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Genres: A Transcontinental Question and Obsession

marquisedemerteuil's picture

Hi to everyone reading Serendip in mid August, I've come back. You never thought you'd be stuck dealing with me again, did you?

This summer I took two graduate courses at Bryn Mawr's Avignon Institute to help me complete my AB MA degrees in French. One course concentrated on writing in French (useful for me, as I magically have to compose a 75 page master's thesis in French) and the other was two three-week mini courses that both concentrated on "theoretical and critical approches to literature." The first course was about the 19th century naturalist novel: we read Zola's "The Human Beast" and several Maupassant short stories including "The Horla." The second was more of a survey course on poetry, with an emphasis on formalist writing and theory, due to the professor's proclivity...unfortunately. Both Professors are old, genial French guys who are widely-published and have spent a long time in the academic and literary worlds.

Both Professors were completely obsessed with the idea of genres. I was surprised because I, the naive little student, did not know that genres were a hot topic. I was also surprised to see that one of the buzzwords of the Evolution of Stories class, a topic that Professor Dalke especially talked a lot about, is also significant in the French scene. I just never expected that studying in France would make me think about Evo Lit. You never know.

The French have a different way of defining and discussing the genre. I missed many of Prof Dalke's discussion of the genre because I was in the other discussion group, so I am not sure if she defines it the way I do, but the Americans define the genre, at least as far as I know, as a conventional theme that films and books can have, so Action, Comedy, Mystery, Drama are all possible genres. For Americans, a genre dictates much of the content of a particular piece of work.

The French definition is quite different. For the French, it is the form and not the content of a work that dictates its genre: the novel, the short story, the diary, poetry are all genres of literature. (Of course a discussion could be had about genre in art, but I have never come across the idea of "genre" being an issue in art history, though it probably has been at one time, especially considering that art historians can differ between "genres," "genre paintings" like those that Vermeer did, and "mediums.") Also, the French word 'genre' also means 'gender' so another issue comes into play. The French enjoy mentioning this, but do not make conclusions about it.

Maupassant's "Le Horla" is interesting from the generic point of view because it is both a novella, a new genre in the 19th century, and a diary. I wrote a paper on part of a work called "Blessures des mots" (Wounds of words" which is "prosimetre," prose with poetry in it. The obvious question is: what does it mean for poetry that it is put next to prose? When poems in prose came out (Baudelaire did many), the idea was that poetry was outdated, but the algerian author of "Blessures des mots," Evelyne Accad, seems to see prosimetre as a genre that can enhance poetry because the poetry, sometimes in a litanical format, stands out amid the prose. But in my paper on the subject, I argued otherwise. I argued that because the poetry continues the narrative of the prose (for example, prose will describe a woman whose feet are in the mediterranean sea and the following poetry will describe her as being in the sea up to her neck) and the prose situates the moments in which the poetry occurs into its narrative (after one of the poems about a Tunisian woman in the sea, she goes and joins her friend), Accad shows that poetry and prose are ultimately the same thing, and makes them look different on the page to accentuate their similarities. For her, both poetry and prose do the same crucial thing: they valorize the woman, they celebrate her connection to nature and her engagement in the struggle for women's liberation. Poetry and prose, like journalistic writing (most of the women in the piece write in journals but also write fictional novels), is engaged in time and place and therefore engaged in the issues of a time and place: for Accad, all writing is equal because it has power to liberate the oppressed. This idea contrasts Paul Valery's idea about "pure poetry" which is that poetry should be abstract and complex, it should be an Idea and is superior to the novel because it does not need to deal with the petty details of the sensible world; it can transcend them. Valery's concept is influenced by Plato's division between the world of forms and the true world of ideas. For Accad, truth comes from recognizing and engaging with time and place, not from avoiding it; literature comes from a fusion between genres, not from privileging one over the rest and excluding the rest.

French critic Dominique Combe has a book that discusses some of these issues, "Poetry and Prose: A Rhetoric of Genres." He basically traces how authors conceive of and relate poetry to prose and devotes a lot of time explaining Valery's "Platonian essentialism" in his idea of "pure poetry" and in Baudelaire's concept of the "poeme en prose."

The idea of intertextuality can also involve the question of genre. Let's face it: intertextuality is a nice word poeticist Gerard Genette came up with in the 1970s to say, "a reference to another text within a text." You get to sound more important than you are when you use this word. Genette discusses many different types of intertextuality and gives them all greek prefixes to imply their definition because France is such a dull country there is nothing to go see and do, and therefore the logical step is to sit at home and invent Greek prefixes. There's metatextuality, hypertextuality, hypotextuality, and the one that invovles genre is architextuality. So you can conceivably say that you are doing "an architextural analysis" of a work if you are discussing its relationship to its genre and other genres. A French poem by Jean Follain is called "L'anecdote" so you can say that this title is architextual because it references its own genre. The poem is a beautiful case against Valery. Valery, as I've mentioned, believes that anecdotes are too rooted in the sensible world and get in the way of the Idea, of true meaning, which must be abstract. Follain presents an ordinary little anecdote and then basically writes, "O world, I cannot construct you without this."

In the end, though, I don't think that discussing genre or intertext get you anywhere. So much discussion of the form of a text has very little to do with its content. I can't understand the obsession with genre, either in France or in the United States. In my analysis of Accad, I tried to provide a reason for which she uses multiple genres that actually relates to the content of the poem, but as far as I can tell, formalists are not interested in that. The problem with the idea of intertextuality is that many of my classmates supposedly wrote "intertextual analyses" of poems (the assignment was to write about a poem using a particular critical approach) which really means that they just discuss some of the references in the poem and why those are important. Something this simple does not strike me as a critical approach. After all, you can write about the importance of references using many other actual critical approaches. The focus I notice now about genres seems to me to simply be a fad that will pass.

Well, that's what I've got to say, and if you disagree with me, I would love to hear your argument.


marquisedemerteuil's picture

laughing with pleasure

i am laughing with pleasure that you are even more interested in genres than i realized and that my writing encouraged you to laugh with pleasure. i wish more people laughed with pleasure at my writing instead of wanting to wring my neck, a common response, or simply not reading my writing, an even more common one (see evolution of stories forum.) i suppose you could write a post (or six) refuting my post.
Anne Dalke's picture

on different kinds

No, I don't want to refute...
but I would go on talking publicly a bit more, if you'd like.

One spot that snagged me:

  • the French word 'genre' also means 'gender' so another issue comes into play. The French enjoy mentioning this, but do not make conclusions about it.

It's fun to think about all the things that could be done w/ this shared root. I use it (for instance) to set up my gender studies courses, as a way of illustrating the idea that gender is just one of the 'kinds/genres/categories' we use to divide up the world (and that, of course, they are revisable....):

gender, n. [a. OF. gen(d)re (F. genre) = Sp. and Pg. genero, It. genere, ad. L. gener- stem form of genus race, kind = Gr. , Skr. janas:OAryan *genes-, f. root - to produce; cf. KIN.]
1. Kind, sort, class; also, genus as opposed to species. the general gender: the common sort (of people). Obs.
2. In mod. (esp. feminist) use, a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes.



Anne Dalke's picture

emerging genres

So, I'm laughing w/ pleasure @ your assertion that "discussing genre" will not get you anywhere--since I'm offering a new course @ Bryn Mawr this spring called "Emerging Genres." It will start w/ an overview of the concept of emergence, then look at the emergence of the particular genre that is the novel, then explore the emergence of the contemporary literary form known as blogs...


English B209: Emerging Genres: Form and Transformation
New Course
Anne Dalke
Spring 2008
TTH 11:30 AM—1:00 PM

“Gestaltenlehre ist Verwandlungslehre”

(“The study of forms is the study of transformations”
—Goethe, via Propp)

This course will look at the ways new genres evolve, and ask what aesthetic, cultural and political purposes those transformations may serve. The class will take as its point of departure a longstanding reliance on the Darwinian theory of evolution as the model for the development of literary forms. (Used most enthusiastically in Ferdinand Brunetière’s 1890 “L'évolution des genres,” it has been reinvented by virtually every student of genre since.) Our reading of Darwin and Brunetière will be supplemented by David Duff’s 2000 Longman Critical Reader on Modern Genre Theory, which includes essays by Propp, Bahktin, Frye, Jauss, Jameson, Todorov, Derrida, Folwer, Eagleton, and others, and highlights a range of ways of thinking about the relationships among different genres in different periods of literary history.

Following Bakhtin’s claim that “faced with the problem of the novel, genre theory must submit to a radical restructuring,” three hybrid novel forms will function as exemplars and imaginative test cases for these concepts. All were written in the United States during the same decade as The Origin of the Species: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “romance,” The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s “anatomy,” Moby-Dick (1851), and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “sentimental novel,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

In a series of linked writing projects, students will 1) identify their own investment in a genre other than the novel 2) research and report on its history 3) write a comparative analysis of several test cases of that form, and 4) try their hand at a creative exploration of an imaginative exemplar of their own. A total of twenty-five pages of writing will be required by semester’s end; the length of each individual project may vary, based on student interest and ambition.