Genre studies are a structuralist approach to literary theory, film theory, and other cultural theories. When studying a genre in this way, one examines the structural elements that combine in the telling of a story and find patterns in collections of stories. When these elements (or codes) begin to carry inherent information, a genre is emerging.
Genre was not a black-and-white issue even for Aristotle, who recognized that though the ‘’Iliad’’ is an epic it can be considered a tragedy, as well, because of its tone and the nobility of its characters. However, most of the Greek critics were less acutely aware, if aware at all, of the inconsistencies in this system. For these critics, there was no room for ambiguity in their literary taxonomy because these categories were thought to have innate qualities that could not be disregarded.
The Romans carried on the Greek tradition of literary criticism. The Roman critics were quite happy to continue on in the assumption that there were essential differences between the types of poetry and drama. There is much evidence in their works that Roman writers themselves saw through these ideas and understood genres and how they function on a more advanced level. However, it was the critics who left their mark on Roman literary criticism, and they were not innovators.
After the fall of Rome, when the scholastic system took over literary criticism, genre theory was still based on the essential nature of genres. This is most likely because of Christianity's affinity for Platonic concepts. This state of affairs persisted until the 18th century.
At the end of the 18th century, the theory of genre based on classical thought began to unravel beneath the intellectual chafing of the Enlightenment. The introduction of the printing press brought texts to a larger audience. Then pamphlets and broadsides began to diffuse information even farther, and a greater number of less privileged members of society became literate and began to express their views. Suddenly authors of both "high" and "low" culture were now competing for the same audience. This worked to destabilize the classical notions of genre, while still drawing attention to genre because new genres like the novel were being generated (Prince, 455).
Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), had reduced data to its smallest part: the simple idea derived from sense. However, as the science of cognition became more precise it was shown that even this simple idea derived from sense was itself divisible. This new information prompted David Hartley to write in his Observation on Man (1749), "How far the Number of Orders may go is impossible to say. I see no Contradiction in supposing it infinite, and a great Difficulty in stopping at any particular Size" (Prince, 456). The possibility of an infinite number of types alarmed theologians of the time because their assumption was that rigorously applied empiricism would uncover the underlying divine nature of creation, and now it appeared that rigorously applied empiricism would only uncover an ever growing number of types and subsequent sub-types.
In order to re-establish the divine in categorization, the new taxonomical system of aesthetics arose. This system offered first beauty, and then the sublime as the taxonomical device. The problem with Aesthetics was that it assumed the divine and thus the sublime must underlie all these categories, and thus, the ugly would become beautiful at some point. The paradox is glaring.
Ever since the late 18th century literary critics have been trying to find a theory of genre that would be more commensurate with the realities of individual texts within genres. The evolution of genre took many twists and turns through the 19th and 20th centuries. It was heavily influenced by the deconstructionist thought of Wittgenstein and the concept of relativity. In 1980, the instability engendered by these two new modes of thought came to a head in a paper written by Jacques Derrida titled, "The Law of Genre." In the article Derrida first articulates the idea that individual texts participate in rather than belong to certain genres. He does this by demonstrating that the "mark of genre" is not itself a member of a genre or type. Thus, the very characteristic that signifies genre defies classification. However, at the end of this essay, Derrida hints at what might be a more fruitful direction for genre theory. "There, that is the whole of it, it is only what 'I,' so that say, here kneeling at the edge of literature, can see. In sum, the law. The law summoning: what 'I' can sight and what 'I' can say that I sight in this site of a recitation where I/we is" (Derrida, 81). By which Derrida means that not only is taxonomy a subjective sport, but due to this very fact, the place and time the taxonomical act takes place deserves further study.
Then, in 1986, Ralph Cohen published a paper in response to Derrida's thoughts titled "History and Genre." In this article Cohen argued that "genre concepts in theory and in practice arise, change, and decline for historical reasons. And since each genre is composed of texts that accrue, the grouping is a process, not a determinate category. Genres are open categories. Each member alters the genre by adding, contradicting, or changing constituents, especially those of members most closely related to it. The process by which genres are established always involves the human need for distinction and interrelation. Since the purposes of critics who establish genres vary, it is self-evident that the same texts can belong to different groupings of genres and serve different generic purposes" (Cohen, 204). This approach to genre theory is the one most widely practiced today.
Genres, according to Daniel Chandler, create order to simplify the mass of available information. Creating categories promotes organization instead of chaos. Jane Feuer has divided ways to categorize genres into three different groups. The first is aesthetic. By using this method one can organize according to certain sets of characteristics, and so the overall work of the artist is not disparaged by generalization. The second classification method is ritual. Ritual uses its own culture to help classify. If one performs a ritual associated with a system of ritual, one can be said to be practicing as a member of that system. The most common taxonomical method is ideological. This occurs most often in the marketing of texts, music, and movies. The effectiveness of this type of categorization can be measured by how well the public accepts these categories as valid.
Amy J. Devitt focuses on rhetorical genre. Most scholars recognize the restrictions placed on works that have been classified as a certain genre. However, viewing genre as a rhetorical device gives the author and the reader more freedom and "allows for choices." Genres are not free-standing entities, but are actually intimately connected and interactive amongst themselves. Rhetorical genre recognizes that genres are generated by authors, readers, publishers, and the entire array of social forces that act upon a work at every stage of its production.
This recognition does not make the taxonomy of texts any easier. Chandler points out that very few works have all the characteristics of the genre in which they participate. Also, due to the interrelatedness of genres, none of them is clearly defined at the edges, but rather fade into one another. Genre works to promote organization, but there is no absolute way to classify works, and thus genre is still problematic and its theory still evolving.
Genre began as an absolute classification system in ancient Greece. Poetry, prose and performance had a specific and calculated style that related to the theme of the story. Speech patterns for comedy would not be appropriate for tragedy, and even actors were restricted to their genre under the assumption that a type of person could tell one type of story best. This classical system worked well as long as the arts were largely directed by nobility and rich patrons. If your king or patron commissions a comedy, and he’s thinking Jerry Lewis and one delivers Lewis Black, one will find oneself hungry at best, headless at worst. A common understanding of meaning was handy in knowing what your employer expected, and the crowds went along with it.
During the enlightenment period in 18th Century Europe, this system of patronage began to change. An emerging merchant middle class began to emerge with money to spend and time to spend it. Artists could venture away from classical genres and try new ways to attract paying patrons. “Comedy” could now mean Greek metered comedy, or physical camp, or some other type of experience. Artists were also free to use their mediums to express the human condition in a way that was not possible under single patronage, or at least not profitable. Art could be used to reflect and comment on the lives of ordinary people. Genre became a dynamic tool to help the public make sense out of unpredictable art. Because art is often a response to a social state, in that people write/paint/sing/dance about what they know about, the use of genre as a tool must be able to adapt to changing meanings. In fact as far back as ancient Greece, new art forms were emerging that called for the evolution of genre, for example the “tragicomedy.”
Currently, genre has a daunting task for such a humble tool. We are no longer in the 18th Century where a few new novels come out a week, and we have lots of time to consider and discuss them. This is the information age, we have the internet, and television available on our phones, books on tape, or CD to listen to while we drive, Tivo that lets us watch our programs on demand, even if they overlap, iPods that store mind-boggling quantities of music and other media. We don’t have time to peruse the endless shelves of our mega or virtual bookstores to find what we’re looking for, we need help. Genre helps us to make sense of the onslaught of information.
Unfortunately, genre does have its limitations. Our world has grown so much that it is difficult to absolutely classify something. Information overlaps, and a single book can encompass elements of several genres. For example, a book might be classified as fiction, mystery, science fiction and African American literature all at once; so much for saving time and confusion. Genre suffers from the same ills of any classification system. Humans are pattern-seeking beings; we like to create order out of the chaos of the universe. However, when we forget that our order is imposed, often arbitrarily, over a universe of unique experiences, the merit of the individual gets lost. If a system of classification, like genre, is then used to assign value judgments, we allow our preconceptions about the whole to influence our opinion of the individual. Genre is useful as long as we remember that it is a helpful tool, to be reassessed and scrutinized, and to weigh works on their unique merit as well as their place within the genre.
A simple example of the inherent meaning in an art form is that of a western movie where two men face each other on a dusty and empty road; one dons a black hat, the other white. Independent of any external meaning, there is no way to tell what the situation might mean, but due to the long development of the "western" genre, it is clear to the informed audience that they are watching a gunfight showdown between a good guy and a bad guy.
It has been suggested that genres resonate with people because of the familiarity, the short-hand communication, as well as the tendency of genres to shift with public mores and to reflect the zeitgeist. Many have considered genre storytelling as lesser forms of art because of the heavily borrowed nature of the conventions. However, admiration has grown. Proponents argue that the genius of an effective genre piece is in the variation, combinations, and evolution of the codes.