Theories and Zombies: On the Didactic Potential of Genre Turn Literature
Last semester was a remarkable one for my students and myself. Zombies slouched into the classroom and taught semiology. We learned about cognitive world-construction by robbing a bank. Finally, aliens appropriated the blackboard and reported on colonization and corporate power. Why? Because we attempted a literary theory seminar using genre turn literature. Von Michael Drescher
Literary Fiction & the Turn to Genre
But what is genre turn literature? Generally, genre fiction is defined as a type of mass-produced literature which adheres to conventional structures. It follows an emotional, repetitive, entertaining aesthetics. This is the world of Ken Follett, John Grisham, and Dan Brown: inexpensive paperbacks, guilty-pleasure novels, cliff-hanging page-turners. Moreover, genre fiction stands (and lives) by its supposed antinomy: literary fiction. This art form champions innovation and carries symbolic capital by adhering to the values of the literary craft. It insists on merit, an aesthetics mindful of tradition, socio-political commentary, and the negotiation of the human condition.
In our lecture halls, it is this latter form – complex, sophisticated novels á la Joseph O’Neill, Ian McEwan, and Tony Morrison – that is assigned in seminars across the nation. And there is nothing wrong with that. But what if we could combine the best of both worlds and work with a literature that is able to entertain and allow for intellectual reflection? Genre turn novels offer such an opportunity.
The genre turn describes the adoption of generic elements by authors of literary novels, who consequently produce amalgamated forms of fiction. Literary writers have been “frantically borrowing from genre fiction,“ thereby complicating the distinction between the literary and the generic. But while scholars eagerly investigate the recent “embrace of the apparatus of once-tabooed genre fiction,” the field of didactics has been inattentive to the development so far.
Genre Turn & Narrative Competence
As teachers of literature, we need to take genre turn fiction’s didactic potential seriously. One way to do so is found in the context of narrative competence. Narrative competence is the ability to make reality intelligible through narratives (Bredella 2007, 43 f.). This world, indeed, is governed by stories: Our social, cultural, and political norms, our individual lives in all their different shapes are given structure and meaning by narratives. Literature entails such cultural knowledge and enables socio-political participation and the capacity to design counter-narratives. However, the faculty to adequately read and produce such narratives has to be acquired. Here, literature offers the means, the creative and interpretative tools to tackle our lived realities.
Furthering such competence means furthering the ability to structure and represent the world through stories; it aids in making given narratives intelligible, enables to communicate the contents of personal and cultural stories, and forces us to meta-cognitively reflect and control the processes of narrativization (Bredella 2007, 44).
But why use genre turn novels to do so? Like ‘traditional’ literary fiction, these texts offer cultural engagement and literary quality. Yet there is one significant difference: They are more fun. The time has come to refute categorical hierarchies and the draperies of literary pretentiousness and teach students that entertainment and critical reflection can go hand in hand. It is no secret that students learn better when they find their work pleasurable; genre turn literature allows us to task them with intellectual issues while reading novels populated by zombies, aliens, and bank robbers.
Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, for instance, allows us to debate human perception in a world plagued by a zombie virus. Station Eleven by St. John Mandel offers a platform for discussing the value of art while accompanying knife-wielding actors touring a post-pandemic continent. We can elaborate on colonization and religion by following a missionary preaching to aliens in Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Lastly, Remainder by Tom McCarthy assesses the nature of human cognition while telling of eccentric millionaires and shotgun-toting bank robbers.
The Didactics of the Genre Turn
In our attempts at educating future teachers, we as scholars and lecturers influence the material used in the classroom. Yes, some works form part of mandatory curricula, but others are incorporated by means of discretion. Here is a chance to familiarize teachers with contemporary literature and offer a sense of today’s realities in literature, art, and research.
Thus, literary didactics can fulfill its aim: to recognize and impart didactically relevant issues which arise in textual material. By incorporating genre turn novels into our curricula, we can take our responsibility to educate seriously, give a sense of today’s literary field, and offer teachers (and their students) the necessary narrative tools for a free, democratic, and happy human existence.
Genre turn novels offer new paths for the teaching of literature. They enable us to impart the foundational role of narratives and discuss intellectual issues while motivating ongoing engagement. Both lecturers and students can only benefit from an art form which takes today’s realities seriously and still allows for a smile, a shriek, and a shudder when zombies start to teach critical theory.
Michael R. Drescher
Bredella, Lothar, ed. Literaturunterricht, Kompetenzen und Bildung. Trier: WVT, 2007.