Literary genres are not commonly thought of as fields of study. Despite this, I would assert just that. Hart-Davidson defines genre as “a form of discourse recognizable as a common set of structural or thematic qualities,” (Hart-Davidson 39) that are enacted by writers and readers. This definition is analogous to how one might define an academic discipline: subsets of general knowledge.
You might dismiss this notion immediately, arguing that “literary genres aren’t studied and, therefore, can’t be considered fields of study.” To that, I’d say that literary genres aren’t consciously studied. After all, it’d be impossible to categorize literature into genres without an adequate study of the structural and thematic qualities that define them. I believe this study occurs naturally as we consume increasingly more books and intuitively begin deciphering the “familiar discursive moves” (Hart-Davidson) made by authors who themselves have intuitively grasped those moves from the voracity of their own reading.
Throughout time, those discursive moves have been motivated by “reader expectations, institutional norms, market forces, and other social influences” (Hart-Davidson). After all, Wilkie Collins may have never penned The Moonstone without the influence of Dickens and the contemporaneous popularity of the serial format. Social and market forces worked together to publicize what would later become a touchstone detective novel; similarly, who’s to say if Mary Shelley would have written Frankenstein—or Bram Stoker Dracula?—had Horace Walpole not invented the gothic genre with The Castle of Otranto; and lastly, without Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, novels such as Ready Player One, Divergent, The 5th Wave, or Red Rising may never have found their way to bookshelves. After its publication in 2008, The Hunger Games jumpstarted polyphagia for a very specific brand of dystopian novel (Google Trends).
What would an author hoping to chase the financial success of The Hunger Games have done? Surely they’d have studied Collins’s text and gleaned from it the aspects that resonated most. Afterwards, they doubtlessly held those thematic qualities in mind as they constructed their next work. Readers of dystopian novels likely picked up on the same qualities as the author but lacked the vocabulary to organize those thoughts. Such is the process of genre that elements explored by one author are adopted by the next. In relation to academic disciplines, Neal Lerner asserts that “disciplines shape—and in turn are shaped by—the writing that members of those disciplines do” (40). We can see this process unfold as the market shifts, genres fall in and out of favor, and new genres are created.
Yet, as often as we attempt to define the categories and subcategories of literature, their defining qualities shift in degrees, and we find that “genre is…the result of a series of socially mediated actions that accumulate over time” (Hart-Davidson 40) and impervious to the boundaries prescribed to them. As these actions build in quantity and become readily accessible to those who favor them, the study of genre is enacted by the readers, who later assign prescriptivist terminologies to the texts to which they best apply. Having this prescription in mind works wonders for a writer grappling for a way of investigating the human experience. Thus do genres speak “to the processes by which members of a discipline shape, make distinct, and value its forms and practices of knowledge creation and communication, and these processes, in turn, are shaped by the histories of those genres” (Lerner 41). Though Lerner wrote this on the topic of academic disciplines, it holds true for literary forms as well. For instance, authors of paranormal romance (think Twilight) access specific tropes, narrative conventions, and stylistic choices that build from—as I touched upon with dystopian novels—the successes of authors of touchstone pieces in that genre. This is literary genre as a field of study in blatant practice.
Narrative conventions are in constant flux, and it requires a conscious effort on the part of authors intent on replicating conventions conceived or perfected by their contemporaries. While casual readers may only glean these intricacies through subconscious deduction, it remains consistently true that “whatever meaning a writer or reader makes of a particular text is not a result of their engagements with that particular text alone” (Roozen 44). A history of predating texts inform everything that follows, and it’s only through a study of those texts that genres can be solidified, modified, or transitioned into new genres altogether.
Atakpa, Ime. “The Castle of Otranto Cover.”
Hart-Davidson, Bill. “Genres Are Enacted by Writers and Readers.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 39-40.
Lerner, Neal. “Writing Is A Way of Enacting Disciplinarity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 41.
Roozen, Kevin. “Texts Get Their Meaning From Other Texts.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 44–46.
Google Trends “Explore: dystopian.” trends.google.com, Google, 31 Aug. 2019, trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=dystopian.
“The Hunger Games Cover.” Suzanne Collins, www.suzannecollinsbooks.com/the_hunger_games_69765.htm.