know thy genre—if you can

One of my ongoing avenues of research and thought is the topic of genre.

I got into this topic as a result of reading Robert McKee’s book Story, in which he stresses the need for a writer to know the genre of the story he’s writing. That got me thinking about what genre my own work in progress, The Mission, belongs in. Reviewing McKee’s list of movie genres, along with some other lists, I decided that my novel—and my whole novel series, The Age of Pisces—belongs to the epic genre. Ah good: now that I knew my genre, I could learn its conventions and apply them to my work, giving my story more focus, purpose, and integrity.

But I ran into a problem: when I searched for the conventions of the epic genre, I could not find anything definite, only a few contradictory clues. As a starting-point I looked at McKee’s definition of epic (he gives only the category modern epic): “the individual versus the state”. Beyond that he gives only a few representative movies: Spartacus, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Viva Zapata!, 1984, and The People vs. Larry Flint. Hmm. This wasn’t very close to what I was doing.

I began looking for material about literary epics, which eventually, in November 2007, led me to an excellent book called The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums. Here was news I could use. A group of scholars connected with The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, under the leadership of Louise Cowan, had contributed essays to a book that took a fresh and deeper look at the ancient genre of epic in an effort to discover its true nature. Fantastic! Highlighter in hand, I immersed myself in the book, and was in no way disappointed (I’ll say more about it in the future—maybe in a book review).

But the conflicting notions of the concept of literary genre that I had been meeting led me also to inquire more generally into genre itself: what exactly is a genre? What are the true genres, or is there any such thing as an authoritative list?

The first extant discussion of genre occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics, where he distinguishes four types of poetry:

  • epic
  • tragedy
  • comedy
  • dithyramb (basically what we would call lyric)

According to Northrop Frye, very little research has been done on genre since Aristotle, and such as has been done tends to be idiosyncratic and arbitrary. Genre remains a relatively ignored section of literary criticism, with literary genres being defined pragmatically by publishers and booksellers, who have to organize books in stores for sale. For genre, it remains a Wild West out there.

I’ve done some research and thinking on this topic. I came to realize that I needed to distinguish between literary genre—things such as novel vs. play vs. short story vs. poem—and story genre— things such as epic, Western, romance, and so on. I was interested in story genres. Within these, what distinguishes one from another? What are the defining characteristics of each type of story? Is there such a thing as a Tree of Life for stories as there is for living things, that would allow them to be classified scientifically?

These questions have led me deep into an investigation that is still under way and maybe always will be. I’d like to publish a “position paper” to offer the fruit of my results thus far—another thing on my “to do” list. As a teaser, I’ll just say that I’ve been working at breaking down stories into their skeletal elements, using an approach similar to that used by the Russian researcher Vladimir Propp in his 1927 book, Morphology of the Folktale. Dissatisfied with the efforts that had been used up to that time to classify folktales (fairy tales), Propp started breaking stories into units based on function. How does each character and each event in a story contribute to its overall structure? He found that both characters and situations can be classified into a few basic types, and the stories themselves (which were all Russian fairy tales) also into a few basic types.

Are all stories really fairy tales underneath? If not, what other basic kinds of stories are there?

These are some of my questions, on which I have lots more to say. Stay tuned.

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