Choose Your Own Genre

cross-posted from 400 Windmills

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books from years ago? “You,” the protagonist, would come upon a cave. What do you do? Enter it: turn to page thirty. Keep climbing the rocky path: turn to page forty-five. In those books, it all ended up being adventure. For this post, I’m interested in a similar theme with Don Quixote but a more profound question: what genre are you in? If Don Quixote were a character in, say a Shakespeare play, he might be a wise-fool or a Duke in exile but not a knight errant. But really, he is more an ordinary reader living in a small town: he would have to wait centuries for his genre’s flowering in, say, Madame Bovary.

Knowing what genre your life is in is a tricky problem for other characters, too. I used to teach my students style using a passage from Forster’s Howards End. In it, the working class autodidact, Leonard Bast, sits in his basement apartment reading Ruskin, wondering if it is possible to adapt Ruskin’s elevated Victorian style to his reduced modern circumstances. I stopped teaching the lesson because I realized I was unsure of the object of the satire. Was Forster mocking social praise of Ruskin or Bast for not knowing his place? I still don’t know: I find Leonard heroic, but I’m not always sure Forster does. There is something a little bit uncomfortable in the portrayal.

Strangely—and perhaps because his delusion is so much greater—I’m much more struck by the heroism of Don Quixote’s error than its inappropriateness. There is something magnificently brave (perhaps we should cue “The Impossible Dream” here and let is swell over my natterings) about insisting on the right to choose your own genre.