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Divisio Operis et Paratexte dans la tradition manuscrite du roman médiévale

“Genere Mondo”: the Novel as a Collaborative, Cumulative, potentially Exhaustive Literary Genre

Despite all odds, the ‘digital menace’ resolved into a ‘digital opportunity’ favoring the diffusion of literature. According with wiser predictions (Carrière – Eco 2009), the rise of new media paradoxically fostered the popularity of the the book as a medium, of literature as a crucial communication system, and even more slightly the predominance of the novel as a genre. Calvino (1988) was right indeed when predicting that he trusted in literature and its ability to last through the current millennium, because its specific bag of tools make it possible to do things which are otherwise undoable.

Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed, by web culture and new media, literature seems to be in pretty good shape. Actually, literature played an essential part in the development of groundbreaking commercial web based services such as Amazon,  which was originally introduced as a telematic bookshop. Moreover, very crowded second generation web-based communities, such as aNobii, LibraryThing, or Goodreads, are actually based on literature as the main interest shared by thousand of enthusiastic readers from everywhere in the world.

Interestingly, literary systems emerging from digital shelves of socially networked bookworms look like Taleb’s ‘Estremistan’, that is as a winner-takes-(almost)-all cultural environment (Taleb 2007: 30) in which the novel definitely plays an hegemonic role (Fuksas 2008). So, the rise of digital media did not impacted dramatically neither the popularity of literature, nor the predominance of the novel, that is emerging more and more as a global standard for storytelling.

Deep in the middle of the so-called digital era visitors of bookshops such as Barnes and Noble in DC, FNAC in Paris or Feltrinelli in Rome still find themselves surrounded by novels and they keep buying them. Many of them purchase or illegally download thousand of epub and mobi novels which they collect in their ipad and kindle tablets. Matter-of-factly, the novel is playing a dramatic role in the survival of literature across the digital age, as it did through the modern era, characterized by the rise of powerful media such as radio, cinema and television.

The present investigation aims at suggesting that the novel is so powerful and sticky because it is a “Genere Mondo” implying a collaborative interaction between all the literary products which belong to the genre. The very concept of Genere Mondo paraphrases Franco Moretti’s idea of “Opera Mondo”, applying to modern epic literary works which aim at incorporating the entire world into their textual format. An Opera Mondo aims at digesting and outclassing previous literary tradition rather than complementi it, that is at trespassing the boundaries of a specific genre, or the very notion of genre itself, rather than implementing it.

For instance, Dante’s Commedia is “comedy”, as the title suggests, an original verse narrative whose textual format is carefully designed so as to differ from a traditional novel. The octosyllabe (8sill) is replaced by the endecasillabo (10’sill), and the couplet by the terzina, adding 3 syllables ro each verse and 1 verse to any pattern metric unit.

Hence, the Commedia is an un-novelistic literary work whose textual format implicitly exceeds the boundaries of the novel, as its themes and subjects do.
The “Opera Mondo” typically aims at setting itself apart from the esthetics which implicitly substantiate traditional literary genres. A clear morphologic statement gives birth to a literary work which will be eventually celebrated as an original masterpiece, but will hardly emerge as a role-model. The “Opera Mondo” is typically unprecedented and unsurpassed because it is a league of its own, unparalleled and beyond compare, aberrant and superlative at the very same time: a wonder and freak.

Since an “Opera Mondo” will be hardly taken as a model, being intrinsically impossible to emulate, it won’t define the borders of a new literary genre. Sometimes authors are consciously operating so as to produce an inimitable “Opera Mondo”. In other cases such an outcome depends on the degeneration of a literary work which was originally planned to fit the current literary system but accidentally transcended its limits.

Unlike literary works ranging into such a very uncommon category, novels are intrinsically conceived as parts of a greater, collaborative system. Essentially, the writing of a novel entails the implicit reference to other literary works of a similar kind. In such terms, novels complement each other, providing readers with descriptions of characters, facts and events which give for granted and fit into a novelistic system.

Accordingly, new novels typically tell new stories featuring new characters and/or adding significant elements to existing ones by directly or indirectly interacting with them. Their original subject fits a perpetually growing system which aims at incorporating the entire human experience into the aesthetic borders of a “Genere Mondo”.

Medieval verse novels, the avatar of the genre, tell the story of famous knights, featuring minor characters who often emerge as the protagonists of new literary works. Since the medieval origins of the genre individual novels are complementing each other as part of a potentially exhaustive system which aims at incorporating the entire world into its perpetually expanding borders. This propensity to exhaustiveness is pragmatic and accumulative instead of encyclopedic and systematic and collaborative rather than solipsistic.

Based on these premises, it has been possible for modern novelists to eventually broaden the field of such an inclusive system, that is to introduce new classes of characters, such as picaros and tormented intellectuals, femmes savantes and clever detectives. The intrinsic tendency to work as an organic system might be the reason why the novel evolved into the prominent genre in western literatures and eventually in World Literature as well. This claim will be supported by an investigation concerning medieval recollection of verse novels in organic macro-narratives supported by properly “novelistic” manuscripts.

Previous studies had already shown that some medieval manuscripts provide organic recollections of verse romance novels which contemplate individual works as parts of an integrate narrative system. Essentially, novels fit into books which partially approximate the modern organic idea of a literary genre. Indeed, not only these manuscripts just include similar works belonging to the very same kind, but also they range them in a peculiar order, which reflects the idea of a macro-narrative.

The selection of the contents typically shows a peculiar rationale, the overlapping of subjects and topics being rare and occasional. Manuscripts just devoted to a single novel are not so common, and equally rare are those in which novels coexist with literary works of other kinds. Accordingly, the manuscript tradition of the verse romance novel approximates the idea of an integrate and potentially independent literary genre.



Azzam, W. – Collet, O. – Foer Janssens, Y. 2005
Les manuscrits littéraires français: Pour une sémiotique du
recueil médiéval, in «Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire» (Langues et littératures modernes – Moderne taal en litterkunde) 83, 3, pp. 639-669.

Busby, K. 2007
Post-Chrétien Verse Romance. The Manuscript Context, in «Cahiers de Recherches Médiévales et Humanistes», 14, pp. 11-24.

Busby, K. 2002
Codex and Context. Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript, Amsterdam-New York, Rodopi.

Calvino, I. 1988
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 1988.

Carrière, J. C. – Eco, U. 2009
N’espérez pas vous débarrasser des livres, Paris, Grasset (italian translation: Non sperate di liberarvi dei libri, Milano, Bompiani).

Gingras, F. 2007
Roman contre roman dans l’organisation du manuscrit du Vatican, Regina Latina 1725, in «Babel» 16, pp. 61-80.

Kelly, D. 2006
Arthurian Verse Romance in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, chapter X of The Arthur of the French. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature,  ed. by G. Burgess and K. Pratt, Cardiff, The University of Wales Press, pp. 393-460.

Middleton, R. 2006
The manuscripts, chapter I of The Arthur of the French, ed. by G. Burgess and K. Pratt, Cardiff, The University of Wales Press, pp. 8-92.

Moretti, F. 1994
Opere mondo: saggio sulla forma epica dal Faust a Cent’anni di solitudine, Torino, Einaudi.

Nixon, T. 1993
Romance Collections and the Manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes, in Les Manuscripts de Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by K. Busby – T. Nixon – A. Stones – L. Walters, Amsterdam, Rodopi, I, pp. 17-25.

Nixon,T. 1993
Catalogue of Manuscripts, in Les Manuscripts de Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by K. Busby – T. Nixon – A. Stones – L. Walters, Amsterdam, Rodopi, II, pp. 1-85.

Trachsler, R. 1994
Le recueil Paris, BN fr. 12603, in «Cultura Neolatina», 54, pp. 189–211.

Walters, L. 2006
Manuscript Compilations of Verse Romances, c. XI of The Arthur of the French. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, ed. by G. Burgess and K. Pratt, Cardiff, The University of Wales Press, pp. 461-487.

Walters, L. 1985
Le Rôle du scribe dans l’organisation des manuscrits des romans de Chrétien de Troyes, in «Romania», 106, pp. 303-25.

Walters, L. 1991
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français, MS 1433: The Creation of a Super Romance, «The Arthurian Yearbook», 1, pp. 3-25.

Walters, L. 2006
The Formation of a Gauvain Cycle in Chantilly MS 472, in «Neophilologus», 78 (1994), pp. 29-43 (then in Gawain: A Casebook, ed. by R. H. Thompson and K Busby, New York-London, Routledge (Arthurian Characters and Themes), p. 157-172.

Walters, L. 1994
Chantilly MS 472 as a Cyclic Work, in Cyclification: The Development of Narrative Cycles in the Chansons de Geste and the Arthurian Romances, ed. by B. Besamusca et al., Amsterdam, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, pp. 135-39.

Hybrid Ecologies and Embodied Narratives

The paper which describes the experiment I ran with Kai Pata at Tallinn University during the Erasmus joint course about Ecology of Narratives was finally published in Cognitive Philology. The course is detailedly described in  a wikiversity page. The entire experience was monitored in a wordpress weblog intended as an aggregator of individual experiences. Here’s the abstract of the paper mixed with a couple of slideshare files we set up so as to present our work around.

A Design-based research tested a Hybrid Ecosystem emerging from collaborative storytelling supported by geo-locative technologies and Social Networking Services. We assumed that such Hybrid Ecosystem emerges when people experience a given environment through their own sensory-motor system while processing related locative media. We found that individual and collaborative activity in a hybrid ecosystem could be described on the basis of the swarming concept from biology.

Topics and themes seem to emerge, to be narrated and spread on the basis of unplanned, not concerted, polygenetic activity. Interaction basically leads to the emergence of behavioral patterns which immediately develop into mutated forms. As soon as a topic or a theme spread among the community, individual participants start differentiating their unique point of view on it, eventually comparing it with the one of some peers, so as to team up on the basis of affinity.

Literal references emerging from storytelling in hybrid ecosystems outscore metaphorical by far. Rather, comparison is definitely very active as a processing strategy whereas proper metaphors and generalizations emerge on a very limited basis. It looks like individual participants evaluate the collaborative streaming of narrative references as a series of individual, standalone events which are meaningful in themselves, not because the combination of them make it possible to grasp a general meaning.

A more careful assessment of data is very likely needed, but we can already conclude that narratives which emerge in hybrid ecosystems supported by locative technologies and Social Networking Services define the borders of participatory and collaborative story formats which reshape human presence in the environment while redefining the very concept of storytelling. We look forward to develop other design experiments so as to test our claims on embodiment of narratives and hybrid ecologies based on new very intriguing applications such as Layar, Wikitude and other similar ones which implement the very concept of augmented reality.

Peripheral Vision, Traces and Immersive Landscapes

Previous entries about Mark Jenkins’ and Xing Danwen’s artworks showed that an investigation on how immersive environments are described in novels and how narrative references interfere with sensory experience of landscapes may take advantage from comparative remarks coming from sculpture and manipulation of digital imaging. More advantageous remarks may come from the field of photography, namely from suggestive artistic shots by Timothy Atherton, a former police evidence photographer who definitely developed an ecological artistic approach to landscapes.

Being resonance a key-concept in Gibson’s Theory of affordances, Atherton conceptualization of photography makes plenty of sense in ecological terms since he maintains that «the idea of a photographer as being a person who follows traces is one that resonates strongly for me». Moreover, Atherton conceives the transference happening when the photographer make a picture as part of an exchange taking place between photographer and scene. Basically, in his view «the photographer simply uses the camera to make a trace of what he sees before him or her». Atherton’s approach to photography doesn’t seem based on traditional mimetic approaches, given that he describes his photography as an «ongoing attempt» to understand what he sees, by following clues so to establish «temporary conclusions that then lead to other questions and other clues». In these terms, by quoting Joyce («Bethicket me for a stump of a beech»), Atherton summarizes his work as aimed to «interpreting traces».

Introducing his series of “Peripheral Vision” (2003) Atherton states that «extended suburban condition does not easily show up on maps, it is in many ways more of a suburban state of mind than a topographic location». While photographing suburban landscapes, Atherton found himself «looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side – a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception». Indeed, «things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered – attention no longer paid to them».

Peripheral Vision

Describing his series of “Immersive Landscapes” (2006), Atherton offers that «to try and impose order on this messy and unordered view seems a mistake. Instead, recognizing the disorder, letting the fine detail spread over the whole image and allowing the eye to wander over the whole field without finding a clear point of rest draws the viewer into the apparent fractal detail and chaos of the image». Indeed, he describes the results of his work as portraits of «“immersive” landscapes where the whole wide visual field is potentially full of interesting subplots over and against the overall story that the picture is telling».

Immersive Landscapes

Introducing his new work, Traces (2007), Aherton interestingly quotes Italo Calvino:

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the street, the gratings of the windows, the bannisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning-rods, the poles of the flags. Every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls

Actually, Atherton’s collection of Traces seems pretty much inspired by Calvino’s remarks from the Invisible City (Le città Invisibili, Torino, Einaudi, 1972), that may even count as a very interesting meditation on hybrid ecologies based on the merge of literary references and sensory experience of landscapes. Namely, the bare concept of Le città invisibili entails open reference to cities that are there even tho they are not perceivable by sight. Actually, Atherton’s Traces exert potential of landscapes referring to previous or potential actions. The camera can help guessing or foreshadowing past or future events on the basis of clues, leftovers, affordances ready to be triggered by somebody who’s actually out of the picture.


Introducing his work, the photographer describes his photo art in very general terms as «an essential way of seeing, of exploring and understanding something or somewhere». Art is conceived as an explorative behavior leading to the discovery of traces. The artist finds and collects evidences and tries to make sense of them, interpreting them in some way, so to reach «provisional conclusions which are then either discarded or built on». Still, art doesn’t imitate some sort of physical reality located ‘out there’. Rather, it establishes temptative approaches to the environment based on «traces people leave, the evidence or signs that the camera can discover, often seeming to find them in unnoticed or disregarded terrain».

Actually, Atherton adopts a very ecological approach to photo art based on «the principle of exchange», maintaining that «every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange». As an artist, he sees exchange as an interaction not just taking place between «inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place». That is, he regards the trace of light on film as an exchange». Interestingly, Atherton portrays traces in order to make the viewer wondering about actions that eventually took place or are about to happen. In this sense, a former police evidence photographer, he exerts action potential triggered by visual hints in the very same way detectives try to re-enact events leading to crimes on the basis of clues they find on crime scenes.

With all evidence, the very same process is exerted into crime stories, namely the ones defined as “woodonit”, so as to establish a deep involvement of the reader into the story being told. Indeed, the reader is involved into reverse engineering since the very beginning of the novel, when the corpse of the victim is typically discovered. The same process is exerted to a variable extent in basically every novel, thriller as romantic, mainstream as experimental ones, since potential reference always outstrips textual borders, bringing into play speculations about other events that are not necessarily encoded into textual description.