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Three years ago, almost to the day, Maureen Kincaid Speller and I had lunch with Niall Harrison, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Graham Raven. During the course of the lunch, Maureen mentioned that she was reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. The upshot was, we decided to read the book together, and take turns blogging about it. The first three parts of this exercise were published on Maureen’s blog, Paper Knife: Maureen on ‘Polemical Introduction’; Paul Graham Raven on ‘First Essay: Historical Criticism; Theory of Modes’; and Niall Harrison on ‘Second Essay: Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols’. For various reasons, the exercise ground to a halt at that point. But I have just unearthed my own notes on Fourth Essay: Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres, and thought it worth while presenting them here.

What follows is partly written up, but mostly in note form. But I think there is perhaps some interesting stuff nonetheless, if only because it shows the shaping and development of my own ideas on the subject. Quotations are from the Penguin 1990 edition.

Frye’s essay begins with a three-part framework that might be schematised thus:

Col 1: the world of social action; will; history; law; Poe’s Moral Sense
Col 2: the world of art; feeling; art; beauty; Poe’s Taste
Col 3: the world of individual thought; reason; science; truth; Poe’s Pure Intellect

Apart from thinking this makes for some pretty strange bedfellows, I am resistant to the idea that this somehow encompasses the entirety of human intellect or endeavour.

For all his talk of induction, which would put criticism on a level with post-renaissance science, there is something of the medieval scholastic about the way he shapes everything according to the precepts of Aristotle. This is criticism by ancient authority not modern examination.

But up to now he has only looked at three terms in Aristotle’s schema, mythos, ethos and dianoia, which roughly equate to the historical, ethical and symbolic aspects of the first three essays. Now he sweeps Aristotle’s three remaining terms, Melos (melody), lexis (imagery) and opsis (spectacle), into one topic, rhetoric. And then immediately comes up with another tripartite structure: grammar, logic and rhetoric, which in turn leads to the “tentative postulate” that “literature may be described as the rhetorical organisation of grammar and logic” (245). And genre reflects a conscious decision of the writer about the sort of thing she is writing.

There are three generic terms derived from the Greeks: drama, epic and lyric. But these distinctions are poorly understood and generally misused. But the central principle of genre should be simple: “The basis of generic distinctions in literature appears to be the radical of presentation. Words may be acted in front of a spectator; they may be spoken in front of a listener; they may be sung or chanted; or they may be written for a reader.” (246/7) Except this represents no distinction between texts, the same set of words may be all of these. On the same day I was reading this essay I came upon a review in the Evening Standard of a play based on testimony (which already crosses a couple of genre boundaries) which is then set to music. The critic says: “Although described as a musical, it’s better thought of as a poem laced together with melodies” (ES 15 April 2011, p19). The more Frye insists on his demarcations, the more difficult I find it to follow him.

Frye makes a terminological distinction: epos “makes some attempt to preserve the convention of recitation and a listening audience” (248), fiction is “the genre of the printed page” (248) ie that intended to be read rather than recited. These two merge into each other, but Frye insists the distinction remains immediately apparent, “epos is episodic and fiction continuous” (249). I am not sure this distinction holds, after all the difference between a continuous and an episodic narrative is not just one of degree but of how we choose to read it, a continuous fiction may be seen as composed of a series of episodic elements.

Drama, he says, is “most likely to flourish in a society with a strong sense of itself as a society” (249), but film flourished especially in the 30s when many thought society was breaking down – another dubious historical statement.

Another grid:
Drama: characters address audience / author hidden
Epos: author addresses audience / characters hidden
Lyric: author addresses characters / audience hidden
He doesn’t spell it out, but presumably
Fiction: author and characters address audience / nothing hidden

I will take this as a starting point, but I’m not really sure it makes much sense.

Except, epos doesn’t address the audience but is rather “a mimesis of direct address” (250).

Frye now turns to discuss each of these genres in turn. I shall pay most attention to what he says about prose fiction, in part because we are all primarily critics of prose fiction, but mostly because I remain unconvinced by the distinct character of epos or by how it is supposedly separated from the other three genres.

On epos: his analysis of stress and rhythm, which I find genuinely interesting though I stumbled over some of the stress patterns he laid out, makes me think that the easiest way to think of epos might be as song. I know he wants it to be more than that, but I suspect that is mostly where we encounter the form these days.

All his comments on epos relate to things like rhyme and rhythm that relate very specifically to poetry. When he moves on to prose he is talking about “the semantic rhythm of sense” (263).

When he tells us that prose is “at its purest – that is, at its furthest from epos and other metrical influences – when it is least obtrusive and presents its subject-matter like plate glass in a shop window” (265) it looks as if he is making a contribution to the debate on style, on plain as opposed to fancy writing. But he is not, all this really says is that prose is most prose-like when it is least like verse; and that tells us nothing about the nature or the use of prose. “A highly mannered prose is not sufficiently flexible to do the purely descriptive work of prose: it continually oversimplifies and over-symmetrizes its material” (265).  If he is using highly mannered as a broad term encompassing any sort of “poetic” prose, he is wrong; if he isn’t, then I’m not sure what he’s referring to.

He equates epos with recurrence: the repeated patterns of rhythm and rhyme; and prose with continuance: the extended narrative; but drama and decorum? Decorum is appropriateness of style to content, “the poet’s ethical voice, the modification of his own voice to the voice of a character or to the vocal tone demanded by subject or mood” (269).

When he moves onto lyric he says “The most admired and advanced poets of the twentieth century are chiefly those who have most fully mastered the elusive, meditative, resonant, centripetal word-magic of the emancipated lyrical rhythm” (273). Now that “advanced” is contentious, and not helped by the weaselly “chiefly”, but mostly what I get from this is that lyric is a grab-bag in which he can stuff anything not otherwise covered.

During this laying out of the four part pattern of genre, his genres seem porous, each can merge into the other three. Hence, by inference, there are occasions when drama can share characteristics with prose fiction or lyric poetry. But when he moves on to discuss forms of drama this porosity is forgotten and drama is equated with the play (which he expands to include the opera). And he discusses the forms of drama primarily in the historic terms he laid out in the first essay, so drama is characterised by the decline of myth and the rise of irony. I was dubious about this structure then, I’m even less convinced here.

When I encounter his reading of The Tempest: “the action is polarised around a younger and an older man working in harmony together, a lover and a benevolent teacher” (286) I think how much our interpretations of the play have changed over the last half century. But if one play can support such radically different readings, how universal is the anatomy he is offering here?

Next he moves to his formal consideration of lyric and epos, and suddenly these two are conflated and we are down to just three genres, the more familiar structure of drama, poetry and prose.

Now he moves on to prose fiction (and one wonders why he needs the qualification when he hasn’t done anything similar with his other two genres) and having dealt very briefly with the identification of fiction with falsehood (which surely deserves more attention than it receives here, not least because this entails the whole complex distinction between prose fiction and prose non-fiction) he raises the “sloppy habit” (303) of identifying fiction with the novel, as if this is on exactly the same level.

“The literary historian who identifies fiction with the novel is greatly embarrassed by the length of time that the world managed to get along without the novel” (303).   Though, of course, there were extended continuous prose narratives, though they did lack the word “novel”. But, of course, Frye wants to reserve the name novel for a very particular sort of prose fiction, a sort that includes Defoe, Fielding, Austen and James, but excludes Borrow, Peacock, Melville and Emily Bronte. Though as far as I can see, Defoe has much more in common with Peacock or Melville than he does with Austen. The comedy of manners can be a novel, passion cannot. If the story needs a narrator, it cannot be a novel?!?

I immediately found myself thinking about Catcher in the Rye which needs a narrator, is told with “linear accents” and yet seems in it’s conception and affect to be far closer to an Austenian social comedy than it is to anything I might term a romance.

Bronte is cast as a writer of romance (yet another variant use of the term). The key difference is characterisation: “The romancer does not attempt to create ‘real people’ so much as stylised figures which expand into psychological archetypes” (304). This, of course, begs the question of how any work of prose fiction, any concatenation of words on a page, can create ‘real people’, or what exactly Frye might mean by this (other than prejudice). If a work has Jungian aspects, it would seem, it is a romance. A romance is “naturally a more revolutionary form than the novel. The novelist … needs the framework of a stable society, and many of our best novelists have been conventional to the verge of fussiness. The romancer deals with individuality, with characters in vacuo idealised by revery, and, however conservative he may be, something nihilistic and untameable is likely to keep breaking out of his pages” (305). That “many” is supposed to make it a broad point not a general principle, but then the general immediately becomes the rule. Novels deal with society as is, romance deals with character. But “the forms of prose fiction are mixed, like racial strains in human beings, not separable like the sexes” (305) yet “a great romancer should be examined in terms of the conventions he chose … not be left on the side lines of prose fiction merely because the critic has not learned to take the romance form seriously” (305). I applaud the sentiment even if I have doubts about the method.

When he describes Lord Jim, for example, as a novel dealing with a romantic situation from it’s own ironic point of view he seems to be having his cake and eating it.

Extraordinary remark when he says “the novels of Trollope were read primarily as romances during the Second World War” (307). This is like Suvin’s claim that works of sf cease to be sf when the state of scientific knowledge changes. In absolute terms this makes me very uncomfortable, but in relativistic terms it suggests that Frye’s forms of prose fiction are as much reading protocols as anything inherent in the prose.

His next form is the confession or fictional autobiography, which suggests a problem even with the fiction part of prose fiction, and also makes me wonder how come he is so comfortable including Tom Jones as a novel. And immediately he gives us another grid:

Novel = extrovert/personal
Romance = introvert/personal
Confession = introvert/intellectualized
Menippean Satire = extrovert/intellectualized

Thus Menippean Satire seems to exist because it’s place on the grid demands it, rather than because any external coherence of form (though the form whose existence I most doubt is the Confession).

Yet again he characterises it by it’s use of character: it “deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes … (characters) … are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour” (309). “The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect” (309) which at least ties in with the description of sf as a novel of ideas.

I had been wondering where the picaresque fitted in with this schema, then came across this throwaway remark that the Menippean satire “differs also from the picaresque form, which has the novel’s interest in the actual structure of society” (310) and suddenly my growing agreement with Frye was overthrown again, since interest in “the actual structure of society” is surely essential if you are going to satirise it. Then, fixing on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, “the greatest Menippean satire in English before Swift” (311), he offers “anatomy” as a convenient replacement for Menippean, which means we are reading the Menippean satire of criticism.

Note another characteristic of Menippean satire is the encyclopaedic list, which presumably makes all postmodern fiction Menippean (unless the list is of social situations?).

“I deliberately make this sound schematic in order to suggest the advantage of having a simple and logical explanation for the form of, say, Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy” (313) which would be great if he hadn’t made everything seem schematic, and if the schema did indeed imply the simple and logical explanation, though I’m not convinced it does. He does, however, make clear that most fictions actually consist of a mixture of these forms in any possible combination so there is no such thing as the pure form.

After a section that circles round the Bible as the “encyclopaedic” form, he moves on to non-literary prose, what you and I would call non-fiction. Here he begins by saying: “We are still thinking of literature as facing the world of social action on one side, and of individual thought on the other, so that the rhetoric of non-literary prose would tend to emphasise emotion and the appeal to action through the ear in the former area, and intellect and the appeal to contemplation based predominantly on visual metaphors in the latter” (326/7). I don’t get why appeal to the intellect should be mostly based on visual metaphors. There’s a stage in his reasoning that I seem to be missing. He ends the essay with a discussion of metaphor that I found interesting, though I’m not sure how much it added to my understanding of what had gone before.

I concluded:

I have wrestled with this book, constantly revising my thoughts about what he was saying. It was a case of: no that’s wrong, oh wait he’s using the word differently, oh but that would mean, yes but then … And on and on. His habit of using one word with multiple subtle differences of meaning was one of the most frustrating aspects of the work, because it meant he always had an out however you interpret him. In the end, I profoundly disagree with him to the extent that his arguments are schematic and absolutist; I find myself drawn to his arguments to the extent that they are relativist, and I think that dichotomy is an important response. As I have indicated throughout this discussion, I have serious problems with Frye’s understanding or interpretation of literary history. And while I see that the anatomy is an attempt to build a structure for criticism that looks at the work solely on its own terms; I feel uneasy at separating literature from context. I note that all the schools of criticism that have arisen in the half century or more since the anatomy appeared – new historicism, Marxism, gender studies, post-colonialism, etc – have all sought to contextualise literature, and perhaps my own views have been influenced by this, but I can’t help feeling that literature comes out of something and therefore in some way refers to that something.

Thus in his conclusion when he says: the book attacks “the barriers between the (critical) methods. These barriers tend to make a critic confine himself to a single method of criticism, which is unnecessary, and they tend to make him establish his primary contacts, not with other critics, but with subjects outside criticism” (341), I applaud the breaking down of critical barriers, and welcome the idea that the different critical approaches outlined in the book are a toolchest from which any method might be taken as appropriate. At the same time, I can’t help feeling that contact with other subjects is fruitful for criticism and needs to be encouraged. But it is clear Frye has his own barriers. He is far from comfortable with Marxism which he lumps with others as a “muddled version of some quasi-organic theory of history” (344), though his own pure and cyclic view of literary history seems more of the same.