Genre as Fields of Study

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 those structural and thematic qualities that define them. I believe this study occurs naturally as we consumer a greater number of books and intuitively begin to decipher the “familiar discursive moves” (Hart-Davidson) made by authors who themselves have intuitively grasped those moves from the voracity of their reading.

Front cover of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

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 (Google Trends) for a very specific brand of dystopian novel (Google).

What might any author who may have chased the pecuniary success of The Hunger Games have done? Surely they 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” (Lerner 40). We can see this process unfold as the market shifts, genres fall in and out of favor, and new genres are created.

Front cover of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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 intending on replicating to any extent the 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.

Sources

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.

“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.

7 thoughts on “Genre as Fields of Study

  1. Ime, unfortunately I cannot comment too much on your post for this week. It looks like you accidentally jumped ahead on the reading and went on to talk about genre rather than writing as a social and rhetorical activity. Maybe next week I can come back and comment again as soon as I’ve done the reading?

    In any case, I found it interesting that you chose Mary Shelley as one of your examples. Particularly, while I agree that “Frankenstein” owes something to “The Castle of Otranto” for the establishment of the gothic genre, “Frankenstein” is also unique, as it is hailed as the progenitor of science fiction. By a similar token, Mary Shelley is considered to have begun dystopian fiction with her novel “The Last Man,” and I would have been interested to see how you would draw that line of lineage from Walpole to Shelley to Collins.

    1. Ime, I thought you had some interesting ideas about the influence and evolution of literary genres, particularly how you and Hart-Davidson agree on the common definition of genre. How do you define fiction which crosses boundaries of genre? Is it more important to pay credence to the author’s intentions or the reader’s interpretations? Also, I wonder why you chose to focus on literary genre and how this connects to the general threshold concept. I would like to hear more about the personal relevance of genre. Does awareness of literary genres influence or shape your own writing? How do you anticipate approaching genre in the classroom?

      1. To your first question, I’d define fiction that crosses genre boundaries as just that. There’s always space for distinct areas to bisect, much in the same way that genetics and anthropology may blend under certain circumstances. We don’t necessarily need to invent a new classification for those intersections. To your second question, an author’s intentions are irrelevant to individual interpretations; intentions are descriptive where interpretations are prescriptive, and it’s the prescription (i.e. the social response) that ultimately defines an author’s work. Sometimes the two align. Other times, they don’t. To your third question, I chose literary genre because the creative writer in me demanded it. To your last questions, my understanding of genres has to shape my writing, and it does so in the same way that a scientist’s understanding of their specific field informs the way they conduct their research. It’s a good lesson in flexibility and adapting writing to fit certain contexts.

    2. Ime, I am glad to see you evaluate genres in your work, and I agree with your statement that we do study them more on a subconscious level. To bring up how different genres may bisect, might there be some merit in a form of classification? It seems that the blending of genres will only increase in the future, as we strive for whatever “originality” we can get.

  2. Ime,

    I think you made a very compelling point about genres as fields of study. It is possible that people understand the nature of trends, but are unable to point them out in popular culture in a way that you have. For example, referencing the Hunger Games as the start to many other similar dystopian novels could help students have a tangable example to work with when teaching about genres.

    I don’t think we read the same chapter, so I can’t really say more on this topic other than what you specifically put in your post. However, I really like the direction that you are going with this blog post and can see how it would be beneficial for readers to understand.

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