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.
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