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Literary Genres

A cover from the July, 1926 edition of Amazing Stories, a very popular science fiction pulp magazine edited by Hugo Gernsback featuring a BEM (bug-eyed monster). Notice the stories by H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and G.P. Serviss. Not bad for a 25 cent classic.

Welcome to the feature called Literary Genres. Here, The Muse Of Literature explains and explores the meaning and importance of the concept genre in literature.


about this feature

A genre is a kind or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like, for example : the genre of epic poetry.

In this feature The Muse Of Literature explores authors, bodies of work, and selected individual works strongly associated with specific literary genres. The Muse also explores issues and questions related to the subject of genre in literature.

A literary genre differs from genres in other arts, such as the genre of symphonic music in the art of music, by virtue of being a combination of a specific literary theme and specific subject.

Examples of authors and works characterized by genres are Isaac Asimov (Science Fiction), Zane Grey (Western Fiction, J.R.R. Tolkein (Fantasy), Agatha Christie (Mystery Fiction), and Stephen King (Horror).

The Muse has two primary objectives: 1) to explore specific literary genres and specific works of literature classified by genre, and 2) to explore issues and questions that arise in connection with literary genre.

About genre in literature

The term genre in the world of the literary arts is a reference to the collection of all possible themes or subjects that any and all literary works can possess and display, and sometimes additionally to literary techniques, linguistic or language properties, and styles.

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Note that literary works can posses literary properties apart from these characteristics. For example, literary works can possess forms (specific organizations or arrangements) and periods (literary eras, cultures, and milieus in which produced).

Referring to specific literary works or groups of works by their literary genre is a convenient way to identify, talk about, analyze, teach, study, contrast, and point out single works or groups of similar or dissimilar literary works. That's why the literary genres are referred to so often when discussing literature.

Mastering the subject of literary genre is an indispensable precursor to attaining a full understanding of the nature of literature. Being able to correctly distinguish between one literary genre and another, or between literary genre and other aspects of literature—aspects such as period or time, place, form, fiction, non-fiction, prose, or poemis essential for anyone who would do more than read and enjoy literature—it's essential for anyone who would fully understand literature.

Some experts attach so much importance to literary genre, they hold the opinion that the entire literary canon can be classified by: 1) listing and explaining all of its genres, 2) cataloging the relationships between genres, and 3) assigning a genre to each work of literature. Since there's much more to a literary work than its genre, this is a mistaken notion; but there is something to be said for the idea that genre can and does have an important role to play in classifying literature. When properly applied, the notion of genre it can help bring order to what otherwise would be a chaotic collection of millions of disparate, disorganized literary works.

Are literary genres real things or only mental constructs?—the fallacy of genre

Unfortunately, perhaps no other literary term or concept has been so misunderstood, so loosely defined, or so often used and misused in so many varied ways by so many different people. Many of the ways in which genre is used are flat-out incorrect; and many of those who use the term incorrectly are critics, educators, and writers, all of whom should know better.

If genre were something real that you could touch or smell, perhaps there would be no problem with understanding, defining, or applying the concept; but, unfortunately, this is not the case. The notion of genre is an abstraction, a thought apart from concrete realities or specific objects. Moreover, it's used to classify and describe other abstract objects, namely written works. (If you believe that a book is a written work because it's printed on paper, think again; it's only a collection of words, which are symbols. The written work only exists in your mind after you read the book.)

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Are literary genres really out there in the world or are they only in the minds of those who devise them? Is there a single right way to classify a collection of genres and subgenres or are are there an infinite number of ways to connect them, all valid? Are genres absolute things or do they merely express the cultural backgrounds of their creators? Is there such a thing as a correct or incorrect way to name, define, or classify a genre?

These are some of the questions that have plagued those who devise new genres and who classify old ones. The absence of definitive answers has been a source of serious confusion among artists, critics, philosophers, academics, and the public, who have had trouble coming to grips with the term and who have misapplied the concept time and time again.

As a result, like so many words in the arts, genre has become one of those vague, abstract, abstruse, artsy words that are easy to confuse with other vague, abstract, abstruse, artsy words. Vague words that mean different things to different people easily lead to confusion or misunderstanding. If you are having trouble crystallizing the concept of genre, if you are finding it difficult to identify the genre of a particular work—if you are confused about genre—rest assured that you are not alone.

Perhaps no other key word in the field of literature has been so misunderstood, so loosely defined, or so often misused by so many people who should know better. This, despite the fact that mastering the concept of genre is an essential precursor for a full understanding of the nature of literary art.

Do so many misconceptions arise because the concept of genre is inherently a fallacy? The Muse thinks not.


Literary genre—a definition

What does the term genre really mean when it's used in the field of literature?

a definition

Here's where The Muse Of Literature rushes in where angels fear to tread. According to The Muse, in literature a genre is:

A distinctive class, category, or type of literary composition that possesses a particular kind of theme or subject. In addition to a particular kind of theme or subject, in many cases a genre's definition also includes a particular set or combination of a work's objectives or purposes, a particular style of writing, a particular literary structure (sub-form), literary techniques, linguistic or language properties, literary conventions, or writing style.

To belong to or to be representative of a specific genre, a given written work must possess all the important distinguishing characteristics of the genre, where only the most salient features of the work are considered.

For a genre to exist, there must be a sizeable body of works that belong to it and a sizeable number of authors who are or have been contributors. Works written in the genre must make enough of an impression on readership to receive wide notice. The genre must be recognized by a large number of literary professionals or scholars and must be accepted as valid and important by the reading public at large.

understanding Exceptions

Occasional exceptions to these dicta can exist under special circumstances. A new genre can be established even if the number of authors who contribute to a new genre is small (or even unique), the body of works they produce is small, or the audience is few in number.

For this to happen, one or more of the following circumstances must apply. An author's:

  • Treatment of subject matter or writing style is highly innovative, unusual, forceful, or skillful.
  • Personality is off-beat or strikingly powerful.
  • Works make a highly significant impact on a loyal readership or an influential social group.
  • Writings are listed on very prominent best-seller lists.

Works by Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson provide examples of special circumstances like these.

  • For more about how these authors have paved the way for new genres and helped to establish them, visit The Muse Of Language Arts feature titled Welcome To The World Of Expository Writing and read the page titled The Nexus Of Exposition, Nonfiction, Exposition, Prose, And Creative WritingCan Non-Fiction Writing Be Creative? click here.


What are literary compositions?

In this feature, The Muse only explores genres for compositions that are works of literature. The Muse does not explore other kinds of genres.

What does it take for a written work to qualify as a work of literature?

a few sample literary genres

Nothing can help clear things up more than a few good examples.

To get a quick idea of what literary genres are like, The Muse suggests you investigate the page titled Sample Literary Genres. There you will find a list of few major major literary genres and brief definitions that illustrate what literary elements it takes to make up a genre.

You probably will be able to recognize these genres by their names, so you will be able to compare what you already know about genres with what The Muse has been saying about them.

  • Explore The Muse's page titled Sample Literary Genres: click here.

a test by example—the detective story

What is a detective story? Is there such a thing as a Detective Story genre? If so, what is it?

Here are three different answers to these questions from three different sources. A detective story is:

  1. Source AA narrative about the solution of a mystery or the identification of a criminal.

The conventions of the detective story include the detective's scrupulous use of logic in solving the mystery; incompetent or ineffectual police; a suspect who appears guilty at first but is later proved innocent; and the detective's friend or confidant — often the narrator — whose slowness in interpreting clues emphasizes by contrast the detective's brilliance.

  1. Source BA narrative about someone who investigates crimes and obtains evidence leading to their resolution.
    Edgar Allen Poe: Inventor of the detective fiction genre. One of the earliest short story writers. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre.
  1. Source CDetective fiction is a branch of crime fiction in which a detective (or detectives), either professional or amateur, investigates a crime, often murder.

Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Earl Stanley Garner, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolf, Mickey Spillane, and many others are generally acknowledged to be progenitors of or contributors to the detective story genre.

The Muse suggests that you give thought to the following questions:

  1. In your opinion, is there such a thing as a Detective Story genre?
  2. Does each of the three preceding definitions fit The Muse's definition of a literary genre? If not, which ones differ? In what ways do they differ?
  3. Think about a detective story you have read, one that you're reasonably sure belongs to the detective story genre. Does each of the three preceding definitions include all of the aspects of the story you have chosen that you feel are essential for the story to be a detective story? Does it omit essential aspects? Does it include things that aren't essential to the detective story genre?
  4. In your opinion, which one of the three preceding definitions is the best definition of the detective story genre? Why?
  5. Write your own definition of what a detective story needs to be in order to belong to the Detective Story genre.

understanding literary genre

According to The Muse, a literary genre is a particular theme or subject that might include properties such as literary technique, linguistic or language, and style. Different genres possess different combinations of these properties; each is unique by virtue of this fact.

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Any single work that belongs to a given literary genre belongs to it by virtue of the fact that it demonstrates the combination of theme or subject, literary technique, linguistic or language properties, and style that define the genre it belongs to. A specific work which possesses the properties that define a particular genre is said to be an example of (or member of) the genre.

More than one literary work can possess and display the same combination of literary properties. The group of all works that possess and display an identical combination of such properties comprises the corpus of works that makes up a specific literary genre.






further clarify and confirm your understanding of literary genre

Understand literary genre? Comfortable with the idea? Further clarify you understanding with...


clarify your understanding of literary genre


Clarify your understanding of The Muse's definition of literary genre. See sample lists of literary genres.

  • Explore The Muse's Sample Lists Of Literary Genres: click here.


These definitions are associated with The Muse's definition of literary genre:

  • A literary theme is the central meaning or dominant idea in a literary work; its single unifying or underlying dominant idea; its motif or recurring idea.

  • A literary subject is the basic idea or thing that is explored by a literary work.

  • A literary technique is the body of specialized procedures and methods used to write a literary work.

  • A literary style is the manner of expression used by a writer, including such things as sentence structure, diction, and tone.

  • Explore these and other literary terms at The Muse Of Literature's Glossary Of Literary Terms: click here.


literary works classified by genreExplore further

A major mystery story by Dame Agatha Christie, perhaps the best known mystery writer in the world! The best-selling, most translated author except for Shakespeare. Only out-sold by the bible!

The Muse Of Literature invites you to explore literary works classified and organized by genre.

The page called Literary Genre Hierarchy Schemes—Example provides a sample list of works belonging to different literary genres and subgenres. The list is arranged in an indented list that is a kind of classification schema in which genres and subgenres are arranged in hierarchical fashion.

This list has been compiled by The Muse Of Literature to help clarify your understanding of The Muse's concept of a literary genre, subgenre, and literary genre hierarchy.

The Muse Of Literature is often asked whether a literary work can belong to more than one genre. The Muse answers this question here.

  • See a sample list of works belonging to different literary genres and subgenres. Explore the question of whether a literary work can belong to more than one genre. Visit the page called Literary Genre Hierarchy Schemes—Example now: click here.

Speculative Fiction

The genre of speculative fiction began with the works of such authors as E.T.A. Hoffmann in the 18th century and Edgar Allen Poe in the 19th century. The bulk of speculative fiction has been generated in and since the twentieth century.

  • Explore the Speculative Fiction genre now: click here.

about genre in all the arts

Literary genre is just one form of genre. Genres appertain to all the arts.

In the world of arts generally, a genre is a class or category of artistic works that exhibit certain key aesthetic characteristics. Any work of art that that belongs to a given genre belongs to it by virtue of the fact that it possesses certain key aesthetic characteristics. To name a work's genre is to describe, define, typify, and tag it with these essential aesthetic characteristics.

Genres are found in music, literature, painting, film, television, or in many other artseven in video games! For example, in music there are genres of classical, folk, rock, heavy metal, pop, blues, big band, etc.; in literature, there are genres of comedy, tragedy, history; in fine arts, there are genres of still life, sculpture, portrait, landscape, etc.; and in film, there are genres of documentary, animation, thriller, horror, etc.

The feature called About Genre In The Arts explores the overriding principles that all to all genres in the arts including the literary genres that are examined on this page.

  • Explore the subject of genre in the arts. See why genre in literature is just one aspect of the subject of genre generally. Visit Electricka's feature called Genre In The Arts: click here.

Technical Aspects Of Literature

The technical aspects of any written work are its properties and techniques as seen from a literary and language perspective.

All writing incorporates and is made up of technical elements like meter, form, sound (rhyme), and figures of speech. Techniques and language elements like these are common to all fields of writing; all writers use them, deliberately or subconsciously. Any particular work can by analyzed, understood, described, and classified by the combination of the writing elements it incorporates.

In this feature, The Muse Of Literature explores writing and writings from a technical and design point of viewstructure, organization, tone, style, language constructions, and all the other technical aspects that make for coherent, expressive, and effective writing, or its opposite.

  • Explore The Muse Of Literature's feature called Technical Aspects of Literature: click here.

How to approach a poem

A pointer is a piece of advice on how to succeed in a specific area. The aim of this feature is to provide a few quick and simple pointers to visitors who want to understand and experience a poem more intensely. The Muse Of Literature offers visitors a few things to think about when approaching a poem so as to get the most from reading or hearing it.

  • Explore The Muse's way to approach a poem: click here.

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