The taxonomy of books is similar to the taxonomy of animals. Most of us can recognize the higher level divisions; we know what makes plants different than animals, fiction different than non-fiction. Many of us understand the mid range divisions too. We know what makes a mammal a mammal, a reptile a reptile, a horror story a horror story…
But beneath our broad understanding of book genres is a whole cascade of subgenres, distinguished by a unique constellation of traits. As a reader, recognizing subgenres can be a fun exercise, like birdwatching for an amateur naturalist. But as a writer, understanding subgenres is critical.
When you can hone in on one or two subgenres that your writing fits into, you will have an easier time with marketing. Even if you don’t choose to promote your book as “blidungsroman” (because let’s face it, most people have no clue what “bildungsroman” is…a cross between dung a romance?), you will be able to identify books that are intimately related to your own. People who have read and enjoyed a book in the same subgenre as your own book will likely love your work!
Here are 5 genres you may have read without knowing it. If you’re a writer looking to promote your book, you should, of course, continue exploring other niche genres after you finish this list!
Whodunit is a subgenre of mystery that is designed to give the audience equal opportunity to solve a crime. The practice of withholding information, which is common in the mystery genre, is discarded, and the audience is given access to all the same clues as the detective. In order to compensate for the tool of concealment, Whodunit plots are extremely intricate. There are usually an abundance of suspects and red herrings put in place to entangle the reader.
Whodunits peaked in popularity during the “Golden Age” of detective novels, which spanned from the 1920-1950s. Interestingly, the mystery genre itself did not until the 1800s. Pre-industrial revolution, law enforcement was less institutionalized. The detectives who would later star in “whodunits” had to become a part of the social consciousness before they could prowl the pages of fiction.
Examples: anything Agatha Christie
Bildungsroman and coming-of-age are sometimes used interchangeably. Technically, a bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story that focusses on the moral and psychological development of a character from youth to maturity. Often, bildungsroman literature addresses the relationship between self and society. In most cases, the character is brought more in line with “reality” or with societal values by the end of the story.
The term bildungsroman originated in Germany during the late eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the genre gained popularity and spread throughout Europe, aided by the class-conflict and dramatic social change of that century. During the twentieth and twenty-first century, the genre has evolved to fit new attitudes and social order, but the underlying theme of personal development remains prevalent in literature.
Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, An Abundance of Katherines
Magical realism, also called fabulism, is a genre that blends reality and fantasy. Whereas magical elements tend to be the focus of other fantasy genres, in magical realism, reality and fantasy are on equal footing. The description of reality is so vivid, or the presence of magic is so subtle, that the two place equal demand on the reader’s attention.
Magical realism was first used to describe a painting style which arose as an alternative to the distorted landscapes of expressionism. Paintings that fell under the description “magical realism” captured fantastical images in photorealistic detail. Although magical realism first found its way into Italian writing, today it is most often associated with Latin America, where it is sometimes called fabulism as a reference to the fables and allegories that it resembles.
Examples: Like Water for Chocolate, Peter Pan
A harlequin romance is a romantic novel following a formula of “boy-gets-girl.” Harlequin romances are known for their descriptive language, sentimentality, and predictability. While they may contain some explicit content, they usually fall short of erotic romances.
Harlequin Books Limited was founded in 1949 and gained repute as a publishing agency throughout the 1950s. At first, Harlequin published books of all genres, but when a chief editor passed away and his position was filled by his wife, the agency partnered with Mills and Boon, a publisher of popular romance novels in Great Britain. The company began marketing romance novels by displaying them in the check-out lines of grocery stores. Soon, they dominated the market for romance novels in North America, to such an extent that their name became synonymous with the proper, formulaic romance novel enjoyed by housewives from the 1970s-1990s.
Examples: I actually haven’t read any of these; no examples are coming to mind : D
Tragicomedies, as the name implies, are tragedies with light moods or even happy endings. Early tragicomedies employed a reversal of typical characters and characteristics; for instance, a king or noblemen might be portrayed as foolish (comic) while a slave was portrayed as wise or dignified (tragic). Later tragicomedies use a mixture of emotions and absurdist humor, such that seriousness or misfortune are designed to stimulate laughter.
Tragicomedies were named and created as early as Roman times. Over the years, tragicomedies have created a lot of controversy. During the Renaissance period, debates raged between advocates of neoclassicism, who preferred adherence to strict genre rules, and generic innovators, who felt that tragicomedies captured life in a more elegant, realistic way. By the early nineteenth century, tragicomedies had gained popularity. Many writers of the time emulated the Shakespearean use of tragicomedy. At last, with the growth of realism during the late nineteenth century, the tragicomedy became firmly established as a respectable literary style.
Examples: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Merchant of Venice