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More about confusion over genre

Here are some additional reasons why there is confusion over literary genre.

apples and oranges

Apples are not oranges, yet sometimes they are treated as though they were. Some individuals confuse literary genres or subgenres with other kinds of literary entities, such as literary devices, figurative language, forms, or periods. Even though the novel is a kind of form, it is sometimes treated as though it were a genre; even though literary periods are not genres, sometimes they are treated as though they were. Newspaper comics, comic books, 20th century literature, Renaissance literature, Free Verse, ode, satire, stream of consciousness, and poetry are just a few of the different kinds of literary entities that have been and still are confused with genre.

There are a variety of causes for this mix-up. One of the chief reasons for confusion is that the correct definitions of literary terms like form, genre, and period are not universally understood or rigorously employed; sometimes they are overlooked or ignored.


glossary of literary terms

Look for a searchable and sortable ist of literary terms with definitions and sample works at The Muse Of Literature's page called Glossary Of Literary Terms. Terms are named and classified by type: click here.

the logical complexities of hierarchical classification

Like many entities in the arts, genre is a type or class of thing that is capable of hierarchical classification. One genre may be a subclass of another.

Logical difficulties arise in the classification of any entity capable of hierarchical classification; getting agreement on the class of anything is challenging because no two people see the same thing in exactly the same light. The adage, Is the glass half empty or half full? exists for good reason.

Classifying concrete objects like bricks and mortar is hard enough. Even with physical entities like these, the category one assigns depends on a host of factors such as point of view, personal history, education, emotional outlook, subject matter experiences, temperament, whim, and state of mind. Is yon pile of bricks and mortar a fence or is it the side of a house yet to be built? Perhaps it is either or neither, depending on circumstances and the point of view of the assigner.

Classifying abstract constructs like those in the arts is an even more difficult chore because the constructs are intangible. Intangible things, like genre, are intellectual constructs—ideas, concepts, notions. The more abstract the construct, the more susceptible it is to aberrations, even on the part of expert typologists. Since judgment and point of view are always factors, mistakes, differences of opinion, and disagreements tend to arise when assigning a construct to a class, even among subject matter experts. Some might even say they are more likely to arise.

personal bias

Systems of literature such as schema that name, define, and classify genres, are attempts to manage direct experience with published works. When a new work appears it must fit into an existing system or something is wrong. If a new work doesn't fit comfortably into an existing system, the system must change to fit the new work.

Clearly, the existence of a new work that doesn't fit an existing genre schema may be enough to demonstrate that an innovation has taken place. A new kind of writing—a new genre—must be incorporated.

But a new genre can create a dilemma. The work cannot be changed; it is a fait accompli. To remain valid, a genre system that cannot comfortably accommodate such a new work must change. But how? One possibility might be to devise a new genre with a new and unique name, definition, and classification scheme.

But what if the genre system is not flexible enough to express the new genre or subgenre? Experts who devise literary systems are understandably reluctant to change them for a variety of reasons; instead, they may prefer to force fit a work into an existing genre system by improperly naming, defining, or classifying its genre.

Many scholars, critics, philosophers, and others have invented a variety of systems for treating literature as a collection of genres; many have produced lists of genres and subgenres. Some of these systems and lists have been devised with the aim of artificially making the literary canon less sprawling and tidier at the expense of consistency or clarity; sometimes they have been devised by persons with an axe to grind, in order to justify personal or professional points of view.

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