Literature 101: Genre

by Jessica Anderson on August 4, 2010

in Features, Literature 101

Literature 101
Literature 101 is a ten-part course based on 10 Literary Concepts Every Reader Should Know.

WEEK 1: GENRE

Genre typically refers to a category of works of literature that share common form, technique, style, or content. The major genres in literature are poetry, prose, and drama. Each of these categories can be further subdivided into what are known as sub-genres.

RELATED TERMS

LIST OF GENRES

Essentially, genre is an exercise in categorization.  Tiers and tiers of blissful categorization.  For most purposes, all of fictional literature can be broken down into one or more of the following major genres*:

Absurdist fiction Philosophical fiction
Adventure novel Political fiction
Children’s/YA literature Pulp fiction
Comic novel Religious fiction
Education fiction Saga
Experimental fiction Speculative fiction
Erotic fiction Suspense fiction
Historical fiction Thriller
LGBT fiction Tragedy
Metafiction Urban fiction
Nonfiction novel Westerns
Occupation fiction Women’s fiction

Most of these have several major sub-genres.  For example, women’s fiction breaks down into two major sub-genres: romance and chick lit.  Suspense fiction includes crime novels, mysteries, and detective fiction. And speculative fiction breaks down into three major sub-genres: science fiction, horror, and fantasy.  And many of the sub-genres have sub-sub-genres.  I created this genre chart (pdf) that shows the hierarchy of the above genres and their sub-genres.

*The above list (and my genre chart) is principally taken from Wikipedia: List of Literary Genres, but I consulted a number of other sources, and these seem to cover all of the major genres. Can you think of a genre that doesn’t fit into one of these genres?

With a genre chart, you can make some impressive genre chains:

Prose > Fiction > Novel > Women’s Fiction > Chick Lit > Mommy Fiction
Prose > Fiction > Novel > Speculative Fiction > Science Fiction > Punk > Cyberpunk > Dieselpunk

Now, I have no real idea what, exactly, dieselpunk or even cyberpunk is, but it’s fascinating just how many genres there are.

DISCUSSION

Okay, now we have a general understanding of what, exactly, genre is. But how does this concept affect our reading?

The concept of genre, as with any categorization system, can be quite controversial. In this post on author Shannon Hale’s blog, she addressed genre in the wake of some confusion as to what genre her novel, THE ACTOR AND THE HOUSEWIFE, fell into.  Here are some insightful excerpts from that post:

Genre is a kind of a handle to hold, a way to manage the story. . . . [A]s a reader I can understand the desire to have an idea of what I’m reading before committing to the book. I’ve had a few experiences where I’m reading a book by a fantasy author that doesn’t turn out to be fantasy, and I’m like, Wait! We had a contract here–I read a book and you deliver some magical stuff!

That’s what genre can be–a contract between reader and writer. You read this book, and there are certain things I promise to deliver. . . .

I get that, as a reader . . . genre can be helpful. But it can also be limiting. While sometimes it’s comforting to slip into a familiar kind of story, other times I don’t want to read the same tired old tale again and again. I want something fresh, something surprising. . . .

Though at times it can be limiting, I think that an understanding of genre is useful to us as readers, because it first creates expectations and then, as we read, it allows us to better identify how the author adopts, subverts, or transcends the boundaries of the genre in which he or she is working.

What do you think the value of genre is?

EXAMPLES

Of course, most books will have elements of several genres. To practice identifying genres, I took four popular books and tried to identify the genres in which they could be placed.

THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins
Children’s/YA > Bildungsroman
Speculative Fiction > Dystopian Fiction
Adventure Novel > Robinsonade (survivalist fiction)
Women’s Literature > Romance

THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett
Historical fiction > Southern fiction
Occupational fiction > Servitude/Writing

THE BOOK THIEF, by Markus Zusak
Children’s/YA > Bildungsroman
Historical Fiction > Holocaust Novel
Speculative Fiction > Fantasy > Dark Fantasy
Tragedy

REBECCA, by Daphne du Maurier
Suspense Fiction > Mystery
Speculative Fiction > Horror > Gothic Fiction
Women’s Fiction > Romance
Tragedy
Classic (Should this count as a genre?)

Can you think of any I missed?

HOMEWORK

Okay, time to take all of this genre stuff and apply it to your reading. Your assignment is as follows:

1. Identify a book that you are likely to read in the near future but that you have not yet started.
2. Describe, based on what you already know about the book or what you can glean from the blurbs, the genre(s) of this book and what your expectations are, genre-wise.
3. Read the book.
4. Identify as many genres as you can that appeared in the book.
5. Compare your genre expectations prior to reading the book with the actual book. Did the author generally follow genre conventions? If no, why not? Were you okay with the change? Was the book marketed as a genre that is different that what it actually was?

Feel free to post comments about your homework experiences below. I’ll be curious to hear how it goes.
_________________________________

That concludes our study of genre. Make sure to check in next Wednesday for Week 2: Plot. But first, chime in with your thoughts on genre in the comments.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Bluestocking August 4, 2010 at 11:33 am

This in an excellent essay. I got into a discussion with another book blogger about genres. It does amaze me that there are a lot of book bloggers that don’t understand sub genre.

Yes, you’re right, the genre creates expectations as to storyline. That’s why I created the rating Q- for not Quite what I expected.

I’ll have to explain cyberpunk to you.

Reply

Jessica August 4, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Bluestocking – Thanks for stopping by. The term sub-genre is relatively new to me, but it makes a lot of sense. The Q rating is a good idea. I’m never quite sure whether genre problems are the fault of the author or the marketing, but it’s helpful to know when going into a book. And I’d love any explanation you have to offer on cyberpunk.

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Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) August 5, 2010 at 11:07 am

This isn’t related to books exactly, but last night I went to see Inception, and the discussion of genre came up because it’s really hard to place that movie. It’s sort of sci-fi, part heist movie, part thriller… but not really any one of those things. But knowing the conventions of those genres — how a heist movie works, for instance — helps make it easier to understand what is happening in Inception, even when the movie doesn’t really make sense at all.

I think genre in books works sort of the same way. Genres can help us know what to expect or how to think about something when a book gets complicated, but shouldn’t limit books either.

Reply

Jessica August 5, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Kim – Wow. I’ve seen Inception, and I’m struggling with trying to place it into a genre. I agree with you. Like an categorization system, it can be helpful but also limiting. I think we just have to keep an open mind about genre – it can be a fairly fluid concept.

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Eva August 6, 2010 at 1:42 am

That chart was fun! I must say, the whole ‘women’s lit’ thing annoys me though. Especially how incredibly dismissive its subgenre names are. (I know that’s not you!) ;) Also, what’s nonfiction novel? Is that the same as narrative nonfic?

I often think the ‘value’ of genre is for the literary establishment to dismiss books/authors it doesn’t like, but I’m cynical like that. ;) But separating ‘genre’ from pejorative connotations it has in some contexts, I do think it’s fun how authors can play with expectations. I recently read a parody (Cold Comfort Farm) that achieved that really well.

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Care August 6, 2010 at 4:47 am

I love these essays! Genre-putting CAN be a tear/tier-ful exercise. Fun comments, too. I will apply the homework assignment to my next review.

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Jessica August 6, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Eva – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that a lot of the genre usage tends to be negative. But, for books lovers who love lists and categories, genre can be fun. And, it can help me identify the books that I’ll most likely like. But, then again, it could eliminate books that I would like if I gave them a chance. And the “women’s fiction” thing kind of surprised me too. There have to be romances, for example, that menfolk like.

Care – I think the whole subject of genre can be tear/tier-ful. :) I’ll watch for your genre comments on your next review.

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leslie August 7, 2010 at 8:41 am

Enjoyed this really well-thought out post. I like your genre chart.

I, too, was surprised by “women’s fiction.” I’ve used and heard “dick-lit” used in response to books men read that are derisively set against chick-lit as far as genre. Obviously there would need to be a better “academic” term, however catchy it sounds. Characterizations and focus on men (ie “men’s emotional trauma in the early-30s and beyond” to quote my husband). Examples: Nick Hornby, Arthur Phillips, in some occasions Chuck Palahnuik. A proposal of Men’s Fiction: Bromance, “Dick-lit,” and Clive Cussler.

I am curious when the comic/long comic/graphic novel is going to be inducted into literary genres. Or are we already to the part where we are listing their works under all the other genre distinctions? Would you list for Moore’s Watchmen: Graphic Novel>Speculative Fiction>Science Fiction>Alternative Universe? Or would you place Graphic Novel at the end? On the genre chart would you put Comic and then subcategories, and then insert the chart as is? Or would you implement Graphic as you would Prose in categorizing a Fiction>Novel>Speculative… As Comics are more than Marvel or DC superheroes, a categorized list would make for a nice tool in which those new (and old) to Comics might find a literary form they already enjoy, and a good story they might have missed otherwise.

Reply

Jessica August 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Leslie – Thanks for your thoughts. It sounds like I need to add “dick lit” into the chart. :) I’ve never heard that term before, but I definitely think that the menfolk need to be represented. The examples you listed are right on, and I’m not sure they have a place on the current chart. Also, I hadn’t even thought about where graphic novels would fit in. My personal preference would probably be to have it up with novel, short story, and essay. Because it seems to me that a graphic novel is a form that can then belong in almost any genre: memoir, adventure, speculative fiction, etc.

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softdrink August 11, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I absolutely think Classics should be a genre, although I wonder how old and popular (if that’s the right word) something would have to be in order to be considered a classic. I’d also add Long as a sub-category, but that’s just because I’m currently reading The Brothers Karamazov and am a bit frustraed. :-D

I’ve heard dick lit used, and I think it needs to be included to add some balance to the equally derogatory sounding label of chick lit.

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Jessica August 12, 2010 at 11:26 am

Softdrink – That’s my main problem with “classics” as a genre – when does a book reach classic status? I like “long” as a category too! Maybe there should be short stories, novellas, novels, and loooong novels. What do you think? And I hate the term “chick lit” too. But, then again, I don’t really like the genre chick lit. So there you have it.

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Mikela July 14, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Thank you so much for your series on Literature 101. It’s been so many years since I last took any formal classes and things have changed so much that I find your lessons very helpful. Hopefully I’ll be able to take your lessons and learn how to appreciate each book for what it offers and write much better reviews. Some of these genres I’d never even heard of.

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