The Genre Problem

The problem with genre in the various fields of cultural study is that, like any concept, it has a history and a limited scope, and yet there are too many objects to analyze for any of them to escape categorization. The result is an incoherent mishmash of terms, punctuated by occasional abortive attempts to assert order. I suspect a big reason why they always fail is because they can’t make themselves fit with the essayistic, anti-scientific form of most cultural study. Here’s one that does, by Carl Freedman from Critical Theory and Science Fiction:

“…a genre is not a classification but an element or, better still, a tendency that, in combination with other relatively autonomous generic elements or tendencies, is active to a greater or lesser degree within a literary text that is itself understood as a complexly structured totality. In other words, a text is not filed under a generic category; instead, a generic tendency is something that happens within a text” (20).

He’s not the only one to say this; one can note that this notion of genre, coming after the structuralist and poststructuralist debates of mid-century, is actually the dominant one today within academic literary and film criticism. Its notion of the individual text as the primary unit of study, a “complexly structured totality” whose fundamental and unique distinctiveness only emphasizes further the multitudes it contains, seems custom made for close reading, opposed as it is to any kind of empiricism.

But in its suggestion of transindividual entities (genres) being re(?)constructed from within the apparently stable text, it contains the seeds of a very different approach. It may be that only now when the serious study of literature is a minority interest, when Philip Roth can argue that the novel’s future will be “cultic” and surprise no one, that the field of literature can be cleared for genre to be useful again.

I’m of course thinking of Franco Moretti’s work on the novel. In Graphs, Maps, Trees, he suggests, on the one hand, a shift in thinking that takes into account the historical fluctuation within every novelistic genre, or genre cycles, where say the Gothic appears in the late 18th century, declines in the early 19th, and reappears in the late 19th and again at different moments during the 20th: “variations in a conflict that remains constant: this is what emerges at the level of the cycle — and if the conflict remains constant, then the point is not who prevails in this or that skirmish, but exactly the opposite…” The novel then benefits from its capacity to “use a double pool of talents and forms, thereby boosting its productivity, and giving it an edge over its many competitors.” This process can only be seen at the level of the cycle — individual episodes (individual novels or abstract blocks or stages of time) and the  presentation of transhistorical categories as timeless tend to conceal it.

This approach nevertheless requires the use of stable generic categories, though individual texts can belong to several at once. One has to be able to say, to take an uncontroversial example, that the late 19th century and late 18th century Gothic are both Gothic. More controversial are units like ‘spy novel’ or ‘historical novel’ and the supposed timeframes (arbitrarily borrowed from other scholars). One could argue that these categories only make sense after the breakdown of classical genre, literature’s complete commodification, and the rise of distinct market categories in the 19th century. Only at this point do generic markers take on an empirical value.

On the other hand, in the Trees section, Moretti adopts a quasi-Darwinian framework for tracking the evolution of stylistic tropes, structural features, etc., apparently on the level of ‘memes.’ It seems to me an approach like this requires database analysis and developments in pattern recognition software and machine learning to be really successful. As far as I know Moretti is pursuing precisely that, but I have no idea if it’s working out beyond this amusing blurb in Wired.

At any rate, both approaches undermine the centrality of the text as the primary unit of analysis and permit the study of literature en masse. The centrality of canon and author are also undermined, which might sound old hat to anyone who’s read their Barthes and Foucault until they look around and are forced to admit that canons and authors are still very much central to literary study. Internal resistance movements like feminist and postcolonial theory can’t contest the eurocentrism of the Great Books without asserting alternative canons and authors. Cultural studies relies on the canons produced by pop culture. And perennially disrespected genres like sci-fi, horror, fantasy, detective novels, etc. can’t get ‘serious’ attention without a canon. Studying the novel (and probably other literary/textual genres, like philosophy, say) outside the metaphysics of bourgeois individualism it did so much to propagate — of which the most egregious is probably intellectual property — will require moving beyond these structural limits, and Moretti’s work is valuable for this reason alone.


All of which only serves to make me feel more awkward, because despite my growing interest in the history of fantasy, for which genre is a central concern, I’m not sure Moretti’s work can help me. And so what follows are some barely organized notes on potential problems, as I see them, in the empirical use of genre as an organizing concept for such a project.

From the beginning of literature, there were arguments over mimesis. From just before the beginning of the modern European novel in the 18th century, there were arguments over fiction, romance, verisimilitude, in a word, ‘realism’ — what would become the ruling ideology of literary representation, the very presupposition of ‘novel.’ These arguments came on the heels of the 17th century controversies over the proper form of natural philosophy. Should it include the wondrous, miraculous, and strange? The whispered rumors of sea travelers, the eyewitness accounts of the vulgar? The evils of witchcraft? The society of men on the moon? The Royal Society’s answer was, eventually, no. In the 18th century such things would be relegated to a psychologized, pathologized imagination, something that needed to be rigorously controlled, in the behavior of the vulgar no less than in the minds and the epistemologies of the educated. And in the early 19th century, shortly after the formalization of aesthetics in Germany and the revolution in France, Tzetvan Todorov’s ‘fantastic’ emerges in Jan Potocki’s Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse as the other of realism, that “hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” The multitude of 17th and 18th century genres — the chivalric romance, the Gothic, the Oriental, the pornographic, the conte philosophique, the fable, Tory satire, etc. — the popular as well as the esoteric — are corralled and contained in the figure of the other and the faculty of the (creative) imagination. Prose, the discourse of histoire, grants itself permission to openly disclose visions.

Somewhere in all of this is the role of imaginative prose in its own marginalization, and its role in the war over knowledge that builds and rebuilds ‘the modern.’

Following the history depicted in this thumbnail sketch, we find all the traditional fantastic genres: fantasy, science fiction, modern fairy tale, supernatural horror, etc. 20th century attempts to categorize them lie between two main tendencies: 1) Russian formalist-derived methods of synchronization, transforming the field into a collection of tropes which can be spatialized and chronologized – born of course in the study of folktales 2) ‘deep’ psychologizing methods such as those of Jung and Freud (modernized by Lacan). These are all modes of analyzing linguistic signs, whether they attempt to delve into the individual or mass psyche behind the text, or limit themselves to the organization of its surface. To put it too quickly, their weakness is their ahistoricism.

But how to narrate this long history without reifying the generic markers and without recourse to nominalism? What historical struggle do these forms manifest? No single set of genres is adequate because genre itself undergoes at least two rebirths in the midst of this history. Critics have found it necessary to deploy a protagonist large enough for the task. Fredric Jameson’s favored term, following Frye, is ‘romance’ — the macro structure of the counter-novel. Where ‘fantasy,’ referring to a non-‘realistic’ content, might name a psychological desire (following Freud), romance for Jameson, referring to a non-mimetic narrative structure, is the name for a historical desire, the recapturing of the “worldness of world” stamped away by the onset of capitalism.

For Lukacs, Bakhtin, and Jameson, the “novel is the end of genre;” the study of literature in the wake of the novel (as the literary shorthand for ‘modernity’) requires different structures: “properly used, genre theory must always in one way or another project a model of the coexistence or tension between several generic modes or strands: and with this methodological axiom the typologizing abuses of traditional genre criticism are definitely laid to rest.”

There is, it seems to me, a contradiction here between Jameson’s simultaneous emphasis on historical narrative (structured around a historical subject) and on a kind of heterotopic spatialized history, where multiple histories vie for dominance within any given moment. Here is Edward Said on narrative (from Orientalism):

“Narrative asserts the power of men to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions and actualities to change, the likelihood that modernity and contemporaneity will finally overtake ‘classical’ civilizations; above all, it asserts that the domination of reality by vision is no more than a will to power, a will to truth and interpretation, and not an objective condition of history. Narrative, in short, introduces an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness to the unitary web of vision; it violates the serene Appollonian fictions asserted by vision.”

And recall that for this early Jameson at least, “storytelling [is] the supreme function of the human mind.”

Does a history of literature have to take narrative form? Are the limitations inherent in these kinds of narratives the same as those so often criticized in the novel (i.e. the centrality of an individual, transcendent protagonist)? European prose narrative, as far as I know, gets its start in the form of the compilation of folktales, the proto-encyclopedia (like the various Arthurian cycles), where narrative inheres in a structure of knowledge, not the novel, where narrative is supposedly primary. The forms of the fantastic retain this connection, albeit in different ways. Stories are as weak as they are strong.


16 Responses to “The Genre Problem”

  1. Did you see Moretti’s article in novel titles in the new issue of Critical Inquiry?

  2. Change that first “in” to “on”…

  3. A fascinating post! I have a few remarks on this subject, so dear to my heart.

    I find this a little strange:
    “Its notion of the individual text as the primary unit of study, a “complexly structured totality” whose fundamental and unique distinctiveness only emphasizes further the multitudes it contains, seems custom made for close reading, opposed as it is to any kind of empiricism.”

    I would think, on the contrary, that this idea is derived from and fidele to empiricism, which always proceeds under the assumption that the first level of reality is atomized, and that synthesis is a mental act. The sense impression has a unity that allows it to cause the idea. I think you are contrasting one form of empiricism with Moretti’s Durkheim-like introduction of the statistical method into the study of the novel – which reminds me a lot of Durkheim’s use of the public records to study suicide. And Durkheim’s point was to deprive the suicide of its alien uniqueness, to the point that he denied a suicide’s influence on other suicides – Tarde’s thesis.

    Another point: I think the notion of realism produces a dead end in the discussion of the fantastic. What is, in my opinion, at issue is banality. Gogol, a writer who was at first received, by Belinski, as the paragon of realism is the paragon, for me, of the treatment of banality. The fantastic has to jump out of the detail – it does not deny the real so much as it turns it on its face, makes it a clue. When the narrator in the Horla, for instance, describes the glass of water by his bed, he is, in a sense, describing the most real of things – something so real you look right through it. It is the transparency of the real – its banality – that becomes the object of a cultural critique by both the realistic and genre writer. After all, in an era when la forme d’une ville/ Change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d’un mortel – the real is obviously in flux – and not in flux in traditional terms, where the changes in the village or countryside were effected slowly, or for glory or predation, but were part of a system that insisted on change. The details that overflow in sci fi novels, and the details that overflow in the sheet of instructions you get with the box for some modern convenience, have the same provenance. But the instructions in the fantastic ultimately lead to breakdown. That is, in the fantastic, the empirical faith in the one to one correspondence of sense impression and idea breaks down – in great fantastic literature, the mental synthesis, which is the domain of science, doesn’t happen. The nose, the horla, the invisible man, the giant cockroach, ubik – I believe this series of fantastic objects have something to do with the Gogol’s notion that the banal is the realm of the devil. This is, possibly, one way for the writer to regard modernity – the ordinary, in which the everyday personality is engaged, might not be imminently evil, but its total effect is evil – or good. Banality numbs us to that effect. Of course, this was as true of the Romans, or of the Spanish conquistadors, or of English slavers – but in modernity, there is a twist in the way popular forms of thinking about the effect of the ordinary – religion, ‘superstition’ – operate.

    Anyway, such is my preliminary response. But I hope you take up the threads of this post again soon, traxux.

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    allen and chabert — thanks for the links, hadn’t seen some of those before.

    and roger — i have to get back to you tomorrow unfortunately (my computer is on the fritz hence online sessions are spotty), but thanks for the helpful comment!

  5. traxus4420 Says:

    roger – sorry, which idea is derived from empiricism, the freedman/lukacsian idea of the novel as a complexly structured totality or the presuppositions of close reading? i think that for freedman as for the new critics the organic unity of the text is already there prior to the labor of the individual critic, who nevertheless recapitulates it mentally. that is, the ideal text is already a creative synthesis of the atomized reality of modern experience, and the critic comes to it secondhand, as part of the moral task of reforming that first, atomized level.

    do you have a post on durkheim vs. tarde? i’ve become interested in this debate from reading latour.

    interesting point re: realism and banality. i wonder — has any literary style ever been pro-banality? because i would say the ‘scientific’ (or mythical/religious) synthesis of sense impression and idea in much sci-fi is the transcendence of a reality that is banal because broken down into senseless parts. olaf stapledon’s work, if you’re willing to include it in the genre, or h.g. wells, or c.s. lewis, or asimov do this in different ways. or science itself breaks down a false empirical unity only to hint at its reconstruction on another level (the future, say) — j.h. rosny aîné is an early example, with “les xipéhuz” and “un autre monde” depicting transdimensional Horla-esque entities that defy the senses but who (in the latter case at least) are amenable to scientific inquiry.

    ‘cognitive estrangement’ as darko suvin and freedman put it.

    and then there’s fantasy in the sense of william morris, or george macdonald, or tolkien, but that’s a whole nother issue…

    but for the moment i’m interested in the prehistory of this dialectic, the version of it at work in the 18th century. again we’re not dealing with ‘reality’ as the immediacy of scientific fact or even the probable recommendations of a scientific community (which never formed a true consensus, as the previous two centuries proved), but a vision of normalcy, propriety, and the conditions of civilized discourse. a compromise. i’m unsure if the early novel was really the champion of this effort it’s sometimes cracked up to be, or what its relations were with the myriad other prose genres. can we track the emergence of a ‘purely imaginative’ prose literature, does its possibility happen first in criticism? in a sense i want to test where the ‘laws of nature’ todorov refers to come from; when and how could they be ‘resisted’ or ‘suspended.’

    this question, basically: “in modernity, there is a twist in the way popular forms of thinking about the effect of the ordinary – religion, ‘superstition’ – operate.”

  6. “in a sense i want to test where the ‘laws of nature’ todorov refers to come from; when and how could they be ‘resisted’ or ’suspended.’”

    I’ve been reading the new two Saragossa MSes that resulted from the recent discoveries – 1804 is enlightened and 1810 is illumined. It’s known Potocki was going a bit kooky, but the impression the texts give is of a formal revision with choices on aesthetic grounds – romanticism is in fashion, romanticism perhaps exploits the narrative material more fully, romanticism allows for the ideological content to emerge more smoothly (the text is self conscious about an enlightenment discourse of Orientalism). And even though with these “the fantastic” is emerging somehow, there is in them a strong sense of belonging to a tradition which understands the poles just as Cervantes did – as between the enchantment of chivalric romance and the naturalistic quotidian picaresque, understanding that hybrids (Tiran lo Blanc, where the knights “die in their beds” and make wills etc) are the future, and as a solution-through-literature. But the basic assumption is that forms are forms, implying nothing about the author’s attitude toward reality, but having social status and function. And this seems really modern now; somehow with modernism, that came full circle – the generic issues that appeared (deceptively) as philosophical (epistemological, ontological, theological) issues in romanticism and the 19th c, in modernism again present themselves as openly generic-aesthetic-literary again (the literary fantastic and magic realism have the same sense that the unnatural/supernatural/uncanny are for aesthetic and formal motives as chivalric romance does, or should, for level headed reasonable people.)

    So is the point that “the fantastic” properly appears when the poles that ruled Cervantes’ conception of this romance vs realism choice are adjusted so that the choice appears to be something other than formal? And stripped of the social consequences/conflict to have instead individual consequences/psychic conflict? Because the early modern choice poses the question – are we dealing with aristocrats or peasants? refined courtly art or folk product? and the later, romantic choice poses the questions – is this one guy insane or not? and Is there God or not? Which is a disguise of the first question to a point, a change that could be told as “repression and return/symptom.”

  7. ““the fantastic” properly appears when the poles that ruled Cervantes’ conception of this romance vs realism choice are adjusted so that the choice appears to be something other than formal? ”

    I mean it’s the result of internalising to a single point of view (a character or the shared narrator/reader perspective) vying types of productions which express irreconcileable social positions.

  8. traxus4420 Says:

    alphonse – yeah i think what you say after “So is the point that “the fantastic” properly appears” is my opening framework. but it also seems that the philosophical issues of the 18th century surrounding epistemology — i’m drawing this from daston/park and shapin/shaeffer’s work and others who share their assumptions — are themselves about questions relating to “are we dealing with aristocrats or peasants? refined courtly art or folk product?” the problematic of knowledge and belief, where the proper limits to knowledge/speculation about nature and causality are bound up with the rules of propriety governing the ideal public sphere, for which one important laboratory was the royal society. when are the philosophical questions more than ‘formal’? not sure if i’m understanding you there. in what you call the modernist fantastic’s return to the generic/aesthetic/literary isn’t there a more or less implicit stance against the philosophical/scientific ‘official’ forms of epistemology, from the POV of the ‘repressed’ (whether social or psychological)? i.e. the library of babel and middle earth?

  9. (About “other than formal” or more than formal, I mean, the Crébillon fils talking sopha doesn’t raise epitemological issues as part of the content but the Gautier cafetière does.)

  10. traxus4420 Says:

    that rivka galchen piece was great, thanks. i await your reply.

  11. Hmm, I don’t quite understand what you are saying about empiricism and close reading. I thought – and wrote from – the idea that you were opposing the abstraction of atomizing texts and doing close readings with the empiricism of Moretti’s taking the texts as social phenomena – and that I thought wasn’t right. Rather, I was thinking that the classical empiricist notion of putting together the world from discreet sense impressions seems more aligned with putting together the world of, say, English metaphysical poetry by close readings of the metaphysical poems.

    On the other hand, there is certainly a connection between James’s radical empiricism and Durkheim, who seems to me to be the tutelary deity of Moretti’s method.

    There’s a beautiful essay, to which I refer all too often on LI, about Gogol and banality by Merezhovsky: “Everyone can perceive evil in great violations of the moral law, in rare and unusual misdeeds, in the staggering climaxes of tragedies. Gogol was the first to detect invisible evil, most terrible and enduring, not in tragegy, but in the absence of everything tragic; not in power, but in impotence; not in insane extremes, but in all-too-sensible moderation; not in acuity and profundity, but in inanity and planarity, in the banality of all human feelings and thoughts; not in the gratest things, but in the smallest.”

    Which reminds me of the story I am reading of Gogol’s at the moment, Ivan Fiodorvich Schponka, in which one of the main characters, the landower , Grigori Grigorievich, doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to hear by saying, I must tell you that a cockroach got into my left ear ( those damned Russians breed cockroaches in their huts ); no pen can describe what agony it was, it kept tickling and tickling… This is typical Gogolian banality – the superfluity of the familiar. What Barthes calls the reality effect, but in a very different register.

  12. traxus4420 Says:

    roger – ok, i get you now (sorry for the late response) – i think my confusion comes from the filtering of classical empiricist assumptions through a hegelian marxist dialectical framework, which is polemically opposed to positivism if not quite (as i say above) “any kind of empiricism.” the individual ‘well-formed’ text has an organic relationship to other texts. so one does not study science fiction say by reading every member of the genre, one studies science fiction by selecting texts which contain intelligent commentaries/contextualizations/critiques/subversions/uses of the genre (conceived as a sort of ideal logic that never wholly manifests in any one text or set of texts).

    i will do some checking up on james/durkheim — er, right after i’m through with bacon and hume. thanks also for the tip on that essay.

    alphonse – when were the new saragossa manuscripts discovered? who sells them and/or where are they located?

  13. “when were the new saragossa manuscripts discovered? ”

    They published them (François Rosset, Potocki’s biographer and scholar, and Dominique Triaire,) in 2006; I guess they found the new materials a few years before, they’re available in paperback Garnier-Flammarion since last year.

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