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.

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