Wednesday, July 11, 2007

the usefulness of genre?

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?


K. Lorraine Graham said...

I tend to think of genre as a kind of continuum. It's useful to be able to talk about the specific traits of specific genres, while at the same being aware that non are absolute.

Genre even as as a flexible concept is incredibly important in the context of teaching, at least on an introductory level--being able to identify some genre traits helps you can understand how a story or a poem is made. It's like being able to tell the difference between oil paint and watercolor. Yes, you can use both, and interesting things probably happen when you do, but knowing that oil paint and watercolor exist certainly does help.

frankenslade said...

Consciously working within or through a genre may provide a useful "container" or "frame" for ideas that may otherwise scatter without a supportive and/or contrasting vessel.

Ann_Bogle said...

How ironic -- are you watching the "irony" thread? -- that I should discover your weblog on the day after its first entry! A pleasure, too. NYU is advertising to hire a genre specialist. This is so hot a topic, very soul/cool. I want to imagine how to fictionalize time & mood ... how -- this is what Michael Kelly called it -- "the guise of fiction" (which I also heard as "the guys of fiction") is different from what I've been calling "autobio." AMB

rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Welcome to the 'sphere. I've thought of your insightful comments in various boxes as a sort of diasporized blog, so this feels like a coming home.

Ryan W. said...

probably unrelated to your post which I've not read yet, but I think you might know: are mark twain novels interesting? I mean interesting and also good to read. I've been wondering for years. I think I might read one. haven't since high school. actually I vaguely remember having asked you this already. huck fin maybe. well, I'm going to the book store for something else, so I'll read a few sentences and see if anything happens.

mark wallace said...

Huck Finn absolutely. Puddin' Head Wilson too. My personal favorite: Life on the Mississippi. One of the all-time great lines, but you have to read it in context for the full force: "Well, I guess that means if you send a fool to St. Louis, THEY won't know it."

Ryan W. said...

I picked up a copy of huck finn. vacation reading.

Ryan W. said...

it's probably true that the differences are undefinable, but I find that words like "poetry", "fiction", "essay", etc, are more catalytic than stifling. regardless of any undefinability and interoperability, the terms do something undeniable to this writer's brain. levers get pulled and the brain is different. almost a kind of magic.

I imagine the same could be true for a novelist who has written a couple novels in a genre and then consciously turns to another genre, or to an attempt at non-genre fiction.

the same is also true of painting vs. vispo vs. regularpo. as a poet, once you get it in your head that you're doing a vispo project and not a regularpo project, the brain is a different thing. something exhales.

and poetry vs. theatre.

regardless of any blurring, the terms/categories retain a lot of useful power.

L.A. Howe said...

i find the concept of fiction genre (a particular genre, like, say, "experimental," or "detective," or "speculative/science fiction") very useful when i want to talk about a series of moves i see happening in a group of texts--moves to develop or tear down particular notions, moves in support of or in denunciation of certain ideas, or moves to obscure or illuminate the machinery of story-telling or language, to name a few. we academic folks then always have to be very careful to say what WE mean when we say [insert genre name here]. i like the term "experimental fiction," and i think you will have much of interest to say as you explore the concept. it seems to me to work differently from some other genre terms, like "detective fiction" or "speculative fiction" or "horror fiction." but then again, perhaps it doesn't work all that differently. i'll have to think about it more.
and ryan w.: my favorite mark twain novel is _roughing it_. twain and his brother set off to check out the gold rush and hilarity ensues. he also goes on the lecture circuit, takes a trip to lake tahoe, and also to the hawaiian islands to see some volcanoes. i fell in love with him in this book.

Doug Lang said...

This is all good stuff.

As reader/listener/viewer, I find the concept of genre most useful when it changes or challenges expectation – same goes for the concepts of form, as when David Antin discussed Discourse on Method as though it was a novel (in a magazine interview in 1972).

I’m curious about where all this started. I recall that Bacon’s system of classification was intended to recognize unity rather than division, and I guess I lean in that direction. When I was first reading James M. Cain and H.P. Lovecraft (and other, similar writers) in the 1960s, I was chastised frequently by friends who taught at the University of Wales, Swansea, who thought I should be reading E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf instead of all that American trash. As time went by, Cain and Lovecraft (and the others) were granted entrée to the canon as genre fiction writers, but I still preferred to think of their works as fiction, period. Of course, I read Forster and Woolf, too. I believe that my main interest in reading any novel at that time was to discover what possibilities were being proposed by its author – that was not all of the benefit/pleasure, of course, but the most significant part of it for me.

I think that the concept of genre has been most useful in allowing stuffy types to recognize the value of works that their narrow vision would have otherwise excluded from it without that rationale. And, consequently, to encourage those whose reading habits they influence more access to a greater diversity of texts.

These are the content of my head.

Anonymous said...

I am a year 12 Student studying genre for an extension English class. We are focusing specifically on crime fiction.

These are two questions i am wrestling with in an essay:

a) How useful is it to understand texts in terms of genre?

I have said that genre is useful for the composer as it provides a framework which they can either follow or subvert.
What do you think?

b) Are texts more engaging when they conform to the conventions, or when they challenge and play with the conventions?

My first instict was to argue that texts are more interesting when they challenge the expectations of the audeince, and the unpredictability makes them exciting. However, conforming to the genre creates a sense of comfort, as the audeince's expectations are satisfied. Genre is also popular becuase it sticks to what works. I cant make up my mind.

On top of all this, your blog blew the entire concept of genre right out the window. what am i to think?

mark wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark wallace said...

Thanks for your interesting questions.

I don't usually allow anonymous comments, but I'll make an exception in this case. Since I don't know who you are, I'll just have to assume that you are who you say you are. That might make me seem cautious, I know, but there are some people out there who claim to be things that they're not. People are capable of doing nasty things sometimes, aren't they? But your questions are very intriguing.

On to my responses to your questions. Keep in mind that I'm just one person, a writer and a teacher, and other people might give you different responses. So I'm just telling you what I think, as honestly as I can, but you'll have to decide for yourself whether my responses are useful.

I very much agree with your answer to (a. But I would say that using genre is not simply useful, but also unavoidable, since genre is the framework in which literature is very often taught. But sometimes it's best not to try immediately to categorize things, but instead to listen to what they're trying to tell you.

My response to b) would be to ask why does it have to be one or the other? I think both might be useful approaches, and on the other hand, both might be used badly. It would be best to look at specific books. But I would also add that one of the things I was trying to say in my post is that it's not really possible to conform to a genre. Even if a writer sticks to genre very closely, that person is still going to do something new with it, since whatever that person ends up writing will be something that hasn't been done before. So I think it's important to recognize that even by trying to conform to a genre, you end up changing it.

As to your final question, you seem very smart, so I'm sure you'll decide for yourself what to think. What my post, and many of the responses to it, were arguing is that genre is a useful tool, but not a perfect one. Understanding genre can help you understand lots of things. But if you try to put literature or anything else into perfect boxes, you'll find it won't fit there.

Good luck writing your paper!

Anonymous said...

Hi ...I was looking for information on the limitations of the 'genre' concept and I do agree with you that it is always changing...what else can you look at with respect to limitations?