9 Genre

Brian Hendrickson, PhD

“Wanna go to a movie this weekend?” a friend asks you. “One just came out in theaters that everyone’s talking about.”

You like movies. Who doesn’t? You also like watching movies in the theater. Popcorn, soda, candy, jumbo screen, and those comfy leather reclining chairs at the new theater—what’s not to like?

Still you ask, “What’s the movie?” because you might not want to pay the theater price if it’s not the kind of movie you enjoy.  And maybe some movies are the kind you’d see in the theaters on a date, but not with a friend. Maybe you’re a loud crier or easily startled and don’t like making a scene, in which case you might choose to see cry-or scare-inducing movies at home.

In any case, before your friend has even had a chance to respond, you’ve already begun assigning a complex set of expectations to deciding whether or not you will go to this movie with your friend, and you have constructed that set of expectations over a number of years and across a diverse range of movie-watching experiences.

So when your friend says they can’t remember the exact name of the movie, you might respond by asking, “Well, what type of movie is it?”

“It’s a horror movie,” they reply and, depending on your interest in or knowledge of horror movies, you might respond, “What sort of horror movie?” After all, horror movies can be broken down into slashers, hauntings, or psychological thrillers, to name a few. What makes them all horror is they’re all supposed to scare you, though the kind of fear they induce might differ.  But despite their variations, they do all follow a similar plot: a protagonist transgresses some invisible boundary—a woods they shouldn’t have camped in, a door they shouldn’t have opened—and encounters a force that defies the laws of reason, nature, ethics, and/or religion. That force, whether a deranged killer or evil spirit, challenges the protagonist’s understanding of their own reality to such an extent that they risk losing their mind, if not their life. To survive with body and mind intact, the protagonist must make sense of that which appears to defy sense-making and restore order.

When your friend finally reveals that the movie they’re recommending the two of you go see is a haunting, you pretty much know what to expect—even down to how you expect to be surprised. However, if the movie takes a completely unexpected turn and ends up not being a haunting at all but an alien invasion, it’s possible that if done in just the right way, you might appreciate how the creators of the movie played with your expectations.

Regardless of how the movie turns out, your expectations were all grounded in your understanding of genre: the typical set of functions and features that form when communication occurs within a similar set of circumstances over time. Movies, after all, are a form of communication, and they are viewed and riffed upon by filmmakers and movie watchers alike, all within particular cultures with their own values and beliefs. Even if you aren’t a fan of horror films, you still probably know quite a lot about the genres and subgenres of horror movies because they are such an important part of popular culture.

As with movies, you also know a lot about genres of writing. In How Writing Works, you already started thinking about what you were reading and writing in terms of genre. Before then, you were likely familiar with literary genres, whether dystopian novels like 1984, tragic plays like Romeo and Juliet, or epic poems like The Odyssey. But as you probably discovered in How Writing Works, genres don’t have to be works of art, and most of the writing you do is not meant to display your artistic genius. Texts, tweets, grocery lists, menus, resumes, lecture notes, reports, and research papers—these are all genres of writing, too. Each possesses a typical set of functions and features that accomplish particular goals within particular contexts. And they all have formed over time to meet the rhetorical and communicative needs and expectations of particular discourse communities.

So if you’re designing a menu for, say, an upscale Asian fusion restaurant, you’re probably thinking about what sort of menu design would most effectively capture the spirit of the restaurant and appeal to the kinds of patrons you want to attract. Furthermore, even if you’ve eaten at hundreds of Asian fusion restaurants before, you would probably spend some time researching their menus online, analyzing and evaluating each one to identify the features that work and the ones that don’t. Afterward, you’re likely to try to emulate the best qualities of the best menus while nevertheless trying to design a menu that looks uniquely your own.

By now, you can see that analyzing and evaluating genres to effectively communicate your purpose is something everyone does almost instinctively. But watching and understanding a movie is not the same thing as knowing how to direct a film. Writers, like directors, need to know the components of the genre they are working with so they can to put those components together in recognizable ways.

The point is, when it comes to much of the writing you will be doing in academic, professional, and public contexts, learning to write well means learning to recognize different genres of writing, their various shapes and purpose, and the audience expectations that come with them. Whether it’s an email, report, resume, blog post, tweet, or essay—composing any type of text begins with genre awareness.


Some Tips on Analyzing and Evaluating Genres

  • An analysis explains how something works by breaking it down into its component parts, and genre analysis is no different.
  • You can’t explain how a genre works by considering only its features. You also have to consider its functions, or how particular examples of a particular genre are “taken up” by particular people for particular reasons within particular cultural and historical contexts.
  • You’re not just analyzing the text of the genre but the context: the values, beliefs, and material conditions that shape a genre’s features and functions over time.
  • A genre is in many respects a complex living organism that exists in a dynamic relationship with its environment. Your analysis of a given genre should take that relationship into account, and it should keep in mind that like any other organism, a genre either evolves to respond to changes in its environment, or it dies.
  • Sometimes, it’s difficult to understand how something works until it stops working. Consider that you probably don’t think much about your pancreas, unless your pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin to help your body process sugar. In fact, you might not even know that’s what your pancreas does unless you have diabetes. Similarly, it can be helpful to look not just at effective examples of a particular genre but at ineffective ones, too. This is where evaluation comes into play: it can help you understand not just how a particular genre works but why, or, in the case of an ineffective example, why not.


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Introduction to Professional and Public Writing Copyright © 2020 by Brian Hendrickson, PhD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.