Saturday, March 21, 2009

What to Call the Baby: About Genres

This post is another one about a writer's vocabulary, and it’s very basic. I know some of you will be rolling your eyes, and I don’t blame you. (“Sheesh. Just how dumb does she think I am anyway?”) This is stuff you learned in high school, unless you hated English and spent class time daydreaming and looking out the window, in which case you might have missed some of it. So I apologize. My excuse is that I’m an English teacher and I have an obsession with “covering the material.”

You can skip the next two blog entries without doing irrevocable damage to your writing career, but at some point identifying your genre will become important. I wallowed around for a while trying to figure out the 'ins' and 'outs' of it. I still wallow, but I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that my novel doesn’t fit anywhere so it’s getting easier.

I promise to get to the good stuff in upcoming posts, but please humor me for just two more posts on genre talk, okay?


As I said in the previous post, genre is a type, or kind of writing. All writing falls into four very broad genre categories:

Poetry is anything that is written in some kind of poetic form. That’s a loose definition, I know, but modern poetry is not always easily categorized. A contemporary poem may or may not display rhyme or rhythm, but it should at least be formatted with an emphasis on lines rather than sentences or paragraphs. Every poem should also use poetic, or figurative, language and most poems also have a figurative, rather than a literal meaning.

Prose is easy. It’s any piece of writing that is not poetry, including both fiction and non-fiction. It’s more a “style” of writing than a “kind.”

Non-Fiction is writing that is literally or historically true, usually presented with little subjective interpretation by the author. Non-fiction writing could be historical accounts of events or people’s lives, including newspaper articles, biographies or autobiographies, or it could be a presentation of thoughts and ideas of the author on a specific “real” topic, such as “how-to” books or articles.

Fiction is writing that is the opposite of non-fiction. Though it might be inspired by actual facts, the story is an imaginative account that is only “real” in the mind of the writer and the reader.

NB: Some recent best-selling books have deliberately (and some would say dishonestly) blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction. The Da Vinci Code, mixes fiction and historical facts indiscriminately, which makes for interesting reading but the confusion that arises from the mixture can be disconcerting. Some memoirs also fit into this category. A Million Little Pieces sold a lot of copies and received rave reviews until someone discovered that the “memories” of this purportedly autobiographical memoir were fictitious. Most serious authors look sternly down their noses on this writing technique and do not respect authors who use it.

Categories of writing can be further broken down into genres. And this is where things really get confusing.


The most frustrating and confusing discussions about genre dance around the difference between literary and non-literary works. No one—not even the “experts”—have a complete handle on where the difference lies. Having said that, I will meekly attempt an explanation of the difference based on what I have learned in my university English classes and in writer’s conference workshops I’ve attended on the topic.

Strictly speaking, literary fiction uses figurative language much more deliberately than other kinds of fiction; the plot and characters are used to develop metaphorical as well as literal meanings; and literary fiction centers around universal themes about life and the human condition. Literary fiction is designed primarily to challenge the reader’s thinking and develop in him/her a deeper human experience. Entertainment is a secondary aim, if it is an aim at all, in literary fiction.

At the other extreme, what is generally called “pulp” fiction, or “pop” fiction is created for the sole purpose of entertainment. It provides an escape from real life, rather than an avenue into it. Pulp/pop fiction appeals to the masses and does nothing more for them than give them a respite from the harsh realities of the world they live in.

Fortunately, a broad category of writing that falls somewhere between literature and pulp fiction has developed, and that’s what most general readers are buying today. This style of writing makes some use of figurative language, reflects the complexities of real life, and deals with significant themes and issues, without being either "stuffy" or "fluffy." Today’s more sophisticated readers enjoy this middle ground and many, though not all, of the best sellers would fall into this category. And while the literary elite used to look down on the more non-literary styles as being unworthy of their place in the world of published writing, the prejudices are relaxing somewhat.

If you want to reach a large market audience, you’ll probably want to steer clear of writing purely literary pieces. And if you want to say something significant, you’ll want to avoid the pulp fiction market. Anything you want to say can be written for the more general market in any one (or three or four or five) of a number of genres.


There are a plethora of genres and sub-genres out there. Good luck at figuring them out. Romance, for example, is a general genre category with sub-genres galore (including such sub-categories as historical, contemporary, medical, Amish). Mysteries might include detective stories, police stories, or stories with humorous elements and happy endings, called “cozy mysteries,” such as the Murder She Wrote series. Sci/Fi is increasingly being sub-divided into separate Science Fiction and Fantasy categories with the recent upsurge of new fantasy writers and their huge following among younger readers. And non-fiction works fall into a whole other mess of sub-genres as well.

Wikipedia gives a great comprehensive list of writing genres. Check it out for more detailed information.

One more post coming tomorrow on the genre topic, then I promise to begin a rash of more practical entries. I'm especially keen to share some great tips for using Microsoft Word to streamline your writing/revision process. Please stay tuned.

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