Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


GENRES as Subject, Form, & Narrative
(from LITR 4533 Tragedy

A literature course titled "Tragedy"—like one called "Comedy," "The Novel" or "Mythology"—is a genre course. A "genre" is a type, kind, or class of literature. Studying genre uses the critical method of classification, categorization, or taxonomy.

"Genre" is what you're asking about when you say, "What kind of book is that?" or "What kind of movie do you want to see?" If you ask such questions, you may get several different kinds of answers. "What kind of book?" may be "a novel" or "a detective novel." The answer to “what kind of movie?” might be “a comedy” or “a romantic comedy.”

These familiar classifications are usually comfortable and reliable. The audience trusts that a comedy will make us laugh, or a detective novel will solve a crime. A genre is a "contract with the reader" that guarantees certain standard features, or the fulfillment of expectations or norms in style and tone. In academic speech, these standard features or norms are called "conventions."

Because of this ease and comfort level, most readers are willing to leave “genre” at an unconscious level, and some act resentful toward such analyses, as though genre makes a box that imprisons a work of art. However, if we regard genre as more of a yardstick than a box, it can serve as a measure of similarities and differences, of imitation and progress.

By bringing the unconscious to consciousness, a systematic introduction can make genre analysis a more substantive formal base for investigating the moral, ethical, and political issues that compel interest in Tragedy..

To systematize our understanding of genre, this course classifies its uses in three broad, non-exclusive categories. (There may be more.)

  • Subject: The content, subject, "special interest" or "audience appeal" of a text, such as "a crime story" or a "teenage movie."
  • Form: the types and numbers of “voices” involved in the genre
  • Narrative: the kind of story or or type of plot told or acted

These categories are "non-exclusive." That is, they often overlap, and most specimens of literature can usually be classified not by just one of these categories but by all three, as you must do in your genre presentations.

For instance, most of the tragedies we read in this course fulfill these categories in the following ways:

  • Subject: Serious social or ethical situations, non-escapist, etc.
  • Form: drama or dialogue
  • Narrative: Tragedy

For other examples of these multiple genre categories for any text, see the conclusion of this handout.

Subject Genre refers to the content, subject matter, "special interest" or "audience appeal" of a text, such as "a crime story" or a "teenage movie."

In some regards, this classification is the most obvious use of "genre." When people ask, "What kind of book are you reading?" or "What kind of movie do you want to see?", what they really want to know is, "What is it about?" or “What are you interested in?”—to which one answers, for instance, "A thriller." People outside Literature courses often take representational and narrative genres for granted or remain unconscious of such distinctions.

“Special interest” or “audience appeal” makes the connection between the subject of a genre and its audience. For instance, if we answer the movie question with “A chick-flick” or “a guy movie,” we provide information about the audience that also suggests the content of the movie.

As usual, though, descriptions of genre can always become more specific, so even within this category, there are several possible layers. For instance,

“A guy movie” > “An action adventure movie” > “A Vin Diesel movie”


“A guy movie” > “A comedy for guys” > “A gross-out / dumbass comedy” > “An Adam Sandler movie”

“Subject genre” concerns less the “form” of the genre (as in formal and narrative genres) than some content that is duplicated from one example to another, for example:

science fiction (Star Wars, Star Trek)            techno-thrillers (Tom Clancy, Hunt for Red October, etc.)

police drama            historical fiction, historical romance          monster movies

gothic                 western novel / movie             weepers or 3-hanky movies         Tarzan stories / Tarzan movies

spy novels / spy movies / A James Bond movie

Problems with “subject genre”

As with genre studies generally, the “subject genre” definition quickly becomes blurry or crossed-up. Its categories of thought do not remain separate. For instance, notice how easily the concept shifts levels; e. g., “the novel” is a genre, but so is “spy novel” or “detective novel.” Or the distinction between subject matter and audience can be easily confused; for instance, is a “teenage movie” about teenagers or for teenagers?

My attitude is not to be frustrated at such fertility but rather to celebrate it, but since academics tend to like for their categories to remain clearer and more consistent, the two following approaches to defining genre (“representational” and “narrative”) tend to have more academic prestige.

“Formal genre” refers to the number and types of voices in the genre. There are three types and examples of representative genre, though a single text may shift from one formal genre to another:

1.     Narrator or “Single Voice,” in which one speaker or voice speaks directly to the audience.  Examples: lyric poems, songs, sermons, lectures, stand-up comic monologues, news reports, or any other situation where a speaker directly addresses an audience, camera, or microphone.


2.     Drama or Dialogue, in which two or more characters speak directly with each other, which the audience overhears.  Examples: most plays, most movies, most fictional television shows such as sit-coms or police dramas.


3.     Narrator + Dialogue, in which two or more characters speak with each other while a narrator speaks directly to the audience.  Examples: novels; the epic; “film noir” movies; TV shows like The Wonder Years where an older narrator speaks to the audience while a younger self speaks with other characters. Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Critical sources for formal genre: "Form" is a concept between an abstract idea and an actual phenomenon. If you imagine people talking, what is the form of your imagination? Is someone speaking directly to you, or do you overhear people talking among themselves? Or both?

The standard critical source is Plato, The Republic. c. 373 BCE: "Narration may be either simple narration, or imitation, or a union of the two." ["Simple narration" refers to a "narrator" or "single-voiced" representation; "imitation" refers to "drama or dialogue," which is in fact the way humans appear when they're talking among themselves; and "a union of the two" refers to "narrator + dialogue," which Plato would have known via the epic.]

These options develop from theories of representation, imitation, or mimesis: "Art imitates reality," or "art represents nature." That is, literature (or art) is not nature or reality itself but something humans make that resembles, interprets, or shapes reality or nature. In this usage, form therefore refers to the way art appears or presents itself as an imitation of reality.

“Narrative genre” refers to the kind of story or plot that a work of literature tells or enacts. The source for such literary criticism is Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), according to which there are four basic story lines:

Though distinct, these narratives often work in combination—for instance, romantic comedy. Or an episode of one narrative genre may appear in another, like the comic gravedigger’s scene in the tragedy of Hamlet.

Tragedy. The story begins with a problem that is significant to society, its leaders, or its representatives. The problem may rise from a temptation or error that human beings recognize, such as greed, vanity, or self-righteousness. The problem is intimate and integral to the central human identity; it is not "objectified" to a villain or outside force, as in romance. Good and bad are not split, but mixed. The action consists of an attempt to discover the truth about the problem, to follow or trace or absorb its consequences, to restore justice (even at cost to oneself), or to regain moral control of the situation. The tragedy ends with the resolution of the problem and the restoration of justice, often accompanied by the death, banishment, or quieting of the tragic hero.

Comedy. This story-line also often begins with a problem or a mistake (as in mistaken identity), but the problem is less significant than tragedy. The problem may involve a recognizable social situation, but unlike tragedy, the problem does not intimately threaten or shake the audience, the state, or the larger world. The problem often takes the form of mistaken or false identity: one person being taken for another, disguises, cross-dressing, dressing up or down. The action consists of characters trying to resolve the problem or live up to the demands of the false identity, or of other characters trying to reconcile the “new identity” with the “old identity.” Comedy ends with the problem overcome or the disguise abandoned. Usually the problem was simply “a misunderstanding” rather than a tragic error. The concluding action of a comedy is easy to identify. Characters join in marriage, song, dance, or a party, demonstrating a restoration of unity. (TV "situation comedies" like Friends or The Cosby Show end with the characters re-uniting in a living room or some other common space.) Occasionally, as in slapstick or farce, comic endings are “circular” with the beginning: the comic characters simply “run away,” supposedly to continue the comic action elsewhere, as in the conclusion of some sketches by the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy.  In “dark comedy,” the conclusion is sometimes one of exhaustion, as in The War of the Roses or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Romance. This story may open as though all is well, but action usually begins with a problem of separation. Characters are separated from each other (e. g., a true-love romance), or a need arises to rescue someone (a lost-child story); or characters are separated from some object of desire (as with the search for the Holy Grail or Romancing the Stone or a lottery ticket). Action often takes the form of a physical journey or adventure; characters may be captured or threatened and rescued. Action may take the form of a personal transformation or a journey across class lines, as in Cinderella, Pretty Woman, or An Officer and a Gentleman.  The conclusion of a romance narrative is typically “transcendence”—“getting away from it all” or “rising above it all.” The characters “live happily ever after” or “ride off into the sunset” or “fly away” from the scenes of their difficulties (in contrast with tragedy’s social engagement or comedy’s restored unity). Characters in romance tend to be starkly good or bad, in contrast with tragedy’s “mixed” characters. The problem that starts the action is usually attributed less to a flaw in the hero than to a villain or some outside force. (Most Hollywood movies are romances, but some “independent movies” involve tragedy.)

Satire.  The word “satire” appropriately comes from the Greek for “mixed-dish,” as its story-line tends to be extremely episodic and opportunistic. In fact, the satiric narrative depends for its narrative integrity on the audience’s knowledge of the original story being satirized. For instance, Hot Shots appears to be simply an unconnected series of goofy scenes unless you’ve seen Top Gun, in which case you know that episodes from the satire spoof or parody episodes from the original film. Young Frankenstein similarly depends on a familiarity with the original Frankenstein or at least with the cliches of old-time horror movies. (As a single-voiced example, an impersonator depends on his audience’s knowledge of a celebrity’s mannerisms and foibles.)  Structurally, the satirical narrative will end somewhat like the original narrative, but, in terms of tone, the seriousness or pretensions of the original narrative will be deflated.


Every work of literature involves at least one subject genre, one formal genre, & one narrative genre.

*A stand-up comedian’s monologue is “single-voiced” in representation and “comic” in terms of narrative (by attempting to conclude on a big audience-uniting laugh.)

  • Subject: dating, politics, romance, domestic, social classes.
  • Form: single-voiced
  • Narrative: “comic” through impersonations (false identity), put-downs (restoration of order), conclusion on big audience-uniting laugh.

*The novel The Scarlet Letter

  • Subject: serious social, ethical issues; the American past, etc.
  • Form: narrator (the voice describing the setting and the action) + two or more characters in dialogue (Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl in conversation with each other).
  • Narrative: romance (as when Hester transcends her complications by becoming an “angel” at the end) shaded by tragedy (as in Dimmesdale’s fall through his own faults and errors).

(See also example on p. 1 of this handout.)

As exhausting as this handout may be, it’s not exhaustive! “Genre” remains a flexible, mobile, slippery, and capacious term and concept. The purpose of these classifications is more to exercise critical thinking than to provide final answers.

For those considering graduate school, some problems inherent in “genre studies”

Genre courses” like “Tragedy,” “Comedy,” “Introduction to Fiction (or Poetry or Drama),” or “Film as Literature” tend to be popular mainstays in college curricula, but genre scholarship as such has a lackluster reputation. Why?

  • Genres may be regarded as elementary knowledge.

  • Genres impinge on so many other subjects that one’s findings may evade reduction or specification.

  • Any attempt at finality in describing a genre may ascribe an artificial purity or purity to an evolving entity.


More dynamically, the following provisions can liberate the study of genre:

  • The concept of genre involves a number of distinct dimensions or facets.

  • One genre often overlaps with another.

  • There are “no pure genres”—or examples are so few as to prove the rule.