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New Literary History 34.3 (2003) 597-615

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Anomalies of Genre:
The Utility of Theory and History for the Study of Literary Genres

Hayden White

IN THIS COMMENTARY I will consider a topical thread that runs through most of the essays comprising this issue of New Literary History and the one before it. The topic is the relation between history and theory in literary studies. In his contribution to this symposium, Michael Prince cites Ralph Cohen's suggestion that both the notion of (literary) genre and genres themselves appear to be "resistant to theory." Prince goes on to suggest that genre's resistance to theoretical consideration tells us more about theory than it does about genre itself. For if, as everyone seems to agree, genre is an essential element or aspect of literarity, then genre's resistance to theory implies that theory itself is inimical to literature and should not, therefore, be brought to bear upon the literary artwork. Indeed, Prince holds that it may be genre's resistance to theory that generates the endless task of literary interpretation, which has the role in criticism of mediating not only between literature and life but also between literature and theory as well. If we hold to interpretation and abandon theory we might be able, Prince tells us, to produce a low-level "theory of genre" "without falling into paradox or self-contradiction." And in his essay on "mauvais genres," he provides a brilliant historical account of how eighteenth-century English thinkers, in their attempt to construct a "theory of genre," met with a kind of resistance by genre that left them in a wasteland of theory and a quagmire of logical contradiction, left them, that is, with little more to do than turn over the question of genre to the newly emerged field of aesthetics, where the paradoxes it generated could be assimilated to the idea of the sublime.

Thus, Michael Prince's alternative to a theoretical approach to the question of genre is a history (in this case, of the failure of one attempt to construct an adequate theory) of genre. This is consistent with Ralph Cohen's historical approach to the study of genre. Cohen's idea that genre is resistant to theory is not itself a theoretical finding; it is a historical or more precisely a historicist one. It is based on the fact that no one has ever produced a compelling theory of genre in spite of the [End Page 597] millennial effort to do so. We are therefore justified in thinking that, in all probability, there is something about genre that makes it inherently "resistant to theory" but hospitable to historical treatment.

On the other hand, genre is not the only thing that has proven resistant to theory. The philosopher W. B. Gallie once proposed the idea of "essentially contestable concepts" such as "democracy," "Christianity," "humanism," and the like, to which we might add "art," "literature," "aesthetics," and so forth—concepts which are essentially contestable precisely because they combine ontological with evaluative elements in their constitution. When it comes to these kinds of concepts, you are not only compelled to try to characterize or describe them but also confirm that they are inherently good or valuable or desirable in themselves, at one and the same time.

So it is with genres—or so it seems to me. I have never been presented with a genre (of literature or anything else) that I didn't feel expected to love or hate or at least feel ambivalent about. And this, not because the genre had been theorized one way or another, but because genre is one of those things whose manifestation demands both recognition of what it is (pure or hybrid) and also acceptance of its value—positive or negative, as the case may be. Theory is bound to run into resistance when confronted with concepts such as genre—or democracy, or humanism, or art—because concepts such as these are essentially contestable. But this is what generates a specifically...


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