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8 Popular Book Genres: A Guide to Popular Literary Genres

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

The world of literature abounds with different genres. Broadly speaking, the fiction world is divided into two segments: literary fiction and genre fiction. Literary fiction typically describes the kinds of books that are assigned in high school and college English classes, that are character driven and describe some aspect of the human condition. Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners tend to come from the literary fiction genre. Genre fiction has a more mainstream, populist appeal. It traditionally comprises genres such as romance, mystery, thriller, horror, fantasy, and children’s books.

Some genre writers straddle a line between genre-focused commercial fiction and the traditions of literary fiction. John Updike, for instance, has been noted for his somewhat pulpy novels that still managed to examine humanity. J.R.R. Tolkien developed a worldwide following within the fantasy genre, yet his Lord of the Rings trilogy is famous for its intricate themes.



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8 Popular Literary Genres

The most popular book genres succeed in a variety of formats. From the hardcover you might buy at your local bookstore to the softcover on an airport book rack to the ebook you read on your tablet to the audiobook that you stream on your phone, bestsellers manage to reach readers in all corners of the publishing industry. Here is a survey of the different genres that routinely produce bestselling books:

  1. Romance: Romance novels are perhaps the most popular genre in terms of book sales. Romance novels are sold in grocery store checkout lines, in monthly shipments from publishers to readers, and online, as well as via self-publishing services. Readers tend to be loyal to their favorite authors within the romance genre. Popular romance subgenres include paranormal romance and historical romance.
  2. Mystery: Many popular mystery books draw a large readership, especially if they’re part of a larger series. Mystery novels start with an exciting hook, keep readers interested with suspenseful pacing, and end with a satisfying conclusion that answers all of the reader’s outstanding questions. Popular mystery subgenres include cozy mysteries, true crime novels, whodunnits, scientific mysteries, hardboiled detective stories, and police procedurals.
  3. Fantasy and science fiction: Fantasy books often take place in a time period different from our own. They often feature magical creatures, from worldly wizards to murderous zombies. Many sci-fi stories take place in a dystopian past or future. Science fiction books can have a historical setting, but most are set in the future and deal with the ramifications of technological and scientific advancement. Fantasy subgenres include urban fantasy, steampunk, high fantasy, epic fantasy, dark fantasy, and sword and sorcery. Meanwhile, certain fiction genres like magical realism blend the pulpy appeal of fantasy with the challenging techniques found in literary fiction. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is a good example of this crossover.
  4. Thrillers and horror: Closely related to mysteries and sometimes fantasy, thrillers and horror ratchet up the suspense and shock of popular genre fiction. Authors like David Baldacci and Dan Brown dominate the bestseller list with their thriller titles, while Stephen King reigns as the master of contemporary horror.
  5. Young adult: Young adult fiction recasts popular adult genres into books geared toward a teenage audience. From sci-fi to romance to crime books to fantasy, the best books in the YA fiction genre include the same strong characters and propulsive storylines that you’ll find in books for older readers. Often teenage themes, like coming of age or rebellion, are layered on top of existing literary tropes. J.K. Rowling has had enormous success in the YA genre with her Harry Potter series. So has Suzanne Collins with The Hunger Games. R.L. Stine brings horror fiction to child and teenage audiences with his Goosebumps and Fear Street series.
  6. Children’s fiction: Children’s fiction is aimed at audiences too young for the young adult genre. Children’s fiction starts with picture books for non-readers and pushes onward into short stories for early readers and middle-grade fiction. Note that a picture book is not the same as a comic book or graphic novel, both of which are intended for older audiences. The fairy tale subgenre is also part of children’s fiction.
  7. Inspirational, self-help, and religious books: These nonfiction book genres reach massive audiences worldwide. Many self-help books concern business success and wealth acquisition. Most titles in the religious category are self-help books that incorporate religious doctrine. They offer suggestions for tackling real-life problems, often from a spiritual perspective.
  8. Biography, autobiography, and memoir: These nonfiction books tell the stories of a person’s life. In the case of autobiography and memoir, the subject is the author of the book. Biographies are written by someone other than the subject themselves. These books are comprised of factual information that is traditionally buttressed by multiple sources. This makes biographies different from historical fiction, which is set during well-researched historical time periods but contains original plotlines that aren’t based on real life.

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