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[Assignment / LIU 1]

While it is a basic principle of modern literary criticism to regard form and content as inextricably intertwined (cf. Quinn 2006: 97), the issue still presents a challenge to an author embarking on a new project. Whether she/he decides to let content dictate form or vice versa is not merely a philosophical question along the lines of the ‘chicken or the egg’ causality dilemma; it is indeed a choice that will shape his/her work because far from being merely ‘stylistic’ devices, different forms (or genres) ‘create effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility’ (Frow 2006: 2). Therefore it is my personal belief that literary form needs to follow content in order to enhance credibility and emotional impact of an author’s work.

Dividing the ‘literary universe’ (Frow 2006: 59) into genres is generally attributed to Aristotele. While the ‘now-familiar triad of the epic, dramatic, and lyrical’ (ibid.) was at first a matter of taxonomy and classifications, it soon became clear that those forms did not just represent different expressions of the same human experiences but rather embodied altogether distinct experiences. Each can be attributed to a different psychological set. Moreover, following Karl Viëtor’s argument, they convey ‘basic attitudes, with the lyric expressing feeling, the epic, knowledge, and drama, the will’ (Frow 2006: 60). Thus, literary forms always involve a thematic dimension ‘that eludes purely formal or linguistic description’ (Genette 1992, cited in Frow 2006: 64). They are expressive of states of mind, of attitudes towards the world. Therefore the ‘inner necessity’ of an author’s ideas and themes will dictate his/her choice of a corresponding external form.

Apart from that, all literary forms and genres are also part of discourse. They cannot be considered in isolation as they are embedded in social structures, context and cultural background. According to Todorov (1990, cited in Frow 2006:69) a literary genre is ‘nothing other than the codification of discursive properties’. It therefore works as a ‘horizon of expectation’ against which the individual texts are read. Hence, we might assume that – besides conveying ‘inner necessities’ aforementioned – each literary form also provides specific expressive capacities, i.e. a specific framework for constructing meaning within discourse (cf. Frow 2006: 73). It is because they provide these specific frameworks that they shape human experiences and provide clues for interpretation or rather implicature. For – according to Paul Grice (cf. Yule 2006: 131ff. ) – more is communicated than said. Only through our background knowledge and the framework of our expectations are we able to infer meaning from text. As each literary genre constitutes a specific world, it also relates to a specific set of contexts, attitudes, meanings, values, emotions, schemata, ‘social scripts’ etc.

Rosalie Colie (1973, cited in Frow 2006: 93) thus argues that ‘to speak of genre is to speak of what need not be said because it is already so forcefully presupposed’.

The upshot of this argument is that an author’s choice of a generic form directly influences the kind of possible implicature that his/her audience is likely to draw.

Moreover it directly influences how the audience will conceive his/her work

This certainly is not to say that an author must obey the rules dictated by the ‘inner necessity’ and the ‘external framework’. But in deciding on a form or genre I am suggesting that the author should be aware of the implications and effects at work.

There can, of course, be instances where she/he might opt to ‘break’ those ‘rules’ deliberately. This frequently seems to happen in comedy where much humour can be drawn from the clash between a specific content and form. But – unless the humorous effect happens unintentionally – these clashes are not arbitrary. An author using an epic poem in iambic pentameters to talk about his/her experiences at the carwash does so not because she/he ignores conventions of form but because she/he realises the underlying structures at work here and subsequently plays on the audience’s expectations. So it can be argued that even in those works that seem to ignore certain formalic ‘rules’, these ‘rules’ do still apply: Content still dictates form, merely in a more twisted way.

To sum up, an author’s choice of literary form or genre is not an arbitrary act but is governed by certain ‘rules of the trade’. Literary form not only expresses specific attitudes towards the human experience, it also provides the horizon against which these experiences are measured. Subsequently it helps the audience to construct meaning. Choosing form first and providing content correspondingly might lead to some interesting stylistic experiments but will not realise the full potential of the experiences and ideas expressed by the author.


  • Frow, John (2006): Genre. New York: Routledge
  • Quinn, Edward (2006): A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms. New York: Facts On File, Inc.
  • Yule, George (2006): The Study of Language. Third Edition. Cambridge, New York etc.: CUP

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