The Use of Genres in Literature

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In his study of genre, Alastair Fowler draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein's metaphor of "family resemblances": "Representatives of a genre may ... be regarded as making up a family whose septs and individual members are related in various ways, without having a single feature shared in common by all" ( Kinds of Literature, 1982). Photo and Co/Getty Images

A genre is a type or category of artistic composition (as in literature or film), marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. 

The primary literary genres include drama, fiction, poetry, and essays. Each of the primary genres is made up of numerous subgenres (or subcategories). For instance, subgenres of the essay include the personal essay, the familiar essay, the critical essay, the humorous essay, and the exploratory essay.

There is usually a great deal of overlap among genres and among subgenres. 

Genre theory is a type of literary study concerned with defining genres and examining their histories and interactions. As Peter Larsen points out in "Mediated Fictions," "The history of genre theory shows that it is, in fact, quite impossible to classify texts on the basis of simple, well-defined features, or to make genres form a clear-cut, unambiguous system" (A Handbook of Media and Communication Research, 2012).


  • "Contemporary theorists of genre tend to follow the lead of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who thought of genre in terms of 'family resemblances,' a set of similarities some (but by no means all) of which are shared by those works classified together. Viewed this way, genre is a convenient, though arguably loose and arbitrary, categorizing and descriptive device that provides a basic vantage point for examining most historical and many modern and contemporary  works."
    (Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003)
  • Uses of Genres
    "[F]ar from being merely 'stylistic' devices, genres create effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility, which are central to the different ways the world is understood in the writing of history or of philosophy or of science, or in painting, or in everyday talk. These effects are not, however, fixed and stable, since texts--even the simplest and most formulaic--do not 'belong' to genres but are, rather, uses of them; they refer not to 'a' genre but to a field or economy of genres, and their complexity derives from the complexity of that relation."
    (John Frow, Genre. Taylor & Francis, 2006)
  • Creative Nonfiction as the Fourth Genre
    "Traditionally, the study of literature has been centered on analysis and interpretation in three genres--poetry, fiction, and drama; the study of creative writing has also focused on those genres; and composition has become the domain of nonfiction. We believe that this unnatural separation can be bridged by acknowledging creative nonfiction as the fourth genre. That is, we think of creative nonfiction simultaneously as a form of literature, as a goal of creative writing, and as the aesthetic impulse in composition."
    (Robert L. Root, Jr., and Michael Steinberg, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. Allyn and Bacon, 1999)
  • A Code of Behavior
    "Genre, as many students of the subject have observed, functions much like a code of behavior established between the author and his reader. When we agree to attend a formal dinner, we tacitly accept the assumption that we will don the appropriate attire; the host, in turn, feels an obligation to serve a fairly elaborate meal and to accompany it with wine rather than, say, offering pizza and beer. Similarly, when we begin to read a detective novel, we agree to a willing suspension of disbelief."
    (Heather Dubrow, Genre. Taylor & Francis, 1982)
  • The Difference Between Genre and Style
    "These two terms--genre and style--are often loosely used, and perhaps they are not susceptible to any complete clarification, but for our purposes, it will be useful to make at least a rudimentary distinction between them. Genre refers to things regularly done and style to a regular way of doing things. In painting, landscape is a genre and impressionism is a style. Genres are social and durable; they persist through changes of style. A style is more local, often personal, as when we speak of Shakespearean comedy as opposed to Jonsonian comedy or Monet's impressionism as opposed to Renoir's. Both genres and styles, however, manifest themselves in recurrent patterns or codes that can be constructed by analyzing a set of individual texts."
    (Robert Scholes, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. Yale University Press, 1985)
  • Advice to Young Writers
    "Focus in on the genre you want to write, and read books in that genre. A LOT of books by a variety of authors. And read with questions in your mind."
    (Nicholas Sparks, "How to Learn the Craft," 2002)
  • The Lighter Side of Subgenres in Film: Chick Flicks and Dick Flicks
    "The truth of the matter is, there is kind of an art to the chick flick. No, I'm not talking about the ones that are on the spectrum like "Is Hunger Games a chick flick?", "Is Bridesmaids a chick flick?" I'm talking about the ones that are ovaries-to-the-wall, estrogen-inducing, couldn't-be-mistaken-for-anything-else chick flicks. The same way an action film like Harry Potter is gender-neutral, but Pacific Rim is obviously a dick flick, which is like a chick flick, only the exact opposite. And that's also not to say men can't like chick flicks or women can't like dick flicks. But let's not kid ourselves. It's not boys who made the Twilight films a hit and it's not girls who made the Transformers films a hit. Hollywood is always going to market to repetitive demographics. . . .

    "Don't get me wrong, if you like ABBA, no problem. They've had a lot of big hits and they're very talented, but this [Mamma Mia!] is not the movie to showcase any of their abilities. This is an example of trying to take a sub-genre, in this case, the chick flick, and [reducing it] to a mathematical formula. Like, if you use this combination of elements, you'll end up with a demographic who'll fall for it every time. The Bruckheimer films use it, the Happy Madison films use it, and you can bet your ass this . . . film uses it."
    (Doug Walker, review of Mamma Mia! on The Nostalgia Critic, 2015)

    Pronunciation: ZHAN-ruh

    From the Latin and French for "kind" or "type."

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "The Use of Genres in Literature." ThoughtCo, Aug. 24, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, August 24). The Use of Genres in Literature. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Use of Genres in Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 20, 2018).