Genre: The Basics

By Gabriel Blanchard

Want get more out of your daily reading? Join us for everything from specific tips to elementary literary theory. Today, we begin with the latter, and specifically: genre.

October puts the present author in mind of Halloween, and therefore of the sorts of entertainment we classify as fantasy, science fiction, and horror. We vaguely recognize all three terms as names for genres, and there are plenty of each in practically every medium nowadays.

But what exactly is a genre? On the surface this may seem like an easy question. For instance, comedy tries to make you laugh, and good comedies are the ones that succeed. As we proceed, this starts seeming like a good pattern: tragedies try to make you cry, horror tries to make you shudder, military histories try to make you fall asleep, and so forth. But then we begin hitting certain snags. For example, is there any behavior, or even a mood exactly, that sci-fi is trying to prompt? And consider the extreme emotional complexity of a book like The Lord of the Rings: is it an epic because of its momentous in-universe importance? a fantasy, because it has magic in it? a tragedy, because so many characters either die or depart over the western sea at the end, and the Elves themselves are vanishing forever?

Worse, genres can overlap: Star Wars is a “science fantasy” film, neither standard fantasy (thanks to its high-tech æsthetics and frequent use of space travel) nor properly science fiction (due to relying on ideas and imagery drawn from pantheistic and mystical traditions, and a focus on the past rather than the future). Autobiographies are often treated as a genre, especially by bookstore organizers, but those are by definition as varied as the lives they describe. And does genre translate one-to-one across different art forms? We speak of horror stories, but “horror music” is not a stock phrase identifying any style of music. What is going on? Is understanding what genres are and how they work really worth the hassle?

Actually, yes! CLT is a strong promoter of “great books” education, and having some idea of what genre to read or watch or listen to a given work “in” can be surprisingly important to understanding it. Some of the writers from our Author Bank play on this very fact; Jane Austen’s heroine in Northanger Abbey is noted as being fond of fashionable Gothic novels and having an active imagination, to the point of believing (while she is a house guest at the titular Abbey) that a suite of sealed-off rooms are a sign that her host secretly murdered his deceased wife—with comic, and later tragic, effects. This, however, is about the character’s own “in-universe” savviness about what sort of story they are living in.

Compare this with the attitude many people bring to the Divine Comedy. Dante’s hell can be enjoyed for its mere “spectacle,” even if some people (Dante, for example, judging from XXIX.130-148) find the taste for such things rather a morbid one. But readers who approach the Comedy in this way, almost as if it were a kind of thriller, are almost certain to leave off reading somewhere on the foothills of Mount Purgatory, if they even make it that far. And in a way, they are right to put the book down: judged by the standards of a thriller, Purgatorio is terrible! It’s ruinously paced, not much happens, the stakes are far too low (our hero may meet pain, but all danger is left behind before the middle) … Those who, like Austen’s heroine, were misinformed about what sort of story they were in for, have brought all the wrong expectations to the work. They hardly get a chance to enjoy it properly. They waste their time looking for Dante’s occasional gothic flourishes—something Edgar Allan Poe or Charlotte Brontë would offer them far more of, in quantity and quality—and missing the real gems of the poet’s work, which were written to satisfy a medieval audience who were looking for elegantly crafted allegories.

Every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind.

To be clear, the issue is not that this young modern person reads thrillers! It is not even that they enjoy badly-written thrillers; doubtless many professional chefs enjoy the occasional Twinkie. The modern modern thriller-reader very well might enjoy an elegantly crafted religious allegory, if they’re taught what appetites it satisfies, how it satisfies them, and how they may feel those appetites themselves (expressed under modern conditions). But they’ll almost certainly never learn that if they’re looking for something else. Understanding genre is therefore well worth our time, as a direct aid to reading.

Alright then, sounds like we have some studying to do! The obvious way to start would be with a to-do list, so: what are all of the genres?

Well …

Despite the fact that genres can be so important to how we read, and are therefore pretty rigid in some important ways, at the same time, genre gets very elusive if you try to pin it down. It’s more like a system of etiquette than a mathematical formula: there’s a certain underlying logic to the system; some of the really important stuff will be explained directly (like not doing things that you know hurt other people’s feelings), while smaller aspects often seem pretty arbitrary (no elbows on the table). If you’re patient, observant, and a little intuitive, you might learn or spot where some of the “arbitrary” parts come from,* and maybe why their order is in truth more intricate and minute than we saw.

So, no: there is no “authoritative master list” of genres. The are several—comedy, tragedy, romance, etc.—that are more or less universally accepted, but even among these, the criteria aren’t entirely consistent. There are a few different sorts of things that a genre can address itself to; in that way, genres are almost like search terms: the hits you get for a given genre will depend heavily on whether you are looking for the emotional effect a work produces, or the kind of characters and relationships it focuses on, and so forth.

We will resume that subject in next week’s post on How to Read Books. Thanks for reading!

*The “no elbows” rule dates to times when both floors and tables weren’t always finished flush to each other and often tended to be rickety; putting your elbows on the table might tilt it, thus earning yourself a lap-full of food and the anger of the other diners. Since this original rationale has gone away, most modern etiquette authorities relax the elbow rule, at least between courses. While comestibles are on the table, however, the risk of discovering one with an elbow also justifies the old ban.


Gabriel Blanchard is an uncle of seven, a freelance author of prose and verse, and CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at this essay of the nature of poetry, or this two-parter on the history of the concepts of war and peace. You might also be interested in looking over the names on our Author Bank; take a look at our profiles of St. Augustine, Averroës, Blaise Pascal, and Willa Cather to learn more about some of the outstanding men and women we’ve chosen to highlight at CLT.

Published on 6th October, 2022.

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