Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I've been reading some literary theory (now, don't nod off immediately; wait a few moments)--specifically Genres in Discourse by Tzvetan Todorov.

Of course, we all go around assuming genres exist--things like novels, poems, plays, prayers, and autobiographies. Then there are so-called sub-genres like naturalistic novels, satiric novels, tragic plays, celebrity autobiographies, adventure films, and the curious sub-genre, "chick flick," which I think is essentially a movie with reasonably good dialogue, not much representation of violence, and maybe a little romance.

Todorov is not the first to note that while we go around assuming these genres actually exist, the more we probe them, the more permeable they seem; boundaries between alleged genres disappear. He starts with a big genre, "literature," and shows how difficult it is to prove literary writing is essentially different from other kinds of writing. He goes over the usual stuff about mimesis, self-reference, and fiction; with regard to the latter topic, he notes that novels are neither true nor false (such as a report about weather) but simply "fiction." We may assume a novel has some relation to truth, but even so, we realize it's fiction.

He also sensibly discusses, via Rene Wellek and Northrop Frye, the issues of form (or structure) and function. So at first glance, the purpose of a play seems different from that of a prayer or memo, and the structure of a poem seems different from that of a scientific report.

"Seems" is the problem, especially after Modern writers deliberately disrupted genre-boundaries and were self-conscious about the seeming part.

Todorov ends by concluding that these things, genres, are in fact not essential categories but are determined and re-determined each time people actually use them--in discourse. So a single sentence, without being changed, might appear in a scientific report or a novel, and its being associated with one genre or the other would depend upon who was writing or reading it and why. In other words, society makes up, perpetuates, and disrupts genres all the time.

In later chapters, he presents some fascinating analysis of Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground (what genre is this book in, for heaven's sake?) and of Poe's writing in general. Poe, says T., is all about things that are very very small or very very large. He might focus on somebody's teeth until the teeth become extraordinarily symbolic, or he may present a most extreme experience, like getting buried alive. Poe was always pushing genre-boundaries and, along the way, inventing genres, such as the detective story, the horror story, and science fiction.

Todorov does have some affection for the notion that a literary text tends to be more self-referential than a simple everyday statement like, "I'd like to buy this book." That is, the literary text is less of a purely transactional one and more of a made-thing, of interest in itself.

I witnessed a nice example of this at the mall today. A five-year old who clearly knew some sign-language signed for her grandmother, "Rain here," or "It is raining here." She even interpreted the signs for her grandmother. It was a serious, matter-of-fact exchange. Then the grandmother, feeling whimsical, signed "rain" and "cow." The five-year-old cracked up, as did the grandmother, who had essential signed a wee poem that juxtaposed "rain" and "cow" and therefore asked us to imagine a creature known as a "rain cow." What exactly would a rain cow be? Good question. Lots of possibilities. Much imagery comes to mind.

The point being--well, the point being, laughter is good--but also that by "enacting discourse," the grand-daughter and the grandmother had essentially marked off two genres--one a piece of everyday communication--messaging, we'll call it; the other a kind of self-referential performance, a word-play, intended to entertain and to disrupt messaging. The latter kind is what we might call "literature," bu there's no way we can prove, absolutely, that the two statements are essentially different, in the way nitrogen and oxygen are.

Now I think I'll go imagine what the rain-cows might be up to.
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