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.