Genre fiction

Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is plot-driven fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.[1] Genre fiction is generally distinguished from literary fiction. Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee defines genre conventions as the "specific settings, roles, events, and values that define individual genres and their subgenres".[2] 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. There is no consensus as to exactly what the conventions of any genre are, or even what the genres themselves are; assigning of works to genres is to some extent arbitrary and subjective.

Genre fiction is often controversially dismissed by literary critics as being pure escapism, clichéd, and of poor quality prose.[3]

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 sellers believe they will appeal, due to their high quality or other special characteristics, to a wider audience than merely the readers of that genre.

Genre fiction has received some degree of legitimacy, as authors formerly known for their literary fiction have written novels under pseudonyms.[4][5][6] Also, with the demise of the hardback book, distinctions between genre fiction and literary fiction may begin to blur, with appropriate changes in marketing.[7]

Though a production not promoted by secondary criticism it is popular literature that holds the largest market share. Romance fiction had an estimated $1.375 billion share in the US book market in 2007. Religion/inspirational literature followed with $819 million, science fiction/fantasy with $700 million, mystery with $650 million and then classic literary fiction with $466 million.[8]

History of genres

Genre began as an absolute classification system for ancient Greek literature. Poetry, prose, and drama each had a specific and calculated style that related to the theme of the story. Among the genres were the epic in poetry and tragedy and comedy for plays.[9] In later periods other genres such as the chivalric romance, opera, and prose fiction developed.

Though the novel is often seen as a modern genre, Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel (1957) suggests that the novel first came into being in the early 18th century,[10] it has also been described as possessing "a continuous and comprehensive history of about two thousand years", from the time of both Classical Greece and Rome.[11]

The "romance" is a closely related long prose narrative. Walter Scott defined it as "a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents", whereas in the novel "the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society".[12] However, many romances, including the historical romances of Scott,[13] Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights[14] and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick,[15] are also frequently called novels, and Scott describes romance as a "kindred term". Romance, as defined here, should not be confused with the genre fiction love romance or romance novel. Other European languages do not distinguish between romance and novel: "a novel is le roman, der Roman, il romanzo."[16]

Genre fiction developed from various subgenres of the novel (and its "romance" version) during the nineteenth century, along with the growth of the mass-marketing of fiction in the twentieth century: this includes the gothic novel, fantasy, science fiction, adventure novel, historical romance, and the detective novel. Some scholars see precursors to the genre fiction romance novels in literary fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, including Samuel Richardson's sentimental novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and the novels of Jane Austen such as Pride and Prejudice (1813).[17]

The genres

For a more comprehensive list, see List of literary genres.

The following are some of the main genres as they are used in contemporary publishing:


Main article: Crime fiction

Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct. Crime fiction has multiple subgenres,[18] including detective fiction (such as the whodunit), courtroom drama, hard-boiled fiction mystery fiction and legal thrillers. Suspense and mystery are key elements to the genre.


Main article: Fantasy

Fantasy is a genre of fiction that uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap among the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction. In popular culture, the fantasy genre is predominantly set in medieval times.


Main article: Romance novel

The romance novel or "romantic novel" primarily focuses on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending."[19] There are many subgenres of the romance novel including fantasy, historical, science fiction, same sex romantic fiction, and paranormal fiction.

There is a literary fiction form of romance, which Walter Scott defined as "a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents".[20]

According to Romance Writers of America's data,[21] the most important subgenres are: Contemporary series romance, Contemporary romance, Historical romance, Paranormal romance, Romantic suspense, Inspirational romance, Romantic suspense (series).

Science fiction

Main article: Science fiction

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction dealing with imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas".[22] It usually eschews the supernatural, and unlike the related genre of fantasy, historically science fiction stories were intended to have at least a faint grounding in science-based fact or theory at the time the story was created, but this connection has become tenuous or non-existent in much of science fiction.[23][24][25]


Main article: Western 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.


Main article: Inspirational fiction

Inspirational fiction is fictional works with faith-based themes. It may be targeted at a specific demographic, such as Christians. Modern inspirational fiction has grown to encompass non-traditional subgenres, such as inspirational thrillers.


Main article: Horror fiction

Horror fiction aims to frighten or disgust its readers. Although many horror novels feature supernatural phenomena or monsters, it is not required. Early horror took much inspiration from Romanticism and Gothic fiction. Modern horror, such as cosmic horror and splatterpunk, tends to be less melodramatic and more explicit. Horror is often mixed with other genres.

Critical appraisal and controversy

Although frequently ignored or ridiculed by literary critics, genre fiction has achieved a measure of acceptance among some modern critics, with Stephen King being awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters;[26] but this polarized opinions and led to debate on genre fiction's literary merit. Negative comments about genre fiction have sparked responses from Time,[3] Salon,[27] the Atlantic,[28] and the Los Angeles Review of Books.[29] In the 2000s, the BBC defended itself against charges that it had sneered at genre fiction,[30] while the Man Booker[31] and National Book Awards[32] have been criticized for ignoring genre fiction in their selection process.

Some critics, however, actually promote the reading of different kinds of genre fiction, suggesting that this may make readers more empathetic and relate better to others. They have further claimed that reading romance and suspense thrillers makes readers more sensitive, because these novels focus on interpersonal relationships.[33]

19th-century British genre fiction

Important developments occurred in genre fiction in this era.

Sir John Barrow's descriptive 1831 account of the Mutiny on the Bounty immortalised the Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty and her people. The legend of Dick Turpin was popularised when the 18th-century English highwayman's exploits appeared in the novel Rookwood in 1834.

Although pre-dated by John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River in 1841, the history of the modern fantasy genre is generally said to begin with George MacDonald, the influential author of The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes (1858). William Morris was a popular English poet who also wrote several fantasy novels during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Wilkie Collins' epistolary novel The Moonstone (1868), is generally considered the first detective novel in the English language, while The Woman in White is regarded as one of the finest sensation novels. H. G. Wells's (1866–1946) writing career began in the 1890s with science fiction novels like The Time Machine (1895), and The War of the Worlds (1898) which describes an invasion of late Victorian England by Martians, and Wells is seen, along with Frenchman Jules Verne (1828–1905), as a major figure in the development of the science fiction genre. He also wrote realistic fiction about the lower middle class in novels like Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr Polly (1910).

Penny dreadful publications were an alternative to mainstream works, and were aimed at working class adolescents, introducing the infamous Sweeney Todd. The premier ghost story writer of the 19th century was the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu. His works include the macabre mystery novel Uncle Silas 1865, and his Gothic novella Carmilla 1872, tells the story of a young woman's susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire. The vampire genre fiction began with John William Polidori's "The Vampyre" (1819). This short story was inspired by the life of Lord Byron and his poem The Giaour. An important later work is Varney the Vampire (1845), where many standard vampire conventions originated: Varney has fangs, leaves two puncture wounds on the neck of his victims, and has hypnotic powers and superhuman strength. Varney was also the first example of the "sympathetic vampire", who loathes his condition but is a slave to it.[34] Bram Stoker, yet another Irish writer, was the author of seminal horror work Dracula and featured as its primary antagonist the vampire Count Dracula, with the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing his arch-enemy. Dracula has been attributed to a number of literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, gothic novel and invasion literature.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Scotland of Irish parents but his Sherlock Holmes stories have typified a fog-filled London for readers worldwide

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant London-based "consulting detective", famous for his intellectual prowess, skilful use of astute observation, deductive reasoning and forensic skills to solve difficult cases. Holmes' archenemy Professor Moriarty, is widely considered to be the first true example of a supervillain, while Sherlock Holmes has become a by-word for a detective. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, from 1880 up to 1907, with a final case in 1914. All but four Conan Doyle stories are narrated by Holmes' friend, assistant, and biographer, Dr John H. Watson.

The Lost World literary genre was inspired by real stories of archaeological discoveries by imperial adventurers. H. Rider Haggard wrote one of the earliest examples, King Solomon's Mines in 1885. Contemporary European politics and diplomatic manoeuvrings informed Anthony Hope's swashbuckling Ruritanian adventure novels The Prisoner of Zenda 1894, and Rupert of Hentzau, 1898.

F. Anstey's comic novel Vice Versa 1882, sees a father and son magically switch bodies. Satirist Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat 1889, is a humorous account of a boating holiday on the river Thames. Grossmith brothers George & Weedon's Diary of a Nobody 1892, is also considered a classic work of humour.

20th-century genre fiction

Early twentieth-century

Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands 1903, defined the spy novel and Follett has also called it "the first modern thriller."[35]

Emma Orczy (Baroness Orczy)'s The Scarlet Pimpernel was originally a highly successful play in 1905. The novel The Scarlet Pimpernel was published soon after the play opened and was an immediate success. Orczy gained a following of readers in Britain and throughout the world. The popularity of the novel, which recounted the adventures of a member of the English gentry in the French Revolutionary period, encouraged her to write a number of sequels for her "reckless daredevil" over the next 35 years. The play was performed to great acclaim in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, while the novel was translated into 16 languages. Subsequently, the story has been adapted for television, film, a musical and other media. Her stories about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard were an early example of a female detective as main character. Her character The Old Man in the Corner was among the earliest armchair detectives to be created.

John Buchan wrote adventure novels Prester John (1910) and four telling the adventures of Richard Hannay, of which the first, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is the best known. Novels featuring a gentleman adventurer were popular between the wars, exemplified by the series of H. C. McNeile with Bulldog Drummond 1920, and Leslie Charteris, whose many books chronicled the adventures of Simon Templar, alias The Saint.

The medieval scholar M. R. James wrote highly regarded ghost stories in contemporary settings.

This was called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Agatha Christie, a writer of crime novels, short stories and plays, is best remembered for her 80 detective novels and her successful West End theatre plays. Christie's works, particularly those featuring the detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, made her one of the most important and innovative writers in the development of the genre. Her most influential novels include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 1926 (one of her most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending had a significant impact on the genre), Murder on the Orient Express 1934, Death on the Nile 1937 and And Then There Were None 1939. Other female writers dubbed "Queens of crime" include Dorothy L. Sayers (gentleman detective, Lord Peter Wimsey), Margery Allingham (Albert Campion – supposedly created as a parody of Sayers' Wimsey,[36]) and New Zealander Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn). Georgette Heyer created the historical romance genre, and also wrote detective fiction.

A major work of science fiction, from the early 20th century, is A Voyage to Arcturus by Scottish writer David Lindsay, first published in 1920. It combines fantasy, philosophy, and science fiction in an exploration of the nature of good and evil and their relationship with existence. It has been described by critic and philosopher Colin Wilson as the "greatest novel of the twentieth century",[37] and was a central influence on C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy.[38] Also J. R. R. Tolkien said he read the book "with avidity", and praised it as a work of philosophy, religion, and morality.[39] It was made widely available in paperback form when published as one of the precursor volumes to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in 1968.

From the early 1930s to late 1940s, an informal literary discussion group associated with the English faculty at the University of Oxford, were the "Inklings". Its leading members were the major fantasy novelists; C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Lewis is known for The Screwtape Letters 1942, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy, while Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit 1937, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

Later twentieth-century

In thriller writing, Ian Fleming created the character James Bond 007 in January 1952, while on holiday at his Jamaican estate, Goldeneye. Fleming chronicled Bond's adventures in twelve novels, including Casino Royale 1953, Live and Let Die 1954, Dr. No 1958, Goldfinger 1959, Thunderball 1961, The Spy Who Loved Me 1962, and nine short story works.

In contrast to the larger-than-life spy capers of Bond, John le Carré was an author of spy novels who depicted a shadowy world of espionage and counter-espionage, and his best known novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 1963, is often regarded as one of the greatest in the genre. Frederick Forsyth writes thriller novels, including The Day of the Jackal 1971, The Odessa File 1972, The Dogs of War 1974 and The Fourth Protocol 1984. Ken Follett writes spy thrillers, his first success being Eye of the Needle 1978, followed by The Key to Rebecca 1980, as well as historical novels, notably The Pillars of the Earth 1989, and its sequel World Without End 2007. Elleston Trevor is remembered for his 1964 adventure story The Flight of the Phoenix, while the thriller novelist Philip Nicholson is best known for Man on Fire. Peter George's Red Alert 1958, is a Cold War thriller.

War novels include Alistair MacLean thriller's The Guns of Navarone 1957, Where Eagles Dare 1968, and Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed 1975. Patrick O'Brian's nautical historical novels feature the Aubrey–Maturin series set in the Royal Navy, the first being Master and Commander 1969.

The "father of Wicca" Gerald Gardner began propagating his own version of witchcraft in the 1950s. Having claimed to have been initiated into the New Forest coven in 1939, Gardner published his books Witchcraft Today 1954 and The Meaning of Witchcraft 1959, the foundational texts for the religion of Wicca. Ronald Welch's Carnegie Medal winning novel Knight Crusader is set in the 12th century and gives a depiction of the Third Crusade, featuring the Christian leader and King of England Richard the Lionheart.

In crime fiction, the murder mysteries of Ruth Rendell and P. D. James are popular.

Nigel Tranter wrote historical novels of celebrated Scottish warriors; Robert the Bruce in The Bruce Trilogy, and William Wallace in The Wallace 1975, works noted by academics for their accuracy.

Science fiction

John Wyndham wrote post-apocalyptic science fiction, his most notable works being The Day of the Triffids 1951, and The Midwich Cuckoos 1957. George Langelaan's The Fly 1957, is a science fiction short story. Science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, is based on his various short stories, particularly The Sentinel. His other major novels include Rendezvous with Rama 1972, and The Fountains of Paradise 1979. Brian Aldiss is Clarke's contemporary. Michael Moorcock, (1962) is a writer, primarily of science fiction and fantasy, who has also published a number of literary novels. He was involved with the 'New Wave' of science fiction writers "part of whose aim was to invest the genre with literary merit"[40] Similarly J. G. Ballard (1930– ) "became known in the 1960s as the most prominent of the 'New Wave' science fiction writers".[41] A later major figure in science fiction was Iain M. Banks who created a fictional anarchist, socialist, and utopian society the Culture. The novels that feature in it include Excession 1996, and Inversions 1998. He also published mainstream novels, including the highly controversial The Wasp Factory in 1984. Nobel prize winner Doris Lessing also published a sequence of five science fiction novels the Canopus in Argos: Archives between 1979 and 1983.


Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series of comic fantasy novels, that begins with The Colour of Magic 1983, and includes Mort 1987, Hogfather 1996, and Night Watch 2002. Pratchett's other most notable work is the 1990 novel Good Omens.

Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials comprises Northern Lights 1995, The Subtle Knife 1997, and The Amber Spyglass 2000. It follows the coming-of-age of two children as they wander through a series of parallel universes against a backdrop of epic events.

Neil Gaiman is a writer of science fiction, fantasy short stories and novels, whose notable works include Stardust 1998, Coraline 2002, The Graveyard Book 2009, and The Sandman series.

Alan Moore's works include Watchmen, V for Vendetta set in a dystopian future UK, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell, speculating on the identity and motives of Jack the Ripper.

Douglas Adams wrote the five-volume science fiction comedy series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and also wrote the humorous fantasy detective novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.


Clive Barker horror novels include The Hellbound Heart 1986, and works in fantasy, Weaveworld 1987, Imajica and Abarat 2002.

Age categories

Most genres of fiction may also be segmented by the age of the intended reader:

See also


  1. French, Christy Tillery. "Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction". AuthorsDen. Retrieved 10 April 2013.
  2. McKee, Robert (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: HarperCollins. p. 87. ISBN 0-06-039168-5.
  3. 1 2 Grossman, Lev (23 May 2012). "Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology". Time. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  4. Merritt, Stephanie (14 February 2010). "Forget 'serious' novels, I've turned to a life of crime". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  5. STASIO, MARILYN (20 April 2008). "Next Victim". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  6. KAKUTANI, MICHIKO (21 November 1989). "Critic's Notebook; Kill! Burn! Eviscerate! Bludgeon! It's Literary Again to Be Horrible.". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  7. Hill, Dave (26 November 2007). "Comment is free: Hard to say goodbye". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  8. See the page Romance Literature Statistics: Overview (visited March 16, 2009) of Romance Writers of America homepage. The subpages offer further statistics for the years since 1998.
  9. Hadas, Moses (1950). A History of Greek Literature. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  10. "Literary critic Ian Watt dies after a long illness". Stanford News Service. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
  11. Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996, rept. 1997, p. 1. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
  12. "Essay on Romance", Prose Works volume vi, p.129, quoted in "Introduction" to Walter Scott's Quentin Durward, ed. Susan Maning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.xxv.
  13. "Introduction" to Walter Scott's Quentin Durward, ed. Susan Maning, pp.xxv-xxvii.
  14. Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers[1976] (London: The Women’s Press, 1978)
  15. Robert McCrum, "The Hundred best novels: Moby Dick", The Observer, Sunday 12 January 2014.
  16. Doody (1996), p. 15.
  17. Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  18. Franks, Rachel (2011). "May I Suggest Murder?: An Overview of Crime Fiction for Readers' Advisory Services Staff". Australian Library Journal. 60 (2). Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  19. "The Romance Genre Overview". Romance Writers of America. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
  20. Walter Scott, "Essay on Romance", Prose Works volume vi, p. 129, quoted in "Introduction" to Walter Scott's Quentin Durward, Susan Maning, ed Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  21. Romance Writers of America
  22. Marg Gilks; Paula Fleming; Moira Allen (2003). "Science Fiction: The Literature of Ideas".
  23. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 6, 2015. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
  24. "Media and Imagination: A Short History of American Science Fiction". Retrieved 2015-12-17.
  25. Misa (2013-03-25). "Does the Science in Science Fiction Matter?". Misa Buckley. Retrieved 2015-12-17.
  26. "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters ", National Book Foundation, Retrieved March 11, 2011.
  27. Nelson, Erik. "Stephen King: You can be popular and good". Salon. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  28. Jacobs, Alan. "A Defense of Stephen King, Master of the Decisive Moment". The Atlantic. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  29. Dickey, Colin. "King & I: Stephen King and a Balanced Diet". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  30. Flood, Alison (21 April 2011). "BBC denies 'sneering' at genre fiction". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  31. Flood, Alison (18 September 2009). "Science fiction author hits out at Booker judges". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  32. Miller, Laura. "National Book Awards: Genre fiction dissed again". Salon. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  33. Fong, K., Mullin, J.B., & Mar, R.A. (2013). "What you read matters: The role of fiction genre in prediction interpersonal sensitivity". Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts, 7(4), 370-376.
  34. Skal, David J. (1996). V is for Vampire, p.99. New York: Plume. ISBN 0-452-27173-8.
  35. Follett, Ken (2016). "The Art of Suspense". Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  36. "The Great Detectives: Albert Campion". Strand Mag.
  37. Book Review: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay – Review by Paul M. Kieniewicz 2003
  38. Kathryn Lindskoog – A Voyage to Arcturus, C. S. Lewis, and The Dark Tower
  39. "".
  40. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, p.674.
  41. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, p.64.

Further reading

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