Monday, 26 February 2007

Book Review: Writing Genres

Writing Genres, by Amy J. Devitt. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Reviewed by Mary Buchinger Bodwell, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.


Devitt examines the development of rhetorical genre theory over the past twenty years, illustrating the value of a user-based definition of genre. In her analysis, genres are dynamic and shaped by the tension between paired elements including multiplicity and standardization, variation and regularity, stability and flexibility, the individual and society.


In the first chapter of Writing Genres, Amy Devitt tells the reader that this work “examines, interprets, illustrates, elaborates, critiques, refines, and extends a rhetorical theory of genre” (2). This volume accomplishes all it promises, more or less. With a focus on the first half of this set of verbs, Writing Genres is more a concise and comprehensive synthesis of the work that has been done in genre theory in the last twenty years than it is a critique or extension of the theory.

Citing the seminal work of rhetorical theorists Karlyn Kohrs Cambell, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Carolyn Miller, Devitt describes the shift from critic- and scholar-driven definitions of genres to user-based definitions. She argues against reducing genre to a classification system, which limits the pool of objects for analysis to fairly static forms. As she points out, not only does this discount the wide range of variation within genres but, more damagingly, it decontextualizes the text. Devitt maintains that regarding genre as a classification or a form entails circularity—the definition of a text’s genre depends on the text’s classification or formal features and the classification or form of the text depends on the genre’s definition. On the other hand, a rhetorical theory of genre focuses less on the features of a text and much more on its social context, rhetorical purposes, and themes; in other words, users define genres.

Devitt unpacks Miller’s definition of genre: “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations,” and explains that a situation is a social construct and is integrally bound up with genre in a dynamic, reciprocal relationship. Genre, essentially a functional activity, responds to the rhetorical demands of a situation, but it resists the determinism such an economy of supply and demand might impose. Devitt quotes Bakhtin’s observation that there is no first speaker; all texts are intertextual and, perhaps, intercontextual as well. Devitt asserts that genre is a nexus of situation, culture, and other genres which has an impact on the actions of writers and readers. Although the idea of meaningful human activity being both constituted and constitutive is certainly not new, Devitt more intriguingly suggests that “[g]enre allows us to particularize context while generalizing individual action” (30).

In her analysis of genres in social settings, Devitt proposes six principles: Genres are generated in and dependent upon the activity of people in groups; genres are ideological as well as situational, and function in multiple ways; the social functions of a genre may sometimes be recognizable only by members of the group in which the genre developed; genres interact with each other, and finally, a genre “reflects, constructs, and reinforces the values, epistemology, and power relationships of the group from which it developed and for which it functions…” (63-64). Devitt advocates for a view of discourse communities as both constructed by and generative of discourse practices. Furthermore, she wants to broaden the definitions of social groupings in relation to genres. In her discussion of Swales’ work, Devitt is critical of the limited range of social structures and communities he considers appropriate for study. For Devitt, commonalities in goals and purposes trump commonalities in discourses or genres. In examining individual participation in numerous communities, she focuses on the shifting of identity and motives as an individual moves through various communities; however, she fails to discuss the co-construction of groups and individuals and the ways in which communities differentially evoke individual potentialities or respond to individual participation.

Devitt illustrates the principles of the social nature of genres with her 1986 analysis of texts generated by tax accountants. These accountants self-identified a variety of different types of writing they do in their work. Devitt analyzed the texts for similarities in rhetorical situations and in linguistic features; not surprisingly, she found both differences and commonalities in the genres across individuals and across firms. Devitt also provides a number of examples of the dynamic nature of genres and how they reflect shifts in situational contexts and cultural and rhetorical purposes. Her discussion of Kitzhaber’s work on the history of composition is especially fascinating in light of current debate over the relevance and effectiveness of expository writing classes. Devitt uses this history to illustrate the tension between flexibility and stability—each is necessary for the survival of a genre but each is also capable of killing off a genre (i.e., a genre that is too loosely defined is as vulnerable as genre that is too rigidly defined). Each extreme has threatened the viability of composition courses in the academy. Her discussion of her own study, Standardizing Written English: Diffusion in the Case of Scotland, illustrates a number of the principles of genre change. However, penciled in the margin of my copy of Writing Genres are the questions “audience? purpose?” “education level?”—in this discussion, she has seemingly overlooked major elements of her own construction of genre.

Devitt also explores the ways in which genres provide authors with “creative boundaries” and describes artistic responses to generic constraints. Unfortunately, as is the case throughout the book, the emphasis is more on theory (in this case, creativity theory) than on practice. In another chapter, Devitt compares literary and rhetorical genres, identifying significant differences in who defines and who uses genres. Citing Rosmarin’s work, she notes that literary genre theorists tend to privilege the reader, particularly the critic, whereas rhetorical genre theorists privilege the writer. This tendency is reflected in the goals that drive their respective work. Literary genre theorists look for texts that break generic rules, focusing on the particularities of individual texts, whereas rhetorical genre theorists are more concerned with the ways in which texts bear generic similarities and conform to identifiable genre constraints. Yet, she notes both view genre as constructed and constructive; both are interested in questions of universality and persistence of relevance. In identifying similarities between the two, Devitt may be taking some chances, as well as opening doors for possible interchange.

The most provocative chapter in the book is Devitt’s proposal to raise students’ awareness of genre. Writing mostly in response to Freedman’s critique of explicit teaching of genre (which is focused on second language pedagogy), Devitt suggests that rather than being instructed in the particular features of specific genres, students should be taught the process of acquiring a new genre. She argues that strategies for acquiring a genre could serve students well in all linguistic contexts. Explicit teaching of genre, rather than implicit teaching through immersion, has the advantage of allowing students access to the construction of genres and, likewise, to their ideologies. Students should be instructed to consider the rhetorical form of a text and take into account the context, audience, and purpose. For example, Devitt’s students examine a variety of texts, such as newspaper wedding announcements and catalogue course descriptions, and determine who the audience is, what the author’s purposes might be, and what recurring features they notice. She also has students consider alternative ways of accomplishing the same purpose, or additional information that might have been included. Like awareness of differences in register, awareness of differences in genres can possibly lead to greater control and can position students to be more purposeful in their use of language. Devitt argues that students can begin to build a repertoire of genres along with a sense of the rhetorical demands of a particular situation. This argument serves both as her response to scholars who have called into question the transferability of writing skills from first year composition to disciplinary writing as well as her rationalization for the maintenance of first-year writing courses.

Devitt presents a theory of genre built on the tension between paired elements such as multiplicity and standardization, variation and regularity, stability and flexibility, the diachronic and synchronic, the individual and society. The tension along these various continua lends genres their dynamic character. Unfortunately, there are some gaps in the survey of the literature—Duranti, Gee, Goodwin, Gumperz, Ochs, and other key figures are missing from the discussion of genre in relation to context and discourse communities. However, Devitt does not claim to have written the ultimate volume on genre, and she issues calls for further research to validate and expand the theory. Most significantly for the further development of an interdisciplinary approach to genre analysis, she voices a strong and consistent call for the reintegration of content and form, text and context.