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.
The distinction that underpins the three broad divisions of genre have their origins in the rigid formalities and hierarchies of classical thought. Book 3 of Plato's Republic (c. 380 b.c.e.) is preoccupied with the effective censoring of writing deemed inappropriate to the dignity of the projected Republic and its guardians. Though this activity finds its parallel in Aristotle's later consideration of "decorum," or the proper relationship of style to subject matter, Plato's dialogue is most influential in its systematization of genre, albeit in a vision premised upon the perception of narrative voice through direct speech, rather than a more protracted encounter with technique in itself, as the primary item of definition. Plato's division, contained for the most part within what are traditionally numbered paragraphs 392–396 of Book 3, contends that "any poem or story deals with things past, present or future" by way of "either simple narrative, or representation, or a mixture of both" (p. 131). The division here is based upon the relative positions of the poet allegedly speaking as himself ("narrative") and the imitative function whereby the speech or manner of another person is imitated in an act of "representation." Using Homer's Iliad as an example, the dialogue further develops the presence of a hybrid form in which passages of narration alternate with those of representation, the poet speaking first "in his own person" and then "in the person of Chryses" (p. 131). Notably, the later genre distinction between "poetry [and] drama" is ignored in this early classification, the "styles" of narration being the only distinction permitted to those engaged in the act of creation.
The most influential classical formulation of discrete and persistent genre criteria based upon a perceived difference in media as much as on the condition of narrative voice and subject matter is in Aristotle's undated treatise On the Art of Poetry (also known as The Poetics ), though it is apparent that the work may have had limited currency from antiquity until its rediscovery during the Renaissance. The treatise is committed to a hierarchical differentiation of poetry, Aristotle's introductory history of poetic writing acknowledging an early division of art into "two channels": a "serious-minded" tradition preoccupied with "noble actions and the doings of noble persons" (p. 35) and a more invective, trivial form that charted the dealings of the "meaner sort of people" (p. 36). Three different methods of distinguishing the essential nature of a work are outlined in the Poetics, these being the medium (effectively the verse or rhythmic form) through which a work may imitate reality; the "object of imitation" (how a character is represented or exaggerated—in Aristotle's contention, specifically in moral terms); and finally (and in continuation of the Platonic model), the "manner of imitation" or difference between representation and narration (pp. 32–34).
The hierarchical model exercises itself within the Poetics through the distinction between the qualities of tragedy, comedy, and epic. Comedy, it is suggested, is a "low" form, in that it is a projection of the ridiculous or of that which is painful to perceive, though this is undertaken in such a manner as not to cause pain to the audience. One would add to this the assumption that such a form would be unlikely to provoke deep thought or self-reflection, though developments in the satirical tradition of Roman literature might well achieve this. In Aristotle's understanding, Greek epic and tragedy, in contrast to comedy, do provoke introspection, both laying claim to be "a reflection, in dignified verse, of serious actions" (p. 38)—though Aristotle eventually concludes the tragic to be the more effective and thus the most prestigious of the two.
Epic differs from tragedy also through formal conventions. According to Aristotle, epic, alone, conventionally "keeps to a single metre and is in narrative form" (p. 38). The two are dissimilar, again, in the scope of their respective temporal coverage, the epic being restricted by "no limits in its time of action" where tragedy was traditionally associated with "a complete action" played out during a period of around twenty-four hours (pp. 45, 38). There is considerably more at stake in this genre distinction than the convention of "fear and pity" (p. 48), which has been at times simplistically used as the defining icon of tragedy. Different meters distinguish the various forms considered by Aristotle, the iambic, for example being derived from an association with the "iamb" or lampoon, where heroic hexameter "is the right metre for epic" (p. 67). Stage tragedy employed choral song in lyric meters, with spoken exchanges delivered in tetrameters or iambic trimeters. The notion of "decorum" or appropriateness is rigid in this vision of genre: the "dignified verse" of epic or tragedy being reserved only for those forms, the diction of the latter being modified still further through "the use of expanded, abbreviated and altered forms of words" to "raise the diction above the commonplace" (pp. 63, 65). Contorted language in comedy would, by contrast, prototypically lead to confusion rather than to the thought-provoking—and ultimately fatal—riddle posed by the Sphinx, or indeed those posed by Teiresias to Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. Inappropriate usage, in this respect, would challenge audience expectation, were not the classical institutions of literature so rigid in their discouragement of such experimentation.
Aristotle's preoccupation with tragedy in the Poetics has left a corresponding deficiency in the criticism of the lyric, comedy, and, to a considerably lesser extent, epic—criticism of the latter being inevitably colored by the explicit partial congruence with tragedy as well as through Aristotle's discrete pronouncements upon epic stylistics. In consequence, subsequent critics have addressed this imbalance not merely by considering those genre areas specifically but also by developing further the Platonic and Aristotelian canons of genre beyond their apparent boundaries of lyric, comedy, and epic. This expansion and clarification is in many ways retrospective, based as it is in part upon an observation of recurrent textual preoccupations rather than any universally accepted criteria for generation. In contrast to the specific denominations of Platonic and Aristotelian criticism, such developments are frequently termed "classical divisions" or "the classical genres," gaining a certain value—as alleged origins, as touchstones for subsequent work—in consequence.
Access to the specifics of these "classical" genres—and to the vagueness that often surrounds them—might be most conveniently made through what has effectively become a genre in modern criticism itself, the critical handbook marketed at undergraduate readers. Writing in 2002, John Peck and Martin Coyle inform the student reader that "the main generic division today is into poetry, drama and the novel, but in earlier times the major genres were recognised as epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy and satire" (p. 1). Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, writing in 1997, concur, though they offer "pastoral" as an equal to the five "classical" genres. What is apparent, again, is the lack of consensus among critics.
Notable also, however, is the particular valorization of satire as a discrete genre, rather than in its more traditional status in Greek criticism as an element in comedy. Claimed as a uniquely Roman tradition by Quintilian, satire was in Aristotelian terms little more than a base ancestor of comedy or a mere component of that lesser genre. Although its inclusion in a modern tabulation of genres may reflect the acknowledgment of the parallel status of Roman art alongside Greek, it may arguably also be associated with the enhanced status enjoyed by satirical writing in the modern world. The pastoral or "bucolic" genre similarly enjoyed a classical reputation as a component of epic, lyric, or tragedy, though its potential as a discrete genre was established by the Greek poet Theocritus (third century b.c.e.), its conventions being further developed and popularized by the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 b.c.e.). Again, though classical antecedents are undoubtedly important in the establishment of pastoral as a discrete genre, it must be acknowledged that its status in the contemporary critical field is enhanced by the influence of pastoral stylistics upon individual writers from William Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy, and its contribution to literary and critical movements from the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to late-twentieth-century ecocriticism. Genre, as it were, may be valued as much for the texts it has inspired indirectly as for its direct generational capacity as a literary matrix.
Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Romantic Conceptions
The Age of Reason, as has so often been asserted, was an age characterized for many by a commitment to individual and social order, supported by the adoption of taxonomies and systems conducive to the maintenance of that order. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to perceive the continued presence of genre, particularly as a limiting agent in literary culture, for a significant part of this period, albeit with limited acceptance in some quarters toward the close of the eighteenth century.
The persistence of genre in the Age of Reason is a logical continuation of the revival of classical thought, and indeed, of renewed reverence for the classical texts of Greek and Roman antiquity, during the Renaissance period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Renaissance brought a revival of interest in the writings of Aristotle in particular, and already-established notions of decorum—the relationship of form to subject matter or occasion—were in many respects confirmed for the purposes of the present by the antecedent of classical thought. The association, for example, of the sonnet as a form particularly suitable for amorous verse was effectively concretized in the courtly writings of the Renaissance period, the essay also coming to parallel (and subsequently to eclipse, albeit later, in the eighteenth century) the Socratic dialogue as the appropriate medium for philosophical and literary speculation. The broader genres of classical thought thus began to fragment into distinct stylistic identities that held the potential of eventual development into genres (or at least subgenres) in their own right. The pastoral also reappeared in the form of eclogues (short poems, not necessarily in dialogue form) in the Latin and vernacular tongues, in many cases under the influence of the Italian poet Petrarch (1304–1374) and his imitators, following a period of neglect during the Middle Ages.
This is not to say that the Renaissance was simply an age of revival, devoid of genre development and speculation. Developing from a medieval and early Renaissance tradition of chivalric, and at times fantastic, storytelling, the romance became an established literary form from the fifteenth century, and in England at least was considered predominantly a prose genre. In this context, the romance is a genre of adventure or experience, describing events and actions often fanciful or exaggerated, though which may be frequently utilized as a vehicle for personal or social exploration. The Renaissance genre of romance—and, by implication, its medieval antecedents in the depiction of Arthurian and classical heroes—itself enters into introspection in the early seventeenth century with the publication of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605–1615), which mocks not merely the style of romance but its aspirations toward an idealized and meaningful life. Significantly, the romance, with its pretensions of the fantastic and its recollections of a recent, spectacular past, became unfashionable as neoclassical thought gained aesthetic ascendancy, returning to an enhanced position only with the rise of gothicism and Romanticism in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The Renaissance is the period also, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the rise as a distinct tendency within prose fiction of the picaresque, or novel of roguery. Growing from literary origins in sixteenth-century Spain, the picaresque evolved into a prose genre closely aligned to the romance by the early eighteenth century. The generic distinction, it must be noted, was applied in retrospect from the nineteenth century, though such tales of illicit love and scandal had been often distinguished in England from the mid-seventeenth century through the term novel. Despite this precedent, extended (and often episodic) picaresque works were frequently prefaced on their title pages by grandiose distinctions, such as "history" or "expedition"—applied to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker (1771), respectively—these niceties adding a pretension of factuality to tantalize, or trap, the potential reader. As in the classical period, any discrete genre exists in relation to other literary forms, and the relative status of one might be accreted to another through the appropriation of a signifier such as a recurrent device in titling or structure. Order, as it were, implies hierarchy and stratification as much as control and regularity: such falsehoods as those on the title pages of Tom Jones and Humphry Clinker effectively resist the alleged control exercised by the neoclassical preoccupations of the Age of Reason.
It would be overly simplistic to structure the rise of Romanticism from the last quarter of the eighteenth century as being little more than a reaction to the spiritual, political, and literary strictures allegedly imposed by the Age of Reason. Indeed, the movement proposed little more than an alternative aesthetic rather than an end to conventionalism and formulaic production through genre. In its engagement with outmoded or discarded forms of spirituality and its addressing of demotic identities, Romanticism maintained a restrictive convention of decorum, albeit one at odds with neoclassicism's reverence of Greek and Roman stylistics. Demotic and elaborately archaized forms of poetry were particularly celebrated in the presentation of uncanny events and scenes of pathos, the latter at times developing many of the sentimental attributes previously associated with the pastoral. The ballad, in particular, became a major and distinctive vehicle by which poetry might be directed away from the lofty forms and heroic subject matter of classicism and neoclassicism toward an often emotional evocation of the language and social environment of common people. Again, the association of form with subject matter or voice is an agent in the fragmentation of larger genre identities.
Romantic writers were often influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the gothic, which flourished in its first wave from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth. In terms of genre, however, the importance of the gothic lies not in its predominantly supernatural subject matter or commitment to depictions of the grotesque and excessive, but to its aesthetics and conventions being applied across prose, poetry, and drama. The rise of the gothic arguably marks the distinctive transition from a conception of genre based primarily upon formal differentiation to one where conventions of subject matter predominate. Decorum may no longer impose singularity: the poetic ballad may be as suitable a medium for gothic description as the prose novel. The same ballad, again, might hold the potential of being viewed as a product not merely of gothic stylistics but, recalling the parallel influence of Romanticism, as a representation of demotic or folk culture, also. Though such possibilities had been hinted at by earlier literary developments—the novel of sensibility had retained some affinity with sentimental poetry, for example—the gothic was arguably the most influential force in this blurring of generic boundaries essentially inimical to the rigid hierarchies of Enlightenment thought.
In addition to this, the shift in perception that placed subject-matter convention over form encouraged a new interest in satire, itself a form of literary production that blurs genre boundaries through its intertextual dynamic between allusion and satiric comedy. In gothic, the novelistic mockeries of Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) and Jane Austen (1775–1817) inform a long tradition of acute observation and wry comment, which underpins the twentieth-century cinematic satires of Young Frankenstein (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Modern gothic, it might be added, is cinematic as well as theatrical, poetic, and novelistic in its compass.
Although the gothic, with Romanticism, effectively crossed and revised the boundaries between the three major genre fields of prose, poetry, and drama, this lead was not readily taken up with any effectiveness by another major transgenre movement until the rise of modernism. Instead, critical attention across the nineteenth century became preoccupied with the increasing specialization within the three major genres, a process alternatively of subdivision or fragmentation that might lead, depending on perspective, to subgenres or genres in their own right. Such changes are not necessarily evolutionary—the grotesque social awareness of Charles Dickens (1812–1870), for example, does not lead seamlessly to the politicized naturalism of Émile Zola (1840–1902). Critics in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have, however, attempted at times to appropriate a model of evolution (and in the case of Max Nordau, of decadence) to the act of criticism, associating changes in taste and genre with the perceived development or regression of the social and cultural standards that form the text's content. To do this is again to engage with the exclusive powers of genre: the decadent fiction of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, for example, may have been critically rejected upon formal grounds, though the institutions of the dominant culture are more likely to have taken issue with its subject matter. The sense of decorum here does not stop conventionally at associating one set of formal criteria as being appropriate to the depiction of a specific issue or subject. In the context of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, the debate on decorum of preoccupied with whether any form should be associated with the matter depicted by the authors deemed decadent. "Decadence" thus becomes effectively another genre engaged in defining works, often in conventional form, that fall outside the cannons of taste.
It is clear, though, that genre was enhanced (whether as internal division or fragmentation outward is irrelevant here) by the rise of a mass publishing and distribution industry in the nineteenth century, and through public consciousness of a world made considerably more complex through social change, empire, and technology. It is this context that maintains the novel as a convenient physical form for distribution and consumption, but that prefaces that demarcation with conditions generated out of the context of the day. Thus, the term novel progressively functions only as the mantissa of a variable concept conditioned by its prefix. In the United Kingdom, the century was to see the rise and fall of "condition of England" novels in the 1840s, the "new woman" novel of gender assertiveness in the 1890s, and the "problem novel" of sexual manners in the early 1900s. Such specialisms may lay claim to distinctiveness of subject matter, some enjoying a discrete and highly conventionalized decorum of form in addition. Audiences, again, often became equally specialized and well-versed in the conventions of the genre, their demand for works both stimulating production and potentially blocking its development beyond existing boundaries. Notably, many of the minor genres of the century were short lived, their currency being determined as much by fashion and the topicality of current affairs as by literary taste.
There remains, however, a perceptible difference between the stylistically and overtly literary production and the merely prosaic act of communication, and this distinction came to preoccupy the systematic scrutiny of fiction undertaken by Russian formalist critics during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Abandoning the social contexts of art in favor of a return to structural and formal issues, the movement produced a number of significant concepts pertinent to the issues of genre and genre formation. Among these was Roman Jakobson's conceptualization of a literary type by way of "the dominant," "the focusing element of a work of art," which "rules, determines and transforms the remaining components" (p. 82). The dominant, as Jakobson subsequently clarifies, may be external to the work, a component of the stylistic canon of the poetic school or age. The parallels to earlier notions of genre are obvious here, though it is worth adding a note of caution to Jakobson's assertion by way of a reference to Jurij Tynjanov's observation that the foregrounding of "dominant" elements necessarily implies the deformation of components elsewhere in the text. It may equally imply the overlooking of components in the drive to define a genre by its most prominent—or most fashionable—feature.
This deformation, though, is not immutable. Evolution, or a change of emphasis in the definition of a genre by the hierarchy of its components, may determine how a body of texts is defined across a historical period. Citing the example of the novel, Tynjanov notes that where once it was distinguished by its commitment to a narrative of "love intrigue," the genre has subsequently become defined by "its size and the nature of its plot development" (p. 73). Tynjanov's definition appears here to treat of the broadest category of novel, rejecting the generic fragmentations so popular in the nineteenth century, though elsewhere Jakobson acknowledges the importance of "transitional genres"—exemplified by "letters, diaries, notebooks, travelogues"—which are "extraliterary and extrapoetical" or supplementary to the canonical genres of literature (p. 86). Again, these might well be defined as genres within their own right under an alternative critical viewpoint. Emphasis, and interpretation, remains in the eye of the perceiver.
Jakobson's contention—which appears orthodox across Russian formalist thought—that genre is as much a hierarchy and system of values as verse does have important implications for generic change. Changes in the hierarchy of poetic devices within a genre affect how that genre may be defined. Generic evolution is not so much a question of the disappearance of certain elements but of a shift in the relationship of dominant to muted, a change of emphasis rather than a change of content. Russian formalism demands that an approach to genre be based upon a consciousness of its status as a system, and of the relationship of the text to elements within that system as well as those that might be deemed "extraliterary"—for the moment, at least.
This systematic approach also informs the influential work of both Northrop Frye and Tzvetan Todorov, two major theoreticians of genre brought into effective dialogue through the publication of Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970). As Todorov observes, Frye formulates in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957) a theoretical rather than historical model of genre. It is apparent that in part this model draws upon Aristotelian concepts not merely of division, but also of presentation. Decorum is, thus, again a limiting factor. The primary demarcations envisaged by Frye are, conventionally, drama (poetry or prose to be performed), lyric (poetry to be sung), epic (poetry to be recited) and prose that may simply be read. The first three are, essentially, performative, and the texts they produce remain within their respective genre definitions even when presented in the form of the printed page. These three genres are further associated with what Frye terms the epos, a convention of addressing an audience based upon oral presentation. Frye refines his fourth genre area, that of prose, by moving quickly to a consideration of "fiction," "the genre of the printed page" or, alternately, "the genre that addresses a reader through a book" (p. 248) rather than in expectation of oral performance.
This demarcation, though, may be compromised by the conventions of writing itself, so that prose fiction may assume a connection with the epos, or oral address, according to Frye, simply by making "some attempt to preserve the convention of recitation and a listening audience" (p. 248). Further confusion may also occur through Frye's generalization that fiction is continuous and the epos conventionally episodic. As he admits, under both of these criteria the works of Charles Dickens are wholly fiction when published in volume form, though they will—because Victorian serials were conventionally read aloud to family gatherings—have been touched by the epos in their earlier incarnation in periodical form. Further, when Dickens began to undertake public reading tours, during which his works were first arranged and then declaimed by the author to an audience, "the genre changed wholly to epos " (Frye, p. 249). Though at first sight conventionally rigid, Frye's demarcations become somewhat permeable as the relationship between text and reader (or audience) becomes acknowledged as mutable rather than fixed.
One might also point out here briefly Frye's consideration of "archetypes" or recurrent acts of communication and their implications for genre. Although, Frye observes, "certain common images," such as "the sea or the forest," may connect "one poem with another" (p. 99), creating a perceptible unity between them, the works of an author might equally be recalled to the coherence of an oeuvre through that writer's "preoccupation with two or three archetypes" (p. 268). Taken to an extreme, there appears to be little conceptual difference between an oeuvre and genre by this definition, particularly where questions of epos and audience are themselves apparently questionable. Both are adequate modes of division, but little more—and the adequacy of genre as an effective container of certain liminal forms (which Frye himself demonstrates as being far more diverse than the transitional genres associated with Jakobson) appears far from convincing in the detail of his model. Frye's model is far from conclusive, and indeed far from comprehensive given its often conflicting complexity. He should, though, be credited with a consideration that might profitably inform all attempts to improve, define, or use genre. As Frye asserts, genre distinctions are not practical but rather "among the ways in which literary works are ideally presented, whatever the actualities are" (p. 247).
The first chapter of The Fantastic is for much of its length a response to Anatomy of Criticism, its focus being directed in particular to the perceived incoherence and lack of specificity in of Frye's tabulation of genre. Although the subsequent nine chapters of The Fantastic demonstrate Todorov's thought through the exposition of a single genre and its internal structures and tensions, much of that thought encloses the polemical content of the first chapter. Like Frye and the earlier formalists, Todorov asserts the individual text to be the product of convention, a reworking of what has already been achieved in literature rather than an emotive or unique form of self-expression. The individual text is thus not valued in its own right but rather becomes the basic resource in a deductive process from which a hypothesis or generalization regarding "a principle operative in a number of texts" (Todorov, p. 3) may be projected. Such distinctions are not adequate for the formulation of universal laws, though they are appropriate for smaller (and implicitly more coherent) theoretical units—generic identities such as the fantastic, through which Todorov explicates his theory.
Central to Todorov's model of genre is the statement that "every work modifies the sum of possible works" (p. 6). This is not a new idea: it has a precedent in the Russian formalist definition of the literary by way of defamiliarization and innovation. Todorov, however, does not dismiss the noninnovative work as being merely prosaic or unliterary, thus compromising its position within genre. Rather, he considers such productions as being effectively within genre, albeit as (dependent upon audience context) "so-called 'popular' or 'mass' literature in the one case; in the other that of the academic exercise or unoriginal experiment" (p. 6). The innovative text, though, permits a statement to be made in criticism about the context of genre through its own evocation of fiction, just as genre itself facilitates commentary upon the text. Again, this is not original: Jakobson suggests in "The Dominant" how a reader may be aware of "two orders," namely "the traditional canon and the artistic novelty as a deviation from that canon" (p. 87). Canon, in this context, functions as an effective synonym for genre. A problem arises, however, with regard to the comparative prestige that is associated, in Russian formalism and elsewhere, with the iconoclastic text. Canon, like genre, is traditionally the standard to be emulated and maintained, lest the individual text be dismissed or suppressed. Modern criticism, however, has inverted that hierarchy, the generic or canonical context being relegated to the status of a starting point, the prestige going to each successive departure from a seemingly devalued standard that yet paradoxically holds its value as a reference point to be exceeded. If a text does not challenge an accepted norm it is, on the one hand either "popular" or "unoriginal," though on the other it is conservatively "generic." It is, in effect, unstable, locked into a conceptual position where more than one perception may formulate its definition, its acceptance or rejection.
The Future of Genre
Todorov's contention that "any description of a text … is a description of genre" (p. 7) may thus set the tone for the future of genre considerations. The awareness that characterizes the reading process as much as it does the writing activity in post-modernity has irrevocably changed the relationship between text and audience, in the same way as it has disrupted that which has previously pertained between text and genre. Jonathan Culler, quoting the critic Gérard Genette, asserts that literature, "like any other activity of the mind[,] is based on conventions of which, with some exceptions, it is not aware" (p. 116). Even at the time of its publication in 1975 this was an extraordinary—and, indeed, outmoded—statement. Genre awareness—in this case, of the discrete form of the novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and of literary theory as a context for the writing of postmodern fiction—surely informs not merely the writing of, but also critical acclamation for, John Fowles's seminal The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1969. Similar assumptions might be made about equally self-consciously "literary" or "theoretical" works such as Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) and Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977). The reader versed in such things is no longer positioned as a passive spectator, his or her only prerogative being to respond in a predictable manner to customary genre signals or to concur in the rejection of texts that breach decorum. Though some readers may maintain such standards, the postmodern reader is allegedly well informed, and capable of rejecting the orthodox rather than the heterodox in textuality. The author, too, is aware, and the text is the emblem of that awareness by its own evocation of questions of theory, reception, and, inevitably, genre. Metafiction—self-conscious, self-referential, and reciprocally intimate to the generalizations that organize textuality at all levels—is the logical outcome of the cultural preoccupation with genre.
In the late twentieth century, fiction in the form of metafiction became a commentary not merely upon other texts (through intertextuality), nor indeed solely upon the internal workings of the fictional artifact itself (through the laying bare of device). To expand upon Todorov's contention above, a statement made within or demonstrated by the workings of an individual text is, equally, a statement about genre and, consequently, the limitations and the liberties associated with genre. The reader's recognition not merely of the genre context but also of the development of that context is crucial to such experiments, which are, perversely, both anti-genre and yet genre-dependent for their effect. Genre, in its function as reference point within the very texts that seek to signal their departure from its structures is, at the start of the twenty-first century, possibly as much as a conceptual ideal as Frye suggested it was in the late 1950s.
See also Literary Criticism ; Narrative ; Postmodernism .
Anonymous. "Satire." In The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, edited by M. C. Howatson, 507. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Anonymous. "Tragedy." In The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, edited by M. C. Howatson, 575–578. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Aristotle. On the Art of Poetry. In Classical Literary Criticism, translated by T. S. Dorsch, 31–75. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1979.
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Currie, Mark, ed. Metafiction. London and New York: Longman, 1995.
Dubrow, Heather. Genre. London and New York: Methuen, 1982.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Howatson, M. C., ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Jakobson, Roman. "The Dominant." 1935. In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, 82–87. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1978.
Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 1875–1914. London: Secker and Warburg, 1989.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Peck, John, and Martin Coyle. Literary Terms and Criticism. 3rd ed. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2002.
Perry, Anne. The Twisted Root. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by H. D. P. Lee. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1968.
Punter, David. The Gothic Tradition. Vol. 1 of The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. 2nd ed. London and New York: Longman, 1996.
Seed, David. "Gothic Science Fiction." In The Handbook to Gothic Literature, edited by Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 272. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1998.
Shklovsky, Victor. "Art as Technique." 1917. In Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, 3–24. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. In The Theban Plays, translated by E. F. Watling, 23–68. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Tynjanov, Jurij. "On Literary Evolution." 1927. In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, 66–78. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1978.
GenreELEMENTS OF GENRE
THE CLASSIC STUDIO SYSTEM
MYTH AND HISTORY
GENDER AND RACE
NATIONAL CINEMA AND GENRE
Genres are categories of kinds or types of artistic or cultural artifacts with certain elements in common. In film, common generic elements include subject matter, theme, narrative and stylistic conventions, character types, plots, and iconography. In film studies, the term serves simultaneously as: (1) An industrial approach, in which production, especially during the Hollywood studio era (1920s–1950s), is standardized, and marketing is geared toward concept labeling and packaging; (2) A consumer index, providing audiences with a sense of the kind of pleasures to be expected from a given film; and (3) A critical concept, a tool for theorizing relations between films and groups of films and for understanding the complex relationship between popular cinema and popular culture, and for mapping out a taxonomy of popular film.
Genres preceded cinema but were fundamental to it. The western, for example, was already established in literature before the invention of film, while the musical took much from preexisting theatrical forms. Classical literary theory distinguished differences between literature and popular writing and assumed judgments based on underlying assumptions of aesthetic value. Popular art, including film, is formulaic, and it has often been similarly criticized for lacking originality. However, genre theorist John Cawelti suggests that all art be thought of as existing on a continuum between invention and convention—a perspective that allows for a greater appreciation and understanding of genre texts and how they work.
Because genre movies are collaborative efforts that require the work of many individuals, they have been commonly understood as particularly good barometers of cultural attitudes, values, and trends. This is true not only of individual genre movies, but also of the changing patterns and popularity of different genres and of the shifting relationships between them. For whether they are set in the past or in the future, on the mean streets of contemporary New York City or long ago in a galaxy far away, genre movies always are about the time and place in which they are made.
Fundamental to defining any genre is the question of corpus, of what films in fact constitute its history. In Theories of Film (1974), Andrew Tudor identifies a major problem of genre definition, which he terms "the empiricist dilemma," whereby a group of films are preselected for generic analysis to determine their common elements, although their common elements should be identified only after they have been analyzed. Tudor's pragmatic solution to this problem of definition is to rely on what he calls a "common cultural consensus," that is, to analyze works that almost everyone would agree belong to a particular genre and generalize out from there. This method is acceptable, he concludes, because "Genre is what we collectively believe it to be" (p. 139).
Nevertheless, while various genres have been established by common cultural consensus, a further problem is that different genres are designated according to different criteria. Such genres as the crime film, science fiction, and the western are defined by setting and narrative content. However, horror, pornography, and comedy are defined or conceived around the intended emotional affect of the film upon the viewer. Linda Williams has referred to horror, melodrama, and pornography as "body genres" because of the strong physical response—fear, tears, and sexual arousal, respectively—elicited by each. The extent to which films of these genres produce the intended response in viewers is commonly used as a determining factor in judging how good they are. Ultimately, whatever criteria one uses to establish a genre should allow for a productive discussion of the stylistic and thematic similarities among a group of films, and definitions should be flexible enough to allow for change.
In any art form or medium, conventions are frequently used stylistic techniques or narrative devices typical of (but not necessarily unique to) particular generic traditions. Bits of dialogue, musical figures, or styles and patterns of mise-en-scène are all aspects of movies that, repeated from film to film within a genre, become established as conventions. Conventions function as an implied agreement between makers and consumers to accept certain artificialities in specific contexts. In musicals the narrative halts for the production numbers, wherein characters break into song and dance; often the characters perform for the camera (rather than for an audience within the film) and are accompanied by off-screen music that seems suddenly to materialize from nowhere. Conventions also include aspects of style associated with particular genres. For example, melodrama is characterized by an excessively stylized mise-en-scène, while film noir commonly employs low-key lighting. Mainstream cinema also features numerous aural conventions on the soundtrack involving dialogue, music, and sound effects. Film scoring in all genres typically features Wagnerian leitmotifs associated with particular characters or places and is commonly used to enhance a desired emotional effect in support of the story. Different types of musical accompaniment are conventional in particular genres: sweeping strings are often used in romantic melodramas, for example, while electronic music or the there min is used in science fiction for its futuristic connotations.
The familiarity of conventions allows both for parody and subversive potential. Parody is possible only when conventions are known to audiences. Much of the humor of Mel Brooks's (b. 1926) parodies depends upon viewers being familiar with specific genre films. In Young Frankenstein (1974), for example, when the monster and the little girl he meets have tossed all their flowers in the lake and she innocently asks what to throw in now, the monster looks at the camera, as if to ask the viewer to remember that in the original Frankenstein (1931) he stupidly drowned the girl, thinking she too would float. As well, conventions also can be used by filmmakers for disturbing purposes precisely because viewers expect them. George Romero (b. 1940) undermines numerous conventions of the classic horror film in Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is one of the main reasons the film had such a powerful effect on audiences when first released.
The setting, the space and time when and where a film's story takes place, is more a defining quality of some genres than of others. Musicals, for instance, can take place anywhere, from the actual docks and streets of New York City in On the Town (1949) and West Side Story (1961) to the supernatural village in Brigadoon (1954). Romantic comedies and dramas, like some science fiction, may span different eras, as in Somewhere in Time (1980) and Kate and Leopold (2001). Horror movies often use isolated and rural settings and old dark houses with mysterious basements for psychological effect, but films such as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Dark Water (2005) work by violating convention and setting their stories in contemporary and familiar locales rather than in exoticized foreign spaces like Transylvania. By contrast, the western by definition is temporally restricted to the period of the Wild West (approximately from 1865 to 1890) and geographically to the American frontier (broadly, between the Mississippi River and the west coast). Movies that change this setting to the present, such as Lonely are the Brave (1962) and Hud (1963) or "easterns" like Drums along the Mohawk (1939) and The Last of the Mohicans (1936, 1992), are considered exceptions to the norm; they are westerns for some viewers but not for others. Yet movies such as Coogan's Bluff (1968) and Crocodile Dundee II (1988), which import elements of the western into the contemporary urban East, are generally not thought of as westerns.
Character types are also important to genre films. Discussing characters in literature, novelist E. M. Forster distinguished two kinds of fictional characters: flat and round. Flat characters, which also may be "types" or "caricatures," are built around one idea or quality; it is only as other attributes (that is, "depth") are added that characters begin "to curve toward the round" (Aspects of the Novel, p. 67). In genre movies, characters are more often recognizable types rather than psychologically complex characters, as with black hats and white hats in the western, although they can be rounded as well. The femme fatale is a conventional character in film noir, like the comic sidekick, the schoolmarm, and the gunfighter in the western. Ethnic characters are often stereotyped as flat characters in genre movies: the Italian mobster, the black drug dealer, the Arab terrorist, the cross-section of soldiers in the war film's platoon. Flat characters are usually considered a failure in works that aspire to originality, but in genre works, flat characters are not necessarily a flaw because of their shorthand efficiency. In genre movies, character types often provide similar kinds of actions and purposes within the story.
EDWARD G. ROBINSON
b. Emmanuel Goldenberg, Bucharest, Romania, 12 December 1893, d. 26 January 1973
Of short stature and lacking the conventional handsome look of leading men, Edward G. Robinson nevertheless was one of the great male stars of the studio era. Along with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, he defined Hollywood's image of the tough guy for Depression-era audiences. Beginning his acting career in the theater, Robinson made his film debut in 1923 at age thirty in The Bright Shawl (1923). He became famous in 1931 in the archetypal gangster film Little Caesar, portraying the criminal Enrico Caesar Bandello, a hoodlum who rises to the top and then makes his inevitable fall.
With the success of Little Caesar, Robinson went on to play a string of criminal characters in a series of Warner Bros. films through the 1930s. Robinson sought to escape genre typecasting and expand his range, playing such roles as the title character in the biopic Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet (1940), about the nineteenth-century scientist who developed a cure for syphilis, and the steadfast and paternal insurance agent Barton Keyes in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1944). However, a number of these subsequent roles clearly depended on Robinson's established gangster persona, such as the gruff ship's captain Larson in the adventure film The Sea Wolf (1941) and the cruel Dathan in The Ten Commandments (1956).
In John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking (1935), Robinson played a dual role as a gangster boss and a meek, law-abiding citizen, at once providing the pleasure of his established image as a criminal and exploiting his star appeal by making him a sympathetic protagonist with whom the audience could comfortably identify. Similarly, in Fritz Lang's masterful film noir Scarlet Street (1945), Robinson plays a mild-mannered clerk and henpecked husband who is driven to robbery, adultery, and finally murder. The film periodically references Robinson's gangster persona, as in the opening dinner party scene, which initially looks like a similar scene in Little Caesar; but it then reveals his character, Christopher Cross, as a shy and repressed cashier who handles other people's money. Only later does he become a criminal, ironically making the initial mistaken impression, based on genre expectations, in fact true.
In the 1950s Robinson experienced a difficult divorce that forced him to sell much of his prized art collection. He was also called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but was ultimately exonerated of Communist Party affiliation. Despite these troubles, he continued to make credible crime dramas throughout the decade. His subsequent career was irregular, but his final appearance in the science-fiction film Soylent Green (1973) allowed him to die onscreen in a fitting finale to one of Hollywood's most distinguished careers.
Little Caesar (1931), The Whole Town's Talking (1935), Bullets or Ballots (1936), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Brother Orchid (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), Key Largo (1948), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Soylent Green (1973)
Beck, Robert S. The Edward G. Robinson Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.
Gansberg, Alan L. Little Caesar: An Autobiography of Edward G. Robinson. London: New English Library, 1983.
Hirsch, Foster. Edward G. Robinson. New York: Pyramid Books, 1975.
Parish, James Robert, and Alvin H. Marill. The Cinema of Edward G. Robinson. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1972.
Robinson, Edward G. All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973.
Barry Keith Grant
Of course, characters are embodied by actors, all of whom have distinct physical characteristics. The hardboiled detective, Philip Marlowe, is different as played by Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet, 1944), Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep, 1946), or Elliott Gould (The Long Goodbye, 1973). Some actors (for example, Paul Muni [1895–1967], Gary Oldman [b. 1958], and Johnny Depp [b. 1963]) are known for chameleon-like performances, but many, whether they are featured stars or supporting actors, often play variations of a type. For
this reason, they are often cast in similar films within the same genre and become associated with it. Fred Astaire (1899–1987) is always thought of in relation to the musical, Cary Grant (1904–1986) with screwball comedy, and of course John Wayne (1907–1979) with the western, even though all these actors also appeared in other kinds of films. Clint Eastwood's (b. 1930) strong association with the western lent such subsequent non-western roles as the tough detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels added mythic depth.
Character actors contribute to the look of particular genres, populating the worlds of genre movies and becoming part of their iconography. Often they are known to viewers as vaguely familiar faces rather than by name. Richard Jaeckel (1926–1997), Jack Elam (1918–2003), Chill Wills (1903–1978), Paul Fix (1901–1983), and Slim Pickens (1919–1983) all appeared in countless westerns, so when they are in the same cast and many of them die in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973), the film may be read as being as much about the death of the genre as it is a story about particular characters. Stars and genres reinforce each other, some actors offering definitive performances that forever associate them with a particular role and genre, as was the case with Bela Lugosi's (1882–1956) portrayal of Dracula. Actors who succeed at playing a certain generic type are often trapped by such roles, fated to be typecast as similar characters. On the other hand, while Dick Powell (1904–1963) began as a romantic (juvenile) lead in several Warner Bros. musicals in the early 1930s, he managed to reshape his image entirely in the following decade, playing a tough guy in such noirs as Murder, My Sweet, Cornered (1945) and Pitfall (1948).
Because actors may become typecast, they can be cast in genre movies against type, as in the case of William Holden (1918–1981) playing the leader of The Wild Bunch (1969) or Tom Cruise (b. 1962) as a hit man in Collateral (2004). In the famous opening of C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone, 1968), a Mexican family enjoying a pleasant picnic meal in front of its hacienda is suddenly and brutally gunned down by unseen assailants. In a long take, the killers ride in from the distance, and eventually we are able to discern that the leader is a grim-faced, blue-eyed Henry Fonda (1905–1982)—the same soft-spoken face that was Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The moment has a greater emotional impact than it would if the actor had been a familiar Hollywood heavy.
Conventions, settings, and characters are part of a genre's iconography. Icons are second-order symbols, in that their symbolic meaning is not necessarily a connection established within the individual text, but is already symbolic because of their use across a number of similar previous texts. Ed Buscombe concentrates on the iconography of the western in drawing a distinction between a film's inner and outer forms. For Buscombe, inner form refers to a film's themes, while outer form refers to the various objects that are to be found repeatedly in genre movies—in the western, for example, horses, wagons, buildings, clothes, and weapons. The cowboy who dresses all in black and wears two guns, holster tied to either thigh, is invariably a villainous gunfighter. Just as religious icons are always already infused with symbolic meaning, so is the iconography of genre films. In a horror film, when the hero wards off the vampire with a crucifix, religious iconography works in support of film iconography: symbolically, such scenes suggest that the traditional values embodied in Christianity (and, by extension, western culture generally) are stronger than and will defeat whatever threatening values are assigned to the monster in any given vampire film.
Of course, while the icons of genre films may have culturally determined meanings, the interpretation or value attached to them is hardly fixed. Rather, the particulars of their representation in each genre film marks the relation of outer form to inner form and are indicators of the film's attitude and theme. Although a crucifix in a horror film is an icon of Christianity and dominant ideology, the film itself may either critique or endorse that ideology. In the western, the town always represents civilization, but every film will have a different view of that civilization. The town in, say, The Gunfighter (1950) has children and domestic spaces, representing the familial stability that the aging gunman can only long for, while in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), the town springs up around a muddy, makeshift brothel, suggesting that base desire is at the core of civilization.
Finally, spectators are a crucial element of genre movies, for they address viewers in a particular way. Almost from the beginning, movies have been promoted in the media primarily through their generic affiliations. They signal to prospective viewers the type of story as well as the kind of pleasure they are likely to offer and assist them in choosing which movies or which kind of movie to see. Fans of particular genres comprise communities of readers: fans of horror films, for example, form a distinct subculture, with their own fanzines, memorabilia, websites, and discussion lists. Genre films work by engaging viewers through an implicit contract, encouraging certain expectations on the part of spectators, which are in turn based on viewer familiarity with the conventions. As Robert Warshow observes, the familiarity of viewers with generic convention creates "its own field of reference." In other words, familiarity with a generic field of reference allows spectators to enjoy variations, however slight, in a given film. The act of reading genre films implies active readers who bring their generic knowledge to bear in watching movies. A postmodern horror pastiche like Scream (1996) depends upon its viewers being generically literate.
For decades Hollywood produced appealing fantasies in an industrial context. Regularized film exhibition developed as a result of the popularity and rapid growth of nickelodeons, the first venues devoted exclusively to cinema exhibition. The steady demand for new films made year-round production schedules necessary and provided the impetus for the development of a factory-based (Fordist) mode of production. In the studio era, all members of cast and crew were workers under contract to the studio, and the different kinds of work—editing, music, script, and so on—were divided into departments.
Within this industrial context, genre movies are dependable products, assembly line products with interchangeable parts. The James Bond series has continued because of the formula—lots of action, fancy gadgets, beautiful women, and colorful villains—despite the changes in directors, writers, and even the actors playing Bond himself. Individual genre films may lift elements from one genre and put them into another, as The Band Wagon (1953) incorporates film noir and the detective film into the climactic ballet, "The Girl Hunt." Hybrid genre movies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966) mix elements from seemingly disparate genres. More recently, movies like Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and Alien vs. Predator (2004), both of which are simultaneously hybrids and sequels, show the same process at work despite the end of the studio era. But hybridity has always been characteristic of genre films. Stagecoach (1939), one of the most famous and important westerns ever made, was described as a "Grand Hotel on wheels" on its release, and it also contains elements of the road movie and disaster film as well. Movies such as The Thing (1951), Alien (1979), and the movie on which it was in part based, It, The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), all combine elements of science fiction and horror, visually turning spaceships and laboratories into the equivalent of haunted houses.
Genre filmmaking thus developed quickly, with producers seeking maximum acceptance at the box office through the repetition and variation of commercially successful formulas. The formulaic qualities of genre films meant that studios could turn them out quickly, and audiences could understand them just as quickly. Genre movies allow for an economy of expression through conventions and iconography. This system of signification, developed over time and with repetition, served well the fast pace of classic narration in films intended to be shown as part of a double feature.
In the studio era, directors were employees, like the other members of a film's cast and crew. Even those few directors who wielded some degree of clout in Hollywood, like Frank Capra (1897–1991) and Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), had to work within the parameters of the producing studio's dominant style or genre. Directors, like actors and electricians, rarely had the right to final cut. Yet while some directors floundered against the pressures of the studio system, many in fact flourished, using the rules of genre as convenience rather than constraint, as guidelines from which to deviate or deepen rather than as blueprints to follow. By providing the received framework of genre, Hollywood gave film-makers a flexible tradition within which to work. Some directors developed their vision within particular genres, such as Sam Fuller (1912–1997) with the war film, John Ford (1894–1973) with the western, and Douglas Sirk (1897–1987) with the melodrama. The auteur approach provided a way of looking at directors' style foregrounded against the background of genre.
Despite its constraints, the studio system provided a stable context for filmmakers to work with consistency and to be expressive. As Robin Wood notes in Howard Hawks (1968), Hollywood is one of the few historical instances of a true communal art, "a great creative workshop, comparable to Elizabethan London or the Vienna of Mozart, where hundreds of talents have come together to evolve a common language" (p. 9). The justly famous opening scene of Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) tells us almost everything we need to know about the heroes played by John Wayne and Dean Martin (1917–1995) well before the first word of dialogue is spoken. Director Hawks (1896–1977) uses the conventions of the western to express his sense of professionalism, heroism, and self-respect, which would not have been possible without the established conventions of the genre as his raw material.
Traditionally, the word "myth" refers to a society's shared stories, usually involving Gods and mythic heroes, that explain the nature of the universe and the relation of the individual to it. Such mythic narratives embody and express a society's rituals, institutions, and values. In the twentieth century, genre films, with their repetitions and variations of a few basic plots, were our mass-mediated mythic tales. Comparable to myths, genre movies may be understood as secular stories that seek to address and sometimes seemingly resolve our problems and dilemmas, some specifically historical and others more deeply rooted in our collective psyches. Structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) claimed that all cultural myths are structured according to binary pairs of opposite terms. This approach is inviting for the analysis of genre films, which tend to work by reducing complex conflicts to the equivalent of black hats versus white hats. In his influential 1970 study of the western, Horizons West, Jim Kitses maps out a series of clear binary oppositions that are all variations of the conflict between wilderness and civilization.
Genre movies are always about the time in which they are made, not set, for entertainment inevitably contains, reflects, and promulgates ideology. It is in this sense of entertainment as ideology that Roland Barthes (1915–1980) conceives of myth. For Barthes, cultural myths endorse the dominant values of the society that produces them as right and natural, while marginalizing and delegitimizing others. In genre movies, as Barthes says of cultural myth generally, the Other becomes monstrous, as in horror films, or exoticized, as in adventure films. In westerns, for example, Indians are either demonized as heathen savages or romanticized as noble savages, but they are rarely treated as rounded characters with their own culture.
From this perspective, genre movies tend to be read as ritualized endorsements of dominant ideology. So the western is not really about a specific period in American history, but the story of Manifest Destiny and the "winning" of the West. The genre thus offers a series of mythic endorsements of American individualism, colonialism, and racism, as well as a justification of westward expansion. The civilization that is advancing into the "wilderness" (itself a mythic term suggesting that no culture existed there until Anglo-American society) is always bourgeois white American society. Similarly, the monstrous Other in horror films tends to be anything that threatens the status quo, while the musical and romantic comedy celebrate heteronormative values through their valorization of the romantic couple.
Still, the complex relation of genre movies to ideology is a matter of debate. On the one hand, genre films are mass-produced fantasies of a culture industry that manipulate us into a false consciousness. From this perspective, their reliance on convention and simplistic plots distract us from awareness of the actual social problems in the real world. Yet it is also true that the existence of highly conventional forms allows for the subtle play of irony, parody, and appropriation. Popular culture does tend to adhere to dominant ideology, although this is not always the case. Many horror films, melodramas, and film noirs, among others, have been shown to question if not subvert accepted values. Pam Cook takes a similar view of B movies and exploitation films, arguing that their production values, less sophisticated than those of mainstream Hollywood movies, are more readily perceived by viewers as representations.
Genre movies take such social debates and tensions and cast them into formulaic narratives, condensing them into dramatic conflicts between individual characters and society or heroes and villains. Thomas Schatz observes that "All film genres treat some form of threat—violent or otherwise—to the social order" (Schatz, p. 26). The gangster, the monster, the heroine of screwball comedy all threaten normative society in different ways. Some genre theorists argue that the overriding theme of genre films is some version of the individual in conflict with society, and that this tension represents the ongoing negotiation we all make between desire and restraint (what Freud called "civilization and its discontents"). The extent to which a genre film achieves narrative closure is an important factor in reading its political implications. Closure, usually in the form of an upbeat or happy ending, is—like all conventions—artificial, since life, unlike such stories, continues. For this reason, a lack of closure, suggesting that the lives of the characters carry on after the film ends, is associated more with realist films like La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937) and Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) than with genre movies. Because films with closure leave the viewer with no unanswered questions about the fate of the major characters or the consequences of their actions, they are viewed as providing tidy but unrealistic solutions to real problems. Yet while closure may be provided by a film, it can be ironic, thus undercutting its own pretense at resolution, as some have argued about the psychiatrist's explanation for Norman as an aberrant "case" at the end of Psycho (1960).
Genres are neither static nor fixed; they undergo change over time, each new film and cycle adding to the tradition and modifying it. Some critics describe these changes as evolution, others as development, but both terms carry evaluative connotations. Some genre critics accept a general pattern of change that moves from some early formative stage through a classical period of archetypal expression to a more intellectual phase in which conventions are examined and questioned rather than merely presented, and finally to an ironic, self-conscious mode typically expressed by parody. However, generic phases do not fall into convenient chronological and progressive periods, but often overlap significantly. For some, the western evolved from the supposed classicism of Stagecoach to the end of the intellectual trail with The Wild Bunch just thirty years later and then to Brooks's Blazing Saddles (1974), marking the end of the classic western and the beginning of the parody or baroque phase. But the western was already parodied even before this intellectual period in such films as Buster Keaton's Go West (1925), Destry Rides Again (1932, 1939), and the Marx Brothers's Go West (1940). Tag Gallagher argues that there is no evidence that film genres evolve toward greater embellishment and elaboration; he cites, for example, the scene in Rio Bravo where a wounded villain's hiding place on the upper floor of the saloon is revealed by blood dripping down, but he points out that the same device was used by John Ford in The Scarlet Drop (1918) decades earlier and even then dismissed by critics as "old hat." Gallagher insists instead that even "a superficial glance at film history suggests cyclicism rather than evolution" (Gallagher in Grant, Film Genre Reader III, pp. 266–268).
In the 1970s, as Cawelti notes, there were particularly profound changes in American genre movies. Aware of themselves as myth, genre movies of the period responded in four ways: humorous burlesque, nostalgia, demythologization, and reaffirmation. This development was the result in part of the demise of the Hays Office in 1967 and the continuing breakup of the traditional studio system, allowing directors greater freedom in a more disillusioned and cynical era. Films like Francis Ford Coppola's (b. 1939) The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979); Martin Scorsese's (b. 1942) Mean Streets (1973) and New York, New York (1977); Robert Altman's (b. 1925) McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975); and Brian de Palma's (b. 1940) Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), and Obsession (1976) were genre movies by directors who had grown up watching genre movies on television and studying them in academic film programs. With a more contemporary sensibility, these filmmakers inevitably made genre films that were burdened by an awareness of generic myth. For Cawelti, the changes in the period's genre films were so profound that he wondered whether the traditional film genres had exhausted themselves and hypothesized that "the cultural myths they once embodied are no longer fully adequate to the imaginative needs of our time" (Cawelti in Grant, Film Genre Reader III, p. 260).
Among their conventions, genre movies feature standard ways of representing gender, class, race, and ethnicity. Into the 1980s, genres and genre movies remained almost exclusively the cultural property of a white male consciousness, the center from which any difference regarding race, gender, and sexuality was defined and marginalized. In all the action genres, it was white men who performed heroic deeds and drove the narrative. In every type of action film, women and visible minorities assumed subsidiary and stereotyped roles, serving such narrative functions as helper or comic sidekick for the heroic white male. The hypothetical viewer of Hollywood genre movies traditionally was, like almost all of the filmmakers who made the movies, white, male, and heterosexual. This white masculine perspective was an inextricable part of the genre system, which was built on certain gendered assumptions. Generally, the action genres—adventure, war, gangster, detective, horror, science fiction, and of course, the western—were addressed to a male audience, while musicals and romantic melodramas (also known as "weepies") were marketed as "woman's films." This distinction bespeaks wider patriarchal assumptions about gender difference in the real world.
b. Carthage, New York, 16 January 1948
John Carpenter is known primarily for his slick action sequences, which have established him as one of Hollywood's most skillful directors of violence and suspense. Working mostly in the horror and science fiction genres, Carpenter also works on the scripts, special effects photography, and electronic music scores for his films.
While a graduate student in film at the University of Southern California, Carpenter made several short films, including The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, which won an Academy Award® for Best Short Film in 1970, and, with classmate Dan O'Bannon, Dark Star, which he expanded into his first feature in 1974. Shot on a minuscule budget, Dark Star offers a blackly comic view of men in space overwhelmed by technology. Carpenter's follow-up, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), an audacious blend of Howard Hawks's western Rio Bravo (1959) and George Romero's cult horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), established the director as a promising young auteur. Carpenter's commercial breakthrough came with Halloween (1980), which launched a series of sequels (by other directors) and a cycle of similar slasher films. Halloween makes deft use of such techniques as the handheld camera and tension between foreground and background in the mise-en-scène to generate suspense and fear.
Carpenter works comfortably within genres, as with Halloween; but he also sometimes mixes conventions and iconography, as with Escape from New York (1981), a science fiction action film; Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a comic martial arts fantasy; and Ghosts of Mars (2001), a science-fiction horror film. At times Carpenter's action sequences seem to transcend their narrative constraints to become pure cinema. Sequences such as the famous lengthy point-of-view shot that opens Halloween and the astronaut's chase of a mischievous alien creature through the ship's elevator shaft in Dark Star show Carpenter's undeniable command of action and suspense through rhythm, editing, and use of music.
Thematically, Carpenter's films are concerned with issues of communication and isolation. In Dark Star, as the ship's crewmen grow apart through boredom and indifference, outer space becomes a metaphor for the psychological isolation of the crew. The final images of Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982) show the last two surviving men warily sitting opposite each other, separated by the wide-screen composition, their mutual distrust graphically rendered in the image. They Live (1988), a science-fiction action film, cleverly offers a critique of mass culture in its story of a blue-collar worker who discovers a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the subliminal messages, secretly delivered by aliens busily stripping the Earth of natural resources, encouraging political passivity and consumerism in all forms and media of popular culture.
Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Christine (1983), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988)
Billson, Anne. The Thing. London: British Film Institute, 1997.
Conrich, Ian, and David Woods, eds. The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004.
Cumbow, Robert C. Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter. Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Muir, John Kenneth. The Films of John Carpenter. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005.
Barry Keith Grant
By the 1990s many genre movies were attempting to open up genres to more progressive representations of race and gender, often deliberately acknowledging and giving voice to groups previously marginalized by mainstream cinema. The film that provided the impetus for this new generic transformation was Thelma and Louise (1991), about two women who, finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, lead the police on a chase through the Southwest. A big hit at the box office, Thelma and Louise is a generic hybrid of the western, the buddy film, and the road movie—three genres traditionally regarded as male. After Thelma and Louise, many genre films seemed content merely to borrow its gender gimmick, simply plugging others into roles traditionally reserved for white men. But in reversing conventional representations, these films were prone to fall into the trap of repeating the same objectionable values. The question of whether female action heroes such as Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien (1979) and its sequels, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), or the assassins played by Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films (2003, 2004), and the trio of actresses in the Charlie's Angels films (2000, 2003) are progressive, empowering representations of women or merely contain them within a masculine sensibility has been a matter of considerable debate.
Race, ethnicity, and nationality are commonly stereotyped in genre films, sometimes together. African Americans have traditionally been cast in supporting roles as clearly recognizable types. Except for such subsidiary and subordinate roles as maids, black faces also were largely absent from Hollywood movies. Issues of race appeared, safely coded within generic conventions, particularly in the western, which on the surface relegates the topic more safely to the nation's past rather than the present. Asian Americans have been largely absent from genre movies, as were Latinos until West Side Story. Since the 1990s, generic Arabs have been depicted in action movies as terrorists, as in True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), and The Siege (1998). By contrast, Russians are friendlier in Hollywood movies following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, as in The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Enemy at the Gates (2001).
Outside Hollywood, there were separate but parallel Yiddish and black or "race" cinemas. The height of Yiddish film came in the 1920s and 1930s, and black cinema peaked in the 1930s and 1940s. Both were institutionalized forms of cinema, with their own stars, directors, exhibition circuit, and audiences, and both were organized along generic lines similar to Hollywood. There were, for example, black melodramas, musicals, and westerns featuring African American stars. Hollywood, too, tried all-black musicals such as Hallelujah (1929), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and Carmen Jones (1954) as well as dramatic films such as The Green Pastures (1936). The practice of segregating casts by race was a reflection of the segregationist and discriminatory practices of the era in which they were made.
Encouraged by the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), a cop film featuring two black detectives (Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques), a cycle of blaxploitation films followed. The term blaxploitation was coined by the trade paper Variety to describe these films, which appeared from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. As the civil rights movement gained momentum and became more militant, many black viewers rejected the more accommodating images of established black stars like Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) and Harry Belafonte (b. 1927) and welcomed the newer action movies with more macho black stars, such as ex-football Hall of Famer Jim Brown (b. 1936) in films like Black Gunn (1972) and Slaughter (1972). Richard Roundtree (b. 1942) became famous as the suave black detective John Shaft in Shaft (1971), billed as "the new James Bond," as did Ron O'Neal (1937–2004) as Superfly (1972). Pam Grier (b. 1949) in Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) and Tamara Dobson (b. 1947) in Cleopatra Jones (1973) applied the same formula to female characters. The question of the extent to which blaxploitation was politically progressive has been a matter of debate, but the films did pave the way for a cycle of "salt-and-pepper" buddy movies beginning with 48 Hrs. (1982) and the wider acceptance of black action stars such as Wesley Snipes (b. 1962) and Denzel Washington (b. 1954).
Although black cowboys existed on the frontier, their history has been suppressed by the predominately white iconography of the western. One of the most popular genres of race films was the western, with the first possibly being The Trooper of Troop K (1917), with black star Noble Johnson (1881–1978). In the late 1930s Herb Jeffries (b. 1911) appeared in a series of independently produced all-black musical westerns including The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). In 1960, Ford's Sergeant Rutledge starred Woody Strode (1914–1994) as a cavalry soldier being court-martialed because of his race. During the blaxploitation era several westerns were made, the most notable being Buck and the Preacher (1972), directed by Sidney Poitier, about white bounty hunters looking to return former slaves to work on southern plantations after the defeat of the South in the Civil War. Starring Harry Belafonte along with Poitier, Buck and the Preacher employed many conventions of the genre while foregrounding issues of race relations. But for the most part, blacks had been absent from the Hollywood western—an absence so complete that it can serve as one of the major jokes in Blazing Saddles, which stars African American actor Cleavon Little (1939–1992) as a black Bart with his Gucchi saddlebags. Posse (Mario Van Peebles, 1993) overtly challenged this mythic erasure. It opens with a black man speaking directly to the camera, presenting the entire story in flashback, a framing device borrowed from Little Big Man (1970), an earlier revisionist western, here featuring Strode, an iconic actor who had appeared in several of Ford's westerns, including Sergeant Rutledge.
Although a good deal of contemporary theoretical work has questioned hegemonic concepts of the nation, and hence of the idea of national cinema, the genre approach is useful for approaching the idea of national cinema generally as well as for conceptualizing the contours of specific national cinemas. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam point out, the movie audience is a "provisional 'nation' forged by spectatorship" (p. 155), and genre audiences form what Altman describes as "constellated" communities—groups of individuals who "cohere only through repeated acts of imagination"—in the context of cinema, an imagined connection among geographically dispersed viewers who share similar spectatorial pleasures and generic knowledge (Altman, pp. 161–162).
In developing a distinctive and vital national cinema, most countries have been forced to confront the global cultural domination of American film in some way. Hollywood, especially since the end of World War II, has successfully dominated numerous foreign film markets on every continent. Inevitably, then, national cinemas must find space in the market, both at the local and international level, in the context of Hollywood. Because Hollywood cinema is overwhelmingly a cinema of genre films, this means, in effect, working within the genre system. The frame of genre allows filmmakers the multiple benefits of working in forms familiar to audiences both at home and abroad, and thus it offers more lucrative potential to producers for foreign distribution. Distribution in other countries is particularly important in nations where the population is insufficient to sustain an indigenous film industry, for it provides the only hope for films to return a profit. At the same time, however, accepting generic forms from Hollywood also suggests the loss of any distinctive national features that might be expressed in cinema. This dilemma has informed the discourse of national cinema in many countries, especially Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand, all of which share the English language with Hollywood.
Filmmakers from around the world have responded to the domination of American film by adopting Hollywood genres and "indigenizing" or reworking them according to their own cultural sensibility. Examples are the Italian "spaghetti western" or Hong Kong martial arts films. Other national cinemas have created their own genres. For example, German cinema in the 1920s and 1930s developed a distinctive genre of the mountain film, involving a character or group of characters striving to climb or conquer a mountain. The Heimatfilm, or Homeland film, is another genre of sentimental, romanticized movies about rural Germany and its inhabitants. In Indian cinema, masala (or mixed spice) films combine a variety of heterogenous generic elements, as by inserting musical sequences in a dramatic film in a way uncharacteristic of Hollywood.
In turn, Hollywood genre filmmaking has been influenced by some of these non-American genres. For example, Japanese samurai films gained popularity in Japan after World War II and became known in the West primarily through the films of Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998) starring Toshiro Mifune (1920–1997), including Rashomon (1950), Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai, 1954), Yojimbo (Yojimbo the Bodyguard, 1961), and Tsubaki Sanjûrô (Sanjuro, 1961). Red Sun (1971) paired Charles Bronson (1921–2003) and Mifune in a buddy film in the American West, and several American genre movies have been remakes of these samurai films: The Magnificent Seven (1960) was based (as was the science fiction film Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980) on The Seven Samurai; The Outrage (1964) was based on Rashomon; and both the spaghetti western, Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), and the action film, Last Man Standing (1996), with Bruce Willis, were based on Yojimbo. Although many international genre movies remain largely unknown to western audiences, as the film industry and popular culture generally become increasingly globalized and populations become more multicultural, inevitably genres will interact more intensively across national boundaries.
SEE ALSO Studio System
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Edited and translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Cook, Pam. "Exploitation Films and Feminism." Screen 17, no. 2 (Summer 1976): 122–27.
Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.
Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.
——, ed. Film Genre Reader III. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah; Studies of Authorship within the Western. London: British Film Institute, 1970; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
——, ed. Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. London: British Film Institute, 2002.
Schatz, Tom. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981; Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. "From the Imperial Family to the Transnational Imaginary: Media Spectatorship in the Age of Globalization." In Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, ed. Robin Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake, 145-170. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
Tudor, Andrew. Theories of Film. New York: Viking Press, 1974; London: British Film Institute, 1974.
Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience. New York: Atheneum, 1971.
Wood, Robin. Howard Hawks. London: British Film Institute, 1968; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.
Barry Keith Grant
genre (zhän´rə), in art-history terminology, a type of painting dealing with unidealized scenes and subjects of everyday life. Although practiced in ancient art, as shown by Pompeiian frescoes, and in the Middle Ages, genre was not recognized as worthy and independent subject matter until the 16th cent. in Flanders. There it was popularized by Pieter Bruegel, the elder. It flourished in Holland in the 17th cent. in the works of Ter Borch, Brouwer, Metsu, De Hooch, Vermeer, and many others, and extended to France and England, where in the 18th and 19th cent., its major practitioners were Watteau, Chardin, Greuze, Morland, and Wilkie. In Italy genre elements were present in Carpaccio's and Caravaggio's paintings, but not until the 18th cent. did genre become the specialty of an Italian artist, Pietro Longhi. The French impressionists often painted genre subjects as did members of the American ashcan school.
gen·re / ˈzhänrə/ • n. a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.