Hi friends! 👋🏻 Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about genre trends and whether certain tropes or whole genres will make a comeback in the future. A lot of people claim that “elevated horror” is the current big thing thanks to directors like Ari Aster (Hereditery, Midsommar) and some horror movies becoming more cinematic and focusing on psychological elements instead of physical horror, but I don’t really think that’s true.
The genres that are popular often reflect the world around us, with some genres being more trendy than others at certain times. Publishing and movie studios like money more than anything so they’ll pump out more and more of the current popular thing until general audiences get sick of it and want to see something else. Think the recent claims of “superhero burnout” or the resurgance in cosy crime books in the UK.
There are also genres that die off because of sociopolitical reasons; the messages and tropes that they promote just aren’t considered acceptable to modern audiences and the genre looks stuck in the past. I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of dead genres since genres as a whole tend to be evergreen, but tropes and subgenres are at risk of completely dying out and becoming relics of the past.
As a wee disclaimer: whether or not these genres are “dead” is entirely up to personal interpretation. While one genre may be completely dead to mainstream audiences, there will still be people writing things that are a part of that genre and keeping it alive in a different way.
Invasion fiction is a genre that is pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s about invasion. It was popular between the 1870s and the First World War and there are no prizes for guessing what happened during these two dates to make it a popular genre (I’ll give you a hint: it’s colonialism). They usually featured white countries like Britain, Frace, Germany, and the United States being invaded by people from “strange” countries but it has since become a staple subgenre of science fiction, with alien invasion stories being much more common.
These stories have declined in popularity with the fall of colonialism but it did have a revival during the Cold War, when there were fears of Western countries being invaded by Eastern European countries at first, and then by Asian Communist countries like China, Vietnam, or Cambodia.
To my knowledge, not many straight invasion fiction books are published these days and those that do are usually through small underground presses and are extremely racist and not available to mainstream audiences.
Examples: The Battle of Dorking (George Tomkyns Chesney), The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells), Sixth Column (Robert A. Heinlein).
Out of all the genres I’ve mentioned in this post, this one died off the earliest. Chivalric romance is arguably the original romance genre and was mainly popular in the Middle Ages an Early Modern Europe among noble courts. They were fantastical stories about brave knights going off on adventures to rescue noblemen or princesses or damsels in distress, and basically every single fairytale trope you can think of.
Probably the best-known chivalric romance is the Arthurian Legend but there are also romances about Charlamagne and Alexander the Great. The vast majority of these were told orally and are only available in manuscripts or in adaptations and the same story can appear in many different versions and locations.
The genre fell out of fashion around 1660 and was famously deconstructed by Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. Looking back on it, it’s not surprising to see why it’s unlikely the genre would ever make a comeback. People were getting tired of the ‘damsel in distress’ narrative long ago and now it’s often derided as being sexist.
Examples: parts of The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer), and that’s all I know of that’s of note.
It’s not always a good thing when a genre completely dies, but this is a case where it deserved to be completely killed. Plantation literature, also known as ‘anti-Tom literature’, was a genre in the 19th century that only existed to be racist and attempt to show the supposed benefits of slavery for Black Americans. The name ‘anti-Tom’ comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin which is an anti-slavery novel, and plantation literature was created in response by authors who thought that the claims made by Stowe were overblown and wrong.
Ultimately, those authors were wrong because Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very influential in starting debates about slavery in the United States and this racist trash heap of a genre was killed off by the American Civil War.
Examples: I’m not giving any examples of this trash, but I do know that one was made into a movie that glorified the US’ biggest domestic terrorist group and arguably influenced its revival (the one with the white hoods).
Western fiction isn’t so much “dead” but more “hanging on for dear life” at this point. In the library I work in, whenever we look at our statistics for what books are going out, the westerns are always right at the bottom. Looking at western’s popularity throughout time it has seen more popularity in some decades more than others with it being incredibly popular in the 1950s and 60s and then steadily declining in the 1970s until it crashed in the 2000s. There have been attempts here and there to revisit the genre like with The Dark Tower or to deconstruct it like Little Big Man or Blazing Saddles but nothing ever really seems to stick. Maybe people just aren’t interested in cowboys anymore.
In my opinion, western is a genre that people of younger generations are willing to leave in the past because so many books and movies in the genre carry a lot of unfortunate implications with regards to non-white people, especially Native Americans. The cowboy characters are more often than not portrayed as white, when in reality they were Black or were vaqueros from northern Mexico, Native Americans can be portrayed as barbarians or as peaceful noble savages who needed to be colonised by Europeans.
Revisionist westerns do exist which can portray Native Americans as victims of colonialism but they don’t stand out as much as old westerns do. Think John Wayne movies as opposed to Spaghetti Westerns. These days western is used more as an influence or is blended with another genre to make another, like sci-fi westerns or western horrors.
Examples: True Grit (Charles Portis), Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy), The Sisters Brothers (Patrick deWitt).
It’s probably not accurate or very fair for be to say that action books are “dead”, but I never really see them published outside of children’s literature these days. If a book for adults is about someone travelling the world and getting into danger or fighting bad guys, it’s more often called a thriller rather than an adventure book because adventure has so many overlaps with different genres.
Spy books, fantasy, science fiction, crime, war, and even westerns can be considered adventure books because they do have that sense of travel and danger that is mostly present in these kinds of stories. But for me, when I think of ‘adventure’ I think of Indiana Jones or Zorro, and it’s a genre that I think is more suited for the screen than it is for pages, but it’s just what I think.
In the kidlit world, adventure books are still going strong and have proven to be popular for over 100 years since they often feature child characters who are independent and brave and can be good role models for young readers, as well as providing the escapism that reading often gives to children.
Examples: Tarzan (Edgar Rice Burroughs), Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson), The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas), The Famous Five and Secret Seven (Enid Blyton), the Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan).
Pulp isn’t actually a genre of book, but it is a medium that technically doesn’t exist anymore. Pulp magazines were magazines printed on cheap paper made of wood pulp and often contained short stories of pretty much every genre imaginable, depending on what the magazine focused on. The stories were often low-quality, full of cliches, and short and garnered a reputation for being violent, raunchy, melodramatic and sometimes exploitative.
Pulps were killed off by competition from movies, television, comic books, and even paperback novels which made books more affordable and accessible to people who couldn’t afford them before. But their influence can still be seen in works today, especially now that genres like science fiction and fantasy are taken more seriously.
Examples: Full novels weren’t really published in pulp magazines, but some notable serialised characters are Conan the Barbarian, Cthulhu, Tarzan of the Apes and Zorro.
There are bound to be people out there who still write epic poems. And by ‘epic’ I don’t mean that it’s fantastical and amazing, I mean that it’s a novel-length poem that tells a story. Poetry has never been something that I’ve enjoyed (reading or writing) but I have read some epic poems at sixth form and university and every single one of them was extremely old.
Prose didn’t really become a thing in Europe until the 9th century but there were still poets who wrote sprawling stories in poetry, since this was the standard of the time. It’s easier to tell a long story as a song than it is as a speech, after all. Epic poems were still common as late as the 19th century and while there are epics and narratives more recent than that, the form seems to have been replaced by novels that are told in verse.
Examples: The Divine Comedy (Dante), Paradise Lost (John Milton), The Epic of Gilgamesh (some person in ancient Sumer), Iliad (Homer), Beowulf (some guy in Anglo-Saxon England), Don Juan* (Lord Byron).
*here’s a wee fun fact for you, Don Juan is actually pronounced Don Jew-one not ‘Don Wan’.
talk to me!
What’s a genre you would like to see make a comeback?