Friday, 13 November 2009

Some Thoughts on Genre

I promised in a previous post to talk a little about genre...

Genre is many things, it would seem.

Roughly speaking, I would say that there are two major different types of genre: content genres and format genres. Perhaps this is more than a bit simplified, especially considering the great amount of critical literature on genre and genre studies, but nevertheless, I feel that it is a valid view.

Content genres are, of course, genres who are defined (at least primarily) by a specific content, say science fiction or fantasy. This is not to say that some such genres can't also have certain elements and conceits vis-a-vis format, but their primary definition relies on the content they display.

Format genres, on the other hand, are defined by their format, on how they shape a text, for instance, say like poetry or novels or sonnets. And now you probably stopped abruptly with a "wait a minute" on your lips. Yes, I did write both poetry and sonnet there (cleverly separated by the novels, don't you think), and no, I did not make a mistake nor am I so badly schooled as to be unaware of the fact that sonnets are in fact poetry. My point, however, was to bring us to another complication; i.e. that genres exist as an interrelated network of hierarchical structures.

What I mean is that both within content and format genres we have levels at which these genres operate. Poetry gives us a broad genre understanding of the work at hand, whereas sonnet gives us a much more specific one, bound by rhyme schemes and metre as it were. Both describe the same thing, but with different specificity. Equally I might also say that an alexandrine is poetry (since it is true), although I couldn't claim that an alexandrine were a sonnet, or vice versa.

Basically, it's a system of species and subdivision, much similar to the old adage "a horse is an animal, but not all animals are horses."

To complicate matter even further though, it is of course, at this point, worth saying that we can cross-breed genres on the same level and of the same type, and then of course add distinctions on various levels.

So, we could have a poem, narrative in nature (and I guess function), perhaps even using the specific format of the sonnet (by using a sequence of sonnets most likely to get enough space to properly have time and space to tell a story) which is used to tell a science fiction and crime cross-breed, where we might also even be able to define a specific SF subgenre (say space opera) and a specific crime subgenre (say forensic).

As such, the definitions can occur on a very fine level or a more general one, focus on the content or the format. They will be important for the writer to understand when he or she sets out to use specific genres, yet will also be interacting with the text in manners which proves to us that an author can never fully control which genre he or she is writing in. There will always be sliding and overlapping, and the reader or viewer will inevitably see things that he or she reads or views based on what he or she knows.

Which of course isn't to say that the author can sit back and simply not care.

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