Literary Fiction Genres
Genres Ab - Ch
Fiction Genre Definitions
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(Definitions and Examples)
The division of stories into genres is somewhat arbitrary, and began centuries ago with the advent of widespread printing; along with popular novels, serials, and short stories. Genres originate and fade quite slowly, while subgenres proliferate quickly, sometimes due to a single influential title.
Absurdist fiction sounds just like its name, stories with an air of weird unreality, and sometimes a quirky sort of humor. Passive, resigned-to-it protagonists are common. Kafka and Camus are regarded as deans of this genre. The novel A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, is a well-known example. (The fact that it was published by Toole's mother, after the author's own suicide, reflects the hopeless atmosphere invoked by many of these tales.)
Adventure (cliffhanger, Milesian, Robinsonade, swashbuckler)
Adventure fiction is a venerable description, well-named if now regarded as old-fashioned. Daring yet principled heroes plunge into larger-than-life roles, and rarely fail to save the day--along with a damsel in distress. The novels of H. Rider Haggard long dominated this genre. The Three Musketeers, by Alexander Dumas, is an oft-mentioned example.
Cliffhanger fiction was pioneered by early motion pictures, and the style has been adopted by several modern venues. In each short chapter the hero faces some drastic peril, but is immediately saved by some (often outrageous) personal feat, or plot twist.
Milesian fiction is a scholarly designation, of which the ancient Satyrica of Petronius is often cited as an example. The name derives from the Anatolian Greek city of Miletus, from which such an author was said to hail.
Robinsonade is another scholarly term (dating to 1731), a subgenre consisting of numerous stories written in imitation of Daniel Dafoe's famous 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. Numerous modern TV shows and movies utilize this same 'isolated island' premise, for example the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, from Nicolas Roeg.
Swashbuckler tales reach back to the 1500s, and its newer stories recall that past age of loyal and daring heroism. Alexander Dumas was the dean of this subgenre, and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is a great example. The "Indiana Jones" franchise, from George Lucas, is a modern example.
African-American fiction reflects the unique and powerful experiences and culture of that race. Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple stands out, and was filmed by Steven Spielberg. Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back are two great examples. This genre's authors and fictional characters are primarily Black.
Airport Novel is a purely descriptive term, common enough to merit a genre of its own. Busy travelers seek to pass the long hours, thus prefer easy and engaging stories--which can be finished before the journey is over. These stories overlap with several major genres, such as 'legal,' 'thriller,' and 'romance.' A Thin Dark Line, by Tami Hoag, is a good example. James Patterson's "Alex Cross" 'police procedural' novels are quick reads, page-turners with nonstop action and sparse details.
Allegorical stories are, no surprise, written as lengthy pointed allegories. Whether the author intended to or not, they are widely regarded as thinly-veiled social commentaries. George Orwell's novel Animal Farm is a potent example, while L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz was almost certainly an inadvertent one.
Alternative History is usually a subgenre of 'science fiction,' however there are enough literary novels with such a premise to merit a separate genre. An excellent example is The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon, in which a replacement Israel was established in rural Alaska.
Americana (road trip)
Such tales are celebrations of life and times in the United States, with close-up personal recitations of those quirks and traditions that make America special. These are often humorous, and based upon the author's real life. Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegon" franchise towers over this genre, while Tom Bodet, Erma Bombeck, and others have made great contributions.
Road Trip stories are exactly that, as the protagonists meet striking characters and unexpected situations on their back-road journey. Robert M. Pirsig's novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a fine example.
Asian-American fiction involves protagonists, and usually authors, who are Asian immigrants or their children. Specific traditions and cultural clashes are described in vivid terms, often based upon the author's personal experiences. Amy Tan's books and movies brought this genre to prominence, while Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" is another great example.
Autobiographical Fiction consists of an autobiography "written by" an invented protagonist. Sometimes this involves a disguised actual person (the author or some VIP), and sometimes it's wholly fictional. Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar is a frequently mentioned example. Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five is another good example, which overlaps into the 'absurdist' and 'science fiction' genres.
Bizarro fiction works overtime to invoke the strange and unreal, with one improbable (if not impossible) situation after another. These often overlap with 'fantasy,' 'science fiction,' and in darker versions, 'horror.' The seminal works of Carlton Mellick III are often mentioned. The novel HELP! A Bear is Eating Me!, by Mykle Hansen, is a clear example; and Jeff Burk's energetic novel Shatnerquake a humorous one.
These tales are set amidst those formal institutions, with their many and distinct traditions and lifestyles. Students come and go, while faculty members quarrel, as the old saying goes, "so viciously because so little is at stake." Mary McCarthy's novel The Groves of Academe helped solidify this genre, while Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, is a popular example. Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife overlaps with 'fantasy.' A rare story which features another campus denizen (a brilliant janitor) is the Matt Damon movie Good Will Hunting, from Gus Van Sant.
Varsity novels focus more on the student population, and Game On (A Varsity Novel), by Melanie Spring, is an oft-cited example.
Canadiana parallels the 'Americana' genre, with stories centered upon neighboring Canada, a nation and society that's externally similar yet with plenty of distinctions. These tales are not just set in Canada, or written by a Canadian author, but explore its people in tremendous depth. Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson, and Kamouraska, by Anne Hebert (originally written in Quebecois French) are famous examples.
Chick Lit (hen or matron lit, ethnic chick lit, etc.)
This popular genre emerged as a separate (soon highly popular) trend in the 1990s. The slang term "chick" has variously been derisive or merely descriptive, and these stories claim it for modern women, often (but not always) with a feminist flavor and a light-hearted First Person point of view. Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones's Diary helped launch the genre, and remains popular. Sophie Kinsella's The Undomesticated Goddess also fits the bill.
Hen, or Matron, Lit is a spinoff of 'chick lit' and focuses upon older women. Characters (and readers) from 40 to 60 are emphasized, along with their specific issues. Nancy Thayer's novel The Hot Flash Club is a clear example, and Kris Radish's The Elegant Gathering of White Snows is another.
Ethnic Chick Lit is another offspring, focused upon non-white protagonists. Some of these stories are set in countries other than America. The novel Dirty Girls on Top, by Alisa Valded-Rodriguez, takes place in Mexico.
Some reviewers mention several other varieties and offshoots of 'chick lit,' so this subgenre list may expand.
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Literary Fiction Genres