The Problems Defining Genre

The Problems Defining Genre

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The Problems Defining Genre


Genre denotes a systematic way to categorize literature. The term might be considered academic jargon; however, it produces up a set of expectations that allow us to judge literature. These expectations or criteria also allow us to compare with other literature in the same as well as different genres. In spite of these expectations, genre does not dictate a set of rigid rules; in fact, genre is more descriptive than prescriptive.


Problems in defining genre often arise because there are frequently sub-genres: romantic comedy might be considered a sub-genre of comedy, revenge tragedy of tragedy and gothic horror of horror. It becomes increasingly difficult to see where one sub-genre ends and another begins. Also these categories are seldom pure. For example, Hamlet, a revenge tragedy, includes aspects of romance and even a comic scene or two. Our popular culture makes defining genre challenging because what is vital one day might disappear the next. An example of this is the current insistence upon a happy ending. Since tragedy is often characterized by an unhappy or "right" ending, according to Aristotle, popular culture no longer welcomes the tragedy with the relish it did at other times in history.


Our Town being the exception that comes to mind, as well as the one-man shows. Poetry makes frequent use of this voice. In Daddy by Sylvia Plath, the author address "Daddy" throughout the poem. Shannon Chamberlain's use of Aesop's fable The Parrot and his Cage was another example of this single voice narrative. A second voice option is the drama or dialogue that involves talking between two characters with no narration. All of the plays we are reading in class fit this category as well as Stacy Burleson's example of Merlin as a legend in film. Finally, the combination of the narrator plus dialogue is just as it seems, a narrator talks to the audience (or reader) but the characters talk to each other. The TV shows The Fugitive, Dragnet, and Twilight Zone come to mind as examples of this.


Narrative genre, by contrast, focuses on the storyline or plot. Tragedy frequently introduces a problem, there is struggle for control, finally a realistic and often unhappy ending that resolves the problem.

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Examples of this include: Romeo and Juliet (Sylvia Duncan's presentation), the recent Academy Award winner American Beauty and Moby Dick (Doris Herrmann's presentation). Comedy is another plot or storyline that usually deals with a less significant problem, there is an attempt to solve it, but the ending often brings people together. Examples of comedy are: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest, A Marriage Proposal by Anton Chekhov, and the movie Sixteen Candles shown in class by Laura Peterson. Romance may center [or conclude] on a transcendence where the problem often includes separation, a journey or adventure might be included. [The plot of romance would be the struggle to achieve this transcendence or goal.] Characters are more predictable and are frequently good or bad with very little complexity. The excerpt of Sleepy Hollow shown by Cara Skinner is an example of this. [true] Pygmalion and Shakespeare in Love might fit her; however, these characters do show considerably more depth than the norm. [This is a good reminder of how good any genre can be.] Satire pokes fun at a social situation or institution and assumes the audience is familiar with what is being satirized. There is usually a less serious tone than with the original. Examples are seen in the play within a play in MidSummer Night's Dream. [good] Political cartoons and Moliere's The Misanthrope also display elements of a satire.
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