Genre: What's Up With That?

Have you ever thought you knew about something –– then when you started looking at it you found out how much you really didn’t know?

Well, the other day someone asked me about the genre of my book.

I answered them with no problem. “It’s non-fiction.”

Then they ask the question again. So, thinking they didn’t hear me the first time I replied, “It’s non-fiction.” And just be sure I was understood I add, “it’s not fiction, drama, poetry, or a screenplay –– it’s a non-fiction.”

Then they asked, "What genre of nonfiction is it?" I wasn’t sure how to answer that question until the term historical-fiction crossed my mind. So, I said "Gilligan Meets Google" is a cultural nonfiction. It is a nonfictional account of our entry into the Digital Age."

Fortunately, that ended the questions about genre. But, I thought I better learn some more about genre.

I typed in genre in a search engine. I was expecting to find a nice list of all the non-fiction genres. What I found out is summed up best by Shawn Coyne, “Genre is one of the most difficult foundations of story to wrap your mind around.”

So, I decided to look into the genre thing a little deeper. Here is what I have found:

Genre goes beyond literature

John Frow says, “Genre is, amongst other things a matter of discrimination and taxonomy: of organizing things into recognizable classes…it belongs to a much larger group of classifying activities that permeate every aspect of daily life.”

For example, animals are divided by domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Each of these can be thought of as a genre. Each genre further divides the characteristics of animals.

Genre is hierarchy

When my friend asked about the genre of my book, the complete answer would have been, it is a medium length, factual, anti-plot documentary style, containing an examination of worldview.  

The words in bold are the genre of Gilligan Meets Google which identifies the book by its time, reality, style, structure, and content.

Genre is based in culture

This got my attention because of my interest in culture. But it was easy to understand.

Here’s what I mean. Imagine you have four drawings. The first drawing is a bow and arrow, the next is a carrot, another is a raccoon, and a final drawing is a shovel.

Now, if you asked the average westerner to group these drawings into categories, here is how they are typically arranged. They put the bow and arrow, and the shovel in a group called tools.  And they put the carrot and the raccoon in a group called plants and animals.

But if you asked a primitive person to group them they may well put the bow and arrow and the raccoon in one group they would call meat, and the carrot and the shovel in another group they would call vegetables.

The way we organize and classify things is dependent on the culture in which we live and since genre is about organizing and classifying things it is very culturally dependent.

Plato divided everything poets said into two genres: narration and imitation. Narration is spoken directly by the poet or storyteller. Imitation is spoken by a second party, representing that which was said by someone else.

Genre is determined by multiple entities

Publishers, book stores, and libraries set literary classifications. John Frow calls the industrial genre. These are superficial categories that reflect something that is more real.

If you are going to write a western novel. You know you had better have a sheriff and a bad guy or an army and some Indians. Why? Because that is what the reader expects.

If you want readers, who like western novels to read your book you better meet their expectation. If you are writing several western novels and you introduce something new, let's say an encounter with a dangerous animal. You could actually change the content of the genre. Since the readers like your work, they will start expecting all western fiction to have some kind of encounter with a dangerous animal.

The genre is determined by the expectation of the readers. But that expectation can be changed over time. When books meet that expectation and are accepted but they add something which then creates a new expectation for the class.

Well, I guess Coyne is right, “genre is one of the most difficult foundations of story to wrap your mind around.”

What’s your favorite genre? Looking forward to reading your comments!


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