The Meaning of Genre in Literature
Two Complete Science Adventure Books, 1950
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
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
Literary Form Poll
What is your favorite 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.
- Short story
- Flash Fiction
- 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.
"I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts." Jonathan Lethem
What is your favorite genre?
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.
- Fairy Tales
- Tall Tales
- Folk Tales
- Historical Fiction
- Realistic Fiction
- Science Fiction
- Romantic Comedy
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
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.