As I wrote recently, I have been thinking a lot about genre as I have undergone a massive project to reclassify and catalogue my books on LibraryThing. That project is pretty much done (I hope), and out of it emerged a genre classification system that suits me very well.
My thinking has evolved since I made a preliminary list of genres on this blog. I have now divided genres into two groups: primary and subordinate. Primary genres cannot be combined with one another; they are defined in a way so as to exclude all other genres in the primary group. Subordinate genres can be combined with other genres, and some of them can stand alone as the primary genre if need be.
The following are my lists of primary and subordinate genres, along with my definition of each, a few reading recommendations for those who are new to the genre, and a link from my recommendations to longer lists for further reading. These lists are crowd-sourced “best of” lists housed at LibraryThing, so if you want to contribute or check off your reads, you’ll need a LibraryThing account. (Get one; it’s fun!)
Crime: The plot is primarily about a crime or crimes and who committed them. The protagonist is usually a detective or police investigator intent on solving the crimes. This genre includes mysteries of all types, as well as police procedurals, hard-boiled detective stories, etc. Recommendations: The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns; Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle; The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem.
Dystopian-Apocalyptic: The plot depicts the collapse of civilization, usually into a repressive future society. While most people automatically classify these novels as science fiction, I feel that they deserve their own genre classification because there are so many of them, and they are more concerned with societal implications than with science or technology. Recommendations for dystopian, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction: 1984 by George Orwell; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Fantasy: Magic or mythical creatures (such as elves, dragons or unicorns) are primary elements of books in this genre. Fantasies are often set in fictional worlds, but may have a historical or contemporary setting in which magic is real (“magical realism”). Recommendations: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin; The Princess Bride by William Goldman; A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin; American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
Gothic fiction: These novels are dark, suspenseful and romantic but not overtly horrific; the scares are subtle and psychological. Most ghost stories fall into this genre, as well as other novels that feature creepy houses, graveyards and similar settings. Recommendations: Dracula by Bram Stoker; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.
Horror: This genre delves deeply into what scares us, generally with a more modern and realistic setting than gothic fiction. Horror fiction usually has a supernatural or monstrous element, and often depicts body horror. Recommendations: The Shining by Stephen King; the stories of H.P. Lovecraft; Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin; The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty; Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill.
Literary fiction: Also called “mainstream” fiction, this is fiction set in a contemporary time and place that does not have any elements of the other primary genres. Recommendations: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx; High Fidelity by Nick Hornby; The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler; Blue Angel by Francine Prose; A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.
Romance: A love story, often humorous and with a happy ending (also referred to as “chick lit”). Recommendations: Other than the works of Jane Austen and A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, I can’t make any recommendations in this genre, as it is the only one I don’t actively read.
Science fiction: This genre requires a realistic extrapolation of current knowledge of science and technology. Science fiction most often depicts future life on Earth or space exploration. There are many sub-genres to explore in this broad genre; some of interest to me are feminist science fiction, religious science fiction, first contact stories, the colonization of Mars or other planets, dying Earth stories and “cyberpunk.” Recommendations: Dune by Frank Herbert; The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin; Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
Thriller: A novel of suspense that revolves around the question of whether the protagonist will achieve his or her goal (Will they escape? Will he get away with it? Will she expose the plot?). Recommendations: The Dead Zone by Stephen King; Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton; Strangers by Dean Koontz; A Simple Plan by Scott Smith; Black Sunday by Thomas Harris.
These genres may be combined with any of the primary genres listed above. Subordinate genres marked by an asterisk may also stand alone as primary genres.
Adventure*: The novel describes a journey taken by the protagonists and what happens along the way, often in an episodic manner. Recommendations: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes; Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien; The Odyssey by Homer; Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon.
Alternate history: The story is set in a time in which one or more major events of history has changed (Germany won World War II, for example). Recommendations: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon; The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick; Watchmen by Alan Moore; Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card; The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Alternate universe: The story is set primarily in a fictional world separate from our time and place, such as a parallel fantasy world, another planet not in our solar system or multiple parallel universes (the “multiverse”). Recommendations: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman; The Gunslinger by Stephen King; The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
Coming-of-age novel*: The story describes the events in which a young person realizes some of the fundamental truths of life and transitions into adulthood. Recommendations: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; Lord of the Flies by William Golding; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon; The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
Historical fiction*: This broad genre includes any fiction set in a specific time of human history, or the story may cross many times in the past, present and future. There are obviously many sub-genres to explore here, such as Biblical, medieval, Soviet, Arthurian and World War II fiction. Recommendations: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco; Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.
Satire*: Satires depict the absurdity of a human institution — religious, political, academic, social, etc. — usually in a humorous way. Recommendations: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift; Animal Farm by George Orwell; The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester.
Slipstream*: This is literature of the strange and surreal, usually dealing with ideas about consciousness and perception. Books in this genre often experiment with the conventions of narrative and structure. Recommendations: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood; Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Time Travel: The characters travel through time, either by fantastic or scientific means. Since books in this genre are often set in the past, they can also be classified as historical fiction. Recommendations: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis; The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; Replay by Ken Grimwood; Time and Again by Jack Finney.