Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Genre = Structure?

One Student's picture

            One of my basic, but as yet unexplored and unsupported, assumptions about genre is that ‘genre’ refers to structure, and that ‘genre’ does not give a very reliable indication of content or of function. Thus, I identify Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” as a letter on the basis of the structural elements at the beginning and end: the piece opens with “H.M. Prison, Reading” and “Dear Bosie”, and ends with “your affectionate friend, Oscar Wilde”, as well as putting the piece into the context of a history and a potential future of correspondence. However, on page 97 right near the beginning, Wilde refers to what he is doing as “writing your [Bosie’s] life and mine”, and 100 pages later he writes that “I have now written, and at great length, to you in order that you should realize what you were to me before my imprisonment, during those three years’ fatal friendship; what you have been to me during my imprisonment … and what I hope to be to myself and to others when my imprisonment is over”. The piece is a story, a history, a drama. In the form of a letter.

            Can I simply declare “De Profundis” a letter, on the basis of its structural elements alone? Can a letter-strictly-speaking tell a story, a history, a drama? What are the consequences of defining genre on the basis of structure?

            I have also been insisting on The Scarlet Letter as a novel, not an autobiography. Like every piece of writing, it reveals things about its writer, both intentionally and non-intentionally. There is an indication in “The Custom House”, a satiric piece which Hawthorne intended to precede Letter, that Hawthorne does intend to display himself to the reader behind a veil – the veil of fiction, apparently. And indeed, interpreting Letter from an autobiographical perspective is fruitful and satisfying. But does that make it an autobiography? Does that make it more autobiography than novel? Does that make it an (emotional rather than historical) autobiography in the form of a novel? It has none of the structures of an autobiography, and plenty of novelistic structures. If a novel is about the author, is it a novel?

            I have described Uncle Tom’s Cabin as being a non-humorous novel with humorous elements within it; its overall structure is not humorous – it does not end with a punch line. Humor is a particular communicative tactic, humor is mobilized in the service of a non-humorous function. Can I describe Letter as being a novel with autobiographical elements? The difference is that in Cabin, it is possible to distinguish the humorous elements, whereas Letter is in every part autobiographical. But I am still saying ‘autobiographical’, rather than ‘autobiography’. Adjective or noun. The thing itself, or like to the thing itself.

             But what else can I do? I have already seen how two works in the same genre – particularly comedy and satire, based on my work on humorous depictions of war in my Classical Warfare class – can have very different content and functions. Content and function has not proved to be the defining quality of genre. Even genres like epic, which especially in their heyday were part of a fairly formalized tradition, had a good deal of leeway in their content and the function of the content, independent of the generic structure. Both The Iliad and The Aeneid are epics (and perhaps comparing epics written several centuries apart in very different cultural contexts is a bit dangerous …). The Iliad is about the wrath of Achilles, it is about the dreadful effects of war on Achilles and on so many other characters. The Aeneid, on the other hand, has a message about national origins, and though it is not without its commentary on warfare and warriors and impact of war, that aspect is attendant on the overall message about Rome’s origins.

            I’m talking about two different things. There is the general structure of a piece, and then there are its communicative tactics. The latter are adjectival to the former’s nominalism. Should I even be using the same terms to talk about them (i.e. humor and humorous)?

Interestingly, just a little over a week ago, I wrote that “genre is not the same thing as structure”. But I don’t do a very good job of explaining why. It seems too easy to define genre by structure, which I think is why I wanted to say that genre is more than structure. But I have noticed in relevant scholarship that there is a desire to make generic categories neat, to make rules for each genre, and that those rules only work all the time if you squint until your eyes are shut, or if you make everything an exception to the rule. The only generic rules with which I feel comfortable are structural – beyond that, I find it hard to evaluate each piece on a case by case basis. 

            I do insist that humor can be used in a multitude of ways (to attack, to defuse tension, to create a sense of social cohesion, to make the powerful look ridiculous for various reasons, to make the weak ridiculous for various other reasons, to ‘other’, to establish one’s own identity, to entertain, to make a point), and often several of these methods will exist simultaneously – I don’t think one ever ‘others’ without establishing one’s own identity, and vice versa. Certain humor genres can be used in multiple ways, I am satisfied with that conclusion as well. That is, Lysistrata and Miles Gloriosus have the same structure – comedy – but have very different effects. What is the use of the humor genres as they are established, then? What do they tell us that is actually useful? Likewise, what use is the genre of the novel?

            In the case of humor genres at least, recognizing the structure informs the audience/reader that they are supposed to look for the incongruities of humor. If you miss those structural signals – And structural signals are missed. People took “A Modest Proposal” by Swift seriously; people take my facetious remarks seriously; I have missed the irony in a letter from Emily Dickinson to the then-Poet Laureate, who had been a misogynistic ass to her. When that happens, the intended/correct* meaning is completely lost. Can the same happen in other genres? How often is a novel mistaken for something else? More importantly, what happens if a novel is mistaken for an epic? 

            But never mind that! The structure of a piece tells the reader how to view the particular mobilizations of whatever tactics are used, be they sentimental or humorous or whatnot. One takes humor in Uncle Tom’s Cabin differently from the way one takes humor in Miles Gloriosus

And now I’m going to read some more genre theory, and see what happens. 


*Loaded terms, I know, but I can’t think of how else to put it. You can’t interpret a humorous piece of writing with any hope of a … satisfactory interpretation if you don’t know it’s humorous.

(If I’m working up some literary theory using “De Profundis”, The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lysistrata, Miles Gloriosus, The Aeneid, and The Iliad … am I working within the discipline of Comparative Literature? I mean, speaking of genre, because Classics, Gender and Sexuality Studies, History, and English are none of them perfect fits for me.)