We can thank the Structuralists for a decent definition of genre: a genre is a collection of conventions that create a recognizable and repeatable artistic performance. The resulting works are understandable to the observer since they contain the expected signs and codes. Genre can refer to any artistic endeavor but we will focus on literature.
As an example, when a dead body rises from the grave and starts eating the local citizens, the reader can be reasonably sure that the work is in the horror genre: the signs are zombies, graveyards, screaming, flesh eating, etc. The reader generally will not mistake the work for a lyric poem. Parker’s Rule #3 states that only evaluations within a genre are meaningful. What this means is that an effective scene of rats gnawing through a character’s windpipe works wonderfully in a horror story but would be considered bad writing in a lacy romance story.
But the genres tend to overlap, right? Of course, the classic unities are no longer important in the evaluation of an artistic work.
But the genres of classic literature are not the same as the bookstore classifications we see most nowadays. And even the classical genres are subject to variation and interpretation. I have always used the following scheme to separate the genres:
Another useful scheme is:
You can see that the modern big-box-bookstore, like Barnes & Noble or the late Borders, uses a combinations of the genre classifications above and a healthy variety of classifications that fit the overall definition. There is an amazing list of genre designations somewhere on the internet (I can’t remember where) but the expansion of genres and sub-genres seems to be one of the more fluid classifications in our lives. Consider some of the sub-genres of fiction:
- Fairy Tales
- Science Fiction
- Short Story
- Realistic Fiction
- Historical Fiction
- Tall Tale
- Graphic Fiction
It’s an interesting exercise to make your own list of genres. You’ll always be thinking of new genres to add to the list so keep it handy.