Developed during the 1970s, and yet indebted to the philological tradition, genetic criticism has become a major field of literary studies in France. Based on the reading of manuscripts and all documents related to the genesis of a text, its focus is less the text and its edition than the dynamic process of writing and textual production. An original relation to literature follows: instead of being viewed statically, literature is understood as always in movement, implying all the possibilities sketched out in its writing. Genetic criticism has renewed literary studies in positing that the manuscript is as relevant as the text. Recent critical editions of Flaubert, Zola, Proust, Valery, and Sartre have exemplified this approach.
These are the proceedings of a conference that was held at Columbia University in 1994(1). We wanted to examine the part manuscripts can and should play in the understanding of literary texts. However, the paradigms that regulate literary research on manuscripts in France and North America remain thoroughly dissimilar. In the United States and Canada, genetic criticism has met with increasing interest, and some scholars use its theories and methods, but no group has yet claimed an affiliation with it. The purpose of the symposium was therefore for specialists of genetic criticism to meet with North American experts on textual criticism to discuss their theoretical premises, their methods, and their achievements to date.
The participants represented a broad spectrum of opinions on this crucial scholarly concern from both sides of the Atlantic. However, while most French scholars were familiar with genetic criticism but less conversant with textual criticism, most American speakers were trained in textual criticism exclusively. As the misunderstanding might be comparable with readers of this special issue of the Romanic Review, it remains critical, in this cursory introduction, to describe the basics of genetic criticism for American-trained readers--therefore, in English--and brief French-trained readers on textual criticism--conversely, in French.
What is genetic criticism, or textual genetics, as it is also sometimes called? These terms have no currency in English. To begin simply, let us say that it is a French way, or the French way--dominant today--of interpreting--and on occasion editing--manuscripts, variant readings, and in general all evidence related to the "genesis" of modern literary texts. It claims to be criticism, because it gives primacy to interpretation over editing, and genetic, because its ultimate goal is to reconstruct, by examining notebooks, autographs, typescripts and proofs, the mechanisms of textual production through the movement of writing-what Louis Hay called the "third dimension" of the text--and to elucidate the stages of the creative process, its genesis. Obviously, both goals can be challenged.
There are many corollaries to this question on the nature and goals of genetic criticism. For instance: Is it a new paradigm in literary criticism? That is, can it be defined by a new object--manuscripts--and method--manuscriptology, scriptology, or (this being the appellation I would prefer if it were not already taken) grammatology--? Or is it a return to old philology under a new guise? Is there a rupture or a continuity between genetic criticism and, for instance, "critique de genese," as the two notorious Gustaves, Gustave Lanson and Gustave Rudler, called it in the early Twentieth Century? Is there rupture or continuity with literary history, and with structuralism? Is it criticism, that is, is it truly analyzing literature as literature, and not as historical documents or linguistic utterances? Or, to go straight to the most radical question, is genetic criticism not primarily and effectively the institutional definition and legitimation of a research group at the CNRS? The question is all the more relevant because genetic criticism has been highly successful institutionally in France. …