Jan 6, 2016
Remember when genres were easy? Second grade, we start learning about genres, about fiction and non-fiction (in fact one of my sister’s childhood brushes with literary greatness was asking whether Ray Bradbury enjoyed writing fiction or non-fiction best in a Q&A session after a reading.) A little while later, we learned more sophisticated genres—novel, poetry, drama, satire, fable, book report, coming-of-age story, faux epistolary, application letter, ethnogenesis, thesis. We tend to take genres for granted in our everyday, and even scholarly lives. But how do we learn to identify a genre when we see it? What goes into our interpretation of it? How—and when-- do we learn to write them ourselves? A branch of composition theory called Genre Theory investigations these questions and, in the process, uncovers more about the relationships among reading, writing and societal hegemony.
Genre has been around as a concept for a long time, not just in fourth grade, but back to the Greeks, which means back to—who else?—Aristotle. Aristotle had strong feelings about the sort of characteristics that lyric poetry and epic poetry, comedy and tragedy ought to contain. He wrote about much of this in a slim little volume called Poetics. These strict divisions between genres continued for a millennia, as Romans and later European Scholastics insisted that there was something different between an epic poem and a satire.
But what about a slightly satiric satire and a very satiric satire? What about satires about love or satires about politics? Were they different genres? This question flummoxed the taxonomies of the Enlightenment thinkers who studied genre. John Locke tried to break down genre to the atomic level and David Harltey went even further:
“How far the Number of Orders may go is impossible to say. I see no Contradiction in supposing it infinite, and a great Difficulty in stopping at any particular Size.”
In the 20th century, people began to look at genres not as just something that exists out there as a form, but as something that is constructed. We make something a genre when we call something a genre. But why should we even care to have genres? What’s the advantage of having a word called satire or for that matter dissertation, book review or podcast?
In 1984, Carolyn Miller examined this question from the perspective of rhetorical exigence. Lloyd Bitzer had written a text called “The Rhetorical Situation,” in which he argued that circumstances will present a moment of exigence, where audience, subject, everything is ripe for the rhetor to occupy the rhetorical moment. Miller continued from Bitzer’s idea to suggest that genres arise as people repeatedly come up against similar situations. If there’s a need for a group of people to say things in a certain way and that need comes up over and over again, that genre will spring into life as a shorthand for what the social situation required. Miller draws on the work of Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamison, who argued that it’s not so much that genres exist out there as fun taxonomies that we can fiddle around with, like Aristotle, but that genres, rather, tell us about the societies that produced them, about what their priorities are. For example, if biologists in the Enlightenment find themselves increasingly interested in knowing the methods and materials of an experiment, then each time a biologist writes he (and let’s be honest, it was usually a he) will begin to include more detailed information on methods and materials. Anticipating the needs or potential criticisms of his audience, the biologist will create a genre that answers those needs. Miller pointed out that these are perceived needs, not needs that exist somewhere else. Perceived needs, not needed needs. As she puts it, “At the center of action is a process of interpretation,” (156). Because the biologist wants his work to be read as a scientific article, not just a letter or a diary entry, he forms it in a way that lets it be read that way. You’ve probably run into this yourself when you were first writing a new genre: did you write your first literary analysis with a little too much summary because you were used to the genre of a book report? Have you ever written a cover letter or professional email in a way that was, for the situation, too breezy and casual? As Miller puts it, “Form shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction, so to speak, about how to perceive and interpret; this guidance disposes the audience to anticipate, to be gratified, to respond in a certain way” (157). Studying genre, for the rhetorician, then means “genres can serve both as an index to cultural patters and as tools for exploring the achievements of particular speakers and writers; for the student, genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community” (165).
Miller’s article launched a movement in rhetoric. Called Rhetorical Genre Studies, or RGS, these scholars examine genres as social actions, which occur over and over again to meet their rhetorical situation.
Berkenkotter and Huckin expanded Miller’s argument: "Our thesis is that genres are inherently dynamic rhetorical structures that can be manipulated according to the conditions of use and that genre knowledge is therefor best conceptualized as a form of situated cognition embedded in disciplinary activities" (78). Whew. Let’s break that down a bit. Essentially they’re saying that every discipline, say biology, is going to require its adherents to think a certain way when approaching one of those rhetorical situations. To use a non-biology example, think of the image of a volcano erupting. Everyone is running away, except the photojournalist who responds to the repeatable situation of natural disaster by reading it as “great chance for a shot’ instead of “This could kill me.” So the photographer runs towards, instead of away from the volcano because she is a photographer. Similarly, there’s nothing about a biological experiment that means that it has to be written about in a scientific paper—you could write a haiku, but if you’re a biologist wanting to write to other biologists in a biology journal, you’re probably going to write a scientific article.
As you’re probably realizing, genres rely heavily on communities. In fact, in their very excellent book Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research and Pedagogy, Anis S. Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff point out: “Since part of what defines a genre is its placement within a system of genre relations within and between activity systems, genres cannot be defined or taught only through their formal features” (103). It’s not enough to say, “A scientific article includes a methods section.” You have to think about why biologists include method sections, how “doing biology writing” situates the author within a world that values description of methods. Because that may change. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that genres will change as the discourse communities around them change. Charles Bazerman, who made a long study of the way that scientific articles have changed over 300 years, has said “Genres are not just forms. Genres are forms of life, ways of being.”
There’s a lot more that we could say about genre, but don’t have space here. There’s Anne Freadman notion of “uptake, ” for instance. And the work of Anis Barwashi. And lots more. But the critical thing is that genre theory describes how communities that overlap and change creating these “forms of life, ways of being” that can be recognizable, whether in a lab report, a literary analysis. Or, who knows, even a podcast.