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This week: just some notes on what I've been reading and musings about directions I want to go, rather than any particular bone-picking. In his article "What is 'Sensational' About the 'Sensation Novel'?" (1982), Patrick Brantlinger points out:
There follows some namechecking of Derrida and his notion that all genres are mixtures, because "at the heart of the law [of genre] itself [is] a law of impurity or a principle of contamination" (qtd. from "The Law of Genre," 1980) -- and while this language is (in my view) not particularly enlightening, the point is well taken that genres are not the hermetic categories people often act as if they were. There is a common tendency to try to define genres in terms of feature lists, but it doesn't seem to be the way our conceptual categories are actually structured.
For all our attempts to catalogue the defining features of the high modernist novel, say, it seems to me that the categories as they work in practice are organized on a paradigm model, where the genre membership of an entity is determined not by how well it fits a list of features but how closely it resembles one of the paradigm example cases. (I know that at least one other person has thought about this in print -- I ran across an article making a similar argument in passing, in the course of doing research about somehing else this past semester, but I can't find the citation right now, unfortunately.) As noteworthy, it seems to me, as the point that genres are always blends and admixtures is the point (and question) of why it is that people seem nonetheless to want so much to think about them in just the contained and feature-listy way they do.1
Anyway, the notions Brantlinger puts forward, that the sensation novel (a) died out, and (b) is the ancestor, or the antecedent genre, of several modern genres are now commonplaces in the study of the genre. But there seem to me to be not one, but two major ways in which the sensation novel ceases to be a viable genre after its heyday. On the one hand, it is true that after the 1860s, no one is writing, or at least widely reading, anything quite like the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Mrs. Henry Wood. On the other -- and this is still very much a working hypothesis for me, in need of more specific research -- I think an equal part in the decline of "sensation novel" as an operating descriptor is attributable to a difference in marketing and reading practices regarding how the very notion of genre is construed. Specifically, what seemed to change is the typical conception of the degree of specificity one should expect from the category of a literary genre.
The sensation novel, a category too narrow to stand alongside the big broad superordinate categories like "popular fiction," which work at the level of "there are two kind of people in this world" rough categorization, is nonetheless sufficiently broad and elastic that it cannot fit into the more finely grained chopping and dicing in which novels are classed, for example, as detective stories or spy novels. Perhaps I'm being unfair here? After all, "suspense novel" sounds at least by its name to be little more restrictive than "sensation novel." But still, which term is more specific -- "suspense" or "sensation"? (This last point is definitely unfair in part, since "sensation" has some quite specific referents in the context of its use here, as I discuss in more detail in that crazy footnote down at the bottom of this piece.) Still, there's something to be done here with reference to Eleanor Rosch's work on basic-level categories.
In his classic paper "How Shall a Thing Be Called?" (1958) Roger Brown observed that while every referent has many names, one seems to have a special status. The chair I am sitting on is an object, a piece of furniture, a kitchen chair, and even the kitchen chair closest to the door or a maple kitchen chair with no cushion, but we feel that chair is somehow "the name of [the] thing." Of course, different circumstances make other names more appropriate. You may be looking for a mint-condition 1954 nickel to complete your coin collection; certainly not just any nickel will do. If you are to ask me to exclude all quadrupeds from my survey of the zoo, you will not want to have to list every species your injunction covers. But these other names, Brown suggests, "represent possible recategorizations useful for one or another purpose. We are even likely to feel that these recategorizations are acts of imagination..."
Eleanor Rosch has expanded upon these observations with her (and her associates') work on the principles of categorization (1976 and elsewhere). Through extensive experimentation on the ways in which people form inferences and use conceptual reference points, they have found that most information is cognitively organized at the basic level. "Basic objects are shown to be the most inclusive categories for which a concrete image of the category as a whole can be formed…and to be the categories most codable, most coded, and most necessary in language." For one particularly intriguing example of how this works, Brent Berlin and other researchers have shown (cited in Lakoff 1987), the level of the biological genus is in most cases psychologically basic: just as chair is basic, rather than furniture or Stickley stool, cat is basic, and not quadruped or American shorthair.
So it seems to me that in terms of literary genres -- which, by the way, may be usefully considered as part of Hobbs' "knowledge base K" and part of the continually readjusted common ground between various communities of readers, writers, and publishers -- there is a shifting ground regarding what counts as a basic-level concept. (NB: Is this really the right way to talk about what's going on here, or am I abusing the terminology?) This line of thought deserves more teasing out on the theoretical end, but first I need to learn more about exactly what happened in the marketing of popular novels from about 1870 through WWI. I also need a more thorough grounding in the history of genre studies. I can get what looks like a good overview through the early 70s (so long ago!) in Paul Hernandi's Beyond Genre. Any suggestions for additional resources would certainly be appreciated.
1For the record (and you should feel especially free to skip it; it really is for the record, as in my record of stuff I just want to be able to remember, rather than anything crafted to be marginally digestable to anyone else), Brantlinger delineates three separate ways to define the genre. One is largely historical, simply situating the genre in its "1860s context of Gothic and domestic realism" in fiction, the powerful influence of Dickens, stage melodrama, 'sensational' jounalism, and bigamy trials and divorce law reform" (2). (How this approach comes out to be a kind of definition is not fully explained.) The second is to identify structural features, with a caveat in response to the abovementioned Derrida quote to the effect that these features may not be uniquely defining of this genre. Qualities in his list include "an apparent disintegration of narrative authority, caused by the introduction of secular mystery as a main ingredient of plots" (2-3); the melodramatic virtues of "violent and thrilling action, astonishing coincidences, stereotypic heroes, heroine, and villians, much sentimentality, and virtue rewarded and vice apparently punished at the end" presented with a new moral ambiguity (5); a "strong interest in sexual irregularities, adultery, forged marriages, and marriages formed under false pretenses" (6) but cast in an unsavorily exploitative mold (is this really new?); sometimes "indistinguishable from Gothic romances" (8); the bringing of the Gothic "up to date and so mixed with the conventions of realism as to make its events seem possible if not exactly probably" (9); and association with other cultural artifacts considered "sensational". The last -- or, more simply, the fact that these novels were widely classed (first disparagingly by critics and then, sometimes, by those who wrote or sold them) by contemporaries as belonging to this category -- seems indisputably to be the trump element in this grouping, though Brantlinger does not make this difference between it and other items in his list explicit. Finally, he points to the "psychological" (which is to say, psychoanalytic) perspective on the genre, particularly with regard to the connection between the anxiety of modernity and industrial capitalism, detection, and its structural correlate of limited omniscience. This trend is generally associated with later forms of detective fiction; Brantlinger's contribution here is in tracing it back all the way through the earliest sensation novels.(discussion)
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