It would be pointless and superficial to try to define every literary genre, not least when ‘Literary’ is regarded as a genre in its own right.
My philosophy is to write what ever you want to write and then decide – or let others decide – what genre (if any) might best describe it. Changing hats and becoming an editor I know that poses a dilemma, but authors are always a dilemma, and we get used to you all.
Creative writing comes in many guises. Formula writing is creative but if you write to a formula it’s really up to you to study its rules, conventions and boundaries. If you enjoy the discipline, and many do, then you are welcome.
What a writer needs to do is find the platform that’s frequented by the audience who will most appreciate the work. As for me, I move around: the versatility of my writing demands a different rostrum each time. I’m happy with that.
If you, too, are the kind of writer who writes like giving birth and then looks down to see whether it’s a boy, a girl, or a monster – well, perhaps the following definitions will help you decide where you’re at.
If you feel like a change, perhaps you’ll be inspired to write for a new market. Whatever you choose, aiming for a specific genre requires knowledge of its particular conventions. You must study the works you would like to have written yourself.
Here are some brief and personal interpretations, pointing to the idiosyncrasies that seem to stand out:
Is what’s offered to you on these pages. It acknowledges the use of emphasis on a particular attitude, and there are three elements that define the category:
- It is truthful
- It is created with artistic vigour
- It comes from the writer’s heart.
One could say it’s emotionally cathartic but I wouldn’t want any writer to feel tarred with such a brush. Creative non-fiction takes many forms, from the How To… article, to the spoof documentary, or the magazine feature that shows you the place and the people along with what was done, said and heard.
I began writing by producing operating and maintenance manuals for engineers. A challenging task when I knew nothing about the subject. Surprisingly that was my major attribute because I had to describe everything clearly so I could understand what it was, and that helped many of my readers who were equally baffled, but didn’t like to admit that they were.
Can be ridiculous or deadly serious with a truth more poignant than any sad tale. The trick is in violating the audience’s expectations. I’ve never told a successful joke in my life. Hold on, perhaps that’s because I am the joke!
Where the main strength and attraction is suspense; and we often have most empathy with the criminal. Good characterisation and emotional pull are what give it strength. Need to talk more about empathy. Unless your reader can understand and relate to your characters you will never sell many books.
Where the question is Whodunnit? And our empathy lies with the detective whose problem is to solve it. Readers are looking for clues – who will get it first? There is a complicated story, dripping with clues, some of which link to the person responsible. It reveals all at the end of the book.
Concise and to the point, using the fewest and best words in the best order. Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, and there are numerous definitions to match the ‘rules’ that some poetry adheres to: sonnets; rhyming couplets; the villanelle; blank verse; free verse; haiku; cinquain; tanka – to name only a few.
The stories focus on relationships that have a history and could happen anywhere, so that dialogue and action are specifically the writer’s task. The director can choose to use minimal sets without losing the strength of the play. Don’t forget you can also use writing as a performance. Public speaking may become an essential attribute for the successful author.
Television plays – series & sitcoms
Are where faces matter. Physical expressions can be shown in detail, as can locations and specific details. Must be fast and engrossing or the audience will be lost to another channel.
Similar to TV but the audience is relatively committed so the writer is allowed longer to develop audience empathy with the characters and situations. Also, as with TV and graphic novels, there’s potential for epic scenery and special visual and audio effects.
Comics – graphic novels
Written rather like films and TV with action, dialogue, and visual shots given separately. Every story must have a moral or a message, and be conducive to visual imagery for the artist.
Visually gruesome or psychologically disturbing, the climax of the story isn’t likely to be for the faint-hearted. It may surprise you to know that sex, blood and cruelty are not compulsory in this genre.
The description covers a multitude of fictions, but all are (or should be) self-contained, strong on structure and character, and encapsulate a novel’s worth of message within the exposition of a single incident.
Women’s magazine fiction
An art form in itself where emotional matters are illustrated in simple day-to-day events, with an ending that’s satisfying and usually uplifting. Tears of joy at the end are preferable to unseemly problems left to linger in the reader’s mind.
Are described on the Vignettes page where you’ll also find some examples. They can live in your head and on paper for years before finding their place in a full work of fiction. By this, their very nature, they are well worth writing and keeping.
Flash fiction is the term used for short stories that have a twist or shock at the end – a surprises ‘in a flash’. The stories are usually well under 1000 words, perhaps because net-surfers are inclined to move on quickly. The genre is enjoying a rediscovery on the Net. Power is a story that could come into this genre. Reading from a screen is rather like listening to a radio play: it is different from reading a book, as you tend not to look back. As with a radio play you carry on, hoping to make sense of it, compelled to find out where the story is going. The flash ending ensures you’re not disappointed.
A genre in the sense that it is often eclectic and esoteric. Sometimes I think the various small press magazines are the most literary of all media. They are many and varied in subject matter, and equally so regarding the quality. Study those that appeal to you, offer your work for little or no payment, and keep trying.
The beauty of the novel
Is that it offers space for thorough examination of psychological matters. It has “the capacity to go into other minds,” says Ian McEwan.
The novel can – if worked carefully – provide enlightenment on a subject from more than one character’s viewpoint. A good novel or piece of fiction can change your life.
With apologies to aficionados as many of these have a large following;
- Science Fiction
- Fantasy & Magic Realism
- Historical – romance – war – social
- Thrillers – spy – adventure
- Ghost Stories
- Mystery – whodunnit – psychological trickery
- And more. I’m just publishing an It-Narrative novel where the main character is a greyhound dog who is a noted painter and sculptor. Everything is possible.
Then we get to the borderline novels, where one genre doesn’t quite describe the content.
Among these I’d include Revenge Tragedy, Black Magic, Urban Gothic… Erotica
I didn’t wish to omit Erotica from the list as it would then be conspicuous for its absence. Nor did I intend to be denied the opportunity to define the emphasis that once prevailed:- erotica is of the mind, whilst pornography is visual. Alas, now I cannot give these definitions as the boundaries are so blurred.
Women’s romantic erotica found particular popularity in the early 1990s. It was a branch of liberation, for women, that was more acceptable to them than the image of the bra-burning feminists of the 70s and 80s.
There was one problem with erotica that brought about its downfall: it cancelled itself out. From the classy, respectable, subtly camouflaged exposition of the passions of love, writers of erotica – and presumably their readers – became impatient and bored. The problem is that sex, in itself, is boring.
Erotica should be sensuous, not sexual; but all good prose is sensual. Most sophisticated novels include sex scenes of some sort in any case, so erotica is a redundant category, certainly for the writer seeking serious literary input and outlets. All good poetry and prose is explicit where the detail, pacing and visual images are vital to the overall effect, so explicit sex comes under the same umbrella.
Here’s an example of a short erotic story.
Can you feel…?
Your eyes are staring into the fumes of surgical spirit and high hopes. Your breath is shallow and immobile, and the whiteness of your flesh is the white of woolpack clouds that is no white at all. You have the serene look of death at your side but won’t allow it to roll over and engulf you in its sanctuary. I watch your lips move like the wing of a stunned sparrow, twitching in the wind, fooling an observer. Now I see the bird moving, now I don’t and did I ever? Speak to me, speak!
The crisp, starched linen on the high bed puts shame to my sloppy clothes. Your night-dress is in my hand. Soft cotton and perfumed, with dainty embroidered feathers. I would slide it onto you in place of the harsh, yellowed utility gown, if only I could dare to disturb the sterile arrangement which is the nurses’ lot. I want you dressed in clothes which spell – and smell of – you. I study your skin, paler and more pure than I ever had pleasure to caress. Soft with white down, so cool and calm. But why won’t you look? Why won’t you see?
The machinery is humming as if it keeps your heart throbbing. No kidding. Black cables, silver boxes with grey knobs, and tiny red lights which indicate your life. The medics have no real control. They are deluding themselves with their gadgets. You will die when you want to die, I know, and not before. Nor will I let them make you live after.
I hold your hand and scrutinise the creases that tell of your nature. Your ideas. Your garden. Your way of cutting bread. Your supple joints which mix the plaster of Paris again and again or scoop a handful of sculpture and place it at an angle just so. And your fingers still have an outline of white powder round the nail-moons, and your fingernails are jagged and unkempt with repeated turning of clay, chemicals, wire, pliers and wood. Your hands were never akin to the freshness of your complexion or to the buoyancy of every new idea inside your head.
The pain was a concrete barrier – a ball and chain anchoring your zany hopes to the reality of life’s mundane spheres. The Ball of Pain was subject to suggestion too:
“This person can cure me!” you said.
to try the magic.
Spiritual healer. Ethereal assuager.
With letters after her name.
A big house. Big gardens.
Good note paper. Love birds
in a cage by the front door.
Still here beside you I move your hand, cringing as I find the back of mine touching the mountain of bedclothes which is your wound. At least they knew what they were doing.
I stop breathing to to think
of the journey to that ‘healer’.
Two pretty girls
(I am pretty, I am,
you told me I am.)
two maniac males
in a car made of scrap.
You were doubled-up in pain,
but you pretended it was laughter:
and the walking made you sick.
And the jolting made you stifle a cry.
It was a stolen car,
and your swollen tongue,
was alarming to me
and to anyone who could see.
The giggles turned to tears as reality pulled our senses to a frigid halt. The speed. The stifling petrol from the jalopy, driven beyond its wildest limits. How we ever got out alive I may always regret. That togetherness was all. And still is.
I watched the shamanist woman undress you. Promising a cure. She told you to relax, close your eyes, think of colourful birds in the wild – free and singing in the trees. Across your tummy went her hands, gently at first, stroking and pushing, pummelling the flesh like bread dough. I watched, brimming with hope. And her ecstasy was bewildering, as faster she worked on you, delving into flesh that I’d – never known was there.
Folds of it she found. Folds of your body. You cried out and she hushed you with spiritual psalms and a closing of her heavy black eyelids. The gold crucifix on her neck had a spike at the end. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the house. There were toads in every corner: china ones, leather ones. Dried ones. Green ones, brown ones and black.
There was a smell of blood as she operated on you. She called it surgery but there was no opiate even in her voice. Painless now, perhaps numb? The pummelling and delving went on and on, dark blood flowing in rivers around your white stomach, until at last she pulled free – a lump. “The culprit!” she declared. The root of all your pain. The poison growth which made you wince in agony, and here, she announced, was the cause. Removed by the powers of possession through her hands. Anaesthesia by hope and expectation. Surgery by mind control.
I was sceptical even as she cleaned you. I didn’t like the smell. The sight of an uncut wound made me point and almost laugh.
Flippantly, she turned.
“Have you any ailments I can help you with, my dear?”
I shook my head, shocked. Disgusted at her hungry eyes.
So she spoke to you as if I were senseless and mouthless. “Your sister. Your friend, does she need a little prayer too?”
It was bullshit.
So we made our way home on foot, uncured, but feeling better if only relieved. Thirty miles.
Then the pain was even worse.
Bruising, with no visible incision. Disillusioned. Those love birds were miniature ravens.
Grateful millionaires pay the bills with donations and then, thankfully for the vile, violating, trickster, they usually die. How the hell we believed in her cures I’ll never know. Tunnel-vision for each other. Safety in the firmness of our love-bond. My adoration sanctioned my every move.
You are not dead nor dying. Your face is white, your mind serene, the new wound in your belly is all sealed up and the bruising is back, but this time it’s valid, not pummelled for the sake of effect.
I hold your hand and you move it a little, but I wonder if the numbing drug was too strong to let you ever recover.
To let you feel anything again:
The touch of my hand on your cheek.
The blow of my whisper on your face.
The hair from my fringe when I kiss the bony valleys of your temples, in anticipation of whispering and loving you – tentatively – tenderly – on the trembling nerve-ends in a line down your spine. When you’re well.
Slowly, hesitantly, a feather-like touch flowing over your fine down, drawing dimples and craters, pot-holes and molehills, gooseflesh and spikes along the contours toward thy pelvic mound. I want to look at your face and see the tension melting, the creases pronounced in their aim to flesh out and disappear. As the corners of your mouth spread into a contented smile, so will your knees fall effortlessly open and a force beyond words, beyond resistance will pull my fingers to your quim where the healing warmth of love begins to stroke away the pain… and bring life.
Do you hear me now? Can you feel my presence? My breath and my thoughts. See my shadow even though your eyes refuse to move? Can you taste the foul bitter breath of illness and does it ring true with the smell of Dettol and polish, of hospital dinners and stout black shoes on the dirtless tile floor?
Here: lick the water I place on your lips, it’s lukewarm and clear as if double-distilled.
It is good. Show me
the life inside your body.
The happiness inside your head.
Tell me now, if there’s none. I need to know and to share your death, and brace myself to leave you.
Body and soul; substitute mother; lover and sister and minder.
Can you feel anything when I do this?
© Bernie Ross, 1996
Please note the date. In a desperate attempt to find new ways of saying the same old thing, too much so-called erotic writing in the 21st Century has become littered with over-the-top synonyms, resulting in a plethora of ridiculous euphemisms leading to blatant flesh on flesh. The writing is crude. But if it’s crude it isn’t erotic, so it has removed itself from the respectable position it held.
The character Fry, in the Futurama cartoon, (a Matt Groening brainchild) summed it up recently in words to the effect: “Thanks to the Internet I’m bored with sex. Now where’s the violence?”
I’ve said for a long time that writing horror (Arguments) is something every writer should tackle so that it’s under their belt. When you’ve written the ultimate (wrenched the depths of your psyche on to the page) then you’ll be able to handle absolutely anything in your writing. You’ll have set yourself free from internal censors and you’ll be able to write things you didn’t know were in there, including lively, savage, boundary-pushing prose, television, comedy or more. You’ll be able to become a criminal, a child, a mad person or a religious guru, if you’re not one of these already. Go to Experimental Writing and see what springs from your mind.
The World Wide Web is teeming with sites about writing and seems to be hottest on the specialists in Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is no small wonder that boundaries blur when everyone has their own definitions. You just have to keep on reading, writing, and trying.
If something doesn’t quite work effectively nor have the impact you intended, it might benefit from being turned to suit another medium, or another genre. At the end of the day it will have taught you a lot about your writing, and it might just find the rostrum that suits you.
Wikipedia, as always, is a good starting place. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_literary_genres