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What is Genre Fiction?

April 21, 2010
Woman reading a book

All fiction is essentially genre based but in identifying it, a set of rules of conventions determine where it might fit best. The term Genre Fiction can be interchanged with “popular”, “contemporary” or “category” fiction and is broadly seen to seen to appeal to a mass audience; which in some circles; is perceived to contain a less educated flavour than that of literary fiction.

All genre fiction tell a story or in some way are narrative writings. These works will have a a beginning, middle, and an ending; with definable characters, settings, plots, and themes. Within most, if not all genre fiction, there will be a protagonist and their opposing force, generally in the form of an antagonist.  Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a setting, experiencing the challenges of that world, and emerging either triumphant or defeated.

Most writers agree that there are seven major genres with hundreds of sub genres. The main ones used in contemporary publishing are:

  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Mystery/ Crime
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Thriller/Suspense/ Adventure
  • Westerns

Although it can be said with all types of writing wishing to be published, Genre Fiction tends to product of the complex negotiation process between publishers, authors, their audience and the marketing department of the publishing company.  Whilst each genre and sub genre will have its own loyal fan base regardless of current trends and popularity; publishing companies seek to invest in authors and text which ride on the wave of the newest interest or fashion. (This in itself can be a dark art reliant on crystal ball watching.)

So where does it leave us as writers or readers?

What few people recognise are the origins of each genre within Literary Fiction and how closely linked the two – apparently “opposing” styles are. Where would science fiction be without Shellys or Vernes answer to their question “what if?”

Genres shift and change over time; giving birth to sub genres and hybrids; which then take on a life and fan base all of their own. Science fiction, for example has over twenty recognised sub genres, with many sub categories branching from each of these. It makes one wonder what sort of work would be produced by Shelly or Verne if they were tucked away in a writers den, laptop at hand and creating their next novel today. Would their work be classified as Literary or Genre Fiction then?

Specific conventions differentiate the genre such as specific settings, events, characters or style. Although these may be fluid, writers generally conform to certain guidelines in order to

  • have their work accepted as part of that specific genre or sub genre
  • appeal to that genres audience and fan base
  • to heighten the likelihood of it being published within that genres circles.

Very often readers have set expectations of particular publishers styles of stories and novels produced.  Its therefore no secret that certain publishers attempt to meet the whims of their readers by only accepting formulaic plots, plot devises and stock characters.

So as a writer, do you choose to produce formulaic prose, utilise well worn plot devices and layouts in order to attract a publisher or to conform to a publishers expectations?

Despite its popularity, genre fiction is often overlooked by institutions and seen as the poor or uneducated cousin. More often than not the reviewing pages of mainstream newspapers favour launches for literary fiction, followed closely by well publicised grants and prizes reserved for these works. The reviewing venues for genre fiction are primarily niche media, prozines, professional or industry fanzines. By its own admission, Genre Fictions intent is to fit into a specific genre in to reader to appeal to the readers and fans familiar with that genre. Should readers and writers be embarrassed about this?

One thing is certain, as genre fiction continuously evolve, divide and combine as readers demands and tastes change, we as writers need to continue the search for fresh ways to tell our stories.

Image by UK Pictures via Flickr

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Annie Evett wonders if you can have it both ways – mass media popularity, fame and literary acclaim?  Would you want it all? Follow Annie here on Twitter and start your escape into her world here

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One Comment
  1. April 22, 2010 10:54 pm

    I often feel that having set boundaries around genre fiction is both a plus and minus.

    The boundaries whilst offering a way to expect certain things from certain genres, also tends to narrow the way you approach story-telling. Sure, established genre writers can produce works that almost seem like the same as their last novel.

    But as an emerging writer, you’re confined to not going outside the box too much, to keeping within the boundaries of something marketable, but on the other hand, and this goes for horror in particular, you’re expect to not just repeat the same old tropes, you need to do something different with them.

    I don’t think literary fiction is confined by the same rules.

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