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Is literary genre a fallacy?

A fallacy is a deceptive, misleading, or false notion or belief; a misleading or unsound argument; a deceptive, misleading, or false nature; an erroneousness. True, much that one reads or hears about genre fits this definition. Nevertheless, The Muse believes that literary genre is legitimate and useful tool when it is correctly understood and put to use. We shouldn't abandon the notion of genre just because it is an intangible. So long as we keep in mind the meaning of genrea unique combination of theme and subjecta moderate amount of confusion over genre is worth the complications that arise.

There is, and should always be, room for sound new ideas in literary criticism and analysis. Literary experts have it. theyhave full freedom to invent and classify literary genres at will and to exercise all their theoretical and creative faculties. Literary analysts have been using this license since the time of Aristotle, if not before, and there is no sign that they have any intention of stopping.

Unfortunately, this freedom has sometimes led to confusion over the nature of genre; it has produced incorrect classifications of specific literary works and invalid genre definitions. Thus, we see that freedom to devise genres and classify literary works according to genre is a mixed blessing. On the positive side it leaves the door open for creativity and for honest differences of opinion out of which comes truth; on the negative side it produces mistakes and misunderstanding.

With all the thought going into creating genres and classifying works by genre, one might think that a consensus would emerge. Yet no accepted scheme for creating literary genre names, definitions, and classification schemes has emerged and none is in sight.

Because genre is an important and useful concept, it shows no signs of going away. Those of us who are not literary experts will just have to learn to live and work with matters as they are. The rest of this page is devoted to explaining the nature of the confusion over genre and how it arises. Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, the reader will be less confused and better able to cope.

why so much confusion?

The concept of literary genre often has been confused with other kinds of literary classes and concepts. For example, tone, form, style, place, period, and length have all mistakenly been thought to have a role to play in defining genre. Even concepts like fiction and non-fiction are equated with genre by one source or another.

Further, individual literary works have been misclassified, misunderstood, and misnamed as to genre. And egregious category mistakes have been made which do damage to our understanding of literary terms other than genre. Terms such as prose, poetry, literary drama, novels, and period, at one time or another have all been equated to genre when in fact they are something else. Prose and poetry are actually writing methods; literary dramas and novels are actually literary forms; and periods are actually bodies of literature classified according to time, place, and milieu.

This confusion about genre has resulted in a number of aberrations regarding literary genres. Here are only a few:

  • Literary genre has been defined as a loose set of criteria for a category of literary composition, which it need not be.
  • Genre has been mistakenly equated with other literary entities such as poetry, literary drama, prose, fiction, non-fiction, literary device, tone, content, and even length.
  • Invalid notions of genre have been erroneously used as the bases for classifying literary genres, subgenres, and works.
  • Works of different genres have been analytically compared and contrasted with each other as though they were of identical genre, generating apples and oranges comparisons and erroneous conclusions
  • Lists of genre names and definitions compiled by different sources disagree with one another.
  • The hierarchical relationships between genres and their subgenres have been skewed. (See the page called Literary Genre Hierarchy Schemes - Example).
  • Literary works have been tagged with more than one genre name.
  • No accepted list of genre names and definitions is extant.
  • Experts often agree with other experts on matters of genre. Sometimes experts can't even agree with themselves.

When experts can't agree with other experts about genre, how can a layman be expected to get it right?  If you are among the confused, try clearing away some of the haze now. Explore some of the different kinds of literary elements that are sometimes confused with genre:

  • Explore the notion of literary period at The Muse's page called Literary Periods: click here.
  • Explore the notion of literary form at The Muse's page called Literary Forms: click here.
  • Explore literary elements like, style, meter, and more at The Muse's Glossary Of Literary Terms: click here.

Why has the concept of genre been so confusing?


web sites, web sites, web sites...

Literary critics have used the concept of genre to analyze literary works and create reading lists since the time of Aristotle; but only starting in the 20th century have intellectuals, philosophers, and scholarly theorists made advances in the theory that underlies the concept and application of genre.

  • For a survey of developments in genre criticism, visit the Wikipedia web site page called Genre criticism: click here.

For a sample of recent thinking about genre theory, explore Daniel Chandler's web site called An Introduction to Genre theory. In his web site, Daniel Chandler writes...

A number of perennial doubts plague genre theory. Are genres really 'out there' in the world, or are they merely the constructions of analysts? Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite? Are genres timeless Platonic essences or ephemeral, time-bound entities? Are genres culture-bound or transcultural?... Should genre analysis be descriptive or proscriptive? (Stam 2000, 14)

...and then goes on to examine these issues.

  • Explore the theory behind genre. See an analysis of the problems of defining and working within genres, genres taxonomy, genres in film and television; find links to other sources, references and suggested reading, guidelines for those who would create (design) a genre or classify a work, and more at Daniel Chandler's web site called An Introduction to Genre Theory: click here.
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