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1.8: The Literary Landscape- Four Major Genres

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    The Literary Landscape: Four Major Genres

    In the landscape of literature, there are four major genres: poetry, drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction. While there are certain key recognizable features of each genre, these are not so much rules as they are tools, or conventions, the author uses. If we think of literature as its own world, it may help to think of genres more as regions with open borders, where there are no walls and that authors can freely move through if they desire. But, like any traveler, it helps you understand your place in the world if you know where you are located (or at least the "lay of the land"). It can also be interesting to analyze how certain texts break genre conventions. These major genres are briefly outlined below.

    This Venn Diagram depicts the uniqueness and overlap of the four major literary genres. Creative Nonfiction is in a blue circle with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a classic example. To fall into this category, the content of the text must be true/factual. It is usually written in prose, plot-based, written to be read rather than spoken aloud (although it can be!), and emphasizes imagery. It can also be emotion-based, and it contains literary devices. The Fiction circle is purple, an example is Beloved, and overlaps with Creative Nonfiction in that it is usually written in prose, plot-based, contains literary devices, is written to be read (rather than spoken aloud, although it can be).  Fiction contains dialogue and is imagination based. The major difference between Fiction and Nonfiction is that Nonfiction must be true/factual. Drama is in a green and the example is Romeo and Juliet. Drama emphasizes dialogue, plot, imagination, and is often written in verse. Written to be performed. Poetry, example as “The Raven,” is often written in verse, emotion-based, contains imagery, written to be read and written to be performed. The main overlap between all genres is literary devices.

    "Literary Genres Venn Diagram" by Matt Shirley (2021) licensed CC-BY-SA. This image shows some of the differences and overlap between different genres.


    • Emphasis on image or feeling
    • More emphasis on rhythm and meter than other genres (older drama, like Shakespeare, often uses rhythm and meter)
    • Sometimes rhymes, but not always
    • Organized through stanzas and lines
    • Does not require a plot or characters, although it may (such as in narrative poetry). Often focuses on single moment or feeling or image
    • Meant to be heard as well as read


    "I wandered lonely as a cloud" by William Wordsworth (1807)

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees, 5
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the milky way,
    They stretched in never-ending line
    Along the margin of a bay: 10
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced; but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
    A poet could not but be gay,
    In such a jocund company: 15
    I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude; 20
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    In-Text Citation: Wordsworth personified the daffodils as "dancing" (6). The 6 corresponds to the line number.

    Works Cited Entry: Wordsworth, William. "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Poems in Two Volumes. London: Longman, 1807.


    • Meant to be performed to an audience
    • Character List (often); Character names indicate who is speaking (almost always)
    • Organized by Acts, Scenes, and Line Numbers
    • May include stage directions, but may not
    • Plot based (it tells a story, usually involving a conflict of some kind)
    • May be written in verse
    • Types: Comedy, Tragedy, History, Romance


    The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (excerpt)


    John Worthing, J.P.
    Algernon Moncrieff
    Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D.
    Merriman, Butler
    Lane, Manservant
    Lady Bracknell
    Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax
    Cecily Cardew
    Miss Prism, Governess

    ACT 1 SCENE 1

    1 Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street. The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished. The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.

    2 [Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.]

    3 Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

    4 Lane. I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

    5 Algernon. I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.

    6 Lane. Yes, sir.

    7 Algernon. And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?

    8 Lane. Yes, sir. [Hands them on a salver.]

    9 Algernon. [Inspects them, takes two, and sits down on the sofa.] Oh! . . . by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord 10 Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.

    In-Text Citation: The dynamics of power are indicated by Lane's repeated use of "sir" (Wilde 1.1.4, 6, 8). Here the numbers represent the Act (1), the Scene (1), and the line numbers (4, 6, 8).

    Works Cited Entry: Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. London: St. James' Theatre, 1895.


    • Prose
    • Created from the imagination. May be inspired by real events or people, but not chained by the constraints of reality.
    • Plot-based
    • Character based
    • Organized through paragraphs and sentences
    • Types: Short Story, Novella, Novel


    From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves. Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July.

    In-Text Citation: The natural world is described in anatomical language, like dismembered body parts, such as the "heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves," the "throat" of the flowers, and the "veins" of the snail shells (Woolf 1). If there are page numbers, the number that goes in the parenthesis is the page number. If there are no page numbers, you can use the paragraph number (Woolf par. 1). If there are not page numbers, and there are too many paragraphs to count, you can just put the author last name (Woolf).

    Works Cited Entry: Woolf, Virginia. "Kew Gardens." Monday or Tuesday. New York: Harcourt, 1921.

    Creative Nonfiction

    • Prose
    • True (not fabricated, not from the imagination). This is a *very important* distinction from the other genres.
    • Plot-based
    • Character based
    • Organized through paragraphs and sentences
    • Types: Narrative, Memoir, Literary Criticism, Literary Journalism


    I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.

    In-Text Citation: Even from the first paragraph of his narrative, Douglass repeatedly notes the power of "knowledge" and "information", and of slaveowners' dehumanizing cruelty in withholding knowledge and information, such as birthdays (1). The number here represents the page. Just like in Fiction, if there is no page available, cite the paragraph number (Douglass par. 1). If there no page number, and there are too many paragraphs to count, just cite the last name (Douglass).

    Works Cited Entry: Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: District Court of Massachusetts, 1845.


    All literary works cited on this page are in the public domain.

    This page titled 1.8: The Literary Landscape- Four Major Genres is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .