Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction


Chapter 9: Genre


9.1 Knowledge of Genre and Narrative as Genre


Whatever genre is, most of us have at least some informal knowledge of what it is.  Even young children are receptive to genre. Many of them, for example, know what a tale or nursery rhyme is, even before they go to primary school.

Narrative itself, of course, is a genre in its own right. It is sometimes used as a criterion to distinguish between texts. For instance, among other factors to distinguish a tale from a nursery rhyme, is the good likelihood that a tale is a more fulsome narrative, whereas a a nursery rhyme is either non-narrative, or has a very simple narrative (eg. Jack and Jill go up a hill; but Jack falls down and Jill comes tumbling after). In school, we of course learn to distinguish between, and to write in, the four main genres or rhetorical modes of writing: narrative, argumentative, descriptive and expository.


9.2 Genre in Literary Criticism


One of the best ways to approach the study of genre is to begin by looking at how it is approached in literary criticism.  Genre can be said to be present in all works of literature: it can be said that every literary work displays elements of at least one genre.  Many works in fact display elements of a few different genres.

Genres are also unavoidable in the analysis and criticism of literature, as they guide the critic's evaluation and interpretation.  All literary criticism in fact makes some generic assumptions.  In spite of its importance, and the long tradition of generic analysis in literary criticism, there has been hostility, paradoxically, to the analysis of genres in recent literary criticism.


9.3 Genres Can Be Found in All Texts


Genre however, need not be literary.  By extending what we have mentioned above in relation to literary genres, we can say that genre can be said to be present not only in all literary genres, but also in all texts, and that every text displays elements of at least one genre.  Just as in literary criticism, genres are also unavoidable in our response to texts in general, as generic assumptions are almost always at work in our analysis and evaluation of texts. Also, genres need not be narrative. As noted in section 1 above, narrative is only one of the four rhetorical modes of writing.


9.4 Genres and Schemas


As the relationship of genre to linguistic features may be peripheral restricted, for example, to the features of poetry it may be more fruitful to view it as a cognitive construct: more specifically, in schematic terms.

Thinking of genre in schematic terms may help solve the problem of works which display elements of more than one genre: this happens when readers impose different generic schemas on the text.

Thinking of it in schematic terms may also prevent us from:

●   thinking of genre as a closed concept, and

●   thinking of its relationship to texts as fixed. 

Generic conceptions of a particular text may thus vary not only at the synchronic level (as a text's genre may be different to different readers existing within the same time frame), but also at the diachronic level (where generic conceptions change over a period of time).  Genres are thus not immutable and unchangeable categories.


Table  1: Generic conceptions of a particular text may vary

 at the synchronic level

 as a text's genre may be different to different readers

 at the diachronic level

 as generic conceptions may be modified or even transformed according to historical changes


9.5 The Three Universals in Literary Criticism


In literary criticism, three major genres are traditionally recognised:

●  the lyric,

●  the epic, and


The above are the divisions inherited from classical literature and literary criticism. Other terms used for these major genres are:

Ultimates, Universals, Forms or Natural Forms.

The closest of the above to narrative is the epic. In fact, instead of epic, the term narrative is sometimes used in the three-fold categorisation of  the major literary genres: the term narrative here includes not only the epic, but the ballad as well.

In modern times, the three ultimates are often substituted with

●   poetry,

●   the novel and

●  drama.

The term novel, which does not cover short stories or even novellas, is quite often substituted with fiction. But the term fiction has its own problems, as poetry  and drama may also be fictional, or contain elements of fiction in them. A better term perhaps, is prose fiction, which covers the novel, novella, short story, and even very short fiction, which are sometimes called flash fiction.

The above are of course the main classifications for written literature.  There are different classifications for film, as we will see in Chapter 11 (sections 11.2, 11.4, 11.30). There are some micro-genres, such as tragedy, which, depending on the work, can be further classified under the three universals indicated above.


9.6 Modes and Kinds


At a lower level, genres can also be seen in terms of modes and kinds (see Fowler 1985).

A kind refers to the external features of the genre: eg. the length of the work, number of words, the medium used (spoken / written), the audience, readership or number of interactants involved; or, in more literary terms, the number of acts, plot structure, rhyme or metrical pattern and so on.

A mode however, refers to the internal features of the genre, such as theme, mood and atmosphere.


Table  2: Distinction Between Kind and Mode





refers to the external features of the genre

●  the length of the work, number of words, the medium used (spoken or written), the audience, readership or number of interactants involved

·      or, in more literary terms:

●  the number of acts, plot structure, rhyme or metrical pattern etc.


refers to the internal features of the genre

the theme, mood, atmosphere etc.


9.7 The Dominant and Automatization


When thinking of genres schematically, it may be fruitful to bring back some concepts introduced by the Russian Formalists:

●  the dominant and

●  automatization.

After a reader becomes familiar with a genre, the genre becomes automatized for him or her.  Genres of popular literature are automatized for many readers, as they can more or less automatically predict what is going to happen in a particular popular work.

If a genre becomes automatized for a group of readers, the genre becomes dominant for them. This may in turn make the genre dominant in a particular period in literary history.  Through this process, a generic mode may become a kind: i.e. certain features are fixed (or externalised) for the genre: for example, plot structure, character types (especially with regard to popular fiction), rhyme and metrical patterns (for example, in ballads) etc.

If genres are viewed in terms of automatization, they are not viewed as ‘objective’ entities, as they can change or are changeable not only through history, but also from reader to reader.


9.8 Generic Evolution


One of the interesting studies on generic evolution is Yury Tynyanov's ‘On Literary Evolution’.  In his work, Tynyanov discusses how the syn-function, which refers to features existing within the system of the text, is determined by the auto-function, which refers to features existing outside the system.  So genres are not self-contained entities, although we may be led to believed that they are self-contained when viewed from a non-historical angle.  When viewed historically, genres are more clearly seen as being determined by their relationship to entities outside the text. In the words of Georg Lukács, in a chapter from his Theory of the Novel, ‘art forms become subject to a historico-philosophical dialectic’.


9.9 Genres in Real Time


Genres should ultimately be viewed as operating in real time and should not be viewed as static a-temporal models.  The human mind, with its repertoire of generic schemas, can be described as being engaged in the process of generic anticipation, modification and replacement in relation to the reading of a text.  Thus, in a process more intricate and less predictable than systems operating in real time, generic schemas are constantly updated by the mind in response to data being received. In the initial stage of reading, a set of generic schemas, followed by a single schema, are successively foregrounded.  What emerges from this process are generic conceptions that may not be completely prescribed by more established or conventional genres and may be subject to further changes in response to newer data.

We can relate this process to what Hans Robert Jauss has described as the ‘horizon of expectations’ during reading.  Failure to understand the text according to the schema the reader has imposed on it may result in a modification or change of the reader's ‘horizon of expectations’, which may in turn mean either a change or modification of the generic schema.

Viewing genres in real time thus means that generic understanding does not end when one has finished reading the text.  To Karl Viëtor (cited in Jauss), generic understanding has ‘no goal at all; it will not come to rest in a fulfillment, but rather will be present in a continually renewed realization’.