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Literary Fiction Genres

Genres Ab - Ch

Fiction Genre Definitions

Genres Cl-Fa

(Definitions and Examples)

Most readers have a favorite genre, while only the most avid reader is well-versed in every major genre. For reasons open to debate, genres such as Romance are enjoyed almost exclusively by women, and Westerns largely by men. Science Fiction, and several other genres, are gaining more female fans and authors.

Classic Inspirational refers to older, or old-fashioned styled, stories which aim to raise each reader above their humdrum mortal life. There's a lot of overlap with the 'Christian' or 'spiritual' genres, and some overlap with 'romance.' John Bunyan's classic 1678 novel Pilgrim's Progress helped launch this genre in English. Jodi Picault's more-modern novel Keeping Faith takes a deep look at the phenomenon of spiritual healing.

Coming of Age stories follow the protagonist on their journey to adulthood--and it's never easy. Many of these stories focus on lives that are hardly commonplace. Peter Cameron's novel Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You is a recent example, and Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus a famous one. Countless TV shows follow growing families through numerous adventures.
Bildungsroman stories are a subset, which focus more on the main character's education and development. (It's a German word.) Goethe's 1796 novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship helped launch this genre, while Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game is full of profound ideas.

Commercial Fiction is a completely descriptive and very wide genre. Its focus is on simple, easily-stated book concepts and plots, while the literary style is elevated above 'mainstream' fiction. Often these titles benefit from heavy marketing. The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller, is a frequently cited example.

Constrained fiction is a small and hard-to-define genre. Such stories are said to adhere to specific (unusual or difficult) writing techniques, as defined by an author or publisher. One example could be Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian, which is written entirely in clipped sentences and sentence fragments, with no spoken (within "quotes") dialog at all.

Coterie or Cult Novel fiction is said to have an intellectual or elitist appeal. Comfort or ease are not factors, rather their intensity, plus the reader's challenge of grasping them. The works of James Joyce are often mentioned, while Djuna Barnes's novel Nightwood is another example.

Crime stories focus on that uniquely human aspect of life and society. These usually overlap with the 'thriller' or 'detective' and 'mystery' genres, however there's often no mystery, and/or the crime is not solved or the perpetrator caught. Numerous print and filmed examples abound. Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg's novel The Job is a recent one.
Gang or Mafia stories focus on organized crime, often making an anti-hero out of criminals and crime lords. Francis Ford Coppola's classic "The Godfather" franchise dominates this subgenre, while the "West Side Story" play and film depict a now innocent-seeming era.
Newgate novels were a narrow subgenre, focused on London's infamous Newgate Prison. Edward Bulwer's 1830 novel Paul Clifford was the first of many similar (and controversial) books. W. H. Ainsworth's novel Rookwood overlaps with the 'historical romance' subgenre. Oddly, when those books came out, that prison had long since been destroyed in a fire.
Renegade Cop tales focus upon such unsavory characters, often portraying them as anti-heroes. James Elroy's novel L.A. Noir is one example, which has a broad crossover with the 'noir mystery' subgenre.)
Sensation novels were a direct affront to Victorian sensibilities, and became rather controversial in England, during the 1860s and onward. They were explicitly intended to give a thrill, and new publishing techniques allowed them to be sold cheaply. Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White launched that subgenre. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Queen of the Circulating Libraries is another example.

Decadent fiction stems largely from France and England, and the title describes them well. This genre features characters who are bored with ordinary life, and spend their wealth seeking pleasure, especially in carnal and degenerate ways. Against Nature, by Joris-Karl Huysmans, is a prime example. Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief is one American example.

Detective fiction is a popular literary form, though an unnecessary designation, since all such tales are a subgenre of the 'mystery' (sometimes called the 'crime') genre. The protagonist is always a detective of some type, whether official or private or amateur, sometimes even an animal or AI computer program. In any event, the crime is nearly always solved. Agatha Christie's "Hercule Poirot" franchise is a great example.

Dickensian fiction is a controversial description, consisting of stories said to resemble the great works of Charles Dickens. That verbose author had numerous contemporaries, though none as successful. Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch is often cited as a recent example.

Drama or Realistic fiction takes ordinary people in everyday situations, and makes things interesting. Its characters are people the reader might easily know. One excellent example, which overlaps with the 'young adult' genre, is John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars. Another popular example is The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout.
Over-the-top fiction is difficult to define. (This particular genre is not about satire, or bizarre situations.) Most such tales push extra-hard to make a specific point, or to illustrate a certain social condition. The novels of Don DeLillo come to mind.

Economic or Financial fiction deals with money and trading and economics, whether in theory or in practice. Its main characters are engaged in such activities, for better or worse. Jane H. Marcet's Glamorgan Essays, from the 1830s, utilized fiction to explain difficult economic topics. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is an oft-mentioned example. The Kevin Bacon movie Quicksilver, from Thomas Michael Donnelly, illustrates modern financial trading without being too heavy-handed.

Ecotopian or Cli-fi fiction centers on the Earth's environment and humanity's relation to it, whether disastrous or (usually in the future) harmonious. It's often regarded as a subgenre of 'science fiction,' however there is enough of a variety to warrant a separate genre. Harry Harrison's short story "Make Room! Make Room!" was filmed as Soylent Green, set in a ruinous overpopulated world. On the flip side, Ernest Callenbach's novel Ecotopia, and its prequel Ecotopia Arising, depict an idyllic green near-future society. {Full disclosure: your friendly webmaster and his schoolmates had a cameo appearance in Ecotopia.}

Erotica fiction is all about the sex, and many of these stories make full use of their status as fictional. There are countless examples, vastly more online, and fans have listed several dozen subgenres. A famous literary example is Delta de Venus, by Anais Nin. D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover is another.
Chinese erotic novels are well-known enough (in translation) to warrant a subgenre. The classic novel The Golden Lotus, by Wang Shih-cheng, stands out as serious literature, even without its erotic content. The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction depicts China's only (real life) woman Emperor, with court intrigue plus graphic sex.
Contemporary erotica almost completely overlaps with the 'romance' genre, when it's not outright written pornography.
Early works go back as long as there has been written language. In English, John Cleland's Fanny Hill was extremely controversial -- in the London of 1748.
Faux Memoirs are common, and in this subgenre aren't pretending to be real, but rather decribe the protagonist's sexual exploits. The Story of O, by Anne Desclos, is a famous example.
Fetish and BDSM tales emphasize the more outre and kinky aspects of sexuality, some with open praise, and some revealing terrible brutality. (Many, but far from all, overlap with the 'sensual romance' subgenre.) The Siren, by Tiffany Reitz, is a well-known example, and Discipline of the Private House, by Esme Ombreux, another.

Epistolary fiction is a descriptive category, whose stories are depicted in the form of the main character's own writing, such as in letters and/or a diary. One of the earliest examples is Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, is a popular modern example.

Existentialist fiction focuses on human struggle, with external challenges and internal anguish. Logic and justice are scarce, and the protagonist mostly hopes to survive. The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, is a classic example, and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying another. A recent example is Alexander Maksik's novel You Deserve Nothing. (Some scholars will place the Bible's Book of Job in this category.)

Experimental fiction is, fittingly, rather hard to describe. It sets out to break boundaries, and to deliberately enlighten or trouble the reader. It's a broad description, which overlaps the other fiction genres. Two early example are Gertrude Stein's novel Tender Buttons and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. George Saunders's novel Tenth of December is a newer example.
Anti-novel is a descriptive term coined by Jean-Paul Sarte, and these older stories strove to be value-neutral, often rambling, not meeting a reader's expectations. Laurence Sterne's serial Tristram Shandy, published during the mid-1700s, is perhaps the earliest example.

Fable or Apologue type fiction consists of brief stories that feature talking animals and similar oddities, and which make a clear moral point. This is often reenforced by wrapping up with a pithy maxim, a memorable phrase. The ancient Greek Aesop's Fables is a familiar example, though every culture has fables of their own. Back in 1940, James Thurber wrote the helpfully-named Fables for Our Time.
Legends may also carry a moral point, however they're more focused more on a heroic person. This can be a real individual, or someone probably fictional, from modern or ancient times, however the point is always familiar. For example, Washington Irving's classic novel The Legend of Sleepy Hollow made famous a local legend from the Hudson River Valley region.
Parables differ from 'fables' in that familiar humans and everyday interactions are described, however their actions and intent serve to illustrate a moral point. The New Testament contains several famous parables, as do many other scriptures. It's arguable whether modern literary parables exist.

Fairy Tales are familiar to every child, and these short stories have much overlap with the 'childrens' and 'fantasy' genres. They always include impossible characters and/or situations, which can be comforting or disturbing, or alternately both. Scholars have traced such ancient tales across lands and cultures, for example the Cinderella ("ash girl") story apparently originated in Europe, gained a Chinese version, and then returned in its modern form. Some carry a moral, however it's subtle, and often cast as a warning of things to avoid.

False Autobiography or Fake Memoirs is defined quite narrowly, in reference to autobiographies written (and published) as true, but which are then exposed as partially or wholly false. Usually this doesn't involve humdrum details, but rather wild exaggerations and improbable feats. The Greatest: My Own Story, by Muhammad Ali and Richard Durham, contained some partial falsehoods. A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey, made a huge splash with its lurid claims, then again with its exposure. (Often, a respected publishing house suffers great embarrassment.)

FanFic stories are written by admirers of various published authors, in imitation if not homage of their creations. These efforts, especially if widely disseminated, have a questionable legal status, not to mention an ongoing love-hate relationship with the authors in question. The term, and widespread practice, was originated in the 1960s by fans of Star Trek, however 'fan-fic' encompasses every major genre. E.L. James has revealed that her "Fifty Shades of Grey" franchise began with her own 'fan-fic' efforts, focused on the popular "Twilight" novels.

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Literary Fiction Genres

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