What is a Book Genre?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A book genre is a particular class or type of book, separated based on certain criteria, like the tone, content, or setting. There are many different genres and sub-genres, and the line between one and another isn't always very clear. Books may fit the criteria for several different classes, in which case they're called cross-genre works. There is also a field of study focused on how and why literary works are categorized as they are.

Comedy is a common genre of fiction.
Comedy is a common genre of fiction.

Common Book Genres

Literary genres are generally broken down into fiction and non-fiction. Common types of fiction include comedy, drama, history, romance, religious, fantasy, humor, mystery, science fiction; and common types of non-fiction include biography and autobiography, narrative, and speech. There are many sub-classifications, including things like satire and comedy of manners within comedy; historical romance and family sagas within history; and hard and soft science fiction. Some books are cross-genre, meaning that they contain essential elements of several distinct categories, like space westerns, which are generally set in outer space but contain elements of classic American Westerns, like cowboys.

Romance is a common type of fiction.
Romance is a common type of fiction.

Categorization Criteria

Books are typically classified based on their tone and the focus of their content. For instance, a work that has a light, comic tone and is focused on a female protagonist finding a boyfriend would likely be a romantic comedy, while one that was more serious and chronicled the lives of members of a family during World War II might be a family saga or war fiction, and a collection of letters written by a historical figure throughout his or her life would be an epistolary autobiography. Some book genres also have specific types of characters associated with them, like knights in medieval fiction or cynical detectives in hard-boiled mysteries. The setting of a work can play a role as well if it's distinctive, like 17th century England or the American West in the mid-1800s.

Mystery is a popular genre of fiction.
Mystery is a popular genre of fiction.

Genre Studies

Literary scholars often study book genres to try to determine why literary works are categorized in this way to begin with and how this division is carried out — for instance, the minimum criteria that must be fulfilled to definitively say that a work falls in one genre instead of another. They also debate which classifications are pure and which are mixed and how different ones relate to each other. Some take a more socially focused approach and look at whether genres reflect existing social hierarchies and the effects on class, race, or gender relations of categorizing books in a specific way.

Books are categorized using the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system.
Books are categorized using the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system.
Science fiction is a genre that focuses on future events, such as Earth's end.
Science fiction is a genre that focuses on future events, such as Earth's end.
Fantasy is a genre of fiction and can contain wizards as characters.
Fantasy is a genre of fiction and can contain wizards as characters.
Horror books may have supernatural elements to increase suspense.
Horror books may have supernatural elements to increase suspense.
The Western is an enduring book genre.
The Western is an enduring book genre.
Some other western fiction stories focus on the bad-guys instead of the good guys.
Some other western fiction stories focus on the bad-guys instead of the good guys.
Action genre stories may feature superheros.
Action genre stories may feature superheros.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What are the major genres?


A new genre named “Christian-Finally,” should be mentioned. This suggestion is made after making contact with a number of unsuccessful “Christian writers” whose books are avoided by mainline “Christians.” These writers' books are being avoided because of how their books and chapters are titled, how their chapters and characters are introduced, and how some books contain rated R material. This new genre will direct an audience toward their level of information acceptance and subject matter.


I always headed to the fiction section of the bookstore as a teenager. I took inspiration from authors who wrote intriguing short stories, because that was something I had a knack for, as well.

I made a list of short story fiction book publishers by looking inside various book covers. I sent my own short stories to several of them, but I never heard back. It broke my heart, but it did not wound my love of short story fiction.

I have somewhat of a short attention span, so this genre is perfect for me. I just can't devote a ton of time to reading a full length novel, but I really enjoy reading for a few minutes a day.


My family's bookshelves were always stocked with a variety of genres. My brother and my dad loved science fiction, but romance books were my mother's favorite. My sister was a history buff, and I preferred fantasy books.

A couple of times, we had tried crossing genres, but none of us could really get into the other types of books. I like fantasy because it helps me escape reality for awhile with something other than just my own imagination, but my sister loves reality and facts. I couldn't get into science fiction, even though it is a form of fantasy, because it was just too technical for me.


@OeKc05 – I learned most of what I know about computers through how-to books. I just looked under the “Instruction” section of the shelves where computer books are kept.

I taught myself how to use various programs with these books, which explained in easy to understand language how they worked. I also learned how to build a webpage using raw HTML.

I rarely have time to read for fun. I'm so busy spending time learning things that I hope will help me land a better job someday.


I usually only read books that tell me how to do a certain thing. Since there really is no certain genre that I'm aware of for how-to books, I just start with the nonfiction section and narrow it down by topic.

I read a lot of gardening books that have useful information about planting and caring for certain types of flowering plants. I also read plenty of cookbooks that have more in them than just recipes. I like to learn new tricks through books.


@ceilingcat - I see what you're saying. However, I hate to limit myself to just one genre. I know libraries are organized that way for a reason, but sometimes I wish they would mix things up a little bit.

If all the fiction books were shelved together, it would make it so much easier to discover things in different genres. In the meantime, I usually browse through several different sections when I go to the library.


I really appreciate that libraries and bookstores are organized by genre. This makes it much easier to find books in a genre that you like. I really like science fiction, and since all the works by science fiction book publishers are grouped together, it makes it easy for me to find new books in a genre I already know I like.


@LoriCharlie - I agree. I can think of several genres of books that are represented on a fiction book list today that wouldn't have been a few hundred years ago.

For example, the genre "chick lit" is a fairly new development. For those that don't know, chick lit books are fun books geared towards women that usually center on women's lives and romances. Think romantic comedy, but in a novel. I know for a fact chick lit wasn't around a hundred years ago, and probably wasn't even around thirty years ago.

Steampunk fiction is another genre I've been hearing about recently, that I can't remember hearing about a few years ago. I'm exciting to see what genre's writers will come up with in the next few years.


I think the most interesting thing about book genres is that the number of genres can always change! If you looked at book genre list from a hundred years ago, I doubt it would include some of the genres we're familiar with today.


I think all of you are right. I forgot what a genre was and they totally helped me out.


I never thought that geeks would be this helpful! not in a mean way.


this really helped me. i sort of had it but wasn't completely sure. thanks so much!!


Sneakers41- I agree with you. American Girl books are wonderful for children. I just want to add if you need a book list of other books for your children to read, go to the American Library Association's web site. It lists books by genre, so it makes it easier to search.


Sputnik- I think you are right. My understanding of a book’s genre is just like what the writer said. It is how the book would be classified.

For example, types of book genres are historical fiction, romance, suspense, and horror to name a few. My daughter prefers reading historical fiction books.

Her favorites are any American Girl book. These books are all classified as historical fiction genre and not only do they teach children about history, but they present the story in such a form that most girls could relate to the struggles the main character has.

For example, the Kitt series refers to the period of the Great Depression, which demonstrates the daily struggle the main character, Kitt has to go through as a result of her father losing her job.


So some examples of a book genre for example would be: War and Peace by Tolstoy, literary fiction as would be The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain.

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