Genre Studies

In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Harriet Martineau advocates for observers of morals to focus on physical objects. Rather than simply investigating the behavior of workers, she suggests that we look at occupations. Rather than determining local feelings about death and dying through conversation with members of the particular community, she encourages travelers to visit a local cemetery.

Dallas Liddle takes a similar approach when examining Martineau’s views on composition. He argues, along with Bakhtin, that the genre an author employs can tell us much about that author’s worldview. Basically, he says that each genre embraces a specific set of values. Liddle points out that the seemingly odd principles of composition that Martineau sets out in her autobiography can be better understood when we recognize that these are the same principles valued by journalists of the time, of which Martineau was one.

Initially upon reading Martineau’s statements on composition, I had half a mind to categorize her a “dangerous,” much like some of the reviewers of her era. As someone her earns a living by teaching first-year college students to write academically, some of Martineau’s practices—like refusing to revise—raise an eyebrow. However, when Liddle explains the constraints of news writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Martineau’s aversion to revision makes more sense.

My reaction to this practice of Martineau’s prompted me to consider the inherent values of academic writing and how they match (or don’t match) those that Martineau mentions in her autobiography and that Liddle emphasizes in his article. A couple of those principles seem particularly applicable to college writing.

Liddle notes that throughout her autobiography, Martineau suggests that she does not write out of personal desire; instead, she writes on subjects that are begging to be written about or because the public or some friend or relative specifically asked her to write. Liddle asserts that this principle likely stems from the idea that journalists surrender themselves as individuals and write solely for the public interest. In academia, we do something very similar. Professors consistently encourage students to develop “original” arguments, to look for gaps in the existing scholarship where they can enter the conversation and add their own thoughts to the debate. Academics mold their research interests so as to answer a specific need. They (we) write on subjects that are asking to be written about. Originality is one of the primary values of academia.

Liddle also briefly mentions Martineau’s productivity, stating that she would complete an impressive number of pages per day and would write at a specific time each day regardless of her mood. This also is partly the result of employment as a journalist since deadlines did not disappear when she did not particularly feel like composing. Such discipline is also important for academic writers. Writing students never “feel” like writing the essay they are assigned, yet professors expect them to nonetheless. Professors also will frequently impose writing schedules on themselves, forcing themselves to complete particular tasks toward publishing an article or a book. Such practices indicate the importance of productivity.

Whether or these values are good ones to hold is another question altogether, but examining genre conventions to learn about the worldview of an author seems incredibly helpful.

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