The Problem of Genre

I just read this post and the comments (omg comments that are actual discussion and not trolling! Weird!) on Pamela Regis’ The Natural History of the Romance Novel. It’s a book I have yet to get, but have been recommended it for my thesis because of its importance in romance scholarship. Since I haven’t read it, I can’t comment much on the book in general, but the author of the blog, Noah Berlatsky, brings up something of great interest to me: the problem of genre and its definitions and tropes.

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Regis refers to romance as having eight essential elements, which according to some, at once restricts the definition of romance to a set formula and chokes the potential for originality in the genre. Berlatsky is particularly critical of people who enforce the genre boundaries. He uses the example of an editor who sticks by the Essential Elements list to make authors change their stories to “better fit” the romance genre, thus influencing directly the limitations of how the genre is presented. Great literature is built on change, so he asks – do we actually need definitions?

Genres (and categories) are redefined all the time – they are “fuzzy and socially determined and always negotiated” (Berlatsky). Regis admitted in 2009 that her original definition including specific gender terms was excluding gay and bisexual romances, so the gendered terms turned into the neutral “protagonists”. There is also a problem in WHO defines the genre – genre is used most usefully by the publishing industry/process itself (including self-publishers). But readers are also important in the process (after all, that’s the whole point of publishing – to get the product to the consumers). The whole system of defining genres depends on each type of person invested in the genre. Look at the creation of the New Adult category.

Definitions are sort of useful in some ways. YA (a category, not a genre) is defined (by some) as “fictive texts which have an implied teenage audience; that is, books which either feature protagonists of a secondary school age (twelve to eighteen years), or, it is reasonable to suppose, would be read by those in this age group”. This is a rather loose descriptor, but fits quite well as it doesn’t impose rules. YA can be any genre. While YA is considered largely to be written in first person present tense, there is no rule saying it can’t be otherwise. There are trends and tropes, but they vary as well. Could a loose descriptor rather than a strict definition be the way to go?

IMHO, Genres (and categories) shouldn’t be used to limit new creations – society itself depends on creativity and change to grow (and society is always in a state of flux). As much as I’m not a fan of Deleuze, he referred to art as being its own form of philosophy, capable of true freedom from the strict rules of reality and able to bend the laws of time and space. I rather like that!

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Various Examples & Random Thoughts

  • Does romance require a Happily Ever After (HEA)? Where is the line between a Romance or a book containing romantic elements? (I’m having this very problem in creating criteria for my thesis)
  • Does the reliance of some fantasy writers on Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey restrict creativity? (E.g. This is not only used in writing books, it’s also used in analysing movies (thanks Ross for reminding me!). I have also read somewhere that George Lucas relied on it heavily for Star Wars.)
  • Some criticise YA for being too bleak and state that children’s/YA literature should always have a happy, or at least an ambiguous, ending, to inspire hope in the young readers – should this be an excuse?
  • Sometimes with popular books, they can cross genres/categories. If particularly popular, this will require a change in marketing and cover design (e.g. Harry Potter as the most obvious, Allison Croggon’s Pellinor). Some books might not be found if categorised in the wrong genre (meta-data=super important!).

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*Note: Funnily enough on the same day, I saw a link to an article about someone who went through and analysed the genres/categories on Netflix.

** Urge to go on about narrow definitions of monsters that lead to exclusion, but I’ll leave that for another blog. Until then, there is this blog about why sparkly vampires don’t suck as much as you think

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