Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'll be introducing you to folklore genres with help from scholars Alan Dundes and others, discussing how the concept of genre can be both helpful and problematic, detailing a few ways to classify genres, and showing you how to use this information as a writer.
What is folklore?
In 1846, British writer William Thoms coined the word "folk-lore" in a letter written under the pseudonym Ambrose Merton to a literary magazine called The Athenaeum. Thoms contributed little else to folkloristics, but because he gave the discipline its name, we remember him for it. Indeed, he would not have had it any other way. Alan Dundes writes that among other self-congratulatory gestures, he was given to jotting versions of the following quatrain on the backs of photographs and calling cards: "If you would fain know more / Of him whose photo here is / He coined the word folk-lore / and started Notes and Queries (Dundes 1999, chap. 2)."
The American Folklore Society defines "folklore" as "...traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example" but is careful to add that the subject is robust enough to accommodate many different definitions and descriptions (American Folklore Society n.d.). For example, when I tell people that I'm a PhD Folklore student, many mention fairies (and I do confess a particular fondness for fairy and elf lore). But when I talk about my research in the beliefs and practices of animal rights activists, I use the term "ethnographer" to describe myself. When one of my mentors teaches folklore, he includes the legend of Slenderman, which has its roots on the Creepypasta web site, while another includes the place of divination in the Russian political landscape. That's a wide variety of subject matter, and it's all folkloric. Why? Because people make folklore, and we're a diverse species in constant motion.
What is a folklore genre?
One of the ways folklorists come to grips with this wide variety of subject matter is by means of classification, and this is where the term "genre" comes into play. Trudier Harris writes that in an effort to establish folklore as a unique discipline, scholars such as the aforementioned Alan Dundes and others worked hard to define the things they did. Since the concept of genre already existed outside the academy, and since categories like "myth" and "ballad" were already in use as descriptive terms for types of folklore, the idea of folklore genres was particularly attractive to these scholars. Harris further writes that "The umbrella concept of genre thus became for folklorists the basis for classifying and authenticating those forms that they judged to be peculiarly within their realm of training, expertise, and scholarly supervision (Harris 1995, 511)." So, simply put, genres are academic systems of classification for various kinds of folklore.
How is the idea of genre both helpful and problematic?
A myth is not a legend, nor is it a dance or a traditional recipe for fry bread. Folklore genres give us terms for these different elements of culture (belief, narrative, custom, foodways), and this helps us to examine and understand them independently of one another.
However, classification systems can also impose limitations on thinking and expression. As I concluded in a term paper analysis of phantom ship legends:
I do find it interesting that a selection of fifteen random narratives about the same supernatural phenomenon did not produce a unified genre, could not be uniformly classified, and offered little in the way of patterns for gender, geographical, or other analyses. From this I have gained what I believe is a valuable insight about the use of genre, classification systems, and theoretical models. They are in most respects both artificial and imposed. We might agree as scholars that “legend” or “memorate” is a useful word for labeling certain kinds of narrative, and we might generally agree about the definitions of those words. But in practice, we must be willing to step back from our eagerness to put narratives into categories and look at them from several perspectives, with several analytical tools, in order to arrive at meaning (MacCath-Moran 2016, 10).
What are some ways to classify folklore genres?
With all of the foregoing firmly on board, here are a few examples of folklore genres/classification systems:
- Beliefs: Myths, Religions, Rituals, etc.
- Customs: Celebrations, Dances, Games, Occupational Practices, etc.
- Foodways: Food Customs, Traditional Recipes, etc.
- Material Culture: Pottery, Quilts, Vernacular Architecture, etc.
- Narratives: Ballads, Fables, Legends, etc.
The above list is by no means exhaustive, and you'll be seeing more of it as this series progresses. Meanwhile, you might visit the New York Folklore Society's website to learn a bit more (check out the Folk Arts and Culture section), and you might peruse the titles listed in the bibliography below.
How might we use all of this information as writers?
Right! That's the important bit for you, isn't it? Let me ask you a question. What makes a myth a myth? Think about your answer for a moment, and then read the one I've written below.
From Dan Ben-Amos' perspective and mine, myths are stories that fall into the Belief category of folklore genre classification, which means they were or are part of a culture's belief system. They're sacred, they occur in the distant past, they're often creation stories, and the principal characters in them are usually nonhuman or superhuman (Ben-Amos 2010, 619).
With this information in mind, you can improve your writing in several ways:
- You know more about folklore belief and narrative in general.
- You know what a myth is when you read one.
- You can include existing myths properly in your writing.
- ---> You can invent your own myths and write them into your stories. <---
I've been building worlds, constructing languages, and including them in my stories since 2001, so I know how important that process is to the creation of good speculative fiction. I also know the knowledge I've gained in the study of folkloristics is helping me to become a better fiction writer, so I want to share it with you. That's why this newsletter exists. You'll see it on the first Folklore Thursday (#FolkloreThursday) of every month except June and December, when I send out semi-annual updates about my academic and writing careers.
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a longer discussion of myth.
- American Folklore Society. n.d. “What Is Folklore?” Accessed September 13, 2018. https://www.afsnet.org/page/WhatIsFolklore?
- Ben-Amos, Dan. 2010. “Genre.” In Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, edited by Charlie T. McCormick and Kim Kennedy White, 617–23. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
- Dundes, Alan. 1999. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
- Harris, Trudier. 1995. “Genre.” The Journal of American Folklore 108 (430): 509–27. https://doi.org/10.2307/541658
- MacCath-Moran, Ceallaigh S. 2016. “Phantom Ships Study.”
- Oring, Elliott, ed. 1986. Folk Groups And Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Logan: Utah State University Press.
- “Slenderman.” 2010. Creepypasta (blog). January 14, 2010. https://www.creepypasta.com/slenderman.