More On Genre: Literature, Genre, Form and Content

So in the previous genre post, in which I was a bit sloppy (this post is also gonna be real sloppy as I think this stuff through!), I noted four elements of a genre work.

The first, which most genre theorists agree upon, is that a genre has certain marks, characteristics, etc, which I called “elements,” because I wanted to use a very general term (some in-use terms, like “formal markers,” seemed to specific to me.)

While a lot of classical genre theory focuses on formal elements *, I’m somewhat more interested in content-based markers, partly because I’m particularly interested in popular culture genres: science fiction, romance, superhero stories, action films, buddy comedies, etc., which are often more marked by content-elements.

So in the previous post I wanted to say that a work is part of a genre because (1) it has elements of that genre, (2) among the elements it has may be some which carry more weight in assigning the work to the genre than others (spaceships are more science fiction than pain medicine with no side effects, though both are from the SF category “futuristic technology”), (3) it avoids elements which would mitigate against its being in the genre (an action movie may cease to be an action movie if more than fifty percent of screen time is taken up with a slow-paced romance), and (4) the narrative focus of the film is centered upon, or depends upon, the genre elements.**

ll of this goes to how we classify a work as in or out of a genre, and to how far it is in some genre (e.g., it’s barely an action movie; it’s nothing but a romantic comedy.) The more it follows formula, the more it includes only elements from the genre, the more it’s in the genre.***

In popular discussions of literature there is sometimes a distinction between “genre works” and “literary writing.” There’s a way to preserve this distinction without simply looking to the canon of “literature” and claiming that these are not genre works, and then dismissing anything that is too clearly science-fiction, etc.

It may be that work that very closely hews to the properties of a genre, and includes nothing that undermines or stands outside of or comments upon or even adds to the genre, is more purely genre writing, and to the extent that a work is hard to classify as belonging to a genre, that’s literary.  Notably, one could include all of the elements of a genre and still be outside of it because of the inclusion of type 3 elements, those that expressly don’t belong in the genre (a romantic comedy probably can’t have a realistically portrayed and tragically presented scene where a terrorist murders dozens of people.)

Here’s an application of the above:

One might argue, based on this, that Raymond Carver, who was for a time the paradigmatic short-story writer for creative writing MFA programs, was a genre writer. It’s very easy to see the repeated elements in his work. There are many, but in brief: The story includes very little action; sometimes a single event, but sometimes almost none (a story that was very plot-heavy would fall outside of this genre.) It generally takes place indoors. The focus is on characters, not action. Two or a few people from different walks of life come together and have a moment, usually because of a conversation, where one or both or several of them have an epiphany or emotional realization: A baker and a couple who just lost a child are brought together, and connect emotionally even though a moment before they’d seemed at odds, and the baker shows emotional growth. A blind man and a man who is uncomfortable being around the blind man come together and connect emotionally, causing the uncomfortable man to grow and change, etc.

A lot of writers have written these sorts of stories, both before Carver, and very heavily after him due to his influence. It’s interesting that this form, I don’t have a name for it (I’m sure someone does) but let’s call it “the emotional realization story,” is accepted as literature even though it can be very strongly part of a genre. Part of this may be due to the fact that the genre wasn’t named, and that Carver had a strong hand in inventing or at least making widely known the form. The first science fiction stories obviously weren’t considered science fiction stories until a bulk of such stories had begun to appear.

So, in attempting to answer what a genre is, one thing that comes forward is that a genre is a form whose elements can be reasonably clearly delineated. When Plato divided writing into poetry, prose and dialog it was fairly easy to see the distinguishing markers. With science fiction, we can note the appearance of currently non-existent technology, the future, and forms of social organization that have not yet been tried (among other elements.)

But there’s a big difference between the genres categories that Plato gives, and those that we commonly use in popular culture, like “westerns,” “buddy movies,” “thrillers,” etc. and I think a lot of that difference is that Plato, and many classical theorists, focused on formal elements, whereas the popular understanding of “genre” is about differences in content-elements. ****

*Amy Devitt calls these “formal markers” (Devitt, Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004). Herder thought of genre as the rules and aim of the work, with the rules being purely formal elements and the aim being something like the effect the work is supposed to produce in the audience; Notably, genre theory starts with Plato’s division of literature into genres by form: prose, poetry and dialogic drama are identified by their structural or formal aspects. So some classical and even contemporary theories focused on formal, rather than contentual, elements.

**I’m speaking somewhat synchonically here. Obvious, genres come and go, arise and fall, and in the process accrue new elements and sprout new sub-genres. That’s an interesting topic for another time.

***There’s a lot to be said about the way art can use genre by breaking it. For example, the film Punch Drunk Love contains most of the elements of a romantic comedy, but it escapes the genre in interesting ways. In a rom-com, the male lead is lovable but his actions, if not put forward comedically, would seem dangerous and a sign of mental unbalance. In Punch Drunk Love the romantic lead appears to be, and even notices that he is, mentally unbalanced and potentially dangerous. Making this obvious, and presenting it in non-comedic moments, brings to light some aspect of the genre and removes PDL from the genre, because it has become both too aware of the genre (and self-awareness isn’t really a feature or element of romantic comedies) and because it has to leave the genre in order to comment on the genre.

**** I’m not saying anything terribly new here; a lot of genre theorists now focus on content-elements. If there’s a contribution in this discussion it’s not so much on point 1 as on 2-4.


One response to “More On Genre: Literature, Genre, Form and Content

  1. Interesting points. I’m not much of a genre reader, but neither do I consider literary fiction particularly sui generis. (nearly all the stories in a recent collection of New Yorker humor pieces conformed to definable structures, if that’s relevant.) The best genre works presumably exist at the edges of said genre and push outwards. The worst are the equivalent of a Big Mac: devised to pander to a mass audience that gets to consume exactly what it paid for.
    Your exploration does get me asking questions: When does a ‘type’ of writing with a ready audience move up the taxonomy to genre? Can you have a real and complex character in a genre piece—or does that make it postmodern literary fiction in a trojan horse? In a world where “generic” elements are mashed-up, fractured, recombined, will pure genre works continue to flourish? (It’s not that an audience can’t switch gears midflow: Shakespeare threw comedy into tragedy and vice versa…) With the rise of self-publishing, will fanfic flood out any worthwhile genre stuff, or bring it to a higher level?

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