Genres in Literature

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In his study of genre, Alastair Fowler draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein's metaphor of "family resemblances": "Representatives of a genre may ... be regarded as making up a family whose septs and individual members are related in various ways, without having a single feature shared in common by all" ( Kinds of Literature, 1982). Photo and Co/Getty Images

In literature, every piece of writing falls under a general category, also known as a genre. We experience genres is other parts of our daily lives, such as movies and music, and in each case, the individual genres typically have distinctive styles in terms of how they are composed. At the most basic level, there are essentially three main genres for literature - poetry, prose and drama - and each can be broken down even further, resulting in dozens of subgenres for each.

 Some resources will cite only two genres: fiction and non-fiction, though many classics will argue that fiction and non-fiction can, and do, both fall under poetry, drama or prose.  

While there is much debate over what constitutes a genre in literature, for the purposes of this article, we will break down the classic three. From there, we will outline some of the subgenres for each, including those that some believe should be classified as main genres.

Poetry

Poetry is a style of writing that tends to be written in verses, and typically employs a rhythmic and measured approach to composition. It characteristically is known for evoking emotional responses from readers through its melodic tone and use of creative language that is often imaginative and symbolic in nature. The word “poetry” comes from the Greek word “poiesis” which essentially means, making, which is translated into the making of poetry.

Poetry is typically divided into two main subgenres, narrative and lyric, which each have additional types that fall under their respective umbrellas. For example, narrative poetry includes ballads and epic tales, while lyric poetry includes sonnets, psalms and even folk songs. Poetry can be fiction or nonfiction.

Prose

Prose is essentially identified as written text that aligns with the flow of conversation in sentence and paragraph form, as opposed to verses and stanzas in poetry. Writing of prose employs common grammatical structure and a natural flow of speech, not a specific tempo or rhythm as is seen in traditional poetry. Prose as a genre can be broken down into a number of subgenres including both fiction and non-fiction works. Examples of prose can range from news, biographies and essays to novels, short stories, plays and fables. The subject matter, if it is fiction versus nonfiction and length of the work, are not taken into consideration when classifying it as prose, but rather the style of writing that is conversational is what lands works in this genre.

Drama

Drama is defined as theatrical dialogue that is performed on stage and traditionally is comprised of five acts. It is generally broken down into four subgenres including comedy, melodrama, tragedy and farce. In many cases, dramas will actually overlap with poetry and prose, depending on the writing style of the author. Some dramatic pieces are written in a poetic style, while others employ a more casual writing style seen in prose, to better relate to the audience.

Like both poetry and prose, dramas can be fiction or nonfiction, though most are fictional or inspired by real life, but not completely accurate.

The Genre and Subgenre Debate

Beyond these three basic genres, if you conduct an online search for “genres of literature,” you will find dozens of conflicting reports that claim any number of main genres that exist. There is often debate over what constitutes genre, but in most cases, there is a misunderstanding of the difference between genre and subject matter. It’s common for subject matter to be considered a genre in not only literature, but also in movies and even games, both of which are often based on or inspired by books. These subjects can include biography, business, fiction, history, mystery, comedy, romance and thrillers. Subjects may also include cooking, self help, diet and fitness, religion and many many more.

  

Subjects and subgenres, however, can often be intermixed. Though, it can be a challenge to determine how many subgenres or subjects actually exist, as there are differing opinions on each, and new ones are created regularly. For example, young adult writing has become increasingly popular, and some would classify it as a subgenre of prose.

The difference between genre and subject is often blurred by the world around us. Think of a time when you last visited a bookstore or library. Most likely, the books were divided into sections - fiction and non-fiction for sure - and further categorized based on the type of books, such as self-help, historic, science fiction and others. Many people assume that these categorizations of subject matter are genre, and as a result, common language today has adopted a casual use of genre to mean subject.