Sterne and the ‘New Species of Writing’
Of the plurality of discourses and traditions that bump up against one another in Tristram Shandy, two have dominated attempts to make generic and hence interpretative sense of Sterne's richly heteroglot text. One strain of criticism reads Tristram Shandy as a belated exercise in Renaissance learned-wit; the other as a parody or deconstruction of representational conventions in the modern novel. Each identity, all too often, is presented as exclusive of the other. Yet to acknowledge the prominence of the learned-wit tradition in Sterne's writing need not be to deny the deliberacy of its engagement with newer forms. Instead, we may find a cornucopia of textual relations in which Menippean satire and metafictional self-consciousness coexist and unfold themselves in different intertextual modes, and display, as they do so, a hybridization of traditions and genres that in itself is typically novelistic. Sterne's satirical mode is characteristically determinate, involving necessary connections with specific precursors named, quoted, or otherwise verbally indicated in the text. His novelistic mode is characteristically aleatory, gesturing towards a plurality of potential intertexts through its play on terms, tropes, or conventions that all of them hold in common, but necessarily specifying no single one.
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