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Humanities LibreTexts

9: Genre

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    Genre refers to the form a communication takes. Etymologically, the word is related to “gender” and “genus,” both of which are significant classification systems. Genre serves as a mechanism to help us recognize language as part of a distinct group or kind, and each genre possesses its own unique structure and differs in terms of how, when, and why it is employed –a love letter, for example, is a different genre than a quarterly stock report, which is a different genre than a tweet.  

    Every genre takes a different form, serving specific purposes and fulfilling particular objectives in the world. Because genre stems from our understanding of how language becomes meaningful in social contexts, writers often use the idea of genre to talk about how oral, written, and multimodal texts function in society. Norman Fairclough argues that “a genre implies not only a particular text type, but also particular processes of producing, distributing, and consuming texts” (126). When we produce the same kind of text over and over to do the same thing over and over, these kinds of texts emerge as genres with recognizable features that readers come to expect.  


    History of Genre 

    In classical rhetoric, as you have read, the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle focused on three genres, distinguished by their audiences and their occasions. Deliberative rhetoric was used to persuade audiences to do something and typically happened in political settings. Judicial rhetoric happened in courts of law and was used to determine whether or not someone was justly accused. (Deliberative rhetoric concerned future events, and judicial rhetoric concerned past events.) Epideictic rhetoric occurred during ceremonies like funerals, and it was used to praise or blame someone. Distinguishing among these genres was important for Aristotle as he taught students how to produce the kinds of texts their audiences would recognize and admire. But genre studies has persisted throughout intellectual history, especially when new genres emerge and challenge scholars’ sense of order. 

    The work of two important contemporary scholars of genre in rhetoric, John Swales and Carolyn Miller, illustrate how widely divergent theories of genre can be. Swales is concerned with the descriptive enterprise of genre analysis—identifying key textual characteristics of various genres—because these descriptions can easily turn into rules that students can use to master the genres that circulate in higher education. Miller, on the other hand, argues for a view of genre “as a specific, and important, constituent of society, a major aspect of its communicative structure, one of the structures of power that institutions wield” (71). Miller is less concerned with teaching students how to reproduce already established genres and more concerned with understanding how genres function in society. 

    There are genre scholars in a variety of fields—film studies, literary studies, musicology—and the theories of genre are numerous. The concept persists as an important object of study because it helps us to better appreciate the works we create and to better understand ourselves as creators.  


    Genre Today 

    A genre in journalism, for example, “the obituary,” is most productively studied and understood in terms of the specific features that the texts in that category share. Before you read further, try to list the features of the genre called “the obituary,” or consider the things you expect to read in an obituary. These features emerge when people have to do the same thing over and over, in this case, notify the community that someone has died. Some features include these: the date (and occasionally the cause) of death; the date and place of birth; a positive account of schools attended, careers, and other accomplishments; a brief list of people that the deceased was “preceded in death by” and those who survive the deceased; and the details about funeral arrangements and memorial services. Very often, this text is accompanied by a photograph of the deceased when he or she was young and/or healthy. Knowing the features that readers expect in a particular genre make it easier to write. So, when a loved one dies and you are asked to write the obituary, you don’t have make up from scratch what to include in it, as it is a common genre with its own set of conventions.  

    One obituary that circulated on social media illustrates just how predictable this particular genre is. Walter George Bruhl, Jr. wrote his own obituary because he was familiar with the features of the genre, and because he knew his readers would be familiar with them as well, he was able to make it one of the sweetest, funniest obituaries you’ll read. For example, he writes, “Walt was preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1936, a spinal disc in 1974, a large piece of his thyroid gland in 1988, and his prostate on March 27th 2000.” And where we expect the positive discussion of his schooling, we read “He drifted through the Philadelphia Public School System from 1937 through 1951, graduating, to his mother’s great relief, from John Bartram High School in June of 1951.” About the details of the service, he wrote, “There will be no viewing since his wife refuses to honor his request to have him standing in the corner of the room with a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand so that he would appear natural to visitors.” Because he knew this genre so well, he was able to write it in a way that depends on readers’ expectations of the genre, only to subvert those expectations with humor. 

    Perhaps what is most interesting about the concept of genre in the digital age is how genres change when they move from print into networked, digital environments. For example, most obituaries now appear online, as part of the page of a funeral home’s website. These obituaries will still include many of the features described above, but they borrow from other online texts, too: there might be a “Guestbook” where people leave comments for the family, along with links to articles about handling grief or funeral home etiquette. And the story of the life of the deceased juxtaposed with ads for cell phone plans can be somewhat jarring in this context. Catherine Schryer aptly describes genre as “stabilized-for-now,” highlighting the paradoxical nature of its role in communication (200). While genres offer stability—obituaries, for instance, in publications such as the New York Times are usually detailed and follow typical conventions--they are not immune to change.