Genre as “Family Resemblance”

When I taught Introduction to Literature last year, exploring the concept of “genre” became a very big theme of the class. I think at first it was because I wanted to ensure that my syllabus included a broad variety of genres since it was an introduction to all literature, or literature in general (as opposed to fiction or essay). From that first focus on genre in constructing a syllabus that included sufficient variety of texts though, I started to become fascinated with what it meant for a text to be “of a certain genre.” I realized that the more I tried to define a genre, the slipperier the concept became. Through the course of the semester, my class and I did a lot of puzzling through the differences and similarities of genres and even modalities. We explored “boundary cases,” asking where literature ends and visual art begins (or if we should even use such boundaries) by looking at blackout poetry, and mind maps. Through all this, I was grasping on my own and with my students for a clearer understanding of genre. So, it was heartening when, for this week, we read about genre and I found that many of my questions (how do we define genres? Why don’t they seem static? What really is the difference between a genre and a subgenre?) were not just lack of knowledge on my part, but rather, pointed to a real slipperiness in the concept of genre that engages theorists today.

I think that this very slipperiness can also be seen as a kind of versatility in the concept of genre, and in fact the concept of genre thus loses some of its usefulness if we try to create static classification systems. Our minds, being apt at recognizing patterns, understand (grok?) genre differences in a fundamental way even when attempts to strictly define these genres are problematic. I would argue that texts of the same genre are thus recognized by our brain because of what Wittgenstein calls “family resemblance.” Our brain is in fact so good at detecting family resemblance and creating fluid but still useful sets of texts that we can also understand intuitively when a text is engaging in genre-bending or genre-breaking, even before we have identifiable reasons for knowing this.

What I’m less sure about is what this means for teaching writing. I completely agree with Devitt that “if each writing problem were to require a completely new assessment of how to respond, writing would be slowed considerably” (576). Thus, we want to help students recognize and utilize how new communication situations resemble past communication situations they have already encountered. I think my fundamental question then becomes this: how can we teach students to see and utilize this family resemblance between certain texts or communication situations without essentializing genres and thus divorcing form and function?