Defining genres: an article of faith (notes from my ASOR 2020 paper)

Column 10 of the Demotic novella scholars designate as The Battle for the Prebend [or Benefice] of Amun, from the 2nd century BCE. This novella was published in 1910 but has not been worked on significantly since, aside from the publication of more fragments of the scroll in the 1990’s and a few important, but isolated and small-scale studies.

My paper “Between the Cosmopolitan and the Vernacular: Private Literature in the Post-Iron Age Southeastern Mediterranean” will be live on the ASOR 2020 virtual conference shortly. Here’s the abstract (it ended up being reasonably close to the finished product!). It is part of the session “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Collapse, Resilience, and Resistance in the Ancient Near East.” I was very excited to have my paper accepted to this since I believe the “post-collapse,” post-Iron Age context in which the Egyptian and Judean novellas were written and read was not just a coincidence, but determined their literary form and their purpose.

This paper cuts to the heart of an important part of my dissertation’s raison d’etre. Even before developing my topic, I wanted to study what the social background of a genre of narrative literature was. Too often, I think, we assume that, since narrative and storytelling is universal (witness Barthes’s famous quote), it is too difficult (for ancient literature at least!) to understand it in its full, original context, and to ask the question, Why was this written? Too often, I think, when answering this question, we jump too quickly between immanent issues (themes, tone, “manifest content”) and global explanations based on them. I see this happening in the popular approach to the literature I am studying, under the name of “diaspora novella.” So: we have a set of stories that feature a Judean/Jew who is “successful” (define that!) in a foreign court? These must have been written to encourage Judeans/Jews living in the diaspora! Maybe. It is easy, then, once this jump has been made and an overarching purpose for works of literature is formulated, to define a genre based on this understanding (i.e., “diaspora novella”). This doesn’t seem to me to be a good ground for such a definition.

My working approach in the dissertation…my coping device for wrestling the seemingly intractable problem of recovering the original setting of narrative literature from antiquity…is to divide and conquer and approach the problem of defining a genre of narrative literature from two angles:

  1. The literary approach. What signs are there immanent in the text itself for the original context of the work? How it was performed or read? (length matters; voicing; level of story complexity; “critical mass” of plots, characters, etc. [an idea from Gunkel]) What kinds of situations would be appropriate for reading or hearing it? There are many ways of apprehending these kinds of signs…of drawing out features and interpreting them. One way is narratology. Another is to be attuned to specific types of discourse that are borrowed in or that mimic defined discourse types from other situations (the possibility, and the constraints of this is itself significant for defining a genre!). Ideally, all of this can be put together to reconstruct an audience (profession; competence; interest) and, thus, an author’s strategies in making the text “work.” Besides providing material for reconstructing the context, the storytelling differentia specifica of novellas support the definition of the genre because they are the most recognizable features as storytelling of these works, that is, they give us a sure basis for identification based on the way that the audience would have recognized tokens. A discussion for another post is: how can I recognize novellas before I can define what the genre is?
  2. The historical approach. If the literary approach aims to define the genre of the novella and reconstruct its context based on clues in the text itself, this approach does so from the outside, considering the placement of the novella—as far as the evidence allows—in the literary cultures in which it was embedded. What other kinds of texts were being read and produced at the same time? What did the scribal/scholarly/literary circles in which novellas were read look like? For example, I’ve begun to notice the similarities between novellas (which I associate, at least at this point, with entertainment and recreation) and esoteric literature. How could these two types (this is bigger than genre) of literature coexist? Imagine one person or group possessed copies of a novella as a well as an apocalypse. When would they have read them? Sociolinguistic considerations are also very relevant here (a problem I am having is that, unlike Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek, there is not any significant work done on the sociolinguistics of Demotic). In particular, I have found the approach of Sheldon Pollock to cosmopolitan vs. vernacular literature (which I treat in the ASOR paper) incredibly helpful.

The rationale for this twofold approach as helpful, workable, even trustworthy, is an article of faith: written storytelling literature is not something that has to happen or that springs naturally from communities in the way that oral storytelling does.

In my paper, I talk about the background of the Demotic Egyptian novella, and describe what I am calling its “condition for the possibility.” I wanted to share two extracts here. First, a very brief and, due to constraints of time, un-evidenced definition of the novella (I am talking about the Egyptian novella, but this is relevant for the Judean as well):

Novellas are completely self-contained as works of storytelling and are preserved as such. They contain complex plots and richly characterized figures, and feature layered intertextuality and engagement with traditional textual culture, much of which stems from before the collapse of systems of native rule. In fact, the novellas are a type of historical fiction, nearly all set at some time in the pre-collapse era. In a playful use of exegetical and interpretive forms of speech drawn from the professional spheres of its audience, magico-religious formulae, and even economic terms and concepts used in the Ptolemaic notary, Egyptian novellas do not provide models for professionalization but, often inflected as parody, even satire, presume it. While the general assumption that Egyptian priests and scholars were the authors and audience of Demotic literature fits the internal evidence of the novellas to a tee, a playful stance with regard to cultural themes, themes taken seriously in contemporary genres which are more closely associated with professional priestly and scholarly work, suggests that the novellas were experienced in the context of entertainment and recreation, adjunct and supplemental to what we might call the priestly audience’s “real work.” The mere existence of a popular, widespread genre of pure storytelling in written form with no obvious genre-related purpose beyond the enjoyment of the story itself, of such an erudite nature moreover, indicates, to me, in the terminology of the classicist William Johnson, a distinct “sociocultural system” or “culture of reading” related to, but not identical with, professional spheres of textual production.

Finally, from the end of my paper, I try and put my finger on what changes with written storytelling literature when it is written within a group that identifies itself in differentiation from a cosmopolitan sphere. This is one paragraph flying at about 30,000 feet above the ground from something that needs to be about 50 pages long, so beware!

[T]he possible contexts in which a literary culture can exist change substantially when coexisting with a cosmopolitan society. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, there are examples of literary circles that were adjunct to professional textual cultures, such as at Ugarit and, likely, in Israel. There are also examples from Egypt. Narrative literature in Middle and New Kingdom Egypt may have been enjoyed in similar private, non-professional contexts, but in that case, especially in the New Kingdom, Egyptian literary circles were themselves part of something resembling a cosmopolis: there was no experience of difference at the root. This is not the case with the Demotic novella. Nevertheless, even though the novella was an experience of difference, from all appearances it was not an act of resistance per se, an important fact given the condition for the possibility of this kind of literature was the Ptolemaic state’s affirmation of, and even active hand in, the creation of various overlapping professional circles of Egyptian priest-scholars and -scribes. It is in this context that Egyptian authors wrote novellas that did not encode criticisms or endorsements of the Ptolemaic regime, or hope for a future return of indigenous rule, as some other contemporary kinds of literature did. To be sure, wherever the novella is found, there are parallel developments of esoteric literature, which might be part of the same phenomenon of private literature. The inward-looking, yet non-tendentious perspective of the novella is all the more significant given the rise of universalism throughout the wider Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, starting already in the Neo-Assyrian period, but becoming fully developed in the Achaemenian and hitting its stride in the Hellenistic, a phenomenon characterized by a high degree of integration of population groups due to increased worldwide movement, including government and trade. This is the horizon in which the Egyptian, as well as the Judean novella developed after the Iron Age.  

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