Rhetoric as Idea: D.H. Lawrence's Genre Theory

By Peters, Joan Douglas | Style, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Rhetoric as Idea: D.H. Lawrence's Genre Theory


Peters, Joan Douglas, Style


For an author who makes such creative use of language and its semantic possibilities that he invents his own epistemological vocabulary, D. H. Lawrence has received surprisingly little critical attention for his innovations in the novel at the level of text.' Because the arena of linguistical experimentation for Lawrence was mostly in metaphysics (he even explains his use of obscenity in epistemological terms), the impulse of readers has been to treat his literary language as if it were foreign, to translate it into intelligible doctrine without examining its function as language, without looking at what it does as well as what it says. This same impulse, I believe, accounts for why Lawrence has never been adequately acknowledged for his work in his theory of the novel as a genre.2

Although a number of essays and chapters and two complete books consider Lawrence as a literary critic, it has been over ten years since anything significant has been published in this area, and what has been published usually discusses his responses to other writers' works.' Except perhaps in passing, few critics seem comfortable addressing those strange, forceful essays Lawrence devotes to the novel as a literary form-"The Novel," "Surgery for the Novel-Or a Bomb," "Morality and the Novel," "Why the Novel Matters"-and the reason for the critics' discomfort is not hard to fathom. While there is something endearing, even convincing about Lawrence's rhetorical style, its forced spontaneity, personal vehemence, and unqualified dogmatism seem inherently to undermine how seriously we can take his critical doctrine. The standard response to his genre criticism, where there is any response at all, is to ignore the rhetoric and somehow to extract a serious and consistent set of beliefs.' By isolating statements of workable dogma from their rhetorical context, critics do achieve some sort of coherent meaning from the apparent confusion of Lawrentian rhetoric, but at the same time they also reduce Lawrence's genre theory to much less than it is or can be.5

Certainly the main impetus behind Lawrence's genre theory, as it was behind similar work by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Ford Madox Ford, was primarily rhetorical. The theory, that is, was not as much concerned with defining or elucidating the critical terms of the novel as a form as with persuading people that the genre was worthy of critical attention as genre and thereby worthy of critical respect. Although Lawrence, of course, would never address this issue directly, other novelists constantly, explicitly, point out in their genre criticism that because it had never been formally analyzed, because, as Virginia Woolf puts it, no rules had been drawn up, "no thinking done on her behalf," the novel at the time was not taken seriously enough. James, Woolf, and Ford tried to remedy the situation by drawing up rules themselves, mostly by stressing the importance of the novel as craft-James, for example, explaining in his "Prefaces" the blueprints and conceptual rationales behind his individual novels, and Ford setting out the specific techniques of his own practice of impressionism. But while Lawrence, who theoretically despised any notion of literature as craft, also openly proselytizes for the novel as a serious art form, he does so in an entirely different manner.

For Lawrence, as for his major contemporaries, language was always on some level subversive, and the novel was similarly conceived as a subversive genre-- one aimed at undermining established conventions of realism and at demythologizing more traditional literary forms. Whereas other modern novelists also incorporated this subversive strategy into the style of their nonfiction prose, none did so as pervasively and emphatically as Lawrence did. Bakhtin's idea of carnival is particularly applicable to Lawrence's genre theory in ways that distinguish his criticism from that of other novelists writing at the same time (see Problems 122-27). …

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