Making Sense of Genre

                    Deborah Knight

     For those who consider genre to be too simplistic or formulaic for

academic consideration, there is the question whether anything like

serious comprehensional activities are involved in reading or viewing

generic texts.  Are we just passive consumers of stories that, in an

important sense, we already know?  Or are we in some respect active

participants, constructing meaning from the narrational cues of a genre,

so that familiarity with a generic form turns out to be an advantage to

us, helping us to sort expediently between salient and non-salient

information as it is presented to us by the generic narrative?<1>  Is it

just irrational for spectators and readers to return, again and again,

to consume new installments of familiar generic fictions?  This question

seems to apply equally to those who prefer the successive consumption of

sequences of autonomous but generically similar texts (devotees of

action or horror films, for example), to those who prefer to consume

serialized texts where each has a more-or-less autonomous structure

(P.D. James  Adam Dalgleish mysteries, television series which are

presented as more-or-less independent story units), to those who prefer

unclosed generic texts, like soap opera, where particular storylines

develop over long periods, interwoven with many others, and thus seldom

coming to anything like closure, and to those (doubtless the majority)

who mix and match.

     In this paper, I first examine a view defended by, among others,

Paul Ricoeur, Northrop Frye, Roland Barthes and Peter Brooks, which

suggests that active interpretation is a hallmark feature for

understanding any narrative, including generic ones.  This view is,

broadly, Aristotelian; it is concerned with narrative form and

structure, and with the sorts of comprehensional activities required to

understand   and thus to retell and interpret   a story.  Next, I turn

to Nel Carroll s recent argument<2> which purports to  make sense  of

the repeated consumption of successive generic fictions by showing that

consumers of generic fictions are active followers of the particular

stories they watch or read.  With this argument, Carroll confronts and

resolves what he calls  the paradox of junk fiction. <3>  In the final

sections of the paper, I raise questions about Carroll s strategy for

making sense of genre.  I distinguish between what is involved in making

sense of some behaviour and the question whether that behaviour is or is

not rational.  Further, if it is to be philosophically persuasive,

Carroll s account must work for the full range of generic subcategories. 

I suggest that it does not.  Finally, I argue that Carroll s view of the

active reader as primarily concerned with making guesses about future

occurrences in any particular generic story fails to acknowledge the

important role of retrospection that is at the heart of the hermeneu-

tical account of narrative comprehension.  I suggest that some genres do

not depend to any significant extent on retrospection, on synthesizing

the elements of an ongoing story, or on discovering the point or purpose

of the events that make up the story.  If this is correct for some

genres, then there is a real question whether some generic stories might

be  consumed  without being  understood.   If this is plausible, then we

unexpectedly wind up face-to-face again with the paradox Carroll had

hoped to dissolve.



     Generic fictions are, first and foremost, identified in terms of

familiar, codified, conventionalized and formulaic story structures.<4> 

Plot action is a main focus of generic fictions; the answer to the

question,  What fictional genre is this?  is standardly given by a key

term which figures the line of plot action to be found in the particular

story, as in  mystery  or  thriller  or  horror  or  family melodrama.  

Generic fictions are also associated with highly conventionalized

characters: detectives or gangsters, Westerners or lovers-on-the-run. 

Genre characters are identified functionally, in terms of their role in

a particular story structure, rather than psychologically.  Indeed,

story is the main focus of genre.  As Frank Kermode remarks, generic

fictions encourage underreading.<5>  They are fictions of easy access,

not usually the sort to make many demands on the reader s or viewer s

breadth of cultural knowledge.  However, generic fictions do make

demands on the reader s or viewer s knowledge of other generic fictions,

and the sorts of story patterns that are to be associated with the

particular generic category of the text in question.

     One might argue that, because they encourage a certain kind of

underreading   one which focuses on developing plot action rather than,

say, the beauty of the prose or the cinematography   that generic

fictions are ideal places for the rehearsal of a certain kind of

interpretation.  Generic fictions, we might suppose, allow us to

practice our skills of narrative comprehension.  Let us consider a

generally held view that emphasizes the activity of the reader or viewer

in her engagement with narratives.  I associate this view with, among

others, Paul Ricoeur, Northrop Frye, Roland Barthes and Peter Brooks.

     In his work on the hermeneutical interpretation of narrative

texts, Ricoeur has emphasized the deep interconnection between following

and understanding a story.<6>  And that surely this seems plausible.  If

someone insisted that she had followed all the actions of a novel or

film but had not understood it, one might want to suggest that perhaps

she had not quite followed the text after all.  Similarly, if someone

said she understood the story but then, in answer to further questions,

revealed that she hadn t followed the events of the story, we would be

doubtful that she had actually understood it.  We might guess that she

had had the point of the story explained to her, but that she had not

herself managed what Ricoeur talks about when he talks about extracting

a configuration from the mere succession of events; one occasionally

reads exam answers like this.  In both cases, we would be inclined to

say that the reader or viewer hadn t quite got the point, and we might

be able to show her where she went off-track in following the story, or

how her understanding of the story missed its mark if, under

consideration, she had not seen how the course of action had unfolded.

     Many others have emphasized the conjunction between following and

understanding.  Northrop Frye speaks of the  double articulation  of

literature, the reciprocal interconnections of plot and theme, between

what is happening and what it means for the text as a whole.<7>  Peter

Brooks<8> makes a similar point with reference to two of the five

 codes  popularized by Roland Barthes in S/Z,<9>  drawing attention to

the connection between the proairetic   the code of actions and events,

the one we refer to when we want answers to questions like, What is

going on (now)?   and the hermeneutical   the code of mystery and

enigma, the one we refer to when we want answers to questions like, Why

is this happening? (particularly if the answer to this question is

withheld by the text, where the answer is not immediately apparent). 

Generic fictions are, admittedly, highly conventional in terms of the

story-forms they adopt.  If we follow Ricoeur, Frye, Barthes and

Brooks<10>  in stressing the centrality of plot to this process of

following and understanding narratives   and in particular, if we accept

the idea that, as readers or viewers, we are constantly engaged in an

activity of sorting, synthesizing and ordering particular plot elements

to extract from them a sense of the story as a whole   then we can see

that reading for the plot, or looking for it, in the case of cinema, is

a skill which we can develop and practice with generic texts as well as

with non-generic texts.

     So here is one means of countering the idea that consuming generic

texts is in some sense irrational.  On the formalist line exemplified by

Ricoeur, Frye, Barthes and Brooks, readers and viewers engage in the

development and refinement of a significant cognitive skill.  But

perhaps the claim of the irrationality of genre can still be advanced. 

Take a Wittgensteinian analogy: How much practice do we need with the

arithmetical rule for adding two before we know how to go on with adding

two?<11>  Comparably: how many Westerns or gangster films do we have to

watch before we know (can reasonably expect, can predict, can infer)

that there will be a confrontation between individual interests and the

socio-moral requirements of the community; how many episodes of Inside

the Line or Law and Order do we have to watch before we know that within

the institutions that ostensibly define and defend justice, there is

only so much that can be done about the malefactors who  get away with

it ; how many weeks or months must we invest in daytime soaps before we

know that a central woman character, deciding to act on her own (to

protect her family, say, or to investigate a mystery) will be at serious

personal risk and need rescue by her lover/husband/father.  (Indeed,

this conventionalized association of serious risk and the independent

actions of seemingly resourceful, competent women characters is hardly

restricted to the soaps.  In the action film Speed, when Keanu Reeves

leaves Sandra Bullock alone in an ambulance after they have finally

survived the bomb-rigged bus, any viewer ought to know she is at risk

without him.)  One might still ask, isn t this repeated consumption of

stories which, in an important sense, we already know, just about as

irrational as continuing to practice the rule for  plus two  just in

case we haven t gotten it right yet?<12>

     To take the formalist line exemplified by Ricoeur, Frye, Barthes

and Brooks, we could reply that the apparent repetitiveness of generic

fictions testifies to the pleasures viewers derive from rehearsing and

refining their interpretational skills through engagement with

particular texts that are, as individual examples of generic works, new

to them.  For all  virtual Aristotelians    which is to say, for nearly

all of us whose basic idea of a story is that it should have a

beginning, a middle, and an end   there may be a kind of pleasure

derived from the repeated engagement with generic plots.<13>  The

formalist line emphasizes Aristotelian form: the wholeness of the

narrative text, the beginning-middle-end structure, the priority of

action over character, and the requirement that, to understand any

story, we must be able, as Ricoeur reminds us, to derive a configuration

from a succession of storied events.  The formalist line will, then,

stand as a background assumption for the discussion of genre.  It is not

yet obvious that the successive consumption of generic fictions is any

less rational than the successive consumption of any other text-type.

     I turn now to discuss a particular strategy for making sense of

genre recently proposed by Nel Carroll, one which I take to be an

example of what I call the formal-cognitivist gambit.  Here, the term

 formal  stands for the formalist line and its Aristotelian background. 

The term  cognitivist  marks the preference for making sense of the

ongoing consumption of generic fictions in terms of the opportunities

these fictions provide for cognitive activity and in terms of the

pleasure derived by spectators from those activities: chiefly, the

pleasures afforded by the opportunity to guess or infer, often

correctly, what is going to happen next in an ongoing course of

narrative events, as well as the opportunity to make judgements,

including moral judgements, about those actions.  While it should be

evident that I am sympathetic to Carroll s general project, I will raise

some concerns about whether Carroll s strategy for making sense of genre




     Nol Carroll opts for the formal-cognitivist gambit in his recent

consideration of why it might be rational, or at least not irrational,

to read or view   junk fictions.   By  junk  he means the sorts of

best-sellers that line the stalls at airport gift shops as well as

 things like Harlequin romances; sci-fi, horror, and mystery magazines;

comic books; and broadcast narratives on either the radio or TV, as well

as commercial movies  (225).  The general hallmarks of genre, especially

the formal and the formulaic, are central to Carroll s account.  What

Carroll calls  junk  are, as he puts it,  narratives   [whose] story

dimension is the most important thing about them,  narratives which

 aspire to be page-turners  (225).  They also  generally belong to

well-entrenched genres  and manifest only a  limited repertoire of

story-types  (226). Carroll s leading question concerns the paradox of

junk fiction, to which I have already alluded in my introduction: How

could it be rational for us to be  interested in consuming stories that

we already know  (227), given that most consumers of junk fictions are

already well acquainted with the formulae of these genres and thus will

have a good sense, even before beginning to read, view or hear any

particular example of the genre, pretty much how it will go


     Carroll s solution to   or more correctly, his dissolution of  

the paradox of junk fiction is to make sense of this behaviour.  To make

sense of the successive consumption of generic fictions, he introduces

the notion of the transactional value that accrues to the reader or

viewer.  Junk fictions allow for, and even encourage, the practice of

interpretation within the constraints of genres: the reader or viewer

gets to practice making and testing hypotheses about how a course of

events will play out.  The solution to the paradox seems at first glance

to be of a piece with the account of narrative understanding which we

have already considered as the formalist line exemplified by Ricoeur,

Frye, Barthes and Brooks.  As Carroll remarks, the ultimate union of

hero and heroine in a Harlequin Romance or in Sleepless in Seattle may

never be in serious doubt; but the question remains how will that union

finally be realized, and the junk reader or viewer can remain engaged

in, and derive a certain satisfaction from, observing and anticipating

the particular developments of each plot (234-5).

     Carroll contends that, as consumers, we experience  a sense of

satisfaction when our inferences and interpretations are correct  (235). 

(He might add that we may experience surprise when our inferences are

incorrect, and that this surprise might also be satisfying if it

encourages us to attend more closely to the unfolding action.)  So the

transactional value for the consumer of genre is one that leads to, and

ideally supports,  the opportunity for self-rewarding cognitive

activity  (235).  Now it is important to note here that Carroll does not

restrict the range of self-rewarding activities to cognitive judgements,

but also acknowledges the satisfactions derived from moral and emotional

judgements (236).<15>  The sort of satisfaction in question then is

basically a text-directed variety of the day-to-day sorts of practical

reasoning which (many believe) form the basis for our decision making,

for our predictions about what decisions others will make, and thus for

our explanations about what we and others are up to.  From Carroll s

perspective, the promotion of  self-rewarding, readerly activities 

explains the apparent paradox of junk fiction (238); in fact, insofar as

junk fictions are structured to encourage this sort of transactional

activity between consumers and generic texts, these self-rewarding

activities explain the paradox away.

     If we accept his argument, Carroll s dissolution of the paradox of

junk fictions explains the successive consumption of generic texts by

any given reader or viewer.  Even with formulaic fictions, the reader or

viewer is active in following the story.  The reader or viewer moreover

derives satisfaction from being able to make guesses, often correctly,

about just what is going to happen next in the ongoing course of action

of the particular fiction.  I call this a formal-cognitivist gambit,

since it accepts the general formalist line about the centrality of the

ongoing interpretational activities emphasized by Ricoeur, Frye,

Barthes, and Brooks, but adds the twist that foregrounds cognition and

the application of practical reasoning skills, principally prediction,

to the understanding of character motivation and plot action.  Indeed,

as we see from several of Carroll s examples, the hypotheses about what

will happen next in the plot are often hypotheses about what a character

is going to do next, and these hypotheses in turn depend upon being able

to explain the character s actions in terms of her goals and reasons for

acting, as well as in terms of her circumstances.



     Carroll s strategy is intended to show that the consumption of

generic fictions is rational because he can demonstrate that it makes

sense.  Showing that something is rational by showing it to be

intelligible is not to be differentiated from showing that something is

not irrational by showing that, appearances to the contrary, it can be

made sense of.  I am very fond of this strategy; I think it is central

to the whole practice of intentional psychology, of which the dissolu-

tion of the paradox of junk fiction is a part.  But of course there is

an equivocation here with the terms  rational  and  irrational.   It is

one thing to make sense of suboptimal behaviour, including pathological

behaviour, by showing how the agent s beliefs and desires, hopes and

fears, memories and goals combine to lead her to do something that, all

things considered, is not obviously in her own best interests.  We can,

in one sense of the terms  rational  and  irrational,  show that the

behaviour can be explained by reasons and is not, on this construal,

irrational.  But on a rather stricter construal of  rational  and

 irrational,  just showing the agent s reasons for acting as she did can

still be of a piece with a conclusion that her actions are, after all,


     We can make sense of the most peculiar sorts of action and

behaviour by means of attributing a very strange desire to the agent,

coupled with otherwise quite mundane beliefs.  We can also make sense of

behaviour by attributing to the agent a belief that we find very

peculiar, but which seems on all the evidence nevertheless to be a

belief held true by the agent, coupled with fairly straightforward

desires that are consistent with that belief.  For instance, we can make

sense of the anorexic s behaviour in terms of her desire to be thin and

her belief that by eating fewer than 1,000 calories a day she will

become so.  We can also make sense of her behaviour in terms of her

belief that she is overweight, and her desire to be thinner.  We can, in

short, understand her behaviour   we can make sense of it, it is

intelligible to us.  But sense-making explanations do not make this

behaviour rational:  the anorexic s unshakeable belief that, at five

foot five and 87 pounds she is far too fat, as well as her desire to be

thinner, given her weight and height, are not easy to rationalize,

though they certainly combine to make (a certain kind of) sense of the

pattern of behaviour which has her starving herself to death.  So there

is the question whether, because he can make sense of the successive

consumption of generic fictions, Carroll can show that such behaviour is


     One might in fact raise the question whether we need to show that

this behaviour is rational in any strict sense.  There are lots of

repetitive activities one can engage in, where one knows pretty

certainly how things will go before one begins them, which have positive

transactional values for the individual engaged in them, and which have

not yet, to my knowledge, been challenged as to their rationality:

gardening, cooking, knitting, taking photographs, phoning or visiting

friends and family, having medical check-ups, engaging  in sex or

exercise, and so forth.  The question about rationality and generic

fictions is largely tied, I think, to two prejudices, both of which

Carroll speaks to: the high art/mass art prejudice, which holds,

roughly, that  serious  attention should properly be paid to  serious 

art and literature, that the very idea of  mass art  is an oxymoron, and

that the only explanation which could make sense of the ongoing

consumption of junk is an explanation in terms of suboptimal or

irrational behaviour.  But this is no explanation, since it presupposes

the irrationality of the masses and the behaviours which they pursue. 

The second prejudice is that the consumption of junk does not demand any

sort of reasoning, and the formal-cognitivist reply to this is to show

that the consumption of generic fictions demands at least the practice

of practical reasoning.  Yet hidden in these two prejudices is a fear or

anxiety not addressed by the formal-cognitivist gambit: roughly, that

the successive consumption of generic fictions is motivated, not by the

pleasures of reason and reasoning, but by the pleasures of the emotional

responses that one can anticipate and which will   genre being genre  

be gratified.  Carroll s formal-cognitivist approach to genre, despite

its recognition of the idea of self-rewarding activities, has not, I

think, gone far enough to deal with the pleasures of genre that are not

the pleasures of reasoning.

     Much as I d like to be persuaded by the argument about

transactional value, I m not convinced that what makes the successive

consumption of generic fictions intelligible is that any generic text

provides a forum for the self-rewarding cognitive activities associated

with making inferences and testing hypotheses about what actions are

likely to happen next in that particular story.  I m unpersuaded that

the account is properly transgeneric because I m doubtful about the

adequacy of the emphasis Carroll places on formulating hypotheses

concerning expectations, concerning what is going to happen next.  A

refinement from the formalist line exemplified by Ricoeur, Frye, Barthes

and Brooks could solve the adequacy problem, but once introduced it

might confirm that the repeated consumption of fictions from some

generic subcategories just isn t quite rational.  This would follow if

it turned out that not all consumers of genre follow or understand the

particular story in the way required by the formalist line.



     Certainly Carroll s dissolution of the paradox of junk fiction

works for some generic fictions, and for some story structures.  As

Carroll remarks, the paradox  disappears when we are thinking of what is

called classical detective fiction ; I am inclined to think that it

disappears not just for classical detective fiction but also for

hard-boiled and other detective fictions, whether those that feature

professional investigative-detectives (Sam Spade, V. I. Warshawski   ),

amateur detectives (remunerated or otherwise, for example Holmes, C.

August Dupin, Miss Marple, Kate Fansler  ), or simply characters who

stumble upon something they take to be a mystery and set about to solve

it.  Indeed, I think the paradox disappears for mystery stories in

general, and might even disappear for stories centered around any

mystery or enigma, whether a traditional  mystery  story or not: some

romances and a fair amount of soap opera work on the principal of an

enigma or mystery, for instance a secret from the past.

     The crossroads between mystery and detection is so clearly tied to

the interconnection of what Barthes calls the proairetic and the

hermeneutic, the codes of action and enigma, that it is hard to see how

any reader or viewer could simply, passively run her eyes over the words

or images of such a fiction and not form hypotheses about how things

will go, hard to imagine how she could fail to participate in  a

continual process of constructing a sense of where the story is headed 

by  envisioning or anticipating the range of things   that are apt to

happen next  (235).  Indeed, for those who enjoy fictions which centre

on resolving a mystery or explaining an enigma, the idea of ongoing

cognitive activity seems essential to following the story at all.  Frank

Kermode notes that detective stories often exhibit what he calls a

 specialized  hermeneutic  organization <16> which focuses attention on

clues and the possibility of ordering them so as to produce a solution;

but this is indeed a specialized organization, one not necessarily

employed by other generic subcategories.

     A major limitation of Carroll s version of the formal-cognitivist

gambit emerges right here in what even he concedes to be a paradigm case

of a genre demanding ongoing cognitive activity.  It is this: the sort

of cognitive activity demanded of those who want to follow and

understand a mystery or detective fiction is one that is not merely

anticipatory, not merely organized prospectively, and certainly not

focussed exclusively on the question  What will happen next?   There is

a fundamentally retrospective, synthetic and synoptic aspect to

understanding mystery or detective fictions.  Mystery and detective

fictions exhibit the close interconnection emphasized by Ricoeur, Frye,

Barthes and Brooks between the proairetic and the hermeneutic, between

the question  What is happening?  (and the related question,  What has

happened? ) and the question  Why? .  This is because we cannot be

certain what the mystery is until we are able to explain just what has

happened, and such an explanation depends upon discovering the answer to

the question  Why?  and well as the question  Who? .  In fictions

centred around the mysterious or the enigmatic, our understanding is

always subject to revision.

     For something to be a mystery or an enigma at all requires that it

be incompletely or even incorrectly understood in the beginning   often

by the detective, and almost always by the audience as well.  The

mystery can only be solved when we discover what actually happened. 

Standardly, this will involve the reinterpretation, or at the very

least, the redescription of a prior situation or set of events.  It will

involve seeing that what we had formerly accepted or simply taken for

granted ought not to have been taken for granted, that information we

thought we had understood we had not understood correctly after all. 

Understanding a mystery is not simply a prospective or projective

undertaking, one that requires us to make inferences about what will

happen next.  Rather, it involves retrospection, rethinking not only

what we think has happened, but also rethinking what counts as salient

or relevant to our understanding of what has happened.  So in order to

 follow  the plot of a mystery or a detective fiction, the consumer does

not merely hypothesize about the range of possible future actions, she

has to hypothesize about various possibilities to explain what seems to

have happened in the past.  Those different possibilities about what the

past events and actions were will produce different views about what the

course of events actually was, and will have different implications for

what we anticipate happening in the future.

     It is much harder to see that anything quite so involved is needed

to understand fictions from other generic subcategories.  Carroll s

example of Sleepless in Seattle is a case in point.  We can agree that

when  the heroine finds the boy s knapsack, the viewer tracks the action

in terms of the question of whether our heroine and our heroes will meet

or pass each other on the elevators  (235); but this question is hardly

of the same order as the question that focuses the early action of, for

example, Manhattan Murder Mystery, the question did Larry and Carol s

neighbour murder his wife?  There is no  Why?  tied to the issue of the

backpack; whereas  Why?  has to be answered in the latter case.  Larry

and Carol learn of the unexpected death of their neighbour s wife.  Yet

Carol is suspicious.  The wife was, after all, in good health.  Though

there was a joint burial plot, it appears that the wife has been

cremated rather than buried.  Carol begins to wonder whether it is death

by natural causes or murder.  If murder, then an explanation has to

connect the murderer to the action.  The very idea of motive underlines

this.  For something to be a murder, we have to produce a murderer and a

motive: to identify the murderer, we have to be able to tell a story or

produce an explanation that shows the reasons why the action was

committed.  To have any idea what is going on in a mystery or detective

fiction, one must always couple the question  What?  with the question

 Why?   There is no need at all to ask  Why?  about the main line of

action in Sleepless in Seattle.  If the heroine does not meet the heroes

now, we guess that she will meet them later; it is just a matter of what

causal nexus of actions and events will produce the inevitable meeting.

     The dependence of narrative understanding on both anticipation and

retrospection is evident in the mystery and detective subgenres, as is

the connection between the question  What is happening (what has

happened, what is going to happen)?  and  Why?  On the other hand,

action films provide an example of a genre where the question  Why?  is

hardly relevant to whatever inferences and interpretations spectators

might make about what will happen next.  They also exemplify the

comparative insignificance of retrospection on our successful

understanding of an unfolding course of events.  Whether we are talking

about True Lies or any of the Die Hard films or Speed, it would be

singularly pointless for a viewer to be concerned with hypothesizing

 the range of things   that are apt to happen  on the basis of the

particular actions of the particular films.  Partly this is because a

central concern of action films is suspense, and suspense involves the

regulated introduction of the unexpected.<17>  So little wonder that in

Speed, just when it looks like things are going to be okay, when the bus

has made the near-impossible right-hand turn onto the freeway   and the

characters, along with the audience, experience the euphoric release of

tension typical of such moments when success has been torn from the

teeth of what ought reasonably to have been disaster   we discover what

we could not have expected or even guessed: that the freeway hasn t been

completed, that there is (yes!) an unfinished overpass which the bus

must jump, since it has been rigged to blow up if it slows below 50 mph. 

Yet even at that moment of pleasurable release of tension, anyone who is

at all familiar with the genre ought to be able to say that at any

second now something is bound to go wrong.

     So if by  cognitive activity  Carroll means that, once the bus

reaches the apparent security of a long stretch of highway, we

hypothesize that something bad is going to happen, then there would be

general agreement.  I take it, however, that Carroll means something

much more strictly keyed to the particular film, something much less

generic than the guess that  something bad is going to happen.   He has

to mean something more keyed to the particular film, since otherwise we

are back at the point of paradox, watching a film where, because of our

familiarity with the genre, we know what is going to happen next.  So if

what is at stake here is some prediction about what is going to happen

next in this particular plotline, there is the question just how many of

us would have guessed that there would be a great gaping hole in the

highway?  And even if someone did guess that, aside from a momentary

sense of superiority and self-congratulation, does it really matter?

     The point here is that in action films, you aren t expected to

guess just what is going to happen next.  Surely it would detract from

the pleasure of action films if, in a regular fashion, you could guess

what is going to happen next; it would deprive you of the pleasure of

anticipating further calamities, a pleasure keyed to the certainty that

there will be more of them, and to the surprise that you can t always

foresee what they will be.  All you need to know is that something is

going to happen; and given the escalatory plot structure of action

films, you can also guess (correctly) that you won t have to wait long

for whatever it is to happen.  So I m not persuaded that correct guesses

about just what is going to happen next are what characterize the

 self-rewarding cognitive activities  of genre viewers in general.  The

generic guess that something bad is about to happen will serve quite

well to fuel our anticipation, and is bound to be confirmed.  A generic

guess will be splendidly self-rewarding, without being keyed to the

actual development of the particular generic plot   at least in cases

like the action film.

     Nor do action films depend upon an ongoing process of revising our

sense of what has already occurred in order for us to go on to make new

guesses about future events and actions in the plot.  In Manhattan

Murder Mystery, when Carol thinks she has caught a glimpse of her

neighbour s presumably dead wife going past on a city bus, it causes her

(and us) to rethink whether or not the neighbour s wife is dead   leave

alone whether or not she has been murdered!  Action films like Speed

just don t demand any comparable ongoing reconsideration of what we take

to have happened.

     In the context of the action film, I d venture that the sorts of

guesses that deal with the range of things that could plausibly happen

are themselves as generic and formulaic as the film in question.  The

range of things that are apt to happen are things that are only apt to

happen because this is an action film and not a mystery or a screwball

comedy.  As soon as Carroll gives the nod to the idea that spectators

are busy making inferences about the range of possible occurrences, then

I think he winds up espousing a view of the interpretation of particular

generic texts that squares with the  reading within a system  approach

from which he wishes to distinguish his own view.  What counts as  the

range of possibilities of action  is one that is largely determined by

the genre rather than within the constraints of the particular text.

     A sketch might be helpful.  Watching Speed, my guesses went more

or less like this: there will be progressively more dangerous and

improbable situations; an innocent or two will die along the way, but

probably because they have endangered the group; there will be

progressively more focus on the romantic-sexual attraction between our

hero, Jack (Keanu Reeves) and our heroine, Annie (Sandra Bullock);

either the hero s partner or a  close friend of his will die at the

hands of the villain, played by Dennis Hopper   confirming for those who

need to be reminded the threat posed by the villain and justifying the

eventual confrontation between hero and villain; when the great rescue

occurs, everyone will, however improbably, get off the bus with nothing

worse than scrapes and bruises; once the bus blows up the police will

have to catch the villain; the villain will abduct the heroine (it would

be such a waste of Dennis Hopper not to have him abduct the heroine);

the hero will confront the villain; the villain will die; but the death

of the villain will leave the heroine in a life-threatening situation;

things will seem hopeless; having gone through so much to try to rescue

Annie, Jack will not abandon her but rather stay with her in the face of

what looks like certain death; there will be one final action sequence

that will destroy any number of small-scale models of subway cars; Jack

and Annie will miraculously live through it all; they will kiss; a crowd

will applaud; the closing credits will roll.  These seem to me to be

guesses keyed to expectations about the genre, rather than expectations

about the particular story.

     The range of possibilities of action in the Western or in action

films, in horror or in family melodrama, are plausible only given the

constraints of the genre, and certainly have little to do with what it

would be plausible to expect if the represented course of action were

unfolding in our  real world.   Thomas Sobchack makes this point when he

remarks that genre characters  can do what we would like to be able to

do.  They can pinpoint the evil in their lives as resident in a monster

or a villain, and they can go out and triumph over it.  We, on the other

hand, are in a muddle.  We know things aren t quite right, but we are

not sure if it is a conspiracy among corporations, the world situation,

politicians  ; but whatever it is, we can t call it out of the saloon

for a shoot-out or round up the villagers and hunt it down. <18>  The

beauty of genre is its comparative simplicity: what is plausible or

possible is so only within the stripped down, economical, yet

well-ordered lines of the formula in question.

     Do we watch action films like Speed just to guess what is likely

to happen next, or to feel some sort of self-rewarding cognitive

gratification when we do?  I doubt that, in the main, viewers watch

Speed to make cognitive, moral or emotional judgements at all.  We don t

need to make them, the genre film makes them for us.  These are, after

all, not fictions of narrative complexity or ambiguity, any more than

they are fictions of moral complexity or ambiguity.  With generic

fictions, by and large we are not in doubt about moral questions.  We

watch Speed because it delivers progressively escalating action,

suspense and romance.  We watch for the pleasure of the overt  action ;

some will, in addition, watch for the pleasure of anticipating the union

of the romantic couple.  We may also watch for the pleasure of built-in

moral judgements: for example, for the opportunity to see the villain

perform a sequence of progressively more heinous acts.  These are the

sorts of expectations that action films reward.

     Given the  page-turning  character of junk fictions   and the

equivalent in cinematic terms, which Thomas Sobchack describes as the

genre film s tendency to feel shorter than it is   the actual range of

relevant inferential options is pretty clearly limited, and arguably so

are the sorts and range of cognitive activities required of the reader

or viewer.  If, as Carroll claims, the transactional value for readers

and viewers of junk fictions derives from the  self-rewarding  character

of their interpretive activity   that so often the interpreter can guess

correctly about how things will unfold   it seems at least worth

emphasizing that what counts as a reasonable guess in the context of

particular generic fictions is a guess keyed to our expectations about

the genre, and the likelihood of those guesses being seriously mistaken

is only evidence of the degree to which we are unfamiliar with the

conventions of the generic subcategory in question.  However, as soon as

we admit guesses that are keyed to expectations formed thanks to our

familiarity with each subgenre s  preordained forms, known plots,

recognizable characters, and obvious iconographies ,<19>  then we

realize that most of our general, generic guesses will be pretty much on

the money most of the time.  In the context of the action film, our

guess that something will happen next is bound to be rewarded.  And even

only marginally more sophisticated or context-specific guesses about

future action will often turn out be right in the long term even if they

are wrong in the short term.  Jack might not actually kiss Annie until

the final scenes of Speed, so I might have to wait a while for my guess

that they will kiss to be rewarded.  He didn t, for instance, kiss her

after she successfully pulled the bus around the near-catastrophic

right-hand turn onto the highway.  Nor did he kiss her after they

escaped from the bus (an exploding 747 interrupted the otherwise

romantic moment).  In one sense, if I had guessed at each point that

they would kiss, I would have been disappointed, or at least not

 rewarded .  But satisfaction is guaranteed with genre; the deferral of

the inevitable provides the additional pleasure of prolonged


     So it seems that the formal-cognitivist gambit, at least as we see

it exemplified in Carroll s dissolution of the paradox of junk fiction,

might not succeed in showing that the successive consumption of generic

fictions is rational in the way Carroll had hoped.  It is not even

obvious that it is largely supported by the practice of practical

reasoning skills.  Indeed, Carroll s account, based on the notion of

transactional value and self-rewarding cognitive activities seems to

bring the discussion of genre back to the point of the original paradox. 

For once we assume that the sorts of guesses and hypotheses about how

generic fictions will proceed are, after all, largely keyed to our

expectations about the genre or subgenre, then we find we are, again,

dealing with the pleasures derived from what we already know about the

narrative form and conventions of generic fiction.



     I have three concluding observations about the formal-cognitivist

gambit.  The first goes back to the notion of wholeness or formal unity

which underlies the formalist account of narrative comprehension which I

have sketched with reference to Ricoeur, Frye, Barthes and Brooks.  Let

us grant that Ricoeur is correct when he suggests that following and

understanding a story are absolutely interconnected activities, that you

don t get one without the other.  This still makes it an open (and

indeed an empirical) question whether there might not be many otherwise

perfectly content consumers of generic fictions who do not  follow  the

story, who do not extract a configuration from a succession of events,

and who thus may well not  understand  generic fictions.  This would be

heresy from the formalist point of view, but I have experienced it

myself and have heard it reported in classrooms and in other

discussions.  I think this situation is exacerbated by cinematic and

televisual generic narratives, where the speed of delivery is such that

some viewers might at no time hold the whole narrative together in any

formal configuration at all.  Such viewers might have little ongoing

sense of how the successive segments of the narrative are part of the

narrative as a whole.  And this might not seem to be a problem for such

viewers, for two reasons: because, in a sense, they already know how

things will go, and because the pleasure or transactional value they

seek and derive from these fictions is somatic rather than cognitive. 

They are fine if they can keep each sequence of action together, and if

they can follow shifts between sequences, but have no particular need,

even comprehensionally, to hold the story-as-a-whole together as they

watch it.  And because generic fictions, as Carroll rightly remarks,

aspire to be page-turners (or their cinematic equivalents), the

attention span needed to believe that one is following the story (even

if one isn t) is quite limited.  The narrative provides what cues are

necessary to keep the viewer oriented now; the actual configuring of a

whole story is unnecessary, and the absence of such a configuration does

not strike the viewer as a loss.

     Obviously we can be trained to attend to the whole structure of a

narrative   this is the sort of training that goes on in classrooms all

the time.  And it takes a lot of training to get viewers to the point

where they can make a serious attempt to hold even a generic film

together  on one viewing.  But it may turn out to be debatable that any

actual attentive concern with the story as a whole, and thus with

integrating the various narrational components of the story into a

whole, is indeed at issue for all consumers of generic fictions.  If

this is true, then the formal-cognitivist gambit is in real jeopardy,

both as a formalist account and as a cognitivist account, of the

consumption of generic fictions.  It will then only pertain to those

consumers who do attend to the formal and narrational cues of the

fiction.  And we might discover that, at the end of the day, there are

fewer  virtual Aristotelians  than might have been imagined.

     A second observation, following from the first, concerns the need

to get clearer about what we might broadly call the somatic responses to

generic fictions, and the question just how these somatic responses

interact with cognitive and moral activities on the part of viewers and

readers.  Here I am not suggesting that body-based and emotional

responses to generic texts (or to anything else, for that matter) are in

radical contradiction to intellectual, cognitive, or reason-based

responses.  Philosophers such as Ronald de Sousa and neurologists such

as Antonio Damasio have made persuasive cases for the rationality of

emotion and for the somatic basis of practical reasoning.<20>  Somatic

responses were acknowledged by Aristotle, who draws our attention to the

fundamental role played by the emotional responses proper to spectators. 

There is a somatic aspect, and not merely a cognitive one, to at least

two ideas that are central to Carroll s own account of genre:

anticipation and gratification.  Perhaps in order to make sense of the

behaviour of the  consumer  of generic fictions we must consider the

somatic as well as (or perhaps even instead of) the cognitive.

     Turning our attention from the cognitive to the somatic, or

turning our attention so as to include the somatic, does not entail that

the consumption of generic fictions slides from the realm of the

rational to the realm of the irrational.  Responses to works of  high 

art have a somatic dimension; this does not make our appreciation of

these arts irrational, so there is little reason to conclude that a

significant somatic dimension to one s response to genre entails

irrationality.  What wants investigation is whether the  self-rewarding

transactional value  of generic fictions might turn out to be profoundly

somatic.  If so, the repeated consumption of generic fictions might

require at the very least discussion of changes in metabolic and

biochemical levels to augment the current focus on the  cognitive

pleasures of interpretation.

     My third concluding observation returns me to the question of the

other sorts of cognitive activity that are cited as reasons that could

make sense of the consumption of generic fictions.  Carroll, as I have

mentioned, suggests that moral judgements as well as cognitive

judgements are ways of achieving the transactional value that he

suggests marks the relationship between consumer and text.  Here I must

confess real scepticism.  I think it is far from obvious that moral

judgements are made   i.e., deliberated over, reflected upon,

contemplated   by viewers or readers of generic fictions.  Rather, they

are made for us by the generic text.  As Thomas Sobchack has shown

persuasively, for anything to be generic, it has to have at least two

moral dimensions that are part of the form and formula of genre.  The

formal component has to do with the moral structure of the plot of any

generic work.  For something to be genre, it must achieve a particular

sort of aesthetic and moral order.  The formulaic component concerns the

deployment of characters with immediately identifiable moral qualities,

where this is supported by the iconographic aspects concerning character

and setting.  In genre, moral issues are easy to schematize.  Carroll

might well argue that in genre the viewer can test hypotheses about the

moral worth of an action or a character.  But genre just wouldn t be

genre if this were the general case.  Rather, characters and situations

are their moral significance, their moral value: if we recognize this,

then the fiction will ceaselessly confirm it for us.

     In conclusion, the formal-cognitivist gambit might provide an

explanation of the ongoing consumption of generic fictions by those

already familiar with the various generic subcategories, but only under

the assumption that the reader or viewer in question already thinks like

a virtual Aristotelian, and does indeed (attempt to) understand any

particular fiction as a whole.  The formal-cognitivist gambit does not

seem to explain the consumption of generic fictions by those who do not

work toward the sort of holistic understanding that is the basis of the

formalist part of the gambit.  As for the cognitivist part of the

gambit, I have raised three issues that suggest Carroll hasn t succeeded

in dissolving the paradox of junk fiction after all.  First, it isn t

clear that making sense of this behaviour goes any particular distance

toward making it rational.  Second, it isn t clear that the cognitivist

account is persuasively transgeneric: it works very well with some

genres, yet seems unnecessary for the explanation of others.  Third, it

isn t clear that the attention Carroll gives to the prospective,

forward-looking engagement with particular developments in an ongoing

course of events is adequate as an account of what is involved in

following and understanding a story.  In extreme cases, it may well not

be necessary for readers whose attention is keyed primarily to what is

happening now.  And if I am right in my suspicion that the best guesses

about what sorts of actions one should expect are properly guesses keyed

to the genre rather than to the particular text, then we find ourselves

right back at the original paradox.  What I think is needed to dissolve

the paradox of junk fiction is an account that explicates the relation-

ship between making sense of fictions, including generic ones, and

making sense of agents  behaviour.  Carroll s account needs to say more

about the sorts of practical reasoning skills involved in these two

sense-making activities, and in particular, more about the extent to

which practical reasoning makes a difference to the understanding of



            <1>   In the case of cinema, the argument in favour of the connection between

            narrational cues and comprehension   an argument that certainly extends

            to generic films   can be found in David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction

            Film.  Madison, Wisconsin:  University of Wisconsin Press, 1985; see also

            Edward Branigan s Narrative Comprehension and Film.  London:  Routledge,


            <2>   Nol Carroll,  The Paradox of Junk Fiction,  Philosophy and Literature

            Volume 18:  225-241.

            <3>   The concern to show that the consumption of literature has a rational

            basis is apparent also in, for example, Paisley Livingston, Literature and

            Rationality.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1991.

            <4>   In  Genre Film: A Classical Experience,  Film Genre Reader, ed. Barry

            Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), pp. 102-113, Thomas

            Sobchack has argued that we think about  the fictional genre film as a single

            category that includes all that is commonly held to be genre film  (102).

              Sobchack s line is formal and, broadly speaking, Aristotelian.  He suggests

            that despite the obvious differences between the various generic subcategories

            (between thrillers and screwball comedies, for example), the fundamentals

            of story structure, characterization, theme and iconography, as well as

            the fundamental mimetic idiosyncracy of such fictions, are common to generic

            films as such.  Attention to these formal or  classical  aspects of genre

            will give us a better understanding of how genres work, and how spectators

            relate to them.

            <5>   Frank Kermode,  Secrets and Narrative Sequence,  in On Narrative,

            ed. W. J. T. Mitchell.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1981, pp.


            <6>   See the three volumes of Time and Narrative, trans. David Pellauer

            and Kathleen Blamey.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 1985,

            1988;  Life in Quest of Narrative,  On Paul Ricoeur, ed. David Wood.  London:

            Routledge, 1991, pp. 20-33;  The Narrative Function,  Hermeneutics and the

            Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, ed. John

            B. Thompson.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 274-297;

            Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey.  Chicago: University of Chicago

            Press, 1992.

            <7>   Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.  Princeton:

            Princeton University Press, 1957.

            <8>   Peter Brooks,  Reading for the Plot,  in Reading for the Plot: Design

            and Intention in Narrative.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992,

            p. 18.  Others have drawn attention to this doubled feature of narrative;

            Brooks cites, for example, Jonathan Culler s notion of the  double logic 

            of narrative, p. 28.  Both writers are mentioned in relation to this notion

            in Gerald Prince s A Dictionary of Narratology.  Lincoln: University of

            Nebraska Press, 1987.

            <9>   Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Martin.  New York: Hill and Wang,

            1974.  The other three codes concern the semes, the symbolic, and the cul-


            <10>   It may strike some as just mistaken to see Roland Barthes as a team

            player in the ongoing game of textual hermeneutics.  I certainly see where

            this objection comes from.  But however unorthodox, however seemingly

            anti-holistic Barthes  interpretive work might be, it is nevertheless strongly

            thematic in motivation, and is drawn upon by many more holistically motivated

            theorists and philosophers.  His work is a rule-proving exception, an

            exception that tests the rule.

            <11>   This example comes from 185 of Ludwig Wittgenstein s Philosophical

            Investigations.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958.

            <12>   Carroll discusses the idea of practice in  The Paradox of Junk

            Fiction,  and notes that many skills are profitably and enjoyably practiced

            without repetitive practice being seen to be irrational.

            <13>   The phrase is Brooks .

            <14>   This question is to be distinguished, Carroll insists, from other

            questions about genre.  Carroll is not pursuing the question of how to make

            sense of why some consumers of genre take such delight from particular

            subcategories of genre.  While he acknowledges the idea of genre as a system

            of systems, but the paradox that is of interest to him here is not one that

            is appropriately answered in terms of anything like  reading in a system 

             (231).  Carroll also distinguishes his question from the question why it

            is rational to return to any particular text (generic or otherwise)   which

            he calls the paradox of recidivism (227).  I believe Carroll would ultimately

            deny that recidivism is a paradox, and would thus deny that it is irrational

            to read or watch fictions again.  Still, recidivism is not unconnected to

            the issue of genre (as Carroll notes); it would certainly be worth

            investigating for the light it might shed on the selection and function

            of  classical  or  canonical  texts, and the role they play in any sys-

            tem-of-systems account of generic fictions.

            <15>   I will return to the question of moral judgements, but I confess

            that I am uncertain just what is involved in  emotional judgements.   Perhaps

            Carroll is speaking of emotional responses such as fear, hope, excitement

              though I doubt he uses the term  judgement  so loosely.  Perhaps he is

            speaking of judgements that are in part motivated by emotional response:

             if so, I think this needs more spelling out.

            <16>   Kermode,  Secrets and Narrative Sequence,  p. 83.

            <17>   This is a point Carroll has already developed in his article  Toward

            a Theory of Film Suspense,  Persistence of Vision no. 1 (Summer 1984): 

            65-89, where he proposes that suspense develops in relation to two possible,

            logically opposed outcomes to a set of events, such that one outcome is

            morally correct but unlikely, while the other is evil and likely.

            <18>   Sobchack,  Genre Film:  A Classical Experience,  p. 108

            <19>   Sobchack,  Genre Film:  A Classical Experience,  p. 105.

            <20>   Ronald de Sousa, The Rationality of Emotions.  Cambridge, MA: The

            MIT Press, 1991; Anthonio Damasio, Descartes  Error: Emotion, Reason, and

            the Human Brain.  New York: G. P. Putnam s Sons, 1994.

            <21>   I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of

            Canada for their ongoing support of my research, and to Queen s University for

            an ARC grant that supported a research project on genre, gender and narrative. 

            Profound thanks to George McKnight (Film Studies, Carleton University), with

            whom I have collaborated on the topic of the narrative conventions of

            mystery-detective fiction, for his comments and suggestions on this paper.

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