Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Once again, words matter.
You may have heard the sad news that US Senator John McCain has been diagnosed with cancer. You also may have seen the excellent column by Noah Berlatsky John McCain Isn’t “Fighting” Cancer
Berlatsky points out the dangers of the military metaphor for those with cancer. If everyone with cancer must “fight hard” to “battle” against cancer, then what do we think if they die from cancer? They’ve lost the war. We don’t like losers. Maybe they didn’t fight hard enough or long enough. Maybe they just weren’t strong enough.
Maybe it was their fault.
So maybe that awful thing wouldn’t happen to us because we’re stronger, we’d fight harder.
Oh we wouldn’t say that out loud. We might not even realize we’re thinking that. But words are insidious, as I've written before, especially when they’re metaphors that carry whole worlds with them. Like the metaphor Disease Is War. So we have battles and fighting and weapons in that war. We have winners and losers. They reflect our culture’s ways of viewing the world of disease, and they influence the way we think and experience our worlds. I’ve written about the importance of the words we choose several times now. It keeps coming up because
Berlatsky points out that McCain’s cancer, glioblastoma, is an aggressive one, hard to “defeat.” His father-in-law lived a bit longer than a year after the diagnosis. My own friend with glioblastoma lived just months before he died. My friend was very strong, physically and emotionally, but he died anyway. This is a tough disease. It’s likely to win the war. As Berlatsky says,
“It’s extremely fortunate that McCain has excellent, government-provided health care. The fact that he does will improve his chances of surviving glioblastoma far more than his bravery or willingness to fight. And if McCain gets very sick very quickly, that’s not a sign that he didn’t fight hard enough.”
If we see disease as war, then our experience of disease must be aggressive, agonistic, difficult, a battle and a struggle to win/survive. But some people make other choices. Some people choose to experience their disease differently, as difficult as that is in this culture. Some people reject the war metaphor.
My friend decided not to do everything possible to “fight” the glioblastoma. He chose to live with it as long as he could. What metaphor can I use for that choice? Instead of “battling” cancer, he accepted it.
Another friend with breast cancer and then ovarian cancer did everything she could, but she didn’t “fight” it. She never wanted to see herself in a battle. Not this smiling, kind, and gentle woman, not this Buddhist. As her obituary put it
“She accepted every new physical limitation on her life as part of a new normal”
Life includes suffering as well as joy. Disease happens—to the strongest and the weakest of us. It’s not her fault she died. It not his fault he died. It’s not a question of how hard McCain battles.
That’s hard to hear for people experiencing cancer and trying to keep living—people who want to be “survivors” of cancer, and their loved ones who want them to “keep fighting.” Our cultural metaphors and use of words are hard to shake. Berlatsky added into the mix Barbara Ehrenreich’s expose of Americans’ positive thinking, including an insistence that those with cancer stay positive as they fight and battle cancer.
My favorite commentary on the topic comes from Judy Segal, a scholar of medical rhetoric, in her very readable article on “Breast Cancer Narratives.” She recounts the hostile reaction Ehrenreich and other women with breast cancer get when they expressed negative perspectives about their own breast cancer, with respondents on various media implying that they would be responsible for their own death if they didn’t stay upbeat and keep fighting. Not only do you have to be a soldier in the cancer war; you have to be a happy soldier.
But rejecting the battle metaphor doesn’t mean you don’t get the treatments you want or endure more suffering in an effort to rid yourself of the disease. You don’t have to either “fight harder” or “give in.” That’s the metaphor talking. People with cancer can seek out treatments and change their diet and do everything they’re advised to do to try to get better. My gentle friend did all that. But they don’t have to let their lives become a battleground. They don’t have to become a military soldier if that’s not their approach to living.
Words and metaphors are so powerful that it’s hard for us to separate the experience from the metaphor. Lots of people respond to questioning this cultural metaphor with outrage: “You have to fight! This kind of talk encourages people to give up! If you’re not tough you won’t survive. You’re going to kill people if you tell them they don’t have to fight cancer. It IS a battle.”
Yes, it seems like a battle because that’s how we’ve talked about it and that’s how we think about it. Yes, pursuing treatments might help someone live longer, if they have health insurance to cover it. Yes, enduring some treatments is very difficult and takes a strong will and determination.
But dealing with cancer might allow a more peaceful approach. Take the new metaphor emerging from all the people who are still alive after receiving a cancer diagnosis, even though they haven’t been “cured.” Those people are “living with” cancer. They’re getting treatment, but it’s for the long-term. It’s hard to keep fighting a war for the rest of your life (see the US experience in Afghanistan). It’s not giving in to accept reality and find a way to live with your physical body, whatever state it might be in.
That new metaphor might be a way to view cancer of any kind, with any prognosis.
John McCain is now living with cancer.
Such a metaphor would let us all express our sorrow for his suffering and our good wishes for him, without requiring that he begin struggling and fighting, without returning him to his days in an actual war and his survival experience as a prisoner of war. He need not be a prisoner of this cancer. He need not make his remaining life a battleground.
A new metaphor gives us new ways to express our sorrow and good wishes:
John McCain is now living with cancer. May he live well, as long as he lives.
May we all live well with whatever our bodies bring us, as long as we live.
Here's a topic I've wrestled with over the years (not as much fun as last week's distractions, though).
I study and teach writing, and, for me, writing is writing. It's all interesting and fascinating and worthy of study. But I got the impression from my education and occasionally even from some literary friends and folks that literature is somehow special writing. Even within literature, I got the impression that some literature was more special than other literature. That a "literary" novel was somehow better than a popular novel.
You know what? I don't buy it.
And one of the reasons I don't buy it is because I study genres. The kinds of writing we do in the world are endlessly fascinating--how those genres work, how they shape what we do and see, how we fit our worlds around them, how they show us our worlds. Look at the genres I use and you'll see the worlds I'm part of.
And the same goes for literary genres.
I’m working on a talk for literary scholars about rhetorical genre studies, and it has me thinking again about literary genres. I wrote about the differences in theoretical perspectives and issues for rhetorical and literary genre study, but that was a scholarly piece, abstract and high-falutin’. You can read it if you like, available from a link from my website, or here.
As someone who studies and teaches all kinds of writing—from grocery lists to tax memos, from scholarly articles to literary essays, I’ve never bought into the “specialness” of literary genres. Different, yes. Special, no. All writing is fascinating to me and has intriguing qualities.
But I hear different stories from some other people.
I’ve had teachers tell me they assign their students literary essays so their students could be free to write what they wanted, as if the literary essay weren’t a genre. Then I ask them what would make a good or “A” essay, and they easily describe its qualities—a strong personal voice, concrete details, personal experience, vivid vocabulary, a clear message that emerges by the end.
Free, huh? Sounds like a genre to me, with expectations for certain strategies and content, ideas of what the writer can do and be, and what readers will read. It might be more personal or more artistic, but it's not free.
What if I'm a person who wants to write a structured piece that makes an argument, based on something I read recently? What if I like to write abstract philosophical explorations? What if I’m not inclined to a strong personal voice or concrete details? What if I don’t want to share personal experience with my teacher, or my classmates? Or prefer to use my academic voice when writing for my courses?
I’ll have to fit into the expectations of the genre, just like any other assignment. I'll have to fake it to get a good grade, just like I might have to do if assigned to write a rhetorical analysis or a source-based argument or a thesis-support paper.
Every genre includes expectations and conventions, roles that a writer has to take on, constraints on the types of content and language used. That's not a bad thing; it's the way writing works. And that includes literary genres.
That’s a good thing for literary genres, not an insult! It means writers have some constraints when they sit down to write—they’re really not open to writing just anything (Let’s see, I think I’ll write: “Jelly!! Clouds; friendship. The definition of gobbledygook depends on your context.” Huh?) If writers were truly free, they'd be immobilized or unintelligible.
That even literary genres are still genres means people know how to read what literary writers write.
Another thing I hear from some people is that there's a difference between “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction, as if “literary fiction” isn’t a genre. Genre fiction usually includes mysteries, westerns, romances, science fiction, and, more often lately, YA (young adult) fiction. Literary fiction is what “real writers” write.
Of course, that's a false distinction, and lots of the "literary" authors I know wouldn’t make that distinction. They know that what they write is a genre, that it also has conventions and expectations, even if they’re less transparently described.
Is "literary fiction" somehow better than genre fiction? If the argument is that it is because it's freer, see above. If it's because it's somehow more innovative or artistic, well, what do those words mean?
Writers’ workshops are one of the places these literary genres are taught, and their teachers are often clear about what’s expected in literary fiction. In a provoking column by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of the novel The Sympathizer describes what’s in “fashion” in literary writing workshops
“voice, experience, and showing rather than telling. So it is that workshops typically focus on strategies of the writing ‘art’ that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot.”
Plot, he continues, is left to “genre writing.” But he and others—those who, he says in a moving description, are “the barbarians at the gate, the descendants of Caliban”—“come with the desire not just to show, but to tell.” He and others don’t want to “renounce” their communities “in the name of our individualism.” He wants “art that is also political, historical, theoretical, ideological and philosophical.”
But that's not what's considered more artistic in the workshops he's describing. Those qualities don't fit the literary genre that the workshops are teaching.
We often recognize a genre by recognizing what it is not. In his view, the literary fiction taught in writing workshops is NOT the fiction genre he wants to write. And writers who say they are being innovative or creative often describe what they are doing in terms of what they are NOT writing. What they are writing is NOT a mystery, or a romance, or science fiction. But that doesn’t mean they’re not writing in some genre. They're just not writing that one. Even if a writer is working hard to innovate, that innovation is recognizable because of other genres, because the reader knows what it’s innovating from.
In fact, innovation might be described as a required convention of literary fiction. The writer must do something literary readers will recognize as innovative, artistic, creative. If not, the work will be classed as another genre—perhaps categorized as “popular fiction” instead of “literary fiction.”
Like all genres, literary genres develop patterns and strategies so that readers know what to expect of and how to read a work. Most writers know that, and most readers know that. They pick up a literary genre knowing some of what they're getting and the requirement that what they're getting is something different.
If I preach anything, I preach conscious awareness of the ways words, language, genres manipulate us. Or more accurately, the ways that people and our worlds can manipulate us through words, language, and genres.
For writers and readers, literary or otherwise, the more aware writers are of the genres they’re writing, the less those generic expectations will control them unconsciously—whether those expectations are for a satisfying closure to a mystery novel or for "showing not telling" in literary fiction.
Like all genres, literary genres help communities define themselves based on shared values. The more aware writers are of the genres they’re writing, the easier it will be for others to learn how to write the genre successfully, and for others to enter that community (notice that I’m assuming exclusion is not the goal).
Like all genres, literary genres are genres defined by the users. That's you and me, readers of literary genres, and the writers and scholars of literary genres. So call them literary essays, cli-fi, new adult, oulipo, alt lit, ergodic literature, twitter short story, or even literary fiction or just plain fiction or poetry or nonfiction. Or call them special genres! Just don’t pretend literary genres aren’t genres, because that leads to unconsciousness about how genres work, including literary genres.
It’s a wonderful reality that literary genres are still genres, with all the constraints and opportunities that go along with that fact. And therein lie all the possibilities!
I'm off my usual schedule this week (far too busy Monday). But never fear! I'll post a new piece tomorrow, Tuesday. If you've read this placeholder, I'm grateful that you checked.