The Sunday Salon: Literary Taxonomy

I’ve been following the dialogue between Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin concerning what exactly constitutes science fiction for some time, because it’s an important question–at what point is that line drawn? We tend to think that other people see genres the same way we do, as Atwood and Le Guin did. However, to their surprise, they discovered they did not, making their chief conflict quite complicated. When I attended one of Atwood’s lectures at Emory a few weeks ago, I was quite taken with her choice of phrase when she was discussing the many meanings SF has to her–it depends on your “literary taxonomy”. To further explore that idea, I’ve decided to clarify and contemplate my personal literary taxonomy.

(Obviously, we’re only dealing with fiction here–nonfiction and fiction are as different as the day and night. It’s only when you try to pick out the different phases of the moon that you run into trouble.)

For me, historical fiction and contemporary fiction have a very clear distinction–World War II. Anything before my parents were born is historical fiction; anything after is contemporary. I must admit to filing things written before World War II as historical as well. I feel I’m validated in doing so as these distinctions will become more arbitrary as time goes on; perhaps someone will classify her historical fiction as pre-9/11 in the future. Contemporary fiction, I might add, is where I tend to file “literary” fiction, a term that drives me into a Cú Chulainn-esque war frenzy. (Complete with eye on a stalk!) To me, a genre shouldn’t define a writer’s (or an audience’s!) pretensions, whether it is deserved or not. As the late John Updike put it, all books are literary because “they are written in words”. This is the same reason I don’t use classics, a much more defined term, as a genre–it’s an ascribed classification that doesn’t tell me a thing what the book is about. I consider The Lord of the Rings a classic, but I rarely see my beloved Professor Tolkien on class syllabi. I loathe Kurt Vonnegut and yet his works are cited as classics. “Literary fiction” and “classics” are useful as signifiers, but they only tell me about the culture that values them, not about the book itself.

Romance is self-explanatory; any novel whose main plot is the romantic relationship between two characters. I have, for organization’s sake, contemplated adding “straight romance” and “queer romance” as subgenres, but I haven’t put it into motion yet.

Horror fiction, mysteries, and thrillers tend to have a lot of overlap–after all, most thrillers have a mystery at the heart of them. I rarely read horror fiction, so my definition is a bit rudimentary; it’s any novel that aims to make your blood run cold and make you rest uneasy. This separates out from even the most exploitative thrillers, where the killer is caught and everything is okay. In horror fiction, even if the main character mains to escape physically unscathed, the mental scars are always there. I can see a foggy area in-between, but I don’t think I’ll ever venture there. I separate mysteries from thrillers with both a threat level and a professional level–mysteries usually involve a murder solved by an amateur, while thrillers usually involve crimes including murder solved by law enforcement. Mysteries also lend themselves to short stories, like parts of the Sherlock Holmes canon and the Miss Marple mysteries. But that’s not a hard and fast definition; some thrillers are solved by amateurs and some mysteries by law enforcement. I find mysteries to be cozier and less intense than thrillers.

But once we get to speculative fiction, everything gets a lot soupier. To me, speculative fiction encompasses all imaginative fiction–fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural fiction (a term I may have invented, but I find ridiculously useful). Because I deal with these genres a lot, I have managed to boil down my definitions to the both. Fantasy is any work with impossible elements (like dragons and magic) that takes place in a world not our own. For instance, Star Wars is science fantasy because it’s a universe without Earth, while Firefly is science fiction because humanity left Earth long ago. Science fiction is any work with mostly feasible elements (like space travel and life on other planets, although they may be taken to the extreme) that takes place in our world in the future of the time the work was written–so Frankenstein is science fiction. Supernatural fiction is any work with impossible elements (like the fae) that occurs in our world, because the term “urban fantasy” makes me think of The Lies of Locke Lamora, not Anita Blake. I find these keep things organized and are broad enough for new subgenres, like steampunk (science fiction, of course!). But there are some foggy bits between them, of course–quite technicially, I should classify Harry Potter and The Mists of Avalon as supernatural fiction, but I don’t. In Harry Potter’s case, it’s the fullness of the magical world, which probably could function quite separately from the Muggle world, and, in The Mists of Avalon, it’s simply because medieval Europe is the generic fantasy setting to the extent I can’t see past it. If it was set in medieval China, would I still file it under fantasy? Perhaps–I don’t know.

I have to admit, young adult and graphic novel are filed under genre because I don’t want to have separate categories for age range and medium–perhaps I’ll prefix them soon.

In other news, I finished Emma and Banewreaker for class. I’m in love with The Sundering right now, which is the series Banewreaker is a part of–I even went down to the library to pick up the second part, Godslayer, to read after Remarkable Creatures, my current read. I’m enjoying it so far, but I’m frowning mightily at the heteronormativity of the proceedings. We’ll see how it turns out. I also found Polly and the Pirates at my local library, a comic miniseries that I can find nowhere else. I love my local library to pieces.

Penguin Young Readers is giving away a Robin McKinley bundle consisting of Pegasus, Sunshine, Chalice, and a Pegasus poster until an unspecified date. Swapna at S. Krishna’s Books is giving away a copy of The Little Stranger until November 10th. Allie at Hist-Fic Chick is giving away two copies of The Mischief of the Mistletoe until November 19th. TJ at Dreams and Speculation is giving away an audiobook bundle composed of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and Blackout until November 19th. Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away the works of Brandon Sanderson and Dance in the Vampire Bund volumes 1 through 9 until November 22nd. They’re also giving away a ridiculous bundle of 25 fantasy books and an equally ridiculous bundle of 25 science fiction books until December 6th–you must register to receive their newsletter to enter all of these US only giveaways. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. You can currently view the first two episodes of the BBC series Sherlock, “A Study in Pink” and “The Blind Banker”, online at PBS for free (US only, I believe). Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

How do you define the major genres of fiction, particularly iffy things like “literary fiction” and speculative fiction?

13 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Literary Taxonomy

  1. “A term that drives me into a Cú Chulainn-esque war frenzy.” Haha, you and me both. And Updike has just earned +234 cool points in my book.

    Also, I completely agree with you about classics not being a genre. I use the term as a mental equivalent of “old books”, with no judgement value attached, and the idea that books are inherently superior for being old never ceases to amaze me.

    I’d most definitely say that YA and GNs are NOT genres either, but I do understand why you decided not to go there. A very interesting post!

  2. I’ve got a very similar definition of historical fiction, although I think my mental cut-off extends into the 60s in some cases. Actually, for anything after WWII, I break it down by the focus of the story: if the historical event is the center of the story (i.e. a book about the Kennedy assassination), then that’s historical fiction, if it’s just the backdrop (i.e. something like The Lovely Bones, which was very consciously set in the 70s, although that wasn’t the focus of the story), then it’s general fiction.

    For a while I broke down speculative fiction by the presence of a map: if it had a map, it’s fantasy, if not, it’s sci-fi. With a few exceptions (Dune being one), this actually worked pretty well.

  3. I don’t think I make a cut-off for historical fiction at all. If the author is living in the same time period in which the book is set (within a margin of, say, five years), it’s not historical fiction. But even something set pre-9/11 can be historical fiction if the author’s living in the book’s future. In my opinion, anyway.

  4. I think I go with Jenny’s definition myself for historical/general fiction. Dickens and Austen etc are all very historical now but very modern books for the times. The line between thrillers and mysteries for me is the danger level for the protagonist. Most mysteries the main character is rarely in personal danger until the end as they’ve caught/confronted the criminal. In thrillers the protagonist usually has several big danger points, escaping various close calls and sometimes loosing friends/loved ones to the criminal. I really like how you divy up sci-fi and fantasy and those in between. great post!

  5. To make things easy for myself at, I use the same cut-off point you do – World War II (including its immediate aftermath). As a more formal definition, I would say that a novel set before the birth of the author would qualify as historical fiction, while a novel set within the author’s life time would not. There are a lot of different definitions floating around out there, most of which have a reasonable argument in their favor.

    The vast majority of the novels set after World War II (and quite a few set during) were written by authors writing from personal experience of the time period, although a few novels are now being written about the 1950s and 1960s by younger authors born later. Also, some people classify contemporary novels written in the past (Jane Austen’s works, for example) as historical fiction. I don’t think that qualifies, either, although the distinction can be subtle.

    To me, what really separates historical fiction from contemporary fiction is the author’s level of experience of the events he or she is writing about, and the inescapable bias that enters in when writing about time periods within one’s own experience. For example, the World War II novels written during the war or afterwards by people who lived through the war almost invariably make strong value judgments about the Allies being “good guys” and the Germans being “bad guys.” I think we’d all agree that Hitler was a bad guy, but now that novelists are beginning to tackle this period as history rather than the remembered past, shades of complexity are being explored that probably could not have been by earlier writers. During the last few years, historical novels have been written about Germans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler and died for it, as well as novels like Richard Bausch’s Peace, which explores the less noble side of the Allied effort, in which individual soldiers and officers were as likely to commit dark deeds as the participants in any war down the ages have been.

  6. Your taxonomy is fascinating! Honestly, I’ve never thought so deeply about how I classify books. I think the system I use is probably only useful for me; it’s missing a lot of the precision a system like yours has. But, it works for me.

    I especially find your discussion of speculative fiction interesting. When I worked in a bookstore, some books posed a problem when it came to placing them in a section.

  7. Those are better distinctions than most people come up with. I think they are not only fair, but highly accurate. The only weak part you have is your definition of horror, but you’ve already explained why. If I may offer, I think horror often tries to excite the reader, just as most works do, only horror excites the reader through fear. It’s not a large distinction from what you said, but it opens the genre up to include things that won’t mess with your head and give you nightmares, but still is much darker than supernatural fiction.

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