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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: July 2019

35 - Genre


‘Genre’, a complex concept in the study of language, literature and culture, has a long critical history, though the word first appears in English in the eighteenth century. Its study begins in antiquity: both Plato and Aristotle seek to distinguish between various modes of storytelling and imitation and scrutinize their truth claims and capacity for misrepresentation. Most simply, ‘genre’ identifies the formal features and purposive patterns that allow speakers and listeners to communicate, readers to differentiate types of texts and bookstores to organize their shelves: first-person speech, imitation or indirect narration; fiction, poetry or science; documentary or invention. Such uses belie the concept's critical significance, however; as these examples illustrate, genre is the product of historically specific interactions among writers, texts and readers. John Frow (2015, 83) describes ‘genres’ as ‘complex constellations’ whose analysis requires attention to multiple, overlapping dimensions: formal organization, rhetorical structure and thematic content. To examine ‘genre’ is to investigate how these dimensions simultaneously allow for and constrain the production of meaning. In Frow's lucid account, genres at once ‘frame’ the world to make it intelligible and show us how to ‘move between knowledge given directly in text and other sets of knowledge that are relevant to understanding it’ (88). We expect genres to have considerable continuity and stability; we require this for texts to be intelligible. Yet genre innovation and development are inevitable, given historical and social evolution – and fascinating as well. M. M. Bakhtin famously argues that modernity necessitates the evolution of prose genres agile enough to depict its polyglot cultures and rapid social transformations. Using the ‘ossified generic skeleton’ of premodern genres as counterpoint, Bakhtin (1981, 8, 39) celebrates the fidelity to lived experience and historical complexity that ‘novelistic genres’, with their ‘plasticity’ and ‘zone of direct contact with developing reality’, afford.

‘Travel writing’ has a vexed relationship with ‘genre’. Most attempts at definition note the research field's diffuseness, the term's opacity: it ‘has always embraced a bewilderingly diverse range of material’, and ‘has always maintained a complex and confusing relationship with any number of closely related (indeed, often overlapping) genres’ (Thompson 2011-, 11). In establishing the field, scholars have expressly defined ‘travel writing’ as transdisciplinary and transcultural: both the corpus of texts they study and their critical methodologies characterize it broadly, not simply as a subset of ‘literature’.