Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I’ve mentioned that I like the statement, “We shape genres, and genres shape us.” But when I say that, I’m usually thinking of writers, not readers. A recent episode of Inside Amy Schumer made me think about not just the genre creators but also the genre recipients.
Genres shape writers, encouraging them to write in expected ways.
Genre shape receivers, encouraging them to respond in expected ways
On Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer plays a character in a typical family sitcom. Stock characters come in and out of a living room, swapping lines and getting laughs from a boisterous studio audience. Lots of fat jokes.
screenshot from Comedy Central http://www.cc.com/shows/inside-amy-schumer
But suddenly Schumer’s lines don’t get laughs anymore. Deadly silence. Other characters keep getting the expected laughs, but not Schumer. She makes a fat joke and audience and cast members call her out for being mean, even booing her. Eventually Schumer complains that the audience is laughing at others only because of the rhythm of the lines, regardless of the content. And she gets hauled away and replaced by another actress saying the same expected lines.
Proving her point, the sitcom devolves from typical jokes to joke-less lines that still get big laughs. The fat character gets a big laugh for saying, “Hey everybody, I just took a huge dump. Cuz I’m so fat!” The characters’ lines descend to nonsense—“jing a bing a boom,” “bow a wow a wow,” “baddam boom.” Big laughs.
Before she’s hauled away, Schumer yells at the audience, “You’re all f***ing sheep. These jokes aren’t funny. You’re just used to the rhythms and laughing at them.”
You’re all f***ing sheep. These jokes aren’t funny. You’re just used to the rhythms and laughing at them.”
As the video clip ends on Comedy Central’s website, a genre label pops up— “mandatory multi-camera enjoyment program.” “Sitcom” becomes mandatory enjoyment. Viewers aren’t permitted to laugh or not, to choose whether they find it funny. Instead, it’s mandatory that they laugh when the rhythm of the script calls for a laugh. And they do.
In how many other places in life do we react as the genre tells us to? Pretty much all of them, I’d say.
Pick a genre, any genre.
I get a Valentine’s Day card from my sweetie. “Awwww.”
I’m handed a medical history form at the doctor’s office. I fill it out.
I scan Facebook posts. I like a few, maybe share one. And with options recently added to the genre, I’m encouraged not just to like but to [emoji like, heart, laugh, wow]👍🏼❤️😅😃
Of course, we are not sheep, at least not completely. We can and do act differently from what’s expected. I get in the mail a marketing letter—I toss it. He gets a Valentine’s Day card from his cheating girlfriend—he tears it up. I watch a few minutes of a gory fantasy series with lots of bare breasts (and too few bare bums), and I change the channel.
But once I step into a genre, I largely react as expected.
I gasp at the unexpected murder. My heart swells at the loving sentiments. I consider whether I do indeed need some retirement advice.
Image of sheep from wikimedia.org
Scholars like Anne Freadman and Anis Bawarshi probably call this “uptake.” I don’t know that I’m talking here about the ways genres interact but focusing just on the effects on recipients of a genre, on their actions as part of the original genre’s rhetoric.
For the academics among my readers, a few more thoughts:
How do you read a scholarly article? I might read first with interest at potential new discoveries. At some point, I turn to fitting this research into existing scholarship, and I probably critique the new article, looking for potential methodological weaknesses or gaps in the bibliography. I add the citation to my zotero bibliography. I may work in a reference to the article in one of my own. And I move on.
How do students respond to the writing assignments we give them? They look for our expectations and what they have to do. They write what we ask them to write. They do what we say. And they move on to their next assignment.
They write like sheep
How do we respond to the papers students turn in? We produce the genres expected in our institutional systems. I add marginal comments as I read. I write an end comment (see Summer Smith’s excellent study of “The Genre of the End Comment”). Maybe I look for errors (see Joseph Williams great article on “The Phenomenology of Error” on that way of reading). And, in many systems, we add a letter grade.
We grade like sheep
We respond to genres in expected ways. Often those reactions help us. They let us act more efficiently, without having to think through every single thing we do. (Genres are everywhere, after all.) And they can help us act well, following the tried and true or “best practices.” Or they can just let us relax and enjoy ourselves, immersed in a funny sitcom or engrossing drama.
But sometimes those reactions don’t help and maybe even harm. Making us laugh at fat jokes and ethnic slurs, as Schumer calls out. Quickly liking a friend’s news, whether it’s what she ate for lunch or the arrival of her baby. Retweeting a political rant instead of engaging in discussion that takes more than 140 characters at a time. It takes deliberate consciousness to notice those automatic responses and choose to do something different—as a reader, viewer, receiver of a genre, not just as a writer.
What genre reactions do you see happening? Which ones are more helpful, which more harmful? Are some stickier than others? Harder to shake? Harder to notice? More interesting?
Please post below the expected reaction to this blog genre, a comment. Or does the fact that so few readers actually comment on a blog mean that commenting is not the genre's expected reaction?