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understanding literary genre—continued

Hugo Gernsback at his most scary, humorous, and entertaining best.

genre writing and literature

Literary genres have only come into being in the last one-hundred years or so. Yet, so popular is genre writing, even within that relatively short time the majority of creative works that have been published have been written in a genre. New ones pullulate all the time.

Because so many genre works are extant, chances are if you pick a creative written work from a bookshelf at random, hold it in your hand, and consider it carefully, you'll come to the conclusion that it's an example of genre writing. Then, is it safe to conclude that it's necessary for a creative written work to belong to a genre in order to be literature? The answer is an emphatic no.

To see why, consider The Muse's definition of literature. Literature is imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value, writing that imaginatively expresses ideas of permanent and universal interest. The Muse refers to this kind of literature as Literature with a capital "L."


Literature With A Capital "L"

If you are not already familiar with what The Muse means by Literature with a capital "L," see The Muse's definition now: tap or click here.

Indeed, although some fine works of Literature—even great ones—do belong to a genre, most of them—even some of the greatest ones—do not. That's because, no matter how original, well written, and well conceived, genre writing fits a pattern.

Why does genre writing fit a pattern? Because, to belong to a literary genre, a written work must fit into a pigeonhole—namely, the pigeonhole that defines a specific genre.

What's wrong with writing that fits a pattern? Writing that fits a pattern tends to be conventional, formulaic, less original, and less inventive compared with great literature, which tends to be spontaneous, original, out of the mainstream, and unique.

With respect to genre, then, there are four kinds of literary works:

  1. "Ordinary" literary works that do not belong to a specific genre because they don't fit the definition of any genre.
  2. "Ordinary" literary works that belong to a specific genre because they fit the definition of a genre.
  3. Literary works that fit the narrow definition of a specific genre but surpass the usual limitations of the genre they belong to because they possess qualities that set them apart and make them great.
  4. Surpassing literary works (great works of literature) that belong to no genre because they are unique.


  1. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce's semi-autobiographical novel, is an example of the Coming of Age genre. Technical experts classify this work as a key example of the Künstlerroman (an artist's Bildungsroman) genre in English literature. It is an early, distinguished but ordinary work of genre.

On the other hand, Joyce's Ulysses, which is generally regarded as one of the most important works of Modernist literature, and which is considered by some to be a demonstration and summation of the entire movement, is a work of greatness which consists of eighteen chapters or episodes. To some readers, these episodes may appear unstructured and chaotic, but on careful consideration they resemble a stream-of-consciousness novel more than anything else. It fits no known genre.

  1. Moby Dick, the great American novel by Herman Melville, recounts the adventures of the wandering sailor, Ishmael. At first it seems to be a conventional nautical novel, a book of the sea full of minute facts and excruciating detail about whaling; but it's far more than a typical nautical tale. The story of Captain Ahab's relentless, revengeful pursuit of the Great White Whale is actually an exploration of numerous, complex themes conducted in symbolic and metaphoric language. It's an agonized exploration of profound ideas that range from class and social status to good and evil to the nature of man and his relationship to God. This book is in a class by itself.
  1. To some readers, the works of Jane Austen are Romance novelsworks of romantic fictionbecause they are explorations of the possibilities for romantic relationships between men and women. In fact, her works stand on ground which is as far from typical novels of the modern Romance genre as it possibly could be. Austen's novels are distinguished by their expressive, elegant, and elevated writing style, thought-provoking insights, subtlety and depth of characterization, sensitivity, authentic portrayal of human nature, historic authenticity, and biting social commentary; they create and are world in and of themselves. Moreover, they have stood the test of time as modern Romance novels never can or will.

In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with a piece of genre writing just because it follows a pattern. Genre writing is not automatically better or worse than other kinds of creative writing. Each written work must stand on its own merits or shortcomings.

genre Systems

A genre system is a system that displays genres and relates them to each other for the purpose of explication. Sometimes the manner of display is graphic and topological, but it doesn't have to be; textual displays also afford convenient means by which to represent genres and their interrelations.

Specific genre systems are usually devised by literary analysts such as authors, academics, critics, literati, and even publishers. Sometimes the public invents them; everyone has a hand in the process at one time or another.

Hugo Gernsback, the famous editor-publisher of Amazing Stories magazine, coined the word scientifiction in 1926 to describe what was later to become the science fiction genre; but it was the avid readers of this genre who later came up with the shorthand term SF. Forest J. Ackerman, a famous fan, promoter, and collector of the genre, coined the term sci-fi in 1954; and readers and movie-goers trying to be cool latched onto sci-fi and made it a household word. Today, at least one TV cable channel calls itself the Syfy channel.

On the left, a photo of the flamboyant and brilliant Hugo Gernsback. On the right, a cover from his science fiction (scientifiction) magazine.

Genre systems vary in nature according to the needs, desires, and objectives of their creators. Usually the genres within a specific genre system are related to each other hierarchically by virtue of the literary properties they exhibit, with one genre exhibiting some but not all of the literary properties of another. Hierarchical properties are represented by mapping them onto a tree-structure or by indenting them in an outline. Genres which exhibit none of the literary properties of other genres are not connected to each other in branches of the tree or by indents; they are mutually excluded from displaying relationships.

Genre systems are hard to describe but easy to understand once you see them. To get an idea of what a typical literary genre looks like:

  1. See the section below on this page titled Literary Genres, Subgenres, and Genre Classification Schemes.
  2. Explore the sample literary genre classification scheme you'll find on the page titled Literary Genre Hierarchy Schemes—Example: click here.

Since genre systems purport to represent direct experience with living texts, they must be flexible and broad enough to represent all the literary genre similarities and differences actually exhibited by real works. This puts pressure on genre system designers to create systems that are comprehensive and realistic.

The same is true for the people who create philosophies and theories of literature. That is, to be efficacious a literary philosophy or theory must be capable of expressing all the genres and interrelationships exhibited by actual texts. Basing a literary theory on genres and works that have actually been written helps ground a theory in fact. Thus we see that a genre system is often at the heart of a literary theory.

Genre systems can be revealing and enlightening. However, keep in mind that genre systems are the product of the personal preferences of their creators. One should approach any system of literary genres with caution. Here's why:

  • Experts have invented a variety of competing genre systems and most of them are not final or comprehensive.
  • Different genre systems do not completely agree with one another; some directly contradict one another.
  • Old systems can become antiquated as new genres are invented by writers.
  • It may prove logically impossible to accurately arrange genres into simple, neat tree-structure hierarchies; a network mesh arrangement or some other topology may be required if logical relationships among genres are to be accurately represented. Nets are formed instead of trees when a given genre is a subgenre of two or more super-genres.
  • A genre may be poorly conceived by its designer or a specific work may be assigned to the wrong genre.
  • The designer may make careless or deliberate mistakes in logic or fact.

Why would a genre designer deliberately make a mistake? A designer might be tempted to give a genre a muddled or distorted definition or to fit it into his scheme of genre relationships in a place where it doesn't belong; that is, he might make an error in the taxonomy of genres. Or he might assign a work to the wrong genre; that is, he might make an error in the taxonomy of specific works.

The benefit to the designer from deliberately making a mistake?the genre system would appear less sprawling or tidier than it might otherwise be; it would hide embarrassing logical inconsistencies and redundancies. The damage to the genre system?—the system would contain illogical or invalid genres and incorrect genre assignments.

In the last analysis, creating a new genre is a judgment call; so, too, is deciding on the genre that a specific work should belong to. No matter how careful, astute, or intellectually honest a genre system designer may be, genre systems ultimately are matters of opinion.

As a result of vagaries like these, no standard system of literary genres has been accepted by the literary community as a whole.


about genre in the arts

Although other arts are classified according to genre, the topic of genre in literature poses a few special questions and issues of its own.

The exploration you are now reading assumes that you are familiar with the concept of genre as it appears in the arts generally. If not, The Muse suggests that you read the section called Genres In The Arts in the page called Literary Genres: click here.

How literary genres come to be

New literary genres come into being when authors write innovative new works, but the mere existence of a work written in a new genre does not guarantee that a new genre will be universally recognized or accepted.

In modern times, publishers and writers usually decide on the genre of a new work before it's published; they announce the genre when the work is introduced to the public. theytake the genre of a new work seriously because the genre that is claimed for it will affect sales.

The publisher or writer may deliberately avoid assigning the name of an established genre to a new work, even if its genre really isn't new. theymay take the position that a new work represents a new genre because new genres attract attention and attention increases sales. Publishers have even been known to dispute a work's genre with its author to gain marketing advantages.

But in the last analysis the genre publishers or writers claim for a work doesn't settle the matter. Ultimately, experts decide a new work's genre by reading and assessing it; or the public decides. If the writer and publisher claim that a new work represents an established genre and the experts agree, the matter is settled; if they claim a new genre or if the experts see a new work as the first of a possible new genre, a process usually begins that eventually may actually establish a new genre.

Three ingredients are necessary before a new literary genre can be recognized and accepted by experts. It must acquire a:

  • Unique name, title, or label.
  • Literary definition that sets it apart from all other genres.
  • Place in a literary hierarchy schema (see the next section, below on this page).

Who are these so-called "experts?" When it comes to naming new genres, there is a large constituency. Literary genres are originated, defined, and redefined by scholars, academics, philosophers, critics, writers, researchers, publishers, online booksellers, bookstore managers, librarians, opinion-makers among the reading public, and other interested parties.

These factions make conjectures about whether a new work is sufficiently different from established genres and important enough to justify the establishment of a new genre. theypropose names and descriptions for the new genre and find it a place in a genre hierarchy scheme. Eventually, either a consensus develops or experts agree to disagree.

This genre development process has been going on for at least two thousands years, since Aristotle began deliberating, discussing, and classifying works of literature. It's about as old as reading itself.

literary genres, subgenres, and Genre classification schemes

As described on the preceding page, a genre is distinctive class or category of literary composition that possesses a particular kind of theme or subject as well as other literary properties. A subgenre is a subclass of a genre. It is a subclass by virtue of the fact that its theme or subject and other properties are more limited in scope or narrower than the class of genre to which it belongs. A subgenre is defined by a theme or subject and other properties that are special, narrower, or more restricted than those of its genre.

For example, 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. Science Fiction is a subgenre of Speculative Fiction because all literary works that draw imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation are special cases of all literary works that ask the question "what if?" and then attempt to answer it.

Because a genre is always broader in scope than any of its subgenres insofar as theme or subject and certain other literary properties are concerned, genres bear a natural hierarchical relationship to their subgenres. As with any such hierarchical scheme, this broader/narrower relationship between a genre and its subgenres can be displayed as a tree structure, network, or outline.

In a typical genre classification scheme, each genre is arranged in the form of a hierarchical list in which a subgenre (subclass) is represented as a hierarchical outline in which a subgenre (subclass) is represented as a special case of a genre (class). In the case where the hierarchical structure is an outline:

  • There can only be one genre at the top of any list. It's the genre that represents all possible literary themes or subjects, and all other possible literary genre properties.
  • A genre may possess none, one, or more subgenres.
  • All genres or subgenres are listed, one under the other.
  • A broader/narrower relationship between a genre and its subgenres is represented by listing all subgenres of a given genre indented under their genre.
  • Each genre on such a hierarchical list is also a subgenre (subclass) of the genre under which it is indented. Any particular genre serves as a subgenre to the genre above it and also as a genre to the subgenre beneath it.

The kind of theme or subject and the other literary properties that define a subgenre are special cases of the kind of theme or subject and other literary properties that define the genre above it. All subgenres listed under a particular genre exhibit the theme or subject and other literary properties of their genre, but each subgenre listed under a particular genre has a narrower theme or subject or other literary properties than its genre.

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 or subject or other literary properties that are different from the other subgenres listed under the same genre in one or more respects.

  • Confused? Clarify your understanding of a literary genre hierarchy schema with a graphical example. Explore the Muse's page called Literary Genre Hierarchy Schemes—Hypothetical Example: click here.

crossover genres

With increasing frequency, in recent years writers have shown a predilection for writing works that exhibit the literary characteristics of two or more established literary genres. Perhaps in part this increasing tendency is the result of the fact that writers wish to explore innovative new styles, new avenues for writing, or are tiring of old themes or subjects.

A similar tendency to crossovers can be observed in the other fields of endeavor, such as film, popular music, and automotive product design. We now see developments such as the crossover car or the crossover Country and Western star, both of which broaden their commercial value by appealing to a wider audience.

In literature, this tendency to cross over has presented literary genre experts with something of a dilemma as they attempt to keep up with additions to the literary canon. When faced with a new kind of literary work—one that contains literary elements drawn from two or more existing genres or from a new genre and an old one—some literary authorities have started to apply the jargon crossover to describe this kind of new genre.

Here are three examples of works that lend themselves to classification as crossover:

  • The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, which shows the world in the future when robots have become commonplace, is also the story of a detective, Elijah Baley, and his robot partner, Daneel Olivaw, who go about solving a murder. The book fits equally well into either the science fiction classification or the detective fiction classification.
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein is usually thought of as science fiction but it’s also political fiction.
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian is usually thought of as a nautical book, but it’s also period fiction or historical fiction literature.

Aristotle, the natural philosopher and purist that he is, most certainly would have disapproved of the modern trend favoring crossover genres; and Shakespeare made fun of crossovers in Hamlet. Believing Hamlet to be mad, the dotard Polonius patronizes him by enumerating the catalog of dramatic genres performed by a troop of itinerate actors hired by Hamlet to put on a play at Elsinor castle. It's the play that will "catch the conscience of the King." Polonius describes the acting troop to Hamlet in these words. He says of them,

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy,

history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral,

tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene

individable, or poem unlimited...


—Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Over objections by no lesser men than Aristotle and Shakespeare, it appears that crossover genres are here to stay.

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