Genre fiction

From Academic Kids

Genre fiction is a term for writings by multiple authors that are very similar in theme and style, especially where these similarities are deliberately pursued by the authors. Well-known genres of fiction include romance, western, science-fiction, fantasy, crime fiction and mystery stories and novels.

Often as applied to written work the term "genre" is used pejoratively, suggesting not just similar writings but derivative and generally bad writing. Perhaps in connection with this, the term also suggests writing aimed at a particular audience of readers who are construed as having limited taste. It sometimes connotes a sort of literary "ghetto," to be contrasted with literature proper. Literary fiction is an antonym.

Since the older term popular fiction was also contrasted with literary fiction, but is showing signs of obsolescence, it makes a certain sense at least to raise the query whether genre fiction is not simply the sucessor term. That is not to suggest that popular fiction of previous generations was necessarily tied to specific genres. Much of it was in fact at least formulaic.


Definitions of genre fiction

Only certain sorts of frequently repeated settings and plot devices are labelled "genre fiction," and the selection so labelled is somewhat arbitrary. Stories about detectives, fantasies about romance, or tales of space aliens are usually considered genre fiction, while tales of adultery in academia (the campus novel), of growing up Jewish in America, or of Beatniks wandering the Midwest are not considered genre fiction, though they may well be clichés.

The attraction of genre fiction for both writer and reader is that using a genre plugs into a body of shared assumptions about the setting (generic conventions). The nature and purpose of dragons, warp drives, or shootouts at high noon are part of the body of shared lore that defines the genre; they need not be explained for the reader anew.


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 recognisable genre. Horror stories and mystery stories can both be traced in large measure to Edgar Allan Poe and a few others.

The period 1900-1910 is a fertile one for the development by professional writers (some of them unashamed hack writers) of fictional genres of models and character types; often these prototypes were tried out in periodicals, and formed the basis of later pulp fiction. These innovators (for example M. P. Shiel) are often now largely-forgotten figures.

Fantasy fiction

Much, perhaps most, contemporary fantasy is derivative of, or even plagiarised from, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The fantasy genre is, however, much older and protean.

It could be said that before Tolkien fantasy conventions had never been so clearly fixed. That would, though, be to omit the Gothic novel and ghost story. The supernatural fiction genre classification applies quite successfully to pre-Tolkien fantasy, to divide out science and adventure fiction from medieval or Celtic romances, ghost stories and horror in the sense of H. P. Lovecraft, whose Dream-Cycle could be considered dark fantasy. It was probably already obsolescent in the early 1950s when The Lord of the Rings was published. Michael Moorcock did much to revive alternate streams.

Crossover works

Many works of undisputed literary merit do in fact bear the characteristic traits of one or another genre. The result is that fans of the genre will tend to treat the work as one of their own and as showing the value of that genre; while those who look down on genre writing will tend to deny that the work in question belongs to that genre at all. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast are the works of science fiction and fantasy, respectively, most often taken seriously as literature in their own right outside of those genres; correspondingly critics are often hesitant to so classify them. A more extreme example would be Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, widely considered one of the most important novels of the century. It is never called science fiction, despite the fact that a great deal of fictional science is central to its plot.

Genre in general

The word "genre" also applies to film and television, but not to most others arts. On the other hand, popular media that are not generally treated as art are rarely categorized into genres either. This suggests again that "genres" are particularly categories of approaches to arts that are used as a simple tool for producing popular rather than good works.

See also: stock character, plot device, melodrama, formula fiction


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