Genres In Literature
What Are Genres, and Why Do We Have Them?
April 4, 2018
Renee Frey, COO, Authors 4 Authors Publishing
As my reading awareness expanded and I began exploring different sections of bookstores, I wondered just why and how everything was sorted. In the children’s section, books are grouped by age, and the adage to not judge a book by it’s cover is folly, as that was the first way to make heads or tails of the plot of the book.
But as I grew older, and tired of basic chapter books, I began exploring the rest of the book store. Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Drama, Poetry...where did all the groupings come from?
As humans, we thrive on classification. Creating and imposing order serves as a means of finding patterns and relationships in the world in order to better understand it. So it makes sense that, like our laundry, we want our reading materials sorted.
Prior to the 1870’s, libraries catalogued materials according to the date they were received. For anyone who has ever had to find resources for a final paper, you can imagine the headache that caused!
Likewise, as literacy and education grew, the demand for literature as a means of entertainment also grew. Classification helped readers find content that they were interested in.
A Brief History
Technically sorting by genre began with Ancient Greeks. They sorted genre into drama, poetry, and prose. I think most of us would agree that this classification, much like Aristotle’s original classification of animals into air, land, and sea, serves little use anymore. As types of text increased, so did the need for meaningful classification.
In 1873, librarian Melvil Dewey invented the Dewey Decimal System, which is used in libraries to this day to sort books and writing into about ten categories. This solved the issue of libraries simply adding new texts to the end of their collection. Dewey’s system sorts texts into 10 basic categories:
000 Computer science, information & general works
100 Philosophy & psychology
300 Social sciences
700 Arts & recreation
900 History & geography
While this system works well for reference material, one section for all literature didn’t work for commercial book retailers, who focused mainly on text for entertainment instead of research. From 1600-1900 literacy rates in Europe more than doubled, from less than 20% to almost 80% of adults being literate. Reading as a form of entertainment and social engagement increased, and the amount of available fiction literature increased as well.
Evolution of Genre
According to “The Origin of Genres,” a unique combination of academia, or discourse around literature, and shifts to current writing styles, create new genres from older ones. So going back to the original Greek sorting, we can actually trace the evolution of different genres, and predict the birth of new ones.
Take drama, for example. We still have drama as a genre today: it refers to plays, regardless of whether they are a tragedy or comedy. But from that category we moved into the mystery, miracle, and morality plays of the Middle Ages, which supplemented the pre-existing tragedy and comedy of Ancient Greece. (Please note that mystery in this sense refers to Biblical mysteries, NOT a whodunit like Sherlock Holmes).
With the Renaissance, Shakespeare expanded upon the idea of a tragedy and a comedy, and added “history” plays. Modern playwrights further subverted genres by mixing elements and refusing to conform to current genre canons. Compare what we have on television to ancient Greek plays--the variety of content all goes back to the original two categories of tragedy and drama.
Why Does This Matter?
Remember the beginning of this post, where I shared how important classification is? That’s why this matters. The classification of genre does a lot of things, but the most important one is that it sets and manages expectations for readers.
Imagine if you purchased a fantasy book to read, only to have the setting be 1880’s England and the plot be a loosely-based account of Jack the Ripper--with no magic, dragons, or other world in sight. Or if you purchased a serious literary read to use in book club or for a mid-term analysis paper, only to find it a completely fanciful story of a fairy in a different world seeking to stop a war and save her people. Although in both examples the book or story itself might be exemplary, the mismanagement of your expectations would lead you to dislike it.
As already discussed, genre will continue to evolve as literature is created and consumed. Look at the growth of dystopia in recent years. What was once a possible plot line or setting for science fiction is now (almost) its own genre, with expectations, rules, and canons for writers to follow that are separate from other components of its speculative roots. So while this list is nowhere near exclusive or complete, it covers the most commonly used and referred to genres in literature at this time.
Romance, Erotica, and Chick-Lit are genres that are widely written for female consumption. While exceptions exist, these genres were created due to the demand for female protagonists and female points of view in literature. They also speak to female desires and preferences in reading material, and are usually much more character focused than other genres.
Speculative fiction refers to genres that set up “what if” scenarios. Fantasy (what if there were dragons), Science Fiction (what if robots were autonomous but programmed to follow rules), and horror (what if there’s a killer in your car trunk) break the realism of other genres to create and invent situations that depart from the status quo of life. Some, like Harry Potter, link the fantasy world to ours, while some, like Lord of the Rings, take place in another world entirely.
Mysteries, thrillers, and action genres are usually more plot oriented, and part from speculative fiction in that they focus more on real people and real plausible situations instead of imagined ones. Where horror may include paranormal elements, a thriller focuses on a historical or probable event.
Historical fiction, drama, and literary genres tend to work with existing classical literature conventions. Historical fiction uses past events to craft a meaningful story, drama uses a theatrical medium to tell stories or translate existing stories into a visual medium, and literary refers to works that attempt to use existing literature conventions to make artistic and symbolic meaning. The conventions for these genres are more established, but as such, also lend themselves to greater subversion and change than others. However, there is also less flexibility in choosing new or different options.
In the coming weeks, we want to highlight different genres and subgenres for our readers. This action is part of genres as a whole--the discussion of what a genre is largely is what defines it. By participating in this discussion with us, you are actively taking part in crafting the definition of text and literature!
If you haven’t already, stop by our Facebook page, and post your favorite genre!