A genre (ZHAWN-ruh) is a category of literature in which different works share certain accepted conventions. Ancient Greek writers identified three main literary genres—poetry, prose, and drama—as a way of categorizing the written word. But, over the subsequent centuries, evolving literary customs required the addition of numerous genres and subgenres to this list; naturally, some genres virtually disappeared as their popularity dwindled. Today, the four main literary genres are fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.
The word genre comes from the French for “kind, sort, or style.”
Characteristics of Genre
Every genre shares certain overarching characteristics, though how these characteristics present themselves differ.
Form describes how a writer constructs, structures, and organizes a written work. Form in poetry consists of meter, rhythm, line length, and number of stanzas, among other factors. Form in fiction and drama follows generally agreed-upon ideas of plot: a beginning, rising action, a climax, falling action, a resolution, and a conclusion. Nonfiction form can vary greatly depending on the type of work, but it still usually adheres to a basic plot structure.
Style is the way a writer uses words and language to convey meaning, mood, and story. Style in poetry typically involves intensely descriptive language to paint a vivid mental picture, while style in fiction focuses on plot and character development through certain literary techniques and word choices. Nonfiction style can be more emotionally detached and journalistic, like in a biography of a political figure, or it can be very personal and intimate, as is the case in most memoirs. Dramatic style is the approach a playwright takes to tell their story and explore the themes of the work; for example, they might employ farcical elements and plenty of jokes in a comedy, and serious dialogue and ominous settings in a drama.
A subject is the topic the genre centers on. Broad subjects appear across multiple genres, such as the struggle of good versus evil, quests and adventures, and the eternal mysteries of life, love, and death. Narrower subjects, however, tend to fall into specific genres; you would likely classify an epic quest about futuristic space exploration as a work in the science fiction genre.
Technique and style share similarities, but technique is more formal in nature. It consists of the methods a writer uses to construct language and present their story. Metaphors and imagery are common poetic techniques. Foreshadowing and exposition are popular among writers of fiction and nonfiction. Playwrights often use techniques of symbolism and allegory to make larger statements about human nature.
Tone is the attitude of the writer. Poetic tone is philosophical, engaged, and observant. In fiction and nonfiction, tone is the writer’s viewpoint and perspective on the story. In drama, tone is the overall way the playwright presents the work and the mood they set; for example, you probably wouldn’t mistake a Shakespearean tragedy for a bedroom sex farce, as the former would have a serious tone and the latter would have a lighter, sillier one.
Major Genres and Subgenres
Beyond the four basic genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama), there are narrower subsets of each, called subgenres. The difference between genres and subgenres is somewhat malleable, as most people think of common subgenres as genres in and of themselves.
Take, for example, romance novels. Technically, romance novels are a subgenre of fiction. However, many people consider romance as a distinct genre because it contains so many subgenres: historical romance, contemporary romance, supernatural romance, romantic mysteries, romantic science fiction, etc.
Other fiction subgenres that often stand on their own include fantasy, science fiction, mysteries and suspense novels, thrillers, and children’s and young adult fiction. Of course, you can easily break these down into further subgenres: high and low fantasy and sword-and-sorcery; space operas, cyberpunk, and dystopias; noir, cozy mysteries, and police procedurals; horror, psychological thrillers, and legal thrillers; and picture books, “social problem” novels, and coming-of-age novels.
Autobiographies, biographies, creative nonfiction, memoirs, journalism, and science writing are popular nonfiction subgenres. Poetry subgenres include contemporary poetry, classic poetry, confessional poetry, and slam poetry. Comedies, tragedies, farces, satires, comedies of manners, family dramas, and musicals are subgenres of drama.
All these subgenres can function as standalone genres and can be further divided into even smaller subgenres. Also, note that a genre is a system of classification, while categories are divisions within a system of classification. So, this makes the terms subgenre and category interchangeable.
The Function of Genre
Genre establishes a general code for writers to follow based on the accepted standards. This code also inspires many writers to challenge the conventions of genre and create works that defy them; for instance, Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood is often classified as a nonfiction novel, thereby spanning two genres.
Individual genres serve specific functions. Fiction and poetry spark the reader’s imagination, provide entertainment, and encourage new ways of experiencing the world. Nonfiction is primarily educational, introducing readers to subjects and ideas and sharing valuable insights. Drama is entertaining and stirs readers/viewers to think about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, the foibles of human nature, and the points in communion we all share, as well those areas of divergence that divide us.
The end goal of genre is to set the reader’s expectation of the work. For example, you have a general idea of the type of work you’re going to read when you pick up a book of poetry; you wouldn’t mistake it for a novel or play.
Genres Outside of Literature
Genre classifications outside of literature serve the same purpose: to shape one’s expectations of the work and appeal to a specific audience by following a basic set of standards.
Film and television genres include drama, comedy, action/adventure, mystery, horror, and documentary. Pop, country, hip-hop, R&B, classical, and dance are all genres of music. The gaming world consists of many genres as well, such as role-playing, simulations, and shooter games.
Examples of Genre in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Shakespeare’s plays are all dramas that are further classified as comedies, tragedies, or histories. Hamlet is a tragedy because, in the end, nearly all the major characters are dead. The ghost of the King of Denmark instructs his son, Hamlet, to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. Hamlet pretends to be mad so he can seek revenge, while a suspicious Claudius also plots to kill Hamlet. The final scene culminates in a duel, in which the King, Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s opponent, and Hamlet all die.
2. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Carson’s 1962 environmental science book is a classic work of nonfiction. She documents the dangers of pesticides, the malfeasance of the chemical industry, and the failure of elected officials to protect the public and the environment. Aspects of the book speak to humankind’s relationship to the natural world and how, in recent years, humans have developed the power to destroy nature in major, irreversible ways.
3. James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
Baldwin’s 1974 novel is a work of fiction. It also falls into several subgenres, including romance/love story, African American literature, and social novel. Set in Harlem, New York, in the 1970s, it chronicles the relationship between 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny. After they become engaged, Tish discovers she is pregnant. Then, police arrest Fonny after another woman accuses him of rape. The inequities of the criminal justice system keep Tish and Fonny apart, forcing them to fashion their own version of marriage and family with Fonny behind bars.
Further Resources on Genre
An English teacher provides an overview of genres and subgenres in an informative YouTube video.
Writers Write looks at the 17 most popular genres/subgenres and why they matter.
Owlcation delves into the differences between genre and form.
Electric Lit has a list of books that they think proves that genre distinctions are bogus.
On the other end of the spectrum, Oxford University Press discusses why literary genres are essential.
- Dramatic Monologue
- Figurative Language
- Narrative Poem
- Point of View
- Rhyme Scheme
- Science Fiction