In a recent post at Deep Genre, Constance Ash quoted a NYT film writer’s passing mention of genre in movies:
My point is not that these movies are interchangeable, or that their similarities betray a lack of imagination on the part of their makers. A genre is not a formula but a paradigm, an endlessly variable model that can be adapted to different temperaments and circumstances. Directorial acumen, agile screenwriting and sensitive acting distinguish the run-of-the-mill from the genuinely interesting.
She wondered, shrewdly it seemed to me, whether this applied outside of film.
In a comment I wrote:
I guess I like the idea of genre as a paradigm, rather than a formula.
A formula is necessarily restrictive. “Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.” If you don’t follow the recipe precisely, the Holy Hand-Grenade will not explode.
But the root meaning of paradigm is “example” and I really think that’s how our sense of genre is formed. “This book has spaceships and multicolored rays, like Doc Smith; I’ll put it in the box with the Lensman series. This one has elves; I’ll put it in the same box with The Lord of the Rings.” Eventually the boxes get tags (”space opera”; “high fantasy”; “mysteries where the murderer sings ‘Banana Phone’”, etc). But these are really just abstractions from a set of specific examples. If the set of accepted examples grows, the borders of the genre can expand. (Likewise they can contract if the set of defining examples shrinks.)
So, I was going to add, but I thought the comment was getting a tad long, this model is more flexible than the formula definition of genre, but it’s not utterly chaotic. People’s notions of a given genre won’t necessarily coincide with each other (nor should they) but the addition of new examples, extending the genre paradigm, won’t necessarily eclipse the old examples. There will be continuity as well as change.