What Is Genre Theory?

The children's tales of Hans Christian Andersen are classified in the folktale genre because their plots are often derived from stories handed down by oral storytellers.
Genre theory is a method of literary criticism.
Hard science fiction novels may depict interactions with extraterrestrials that occur through radio transmissions rather than spaceships that travel beyond lightspeed.
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  • Written By: E. Reeder
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Genre theory is a structuralist method of literary criticism. This means that it is reliant on the structure, or characteristics, of a work of literature to determine the genre under which it falls. According to genre theory, each genre has specific characteristics, so it should not be too difficult after analysis to tell under which genre a work of literature would fit. While there are a multitude of genres in literature, a representative sampling of genres and their characteristics makes it easier to understand genre theory.

Classical tragedy, using the tenets of genre theory, is a type of fiction that should have a protagonist who is in a high position based on wealth, power or societal influence. This protagonist will, at some point, suffer a downfall entailing either death or some form of disgrace. The cause of the downfall often is that the protagonist was too prideful and arrogant. By the end of the tragedy, some characters in the work will have learned a lesson; that can include the protagonist or the ones closest to him or her.


Science fiction, as a fiction genre, has elements such as settings in the possible future or in the historical past and a host of somewhat realistic yet not quite developed possibilities. In science fiction, there may be human characters as well as aliens or highly advanced robots. Science fiction stories may test alternative possibilities, futuristic technologies and untested political and social systems. One difference between literature that would be classified as fantasy and science fiction literature is that science fiction is more likely to test ideas that are somewhat plausible, while fantasy has many elements that are not actually possible.

Self-help, if viewed through genre theory, is a type of nonfiction that focuses on facets of peoples’ lives that they supposedly can improve if they read, learn and implement the strategies presented. In self-help books, there should be a central problem for which the author offers solutions and practical advice. The problems presented may range from depression to codependent behavior to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. These books, unlike textbooks or research articles, are written without as much technical jargon so average readers can understand and implement the suggestions in their own lives.

Genre theory can be helpful as a way to determine a piece of literature's genre. One problem with genre theory is that there often is a great deal of overlap between characteristics of different genres. Particular pieces of literature also may have characteristics of different genres. A fiction story, for example, could have elements of the fantasy, romance and adventure genres while not strictly adhering to the common characteristics of any of them, thus making it hard to classify.


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