I finished my exam-list abstract today, which introduces my exam topic(s) and poses questions about the nature of these things we call “novels” and “genres” and “readers.” I am excited; admittedly, you may be bored to tears (spoiler alert!). But in the interest of keeping up the news, here is the thing, in it’s current state, that will shape the next year/year and a half of my life (and thus at least a handful of posts on this blog):
Exam Reading List Introduction: Identity and Classification
In “The Context of Romance” Northrop Frye writes, “Most romances end happily, with a return to the state of identity, and begin with a departure from it” (54). I intend to think about Frye’s idea of a character’s loss of identity and that character’s attempt to re-establish his/her identity as a driving force in the novel as the novel develops over time and becomes a more (and less) solidified and recognizable form. I believe the question of identity is one that can be examined on the different levels of story and narrative. Ideas about genres are ideas about classification—an attempt to establish a set identity for various novel forms. This raises many questions for me that I will investigate this year: How does the loss of identity of a character in a novel affect the text? In what ways do attempts at classification succeed and fail? In what ways does the text obscure identity or make it difficult for a character to understand him or herself as an individual? In what ways is the text destabilized by ideas of its own identity (as a novel, as a romance, a mystery, etc.)? What is a novel?
Odysseus must obscure his identity and take the form of a beggar in able to best the suitors and regain his kingdom. Quixote’s identity is subsumed and changed by the texts he reads. What is the relationship between a character’s loss of identity and the instability of a text? How do other genres (like Bildungsroman) fulfill and complicate Frye’s ideas about romance?
I’ve built my list with these questions in mind. The history list begins with some of the earliest examples of texts that have come to be considered novels, and moves through canonical texts of the 18th and 19th centuries. My choices here include novels that struggle with notions of narrativity (such as Tristram Shandy) and novels that begin to bend toward subgenres (realism, Gothic, horror, science fiction, etc.) as the idea of the novel becomes more specialized and its possible identities multiply.
In my contemporary list, I’ve tried to include novels that grow out of these subgeneric tendencies/traditions/trends. I’m also interested in novels that mix genre or are self-conscious of the genre(s) they inhabit (that is, they actively identify with or against certain generic traditions), such as Slaughterhouse Five and Cotton Comes to Harlem.
My theory list begins with the foundations of aesthetic and genre theory then moves into structuralist and post-structuralist genre theory, with key texts by Todorov, Frye, Derrida and Barthes. I also include works that question the notions of generic classification, such as Foucault’s The Order of Things and Geertz’s “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought.” In keeping with my questions about identity, I’ve included work that investigates the “identities” and functions of specific genres (such as Huhn’s essay “The Detective as Reader”), and texts that investigate the ways readers self-identify (Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities) and identify (or don’t) with certain texts (Curti’s “D for Difference: Gender, Genre, Writing.”) In her overview of the subject, Genre, Heather Dubrow suggests that reader-response criticism might open up new avenues for thinking about genre (107). I end my theory list with selections of pop-genre criticism and reader-response essays that continue to examine the reader’s relationship to the text and the shifting identities of both.
My goals are to provide for myself broad foundations in canonical and contemporary literature and the changing field of genre theory in order to teach these subjects and continue my own studies. Because of my roles as reader and writer, I also want to find new ways to think about how the notions of genre implicate and influence both acts in the hopes that these investigations will illuminate my own creative work.
(The end. Or is it?)