Genre comes from a French word meaning 'kind' or 'type'. In general terms it applies to the kind of writing you are reading or producing. In your exams and for coursework you will read writing from many different genres, both fictional and non-fictional. So you will be asked to analyse and discuss texts such as magazine and newspaper articles, leaflets and so on.
You will also be asked to write in various genres, too - a story, an article, a letter, a speech, for example. In your writing, it's important to understand the specific requirements of the genre in which you are being asked to write or many marks will be lost. Make sure you know, therefore, how to write both a formal (business) and informal (friendly) letter, a leaflet and an article for example.
More on genre. The background to genre is interesting. When we meet something new, our mind already contains a set of existing ideas we have picked up over the years from experience and what we have read or been told of what that thing should be like. We become rather highly conditioned to expect certain things within a particular genre, such that we can be highly critical of or even reject or distrust something that does not follow what we expect to find, i.e. if it fails to follow what are called its genre conventions. Genre can affect the form (shape and layout), structure (the sequence of ideas), style and content of a thing.
In your own writing for coursework and exams, you need to show you understand that different genres use styles that are familiar to your reader. For example, the narrative genre is built around a beginning-middle-end structure of linked events that build to a climax; the letter genre uses a particular layout with addresses at the top and so on. Genre can be very important, but can become very complex. If you need or would like to know more, read on...
Some more on genre. Being able to categorise something by its general kind or type is helpful because when we come across something new, certain features of it allow us to compare it immediately with similar things we already know. This means genre is a natural way we use to identify something we haven't met before - a kind of short-cut recognition tool. In English, there are three main fictional genres: drama, poetry and prose and there are many genres of non-fiction writing such as journalistic genre, travel writing, etc. (some people call these sub-genres).
Genre becomes important when we realise that it means much more than just categorisation. This is because our response to genres is deeply conditioned and creates the way we approach and respond to a text. The journalistic genre, for example, conditions us to expect to see a particular form of text: headlines, columns and blocks of writing. But this genre also conditions us to expect to be able to trust and believe in what we are reading in ways that might not always or necessarily be sensible. Such is the power of genre.
Genre also conditions us to see as entirely natural and realistic certain aspects of what we read and see. Think about the kinds of characters that survive and those that end up mutilated in a horror story or film, for example or think how much sympathy you have with who is murdered in a gangster story or movie - some characters have your sympathy, others make you feel they deserve all they get!
Think, too, about the ways in which women are represented in different genres, or children, men and so on. In the Cowboy / Western genre, women are usually represented in just two general ways: as wholly 'good' and homely or wholly 'bad' or 'loose'. This representation seems wholly natural - but a moment's thought will show you that this is a genre effect - a ' genre mind-set' . The big question is, then: do genre ' mind-sets' cross over into the real world and shape our responses to what happens, not in fiction, but in reality?
Another key term to understand alongside genre is narrative as the two are closely linked. Genre 'tells' what kind of setting, characters and events to expect in a particular narrative. This engages us all the more in the narrative because we are able to guess more accurately what might happen next - an important part of the entertainment and enjoyment of the narrative form is the ability to predict what might happen next.
Also both narrative and genre help shape our ideas of what we think of as realistic within that genre. The question is - do narratives and genre in any way shape our expectations of life in the real world, rather than merely in the fictional worlds we read and watch on TV and in the cinema? A big question!
If narrative fascinates you and you're hoping for an A*, you can find out even more about narrative by clicking here. There is also a mini-web site that covers narrative in fascinating detail here.