The Meaning of Genre in Literature
Genre and Form: A Contrast
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 that 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 that give general shape to writing, but are not the writing itself. They are like the blank form or format of a contract without the content and details of the contract.
The Cookie and The Cookie Cutter Are Not the Same
"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?
The Pieces of Candy Are Substantially Different From the Molds in Which They Were Made
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 is a list 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.
A Definition of Genre and a Definition of Form in Literature
A definition of genre in literature-Genre is a category in literature that provides particular information about content, style, theme, and the intended emotional or intellectual effect of a piece of writing.
A definition of form in literature-Form is the blueprint for the literary structure which includes length, type, and general intent of a piece of writing.
My Other Articles on Literature
- Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction, What's the Difference?
Someone recommends a book which you grab off Amazon and kick back with expectations of your socks being knocked off. Somehow your socks stay on and the book gathers dust. What is great literature?
- How to Read Very Short Fiction and Enjoy It
You will find an abundance of articles about how to write long and short fiction, but few regarding how to read short fiction and enjoy it. Here are seven ways for you to learn to enjoy a short story.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Would you please give us some genres that existed in oral literature?
It sounds funny, doesn't it, to say, "oral literature"? It seems like it could only be one or the other. But storytelling preceded writing by a very long time. Those people used a variety of genres to do two things. First, they wanted to communicate information. Second, they wanted to communicate information in entertaining and memorable ways. Here are the genres they used.
Epics, ballads, prose tales, ritual and lyric songs, sagas, panegyrics, lyric poems, and genealogies.
What is a novel?
A novel is a work of fiction that is longer than a short story and a novella.
The lengths of these types of fiction is not something that is definite. But a short story might be up to twenty thousand words. A novella would be from there to about fifty or sixty thousand. A novel is beyond that.Helpful 11
What is a form?
Form is like the format of a letter. If you look this up on Google, you will see things like heading, address, salutation, body, and signature. The format does not tell you what to put in each of these places. It only tells you the kind of information that goes there.
Form in literature is the format of the piece of writing. The word novel gives you information such as the fact that it is fiction. It gives you a relative idea of length. It also tells you that there will be a long, slow build to the climax of the story. The conflict of the story will be resolved, and it will have an ending. The word novel doesn't tell you much more than that. Form is the container the story is poured into. Genre is the story.Helpful 6
What is the debate between genre fiction and literary fiction?
Literary fiction delves into the mental and emotional state of the main character or characters. This type of fiction is focused on the character. The complexity is not so much in the plot as it is in the presentation of the characters. Often the story wanders far from the plot to give the reader a deep understanding of the character(s). This can create a deeper experience for the reader when the plot and character reunite. But that is not always the effect. Sometimes the descriptions are so long and detailed; the story is simply lost. If a reader becomes bored, they won't finish the book.
Genre or popular fiction focuses on the story, the plot, the action. This can sweep the reader away to another time and place. They might feel they are participating as the plot unfolds. The accusation against this type of fiction is that the descriptions of the characters are weak. A reader might find they not only do not relate to the character; they simply don't care about them. If they are in grave danger, it doesn't matter because there is no emotional investment in the character.
There is a wealth of fine literature in both of these kinds of fiction. There is also a plethora of crap in both camps, and who wants to read crap? The goal of every writer should be to present strong characters in a story that is interesting, entertaining and to varying extents, intellectually stimulating and challenging. The entire debate could be dropped if writers were first and foremost focused on the reading experience of their readers. Of course, the market will decide, and if highbrow (Literary) and lowbrow (Popular/genre) both succeed, then what are we fighting about? This is not about literary snobs (though they do exist) and paperback rednecks (Yes, they exist too). This topic should be focused on two things. First, readers can read what they want. Period. Second, writers should be focused on writing good, high-quality stories that have deep, memorable characters.Helpful 2
What is the difference between fiction and non-fiction?
Non-fiction is any writing that is about real people, facts, and events. Fiction is writing that has been invented by the writer.Helpful 1
© 2013 Chris Mills