John Hartley argues that 'genres are agents of ideological closure - they limit the meaning-potential of a given text' (O'Sullivan et al. 1994, 128). Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress define genres as 'typical forms of texts which link kinds of producer, consumer, topic, medium, manner and occasion', adding that they 'control the behaviour of producers of such texts, and the expectations of potential consumers' (Hodge & Kress 1988, 7). Genres can be seen as constituting a kind of tacit contract between authors and readers.
From the traditional Romantic perspective, genres are seen as constraining and inhibiting authorial creativity. However, contemporary theorists, even within literary studies, typically reject this view (e.g. Fowler 1982: 31). Gledhill notes that one perspective on this issue is that some of those who write within a genre work in creative 'tension' with the conventions, attempting a personal inflection of them (Gledhill 1985: 63). From the point of view of the producers of texts within a genre, an advantage of genres is that they can rely on readers already having knowledge and expectations about works within a genre. Fowler comments that 'the system of generic expectations amounts to a code, by the use of which (or by departure from which) composition becomes more economical' (Fowler 1989: 215). Genres can thus be seen as a kind of shorthand serving to increase the 'efficiency' of communication. They may even function as a means of preventing a text from dissolving into 'individualism and incomprehensibility' (Gledhill 1985: 63). And whilst writing within a genre involves making use of certain 'given' conventions, every work within a genre also involves the invention of some new elements.
As for reading within genres, some argue that knowledge of genre conventions leads to passive consumption of generic texts; others argue that making sense of texts within genres is an active process of constructing meaning (Knight 1994). Genre provides an important frame of reference which helps readers to identify, select and interpret texts. Indeed, in relation to advertisements, Varda Langholz Leymore argues that the sense which viewers make of any single text depends on how it relates to the genre as a whole (Langholz Leymore 1975, ix). Key psychological functions of genre are likely to include those shared by categorization generally - such as reducing complexity. Generic frameworks may function to make form (the conventions of the genre) more 'transparent' to those familiar with the genre, foregrounding the distinctive content of individual texts. Genre theorists might find much in common with schema theorists in psychology: much as a genre is a framework within which to make sense of related texts, a schema is a kind of mental template within which to make sense of related experiences in everyday life. From the point of view of schema theory, genres are textual schemata.
Any text requires what is sometimes called 'cultural capital' on the part of its audience to make sense of it. Generic knowledge is one of the competencies required (Allen 1989: 52, following Charlotte Brunsdon). Like most of our everyday knowledge, genre knowledge is typically tacit and would be difficult for most readers to articulate as any kind of detailed and coherent framework. Clearly one needs to encounter sufficient examples of a genre in order to recognize shared features as being characteristic of it. Alastair Fowler suggests that 'readers learn genres gradually, usually through unconscious familiarization' (Fowler 1989: 215). There are few examples of empirical investigation of how people acquire and use genres as interpretative frameworks in everyday life. However, a few of these studies have been conducted with children in relation to television genres.
In an intensive longtitudinal study of twelve children from 2- to 5-years-old, Leona Jaglom and Howard Gardner (1981a, 1981b) noted the development of genre distinctions. 2-year-olds did not recognize the beginnings and endings of programmes (Jaglom & Gardner, 1981b). The researchers found that for the 2-year-olds the disappearance of characters was a source of consternation: 'children become very upset and sometimes even cry when their favourite television personalities leave the screen' (Jaglom & Gardner, 1981a: 42): they suggested that this feature might assist their eventual identification of the advertisement genre. The researchers report the order of acquisition of the principal genre distinctions: advertisements (3.0-3.6); cartoons (3.7-3.11, early in interval); Sesame Street (3.7-3.11, late in interval); news (4.0-4.6); children's shows (4.0-4.6, late in interval); adult shows (4.0-4.6) (ibid.: 41). They argue that 'in the first few years of attempting to sort out the confusing elements of the television world, children are concentrating on making distinctions between shows' (ibid.: 42).
David Buckingham has undertaken some empirical investigation of older children's understanding of television genres in the UK (Buckingham 1993: 135-55). In general discussions of television with children aged from 8- to 12-years-old, Buckingham found 'considerable evidence of children using notions of genre, both explicitly and implicitly':
Buckingham then gave the children, in small groups, the task of sorting into groups about 30 cards bearing the titles of television programmes which had already been mentioned in discussions, with minimal prompting as to the basis on which they were to be sorted. The children showed an awareness that the programmes could be categorized in several ways. Genre was one of the principles which all of the groups (barring one of the youngest) used in this task. The children's repertoire of genre labels increased with age. However, Buckingham emphasizes that the data did not simply reflect steady incremental growth and that cognitive development alone does not offer an adequate model (Buckingham 1993: 149). He also cautions that 'it would be a mistake to regard the data as a demonstration of a children's pre-existing "cognitive understandings"' (ibid.: 154) since he stresses that categorization is a social process as well as a cognitive one. Nevertheless, his findings do offer some evidence 'that children progressively acquire (or at least come to use) a discourse of genre as they mature - that is, a set of terms which facilitate the process of categorization, or at least make certain kinds of categorization possible. As their repertoire of terms expands, this enables them to identify finer distinctions between programmes, and to compare them in a greater variety of ways' (ibid.: 154).
David Morley (1980) notes in relation to television differential social access to the discourses of a genre. Buckingham found some limited evidence of social class as a factor, with young working-class children employing a particularly consistent concept of soap opera (ibid.: 149) and with a recognition amongst older middle-class children of the limitations of genre discourse 'such as its tendency to emphasize similarity at the expense of difference' (ibid.: 154). The data could not, however, be explained 'in terms of social class simply determining their access to discourses' (ibid.: 149).
Genres are not simply features of texts, but are mediating frameworks between texts, makers and interpreters. Fowler argues that 'genre makes possible the communication of content' (Fowler 1989: 215). Certainly the assignment of a text to a genre influences how the text is read. Genre constrains the possible ways in which a text is interpreted, guiding readers of a text towards a preferred reading (which is normally in accordance with the dominant ideology) - though this is not to suggest that readers are prevented from 'reading against the grain' (Fiske 1987: 114, 117; Feuer 1992: 144; Buckingham 1993: 136). David Buckingham notes that:
As David Bordwell puts it, 'making referential sense of a film requires several acts of "framing" it: as a fiction, as a Hollywood movie, as a comedy, as a Steve Martin movie, as a "summer movie" and so on' (Bordwell 1989: 146). Genres offer an important way of framing texts which assists comprehension. Genre knowledge orientates competent readers of the genre towards appropriate attitudes, assumptions and expectations about a text which are useful in making sense of it. Indeed, one way of defining genres is as 'a set of expectations' (Neale 1980: 51). John Corner notes that 'genre is a principal factor in the directing of audience choice and of audience expectations... and in the organizing of the subsets of cultural competences and dispositions appropriate for watching, listening to and reading different kinds of thing' (Corner 1991: 276). Recognition of a text as belonging to a particular genre can help, for instance, to enable judgements to be made about the 'reality status' of the text (most fundmentally whether it is fictional or non-fictional). Assigning a text to a genre sets up initial expectations. Some of these may be challenged within individual texts (e.g. a detective film in which the murderer is revealed at the outset). Competent readers of a genre are not generally confused when some of their initial expectations are not met - the framework of the genre can be seen as offering 'default' expectations which act as a starting point for interpretation rather than a straitjacket. However, challenging too many conventional expectations for the genre could threaten the integrity of the text. Familiarity with a genre enables readers to generate feasible predictions about events in a narrative. Drawing on their knowledge of other texts within the same genre helps readers to sort salient from non-salient narrative information in an individual text.
Sonia Livingstone argues that:
She adds that: 'if different genres result in different modes of text-reader interaction, these latter may result in different types of involvement...: critical or accepting, resisting or validating, casual or concentrated, apathetic or motivated' (Livingstone 1994: 253).
The identification of a text as part of a genre (such as in a television listings magazine or a video rental shop's section titles) enables potential readers to decide whether it is likely to appeal to them. People seem to derive a variety of pleasures from reading texts within genres which are orientated towards entertainment. 'Uses and gratifications' research has identified many of these in relation to the mass media. Such potential pleasures vary according to genre, but they include the following.
Ira Konigsberg suggests that enduring genres reflect 'universal dilemmas' and 'moral conflicts' and appeal to deep psychological needs (Konigsberg 1987, 144-5).