Whether you’re a horror fanatic or love indulging in the occasional Rom-Com, all literary genres have something important to offer. Here are some of my personal can’t-live-with-outs.
Say you’re ordering take-out from a Chinese menu. As you sift through the list of foods, you notice that everything is scrambled together: chicken noodle soup is next to the kung-pow chicken, the boneless spare ribs are in the same vicinity as the shrimp toast and the pu pu platter. The menu looks like a random list of dishes that one of the restaurant waiters relayed to a very indecisive family.
This is why we need literary genres; categorization by similarities in form, style or subject matter. Genres help us to decipher what kind of novel we are going to read before we read it; no one wants to pick up what appears to be a biography on Billy Joel and read a full-blown fantasy novel. Below are five of my personal favorite genres.
1. Allegory Ahh, the stereotypical “English-major” method of making seemingly simple things difficult. In short, an allegory is what it isn’t. Or it isn’t what it is. A fancy term for a metaphor, if you will. Or won’t. What?
Writers or speakers typically use allegories as a literary device, but in this case, an allegorical genre can be a story with two meanings. There is the surface-level story that we comprehend from the words on the page, but there can also be an underlying meaning or plot that the author fails to reveal to the audience. Sometimes, the author will illustrate the connection between the obvious and the hidden; other times, we could read an entire novel and never know its second meaning!
George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm is a famous and very accurate example of an allegory. While on the surface it follows the narratives of a bunch of talking animals, the symbolic meaning is a satire about tyrannical forms of government and a caution against Russian communism. Cool how you can get all that from a talking pig, eh? That’s why allegory is one of my favorite literary genres. Some other examples of the allegorical genre: C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, William Goulding’s Lord of the Flies, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
2. Tragicomedy Speaking of two meanings, I like to call this next category the “Gemini of Genre,” because if it were a living, breathing entity, it would have two personalities. A tragicomedy can be either a play or a novel that incorporates both tragic and comedic elements.
Now, put on your Shakespearean thinking caps: the comedy that we know today is not the type of comedy that is being referenced here. In Shakespeare’s plays, a comedy could be classified as any play that ended in a marriage: whether it makes us giggle or not is irrelevant. A great example of a Tragicomedy is Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to hug Shylock and punch him at the same time.
Basically, if you can’t make up your mind about whether a genre is tragic or comedic, this is the genre to turn to. It’s the best of both worlds!
3. Narrative In its simplest form, narrative genre is any report of connected events, real or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words. While it can come across as vague at first, narrative genre stands out among the rest because of its many layers that readers must unfold.
An important aspect of narration is determining the narrative mode, or the set of methods used to communicate the narrative. Ask yourself: what is the narrative point of view of this piece (first, second, third narration)? What is the narrative voice (stream-of-consciousness, epistolary, character voice)? What is the narrative tense or time (past, present, future)? Asking these questions will help to define the sub-genre of narration.
In reality, all books have a narrative one way or another, so unless you want me to list all the books that have ever been written up to this point, I’ll leave you to mull over some of your favorites. Just beware of that unreliable narrator- they can mislead you from the real point an author is trying to make (after all, who’s to say Holden Caulfield was right about everything?).
4. Drama Quick, turn on Bravo! Not quite the kind of drama we’re talking about.
Literary drama is literature specifically written for performance, which is special because it emphasizes the relationships between characters in a story. Like Tragicomedy, it is hard to pin down an exact time period that dramatic genre came about, because acting itself has existed since Thespis of Icaria walked the earth in the 6th century BC. Similar to Narrative, Drama covers subcategories such as comedy, tragedy, farce and melodrama.
Think of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and of course any of Shakespeare’s many plays. Basically, any text that is meant to be performed rather than read can be considered part of the dramatic genre.
5. Fiction Last but not least, the classic genre to beat all classic genres- fiction!
As opposed to nonfiction, fiction is so diverse, because it can be about literally anything the author can come up with! The only restriction to fiction is the imagination- J.K. Rowling created an entire world just from dreaming for Christ’s sake.
Although, fiction does not always need to involve the supernatural. I can’t necessarily predict Sarah Dessen writing a novel about zombies attacking a pre-teen from a small town who just wants high school jock Danny to notice her already. Some authors just need to stick to their day job- I mean genre.
While literary genre might not be the first thing that comes to mind when picking up a work of literature, it’s the secret identity that every book begs us to uncover.