Definition of Genre
Genre originates from the French word meaning kind or type. As a literary device, genre refers to a form, class, or type of literary work. The primary genres in literature are poetry, drama/play, essay, short story, and novel. The term genre is used quite often to denote literary sub-classifications or specific types of literature such as comedy, tragedy, epic poetry, thriller, science fiction, romance, etc.
It’s important to note that, as a literary device, genre is closely tied to the expectations of readers. This is especially true for literary sub-classifications. For example, Jane Austen’s work is classified by most as part of the romance fiction genre, as demonstrated by this quote from her novel Sense and Sensibility:
When I fall in love, it will be forever.
Though Austen’s work is more complex than most formulaic romance novels, readers of Austen’s work have a set of expectations that it will feature a love story of some kind. If a reader found space aliens or graphic violence in a Jane Austen novel, this would undoubtedly violate their expectations of the romantic fiction genre.
Common Examples of Genre Fiction
In terms of literature, fiction refers to the prose of short stories, novellas, and novels in which the story originates from the writer’s imagination. These fictional literary forms are often categorized by genre, each of which features a particular style, tone, and storytelling devices and elements.
Here are some common examples of genre fiction and their characteristics:
- Literary Fiction: a work with artistic value and literary merit.
- Thriller: features dark, mysterious, and suspenseful plots.
- Horror: intended to scare and shock the reader while eliciting a sense of terror or dread; may feature scary entities such as ghosts, zombies, evil spirits, etc.
- Mystery: generally features a detective solving a case with a suspenseful plot and slowly revealed information for the reader to piece together.
- Romance: features a love story or romantic relationship; generally lighthearted, optimistic, and emotionally satisfying.
- Historical: plot takes place in the past with balanced realism and creativity; can feature actual historical figures, events, and settings.
- Western: generally features cowboys, settlers, or outlaws of the American Old West with themes of the frontier.
- Bildungsroman: story of a character passing from youth to adulthood with psychological and/or moral growth; character becomes “educated” through loss, a journey, conflict, and maturation.
- Science Fiction: speculative stories derived and/or inspired by natural and social sciences; generally features futuristic civilizations, time travel, or space exploration.
- Dystopian: sub-genre of science fiction in which the story portrays a setting that may appear utopian but has a darker, underlying presence that is problematic.
- Fantasy: speculative stories with imaginary characters in imaginary settings; can be inspired by mythology or folklore and generally include magical elements.
- Magical Realism: realistic depiction of a story with magical elements that are accepted as “normal” in the universe of the story.
- Realism: depiction of real settings, people, and plots as a means of approaching the truth of everyday life and laws of nature.
Examples of Writers Associated with Specific Genre Fiction
Writers are often associated with a specific genre of fictional literature when they achieve critical acclaim, public notoriety and/or commercial success with readers for a particular work or series of works. Of course, this association doesn’t limit the writer to that particular genre fiction. However, being paired with a certain type of literature can last for an author’s entire career and beyond.
Here are some examples of writers that have become associated with specific genre fiction:
- Stephen King: horror
- Ray Bradbury: science fiction
- Jackie Collins: romance
- Toni Morrison: black feminism
- John le Carré: espionage
- Philippa Gregory: historical fiction
- Jacqueline Woodson: racial identity fiction
- Philip Pullman: fantasy
- Flannery O’Connor: Southern Gothic
- Shel Silverstein: children’s poetry
- Jonathan Swift: satire
- Larry McMurtry: western
- Virginia Woolf: feminism
- Raymond Chandler: detective fiction
- Colson Whitehead: Afrofuturism
- Gabriel García Márquez: magical realism
- Madeleine L’Engle: children’s fantasy fiction
- Agatha Christie: mystery
- John Green: young adult fiction
- Margaret Atwood: dystopian
Famous Examples of Genre in Other Art Forms
Most art forms feature genre as a means of identifying, differentiating, and categorizing the many forms and styles within a particular type of art. Though there are many crossovers when it comes to genre and no finite boundaries, most artistic works within a particular genre feature shared patterns, characteristics, and conventions.
Here are some famous examples of genre in other art forms:
- Music: rock, country, hip hop, folk, classical, heavy metal, jazz, blues
- Visual Art: portrait, landscape, still life, classical, modern, impressionism, expressionism
- Drama: comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, melodrama, performance, musical theater, illusion
- Cinema: action, horror, drama, romantic comedy, western, adventure, musical, documentary, short, biopic, fantasy, superhero, sports
Examples of Genre in Literature
As a literary device, genre is like an implied social contract between writers and their readers. This does not mean that writers must abide by all conventions associated with a specific genre. However, there are organizational patterns within genre that readers tend to expect. Genre expectations allow readers to feel familiarity with the literary work and help them to organize the information presented by the writer. In addition, keeping with genre conventions can establish a writer’s relationship with their readers and a framework for their literature.
Here are some examples of genre in literature and the conventions they represent:
Example 1: Macbeth (William Shakespeare)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The formal genre of this well-known literary work is Shakespearean drama or play. Macbeth can be sub-categorized as a literary tragedy in that the play features the elements of a classical tragic work. For example, Macbeth’s character aligns with the traits and path of a tragic hero–a protagonist whose tragic flaw brings about his downfall from power to ruin. This tragic arc of the protagonist often results in catharsis (emotional release) and potential empathy within readers and members of the audience.
In addition to featuring classical characteristics and conventions of the tragic genre, Shakespeare’s play also resonates with modern readers and audiences as a tragedy. In this passage, one of Macbeth’s soliloquys, his disillusionment and suffering is made clear in that, for all his attempts and reprehensible actions at gaining power, his life has come to nothing. Macbeth realizes that death is inevitable, and no amount of power can change that truth. As Macbeth’s character confronts his mortality and the virtual meaninglessness of his life, readers and audiences are called to do the same. Without affirmation or positive resolution, Macbeth’s words are as tragic for readers and audiences as they are for his own character.
Like Macbeth, Shakespeare’s tragedies are as currently relevant as they were when they were written. The themes of power, ambition, death, love, and fate incorporated in his tragic literary works are universal and timeless. This allows tragedy as a genre to remain relatable to modern and future readers and audiences.
Example 2: The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.
The formal genre of this literary work is novel. Walker’s novel can be sub-categorized within many fictional genres. This passage represents and validates its sub-classification within the genre of feminist fiction. Sofia’s character, at the outset, is assertive as a black woman who has been systematically marginalized in her community and family, and she expresses her independence from the dominance and control of men. Sofia is a foil character for Celie, the protagonist, who often submits to the power, control, and brutality of her husband. The juxtaposition of these characters indicates the limited options and harsh consequences faced by women with feminist ideals in the novel.
Unfortunately, Sofia’s determination to fight for herself leads her to being beaten close to death and sent to prison when she asserts herself in front of the white mayor’s wife. However, Sofia’s strong feminist traits have a significant impact on the other characters in the novel, and though she is not able to alter the systemic racism and subjugation she faces as a black woman, she does maintain her dignity as a feminist character in the novel.
Example 3: A Word to Husbands (Ogden Nash)
To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.
The formal genre of this literary work is poetry. Nash’s poem would be sub-categorized within the genre of humor. The poet’s message to what is presumably his fellow husbands is witty, clear, and direct–though the wording and message of the last poetic line may be unexpected for many readers. In addition, the structure of the poem sets up the “punchline” at the end. The piece begins with poetic wording that appears to romanticize love and marriage, which makes the contrasting “base” language of the final line a satisfying surprise and ironic twist for the reader. The poet’s tone is humorous and light-hearted which also appeals to the characteristics and conventions of this genre.