What is Genre?
Genre is a term which gets taken for granted in English literature. Its most basic definition is that it is the type, style, theme or tone of a piece of literature. Drama, novels and poetry can all be divided into various categories of genre depending on their theme, content or style. For example, Hamlet is not just a piece of drama but also a dramatic tragedy, whilst Wuthering Heights is a Gothic novel. Genre is intimately connected to form, but is normally more stylistic than structural; Hamlet is part of the genre of tragedy, but also by including features such as the soliloquy has the form of Renaissance drama.
One useful way of visualising it is that if form provides the walls of a house, regulating its size and shape, genre accounts for everything in the interior, from the colour of the walls to the size of the sofa. Some genres fit the structures of form more suitably than others – part of the joy of studying literature lies in analysing the relationship between the two.
Why does this matter? Well, the step up to studying literature at A-Level as opposed to GCSE is you are expected to analyse how genre and form shape the texts themselves. One crucial element of this is what is termed generic expectation – namely, our belief that when we watch or read something we, because we have an understanding of the genre, roughly know what is going to happen. By sitting down to watch a horror film we expect certain things to happen, and consciously interact with our own generic expectation. Shouting ‘don’t go out there!!’ to the millionth American teenager who decides to check the noises from outside the secluded boathouse in the dark is an expression of our awareness of the horror genre, as we probably know they aren’t to come back in one piece.
Writers exploit out expectations to their advantage. Great writers such as Shakespeare, the Bronte’s and Jane Austen use genre, and our expectations of genre, to comment on the limits of genre itself. Wuthering Heights includes elements of the gothic genre, with its brooding characters and dangerous landscapes, but Bronte is cleverly using them to her advantage. By placing Heathcliff’s ghost so early in the narrative, Bronte announces to the reader through the supernatural that this is at least partially going to be part of the gothic genre. The tapping of the ghost wakes not only the narrator but the reader – from this moment on we form assumptions in our head over what should happen. Bronte then over the course of work toys with our expectation, using the figure of narrator Lockwood to comment upon the absurdity of the tale as the work switches from gothic, to the romantic, back to the gothic again.
Genre is not just a label we stick on to literature. It fundamentally is literature, defining the way we read of watch things.