10 minute read


Twentieth-century Perceptions

Although the gothic, with Romanticism, effectively crossed and revised the boundaries between the three major genre fields of prose, poetry, and drama, this lead was not readily taken up with any effectiveness by another major transgenre movement until the rise of modernism. Instead, critical attention across the nineteenth century became preoccupied with the increasing specialization within the three major genres, a process alternatively of subdivision or fragmentation that might lead, depending on perspective, to subgenres or genres in their own right. Such changes are not necessarily evolutionary—the grotesque social awareness of Charles Dickens (1812–1870), for example, does not lead seamlessly to the politicized naturalism of Émile Zola (1840–1902). Critics in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have, however, attempted at times to appropriate a model of evolution (and in the case of Max Nordau, of decadence) to the act of criticism, associating changes in taste and genre with the perceived development or regression of the social and cultural standards that form the text's content. To do this is again to engage with the exclusive powers of genre: the decadent fiction of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, for example, may have been critically rejected upon formal grounds, though the institutions of the dominant culture are more likely to have taken issue with its subject matter. The sense of decorum here does not stop conventionally at associating one set of formal criteria as being appropriate to the depiction of a specific issue or subject. In the context of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, the debate on decorum of preoccupied with whether any form should be associated with the matter depicted by the authors deemed decadent. "Decadence" thus becomes effectively another genre engaged in defining works, often in conventional form, that fall outside the cannons of taste.

It is clear, though, that genre was enhanced (whether as internal division or fragmentation outward is irrelevant here) by the rise of a mass publishing and distribution industry in the nineteenth century, and through public consciousness of a world made considerably more complex through social change, empire, and technology. It is this context that maintains the novel as a convenient physical form for distribution and consumption, but that prefaces that demarcation with conditions generated out of the context of the day. Thus, the term novel progressively functions only as the mantissa of a variable concept conditioned by its prefix. In the United Kingdom, the century was to see the rise and fall of "condition of England" novels in the 1840s, the "new woman" novel of gender assertiveness in the 1890s, and the "problem novel" of sexual manners in the early 1900s. Such specialisms may lay claim to distinctiveness of subject matter, some enjoying a discrete and highly conventionalized decorum of form in addition. Audiences, again, often became equally specialized and well-versed in the conventions of the genre, their demand for works both stimulating production and potentially blocking its development beyond existing boundaries. Notably, many of the minor genres of the century were short lived, their currency being determined as much by fashion and the topicality of current affairs as by literary taste.

There remains, however, a perceptible difference between the stylistically and overtly literary production and the merely prosaic act of communication, and this distinction came to preoccupy the systematic scrutiny of fiction undertaken by Russian formalist critics during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Abandoning the social contexts of art in favor of a return to structural and formal issues, the movement produced a number of significant concepts pertinent to the issues of genre and genre formation. Among these was Roman Jakobson's conceptualization of a literary type by way of "the dominant," "the focusing element of a work of art," which "rules, determines and transforms the remaining components" (p. 82). The dominant, as Jakobson subsequently clarifies, may be external to the work, a component of the stylistic canon of the poetic school or age. The parallels to earlier notions of genre are obvious here, though it is worth adding a note of caution to Jakobson's assertion by way of a reference to Jurij Tynjanov's observation that the foregrounding of "dominant" elements necessarily implies the deformation of components elsewhere in the text. It may equally imply the overlooking of components in the drive to define a genre by its most prominent—or most fashionable—feature.

This deformation, though, is not immutable. Evolution, or a change of emphasis in the definition of a genre by the hierarchy of its components, may determine how a body of texts is defined across a historical period. Citing the example of the novel, Tynjanov notes that where once it was distinguished by its commitment to a narrative of "love intrigue," the genre has subsequently become defined by "its size and the nature of its plot development" (p. 73). Tynjanov's definition appears here to treat of the broadest category of novel, rejecting the generic fragmentations so popular in the nineteenth century, though elsewhere Jakobson acknowledges the importance of "transitional genres"—exemplified by "letters, diaries, notebooks, travelogues"—which are "extraliterary and extrapoetical" or supplementary to the canonical genres of literature (p. 86). Again, these might well be defined as genres within their own right under an alternative critical viewpoint. Emphasis, and interpretation, remains in the eye of the perceiver.

Jakobson's contention—which appears orthodox across Russian formalist thought—that genre is as much a hierarchy and system of values as verse does have important implications for generic change. Changes in the hierarchy of poetic devices within a genre affect how that genre may be defined. Generic evolution is not so much a question of the disappearance of certain elements but of a shift in the relationship of dominant to muted, a change of emphasis rather than a change of content. Russian formalism demands that an approach to genre be based upon a consciousness of its status as a system, and of the relationship of the text to elements within that system as well as those that might be deemed "extraliterary"—for the moment, at least.

This systematic approach also informs the influential work of both Northrop Frye and Tzvetan Todorov, two major theoreticians of genre brought into effective dialogue through the publication of Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970). As Todorov observes, Frye formulates in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957) a theoretical rather than historical model of genre. It is apparent that in part this model draws upon Aristotelian concepts not merely of division, but also of presentation. Decorum is, thus, again a limiting factor. The primary demarcations envisaged by Frye are, conventionally, drama (poetry or prose to be performed), lyric (poetry to be sung), epic (poetry to be recited) and prose that may simply be read. The first three are, essentially, performative, and the texts they produce remain within their respective genre definitions even when presented in the form of the printed page. These three genres are further associated with what Frye terms the epos, a convention of addressing an audience based upon oral presentation. Frye refines his fourth genre area, that of prose, by moving quickly to a consideration of "fiction," "the genre of the printed page" or, alternately, "the genre that addresses a reader through a book" (p. 248) rather than in expectation of oral performance.

This demarcation, though, may be compromised by the conventions of writing itself, so that prose fiction may assume a connection with the epos, or oral address, according to Frye, simply by making "some attempt to preserve the convention of recitation and a listening audience" (p. 248). Further confusion may also occur through Frye's generalization that fiction is continuous and the epos conventionally episodic. As he admits, under both of these criteria the works of Charles Dickens are wholly fiction when published in volume form, though they will—because Victorian serials were conventionally read aloud to family gatherings—have been touched by the epos in their earlier incarnation in periodical form. Further, when Dickens began to undertake public reading tours, during which his works were first arranged and then declaimed by the author to an audience, "the genre changed wholly to epos" (Frye, p. 249). Though at first sight conventionally rigid, Frye's demarcations become somewhat permeable as the relationship between text and reader (or audience) becomes acknowledged as mutable rather than fixed.

One might also point out here briefly Frye's consideration of "archetypes" or recurrent acts of communication and their implications for genre. Although, Frye observes, "certain common images," such as "the sea or the forest," may connect "one poem with another" (p. 99), creating a perceptible unity between them, the works of an author might equally be recalled to the coherence of an oeuvre through that writer's "preoccupation with two or three archetypes" (p. 268). Taken to an extreme, there appears to be little conceptual difference between an oeuvre and genre by this definition, particularly where questions of epos and audience are themselves apparently questionable. Both are adequate modes of division, but little more—and the adequacy of genre as an effective container of certain liminal forms (which Frye himself demonstrates as being far more diverse than the transitional genres associated with Jakobson) appears far from convincing in the detail of his model. Frye's model is far from conclusive, and indeed far from comprehensive given its often conflicting complexity. He should, though, be credited with a consideration that might profitably inform all attempts to improve, define, or use genre. As Frye asserts, genre distinctions are not practical but rather "among the ways in which literary works are ideally presented, whatever the actualities are" (p. 247).

The first chapter of The Fantastic is for much of its length a response to Anatomy of Criticism, its focus being directed in particular to the perceived incoherence and lack of specificity in of Frye's tabulation of genre. Although the subsequent nine chapters of The Fantastic demonstrate Todorov's thought through the exposition of a single genre and its internal structures and tensions, much of that thought encloses the polemical content of the first chapter. Like Frye and the earlier formalists, Todorov asserts the individual text to be the product of convention, a reworking of what has already been achieved in literature rather than an emotive or unique form of self-expression. The individual text is thus not valued in its own right but rather becomes the basic resource in a deductive process from which a hypothesis or generalization regarding "a principle operative in a number of texts" (Todorov, p. 3) may be projected. Such distinctions are not adequate for the formulation of universal laws, though they are appropriate for smaller (and implicitly more coherent) theoretical units—generic identities such as the fantastic, through which Todorov explicates his theory.

Central to Todorov's model of genre is the statement that "every work modifies the sum of possible works" (p. 6). This is not a new idea: it has a precedent in the Russian formalist definition of the literary by way of defamiliarization and innovation. Todorov, however, does not dismiss the noninnovative work as being merely prosaic or unliterary, thus compromising its position within genre. Rather, he considers such productions as being effectively within genre, albeit as (dependent upon audience context) "so-called 'popular' or 'mass' literature in the one case; in the other that of the academic exercise or unoriginal experiment" (p. 6). The innovative text, though, permits a statement to be made in criticism about the context of genre through its own evocation of fiction, just as genre itself facilitates commentary upon the text. Again, this is not original: Jakobson suggests in "The Dominant" how a reader may be aware of "two orders," namely "the traditional canon and the artistic novelty as a deviation from that canon" (p. 87). Canon, in this context, functions as an effective synonym for genre. A problem arises, however, with regard to the comparative prestige that is associated, in Russian formalism and elsewhere, with the iconoclastic text. Canon, like genre, is traditionally the standard to be emulated and maintained, lest the individual text be dismissed or suppressed. Modern criticism, however, has inverted that hierarchy, the generic or canonical context being relegated to the status of a starting point, the prestige going to each successive departure from a seemingly devalued standard that yet paradoxically holds its value as a reference point to be exceeded. If a text does not challenge an accepted norm it is, on the one hand either "popular" or "unoriginal," though on the other it is conservatively "generic." It is, in effect, unstable, locked into a conceptual position where more than one perception may formulate its definition, its acceptance or rejection.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGenre - Classical Origins, Renaissance, Neoclassical, And Romantic Conceptions, Twentieth-century Perceptions, The Future Of Genre