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A Guide to English: Literary Form

A guide to English created by Visiting Librarian Abe Nemon in 2022/2023.

Formal Genres; aka Literary Forms

What are formal genres?

Form is a way of categorizing literature based on its structure or purpose. One way of using the term genre is to refer to formal genres, a way of classifying literary works by their form.

"When we speak of the form of a literary work we refer to its shape and structure and to the manner in which it is made - as opposed to its substance or what it is about. [...] A secondary meaning of form is the kind of work - the genre to which it belongs. Thus: sonnet, short story, essay."

-J.A. Cuddon and M.A.R. Habib, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory"Form"

The Novel

What is a novel?

According to J.A. Cuddon and M.A.R. Habbib (The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, "novel"), the term novel is

derived from Italian novella, 'tale, piece of news', and now applied to a wide variety of writings whose only common attribute is that they are extended pieces of prose fiction. [...] It would probably be generally agreed that, in contemporary practice, a novel will be between 60,000 words and, say, 200,000. [...] We may hazard it is a form of story or prose narrative containing characters, action and incident, and, perhaps, a plot. [...] The subject matter of the novel eludes classification. No other literary form has proved so pliable and adaptable to a seemingly endless variety of topics and themes.

Cuddon and Habbib go on to summarize the history of the novel form, but more extensive treatments of the history of the novel in general and in particular Anglophone literatures can be found in the boxes below.

The Novel - General Histories

The British Novel : History and Criticism

The American Novel : History and Criticism

The Postcolonial Novel : History and Criticism

The Short Story

What is short fiction?

A short story, according to J.A. Cuddon and M.A.R. Habbib, is "a prose narrative of indeterminate length, but too short to be published separately as novels or novellas usually are. According to Edgar Allan Poe, it is a story that concentrated on a unique or single effect and one in which the totality of effect is the objective."

Short fiction is a term that encompass not only short stories but typically longer forms such as novellas and novelettes, as well as short-short forms such as flash fiction.

Short stories tend to be published in periodicals as well as short story anthologies. Anthologies range from stories by multiple authors selected for a particular theme, to collections of the best stories from a given time or place, to anthologies which collect the entirety or a selection of an author's short fiction.

The Short Story : History and Criticism

Short Story Anthologies

Large selections of short story anthologies can be found in the PS (American Literature) section at the call number PS648 and in the PR (Commonwealth Literature) section at the call number PR1309, while anthologies of stories by particular authors can be found under each author's respective call number. See also the Anthologies headings under the Peoples and Identities page of this section.


Studying Poetry

In the Reference Collection

In the General Collection

Poetry Critics

Poetic Criticism by Poets

Commonwealth Poetry

General Overviews

Old English / Anglo-Saxon

Middle English

Early Modern

Early Modern Poetic Criticism


The Augustan Age

The Romantics


Twentieth Century


American Poetry

The Nineteenth Century

Twentieth Century

Contemporary Poetry

Theater / Drama

Studying the Theater


In the Reference Collection

Commonwealth Theater

American Theater

In the Reference Collection


Other Literary Forms

Autobiography / Memoir

Letters / Correspondence

Letter-writing Technologies

Letter-Writing Across Time

Famous Letter-Writers


Journals & Diaries

The Essay



Maxims, Aphorisms, Apothegms, Quotations, and Sayings


Individual Authors

Graphic Novels / Comics

In the Reference Collection

Histories of Graphic Novels

Histories of Comic Books

Comics and Cultural Studies

Comics and Gender

Children and Young Adults

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