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Peer Reviewed

Dynamics of Genre

Ellen Miller Casey

Dallas Liddle. The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain. Victorian Literature and Culture Series. : , 2009. x+234 pp. $39.50.

Rev. by Ellen Miller Casey
In his well-written book, Dallas Liddle applies the Bakhtinian concept of genre to study the influence on literary writing of forms used by mid-Victorian journalists. His aim is to suggest how the study of print culture might benefit from Bakhtins insight that dynamic interactions between genres are an engine of literary history. Admitting that his work is a preliminary example of such an approach, he examines the relations between journalistic and literary forms in mid-century, applies journalistic genres to literature in four specific instances, and proposes that genre study could be a useful tool for other scholars.
Liddle acknowledges that the sheer quantity of Victorian journalism makes it tempting to imitate the social science models of such theorists as Jürgen Habermas, Benedict Anderson, and Pierre Bourdieu for analyzing how discourses function within cultures. He rejects these hedgehog and relatively textless approaches, however, in favor of Bakhtins concept of genre, a way of seeing the world that structures ones belief system. Liddle suggests that genre enables us to organize our examination of texts in the same way that geology enables us to deal with too many rocks or entomology with too many bugs.
Imitating Chaucer, Liddle sets out to tell “tales” of various kinds of Victorian writing, presenting accounts of the poet, the authoress, the editor, the reviewer, and the clergyman, as well as of the contemporary scholar. He uses Aurora Leigh to lay out the distinction between journalistic and literary work, siding with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who found mid-Victorian popular and art literatures to be in conflict rather than with modern scholars who see them as complementary. He suggests that rather than studying meta-journalism written by journalists we should examine the “peri-journalism of their generic rivals, the historians, poets, and novelists. In his next four chapters he does just this, using Bakhtins insights to examine the effects of the competition between journalism and art in the work of Harriet Martineau, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and the sensation novelists.
In her Autobiography Harriet Martineau describes how she became an authoress in a process consistent with mid-Victorian journalistic ideology. Despite her description, however, there are discrepancies between her actual and her purported practice. While Martineau eagerly presents herself as a journalist, she is more calculating and active than she admits, not in fact writing the single draft which was common journalistic practice.
The best novelistic guide to relations between mid-century journalism and literature is Anthony Trollope, whose many representations of the periodical press Liddle identifies in an appendix. Unlike Charles Dickens, who uses journalistic discourse rather than chronicling journalists, or William Makepeace Thackeray, who includes writers but not the process of social interaction among them, Trollope represents the entire world of mid-Victorian letters.
George Eliot began her literary life as a reviewer but rejected the job as soon as she could afford to because it conflicted with her beliefs and ethics. When she wrote reviews in the 1850s, the reviewer was an omniscient authority who wrote slashers rather than working to evoke sympathy. In “Janets Repentance” Eliot modifies and undercuts the review mode, renouncing journalistic bullying and exploring the teaching of sympathy and redemption.
Unlike the other chapters, The Clergymans Tale is about a subject, not a writer. The disappearance of the Rev. Benjamin Speke in 1868 provides a case study in the differences between sensation fiction and sensational journalism, contradicting the now-common practice of considering the two as parallel modes. In the six weeks of Spekes disappearance, the newspapers speculated in the absence of facts, but despite our expectations these speculations did not manifest the characteristics of sensation fiction.
While one might dispute details of these close readings, suggesting, for example, that not all reviews of the 1850's were slashers, they are still interesting and persuasive. In his larger theoretical argument, Liddle sets forth a provocative though less convincing agenda for further work. Liddle understates the generic diversity of Victorian journalism, limiting himself to leaders and reviews. While he is explicit about this restriction in his introduction, the repeated use of “journalism” and “the periodical press” tends to obscure this important limitation. At the same time he overstates the conflict between popular and literary art, ignoring the many authors who freely went back and forth between the two and the many books that first appeared in periodicals. In short, while Liddles theoretical argument usefully focuses our attention beyond Bakhtins notions of carnival and heteroglossia, and serves Liddle himself well by directing him to interesting intersections between literature and journalism, it is not finally as convincing as it might be.
Ellen Miller Casey, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Scranton, has published extensively on the Victorian reception of fiction, including sensation novels and works by Charles Dickens, American authors, and women writers.