Literature 101: Genre

Literature 101: Genre

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


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.



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.


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?


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

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

Can you think of any I missed?


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.