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Poetics Today 22.4 (2001) 853-861
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Modern Genre Theory
English, Northern Illinois
David Duff, ed., Modern Genre Theory. London: Longman, 2000. xvi + 287 pp.
Think of how much work has been done in modern times on the theory of narrative--and of how much of that work has been interesting, productive, and even revolutionary, to the point where it can fairly be said that not until recently were we in a position to understand the nature of literary narrative. Now compare the situation in the theory of genres. Though some very significant work has been done, it has been spotty: the theory of genres has not been the object of sustained initiative by any major theorist or critical movement. As a result, contemporary theorists of literature find themselves with comparatively little to say about one of the most basic categories of literary study.
It is this context that makes the appearance of David Duff's anthology so significant. Duff has chosen well in assembling fifteen essays and excerpts to represent theoretical work on genre in the twentieth century. In addition to providing a generally useful headnote to each item, he has framed this material with an annotated bibliography, a glossary, and an introduction. Although genre theory may not have been a booming subject during the last hundred years, enough has been done so that Duff has had to make a variety of selections, trade-offs, and exclusions in order to produce a representative collection of readings that would fit into a medium-sized volume. And while I have some criticisms and suggestions to offer, it is hard to see how a much better job could have been done overall.
The concept of genre has had its vigorous detractors of course--perhaps [End Page 853] the most vigorous in this past century. Duff leads off, very appropriately, with a few pages on genres as useless abstractions from Benedetto Croce's Aesthetic (1902), as provocative and unconvincing as ever. In his introduction Duff (5) rightly notes that Croce has not been alone in his antipathy to genre during the twentieth century, joined, for example, by Maurice Blanchot, to whom we will return.
Duff then turns to the Russian Formalists and their contemporaries in the Bakhtin Circle, who were the first theorists to take up where the romantics left off a century previous in thinking seriously about genre. The really huge coup of Duff's anthology is the appearance of the first English translation of Yury Tynianov's "The Literary Fact" (1924), which alone makes the collection a must-have for English-speaking literary theorists. In this programmatic essay, which introduces the last great work of twentieth-century literary theory unavailable in English, Tynianov's collection Archaists and Innovators (1929), Tynianov outlines an approach to literary history through genres. As Duff (6-7) points out in his introduction to the volume, those who know Russian Formalism mainly from translations of works belonging to its earlier phase, such as Viktor Shklovsky's "Art as Technique" (1965 ), will need to rethink their entire sense of the scope and direction of the movement. No other essay brings out more clearly than does "The Literary Fact" that it was not the relatively empty notion of form but, rather, function and system that were the key concepts for the movement, or that historical evolution and change were the preoccupation of Tynianov and his associates. Duff also reprints Vladimir Propp's essay "Fairy Tale Transformations" (1928), a fine complement to the Tynianov essay in representing the Formalists. 1
Mikhail Bakhtin is the only theorist given two entries in the collection, and deservedly. Unfortunately, Bakhtin's chaotic, carnivalesque writing is especially difficult to excerpt, and Duff has succumbed to the temptation to include "Epic and Novel" (written 1941, published 1975), one of Bakhtin's few attempts at a short, coherent essay but also one of his weakest productions. In this highly schematic study the epic is reduced to a foil of the novel, static where the novel is dynamic, regressive where the novel is emergent, "official" where the novel is "unofficial," and...