Discussion: Genre Definitions

Yesterday, I was reading through my Google reader and I came across The Aussie Zombie’s post:  The World Ends on Wednesday #4 – Battle of the Sub-Genre.  In it, Kat discusses her ideas on the differences between Post-Apocalyptic novels and Dystopian novels.  She said that sometimes it makes her “wince a little” when books are categorized in the wrong sub-genre.  And I myself have cringed a little at this same thing, and it made me think about my own ideas of what determines whether I consider a book Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian, or both.

Then I came across this post over at Book Soulmates:  Discussion: Classifying Genres – Part 1.  Isalys went a bit further with her discussion, and defined what a lot of sub-genres mean to her.  And while I agree with a lot of what both Kat and Isalys said, I couldn’t help but think of a few other things that help me categorize a book into a certain sub-genre.

So I was inspired by both those lovely bloggers to write my own discussion post about how I, personally, define many of the genres and sub-genres. Like they both mentioned, it’s very subjective.  Everyone’s definitions will probably be slightly different (or vastly different).

First of all, let me explain my process of how I decide the genre and sub-genre of the books I’ve read as I write my reviews (because I always list the genres and sub-genres in my reviews, and have my little tag list in the sidebar so that they can be easily found).  After I read a book, I already have a pretty good idea of the genre, but sometimes the sub-genre can be a little tricky.  If I’m not sure what to classify it as, I look up the book on Goodreads and see how others have classified it.  But I still have a few guidelines that I go by when selecting which genre and sub-genre to tag a book with.

I haven’t reviewed too many books yet on my blog, so I may have forgotten a few.  But here are the major genres and sub-genres and how I define them (and I’m not even going to go into Non-Fiction and its sub-genres):  [Edit: I wanted to add that, in this post, I don’t even go into the difference between books for adults, teens, or children.  I think often there are differences between, say, an adult Paranormal novel and a YA Paranormal, but they both fall under Paranormal for me.  Thanks to Kate for pointing this out for me!  I plan on having a discussion about what makes a book YA in the future.)


Science Fiction:  I think most people will have a similar definition with this one.  When I think of Science Fiction, I think of gadgets, robots, space ships and outer-space. But that’s Hard SF.  There are a lot of books that would fall under Soft SF, that really just deal with dystopian societies, post-apocalyptic societies, or movies like Inception where there’s crazy technology that allows you to do something that seems futuristic or is improbable with today’s technology.  It’s really a very broad genre, in my opinion.  Across the Universe by Beth Revis is an example of a Science Fiction book that I’ve reviewed.

Fantasy:  When I think of Fantasy, the first books that come to mind are the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings series.  Magic, magical creatures, super powers – these are the things that make me qualify something as Fantasy.  Although super powers kind of straddle the line between SF and Fantasy.  Basically, though, my line of thought is:  If it’s got magic in it, it’s Fantasy.  And of course you’ve got your sub-genres within Fantasy:  Epic Fantasy (think LotR and The Hobbit), and a the wide sub-genre of Paranormal (vampires, werewolves, people who can heal with a touch of their hand, etc.).

Historical Fiction:  I haven’t read many of these, but I basically consider anything that is set in a historical time as Historical Fiction.  It may have some characters or events that actually occurred in the past, it may not.  I tagged A Breath of Eyre by Eve Marie Mont as Historical Fiction, even though it’s not quite Historical Fiction.  It’s also Science Fiction.
Contemporary:  Basically anything that is completely realistic.  No magic, no bad guys out to take over the world, no super powers, no vampires, etc.  Just a story about someone doing normal things, dealing with everyday problems (which are sometimes hard enough!).  I used to not really care for these books but I’m beginning to love them more and more, especially because of beautiful contemporary novels like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

Horror:  With these, I basically think, “Hmm, would this be one of those movies I’d see a trailer for and either refuse to watch or make my husband watch with me in the bright light of day?”  If the answer is yes, I’d consider it Horror.  Basically any Stephen King (although, while creepy, Bag of Bones was not too scary), or anything with super scary parts or gore. Could have ghosts, vampires, werewolves, evil clowns – or it may just be about some crazy psychos that camp out in your back yard and scare the crap out of you.


Paranormal:  This one is kinda iffy with me.  And I know that Isalys from Book Soulmates differentiated between Paranormal and Paranormal Romance, but I just lump them all together and call them Paranormal.  Paranormal can fall under Science Fiction, but most of the time I think of it as being a sub-genre of Fantasy.  Mostly because when I think of Paranormal I think of werewolves, vampires, or angels.  But I guess if it was a story about someone with the power of teleportation, it might be Paranormal but fall under the genre of Science Fiction. Paranormal, to me, is where it gets tricky.  Glimmer by Phoebe Kitanidis was one I tagged as Paranormal, and I guess it could be considered Fantasy or Science Fiction.

Crime:  I added this sub-genre tag simply for the book Heist Society by Ally Carter.  I love stories like this – movies like Ocean’s Eleven or TV shows like Leverage – where the main characters are stealing, and although they’re not very straight-laced characters, often they’re doing it for noble reasons.
Mystery:  This one actually can fall under any genre, and could be a genre itself, and it really could apply to many of the books I read, since a lot of them have some kind of mystery that the characters have to solve.  But when I think of a true Mystery novel, I think of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, or the show Veronica Mars.  But I’ve only used this tag for Heist Society by Ally Carter so far.

Post-Apocalyptic:  To me, these stories are the ones where something has completely altered a society or the world.  A third world war, a plague, or something else has drastically changed the way that the inhabitants live their day-to-day lives.  Often there is no electricity, no sense of government or police, and the characters basically just have to survive.  I think of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (although before the apocalypse there was a dystopian society in that story) or Pure by Julianna Baggott (and there’s a dystopian aspect there, too).  

Dystopian:  I once read that Aldous Huxley considered his novel, Brave New World, to be a “negative utopia”. I’m not sure if that’s where the term “dystopia” derived, but this has even made me break up Dystopian novels into two different types:  Dystopians and Negative Utopias.  This is where most people will think I’m just talking crazy, but bear with me.  When I think of a Dystopian novel, I think of a structured society (and these are sometimes formed in the aftermath of an apocalypse of some sort) which is totalitarian or oppressive in some way.  The citizens, or most of them at least, are not happy.  They don’t like the way things are.  The only people who like it are the ones in control, or the ones who are directly benefiting from the oppression of the others.  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and 1984 by George Orwell are complete Dystopian novels to me.  

Negative Utopias, to me, on the other hand, are structured societies (also could be formed in the aftermath of an apocalypse of some kind) which is, at first glance, a happy place.  The citizens believe that this is the way to live, and that what their government does is for the greater good.  However, a few people start to realize that maybe it’s not the ideal way to live, because there’s no love (Delirium by Lauren Oliver) or no individuality (Uglies by Scott Westerfeld), etc.  Now I know that this is just me, that Goodreads and book stores don’t recognize the term “Negative Utopia” and therefore I haven’t used that as a tag for my reviews.  But I still see a difference there, and that’s just the way I like to qualify them.

Another tag I have in my sidebar is “Retelling.”  This one basically just means any book that is a retelling of another work, whether it be a fairy tale or a Shakespearean play or a Greek myth.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer is one of the books that I’ve tagged as a retelling, but it also falls under the Science Fiction category.

So, for any of you that have actually read this horribly long discussion post, what do you think about my definitions of these genres and sub-genres?  Are they similar to your own definitions, or are they completely different?  Did I leave out any important ones?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Jessie Marie

    May 10, 2012 at 10:26 am

    First off, awesome discussion. Sort of made me look at my own reviews and wonder if I'd categorized them all right. And it also reaffirmed that notion that it's very subjective.

    The difference between 'Dystopian' and 'Negative Utopia' is so fine and stretched so thin that it almost seems better to lump them together. Like, I wonder if those two are time dependent. For instance, it's clear that The Hunger Games is dystopian. Mass misery. Oppression. Etc. BUT. Who's to say that immediately after the Panem collapse, when the Capitol rallied and organized the Districts that its citizens were complacent as you find in a negative utopia? I'm probably getting too far into it and reading too deeply but my summarizing point is that I think those two are extremely complicated, perhaps a deferential I'll never fully grasp.

    For me, the line that clearly defines a fantasy is a quest of some sort. They all have one: The Lord of the Rings (ring destruction), Harry Potter (his truth), Game of Thrones (many, many quests for each character tumbling over each other), etc.

    I totally agree about lumping paranormal and PNR together. Romance touches almost everything I read, specifically in YA, so if there's a wolf, there's a love interest. If there's a vampire, there's a love triangle. Of course, those aren't blanket statements but there's some kinda romance going on all the time. So yeah, tossing those together seems very logical.

    I adored this post. These discussions are great. No, you're not crazy. Well… if you are then there are a lot of people out here who probably need to be in the psych ward, myself included.

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      Lol, thanks!

      Yeah, my whole Dystopian/Negative Utopia thing is just some little weird thing I made up, but I kind of like to look at the differences between some of these Dystopian novels. And you're totally right – Panem might have been a Negative Utopia at first. And a lot of the Negative Utopia examples I used kind of turn into Dystopias once the light has been shed on a lot of the population.

      And you're totally right about the quest aspect in Fantasy – most of them do have that quest ingrained into the story.

      And that was exactly my thought about Paranormal vs. Paranormal Romance – there aren't that many books these days (especially in YA) that don't have SOME kind of romantic aspect to them. I mean, even The Hunger Games does and it's one of those where it's not a major plot point.

      Thanks so much for your feedback! ;)

  2. Kate@Midnight Book Girl

    May 10, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Great job, but you left out Thrillers(and then, psychological thrillers vs. crime thrillers) which can be a sub genre of Horror or Mystery. And then there's cozy mysteries. And then with YA, there's a new sub-genre of New Adult for the books that deal with older teens not quite of an age to drink. And I don't disagree about lumping the Paranormal all together, but it's a genre I don't read too often so I don't feel passionate about it. The only way I'd separate it is by age group. And level of sex, because some paranormal borders on erotica (which is why I quit reading the Anita Blake series).

    Awesome post, Andrea! It really got me thinking, which not even my cup of Chocolate Mocha Gevalia coffee was accomplishing this morning! ;)

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm

      Ah, Thrillers! Yeah, I forgot about those. I don't read many straight Thrillers and I don't really know how I would categorize them. But a lot of the books I read do have some kind of Thriller aspect to them, but I wouldn't say that's the main part of the book.

      And yeah, cozy mysteries are definitely a sub-genre of Mysteries.

      I really left out the age differentiation on this post, because I really just wanted to talk about the genres themselves. I think whether it's an adult Fantasy or a YA Fantasy – it's still Fantasy. But I do agree that there are differences within the genres when it comes to the different age groups, and definitely with Paranormal. However, like you said, the only way I'd separate it, too, would be by age group, and I didn't get into age group in this post. But yeah, there are major differences between YA Paranormal and adult Paranormal. But when you get down to it, they're both Paranormal. Am I making any sense? ;) I do plan on writing a discussion post in the future that goes into the differences between the age groups, and the New Adult stuff will come into that discussion. But thanks for bringing this all up – I've edited my post to mention that I left the age group stuff out of it.

      Thanks so much for your input! And I'm glad my post could get such a great discussion going! ;)

  3. Jac

    May 10, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    There have been a few books where I struggle with the genre – but it's more of which has stronger themes (A light paranormal with heavy romance themes, I may classify first as romance and second as paranormal. A recent example? The Selection is more of a romance with light dystopian aspects.)

    Julie Kagawa wrote an awesome blog post about the difference between Post-Apocolyptic and Dystopian, which I thought was great. Unfortunately, with the popularity of Dystopian books? It's the norm to group them together and mislabel them.

    -Jac @ For Love and Books

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 8:05 pm

      So true! There are lots of crossover books out there where you feel like they're a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And yeah, you've got to determine which one is the major genre that the book falls into.

      And thanks for that link to Julie Kagawa's post! She said it much better than I did! ;)

      Thanks so much for your input!

  4. Bittner

    May 10, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    I think it is great that you put so much time and energy into defining all the different genres because it shows that you love a variety of books.
    I like a lot of books, but I really only love contemporary or general fiction novels. When I look at books I see general fiction and every thing that is not general fiction. And because I don't love futuristic books I lump dystopias, negative utopias, and post apocalyptic novels all together.
    For me it is like trying to define action movies. I like a good action movie from time to time, and I know there is a difference between Con Air, Kill Bill, and Bourne Identity, but I still lump them altogether as action movies.

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      Yeah, that's how I feel about Contemporary – it's either Contemporary or it's not. And if it's not, there are tons of different genres it could fall into.

      And yeah, all those movies you mentioned are Action/Adventure movies, but I guess you could find a different sub-genre for each of them. And I don't think a huge Action fan would be upset if you called them Action – they'd be upset if you called one of them a certain Action sub-genre when it should be one of the other Action sub-genres. Which is how I feel about the Science Fiction sub-genres. I don't mind if someone lumps all of them together and calls them all SF, but if someone calls 1984 Post-Apocalyptic I'm going to correct them. Sure, that society might have had some apocalypse waaay in the past that kick-started their society, but the focus of the story is on the dystopian government, not on people surviving after a the eruption of a super volcano. You see what I mean?

      Thanks for your input! I love these kind of discussion posts! I'll have to do more!

    2. Bittner

      May 10, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      See exactly! People like to define the things that they love. An avid Action fan would want to argue with me that Bourne Identity is government-ops-action and Kill Bill is martial-arts-action and Con Air is…what? disaster?
      But with books because I love Contemporary I feel more passionately about defining those sub-genres then I do SF and Dystopias. I recognize a difference between mysteries, chick lit, literary fiction, romance, and westerns.
      Like for me, I would argue a difference between John Green and Stephanie Perkins. They both write YA Contemporary Fiction. But Stephanie writes general fiction/romance because her books have been about people living every day lives and the relationships they have. But John writes literary fiction that is all about ethics and morals and questioning life and the human condition. His books are about people living their every day lives and creating relationships but they are also about so much more.

  5. Catherine@thebookparade

    May 10, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    I find it too brain-taxing (or maybe I'm just lazy!) to categorize books into sub-genres and stuff sometimes, especially with dystopians/post-apocalyptic where the line is so fine, so I just avoid it, but your discussion post was really interesting! It was great to hear your thoughts :)

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      It is pretty taxing to try to figure out exactly which sub-genres a book falls into, especially if you're not familiar with some of the sub-genres!

      Thanks for stopping by! ;)

  6. Kat Balcombe

    May 10, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Great post Andrea, and I love your part about negative utopias!

    Genres, and sub-genres, are something I'm particularly OCD about – I like to have my books in neat little ''piles'' according to (my) definition of genre and sub-genre.

    Paranormal and fantasy are the ones that I have most trouble separating – because it could be argued that some paranormal ''creatures'' are in fact fantasy and visa verse. Maybe it's a case of genre being in the eye of the reader!

    I too don't distinguish between paranormal and paranormal romance as I see them as a genre and sub/cross-genre.

    Cross-genre is something I plan to feature later in May/early June and that's probably going to be a little more controversial ;)

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm

      I'm with you on the OCD thing. I'm definitely like that with Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian! ;)

      Yeah, Paranormal and Fantasy really are the tricky ones. Like with super heroes? Science Fiction? Probably. But with a character that can heal? Probably Paranormal. It does get pretty complicated!

      Ooh, I'm looking forward to your discussion about cross-genres! Sounds good! And thanks so much, again, for the inspiration, and also for stopping by! ;)

  7. Book ♥ Soulmates

    May 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I really like how you expanded and provided your own take on the subject. It just goes to further prove how subjective this is! It seems the more experience we gain as readers/bloggers, the more convoluted it gets, lol.

    Great post! I may reference it when I do my part 2 later on :)

    ♥Isalys / Book Soulmates

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks! It does get pretty subjective, and quite hard to classify a certain book as one genre or another!

      I'm looking forward to your part 2 post! Thanks so much, again, for the inspiration and thanks for stopping by! ;)

  8. fakesteph

    May 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    I read across so many different genres that I try to ignore genre classification as much as possible. Genre studies was my FAVORITE in college and one of the things we talked about a lot was the contract between writer and audience… that the audience expects certain things within certain genres. Because genres are blending more and more (I LOVE genre blending, btw), I think that unmet expectations due to genre misclassification is a major reason why some people don't enjoy certain books. SOOOO… I try to go into books with few expectations so that I have more of a chance to enjoy lots of different things. But I'm weird and I over think EVERYTHING!!!! What I look for in reviews is people telling me that they were surprised or satisfied by the ending or that scenes creeped them out, whether or not they connected with a character and how much they enjoyed the witty banter with the love interest. Those are things I enjoy no matter what the genre is.

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      Very true! The genres are blending a lot more these days, which is awesome!

      And you're right – people often get let down because they think a book is going to be about one thing and then it isn't. That's why I don't try to classify a book into a certain genre until I've already read it, and I don't always use what people on Goodreads have used. For instance, I saw that Glimmer by Phoebe Kitanidis was classified under Zombies by some people on Goodreads, simply because in the summary it mentions zombie-like people. They're really just blank, emotionless people. And I know that Jessie from The Daily Bookmark went into the book thinking it was a Zombie story and she was let down. And Kim @ On the Wings of Books was hesitant to read it because she saw that zombie thing in the summary until Kate and I told her that they weren't actual zombies. So yeah, I agree with you and think people should be careful when they classify something as one kind of genre, because it could change someone's perception of the book.

      And I don't even look at that kind of stuff very much before I read the book, because I don't want to be spoiled. I read the summary or someone's review, add it to my TBR list, and then I try not to read too much about it until I actually read the book. I've been spoiled by those Goodreads labels and also by blurbs on the book jacket before. Not cool.

      Thanks so much for your input! You've definitely added another aspect to the discussion! ;)

  9. Kimberly @ On the Wings of Books

    May 11, 2012 at 11:19 am

    I have the hardest time classifying books sometimes. A lot of times I will classify my books by genre and then also a subject (maybe this is a sub genre, idk) (i.e. the book is paranormal, and involves ghosts). For me those are important distintions because within paranormal there are things I like and things I don't like. One genre that drives me crazy is "general fiction." What is general fiction? The book has to fit somewhere. I feel like more often than not it's usually contemporary and they are just afraid to say so, like it's a bad thing. And personally I wish there were more areas under contemporary. I'm fairly ocd and wish there was something more than just contemporary or comtemporary romance (which brings me to another thought… is contemporary romance under contemporary or under romance?) There is so much cross over today (and that's a good thing) that it makes it hard to determine exactly what type of book you're reading. Great discussion!

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 12, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      Yeah, it becomes quite hard to figure out some of the distinctions. I would think Contemporary Romance goes under Contemporary, but that's just me. Someone else might classify it under Romance. And yeah, the crossovers really make it extra hard, but I agree with you that crossovers are great!

      Thanks so much for your input! ;)

  10. Jen Ryland/YA Romantics

    May 12, 2012 at 2:24 am

    Love this post! I get confused by sub-genres of fantasy. High fantasy, magical realism.

    But I agree with you on the dystopia vs. Post-apocalyptic. I posted on this in March. I think that some people just call anything with a world they wouldn't wan to live in dystopian. But sometimes it's post-apocalyptic.

    My Dystopia Post

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 12, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      Yeah, Fantasy is a tricky one for me, too. I'll have to check out your post! Thanks so much for your input! ;)

  11. LHughes

    May 15, 2012 at 2:24 am

    Great post! I always do a lesson with my middle schoolers at the beginning of the year on genres and their qualities, and it's always lots of fun. After I go over all the genres, we play a game where we pass books around the room and they have one minute with each book to try to correctly identify the book's genre based on cover, book jacket, etc.

    This gave me some great things to add to my presentation :)

    Lauren @ Hughes Reviews

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm

      Ooh, that's a really cool lesson for your students! And I love how you pass the books around afterwards! That's kind of given me an idea for another discussion post. Like I could just list some books and say, "What genre do YOU think these fall under? Discuss." ;)

  12. Gwen Cole

    May 21, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    I have a question: What genre would a time-traveling book be under? Something like the Time-Travelers wife. I'm stumped.

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 21, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      I think it would definitely fall under Science Fiction. But then, depending on the book it could fall under other genres as well, and you could also add specific sub-genres. I haven't read The Time-Traveler's Wife but I understand it to be an adult romance (not a Romance Romance, but still a lot about a romantic relationship). So you could put it under romance as well. But some of those are really tricky!

      Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm off to check out your blog!

    2. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 21, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      Hmm, I tried to comment on one of your posts but it didn't work for some reason! :(

    3. Gwen Cole

      May 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      Oh, don't worry about it! I just use that blog for random giveaways :P And I have no idea why the comments don't work, but they never have. But thanks for getting back to me! :D

  13. Claire

    May 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Great post. This and the Book Soulmates posts inspired me to sit down and come up with my own genre definitions. It's a bit tricky as genres can be really subjective, and I didn't realise how many genres I read.

    I can remember studying the difference between a true dystopia and a negative utopia in school and I'm pretty sure what you wrote is what we were taught. Dystopians look bad from page one but negative utopias take a while to show just how messed up they are.

    My genre page is here if you'd like a look :)

    1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase

      May 25, 2012 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks! And I'm so happy this discussion spurred you into writing your own!

      I'm kind of surprised that you studied dystopian vs. negative utopias in school! I thought that was something I came up with all on my own! But maybe I was taught it in school and I just forgot about it…

      I'm off to check out your genre page! ;)

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