From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- It can be argued that all novels, no matter how "literary", also fall within the bounds of one or more genres. Thus Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a romance; Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller; and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story. These novels would usually be stocked in the general or possibly the classics section of a bookstore. Indeed, many works now regarded as literary classics were originally written as genre novels.
Genre fiction is a term for fictional works (novels, short stories) written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre in order to appeal to the fans of that genre. In contemporary fiction-publishing, genre is an elastic term used to group works sharing similarities of character, theme, and setting—such as mystery, romance, or horror—that have been proven to appeal to particular groups of readers. Genres continuously evolve, divide, and combine as readers' tastes change and writers search for fresh ways to tell stories. Classic romance novels, such as those written by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen in the nineteenth century, continue to enjoy popularity today in the form of both books and movies. Despite its popularity, genre fiction is often overlooked by institutions that favor literary fiction.
By definition, works of a given genre follow, more or less, the conventions of that genre. The American screenwriting teacher Robert McKee defines genre conventions as the "specific settings, roles, events, and values that define individual genres and their subgenres." These conventions, always fluid, are usually implicit, but sometimes are made into explicit requirements by publishers of fiction as a guide to authors seeking publication.
For example, a romance magazine may specify in its guidelines to writers that it is seeking stories of a certain length with a science-fiction, fantasy, or paranormal theme in which the story conflict is resolved through the mutual attraction of the hero and heroine. The guidelines may state that the story must have a happy ending and specify what level of explicitness in the love scenes is acceptable. Writers seeking publication in the magazine would have to ensure that their stories conformed to the guidelines—the closer the conformity, the greater their likelihood of being published. The publisher, for its part, is trying to meet the desires of its readers, who often have strong and specific expectations of the publisher's stories. Such "made-to-measure" writing is genre fiction in its purest form.
Most fiction writing, especially of novel length, does not conform so tightly to the conventions of a genre. Indeed, there is no consensus as to exactly what the conventions of any genre are, or even what the genres themselves are. Writers, publishers, marketers, booksellers, libraries, academics, critics, and readers may all have different ways of classifying fiction, and any of these classifications might be termed a genre. (For example, one arguable genre of genre fiction—the airport novel—takes its name not from the subjects of its stories, but from the market where it is sold.) It is beyond doubt that readers have preferences for certain types of stories, and that there are writers and publishers who try to cater to those preferences, but the term genre remains amorphous, and the assigning of works to genres is to some extent arbitrary and subjective.
Genre and the marketing of fiction
In the publishing industry the term "category fiction" is often used as a synonym for genre fiction, with the categories serving as the familiar shelf headings within the fiction section of a bookstore, such as Western or mystery.
The uncategorized section is known in the industry as "general fiction", but in fact many of the titles in this usually large section are often themselves genre novels that have been placed in the general section because booksellers believe they will appeal, due to their high quality or other special characteristics, to a wider audience than merely the readers of that genre. For example, the novels of Sue Grafton, featuring the private investigator Kinsey Millhone, are mystery novels that are often stocked in the "general fiction" section of bookstores.
Genre fiction and literary fiction
The term "genre fiction" is sometimes used as a pejorative antonym of literary fiction, which is presumed to have greater artistic merit and higher cultural value. In this view, by comparison with literary fiction, genre fiction is thought to be formulaic, commercial, sensational, melodramatic, and sentimental. By extension, the readers of genre fiction—the mass audience—are supposed to have coarser, less educated taste in literature than readers of literary fiction. Genre fiction is then, essentially, thought to be the literature that appeals to the mass market.
But from another point of view, literary fiction itself is simply another category or genre. That is, it can be thought of as having conventions of its own, such as use of an elevated, poetic, or idiosyncratic prose style; or defying readers' plot expectations; or making use of particular theoretical or philosophical ideas as well as having a niche audience, "generic" packaging and "superstar" authors.The publishing industry itself treats literary fiction as one category among others.
In addition, it can be argued that all novels, no matter how "literary", also fall within the bounds of one or more genres. Thus Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a romance; Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller; and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story. These novels would usually be stocked in the general or possibly the classics section of a bookstore. Indeed, many works now regarded as literary classics were originally written as genre novels.
Genre fiction and popular fiction
The term popular fiction, formerly contrasted with literary fiction, is no longer often used. It appears that genre fiction is essentially a successor term.
The evolution of fiction genres
Since the beginning of literature it has been acknowledged that there are different types or categories of created work. Poetry, a form of literature older than prose, was in ancient times divided into narrative, dramatic, and lyric forms. Narrative poetry, at least as it was first written (as opposed to recited or sung), was primarily epic. Dramatic poetry came to be divided into tragedy and comedy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics for the first time named story genres by categorizing dramas according to the value-charge of their endings and the design of their stories.
Many fiction genres can be traced to a small number of important or extremely popular literary works written before that genre came into existence. "Genre" fiction is portrayed as those works that seek, in some degree, just to emulate these paradigms. Science fiction began with Jules Verne and then H. G. Wells, as a recognizable genre. Horror stories and mystery stories can both be traced in large measure to Edgar Allan Poe and a few others.
The period 1900–1910 was fertile for the development, by writers such as M. P. Shiel, of fiction genres and character types. Often these appeared in periodicals, which eventually became the pulp magazines of the early 20th century.
The genres of genre fiction
As noted, there are many different ways of labeling and defining fiction genres. Following are some of the main genres as they are used in contemporary publishing:
Action-adventure fiction, appealing mainly to male readers, feature physical action and violence, often around a quest or military-style mission set in exotic or forbidding locales such as jungles, deserts, or mountains. The conflict typically involves commandos, mercenaries, terrorists, smugglers, pirates, and the like. Stories include elements of courage, male bonding, and betrayal, as well as lore on technology, weapons, and other hardware.
Crime fiction stories, centered on criminal enterprise, are told from the point of view of the perpetrators. They range in tone from lighthearted "caper" stories to darker plots involving organized crime or incarcerated convicts.
Detective fiction has become almost synonymous with mystery. These stories relate the solving of a crime, usually one or more murders, by a protagonist who may or may not be a professional investigator. This large, popular genre has many subgenres, reflecting differences in tone, character, and setting.
Fantasy fiction features stories set in fanciful, invented worlds or in a legendary, mythic past. The stories themselves are often epics or quests, frequently involving magic. The enormous popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novel and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels demonstrates the wide appeal of this genre.
Horror fiction aims to evoke some combination of fear, fascination, and revulsion in its readers. This genre, like others, continues to evolve, recently moving away from stories with a religious or supernatural basis to ones making use of medical or psychological ideas.
Mystery fiction, technically involving stories in which characters try to discover a vital piece of information which is kept hidden till the climax, is now considered by many people almost a synonym for detective fiction. The standard novel stocked in the mystery section of bookstores is a whodunit.
Romance is currently the largest and best-selling fiction genre in North America. It has produced a wide array of subgenres, the majority of which feature the mutual attraction and love of a man and a woman as the main plot, and have a happy ending. This genre, much like fantasy fiction, is broad enough in definition that it is easily and commonly seen combined with other genres, such as comedy, fantasy fiction, realistic fiction, or action-adventure.
Science fiction is defined more by setting than by other story elements. With a few exceptions, stories set out of Earth or in the future qualify as science fiction. Within these settings, the conventions of almost any other genre may be used. A sub-genre of science fiction is alternate history where, for some specific reason, the history of the novel deviates from the history of our world. Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts was an influential early alternate history, Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South a popular example. Of late, alternate history has come in its own as distinct and having an independent existence from science fiction generally.
A thriller is a story intended to evoke strong feelings of suspense and danger, usually involving a high-stakes hunt, chase, or a race against time. Thrillers often involve espionage, crime, medicine, or technology. Sub-genres of thriller fiction often overlap with detective and action-adventure fiction.
Western fiction is defined primarily by being set in the American West in the second half of the 19th century, and secondarily by featuring heroes who are rugged, individualistic horsemen (cowboys). Other genres, such as romance, have subgenres that make use of the Western setting.
Though not as widely acknowledged as works of genre fiction, less conventional genres like comic books and video games often follow certain patterns and conventions which make them appeal to selected audiences.
Many works of undisputed literary merit do in fact bear the characteristic traits of one or another genre. The result is that fans of the genre will tend to treat the work as one of their own and as showing the value of that genre; while those who look down on genre writing will tend to deny that the work in question belongs to that genre at all. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast are the works of science fiction and fantasy, respectively, most often taken seriously as literature in their own right outside of those genres; correspondingly critics are often hesitant to so classify them. A more extreme example would be Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, widely considered one of the most important novels of the century. It is never called science fiction, despite the fact that a great deal of fictional science is central to its plot. Such marginal works often receive the designation of experimental fiction, magical realism or slipstream.