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The Future Of Genre

Todorov's contention that "any description of a text … is a description of genre" (p. 7) may thus set the tone for the future of genre considerations. The awareness that characterizes the reading process as much as it does the writing activity in post-modernity has irrevocably changed the relationship between text and audience, in the same way as it has disrupted that which has previously pertained between text and genre. Jonathan Culler, quoting the critic Gérard Genette, asserts that literature, "like any other activity of the mind[,] is based on conventions of which, with some exceptions, it is not aware" (p. 116). Even at the time of its publication in 1975 this was an extraordinary—and, indeed, outmoded—statement. Genre awareness—in this case, of the discrete form of the novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and of literary theory as a context for the writing of postmodern fiction—surely informs not merely the writing of, but also critical acclamation for, John Fowles's seminal The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1969. Similar assumptions might be made about equally self-consciously "literary" or "theoretical" works such as Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) and Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977). The reader versed in such things is no longer positioned as a passive spectator, his or her only prerogative being to respond in a predictable manner to customary genre signals or to concur in the rejection of texts that breach decorum. Though some readers may maintain such standards, the postmodern reader is allegedly well informed, and capable of rejecting the orthodox rather than the heterodox in textuality. The author, too, is aware, and the text is the emblem of that awareness by its own evocation of questions of theory, reception, and, inevitably, genre. Metafiction—self-conscious, self-referential, and reciprocally intimate to the generalizations that organize textuality at all levels—is the logical outcome of the cultural preoccupation with genre.

In the late twentieth century, fiction in the form of metafiction became a commentary not merely upon other texts (through intertextuality), nor indeed solely upon the internal workings of the fictional artifact itself (through the laying bare of device). To expand upon Todorov's contention above, a statement made within or demonstrated by the workings of an individual text is, equally, a statement about genre and, consequently, the limitations and the liberties associated with genre. The reader's recognition not merely of the genre context but also of the development of that context is crucial to such experiments, which are, perversely, both anti-genre and yet genre-dependent for their effect. Genre, in its function as reference point within the very texts that seek to signal their departure from its structures is, at the start of the twenty-first century, possibly as much as a conceptual ideal as Frye suggested it was in the late 1950s.


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William Hughes

Additional topics

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