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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.
selected literary genres and
Family Saga – The Immigrants by
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 clef – All the King’s Men by
Robert Penn Warren
Napoleonic Era fiction – Désirée by
Roman Era fiction – I, Claudius by
Cyberpunk – Neuromancer by
Space Opera – The Skylark of Space
by E. E. “Doc” Smith
Social fiction – Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
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
Gothic – The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole
Vampire – Dracula by Bram Stoker
Occult – The Exorcist by William
Lovecraftian – The Things That Are
Not There by C. J. Henderson
Detective fiction – The Big Sleep by
Spy fiction – Smiley’s People by
John le Carre
Police procedural fiction – The
Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
Modern Romance Fiction
Gothic – Wuthering Heights by
Regency – The Rake and the Reformer
by Mary Jo Putney
Woman in peril – I’ll Be Seeing You
by Mary Higgins Clark
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
literary genre scheme on this page contains only enough genres to illustrate
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:
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
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:
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
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 them—that 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:
- 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.
- 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
The third way in which a given work can belong to multiple genres is a
consequence of the topological nature of hierarchical generic schemas:
- 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 to—a
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
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
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
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
- 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
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.
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.
the last analysis, every literary work stands for only one thing—itself—and
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.