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Genres Defined, Part II

In a previous post (Genres Defined Part I), we defined the broadest categories of genres as they relate to books and the publishing industry, and broke them down into some common subgenres. For this post, we added a couple of genres and thought it would be fun to delve a bit deeper into some of the lesser-known subgenres…especially the newer ones with interesting names like cyberpunk and splatterpunk. Catchy, huh?


Every supermarket has an aisle with dozens of romance titles, so there’s no denying this genre’s popularity. Some of its subcategories are self-explanatory, as in historical romance, which takes place in—you guessed it—historical times. Combine a historical romance with a good mystery, and you have a historical romance mystery.

Regency romances take place in the early 1800s and are set in England (when the Prince Regent ruled Britain). Inspirational romances have a spiritual theme, and multicultural romances involve characters from different racial backgrounds.

There are also time-travel romances, where the characters travel back and forth between dimensions; paranormal romances, involving otherworldly elements; contemporary romances (set after the World Wars); and Victorian romances, set in Victorian times.

In romance novels there must be a central love story, and there must be an emotionally satisfying ending, as in marriage or a happily-ever-after scenario. Once these two criteria are met, the writer can take a variety of directions and set the story in the present day, historical times, or even in a prehistoric setting.

Speculative Fiction:

The term “speculative fiction” is a broad umbrella that covers several genres, including horror, science fiction, and fantasy. It’s based on speculation about other worlds and otherworldly characters and events.

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Science Fiction:

Science fiction is based on futuristic concepts and technological advances—hence the name “science.” From this common denominator, the genre can then take one of dozens of paths, depending on plot. Subgenres include time travel, adventure (space exploration, for example), robots and computers, aliens, parallel worlds, and even elements of romance, mystery, and horror.

Science fiction is loosely categorized as either “hard” or “soft,” and defining these categories can stir up some hot debate among aficionados. In general, hard science fiction is based on scientific accuracy, and the science is absolutely crucial to the plot. The events in the story could conceivably happen based on technology as we know it, and there’s an element of realism involved. An example may be a novel about a fleet of robots, or a mega-computer that tries to take over the world. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are authors who employed this method.

“Soft” science fiction typically focuses on the people or the society who live in the fabricated environment; science and/or technology are a part of the story but are not central to it, and more focus is placed on character development and social issues than realistic scientific breakthroughs. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a good example of soft science fiction.

One new and interesting subgenre has become known as “cyberpunk,” based on the short story by that name by Bruce Bethke in 1980. Cyberpunk is usually set in the near future and is based on punk attitudes and information technology. It involves a complete breakdown or a radical change in the social order, and its characters typically live on the edge of this society.


Under this genre, subcategories include medical thrillers, vampires, demons, serial killers, and monsters (both human and nonhuman). “Splatterpunk,” however, is not quite as clear. The term, coined in the mid ’80s, refers to a category of horror where all boundaries of good taste are crossed, and nothing—absolutely nothing—is sacred. If you’re into gory, shocking, in-your-face horror, this is the genre for you.

Literary Fiction:

In literary fiction, the quality of the writing is the star of the show as opposed to the plot. Literary fiction explores the human condition, and it does so through outstanding writing, innovative language, and original ideas. It’s read by a niche audience and not targeted to the “common man” audience.

Mainstream Fiction:

Mainstream fiction is considered more “popular” because it appeals to a broader audience. Any genre can be used to produce a mainstream or widely popular novel. The plot must have elements to which a broad spectrum of readers can relate, usually focusing on relationships and personal conflicts. Mainstream fiction can be horror, romance, mystery, or science fiction, but it must have this in common: a wide audience. Many of Stephen King’s books, for example, appeal to readers who normally do not buy horror novels.

Whatever the genre, Writer’s Relief can help writers direct their submissions to the best-suited literary agents and editors. (For more articles, see Genre Fiction Rules and Crossing the Great Divide: Writing in Different Genres.)


5 Responses to Genres Defined, Part II

  1. I think many writers attempt literature and most fail. Often it is the writer who is doing his best to just write well who produces literature.
    If I put something down and I have no idea what it was supposed to be about I don’t think it is lit.

    If I put something down and say "Wow" then maybe it was.

  2. The description of literary fiction is interesting to me, since I am always trying to understand why I tend to be partial to classics. I think of Jane Austen. Her novels are written very simply, deceivingly so–but what is striking about her writing is how masterfully she penetrates the subtleties of the human psyche. Then I think of Jane Eyre, where I had to use the dictionary on every page–sometimes many times per page. But again, what I was left with was a deeply psychologically satisfying experience. I don’t know how to compare these experiences to other genres.

  3. You said it CL. The simpler the writing, the better the book, the more the readers. Literary writing does not mean using the biggest words you can find and making your readers run to the dictionary every two minutes. The best literature is that which uses the simplest words to get across what the writer wants to say.

  4. From the description given, I tend to think that "literary fiction’ is something of a snobbery. or a holier-than -thou attitude. There are many genre works which also "explore the human condition" AND have a high quality of writing. Actually, I’ve come to this conclusion because the leader of one of our local writers’ groups here is quite the snob about what he considers to be "literary fiction" and places a higher value on it than on anything else. In fact, the more entangled and unintelligible the plot and writing style are, the more "literary" he thinks it is! I maintain that any book in any category can aspire to excellent writing along with in-depth characterization. What are some others’ thoughts on this?

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