In literary terms, genres can be expressed in writing, speech, or in digital formats. There are numerous genres, along with a wide range of criteria used to classify them. 

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Table of contents

    Genre meaning

    A genre is a way of categorising types or classes of literature. In popular usage, genres help us to group or organise literary works into recognisable styles, shared conventions, settings, and themes.

    Different genres include poetry, novels, plays, short fiction, blogs, letters, etc. Some genres branch off into subgenres. For example, there are many more types of short fiction: the novella, novelette, short story, flash fiction, micro fiction, and six-word stories. The distinction between the short fiction subgenres is dependent on their word count. Genres are not themes. Genres are used to categorise literature, while themes are what a specific story is about.

    Genres are analysed by their tone, plot, theme, setting, and language.

    Genre examples in literary works

    Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) is categorised as romance fiction because it is told from a female perspective. The plot is focused on a romantic relationship between two people, with an optimistic ending when the main couple marries. Romantic pronouncements are also common in romance fiction, for the sensual tone of the following words matches the romance fiction category:

    In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

    An elegy is a type of poem. Elegies are categorised by their laments for the dead, the use of elegiac couplets and epitaphs, or feature serious reflections on nature and death. Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' (1751) is the most famous example of an elegy for its meditation on death.

    The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

    The lowing stove wind slowly o'er the lea,

    The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

    And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

    Compared to Mr Darcy's passionate confession of love, the tone of Gray's poem is mournful, is set in a churchyard, and uses phrases such as 'parting day', 'weary' and 'darkness' as associations to death.

    Genre criteria can be assessed by:

    • The overall look and imagery of the work (its aesthetic qualities).
    • How language is used to imply a genre (its rhetoric).
    • The literary techniques used by the author to communicate the themes and conventions of the genre (its communicative qualities).
    • The overall purpose of the work; ie how genre supports the message of the novel (its function).

    Genres have an evolutionary tree. Imagine a large tree that represents one genre. As time passes, the tree grows branches which are called subgenres. Those branches can grow even more, either representing more specific subgenres or pointing you to a text that best fits this branch.

    Genre, Illustration of a book in the sky with a tree and grass on it, StudySmarterGenres and subgenres can be conceptualised as a tree with many different branches - pixabay

    History of genre

    The genre began as an absolute (fixed) classification system for Ancient Greek literature, which Plato and Aristotle (in Poetics, 335 BC) explored in their literary and dramatic theories of poetry and drama. In Aristotle's time, literary works were categorised according to who is speaking in the text. There were three basic kinds of text:

    • Lyric (spoken throughout in the first person)
    • Epic / Narrative (when the narrator speaks in the first person, then lets characters speak for themselves)
    • Drama (when characters do all the talking)

    Aristotle defined several specific genres: epic, tragedy, comedy, and satire. For Aristotle, poetry, prose, and performance had specific design features which were appropriate for their genres. Mixing up language patterns and genres would not work well. The speech patterns from one of Shakespeare's comedies would look very strange in his tragedies.

    Tip: Think about how the comedic lines and puns in the play Much Ado About Nothing would sound in Macbeth's dark and murderous setting.

    Since the eighteenth century, new genres have been added. These include biography, essay, and the novel, all of which weakened the concept of fixed genres. The short lyric poem replaced the genres of epic and tragedy as the quintessential poetic type, and from the Romantic Period there was widespread use of criteria for evaluating literature - such as 'sincerity', 'intensity', 'high seriousness'.

    After 1950, an emphasis on genres was revived through a number of principles of classification. Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye proposed an archetypal theory in which the four major genres of comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire are "held to manifest the enduring forms bodied forth by human imagination." ¹ Many current critics regard genres as arbitrary modes of classification, while some structuralist critics conceive genre as a set of conventions and codes that make possible the writing of a particular literary text. Ludwig Wittgenstein applied the idea of family resemblance to genres. Family trees allow us to group subgenres with some resemblances (but not all) to certain genres.

    Some critics and authors resist having works labelled according to a genre because they worry the literary text would be pigeon-holed. This might undermine the seriousness of the text, and mean that their work is judged by categories that do not accurately fit the text.

    Tip: Some authors have no issue crossing or mixing genres in their works (such as Stephen King, China Mieville, and Anne Carson). Do not stress trying to apply one genre to one text!

    Genres are based on explicitly agreed or socially inferred conventions. They may have strict or flexible guidelines which help with the reader's expectations of the plot and setting.

    The four main families of genres are comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire.

    Genre synonyms

    Although 'genre' is a term with a specific meaning, it can be a confusing concept to grasp if you're unfamiliar with it. Here are some synonyms of 'genre' to help you better understand the term:

    • Group
    • Category
    • Set
    • Type
    • Sort
    • Variety
    • Class

    Fiction literary and film genres - examples

    In the book trade, genre fictions are fictional works that are written to put them into a specific literary genre to maximise appeal to the reader who is already familiar with the genre. Such genre fictions usually have stricter guidelines. These guidelines are based on what kinds of books the publishing house believes will sell well.

    Common fiction genres are:

    • Classic (Literary) Fiction: A work of literary merit and aesthetic value. These works are character-driven rather than plot-driven.
    • Contemporary Fiction: Fiction set in the same time period as the reader depending on when (or where) the reader lived.
    • Fantasy: works with imaginary settings and characters, usually with some sort of worldbuilding or magic. Many writers choose to rework folklore and mythology to tap into or increase the reader's familiarity.
    • Historical: Novels set in the past that usually feature historical events and figures. Historical fiction often relies on a blend of realism and imagination.
    • Science Fiction: Fiction concerned with scientific or futuristic settings, with either dystopian or utopian themes. It is a type of speculative fiction which features time travel, space travel, parallel universes and futuristic technology.
    • (Black Mirror (2011) and Star Trek are perhaps the most famous examples of this genre).

    • Bildungsroman: The Coming-of-Age narrative usually explores the character's life from childhood to adulthood, and their navigation through society and questions of morality.
    • Romance: Focuses on a romantic relationship which leads to a happy resolution. It is often confused with the literary fiction form of Romance.
    • Realism: The depiction of realistic events and settings to either critique society or explore the everyday lives of characters.
    • Horror: Fiction that aims to frighten, shock, or disgust readers. The genre takes inspiration from Gothic fiction and often features terrifying creatures or common everyday fears.
    • Crime: The fictional representation of crime, criminals, and police procedurals. Suspense and mystery are crucial to the plot.

    What are the criteria for genres?

    Genres help organize information into form, content, and style. Here we will look into the genre criteria for historical fiction and crime fiction to see how they differ:

    Historical Fiction Genre Criteria:Crime Fiction Genre Criteria:
    May be based on events, periods, or people of the past which happened.Exploration of a type of crime, and / or focus on victims and their suffering.
    Believable or accurate historical research and evidence are present.Settings are backdrops for criminal investigation or action.
    Plot centres on a major or minor historical event.Violence, murder, theft, or drugs are included.
    Elements of realism to the character's life - or some form of authenticity to the period portrayed.The idea is that criminals must be brought to justice.
    Conflict and tension allow the reader to compare the present with the past.Uses of register (a language variety used by a particular group of people who share the same occupation) and language to emphasize a crime motif: legal, police, courtroom terms.

    For the author, the criteria of a certain genre help them write within the conventions of the genre (or to subvert those conventions).

    In addition, these criteria help the reader decide which kinds of books they want to read based on the genres they have read previously. Have you ever wandered into Waterstones and known immediately where to go to get your favourite genre of books? Or scrolled through Netflix's romance and crime sections trying to decide what kind of show you want to see next?

    Tip: Think about the layout of book shops. What genres are promoted the most in a bookshop? Which genres are the easiest to find in a bookshop? How many books from a particular genre are there in a section? Note what genres are in the top 10 best sellers, it might just tell you which genre is popular at the moment!

    Music genres

    Genres don't only apply to fiction works. Music is also split into genres, with each genre having a different typical style. Some music genres are:

    • Classical
    • Rock
    • Pop
    • Rap
    • Country
    • Folk
    • Jazz
    • Rhythm and Blues
    • Soul
    • Punk
    • Reggae

    How are genres formed?

    This depends on themes and the literary period!

    Genres are formed by conventions that change over time. In this article, we'll use historical fiction as an example to show you how the genre has changed over time, and which texts correlate to the genre or subgenre (some you may recognize from the latest TV shows!)

    Genre Fiction Topic Tree Example:

    Genre, Genre fiction topic tree, StudySmarterThe topic tree for Historical Fiction includes many subgenres.

    The genre of historical fiction is varied. Authors take different paths or use different conventions to represent the past. As the image above shows, there have been countless debates about how historical fiction should be written, presented, and structured.

    Top Tip: Historical Romance is considered frivolous and fantasy fulfilment, while Literary historical fiction is favoured by literary critics for its philosophical approaches to representing the past. Do you believe it is fair to compare these genres and subgenres with each other when the plots of these works take place in a setting located in the past?

    Genre - Key takeaways

    • Genre is a term for any category or grouping of literature based on certain criteria.
    • Genres are based on agreed or socially-inferred conventions. They may have strict or flexible guidelines.
    • The most common genres are romance, satire, comedy, and tragedy.
    • Genres evolve depending on what is popular with the reading public.
    • Genres are used to categorize literature, while themes are what a specific story is about.

    1 MH Abrams, and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms (2012).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Genre

    What is genre?

    A genre is a way of categorising types or classes of literature, music or art. In popular usage, genres help us to group or organise works into recognisable styles, shared conventions, settings, and themes. 

    What does genre mean?

    Genre comes from the French 'genre', meaning 'a kind' or 'a sort'. So, genre means a style or category of something (usually literature, music, art, etc).

    How to pronounce genre?

    Genre is pronounced like:

    zhon·ruh (ʒɒnrə)

    What are the 5 types of genre?

    There are more than five types of genre! But, the five main types of genre in literature are:

    • fiction
    • non-fiction
    • drama
    • poetry
    • folktale

    What is genre and example?

    A genre is a way of categorising types or classes of literature, films or music. Some examples of literature genres are: fantasy, historical, science fiction, romance and comedy.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following does not apply to a crime genre? 

    True or false?Aristotle posited that genres should be a fixed classification system.

    Which of the following applies to a historical fiction genre? 


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