In this article about literary genres, you will learn:
Literary genres, also known as literary types or writing genres, are different categories or classes that a story may belong to.
In fact, the word “genre” is a French word that can be translated into “kind.” Each genre will have certain characteristics in common:
- The literary techniques used by the authors
- The tone with which the writer writes
- The content that the author decides to include
Moreover, the content can be divided into three parts:
- Plot: the what of a story, meaning what events happen
- Setting: the where; in other words, where the story happens
- Characters: the who—the perons of a story that carry on actions
- Theme: the why—the symbolism
So, in order to understand which genre a specific story belongs to, one needs to analyze what content it includes (characters, setting, plot, theme), the tone, as well as the techniques employed.
Believe it or not, sometimes even authors are unsure what genre their book belongs to. Which is part of my job in the book publishing industry was to read the books and identify to which genre they belong to.
Importance of Attributing Genres to Stories
Defining what genre a given book belongs to is important for various people. These include:
- Librarians and bookstores
- Newspapers and magazines
- Publicists and marketers
- Book readers
Let’s examine each one.
For Libraries and Bookstores
Libraries and bookstores are organized by sections. In each section, you can find books of a given genre. This is important for the librarians and bookstore owners to keep these organizations in order, which in turn help their customers search for a specific book.
For Newspapers and Magazines
Typically, newspapers and magazines are designed and written to people with a specific taste in mind.
For example, a science fiction magazine will mention new and/or great science fiction books, but they won’t write about books about entrepreneurship; they will prefer to mention news and books of science fiction.
For Publicists and Marketers
The book publicists and book marketers that work for publishing houses are responsible to ensure that the books published by said company reaches the hands of readers. After all, it doesn’t matter how great a book is, if no reader gets to read it.
When publicists and marketers want to employ marketing techniques to increase the visibility of a book, they need to know who is their target audience. They need to know how is likely to be interested in the book they are responsible to promote, in order for them to be successful at their job.
This when the importance of attributing a genre come in. Once they know which genre a certain book belongs to, then they know what newspapers and magazines will be interested in writing about it. They will know how to talk about libraries and bookstores about this book in a very succinct way—it will just take naming the genre for the librarian or bookstore owner to have a rough idea what the book is about.
For Book Readers
There are millions and millions of books published out there. It would be impossible for book readers to read the blurb or synopsis of a random book after another, in order for they to find something they are interested in reading. Genres solve this problem.
Thanks to the attribution of one or more genres to every book, readers know that, if they are interested in crime fiction, they can go straight to the books of that section in their favorite library or bookstore.
This is even further facilitated by book cover designers, who will design the cover of a book considering what genre it belongs to. It’s like a graphical representation of a genre. The book cover of children’s literature look very different from a biography, for example.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a male Greek philosopher, whose writings depict an important early distinction.
Around 350 B.C., the philosopher Aristotle wrote a book called Rhetoric, where he specified three genres:
Later, in his book Poetics, Aristotle identified another three genres:
- Epic is a long narrative of heroic actions related to a plot significant to a culture, large number of persons, or even a nation;
- Tragedy is a story based on human suffering, including the awful plot that the story’s protagonist goes through, that ends with a unhappy ending;
- Comedy is a humorous story that induces laughter to the reader, and it has a happy ending.
He claimed that he was able to identify these using three literary elements:
- Mythos, what we call plot nowadays, the events of a story
- Ethos, the characters and the setting that are part of a story
- Dianoia, the theme or idea that the story is about
As the past two-thousand years went by, our understanding of genres and how we distinguish them was refined by countless scholars.
He argues that literary criticism must exclusively be the result of the study of works of literature. And such must happen systematically. This study, Northrop Frye argues, had progressed little since the aforementioned works of Aristotle.
Northrop Frye claims that while fiction tends to be plot driven. And fiction can be divided into tragic and comic:
- Tragedy fiction relates to the death of a character; in a sense, its separation from the society. That character is typically a god, a hero, a noble human, or an ordinary human;
- Comedy fiction refers to the integration of the character into a society. It might be the acceptance into the society of gods, nature, or even a society the character built for himself and others. It might also involve marriage.
When it comes to nonfiction, such as essays and poetry, Northrop Frye believes that it is driven by an idea. According to the author, these are typical examples:
- Divine beings;
Nowadays, however, it doesn’t seem to take a scholar to define new genres. Now, authors, publishers, scholars, university professors, all of them come up with new ones all the time. It’s a much more dynamic than it ever has ever been.
21st Century Genres/Types of Literature
Even though our understanding is likely to keep evolving over time, in the 21st century most people agree in certain genres, leading them to being widely used by librarians, bookstores, newspapers, magazines, publicists, marketers, publishers, editors, book readers, university professors, scholars, and so forth.
The genres that we refer to in the twenty-first century can be divided into two categories: fiction and nonfiction. This means that no book can belong to both.
Genres of Fiction Stories
Fiction genres categorize content that is the result of the author’s creativity. Even when the story is based on parts of the real world, a significant part of it will be fictional. In fact, in the book publishing world, we like to say that any resemblance to reality is coincidental.
You need to be mindful of a key difference.
Literary fiction vs Genre Fiction
Literary fiction is a genre attributed to books that are considered to have more literary and artistic value than genre fiction, because the author will tend to be more careful about the themes used, the chosen words, the pace, and so forth.
On the other hand, genre fiction is written mostly to entertain. These books are also written with a specific genre in mind. Genre fiction includes all literary genres, with the exception of literary fiction.
As aforementioned, there are hundreds upon hundreds of genres. Instead of providing you a list that would be too long to be helpful, here are the most popular fiction genres:
The genre literary fiction is attributed to books that are considered to have more literary merit than the other more commercially-oriented books. These tend to be driven more by character arc and its inner thoughts, rather than by an entertaining plot.
Romance novels are focused on the feelings one character feels for another. Although love relationships may exist in all other genres, in romance novels they are the primary focus.
The plots of thriller novels are full of suspense and action, and their pace is quite fast. The characters team to be quite resourceful. These are the kind of books that keep the audience on the edge of their seats, due to the use of various plot twists, red herrings, cliffhangers, conflicts, among other literary techniques.
Crime fiction stories tend to involve detectives, police, and criminals. The narrative will be about how the crime was committed, how the it is found by a detective or the police and how the victims or their relatives were affected.
In mystery fiction, usually the identify of the criminal and how he or she did the deed remains a mystery until the very end of the novel. Usually, the suspect keeps changing from one person to another, until at last the culprit is found.
Fairy tales are distinguished by the presence of mythical beings, such as fairies, witches, unicorns, elves, dwarfs, and mermaids.
Historical fiction takes place in the past. The authors of these novels are especially careful of the way that society lived and thought at that time. Sometimes, memorable historical figures are used as characters in these stories.
Horror fiction novels are written with the goal of scaring, frightening, or shocking the book reader. Frequent literary elements include ghosts, the devil, monsters, serial killers, psychopaths, and torture.
Science fiction, often shortened to sci-fi, is genre dedicated to novels featuring advanced scientific discoveries and technologies. Common elements include space exploration, space-faring civilizations, and time travel.
Western stories are those set between the late 19th and early 20th century in Western United States. You can expect to read about cowboys atop horses, gunslingers, gunfights, gangs, bounty hunters, and revenge.
Now let’s learn more about nonfiction.
Nonfiction Literary Genres
Like with fiction, there are nonfiction genres to categorize books that are based on truth and facts. Here are the most popular ones:
The genre comedy, often called humor, is attributed to novels intended to make the audience laugh or feel amused. Sometimes, these books are used to make fun of everyday situations or to make a fool of political figures or institutions.
Biographies, also known as bios, are a narrative about someone’s life. Usually, it includes events about his entire life, such as early life, education, work, and relationships.
Narrative history books are about a certain event or period that happened in the past. By reading these, one can learn either a lot of details about a particular event or overview of a large period of history. Narrative history books tend to be about events that shaped our everyday life.
Self-help books, also known as self-improvement books, include guides and advice for those who want to improve their life or how they interact with others. These books tend to be based on discoveries made by psychology, psychiatry, and neurology.
In a true crime book, the author analyzes a crime that actually happened. These are typically about serial killers. Authors do their best in delving into the minds of the criminals and their ingenuity.
Bill Neto worked for years in the publishing industry and has always loved to read books. He has developed leading insights about the world of publishing and books. You can learn more on Bill Neto’s profile page.
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