What Is Genre Theory?

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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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Post 3

@umbra21 - I recently heard a podcast about writing where the speakers talked about how different genres had audiences who expected different things in terms of what will be generic and what will be unusual. Romances are usually supposed to be fairly generic with only a few points of difference between them, and people who read romances like that.

Science fiction is probably the opposite end of the spectrum, where people reading it are expecting something they haven't seen before and will be disappointed if they don't get it.

Post 2

@Mor - Genre can be also be useful in analysis and genre theories are generally concerned with a deeper understanding of the history of a particular subject in literature and how it fits into the whole canon.

The typical book that people mention when talking about the origins of genre is Frankenstein, which is widely considered the origin of horror and science fiction, or just speculative fiction in general.

If you think of science fiction as being merely about space ships, or even about "extreme science" you are missing the higher goal of most science fiction, which is to explore the human condition by placing it in an unusual, but credible, juxtaposition with an extreme.

If you define genres in that way you can really analyze them with respect to their success as part of their genre. Anyone can throw a spaceship into a book and call it science fiction, but that doesn't necessarily make it good science fiction.

Post 1

I only think genre theory is useful up to a point. And that point is usually somewhere in the bookstore. Really, the only purpose of genre is for marketing, as it really helps to know who to sell a book to. People tend to fit inside a niche when it comes to books they want to read and will only wander outside that niche if a particular book becomes a breakthrough, like the Harry Potter series did, or the Da Vinci Code.

Many books in one genre have more in common with books of another genre than with ones in the genre they are assigned, but they have to be put there in order to fit into the booksellers' mold.

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