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What are the Different Literary Genres?

written by: AlexisW • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/20/2012

There are millions of books in the English language, and each book can be categorized by a number of different components. One of those components is its literary genre. If you're getting some of these many genres confused, read on for examples.

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    Literary Genres

    Literary genres are ever-changing. The number and scope of genres cannot be broken down simply or easily—even the most popular and well-known genres may be combined together, broken apart, or expanded to create fresh new ones. This reflects the malleable nature of literature; it demonstrates the sharing of ideas and the innovation that makes literature worthwhile age after age. Nevertheless, certain motifs and themes remain over time, and literature continues to be studied by genre. Below you'll find a list of the main genres with examples.

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    Fiction

    A fictional work is a story with events and characters that are not real—in other words, although the situations may be based on real life events, they are not actual.

    • Drama: A drama story is meant, in theater, poetry or prose, to represent the actual and emotional conflicts faced by individuals. Drama is in many cases considered to be “serious,” in contrast with humor. Ulysses by James Joyce or Shakespeare’s The Tempest are examples.
    • Fairy Tale: Fairy tales are stories that demonstrate morals and cultural truths. These are usually passed down through generations before being written. A fairy tales is usually used to instruct children. Snow White and Cinderella are common fairy tales.
    • Fantasy: Alternate worlds, timelines, and universes are explored in fantasy stories, which seek to supplant individuals from reality into an entirely imagined realm. Fantasies such as Lord of the Rings became extremely popular throughout 2005-2009.
    • Historical Fiction: Real events and/or places are used in historical fiction, which utilizes characters or themes that did not literally appear in a historical setting. Gary Paulsen writes historical fiction for teens.
    • Horror: Horror stories are meant to evoke a feeling of terror or dread in the reader; in other words, the purpose is to scare and enthrall. Poe and Stephen King are examples.
    • Humor: These stories are meant to evoke laughter and amusement. Although they may deal with serious subjects, humor stories are above all entertaining. Many columnists such as Dave Barry and Dave Sedaris write humor.
    • Mystery: A mystery story introduces drama and guesswork into reading. The purpose of a mystery story is to introduce the reader to a criminal act, and draw him or her into solving the case, much like a detective. The Sherlock Holmes stories and noir novels by Raymond Chandler are some of the most popular of the genre.
    • Poetry: Poems are short pieces written in lyric or verse. They are meant to convey a mood or emotion, from humor poets like Shel Silverstein to Romantics such as John Keats.
    • Science Fiction: Stories about advances in science, technology, or space exploration are known as “Sci-Fi.” Ray Bradbury is a prominent author in this genre.
    • Short Story: These books are extremely short (many books have several short stories), with no subplots and little character development. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf wrote many short stories about a variety of subjects.
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    Non-Fiction

    Nonfiction stories or books are true to life, actual events that really occurred.

    • Biography: A story written about a person, or by a person about him or herself, are known as biography. Biographies have been written about many famous people.
    • Essay: These works demonstrate an individual’s unique point of view on a subject. Augusten Burroughs writes books of personal essays, whereas many newspapers carry essays by various individuals.
    • Nonfiction: Simple nonfiction stories recall historical events as they happened. History books are full of nonfiction.
    • Speech: Addresses given by individuals to the public about many different subjects are called speeches. Speeches are usually delivered before live audiences. Presidents, kings, and social heroes all wrote speeches, from Ronald Reagan to Gandhi.