In “Approaching Genre” John Frow begins by conveying the implicit rules of understanding a rhetorical text: “the knowledge the reader is expected to have is intertextual: knowledge of earlier reports and earlier controversies” (7). The readers, through their common understanding of prior events, form a discourse community that both creates and decodes meaning, thereby continuously redefining the different forms that constitute the genre. The form of the text, its type font, verb choice or play on words, for example, and the way it is framed or structured, together determine the rhetorical function and meaning of the text (8-9).
In addition to the group within which the text is communicated, the situational context plays a significant role in its interpretation: “The work of genre, then, is to mediate between a social situation and the text which realizes certain features of this situation, or which responds strategically to its demands” (14). Our knowing of a text’s genre often predetermines our reaction to it by providing constraining instructions regarding the expected appropriate behaviour to it. By suggesting a certain attitude, the objectivity of the work is diminished.
One of the greatest challenges of the above presets then is attempting to limit the classification of any given text into one genre. Here, Derrida adds that “[e]very text participates in one or several genres,” but this is not equivalent to its belonging within that genre (25). In a subsequent chapter, “Literary Genre Theory”, Frow mentions how this blurs the lines of classification of texts, which are cultural constructs, more than that of the taxonomy found in nature.
He analyzes early forms of literary classification from Plato and Aristotle, who wrote that all forms of poetry differ either in their means, objects or manner of imitations (56). Western tradition has further followed this breakdown of literary genre as a triad of the epic, dramatic or lyric, although the debate of overlapping components among the three still exists. Some scholars distinguish these as “modes”, or “qualifications”, of a genre, which entail specific emotions or affects (65).
He concludes by describing genre then as an evolving social construct dependent upon recurring characteristics and norms within a society or time period. The hierarchy of genres is always fluctuating: “Just as genres form a horizon of expectations against which any text is read, so are they themselves subsumed within a broader horizon formed by a period’s system of genres” (70).
Frow, John. Genre. The Critical Idiom, Series ed. John Drakakis. London: Routledge, 2006.
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