Sunday, February 06, 2011


Kelly McWilliam defines genre as:
a consensual system of categorisation that privileges particular textual, intertextual, and extratextual conventions—such as plot, setting, style, author, series, brand, etc—over others [...]. In a literary context, genre is discursively constituted in the tripartite negotiations between the publishing industry, its readers, and the cultural mores of a given time and place, and, as it does in other media industries, usually functions first and foremost as an industrial marketing device (McWilliam 237-9). By emphasising conventions over originality, genres provide both an “horizon d’attente (horizon of expectation) for readers and a modèle d’écriture (model of writing) for authors” within which “broad patterns” are repeated across texts and nuances negotiated within texts in an ongoing constitution of genre categories (Holmes 6). [...] Where repetition produces familiarity and interest in a genre, differences between texts, or specific variations of genre conventions, create interest in individual texts, thereby perpetuating the genre. (2)
I haven't thought a great deal about how genres come into existence, but it makes sense to me that nowadays they would be shaped by the needs of publishers, the preferences of readers, and also the culture(s) in which publishers, readers (and, I assume, authors) find themselves.

If this is the case, then it's perhaps not surprising that genre conventions would tend to remain stable or evolve very slowly: I imagine that if a product is selling well, publishers will be disinclined to change it and risk losing sales. It also seems that many readers, having discovered a type of book which guarantees a particular experience which they find pleasurable and/or interesting, will return to it. On the other hand, people do tend to like some variety, authors are individuals, and cultures change, so there will be differences between the books and, over the longer term, trends may come and go.

It was at this point that I realised that maybe I was missing some of the nuances of the term "genre" as it is often used nowadays. I would tend to think that all literature can be divided into genres and sub-genres; I think of it as the literary equivalent of the way biologists classify organisms by kingdom, phylum, class etc. B. R. Myers, however, suggests that nowadays the term "genre" is attached to one particular type of literature:
Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"—at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most "genre" novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. [...]

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow
Rather than focussing on prose style as the criteria which determines whether a work is "genre fiction" or "literary fiction" I'd just like to suggest that the use of the term "genre fiction" to describe works of popular culture seems to imply that these are texts which are bound by genre conventions and emphasise "conventions over originality." The use of the term "literary fiction" by contrast, thus seems to claim that the works so designated prioritise originality and are unbound by conventions. Presumably it's because of this that they are granted the right to be considered "literary." And if "genre fiction" isn't "literary" then presumably one is supposed to consider it little more than mass-produced, formulaic, derivative prose, quickly churned out, consumed and forgotten.

So I'm happy to see that McWilliam acknowledges the variety and originality which exists in the romance genre:
the romance genre’s immense international popularity suggests that it has, perhaps more than most genres, continued to find ways to vary its conventions—by adapting and reworking its standards, or its model of writing—to meet the ongoing expectations of its tens of millions of readers worldwide. In other words, while the sites of repetition—the genre’s conventions—do stay largely in place in most romance fiction, as in most popular genres, there are nevertheless important sites of variation in each text. (6)
Jonathan Allan has also addressed the way in which the genre combines predictability with variety:
romances are of course “formulaic.” That is, all romances follow a narrative and must have so many key characters, episodes and so on. Indeed, many critics of romance note this. Pamela Regis, for instance, argues that there are eight key requirements [...] Even with these eight elements, however, romance is remarkably varied. Harlequin Publications, for example, produces romances that have varying levels of eroticism and sexuality — and even a NASCAR setting, for those looking for one. But all romances evidently possess Regis’s eight requirements. So the question becomes: why do literary critics in general look down upon formulaic fiction? In many regards, it seems that sticking to and following the formula presents its own challenges, including, how does any writer make a formula new? [...] Why shouldn’t eight elements of an expansive literary formula produce any number of romances?


  1. Just a quick thought, Laura. Do we know when originality became a highly valued quality in art of any kind? Was it during the Romantic movement? Or perhaps part of the turning away from tradition that was part of the scientific Enlightenment?
    In any case, I think it is quite recent. In Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, paintings and writings that closely followed established canons of type and style were undoubtedly 'privileged', in terms of both critical/intellectual approval and mass popularity, over those that were 'original' and idiosyncratic in approach. Individual skill always brings greater depth and interest to some examples of a standardised type than to others, but surely it is true to say that all great art prior to the 19th century is 'genre' in the sense that it all operates within some known and established traditional class based on long respected rules and formulae. Furthermore, it was all hoped and intended to have wide popular appeal. Innovation was regarded with suspicion, to say the least, because it was an impious rejection of the masters who had gone before, and who were treated with respect.
    Genres came and went, all the same, but their evolution was gradual, not the result of some sudden new and original approach; the evolution of landscape painting in the 17th century is one example. Its roots go right back to the Roman period. Original and 'different' work was often more likely to be attributed to mental imbalance on the part of its creator than to genius.
    As you can tell, I am thinking more of the visual arts than of writing, because I know more about them, but I am certain that the general principles and attitudes are identical. Modern popular, genre fiction seems to me to belong firmly in a very ancient and honourable tradition, while much modern 'literary' fiction is quite possibly a temporary aberration.

  2. I don't know when originality came to be valued so highly but I've gone off and done a quick amount of reading and Robert Macfarlane suggests that

    Two contrasting cultural narratives exist [...] to explain literary creation. One is a hallowed vision of creation as generation - which we might call creatio - the other a more pragmatic account of creation as rearrangement, which we might call inventio. The former conventionally connotes some brief, noumenal moment of afflatus or inspiration, while the latter has the tang of the atelier about it. Creatio is associated with the artist, inventio with the artisan. Creatio exalts the individual author to the highest level, inventio abstracts the author into language, and erodes his or powers of agency and intention. Generally speaking, attitudes to originality and plagiarism have moved between these poles in a dialectical fashion. That is to say, a period in which creatio has been valued has usually been followed by a swing back towards inventio. By extension, at times when prevailing attitudes have been attracted towards the pole of creatio - as is conventionally assumed to have occurred during the Romantic decades in Britain, for instance - those modes of writing which confess to an indebted relationship with another text or texts have typically become relegated to the status of secondary literature, or have even been stigmatized as plagiaristic. Contrastingly, at times when attitudees have tended more towards the pole of inventio - as during much of the twentieth century - techniques of appropriation and repetition have been legitimized as modes of composition: we might think here of the quotations which litter Ezra Pound's Cantos [...]. (6)

    Elaine K. Gazda writes that

    Modernism has never been comfortable with copying nor even with acknowledging artistic influence deferentially. In the literary realm as early as the late eighteenth century writers experienced what Harold Bloom has called the "anxiety of influence" as they struggled to find their own voices in relation to those of their precursors. An even stronger reaction was registered by artists of the twentieth-century avant-garde who radically rejected past models and practices as a means to achieving individual creative expression. (11)


    As Krauss acknowledges, in the 1980s, "the discipline [of art history was] ... being buffeted by the winds of postmodernist interest in 'appropriation'," and art historians and critics were called upon to respond to a number of the tenets of recent schools of thought, such as poststructuralism and postmodernism. Among these is the reversal of claims that marginalize the copyist, the copy, and copying in favor of the centrality of the artist, the original, and originality. Krauss, along with other poststructuralist theorists, rejects the notion of the artist as an independent agent who creates works of art. (9)

    Gazda, Elaine K. Introduction. The Ancient Art of Emulatio: Studies in Artistic Originality and Tradition from the Present to Classical Antiquity. Ed. Elaine K. Gazda. U of Michigan Press, 2002. 1-??.

    Macfarlane, Robert. Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

  3. Those are useful quotations, Laura; the creatio / inventio terminology is new to me, and quite handy, because there is a real distinction between concept or inspiration, and execution. In fact, I have written at length on this issue in relation to provincial Roman sculpture.
    However, there is another element in the fields of sculpture, painting and so forth: in Antiquity, no distinction or value-judgement was made between the 'artist' and the 'artisan' at all. All were socially of relatively low status, and were regarded as artisans -- which did not mean that some were not greatly admired and well-paid, because good artisans were respected. The distinction between 'fine art' and 'applied/decorative' arts is itself much more recent, probably post-Renaissance, and has bedevilled art-history, to its great harm, for generations.
    This is relevant because I think a LOT of this sort of thinking about popular and intellectual, 'genre' and 'literary' (including Frye, to the best of knowledge) is based on similar concepts of 'high' and 'low' art. This classification seems to me to be fundamentally false.
    Whether a work of art is executed well or badly is a factual judgement; there are absolute standards. But whether an idea, a concept, is 'good' or 'bad' is in part a matter of taste and fashion, of current norms, fashions, preferences and also personal experience, and absolute value-judgements are, to my mind, highly dubious.