Deconstructing Genre in Writing
Does a piece of writing have a sex? Not really! It perhaps has a gender, which in French is genre. When it comes to distinguishing one category of writing from another, however, genre seems to demarcate it absolutely and permanently as if writing had a sex. That's a little brash. Scholarship in the discipline of writing considers genre as a convenient construct, which is contingent, controversial, and experimental. Steven Pinker in his book, Sense of Style, claims that different prose styles are not sharply demarcated. If any piece of writing is authentic, original, and graceful, it embodies both creative abandon and rational control. Those so called creative writers are not creative until they create critically. Neither are those so called critical writers critical until they critique creatively. Writing is thinking regardless the genre it falls in. Composition scholars propose that what we call critical or creative thinking is just plain thinking. And the rest is a stylistic option of transcription. Sometimes the styles of transcription so remarkably vary across genres that they reinforce the assumption that genre is an immutable construct in writing. It's not.
Apparently, though, writing in general falls under two categories: aesthetic/creative (PDF: poetry, fiction, and drama) and pragmatic/critical (EDNA: expository, descriptive, narrative, and argumentative). While these categories have distinctive forms and features, they are hardly different. Good writing at once transcends and transgresses genre. It falls in a hybrid genre, and it embodies critical intelligence and creative flair. This perspective considered, poetry and essays are identical entities with two different modes of transcription. They look different, but writing is no visual. Writing is a complex cognitive endeavor carried in an emotional environment. Peter Elbow, a leading composition theorist, claims in his essay "Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing" that any writing initiates a synergy between first order (i.e., intuitive and creative) and second order (i.e., conscious, controlled, and directed) thinking. If genre is considered sacrosanct, then it leads to the assumption that a poet is only intuitive and creative whereas an essayist is only conscious, controlled, and directed. That's being a reductive lens to appreciate the vast and varied landscape of writing. Writers are writers. They are not genre sticklers. Readers and critics are. The concept of genre in writing, then, is rather moot than substantial.
Writers across genres seem to have flouted the concept of genre. Oscar Wilde, for example, in his essay written in the form of a dialogue, "The Critic as Artist," claims that there is critical element in all creative work. The mere critical instinct doesn't innovate unless it is cultivated through our rational faculty. Even important, he debunks the flimsy façade of genre as he contends that Robert Browning is the most supreme fiction writer ever lived, who used poetry for writing in prose. Any prose is androgynous, as is any writer. As well, any original writer has a peculiar angle of vision along with a highly individualistic way of thinking and languaging. A convenient cachet like genre doesn't define who she is as a writer. She both meshes and bashes genre. Suresh Canagarajah, for example, has been a scholar in the disciplines of Applied Linguistics and Composition Studies from Pennsylvania State University. He is a top-notch researcher and a prolific writer. While the content in his writing is cognitively challenging, his prose is exceedingly engaging. It's unlike stilted prose of academic interaction. It's vivid and concrete. But the text and tenor of his composition never slide off the hallowed premise of academe. The way he writes is not an accident. It's, instead, a conscious choice. In one of our personal correspondences, he informed that he considers himself as an engaging, creative writer. His writing is critically nuanced, always. He doesn't fit in the mold of genre.
Neither did T. S. Eliot. He manifested critical artistry in his poetry and astute creativity in his essays. He proposes in his landmark 1921 essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that a writer (in his case, a poet) is an artist. He indicated that art doesn't come from someone possessed. It, instead, comes from a craftsman. There's nothing magical or mysterious about an artist. An artist is a scientist. Her mind is a crucible, where a chemical reaction takes place, and that's how art approaches the condition of science. Alexander Nazaryan in his essay, "Why Writer Should Learn Math," in The New Yorker urges writers to learn math, for at the highest level mathematics is intuition. So is writing. He documents that Hemingway also believes that the law of prose writing is as immutable as that of mathematics. When science marries art in writing, how do so called creative and critical genre divorce them? They don't. They can't. Genre is a strategic device to construct as well as to taxonomize writing. Writing, however, is not strategic. Writing, instead, is meta-strategic. Original writers do–and have to–bend and break genre specific strategies to transcribe their thoughts. Genre perhaps adds to the technical excellence of a piece of writing. It adds no substance.
That's being the reason why writers need no cognitive conversion to shift from one genre to another. Different types of writings might not emerge from different streams of our consciences. Writing is a soft skill with complex neurobiological underpins. Gabrielle Rico explores the neuro-biology of writing in her book, Writing the Natural Way. She claims that the two hemispheres of the human brain are endowed with different intellectual properties. The right hemisphere of the human brain what she calls "design mind" is holistic, creative, and imaginative. On the other hand, the left hemisphere of the human brain what she calls "sign mind" is specific, logical, and critical. She claims that writing is such a complex intellectual endeavor that it requires both the hemispheres to transpire. Writing is not a linear arrangement of separate skills. Writing captures all of our innate skills. No writing, then, is essentially creative and critical. It's both. Genre, as such, is a false dichotomy to define various types of writings.
And what do those creative writers create? V. S. Naipaul implies in his essay, "On Being a Writer" in The New York Review of Books that they falsify experience to fit in the grand form of creative narrative. Prose in so called creative genre is experience-based, as such. A writer parlays that personal experience into something universal that touches and stirs any sensitive soul who savors the narrative. And a writer in this genre is a loner, who writes for himself. Prose in this genre is writer-based. The writer is free to write her prose her way; she sets her own constraints and parameters of writing; and she should not have to customize her prose to the expectations of an audience, for the audience is never known. The prose is layered and subtle as well as indirect and philosophical. Prose in academic or pragmatic genre, on the other hand, is reader-based. The writer must not expect her readers to read between the lines, for there's no line between the lines. It's all flatly stated. It's lean and direct as well as linear and top-down. Most importantly, academic prose is meant to be consumed by a specific discourse community, and every discourse community has its own principles and prejudices of writing. Writing in this genre is stubbornly convention-driven. These apparent distinctions between so called creative and critical genres are rather facile as Naipaul claims in the same essay that all literary forms are artificial and that they constantly change to match the tone and mood of the culture. Writers across genres deny to be stuck in a time warp that expects conformity.
Mark Edmundson in this book, Why Write, claims that all real writers at least in some measure are outcasts. They're non-believers in the constant forms and purposes of writing. They think thoughts; they feel feelings; and they experience impulses. When they get down to writing, however, they assume the role of cold executives. They hire some thoughts, some feelings, and some impulses and fire the rest. What guides them along the process is their intuition, their sense of judgment. They discover and decide about their semantic, syntactic, mechanical, and rhetorical options and restrictions of transcription. If this version of writing slants toward so called creative writing, Helen Sword in her book, Stylish Academic Writing, has compelling explanation gleaned out of a rigorous research project to blur the boundary between critical and creative writing. She claims that in every academic discipline there's a handful minority of writers who know and care about the conventions of critical prose, but when they are faced with unique rhetorical contexts where those conventions don't work, they come up with their own rules of transcription. They are at once creative and critical. They are the real writers, who don't fit in the peephole of genre. Genre in writing is protean and essentializing it is problematic, therefore.
Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages at North South University, Bangladesh.