Disentangling Genres

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When asked to explain what distinguishes one literary genre from another, aficionados of a particular genre sometimes answer, "I know it when I see it." It may be true that some devotees develop a sixth sense in identifying a literary work as belonging to a specific genre. However, uncommunicated intuitive knowledge does little to either define relatively new or fledgling genres, or distinguish break- away genres, such as exploration and science fiction from the similar or closely related "parent" genres of travel and adventure, and fantasy, respectively.

The better defined a genre, the less likely a reader will be to mistake one genre for another and the more likely a selection will match a person's expectations. However, the age old literary function of genre, to provide an interpretive framework for readers, is sometimes secondary to the business imperative that a text be marketed in the most profitable manner. Since some genres have a higher readership than other, publishers may have a financial motivation for marketing a novel in a particular genre although readers may be mislead.

To increase interest, authors also frequently write books which exploit public interest or current trends. Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, capitalizes on the recent expeditions to the South Pole. However, the novel's journey and destination are largely superfluous to the action of the plot. The story is a suspenseful fantasy of dark visions, darker actions and ghostly visitations from the living dead. Although some readers and critics consider it a science fiction novel, Pym is primarily a compilation of the many gothic plot devices of Poe's short...

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