Sep 29, 2012

Genre as Family Resemblance

Jonathan Pennington has a helpful explanation of genre in his new book, Reading the Gospels Wisely. Pennington writes:

“When we use the word ‘genre’ top describe a recognizable type of writing with a certain style, purpose, and identifiable features. Genres are neither purely prescriptive nor descriptive. That is, there are no concrete, unbreakable rules for a genre, or even a set number of genres that exist (such as in a classical prescriptive view). However, this does mean that genre is a useless term that has as many meanings as there are different works of literature (thus only descriptive). Rather, a genre is an overall term that we can use to describe a grouping of literary works that share a set of common characteristics, allowing flexibility for any particular work to manifest or omit some of these characteristics or to emphasize others. A genre is a matter of culturally understood conventions. The best analogy to describe this is that of ‘family resemblance.’ Even as the various members of the family might share identifiable characteristics, such as height or shape of cheekbone or nose, yet remain distinct people, so too we can note that the members of a family of literary works—or genre—clearly overlap with one another yet are not identical. Thus we can speak of a genre we are discussing certain characteristics that are identifiable as overlapping between different pieces of literature. These are conventional and may vary by culture.”

Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 19.

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