Literary genre

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A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary technique, tone, content, or even (as in the case of fiction) length. They generally move from more abstract, encompassing classes, which are then further sub-divided into more concrete distinctions. [1] The distinctions between genres and categories are flexible and loosely defined, and even the rules designating genres change over time and are fairly unstable. [2]


Much of current classical literary genres starting with the ideologies of Aristotle as outlined in his famous treatises, Rhetoric and Poetics. In the treatise Rhetoric, Aristotle arranges rhetorical literary genres into three categories: the deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. [3] He further categorizes genres of poetry in his treatise Poetics, where he also creates three different genre forms: the epic, tragedy, and comedy. [3] Aristotle's ideas regarding literary genre were fine-tuned through the work of other scholars. [4]

Genres can all be in the form of prose or poetry. Additionally, a genre such as satire, allegory or pastoral might appear in any of the above, not only as a subgenre (see below), but as a mixture of genres. Finally, they are defined by the general cultural movement of the historical period in which they were composed.

Genre should not be confused with age categories, by which literature may be classified as either adult, young adult, or children's. They are also not the same as 'format', such as graphic novel or picture book sub-genre. [5]

History of genres

"Allegories of literary genre" by Constant Montald Allegories of literary genre.jpg
"Allegories of literary genre" by Constant Montald

Foundation of genre with Aristotle

Genre ideology began to truly develop with the ideologies and written works of Aristotle, who applied biological concepts to the classification of literary genres. [6] These classifications are mainly discussed in his treatises Rhetoric and Poetics. In these treatises, he outlines rhetorical literary genres as well as prose and poetry genres. In Rhetoric, Aristotle introduces three new rhetorical literary genres: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. He discusses the goals of the orators in what they hope to accomplish through the use of these rhetorical genres. [3]

In his treatise Poetics, Aristotle discusses three main prose/poetry genres: the epic, tragedy, and comedy. He discusses these genres as chief forms of imitative poetry, noting that they are representations and imitations of human emotions and characteristics. [7]

Other scholars' contributions

Genre was further developed by numerous literary critics and scholars. Notably, a scholar by the name of Northrop Frye published "Anatomy of Criticism," where he theorizes and verbalizes a system of genres. Through the system, he uses a set of rules to describe the constraints of each genre. [1] In his piece, he defines methodological classifications of the genres of myth, legend, high mimetic genre, low mimetic genre, irony, the comic, and the tragic through the constitution of "the relation between the hero of the work and ourselves or the laws of nature." [1] He also uses the juxtaposition of the "real" and the "ideal" to categorize the genres of romance (the ideal), irony (the real), comedy (transition from real to ideal), and tragedy (transition from ideal to real). Lastly, he divides genres by the audience they are intended for into: drama (performed works), lyric poetry (sung works), and epic poetry (recited works). [1]

Prior to Frye, there were a number of works written that helped shape literary genre. One of the works was by Cassius Longinus, a philosopher who wrote a treatise called "On the Sublime" which discussed the works of more than 50 literary writers and the methods they used to influence their audiences' emotions and feelings. [8]

The idea of 'imaginative' genre, or genre that exists on factually untrue invented places, people, or things- writing about what does not exist- only started in the Romantic period. [4] The reason for this shift is often attributed to the social events that were taking place in the Western world in terms of wars, infighting and overthrown leadership. [4] People felt the need for "escapism" to remove themselves from their respective situations. [4]


William Shakespeare's statue Britannica Shakespeare Roubiliac.jpg
William Shakespeare's statue

Literary works exist in various types, and genres categorize them based on specific shared conventions, as noted above. [9] Genres are then further divided into subgenres. Literature is subdivided into the classic three forms of Ancient Greece, poetry, drama, and prose. Poetry may then be subdivided into the genres of lyric, epic, and dramatic. The lyric includes all the shorter forms of poetry, e.g., song, ode, ballad, elegy, sonnet. [9] Dramatic poetry might include comedy, tragedy, melodrama, and mixtures like tragicomedy.

The standard division of drama into tragedy and comedy derives from Greek drama. [9] This division into subgenres can continue: comedy has its own subgenres, including, for example, comedy of manners, sentimental comedy, burlesque comedy, and satirical comedy, and so on.

Often, the criteria used to divide up works into genres are not consistent, and can be subjects of debate, change and challenge by both authors and critics. [2] However, some basic distinctions can be almost unanimous. For example, a common loose genre like fiction ("literature created from the imagination, not presented as fact, though it may be based on a true story or situation") is well known to not be universally applicable to all fictitious literature, but instead is typically restricted to the use for novel, short story, and novella, but not fables, and is also usually a prose text.

Semi-fiction or spans stories include a substantial amount of non-fiction. It may be the retelling of a true story with only the names changed. It can also work reciprocally, where fictional events are presented with a semi-fictional character, such as Jerry Seinfeld.

Modern genre theory

The origins of modern genre theory is linked back to the European Romantic movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where the concept of genre was scrutinized heavily. [10] The idea that it was possible to ignore genre constraints, and the idea that each literary work was a "genre unto itself" [10] gained popularity. Genre definitions were thought to be "primitive and childish." [10] From that point until the twenty-first century, modern genre theory often sought to dispense of the conventions that have marked the categorization of genres for centuries. However, the twenty-first century has brought a new era in which genre has lost much of the negative connotations associating it with loss of individuality or excess conformity. [10]

Major forms

See also

Related Research Articles

Epic poetry Lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily detailing heroic deeds

An epic poem is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily involving a time beyond living memory in which occurred the extraordinary doings of the extraordinary men and women who, in dealings with the gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the mortal universe for their descendants, the poet and their audience, to understand themselves as a people or nation.

Latin literature includes the essays, histories, poems, plays, and other writings written in the Latin language. The beginning of Latin literature dates to 240 BC, when the first stage play was performed in Rome. Latin literature would flourish for the next six centuries. The classical era of Latin literature can be roughly divided into the following periods: Early Latin literature, The Golden Age, The Imperial Period and Late Antiquity.

Poetry Form of literature

Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

Rhetoric Art of discourse

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, which along with grammar and logic, is one of the three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetoric aims to study the techniques writers or speakers utilize to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. Aristotle defines rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion" and since mastery of the art was necessary for victory in a case at law, for passage of proposals in the assembly, or for fame as a speaker in civic ceremonies; he calls it "a combination of the science of logic and of the ethical branch of politics". Rhetoric typically provides heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle's three persuasive audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos. The five canons of rhetoric or phases of developing a persuasive speech were first codified in classical Rome: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

Genre is any form or type of communication in any mode with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time. In popular usage, it normally describes a category of literature, music, or other forms of art or entertainment, whether written or spoken, audio or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria, yet genres can be aesthetic, rhetorical, communicative, or functional. Genres form by conventions that change over time as cultures invent new genres and discontinue the use of old ones. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions. Stand-alone texts, works, or pieces of communication may have individual styles, but genres are amalgams of these texts based on agreed-upon or socially inferred conventions. Some genres may have rigid, strictly adhered-to guidelines, while others may show great flexibility.

Tragedy Form of drama based

Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering and, mainly, the terrible or sorrowful events that befall a main character. Traditionally, the intention of tragedy is to invoke an accompanying catharsis, or a "pain [that] awakens pleasure", for the audience. While many cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, the term tragedy often refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilization. That tradition has been multiple and discontinuous, yet the term has often been used to invoke a powerful effect of cultural identity and historical continuity—"the Greeks and the Elizabethans, in one cultural form; Hellenes and Christians, in a common activity," as Raymond Williams puts it.

Gorgias was an ancient Greek sophist, pre-Socratic philosopher, and rhetorician who was a native of Leontinoi in Sicily. Along with Protagoras, he forms the first generation of Sophists. Several doxographers report that he was a pupil of Empedocles, although he would only have been a few years younger. "Like other Sophists, he was an itinerant that practiced in various cities and giving public exhibitions of his skill at the great pan-Hellenic centers of Olympia and Delphi, and charged fees for his instruction and performances. A special feature of his displays was to ask miscellaneous questions from the audience and give impromptu replies." He has been called "Gorgias the Nihilist" although the degree to which this epithet adequately describes his philosophy is controversial.

Mimesis is a term used in literary criticism and philosophy that carries a wide range of meanings, including imitatio, imitation, nonsensuous similarity, receptivity, representation, mimicry, the act of expression, the act of resembling, and the presentation of the self.

<i>Poetics</i> (Aristotle) Book by Aristotle

Aristotle's Poetics is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory. In this text Aristotle offers an account of ποιητική, which refers to poetry or more literally "the poetic art," deriving from the term for "poet; author; maker," ποιητής. Aristotle divides the art of poetry into verse drama, lyric poetry, and epic. The genres all share the function of mimesis, or imitation of life, but differ in three ways that Aristotle describes:

  1. Differences in music rhythm, harmony, meter and melody.
  2. Difference of goodness in the characters.
  3. Difference in how the narrative is presented: telling a story or acting it out.

On the Sublime is a Roman-era Greek work of literary criticism dated to the 1st century AD. Its author is unknown, but is conventionally referred to as Longinus or Pseudo-Longinus. It is regarded as a classic work on aesthetics and the effects of good writing. The treatise highlights examples of good and bad writing from the previous millennium, focusing particularly on what may lead to the sublime.

Ancient Greek literature Literature written in Ancient Greek language

Ancient Greek literature is literature written in the Ancient Greek language from the earliest texts until the time of the Byzantine Empire. The earliest surviving works of ancient Greek literature, dating back to the early Archaic period, are the two epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, set in an idealized archaic past today identified as having some relation to the Mycenaean era. These two epics, along with the Homeric Hymns and the two poems of Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, comprised the major foundations of the Greek literary tradition that would continue into the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.

<i>Anatomy of Criticism</i> Literary criticism book by Northrop Frye

Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays is a book by Canadian literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye that attempts to formulate an overall view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism derived exclusively from literature. Frye consciously omits all specific and practical criticism, instead offering classically inspired theories of modes, symbols, myths and genres, in what he termed "an interconnected group of suggestions." The literary approach proposed by Frye in Anatomy was highly influential in the decades before deconstructivist criticism and other expressions of postmodernism came to prominence in American academia circa 1980s.

<i>Rhetoric</i> (Aristotle)

Aristotle's Rhetoric is an ancient Greek treatise on the art of persuasion, dating from the 4th century BCE. The English title varies: typically it is titled Rhetoric, the Art of Rhetoric, On Rhetoric, or a Treatise on Rhetoric.

The epideictic oratory, also called ceremonial oratory, or praise-and-blame rhetoric, is one of the three branches, or "species" (eidē), of rhetoric as outlined in Aristotle's Rhetoric, to be used to praise or blame during ceremonies.

History of poetry

Poetry as an art form predates written text. The earliest poetry is believed to have been recited or sung, employed as a way of remembering oral history, genealogy, and law. Poetry is often closely related to musical traditions, and the earliest poetry exists in the form of hymns, and other types of song such as chants. As such poetry is a verbal art. Many of the poems surviving from the ancient world are recorded prayers, or stories about religious subject matter, but they also include historical accounts, instructions for everyday activities, love songs, and fiction. Many scholars, particularly those researching the Homeric tradition and the oral epics of the Balkans, suggest that early writing shows clear traces of older oral traditions, including the use of repeated phrases as building blocks in larger poetic units. A rhythmic and repetitious form would make a long story easier to remember and retell, before writing was available as a reminder. Thus many ancient works, from the Vedas to the Odyssey, appear to have been composed in poetic form to aid memorization and oral transmission, in prehistoric and ancient societies. Poetry appears among the earliest records of most literate cultures, with poetic fragments found on early monoliths, runestones and stelae.

Literature Written work of art

Literature broadly is any collection of written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings specifically considered to be an art form, especially prose fiction, drama, and poetry. In recent centuries, the definition has expanded to include oral literature, much of which has been transcribed. Literature is a method of recording, preserving, and transmitting knowledge and entertainment, and can also have a social, psychological, spiritual, or political role.

Sir Brian William Vickers is a British academic, now Emeritus Professor at ETH Zurich. He is known for his work on the history of rhetoric, Shakespeare, John Ford, and Francis Bacon. He joined the English department at University College London as a visiting professor in 2012.

In classical rhetoric, figures of speech are classified as one of the four fundamental rhetorical operations or quadripartita ratio: addition (adiectio), omission (detractio), permutation (immutatio) and transposition (transmutatio).

Dionysian imitatio is the influential literary method of imitation as formulated by Greek author Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century BCE, which conceived it as the rhetorical practice of emulating, adapting, reworking and enriching a source text by an earlier author. It is a departure from the concept of mimesis which only is concerned with "imitation of nature" instead of the "imitation of other authors."


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