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Genre and Expectation

The key to understanding the message of Jonah is recognizing its genre. “Genre,” borrowed from French, is a term used to refer to the type or category of a piece of literature. Broadly, there are fiction and nonfiction genres, and within each of those genres there are other genres or subgenres. Novel, short story, and science fiction, for instance, are subgenres of fiction. Biography, instruction manual, and catalogue are subgenres of nonfiction. Each of these subgenres in turn may have its own subgenres. Autobiography, for example, is a subgenre of biography.

Genre categories are not firm or fixed but are fluid and flexible, so a literary work can incorporate different genres, just as the book of Jonah incorporates the psalm in chapter 2.

Discernment of genre is an essential part of the process of communication between author and readers. It provides a literary “frame of reference” within which the reader interprets and makes use of a text. Misconstruing the genre of a piece of literature, therefore, can be disastrous. This is nicely illustrated by the movie Galaxy Quest.8 DreamWorks, 1999, starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shaloub. In it, a science fiction television series about the crew of a space ship is mistaken by aliens for real history or journalism. The aliens draft the cast members to help them fight a real interplanetary war. The film illustrates how confused someone who reads science fiction as history could become. Similarly, imagine the disaster that might ensue if a surgeon took an instruction manual as fiction, or a work of fiction as a medical guidebook. Such scenarios may seem far-fetched. Someone as educated as a surgeon would not likely mistake a work of fiction for an instruction manual or vice versa, at least as long as that surgeon is reading literature from his or her own culture and time period. The potential for confusion increases when a reader, any reader, confronts literature from an entirely different culture and time—such as the Bible.

Despite the importance of determining a work's genre, there are no firm rules for doing so. Rarely does a literary work expressly identify its own genre. In fact, the idea of identifying genre as an important step in the study of texts is a relatively recent phenomenon, though ancient readers and authors were certainly aware that they were using or producing different kinds of texts and documents.

Discernment of genre is something readers do subconsciously. It has been compared to speaking a language. It is an interpretive tool engrained within culture. People typically “absorb” language as they grow up in a culture. They can tell if someone makes a grammatical error or is not a native speaker even though they may not be able to describe the grammatical rule that has been broken. People learn to speak their native language first, and then they learn the grammar.

Similarly, people automatically recognize the genre of a work produced within their culture even if they cannot explain the process or rules by which recognition has occurred. It is an interpretive tool we possess for documents produced within our culture simply by virtue of having been raised in it. We apply it without thinking, without even being aware of what we are doing. Only when we encounter texts from a new genre or a culture with which we are unfamiliar do we become cognizant of the issue.

Genre recognition, like learning a foreign language, is always harder for people outside of the culture of a work. But, just as a language has grammatical rules, so there are guidelines or clues for determining genre. Sometimes those clues come in the physical form of a literary work. Newspapers, magazines, and books are easily distinguished from one another, even when they are in an unfamiliar language. In the ancient world there were inscriptions, royal decrees, letters, and other documents that might be distinguished by the way in which they were presented. Unfortunately, such physical differences disappeared in the formation of collected works like the Bible, and readers must now rely on clues within the texts themselves in order to discern genres.

Such clues typically come in the form of features in a text that signal its genre through the use of conventions established within a particular culture or readership. These clues often occur at the beginning or end of the text and lead the reader to certain expectations about its content. For modern American readers, the words, “Dateline New York,” indicate that they are reading a newspaper article, even if it does not appear in newsprint. The greeting “Dear Sir/Madam” is the typical beginning of a business letter, and we expect it to end with “Sincerely,” or the like, followed by a signature of some sort. Fairy tales commonly begin “Once upon a time” and end “They lived happily ever after.”

The creation of literature has always been, to at least some extent, a creative activity. Theoretically, an author could create a new genre that was unlike any work previously in existence. But if that were to happen, no reader would be able to recognize or understand it. Hence, authors vary or mix genres to creative ends, playing upon the knowledge and expectations of their readers. A business letter that begins “Dear Sir/Madam” would hardly end with “All my love,” unless it was part of some kind of publicity or advertising campaign. By the same token, a personal letter between (former) lovers that is written on letterhead rather than personal stationery and that ends, “Sincerely,” instead of “Love,” may be making a not-too-subtle point about the relationship. Similarly, a fairy tale that begins “Once upon a time” but ends without “They lived happily ever after” does not bode well for the relationship of the couple who are the subject of the story.

These examples illustrate how a text's genre in and of itself may convey a message. The features of the texts just described do not match conventions that readers in those cultures would expect, or they mix features from different genres, or they mix genres in such a way as to make a point. The message is subtle to the extent that only readers who are intimately familiar with the usual genres and their features are able to pick up the changes.

Authors can use genre just as effectively and creatively as they can word choice, sentence structure, allusion, and a host of other features of language and writing. In so doing an author plays upon the reader's expectations. This means that there is, by necessity, circularity or give-and-take between a text's genre and its content, to which readers must be sensitive. Just as one must properly discern a text's genre in order to understand it, at least in the way intended by its author, so it is also up to readers to recognize subtle variations in genre employed by an author if they are to profit fully from a text.

Our treatment of Jonah illustrates the importance of the discernment of genre for interpretation of the Bible. Jonah, like many literary works, does not identify its genre but leaves it to the reader to discern. Still, the book gives significant clues about how it was meant to be read. Readers who have misconstrued the genre of Jonah as history have therefore approached it with an erroneous set of expectations and have often tried to force it to fit their expectations. When it is discovered that the book does not fit those expectations, the tendency is often to blame the book, declaring it “untrue” and implying that it is somehow of less significance because it does not describe historical events. It is important to recognize, therefore, that the problem in the interpretation of Jonah does not lie with the book itself but with its readers—readers who fail to discern its genre from internal clues and thereby to appreciate its true nature and purpose. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that Jonah is an ancient piece of literature from a foreign culture and written in a foreign language.

This problem of failing to discern a book's genre goes beyond Jonah to much of the literature in the Bible. Fortunately, biblical scholarship has long been aware of the importance of properly discerning a work's genre and has recently made crucial insights about various genres present in the Bible, which allows for a more precise understanding of their nature.


8. DreamWorks, 1999, starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shaloub.

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