Understanding Popular Literature—What Does “Genre” Mean?

From the lecture series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

What does “genre” mean? We tend to use the term loosely, as when we say, “What genre does this author write in?” Here, Professor Pamela Bedore provides a deeper understanding of not only how genre works, but also how it can open up our understanding of popular literature—in particular, dystopian and utopian literature.

Image of a Young man in library reading a book
(Image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock)

Within literary studies, we have three basic definitions of genre: formula, marketing, and rhetoric. Let’s start with the first on the list—formula.


I’m sure you’ve thought about genre as formula before. This is the idea that a genre includes a bunch of formulas or conventions, and if we pick up a work in a stated genre, we know what to expect. If we pick up a mystery novel, for example, we can be pretty confident that we’ll get at least one murder early on, that we’ll follow the investigation and deductions of a detective who is brilliant but perhaps a bit flawed, and that in the end we’ll learn the identity of the person or persons who committed the dastardly deed. Within a genre, there are constitutive features—things that a narrative must include to be considered part of the genre—as well as common conventions—features that appear often but not always.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

First, we need a place. Utopia is no place. Therefore, a place. It is a place—a no place, to be sure—but it is a location, situated somewhere, likely in the imagination, perhaps in the memory. Early utopias were often set in isolated places on Earth—on islands, behind gated communities, whatever. Isolated places quite separate from the society where the writer and the reader were living.

Fictional city of the future. Portrait of a Utopian society.
Early utopias were often set in isolated places on Earth (Image: Lisandro Leyra/Shutterstock)

Now what happens in the late nineteenth century, which is a very interesting development, is that the utopia moves from exploring a society in a different place to exploring a society in a different time, and if we want to get technical, sometimes people call that a euchronia, spelled with the e-u. We’ll discuss the euchronia when we get to the nineteenth century. But a utopia has to be located somewhere within the fictional world.

We need to have a way to see the utopia. So, one of the most common conventions is the visitor trope, where you have a place, separated in time or space, you have a well-functioning society that you can describe in terms of its philosophies, its politics, its economics. Then you have a visitor who acts as a liaison between the reader and the utopian community. Actually, it’s often three visitors who can provide three different perspectives on the society.

And finally, a work of utopia must be aware of its own contradictions. Any literary work of utopia is not strictly earnest: follow us, you will find this wonderful place, we will live in perfect harmony forever. No no no. Some utopias are outright satirical—what Tom Moylan, an extremely prolific scholar of utopian studies, calls a critical utopia. But even the most earnest utopia–what Moylan calls a classical utopia—has a paradox at its center, and it knows it. There is no way to set up a perfect society, so the enterprise is always doomed even from its beginning, and yet a lot of us think it’s an important enterprise despite that.

Learn more about the definition and origin of the word utopia


The second approach to genre is its practical application: marketing. If we were to design a bookstore from scratch, we would use genre as a way to organize our products, to help consumers easily find the types of books they are looking for. So, in a bookstore or library—real or virtual—we would have a fairly small utopia section. We might put it near politics or philosophy or self-help. We would say things like, “If you like Edward Bellamy’s wildly popular nineteenth-century utopia, Looking Backward, you might want to join a Bellamy Club and start a socialist commune.”

And right next to the utopia section would probably be a much larger dystopia section. Because really, people interested in a better world are quite probably also interested in a worse world—in various imaginings of what could happen if no one attempts to build a better world. And then you might say, “People who enjoy dystopia might also enjoy apocalypse. It’s a bit more cataclysmic, but it can act as exactly the same kind of cautionary tale.”

Learn more about the origins of the utopian genre


The third approach to genre is the most complex: the rhetorical approach to genre. Carolyn Miller’s definition is the one a lot of us refer to when we think about genre rhetorically, where genre is “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations.” This means that a genre develops in response to a specific situation, a specific problem or anxiety in the world. The genre, with its recognizable conventions, is a way of addressing or responding to that anxiety.

Under this framework, utopia and dystopia represent two different rhetorical responses, often to the same social anxiety. Say we are afraid of technological advancements, an anxiety at the basis of many of the texts we’ll be examining in this course. Utopia is one rhetorical response—it describes a society in which those anxieties have been dealt with, a society in a different place or time in which whatever technology under scrutiny is either less present or less terrifying or both. Rhetorically, it functions as a blueprint: we can solve this problem if we take steps a, b, and c.

Dystopia is a different rhetorical response—it describes a society in which our fears have become reality, probably extreme reality, and whatever technology is making us anxious in the real world is even more terrifying than we had imagined. Rhetorically, it functions as a cautionary tale: don’t do x, or y will happen.

Learn more about how laughter was an integral part of 18th-century utopian storytelling

But in the end, I think, we’ll find that although utopia and dystopia are both partly about fear, they’re mostly about hope.

Common Questions About the Meaning of Genre

Q: What exactly does genre mean?

Genre means category, essentially. A genre is a category or collection of attributes that fit together to build a specific world space in literature.

Q: What are considered the five primary genres of literature?

The five primary literary genres are nonfiction, poetry, media, prose and drama.

Q: Do genres serve a purpose?

The purpose of genres is to categorize information to convey various messages in ways that only that genre can convey. Sci-fi, for instance, can impart freedom to extrapolate into the future to conceive of ideas and social constructs that don’t currently exist but might be ideal, such as utopias.

Q: What genre is considered the most popular?

According to sales, the genres of Romance and erotica are by and large the most popular books sold.

This article was updated on 11/29/2019

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