The Geographies of Genre

By Blevins, Jacob | Intertexts, Spring-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Geographies of Genre


Blevins, Jacob, Intertexts


If a genre is what it is, or if it is supposed to be what it is destined to be by virtue of its telos, then "genres are not to be mixed"; one should not mix genres. [...] And if it should happen that they do intermix, by accident or through transgression, by mistake or through a lapse, then this should confirm, since, after all, we are speaking of "mixing," the essential purity of their identity.

Jacques Derrida, "The Law of Genre"

Intertexts has always pushed boundaries and questioned literary enclosures, and this issue dedicated to genre continues that tradition. What literature, culture, and theory are supposed to do, what they are supposed to be, is often insignificant to the realities of their existence. In order to discuss any form of literary utterance, any type of literary manifestation, there has always been a seemingly inescapable need to define, to categorize, and to differentiate texts' functions based on the notion of "genre." From Aristotle's discussion of tragedy, to Samuel Johnson's various analyses of literary form, to Wordsworth's Romantic manifesto of lyric poetry in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, to any number of twentieth-century discussions of the novel, the principles of genre historically have been a foundation of literary study. There has been a historical valorization of genre, a suggestion that within any genre there are inherent essences to that genre--in form, in content, in context. One might argue that genre functions for literature much the way ideology works for culture; in a sense, tradition provides the expectations, the guidelines, the law that makes existence within that tradition legitimate and valid. Writers and critics often revolve around an imaginary center of generic meaning that is always in flux, always a shifting construct that is re-formed each time it is confronted, but a text without genre, as Derrida once noted, seems impossible as well. We are therefore left with a need for constant reexamination of what genre is and what genre does. Genre is neither a site nor a specific landmark of meaning, but rather an entire landscape, a complete geography of mapped and remapped literary territories that show us--often errantly--where we have been and where we might go.

The four essays that make up this issue of Intertexts address various aspects of our understanding of genre. Peter C. Herman takes up one of the most traditional of genres--tragedy--using one of the canon's most famous case studies, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In "Tragedy and the Crisis of Authority in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," Herman exposes a paradox between the conception and actual execution of tragedy in the early modern period. After establishing that early modern commentators and writers believed that tragedy was clearly a didactic genre, one whose purpose centered on promoting moral and virtuous behavior, he then shows that despite that theoretical and generic understanding of the tragedy, tragedy in fact functioned as a mode of ideological contestation--not confirmation. Herman argues that as a tragedy Romeo and Juliet shows "how society violates its own norms"; it is not a medium meant to promote those norms. Specifically, the play demonstrates that authority fails the young lovers much in the same way that authority was failing England during the crises of the 1590s. Not only is Herman's analysis of the play insightful for a reading of Shakespeare, but also it clearly demonstrates the subversive nature of the genre, a nature that ran counter to the expectations of the genre itself.

Earl G. Ingersoll's "Flirting with Tragedy: Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, and the Play of the Text" continues the discussion of tragedy but in a modern context. Ingersoll challenges the idea that Atwood's The Penelopiad is a novel per se, stating, "The Penelopiad problematizes the conventional genre of 'novel' to such a degree that it seems legitimate to classify it not as a 'novel' but as a prose fiction version of the myth, a kind of 'novelization,' or adaptation of a prior text. …

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