If you’ve ever taken a folklore class, chances are good you’ve learned about genres (and yeah, if you want to think about it in terms of book or movie genres, you’re not that far off).
I’m afraid I’ve put the cart before the horse by publishing various #FolkloreThursday posts about genres – such as legend, myth, folk speech, and body art – without having defined genre first. Whoops. This post is meant to rectify that lack.
Genre is, as its most basic, a way of categorizing folklore items based on how they are similarly structured. Lynne McNeill puts it like this:
Rather than simply being the general shared awareness of how to behave in a group or a society, folklore comprises the specific expressive forms that a group uses to communicate and interact. We call these forms the genres of folklore, and just as literature students study different genres of literature (poems, plays, novellas) or film students study different genres of film (drama, comedy, action-adventure), folklorists study different genres of folklore, such as customs, narratives, and beliefs (5).
As McNeill notes, genre relates to the “lore” side of folklore. Recall that a folk group is any group of people with a shared identity or a characteristic in common; thus it follows that folklore is the lore – or expressive forms a.k.a. genres – of a given folk group, whether it’s college students or Asian Americans or LGBTQ folks (or someone who occupies all three of those identities).
However, folklorists don’t own the concept of genre. As Trudier Harris-Lopez points out, the term originally comes from Latin and means “kind” or “sort,” and thus we find genre as a classificatory term used in many other academic disciplines and popular discourses. Books, TV shows, and films get sorted by genre; clothing and food too, to a degree. So while folklorists use genre specifically within our discipline to refer to how expressive culture takes traditionally-recognized shapes, and tends to get funneled into those shapes since they’re what people already know and respond to, we don’t have sole claim to the word.
At the same time, the pervasiveness of the concept of genre has been a tool that we’ve used to legitimize our discipline. Harris-Lopez writes:
If folklorists could show that there were forms, traditions, events, practices, and narratives that could not fit comfortably into the purview of any other discipline, they would go a long waytoward carving out the space they needed to conduct their field research and library work and earn their academic credibility. Isolating distinctive forms and articulating how folklorists’ training was essential to understanding them led folklorists to adopt a broad-based concept of genre. A slippery concept, genre was nonetheless a crucial starting point for a discipline that was at times itself rather less than firm. (101)
I haven’t nerded out about the history of folklore studies as much as I want to on this blog, but Harris-Lopez is spot on here. The study of folklore has been notoriously difficult to define for over two centuries, and thus genre often seems like a great concept to latch on to, since we can say things like “Hey, no one’s studying these genres, which don’t quite fall into literature and also don’t exactly fit into pop culture. We got this!” And because people recognize that genres exist in other areas of life, our claims resonate with people.
In fact, knowing about genres is useful precisely because they are so prevalent. They structure expectations for all sorts of daily interactions, some of which are folkloric in nature and others less so. From how you compose a text message to how you read your internet bill, genre prevails. Fairy-tale scholars Christine A. Jones and Jennifer Schacker expand on this analogy:
Each of these communicative forms, which we might call “genres,” is associated with a certain set of interpretive conventions; for instance, one doesn’t expect metaphors and symbols to be part of the phone bill, nor does one expect a full, verifiable, and accurate account of current world events in response to a casual salutation (“Hi.”).
In fact, we are often only made aware of generic expectations when they are violated, when something occurs that feels out of place, unexpected, even bizarre. (493)
Jones and Schacker are right: we steer our social interactions according to subtle genre cues, which we could probably articulate if we had to, but usually we don’t. This is because many of us are passive bearers of conversational genres like folk speech and other types of language/linguistic folklore; we understand the rules inherently, but might have trouble pulling out principles and examples of why and how they work. Of course, coming up with counter-examples, the violations of which Jones and Schacker wrote, are often a good place to start. We all know it’d be ludicrous to shelve 50 Shades of Grey with children’s books or cookbooks, and we know this because we understand how literary genres work.
To bring the conversation back to folklore genres specifically, we tend to categorize genres of folklore into three or four overarching categories, in terms of how they’re transmitted. I use the tripartite model of things people say (verbal folklore), things people do (customary folklore), and things people make (material culture). McNeill uses four categories and breaks them down as such:
- things we say (like jokes, songs, folktales, myths, and legends)
- things we do (like calendar customs, rituals, games, and rites of passage)
- things we make (like handmade objects, collections and assemblages, and folk art)
- things we believe (like superstitions, supernatural creatures, and folk religion) (38)
Folklorists often center their work around a series of bigger, more universally-known genres. At folklore conferences you’ll almost always find a panel on folk narrative, for example. But there are always smaller genres, genres that are only locally known, too. If you can demonstrate that a genre has content, context, form, and function (to use one rubric for analyzing genre) distinct from other genres in existence, then you may be onto something. But since we’ve been studying genre for over two centuries now, you’re probably only gonna discover a new genre if you’re actually documenting something that is new in existence, like if a new folk group comes into being and expresses itself in a radical way.
To conclude, most folklorists engage with genre in one way or another. Ask a folklorist what she studies, and you may well get a list of genres as your answer. We retain it as a useful concept to categorize the lore that is informally transmitted across, between, and among folk groups, and we like that it has cultural currency elsewhere too.
Harris-Lopez, Trudier. “Genre.” In Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 99-120.
Jones, Christine A. and Jennifer Schacker. “On Fairy Tales and Their Anthologies.” In Marvelous Transformations: An Anthology of Fairy Tales and Contemporary Critical Perspectives, eds. Christine A. Jones and Jennifer Schacker. New York: Broadview Press, 2013. 493-498.
McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.