If you were asked to name a literary genre, you might say thriller or romance, right? You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but understanding genre is a lot simpler than many people would have you believe. This guide explores different genres in-depth and debunks some of the most common misconceptions around the topic. Read on to find out more!
What is Literary Genre?
The word genre is borrowed from French and literally means “kind” or “sort”. Rather than referring to a category of literature, it simply refers to the kind of literature you are examining. Therefore, it simply refers to the medium of literature you are reading. Poetry, plays, biography, short story, novels, and graphic novels are all genres. Once you get over this common misconception, dealing with genre becomes much easier. Instead of being faced with hundreds or even thousands of potential types of literature, you are faced with fewer discrete types of literature.
Whether you read for pleasure or read for study, the identification of genre is a vital step. When you come across a genre that appeals to you when you’re reading for pleasure, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to curate your reading list!
Top tip: If you are writing an essay about a book you have read, identifying the genre in your introduction makes a good impression. Your identification only needs to be short so don’t worry about the impact on word count. It may look something like this “Romeo and Juliet is a play by William Shakespeare where [plot summary].”
By this point, you’re probably wondering where the concepts of thriller and romance mentioned in the introduction come in. The simple answer is that they are classed as sub-genres. There are hundreds of sub-genres you can pick from. They are useful when it comes to narrowing down your search for literature to read or identifying techniques in a text. However, take a word of caution: there is no formula for correctly identifying sub-genre. Everyone has their own take on what the sub-genre of a piece of literature is.
Take the Twilight series for example. Someone might identify the books as ‘horror’ whereas someone else may identify them as ‘romance’. Neither person is wrong, they have simply placed more emphasis on a specific element of the plot. Due to this fact, it is always sensible to keep sub-genre categories broad when you are searching for something to read. For example, searching for ‘1950s thrillers’ is likely to yield more results than searching for ‘1950s thrillers with supernatural elements.’
Top tip: You can identify both genre and sub-genre in an essay introduction. It may look something like this: ‘The novel Rebecca is a thriller written by Daphne Du Maurier’.
Now it’s clearer what the concept of genre is, you can explore different types of literature to find out which one is right for you. Here’s a handy guide to get you started.
The definition of poetry has been remoulded over time to reveal an intriguing and varied genre. Gone are the days where poetry had to rhyme and follow certain rhythms. Indeed, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word poetry has evolved in the modern lexicon to mean ‘a very beautiful or emotional quality’. Whilst this is not strictly the definition of the genre of poetry itself, it gives a good insight into the qualities we expect of modern poetry. However, before the twentieth century, poetry was much more constrained. It followed rigid rhythm and rhyme schemes and was more conventional in its subject matter.
Due to this evolution, there is a lot of poetry out there written in very different styles. Searching for ‘poems to read’ on a search engine brings up a whopping 178 million results. This seems overwhelming. If you want to start reading poetry online, the Poetry Foundation website is a great place to start. The homepage is updated daily with a ‘Poem of the Day’ and access to essays and blog posts that make the poetry more accessible. It also has a blog called Harriet that contains all the latest poetry news and discussions about themes in poetry. Some poems also have reading guides and/or podcasts attached to them to help you analyse the poems and ultimately decide whether you like them or not. This process takes perseverance and some trial and error, but your research will pay off.
Top tip: Once you find a poet you like, click on the ‘Learn’ section of the Poetry Foundation website. Here you will find interesting articles about poems and poets. Perhaps most helpfully, you will find articles labelled ‘Poets 101’ which provide a brief overview of works along with links to a poet’s back catalogue available on the website.
If reading a physical book of poetry is more appealing to you, there is still plenty of choice available for you. Perhaps the best place to start is with an edited anthology that contains poems by various poets. These anthologies tend to be based around a theme and will help you explore which qualities you enjoy in a poem. If you find a poet you like, you can then track down their collections and read more of their work. Collections by individual poets tend to be much thinner than anthologies, so it is advisable to ensure you like the work before investing in a poet’s collection.
There is also another way to access poetry in print: novels written in blank verse. This may seem confusing, but it simply refers to novels written in a way which captures a poetic sensibility. The good news is that having an understanding of blank verse is neither here nor there in contributing to your understanding of the content so you can just approach it like you would any other novel. This style is particularly en vogue right now, with Patricia Lockwood’s novel written in blank verse, No One is Talking About This, taking the literary charts by storm in 2021. Book length poems such as Alice Oswald’s Dart are less common but you may still come across them.
Top tip: To differentiate between a book-length poem and a novel written in blank verse, look at the layout. If the text appears to be in distinct short paragraphs, then it is likely you are looking at a novel in blank verse. If the text is less uniform, split into distinct lines or contains line numbers, it is likely you are looking at a book length poem.
This is the shortest section of this guide because plays are meant to be watched not read. Of course, if you are given a play to study you must read it. However, you will find that you are probably reading to analyse techniques, characters and plot twists rather than reading it for enjoyment. If you are planning on reading for enjoyment, play texts are best avoided. It is much more enjoyable to watch or listen to an actor’s interpretation of the characters rather than having to read around stage directions on the page of a play text.
Top tip: If you are studying a play, look out for the upcoming Study Buddy for Plays on Understanding Literature.
Short Stories as a Literary Genre
The California Department for Education defines a short story as ‘fiction of such brevity that it supports no subplots.’ Whilst this is by all means correct, it woefully undersells the impact short stories can have on their reader. The fun of reading short stories is that you get to create your own subplot! It’s best to think of short stories as a window into a character’s life, beginning and ending with a ‘…’ It gives the reader the same creative freedom as the writer because they can let their imagination run wild as they read. For example, if it’s mentioned as a side detail that the person the main character spotted across the street looked ‘shifty’, then the reader has full imaginative freedom to come up with the reasons why. Most short stories end ambiguously which also gives the reader imaginative freedom to continue the development of the story independently.
Now the short story has been upsold, it’s time to give you some ideas about how you can start reading them.
One of the internet’s best kept literary secrets is Reedsy. This website gives you access to over 25000 short stories for free. It provides a platform for new and up-and-coming writers to showcase their work. The amount of short stories on the website initially looks overwhelming. However, the categories feature allows you to refine you search at the click of a button. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, then that’s fine too! Reedsy constantly updates recommended and featured stories on its homepage that cater to a diverse range of tastes. When you discover an author you like, click the ‘follow’ button beside their name to get notified when they post new work.
Aside from Reedsy, there are many other ways that you can enjoy short stories online. The platform Wattpad is more likely to be associated with fan fiction, but it contains over 1200 original short stories too. Like Reedsy you can easily refine your search for stories. Wattpad also offers fiction written in instalments the length of a short story. You can therefore follow an author’s progress in writing a book in the same time that it would take you to read a short story.
Top tip: If you want to read short stories from more familiar names and sources, check out a list of the top short story blogs here.
Novels may be the most familiar genre to people, but the sheer volume of novels available is enough to make anyone’s head spin! In 2015 alone, 221,597 new novels were published in English according to Stanford Literary Lab. So how do you know where to start? The ideal place to start is on the Bookshop website. Their website contains reading lists of novels curated by independent bookshop owners across the UK on a variety of different topics, so there’s something for everyone. What’s more, if you buy from the list you are directly supporting the bookshop it belongs to, so it really is a win-win.
If the thought of scrolling through lists makes you yawn, try browsing National Book Tokens Book Doctor pages instead. These pages are dedicated to helping people discuss reading with an expert (think FAQ pages, with a little more fun added). Although they are aimed at regular readers, the recommendations and advice are relevant to people at all stages of their reading journey. Of course, it goes without saying that your local library is a brilliant resource when you are experimenting with novels (or any other genre for that matter). There are plenty of other methods that you can access novels through, some of which are outlined below.
Named after founder of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg is an eBook repository. It houses over 60000 free eBooks available to access for free. It does so legally by only uploading texts where the U.S. copyright has expired. Therefore, the focus tends to be on older texts. Don’t let the age of the texts intimidate you though. There are plenty of books, such as the Agatha Christie collection, that are still popular today. When you see new print editions of these books, there is no difference from the original text. The only extras that these editions contain are explanatory materials and perhaps a funky new cover. Therefore, if it’s just the story you’re after the Project Gutenberg texts are more than adequate.
If graphic novels are more your thing, there isn’t currently a one-stop-shop repository like Project Gutenberg. However, there are many resource pages like this one which provide a brief synopsis of the plot and give you links to online versions. Most libraries now also have an eBook service where you can access graphic novels and audiobooks on any connected device.
Top tip: Don’t fret about which ‘type’ of novel you’re reading. Much emphasis has been placed on the idea that the ‘traditional’ novel is king, but novellas, graphic novels, and audiobooks are just as valuable when reading for pleasure.
If there is simply too much choice in a chain bookstore, an independent bookstore is a great solution. They tend to be smaller and more focussed which makes it easier for you to choose. In any bookstore, regardless of whether it’s a chain or independent, there are always staff on hand to guide you to relevant sections. However, if you want to use the ‘Try-before-you-buy’ Method, it’s advisable to do this online. Sites like Google books offer excerpts of print books. You can then go out and buy them in a bookstore.
Top tip: Pay attention to whether you prefer a paperback or hardback novel. This can help you organically cut down your choices in a bookshop by effectively eliminating a whole sub-section within the ‘novels’ section.
This guide isn’t going to cover non-fiction as a genre as it assumes you know how to search for non-fiction topics you’re interested in (you did get here after all!)
With the Ultimate Guide to Genre complete, hopefully it no longer seems the big, scary topic that it once was.