There are basically two ways of organizing the vast and rather heterogeneous material called literature: one can arrange it by historical period (this is studied by literary history) or by genres. According to René Wellek’s classic definition, the approach to literature through genre ‘classifies literature and literary history not by time or place (periods or national language) but by specifically literary types or structure’. Thus genres such as epic, tragedy, satire, novel etc. cannot be linked to a single historical period or to a particular nation or language. They group together a number of literary texts that are similar to each other in their form, in their content or in both.

The basic assumption of the approach to literature through genres is, therefore, that literary texts belonging to a certain genre share some (formal, thematic, conceptual or other) features which can be abstracted from the individual works and can be handled as unique entities (genres) that have their own history and that differ from other such entities. This assumption, just as the basic assumptions of literary history, is of course rather problematic. It is questionable, first of all, whether the generalisation that is involved in a genre based approach to literature is not an arbitrary reduction of the complexity of individual texts. Besides, genres can never provide us with clear categories. They can, for instance, be established on very different levels of generality and on very different grounds. The way in which poetry, drama or the novel are genres is clearly very different from the way in which haiku is a genre; and the grounds on which sonnet is identified as a genre are also very different from those on which satire is based. Moreover, the boundaries between different genres are not distinct either. They can change with time, as was the case with the chief literary genres (see below), or they can simply be mixed, as for example in such hybrid genres as tragicomedy.

A rigid view of genres is, therefore, clearly mistaken; however, this does not mean that the study of genres is not useful or not necessary. Indeed it is both useful and necessary, and not only because it can provide us with a systematic way of approaching the vast material that comes under the category of literature but also because it helps us understand individual texts. As authors always write their work with an awareness of the conventions of the genre in which they write it is in fact indispensable that we are also aware of these conventions if we want to understand the text we are reading. An awareness of genre thus provides us with a context for the individual text and by comparing the latter to the general expectations provided by the genre, by examining where it follows and where it deviates from those expectations, we can understand the individual text more thoroughly.

As the main chapters of this Introduction, devoted to the chief literary genres, contain the basic information on prose genres, dramatic genres, and poetic genres, in this chapter we only give an overview of the chief literary genres.

1. The classical division of chief literary genres

The classical division of the literary genres distinguishes between three types of poetry: epic, dramatic and lyric. What we call poetry today seems, therefore, to be the most ancient of literary genres, so much so that even in classical antiquity the whole field of literature was considered to be poetry. The reason for this is probably that the original experience of literature is oral (spoken) and aural (heard). Literature was originally spoken (recited or sung) by the poet (minstrel or bard) or by the chorus and actors in drama and listened to by an audience. The original experience of literature was, therefore, fundamentally dependent on music and rhythm – qualities that we associate only with poetry today.

Although by today a new division of literary genres was made necessary (see the modern division of literary genres below), the classical division is still a valuable one and explains some basic possibilities of literary communication. These basic possibilities are perhaps most clearly explained in Aristotle’s system which distinguishes between the three chief literary genres on the basis of their ‘manner of imitation’, that is to say, according to the way in which each genre is conventionally presented and the relation between author, work and audience that they involve:

Epic thus presents a story in third person (that is, a story that happens to people other than the author) but with references to the author’s presence (as for instance in the invocation). This is also indicated by the etymology of the word. The term ‘epic’ derives from the Greek word epe ‘to tell (a story)’. Originally epic was an orally presented narrative, and thus it involves the unity of the author, the work and the audience.

Drama presents the actions and speech of characters in an objective way, without any involvement of or comment by the author. The characters are thus clearly distinguished from the author and are presented as having lives of their own. The word ‘drama’ derives from Greek drān ‘to do’), which also refers to the fact that drama represents actions without involving the author.

Lyric presents the thoughts and feelings of the author in first person but without regard to an audience, as if the author was speaking to herself/himself. If drama is based on concealing the author, then lyric is based on concealing the audience. (The term ‘lyric’ derives from the name of a musical instrument (the lyre) which was traditionally used to accompany lyric poetry.)

2. The modern division of chief literary genres

Although the classical division of the chief literary genres into epic, drama and lyric is still revealing, today most textbooks, introductions, survey courses etc. arrange and treat literature in the more practicable categories of prose fiction (the novel, the short story), drama and poetry. This arrangement can, therefore, be called the modern division of literary genres.

The rearrangement of field of literature was necessary basically because of the emergence of a new literary genre, the novel. Before the appearance of the novel in the first half of the 18th century, the classical division held sway, although even then it could not account for every literary phenomenon. As early as in classical antiquity, for example, there existed literary forms that did not fit in the classical division of genres. Prose narratives of various kinds, for instance, existed in ancient Greece and Rome, as well, even though they did not fit in any of the classical genres. The centuries after classical antiquity saw the appearance of great numbers of new literary genres but even these changes did not make a complete rearrangement of the literary field necessary.

The revolutionary change that brought about this rearrangement occurred in the first half of the 18th century. It is from this date that the appearance of mass production in the book trade and the emergence of a wide reading public radically transformed the basic experience of literature (see the Literature and Society section of this course). The representative genre of this new experience of literature was the novel, which, after its emergence in the early 18th century, acquired such vast significance that it upturned the classical division of literary genres and had to be acknowledged as a chief literary genre in itself.

The emergence of the novel as a chief literary genre inevitably influenced both the form and the meaning of the other genres, too. Because of the influence of realism (a tendency closely associated with the novel) drama became dissociated from its poetic origins. The principle of stage realism – which contributed greatly to the development of drama throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (see the Modern tendencies in drama and the theatre section of this course) – required texts that represent the reality of everyday conversation and use the language of prose. Rhythmic poetic composition became so alien to drama that by the 19th century verse drama was often not considered drama at all. Thus while Shakespeare’s blank verse tragedies or Dryden’s plays written in heroic couplets were written for the stage and belonged and still belong to the genre of drama; Byron’s Manfred or Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound belong to the genre of poetry and were not really intended for the stage. Although in the 20th century there were significant attempts (associated for example with the names of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot) to bring verse drama back into the theatre, it is rather questionable whether such pieces as Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral should be classified as drama or as poetry.

It seems that poetry in the modern division of the chief literary genres comprises everything that remains vitally connected with the original oral and aural experience of literature. Whatever contains rhythmic composition, whether it is epic, drama or lyric, is discussed today in the genre of poetry.

3. Genre Theory Links

Genre theory is the general study of genres. The theoretical problems that a generic approach involves became especially important with the unprecedented proliferation of genres in the 20th century caused primarily by the introduction of such new media as the cinema, the television, the internet and so on. The term ‘genre theory’ is, therefore, primarily associated today with media studies, and as this course is an introduction to literature, genre theory need not concern us here in its details. However, if you are interested you might find the following websites useful:

An Introduction to Genre Theory is a very detailed and excellent treatment of the theoretical problems of genre, with a primary focus on the genres of the mass media.

For taxonomies and some comments on literary genres you may consult these websites:

Literary Genres and Techniques

A Guide to the Study of Literature