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Literature

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What Are the Different Fiction Genres?

By Alan Rankin
Updated: May 23, 2024

Fiction genres are categories used to classify different kinds of narrative storytelling. Although fiction means any story that did not actually occur, in general use it usually refers to written literature. Fiction genres are subdivisions of literature based on the kinds of plot elements common to each genre. The term genre fiction is sometimes used disparagingly to differentiate popular fiction from high literary works. Popular fiction genres include mystery, science fiction, and romance. The Western, fantasy, and horror fiction are also enduring genres, as is the more classic literary fiction.

Storytelling in one form or another has existed since prehistory; in the eras before written language, verbal narratives were passed from one generation to the next. The earliest written works were often true stories embellished with fictional, or invented, elements. Examples include The Odyssey of Homer and The Epic of Gilgamesh. The novel began as a literary form in the 1700s. By the late 19th century, there were so many forms of fiction that some writers specialized in certain topics, or genres.

American writer Edgar Allan Poe invented the mystery story with The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Other writers, including Englishman Arthur Conan Doyle, continued and perfected the mystery, a literary puzzle based around the details of a murder or another crime. Poe also mastered horror fiction, a genre pioneered by earlier writers such as Mary Shelley. Although elements of these stories had existed for centuries, they were not truly fiction genres until the late 19th century. Twentieth century masters of horror included H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Stephen King.

Another 19th century literary master was Jules Verne, a French novelist specializing in tales of fantastic adventure. He and British writer H.G. Wells pioneered the field of science fiction, one of the dominant literary forms of the decades to follow. Cheap so-called pulp magazines of the early 20th century specialized in these tales of possibility; this specialization by the pulps helped create the field of fiction genres. Other pulps focused on tales of the American frontier, where writers like Zane Grey and Max Brand created the Western genre.

Romantic fiction, tales of love against the odds, also got its start in the pulp magazines, eventually becoming one of the most lucrative fiction genres of the late 20th century. By this time, it was standard practice for bookstores to divide fiction sections by genre. Other genres with wide popularity included fantasy fiction, religious fiction, and erotica. In the 21st century, the variety of material available led to new hybrid genres, such as supernatural romance. Literary fiction is sometimes considered its own separate genre.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On May 25, 2014

@croydon - I don't actually think it matters all that much. For the most part, all my favorite books could be called science fiction or they could be called literary fiction. I look in both sections in the bookstore in order to find what I want.

I actually think the best books tell an engaging story with wonderful writing techniques in service to that. But it is helpful to know whether the fiction is speculative or based in history or whether the characters are going to have a happy ending.

By croydon — On May 24, 2014

@MrsPramm - From what I've been told the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is that one concentrates on the story and the other concentrates on the telling of the story. So there are many best sellers that might not display the best writing technique in the world, but certainly sweep readers up in the story.

And there are many literary classics that modern folk find very dull, but which are still considered valuable and enlightening because of what they say and how they say it.

By MrsPramm — On May 23, 2014

Genres are really just methods for booksellers and librarians to classify books. It always seems as though people get hung up on the idea of genre and discount excellent books because they meet certain expectations.

There are particular characteristics of most fiction genres, that's true. But great authors can create great literature within those boundaries. I mean, Pride and Prejudice could be called a classic romance, but it is also a literary classic. It doesn't need to be limited by genre.

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