Thinking about the issues of how one defines a genre, and considering for the moment the case of experimental fiction, which might be called a genre, a point that could itself be questioned.
Derrida's essay “On Genre” presents his notion of the indefinite divisability of the trait. There's no defining shared characteristic of any genre that can't be broken down into further differences, and no characteristics of any piece of writing that can be absolutely the same as any other piece of writing. Thus our notions of genre as a form of sameness ultimately break down in any close examination of the traits of a given text. Any two texts are part of the same genre only as long as one is generalizing.
At the same time, absolute difference between any two texts is just as impossible as absolute sameness. Derrida gives as his example (one of many perhaps) the way in which most pieces of writing tend to literally identify their genre, for instance the cover of a novel might give the title and say underneath it, A Novel. The trait of identifying a text’s genre doesn’t belong exclusively to any genre.
Genre is therefore not a fact of texts, but a conceptual tool (usually a faulty one) that might be used to understand them (and that’s true even when the text in question accepts the concept of genre). The question would be, therefore, whether ths imperfect concept is still useful, or should be discarded entirely. The answer would be found in what the concept helps us understand in certain instances, and whether what it helps us understand in those instances is more important than what it obscures.
Given Derrida’s arguments, all novels (indeed all pieces of writing) are experiments, since whatever influence they take from other texts, they’ll never literally be those texts. And as Borges’ “Pierre Menard” points out, even if a text was literally the same as a prior text, a ground of difference would still exist, one regarding the context of their creation.
Still, there remains an important difference between fiction that highlights its inevitably experimental condition and fiction that denies/avoids/downplays that condition by trying to fit itself within a pre-existing genre. But if experimental fiction is fiction that highlights this inevitably experimental condition, on some level it's attempting to repeat the terms of its genre in a way not entirely dissimilar to the attempt found in more conventional fiction. In consciously violating conventional expectations for fiction, it's merely doing the expected for the genre of experimental fiction.
The key difference between so-called “experimental” and so-called “conventional” fiction would then be not how a given text situates itself relative to its defined genre. Instead, being true to an understanding of genre by violating the traits of genre rather than by attempting to replicate those traits seems more critically aware of the actual condition of genre.
Of course, the violation can never be absolute, since all texts replicate some features of earlier ones. So some texts successfully conscious of the problems of genre might remain within a genre by replicating a few of its fundamental traits while significantly altering others.
It seems therefore that “experimental fiction” is indeed a concept of genre that remains valuable, and it’s a concept that much of my writing is committed to exploring. A strange conclusion, in a way: to defend one’s belief in the value of a genre through recognizing the faultiness of the concept.
Are there any times when you believe in the usefulness of the concept of genre? When?
Brooklyn Rail features ‘Nasty Woman’ poem - Thanks to Anselm Berrigan for publishing in the Rail!
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