Literary Arts

LITERARY GENRES: WHAT THEY ARE, WHAT THEY ARE AND THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THEM

In this article we will review everything you need to know about literary genres. We will orient the content towards those people with a creative vocation who are looking for a clear and practical approach to the problem of genres.

Because, to begin with, what is a literary genre? Is there such a thing or is it just a convention of writing and criticism? Well, I’m sure we’ve heard it, many writers “jump the bullfighter” literary genres and create hybrid artifacts. We’ll see it all point by point here, starting with an open definition.

What is a literary genre?

Let’s say that the art of writing has historically been divided into categories (just as the human body is divided into organs with different functions). These categories of writing, such as the horror novel, the short story or the epic poem, have their own characteristics. Formal as well as content and structure.

We must bear in mind that, historically, there have been multiple classifications for literary genres. For example, if we take the subject from the perspective of ancient rhetoric (Aristotle), we find four fundamental literary genres: narrative, epic, lyrical and dramatic. At the same time, these genres are divided into subgenres of varied nature: formal, semantic, syntactic, etc…

We will handle a more practical and current notion, but without losing sight of the fact that different classifications, such as that of Aristotle, are very close conceptually and can still be applied today.

The main literary genres of today

The classification of modern literary genres is somewhat different. Suppose we have a good idea to write something. What genre do we adopt? What’s best for that idea: a story, a poem, an essay? If it were a story, would it be a horror story, an adventure story, a dramatic story?

First of all, we see that we can distinguish the genres, for practical purposes and in the creative field, in four big blocks: novel, story, essay and poetry. At the same time, each of these blocks has subgenres and specific sections that distinguish them. In essence, we see a categorization similar to that of Aristotle, which, however, takes as its starting point other elements, in this case format and purpose, and above all we will stick to narrative genres. Let us examine some of them.

How do I learn to master the writing of different genres?

Before moving on to a first theoretical approach, we would like to talk to you about a small literary course offered by our writing school in order to learn to master the writing of the different genres.

It is a twelve-week course, with prestigious guest teachers who change every semester. In this course you will learn in a practical way to understand how the different types of modern genres work. That is to say, they are reviewed from a practical point of view and with exercises to write and master the main modern literary genres (novel, essay, story, poetic, etc.) and all its variants. Essential for writers who are beginning in the technique.

The genre of the novel and its variants

A novel is often defined by its length and narrative nature, as well as by its structure. Today, however, this definition is much more blurred, as many writers write novels in which not only the “novelistic” fits, but also include essays, inserted stories or other variants. So, from the outset, we can say that each genre is open. That’s why we’re talking about creative writing.

The novel has consensual limits and characteristics (length, complex narrative structure, plot arc, symbolic resolution of plots…), and at the same time, it is divided as a genre into multiple subgenres, each with its own formal rules. We highlight some of them:

  • Science fiction / fantasy novel: science fiction and fantasy are not the same, but in both elements the supernatural appears. If someone writes a science fiction novel they will be closer to the technological and the future. Fantasy implies approaching worlds completely invented and often timeless (The Lord of the Rings)
  • Adventure novel: The adventure novel has a fairly rigid structure, in which the movement of a character over different events and geographies prevails.
  • Autofiction novel: a new type of literary subgenre. Here, the narrator speaks of himself, makes fiction of himself. We don’t invent worlds or travel. The journey is only inner, in consciousness and what the narrator sees.
  • Police novel: another sub-genre of the novel, and one of the most frequented by readers and writers. The detective novel has quite limited rules. It usually presents stories of suspense or mysteries in which the resolution of a crime or misdemeanor is at stake.

The story and the short form

The story is distinguished from the novel by its length and also by its structure and approach. In addition, the short form itself accepts different subgenres and variants. We start, for example, from the classic genre of the fairy tale, and see how, throughout the history of literature, the classification has expanded:

  • Fairy tale: The fairy tale or fable governed human narratives for many centuries. Nowadays, this type of allegorical and symbolic story has been brought closer to children’s audiences, so it is still necessary to master it if we are interested in writing children’s literature.
  • The modern story: writers such as Kurt Vonnegut or Raymond Carver wrote decalogues and guides to write good stories – from the modern point of view, where the rules are more open and give rise to formulas different from the fairy tale.
  • The micro-story: they tend to be no longer than a page. They are pills, events, sudden blows. The art of micro-storying requires a great deal of synthesis and abstraction.
  • Writing aphorisms: the tiniest part of literary creation: artifacts that are not much longer than a simple phrase. Without a doubt, one of the most difficult genres to master (some references in this field: Franz Kafka or Augusto Monterroso).

The essay, a genre that spreads to other genres

Since the year 2000 (even a little earlier) literary genres have begun to blur. We saw it very well in the work of some authors such as Enrique Vila-Matas or W.G. Sebald.

These two authors, who were very successful at the end of the 90s, composed novels in which, suddenly, the genre of the essay acquired a great presence. In other words, modern writers tend to hybridize genres. But… how do you insert the essay into a fictional text?

Or simpler: how is the genre of the essay written properly? In the essay, imagination no longer plays so much as the capacity for synthesis and interrelation. An essay text presents ideas, elaborates them and draws conclusions.

All this can be mixed, of course, with a narrative text, and we would thus have a hybrid. So mastering essay art is also important for a fiction writer (think documentation, descriptions, digressions…).

Literary genres according to Aristotle

Let’s see how the modern classification that we have presented differs from the classification that Aristotle presents in his poetics. Let us remember that his text is more than two thousand years old: from this point on, let us look at the similarities between what he proposes and what we propose. Aristotle distinguishes between three types of literary genres.

  • Epic genre: is the ancient way of defining the current narrative genre. Narration, description and dialogue form the epic genre, which usually relates invented or real events with narrative intention (explaining the facts themselves).
  • Lyric genre: Its usual expression is the poem. With the lyric genre, the emotional is expressed in a symbolic key. There is not so much interest in the facts, but in what is extracted from them.
  • Dramatic genre: the genre closest to theatre. This genre is based on a specific episode, without a narrator and with dialogue as a key element.
  • Didactic genre: the essay would be a modern derivative. In the didactic genre the final intention is, always and above all, to teach something. It does not focus so much on how it is narrated, but on what is implied by what is narrated.

Ancient literary subgenres

From these three general categories, we come to know the subgenres into which they are divided. For Aristotle, subgenres often correspond to “literary forms”. That is to say, stylistic ways that we have to approach each genre. For example:

  • Within the epic genre we find the fable, the epic, the story or the novel, four different forms of writing that coincide in their will to “explain something”.
  • The lyric genre includes elegy, hymn, ode or other variants of poems, each determined by a style (for example, elegy is adopted to sing to the deceased).
  • The dramatic genre includes tragedy, comedy and other variants which, within the context of theatre, involve different styles and approaches.
  • In the didactic genre: Essay, biography, chronicle, etc, would be the subgenres of the didactic genre.

As we can see, there is a substantial difference between ancient and modern classifications. Especially since literary practices have changed a lot. Today, the novel, the story or the essay are genres in themselves, and not subgenres or parts of other larger groups.

This notion is important, because it tells us that the issue of genres is only a guide for the writer. Indeed, it is important to know the modes of expression of the various literary genres, so that then, in pure creation, one can play with them at pleasure and thus have a much greater technical mastery and possibilities.

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