- Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-textes
A standard textbook or thorough book-length exposition on genetic criticism for the English-speaking world is long overdue. By this I do not mean a final, authoritative statement of what genetic criticism is, does, or should be, but an overview of procedures and principles, something that would finally put the analytical study of modern manuscripts and the writing process on the literary-critical map in Britain and America. The next best thing has now appeared from Pennsylvania University Press: Genetic Criticism: Textes and Avant-textes, edited by Jed Deppman, Daniel Ferrer, and Michael Groden, is an outstanding collection of essays by the best and most noteworthy of today’s genetic critics from France, carefully translated from the original, amplified with exhaustive bibliographies, and accompanied by brief, informative introductions. The book follows three earlier collections, published as a special issue of Romanic Review (85 ), of Yale French Studies (89 ), edited by Michel Contat, Denis Hollier, and Jacques [End Page 162] Neefs (Drafts), and of Word and Image (13 ), edited by Claire Bustarret. The difference between these three issues and the present volume is, I think, one of intent. The essays in the Yale French Studies issue in particular demonstrated a new method, a new theory, a new aesthetic even; in the present volume, theoretical considerations go as before hand in hand with demonstrations of how the method works in practice, but the essays selected by Deppman, Ferrer, and Groden mark a clear choice to gather together a broad range of angles, possibilities, and approaches to study a writer’s avant-textes. Even though it is not a textbook in the strict sense of the word, the volume is put together to have textbook allure, and it is hoped that its impact will be of the kind.
As the title of the Introduction, “A Genesis of French Genetic Criticism”, indicates, and the inclusion of Louis Hay’s “Genetic Criticism: Origins and Perspectives” signals, the editors of this volume have been concerned as much with showing how genetic criticism works to a non-French audience as with exploring its earlier developments in its country of origin. The volume showcases the scholarship produced by ITEM, the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes, against the background of that organization’s own institutional history. Even though the editors have made a selection from thirty years of scholarly activity, French genetic criticism—or ITEM—is far from being a movement or school in the narrow sense. The essays they translate present instead a diversity of techniques, approaches, perspectives, assumptions, methodologies, and lines of inquiry that can be applied to the successful study of an author’s manuscripts. To maintain a sense of the historical, and of the importance of genetic criticism, the choices they have made in their selection is to concentrate on the early years, rather than on recent developments.
Although the editors indicate that the timeliness of the present volume is due to the rising interest in the materiality of the text in the field of English studies, two things are made clear from the start: that genetic criticism, or critique génétique, is decidedly French (although Hay traces its origins back to German Idealism) and that it is a literary-critical enterprise. The intellectual allegiances are everywhere apparent, not just in the Introduction, but also in the contributions themselves. Possible precursors in French or English scholarship are quickly dismissed as having had no influence, and so are philology, textual criticism, and literary history; instead, one finds the origins in the ideas of psychoanalysis, nouvelle critique, structuralism, poststructuralism, and their notion of “writing’s mobility” and pluriformity (5) as well as in the work of such modernist writers as Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. All the critics represented in the volume are more interested in the science of [End Page 163] writing than in the physical attributes of existing documents. To the extent that the direction the writing takes must be inferred...