Genre is defined as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content,” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genre). Human beings by nature like to catalog things. Look at all the steps it takes to define the taxonomy of an animal: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Genre is a way to catalog and categorize pieces of literature or other art forms based on shared elements which ultimately increase the ease of discussion via classification. This happens to be strikingly similar to the concept of the biological classification system. But within every genre, you find exceptions to the rule and, like nature, exceptions to the established rule are quite common.
I can think of several examples of Gothic literature off the top of my head that are exceptions to the general rule. One such example is William Godwin’s Caleb Williams published in 1794. My initial interest in Gothic literature came from a reading of an academic critique of this text in an undergraduate Romanticism class. The article stated that Caleb Williams was a unique text because the lead character was a man when the tradition in the Gothic genre was to use a female character who was a very passive figure. I was intrigued by this and wanted to learn more.
The fact that William Godwin chose to go against the grain of expectation is extremely telling. He was trying to make a statement, one that would stand out in the masses. When you study literature in school, you often learn about historical events that coincide or that influence and move the writer to make a statement, a protest, or an affirmation. Godwin stood out in two ways: as a man writing a genre populated with female writers and as a writer who utilized a feminized male lead hero in his Gothic text.
With such examples being prevalent in literature, utilizing the concept of genre to mark and classify different pieces of literature can feel like a moot action or a waste of time. Modern writers seem to be combining and creating genres left and right which has led to the concept of the mixed-genre story. A mixed-genre story is one that blends the elements and themes from two or more genres creating a story that is a hybrid. The mixed-genre story is a commentary in its own right on the motivators for publication. These motivators influence both the publishing house or publisher and the writer. The popularity of the mixed-genre story comes from two places: the extreme desire to create a new sensation, to find the next big craze (which is the way our current consumer society seems to work) and the understanding that because people have varied interests, these new hybrid stories work to capture a wider audience base and thus are more likely to increase popularity and revenue.
Jacques Derrida states in Law of Genre that “as soon as the word “genre” is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn,” (http://mission17.org/documents/Derrida_LawOfGenre.pdf). But truly Derrida states that a piece of literature participates in genre but it does not actually belong to genre. It would seem that society, writers and publishers agree with Derrida. There are limitless possibilities when it comes to stories that mix genres. Derrida’s motivators are not the same as today’s publishers and mainstream writers. His motivations are more academic in nature and are thus less about money and more about the purity of art. But it is certainly intriguing that he ends up in a place that resembles the current literary marketplace.
The word of the day is “innovation” and that concept applies perfectly to literature as well as other industries. Look at how many times the concept of the monster has altered in the past ten years. One of my favorite texts is Warm Bodies—not because it is a great example of writing (because it certainly is not), but because it truly challenges the concept of genre. This book is a zombie post-apocalypse/romance. It’s scientific (sort of) and a kind of war story all wrapped in one neat little package. And how much money did this book make? Tons. Look at the Hunger Games trilogy and how much that publisher brought in by publishing the series. Coupled with innovation is “the next big thing.” Our social media riddled society is constantly searching for the next big thing, the next craze. And when the next big thing is found, everyone wants a piece, creating a frenzy.
While the world may while away looking for the next big thing in storytelling, there is a theory in literature that there are only seven stories in existence and every story told throughout time is some variation of one of these plot lines. This theory was put forth by Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. The list is as follows:
1. Man against man
2. Man against nature
3. Man against himself
4. Man against God
5. Man against society
6. Man caught in the middle
7. Man and woman
These story lines seem pretty simplistic. And they are. The art of story creation comes from how one is able to manipulate the generality and make it intriguing and desirable. Mixed-genre stories allow for even bigger and greater stories and fantasies, transplanting readers into realms that only the minds of writers could dream.
Storytelling has become much more complex since the onset of the novel and the alterations made to characters and their situations. In the old days of Gothic and Romanticism, you knew who the bad guy was because he was ugly. His inner ugliness was mirrored in the characteristics of his outer visage. Today’s villains are more often beautiful and sexy rather than hideous. Part of the story for the main character is often figuring out who the enemy is because the bad guy is no longer as conspicuous as he/she once was.
Mirroring this sort of complication is the mixed-genre story. Instead of just a story about man against nature, you can have a story about man against nature due to the apocalypse which stole away his lady-love. This could be further complicated if the apocalypse was caused by a zombie outbreak and that the man’s love was turned into a zombie (I think I got that from The Walking Dead). There’s something there for the romantic and the anti-romantic. The romantic will shed tears over this tragedy and the anti-romantic will crow with laughter at the irony. Thus, you have widened your audience base while creating an intriguing and complicated story.
The mixed-genre story has reached a heightened state of popularity among writers and readers alike due to the emphasis our current society places on novelty, originality, innovation and reinvention. In a world consumed by social media, we have taken on the mindset of one-upping each other. The mixed-genre concept allows writers to further diversify the realm of storytelling while expanding their audience/readership and, in essence, one-up each other by embracing the limitless possibilities held in check not by the concept of genre, but only by the breadth of the writer’s imagination.