Genre–A Theory or a Recipe?

“From day to day, year to year comparable situations occur, prompting comparable responses.” The comparable responses or recurring forms, become a tradition which then” tends to function as constraints upon any new response in the form.” Thus, inaugurals, eulogies, courtroom speeches and the like have conventional forms because they arise in situations with similar structures and elements and because rhetor responds in similar ways, having learned from precedent what is appropriate and what effects their actions are likely to have on their people. (Italics are mine. Miller 152)

This quote from Miller invokes two related responses:

1: The dialogic nature of genres. Genres are dialogic because they are not isolated pieces of writing created in vacuum. They are rhetorical responses to situations that demand the response in a particular manner. Genre’s consideration of the audience makes it dialogic. Instead of being a one-way act of speaking, they originate as a “response” like an answer to a question. Their dependence on previous responses in similar situations resonates with Bakhtin’s idea of “intertextutality.”

2: Structural Stability of genres. Genres are stable because they function under “constraints” called “tradition” and “convention.” Their very existence depends on their structural stability.

Question: Similarity of situation, of response and of assumptions of the effect on the reader sound like the ingredients of a recipe called genre. If the rhetor/writer has to work with these ingredients, where is the room for originality/creativity?


6 thoughts on “Genre–A Theory or a Recipe?

  1. In Miller’s theory of genre, “exigence must be located in the social world, neither in a private perception nor in material circumstance. it cannot be broken into two components without destroying it as a rhetorical and social phenomenon” (157). Now, if being creative (invention) means a private mode of production, then, there is no room for creativity.

    However, in Miller’s genre theory, evident in the three ways genres can fail, I think the concept of structural affordances is important for invention (which I seem to conflate with creativity — so perhaps I need ‘creativity’ defined for me). Structural affordances become the non-Aristotelian classification system that Miller outlines for genres. Recall, this system is distinct from the literary notion of genre — see in the PMLA 2007 for a discussion of the ‘remapping’ of genres as fields of knowledge for the literary understanding of genre:

    I do not mean to point out equivocation but Miller attempts to reconcile two distinctive ideas of genre. One is the ‘critics’ idea, with Campbell and Jamieson serving as the representatives, where “the set of genres is an open class, with new members evolving, old ones decaying” and ‘theorists’, represented by Harrell and Linkugel, claiming “[genre] lends itself to the development of a closed set, usually consisting of a few members — a next taxonomic system that does not reflect rhetorical practice so much as an a priori principle” (153). The task is not simple, but the result is a cogent base for practice in the classroom and in for research methods.

    A recipe is thinking of genres as the theorists might conceive of them. So, in theory, genres do not have an element of creativity. However, we cannot neglect that the critics assertion of openness has its place as well, which means creativity is possible.

    I am surprised that the hierarchy attributed to genres does not receive more attention; I think there is a tendency to “forget” that Miller included that aspect in defining genres. Of course, the metaphor of “fusing” / “fusion” seems to permeate the discussion of hierarchy, so Miller appears to be working with hierarchies in a way that I am not familiar — her originality with the concept, perhaps.


    • Matt, I’m having exactly that reading experience as I reread Miller today: why did I not have trouble with all this discussion of hierarchy when I read it previously? Or did I and I forgot as I fit her into my neat intellectual schema of genre theory? Maybe we can discuss this a bit today.


  2. I’m going to go a little musical here for a moment… I apologize.

    To build from the quote that Matt uses in discussing exigence as “located in the social world” (157) and fuse it with our friends Bitzer and Grant-Davie, I think the possibility emerges out of the audience and constraints of the rhetorical situation (both positive and negative as Grant-Davie points out). One can do different things with different rhetorical “tools.” Some situations may present us with copious rhetorical tools, which provide for new means of creativity–the fusion of electronic and analogue instruments via wealthy symphonies Conversely, a different set of limiting constraints or rhetorical tools may call for resourcefulness leading to things like the use of sampling in hip-hop music. These practices, emerging in “recurrent situations” lead to shifting and eventually new genres. Sorry. Any excuse to throw hip-hop into the mix.


    • I think Justin is on to something here, hip-hop or not. While I’m all for creativity and pushing the edges of established genres, I don’t think Miller is suggesting genres themselves do not allow for creativity. Within the genre, because of all the interactions and layers, there seems to be plenty of room for variation, imagination, and exigence.


  3. Neelam, I see what you mean by the metaphor of “recipe”; From a pedagogical and practical point of view we can safely argue that many technical writing textbooks don’t explain how genres ‘fuse’ situational with formal and substantive features.
    While Miller tries to build a comprehensive model for understanding genres as social action, it is still prevelent to somehow reduce genres to forms and conventions. Teaches of technical writing and communication might have noticed that textbooks are collections of examples and templates that emphasize form over analysis of rheotrical situations. While they advocate audience analysis, there is nothing on transcultural dynamics and accommodation strategies. In many textbooks (I have Markel and Tebeaux & Dragga under my eyes) it’s hard to find chapters or even sections within chapters that introduce central rhetorical concepts, that cite Bitzer, or Miller, that bring up the idea of discourse communities and basic principles of sociolinguistics. Too often, the brilliant ideas I have encountered in composition literature either have not ‘percolated’ or are very slowly percolating into pedagogical practice.


  4. I have to say that the claims that genres

    Deny creativity seem strange. After all,
    One has to admit that a sonnet or a whatever one writes about a
    Nightingale should follow some rules of ABBA abracadabra. Lewis
    Turco’s Book of Forms even alphabetizes poem types into

    Kenning-laden whale roads shuffling off to Buffalo to be born or
    Nevermore? My real question is why composition genres are
    Observed as restrictive while poetic genres are “liberating”
    When they dictate the number of syllables in a line?

    Again, maybe this dichotomy is symptomatic of the
    Battle between praxis and art
    Or composition versus literature?
    Ultimately, the idea of creativity seems
    To become a methodology for creating hierarchies. After all,

    Technical writing or other forms/genres do not
    Have to be devoid of
    Inspiration or creativity.
    Semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics can coexist (152).


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