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The Meaning of Genre in Literature

Updated on July 13, 2017
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Chris has written more than 100 flash fiction/short stories.Working Vacation took 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

Two Complete Science Adventure Books, 1950

Cover of the Winter 1950 issue of Two Complete Science Adventure Books
Cover of the Winter 1950 issue of Two Complete Science Adventure Books | Source

For more helpful descriptions of fiction, see my article called Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction, What's the Difference?

What is Genre; What is Form

In the world of literature one of the most confusing concepts is genre. What is genre? The word genre is often applied to such literary concepts as fiction, fantasy, poetry, horror, short story, science fiction, flash fiction and romance. But this list is actually made up of two literary concepts or tools. One is genre, the other is form.

Genre and form are separate, but related tools which are utilized by writers. A firm understanding of each will give the writer and the reader a better understanding of the writing process and of the end product of writing.

An Analogy to Explain Genre and Form

Consider the construction of a building. There is equipment which aids in putting up the structure, but never becomes part of the structure. These include such things as scaffolding, cement mixers, forklifts, cranes and concrete forms. When a structure is completed, all of this equipment is taken away. Only the finished structure remains.

Forms Give Shape During Construction

Source

Material Which Comprises the Actual Structure

There are things that become part of the building itself such as wood, steel concrete, roofing materials, nails and glass. These make up the enduring structure, but the equipment that was used to build the structure is taken away.

The Substance of the Structure Being Built

Source

Literary Form Poll

What is your favorite literary form?

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Literary Form

Let’s use two items from the descriptions mentioned above; the concrete form and the concrete. These will represent two concepts in the field of literature. The first is form and the second is genre. The distinction between these concepts has been, and probably always will be fuzzy at some points.

A concrete form holds the concrete in place until it can stand on its own. In literature, forms give a particular, identifiable shape to a piece of writing. The following is a list of tools commonly considered to be literary forms.

  • Essay.
  • Novel
  • Novella
  • Poem
  • Prose
  • Short story
  • Flash Fiction
  • Myth
  • Graphic Novel

There are more literary forms than those in the list, but they are examples of common forms. These tools give shape to what is being written. When we see the word novel on the cover of a book, we have a vague idea of what to expect. If it says essay, again, we know a little about what is coming.

If we observe a concrete form without the concrete in it, we can still know something about the wall that will eventually stand in its place. We can see how tall the wall will be as well as how thick. Openings in the form reveal where windows and doorways will be in the wall. The concrete form is a tool that will make the construction of the wall possible, but it is not the wall itself.

The forms in the list above should be seen as tools which give general shape to writing, but are not the writing itself.

Mixing Genres

"I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts." Jonathan Lethem

Genre Poll

What is your favorite genre?

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What is Genre in Literature?

What is genre? Genre is a concept that says something about the actual piece of writing. As cement is poured into a concrete form and allowed to harden and dry, so too are various kinds of writing poured into the forms of novel, poetry, flash fiction and essay. The following are lists of common, literary genres for the general forms of fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction

  • Fairy Tales
  • Fantasy
  • Tall Tales
  • Folk Tales
  • Fable
  • Adventure
  • Mystery
  • Historical Fiction
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction
  • Drama
  • Comedy
  • Romance
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Satire

Non-fiction

  • Informational
  • Biography
  • Autobiography

Form tells us about the shape of the writing. Genre tells us much more about the content of the writing. As a concrete wall is being poured, we can see that reinforcement bars have been placed within the form so that the wall will have greater strength. We see water being added so that the concrete settles properly. In the same way, the genre of a piece of writing is part of its substance. If a particular book is said to be a novella, we only know something about its length. But if we know that the book is science fiction, we know much more about the actual content.

Novel as an Example of a Literary Form

Is the term novel, for example, genre or form? We must simply ask ourselves what the term tells us about the writing. The term novel tells us about the general length of the story and that it is fictitious. Therefore, novel is a literary form and not a particular genre. In fact it is easy to see how various genres can be written in the form of a novel. One could write a science fiction, romance or fantasy novel. If it is fantasy novel, we know something about both the length of the story and about its content.

Literary Forms Give a Particular Shape to Writing

Source

A Vessel for the Precious Contents

In the photo above, notice the difference between the wine decanter and the wine. They are not synonymous. A decanter is a tool, a vessel which merely holds the wine in which lies the true intrinsic value.

Literary formats are tools, vessels which hold the precious content of genre. The former has practical value, the latter, intrinsic, enduring value.

St Patrick's Cathedral

What is Genre? What is Form? How do They Relate

"The novel is not so much a literary genre, but a literary space, like a sea that is filled by many rivers." Jose Saramago


Genre and Form in literature are a confusing pair which are related to one another but are not synonymous. When we admire architecture, such as a cathedral, we are not admiring the equipment that gave form to the structure, but the structure itself, the stone, stained glass, sculptured figures and carved, wooden doors.

In literature, there are classics society has grown to love and appreciate. What is it we admire about these writings? Is it that they are a certain length? A person might prefer a short story over a novel, but this isn't what causes someone to read a piece of literature over and over or purchase a first edition and display it in their home. The content of the novel or short story is what captivates us. This, and only this, is what has enduring and intrinsic value in the world of literature.

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    • profile image

      Chris Mills 4 weeks ago

      Galo, that is awesome to hear, thank you for coming back and letting me know.

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      Galo Cevallos 4 weeks ago

      hey man really thankfull you helped me in my exam

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Your analogy is excellent. Also, this explains genre and form extremely well. Kudos!

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Martie, you're response to my hub is very humbling. Thank you for reading and for the words you have shared.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 4 years ago from South Africa

      Cam, you have no idea how grateful I am for this explanation, as it is such a controversial topic. Your explanation makes perfect sense; I accept this and will no longer hover over the different opinions of academics.....

      Voted up and awesome :)

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hi Ann, Thanks for stopping by. Maybe there is a bit of teacher in me. I do enjoy making concepts a little easier to understand.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      retief2000, Thank you for reading and commenting on my article. I hope we can see some writing from you soon. Have a great day.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Eddy, thanks for reading and commenting. I popped over to your profile and hope to do a bit of reading there.

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      retief2000 4 years ago

      Nice Hub and thanks for the Tom Clancy dedication.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 4 years ago from SW England

      Excellent explanation of form and genre. I knew the difference but wouldn't have thought of such a great way of making it crystal clear. Brilliant!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      A great lesson and thank you for sharing.

      Eddy.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Indeed he did, Eric.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      PS Major bummer about Tom Clancey he had that knack placing our characters in real stuff that seemed like sci fi.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Eric, tre' cool indeed :) Thanks once again for your visit and comment. Hope your day has been a good one.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Most excellent. I think I got most of it. Tre' cool. Thanks

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Donna, thanks for reading and commenting. I wrote a Southern Fiction flash fiction story for Billybuc's contest a while back. I can't believe I left it out. I'm already headed for the edit button. Be sure to vote again because when I edit, it will erase your votes. But this time you get to vote for Southern Fiction. Nice to see you here.

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      Donna Campbell Smith 4 years ago from Central North Carolina

      My favorite genre is historical fiction, another is Southern fiction. So I had to vote "other." Good article.

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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Thanks Bill. I wrote this as much to clarify the differences for myself as for others. It is a fuzzy line. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope all is well at your home this day.

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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nice summary, Cam! You basically covered every known style, form and genre in one nice, neat article. Well done!