International Hermes Symposium and Doctoral Seminar location:London date:16 - 20 June 2008
As a concept which allows us to group together cultural texts we deem somehow similar, genre is an inherently comparative notion. It follows then that genre is a significant and omnipresent methodological parameter in the comparative study of literature and culture. However, despite its importance, genre tends to present us with methodological challenges as our intuitive understanding and use of genre as a stable and text-based phenomenon fundamentally clashes with the contemporary theoretical take on genre as inherently dynamic, ever-changing and located at the crossroads of the text and its use(r)s. This paper examines the methodological issues and challenges genre presents the comparative study of culture with by focussing on a case study of the popular romance novel.
As an iconic example of ‘genre fiction’ the romance novel extensively engages with notions of genre and provides us as such with an interesting case study for this problematic. This paper starts out by examining how genre notions are dealt with in the romance novel. A comparative analysis of four of American romance author Nora Roberts’ books which are institutionally presented as romance novels indicates that while generic categories are treated as firm, stable and unambiguous on the extra-textual level, genre remains an inherently fuzzy and blurred notion in terms of narrative, rhetoric and text. The paper’s second part then examines how genre is treated in the study of the romance novel. An analysis of two foundational romance studies reveals that the underlying methodological genre model is often theoretically unsubstantiated. The intuitive and static genre concept which is instead relied upon ultimately gives rise to methodological problems.
The solution to such problems might lie in the development of a methodologically sound genre model adapted to the particular complexities of popular culture; i.e. a model in which variation, development and generic hybridity on the textual level is systematically combined with attention for the texts’ use and users (institutions, readers, industry, etc.). As such an encompassing model might include a wide variety of parameters its basic conceptual usefulness across different media and disciplines is conceivable. In this way comparative literature – and particularly the comparative study of popular fiction – might help in providing a solution to the interdisciplinary methodological challenge present in the notion of genre.