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.

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