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Published March 2015 | public
Journal Article

Reading for the End: Prescriptive Writing and the Practice of Genre


This article considers how genre categories marshal forms of social consensus through close examination of a late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth-century compilation, San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 144. Best known for its versions of Chaucer's Tale of Melibee and Monk's Tale, HM 144 also offers insight into the ways that successive generations of authors, scribes, and readers make and remake literary categories according to their intersecting — and at times competing — interests. I argue that much contemporary debate in genre theory implicitly concerns not simply the taxonomic features that divide one category from another but the bases upon which readers come into agreement about texts. By making explicit their own "terms of agreement," medieval prescriptive texts, in particular, make visible the mechanisms of generic practice — the ways in which writing seeks to mold readers and the ways that readers, in turn, seek to mold miscellanies, compilations, and other literary objects according to their spiritual and social aspirations. Examining HM 144's array of didactic material, the essay shows how prescriptive writing both elicits consensus from its readers and depends equally upon the failure of its own task.

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© 2015 W. S. Maney & Son Ltd.

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