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Summary: John Frow’s Genre, Chs. 1 and 3

In “Approaching Genre”, the first chapter of his 2006 text (somewhat unexcitingly) titled Genre, John Frow engages with historical and contemporary debates regarding the nature and function of generic classification in order to call for enhanced awareness of the inherently social role these literary structures serve for producers and consumers of texts.

What is at stake in this discussion, he establishes early in the piece, are the conditions under which meaning is determined and expressed through discourse. Genre theory “is, or should be, about the ways in which different structures of meaning and truth are produced”, Frow argues, such that genre should be understood as “central to human meaning-making and to the social struggle over meanings” (10). Because genre is so imbedded not simply in the forms meaning and truth take, but in debates about what constitutes meaning at all, any robust definitions and discussions of the term must account for genre’s role as both a material and a social entity.

Though this particular chapter is ultimately more interested in the latter, the beginning of the selection does use a newspaper headline (which he argues could also be read as a poem) in order to establish a useful set of “structural dimensions” to genre. Even these characteristics, however, are indicative of the socially determined and determining role of genre. For while Frow discusses what we might understand as the more formal aspects of the text (typeface, layout, and topical/thematic concerns), he is equally concerned with the spatial and rhetorical situation under which the address takes place, as well as its intended effect (what he calls its rhetorical function) and the presumed background of the reader. The “almost…definition” of genre he arrives at shortly thereafter, that genre represents “a relationship between textual structures and the situations that occasion them” (13) is perhaps already unsurprising,then, but nonetheless imbedded in complex ways within existing disciplinary conversations.

One critical misconception Frow works to complicate is based upon what the earlier cited definition refers to as the ‘situation’ of a text, which he goes on to qualify as a recurring setting. Rather than attempt to draw a causal relationship between the two, such that genres are depicted either as consequences of their context or as trans-historical, standardized categories, he describes an unstable and continuous exchange between “dynamic” (23) texts and the equally multi-dimensional conditions that frame them.

This emphasis on instability (partially) aligns Frow’s study with Derrida’s work on what he refers to as the law of genres. Derrida’s conception of genre as “participation without belonging” (qtd. in Frow 25) is particularly important, Frow notes, for Derrida characterizes the relationship genres have with both their contexts and with other genres as one of constant ‘impurity’ or influence. Much as genres are both within the content of a text and working outside of it to describe that content, genres themselves consistently mix with one another, such that the law of genre is ultimately characterized by a lack of regulation rather than the perpetuation of a stable taxonomy.

Much like the contexts texts are produced within are highly mediated and complex, then, this first chapter of Frow’s work reminds readers that an effective study of genre must understand genres as an action undertaken through and upon a text, one which creates effects that extend beyond any particular work to shape broader understandings of knowledge, reality, and truth.


Frow begins his third chapter, “Literary Genre Theory”, by stating that “Genre is, … a matter of discrimination and taxonomy: of organizing things into recognizable classes” (51).  He continues his argument from the previous chapter that the classification of activities is part of daily life.  We generally “think of classifications as being like standards: explicit, formalized, durable rules which extend over several communities of practice” (52).  This follows in the neoclassical approach to genre, ignoring to some degree the fact that a work may qualify under several categories and may not fit exclusively under rigid and formal rules of classification.

Ferdinand Brunetiere suggests “genre study serves to convince theorists that genres actually exist, that they have distinct borders, that they can be identified, … that they evolve according to fixed and identifiable trajectory” (qtd. in Frow 53). Brunetiere identifies what Frow says is the standard way of identifying with genre and classification, but is inevitably flawed and incorrect.  Frow references Russian formalists to explain that genres constantly shift in a hierarchical order within specific and limited domains and that genres are interrelated.  Shifts continuously occur in the structure of genres, resulting in their modification and transformation.  The order of relation, or established hierarchies of genre are always social and historical – genres are based on social codification.

Frow moves on to discuss areas of classification that explore “fuzziness and open-endedness of the relation between texts and genres” (54).  The theory of family resemblance (varying representatives of genre that can be seen as making up a class in which works are related by certain criteria but not necessarily by an over-arching common feature) provides a frame of reference for Frow to build on the idea that genre is not static, but ever evolving and changing. Classifying through prototype allows for a general commonality, but also for the previously discussed “fuzziness” that makes it difficult to have unwavering genre classifications.   This allows us to understand genre based on “what we know best”, avoiding formal categories that are too rigid to reasonably work with (55).

It is for this reason that Frow finds Genette’s concept of archigenres (and sub-genres) important.   Archigenres are ‘archi’ since each archigenre should over arch and include a specific number of empirical genres that are seen as cultural and historical phenomena.  Genette also identifies presentational modes, which are “like a priori forms of literary expression,” in contrast to genres which “are historically contingent and variable” (65).  Because of this there can’t be a hierarchical relation between modes and genres.

To conclude, Frow summarizes his chapter on genre by stating that genres “should be regarded as historically changing system rather than as a logical order” and that to a certain extent there is an “’internal’ organization of genre” which is understood through “historical codifications of discursive properties” (71).

Terms: Chapter One

-Structural dimensions of genre

Set of formal features: Visual structure, organization, diction

thematic structure: Particular topics the writer draws upon to present the world

situation of address: Position from which the speaker addresses the reader

A more general structure of implication: Presumed background/knowledge of reader

rhetorical function: Pragmatic effects the text is aiming to achieve

physical setting

Terms: Chapter Three

–       the semiotic medium: a text is inscribed and presented

–       the ‘radical of prsentation’: the text is presented to its receiver

–       mode: thematic and tonal qualification or ‘colouring’ of genre

–       genre: a more specific organization of texts with thematic, rhetorical and formal diminesions

–       subgenre: further specification of genre by particular thematic content (67)

About meganf

Queer, Marxist-feminist DH scholar out in the Wild West (Alberta) blogging about all the things.


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