Genre (literature)

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The concept of genre or text genre classifies literary works into groups with a specific content or form. Today's genre system with its classic tripartite division goes back to the poetics of Aristotle , which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also took up. Accordingly, literature can be divided into the major genres of epic , poetry and drama , which Goethe also called “natural forms” . These three dominant genera are also referred to as the genus triad. In addition to these three genres, newer models often name non-fiction or factual texts as a fourth group. Within drama, on the other hand, comedy and tragedy are often viewed as fundamental genres.

Groups of works that formed traditions with typical characteristics in the course of literary history are also often referred to as genres, such as picaresque novels , jokes , bourgeois tragedies or fairy tales . Sometimes the use of prose or verse is seen as a basic feature of a genre system. In this system, factual texts appear as "prosaic".

Since the generic term is used at different levels and is therefore inaccurate and does not provide differentiation for many literary traditions of modern times, is often Genus or Geno, genre , text type and text type spoken. The genre of a text is determined in such a way that typical formal aspects of a piece of tradition are compared with others (genre question). If there are matches, it can be assumed that the compared pieces belong to the same genre.


Genre concepts and options of poetry as well as literary criticism

Until well into the 18th century, the most important place for statements about the genres were implicit poetics  - works that, according to their own specifications, taught about the rules of poetry . Customers of these works should (according to numerous prefaces) be the authors of poetic works. You should get instructions here on how to work in the genres. On the other hand, the naming of genres on the title pages of novels and dramas was of lesser importance. The customers of poetic works received far more precise information about what they were buying in the abstracts of the actions on the title pages, in statements about the reading pleasure the text allowed, in information about the style in which the author wrote. Title pages were elaborate on all of these points, which said far more than a generic term could have said.

Between poetics and poetic works there was a constant gap: Poetics wrote down how tragedies and comedies should be written - on the other hand there was a largely unregulated game of genres on the market, which the author learned by following the ongoing production. Poetics and their statements about genres, on the other hand, appeared from the point of view of erudition. Your task effectively became the criticism of the ongoing production that barely adheres to the specifications.

The genre and the information available on it opened up flexible options for the critics, by means of which they could respond to current works: pieces could

  • keep the rules of the genres and be good because of that,
  • be bad even though they obeyed the rules
  • be bad because they (so slavishly) obeyed rules, instead of showing poetic talent, they could finally do no less
  • be good for breaking the rules and following a poetic genius.

The criticism itself could split between partisans who sued for a modification of the genre canon and critics who demanded a return to a classic genre system.

While in the 17th and 18th centuries poetics defended the idea that the individual genres should in principle be understood according to rules, in the literary studies of the 19th century a historicization of the genre canon and a cultural differentiation prevailed: the theory that the genre was diverse found cultural and historical expressions. This relativization opened up freedom for literary criticism of the 19th century: works could now follow the conventions of a time or culture - or violate them, which from now on could be combined with thoughts of progress and reflections on literary history. Works could be “antiquated” or “epigonal” obliged to old conventions of genre, they could acquire “classicism” by reviving traditions, they could follow or be subject to foreign and foreign models in the eyes of criticism, as well as with old guidelines within the framework of new “movements ”And“ currents ”break. At the same time, literary criticism put up for discussion how the work under discussion fits into literary history - within the exchange that has now created literature .

The structure of the genres in change

The spectrum of literary genres currently being negotiated by literary studies largely emerged in the 19th century. The current spectrum of literary genres was preceded by that of poetic genres, which entered into intense discussion in the late 17th century. In France, the poetics published by Nicolas Boileau dominated the scholarly discussion; in the German-speaking area, Johann Christoph Gottsched's attempt at critical poetry before the Germans (Leipzig 1730) gained greater importance in the 1730s with the demand for a return to the scheme of genres according to Aristotle .

The calls to return to the Aristotelian genre spectrum were marked from the start by a sharp examination of current market developments. The main attack was the opera , which among authors of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was considered the high drama of modernism. The surge of debates in the first half of the 18th century successfully moved opera out of the poetry discussion - since then it has belonged more to music history. A second spurt of discussion began in the middle of the 18th century and led to a break with Aristotelian poetics: With the bourgeois tragedy , the position of ancient tragedy in the genre scheme was relativized: the modern tragedy could, unlike that of antiquity, also in prose , the language of previously “lower” style level. At the same time, with the new tragedy, the law of the height of fall of the tragic hero was abolished: the hero or heroine of a tragedy could now also be of the civil class.

The redefinition in the field of drama influenced the field of epic in the middle of the 18th century. Up to now there was a vacuum here: the ancient epic had a high and a satirical genre - in the modern age heroic epics were almost only found in panegyric . At the beginning of the 18th century there had been a temporary discussion as to whether the novel was not the epic of modernity - the publication of François Fénelon's Telemach (1699/1700) suggested that Fénelon's novel competed with the epics of Virgil and Homer and outbid them in general View in style awareness, as in observing the rules of the genre; the Telemachus only lacked the verse. In the end, the novel remained outside the spectrum of poetic genres, as Fénelon's work was clearly an exception. This situation changed the moment the bourgeois tragedy was recognized as a full-fledged tragedy in the middle of the 18th century. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's works were indebted to Samuel Richardson's novel . If Sarah Sampson was a tragedy, then contemporary novels were the corresponding epic production. The novel then left the field of dubious histories and switched to the field of poetic genres, which received a new name over the next few decades: it became the field of literary genres.

The 19th century brought the classic re-division of the field into dramatic, epic and lyrical genres. (“Poetry” became the umbrella term in English and other surrounding languages ​​for all smaller genres in the bound language.) The field of the dramatic expanded with the farce and melodrama to include popular genres, the field of epic genres expanded with the novella , the Narrative and the short story about unrelated small genres.

The discourse on the genres, previously the domain of poetics , became the task of literary historiography. This allowed cultures and epochs to have their own spectrum of genres. Speaking of genres lost its contour at the same moment, since from now on any variants of genres could be defined. Literary studies bundled works at will and created genres such as the Arthurian novel , the minstrel poetry or the absurd theater . Another discourse on genres and fashions allowed a more in-depth look at the developing market and a flexible approach to market developments.

Current interests in a definition of the genres

A new interest in the old genre debate arose in the 20th century with the Russian formalism and the diversifications of structuralism that resulted from it. The question was and is here whether, notwithstanding the flexibility that had developed in speaking about genres, there were scientifically determinable categories. A defining factor here was Jacques Derrida , among others , who pointed out that the characteristic of literary texts is precisely the transgression of the boundaries set by a normative genre theory, which results in texts “participating” in genres but not “belonging” to them. Wellek and Warren had previously described literary genres as "institutional imperatives" which, although coercive, were also shaped by the poet.

The debate that started here proved fruitful in building bridges between linguistics and linguistic text theory . Modern trends in computer philology now assume that automatic speech recognition might one day be able to recognize literary speech styles. At best, a new breakdown of the textual production into text types or, more conventionally, into genres would then automatically take place with statistical methods such as PCA . The resulting genera could be named and used by humans. A genre would then rather be a dimension, and a text could belong to different genres at the same time. Similar efforts are already being made in music, where pieces of music can then be transformed from one genre or style (cf. style in music ) into another. A jazz piece becomes a classical opera, a pop song a symphony.

On the other hand, there is a somewhat different interest in the genres in the more historically oriented branches of literary studies such as book history and the research fields of New Historicism : Here, production conditions, reception attitudes of the public, modalities in the exchange between critics and the developing book market and theater are of particular interest . The categories and genres are of interest as concepts through which goods were and are being offered, by means of which expectations are addressed and confrontations between authors, critics and readers take place.


  • Otto Knörrich: Lexicon of lyrical forms (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 479). 2nd, revised edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-520-47902-8 .
  • Rüdiger Zymner: genus theory. Mentis Verlag, Paderborn 2003, ISBN 3-89785-377-9 .
  • Dieter Lamping (Hrsg.): Handbook of literary genres. Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 3-520-84101-0 .
  • Udo Kindermann : Genre Systems in the Middle Ages. In: Continuity and Transformation of Antiquity in the Middle Ages. Edited by Willi Erzgräber , Sigmaringen 1989, pp. 303-313.
  • Ingrid Brunecker: General validity or historical conditionality of the poetic genres: a main problem of modern poetics, worked out by Dilthey, Unger and Staiger. Philosophical dissertation, Kiel 1954.
  • Ernst Robert Curtius : European literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Bern / Munich 1948; 9th edition ibid. 1978, p. 253 (genres and list of writers).
  • Karl Viëtor : Problems of the literary genre history. In: German quarterly for literary studies and intellectual history. Volume 9, 1931, pp. 425-447; also in: Karl Viétor: Geist und Form. Essays on German literary history. Bern 1952, pp. 292-309.
  • Small literary forms in individual representations. Stuttgart 2002 (= Reclam UB. Volume 18187).

Web links

Wiktionary: literary genre  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Lehnardt, Andreas: Qaddish. Investigations into the origin and reception of a rabbinical prayer. Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG, Tübingen 2002, p. 64.
  2. Jacques Derrida: La loi du genre. In: Glyph 7, 1980, pp. 176-201.
  3. René Wellek, Austin Warren: Theory of Literature. Übers. Edgar and Marlene Lohner. Ullstein, Berlin 1963, p. 202.