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Conference Report "Genre and Interpretation"

European PhD-Network "Literary and Cultural Studies", University of Helsinki, 10-12 June 2009

A report by Sabrina Kusche and Anna Rettberg


> Conference Outline

 

Pirjo Lyytikäinen
Since the advent of post-modernity, a substantial number of hybrid literary texts has been written combining features of very different genres in one work. It is therefore a topic of much current interest to what extent genres and genre conventions are still relevant for the interpretation of these hybrid texts, specifically, and how genres, in general, are related to the interpretation of a literary work. The international conference on "Genre and Interpretation" from June 10th to 12th 2009 at the University of Helsinki was dedicated to just such cutting-edge research on genre and proved that the phenomenon still lends itself to lively discussion. The conference, which was co-organised by the Finnish Graduate School for Literary Studies and the Finnish Literary Research Society, was also billed as the first international conference of the European PhD-Network "Literary and Cultural Studies" (PhDnet). The conference included four keynote lectures and offered nine workshops with 46 researchers presenting their papers about various topics pertaining to the study of genre, genre theory and their complex tie-ins with interpretation.
 
Ansgar Nünning
After an opening address by organiser PIRJO LYYTIKÄINEN (University of Helsinki), the conference began with a keynote lecture by ANSGAR NÜNNING (University of Giessen) titled "Genre and Genre Theory Matter: Criteria for Defining and Classifying Genres and a Typology of Historical Novels and other Narrative Genres". Ansgar Nünning proposed in this lecture a systematisation for the criteria of genres using the examples of the historical novel and contemporary fiction. Criticising dichotomous models as well as ad hoc coinages, he suggested differentiating sub-genres according to a paradigmatic axis of selection, a syntagmatic axis of combination and a discursive axis of communication. Alongside these axes, Ansgar Nünning proposed a classification of the genre of the historical novel on a grading scale between the two poles of heteroreferentiality and autoreferentiality. He stressed that his gradation chart was not meant to be a systematic grid but rather a heuristic tool for the reading of novels, in general, and postmodern literature, in particular, with its many hybrid texts. Ansgar Nünning then gave an overview of further fields of relevance to genre research to end a lecture that, overall, provided a systematic and theory-rich start for the conference by introducing major topics in the context of genre and interpretation. 
 
Workshop
In the second keynote lecture, provocatively titled "Science Fiction, or, the Most Typical Genre in World Literature", BRIAN MCHALE (Ohio State University) defined science fiction as a late, marginal and transmedial genre with an unstable canon. In analysing Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (US title, 1956; UK title: Tiger! Tiger!) for its transmedial potential, he identified three main plot strands within the book and pointed out that the plot itself reflects the situation of the Cold War-era in the 1950s by estranging the contemporary world. McHale therefore assumed that science fiction novels use prefabricated motifs that are connected to the principle of newness as they are situated in fictitious time. Subsequently, McHale stressed the concept of "the kernel of novum" in the novel and in the science fiction genre in general. When applied to The Stars My Destination, the novel can be read as a counter-model for Cold War reality in the mid 1950s that foreshadows globalisation. The genre achieves not only a modelling of but also a modelling for reality, based on the processes of recycling and reconfiguration. In that point, McHale referred to the previous lecture by comparing historical novels and science fiction: both endeavour to create a reality through another time, either through the past or through the future. Finally, McHale commented on the experiment of reading classics "through the glasses" of the science fiction genre to gain new insights. McHale ultimately came to his provocative final assumption that science fiction is the most typical genre of world literature, since the experimental value of science fiction is greater than of any realist fiction. McHale's lecture itself thus achieved a meta-level with the thought experiment of the 'novum' of science fiction being a key genre.

The first workshop, "Reconsidering Genre Theory and Bakhtin", gave a theoretical background to genre by focussing on Mikhail Bakhtin's concepts, which have greatly influenced genre theory. The researchers in that workshop applied the Bakhtinian theory to a wide range of contexts. LAKSHMI BANDLAMUDI (City University of New York), for instance, tested in her talk "Timeless Philosophies and (Un)timely Interpretations: Bakhtin and Bhartrhari in the Internet Age" the capaciousness of the theories of Bakhtin and Sanskrit philosopher Bhartrhari within the context of the modern-day technological era. LEEORE SCHNAIRSOHN (Princeton University) analysed in his paper "The Poetic Address and the Loophole Addressee" poetry as dialogic discourse by focussing on Bakhtin's concepts of dialogue and loophole which he associated with Ossip Mandelstam's concept of the ideal reader and Paul Celan's idea of the poetic shape. In her paper "Bakhtin's Concept of Subjectivity in his Theory of the Novel and Its Roots in the German Aesthetics and Theory of the Novel" LIISA STEINBY (University of Turku) traced similarities between Bakhtinian subjectivity and Hegel's and Lukács's theories of the novel. Finding application in topics as diverse as German aesthetics and the contemporary internet age, this workshop successfully demonstrated the universal character of Bakhtin's theory and its potential for connections with other approaches. At the same time, further workshops took place which discussed topics such as science fiction and its sub-genres, the medieval Japanese Zuihitsu genre and – in Finnish language – the relationship of literary genres to reading. 
 
conference participants
The workshop "The Novel in Generic Analysis" brought together theoretical and practical aspects of genres. In the first talk, "Defining the Novel Genre: Currie, Bakhtin, Lukács and the Temporality of the Novel", AINO MÄKIKALLI (University of Turku) focussed on the problem of time in relation to genre. She referred specifically to Lukács and Bakhtin, who both used the aspect of time when trying to differentiate between the epic and the novel. SAIJA ISOMAA (University of Helsinki) outlined in "Fowler's Theory of Genres and Its Application in the Analysis of Finnish 19th Century Realistic Novels" the basic tenets of Alastair Fowler's genre theory Kind of Literature (1982) and demonstrated the theory's transferability to the context of Finnish realistic novels. In her talk "Gospel or Elegy? Narrative Selves and Others in Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved" HANNA MÄKELÄ (University of Helsinki) raised the question of whether the relationship of two characters within a novel can provide information about its generic property. ROBERT VOGT (University of Giessen) finally introduced the concept of garden-path narratives with a paper titled "Down the Garden Path. Misinterpretations as a Textual Strategy". He therein determined the current concept to be ill-defined and specified central features of garden-path narratives, as distinguished from unreliable narration. A recurring motif in the discussions of this workshop was linked to the general problem of defining genres and distinguishing between genres and modes, thus showing the ambiguous use of the term 'genre'.

At the same time, the relation between genre and narrative identities was discussed in the workshop "Interpreting Life-Stories – Narrative Identities Across Genres". NETTA NAKARI (University of Tampere) investigated the "Transformation of Passion: When Private Becomes Public in Annie Ernaux's Passion simple". She concentrated in her paper on Ernaux's autobiographical novel as an example of the relation of reality and fiction and its consequences for the blurring of the boundary between private and public text forms. Accordingly, Nakari illustrated that autobiographies can be considered a genre at the intersection of fact and fiction. TEEMU MANNINEN (University of Tampere) focussed on the genre of autobiography, as well, in a paper titled "Editing Genre. Interpretation and the Problem of Autobiography in Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella". A concurrent workshop shed light on "Satire, Manippean Satire and Polemics".
Vera Nünning
The last day of the conference started with the third keynote lecture by VERA NÜNNING (University of Heidelberg) on "The Relevance of Generic Frames for the Interpretation of Novels", wherein she reflected on the importance of generic expectations for reading and interpreting novels. She stressed the significance of generic frames which consist generally of three aspects: the cultural context, textual properties and historical changes. Using Oliver Goldsmith's novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), she illustrated how the reception of novels can change according to their cultural and historical context. However, once genre conventions are undercut in experimental works, the reader is obliged to completely reevaluate the novel's story, thereby altering interpretation and reception significantly. In concluding, Vera Nünning defined genres as sets of expectations shaped by the knowledge of other works, which are, moreover, influenced by cultural ways of thinking. She stressed that generic frames are relevant in order to establish bodies of text and to identify modification relations between texts. These frames help, furthermore, prevent anachronistic misinterpretations. Vera Nünning demonstrated the strong interrelation between genre and interpretation by showing the relevance of generic frames and their utility in the creation of adequate interpretations.

The workshop on travel writing was concerned with interpretative strategies specific to travel writing as well as with the defining expectations that are most typical for its distinct sub-genres. TINTTI KLAPURI (University of Turku) presented a paper on "Time and Genre in Anton Chekhov's Documentary Travelogue Sakhalin Island" that illustrated the special generic form of Chekhov's novel which blends scientific and literary discourses. She referred furthermore to the temporal arrangement of the novel and the crucial divide between the narrator's and the exiles' experience of time and place – an arguably central feature of exile literature. In a presentation on "Cold Journeys. Generic Features and Interpretive Analysis of the Arctic Travel Report Around 1900" KAI MARCEL SICKS (University of Giessen) examined Arctic travel reports and their generic rules. One of the main features he pointed to was the double contextualisation of these novels, which can, on the one hand, be considered within the context of other contemporaneous travel reports but, on the other hand, lend themselves to comparisons based on narrative similarities, e.g. novels of World War I. He concluded with the thesis that the strategy of double contextualisation could be a general means of travel writing interpretation. ELISA ANTZ (University of Giessen) analysed "Road Stories" as a typically American and transmedial genre. Defining the American highway as a chronotope in the Bakhtinian sense, she concluded that the generic aspect of chronotopes in Road Stories is closely connected to the structure of the romantic quest. In a talk titled "Travel Writing as Referential Discourse" KAI MIKKONEN (University of Helsinki) discussed the exchanges between and mutual influence of fiction and referential discourse which are relevant for the analysis of travel literature, stating that these exchanges destabilise the plausibility which accounts for the genre of travel writing. The workshop focussed on one main genre in particular and showed its various facets while at the same time keeping track of its common generic rules. Workshops running parallel to this focussed on "Layered Realism" and again on the novel in generic analysis and narrative identities across genres.

The conference was concluded by a keynote lecture by BO PETTERSSON (University of Helsinki). He discussed the relationship between genre and mimesis by referring to crucial issues that had been repeatedly touched upon over the course of the conference. Emphasising that genre and mimesis are rarely considered in conjunction, Pettersson simultaneously pointed out that literary work is partly defined by the way in which it makes use of mimesis. Pettersson furthermore stressed the ubiquity of mimesis throughout genres, stating that literature had always been anthropomorphising, which means that all fictional action presented or experienced is somehow related to human life. Referring to Brian McHale's lecture, Pettersson explained that science fiction could be regarded as both realist and mimetic. To make fiction believable, it has to be described in imaginative terms. According to Pettersson, realism can only become alive if it is depicted in an imaginative way. He concluded that the manifold relations between genre and mimesis must be studied in their respective contexts and illustrated how genres are based on multiple features, including the central touchstone of mimesis. By referring to several key topics discussed in the previous lectures and workshops, Pettersson provided an elegant conclusion to the entire conference.
 
conference participants
Altogether, the conference proved that genre and genre theory are essential when it comes to the interpretation of literary texts. The various central topics discussed at the conference (time, mimesis, realism, science fiction, travel writing, etc.) demonstrate the wide-ranging influence and applicability of the genre phenomenon in general. One particular aspect, the research potential of reading different texts "through genre glasses", was repeatedly taken up. The conference proved, in sum, that especially in the context of postmodernist literature with its hybrid texts, genre conventions and generic frames help to shape an adequate interpretation. Thus, genre remains a highly relevant topic that offers considerable potential for innovation and scholarly assessment.


Conference Outline:

Welcome Address: Pirjo Lyytikäinen (University of Helsinki)

Keynotes:
Ansgar Nünning (Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen): "Genre Theory Matters: Criteria for Defining Genres and a Typology of Historical Novels and other Narrative Genres"
Brian McHale (Ohio State University): "Science Fiction, or, the Most Typical Genre in World Literature"
Vera Nünning (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg), "The Relevance of Generic Frames for the Interpretation of Novels"
Bo Pettersson (University of Helsinki): "Genre and Mimesis"

Workshop: Reconsidering Genre Theory and Bakhtin
Lakshmi Bandlamudi (City University of New York): "Timeless Philosophies and (Un)timely Interpretations: Bakhtin and Bhartrhari in the Internet Age"
Leeore Schnairsohn (Princeton University): "The Poetic Address and the Loophole Addressee"
Liisa Steinby (University of Turku): "Bakhtin’s Concept of Subjectivity in his Theory of the Novel and Its Roots in the German Aesthetics and Theory of the Novel"
Christian Pauls (Philipps-Universität Marburg): "'Re-draft Be Buggered, Leave as Printed' – Double-Voicing the Poet-Persona in Peter Reading's STET"
George Prokhorov (Kolomna State University): "'Journal of Writer' by F.M. Dostoevsky in The Context of M.M. Bakhtin's Theory of Novel"
Jorge Vaz de Carvalho (University of Lisbon): "The Bildungsroman and the Portuguese Novel. Jorge de Sena's Signs of Fire"
Edward Gieskes (University of South Carolina): "'To Pass the Flowing Stream of Acheron' – Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Generic Change"

Workshop: Mitä merkitystä genrellä on lukijalle?

Leena Kirstinä (Jyväskylän yliopisto): "Draaman narratiivisuuden luennasta ja tulkinnasta – esimerkkinä Hagar Olssonin näytelmä S.O.S. (1928)"
Irma Hirsjärvi (Jyväskylän yliopisto): "Kirjoittamisen ja lukemisen dialektinen suhde"
Kaisa Ahvenjärvi (Jyväskylän yliopisto): "Saamelainen kirjallisuus ja lukija"
Tuija Saresma (Jyväskylän yliopisto): "Haluava lukija ja genrerajat"
Puheenjohtaja: Leena Kirstinä (Jyväskylän yliopisto)
Jasmine Westerlund (Turun yliopisto): "Suomalaiset naistaiteilijaromaanit"
Urpo Kovala (Jyväskylän yliopisto): "Eettisen lukemisen kahdet kasvot"
Anne Riippa (Helsingin yliopisto/l’Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle): "Albert Camus'n teoksen La Chute Raamattu-luenta"

Workshop: Interpreting Science Fiction and Its Subgenres

Bo Pettersson (University of Helsinki): "Presentation of session: Science Fiction and Genre"
Jari Käkelä (University of Helsinki): "Asimov's Pulp Science Fiction: Convention vs. Invention"
Mika Loponen (University of Helsinki): "The Rise of Post-Pulp: Jack Vance's Dying Earth Series"
Päivi Väätänen (University of Helsinki): "'We know more of what you're capable of than you do': The Alien Point of View in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy"

Workshop: Medieval Japanese Zuihitsu Genre. Thoughts Following the Brush
Miika Pölkki (University of Helsinki): "Formless Form as a Critique of Genre"
Miika Osamitsu (University of Helsinki): "Travel Poetry of Saigyô: Visiting the Buddhist Emptiness"
Aleksi Järvelä (University of Helsinki): "Antigenre and Textual Strategies"
Laeticia Söderman (University of Helsinki): "Religious Literature or Literate Religion: Two Ways of Reading Medieval Buddhist Jottings"

Workshop: Satire, Menippean Satire and Polemics/Satiiri, menippolainen satiiri ja polemiikki
Tiina Käkelä-Puumala (University of Helsinki): "Fake Value, Real Damage: Money and Satiric Subversion in William Gaddis’s J R and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day"
Anna Hollsten (Helsingin yliopisto): "Parodia ekoretorisena keinona: Eeva Kilven 'Eeva nukkuu viimeistä yötään paratiisissa'"
Maria Laakso (Tampereen yliopisto): "Liikaviisas lyö rahoiksi: Pauli Kohelon Ohessa tilinumeroni satiirisen suomalaisen kansankuvauksen perinteessä"
Jussi Willman (Helsingin yliopisto): "Satiiri ja karnevaali Rabelais’n ja Fischartin teoksissa"

Workshop: The Novel in Generic Analysis
Aino Mäkikalli (University of Turku): "Defining the Novel Genre: Currie, Bakhtin, Lukács and the Temporality of the Novel"
Saija Isomaa (University of Helsinki): "Fowler’s Theory of Genres and Its Application in the Analysis of Finnish 19th Century Realistic Novels"
Hanna Mäkelä (University of Helsinki): "Gospel or Elegy? Narrative Selves and Others in Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved"
Robert Vogt (Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen): "On the Wrong Track: Misinterpretation as a Textual Strategy"
Laura Lindstedt (University of Helsinki): "The Art of Rumination. Nathalie Sarraute’s You Don’t Love Yourself as a Mono-Dialogue"
Maria Lival-Lindström (Åbo Akademi): "Identifying the Female Bildungsroman"
Lieven Ameel (University of Helsinki): "Helsinki in Finnish Literature at the Turn of the 20th Century – Some Thoughts on Genre and the Imagined City"
Tuomas Juntunen (University of Helsinki): "Waiting for Nothing Significant. The Idea of the Tragic in the Era of Global Capitalism in Juha Seppälä's Novel Yhtiökumppanit"

Workshop: Interpreting Life-Stories – Narrative Identities Across Genres
Netta Nakari (University of Tampere): "Transformation of Passion: When Private Becomes Public in Annie Ernaux’s Passion simple"
Teemu Manninen (University of Tampere): "Editing Genre. Interpretation and the Problem of Autobiography in Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella"
Heikki Kujansivu (University of Tampere): "Writing lives – On the Modes of Life Writing in Edmund White and Their Relation to the Construction of Identity"
Marja Rytkönen (University of Tampere): "Narrative Identities in Fiction and Non-Fiction. The Case of Liudmila Petrushevskaia"
Mikko Carlson (University of Turku): "Narrating Homosexual Self: Ethical and Political Potential of the Autobiographical Novels by Christer Kihlman and Hervé Guibert"

Workshop: Layered Realism
Angela Locatelli (Università degli studi di Bergamo): "'I Give You My Word': Tangible Images of Life in Literature"
Riikka Rossi (University of Helsinki): "Between Naturalism and Modernism: Knut Hamsun's The Hunger (1890)"
Merja Polvinen (University of Helsinki): "Fear and Scaffolding: Metafiction and Emotional Reflection in Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"

Workshop: Travel Writing

Tintti Klapuri (University of Turku): "Time and Genre in Anton Chekhov’s Documentary Travelogue Sakhalin Island"
Kai Marcel Sicks (Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen): "Cold Journeys. Generic Features and Interpretive Analysis of the Arctic Travel Report Around 1900"
Elisa Antz (Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen): "Road Stories"
Kai Mikkonen (University of Helsinki): "Travel Writing as Referential Discourse"


© bei den Autorinnen und bei KULT_online/Fotos Laura H. Forsström