Shifts in Genre Conventions

An essay on genre and how it changes over time. I think genre is generally a pretty useless and uninteresting concept, so I can't really claim to have anything interesting to say about it, but since I had to write this I may as well post it.

Genre is a classification of creative works based on identifying and sorting “particular formal characteristics [to] satisfy certain expectations in a delimited readership” (McCracken 1998, p. 76), allowing critics and consumers to identify the works in which they may have a particular interest, and to allow consumers to more easily engage with the work by providing familiar tropes and conventions to streamline understanding.

Most of us have an intuitive understanding of genre and can easily classify most creative works we come into contact with, but rigid definitions seem impossible to pin down – “particular features which are characteristic of a genre are not normally unique to it [and] texts often exhibit the conventions of more than one genre” (Chandler 1997). It is this lack of specificity that allows genres to change over time, as creators add, remove, combine and modify genre elements to create new works. As a particular innovation catches the attention of other creators it is incorporated into other works and may eventually become characteristic of the genre, or end up diverging into an entirely new genre.

One easily identified genre is the detective story, which involves “unravelling of a mystery or puzzle [through] investigative action … and the progressive elimination of all possible suspects or causes except one” (Landrum 1999, p. 2) and “the search for rationality and order in a world disrupted by criminal violence” (Schmid 2000, p. 76), but many early detective stories mixed “themes from gothic fiction, domestic romance, courtroom exposition, exposés, and adventure stories” (Landrum 1999, p. 7) before the conventions of the new genre moved toward the more rigid formula of “the police procedural [of] the mid-twentieth century” (Landrum 1999, p. 8).

Throughout the twentieth century the genre evolved to include less professional detectives such as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and new rules such as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee's “fair play” rule, “that readers should be given all the necessary information at some point before the detective reveals the solution” (Landrum 1999, p. 10). At the same time, a different type of detective story was gaining popularity, the hard-boiled noir style, focusing on lower-class detectives and “[looking] at the political, economic, and social structure from the bottom up” (Landrum 1999, p. 11)

This grim darkness reached its nadir in the likes of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, a “vigilante [who] shoots first, administers pain and disfigurement [and] thinks ethical codes are for weak-kneed liberals”, a forerunner of the gritty anti-heroes of late twentieth century comics such as the Punisher and various takes on Batman, themselves variations on the detective theme. Other later variations on the theme include cyberpunk detectives such as Richard Morgan's Tekeshi Kovacs, a variation on the classic noir protagonist, and various modern Sherlock Holmes analogues such as The Mentalist's Patrick Jane or even Dr Gregory House – although House focused on medical mysteries rather than crime, the format was largely the same.

The recent popularity of shows like House and CSI in some ways represents a shift back to an earlier style of detective story – whereas the detectives of the mid-twentieth century placed an emphasis on the psychology of the killer, the means, motive and opportunity, “contemporary viewers of procedural programs regularly consume messages that promote the power of science and its ability to uncover the 'truth'” (Harriss 2011, p. 4). This is similar to the techniques emphasised by Sherlock Holmes's study of evidence (footprints, cigarette ash, etc.) and perhaps represents a wider belief in science and progress at these times, as compared with those times when more personality-focused detectives have flourished.

Another example of the nebulous and fluid nature of genre is romance. At its core, romance is simple wish-fulfilment fantasy, aimed primarily at women (McCracken 1998, p. 75). This has not always been the case, however, as “women [played only] a small … role in medieval romance” and the genre could said to include any narrative concerned with “desire and the prospect of its satisfaction” (McCracken 1998, p. 76).

But even in more recent times, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the nature of romance stories has changed quite dramatically:
In the 1930s, while the economic context for most readers was the Depression, Mills & Boon fictions told tales of high society. In the 1940s, the context of the war led to a breaking down of class barriers and to more realism. The 1950s saw a shift back to fantasy worlds of international travel. From the 1960s onwards, heroines became more independent and in the 1970s gradually absorbed feminist ideas.
- McCracken 1998, p. 78.
And this century has seen the rise of the supernatural romance, stories such as Twilight and True Blood, that blend horror and monster tropes with romance. These stories allow “the reader to indulge in a craving for an old-fashioned, generally wealthy, and socially dominant gentleman and a fantasy of stable and secure gendered expectations without fundamentally compromising … feminist rights and responsibilities” (Mukherjea 2011, p. 1).

These vampire stories make more explicit a theme that underlies many modern romance stories, that of the strong, powerful man (or vampire) demonstrating their own sensitivity and vulnerability – “a man finding his place in a feminine world” (McCracken 1998, p. 87), showing that they can be strong and powerful but combining that traditional masculinity with modern sensibilities and ideals.

The example of Twilight's Edward Cullen appeals because he “anchors Bella as she figures out who she wants to be and does not pressure her sexually” (Mukherjea 2011, p. 3) – he defers to her desires and choices while, as a vampire, remains physically and mentally confident and powerful. “The protean quality of vampire masculinity … is crucial to what makes these vampire men perfect lovers” (Mukherjea 2011, p. 5).

This goes a step further in the shift in popular culture from feminism to “post-feminism”, the idea “that the battle for gender equality has been won” and it is “the right to self-objectify, shop, and stay home” that is now under threat (from traditional feminists) (Petersen 2012, p. 53). For this reason, the vampire appeals as a relic of an idealised past when these “rights” were not merely allowed but expected.

On the other hand, some read these themes as social critique, “clear evidence that the need for feminists … [is] not a thing of the past” and “has the potential to facilitate conversations with younger readers who may not have been exposed to feminist thought” (Petersen 2012, p. 63). Even where the books are taken at face value and no feminist critique is intended or understood, this can still provoke the reader to question the text and form their own conclusions.

And this type of romance fiction can only be a recent phenomenon, as it would make no sense in the culture of the early twentieth century. If the vampire lover represents an idealised return to tradition then those traditions must be a thing of the past. An idealised version of the present comes across as unrealistic or poorly written rather than an escapist fantasy.

These shifts in genre, in both detective and romance stories, occur because of changes in society and the reader's understanding of their place in it. They reflect the zeitgeist, the hopes, fears, expectations, aspirations and dreams of the people of the times in which they're produced.

This is not to say that these stories lose their value outside of their cultural context – although some certainly do – but that if they were produced in another time or place they would seem anachronistic or out of place. Were the Sherlock Holmes stories written now, they would likely not achieve the level of success they have, as the detective genre has moved on considerably since then and things that worked at the time would seem to be mistakes in a modern book.

One clear example is the “fair play” rule mentioned earlier. As it was invented well after the Sherlock Holmes stories were written, it would be unfair to criticise them for not adhering to it. But a detective story written today in which the protagonist simply pulls the solution out of thin air using evidence not available to the reader would be considered poorly-written and almost certainly fail to achieve any level of success.

The changes to the romance genre over time even more clearly demonstrate how culture and society effect genre, as it is based almost entirely on the desires and fantasies of its readers, and those desires are entirely determined by the type of life those readers lead in reality. An escapist fantasy, by definition, must be a desirable situation or scenario that differs from one's present reality. As the nature of the audience's everyday life changes, so change their fantasies.

Whatever the conventions of any particular genre, if that genre is to continue to exist it must adapt. Genre labels persist even as conventions change, as new ideas are incorporated and old ones discarded. What defines a genre today may not necessarily be associated with it at all in the future.

Chandler, Daniel 1997, “The Problem of Definition”, An Introduction to Genre Theory, viewed 17 February 2015,
Harriss, Chandler 2011, “The Evidence Doesn't Lie: Genre Literacy and the CSI Effect”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 2-11.
Landrum, Larry 1999, American Mystery and Detective Novels: A Reference Guide, Greenwood, Connecticut.
McCracken, Scott 1998, Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
Mukherjea, Ananya 2011, “My Vampire Boyfriend: Postfeminism, 'Perfect' Masculinity, and the Contemporary Appeal of Paranormal Romance”, Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 1-20.
Petersen, Anne H 2012, “That Teenage Feeling: Twilight, Fantasy, and Feminist Readers”, Feminist Media Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 51-67.
Schmid, David 2000, “The Locus of Disruption: Serial Murder and Generic Conventions in Detective Fiction”, in Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales & Robert Vilain (eds), The Art of Detective Fiction, MacMillan Press, Basingstoke.

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