We’ve looked at many literary genres during the course of this column. Which leaves one question to be answered — what is a genre anyway? Of course, it’s a kind of category, but how and why are those categories determined?
On a very basic level, all art forms are divided into types. So literature, verbal or written storytelling, can be very broadly divided into poetry, drama and prose. These are clearly different forms. Poetry is built on meter and rhyme, while drama is meant to be enacted, and prose uses ordinary grammatical structures and a flow of language that is similar to how we speak. These were the categories of literature identified by the ancient Greeks, and they further divided each of these into sub-categories or sub-genres. So you have tragedy, comedy and melodrama. You can also have mixtures of these sub-genres, like tragicomedy. If you go further into it, each of these has its own sub-sub-genres. For that matter, non-fiction taken as a genre can also be divided into reportage, essays, memoirs and many more.
It is useful to look at some things genre is not. Although we tend to treat YA (young adult) fiction and children’s fiction as a genre, it isn’t. It is only an indicator of the audience a literary work is meant for, because a book for teenagers, for instance, could easily be a comedy, a tragedy, a mystery novel, an adventure, or a romance. So defining the audience of a literary work does not define its genre; the Hunger Games books may be written for teens, but they belong to the genre of science fiction. Technique is not genre either. There are several techniques writers have created and used, from the regular third-person, past-tense narrative to stream of consciousness, Oulipo (maybe we will explore these in a future column!) and so on. These techniques tell you how a literary work has been written, but they don’t limit its subject matter.
And that’s what genre basically is — an indicator of the primary subject matter and tone of a literary work. And that is also why genres intersect and overlap. In fact, beyond a certain point you might say that genre is a bit meaningless.
Look at the great novels of Charles Dickens; they have a bit of everything in them. Tragedy, comedy, suspense, terror and joy. Many great works of literary art have this same breadth of range. The comedies of PG Wodehouse can also be said to be romances. The Harry Potter books are fantasy, but they are also school stories and coming of age stories and have elements of comedy, tragedy and romance.
So why do we divide books into genres at all? At some level, we needn’t. Looking at a book purely as an example of a genre can limit your understanding of both the book and the genre.
We are generally conditioned to think that ‘genre’ applies to books that are detective stories, or romances, or science fiction tales, books that follow a certain set of rules and are possibly limited by them. On the other hand ‘literary fiction’, the stuff which isn’t a part of these genres, is supposed to be completely unbounded by these kinds of elements, but many people argue that actually literary fiction is a recognisable genre of its own with certain common traits: social realism, an interest in the epiphanies experienced by individuals and an emphasis on prose craft. But you can find these qualities in genre fiction; crime fiction can engage with society in a very serious and real way, a fantasy novel can be about an individual’s own concerns and insights, science fiction can be beautifully written.
Some literary writers like Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson also write science fiction or fantasy and some genre writers, like the science fiction writer Iain Banks, also write literary fiction.
Genre is useful in arranging books in a library or bookstore. It’s useful for you as a reader to find stories similar to the ones you loved in the past, and this is why sub-genres like hardboiled mystery vs. cozy mystery can be really useful in helping you find the right book.
But it is also good to be aware of the limits of genre, to know that genres can be fluid and that you should always look beyond genre boundaries in your reading and even in your writing!