The English term “genre” derives – via French – from the same Latin root as “general,” “genus,” “gender,” “genesis,” “generate,” “genius,” and “gene.” Etymologically, then, it is bound up with the idea of generating complex configurations from a basic underlying pattern. The concept of genre is important to communication research because it designates not only specific kinds of messages, but also their characteristic social uses by audiences. “Genre” was traditionally used in the arts to categorize texts with reference to their distinctive language and subject matter, such as poetry, drama, and the novel. The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin held that the novel – irrespective of the great variety of novels – is one genre (Bakhtin 1981). In this broad sense, short stories and nonfiction forms such as autobiography (usually narrative) and essays (usually non-narrative) all qualify as genres. Other scholarship has understood genres to be types of text within such broad categories of composition. Already in ancient Greece, tragedy and comedy were recognized as genres, being constituents of the wider genre, drama. These categorizations, further, existed alongside other kinds of textual definitions: the epic, for one, was categorized according to its composition as well as key themes such as heroism. In both narrow and wide conceptions of the term, however, genre refers to a set of basic textual patterns that generate many and varied concrete texts. The vast majority of traditional works about genre have aimed to identify such underlying textual formulae.
History of The Genre Concept
Genre theory effectively stayed in a steady state for 2,000 years after Aristotle’s death before accelerating into flux during the twentieth century. Mainly as a result of Aristotle’s legacy, genre theory has sought not only to lay bare textual formulae, but also to provide prescriptions. Aristotle’s fragmentary observations in the Poetics (c.330 bce) framed the classic genres in terms of a best practice that could guide the act of composition as well as supporting post hoc evaluation.
After the rediscovery of Aristotle’s works in the late Middle Ages, Renaissance poets and dramatists during the two centuries after 1450 re-envisioned the classical world from within their own spheres of interest. Sir Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesie (1595) invoked a wealth of classical authorities to both defend poetry as such and prescribe a humanist conception of poetry. In the classical and Renaissance periods, genre theories operated with a limited number of genres. Different kinds of speech were commonly appraised in terms of rhetoric in both periods, and genre tended to be associated with written forms, or with those oral forms that had made their way into writing and now often appeared first in writing, such as poetry.
From the Renaissance onwards, print technology in Europe facilitated the growth and diversification of genres such as diaries, confessions, romances, novels, ballads, and newssheets. By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had fragmented into a multitude of genres, catering to an expanding and increasingly socially differentiated readership. And, in the audiovisual media of the twentieth century – on radio, in film, on television, and in cyberspace – narrative genres flourished in unprecedented amounts and variants.
The most common understanding of genre in the contemporary world focuses on the many popular genres that are consumed in quantities not previously witnessed in history. Such genres include romances, thrillers, science fiction, soap opera, and fantasy in the realm of fiction, but also news, advertising and documentary: both factual and fictional genres can have narrative form. Furthermore, all these genres are distributed across a range of interrelated media: print, radio, television, film, the Internet. Also in everyday language, each genre is commonly said to consist of a characteristic “formula.” This understanding may be reinforced by the media themselves when “genre” as a mode of expression and reception is conflated with “format” in the process of production. By the end of the twentieth century, the term served as a shorthand for movie-goers, novel readers, TV viewers, and others to classify and anticipate media texts.
Twentieth-Century Genre Studies
The twentieth-century proliferation of genres stimulated genre theory and communication theory that was cognizant of genre. In general, genre theory took a synchronic and formalist perspective. Spread across a number of countries and disciplines in the humanities, this perspective was developed in the work of Vladimir Propp and the Russian formalists; C. K. Ogden, I. A. Richards, William Empson, and F. R. Leavis in Britain; the new criticism, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Northrop Frye in North America; the structuralists in France; the Prague linguistic circle in Czechoslovakia; and the Copenhagen School in Denmark – all of whom made direct or indirect reference to the concept of genre. Much of this work, however, especially when couched in terms of “mass culture,” was resolute in its criticism of those industrial classifications of texts that seemed to use genre to package artifacts for mass consumption. In the writings of formalists, genre became not just a form of textual organization, but a patterning of meaning with critical social implications.
The formalist understanding of genre changed when academia began to embrace film as a legitimate object of study. As film theory matured, searching questions were asked of genres, such as whether they were constituted by visual elements (iconography), or by stock situations, or by plot elements; whether the industry repeated formulae by audience sanction, and whether individual auteurs were responsible for the construction of meaning also in genre films. Many studies of film as well as print genres such as the western, the thriller, and the adventure story, were indebted to Propp (translated 1958; in book form 1968). His key idea was that some texts have not so much a formula but a structure that can be repeated time and again with rather different contents. This might resolve the problem of explaining the variable and changing “content” of texts belonging to the same genre: perhaps “structure” is always the primary carrier of meaning that will ultimately shape the concrete “content” (e.g., Wright 1975).
However, the equation of genre with structure proved a dead end as the serious study of popular forms of culture indicated the complexity of, for instance, popular fiction. Two new understandings of genre arose, both of which recognized genre as a far more prevalent phenomenon than had previously been assumed, even before the twentieth century. First, genre should not be reserved to describe “artistic” communications. In everyday communication, speeches, technical instructions, debates, letters to the editor, telephone manner, oaths, new year resolution lists, road signs, and a whole host of other forms constitute genres, as emphasized by analysts of language and communication (e.g., Martin & Rose 2006). That notion had already been anticipated by Bakhtin, who named these communicative phenomena primary genres (1986, 65). This social reframing of genre was developed by sociolinguistics and discourse studies, and became a major growth area in international research.
Second, also regarding “artistic” forms, genre theorists re-emphasized the content of texts as crucially important, not just to the producers of generic texts, but to their consumers. One impetus was contemporary investigations into the responses of audiences for both literature and mass communications, suggesting that readers will bring to texts – including generic ones – much background knowledge. This may make readers largely impervious to the structural messages of texts that academic textual analysis has believed to be implicit and effective (e.g., Seiter et al. 1989). Moreover, such research has established that all texts, even the most lowly, carry a multiplicity of meaning or polysemy that makes them open to interpretation.
From Textual to Social Genres
Some theories of readership still assumed that markedly generic texts were somehow exempt from polysemy, and scholars sometimes seemed to suggest that such texts were, in fact, eternally limited in meaning. The film theorist, Rick Altman, for example, argued that generic texts invite a form of reading that is “short-circuited” (1987, 4). However, as part of the general reorientation of contemporary genre theory toward readers and their social uses of texts, Altman also explicitly acknowledges the role of the reader in any process of short-circuiting. For Altman (1999), a genre is “made” through the actions of readers who harbour expectations about it. Audiences’ uses of the term “genre” probably grow out of their familiarity with primary genres, as identified by Bakhtin, but also with secondary genres, or the kinds of literary commentary and other discourses that are promulgated by the media industries producing narrative genres. Ultimately, audience expectations are the products not just of secondary publicity or primary genres but of social and cultural knowledge, values, attitudes, emotions, and pleasures.
The idea that a genre is a formula was traditionally paired with a view of genres as self-contained. Yet, clearly, many modern popular genres are hybrid in nature. In addition, some recent work has advocated abolishing strict boundaries between genres in favour of examining what may be “nomadic” tendencies in people’s reading of hybrid genres as well as of distinct, yet interrelated texts (Bloom 1996). Such work also implies that, in the multimedia environment of the present, it is important to promote audiences’ awareness of genres and their hybrids as a crucial component of media literacy. In sum, whereas a genre was previously defined by its “formula,” so that an analysis of a generic text could be carried out as an immanent and neutral undertaking, genre now is understood more as an idea or expectation, implemented by readers through readings that are interested and contextual (e.g., Cobley 2000).
- Altman, R. (1986). A semantic/syntactic approach to film genre. In B. K. Grant (ed.), Film genre reader. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 26 – 40.
- Altman, R. (1987). The American film musical. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.
- Altman, R. (1999). Film/Genre. London: BFI.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). Discourse in the novel. In M. Holquist (ed.), The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 259 – 422.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). The problem of speech genres. In C. Emerson & M. Holquist (eds.), Speech genres and other late essays (trans. V. W. McGee). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 60 –102.
- Bloom, C. (1996). Cult fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. London: Macmillan.
- Cobley, P. (2000). The American thriller: Generic innovation and social change in the 1970s. London: Palgrave.
- Martin, J. R., & Rose, D. (2006). Genre relations: Mapping culture. London: Equinox.
- Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the folktale (trans. L. Scott). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Seiter, E., Borchers, H., Kreutzner, G., & Warth, E. (eds.) (1989). Remote control: Television, audiences, and cultural power. London: Routledge.
- Wright, W. (1975). Sixguns and society: A structural study of the western. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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