The Gothic as a Practice: Gothic Studies, Genre and the Twentieth Century Gothic
Gothic studies, the specialist academic field that explores the Gothic text, has developed substantially over the last twenty-five years. The field often frames the Gothic as a serious literature, involved in historic discourse, and having special psychological acuity; this thesis suggests that there are a number of problems with these argumentative strategies, and that the academy now makes claims for the Gothic that are discontinuous with how this popular genre is understood by most readers. While Gothic studies is the study of a genre, curiously, it has seldom engaged with theorisations of genre. Nevertheless, an understanding of what genre is, and how it alters reading practice, is crucial to understanding the Gothic text. This thesis attempts to reconcile and develop a number of disparate approaches to genre through Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus. It argues that genre is not a set of textual conventions but a group of procedures that facilitate and modify both writing and reading practices. Consequently, genres like the Gothic should be seen as discrete historicised phenomena, which retain a cohesive practical sense of how they ought to be performed before they hold discursive properties. Rather than arguing for the literary value of the Gothic, this thesis understands the genre as a popular practice. The consequences of this theorisation of the Gothic are explored in case studies of particular moments in three separate Gothic fields. Firstly, the American Gothic of the mid-nineteen-eighties, particularly Stephen King's It, Joyce Carol Oates' Mysteries of Winterthurn, and Toni Morrison's Beloved, facilitates a discussion of the relationship between Gothic and literary practices. The Gothic text has its origins in 'lowbrow' popular culture, even as it sometimes aspires to 'highbrow' literary performances. Secondly, the English Gothic of the nineteen-sixties is used to stage a discussion of both the way that readers become involved and immersed in the Gothic text, creating a distinct subjunctive 'world', and of the way that Gothics define themselves in relation to each other. The discussion refers to Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, which heavily influenced the field, as demonstrated in works by Susan Howatch, Kingsley Amis, Robert Aickman and Mervyn Peake. Wheatley's depiction of the black mass became a key Gothic procedure, and can be read as this particular field's metaphor of its own practice. Thirdly, New Zealand's underdeveloped Gothic field provides a venue to explore the Gothic's relationship with nation and national literature, and how the practice is involved in landscape. Frank Sargeson's stories and his novella The Hangover, together with Janet Frame's A State of Siege are texts authored by canonical New Zealand writers that participate in a local Gothic, although their participation in popular genre has been little recognised. This thesis argues that the Gothic is a commonsense cultural practice, facilitated through the canniness of habitus.