Genre fiction

Genre fiction

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 readers and fans already familiar with 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 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 - the reviewing pages of the mainstream newspapers, for example - that favor literary fiction. The reviewing venues for genre fiction are primarily niche media: prozines (professional or industry fanzines), fanzines, and so on.

All fiction is essentially generic. But genre fiction is overtly and intentionally so, signalling its generic identity in the clearest possible terms. A horror novel, for example, makes it clear through its cover design, its blurb, the comments printed on the cover from other novelists, and so on, that it is a horror novel; and it will be shelved in the appropriate place in bookstores.

Genre fiction is often used interchangeably with the term "popular fiction", and generally distinguished from "literary fiction". A comprehensive discussion of these issues is found in Ken Gelder, "Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field" (2004). An excellent earlier discussion is John Sutherland, "Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s" (1981).

Genre conventions

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.

Screen writers have to love 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 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.

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" (although Mary Shelley is generally credited with having written the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein). Horror stories and mystery stories can both be traced in large measure to Edgar Allan Poe and a few others. It is possible also that Poe helped originate science fiction with such stories as 'The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall.'

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.

Age categories

Most genres of fiction may also be segmented by the age of the intended reader:
* Children's fiction
* Juvenile fiction
* Young-adult fiction
* Adult fiction

List of genres

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, traditionally (but no longer exclusively) aimed at male readers, features 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, spies and the like. Stories often include elements of technology, weapons, and other hardware, but may also include unarmed combat. The genre is still largely aimed towards a male audience (for example, the James Bond series is often categorized as action-adventure), but it also commonly includes female characters in active "action" roles, the most famous examples being the Bond Girls from the James Bond series, who are often just as capable in combat or weapons handling as their male counterparts. Many post-feminist works such as "" series even feature (conventionally attractive) women in roles more traditionally reserved for males, such as heroic bodyguards, though the femme fatale is still a notably frequent archetype in the genre.


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 it always contains criminal and detective settings.


Fantasy fiction features stories set in fanciful, invented worlds, an alternate and more fanciful version of our own world, or in a legendary, mythic past. Fantasy fiction stories generally involve magic, mystical elements, or supernatural creatures such as vampires. The genre's relatively loose definition means it includes a large number of works in styles ranging from pseudo-mythological epics ("Lord of the Rings") to more deliberately modern works (such as "Harry Potter" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), and includes works which also fall under other genres, such as horror fiction, comedy, action-adventure or Romance. Some works generally classified as fantasy fiction, such as Diane Duane's "Young Wizards" series, also include elements of Science fiction, and with many works revolving around psychics, ghosts, etc. being easily classified as either, some bookstores and critics tend to categorize the two genres together.


Horror fiction aims to evoke some combination of fear, fascination, and revulsion in its readers. This genre, like others, continues to develop, recently moving away from stories with a religious or supernatural basis to ones making use of medical or psychological ideologies.


Mystery fiction, technically involving stories in which characters try to discover a vital piece of information which is kept hidden until 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.

Realistic fiction

Realistic fiction is a type of fiction that could be percieved as nonfiction, but actually is not. At times, realistic fiction is based on true stories, with names and locations changed. They often reveal principles of human nature and life of a certain specified time as it truly is in a story that is not factual.


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.

cience fiction

Science fiction is defined more by setting details than by other story elements. Science fiction by definition includes extrapolated or theoretical future science and technology as a major component, and is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. Within these setting details, however, the conventions of almost any other genre may be used, including comedy, action-adventure and mystery. 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, and Harry Turtledove's "The Guns of the South" is another popular example. Of late, alternate history has come into its own as a distinctive and independent outgrowth from general science fiction. Both alternate history and science fiction are often referred to alongside fantasy fiction, magical realism and some horror fiction under the umbrella term speculative 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.

ee also

*formula fiction
*genre studies
*plot device
*stock character


* Forbes, Jamie M. (1998). "Fiction Dictionary". In Herman, Jeff, "Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents 1999–2000", pp. 861–871. Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing.
* Gelder, Ken (2004). "Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field". London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-35647-4
* cite book
last = Johnson-Woods
first = Toni
authorlink = Toni Johnson-Woods
year = 2005
title = Pulp: A collectors book of Australian pulp fiction covers
publisher = Australian National Library
location= Australia
id = ISBN 0-642-10766-1

* McKee, Robert (1997). "Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting". New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-039168-5.

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