Genres are specific kinds, types, or categories of artworks. Film, literature, music, painting, photography, sculpture, and dance all have developed specific, identifiable genres.

You are probably primarily familiar with the concept of genre as a consumer. In a video store you may see movies grouped according to genres like "action," "horror," "drama," and "romantic comedy." In a music store you may see generic labels like "jazz," "alternative rock," "world music," and "country western." In a bookstore signs may indicate the locations of books within "mystery," "science fiction," "romance," and "inspirational" genres. The Core Course will also teach you how use generic categories as a producer and as an interpreter of texts.

In college you will learn about writing within many different genres: lab reports, scholarship applications, grant proposals, oral presentations, business letters, etc. Academic essays represent a particular genre of nonfiction writing that you will be expected to produce in the Core Course to fulfill the basic writing requirements of your section. You should not be under the impression, however, that all academic essays are generically the same. There are many sub-genres and the rules or conventions that characterize one sub-genre may not apply to a different sub-genre.

For example, an academic book review is making an evaluative claim about a particular book. Although the writer's judgement or opinion should appear authoritative and well-reasoned, claims in a book review may be necessarily more subjective than those presented in other kinds of academic essays, as the following example from Professor Parsons demonstrates:

Although I have taken issue with many of the claims in Woods' account, I certainly think the book is worth reading by anyone interested in the topic. For one thing, it touches provocatively on many points that I haven't discussed. For another, almost anyone who takes the enterprise seriously will soon find that it is much more difficult than it appears at first sight; it is much easier to see what is wrong with pioneering attempts than to produce an adequate theory oneself.
A book review assumes that the pathos of a potential reader is an important consideration. The reviewer predicts the level of boredom, interest, confusion, pleasure, edification, or amusement that the book might inspire and renders his or her judgement accordingly. The authority of this judgement depends on the ethos of the reviewer. For example, academic book reviews generally show the university affiliation of the reviewer. A more prestigious university might suggest a more prestigious judgement.

Other kinds of academic essays may seem to reserve judgement and to use a much more neutral tone than a book review. In addition, an article in an encyclopedia, like this entry on "Puritanism" written by Professor Michael Clark, a lecturer in Spring, seeks to present a broad overview of literary history, rather than focus on closely reading a particular text or set of texts:

The principal objective of the Puritan sermon was to recall the sinner to Christ and the community to what the minister Samuel Danforth called New England's "errand into the wilderness." The description of that wilderness and the Puritans' journey through it fell to the historians, who began their work in the earliest days of settlement and continued well into the next century. The first history composed by a colonial Puritan was Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, which he began in 1630. Bradford's purpose was to portray the Puritan's experience at Plymouth as the story of God's providence, but the complexity of events complicated this plan so much that he simply abandoned his project twenty years later without finishing it.
In this particular passage notice also how Professor Clark blends his discussion of two Puritan genres: sermon and history. Why are these two genres treated in the same paragraph? How does Bradford encounter problems when he tries to combine two genres? Do you think that "sermon" and "history" are necessarily incompatible genres today?

Academic essays can borrow conventions from other literary genres as well. Your own essays for the Core Course may sometimes sound like a philosophical dialogue, sometimes like a personal narrative, sometimes like a lecture, sometimes like a letter, and sometimes even like a sermon. In the course of four to five pages, your own writing may use particular generic conventions; it may even try to cross generic boundaries.

You will be expected to use genre as a tool for interpreting the texts of others, as well as for writing your own texts. To consider the generic properties of the texts that you read for the Core Course, the following guide will help you identify many of the genres with which you will need to work when making interpretive claims.


BY JACQUELINE SCOONES, Department of English


The term genre, derived from the Latin words genus/generis, meaning "kind," is used to designate the different types or categories of artistic endeavors within various media, such as painting, film music, dance, and literature, that represent our experiences of the world in different ways. Within each of these media, there are generic distinctions between different kinds of performances, forms, techniques, and content. In music, for example, alternative rock differs from jazz, although the same instruments are frequently common to each. In dance, ballet and salsa not only look very different, but also the salsa dancer uses many techniques that she does not use when dancing a ballet. A painting and a photograph would represent the same landscape in very different terms, even if they include the same elements, because a painting and a photograph are very different forms of representation and each has its own set of conventions. In the broadest sense, defining genres is thus a system of grouping and classifying different kinds of artistic expression according to their shared characteristics. In the field of literature, genre is generally used as a descriptive term that helps scholars categorize different kinds of texts. Examining the conventions of different literary genres helps a reader understand how different rhetorical devices, techniques, and forms shape both the meaning of the text and our understanding of it

Historical Use of Genre

Greek philosophers divided literary works into three genres: lyric, epic, and dramatic. For centuries, these categories were viewed as solidly fixed, and writers were expected to work within the conventions, or rules, of each form. Sub-genres within each category precisely mapped how writers should construct their texts.

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, writers increasingly "broke the rules" and crossed generic boundaries, mixing different conventions as they gradually created and explored new forms. The development of the novel, a new (and thus "novel") form of literary text, challenged the Greek categories, for the novel didn't "fit" neatly into any of the three primary genre types. By the nineteenth century, rigid genre classifications were recognized as arbitrary and unnecessary. Genre had evolved from a prescriptive concept that basically outlined how writers should construct their texts, into a descriptive concept that groups a finished piece with similar texts.

Contemporary discussions of literature commonly divide texts into four primary genres: Poetry, Prose Fiction, Plays, and Nonfiction Prose. These categories reflect the Greek divisions in form, while allowing for the creation of additional classifications reflecting new literary techniques. In 1957, the critic Northrop Frye suggested that texts were categorized not only by form and structure, but also according to the responses they produced in a reader. Frye classified literature according to the genres of comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire.

Undergraduate courses in Literature are often structured according to these primary genres. English majors at UC Irvine are required to take a series of courses introducing them to the literary forms of poetry, dramatic literature, and the novel. In the poetry course, students read epic and lyric poetry; in the dramatic literature course, students discuss comedies, tragedies, and tragicomedies; in the course on the novel, students explore the genres of realism and romance in fiction. Discussions relating to genre often examine how various texts both reflect and redefine the genre in which they are categorized.

Literary Genres Incorporated in HCC: Outline and Brief Descriptions

The curriculum for the Humanities Core Course incorporates a wide array of literary genres. Each of the genres is characterized by distinctive forms, techniques, structure and content. The following outline describes the four primary generic distinctions in literature, and offers briefer descriptions of several sub-genres you will study in Humanities Core Course. Bear in mind that generic distinctions are often porous, and that some of the texts you read will challenge traditional genre definitions.

I. Nonfiction Prose:

Nonfiction prose works, written in standard paragraphs, can take many forms, including speeches, sermons, or lectures; journals or personal narratives; letters and legal documents; and works of science and history. The term "nonfiction" indicates that the work is based on or addresses real events, and is not an imaginary construction.

A. Essay: From the French essai, an attempt; also from the Latin exigere, to drive out, to try, or to examine. Montaigne’s Essais, published in 1580, are credited with being the first and definitive examples of the form. Usually written in prose, an essay is expected to reflect on a single topic in philosophical terms. Montaigne’s essays are characterized by the superb organization and development of his argument. Although traditionally the prose of an essay is expected to be formal, some contemporary essayists use an informal voice and humorous style in order to appeal to general audiences.

B. Lecture: A speech given to an audience in order to provide instruction on a specific topic or idea. A lecture sometimes conveys a reprimand or a warning. An essay may be read as a lecture, but generally the lecture form, which is oral, does not permit the complexity often evident in a sophisticated essay.

C. Sermon: A speech delivered by a member of the clergy on a moral or religious issue, with the intention of persuading, instructing, or exhorting listeners. Sermons are often organized around a text of Biblical scripture, and use biblical references as the basis of claims and arguments.

D. Philosophical Dialogue: the term dialogue derives from the Greek dialogus, meaning "conversation," "debate". When used in this context, "dialogue" refers to a formal conversation, presented in writing, in which characters (either fictional or representations of real people) explore a philosophical question through conversation. The characters each represent different philosophical positions.

E. Journal: The term journal derives from the Latin diurnalis, meaning "daily." The term refers to both a daily diary, a private record of events, and a daily newspaper or periodical in which matters of public interest are recorded. Academic publications in which scholarly articles are collected are also described as journals.

F. Personal Narrative: A narrative in which the writer relates a personal experience in order to illustrate a point or to make an argument.

G. Letter: A written document addressed to a specific person or persons. Until the invention of the telephone, letters were the primary means of long-distance communication. Letter writing is experiencing a renaissance through the development of electronic mail systems. The use of the letter-form was a popular literary device in seventeenth and eighteenth century political discourse, and was used to circulate ideas and arguments through direct appeal to the reader. The letter-form was also incorporated in fiction, in the form of the epistolary novel, which constructed a story through the narratives of a character’s letters.

H. Chronicle: A narrative about actual historical events.

II. Prose Fiction:

Prose fiction, like nonfiction prose, is generally written in standard paragraph form. Fiction, from the Latin fictio, meaning shaping, is described as the product of imagination, an invented narration that is "made-up" by the author. Writers sometimes blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction narratives; in historical fiction, for example, a writer may portray a real event as experienced by invented characters.

A. Novels, or longer works of fiction, are usually divided into chapters and trace the development of characters and action through a sustained narrative. The novel form evolved from collections of stories composed and presented together in the fourteenth century. During the seventeenth century, the term referred to stories of illicit love, and the novel’s increase in popularity was associated with the rise of the middle class and the use of the printing press. By the eighteenth century, fictional "histories" led to the development of the modern novel. The novel is still connected to the concept of romance, which is the name for genre in many European languages. However, in contemporary usage the term "novel" is based on narratives that reflect observations of everyday life, while the term "romance" is used to define stories associated with the realms of pure imagination. Novels are broadly defined by the nation and period in which they were written, but there are many sub-genres of the novel, reflecting both the constant evolution of the form and its continued popularity. Those sub-genres most relevant to HCC are: 1. Bildungsroman: (from the German "novel of growth") portraying the growth of a character from childhood to adulthood.

2. Picaresque: the adventures of a hero told in episodic form.

3. Historical Novel: set in a specific period significantly before that of the writing.

4. Regional Novel: set in a specific region and specifically concerned with the characteristics of that geographic locale.

5. Roman a These: a novel with an argument, seeking to cause changes in society.

6. Proto-Novel: a text that relates a sequence of events rather than the development of a plot and characters.

7. Gothic Novel: "gothic" was originally used to describe a Germanic tribe and then defined a style of architecture characterized by steep roofs, vaults, stained glass windows, arches, and flying buttresses. The term was subsequently applied to novels in which thrills and mysteries are prevalent and the reader is in suspense throughout much of the narration.

B. Short stories are narrower in scope and more concise than the novel. Short stories were originally intended to be heard or read in one sitting, and their development is explicitly associated with the growth of periodicals, for stories could be contained within a portion of a leisure magazine. The short story shares many of the novel’s characteristics, but generally contain few characters and have a small temporal frame.
III. Poetry:

Poems are generally characterized by patterns of lineation, meter, or rhyme. Early poetry was transmitted orally, and the sound of a poem is still an important aspect of its form. Written poetry is arranged in distinct patterns of lines upon a page, which constructs a poem in a specific visual shape. Poets usually attempt to concentrate linguistic effects through a variety of poetic devices, and although some contemporary poetry is written in the colloquial, most poetry does not resemble common, daily speech. The distinction between poetry and prose is sometimes blurred when a prose writer consistently employs poetic devices; in this case, the writing is usually described as poetic prose or prose poetry.

    1. Epic: An epic poem is a long narrative that celebrates a heroic tradition. Epic form is not limited to Western Literature, and is either based entirely on myths, or mixes myth and history. Critics distinguish between the traditional epic and the literary epic: the traditional epic focuses on a hero as representative of a nation, and portrays the ways in which the Gods influence his life; the literary epic imitates the structure of traditional epic, but addresses contemporary themes.
    2. Narrative Poem: A narrative poem tells a story, one that is not necessarily of epic proportions. Some narrative poems are "told" by a first person speaker in a dramatic monologue.
    3. Lyric: A lyric is a short poem in which a speaker expresses a thought or an emotion. The term "lyric" derives from the Greek word lura, meaning "lyre," for poets often spoke these short poems accompanied by a lyre or harp. Lyric poems, although no longer accompanied by music, are still generally characterized by sensitivity to the sound of the words. Lyrics can convey any kind of emotion, but are always associated with personal reflection and meditation.
IV. Dramatic Literature:

Dramas, or plays, are stories that are meant to be performed live on a stage before an audience, and thus are written primarily in the form of dialogues between characters. Modern playwrights typically include descriptions of settings and basic character actions in their scripts, which a director may or may not incorporate in their production of the play. Dramatic literature is divided into the primary sub-genres of comedy, tragedy, and tragicomedy.

Comedy: Comic plays and films usually have a light or humorous mood, reflecting the Greek derivation of the word, meaning "a singer in the revels." In a comedy, the protagonist overcomes adversity and the play concludes happily. Comedies usually consider the dynamics of social relationships: in the romantic comedy, the plot concerns a pair of star-crossed lovers; in the comedy of manners, the plot includes social criticism and seeks to correct social problems.

Tragedy: Tragic plays and films address serious themes, and conclude with the death or suffering of a protagonist. The tragic hero is a person of worth who is not perfect, and whose weakness, or tragic flaw, leads to their defeat. The purpose of tragedy is to induce a catharsis – a "cleansing" of emotion through pity and terror -- in the spectator.

Tragicomedy: Tragicomic plays and films combine, as evident in the genre title, elements of both comedy and tragedy. Plays that contain humor and funny incidents but that end badly are defined as tragicomedies, as are plays containing disastrous events that end happily. Some tragicomedies pair a tragic main plot with a comic subplot, and others put noble or divine characters in absurd situations.

A. Screenplays: Like dramas, screenplays are generally stories told through the dialogue between characters. Unlike plays, however, a screenplay is not performed for an audience but is designed to be filmed and then edited into a finished form before viewing. A screenplay includes descriptions of camera shots, which a director may or may not choose to follow.

B. Opera Libretto: An opera is a drama in which the characters each sing their parts, accompanied by an orchestra. Opera combines the conventions of music and drama, and usually provides a heightened portrayal of human emotions and behavior. The libretto is the text of the opera’s words, and the musical score records the opera’s musical composition.

References: Barton, Edwin J. and Glenda A Hudson. A Contemporary Guide to Literary Terms with Strategies for Writing Essays About Literature. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. Tom McArthur. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Preminger, Alex and T.V.F. Brogan, ed. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.