Skip to main content
Select Source:



Genre is the division and grouping of texts on the basis of formal, thematic, or stylistic criteria. Texts may be produced, it can be argued, in compliance with or against the strictures of an established and identifiable genre, though it is equally feasible to impose a genre identity upon a work in retrospect, thus attributing to it further possibilities of meaning or, conversely, limiting its potential signification. Paradoxically, genre is conceptually located both within and outside of an individual text; it is a tool that may be employed with equal facility by author, reader, and critic. It is, equally paradoxically, both an instrument of restriction and a mode of liberation.

As a system of division, genre lacks universally accepted boundaries. It is, perhaps, most obviously vested in the formal distinctions between narrative (or prose), drama, and poetry (or verse), though there are some critics who would distinguish these three broad, recurrent identities as "modes," reserving the distinction of genre for what are essentially a work's technically distinguishable or thematically organized componentsthe sonnet within lyric or poetry, the novel and the gothic within prose fiction, tragedy within drama, and so on. Confusingly, other critics have been known to use the term mode to indicate a recognized textual tendency within one of the three broad genres. These already unstable boundaries may be further confused through an adaptation of the terminology of the German critic Karl Viëtor (18921951), under which genre distinctions, such as the romance and the pastoral, that occur across cultures may be labeled (somewhat misleadingly) as "universals."

On the one handand to adopt, for the purposes of argument, what is admittedly an extreme positionthe regulated and regularized conventions of genre represent a restriction on what may be produced and what ought to be consumed. The conventions of genre, in this respect, hold the potential of functioning as instruments of a restrictive conservatism of generation and reception which may both discourage innovation at the level of the individual text and exclude noncompliant examples from the canon. To write within a culturally accepted or approved genre is thus both to aspire to inclusion within a community of letters and to align the text (and, possibly, its creator) with implications and identities that are often as much social as they are literary. The same might be said for other cultural practices in which genre is the primary mode of divisionart, music, and cinema providing obvious parallels. These issues of production, interpretation, imposition, and definition apply as much in these visual and aural media as they do in oral and written textuality. For the sake of clarity and accessibility, the contentions of this essay are illustrated primarily with the oral and written text.

Conversely, however, the conventions and requirements of genre may function more as developmental departure-points than as blockades restricting innovation. They may enhance or supplement rather than concretize the existing borders of a genre, evolving and expanding in order to comprehend the novelty of texts that take issue with their own heritage. Although such innovation within genre may easily be taken as evidence of the artistic and cultural vitality of the context out of which any particular genre arises, it may equally proclaim the final limit of toleration, the point at which a genre may be seen to divide internally into subgenres or even, at the extreme, to fragment into new extrageneric divisions, often distinctly named in order to proclaim the finality and totality of separation. Drama may embrace within its bounds both tragedy and comedy, and may exhibit sufficient flexibility for all concerned to comprehend such a hybrid as tragicomedy. However, purists concerned with the study of the gothic novel, a literary genre whose origins lie in the eighteenth century, may find it considerably less easy to accept the existence of a subgenre proclaiming itself "gothic science fiction," even though the antecedent of such a concept might arguably include that quintessential "first-wave" gothic novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), published at the close of the period commonly designated as the "first wave" of gothic writing. In short, the degree to which the title of genre is awarded to a broader or narrower field of artistic production, and the extent to which that distinction is accepted, reflects the debate between the interested parties in authorship, reception, and culture more generally.

Genres, in common with the texts that sustain and promulgate them, thus exist in relationship to other bodies and other institutions, textual as well as organizational. Equally, genres exist and are modified and negotiated in debates among literary critics, as well as in the critical function and content of the artistic work itself. The relationships between genres may be complementary or oppositional, and may vary between the two across a period of cultural history. Fixity is not an invariable feature of internal genre identity and, equally, the complementary or combative relationships that pertain between genres are themselves fluid. The literary critic Jonathan Culler suggests that "the function of genre conventions is essentially to establish a contract between writer and reader" (p. 147). From Culler's observation that this contract serves in part to "make certain relevant expectations operative," it is logical to suggest that such a contract always retains the potential for renegotiation, given the constant revision of genre standards and components. Culler, however, appears to disregard the presence in such contractual renegotiations of a third party, namely the publishing and marketing industries. Indeed, it is this commercial activity, which, by way of evocative series titles and cover blurbs, has both popularized the notion of genre in the public imagination and, in the case of some popular genres, most notably the historical novel and gothic traditions, has reduced the dynamics of production to little more than stylistic repetition. This has been a risk associated with genre from its origins in classical writing.

Classical Origins

The distinction that underpins the three broad divisions of genre have their origins in the rigid formalities and hierarchies of classical thought. Book 3 of Plato's Republic (c. 380 b.c.e.) is preoccupied with the effective censoring of writing deemed inappropriate to the dignity of the projected Republic and its guardians. Though this activity finds its parallel in Aristotle's later consideration of "decorum," or the proper relationship of style to subject matter, Plato's dialogue is most influential in its systematization of genre, albeit in a vision premised upon the perception of narrative voice through direct speech, rather than a more protracted encounter with technique in itself, as the primary item of definition. Plato's division, contained for the most part within what are traditionally numbered paragraphs 392396 of Book 3, contends that "any poem or story deals with things past, present or future" by way of "either simple narrative, or representation, or a mixture of both" (p. 131). The division here is based upon the relative positions of the poet allegedly speaking as himself ("narrative") and the imitative function whereby the speech or manner of another person is imitated in an act of "representation." Using Homer's Iliad as an example, the dialogue further develops the presence of a hybrid form in which passages of narration alternate with those of representation, the poet speaking first "in his own person" and then "in the person of Chryses" (p. 131). Notably, the later genre distinction between "poetry [and] drama" is ignored in this early classification, the "styles" of narration being the only distinction permitted to those engaged in the act of creation.

The most influential classical formulation of discrete and persistent genre criteria based upon a perceived difference in media as much as on the condition of narrative voice and subject matter is in Aristotle's undated treatise On the Art of Poetry (also known as The Poetics ), though it is apparent that the work may have had limited currency from antiquity until its rediscovery during the Renaissance. The treatise is committed to a hierarchical differentiation of poetry, Aristotle's introductory history of poetic writing acknowledging an early division of art into "two channels": a "serious-minded" tradition preoccupied with "noble actions and the doings of noble persons" (p. 35) and a more invective, trivial form that charted the dealings of the "meaner sort of people" (p. 36). Three different methods of distinguishing the essential nature of a work are outlined in the Poetics, these being the medium (effectively the verse or rhythmic form) through which a work may imitate reality; the "object of imitation" (how a character is represented or exaggeratedin Aristotle's contention, specifically in moral terms); and finally (and in continuation of the Platonic model), the "manner of imitation" or difference between representation and narration (pp. 3234).

The hierarchical model exercises itself within the Poetics through the distinction between the qualities of tragedy, comedy, and epic. Comedy, it is suggested, is a "low" form, in that it is a projection of the ridiculous or of that which is painful to perceive, though this is undertaken in such a manner as not to cause pain to the audience. One would add to this the assumption that such a form would be unlikely to provoke deep thought or self-reflection, though developments in the satirical tradition of Roman literature might well achieve this. In Aristotle's understanding, Greek epic and tragedy, in contrast to comedy, do provoke introspection, both laying claim to be "a reflection, in dignified verse, of serious actions" (p. 38)though Aristotle eventually concludes the tragic to be the more effective and thus the most prestigious of the two.

Epic differs from tragedy also through formal conventions. According to Aristotle, epic, alone, conventionally "keeps to a single metre and is in narrative form" (p. 38). The two are dissimilar, again, in the scope of their respective temporal coverage, the epic being restricted by "no limits in its time of action" where tragedy was traditionally associated with "a complete action" played out during a period of around twenty-four hours (pp. 45, 38). There is considerably more at stake in this genre distinction than the convention of "fear and pity" (p. 48), which has been at times simplistically used as the defining icon of tragedy. Different meters distinguish the various forms considered by Aristotle, the iambic, for example being derived from an association with the "iamb" or lampoon, where heroic hexameter "is the right metre for epic" (p. 67). Stage tragedy employed choral song in lyric meters, with spoken exchanges delivered in tetrameters or iambic trimeters. The notion of "decorum" or appropriateness is rigid in this vision of genre: the "dignified verse" of epic or tragedy being reserved only for those forms, the diction of the latter being modified still further through "the use of expanded, abbreviated and altered forms of words" to "raise the diction above the commonplace" (pp. 63, 65). Contorted language in comedy would, by contrast, prototypically lead to confusion rather than to the thought-provokingand ultimately fatalriddle posed by the Sphinx, or indeed those posed by Teiresias to Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. Inappropriate usage, in this respect, would challenge audience expectation, were not the classical institutions of literature so rigid in their discouragement of such experimentation.

Aristotle's preoccupation with tragedy in the Poetics has left a corresponding deficiency in the criticism of the lyric, comedy, and, to a considerably lesser extent, epiccriticism of the latter being inevitably colored by the explicit partial congruence with tragedy as well as through Aristotle's discrete pronouncements upon epic stylistics. In consequence, subsequent critics have addressed this imbalance not merely by considering those genre areas specifically but also by developing further the Platonic and Aristotelian canons of genre beyond their apparent boundaries of lyric, comedy, and epic. This expansion and clarification is in many ways retrospective, based as it is in part upon an observation of recurrent textual preoccupations rather than any universally accepted criteria for generation. In contrast to the specific denominations of Platonic and Aristotelian criticism, such developments are frequently termed "classical divisions" or "the classical genres," gaining a certain valueas alleged origins, as touchstones for subsequent workin consequence.

Access to the specifics of these "classical" genresand to the vagueness that often surrounds themmight be most conveniently made through what has effectively become a genre in modern criticism itself, the critical handbook marketed at undergraduate readers. Writing in 2002, John Peck and Martin Coyle inform the student reader that "the main generic division today is into poetry, drama and the novel, but in earlier times the major genres were recognised as epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy and satire" (p. 1). Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, writing in 1997, concur, though they offer "pastoral" as an equal to the five "classical" genres. What is apparent, again, is the lack of consensus among critics.

Notable also, however, is the particular valorization of satire as a discrete genre, rather than in its more traditional status in Greek criticism as an element in comedy. Claimed as a uniquely Roman tradition by Quintilian, satire was in Aristotelian terms little more than a base ancestor of comedy or a mere component of that lesser genre. Although its inclusion in a modern tabulation of genres may reflect the acknowledgment of the parallel status of Roman art alongside Greek, it may arguably also be associated with the enhanced status enjoyed by satirical writing in the modern world. The pastoral or "bucolic" genre similarly enjoyed a classical reputation as a component of epic, lyric, or tragedy, though its potential as a discrete genre was established by the Greek poet Theocritus (third century b.c.e.), its conventions being further developed and popularized by the Roman poet Virgil (7019 b.c.e.). Again, though classical antecedents are undoubtedly important in the establishment of pastoral as a discrete genre, it must be acknowledged that its status in the contemporary critical field is enhanced by the influence of pastoral stylistics upon individual writers from William Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy, and its contribution to literary and critical movements from the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to late-twentieth-century ecocriticism. Genre, as it were, may be valued as much for the texts it has inspired indirectly as for its direct generational capacity as a literary matrix.

Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Romantic Conceptions

The Age of Reason, as has so often been asserted, was an age characterized for many by a commitment to individual and social order, supported by the adoption of taxonomies and systems conducive to the maintenance of that order. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to perceive the continued presence of genre, particularly as a limiting agent in literary culture, for a significant part of this period, albeit with limited acceptance in some quarters toward the close of the eighteenth century.

The persistence of genre in the Age of Reason is a logical continuation of the revival of classical thought, and indeed, of renewed reverence for the classical texts of Greek and Roman antiquity, during the Renaissance period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Renaissance brought a revival of interest in the writings of Aristotle in particular, and already-established notions of decorumthe relationship of form to subject matter or occasionwere in many respects confirmed for the purposes of the present by the antecedent of classical thought. The association, for example, of the sonnet as a form particularly suitable for amorous verse was effectively concretized in the courtly writings of the Renaissance period, the essay also coming to parallel (and subsequently to eclipse, albeit later, in the eighteenth century) the Socratic dialogue as the appropriate medium for philosophical and literary speculation. The broader genres of classical thought thus began to fragment into distinct stylistic identities that held the potential of eventual development into genres (or at least subgenres) in their own right. The pastoral also reappeared in the form of eclogues (short poems, not necessarily in dialogue form) in the Latin and vernacular tongues, in many cases under the influence of the Italian poet Petrarch (13041374) and his imitators, following a period of neglect during the Middle Ages.

This is not to say that the Renaissance was simply an age of revival, devoid of genre development and speculation. Developing from a medieval and early Renaissance tradition of chivalric, and at times fantastic, storytelling, the romance became an established literary form from the fifteenth century, and in England at least was considered predominantly a prose genre. In this context, the romance is a genre of adventure or experience, describing events and actions often fanciful or exaggerated, though which may be frequently utilized as a vehicle for personal or social exploration. The Renaissance genre of romanceand, by implication, its medieval antecedents in the depiction of Arthurian and classical heroesitself enters into introspection in the early seventeenth century with the publication of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (16051615), which mocks not merely the style of romance but its aspirations toward an idealized and meaningful life. Significantly, the romance, with its pretensions of the fantastic and its recollections of a recent, spectacular past, became unfashionable as neoclassical thought gained aesthetic ascendancy, returning to an enhanced position only with the rise of gothicism and Romanticism in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The Renaissance is the period also, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the rise as a distinct tendency within prose fiction of the picaresque, or novel of roguery. Growing from literary origins in sixteenth-century Spain, the picaresque evolved into a prose genre closely aligned to the romance by the early eighteenth century. The generic distinction, it must be noted, was applied in retrospect from the nineteenth century, though such tales of illicit love and scandal had been often distinguished in England from the mid-seventeenth century through the term novel. Despite this precedent, extended (and often episodic) picaresque works were frequently prefaced on their title pages by grandiose distinctions, such as "history" or "expedition"applied to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker (1771), respectivelythese niceties adding a pretension of factuality to tantalize, or trap, the potential reader. As in the classical period, any discrete genre exists in relation to other literary forms, and the relative status of one might be accreted to another through the appropriation of a signifier such as a recurrent device in titling or structure. Order, as it were, implies hierarchy and stratification as much as control and regularity: such falsehoods as those on the title pages of Tom Jones and Humphry Clinker effectively resist the alleged control exercised by the neoclassical preoccupations of the Age of Reason.

It would be overly simplistic to structure the rise of Romanticism from the last quarter of the eighteenth century as being little more than a reaction to the spiritual, political, and literary strictures allegedly imposed by the Age of Reason. Indeed, the movement proposed little more than an alternative aesthetic rather than an end to conventionalism and formulaic production through genre. In its engagement with outmoded or discarded forms of spirituality and its addressing of demotic identities, Romanticism maintained a restrictive convention of decorum, albeit one at odds with neoclassicism's reverence of Greek and Roman stylistics. Demotic and elaborately archaized forms of poetry were particularly celebrated in the presentation of uncanny events and scenes of pathos, the latter at times developing many of the sentimental attributes previously associated with the pastoral. The ballad, in particular, became a major and distinctive vehicle by which poetry might be directed away from the lofty forms and heroic subject matter of classicism and neoclassicism toward an often emotional evocation of the language and social environment of common people. Again, the association of form with subject matter or voice is an agent in the fragmentation of larger genre identities.

Romantic writers were often influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the gothic, which flourished in its first wave from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth. In terms of genre, however, the importance of the gothic lies not in its predominantly supernatural subject matter or commitment to depictions of the grotesque and excessive, but to its aesthetics and conventions being applied across prose, poetry, and drama. The rise of the gothic arguably marks the distinctive transition from a conception of genre based primarily upon formal differentiation to one where conventions of subject matter predominate. Decorum may no longer impose singularity: the poetic ballad may be as suitable a medium for gothic description as the prose novel. The same ballad, again, might hold the potential of being viewed as a product not merely of gothic stylistics but, recalling the parallel influence of Romanticism, as a representation of demotic or folk culture, also. Though such possibilities had been hinted at by earlier literary developmentsthe novel of sensibility had retained some affinity with sentimental poetry, for examplethe gothic was arguably the most influential force in this blurring of generic boundaries essentially inimical to the rigid hierarchies of Enlightenment thought.

In addition to this, the shift in perception that placed subject-matter convention over form encouraged a new interest in satire, itself a form of literary production that blurs genre boundaries through its intertextual dynamic between allusion and satiric comedy. In gothic, the novelistic mockeries of Thomas Love Peacock (17851866) and Jane Austen (17751817) inform a long tradition of acute observation and wry comment, which underpins the twentieth-century cinematic satires of Young Frankenstein (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Modern gothic, it might be added, is cinematic as well as theatrical, poetic, and novelistic in its compass.

Twentieth-Century Perceptions

Although the gothic, with Romanticism, effectively crossed and revised the boundaries between the three major genre fields of prose, poetry, and drama, this lead was not readily taken up with any effectiveness by another major transgenre movement until the rise of modernism. Instead, critical attention across the nineteenth century became preoccupied with the increasing specialization within the three major genres, a process alternatively of subdivision or fragmentation that might lead, depending on perspective, to subgenres or genres in their own right. Such changes are not necessarily evolutionarythe grotesque social awareness of Charles Dickens (18121870), for example, does not lead seamlessly to the politicized naturalism of Émile Zola (18401902). Critics in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have, however, attempted at times to appropriate a model of evolution (and in the case of Max Nordau, of decadence) to the act of criticism, associating changes in taste and genre with the perceived development or regression of the social and cultural standards that form the text's content. To do this is again to engage with the exclusive powers of genre: the decadent fiction of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, for example, may have been critically rejected upon formal grounds, though the institutions of the dominant culture are more likely to have taken issue with its subject matter. The sense of decorum here does not stop conventionally at associating one set of formal criteria as being appropriate to the depiction of a specific issue or subject. In the context of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, the debate on decorum of preoccupied with whether any form should be associated with the matter depicted by the authors deemed decadent. "Decadence" thus becomes effectively another genre engaged in defining works, often in conventional form, that fall outside the cannons of taste.

It is clear, though, that genre was enhanced (whether as internal division or fragmentation outward is irrelevant here) by the rise of a mass publishing and distribution industry in the nineteenth century, and through public consciousness of a world made considerably more complex through social change, empire, and technology. It is this context that maintains the novel as a convenient physical form for distribution and consumption, but that prefaces that demarcation with conditions generated out of the context of the day. Thus, the term novel progressively functions only as the mantissa of a variable concept conditioned by its prefix. In the United Kingdom, the century was to see the rise and fall of "condition of England" novels in the 1840s, the "new woman" novel of gender assertiveness in the 1890s, and the "problem novel" of sexual manners in the early 1900s. Such specialisms may lay claim to distinctiveness of subject matter, some enjoying a discrete and highly conventionalized decorum of form in addition. Audiences, again, often became equally specialized and well-versed in the conventions of the genre, their demand for works both stimulating production and potentially blocking its development beyond existing boundaries. Notably, many of the minor genres of the century were short lived, their currency being determined as much by fashion and the topicality of current affairs as by literary taste.

There remains, however, a perceptible difference between the stylistically and overtly literary production and the merely prosaic act of communication, and this distinction came to preoccupy the systematic scrutiny of fiction undertaken by Russian formalist critics during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Abandoning the social contexts of art in favor of a return to structural and formal issues, the movement produced a number of significant concepts pertinent to the issues of genre and genre formation. Among these was Roman Jakobson's conceptualization of a literary type by way of "the dominant," "the focusing element of a work of art," which "rules, determines and transforms the remaining components" (p. 82). The dominant, as Jakobson subsequently clarifies, may be external to the work, a component of the stylistic canon of the poetic school or age. The parallels to earlier notions of genre are obvious here, though it is worth adding a note of caution to Jakobson's assertion by way of a reference to Jurij Tynjanov's observation that the foregrounding of "dominant" elements necessarily implies the deformation of components elsewhere in the text. It may equally imply the overlooking of components in the drive to define a genre by its most prominentor most fashionablefeature.

This deformation, though, is not immutable. Evolution, or a change of emphasis in the definition of a genre by the hierarchy of its components, may determine how a body of texts is defined across a historical period. Citing the example of the novel, Tynjanov notes that where once it was distinguished by its commitment to a narrative of "love intrigue," the genre has subsequently become defined by "its size and the nature of its plot development" (p. 73). Tynjanov's definition appears here to treat of the broadest category of novel, rejecting the generic fragmentations so popular in the nineteenth century, though elsewhere Jakobson acknowledges the importance of "transitional genres"exemplified by "letters, diaries, notebooks, travelogues"which are "extraliterary and extrapoetical" or supplementary to the canonical genres of literature (p. 86). Again, these might well be defined as genres within their own right under an alternative critical viewpoint. Emphasis, and interpretation, remains in the eye of the perceiver.

Jakobson's contentionwhich appears orthodox across Russian formalist thoughtthat genre is as much a hierarchy and system of values as verse does have important implications for generic change. Changes in the hierarchy of poetic devices within a genre affect how that genre may be defined. Generic evolution is not so much a question of the disappearance of certain elements but of a shift in the relationship of dominant to muted, a change of emphasis rather than a change of content. Russian formalism demands that an approach to genre be based upon a consciousness of its status as a system, and of the relationship of the text to elements within that system as well as those that might be deemed "extraliterary"for the moment, at least.

This systematic approach also informs the influential work of both Northrop Frye and Tzvetan Todorov, two major theoreticians of genre brought into effective dialogue through the publication of Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970). As Todorov observes, Frye formulates in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957) a theoretical rather than historical model of genre. It is apparent that in part this model draws upon Aristotelian concepts not merely of division, but also of presentation. Decorum is, thus, again a limiting factor. The primary demarcations envisaged by Frye are, conventionally, drama (poetry or prose to be performed), lyric (poetry to be sung), epic (poetry to be recited) and prose that may simply be read. The first three are, essentially, performative, and the texts they produce remain within their respective genre definitions even when presented in the form of the printed page. These three genres are further associated with what Frye terms the epos, a convention of addressing an audience based upon oral presentation. Frye refines his fourth genre area, that of prose, by moving quickly to a consideration of "fiction," "the genre of the printed page" or, alternately, "the genre that addresses a reader through a book" (p. 248) rather than in expectation of oral performance.

This demarcation, though, may be compromised by the conventions of writing itself, so that prose fiction may assume a connection with the epos, or oral address, according to Frye, simply by making "some attempt to preserve the convention of recitation and a listening audience" (p. 248). Further confusion may also occur through Frye's generalization that fiction is continuous and the epos conventionally episodic. As he admits, under both of these criteria the works of Charles Dickens are wholly fiction when published in volume form, though they willbecause Victorian serials were conventionally read aloud to family gatheringshave been touched by the epos in their earlier incarnation in periodical form. Further, when Dickens began to undertake public reading tours, during which his works were first arranged and then declaimed by the author to an audience, "the genre changed wholly to epos " (Frye, p. 249). Though at first sight conventionally rigid, Frye's demarcations become somewhat permeable as the relationship between text and reader (or audience) becomes acknowledged as mutable rather than fixed.

One might also point out here briefly Frye's consideration of "archetypes" or recurrent acts of communication and their implications for genre. Although, Frye observes, "certain common images," such as "the sea or the forest," may connect "one poem with another" (p. 99), creating a perceptible unity between them, the works of an author might equally be recalled to the coherence of an oeuvre through that writer's "preoccupation with two or three archetypes" (p. 268). Taken to an extreme, there appears to be little conceptual difference between an oeuvre and genre by this definition, particularly where questions of epos and audience are themselves apparently questionable. Both are adequate modes of division, but little moreand the adequacy of genre as an effective container of certain liminal forms (which Frye himself demonstrates as being far more diverse than the transitional genres associated with Jakobson) appears far from convincing in the detail of his model. Frye's model is far from conclusive, and indeed far from comprehensive given its often conflicting complexity. He should, though, be credited with a consideration that might profitably inform all attempts to improve, define, or use genre. As Frye asserts, genre distinctions are not practical but rather "among the ways in which literary works are ideally presented, whatever the actualities are" (p. 247).

The first chapter of The Fantastic is for much of its length a response to Anatomy of Criticism, its focus being directed in particular to the perceived incoherence and lack of specificity in of Frye's tabulation of genre. Although the subsequent nine chapters of The Fantastic demonstrate Todorov's thought through the exposition of a single genre and its internal structures and tensions, much of that thought encloses the polemical content of the first chapter. Like Frye and the earlier formalists, Todorov asserts the individual text to be the product of convention, a reworking of what has already been achieved in literature rather than an emotive or unique form of self-expression. The individual text is thus not valued in its own right but rather becomes the basic resource in a deductive process from which a hypothesis or generalization regarding "a principle operative in a number of texts" (Todorov, p. 3) may be projected. Such distinctions are not adequate for the formulation of universal laws, though they are appropriate for smaller (and implicitly more coherent) theoretical unitsgeneric identities such as the fantastic, through which Todorov explicates his theory.

Central to Todorov's model of genre is the statement that "every work modifies the sum of possible works" (p. 6). This is not a new idea: it has a precedent in the Russian formalist definition of the literary by way of defamiliarization and innovation. Todorov, however, does not dismiss the noninnovative work as being merely prosaic or unliterary, thus compromising its position within genre. Rather, he considers such productions as being effectively within genre, albeit as (dependent upon audience context) "so-called 'popular' or 'mass' literature in the one case; in the other that of the academic exercise or unoriginal experiment" (p. 6). The innovative text, though, permits a statement to be made in criticism about the context of genre through its own evocation of fiction, just as genre itself facilitates commentary upon the text. Again, this is not original: Jakobson suggests in "The Dominant" how a reader may be aware of "two orders," namely "the traditional canon and the artistic novelty as a deviation from that canon" (p. 87). Canon, in this context, functions as an effective synonym for genre. A problem arises, however, with regard to the comparative prestige that is associated, in Russian formalism and elsewhere, with the iconoclastic text. Canon, like genre, is traditionally the standard to be emulated and maintained, lest the individual text be dismissed or suppressed. Modern criticism, however, has inverted that hierarchy, the generic or canonical context being relegated to the status of a starting point, the prestige going to each successive departure from a seemingly devalued standard that yet paradoxically holds its value as a reference point to be exceeded. If a text does not challenge an accepted norm it is, on the one hand either "popular" or "unoriginal," though on the other it is conservatively "generic." It is, in effect, unstable, locked into a conceptual position where more than one perception may formulate its definition, its acceptance or rejection.

The Future of Genre

Todorov's contention that "any description of a text is a description of genre" (p. 7) may thus set the tone for the future of genre considerations. The awareness that characterizes the reading process as much as it does the writing activity in post-modernity has irrevocably changed the relationship between text and audience, in the same way as it has disrupted that which has previously pertained between text and genre. Jonathan Culler, quoting the critic Gérard Genette, asserts that literature, "like any other activity of the mind[,] is based on conventions of which, with some exceptions, it is not aware" (p. 116). Even at the time of its publication in 1975 this was an extraordinaryand, indeed, outmodedstatement. Genre awarenessin this case, of the discrete form of the novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and of literary theory as a context for the writing of postmodern fictionsurely informs not merely the writing of, but also critical acclamation for, John Fowles's seminal The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1969. Similar assumptions might be made about equally self-consciously "literary" or "theoretical" works such as Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) and Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977). The reader versed in such things is no longer positioned as a passive spectator, his or her only prerogative being to respond in a predictable manner to customary genre signals or to concur in the rejection of texts that breach decorum. Though some readers may maintain such standards, the postmodern reader is allegedly well informed, and capable of rejecting the orthodox rather than the heterodox in textuality. The author, too, is aware, and the text is the emblem of that awareness by its own evocation of questions of theory, reception, and, inevitably, genre. Metafictionself-conscious, self-referential, and reciprocally intimate to the generalizations that organize textuality at all levelsis the logical outcome of the cultural preoccupation with genre.

In the late twentieth century, fiction in the form of metafiction became a commentary not merely upon other texts (through intertextuality), nor indeed solely upon the internal workings of the fictional artifact itself (through the laying bare of device). To expand upon Todorov's contention above, a statement made within or demonstrated by the workings of an individual text is, equally, a statement about genre and, consequently, the limitations and the liberties associated with genre. The reader's recognition not merely of the genre context but also of the development of that context is crucial to such experiments, which are, perversely, both anti-genre and yet genre-dependent for their effect. Genre, in its function as reference point within the very texts that seek to signal their departure from its structures is, at the start of the twenty-first century, possibly as much as a conceptual ideal as Frye suggested it was in the late 1950s.

See also Literary Criticism ; Narrative ; Postmodernism .


Anonymous. "Satire." In The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, edited by M. C. Howatson, 507. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Anonymous. "Tragedy." In The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, edited by M. C. Howatson, 575578. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Aristotle. On the Art of Poetry. In Classical Literary Criticism, translated by T. S. Dorsch, 3175. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1979.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Currie, Mark, ed. Metafiction. London and New York: Longman, 1995.

Dubrow, Heather. Genre. London and New York: Methuen, 1982.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Howatson, M. C., ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jakobson, Roman. "The Dominant." 1935. In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, 8287. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1978.

Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 18751914. London: Secker and Warburg, 1989.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Peck, John, and Martin Coyle. Literary Terms and Criticism. 3rd ed. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2002.

Perry, Anne. The Twisted Root. New York: Ballantine, 1999.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by H. D. P. Lee. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1968.

Punter, David. The Gothic Tradition. Vol. 1 of The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. 2nd ed. London and New York: Longman, 1996.

Seed, David. "Gothic Science Fiction." In The Handbook to Gothic Literature, edited by Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 272. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1998.

Shklovsky, Victor. "Art as Technique." 1917. In Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, 324. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. In The Theban Plays, translated by E. F. Watling, 2368. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Tynjanov, Jurij. "On Literary Evolution." 1927. In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, 6678. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1978.

William Hughes

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Genre." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Genre." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 12, 2017).

"Genre." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


genre (zhän´rə), in art-history terminology, a type of painting dealing with unidealized scenes and subjects of everyday life. Although practiced in ancient art, as shown by Pompeiian frescoes, and in the Middle Ages, genre was not recognized as worthy and independent subject matter until the 16th cent. in Flanders. There it was popularized by Pieter Bruegel, the elder. It flourished in Holland in the 17th cent. in the works of Ter Borch, Brouwer, Metsu, De Hooch, Vermeer, and many others, and extended to France and England, where in the 18th and 19th cent., its major practitioners were Watteau, Chardin, Greuze, Morland, and Wilkie. In Italy genre elements were present in Carpaccio's and Caravaggio's paintings, but not until the 18th cent. did genre become the specialty of an Italian artist, Pietro Longhi. The French impressionists often painted genre subjects as did members of the American ashcan school.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"genre." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"genre." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 12, 2017).

"genre." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


gen·re / ˈzhänrə/ • n. a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"genre." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"genre." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 12, 2017).

"genre." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


genre XIX. — F. (see GENDER).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"genre." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"genre." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (December 12, 2017).

"genre." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


genreairer, bearer, carer, Clara, darer, declarer, Demerara, Éire, habanera, Halmahera, parer, Perak, primavera, repairer, Rivera, Riviera, Sarah, scarer, sharer, snarer, sparer, squarer, starer, swearer, tearer, wearer •cause célèbre • torch-bearer •swordbearer • pallbearer • wayfarer •seafarer • capoeira • Phaedra •sacra, simulacra •Libra, vers libre •ex cathedra •chypre, Yprespalaestra (US palestra) • urethra •joie de vivre •mirror, sirrah •Coimbra • Middlesbrough • Indra •Sintra •aspidistra, sistra •algebra • orchestra • vertebra •Beira, Fujairah, Hegira, Lyra, Myra, naira, palmyra, spirogyra •Hydra • Lycra •begorra, Gomorrah, horror •double entendre • genre • amour propre • Le Nôtre • contra •Cosa Nostra, rostra

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"genre." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"genre." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 12, 2017).

"genre." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from