To define genre is to embark on a conjectural journey within a theoretical minefield. Genre theory has drawn immense debate and contemplation throughout literary history, however, several conclusions have emerged. Genre types are unfixed categories whose characteristics differ considerably among the specific genres; furthermore, the role of literary history plays a significant role in discussions of genre, for genre types evolve and shift with each new literary text. An approach to the discussion of genre, family resemblances, illustrates similar conventions among texts within a genre, but there are significant problems in this approach.
There are several ways to discuss genre, and although problems abound in any approach, the subjective nature of the literary experience calls attention to the importance of the interaction between reader and text to provide the final word on genre. Although there is considerable theoretical debate about the definition of specific genres, the conventional definition tends to be based on the idea that texts within a genre share particular conventions of content and form, such as themes, settings, structure and style.
However, the nature of genre leads to several problems inherent in the defining of genres. Certain genres are looser and more open ended in their conventions than other genres and some genres have many conventions while others have very few. Furthermore, literary texts that overlap and mix genres blur the distinction between them. Genres are not discrete systems consisting of a fixed number of list able items. Consequently, the same text can belong to different genres in different countries or times.
For example, Latin poets categorized the elegy mainly in terms of its meter, while poets during the English Renaissance regarded the subject matter and tone to be determinate of form. History and culture play a role in the ever changing status of genres, which are difficult to define because the concept encompasses so many different literary qualities and conventions that can be broken or accepted, overlapped or mixed. Rather than define genre, some theorists approach the discussion of genre using Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances” among literary texts.
Although a literary text rarely has all the characteristics of a particular genre, this method involves the discernment of similar conventions among texts within a genre. However, the problem of selection arises, for which texts can claim to be representative of a genre? Moreover, who decides the selection of these texts? The consideration of specific characteristics in literature introduces problems regarding the classification of literary works. The choice of characteristics taken into account is essential to the discussion of genre types .
The characteristics of specific genres shift throughout history to accommodate variations in the category that occur; the defining characteristics of a particular genre can alter so drastically that the preliminary era in a new genre may not resemble the modern literary works in that genre. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, considered to be the father of the modern short story, show the contrast between the classification of short fiction in the 19th century and today.
Poe’s short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, provides suspense and mystery; however, the story does not include the main character’s moment of consciousness, the key ingredient in classifying modern short stories. Although “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” does not entail a moment of revelation, the story was regarded as short fiction in 1841. The contrast between early short fiction and the modern short story demonstrates the varying qualities of the genre between its preliminary stages and the present, and shows the substantial transformation which occurred within the genre.
The types of genres not only shift throughout history but also alter with each new literary work. The altering of generic categories results in further difficulty in defining genre and classifying literary texts, for it demonstrates that generic forms are never fixed entities. Literary theorist Todorov asserts that although “every work modifies the sum of possible works… we grant a text the right to figure in the history of literature… only insofar as it produces a change in our previous notion of one activity or another”.
Donald Barthelme’s “The Glass Mountain” is an example that expands the notion of short stories; the text challenges readers to find meaning and story where there is none. “The Glass Mountain” influences and increases the possibilities of short stories, while compelling readers to contemplate the role of short stories. Such engagement between a literary text and a reader results in the most intriguing and merited discussion of genre. The subjective procedure of defining genre appeals to the relationship between text and reader.
Genre provides a framework within which texts are interpreted, and expectations and emotional outlooks are the individual results of reading literature. The expectations prompted by conventions in a literary text play a large role in the discussion of genre. For example, Mavis Gallant’s “From the Fifteenth District” cheats the expectation that arises from the first sentence, “[a]lthough an epidemic of haunting… ” (Gallant 115), and surprises readers with the discovery that the story is a reversal of the ghost story.
A reader’s personal interaction with a literary work is decisive of genre, for what we think a genre is and the individual’s impression of a literary text often serve to classify a literary work. The individual’s response to literature plays a vital role in the discussion of genre, for literary texts are created for an audience of one. The various means to discuss genre provide insightful observations; however, significant problems are inherent in these discussions. The constantly changing categories of genre and the emergence of new literary works make defining genre a daunting task better left to the individual reader.