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Sign Systems Studies

Volume 28, 2000

Irina Avramets
Pages 199-215

On the definition of genre of Dostoevsky's works

On the definition of genre of Dostoevsky's works. The article mostly addresses Dostoevsk's own definitions of genres of his works, either explicated in the texts (subtitles, prefaces) or contained in the writer's letters; or rather the relationship between the scholarly strategies of defining genres and the writer's own view, as evidenced. by subtitles which, in some sense, are part of the text (in nearly, but not precisely, the same way as the titles themselves are). The writer's own definitions, then, can be regarded as possible objects of the scholarly interpretation. Agreement, or lack thereof, between the author's and the scholars' definitions may be due both to similarity vs dissimilarity between the definition standards inherent in the respective epochs and to specific interpretation aspects. In the latter case, agreement is more cornman in studies focusing on vastly different problems unrelated to genre, whereas disagreement is more frequent in studies concerned with the genres of Dostoevsky's works. One of the reasons why his own definitions must be critically revisited is that certain titles of his works can be basically viewed as subtitles or genre definitions insofar as they in some way define the variety of the text regardless of the underlying criterion: narrative, "discourse", type of source, genre, or genre variety. Indeed, both these subtitles and, sometimes, the writer's own genre definitions tum out to be pretense, an imitation of "standard" subtitles or genre definitions, respectively. Titles themselves sometimes look like subtitles, thus "exposing the device" and demonstrating this mimicry not merely by violating semantic and syntactic relations in the case of subtitles (sign/name/title/ subtitle and virtual reference/"reality" of text - and relationships such as those between title and subtitle; title and the principal text; and subtitle and principal text), but also by the fact that their position is "marked". Dostoevsky not just failed to follow his own "final genre definitions" within the text, as reflected in the subtitles, and not just changed them repeatedly in his letters, but in the official documents, too, he sometimes defined genres in a way which did not agree with either the subtitles or his own definitions given in his letters. Dostoevsky frequently changed the genre definitions not merely during his work on a text, which would be only natural, and not merely many years after it had been completed, published, revised, and republished (which might be ascribed to memory errors), but also shortly after the completed manuscript had been shipped to the publishers or after the text had been published or republished. While the logic underlying these changes must be studied and interpreted, it is evident that the scholars are often unable to accept the author's own "final genre definitions" both because these are often unavailable in subtitles, and because of the "Proteic" nature of their use by the writer in various contexts.