Blog Post

Back to School

Thanks to the curious rhythms of the quarter system, it’s finally now back to school here at the University of California at Santa Cruz. We’ll be marking it -- faculty, staff, and students -- with a walkout on Thursday, September 24 to protest the budget cuts that have so battered this institution and others throughout California. Today, however, I’m thinking more about the work I’ll continue to do this fall, for 8% less money, teaching undergraduate and graduate students about literary genre and its many movements, metamorphoses, and returns. In a strangely serendipitous coincidence, it’s exactly the concept of genre that my oldest son is exploring in 7th grade Humanities and Language Arts (thanks to even more curious rhythms, Labor Day came late this year so school is only in its second week and the bloom is still on that particular rose). The assignment was to choose a book outside your genre to occupy a couple of weeks of reading and a couple more of research and writing.
Genre is not new to Kabir; it’s a familiar category for describing choices about food (sushi, in his genre; mac & cheese, out), music, books, films, etc. Only last weekend I went to the mat, faced with the plea to watch Spider Man 2 only days after Spider Man 1, and declared Saturday an out-of-genre movie night. The “choice” (actually the only option) was Beat the Devil (1953), a dark colonial caper set in Italy and Africa, directed by John Huston with a screenplay by Truman Capote and starring Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lorre as con artists after exotic treasure. Shades of Casablanca, a little Indiana Jones, but without the explosions. Wails of protest aside, it seemed like a good idea and was declared “pretty good” by the 8 year old, “hard to watch” (dialogue too fast, action too slow) by the 12 year old. The whole experience got me thinking about what we mean by genre, and what we want from it.
Drawn from the Greek genos (kind) and Latin genus (birth, origin, descent), the term also has roots linking it to concepts of production (gen: to produce, as in generatio, reproduction, or genesis, birth). Genre, at least last Saturday in my house, was intimately tied up in notions of filiative reproduction, as I and my partner entertained the fantasy that our generic tastes would indeed be reproduced in our genetic offspring, giving the fullest possible weight to the root gen (lat. to produce) in our household economy of genre. But of course genre itself is a notoriously unstable system comprised of rules and exceptions, stock formulas and dead ends, a set of repeatable elements and strange hybrids. Genres, according to the Russian formalist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, are systems in “constant transformation.” You can no more count on the sheer predictability of genre (if that means the same set of formal and narrative codes unchanging over each iteration) than you can count on your children loving what you love. So genre, like so much else, is a battleground.
Criticism confirms this. Though the concept of genre implies firsts and progeny, those are in part arbitrary markers. Ian Watt’s mid-century thesis posited that genre, epitomized by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), developed as a result of the explosive convergence of capitalism, nationalism, and individualism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Earlier in the century the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described a series of historical turns away from authoritarian purity and toward the mix of languages and cultures that gave rise to the Hellenistic and late Roman novels and found its fullest flowering in European realism. More recently Michael McKeon has taken the English novel out of the narrative of epistemic rupture and instead envisioned its origins as a moment in which an emergent generic present negates a past (the older codes of aristocratic romance) that it continues to be saturated by. So the earliest novels still have wonder and quest, magic and myth, kicking around their new, novel, realism. Genres have the capacity to simultaneously preserve the past while moving beyond it, effectively “sedimenting,” to use Fredric Jameson’s term, older forms into newer ones. As even this brief précis suggests, genres are practices of memory through which we see both the literary past and the literary future.
As it turns out, I had my fantasy of generic time travel a little. For his out-of-genre book Kabir chose Song of the Gargoyle (1991) by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Her gritty, occultly weird, and richly imagined The Egypt Game, featuring a band of Berkeley kids in the late 70s who decide to role play pharaohs, priestesses, and other types of the ancient Middle Kingdom, was among my own top five somewhere around 6th grade. Kabir and I had read it aloud very pleasurably some years ago, in his King Tut phase. Was his choice an unconscious repetition of previous generic pleasure, a kind of return to some generic womb? Someone had suggested the Twilight series (girl heroines and read by girls, so out-of-genre but impossible). Kabir, like many other boys his age, reads the kind of just-been-published in hardback in larger-than-necessary font thrill-a-minute fantasy/adventure that is best done, in his opinion, by Percy Jackson’s Young Olympians series (reworking Greek mythology) or The Last Apprentice series (ghoulishly dark versions of monster tales) or the Alex Rider series (adolescent boys meet their inner James Bond). Song of the Gargoyle won out because it was, in his initial estimation, OLD, SLOW, REAL. It’s older than last month, so old, and set in a mythic medieval castle whose thick, detailed description makes it not just real but realist and thus slow going. Following the disappearance of his father, a fallen knight turned court jester, thirteen-year old Tymmon wanders his world in the company of a magical gargoyle as he searches for his father and, naturally, finds himself. 50 pages from the end, Kabir’s wishing he picked the The Hunger Games (thrill a minute future-apocalyptic featuring both a girl heroine and boy hero in a world where children must kill one another, gladiator-style, to survive). Plans are afoot to read it secretly, but still write the assignment on the out-of-genre choice.
So is there no pleasure in stepping out of genre? Does that gesture simply tell us more clearly what we want in our mediums of entertainment and make us want them more? Or is there something in this early experience of what Jacques Derrida calls the laws of genre (an identifying mark of belonging that is always there in any text even if not immediately remarked) that actually teaches a different lesson? Every text has a genre; there is no pure “out-of-genre” just as, in a famous Derridean mot, "il n’y pas d’hors texte" (there is nothing outside the text). When you set out to step out of genre you might just find something quite familiar, whether your own internalized template for what counts as a good story or an uncanny echo of a form you may know better in its repetitions than in its earliest instance. So Snyder’s trademark childhood realism (problems with parents, desires for freedom, finding yourself) set in a fully (BORINGLY says Kabir) realized medieval landscape and animated by that durable plot, the quest romance, actually enacted the very recombinant structure of genre itself while giving him a window onto a different, yes slower, era of children’s fiction. Ever changing and multiplying its codes, mixing old with new, genre is a work in process. Children and criticism ditto.

Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (1981); Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” trans. Avital Ronell, in On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (1981); Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981); Michael McKeon, “Generic Transformation and Social Change: Rethinking the Rise of the Novel,” in Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, ed. McKeon (2000); McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 (1987); Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (1977); Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1959).

Vilashini Cooppan's picture

Vilashini Cooppan taught comparative literature at Yale University before moving to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she is now Associate Professor of Literature. Her essays on postcolonial and world literatures, globalization theory, psychoanalysis, and nationalism have appeared in Symploke, Comparative Literature Studies, Gramma, Concentric, and several published edited volumes. Her book, Worlds Within: National Narratives and Global Connections in Postcolonial Writing, appears this fall from Stanford University Press in the series Cultural Memory in the Present.