I was watching a new Trope Talk from OSP when something she said snagged my attention and I haven't been able shake it since then. Very casually, as she's introducing Urban Fantasy as a concept, she mentions that it's not really a genre, because a genre suggests what kind of plot you might expect from the story. Instead, she says that Urban Fantasy is a setting, because it's worldbuilding trope rather than a plot trope.
I've been thinking about that a lot recently, so I started doing a little digging to see if this is a definition I might be able to use when I finally get around to revamping my Table of Storytelling Elements.
Genre (noun) a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.
The most foundational genres in literature are Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry. Because genres are categories, there are obviously subcategories, such as [Fiction>Mystery], [Nonfiction>Memoir], or [Poetry>Ode]. As long as there are patterns and shared qualities that make it clear that this work and that work belong to the same category, then we can say that in that light, they are in the same genre.
I found a good video from Oregon State University that defines genre really well, and I was super interested in the way he laid it out, making it clear that genre is not one big well-defined thing, but rather a specific kind of box that smaller things can be sorted into.
At one point, I knew perfectly well that people debated over what genre this movie or that book belonged to, but it seems like I lost sight of that, forgetting that not everyone in the world sees things the same way I do.
People in 18th century China didn't have the same commonly accepted literary genres as people in 20th century America, for the simple reason that as a culture, we emphasize different qualities or elements in our poetry and our memoirs and our novels. And as well all know - when you're looking for something, that's what you're going to see. If you walk into a superhero movie looking for the romance elements, that's what you're going to find, while the person in the row behind you is looking for existential horror and finding that, too.
One of several friends that answered my online "what is genre vs. setting anyway?" poll left this little gem for me: "Genre is the mood, and setting is the world you build to harbor it."
So while I forgot what genre really was, and many people don't know (or don't care) there are still people out there that are building meaning for themselves, just as I'm doing right now.
To sum up:
- A genre is a category in which the individual items share a pattern or elements of a pattern.
- A genre can categorize any pattern.
Fantasy is a genre of fictional settings.
Romance is a (predictable) plot genre.
- Patterns can overlap without incorporating one another into their own subcategories.
Superhero stories can have Romance elements, but are a unique genre.
- Not all patterns are clear-cut, and everyone has the right to form their own opinions.
Westerns are a weird fuzzy genre that could be setting and/or plot and I still don't know how to deal with that.