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A Unique Genre: A Contradiction in Terms?

When we come across a text, it is necessary to understand the type of literary work we are dealing with, whether to classify it as a history, biography, novel, fairly tale, lab report, letter, and so on. For instance, if the opening line is “once upon a time in a far away land,” you may instantly recognize the “genre” to which this text belongs (i.e. fairy-tale). Citing Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy (pg. 30), Mary Ann Tolbert notes that genre can broadly cover archetypal plot patterns (e.g. tragedy, comedy, romance), narrowly classify texts that possess related traits (plotting, characterization, motifs or themes) as belonging in a category (e.g. novels, biography, poetry), or specifically describe features of a single text. She defines genre as “a prior agreement between authors and readers or as a set of shared expectations or as a consensus of ‘fore-understandings exterior to a text which enable us to follow that text” (Sowing the Gospel, 49). Likewise, Richard Burridge explains that speaking or writing happen in a system of conventions (i.e. traits, rules, customs, necessities, properties that constitute verbal meaning) and that a genre is a contract between author and reader based on shared expectations about what traits make up an utterance (Graeco-Roman Biography, 34-36, 43-44;  cf. John C. Meagher, “Literary Uniqueness,” 205-6). John C. Meagher adds that a unique genre violates two standard assumptions in literary history: humans rarely have the ability to produce something genuinely original, as novelty often relates to content rather than to forms which are culturally conditioned, and meaning is understood in the context of shared conventions (211). Thus, the form critics view that the Gospels have no real analogue, but arose out of the preaching of ordinary laypersons rather than literary professionals, is unlikely.

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