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I know this goes awhile back, but several classes ago, we talked about the importance of categorizing literature into different genres. We discussed if knowing the genre of a work influences how we read and interpret in. In another class I'm taking, we are reading Native American Literature. It seems like whatever piece we read, we circle back to the debate of does an author need to be Native American to produce this type of literature? Also, by going into the work with the notion that this is a Native American novel, not non-fiction, do we expect it to teach us accurately, and completely, about Native American culture? I'm wondering what people who aren't in the class, who haven't been influenced by this ongoing struggle, think. Do we expect something different from a work if we know what genre it's in or know how it's been categorized, specifically if it's about a certain ethnicity, class, or time period?

3 Comments

  1. Unknown User (mrb21)

    Hi Sarah!

    I really like this question. I think reading a single book in a genre teaches us a very small part of the culture the genre represents, and as we read more of a genre (from different time periods and subsets of that culture) we get a more accurate representation of the culture. Like in science where we need to perform many experiments to accurately test our hypothesis, so too as literary people need to read many books from many perspectives and time periods to accurately assess the culture.

    This applies to fiction literature that we may not necessarily associate with 'culture' - for example romance novels. Romance novels exploded as a genre in the 70s and 80s, including (mostly) savage instances of rape and abuse on the part of the hero towards the heroine of the novel. As the genre progressed, abuse and rape became less common techniques and - in the 90s and early 2000s - gentler, more 'beta' heroes because more typical while the genre also split into many sub-genres (historical, contemporary, paranormal, erotica, etc). The current trend is more moderate - we trend to enigmatic, alpha males part way in between the 70s and 90s heroes. We could assess, if only looking at novels from the 70s (especially if we de-contextualize them) that women writers and readers of the genre were crazy - and we wouldn't understand the culture at all (I may be digressing here, but stay with me). Women in the 70s and 80s were so sexually repressed that the only way they could write about women enjoying sex (or even having sex) was if the women were forced into the sexual encounter. The rape and abuse are symbols of a radical change in the culture of women - in women trying to express their sexual selves freely. But in order to understand the romance culture as a whole over time we must read from the earliest romances to the most current, and keep reading, to see how the culture changes and how people in the culture write about their identity (romance writers, frequently women, are writing about the sexual and emotional culture of women).

    My long-winded point here is that we do expect something different from every different genre - romance tells us about the changing culture of women and their sexual freedom while Native American literature tells us about the evolution of their culture when different stressors (i.e. the immigration of Europeans) have been placed on their culture. We expect different genres to help us understand a certain aspect of the human condition, be it the imagination, sexual desires, or ethnic identity. Should we ever expect a single book or genre to completely and accurately inform us? No. But the more we read, the closer we get to an accurate understanding of the literate subculture within that genre.

  2. Unknown User (aa24)

    Hi Sarah,

    This is an interesting question.  I feel though, that it is not necessary that one need be native to a culture to produce a piece of literature that accurately elaborates on all aspects of that culture.  I feel this should depend on the extent of the writer's knowledge, not determined by the nationality of the writer. Many people prove to be very unconnected with their own culture.  An unbiased author can know the facts about a culture through and through by studying it and perhaps even spending time living among that particular culture. But I do understand where you are coming from.  There is always the likelihood that the non-native author lacks the emotional attachment and sentimentality that a native author may have when speaking about his own culture.  Sometimes this portrayal of emotion is key in truly understanding the ins and outs of a culture.  

  3. Unknown User (lo3)

    I know this was posted a few days ago but after I read it I just had to comment on it. I love this question. This is like asking if a man can write about a woman's experience, or the other way around. I think anyone can write about anything, ideally they should be well educated in the subject, but coming from a perspective that was shaped by personal experience adds something extra to the piece of literature. It does not necessarily mean it becomes more accurate but I believe that it makes people believe or assume it is more accurate, perhaps without even realizing it. I think it also depends on the topic. If the literature is a narrative, the person with a higher quantity and quality of experience in the topic area may be better educated. However, if it is a historical account, a historian in the area is most likely considered the expert. One must also be careful that someone with experience in the area does not color the "true" story with bias and too much personal belief if the literature does not call for it. In this case,  an objective bystander so to speak may be in fact more reliable. In response to Atheeqa, I agree that sometimes emotion is key, but there is a time and a place.