Captivating Genres

This essay is part of a symposium on Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

In his now classic essay published in NLH in 1976, “The Origin of Genres,” Tzvetan Todorov famously articulated the following: “It is because genres exist as an institution that they function as ‘horizons of expectation’ for readers, and as ‘models of writing’ for authors.” He goes on to argue that

“Genres communicate with the society in which they flourish by means of institutionalization,” and that since “Genre is the point of intersection of general poetics and literary history,” it should be “enough to make it the principal subject of literary studies.”[1] Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery, models not just a study of the function of a genre as a horizon of expectations; it is, to paraphrase Todorov, an exploration of the global framework of the study of a genre. When I read Goyal’s book, I was very taken as a literary scholar with its profound commitment to questions of form, genre, style and its rich embeddedness in the history of the slave narrative and its incarnation in the contemporary moment in both the African American and anglophone African novel. In seeking to generate a discussion about Goyal’s claim that slavery has become the “defining template through which current forms of human rights abuses are understood” (2) and her radical claim in her opening paragraph that “slavery is now the site for the reinvention of form” (1), I  had arranged  a roundtable for the annual convention of the American Comparative Literature Association in 2020, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am, thus, very grateful to the journal Humanity and the editor Angela Naimou for providing the opportunity and space to have a generative intellectual conversation about and around Runaway Genres.

In the call for papers for the roundtable, Goyal and I came up with questions, some of which I include here:

This seminar takes up the questions raised by this book to fathom the future of the study of race and slavery in a global framework, welcoming considerations of other genres and sites of postcolonial critique. How have race and form been entangled, historically and in the present?
How do questions of aesthetic form and formalism reanimate the study of race and empire?
How do new conceptions of diaspora and migration (especially in the works of celebrated Afropolitan writers) change previous paradigms of comparative, transnational, and world literatures? How may we imagine claims of human rights beyond the frame of empathy? What does a truly ethical globalism look like? How does analogy as an optic allow us to understand the unpredictable afterlives of slavery, colonialism, and racial dispossession?

A few of the responses in this forum take up one or more of these concerns productively and directly while others use the ideas in the book to provide their own interpretations of fiction and visual culture. I will let Goyal address these essays and move on to my own brief enthusiastic and critical regard for Runaway Genres.

I come to the book as a postcolonial scholar familiar with the long history of the anglophone novel in the Caribbean, South and West Africa, and South Asia. While I work comparatively on the South Asian novel in English, Hindi, and Bengali, my work in the other two regions is strictly anglophone (though on occasion I will read some fiction in French). I have and perhaps will remain committed to the postcolonial in all its gnarly historical and critical complexity rather than any other critical paradigm. I am also literary to the bone and thus while I find much to admire in interdisciplinary work in terms of both content and methodology, a book like Runaway Genres speaks to my interests in particular kinds of ways. It is in Goyal’s grappling with questions about literary form that I find her to be one of my closest  and most astute interlocutors. One could make the argument that Goyal is above all an African Americanist seeking to move from inside the field of African American literary studies to novels from the African continent and its vast diaspora. In so doing, she brings a profound commitment to locating certain, often hastily canonized, African novels in their relationship to and complicated engagements with the long arc of African American fiction.  The book, however, is equally driven by the dismissal of certain contemporary African novels by some critics as too easily Afropolitan, too effortlessly consumable because of their complacent recycling of stereotypical ideas about both the continent and the United States. Taking up successful novels like Graceland, Open City, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and We Need New Names, Goyal demands that we critically evaluate the African/African American literary nexus.  The book demonstrates that when one focuses on the formal manipulations of the slave narrative, one can historicize the African global novel and puncture the view of the world republic of letters as one solely based on circulation and commodification.

The book is brilliantly organized in terms of genres: the revival of the sentimental, satire, the gothic, the “talking book,” and new diasporas. The first and last move outwards from North America to Africa and back again, while the two central chapters are focused on African American writers and their works. While the chapter, “The Gothic Child,” seemed unnecessary and could have been incorporated in the first chapter as a further manipulation of sentimental globalism through the literary mode of what one might call a gothic altruism, the introduction is one of the very best I have read and its ambitious reach is evident in the other four chapters.  Each chapter starts with a general overview of the particular framework it will use followed by a thorough synopsis of the genre before honing in on a novel or two.  “Sentimental Globalism,” for example, reviews and critiques discourses of modern abolition intertwined as they are with human rights to redress modern and ubiquitous forms of “slavery” alongside neo-abolitionist sentimental narratives that one hopes will produce moral outrage in their brutal depictions of “lost boys” fleeing atrocities and seeking refuge in the United States.  In this chapter, the reader gets, among other things, an exceptional and close reading of Eggers’ What is the What, a self-conscious novelization of the “true” story of Valentino Achak Deng and a most publicized and popular book. The close reading executes the best qualities of a formalist critic moving between author, ventriloquism, character, story, plot on the one hand and, on the other, a savvy, hard hitting critique of the politics/ethics of sentimentality so prevalent in current discourses around refugees seeking sanctuary.  All the chapters revel in the kind of close readings crucial to the sense and sensibility of literary studies without ever lapsing into trite disputes over its relevance and distance from the political. In other words, the book shows literary studies at its very best attuned to the deep workings of genre alongside a sure-footed critique of not just politics but the politics of representation and the burden of representation placed on writers, both African American and from the black diaspora.

In that vein, the readings that stand out the most (besides Eggers’ novel) are the sections on Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, No Violet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Caryl Philips’ The Nature of Blood, and Toni Morrison’s play, Desdemona. The chapter, “The Talking Book, (Talking Back)” is groundbreaking. It engages not just with the mode of “writing back,” a key postcolonial frame for reading many a canonical novel, but also offers a fundamental rethinking of the genre. Using the trope of the “talking book” as used by African American writers and critics, this chapter challenges the ways in which we think about global anglophone works that engage with canonical British literature. It also reveals how African American concepts and genres as well as race are neglected by postcolonial critics and scholars working on global anglophone literature. This chapter like the first one speaks to the centrality of African American literature for an understanding of the contemporary global, black, anglophone novel. The most difficult chapter and perhaps the most controversial—in the best sense of the word—is “Post Black Satire.” Moving away from the dominant mode of affective, melancholic, and the psychic afterlives of slavery with which much African American scholarship is currently concerned, the chapter turns to satire to understand if it yields a “new understanding of the past and present beyond a melancholic attachment or the narrative of healing or getting over” (111). I have always worried about my own responses to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, checking my own critical enjoyment of an uncomfortable and, often, absurd set of representational choices. Goyal’s situating of the novel in the long tradition of satire in the African American tradition allowed me to see how such novels work to “combat the sentimental template of abolition and neo-abolition,” and gave me a better understanding of how certain genres can help produce “new knowledge about the past as well as open up generative ways of imagining the present and future” (111).

In the end, Runaway Genres shows us what close attention to literary form can produce. In the hands of a scholar dedicated to the field of African American literary studies as well as postcolonial and the African global novel, I found a clear and compelling counterpoint to Caroline Levine’s engagement with forms in her award winning and much written about book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network.  Levine flattens forms, and in her overarching desire to push for a political reading of the intersectionality and dissensus produced when forms come together, the differences between them, especially literary form goes unexamined.[2] In Goyal’s book, the reader is constantly aware of the shapes of forms and the way genre weaves such shapes into a cogent whole. Alongside, there is always a sense of the deep and long history, literary, social and political, that adhere to such forms. At its very best, the book brings into sharp relief the intricate interweaving of the socio-political with critical, literary formalist readings that never eschew what has recently become a too easy dismissal and derision of an “hermeneutics of suspicion” under the rubric of post-critique.  Runaway Genres exemplifies how impossible it is to commit oneself solely to surface or descriptive reading. It shows how loving literature demands an engagement with the political unconscious of text and context. The key arguments of the book hinge on revealing the myriad ways in which form, genre, and politics; narration and point of view; metonymy, metaphor, and analogy work together to help create anew the novels we read. The book thus embodies the best practices of literary reading.


[1] Tzvetan Todorov, “The Origin of Genres,” trans. Richard M. Berrong, New Literary History 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1976): 163–64.

[2] Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

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