What is Genre?

February 15th, 2007

A pull quote from this a.m.’s NY Times, in an article reviewing offerings at the annual Berlin Film festival:

 [ “My point is not that these movies are interchangeable, or that their similarities betray a lack of imagination on the part of their makers. A genre is not a formula but a paradigm, an endlessly variable model that can be adapted to different temperaments and circumstances. Directorial acumen, agile screenwriting and sensitive acting distinguish the run-of-the-mill from the genuinely interesting.” ]

Granted, the writer is speaking of film and movies, but does this apply also to the genres we address here on DG — which includes movies as well as graphic novels / comix and print fiction?

If you want more context for the quote, the full article can be found here.

Love, C.

14 Responses to “What is Genre?”

  1. Mark Tiedemannon 16 Feb 2007 at 9:10 am

    I’ve been wrestling with this one since I first became aware of the assault of literary snobbery on the fiction I love. It seems to me that the definition of genre Mr. Scott is offering–which is more an anti-definition to my mind–is an attempt as saying in another way the old saw that “if it’s good, it’s not genre,” but by saying that just because it’s genre doesn’t mean it can’t be good, without really trying to grapple with the nature of genre.

    To me, genre simply signifies the interest of the work as being context driven as much as character driven. Scott aludes to something like this in his observation that there are certain films belonging to a sort of “festival genre”–which is to say they were made specifically for the festival system. Interesting idea, that. It doesn’t mean that the work is any less about character or its own plot, but that its sensibilities are somehow pitched to the audience one expects to attend film festivals.

    Context: the future, the far past, a police department, a romantic trip to another country, the mythic west, samurais, a war…

    The thing that determines whether an artist has done something worthwhile is in how the characters in a given context respond and what is then said about them. To be receptive to this, the audience must be receptive to the context itself. We are so used to police dramas that most people no longer question the distortions inherent in this context, but they’re there, and without them the specific psychologies of the characters lose currency. (What would you do with Sipowicz in a context like, say, “About A Boy”? He would look absurd or just comic, but certainly “out of context” and ineffective.)

    What this resolves into is a recognition that genre is about its context, while the so-called Mainstream story is entirely about its characters. The problem with this is, characters without context are just possibilities. They must have a reason to interact, to produce drama, and that reason becomes the conceit of the given work. What seems to happen is that the less clearly definable a given context is, the more mainstream it appears to be. (What is the context of “About A Boy”? Or of, say, “Sideways”? Can you reduce that description to the idea of a specific genre?)

    Most critics who tend to diss genre fail–along, one presumes, with readers who agree with them–to recognize that when done well Context is character, as much so as any individual within a given story, and that in order for the psychologies to make sense in meaningful dramatic ways, the context cannot be ignored or undervalued. Without its context, “Dune” becomes meaningless.

    So the problem of genre is a problem more of constructing the elements of the narrative well around a given conceit and recognizing how important that conceit is to the message and then treating that conceit with all the same attention that one would treat any character. Especially within fantastic literature, in which context is of overwhelming importance. (This is one of the reasons a lot of the SF of the Fifties was so laughable–the contexts were often bizarre and revolutionary, but people still acted as though the norm were the Cleavers; they had not changed in relation to the changed context. Those works that acknowledged the fact that human interaction and response changes according to context work well and those that explored that element best are now considered classic. What mainstream critics failed to recognize was the utility of distortion of context in examining human characteristic–probably because it made them uncomfortable. Hmm….a thought. Since SF has traditionally been seen–wrongly–as a predictive genre, could it be that the negative response of the mainstream has been a rejection of what they saw as prescriptive in relation to what people will become?)

    I suppose I would accept the idea that genre is a paradigm–a model–rather than a formula–which predetermines–but that it leaves right back in the question “So what does it do?”

  2. Lois Tiltonon 16 Feb 2007 at 10:32 am

    hmph – seems to me that the author is just replacing the funky old term “formula” for one that just sounds more spiffy, except that the chrome plating on “paradigm” is long since worn off.

    I do like the notion of a genre called “festival filims.”

    Maybe they should do book festivals and publish special books just to read there, that would never make it into the public libraries back home.

  3. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Feb 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Well, if “formula” and “paradigm” aren’t working anymore, I’d go with the serviceable old “conceit.”

    I’d define a “conceit” as “a stock piece so well known that suspension of disbelief is assumed, and moreover, doesn’t count in terms of unbelievability of a work.”

    Best if not most current example I can give is from a trailer for, I believe, Detroit Rock City, I believe a mid-70s rocker costume drama, but anyway, the loveable stoners are driving along when they see a sexy girl in stiletto heels hitch-hiking at dusk by the side of the road. One wants to pick her up, but the other protests, “Dude, that’s how scary movies start!” to which the other responds “Yeah, but that’s how porno movies start too!”

    In reality, one does not find sexy girls in Daisy Dukes and fetish shoes hitch-hiking on deserted roads, or at very least not in fetish shoes. In film, however, it’s a standard conceit of both the horror and the porno genres.

    Saw an excellent and even more recent example of this last night: Supernatural had it’s “Tall Tales” episode which started on a college campus at night with a professor going to his office, only to notice a comely young woman standing coyly by the side of the building clad in a ghostly white dress (known in horror circles as “the white dress of doom”), provacatively showing some leg as she restraps her extremely sexy high-heeled sandals. Anyway, we then go into a “seduce the professor” scene which goes along sexily until he opens his eyes from the kiss and finds it’s actually a zombie ghost girl! Booga! And next thing we see, he’s plummeting from the 4th floor to smack on the pavement just behind a bemused janitor.

    This is the stock conceit done almost to the point of parody, and in fact, in self parody, since the first or second episode of Supernatural had a slutty ghost in a white dress. But when the Winchester boys come to investigate, the next bizarre occurence is not a reappearance of the slutty lady in white, but an alien abduction of a frat boy, the anal probe being followed by the alien wanting to slow dance, this quickly followed by a biology professor being eaten by a giant sewer alligator. WTF?

    To spoil the surprise of what was a brilliant episode, they finally find out–after calling for help from an older and wiser monster hunter–that what they’re dealing with is a trickster spirit. And not only a trickster spirit, but a modern one who likes reading The Weekly World News.

    Anyway, getting back to the question of genre, the central conceit of Supernatural is that it takes place in the supernatural horror universe which is pretty much spelled out as a yes to demons, devils, evil spirits, vampires, crazed psychics, black magicians and other assorted boogeymen, but no aliens or angels, since God is dead, sleeping, or at best moving in extremely mysterious ways which still involve gruesome deaths.

    But a trickster spirit? That fits right in. And the actor they chose was perfect casting.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 16 Feb 2007 at 10:08 pm

    Isn’t that also “trope”?

  5. kateelliotton 16 Feb 2007 at 10:20 pm

    I like the idea of context as character. For one thing, it does then mean that “festival films” (and certain kinds of literary and/or mainstream novels) can be identified as a genre of their own. Which I have long suspected they are.

    It also makes worldbuilding understandable. In a way, all of these different genres, even ones set in the ‘real world,’ are engaged in worldbuilding or at least world-defining what is worth examining and what isn’t.

    But how does that related to the recent discussion of worldbuilding as the province of nerds?

  6. James Engeon 17 Feb 2007 at 1:57 am

    I guess I like the idea of genre as a paradigm, rather than a formula.

    A formula is necessarily restrictive. “Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.” If you don’t follow the recipe precisely, the Holy Hand-Grenade will not explode.

    But the root meaning of paradigm is “example” and I really think that’s how our sense of genre is formed. “This book has spaceships and multicolored rays, like Doc Smith; I’ll put it in the box with the Lensman series. This one has elves; I’ll put it in the same box with The Lord of the Rings.” Eventually the boxes get tags (“space opera”; “high fantasy”; “mysteries where the murderer sings ‘Banana Phone'”, etc. But these are really just abstractions from a set of specific examples. If the set of accepted examples grows, the borders of the genre can expand. (Likewise they can contract if the set of defining examples shrinks.)

  7. Gyp Orienson 17 Feb 2007 at 5:36 am

    And then you have space operas with elves in, of course. Always happens like that.

  8. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 17 Feb 2007 at 7:05 am

    Well, I’d define “trope” and “conceit” a little differently, mostly in that I consider a conceit a special subset of trope, one that requires an extra suspension of disbelief and is in some way miraculous. For example, “teen sex” is a trope but “poetic justice” is a conceit, especially when serendipity is put into overdrive.

    I think the best example I can give of this is the character of the moneylender. I’ve yet to see one in any work of fiction successfully forclose on a mortgage. Either the widow somehow comes up with the money with solutions ranging from resourceful children to improbably rich kindly suitors or else the miser chooses that day for a nervous breakdown, usually brought on by ghosts, winsome children and/or improbable cheeriness.

    Basically I’d say a conceit is a trope that you need to suspend disbelief for.

  9. Mark Tiedemannon 17 Feb 2007 at 9:27 am

    The “conceit” is the reason the “trope” exists.

  10. Constance Ashon 17 Feb 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Without its context, “Dune” becomes meaningless.

    That isn’t absolute. The more you know of Sahellian, Islamic Africa, and Saudi, while Herbert was stationed there, and traveled all through the region and the Middle East, the more of it you recognize in Dune, including names and geography, and even customs and beliefs and languages.

    Even more so now, since we’ve had our own, current “information revolution.”

    OTOH, maybe I am missing what you are saying.

    I’m so busy — just got back home, and am leaving again tomorrow.

    Love, C.

  11. Constance Ashon 17 Feb 2007 at 2:46 pm

    What I mean about Dune within its own context, is the more you know of the context out of which Herbert forged it, the better and more impressive this piece of fiction appears to one’s critical and historical judgment. You also respect Herbert more and more for his eye and memory and understanding of what he saw and experienced.

    IIRC, this was the most heavily edited of his novels as well.

    But this context makes his work more substantial as time goes on, while the prequel novels written by his son and ? — I forget who — are what are insubstantial for they are not born of Herbert’s real experience in the real world context. These are the books that make no sense at all outside of their context.

    Dune is the orginal, the pattern, and it makes its own sense, standing alone, even outside genre. Just as Tolkien’s LoTR does, but the umpteenth generation imitation, like Eregon, for instance, cannot.

    Love, C.

  12. Constance Ashon 17 Feb 2007 at 2:58 pm

    In sense then, one say that those Dune universe productions that are not the creator’s production, are in a very real sense meta productions, that can only exist in connection to the original.

    Whereas the original exists no matter what its context.

    I dunno. It’s cold, cold, cold and the brain feels like street slush — dirty, ugly and more than a little inconvenient.

    Love, C.

  13. Mark Tiedemannon 17 Feb 2007 at 3:39 pm

    It’s more the interactions of the characters in Dune I meant than the broader, “inspirational” context. The motives of these people to do what they do outside a context that includes a millennia-long breeding program, mind reading, and a “given” that an ultimate superbeing can exist would be largely pointless, except for the grosser aspects of avarice vs virtue vis a vis the Harkonen/Atreides feud.

    Don’t get me wrong, a reader can work the way toward an analogous context–instead of spice, oil; instead of the Bene Gesserit, Islam; instead of the Lansraad or CHOAM, the United Nations and OPEC–but it becomes a forced analogy without the added context of the future born of the changes Herbert assumed. Remove the quest for the Quisatz Haderach, it becomes a poorly constructed (maybe not so poorly) fable about modern day Middle East rivalries.

    My point being that the Context is as much a character in this instance as Paul or the Baron or Chayni, and to suggest that because that Context is equally important to the humans in the narrative somehow lessens the work (in terms of genre vs mainstream) is missing the point of genre entirely.

  14. Billy Marshall Stonekingon 12 Jan 2010 at 9:28 pm

    From the screenwriter’s perspective, genre is the acknowledgement of the pre-eminence of both tribal affiliation and the presence in one’s audience of a tribal consciousness.

    In terms of dramatic, screen storytelling, tribe is identifiable by what it does.

    Genre, in turn, is an expression of those defining social processes through which particular tribal entities manifest their being, both inside and outside the script.

    Genre is the tribal storyteller’s manner of portraying or dramatising the guiding themes and symbols inherent in both the storyteller’s tribe and audience. The underlying values, emotions and ideas by which the storyteller and his/her audience identify themselves are major considerations (or influences) in the choice of genre.

    Consider the words: “Once upon a time …” They will have a very different meaning for an audience whose cultural initiation has included fairy tales. An initiated audience will expect an anecdote or narrative, probably of a fanciful nature, involving unexpected events and characters, some of whom may be larger than life.

    Genre invokes tribe and tribe evokes genre.

    Dramatic scripts, if approached tribally, from the perspective of character-based experiences, evolve into structures that are purposeful; and, like the actions of the characters that inhabit them, are goal oriented. Genre implies purpose.

    A screen story exists for a purpose; it possesses its own objective, some times quite different from the objectives of the characters, insofar as it conveys an emotional meaning that the storyteller wants to leave with his or her audience.

    The character, structure and movement of the emotional energy of a film, when grounded in a dramatic grammar and guided by tribal sensitivities, produce a singular coherence, which we refer to as genre.

    Every genre produces its own, special kind of energy that derives from the actions of ALL of the story’s characters. Such actions appear real, legitimate and seamless so long as they maintain coherence amongst all of the story’s constituent parts, most of which – if the film is successful – will go unnoticed by the audience.

    Only when it breaks down, when the style is inexplicably altered or changes in some way, do we become aware of the species of the emotional energy we have been experiencing, and if that happens we are invariably thrown out of the story.

    Genre is the dress code of character and plot – not a physical dress code, but an emotional one, for it tells the audience that has been invited to the feast what kind of emotional investment is required and what sort of party they can expect.

    So long as the story remains the story in which the emotional investment has been made one reads the emotional codes of the characters with alacrity and, hopefully, some degree of empathy. But break the code and you will find that it is difficult if not impossible to transcend or constructively transform the confusion thus produced.

    A screen story makes a pact with its characters, and these include not only the characters IN the script, but also the characters outside of it, namely the AUDIENCE and the TRIBE. Taken together this configuration determines the screenwriter’s relationship to the subject matter.

    The most successful film storytellers frequently tell stories about themselves, or the people to whom they are tribally connected. It is difficult to imagine how a filmmaker could create the kind of emotional energy required to make an emotional impact on an audience without working from his or her origins. Indeed it is these origins that have brought him or her into the ambit of the audiences to whom the stories might be addressed. In this way, genre waits on audience, or at least the storyteller’s realisation of audience, imaginatively, in the process of finding the story.

    The means by which one communicates a story – in this case, film or video – is another factor in the encoding process that is genre. Choices concerning the way in which the story is shot, lit, designed, edited or organised, are all elements in the creation of genre, and are themselves grounded in the writer’s, director’s producer’s et al, relationships with the characters, the audience and the tribe.

    Purpose, or genre, is determined by a nexus of identities involving characters in the script (and their given circumstances) and characters outside the script – namely the storyteller/s, the audience and the tribe (and their tribal circumstances).

    The sympathetic and coherent alignment of all the circumstances of ALL the characters in the story-finding enterprise produce the CHARACTER of the story itself, which is its genre.

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