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.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.
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
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?-------
- Allan, Jonathan. "The Formula of Romance." The Educated Imagination: A Website Dedicated to Northrop Frye. 1 Feb. 2011.
- McWilliam, Kelly. “Romance in Foreign Accents: Harlequin-Mills & Boon in Australia.” Continuum: Journal of Cultural & Media Studies 23.2 (2009): 137-145. Available online in a differently paginated version from the University of Southern Queensland.
- Myers, B. R. "A Reader's Manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose." The Atlantic July/August 2001.