CHENNAI: One of the main reasons I wrote this column was to introduce you to various literary genres. Now I’d like to go full circle and discuss genres in general, why they exist and what they are good for.
During ancient times, people realised that a good story needed to have one overall mood or tone. In Greek and Indian literary traditions, stories are divided into categories like tragedy and comedy. Each such fundamental genre implies a certain emotional content. It also implies a certain message to the audience.
Stories about injustice or about mistakes that people make are more conducive to tragedy, and the mood of tragedy is sad but also somehow noble and fateful. Comedy, on the other hand, revolves around hilarious misunderstandings, foolish behaviour and even wordplay. It can be anarchic, showing up the follies of leaders or of our society, or it can simply be a cheerful vacation from stress.
Today, there are several genres, based on the setting and the stories themselves. Each genre is capable of creating different moods and conveying different messages.
What we call literary fiction is a kind of genre of its own. It is usually set in contemporary times and is realistic in intent. It is focused on people, their personal struggles
and victories, and on conveying a sense of the larger currents against which their lives take place. Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a good example of this kind of story. It follows the fortunes of a small group of characters against the background of the Biafra conflict. It gives us a picture of each of these people’s personalities and experiences, and as a whole, it gives us a vivid panorama of the conflict in a way that a history account cannot. But literary novels do not always have to be set against dramatic events — Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse finds a world of internal drama set around a simple family outing.
Historical fiction is set in days gone by, in centuries past. It can be written for a variety of reasons. Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances evoke the glamour of the past and set romantic novels against a dramatic sense of the past. Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael books are detective novels featuring a medieval monk. The thrill of solving mysteries is added to the fascination of a detailed picture of life in those times. Then there are historical novels that dovetail with literary fiction, like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, which gives us a vivid portrait of the Roman emperor Claudius. Such novels often have a message or an opinion to convey about the past, and by implication, the present.
Science fiction doesn’t just have to be about space exploration; it is any story based on speculation of a scientific or futuristic kind. Science fiction stories can express our hopes for the future, like Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, or they can imagine how technology will change our lives, as in William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels. They can examine political or philosophical ideas, as in the novels of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel R Delany or they can paint pictures of catastrophic futures as in the many novels of J G Ballard.
Fantasy and horror are almost two sides of the same coin. While fantasy writers from JRR Tolkien to R R Martin explore worlds of struggle, heroism, and magic, horror stories focus on the dark side of fantasy — whether it’s H P Lovecraft’s elder gods from outer space (which can also be linked to science fiction) or the multifold terrors of Stephen King’s books.
Fantasy stories can convey a sense of wonder and epic grandeur, while horror stories seek to unsettle us, either through simple revulsion or a more profound sense of cosmic unease.
You may have noticed that I have already pointed out ways in which genres can intersect.
Literary novels like Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being can also be speculative fiction, and there are novels that defy categorisation, like the books of Italo Calvino or Thomas Pynchon.
I haven’t even ventured into the mystery or comic fiction genres. The point though, is that genres are both useful and limiting. They are useful because they create mood, make you have expectations and prepare you to explore one set of ideas. Going beyond the limits of genre is fascinating too, as it allows for a greater range of ideas. The trick is to understand what each genre is best at and go beyond that — both as a reader and as a writer.