Guest Post: A Winter-Evening Conference and the Problem of Genre

Cosmin Dzsurdzsa is well into his first full-time co-op term as a research assistant at The Life of Words. Here he tells us about a case that seemed to challenge every classification rule we developed.

What is “genre”? This is a question I constantly find myself asking as an RA here at The Life of Words (LOW). Since I’ve been to lectures on “genre theory”, it must be second nature to identify by now, right? Yet that’s not the case. I can recite theoretical frameworks, quote Bahktin, and write on the intricacies of Systemic Functional Linguistics, yet when it comes down to practice, we all shy away from the very act of classification.

My problem with genre

Classification can be hard. It requires a lot of responsibility from us. I mean, to classify is essentially to name, to order, to categorize. The scariest thing about it is that in most cases, we are going to be wrong. Texts are very valuable things and labelling them can run the risk of altering their reception (now and well into the future). Surprisingly, it takes a lot of intuition and it is a point of great contention. A lot of people will disagree with what you decide.

Although classification can be hard, it doesn’t always have to be. For the sake of the scope of LOW, some things are a given: poetry = verse, there’s not much debate on what we would call a list, and diaries tend to be quite straightforward. Yet there’s some categories that are so encompassing and often overlap, where it comes to the point that it’s a judgement call.

John Goodman’s wonderfully difficult work

One such case that came to my attention this week was John Goodman’s A Winter-Evening Conference Between Neighbours. And it is just that, a “conference” in the style of a discourse between Sebastian, Philander, Biophilus, and Eulabes on Christian doctrine and the religious life. When you start reading it, several issues quickly arise.

For one, there is always the possibility that this text could be dramatized. In 1684, it wouldn’t be unusual to see moral dramas that serve to espouse solutions to the dilemmas of the Christian life. The character of the text, with alternating dialogue and even reference to goings-on beyond the immediate context of the discussion (such as when Philander asks his maid to “make us a good fire” (3)) might point towards a theatrical style. Without certain contextual clues, we might be lead down the path of labelling it a non-verse drama (one clue being the existence of the introductory publisher-to-reader letter).

Furthermore, are we to believe this to have really taken place? The publisher pleads “on the behalf of the persons concerned in these papers” and asks us not to be “inquisitive [of] who they were” (i). The claim is that this was once spoken and “now put in print” (iii). If it is not to be dramatized we could easily call it a work of fiction, belonging with the likes of similar stories written in dialogue. The issue then becomes, was this recounted or spontaneously written, and for what purpose? Now, we are already bridging two other categories: the spontaneous and the documentary.

Only if guests behaved this way today…

However, its discursive and expository style also brings the text into the realm of essay or treatise. What is occurring is an argument, one that bridges ethics, philosophy and theology. Several different sides are being proposed and then opposed to further develop discussion of some particular issues (in the first argument’s case, the virtues of drinking and gaming). Yet the whole while, the text itself serves as an example of the initial proverb: “As iron sharpeneth iron, so doth the countenance of a man his friend”, which places it closer into the realm of biblical commentary.

So then what is its “genre”?

As you can see, for our purposes, broad genres can be difficult to establish and maintain. Yet the other side of the problem is, fragmentation can lead a collapse into proliferating countless genres which become impossible to keep up with. At the end of the day here at LOW, sometimes it is a judgement call: a well-informed and thoroughly deliberated judgement call.

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