Why literary genres matter
By William Allan
One of the most striking aspects of classical literature is its highly developed sense of genre. Of course, a literary work’s genre remains an important factor today. We too distinguish broad categories of poetry, prose, and drama, but also sub-genres (especially within the novel, now the most popular literary form) such as crime, romantic or historical fiction. We do the same in other creative media, such as film, with thrillers, horrors, westerns, and so on. But classical authors were arguably even more aware than writers of genre fiction are today what forms and conventions applied to the genre they were writing in. All ancient literary texts are written in a particular genre, such as epic, tragedy, or pastoral. This doesn’t mean that one genre can’t interact with another, and they often do, as in ‘tragic history’, that is, history written in the style of tragedy, as when Thucydides presents the Athenian empire’s disastrous attempt to conquer Sicily as a typically tragic story of hybris and ruin. Some modern theorists would argue that every text belongs to a genre and that it is impossible not to write in one: thus even those nifty writers who try to break free of convention and write the wackiest stuff are still caught up in ‘experimental’ literature. The invention of the major literary genres and their norms is the most significant effect of classical literature’s influence.
But what is a genre? The first thing to observe is that a genre is not a rigid mould which works must fit into, but a group of texts that share certain similarities – whether of form, performance context, or subject matter. For example, all the texts that make up the ancient genre of tragedy share certain ‘family resemblances’ (they are theatrical texts written in a particular poetic language, they reflect on human suffering, they show gods interacting with humans, and so on) that allow us to perceive them as a recognizable group. But although certain ‘core’ features characterize any given genre, the boundaries of each genre are fluid and are often breached for literary effect.
As can still be seen in modern literature and film, a genre comes with certain in-built codes, values, and expectations. It creates its own world, helping the author to communicate with the audience, as she deploys or disrupts generic expectations and so creates a variety of effects. Genres appeal to writers because they give a structure and something to build on, while they offer audiences the pleasure of the familiar and ingenious diversion from it. The best writers take what they need from the traditional form and then innovate, leaving their own imprint on the genre and changing it for future writers and audiences. In other words, genre is a source of dynamism and creativity, not a straitjacket, unless the writer is rubbish, i.e. unimaginative and unoriginal.
All ancient writers had an idea of who the top figures in their chosen genre were (Homer and Virgil in epic; Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides in tragedy, and so on), and their aim was to rival and outdo their predecessors. The key ancient terms for this process of interaction with the literary past are imitatio (‘imitation’) and aemulatio (‘competition’). ‘Imitation’ doesn’t mean slavish copying, but creative adaptation of the tradition; creative writing today still involves the reworking of previous literature, since writers are usually enthusiastic readers too. Of course, competing with the great writers of the past is a risky business – as Horace puts it, ‘Whoever strives to rival Pindar exposes himself to a flight as risky as that of Icarus’ (Odes 4.2.1-4, paraphrased) – but what characterizes the best writers of antiquity is their response to the great works of the past in the light of the present.
The central role of ‘imitation’ in classical literature also helps explain why ancient authors allude so frequently to other texts. With ‘the death of the author’ in postmodern thought, the wider term ‘intertextuality’ is now trendier than ‘allusion’, referring to the interconnections between texts, deliberate or not. Be that as it may, deliberate allusion is an important part of the writer’s meaning in classical literature, and the ideal reader of Virgil’s Aeneid, for example, an epic that draws on a variety of other genres (including tragedy, history, and love poetry, among others), will be able to appreciate how Virgil alludes to, and reworks, earlier texts in order to create his own meaning.
Mention of epic reminds us that classical literature is characterized by a hierarchy of genres, ranging from ‘high’ forms such as epic, tragedy, and history at one end through to ‘low’ forms such as comedy, satire, mime, and epigram at the other. ‘High’ and ‘low’ relate to how serious the subject matter is, how lofty the language, how dignified the tone, and so on. Many of the genres lower down on the hierarchy define themselves polemically in opposition to a higher form: thus writers of comedy, for example, poke fun at tragedy, presenting it as unrealistic and bombastic, in order to assert the value of their own work, while satire mocks the claims of epic and philosophy (among other genres) to offer meaningful guides to life. Finally, it is striking that some genres endure longer than others: Roman love elegy flourished for only half a century, while epic was always there, and always changing.
In conclusion, then, we can understand an ancient literary text properly only if we take into account where it comes in the evolution of its genre, and how it engages with and transforms the conventions it inherits. The same is true of our literature too, of course, not least because classical works, with their highly developed sense of genre, form the foundation of the Western literary tradition.
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Image credit: Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Mosaic, Roman artwork, 2nd century CE. From the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome. Capitoline Museums. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons