What is genre? Look around online or walk into a friendly neighborhood bookstore (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and you might come across the somewhat pejorative title of “genre fiction.” We think of “genre” as something lesser than the elevated bookstore section ambiguously labeled “literature” (whatever that means). Being genre-less seems to be presented as the privileged blank position as opposed to fantasy or science fiction or detective fiction.
But what if I told you that genre is at the basis of not only the way literature works, but also the very nature of how we communicate with each other through speech acts. Yes, we categorize by genres, but we also write by genres. Every genre is a set of conventions and expectations that we weave and subvert to reach our audience.
According to the theorist, Mikail Bakhtin,
A literary genre, by its very nature, reflects the most stable, “eternal” tendencies in literature’s development…A genre is always the same and yet not the same, always old and new simultaneously. Genre is reborn and renewed at every new stage in the development of literature and in every individual work of a given genre. This constitutes the life of the genre.
To see how a genre can be eternal and yet continually removed, take the genre of the fairy tale for example. We all know that they begin with some temporal distance with “once upon a time” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Then we move from a happy beginning, through alienation so the hero can begin her journey, back to social integration so the hero can enrich the community with her tale. But then we get fairy tales that break the conventions or genius amalgamations like this:
Sondheim keeps the temporal and spatial distance and then includes many of the characters that we are familiar with from fairy tales, but puts many different fairy tales together into dialogue in the same story, which in turn tells something about the nature of every fairy tale.
Whether describing a novel as a polyphony where the author recedes to give more room for the voices of characters or praising Carnival as it parodies liturgy, Bakhtin focuses on how all of these genres are in dialogue.
But in a posthumous collection of essays, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, he goes beyond literary genres to see everything as a genre from simple speech acts like commands. Since literary genres and speech acts come from human persons, there’s no limit to their variety. As Bakhtin puts it, “the wealth and diversity of speech genres are boundless because the various possibilities of human activity are inexhaustible.”
He then divides these inexhaustible genres that are “always old and new simultaneously” into two categories: primary and secondary. Another way to look at these two categories of genres is as simple (primary) and complex (secondary) genres.
It may seem a little counter-intuitive, but let’s start with secondary genres and work our way backward. These secondary genres are what we normally think about as genres. When we read a novel or a poem or watch a play, we are reading a secondary genre. Bakhtin describes secondary genres as written texts that are formed in their complexity through “absorb[ing] and digest[ing] various primary (simple) genres” (Speech Genres 62). For Bakhtin, secondary genres “lose their immediate relation to actual reality and to the real utterances of others” as they absorb primary genres, which in turn “assume a special character when they enter into complex ones.”
So if a secondary genre is composed of primary genres, then what are primary genres? These simple genres are our everyday utterances. Dialogue, ritual greetings, awkward small talk about the weather, and even letter writing are the “link between language and life.” Primary genres arise from the inexhaustibility of the human person in dialogue with a community of other human persons who then absorb those individual utterances into the complexity of novels and dramas and even scientific research.
Take the novel for example. This genre seems to be Bakhtin’s favorite. Any given novel can be filled with simple speech acts like commands, dialogue, banter or letter writing. Then these everyday acts become “literary-artistic even[s] and not as everyday life.”
We must be careful, however, to avoid conceiving these categories of genre as hierarchically arranged or antagonistic to one another. It can be tempting to see secondary genres as being more cultivated or primary genres as being more pure, but Bakhtin cautions that “a one-sided orientation toward primary genres inevitably leads to vulgarization.” All speech genres have something of the dialogical in them since every speaker is responding to something. It is rather “the very relations between primary and secondary genres and the process of the historical formation of the latter [that] shed light on the nature of utterance.”
So next time you’re in your neighborhood bookstore, remember that everything that surrounds you is genre fiction. Even the air itself is filled with primary genres as you ask questions or staff offer suggestions.