“Genre,” in the most generic definition, takes the meaning “kind; sort; style” (OED). Prior to the term’s inception, the notion of genre in the study of media emerged in The Poetics, with Aristotle’s discussion of the mode or manner of imitation in poetry.  Of this Aristotle writes, “the medium being the same, and the objects [of imitation] the same, the poet may imitate by narration – in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged – or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us” (Aristotle, 53).  Here lies the distinction between epic, lyric, and drama, a distinction based solely in convention, the usage of the medium, independent of specific content (see also Narrative/Lyric/Drama). Yet Aristotle’s genre binary of Tragedy and Comedy rests on some observation of the objects of imitation themselves: “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life”  (Aristotle, 52). Later, in Section IV of The Poetics , Aristotle offers another method of generating this binary, based in historical observation (or some semblance of it). One final consideration, that of a work’s purpose, arises in Aristotle’s definition of Tragedy as “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions,” (Aristotle, 61). In this way The Poetics sketches out the basic framework of genre; yet this framework remains loose, since Aristotle establishes genre in terms of both convention and historical observation, and defines genre in terms of both convention and purpose.

In Anatomy of Criticism (1957) Northrop Frye wrote, “We discover that the critical theory of genre is stuck precisely where Aristotle left it. The very word ‘genre’ sticks out in an English sentence as the unpronounceable and alien thing it is” (Frye, 13).  It is a French word imported directly into the English language, derived from the Latin “genus” (the stem is gener-), itself derived from the Greek “genos” (OED). Having evolved separately, the Greek word and the Greek idea converged. The Greek root-word, like its Latin relative, refers to a clan or race of people, or to offspring  (Liddell & Scott Lexicon). This sense of familial interconnectedness is essential to genre theory. Frye writes:

It is clear that criticism cannot be a systematic study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so. We have to adopt the hypothesis, then, that just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of “works,” but an order of words (Frye, 17).

In conceiving of literature as a unified “order of words,” Frye requires a system of genres which will encompass the entire medium, expressing each the entire state of literature at a given moment, all its bloodlines.

One might extend this idea of kinship to objects within any given medium, as in literature each novel bears a relation to other novels, or across several media, as a Western film may bear relation to a similar comic-book or radio drama. From this first approach, it makes more sense to think about genres in a medium or the genres of a medium, than to think of genre as a medium. Based on the questions raised in Aristotle’s discussion, one might assemble a definition of genre more suited to the term’s use in relation to medium. To this end, the specialized definition in Oxford English Dictionary serves nicely: “A particular style or category of works of art; esp. a type of literary work characterized by a particular form , style, or purpose.” (OED)

Yet there is much room for ambiguity within this definition, since “style” is intrinsic to a work, open to a fluid range of distinctions, whereas a “category” is discrete, available only by comparison. More importantly, the phrase “form, style, or purpose” allows genre to be defined on the level of the formal cause or the final cause. The strictest definition of genre, developed in the field of linguistics, operates on the level of both these causes. J. Swales defines a genre as “a more or less standardized communicative event with a goal or set of goals mutually understood by the participants in that event and occurring within a functional rather than a social or personal setting” (Malmkjær, 166). It is the case, though, that this definition is better equipped to surgical reports than to poetry (Malmkjær, 176). The assignation of final causes to works of art makes the definition of genre in this sense problematic. Even so, what is most significant is not this focus of known purposes, so much as the mutual understanding of a sort of code between spectator and author.

One would be hard pressed to assign a final cause to a film genre, for instance, but any definition which off-hand excludes the genres of expressive media must be of limited usefulness. If the final cause is taken somewhat loosely, then films and other art objects may be granted symbolic purposes. In “Gangster as Tragic Hero,” for instance, Robert Warshow suggests that Gangster Films reassert the spectator’s right to fail, revealing success as a harshly punished crime.

Some resolution to these ambiguities is provided in the distinction of genre from type (or form). Where one might have established genre either inductively, “on the basis of the observation of a given period,” or deductively, “on the basis of a theory of literary discourse,” now one defines genre by the inductive practice and type by the deductive process (Ducrot, 149). As we have seen, both of these processes are present in The Poetics , where the epic/lyric/dramatic triad is based on types, the Tragedy/Comedy binary on genre. Frye adopts the sense but not the language of this distinction, claiming, “The study of genres is based on analogies in form (Frye, 95). Concerning the historical method, Frye observes that “confronted with a tragedy of Shakespeare and a tragedy of Sophocles, to be compared solely because they are both tragedies, the historical critic has to confine himself to general reflections about the seriousness of life” (Frye, 95). These two methods do overlap, though, so that the types must also overlap with genres. In the work of Emil Staiger, for example, the distinction was maintained by calling drama (the substantive) a genre and the dramatic (the adjectival form) a type (Ducrot, 154).

These things being said, what is finally at stake in the discussion of genre? According to James Monaco it was “dialectic between genre and auteur that drove the Hollywood cinema,” and that the story types were “identified and popular” (Monaco, 249). Hence, the cinema relied on social knowledge of its types. The first essay published in the journal Genre (a choice of convenience), states that, “The goal is a method of determining what questions may ‘legitimately’ be asked of a given work, what may not” (Reichert).  Which is to say that genre distinctions present a method of shaping the social practice of literature, separating out legitimate from illegitimate spectatorship (as one implies the other). In Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-European Novel, Fawzia Afzal-Khan demonstrates the way in which Indian novelists such as Salman Rushdie have manipulated Western literary genres to resist the tendency of those same genres to reduce non-Western cultures to the position of object rather than subject. Her argument is somewhat reminiscent of Francois Truffaut’s project, in the mid to late 60s, “to explode genres by combining them”(Monaco, 263). Afzal-Khan presents the following characterization of genre, by Fredric Jameson, within her analysis:

Generic affiliations and deviations from them provide clues that lead us back to the concrete historical situation of the individual text itself, and allow us to read its structure as ideology, as a socially symbolic act, as a proto-political response to a historical dilemma. (Jameson, 157).

This corresponds in part to the genre as final cause, yet the ability of genre to perform the work of cultural containment or liberation suggests a bolder formula: ‘The Genre is the Message,’ perhaps? Afzal-Khan’s criticism points to a possible theory of genre as medium, and certainly a theory of genre as a mediating force. Similarly, in “The Exclusionary Potential of Genre,” Nadeane Trowse examines the taboos, particularly against women, involved with the genre of preaching; she writes, “the taboo’s symbolic action is to protect/enable the genre’s intended symbolic action, by ‘barring the gates’ against wrongful genre-users” (Trowse, 345). In this essay, Trowse raises the metaphor, appropriated from Anne Freadman, of genres as games, with set rules, able to “facilitate engagement with a social process” (Trowse, 341). If we are to accept this metaphor of genre as a game, identifying the social practice defined by a genre as the rules of the game, then genre begins to look more and more like a medium. Marshall MacLuhan writes, “That games are extensions, not of our private but of our social selves, and that they are media of communication, should now be plain (MacLuhan, 245). Yet this remains a metaphor.

The immateriality of genre, that it exists only as a relationship between media objects, discourages this placement of genre among the media. If genre does constitute a medium, then it only occurs nested within other media. Though the question remains open, it is perhaps better to regard genre (or type) as a specification of the social practices, both authorial and spectatorial/interpretive, involved in any given medium.

With regard to painting the term takes on another meaning, extendable also the music and literature, where “genre-painting” depicts “scenes and subjects of ordinary life” (OED).

Dan Clinton
Winter 2003


Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel: Genre and Ideology. Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, Pennsylvania. 1993.

Aristotle. Poetics. Hill and Wang: New York. 1961.

Ducrot, Oswald. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 1990.

Lacey, Nick. Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Liddell & Scott. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Middle Liddell). London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

MacLuhan, Marhsall. Understanding Media.

Malmkjær, Kirsten. “Genre Analysis.” The Linguistics Encyclopedia. Ed. Kirsten Malmkjær. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. Oxford University Press: New York. 1981.

Trowse, Nadeane. “The Exclusionary Potential of Genre: Margery Kempe’s Transgressive Search for a Deniable Pulpit.” The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre. Cresskill, NJ: Hampston Press Inc., 2002.

Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience. Harvard University Press: Cambridge. 2001.