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The Origin Of Genres English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1123 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Complexity in labelling arises from the fact that genre is not a single and unified system; a piece of literature can have characteristics of several different genres, making it difficult to distinguish an overall one. In this essay I will examine the ways in which generic distinctions exist and question the possibility for a reader to perceive a piece of literary work without considering the genre. Is an author capable of producing a piece of literature defined only by one genre?

The word ‘genre’ derives from the French ‘genre’, meaning ‘kind; sort; family’. The literary use of this term has not shifted far from this definition, being an important area and having the ability to make distinctions within literature. Society seems intent on splitting up genre into subgroups of texts but the question I will be exploring is why.

It is difficult to confine different genres of literature to only one family, this lack of consistency means that there is a broad mix. Certain genres, for example ‘sci-fi’, are extremely specific; however others like ‘comedy’ are much more vast which means they can incorporate other terms within them. Many labels can apply to more than one genre in hyphenated or adjectival forms, for example ‘Tragi-comedy’. Some genres refer to formal features, for example poetry, whilst others refer to an attitude or period. This begins the problem that arises within defining literature by way of genre.

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Generic distinctions exist to make life easier for authors, readers and critics. We are almost forced to think in terms of genre as a society, it has become routine for author, reader and critic to judge literature by means of genre. This is perhaps because we have gotten used to criticising and exploring texts in this way. It has become a helpful tool, centrally concerned with helping us to distinguish important facts within a text. Genre can help a reader to explore the ideas behind a piece of literature and allow us to understand why it has been chosen. It allows Critics to put a piece of work into a category, making it easier to explore in a rational order. Genre can help authors to plan their text and almost use that as a template. Genre makes texts more broadly relatable to their readers as in reality our lives are a combination of different types of experiences, it is involved in our everyday lives; we are defined by the love, tragedy and existence of our life. It has been so long established that it would be difficult to escape from the boundaries that we have gotten used to.

Hopkins looks at Tzvetan Todorov’s text, ‘The Origin of Genres’. Todorov states ‘We all know that genres used to exist’ expressing many writers and critics opinions that since the 19th century genre is dead. [1] He states that specific genre has been non-existent, but instead the idea of a ‘mega-genre’ has surfaced according to a writer like Blanchot, ‘today there is no intermediate entity between the unique individual work and literature as a whole, the ultimate genre’ under which all other genres fall. This would leave a greater freedom for writers as they would not have to confine themselves to one literary genre, meaning that they would not be judged on whether they successfully conformed to that genre or not.

Blanchot speaks of Broch, a prose writer, describing his escape and freedom from generic form, ‘[he] indulges in all modes of expression – narrative, lyric and discursive’ (p. 209) but uses a combination of generic terms to define and describe what its characteristics are. This is not exactly writing within genre but not outside of it either. Todorov does not state that genre has gone entirely, but that ‘the genres-of-the-past have simply been replaced by others’ due to the change in the time period and society.

Using Todorov’s idea that ‘A new genre is always the transformation of an earlier one, or of several’ we can grasp the idea of how genre has changed and transformed over time. We interpret genres differently than for example in the Elizabethan era, when tragedy meant something completely different, a woman not marrying would be considered awful yet times have moved on and in modern time, tragedies would be much more severe.

Looking at Ezra Pound’s, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, it challenges and works against generic expectations being only two lines long. [2] Modernists particularly valued experiment and resistance to convention, showing how genre expectations have shifted over time. As society becomes more innovative and modern, writers challenge generic expectations, perhaps helping genre to disappear as it becomes less important.

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Hopkins explores the issues of mixing genre in Jacques Derrida’s, ‘The Law of Genre’ (pp. 241-242). Derrida begins his argument with the idea that ‘Genres are not to be mixed’ stating that by definition concepts of genre are concerned with ‘limitation’ and ‘one must not cross a line of demarcation’. He argues that the genres concerned must be separable, otherwise generic distinction has gone. He refers to mixed genres as a ‘contamination’ and ‘impure’. Derrida reinforces the idea that there is ‘no genreless text, there is always a genre’, it is a necessary but unstable system.

Genres should be mixed; they are there to intertwine and overlap to create exciting pieces of literature. Our everyday lives are mixed with romance, tragedy and comedy so surely our literature should be the same? The literature of today represents society now and our own experiences, allowing readers and critics to empathise with particular texts, creating their own definitions. Derrida’s theory is difficult to understand due to all of the ‘rules’ he is suggesting which cannot always be applied.

Change constantly threatens to disrupt the main function of genre which governs and shapes meaning and our understanding. It would be hard to manage without classifying texts by genre because it has always been the case that our society judge texts by genre. Without our rules and regulations, literature would just ultimately turn into one mega-genre, removing the excitement of genre altogether.

Word Count : 1043


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