decorated upper-case 'I'n his prologue to The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain, Dallas Liddle makes the case that now, more than ever, scholars of Victorian literature and literary history must learn to deal with the vast corpus of Victorian journalism. Thanks to advances in technology, these texts — citing John North’s estimate, Liddle later notes that the Victorian era saw 125,000 unique journals (148) — have become increasingly accessible. But, Liddle argues, our methodological tools have not kept pace with the availability of material. Too often, scholars seem to “expect [journalistic articles] to provide transparent access to the thoughts of their writers” (4) or assume that they can evaluate periodical writing “through a reading of its content alone” (5). As a remedy, he proposes a Bakhtinian focus on genre. Such a focus would, he claims, help us better understand journalistic discourse on its own terms as well as its interactions with literary discourse. Moreover, it would help us pursue “Bakhtin’s most intriguing and challenging formulation about genre: that the full story of the interplay of genres — their competition and struggle — properly understood, is the history of literature” (7).

As befits this approach, Liddle organizes each chapter around a different generic position. The first, “The Poet’s Tale,” opens with the section of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh that describes the poet Aurora’s financially motivated journalistic work. In depicting Aurora’s attitude toward this writing, Liddle argues, Barret Browning “is diagnosing an important conflict in the mid-1850s between poetic or literary discourse and journalistic discourse as discourses” (16, emphasis Liddle’s). In the following two subsections of the chapter, he “investigates the disparity between the modern assumption that mid-Victorian journalism and literature were complementary, and Barrett Browning’s representation of them as conflicting” (18-19) and “suggest[s] a theoretical approach that might help turn recognition of this generic and ideological competition into a useful tool for literary historiography and interpretation” (19). Liddle observes that, because many Victorian writers adopted both literary and journalistic forms at different times, “the mid-Victorian competitive dynamic between genres worked its most important work on the level of the individual creative consciousnesses of writers . . . The dynamic struggle between Victorian discourse genres may therefore be one of the most significant influences on British literature ever not to have been recorded” (33, emphasis Liddle’s). Drawing on Bakhtin’s concept of novelization, he then proposes that we think of the interactions between mid-Victorian discourses in terms of “journalization” (41): “Bakhtin’s concept of novelization may offer literary historians a way to conceptualize how the brief hegemony of a nonliterary genre could spark creative renewals in other genres, not by encouraging them to imitate itself, but by provoking them to be more consciously and fully themselves” (45, emphasis Liddle’s).

In “The Authoress’s Tale,” Liddle turns to Harriet Martineau, a literary Victorian who came to fully embrace the periodical form. Liddle reads Martineau’s account in the Autobiography of her first published article, identifying five principles that the anecdote seems designed to embody: (1) the idea that Martineau writes only because others spur her to, never out of self-interest; (2) her “innocence of professional calculation or strategy” (50); (3) her constitutional inability to keep secrets; (4) an approach to composition that involves “complete intellectual freedom” and “relatively easy one-draft writing” (52), and (5) her work’s immediate acclaim. The textual record contradicts all five of these claims in regard to Martineau’s debut publication. Why, then, might she go to the trouble to emphasize them? Liddle suggests that Martineau’s views on writing evolve over the course of her career, and that at any given moment they correspond to the values of the dominant genre discourse. In fact, Martineau wrote for the London Daily News at the time she composed the Autobiography; the principles she embeds in that book “are elements of a well-integrated set of genre ideals, mutually consistent and logically interdependent, upon which mid-Victorian journalists based their discursive practice” (66). Martineau’s adaptations render her an ideal figure for scholars interested in tracking the struggle between genres during this period:

Whether her gift was exercised consciously or instinctively . . . Martineau’s career seems to show a canny ability to identify and then interpolate herself into the most effective genres of ideas being written and read at each historical moment. What may make Martineau most valuable to modern students of Victorian genre discourse, however, is that she did not only practice the genres of writing she acquired; she also analyzed and theorized each genre, implicitly or, more often, explicitly, as she was using it. (70)

Chapter 3, “The Editor’s Tale,” looks to Trollope to help address the methodological difficulty of mapping the relationships between genres. Although Dickens and Thackeray — “the [mid-Victorian] era’s two great acknowledged novelist-journalists” (74) — might seem more obvious choices, Liddle argues that Trollope makes the greatest conceptual contribution to the field. As early as The Warden (1855), he arrives at two main insights: “the analytic insight that that journalistic discourse and its relationship to other discourse forms were worth describing and studying, and the artistic insight that language forms and their relationships with other forms, with social institutions, and with their readers, could be represented in literary art using the focal and liminal figure of the editor” (77). In his works, “genres are ways of seeing the world that genuinely and complexly, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, structure the belief systems of those who use them” (84). In this sense, Trollope’s engagement with genre makes him “a fully practical Bakhtinian theorist of periodical literature” (96). Moreover, Liddle suggests that Trollope’s work anticipates the findings of the discipline we call history of the book, as he is “the first to explore the ways a published text arises from, and takes part in, a sequence of (or cascade, or chain reaction) of intersecting public conversations” (96). Trollope’s uniqueness in this regard points to another difference from Dickens and Thackeray. Despite his brief involvement with journalism — as the editor of the short-lived Saint Pauls — he invariably regarded the movements of journalistic discourse from the perspective of the reader (97).

In the fourth chapter, “The Reviewer’s Tale,” Liddle turns to that most famous Victorian essayist and novelist, Marian Evans Lewes / George Eliot. Although Eliot scholars have interpreted the links between the early essays and the novels in different ways, “all agree in finding the journalistic writings of the 1850s consistent both intellectually and artistically with the great fictions of George Eliot that followed them” (99). Yet, as Liddle notes, Evans Lewes produced most of her periodical essays in a period of two years, stopped writing them as soon as she could afford to, and later declined to republish many of these pieces. Thus, any critic who wants to read the journalism and the novels together needs to “account for how and why the novelist’s own ultimate response to those [periodical] writings, and to much of the rest of Victorian journalism, was to reject them” (100). Liddle finds evidence that Evans Lewes’s worldview was at odds with many conventions of periodical writing, especially with such subgenres as the “slashing” article (101). When she wrote in these genres, she “used choices of topic, emphasis, image, and tone to modify and undermine the journalistic voice of authority she was using” (102). When she turned to fiction writing, one of her first projects “was to critique the voice, methods, and assumptions of the review journalism she had just escaped” (102), as Liddle shows through a reading of “Janet’s Repentance.” Broadly, against critics who insist on seeing the essays as continuous with the fiction, Liddle argues that “although the intellectual, social, and moral issues addressed in her essays are indeed those George Eliot studied in her novels, the ‘procedure’ it was necessary to follow to render these subjects into saleable copy in the genre of the quarterly review article is antithetical to her later practice as a novelist” (107). The philosophy of sympathy for which she is so well known could never have found expression in the journalistic discourses of the time; the novel was its only possible home.

“The Clergyman’s Tale” takes a different tack from the previous chapters in examining the assumed relation between 1860s sensational newspaper journalism and sensation novels. Critics have often regarded these as “parallel and complementary projects, even as variations on the same cultural theme” (122); thus, they tend to regard the periodicals’ regular condemnation of sensation fiction as evidence of hypocrisy or an amazing lack of self-awareness. Liddle takes issue with this view, and defends the newspapers’ position, arguing that “there were indeed crucial differences in the way Victorian news and novel writers treated ‘sensational’ incidents and characters, differences that do seem dictated largely by the conventions and goals of their differing genres” (124). As a test case for this theory, he examines the flurry of articles surrounding the 1868 disappearance of the Rev. Benjamin Speke, because they are “literally (though not intentionally) fictions, texts formed almost solely from the materials of current genre resources, if only because there were no facts available to construct them out of any other materials” (125). Despite the lack of information about the clergyman’s disappearance, within weeks the press had constructed its own, essentially conservative, version of the events and their implications (i.e., the respectable gentleman must have been robbed and murdered by members of an increasingly dangerous criminal class). The actual events in the case turned out to be much closer to a version that might have been constructed in sensation fiction. Sensation novelists like Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon readily located mental trouble, changes of identity, and the breakdown of authority in the middle and upper classes (133-134). Through this curious disjuncture, Liddle persuasively argues that “however charged its topics, the mid-Victorian periodical press was largely consistent in its mission — almost generic imperative — to assert and defend traditional authority, minimize mystery, and dictate decisive action to those in power” (140). Although the press might describe events as gruesome as those in the works of fiction they panned, the conventions of the genre would never allow the subversive interpretations that were found in the sensation novel.

The sixth chapter, “The Scholars’ Tales,” underlines the book’s theoretical arguments. Liddle states plainly that his project aims “to suggest more broadly how book history and the study of print culture might benefit from Mikhail Bakhtin’s insight that the dynamic interactions between genres are a powerful engine of literary history” (141). He also suggests that genre criticism has taken a back seat in periodical studies due to the popularity of three theoretical tools imported from the social sciences: Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere,” Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community,” and Pierre Bourdieu’s “literary field” (142-144). These concepts are tempting for periodical scholars precisely because of the size of the archive; they allow scholars to organize unreadable amounts of material around a single theory (149). However, because they focus on the relations between individuals and groups, they tend to ignore the texts themselves and the act of reading. Bakhtin’s genre theory can help remedy this lack, Liddle suggests, and refocus our attention on the project Richard Altick inaugurated with The English Common Reader (150). This does not mean simply reading periodicals as instances of heteroglossia, since many forms of journalistic discourse tend toward the monologic (152-153). Rather, Liddle proposes an approach focused on the forms of discourse:

Applying this understanding of genres to periodicals studies may help scholars solve the overabundance-of-text problem in somewhat the same way that geology solves the overabundance-of-rocks problem and entomology the overabundance-of-bugs problem: by recognizing that most of what one needs to know to understand a given stratum, ecosystem, or moment in the history of discourse is the most specific and detailed qualitative understanding of each current type, much more than any catalog of instantiations or exemplars of the type. This is not a denial of the significant uniqueness of each individual text (or rock, or bug), but a recognition that variations in practice or in nature become meaningful and interesting only when the investigator knows the characteristics and distributions of the typical forms from which the individual instance varies. Some individual instances of text are of course particularly individual or powerfully influential on the genre itself, and these must be read closely — which Bakhtinian readings have tools to do (see, again, the fine essay on the chronotope). But not all or even most instances of text in a genre need to be read closely, because most uses of a genre — especially journalistic ones — only reproduce ready-made meanings already contained in the genre itself. This is how, and why, genres work so well to enable and mediate communication. To decode most instances of most genres, readers need to understand only their genre-level meaning — what Bakhtin called their worldview. [153-54]

Following this approach, scholars would be reminded to place literary struggle at the level of genre rather than at the level of the individual (“users of one genre are always also readers and analysts of other genres” (157)). They would also gain the freedom to use the tools of both literary and historical analysis (159).

The book’s epilogue points up the need to apply Liddle’s insights to periods outside the range he covers here (from 1855 to the late 1860s). Liddle hypothesizes that journalistic discourse, already subject to more frequent changes than other literary discourses, reaches its height of power precisely when the change is most rapid, when other discourses have not had a chance to respond (166). And “if this is true, periods such as the 1860s when journalistic genres do not appear to change should not be times of stasis at all, but ones in which journalism is perceptibly losing influence and importance relative to other genres” (166). To take a full account of the journalistic discourse at any particular moment, he recommends shifting our attention from meta-journalism to “what we might call the peri-journalism of poets, historians, and especially novelists who directly competed against journalism” and to the “texts generated at points of contact and translation between genres” (167). In closing, Liddle reads T. W. Robertson’s 1865 journalism-themed play Society to show how quickly journalistic conventions of the previous decade came to be recognized as stale and dated. The play’s dialogue “suggests that two decades before the acknowledged advent of New Journalism, such mid-century journalistic forms may already have lost much of their 1855 discursive authority” (174). This finding confirms the idea that “discourses too have densely eventful histories, and these histories can be traced much more closely than by large periods or epistemes . . . .Our successful recovery of more of this generic history — the story of the developing natures and theories of genres and their relationship to one [an]other — is surely necessary for our understanding of both literature and the periodical press, and a precondition for any true history of the book” (175).

Throughout the book, Liddle makes a forceful case for renewed attention to Bakhtinian theories of genre in periodicals studies. He is most convincing when he exposes the weak readings that result from our neglect of genre: we may take Harriet Martineau at her word, failing to recognize that her values evolve in tandem with the genres she champions; we may force a continuous reading of Marian Evans Lewes / George Eliot’s work that the texts do not support; we may too readily accuse the newspapers of hypocrisy when they attack the sensation novel, accepting a common subject as the most salient aspect of a text. Perhaps because of the strength of these close readings, I am somewhat less convinced of Liddle’s proposal of “type” as an analytical tool to deal with the group of texts that constitutes Victorian periodicals. What would this methodology look like in action? For purposes of analysis, is the periodical text really like a rock or a bug? Is “type” meant as a strictly theoretical tool, or might it be integrated with the technological tools that allow us to store and search the periodical corpus? Liddle leaves these questions for future work. Nevertheless, The Dynamics of Genre gives us several promising glimpses of the readings that might open up when we keep the internal and external workings of genre at the forefront of literary analysis.

Related Material


Liddle, Dallas. The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009

Last modified 21 July 2014