Here I came upon an argument about whether a particular grouping is a genre, or a marketing term. Which made me wonder - what is genre? How strict is this taxonomy, and what purpose does it serve? I mean, is it for marketing (in which case the aforementioned argument has its answer in the market), or is there more to it?

To use a different example, The Master and Margarita has all the marks of an urban fantasy novel - a supernatural being (Satan) and his cohorts show up in then-modern-day Moscow, and make life interesting. Yet you wouldn't find this book on the "Fantasy" shelves. Is that a marketing decision, or does this work, for some reason, not belong to the fantasy genre after all? What is more salient - the shelf on which a book "should" belong by virtue of story elements, or the shelf on which it would sell best?

Does the genre designation serve any purpose other than finding books in a book shop? To what extent should we, as writers, care about genre, in regards to what we're writing?

  • "other than finding books in a book shop" Allows easier to decide if any book gonna be interesting? E.g. some people are not interested in unexplained magic etc. but will read sci-fi. Of course, in given argument I would not classify women's fiction as a genre. Because it tells nothing about worldbuilding.
    – rus9384
    Oct 12, 2018 at 0:04
  • 2
    You'll probably find the Writing Excuses series on Elemental Genres to be very interesting, and possibly answer your question. Oct 12, 2018 at 1:07

4 Answers 4


Genre is a means of classification. To understand why a book is classified a certain way you need to understand the classifier and why they'd want to classify books. What is that person's intention?

The two primary intentions for classifying are:

  • To categorize a book to make it easier to find. Sellers do this so readers in their store can easily find a thing they are likely to buy. The Seller makes money. Libraries do this to make sure their information can be predictably found by both readers and researchers.

  • To categorize the book in order to understand or say something about it, either in the hope of spreading that understanding or forming a new understanding. The primary point here is to group types of knowledge together and label them. This may be a researcher who wants to find books on insects or a writer who wants to know about mysteries. Or it may be more politically minded: an activist trying to gather viewpoints they want others to read; a organization (church, government, business) trying to get their target audience indoctrinated by reading something that brings them closer to the organizations world view.

What do you care about as a writer?

Professional writers are primarily concerned about the first because they need to eat and to eat they need to sell books. And I say primarily because there are writers in both groups. When you sit down to write you want to know who will read your book so that you don't write something they won't read. For the writer genre is more about readership identification. However, there are clearly writers who advocate or study; so it is not the only concern for a writer.

Sales-level-genre classifications are used to make short-hand promises to consumers about what they might experience when they consume the work. This means that if you say something is sci-fi, and there's a class of people who thinks that means "has spaceships", but they will buy anything with space-ships; then it would be correct to call the work sci-fi (even if you count up all of the fantasy/sci fi elements and there are more fantasy elements).

Writers may be more interested in using the lessons of genre that come from the second point at the point of designing a story. If a particular genre definition connotes elements common to a story, pacing, etc; it may be useful way of identifying tools the writer can used to create a better book.

Now sure, there's a whole layer of bashing that goes on about whether you are "genre fiction" or not. But, it's all relatively moot to the writer unless it directly impacts a work they are trying to sell. You use genre as a tool. Knowing what your readership is expecting can help you surprise readers or keep you from disappointing them. Having a knowledge of some of that classification for the purpose of mechanic may inspire you write in a specific way, or allow you to "hack" your way into a readership. As writers we should take what's useful and apply it to the problems we are facing.

The actual purposes of the classifier be damned. Write a compelling work. Use genre if it helps you do so. Don't worry too long in that field. This is a realm for business people, critics and politicians.


I said what I did in the other thread because of a little word that no one has actually said.


Some genres are descriptive: Mystery, fantasy. And those plus others are treated as "genre fiction" (a term that means, "not a serious literary book," despite the fact that we can all come up with multiple examples saying otherwise). Romance is a genre that gets called "genre fiction." And often it is books that aren't meant to be literary and don't take as long to write. Westerns, some detective novels, etc.

What we're dealing with here is the label "women's fiction." Which, sure, is an actual industry term. But I can not hear it without also hearing the "just." It is just women's fiction. It will never be serious literary fiction. No matter how much work an author has put into it, it's just genre fiction. Romance that isn't romance.

And that's been the truth for forever. Female authors might write and sell books, but they weren't considered "universal" writing. In part because women gasp wrote about other women, or girls, or domestic situations, etc. I'm not making this up. I learned it in English class (and a million other places). I'm in my 50's and things were starting to change at that point. So my English teachers talked about how wrong these assumptions were, and how utterly entrenched. There were highbrow essays debating the question of if a female author could ever write something universal.

Even here in 2018, my daughter is in 8th grade and the entire reading list for the year* is white male authors writing about white male protagonists. Lest you think this was all a thing of the past. Despite a teacher who calls herself a feminist (she is constrained by the approved list of books to choose from). * There was one maybe book by a white woman writing about a white girl.

So is women's fiction a genre? Eh, probably. Because it meets the definition. But I refuse to treat it as one. The question you link to wasn't about sections of a bookstore or marketing, it was about the genre one is writing in. With my own work, I don't aspire to be a shunted-to-the-side marketing category. If I write within a genre (and I do, as my novel is middle-grade and fantasy), it's because I embrace it. Not because I think it is just all it can be.

If the novel in the question is published and then marketed a certain way, so be it. That's on the publishers (and distributors and bookstores...). But should that author aspire to and embrace her book as women's fiction? Yeah, no. I mean, she can do whatever she wants, but I'm not going to suggest it. Or let someone else suggest it without comment.

  • So you're saying that The Master and Margarita isn't labelled 'Fantasy' because nobody in their right mind would label it as 'just fantasy'? Can't argue with that. But what does it say about genre in general? Oct 12, 2018 at 14:55
  • I'm not familiar with that book so I can't comment on it. And Fantasy is a genre that is no longer in the genre ghetto, if it ever was. Fantasy is descriptive and nothing more. Unlike some other labels...
    – Cyn
    Oct 12, 2018 at 14:59
  • Though I will add that it is true that some books that do fit firmly into a genre get marketed without it (or that label is downplayed), if they're considered "serious" fiction.
    – Cyn
    Oct 12, 2018 at 15:00

Artistically speaking, good writing is good writing, and caring overly much about labels doesn't help anything. So I would say to write the book you want to write, and only worry about genre once you get to the point of trying to sell it.

If someone sets out to write a book in genre X, that's fine, if that's what they want to do. But writers in the act of writing should never feel compelled to think in terms of genres.

Regarding The Master and Margarita in particular: I wouldn't call it fantasy because its story beats, themes, and characterization are very different from what one typically expects from a fantasy novel, even one set in the "real world." Fantasy doesn't mean any story with supernatural elements (speculative fiction would be the umbrella term for that). To count as fantasy, I would argue that a book needs to use some fantasy tropes, and have some recognizable themes in common with the rest of the genre.

I'm actually not sure what label I would use for The Master and Margarita. Magical Realism doesn't fit very well either, although I think it does a better job than fantasy of pointing readers to similar writers (someone who enjoys reading Bulgakov is more likely to enjoy Gabriel Garcia Marquez than C. S. Lewis). Really, I would just call it a good book.


To what extent should we, as writers, care about genre, in regards to what we're writing?

I'll take Arcanist Lupus's comment and turn it into an answer.

Writing Excuses disambiguate

genre fiction "That means science fiction, Western, that sort of stuff as a genre that incorporates setting and also plot tropes,"


elemental genre "what makes readers turn the page and what hacks their brain to have certain responses, that you can then use as a writer in your writing."

So, while genre fiction refers to the tropes of the settings and initial character states – the "facts" of the story or the who where and whenelemental genre refers to the intended reader/audience reaction – the pacing, story beats, emotional tone, and character changes – as "flavors" and "spices" which are combined and sequenced to "pull the reader through the story".

Similar to the MICE quotient as a tool for writers, their advice is to understand the emotional payoffs of all elemental genres, and utilize them as ingredients to avoid the clichés and ruts of "bookstore genres".

Over the episodes, they discuss how the two definitions of genre can be combined at different structural levels. An elemental genre can replace the core structure of the entire narrative, serve as counterpoint or subplot, can create a major twist, or be applied as needed to control the tone and emotional payoff of any section within the story.

The Elemental Genres they discuss are:

  1. Wonder
  2. Idea
  3. Adventure
  4. Horror
  5. Mystery
  6. Thriller
  7. Humor
  8. Relationship
  9. Drama
  10. Issue
  11. Ensemble

But they casually mention other (sub)genres, and say their list of 11 elemental genres is incomplete.

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