The Hidden Truth About Genres
When it comes to writing and literature, most people have a favorite genre. Fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, graphic novels, young adult: the list is endless in terms of the complex array of books and writing styles we can choose on a daily basis. But what if our view of genre has been skewed this entire time? What if genre means something else entirely, something that challenges shifts our approach to genres itself?
In his Naming What We Know essay “Genres Are Enacted by Writers and Readers”, Bill Hart-Davidson identifies that “common-sense notions of genre hold that the term describes a form of discourse recognizable as a common set of structural or thematic qualities” (39). In fact, many professionals in literature and writing have identified 14 main literary genres that most people gravitate toward. However, Hart-Davidson notes that with regard to writing studies in particular, “the stabilization of formal elements by which we recognize genres is seen as the visible effects of human actions, routinized to the point of habit in specific cultural conditions”, and, therefore, “genres are habitual responses to socially bounded situations”, formed certain organizational or institutional powers in mind (39 – 40).
So, all this time, something I thought as neutral as literature and writing genres, are actually both creations and responses of societal factors and needs? Genres are social constructs?!
This threshold concept completely blew my mind.
Turns out, this is a more widely accepted theory of genres than I was led to believe. The Purdue Online Writing Lab, one of the most reliable sources of written and literary information in the country, also states that genre “is a form of writing with set functions determined by its social need”. Further, its “determined by need and audience expectation” (“Genre & Medium”). This means that somewhere along the way, society determined the need for romance novels, and the romance novel audience’s expectations help shape how these stories are crafted along the way. I say romance novels as an example, but this definitely applies to any genre you can possibly recall.
It gets a little weirder.
Hart-Davidson continues that “no single text is a genre; it can only be an instance of that genre as it enters into contexts (activity systems) where it might be taken up as such an instance” (40). Translation: what you think is your current favorite nonfiction story may only be nonfiction in the context you’re reading it in. Someone across the street from you may view that book as something else entirely. This conundrum proves that “readers and users of texts have as much to do with a text becoming an instance of a genre as writers do” (Hart-Davidson 40). By reading a specific book, you are ultimately shaping what type of book it becomes!
As I’m working on my teaching instruction methods and crafting my pedagogy for future classes, I always keep audience and society in mind. We live in a world that is continually connected, whether we realize it or not. In the case of genre, I learned that audience and society have a huge role to play, even with something I just assumed to be a neutral, uncomplicated part of literature and writing. Everything is influenced by something.
I want my students to understand the roles they play when they not only write, but when they read as well. I want them to consider the potential creative decisions that were made the next time they pick up a book or sit down to complete an assignment. I want them to understand that while they may feel like their work may seem small and insignificant at that moment, in the grand scheme of things they are contributing to an ever-evolving field and potentially inspiring future writers, readers, even themselves with their work. Who knows? Maybe whatever one of my students writes one day will become a genre of its own.
Bazerman, Charles. “What Activity Systems Are Literary Genres Part of?” Reader/Writerly Texts, vol. 10, no. 2, 2003, pp. 97–106., doi:https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Charles_Bazerman/publication/269222257_What_Activity_Systems_are_Literary_Genres_Part_of/links/5484af060cf24356db60e127/What-Activity-Systems-are-Literary-Genres-Part-of.pdf.
“Genre & Medium // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab, Purdue University, 2021, owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/professional_technical_writing/business_writing_for_administrative_and_clerical_staff/genre_and_medium.html.
Hart-Davidson, Bill. “Genres Are Enacted By Writers and Readers.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner, by Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 39–40.
“Social Constructionism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_constructionism.
“What Are the Different Genres of Literature? A Guide to 14 Literary Genres .” MasterClass, MasterClass, 8 Nov. 2020, www.masterclass.com/articles/what-are-the-different-genres-of-literature-a-guide-to-14-literary-genres#the-14-main-literary-genres.