Thoughts about thoughts about my genre book


Academic publishing is a notoriously slow process – articles and books appear years after they are written, and attempts to have a published dialogue about a scholarly issue takes forever to see the light of day. My first book Genre & Television (well, still my only book, but that will change soon enough) was published in 2004, but I started writing it in 1998, with some chapters based on research I’d conducted as far back as 1994 (my first semester in graduate school). So everything in the book – which you should certainly buy multiple copies of if you haven’t already, as I get rich at just over $1 per copy sold! – feels like old hat to me. I’ve moved onto new projects concerning TV narrative and writing an introductory textbook about American television. But in the scheme of academic publishing, it’s still a fairly new book – and hopefully one whose ideas are not dated yet.

So I was pleased to see Chandler Harriss’s recent article on Flow directly engaging with my book and offering some constructive discussion about its potential uses & shortcomings. Given that we can speed up the process to foster online dialogue, I figured I’d offer some responses to Harriss’s article, and hopefully he’ll swing by the blog to respond as well. So if you haven’t read his article (and the comments on Flow) yet, go ahead – I’ll wait here for you.

Welcome back. So I think Harriss does a nice job summing up how my perspective on genre differs from many traditional critics (aside from the one slippage that Jonathan Nichols-Pethick mentioned in his comments, as I do think that generic power is not wielded solely by the audience, but also by the broader circulation within the industry, critics, scholars, regulators, etc.). For typical genre critics, a genre is understood by the textual features that make it distinct, whether plot structures (mystery or romance), desired emotional responses (comedy or horror), or central settings and iconography (science-fiction or westerns). I argue that such consideration of the texts categorized by a genre do not constitute the genre itself; rather it is the broader circulation of the genre category that makes a category like “cartoon” mean anything, and then can it be used to consider specific texts. This approach is, using Rick Altman’s term, a pragmatic approach to genres, studying them as they actually work within their cultural contexts, not as idealized structures or forms.

I read Harriss’s critique as not disagreeing with my own account of how genres work, but trying to carve a space for traditional structuralist approaches to coexist with my cultural model. I’m generally a pretty open-minded guy when it comes to academic theories – I pick and choose methods and models based on specific research questions over orthodoxy, and am skeptical of fundamentalists arguing for any doctrine as the revealed word of Theory. So I have no problem with Harriss using Propp to show how House is structured like a cop show (well, I guess my problem would that I think Propp is pretty limited as far as narrative theorists go, but let’s let that pass…). But I would not call such an argument a work of genre analysis – it’s a study of narrative structure drawing from textual traditions tied to specific genre categories.

Am I just mincing words to police a boundary here? Perhaps. But I try to lay out this distinction on pp. 18-19 of my book: there is a crucial difference between studying genre categories and genre texts. Analyzing the genre category is to understand the meanings and assumptions linked to the genre, considering issues like perceived core attributes, cultural functions, target audiences, and social worth. The narrative structure of a genre text is important (hence my new research), but it is ultimately not an intrinsic part of a genre itself. You might even analyze a group of texts that have pragmatically been linked to a genre and show how they share a distinctive narrative structure, but for me that does not tell us much about the cultural practice of the category itself, unless that structural element gets broader cultural circulation in understanding the genre (as with notions of seriality and soap operas). And I believe this distinction is needed for discussing genres, as it is too easy to slip between the textual and cultural uses of a genre category, eliding the difference and making a muddle of what you’re trying to talk about.

So what about House? Harriss writes:

It would be difficult for Mittell to argue that House is part of the same genre as Dragnet, but it would be quite simple for Propp to illustrate that it is. This is precisely why scholars need to stop the debate about what the single word (genre) means and begin to qualify it. The idea behind a generic categorization called medical mystery implies this distinction while simultaneously conflating it. Medical is based on the show’s setting and its characters’ attributes. However, mystery is based on the structure of the plot. In short, House is not a “cop” show, but it is very much structured like one.

If I read him correctly, Harriss is arguing that House is in the same genre as Dragnet, but it is not a cop show. Assuming he’s not taking the dubious position that Dragnet is not actually a cop show, I see two different uses of the cop show genre here – as a category of programs (to which House does not belong) and as a narrative structure (which House arguably shares). For me, genre only means something as a category, not as a textual property – we have a well-developed vocabulary to discuss narrative structure which does not need to be subsumed by genre studies.

I do not see what is to be gained by calling House a cop show. It is certainly a medial mystery, using the plot structure of mysteries and placing them within a medical context – in this way, it has clear ancestors in Medic and Quincy M.E.. And if critics, viewers, and the industry starts referring to shows like House and its eventual clones as “medical mysteries,” then we might begin to see the emergence of a generic category – but I do not see it ever being defined usefully as a subgenre of the cop show.

A more useful term that does not appear in Harriss’s article is “procedural” – this term has become more prevalent in critical and viewer discourse over the past decade, as the rise of serial dramas have helped reinforce a dichotomy between stand-alone procedurals (like the Law & Order and CSI franchises) and ongoing serials (like 24 and Veronica Mars). The granddaddy of television procedurals is Dragnet, of course, and in this way I would certainly suggest that House and Dragnet belong to the same category (with the caveat that House is less purely procedural, with some serialized plots about young doctors in love). But a procedural structure is not equivalent to being a cop show, just as a serialized drama like Lost is not a soap opera just because the relationships and plots carry across episodes.

So this leads to an interesting question: is “procedural” a genre? I get at this issue somewhat on pp. 10-11 of my book, but let me try again. For the term to function as a genre, it needs both widespread usage across the realms of industry, audiences, critics, and creators, and it needs some “operational coherence” for its users to have some consensus on what it means & what it refers to. We might be close to meeting these criteria, but it would take more detailed research to see how disseminated the term might be – for now, unless it’s showing up in program descriptions in TV Guide and electronic program guides, I think it falls short of the genre threshold. Instead, it functions more like the interplay between adjective and noun that Altman argues is how genres are born (“musical comedy” yields the “musical”) – right now, House is a procedural medical drama, but perhaps in some years we’ll more readily see it most clearly as simply a “procedural.”

Okay, I’ve rambled on sufficiently for now. I hope that Harriss & others interested in such academic conceptual wrangling will weigh in, now that the site’s commenting function seems (hopefully) to be working better. Thanks to all who care for reading the book & blog, and expediting the process of talking about these ideas in a more dialogic fashion than print can allow.

2 Responses to “Thoughts about thoughts about my genre book”

  1. 1 Jason Mittell

    Chad – thanks for the response! I think you raise a really interesting possibility in terms of how viewers might look at the ”generic gears” of a show like House – I have no doubt that the mystery/procedural angle is crucial for pleasure. I wonder whether they might see those divergent elements like you mention (white boards, leaving the hospital) as tied to cop traditions, or as tied to other mystery forms (detective shows for instance). This would be an interesting reception study to see what frameworks are being used to make sense of the show.

    I agree that we’re agreeing on everything except whether this type of critical analysis is “genre study” – we both think it’s valuable work, but I see it as enough of a different order than the type of categorical analysis I propose for genre analysis that it deserves other labels (narratology, formal analysis, etc.). It’s too easy for critics to place the slip between the analysis of generic texts and claims for udnerstanding the category itself. I do find it to be a useful scholarly distinction to acknowledge the key difference between categorical and textual analysis, enough so that I see it as needing different terminology. But we can agree to disagree on that…

  2. 2 Jason Mittell

    See Chris Cagle’s blog for more discussion on this topic…

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