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literary genre hierarchy schemes—example

Below is a sample list of a few literary genres and subgenres arranged in an indented list or schema. Genres and subgenres are arranged in hierarchical fashion. The 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.

about this listSee below

selected literary genres and subgenres

  • Literary Genres

    • Mainstream Fiction

      • Family Saga – The Immigrants by Howard Fast

      • Psychological fiction – The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

      • Autobiographical/Biographical fiction – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

      • Roman a clefAll the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

      • Historical Fiction

        • Napoleonic Era fiction – Désirée by Annemarie Selinko

        • Roman Era fiction – I, Claudius by Robert Graves

    • Speculative Fiction

      • Science Fiction

        • Cyberpunk – Neuromancer by William Gibson

        • Space Opera – The Skylark of Space by E. E. “Doc” Smith

        • Social fiction – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

      • Fantasy

        • Heroic fantasy – The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkein

        • Sword and Sorcery – A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

        • Arthurian – The Sword and the Stone by T. H. White

      • Horror

        • Gothic – The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

        • Vampire – Dracula by Bram Stoker

        • Occult – The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

        • Lovecraftian – The Things That Are Not There by C. J. Henderson

    • Mystery Fiction

      • Detective fiction – The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

      • Spy fiction – Smiley’s People by John le Carre

      • Police procedural fiction – The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh

    • Modern Romance Fiction

      • Gothic – Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte

      • Regency – The Rake and the Reformer by Mary Jo Putney

      • Woman in peril – I’ll Be Seeing You by Mary Higgins Clark

    • Juvenile Fiction

      • Children – Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne

      • Young Adult – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

    • Biography – Napoleon by Emil Ludwig

    • Autobiography – The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

    • Travel - Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams



glossary of literary terms

This literary genre scheme on this page contains only enough genres to illustrate The Muse's definition of the concept of a literary genre schema. There are far more genres, subgenres, and titles in the entire literary canon than are shown here.

Look for a more complete list of literary genres, definitions, and works at The Muse Of Literature's page called Glossary Of Literary Terms: click here.

about this list—contents, hierarchical structure, and interpretation

The bulleted entries in this list are the names of literary genres and subgenres. Each genre name is followed by the title of a literary work that is a representative sample of the genre.

The list shown above is an example of a hierarchical literary genre schema arranged as an outline. Each indented genre on the list is a subgenre (subclass) of the genre under which it is indented. Except at the top-most or bottom-most bullet of any sequence of genres and subgenres, any particular genre serves as a subgenre to the genre above it and also as a genre to the subgenre beneath it. For example, Space Opera is a subgenre of Science Fiction and Science Fiction is a subgenre of Speculative Fiction. Space opera, Science Fiction, and Speculative Fiction are all genres.

The kind of theme and subject that defines a subgenre is a special case of the kind of theme and subject that defines the genre above it. For example, Space Opera is a good-guys/bad-guys adventure in space; like a Western, it is larger than life, has chase scenes and narrow escapes. Science Fiction is a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation. Speculative Fiction is fiction that asks the question "what if?" and then attempts to answer it.

All subgenres listed under a particular genre draw on the theme and subject of their genre; but each subgenre listed under a particular genre has a narrower theme and subject than its genre. For example, a Space Opera is a kind of Science Fiction because it is a good-guys/bad-guys adventure in space that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation. Space Opera is a particular form of Science Fiction, one that narrows the scope of Science Fiction by narrowing the scope of its theme and subject.

Each subgenre under a given genre is distinguished from the other subgenres listed under the same genre by virtue of the fact that it has a theme and subject that is different from the other subgenres listed under the same genre. For example, Space opera is a form of Science Fiction that is a good-guys/bad-guys adventure in space; Cyberpunk is a form of Science Fiction that features extensive human interaction with supercomputers and a punk ambiance.

multi-genre works

Don't be misled by the classifications of literary genres and subgenres shown above on this page. The y're not absolute truths that describe the essential nature of specific literary works; they're only convenient generalities that characterize them.

Authors are not purists. A given work can belong to more than one genre if the author decides to write it that way. It also can belong to more than one genre because the author is paying no attention to genre and only wants to create a viable work of art.

Multi-genre works go back hundreds of years and even further. You only have to check out Polonius' speech to Hamlet to see that multi-genre works date back over three hundred years, as far as Shakespeare's Hamlet. In fact, they go back hundreds of years before that.

  • See the multi-genre works which, according to Polonius, are performed by a troop of actors hired by Hamlet: click here.

Gothic Romances, which were very popular in 19th century England, are another form of multi-genre literature. theywere deliberately written to mix generic elements drawn from other genres that the public liked reading. Authors were making good money writing these other genres, so it stood to reason that authors could make even more money by writing books that contained more than one of them. So why not do it?

Gothic Romance novels are a mixture of literary elements drawn from two other novel genres that were successful on their own merits and well established by the time Gothic Romance novels appeared. These two other literary elements are: 1) stories of romantic love (inspired by the Romance genre); and 2) stories that take place in mysterious settings (inspired by the Gothic genre, which is a genre that strongly exhibits a combination of the mysterious and the uncanny.

Perhaps the best known Gothic Romance novels which exhibit these Gothic Romance genre characteristics are Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Works like these may be thought of as blends of these two genres (Romance and Gothic) that form a new genre.

These Bronte works also may be thought as novels that belong to separate genres. Each of their works could be classified into either of two genres: 1) Romance, or 2) Gothic. They should not be classified as Mystery or Occult because so little of these genres takes place in them.

Today, authors are still writing multi-genre works. For example, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov is a combination of Murder Mystery and Science Fiction. Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett is a combination of Humor and Fantasy; it's a humorous book about personified death.

legitimate multi-genre classifications

Why do we see literary works classified under more than one genre category? Here are a few legitimate reasons why multi-genre works really do exist.

A given work of literature may actually belong to more than one genre for any one (or more than one) of three different reasons.

Since genres are abstractions or conceits created by people, the genre of a work ultimately depends on the opinion or point of view of the person or persons who invent genres and on those who assign works to themthat is, who classify them according to their genre.

In the case of the novels by the Bronte sisters, explained above, we see why a given work can legitimately belong to more than one genre because it contains literary elements that belong to several of them. It can belong to any of its constituent genres depending which of its literary aspects are considered primary and upon on one's point of view.

Works such as the Bronte's also may be thought of as representing a new genre in their own right. Is the genre of a work so different from other genres that it's unique? If it is, a new genre must be created before a work can be assigned to it, another act that depends on points of view.

Such a new genre must be invented and accepted by experts and the public before any work can be assigned to it. Is a new genre justified? That, too, depends on one's point of view.

These kinds of issues account for two of the three ways in which a given work can belong to multiple genres:

  1. A given work also may belong to more than one genre because different competent classifiers form different conclusions about which subgenre it best fits. This can happen even if a work is not clearly a blend of other genres.
  2. There are many valid reasons why differences of opinion about how to classify the genre of a work can take place. For example, classifiers may analyze and weigh the importance of a work's literary elements differently; readers may interpret the work differently or see it from different perspectives. Should the Bronte novels be classified as Gothic or Romance? Or should a new genre category be invented which is a combination of these two characteristics?

The third way in which a given work can belong to multiple genres is a consequence of the topological nature of hierarchical generic schemas:

  1. A literary genre hierarchy is an inheritance tree. Because of the topological nature of these kinds of trees, each subgenre inherits (represents) the literary genre characteristics of all those below it. The fact that a specific literary work is classified as belonging to a subgenre signifies that it exhibits the literary genre characteristics of all the subgenres below it, whether or not it also possess additional literary genre characteristics that are different from those below it.

The fact that a literary genre work can be assigned to—that is, classified as belonging toa subgenre automatically means that it is a multi-genre work. If it is a subgenre, it must possesses all the literary genre characteristics of each of the subgenres below it plus, perhaps, additional ones of its own. As a consequence, it is a member of each of the subgenres below it on the tree as well as a member of its own subgenre.

The Bronte sisters can provide us with examples of how this works:

If a genre classifier's literary schema looks like the one below and if he classifies the Bronte sisters novels as Gothic Romance novels, their Gothic Romance novels would belong first and foremost to the Gothic Romance genre, but they also would belong to the Gothic genre and the Romance genre:

  • Literary Genres












  • Another Subgenre

    • Another Subgenre
      • Gothic Romance
        • Gothic
        • Romance

If another genre classifier were to decide instead to classify them as either Gothic or Romance, their novels would belong either to the Gothic genre or to the Romance Genre but not to both. Their novels would not be considered to be multi-genre novels because no subgenres would exist below them whose genre properties they would inherit.

In the sense described here, when a person classifies or assigns a literary work to a subgenre he is automatically implying that the work has more than one genre, whether or not he is aware that he is doing so, because every subgenre exhibits the literary genre characteristics of all the subgenres below it, whether or not it also possess additional literary genre characteristics that are different from those below it.

This kind of automatic multi-genre classification takes place even if a classifier is not consciously aware of it; it takes place even if he is not consciously employing a formal schema. It happens automatically because the existence of subgenres requires by implication that there be subgenres below them and super-genres above them; otherwise, there would be no way to classify works because genre classification is at its essence a statement about the genre relationship between one work and other works.

An exception to this automatic classification rule can occur only if a literary work is assigned to a subgenre located at the bottom level of one of the branches of the literary genre hierarchy tree—a so-called tree leaf—or only if a tree has no subgenres. Then there can be no lower subgenres to which it can belong.

dubious multi-genre classifications

Why do we see literary works classified under more than one genre category? Here are a few reasons why multi-genre works exist that should cause readers concern.

A given work of literature classified as belonging to more than one genre may not actually belong to more than one genre for any of a number of different reasons.

One overriding reason for the existence of multi-genre works is that even experts disagree with one another about the nature of a literary work, its genre, and where it belongs in a schema.

The same is true for genre classification schemes themselves. Experts commonly (and often legitimately) disagree with each other about how to structure a classification hierarchy, over the genres and subgenres that should be included in it, and about how genres and subgenres should be defined.

Is it beneficial and valid for these experts to disagree with one another? Yes and no, depending on how the relevant individuals are motivated and on their competency. Sometimes expert opinions are sincere; they are caused by good and correct ideas about literature that seem to contradict each other; they are caused by lack of authoritative information. But at other times they are the result of poor, inadequate, or ineffectual research, by outworn ideas or narrow points of view. Only you can decide whether these differences of opinion are valid or whether they cause more disruption than they are worth.

But also there are clearly illegitimate reasons for dubious multi-genre works to exist.

As pointed out elsewhere, some literary genre schemas are unique; others are not unique but neither are they are not identical. Schemas that are not identical define some or all genres and subgenres differently and arrange them in hierarchies that differ; some of these may define subgenres or hierarchies that completely differ from one another.

Normally each genre classifier works with the schema he favors. Since many different genre classifiers ignore other classifier's schemas, it's likely that different classifiers using different schemas will assign the same work to different genres and subgenres that disagree with each other because there are different places where the work fits in each schema. A work placed in different subgenres will appear to the public to have more than one genre even it it doesn't.

The list of questionable reasons for multiple categories goes on and on:

  • Some schemas may have no places in their genre hierarchy where a new work fits; some may have places where it fits, but not well. These discrepancies can happen because the classifier may have inadvertently omitted the subgenre, the definition of the subgenre where the work belongs is unsuitable, or the work belongs to a new genre not yet recognized.
  • Some schemas may have more than one subgenre where a new work fits because its subgenre categories are ambiguous.
  • One subgenre category may overlap with other subgenre because they are poorly defined or because they are not logically exclusive of one another. Where it belongs is anybody's guess. One classifier may assign it to a subgenre that's not the same as another classifier assigns it to.
  • If a new work doesn't fit a schema well or if it fits not at all, a classifier will have trouble finding the right place to put it. If this is the case, he may force fit it into a subgenre to which it doesn't belong.
  • Some genre classifiers don't even write their schema on a piece of paper; they keep it schema "in their heads." It's easy for careless or lazy classifiers like these to assign a new work to the wrong subgenre because they've forgotten the classification scheme.

Because of these kinds of classification practices—or should we say misclassification practices—the public will not only be misinformed about the nature of a work; when it compares inappropriate classifications in one schema with correct or incorrect classifications in other schemas it will find that a given literary work fits into more than one genre.

Does it matter if a literary work's genre is misclassified?

Considerable damage can be done as a result of mistakes in genre classification. Misclassifications may distort the public's conception of a work. Seeing misclassifications of a work's genre, the pubic could come to misunderstand its nature or to misinterpret its meaning.

Misclassifications also can influence the public to place a work into bogus generic relationships with other literary works, thereby distorting the public's understanding or appreciation of any or all the works that are compared. These maledictions take place whether or not the other compared works are correctly or incorrectly classified.

On the other hand, genre classifications that are legitimate are only convenient ways of thinking and talking about literary works, they're not keys to understanding or appreciating them. They help guide the public to find and read works that deserve to be read and to avoid works that deserve to be overlooked.

In the last analysis, every literary work stands for only one thingitselfand not for its genre; it is what it is. And that's what counts most. What "experts" have to say about it doesn't change that.

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