Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
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!
"Genres can be a tidy way of understanding what you might expect overall from a story, a shorthand that there will be elements in this tale that speak to you as a reader. Genres, however, can sometimes draw artificial lines that people don't cross. I will admit there are genres I thought I didn't read . . . until I did."
Three years ago, in a column by the Readers' Services Coordinator at my local public library, Polli Kenn discussed the library's then new "Genre Book Club." Once a month, the library staff "puts together a list of highly rated and representative books in a genre," which readers can then request, read, and discuss.
I've been on a library kick in my blog lately, mostly because of National Library Week--and my passion for libraries--but I've been wanting to write about this column independent of libraries every since I read it.
Because Kenn writes about how genres define and perhaps limit what we read.
Kenn points out that readers can have favorite genres they read--and ones they don't read.
I know that's true for me, that I read some genres more than others because I know I like them. I like what I can expect from a mystery, and I don't like what I (think I can) expect from a romance (though Kenn's column tells me I might like romances if I would read one written by Courtney Milan, Julia Quinn or Eloisa James).
The "shorthand" that is a genre label captures basic elements that makes someone (a librarian? a bookseller?) categorize a book as this genre and not that genre. And there's a much bigger story here, too, as there is for most things genre, about the greater commercial value of some genres over others, the stretching of a genre category by publishers and marketers in order to help a book sell--but that's another post another time.
I do read much more widely in nonfiction genres and in what Amazon calls "literary fiction" (what a baggy category that is on Amazon, and it includes many of what I would call romances), so it's not like I read only mysteries.
But when I'm tired or stressed and just want to pick up something for fun, it's easy to pick up a mystery and know puzzles will be solved, smart people will win out, and life will all make sense. Unless, of course, I'm reading a mystery by John Harvey or other mystery writers who like to upset conventions, but even then I know, after their first book, to expect the conventions to be upset. Mysteries are my comfort genre (thanks, Leighann Dicks, for the concept and term!)
But Kenn suggests, rightly, that I might be limiting myself by reading only preferred genres, and that I should stretch myself to read good examples of other genres--even romance?
My resistance to the idea shows up in the fact that I first ended that last sentence with an exclamation point--even romance! and couldn't do it, ending it with a question mark instead--even romance?
I know I also enjoy reading science fiction, but not yet fantasy, so there's another genre I could stretch myself with, maybe more easily than with romance. Each of you might be able to suggest other genres I should cross into. When Kenn wrote three years ago, the next month's genre in the Genre Book Club was "urban fantasy," so the genres you like might be broad or narrow, but there will always be other categories we could explore. What genres do you think I should try?
Since that column, the library developed and posted on their website reading lists for 19 genres from the Genre Book Club. I've already read some in Dystopian Fiction--Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Hilary St. John Mandel and Cormac McCarthy--but the reading list recommends other exciting possibilities. Of the other genres they've listed, I've hit a few Food Memoirs, Historical Fiction (I've read only the non-romance type, being too ridiculously consistent, I suppose), Horror, Humorous Mysteries, Magical Realism, Mysteries (of course), Noir Fiction, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Suspense, Travel Writing, True Crime, and Women's Fiction (these are all their labels, created to draw readers to a monthly book club).
They have other reading lists on the site, too, including a Social Justice Book Club, Roadtripping, and, my favorite category name, "To Be Continued: Books to Read Later," ones you want to read, just not right now.
So many genres, so little time.
I could also stretch myself into other genres they have reading lists for, including LGBTQ Graphic Novels. Every list has something that looks great, that I'd like to read.
Except romance. I still can't get myself to cross into the romance genre.
I bet if I dug into why I haven't read romances, I could see all sorts of things about myself. Genres do show us stuff, reveal who we are, individually and socially. Janice Radway wrote a fantastic book called Reading the Romance, exploring who reads romances, what they offer, how they're marketed. Now there's an example of a great scholarly book, if you're looking for one.
And I bet if I tried reading romances, I'd learn other things about myself and people. So I'm willing to try if you'll tell me about a romance you really love. I won't judge. I promise. I don't like to think of myself as biased against any genre, without even having given it a good try with a good example of the genre.
Because that's the other part of genre-crossing, of course. You have to read a good example of the genre to give it a fair chance. When we read a particular genre a lot, we learn what we like and we can seek out authors or recognize what makes a particular book good--for us. But when we're new to a genre, as Kenn says, we need help finding the good examples so we don't just reject the genre outright based on one poor text.
And here I am back to libraries, darn it. Librarians can suggest examples of genres for you to read. And their website is full of reading lists and recommendations, even individualized ones. I just can't seem to get away from libraries. It's become National Library Month for me, rather than week.
But social media is great for reading suggestions, too, whether literary or scholarly genres, fiction or nonfiction. So feel free to post your genre suggestions--and a good example of it--on my Facebook post or Twitter feed.
What about you? Do you comfortably cross genre lines in your reading? What really good romance should I read to stretch myself? What other genres should I try? Men's Rural Utopian Short Epics, anyone?