Genre versus Form

In class on Thursday we discussed genre, and that was really one of the first times I thought about genre as anything more than how a library is set up or how Spotify categorizes playlists. When starting to think about genre in relation to form, my initial reaction was that they are essentially the same thing, but this isn’t really the case. While genre and form are similar in that they are both systems of categorization, they are used to categorize different things about a piece of writing.

In my mind, it’s easiest to think about the differences between genre and form this way- genre categorizes what the piece of writing is about, and form categorizes how it is written. Genres are things like historical fiction, realistic fiction, sci-fi, biography, etc. Thus, genre focuses on the content of the piece of writing. Form, on the other hand, tells you how it is written- a short story, a poem, a novel, a blog post, etc. Form focuses on the way in which the content is presented.

All types of genres have conventions that give the reader a general idea of what to expect from the work, and allow the reader to compare the work to other things that have the same genre. For example, if you pick up a book in the romance section of the library, you know to expect two characters to fall in love, some sort of hinderance that poses a threat to the relationship, and the characters working through it to live happily ever after. Or, if you pick up a biography of a president, you know it will be about that specific person’s life, rather than about every president that’s ever lived.

There are conventions of form that operate the same way. If you sit down to read a research paper, you know there won’t be many personal pronouns or slang terms used. Similarly, if you pick up a book of poetry, you’re not expecting to see many block quotes or internal citations.

Since genre and form categorize two different things, most works have both a genre and a form (although of course there are exceptions). For the example, The Monkey’s Paw would be categorized as the genre of science fiction, since the events of the story have not really happened and are impossible to happen, and categorized as the form of short story, due to it’s length. On the other hand John Green’s novels would fall into the genre of realistic fiction, as they are not true events, but realistically could actually occur, and would be the form of a novel, due to the length.

Now having said all of that, it is of course impossible to set hard and fast rules as to what is genre and what is form. For example, you could make a pretty convincing argument that poetry is both a genre and a form, or that many pieces of poetry are also short stories. At least for myself, thinking about genre in terms of content and form in terms of structure, not only helps me understand the differences between the two better, but also to understand the exceptions better as well.

Genre & Form

Genre vs. Form

Would you call Game of Thrones a Western? Is Fallout 3 a Western? The answer to those questions really only relies on whether you consider a “Western” piece of media a form or a genre. In order to understand what you actually believe, it’s important to consider the fundamental difference between genre and form. I posit that genre speaks to intangible characteristics contained in a piece of media, while form is more about the physical components of a piece of media, within and on the surface.

The concept of a Western has been studied to death, revealing the following. Some recurring themes in Westerns are the concept of personal justice rather than institutionalized law, moral ambiguity, and codes of honor. I believe these are the sorts of traits that inform us of genre. Taking these abstract traits at face value, it can be easy to interpret Game of Thrones as a Western. One never really knows whether or not they feel comfortable identifying with Jamie Lannister because it’s almost impossible to decipher if his actions are moral or not. Justice is decided by the blade; the survivor is the just. The knights of Westeros cling to their honor above their own lives.

So, if abstract concepts such as those listed above qualify genre, form appears to be the case one pours elements into in order to hold them in place. This includes length of a piece as well as the structure of lines and paragraphs, but also iconography such as (in the case of Westerns) weapons, alcohol, glaring sunlight, and desolation. By this measure, one could easily categorize Fallout 3 as a Western, even though it is debatably more of a science-fiction piece of media. Fallout 3 contains all of the iconography I listed previously, and the plot is structured in a way that does not deviate from typical Western plot conventions too much. However, no one familiar with the game would call it a Western, although it is contained in a Western-style form.

In the end, genre and form complement one another, but do not always coincide. It is perfectly possible to create a piece in a Western form that also does not contain any elements typically found in a Western. Likewise, it’s equally possible to create a Western piece (thematically) that does not share any visual characteristics with other Westerns. Finally, while I believe that the categories of form and genre are useful in delineating media, I also believe that one should not pay too much attention to such labels. Intensive labelling is useful only to a certain point, beyond which it becomes burdensome. There’s no need to shove everything into a neat little box.

Genre and Form

In class we discussed the different ways that genre can be defined. Most definitions included some sort of organizational system that split books, movies, music, and other creative works into categories. I find it hard to disagree with the fact that genre does, in fact, in some way or another, allow for creative works to be split into groups.

I think of form and genre in the way a math teacher explains rectangles and squares. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. By this I mean that all genres have a type of form to them, but not all forms can be made into a genre. I look at genre as a general term for the types of categories we divide things into. Let’s look at different types of writing as an example, seeing as this post is for a Writing blog. In class we talked about how fiction is a genre, and among fiction there are subgenres, “lesser genres” as we discussed, including Science Fiction, Young Adult, Crime, Mystery, Horror, etc. These are all examples of genres based on the content of a story. Most book stores are organized like this with a section for nonfiction, cook books, biographies and autobiographies, children’s books, and many more. Then you take a look at what I’m doing right now: writing a blog post. I consider this to be another type of genre. In this section we have essays, blog posts, articles, editorials, research papers, and other, seemingly shorter, types of writing. In this case the genres are split by the form of the type of writing. A play, for instance, would be in the form of dialogue and actions scenes. An essay will often start off as an outline before developing into literary form. That’s not to say you can’t go back and take all of the novels in the Young Adult section of Barnes and Noble and start to split them up by form, creating a way too specifically organized book shelf. Although I’m not sure why anyone would ever do that.

In essence, genre is how we split creative works up into categories. It’s a sorting mechanism that we use because it makes things easy to find and easy to talk about, creating genres makes things easy. Form, on the other hand, is a type of a genre. It is a potential way that we could split up creative works if what we desire is based on how something is created rather than the content of what a reader would be delving into. So while most things have a genre, and everything has form, I think the difference is how we choose to categorize these pieces of writing.

Thoughts on Genre and Form

At the beginning of last Thursday’s class, we were asked to define the word genre. While I can’t exactly remember my response word-for-word, I know it was along the lines of “a common pattern or format to which a collection of works adheres.” In the moment, I was considering the way novels may collectively follow a certain plot arc; in romance novels, two people meet, fall in love, have a dispute, then reconcile, whereas horror novels introduce a slightly eccentric character, dive into the backstory, and proceed to uncover the reasons as to why this troubled past is the cause for mass hauntings in a random suburban neighborhood. In my mind, these were the “patterns” that distinguished one genre from another. Reflecting on this response to the initial question and our subsequent conversation on what genre actually is, I’ve realized that my initial response seemed to fit the definition of form rather than genre.

Form, in my opinion, is the shape that a piece of literature takes. It is more about the configuration or format of the work, rather than the content. Some examples that come to mind (specific to the written word) are novels, essays, prose and poetry, to name a few. These examples all follow specific patterns regarding the way they are created, whether it be the ways in which paragraphs or ordered or how words on a page are formatted. Considering the idea that every piece of work tells a narrative–whether it be a non-fiction essay or a children’s story–form can often be thought of as the physical appearance of the words on paper.

Genre, on the other hand, is a way to categorize the actual content of these different forms. While a lot of our class conversation considered the hierarchical implications of genre and why there is a “fiction” section in a bookstore that is triple the size of the “science fiction” or “young adult” fiction sections, we mentally categorize pieces of work by genre when we consider the actual content of the written work, rather than the way it is written. A piece of fiction is considered to belong to the science fiction genre if it tells stories of the supernatural, outer space, or future technological advances, whereas the romance genre contains works involving love, loss, and often a nearby beach, in the case of Nicholas Sparks novels. Referring back to the narrative example one more, I consider genre to be the way in which the narrative is told through the plot and words.

As I wrap up this post, I begin to think about the grey area that too often appears, asking why works such as poetry, which I often think of as a genre, can also be thought of as a form, for the reasons stated above. Maybe someone else has some insight into this, or any of the other complexities that I’m not considering now but will undoubtedly come to mind within the next few hours.

Differences between genre and form

While the definition of genre and form can overlap, they are not the same thing. Genre is a stereotypical grouping of works based on content and expected emotional appeal. Form is the way in which a specific work is presented within a genre, such as character and plot. A type of genre for movies is princess movies. In a quintessential princess movie, there are specific pieces of content that one would expect the movie to have. For example, this would include a princess, a prince, a castle, and villagers within the kingdom. No princess movie would be complete without these aspects, all of which emote a tone of olden times and regality. If a moviegoer likes these things, he would choose to see the movie. Traditionally, the form of a princess movie follows the trajectory of a noble prince rescuing a princess in distress and the two falling in love. “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” are two instances of this. However, a movie can break away from this form while still being categorized under the genre of a princess movie. For example, in “Frozen”, the princess is saved by her sister and the “true love” depicted in the movie is fraternal, not romantic. Another example of a movie breaking from this traditional form is “Shrek”, in which the savior is an ugly Ogre, not a knight in shining armor. All of the movies I’ve mentioned have the basic markings of a princess movie, and therefore share the same genre. However, they differ in form in the aspects of character and plot. Furthermore, in writing, form can take a more literal definition in the way that an author chooses to structure or deliver a certain piece. For example, two novels can be coming-of-age novels because they both focus on the bridge between youth and adulthood of a character, yet the stories can be told in different forms. Catcher in the Rye is told in first person to allow direct access to the main character’s thoughts; where as the narrator in Oliver Twist is third person. Basically, while the genre can inform the form that the creator of the work chooses to use, there is no steadfast rule of form that a work must follow to be included within a genre.