Genre is a French term derived from the Latin genus, generis, meaning "type," "sort," or "kind." It designates the literary form or type into which works are classified according to what they have in common, either in their formal structures or in their treatment of subject matter, or both. The study of genres may be of value in three ways. On the simplest level, grouping works offers us an orderly way to talk about an otherwise bewildering number of literary texts. More importantly, if we recognize the genre of a text, we may also have a better idea of its intended overall structure and/or subject. Finally, a genre approach can deepen our sense of the value of any single text, by allowing us to view it comparatively, alongside many other texts of its type.

Classification By Types

      While the number of genres and their subdivisions has proliferated since classical times, the division of the literary domain into three major genres (by Plato, Aristotle, and, later, Horace), is still useful. These are lyric, drama, and epic, and they are distinguished by "manner of imitation," that is, by how the characters and the action are presented. The chart briefly summarizes the main differences in the way action and characters are presented in the lyric, drama, and the epic.

Lyric: The poet writes the poem as his or her own experience; often the poet uses first person ("I"); however, this speaker is not necessarily the poet but may be a fictional character or persona. Drama: The characters are obviously separate from the writer; in fact, they generally seem to have lives of their own and their speech reflects their individual personalities. The writer is present, of course, in stage directions (which the audience isn't aware of during a performance), and occasionally a character acts as a mouthpiece for the writer.  Epic: This long narrative is primarily written in third person. However, the epic poet makes his presence known, sometimes by speaking in first person, as when the muses are appealed to for inspiration (the invocation) or by reporting the direct speech of the characters.

      The lyric includes all the shorter forms of poetry, e.g., song, ode, ballad, elegy, sonnet. Up to the nineteenth century, the short lyric poem was considered the least important of the genres, but with the Romantic movement the prestige of the lyric increased considerably. The relative brevity of the lyric leads to an emphasis upon tight formal construction and concentrated unity. Typically, the subject matter is expressive, whether of personal emotions, such as love or grief, or of public emotions, such as patriotism or reverence or celebration.

      Drama presents the actions and words of characters on a stage. The conventional formal arrangement into acts and scenes derives ultimately from the practice in Greek drama of alternating scenes of dialogue with choral sections. From classical example also comes the standard subdivision into tragedy and comedy. Historically, many of the specific conventions of these two types have changed. We refer, for instance, to Greek tragedy, or to medieval tragedy, or to Shakespearean tragedy. This does not deny interrelationships between them; rather, it emphasizes the equal importance of their distinctive features. One thing that Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy share is the "Tragic Vision."

      It is helpful, in discussing plays, to have some familiarity with some basic conventions of drama. Every play typically involves the direct presentation of actions and words by characters on a stage. Although the structural principles are quite fluid, dramatic form often tends to move from exposition or presentation of the dramatic situation, through complication, setting of the direction of the dramatic conflict, to a climax or turning point (connected to Aristotle's peripeteia or "change of fortune"), and then through further action, resolving the various complications, to the denouement or conclusion of the play. This conventional movement in drama is not an absolute, but a tendency we observe, and variations are frequent. ("Exposition" of character motivation, for example, need not be limited to the first act.) It is useful to understand this conventional structure of drama so that we can better appreciate departures from it, as well as apply it more specifically to tragedies, as well as to comedies.

      The epic, in the classical formulation of the three genres, referred exclusively to the "poetic epic." It was of course in verse, rather lengthy (24 books in Homer, 12 books in Virgil), and tended to be episodic. It dealt in elevated language with heroic figures (human heroes and deities) whose exploits affected whole civilizations or even, by implication, the whole of mankind. Its lengthiness was properly a response to the magnitude of the subject material.

Today, we classify epics with other forms of the "mixed kind." That is, we see the classical epic as but one of the generic subdivisions of the epic or fiction. This broader classification can include many kinds of narratives, in prose as well as in verse. Thus the "mixed kind" now includes the novel, the folktale, the fable, the fairy tale, even the short story and novella, as well as the romance, which can be in either prose or verse. Of these, the novel and the romance tend to continue the epic tradition of length (we speak of the "sweep" of a sizeable novel).

      It should be noted that the three-part division of lyric, drama, and epic or fiction, while useful and relatively comprehensive, does not provide a place for all of the known literary genres. Some obvious omissions are the essay, the pastoral, biography and autobiography, and satire.

How Literary Critics Have Used Genres

      Critics have employed the genre approach to literature in a number of ways. From the Renaissance through most of the eighteenth century, for example, they often attempted to judge a text according to what they thought of as the fixed "laws of kind," insisting upon purity, that is, fidelity to type. Thus the placement of comic episodes in otherwise predominantly serious works was frowned upon, and hybrid forms like tragicomedy were dismissed. There was also a tendency to rank the genres in a hierarchy, usually with epic or tragedy at the top, and shorter forms, such as the epigram and the subdivisions of the lyric, at the bottom. Modern critics have a different view of genres, and are likely to point out how, in actual practice, writers play against as well as with generic traditions and how specific conventions are imitated or defied, modified or renovated.

Literary Genres: Conclusion

      All of the arts consist of genres. To name some of the outstanding types: in painting, there are the landscape, the still life, the portrait; in music there are the sonata, the symphony, the song; in film we have the domestic comedy, the horror/thriller, the Western. If students think of the forms with which they are most familiar (perhaps the film genres), they will understand that for sophisticated appreciation, they need always to be acquainted with the specific conventions of the type. The study of genres essentially is the study of conventions. And in literature as in the other arts, an acquaintance with generic conventions is critical to enriching our responses to particular texts. It is true that since we are reading "landmarks," there will always be something marvelously unique about each great work studied. But in each case there will also be a set of expectations connected to its type, to its generic tradition, as well as to the Zeitgeist (the "spirit of the time") in which the work was written.

Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College.

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