Understanding Popular Literature—What Does “Genre” Mean?

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

By Pamela Bedore, PhD, 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.

Formula

You may have thought about genre as a 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 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, coined from Greek, means 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, etc. Isolated places were quite separate from the society where the writer and the reader were living. A utopia has to be located somewhere within the fictional world.

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

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

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, and we will live in perfect harmony forever. 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

Marketing

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. In a bookstore or library—real or virtual—we would have a fairly small utopia section. We might place it near politics, 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.”

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

Learn more about the origins of the utopian genre

Rhetorical

The third approach to genre is the most complex: The rhetorical approach. Carolyn Miller’s definition is the one many 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 that is the basis of many of the texts in this category. 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, 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, 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 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 November 28, 2020

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H.G. Wells and the Quest for Utopia
Foundations of Utopian and Dystopian Fiction: The Torch Podcast 
My Experience With Ursula K. Le Guin