Genre Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Genre Theory

Peter Hitchcock

Genre's general provenance has been to categorize any number of cultural expressions, both verbal and non-verbal, including sounds, images, speech, writing—all in the service of understanding the discursive construction of meaning. Genre theory attempts to make sense of this wide diversity and is in many ways the cultural task of providing a conceptual key to the complex knot of social expressivity. Because of genre's extent, however, the project of providing a master principle is largely unattainable, and most analyses of the subject either isolate significant components or offer descriptions of generic characteristics (Duff). There was a time, perhaps that of Horace (65—8 BCE) or Alexander Pope (1688—1744), when the work of generic distinction was similarly complex yet more forceful, as if the very limited and precise parameters of genre and non-genre permitted a more definitive heuristic function. Today, most studies of genre in literary studies are those that recall the polemical ring of their classic forebears, Plato and Aristotle, yet are unable to significantly reproduce their schema (Fowler). These studies need not be in agreement with classicism; what they suggest instead is that genre theory is at its best when it claims the ideological significance of distinction as an important endeavor in its own right (see IDEOLOGY). By considering this implication, this I not only intend to raise the question of a politics of genre but also to show that the field of study is historical in its impress, even if history is not pronounced in this critique or that. At this level, genre theory is an agonistic arena for debating cultural norms—the rules, let us say, of cultural exchange at any one moment in history. If grand statements on genre are less possible now, it is not because genre has diminished in importance but because a plethora of genres saturate advanced modernity and resist even the most everyday categorical distinctions that would separate them. Genres change and the genre of genre theory has mutated accordingly, but today the authority of genre theory has less relative social power than before, and that observation is not without its lesson for cultural analysis in general.

Rather than summarize how genre is appropriate to different forms of cultural expression (Dowd, Stevenson, Strong) or explore the form that has generated the most critical and descriptive literature in the last quarter-century (film), I want to focus on literary theories of genre, not as prescriptive of all others, nor as a metonymic master narrative, but as a critical site where the status of genre has become particularly vexed, a place of crisis and reevaluation that tell us why genre and concepts of genre merit sustained investigation. Concepts of genre in literary theory have always been founded on appropriate critical apprehension: understand distinctions in kind, the logic goes, and cogent criticism will follow from this recognition. Genre performs the work of distinction as law, and this function binds literary discernment more than any other. It is, as it were, the discipline in the discipline of literature. Genres come and go (think of the lyric or Menippean satire), but the law of and in genre remains inviolable, or so it has seemed, and thus genre is both generative to and immanent in the study of literature. Because genre provides literature with laws of distinction, however, genre theory, as I have indicated, has been a pertinent battleground over the sustainability of literary rules in general and provides us with something very close to a framework of literary history. While the intention here is not to provide that history, it is worth recalling aspects of its genealogy before considering the state of genre theory today.

In the third book of Plato's Republic (fourth century BCE) Socrates categorizes cultural expressions by form according to whether the poet is engaging in pure narration, imitation, or a mixture of both. Of course, the narrative recital of the poet herself neither precludes imitation or a rhetorical mixture, so the logical bases of tragedy, comedy, and epic are in practice intermingled, a fluidity that is salutary but is less evident in neoclassicism. Similarly, Aristotle's Poetics (fourth century BCE) emphasizes different means of imitation, before different objects of imitation, but again, while distinctions are drawn between tragedy and comedy, the generic pivot rests between authorial speech and that of characters. By specifying manner, Aristotle certainly proffers generic formalization, but it is hardly the template it is often read to be. Indeed, in the absence of that categorical assertion many critics, most notably Gérard Genette, have been intrigued with how the attribution of the assertion concerning formalization is provided from the late Renaissance on, particularly as it valorizes the lyric, which Aristotle does not consider. Why the shift? In part, it reflects a different generic need, one that codifies cultural expression in the service not just of aesthetics but of taste in general. On one level this measures the importance of class in classification (for this indeed reflects the cultural requirements of a developing class); on another, it is symptomatic of the emergence of genre as an arena of inquiry in its own right. The recognition is that the study of tragedy, epic, or lyric can be descriptively rich but lacks conceptual depth. The markers might well be there, but they are shorn of philosophical import, and distinction therefore appears dangerously arbitrary. Thus, in the work of the English poet John Dryden (1631—1700)for instance, we witness a generic authority in his own writing but also a sense that, in the face of genre proliferation, distinction must be a more calculated and professional endeavor. The Indian Queen (1664), coauthored with Robert Howard, seeks to substantiate Dryden's position on heroic tragedy, but the more conviction he shows for this writerly duty the more his work is open to a stock-in-trade seventeenth- century response, satire (see PARODY). It is important to emphasize that public dispute over the relative value of genres was tied not just to personal foibles but to economic decisions. In Dryden's career, for instance, heroic tragedy drops out as theaters fail and the audience/market for verse satire asserts itself, Dryden's MacFlecknoe (1682) becoming a touchstone of the latter genre. Professionalization and patronage are key integers of generic prescription and, for neoclassicism at least, significantly alter the perception of value in individual genres. The public voice of the poet also inflects neoclassical versions of the lyric and the fact that reflexivity over a public persona is now possible within a more general culture of writing. Thus, when one teaches heroic tragedy, or satire, or lyric of the period, one is simultaneously engaging the discursive relations of the writer and society. This does not preclude more universalist or prescriptive characterizations of genre, but it does complicate any appeals to autonomy in generic attribution.

The public and professional roles of the writer, consonant with the stirrings of bourgeois modernity, provide a rationale for generic sensitivity, but the intense valorization of specific genres must also rest on their socialization—the extent to which their truths and realities are dynamically and dialectically refracted through social discourses as a whole. Thus, the hierarchies of genre (say satire over heroic tragedy) are not just the shuffling tastes of a literary elite but a way to understand the possibilities and pitfalls of social expressivity at any one moment of history. Rather than privilege the literary, the point is to measure overall generic attribution as a condition of social knowledge. Yet if this was not necessarily the charge of neoclassicists themselves, the place of literary genres becomes more arguable as literacy increases and writing is popularized from within. Genre theory had not only to consider the zest for rules of classification but also the work of genre more generally, as genres would emerge, interact, multiply, and die. Any basic division—for instance, Mikhail Bakhtin's position on primary and secondary genres between speech and writing—had also to fathom the relationship among the units of generic attribution, from individual words all the way up to epic extension. Given the complexity of that task, it is small wonder that genre theorists have often drawn on other rules-based classificatory models to help out. This can push literary genre theory closer to linguistics, just as linguistics is closer to science and a methodical understanding of language composition (by contrast, Bakhtin refers to his project as a form of metalinguistics or translinguistics).

Bakhtin's approach is both more expansive than genre theory that draws on the Aristotelean tradition and less descriptive, in the sense that above all else it seeks to provide concepts of genre rather than attributes. Like Hans Robert Jauss, Bakhtin is more interested in the process of genre formation and change than he is in taxonomic precision. But this theoretical messiness also derives from a distrust of the scientific turn, particularly that in Saussurean linguistics. In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986) Bakhtin defines the utterance as the building block of genres, where the utterance can be a single word or other unit all the way up to a “large novel or scientific treatise” (71). Utterance, rather than narrative or discourse per se, allows Bakhtin to distinguish and connect what is spoken and what is written (the former forms primary genres, the latter enables secondary genres such as the novel). But how does one identify a genre, given what is obviously a very expansive category? Bakhtin argues that genres have specific themes that mark their appropriateness and semantic field. For example, while an economy menu on an airline flight might project the aura of a five-star restaurant, the flight attendant delivers a very clear sense of the meal's possible meaning: “Chicken or beef?” A second aspect in genre for Bakhtin is the relationship between utterance and intention: what is the plan, Bakhtin asks, that the speaker intends to fulfill by this specific utterance? To continue with our example, the flight attendant does not wish to debate the finer points of the potato croquettes or how done the meat is (never less than overdone), but to get through the cabin as efficiently as possible. At thirty thousand feet you may refuse the meal, but the context determines the narrow limits of choice in the matter, so get with the program. This points to the third aspect of genre Bakhtin emphasizes, the norming of such language by convention and experience. True, the passenger may speak a completely different language, but by looking at her or his neighbors the passenger will quickly surmise the habitual restrictions on this speech genre. The tone and evaluative context effectively finalizes the generic mode, and the utterance permits the possibility of assimilation, the scene in which language is socialized. Now this of course does not preclude either generic combinations or interruptions, but Bakhtin's generic principles accentuate why a science of language might usefully be pushed into reading situations of the utterance where language is alive in social interaction. In spirit, if not in name, this represents the democratization of genres.

Tzvetan Todorov, while clearly influenced by Bakhtin (1984), has a different sense of genre's role for historical poetics. While still a building block, what is built is a bridge between literary structure and historical change, and this bridge relies heavily on structuralism as a science. In Genres in Discourse (1990) Todorov argues that genre, simple or complex, is a process of codification that permits the identification of classes of texts. These classes can be distinguished by attention to their semantic, syntactic, and verbal characteristics. What is fascinating and frustrating about these interpretive keys is that the influence on generic composition rapidly retreats from the street (or even the aircraft aisle) to the more rarefied insistence of the critic himself. It turns out that by codification Todorov primarily means the effect of institutional norming—say, that of the university—rather than the discursive struggles of the everyday from which Bakhtin extrapolates. Thus, “it is because genres exist as an institution that they function as ’horizons of expectation’ for readers and as ’models of writing’ for authors” (1990, 18). Todorov is not wrong to view genre in this way (it is largely the position of neoclassicism on genre identity), but by placing such a heavy burden on institutions as the prime mediating factor in “existing generic systems” the field of literary possibility appears shrunken; it is a professional privilege once more, and less open to the creative energies of discursive interaction in general. True, Todorov will spend much time pondering “speech acts” (basically the utterance-as-building-block Bakhtin describes), but his discussion of simple genres of the everyday is but a brief prelude to the institutionally informed complex genres, where scientific precision appears more amenable and professionally alloyed. The historical poetics that emerges has both the merit of engaging generic change over time and the restriction of institutional guarantee. What is intrinsic to a genre is dependent to a large degree on the critic's ability to perceive such generic signifiers.

At this level, genre and more specifically genre theory is an integer both of generic plenitude and expertise in discernment. It affords an opening onto the articulation of specific moments in genre definition, say, the Renaissance, and offers an understanding of expressive forms over longer periods (Bakhtin, for instance, will stretch the history of the novel by taking up the process of novelization). For his part, Todorov is keenly interested in an origin of genres that valorizes the focus on Aristotle's poetics but also teases out a process to be understood in a global register. In one example Todorov examines the “inviting” genre of the Luba in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and notes how a basic human practice elicits conventions that substantiate a genre over time. The danger in such an approach is that by deeming this a simple genre, the critic may inadvertently privilege Western genres as more complex by comparison (and indeed Todorov will draw from his own work on the fantastic in Western literature as a subsequent example of a complex genre). Since Todorov has explicitly countered a Western will-to-power in naming conventions within the history of colonialism, the choice of comparison is unfortunate but means much work remains if genre is to undo the deleterious expressions of its own genealogy. For genre to become more global in its explanatory power genre theory itself must be subject to decolonization.

Sometimes the most striking contributions to genre theory are doggedly at odds with the genre of genre theory itself (and thus a proof the study of genre is simultaneously a realization of generic exception). Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence (1973), for instance, has nary a thought for genre theory, and yet his hypothesis on influence in poetry shows how a genre renews itself. For Bloom, mere poets are those who engage their poetic forebears only to succumb to imitation and subservience. To become a great poet, Bloom avers, one must engage in poetic misprision, a kind of creative misreading of the great poets in which one overcomes the anxiety of their influence (six methods are explored) to make poetry new. Informed more by psychological than structural principles, Bloom nevertheless displays the aura of genre studies as a historical poetics bound by institutional determinants, a medium as it were, of influence.

Similarly, Erich Auerbach's monumental Mimesis (1953) has little truck with generic precision, yet Auerbach, in seeking to unpack how literature represents reality, provides enormous insight into a stylistic intricacy that has the effect of showing how realism finds a home for genre. The generic insistence comes from the range of Auerbach's choices (like Bakhtin, these can often be obscure or less than obvious), perhaps sharpened by his exile at the time of writing, which limited his library and resources. His more well-known examples, from Homer, Dante, François Rabelais, and William Shakespeare, do not just reveal realism's purchase on expressivity but also detail in erudite and surprising ways how different genres stylize reality within the main currents of cultural discourse. The result is not a theory of genre as such but a demonstration of literary historiography, without which it would be impossible to think genre in all of its profusion. It may well be that the best philology always has as its subtext the story of genre, but one stripped of recognizable systematicity and therefore one much harder to institutionalize or valorize as posited norms.

Style may be more specific to an individual writer than a genre, although we can certainly read stylistic equivalents across a genre (like the balloons of sound that mark heroic action in comic book narratives). But if we can enumerate genres in literary expression and note generic multiplicity in general, can we assign rules for their emergence, or a law that explains both the singularity of genre and its seemingly infinite variegation? In “The Law of Genre” (1981) Jacques Derrida takes up this question in a typically counter-intuitive fashion by thinking of what would be the opposite of such a law, whether it is the chance of contamination or simply of generic impossibility. The law, by itself, always seems easy to articulate: “The genre has always in all genres been able to play the role of order's principle: resemblance, analogy, identity and difference, taxonomic classification, organization and genealogical tree, order of reason, order of reasons, sense of sense, truth of truth, natural light and sense of history” (77). The force of Derrida's argument comes through in a simple statement: “I will not mix genres” (51). One should not mix genres because this would contaminate their purity, the source of their identity. The problem, as Derrida's statement underlines, is that mixing and heterogeneity in general are continuous with the law of genre, and the assumption of the law obfuscates or suppresses the complex struggles of genre identity. In effect, the law of genre asserts a border only to find that the troubled border might be more symptomatic than generic essences themselves. Again, in true Derridean fashion, the essay circles around a tension between a truth in the subject and its infinite sublation or deferral. However one might recoil from Derrida's strategy, the essay indicates a major rethinking of genre's literary genealogy, one that always returns us to genre's generative question about the truth of identification in Western philosophy in particular.

The return to the history of genre theory to which Derrida's essay alludes is timely, but I do not take the position (and Derrida certainly does not) that such a rereading is simply or only about the West versus the Rest. Certainly, there is enough grist in Western metaphysics and poetics to support a more thoroughgoing deconstruction, but when one considers genre's academic purchase there are other concerns in its rethinking. First, there is an obvious question about the nature of expertise required in genre critique. Even if one restricted one's focus to literary genres, as I have done here, it is clear that major categories like epic, tragedy, lyric, and novel explain literary history much better than they do the myriad genres of the present. Any attempt to discern generic distinction must bear the weight of this almost exponential proliferation, which I take to be symptomatic of a more fully globalized cultural interaction. There is no way expertise can pass through this eye of difference, no way the individual critic can adequately embrace a level of detail commensurate with generic multiplicity. Genre theory, then, must be both more humble in its claims for individual examples and yet more assertive in its explanation of the logic of genre formation across the range of its possibilities. John Frow's recent contribution, Genre, seems to me to point the way if we wish to describe a field of genre studies. Eschewing the lure of a master list, Frow instead begins by elaborating the uses of genre in different areas of inquiry, “how genres actively generate and shape knowledge of the world” (2). At this level, genre is a “form of symbolic action,” and genre theory examines the processes by which such action takes place. This effectively links structural questions of genre, elements that intimate its identity as a textual event, to its capacity or not for change, which implies a system of genres and their relations in which such an identity makes sense. While one may quibble with the slide Frow makes between truth and truth effects and the real and reality effects, he nevertheless offers a refreshing take on genre alive to theoretical reflexivity.

Symbolic action, the basic measure of effect between that which signifies and its context, itself has a rich history in literary theory and philosophy. Ernst Cassirer, in his four-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms treats language as a unit of action, even if his sense of form is usually neo-Kantian in its interpretation. Kenneth Burke, in both Language as Symbolic Action and The Philosophy of Literary Form, strives to assess the work of language in the literary as socially engaged, although symbolic action is a super-genre at this level. Finally, of course, Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious pulls the symbolic from metaphysics and instead makes it a fulcrum in the understanding of narrative as action. Because none of these texts begin with genre they do not play a role in Frow's analysis, but what they reveal in profoundly different ways is the manner in which the symbolic provides an alternative genealogy to the study of genre as one of content markers out of time. The critique of symbolic action may well be the genre upon which genre studies now pivots. As Frow puts it: “Genre classifications are real. They have an organizing force in everyday life. They are embedded in material infrastructures and in the recurrent practices of classifying and differentiating kinds of symbolic action” (13). Although Frow does not go further in conceptualizing symbolic action, its invocation continually allows him to move between the general and the particular, classical genres and the everyday, textual examples and discourses for which text signals a broader mediatory prospect.

Let me indicate, by way of conclusion, some of the tasks that face genre theory, particularly as it embraces literary analysis. The taxonomic basis of literary genre, in Aristotle's divisions of speech in representation, continues to exert a strong influence on how genre is understood as a way of storytelling or narration. This does not mean genre critics have been duped by the classificatory authority of the ancients, but such divisions continue to exert a productive explanatory power, and this is partly an underlying meaning of genre itself. Genre theory's project is not only to understand the history in which classic distinctions of this kind are manifest but also to fathom why there are specific shifts in intensity in their assertion. As I have suggested above, the most promising analyses of genre consider both the structural and stylistic elements of an individual example alongside at least three levels of possible context. These correspond to the circumstances of sedimentation, whether traditional associations have an organic meaning for a particular community of interpreters (even if it may have been initially imposed); the relationship to other genres where the level of correspondence and divergence is culturally creative (think, for instance, of the productive frisson between novel and film); and an insistent democratization of forms and genres that simultaneously informs and is produced by political possibility around classification and its social meaning. From this perspective there is a certain impossibility to the field of genre studies as a collocation of like-minded experts on its manifestations. It is a field to the extent the debates about its principles are ongoing and generative; it is not a field in the sense it might find a well-defined institutional base that is disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. The enormous amount of research available from the mid-1980s on that takes genre study as primarily nonliterary but essentially based on language use (and thus a basis for the examination of the memo, let us say, or a lab report) has enabled a richer understanding of the rhetorical power of genre in different professions and under varying conditions of cultural capital. In literary studies genre theory often takes up this more expansive socialization, particularly as it refigures our understanding of literature's most prominent and influential genre, the novel. When Bakhtin asserts the prescience of novelization he means to invoke not just a history of the novel but the broad contingencies of its generic formation. What is so interesting about the novel, seen in studies as diverse as those of Georg Lukács, Bakhtin, Northrop Frye, and Franco Moretti, is that it both proves the virtue of classificatory understanding and the manner in which classification itself is continually overreached. Each time the death of the novel is announced critics are really debating a crisis in the genre's classification (see DEFINITIONS). This does not mean literature's most powerful genre cannot die (at its back the novel now always hears the winged chariot of new media) but places the novel in its generic context: the spaces in which it is taken up, the social, cultural, and ideological rationale for that undertaking, the effect of new genres on old and vice versa, and the institutional networks where its life is also livelihood (including, one might add, in the production this very tome). Finally, what calls general classificatory systems into question depends on revolutionary contingencies much greater than the laudable contributions of genre theory to knowledge. If there was a time when the defining authority over genre doubted such connections to socialization it cannot do so today. What promotes genre proliferation is also what enmeshes it in struggles over the meaning of the social in general, and that can only be a positive link in elaborating the significance of genre theory.

SEE ALSO: Intertextuality, Metafiction, Modernism, Novel Theory (20th Century), Rhetoric and Fictional Language.


1. Auerbach, E. (1953), Mimesis.

2. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), Dialogic Imagination.

3. Bakhtin, M.M. (1986), Speech Genres and Other Late Essays.

4. Bloom, H. (1973), Anxiety of Influence.

5. Burke, K. (1968), Language as Symbolic Action.

6. Burke, K. (1974), Philosophy of Literary Form.

7. Cassirer, E. (1955, 1957), Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, 4 vols.

8. Derrida, J. (1981), “The Law of Genre,” in On Narrative, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell.

9. Duff, D. (2000), Modern Genre Theory.

10. Dowd, G., L. Stevenson, and J. Strong (2003), Genre.

11. Fowler, A. (1982), Kinds of Literature.

12. Frow, J. (2006), Genre.

13. Frye, N. (1957), Anatomy of Criticism.

14. Genette, G. (1979), Narrative Discourse.

15. Jameson, F. (1981), Political Unconscious.

16. Jauss, H. R. (1982), “Theory of Genres and Medieval Literature,” in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, ed. T. Bahti.

17. Lukács, G. (1971), Theory of the Novel.

18. Moretti, F. (1999), Atlas of the Modern European Novel.

19. Todorov, T. (1990), Genres in Discourse.

20. Todorov, T. (1984), Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle.