deconstructed. And so we are faced with the persistence of genre.


Image ‘My Books’ by Jenn Calder (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr