John D. Boyd, SJ, Chair in the Poetic Imagination, Department of English, Fordham University
Posted March 2013
Tracing approaches to genre in English and American literary and cultural studies is no less fraught than fascinating. For this investigation crystallizes debates on much broader controversies—to what extent if at all should we focus on the distinctly literary in studying not only genre but problems such as authorship or materiality? who or what determines the interpretations of a text? and so on. Students of genre, admittedly liable to the charge of having a horse if not a whole stable in the race, often emphasize the wider implications of their work, thus introducing the potential for additional controversies. Mikhail Bakhtin (1986), for example, declares that "in each epoch certain speech genres set the tone for the development of literary language" (p. 65); similarly, John Frow (2005), author of a fine overview of genre, seconds the Russian formalists' demonstration that genres are central to an entire discipline, going so far as to assert that they are "the driving force of change in the literary field" (pp. 68-9).
The subject indicated in the title of this essay, genre in English and American literary and cultural studies, is also fraught because any analysis of genre both demands and resists boundaries. In conflating literary and cultural studies, as so many critics do today, one builds within what used to be a narrower field the type of bridges to which GXB is dedicated. Yet given the vastness of the subject, this entry necessarily focuses on primarily on literary studies, treating cultural studies in several of its senses briefly; those two categories are of course themselves controversial and often used variously in different countries and different circles within them. In any event, whether or not my essay itself focuses on both literary and cultural studies, the study of genre in those overlapping fields interacts with many of the other disciplines represented on this site. For example, as its title suggests, an acute article by the narratologist Monika Fludernick connects concepts appearing in the work of literary critics, linguists, and students of composition and rhetoric to develop a new model. Moreover, analyzing the analysts of genre requires further distinctions; for example, as noted below, certain patterns are more characteristic of Canada or Great Britain than the United States. Conversely, discussions of genre in these and other Anglophone countries often include in the conversation thinkers from other cultures, as we will see.
Further challenges also relate to terminology. In general, in this discipline "genre" is used both for larger categories, especially the triad of lyric, epic or narrative, and dramatic (forms alternatively labelled "modes"), and for specific types within them, such as the sonnet. Other subdivisions, such as the Bildungsroman (novels like Charles Dickens's David Copperfield that typically trace the maturation of an individual), also are categorized variously as genres and as subgenres. Attacks on a traditional canon, and more broadly the development of cultural studies, have encouraged many critics of English and American literature to include under the umbrella of genre not only forms that once would have been seen as sub-literary or even non-literary, such as folktales, but also cultural formations; thus the Victorianist Caroline Levine (2006) has influentially developed the argument that social hierarchies and institutions, seen as analogous to genre by many earlier critics, should in fact be considered genres per se. Moreover, literary critics sometimes focus on the type of genres that also interest specialists in composition and rhetoric, such as the riddle or invitation (for a literary discussion of invitations, see, for example, Huth (2011)).
Twentieth- and twenty-first century genre criticism, like the literary texts it often addresses, draws on classical and, less frequently, continental predecessors. Overtly registered when critical schools of our own era are labeled "Neo-Aristotelian," the debt to Aristotle is pervasive in many other quarters as well, but one should also note the influence of Horace and of the so-called Virgilian wheel, the concept, falsely attributed to Virgil, that a poetic career ascends from the lower forms of georgic and pastoral to the heights of epic. And of course between about 1900 and the present, many people writing on genre have developed their own ideas in collaboration with, or in rebellion against (or both) their predecessors. Like the twentieth- and twenty-first century arguments on which my essay focuses, these earlier debates interacted with continental ones in ways that further complicate the geographical boundaries this essay necessarily establishes; much as continental discussions about the genre—or pseudo-genre?—of romance influenced sixteenth- and seventeenth-century considerations of that mode, so, as I will indicate, the Frenchman Jacques Derrida has shaped many responses to genre in the Anglo-American literary communities. Overviews of those influential earlier tracts, such as the position on lyric developed by John Stuart Mill, may be found throughout Alastair Fowler's valuable Kinds of Literature as well as in the third and fourth chapters of Heather Dubrow, Genre, the third chapter of John Frow's book of the same title, and the seventeenth chapter of René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature. Those studies also engage with twentieth-century approaches to genre—as does the valuable introduction to David Duff's Modern Genre Theory, an anthology of some of the most seminal texts in that field.
Not only divergent sources and analogues like those but also distinct and often warring movements participate in twentieth-century genre studies. Some chronological developments may be traced, but doing so is tricky: critics are often all too eager to craft a teleology that positions their own movement as the successor, magisterial if not majestical, to its misguided and misguiding predecessors; moreover, patterns and approaches often reappear in different form rather than simply vanishing. For a telling instance of both practices take formalism, where genre has always been central though its study is various enough to demonstrate that "formalism" no less than feminism demands to be declined in the plural as "formalisms." Thus, reacting against both the putative vagueness of German idealism and the apparent lacunae in the work of biographical critics, the Russian formalists approached genre by focusing on texts they considered clearly and distinctively literary, exploring issues ranging from the formal effects, such as sound patterns characteristic of particular genres, to how and why genres change. For example, Jurij Tynjanov (1971) talks about the interaction among literary forms from these perspectives. Another breed of formalism, the Chicago School, practiced a NeoAristotelian method of categorization, with R. S. Crane (1974), for example, drawing on Aristotle's conceptions of imitation to develop a series of protocols for approaching narrative. Discussed below, structuralism is also kin to formalism. Finally, the literary methodology known as new formalism has been developing in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Although defined in various and sometimes contradictory ways (does or does not new formalism confine itself to the literary in any senses of that term? is it by definition and inclination necessarily historical?), clearly its practitioners interest themselves in genre; a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly (2000), expanded as Reading for Form (2007), by Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown (Eds.), includes many instances of that approach. The bibliography lists more recent collections of new formalism that also engage extensively with genre; for example, the books edited by Stephen Cohen and Mark David Rasmussen are specifically on early modern new formalism, while New Formalisms and Literary Theory (2013), edited by Verena Theile and Linda Treddernick, covers other historical fields and encompasses the role of new formalism in both creative writing and other literature classrooms.
New Criticism is often seen as a sibling of or even a version of formalism, but in fact the two differ in some important ways. Impelled by principles developed by such figures as I. A. Richards and exemplified by the work of Cleanth Brooks, New Criticism flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. It emphasizes close attention to the individual text, basing interpretation not on the author's biography or intentions or the reader's prior knowledge of the culture but rather the language of the poetry or prose itself. Among the issues interesting New Critics particularly were irony and ambiguity. Because of this emphasis on the individual text, many New Critics devoted little or no attention to genre (another reason for not conflating the movement with formalism), but exceptions are not hard to winnow out; for example, in his work on Sidney, David Kalstone (1965) comments sensitively on his use of the sestina form (pp. 71-84).
Structuralism, an interdisciplinary movement originally continental in origins, flourished in the United States in the 1970s, though many of its practitioners remained influential in this and other fields much longer. In general, narratology arguably participated in structuralist literary criticism more vigorously and continuously than any other literary field (not coincidentally, that relative of structuralism, formalism, also remained alive and well in many narratological circles during the later decades of the twentieth century, when it was variously disdained and descried elsewhere), with such studies as Gérard Genette's Narrative Discourse (1980) positing recurrent patterns in narrative. Structuralism investigates so-called deep structures in texts (patterns that are not merely thematic and are often more covert than themes) like the interplay between versions of in and out; it also traces the rules that putatively govern practices, whether they be an anthropological ritual or a literary form. For example, Tzvetan Todorov (1973) articulated a theory of the fantastic that focused on the reader's responses. The structuralist work of Claudio Guillén (a comparatist, Spanish by birth, though he did much of his work in the United States, thus again demonstrating the problems of historical or national boundaries in discussing genre) frequently involved genre; "Genre and Countergenre: The Discovery of the Picaresque," an important essay in his Literature as System (1971), explores how opposing genres interact.
Structuralism itself, as well as formalism, Jungian analysis, and Christian theology, are among the many influences on the work of Northrop Frye. Indisputably the driving force in Canadian literary criticism for many years, his work, especially Anatomy of Criticism, is arguably the most influential work on genre in the twentieth century elsewhere as well (whatever its limits, its marginalization in a couple of recent histories of genre demonstrates the power of Oedipal drives). Committed to the putative presence of transhistorical and transnational patterns in literature, Frye crafts an extraordinary system to categorize all of literature, stimulating though slippery in its use of terminology generally deployed in other ways elsewhere in genre criticism. Thus, drawing on Aristotle, he uses "modes" to distinguish different types of relationship a hero may have to other people and to the environment; "mythos" for archetypal plots that he associates with the seasons; and "genre" to distinguish intrinsic forms (which he calls "radicals") of presentation, so that "epos" remains associated with some types of recitation even when epics are written.
Frye's extraordinary system has been challenged not only for inconsistencies he himself later acknowledged but also for the undertow, sporadically acknowledged, of Christian doctrine within it and for its instantiation of Eurocentric genres as universal. Similarly, viewed as rigid in its approach to rules and dangerously apolitical if not conservative in its putative disinterest in cultural and political pressures, structuralism as a whole was disdained by a number of rival movements starting in the 1980s. Some though not all sailed under the flag of poststructuralism, variously interpreted as a natural successor and enemy to structuralist approaches. One version of poststructuralism, deconstruction, engages with genre from a range of perspectives. The essay "The Law of Genre" (1980) by that leader of deconstruction Jacques Derrida enjoyed a great vogue in the American academy, though its insistence that genres are so amorphous and volatile that they lack laws, while perhaps a useful corrective to the rigidities of French neo-classicism, attributes to the genre criticism it powerfully attacks a kind of rigidity that does not categorize its more influential practitioners. Deconstructionist readings of particular genres, however, such as Jonathan Culler's assertion that apostrophe is the signature trope of lyric, are arguably more useful.
Initially influential in the American academy in the 1980s, new historicism demanded that we see both so-called literary and historical documents as texts that should be read together, often with the aim of exposing their duplicities and complicities, rather than treating the historical archive as a stable and reliable source of "background." Although the rejection of a distinctive category of literature might predict a lack of interest in genre, in fact certain new historicists devoted highly influential essays to it. Notably, Arthur F. Marotti argues that sonnet sequences should be read not as love poems but as coded bids for patronage ("Love is not love"), while another leading new historicist, Louis Montrose, writes powerfully on pastoral in terms of its relationship to the court.
My earlier point about making distinctions within movements and among countries is exemplified by new historicism; the first generation of its practitioners were less influenced, or in some cases less overtly influenced, by Marxist and materialist principles than the English critics misleadingly conflated with them, generally known as the cultural materialists. In the 1990s and beyond, however, the distinction between the two movements erodes, partly because the impact of those principles is apparent in the work of people who would generally be termed new historicists and that of many other critics as well. Thus, for example, Hegelian dialectic models drive the approach to prose fiction in Michael McKeon's seminal Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (1987), while Catherine Gallagher relates that genre to industrialism. The work on genre by Fredric Jameson, among the most influential Marxist critics of his generation, is exemplary in both senses of the word; thus, for example, in writing on romance in "Magical Narratives; On the Dialectical Use of Genre Criticism," he too emphasizes dialectical movements in tracing the driving force of ideology and the relationship between socioeconomic changes and literature. (But that arch-formalist and arch-structuralist Northrop Frye himself anticipates some of Jameson's analyses of that relationship throughout his Anatomy of Criticism, again warning us against both self-serving trajectories of progress and the type of neat categorization an essay like this inevitably risks.) Though critics asking such questions employ a range of critical methods and assumptions, recent materialist studies have linked specific genres to the material conditions of production and dissemination. In Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (1995), Arthur F. Marotti pioneers the discussion of lyric in relation to its media. In an essay co-authored with Marcelle Freiman (2011), Marotti, like Paul Magnuson and other students of the Romantic era, draws attention to its subsequent appearance in newspapers.
The feminist movement that swelled in the 1980s focused intensively on genre, with its earlier practitioners both tracing representations of women in particular literary types and positing distinct male-authored and female-authored versions of genres. A second generation of critics rightly questioned those binaries, but studies of women authors have fruitfully supplemented those earlier critiques by more subtly tracing how women's approach to particular genres relates to gender. Witness, for example, Lynn Keller's Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women (1997). Similarly, the inclusion of texts by Romantic poets like Charlotte Smith, authors long neglected in earlier studies of the Romantic sonnet, has reshaped our knowledge of that genre. Other types of gender criticism, variously seen as developments from, supplements to, and reactions against feminism, also devote attention to genre, with, for example, David Caplan (2005) analyzing why and how self-identified members of the LGBTQ community so often choose to write sonnets (pp. 71-85).
If the project in which this essay itself appears exemplifies the influence on genre studies of the digital humanities, the potentialities of that field are variously manifest in the figures and the tools with which genre is variously approached in each of two recent studies. Yet these essays again warn us against a celebratory progress model: what goes around comes around, though often in significantly different versions. In "Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge" (2007), Wai Chee Dimock develops an analogy between generic mobility and amorphousness, a longstanding concern of genre critics, and the workings of the new media. Genre, she posits, should be conceived as "a pool ... a generic wateriness" (p. 1379), a metaphor that expresses her interest in the interplay among genres (many other swimmers occupy that recreational facility) and in globalizing, rather than nationalizing, genre criticism. One might add that the connections between these readings of genre and recent explorations in gender studies of the concept of queering could fruitfully be further pursued. But my earlier reminder that Derrida's attack on the law of genre waged with an army of straw men reminds us that the argument about fluidity is not novel, though the parallel with digital media provides a valuable approach to it; and Northrop Frye would have endorsed the emphasis on the global for all his discomfort with an otherwise strange bedfellow. In a study of Shakespeare's language of genre, Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore approach Shakespeare's dramatic genres digitally through what they term "iterative criticism," a method of discovering the strings of words distinctive to particular genres; thus, for example, comedy repeatedly yields instances of such patterns as Direct Address, Deny, Disclaim, often in circumstances where two people are speaking, while references to the physical world, for example, appear only seldom in that mode. If, again, a few of their comments about generic fluidities and hybridities had been anticipated more fully in analyses using more conventional methods than they acknowledge, many of their results, as well as their exemplary judiciousness about their own approach, can model future digital investigations into genre.
To summarize and further problematize the overview in this essay one might winnow a few instances of criticism on the sonnet. Demonstrating a formalist concern for the interaction of genres, Rosalie L. Colie talks about the relationship between those fourteen-line poems and the epigram (1974, see: chapter 2). Phillis Levin's magisterial evaluation of the history of the sonnet demonstrates both the continuing contributions of literary history to our understanding of the sonnet and the value of adducing the perspective of a creative writer, a practitioner of the genre one is studying. Exemplifying the Marxist preoccupation with the movement from a status-based to a class-based system, Christopher Warley maintains in Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England (2005) that those patterns shape the early modern sonnet. David Caplan's work exemplifies the contributions of gender criticism in its many and divergent forms. Two recent collections, Hilson's The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (2008) and Cohen's The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare (2012), demonstrate how the history of the sonnet, like that of many other forms, encompasses riffs on and reactions against it—encompasses them, indeed, not only in the age of postmodern parody and pastiche that impels these collections but also throughout its history. But much as the sonnet's concluding couplet often gestures towards a closural certainty that it cannot or will not provide, so my essay should gesture towards the openness of its own digital home and end on a "to be continued."
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