The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Genre: From the French for “kind” or “type,” the classification of literary works on the basis of their content, form, or technique. For centuries works have been grouped according to a number of classificatory schemes and distinctions, such as prose / poem, epic / drama / lyric, and the traditional classical divisions comedy / tragedy / lyric / pastoral / epic / satire. Current usage is broad enough to permit umbrella categories of literature (e.g., fiction, the novel) as well as subcategories (e.g., science fiction, the sentimental novel) to be denoted by the term genre.

Scholars and critics from the Renaissance and Neoclassical Periods tended to take a rigid approach to genre, ranking genres hierarchically, advocating strict boundaries between genres, identifying “laws of kind” for each genre, and judging works accordingly. The emphasis on purity of genre generated critical controversies over works that did not “fit,” such as the hybrid tragicomedy, and sometimes even led to formal proceedings against noncompliant authors. For instance, in seventeenth-century France, Pierre Corneille had to defend himself before the Académie Française against charges of breaking the classical rule of the three unities in his play Le Cid (1636).

With the advent of romanticism, which emphasized innovation, imagination, and the individual, as well as the emergence of new categories such as the novel, the genre system began to decline. A few critics have proposed other classificatory schemes; archetypal critic Northrop Frye, for instance, argued in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957) that literary works may be associated with one of four mythoi (types of plots) that are in turn associated with the four seasons, yielding four main genre classifications: comedy (spring), romance (summer), tragedy (fall), and satire (winter). Most recent critics, however, have questioned the idea underlying genre, namely, that literary works can be classified according to set, specific categories. Those who still employ rigid genre distinctions are often accused of overgeneralizing and of obscuring aspects of works that “cross” or “mix” genres.

Contemporary theorists of genre tend to follow the lead of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) (1953) characterized genre in terms of “family resemblances,” a set of similarities some (but by no means all) of which are shared by works classified together. Viewed this way, genre is a helpful, 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. Genre classifications also remain a staple of everyday discourse. Bookstores and libraries organize their collections on the basis of genre; movies are marketed as documentaries, dramas, or even docudramas; television shows are classified as educational programming, reality TV, sitcoms, and so forth.