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Classical Origins, Renaissance, Neoclassical, And Romantic Conceptions, Twentieth-century Perceptions, The Future Of Genre

Genre is the division and grouping of texts on the basis of formal, thematic, or stylistic criteria. Texts may be produced, it can be argued, in compliance with or against the strictures of an established and identifiable genre, though it is equally feasible to impose a genre identity upon a work in retrospect, thus attributing to it further possibilities of meaning or, conversely, limiting its potential signification. Paradoxically, genre is conceptually located both within and outside of an individual text; it is a tool that may be employed with equal facility by author, reader, and critic. It is, equally paradoxically, both an instrument of restriction and a mode of liberation.

As a system of division, genre lacks universally accepted boundaries. It is, perhaps, most obviously vested in the formal distinctions between narrative (or prose), drama, and poetry (or verse), though there are some critics who would distinguish these three broad, recurrent identities as "modes," reserving the distinction of genre for what are essentially a work's technically distinguishable or thematically organized components—the sonnet within lyric or poetry, the novel and the gothic within prose fiction, tragedy within drama, and so on. Confusingly, other critics have been known to use the term mode to indicate a recognized textual tendency within one of the three broad genres. These already unstable boundaries may be further confused through an adaptation of the terminology of the German critic Karl Viëtor (1892–1951), under which genre distinctions, such as the romance and the pastoral, that occur across cultures may be labeled (somewhat misleadingly) as "universals."

On the one hand—and to adopt, for the purposes of argument, what is admittedly an extreme position—the regulated and regularized conventions of genre represent a restriction on what may be produced and what ought to be consumed. The conventions of genre, in this respect, hold the potential of functioning as instruments of a restrictive conservatism of generation and reception which may both discourage innovation at the level of the individual text and exclude noncompliant examples from the canon. To write within a culturally accepted or approved genre is thus both to aspire to inclusion within a community of letters and to align the text (and, possibly, its creator) with implications and identities that are often as much social as they are literary. The same might be said for other cultural practices in which genre is the primary mode of division—art, music, and cinema providing obvious parallels. These issues of production, interpretation, imposition, and definition apply as much in these visual and aural media as they do in oral and written textuality. For the sake of clarity and accessibility, the contentions of this essay are illustrated primarily with the oral and written text.

Conversely, however, the conventions and requirements of genre may function more as developmental departure-points than as blockades restricting innovation. They may enhance or supplement rather than concretize the existing borders of a genre, evolving and expanding in order to comprehend the novelty of texts that take issue with their own heritage. Although such innovation within genre may easily be taken as evidence of the artistic and cultural vitality of the context out of which any particular genre arises, it may equally proclaim the final limit of toleration, the point at which a genre may be seen to divide internally into subgenres or even, at the extreme, to fragment into new extrageneric divisions, often distinctly named in order to proclaim the finality and totality of separation. Drama may embrace within its bounds both tragedy and comedy, and may exhibit sufficient flexibility for all concerned to comprehend such a hybrid as tragicomedy. However, purists concerned with the study of the gothic novel, a literary genre whose origins lie in the eighteenth century, may find it considerably less easy to accept the existence of a subgenre proclaiming itself "gothic science fiction," even though the antecedent of such a concept might arguably include that quintessential "first-wave" gothic novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), published at the close of the period commonly designated as the "first wave" of gothic writing. In short, the degree to which the title of genre is awarded to a broader or narrower field of artistic production, and the extent to which that distinction is accepted, reflects the debate between the interested parties in authorship, reception, and culture more generally.

Genres, in common with the texts that sustain and promulgate them, thus exist in relationship to other bodies and other institutions, textual as well as organizational. Equally, genres exist and are modified and negotiated in debates among literary critics, as well as in the critical function and content of the artistic work itself. The relationships between genres may be complementary or oppositional, and may vary between the two across a period of cultural history. Fixity is not an invariable feature of internal genre identity and, equally, the complementary or combative relationships that pertain between genres are themselves fluid. The literary critic Jonathan Culler suggests that "the function of genre conventions is essentially to establish a contract between writer and reader" (p. 147). From Culler's observation that this contract serves in part to "make certain relevant expectations operative," it is logical to suggest that such a contract always retains the potential for renegotiation, given the constant revision of genre standards and components. Culler, however, appears to disregard the presence in such contractual renegotiations of a third party, namely the publishing and marketing industries. Indeed, it is this commercial activity, which, by way of evocative series titles and cover blurbs, has both popularized the notion of genre in the public imagination and, in the case of some popular genres, most notably the historical novel and gothic traditions, has reduced the dynamics of production to little more than stylistic repetition. This has been a risk associated with genre from its origins in classical writing.

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