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Week 2--The Power of Genre

Anne Dalke's picture

Last week, we read Freadman's description of genre as a game of tennis; this week, we're listening to Rosmarin's description of genre as a deductive tool. What sense can you make of her emphasis on the relationship between the particular and the general? How reliably do you think can we move from one to the other? What intrigued you in the various games we played in class, moving from individual examples (of our idiosyncratic eating habits, of particular poems, of literary terms) to universal categories and back again? And (or) what's your response to her claim that genre is "the most powerful explanatory tool" because it has the "power to make the reader better than [s]he was"?

Claire Ceriani's picture

Week Summary

We spent this week reading genre theory and trying to nail down a description of a genre.  We began on Tuesday by discussing the process by which genres change and new ones emerge, our example being the blog as a new genre.  We also considered the fact that a new genre may perhaps only be recognized retrospectively.  Continuing with Freadman’s metaphor of genre being a game of tennis, we tried to find the full meaning behind her term “useful uptake.”  If writing well is “securing a useful uptake” from the reader, then the reader must be able to respond to the text; otherwise, the game ends immediately.  The aim of writing is to get a reaction.  We felt that the metaphor stopped a little short, since in a real game of tennis, there must be a winner and a loser.  Our discussion lead us to describe writing and reading as an ongoing volley between author and reader.  We also discussed the rationality of classification.  In The Power of Genre, it was stated that mistakes are necessary in classification.  We interpreted this to means that we are prone to extend our classifications beyond rationality, and in so doing, we make mistakes and see more than what is actually there.  These mistakes enable criticism and further thinking.

On Thursday, we continued discussing valuable mistakes in the context of the particular versus the universal, the individual versus the generalization.  It is when these generalizations are too broad that we make these mistakes.  Rosmarin writes about “deducing genre,” meaning that it is impossible to have all the information when classifying, so mistakes are inevitable, but correctable (and therefore positive).  We did some thought exercises with general and particular statements, observing how mistakes can be made going from one to the other.  We also connected this to the rise of the novel being a particular story replacing the general story of Christianity.  Christianity is the story of people in general living this life to get to Heaven.  A novel follows one particular person on his or her way through life.

Christina Harview's picture

See my thoughts on

See my thoughts on Rosmarin's The Power of Genre.


No regrets,

Christina Harview

Christina Harview's picture


I updated this article.
akeefe's picture

Don't be, like, Square

I am currently taking a Psychology class, where we have just finished a series of lectures on how our brains classify certain forms. According to Psychology and Neurobiology, the question isn’t whether we are going to classify form, (that we cannot help), but how such classification is made. It strikes me that even with our current technologies, and the amount of time we have devoted, there still doesn’t even seem to be agreement about how it is we process, and classify a simple square.

I feel like that is like what went on in Rosmarin’s essay. She listed various theories in order to show that the conflict within genre theory seems to be how to classify many things that aren’t the same. Yes, we see the square, but do we recognize the shape itself, combine individual lines, ect. For me, the most useful thing her argument pointed out was that genre as metaphor could resolve this conflict. By saying something is like something else it implies not only the similar aspects of the two, but also that they must have distinctive qualities. Similarly reversing the process, saying something is not like something else can lead to a deeper appreciation of what both of them are.

Perhaps if we allowed ourselves to utilize this same theory in other aspects of classifications we could open a few more doors.

AF's picture

Deductive Reasoning

As Rosmarin says, "There is always a difference between the universal and the particular, and this difference is a consequence not only of leaving something out but of putting something in" (44). To me, this notion of the particular and the general supports the discussion we had in class on Tuesday about the flaws or mistakes that make Freadman's writing less than perfection. A "perfect" piece of writing would be impossible to critique and therefore would put an end to the game of genre. It is this difference between the particular work and the universal ideal that gives one an opportunity to provide a useful uptake. The differences provide the basis for further discussion.

I like how Rosmarin describes genre as a deductive tool. It shows the logical progression the mind of a literary critic would take to reach a conclusion about the genre of a particular work. While this deductive tool is useful for spelling out the quick reasoning one makes when reading a particular piece of writing, I also feel it shows an important weakness. You can have logical arguments that end up with false conclusions. Sure there are basic truths we feel exist as far as literary genres are concerned, but many works can fall into more than one category and one's assumptions based on generalizations are not always correct. Assigning genres to literary works can be a risky business, thus one should always keep an open mind and be ready for anything.

Hannah Mueller's picture

The painting metaphor

Rosmarin’s painting metaphor is helpful to me in understanding her distinction between the particular and the general and how they relate to genre. The painter Chuck Close comes to mind: his paintings are composed of thousands of small squares, and he fills each square with ovals of several colors. Up close, his paintings look like blobs of colors in squares; step back, and they are strikingly “realistic” portraits of ordinary people. Here are some examples.
The genre critic is the painter, the squares are texts, and the painting as a whole is a “definition” of a genre. A text, like a square, is “itself and not-itself, both what it is and what it seems.” Because we’re always looking for similarities, order, and meaning, we see the blobs as a face and we see a play as a tragedy if enough of its elements add up to give us that impression. What’s interesting to me about Close’s work is that if you look at any two adjacent squares, the colors will often be very different; they don’t melt into each other but remain distinct. Yet they have a very intimate relationship and are obviously carefully crafted with the intent to give an overall impression. This is what the critics do when they create a genre. They pick certain texts and arrange them according to what elements the texts have, in such a way as to lead their readers to see “similarity in the midst of and in spite of difference.” I don’t know how much further you could take this painting metaphor. For example, I don’t understand how, if a painting is genre, two completely different-looking squares can be part of the same painting and still hold to the metaphor; I don't think she is saying that two texts can be completely different and be part of the same genre.