ELUSIVENESS OF GENRES : THE DESIRE TO GO “BEYOND GENRE”

deadline for submissions: 
April 30, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
University of Pau (France)

ELUSIVENESS OF GENRES : THE DESIRE TO GO “BEYOND GENRE”

October 12-13, 2017

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour (EA 3003)

With the participation of Université Bordeaux-Montaigne (EA 4196)

 

            The purpose of this multidisciplinary conference is to show to what extent the elusiveness of genre boundaries in the fields of arts and literature can convey the desire to go beyond genre, or simply to embrace another genre. The numerous studies on literary practices, whether they be based on a diachronic or synchronic approach, have constantly led critics to shed a light on the elusiveness of genres the boundaries of which are porous, easily crossed and result in shifts between forms and contents. Floating generic labels, which often depend on creation and reception contexts, also testify to such elusiveness: “Comme les déterminations génériques sont elles-mêmes fortement contextualisées, on comprend qu’elles soient instables ” (Schaeffer, Qu’est-ce qu’un genre littéraire?, 142). Literary genres seem to be more unstable than artistic genres, as Yves Stalloni highlights: “À l’inverse de ce qui se passe pour les autres arts, la littérature semble avoir du mal à s’entendre sur une théorie cohérente des genres fondée sur des désignations rigoureuses et des délimitations précises” (Les Genres littéraires, 12). Yet, just as a literary text can hardly avoid establishing a dialogue between several genre traditions, a work of art also quite often bears the traces of a an exchange between several art movements. A fortiori, hybrid works can play with the shifts between literary and art practices. This is exemplified by comic strips, as suggested by the phrase “graphic novel”, which is more or less an oxymoronic way of naming a genre. Likewise, as quite a few critics have already shown, the literariness of a text by no means rules out a kind of interplay with visual arts such as drawings or photographs. This process is usually described as a game, a dialogue or exchange, but some generic dominant features sometimes happen to be in conflict with one another, to such an extent that it proves impossible to define the very nature of the work: thus the text by William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, is built like a play but also includes narratives that cannot be defined only as basic stage directions. Moreover the short story cycle plays with the boundaries of the novel or the collection of short stories as such, unless one considers that the novel vampirizes all genres and is finally an anti-genre, and even a form beyond genre.

            The aim of the conference is not only to pay attention to generic recyclings and transformations within works in the fields of arts and literature, but also to ponder over what may account for the elusiveness of generic forms and contents: does it result from the interplay with filiation reflecting the desire to create a hybrid work, an original palimpsest? Can it be related to the development of genres in time, or is it implied by the rejection of any genre whatsoever? Marielle Macé thus wonders whether the “hatred of genre” is not a constant characteristic in the “cyclical history of literature”: “Cette entrée du genre dans l’histoire coïncide ainsi avec une entrée de la littérature dans la haine des genres : il s’agit désormais de pénétrer l’essence de la production littéraire, son auto-engendrement, d’offrir un nouveau modèle de l’œuvre et une exigence de totalité dont les anti-genres du fragment et du roman sont les véritables idéaux” (Le Genre littéraire, 73).

The rejection of genre often conveys the denial of usual generic frames, which are not valid enough to offer responses to epistemological or hermeneutic questions. However, just as authors and creators experience the need to rely on models, readers or receivers have their own generic expectations: “C’est parce que les genres existent comme une institution qu’ils fonctionnent comme des ‘horizons d’attente’ pour les lecteurs, des ‘modèles d’écritures’ pour les auteurs” (Tzvetan Todorov, La Notion de littérature, 35). We should keep in mind the fact that a genre is above all a frame of reference, a kind of common ground or playground on which both author and reader meet. One has to acquire a good knowledge of generic rules before subverting them. In Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, Peter J. Rabinowitz rightly points out that some avant-garde authors prefer playing with the codes of popular genres so as to make sure that their ironical strategies can be perceived and understood by their readers: “[…] the more a writer wishes to undermine tradition, the more imperative it is that the tradition be understood to begin with. This may explain why so-called serious avant-garde authors so frequently turn to formulaic popular fiction as a skeleton on which to hang their own works” (58).

Is the desire to go beyond genre really distinct from the will to create surprise and mislead the reader by playing with his/her “horizon of expectations”? The desire for originality can also reveal the almost narcissistic wish to be unique and original: “ L’œuvre littéraire contemporaine, au contraire, cultive en général délibérément sa singularité, son irréductibilité aux critères de genres ” (Dominique Combe, Les Genres littéraires, 151). Undoubtedly this comment can apply to the works of art which are or were aimed at being avant-garde. One may assume that this quest for works beyond genre is likely to produce an extreme form of elusiveness leading to generic undecidability or even to a lack of generic understanding, in such an elusive creation and reception context. Alastair Fowler writes that “Innovative works tend to be obscure precisely because their generic context is not yet obvious” (Kinds of Literature. An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes, 260). The desire to go beyond genre may force authors offside and cause them to lose their generic bearings, thus undermining the generic interplay. Finally, once the receiver overcomes generic undecidability, the work beyond genre may be perceived as a transitional pattern for renewed and reinvented forms and contents: does it not pave the way for the birth of a new genre? To cut a long story short, is it possible to go beyond genre? Once again, according to Tzvetan Todorov, one cannot escape genre: “On pourrait dire que tout grand livre établit l’existence de deux genres, la réalité de deux normes : celle du genre qu’il transgresse, qui dominait la littérature précédente ; et celle du genre qu’il crée” (Poétique de la Prose, 56). Even the most extreme originality still bears the indelible imprints of what it transgresses. In the final analysis, grasping what going beyond genre means and implies amounts to understanding the dialectic of continuity and change which, according to Linda Hutcheon, is a prominent feature of the parodic structures of postmodernism: “It is in this way that postmodern parody marks its paradoxical doubleness of both continuity and change, both authority and transgression”(A Poetics of Postmodernism, 35).

 

The conference will be held at the Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour. Proposals in English or in French (300 words) should be sent by e-mail to francoise.buisson@univ-pau.fr, and to Arnaud Schmitt (Bordeaux-Montaigne), arnaud.schmitt@u-bordeaux.fr  by April, 30, 2017.