Genre (Literature)

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The concept of genre or text genre classifies literary works into groups determined by content or form. Today’s system of genres with its classical threefold division goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics, which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also adopted. Accordingly, literature can be divided into the major genres of epic poetry, lyric poetry and drama, which Goethe also called “natural forms”. These three dominant genres are also called genre triad. More recent models often name nonfiction or nonfiction texts as a fourth group in addition to these three genres. Within drama, in turn, comedy and tragedy are often considered fundamental genres.

Groups of works that have formed traditions in the course of literary history, each with its own typical characteristics, are also often referred to as genres, such as the picaresque novel, the joke, the bourgeois tragedy or the fairy tale novella. Sometimes the use of prose or verse is also seen as a basic feature of a genre system. Non-fiction texts appear in this system as “utilitarian prose”.

Since the term genre is used on different levels and is therefore imprecise and does not offer a differentiation for many literary traditions of the modern era, it is also often referred to as genus or genos, genre, text type and text variety. The determination of the genre of a text is done in such a way that typical formal aspects of a piece of tradition are compared with others (genre question). If there are similarities, it may be assumed that the compared pieces belong to the same genre.[1]


Concepts of genre and options in poetry and literary criticism

Until well into the eighteenth century, the most important place for statements about genres was in the implicit poetics – works that, according to their own pretence, taught about the rules in poetry. Customers of these works were to be (according to numerous prefaces) the authors of poetic works. They were to receive instructions here on how to work in the genres. Of lesser concern, on the other hand, was the naming of genres on the title pages of novels and dramas. The customers of poetic works received far more precise information about what they were buying in the brief outlines of the plots on the title pages, in statements about the reading pleasure the text allowed, in information about the style in which the author wrote. Title pages were detailed in all these ways, saying far more than a genre term could have said.

A gap opened up between poetics and poetic works: Poetics noted how tragedies and comedies were to be written – on the market, on the other hand, there was a largely unregulated play of genres, which the author learned by following the ongoing production. Poetics and their statements of genres, by contrast, appeared from the standpoint of scholarship. Their task effectively became the critique of the ongoing production that barely adhered to its precepts.

The genres and the information available on them provided critics with flexible options for responding to current works: Pieces could be

  • abide by the rules of the genres and therefore be good,
  • even though they were playing by the rules,
  • be bad because they followed rules (so slavishly) instead of demonstrating poetic talent, they could at last no less
  • be good because they broke the rules, and followed a poetic genius.

Criticism itself could split between partisans who called for a modification of the canon of genre and critics who called for a return to a classical system of genre.

While in the 17th and 18th centuries poetics defended the idea that the individual genres could in principle be understood according to rules, in 19th-century literary studies a historicization of the genre canon and a cultural differentiation prevailed: the theory that the genre structure found diverse cultural and historical manifestations. This relativization opened up scope for 19th-century literary criticism: works could now follow the conventions of a time or culture – or violate them; from now on, this could be combined with ideas of progress and reflections on literary history. Works could be “antiquated” or “epigonal” in their adherence to old genre conventions, they could achieve “classicism” by reviving traditions, they could follow or be subject to foreign and alien models in the eyes of critics, as well as break with old guidelines in the context of new “movements” and “currents”. At the same moment, literary criticism put up for discussion how the work under discussion placed itself in literary history – within the exchange that was now creating literature.

The changing structure of genres

The spectrum of literary genres currently discussed by literary scholars was largely formed in the 19th century. Preceding the present spectrum of literary genres was that of poetic genres, which entered into intense discussion with the late 17th century. In France, the poetics edited by Nicolas Boileau dominated the scholarly discussion; in the German-speaking world, Johann Christoph Gottsched’s Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen (Leipzig 1730) gained greater prominence in the 1730s with its call for a return to Aristotle’s scheme of genres.

The calls to return to the Aristotelian spectrum of genres were marked from the beginning by a sharp confrontation with current market events. Attacks here were drawn above all to opera, which among authors of the late 17th and early 18th centuries stood in the room as the high drama of modernity. The thrust of debate in the first half of the 18th century successfully moved opera out of the poetry discussion – it has since tended to belong to music history. A second thrust of debate began in the middle of the 18th century and led to a break with Aristotelian poetics: with the bourgeois tragedy, the position of ancient tragedy in the genre scheme was relativized: The modern tragedy, unlike that of antiquity, could well be written in prose, the language of the hitherto “lower” level of style. At the same time, the new tragedy abolished the law of the tragic hero’s fall: The hero or heroine of a tragedy could now also be of middle-class status.

The redefinition in the field of drama had an influence on the field of epic poetry in the middle of the 18th century. Until then, there had been a vacuum here: the epic of antiquity knew a high and a satirical genre – in modern times, heroic epics had almost only been found in panegyric. At the beginning of the 18th century, there had been a temporary discussion as to whether the novel was not the epic of the modern age – the publication of François Fénelon’s Telemach (1699/1700 ) suggested the idea: Fénelon’s novel competed with the epics of Virgil and Homer and, in the general view, surpassed them in stylistic awareness as well as in observance of the rules of genre; Telemach alone lacked composition in verse. In the end, the novel continued to remain outside the spectrum of poetic genres, as Fénelon’s work clearly remained an exception. This situation changed the moment the bourgeois tragedy was recognized as a full-fledged tragedy in the mid-18th century. The works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing showed themselves indebted to the novel of Samuel Richardson. If Sarah Sampson was a tragedy, then the novels of the present day were the corresponding epic production. The novel then left the field of dubious histories and moved into the field of poetic genres, which in the next decades received a new designation: it became the field of literary genres.

The 19th century brought the classical re-division of the field into dramatic, epic, and lyric genres. (“Poetry” became the umbrella term in English and other surrounding languages for all minor genres in bound language) The field of dramatic expanded to include popular genres with the farce and the melodrama; the field of epic genres expanded to include unbound minor genres with the novella, the tale, and the short story.

The discourse on genres, hitherto the domain of poetics, became the task of literary historiography. This conceded to cultures and epochs their own genre spectra. At the same time, speaking of genres lost its contour, since from now on any number of variants of genres could be defined. Literary studies bundled works at will, creating genres such as the Arthurian novel, minstrel poetry, or absurdist theatre. Further discourse on genres and fashions allowed for more in-depth looks at the evolving market and flexible engagement with market events. At the same time, however, the break with expectations aroused by genre was recognized as a criterion of quality. As Theodor W. Adorno put it in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory, “Probably never has a work of art that counts fully corresponded to its genre.”[2]

Current interests in a definition of the genres

A new interest in the old debate on genres emerged in the 20th century with Russian Formalism and the diversifications of structuralism that emanated from it. The question here was and is whether scientifically determinable categories did not exist regardless of the flexibility that had been established in speaking about genres. Jacques Derrida, among others, was influential here, pointing out that the characteristic of literary texts was precisely the transgression of the boundaries set by a normative theory of genre, which resulted in texts “participating” in genres but not “belonging” to them.[3] Wellek and Warren had previously described literary genres as “institutional imperatives” that exert constraints on the poet, but are also shaped by the poet himself.[4]

The debate that began here proved fruitful in bridging into linguistics and linguistic text theory. Today, modern directions in computational philology assume that automatic speech recognition might one day be able to recognize literary modes of speech. At best, a new classification of textual production into text types or, more conventionally, into genres would then happen automatically with statistical procedures such as PCA. The resulting genres could be named and used by humans. A genre would then rather be a dimension, and a text could belong to different genres at the same time. Similar efforts already exist in music, where pieces of music can then be transformed from one genre or style (cf. style in music) to another. A jazz piece becomes a classical opera, a pop song a symphony.

In contrast, there is a somewhat different interest in genres in the more historically oriented branches of literary studies, such as book history and the research fields of New Historicism: here, the conditions of production, the reception attitudes of the audience, modalities in the exchange between criticism and the developing book market and stage business are of particular interest. The genres and genres are of interest here as concepts through which goods were and are offered, by means of which expectations are addressed and confrontations between authors, critics and readers take place.


  • Otto Knörrich: Lexikon lyrischer Formen (= Kröners Taschenausgabe. Band 479). 2., revised edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-520-47902-8.
  • Rüdiger Zymner: Gattungstheorie. Mentis Verlag, Paderborn 2003, ISBN 3-89785-377-9.
  • Dieter Lamping (ed.): Handbuch der literarischen Gattungen. Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 3-520-84101-0.
  • Udo Kindermann: Gattungensysteme im Mittelalter. In: Continuity and Transformation of Antiquity in the Middle Ages. Ed. by Willi Erzgräber, Sigmaringen 1989, pp. 303-313.
  • Ingrid Brunecker: Allgemeingültigkeit oder historische Bedingtheit der poetischen Gattungen: ein Hauptproblem der modernen Poetik, herausgearbeitet an Dilthey, Unger und Staiger. Philosophical dissertation, Kiel 1954.
  • Ernst Robert Curtius: Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter. Bern/Munich 1948; 9th edition ibid. 1978, p. 253 (genres and list of writers).
  • Karl Viëtor: Probleme der literarischen Gattungsgeschichte. In: Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte. Vol. 9, 1931, pp. 425-447; also in: Karl Viétor: Geist und Form. Essays on the History of German Literature. Bern 1952, pp. 292-309.
  • Kleine literarische Formen in Einzeldarstellungen. Stuttgart 2002 (= Reclam UB. Volume 18187).

Web links

Wiktionary: Literary genre– Explanation of meaning, word origin, synonyms, translations

Individual references

  1. Lehnardt, Andreas: Qaddish. Untersuchungen zur Entstehung und Rezeption eines rabbinischen Gebetes. Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG, Tübingen 2002, p. 64.
  2. Quoted in Michael Bachmann: Dramatik-Lyrik-Epik: Das Drama imSystem der literarischen Gattungen. In: Peter W. Marx (ed.): Handbuch Drama. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte, Stuttgart/Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 2012, p. 68.
  3. Jacques Derrida: La loi du genre. In: Glyph 7, 1980, pp. 176-201.
  4. René Wellek, Austin Warren: Theory of literature. Trans. Edgar and Marlene Lohner. Ullstein, Berlin 1963, p. 202.