A la mode

Graham Hough

  • Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes by Alastair Fowler
    Oxford, 357 pp, £15.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 19 812812 6

New works of literary theory, abundant in France and America, are not very frequent in England. When one does appear, it is customary first to deplore its defiance of nature and reason, and secondly to decide that we have known it all along. It would be difficult to follow this convention with Alastair Fowler’s book. Kinds of Literature contains nothing subversive of public order or contrary to revealed truth: indeed it is a celebration of order and aims to illuminate neglected truths. And its traditional material is handled in such a way as to yield a steady dividend of unhackneyed learning and unexpected points of view. Its theme is the once dominant theory of separable historical literary kinds. This has come to be regarded by majority opinion as an obsolete piece of machinery, dubious in its application to the past and irrelevant to the present. Fowler argues to the contrary that this venerable conceptual apparatus is not only still useful, but necessary, if we are to make sense of our literary experience. He will not meet an entirely unreceptive audience. A fair minority can be found (including me) who already believe this to be true and will welcome what has so far been lacking: a well-worked-out modern statement of the case.

However, the doctrine in question has receded so far that many students of literature have only the vaguest idea of what it is or was. Easier, perhaps, to begin with what it is not. The theory of kinds denies – I am adapting some words used by Ernest Gellner for a rather different purpose – that literature ‘reveals to us from some kind of mysterious and totally unbounded reservoir of possible experiences or impressions, this or that set of items which then also occasionally arrange themselves’ as kinds, types, genres, poetical forms or what not. On the contrary, the theory states, literature comes to us with a structure of its own, of which the types and genres are the expression, and by which alone the latent content of possible experience can become actual.

The notion of literary kinds as Platonic ideas, the form of tragedy or epic laid up in heaven for all eternity, has gone the way of other Platonic ideas. There have of course been more flexible formulations. Even Polonius allows for the fusion of genres (‘pastoralcomical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical’ etc) and 17th-century debates about tragicomedy and the divagations of romantic epic are numerous. But by the middle of the 18th century the rise of new forms, particularly new forms of prose fiction, relegated much of the old system to the margin. Romantic literary ideology tended to see it as an oppressive relic of the Ancien Regime, and by Modernists it has been largely neglected. Later modern criticism, ever in search of material for its annual fashion shows, has not been entirely oblivious of literary kinds, genres and modes, but it has treated them in a wholly unhistorical way, as synchronic examples of species of ‘literarity’.

Fowler is against all this. He accepts the necessity for a revision of genre theory, which obviously will no longer work in its ossified late-Neoclassical form: but he accepts, too, the traditional roster of historical kinds – tragedy, comedy, epic, pastoral, satire and so forth – accepts it as so habitual that he does not even trouble to make a list and puts forward no claim to theoretical completeness. The boundaries may vary and the list may be extended. He reproves me for having called the theory of genres a classification, and I take his point. Fowler sees the literary kinds rightly, not simply as a system of labels deduced post facto and applied more or less appropriately to what happens to be there. They are constitutive, not merely nominal categories. It was not that a play got written and turned out to be a tragedy; it was meant to be a tragedy in the first place; and though the concept of tragedy has changed greatly over the centuries it has a continuity. Fowler deprecates the attempt at final and formal definitions of literary types: he points instead to the historical actualities of given periods, and the relations between them. The current definitions of tragedy in, say, the fourth century BC, the Middle Ages and the 19th century differ widely from each other, but they are contingent phases in the development of the type.

One of the troubles about this discussion is the lack of an agreed terminology. ‘Kind’ as a name for literary species is more or less a term of art in older criticism, but in common usage it is such a vague catch-all that it is not very effective. ‘Genre’, apart from being unpronounceable in English, is ill-defined in its range, and anyway means something else in art criticism. ‘Mode’ brings a distracting whiff of the fashion page. Fowler is not keen on new technical terms or elaborate redefinitions of old ones. He tends to use ‘genre’ in an indefinite, all-inclusive way; ‘kind’ for the major traditional divisions of the literary spectrum (tragedy, epic etc.); and ‘sub-genre’ for smaller ad hoc divisions. His one important innovation is the meaning he gives to ‘mode’. The names for kinds are nouns – epic, comedy, satire. But they also have adjectival uses, which diverge somewhat from the central meaning. The noun always applies to a specific literary form; the adjective may apply more vaguely to several. The Way of the World is a comedy; Northanger Abbey is a comic novel; Don Juan is a comic narrative poem. Fowler uses ‘mode’ for the adjectival sense. Northanger Abbey is by kind a novel, by mode comic. And each of the major kinds has a mode by which its influence is extended over other kinds. The novel, polymorphously perverse as it has always been, is particularly prone to borrow its modes from earlier kinds, and we are perfectly accustomed to calling novels tragedies or pastorals. But there are many other instances: the mock-epic, like The Rape of the Lock, the moral-philosophical tract borrowing the form of biographical fiction, like Sartor Resartus. Sub-genres, as Fowler uses the term, often seem to separate themselves out by subject-matter: the campus novel, the country-house poem. Their proliferation, as far as I can see, is potentially infinite, and could lead to an engaging but slightly comic pedantry. While it will be agreed that in many important respects fish are different from sheep, it is a little surprising to find that the piscatory eclogue has to be hived off to a sub-genre of the pastoral.

This is a very learned book. The preface says that it is focused on English literature, but that is only the case as far as English literature supplies examples of general validity, and there is a wide range of Medieval and Renaissance material that gives the work a European scope. We expect this from Professor Fowler, but there is a great deal else besides. He has many examples from modern literature, American as well as English. These go well beyond ritual visits to much-bedecked Modernist tombs, and display a willingness to continue the discussion among living writers where all is still fluid and uncertain. There are not many scholars who can turn so easily from Scaliger to John Ashbery. Modern critical writing, too, is strongly represented, much of it unknown to me. I am used to the citation of books I have never read, but the very copious notes to Kinds of Literature refer again and again to scholarly works, apparently of great interest that I have never even heard of. Fowler’s learning shows itself in his even-handed readiness to discuss literature in all its phases, including those that have now quite vanished from the general consciousness. The ‘georgic’, for example, to most of us means Virgil and little else. But to Fowler it covers a whole galaxy of half-forgotten discursive didactic poems on rural themes, as well as their parodic urban extensions. Much use is made of contrasts and interactions between genres – between the sonnet, for example, the ‘sweet’ lyric of commendation or praise, and the epigram, distinguished by its pointed sharpness. And these definitions and distinctions lead us to see supposedly familiar stretches of literary history in a fresh light.

The obvious comparison is with Northrop Frye, to whom Fowler refers many times. Kinds of Literature and Anatomy of Criticism cover parts of the same ground, and the Anatomy is among other things a revised theory of genres. What both books have in common is a generous familiarity with literature of all ages and a lively regard for its variety. But if we follow this up we soon find that we are moving in two rather different worlds. Anatomy of Criticism is far more of a jeu d’esprit. Passages of careful and functional analysis are succeeded by others where names and categories seem to be introduced chiefly for their poetic charm, and there are long stretches where the schematisation seems to have become an independent art-form, a fantasia of the literary unconscious. Kinds of Literature keeps closely to the historical high road. It does not set out to re-draw the map of literary knowledge, which it assumes to have been drawn pretty well already; all that is needed is correction and redefinition. And Fowler refuses any modification as wholesale as Frye’s use of myth as an underlying principle.

Kinds of Literature is dedicated to E.D. Hirsch, and in general literary outlook Fowler belongs to the Hirschian or common-sense school. That is to say, he believes that books have authors and that authors have intentions, and that these intentions are at least partly accessible and closely relevant to the interpretation of the work. High among the list of these recognisable intentions is the intention to write a work of a certain kind. No one writes a sonnet by accident. It is here that genre theory, which at first seems an old-world backwater, joins up with current critical controversy. Fowler is well aware of this, but he is not a polemical writer. He is content to let the grass grow long on the grave of the Intentional Fallacy, and adroitly to bypass the Structuralist and Post-Structuralist encampments. As Kant said of an earlier commonsense school, the thing to do with common sense is not to appeal to it but to use it. This Fowler does, notably in his last chapter, ‘Genre in Interpretation’, politely and skilfully drawing up the argument on his own terms. He is in effect, though he does not say so, offering the theory of kinds as a literary structuralism in its own right, couched in terms proper and peculiar to literature, free of false scientism and irrelevant linguistic clutter.

He distinguishes three stages in interpretation, in all of which questions of genre play a significant part. The first is the straight forward construing of the text – doing on a higher level what a schoolboy does with a Latin unseen. Fowler takes a severely Hirschian view of this task; no room here for indeterminacy or later ingenuities. ‘The interpreter’s aim, then, is to posit the author’s horizon and carefully exclude his own accidental associations.’ Part of this work is linguistic, part historical, but a right diagnosis of genre is a powerful instrument. ‘The genre provides a sense of the whole, a notion of typical meaning components.’ It would have prevented, for instance, the analysis of the verse of Paradise Lost as though it were a lyric poem, of its plot as though it were a realistic novel. Generic recognition, though we may often fail to notice it, is in fact fundamental to the reading process. The second stage is interpretation proper. This is almost the converse of contruing; inevitably, it expands and blurs the clear lines previously established. As well as uncovering the meaning a work had for its author, in its original historical setting, we want to know what it means for us. This involves the re-application of the original to changed circumstances – ‘accommodation’ is the term Kermode uses for it. And it typically brings with it a change of generic orientation – often a tighter identification, sometimes a shift of mode. When the Aeneid is allegorised by a Renaissance Neoplatonist, it becomes a different kind of poem. But these generic adaptations are not unlimited. In fact, it is consideration of genre that controls the process of interpretation and saves it from irresponsible meandering. Fowler follows this up with a careful discussion of the much canvassed problem of indeterminacy in interpretation. This could become a general mêlée, but the opposing figures of the two current champions, Hirsch and Kermode, are clearly distinguishable, with Fowler firmly on Hirsch’s side. I make a brief appearance myself, as a sort of mediator. But I was writing at an early stage of the argument (1966), and find that I was then making rather more indeterminate noises than I should be inclined to now.

The third stage is evaluation, where it might seem that genre had not much to contribute. But in all ages there has been something of a hierarchy of genres, explicit or tacitly assumed. Every age has its high genres: in classical periods they were epic, tragedy and the elevated lyric. Other competitors have appeared: our own time has seen the promotion of the realistic novel. And certain genres have always been regarded as inherently trivial. Fowler does not ask in any detail where this leads us in the matter of evaluation. Is it better to get full marks in a slight genre or beta query plus in a greater enterprise? Merely to ask a question of this sort is to realise its idiocy. Genre theory can only show us, as it effectively does, that some kinds are intrinsically more serious or more comprehensive than others. It cannot tell us how to value seriousness as against comprehensiveness, or either against joie de vivre.

This is a substantial book, and a very dense one. It has not been possible to give more than a general outline of its contents. But finally one might say – with added, not diminished appreciation – that besides being a work of massive learning it is a splendid lucky dip. Frye patented the term ‘anatomy’ for such large and various scholarly assemblages, and Fowler deprecates the usage as too wide and too loosely applied. All the same, his own work is an anatomy too. It is (to employ a selection of terms all of which are used by Professor Fowler himself) a farrago, an olla, an olio, a salmagundi, a satura, a hodge-podge, a medley; and parallel to more serious concerns the magpie collector of literary rarities will find abundant satisfaction in its pages.