"What is a Genre?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Genre? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click Here for Spanish Transcript)

By Ehren Pflugfelder, Oregon State University Associate Professor of Rhetoric

12 February 2020

You know that moment when you’re watching a movie, and it’s been really captivating, and you’re getting interested in the characters, and a little bit lost in the story, when something shifts and you can sense what might happen next? Well in those moments, you might be experiencing what it’s like to recognize genre. And genre is a term frequently used to define the elements that repeat themselves in similar kinds of movies, books, television shows, music, and more.

I like to define genre. Genre? Jean? Jahnrah?

Uh, let’s just go with genre (zhan-rah). OK. Genre is what some might call “typified rhetorical action” and what that means is that there are features that repeat again and again, over time, with few differences, in part because audiences expect certain things to happen or because they want certain kinds of experiences. Genre is the name we use to describe the categories that have developed over time for what we read, what we watch, and what we listen to. And the kinds of genres that exist in one culture at one time may not exist in another culture at another time – they’re constantly changing.

The main kinds of literary genre that you might be familiar with are fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. But those are the biggest categories we can think of, really. For example, non-fiction can encompass everything from a memoir, to a to a biography, to an instruction manual. All are kinds of non-fiction writing – the only thing that ties them together is that they’re not made up. The same is true for fiction and poetry, too, and when we read poetry or prose fiction, we, as the audience, have some expectations as to what should be included. That is, when we read fiction, we expect the narrative to be made up, and when we read poetry, we expect that the each line of a poem match with other lines in a particular way, or it rhyme in the manner of a sonnet, or break rules of punctuation, or simply take us through a lot of figurative language in a very short amount of time.

But those are the big genre categories. Genre gets especially interesting when we find even smaller categories like action movies, or superhero action movies, or parody superhero action movies. So think of the superhero genre this way: there’s usually an evil villain trying to do something terrible that the superhero is going to try and stop; there’s usually smaller fight scenes throughout the movie and a big fight scene at the end where the superhero, or group of superheroes, triumph, often by using their superpowers. The reason I didn’t have to mention a SPOILER ALERT is because I didn’t give any of the plot away, and you all know that superhero movies follow this pattern. That narrative pattern, and all the other ways that we can describe other repeating features, are what makes up a genre.

What’s more is that more than one genre can exist at once. Think of Ant Man. It’s a superhero movie, an action movie, a comedy, and a parody of other superhero movies. In fact, parodies are where we really see how genres work. After all, the reason Ant Man is funny is because it’s making fun of our expectations of what a superhero movie should be – its making fun of the genre of superhero movies.

We use these same terms and descriptions to analyze literary works, works of nonfiction, and poetry, too. So, if I want to understand gothic novels, like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, or Dracula by Bran Stoker, I’m going to look for literary tropes that they share. Some of those tropes could be similar kinds of characters, plots, settings, or themes. Is there a creepy stranger in a cape? Is there danger lurking in the shadows? Is there a haunted castle? Are you encouraged to think of the sinister side of humanity? If so, you might be reading a gothic novel. When I analyze a genre, I’m likely to compare and contrast those features and try to understand how one novel adheres to the conventions of a particular genre or breaks away from our expectations and does something different. We can describe a genre by showing how similar features are repeated, and those elements include most any of the many literary terms that are featured in the other videos in this series. For a gothic novel, we might see metaphors that connect events to scary or dangerous things, we might see foreshadowing of horrible events yet to come, or we might see a flashback to something terrifying that happened in them past and that changes how characters act in the present. All of these are features of a particular genre.

Now, one thing not to confuse with the idea of a genre is that of a medium. A medium is the form in which something is delivered, so we might say the medium of gothic novel is a printed book, or the medium of a superhero movie is that of film. Medium describes the kind of technology that is used to convey a story to us, but doesn’t necessarily help us understand the genre of what we’re reading or watching. People often ask me is email a genre of writing? And I respond by asking when writing an email if we’re required to write in a particular way. And for the most part, we’re not. In email, you can write a love letter, you can write an angry message to the company that sold you a dodgy product, or you can write a poem. Email itself might suggest certain kinds of writing – for example, you shouldn’t break up with someone through email – but it’s a medium that can hold lots of different genres – it itself is not a genre. Describing and analyzing genre is a powerful way to understand how narratives work, and a really useful way to make sense of stories and texts that surround us.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Pflugfelder, Ehren. "What is a Genre?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 12 Feb. 2020, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-genre. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

Other examples of texts that parody the genres within which they work include Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Death and the Compass," Karen Russell's "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Tamarisk Hunter," William Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, and Chris Ware's strange short graphic narrative "Thrilling Adventure Stories (I Guess)." For an example of a character who laughs at the genre he has found himself in, see our "What is a Flashback?" video.

Writing prompt: Select one of the above examples and explain how the author invokes the genre being parodied through the example's form or content. Next, try to explain the significance of the parody. What insight does the parody provide into the limitations of the genre? What tone or attitude does the poem or short story take towards the genre it parodies?

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms