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The Different Types of Literature That Have Stood the Test of Time

Types of Literature
There are many types, forms, genres, and ways to categorize literature. Here, we list the two main types of literature along with their sub-categories.
Vaishali Satwase
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2018
"Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." ― Ezra Pound
Every language has its own literature. A majority of world's national literature can be broadly classified into English, Greek, Latin, Roman, African, Indian, American, French, Irish, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Sanskrit, Nepali, Russian, African-American, Canadian literature, etc. Literature is a form of language that deeply influences the minds of people of all ages. Moreover, literature is also studied as a scientific language for various aspects like grammar, usage, lexis, semantics, pragmatics, etc.
Literature is the mirror of society. Thus a book written in a particular time defines people, their thoughts, and the influences of that era. The works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci depict the era of Italian Renaissance, whereas Greek literature mostly comprises the accounts of Greek Gods and Goddesses. Romanticism is about nature and simplicity, while classicism defines complexity. A classic example is that of William Wordsworth who romanticized the Romantic era with his naturalistic writing.

As time changed, so did people and their work, and of course, literature. Today we're in the post-modernism era, where literary works include a mix of critical and artificial tone of language. Most of the skeptical elements like ambiguity, satire, parody, etc. are the most prominent features found in the current era. These days some authors choose long composition methods to interlink and present more than one story.
Forms of Literature
~ Fiction - Drama, novel, poetry, short story, and frame narrative.

~ Non-Fiction - Autobiography, biography, essay, journal, diary, travel literature, literary criticism, media, and outdoor literature.
Oral literature, epic and mock epic, proverbs, oral poetry, and folklore.
Types of Literature
Oral and written literature are the two major forms of literature. As we all know, almost all type of literature is available in written form. A lot of oral literature too has been made available in the form of books. We will now look into fiction and non-fiction literature as two major types of literature, and also consider the various types of oral literature.

While prose and verse are the two forms of writings. Every piece of writing that has sentence form or paragraphs is the prose, whereas verse is the poetic form of writing. Example of prose - Drama, novel, newspapers, short story, biography, essay, journal, philosophy, travel literature, children's literature, fantasy and scientific writings, historical writing, diary, etc. Example of Verse - Poetry.

Thus we can conclude that fictional and non-fictional literature are mostly prose literature, except for poetry. Interestingly, if you come across a verse form in a drama, it is termed as dramatic poetry or verse drama!
Fiction Literature - Drama
Drama consists of theatrical dialogs performed on stage, it consists of 5 acts. A drama that has just one act is a 'one-act play'. Flash play is the shortest 10-minute play. According to Aristotle, there are six elements of drama plot, diction, character, thought, spectacle, and song.
A scene from Shakespeare's tragedy - 'King Lear'
It revolves around the main character, his life, struggle, misfortune and grief, or sometimes, death of the dear ones or the main character. The monologue element is the easiest way in which the misfortune of the main character is expressed, whereas prophecy by witch, ghost etc. are the dark elements used to give tragedy a feel of horror.
Examples of tragedies are 'The Illiad' and 'The Odyssey' by Homer - the two famous Greek tragedies. The four popular tragedies of William Shakespeare are - Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello.
A scene from Shakespeare's comedy - 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Comedy is full of laughter wherein incidents are handled very lightly. The elements used in comedy are romanticism, exaggeration, surprise, and a comic view of a particular event. Farce, comedy of manners are some of the sub-types of comedy. e.g. Ben Jonson's 'Comedy of Humours', 'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde, 'Much Ado About Nothing' by William Shakespeare etc.
Comedy - Farce
The word origins from Latin word 'farcire' means 'to fill or stuff'. Thus, 'farce' is a light comic event inserted in the middle of a play or movie to lighten the scene. It intends to make the audience laugh for a while, when the plotline seems to be serious. It can be through humor, nonsense, over exaggeration, or jokes. E.g. Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales', Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest', Robin Hawdon's 'Perfect Wedding', etc.
Comedy - Comedy of Manners
When you laugh due to the class, fashion, or manners of stereotypical character, it's Comedy of Manners. e.g. Richard Sheridan's 'The School for Scandal' (1777), Oliver Goldsmith's 'She Stoops to Conquer (1773), Harold Pinter's 'The Homecoming' (1964), etc.
Comedy - Melodrama
Melodrama is a blend of two nouns - 'melody' and 'drama'. Currently the term is used for works that lack sophistication, but in 1840s, it was used to denote a musical play. e.g. 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is one of the popular plays describing cruelty of labor life. It emphasizes sensationalism and in the end, the play concludes with a 'happy ending.'
Comedy - Tragicomedy
The play that begins with serious mode, but has a happy ending is tragicomedy. e.g. 'The Visit' by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
Fiction Literature - Novel
Novel is a simple narration of a story without any dialogs like drama. It can be comic, romantic, criminal, detective, adventurous, or a political story, etc.
Novel - Allegory
The story revolves around more than one meaning. What the writer says directly is symbolic and totally different from the meaning conveyed at the end. Political and historical allegory are two forms of allegory. E.g. 'Tughlak' is a political allegory written by Girish Karnad, while John Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress' is a historical allegory.
Novel - Epistolary
Epistolary novels are a collection of letters and mails. Samuel Richardson's 'Pamela' and Henry Fielding's 'Joseph Andrew' are a few notable examples of epistolary novels.
Novel - Feminist
Feminist novels are written by women around the world about women's issues in a male-dominated society. Simone de Beauvoir ('She Came to Stay', 'The Mandarins,' and 'The Second Sex'), Betty Friedan ('The Feminine Mystique') and Virginia Woolf ('A Room of one's Own') are a few popular feminist novelists. You'll surprised to know that a few female writers used male names as their pen names to hide their identity, because male author's works were supposed to be taken seriously without any bias.
Novel - Gothic
Gothic fiction is a combination of both horror and romance. Melodrama and parody are the elements of Gothic plays. e.g. 'The Castle of Otranto' (1764) by Horace Walpole is honored as the first Gothic play in literature.
Novel - Ironic
Ironic novels are known for excessive use of narrative technique. It is a kind of satire on contemporary society about their cultural, social, and political issues. e.g. Charles Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities.'
Novel - Realism
The realistic novels are based on the truths of society and their problems. It focuses on the plot, structure, and the characters of the novel. e.g. 'Pride and Prejudice' (1813) by Jane Austen.
Novel - Romance
Romantic novels favor love and relationship, the stories revolve around love affairs of main characters. Some popular sub-categories of romantic novels are paranormal, erotic, suspense, multicultural, and inspirational romance. e.g. 'Wuthering Heights' (1847) by Emily Brontë and 'Portrait of a Lady' (1881) by Henry James.
Novel - Narration
In narrative style, the writer becomes a third-person narrator who narrates the whole story around its characters. When you're reading narratives, you feel like you are witnessing a play. As a reader, you get involved in the play and visualize it as if you were present there at that time.
Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' is best narrative example of all time, wherein there are two main narrators, Lockwood and Nelly Dean, while there are many characters in between the play. Another example is 'Diary of Catherine' that highlights the life of a protagonist.
Novel - Naturalism
Naturalism is based on the theory of Darwin. The concept is as simple, natural, and real as the word 'naturalism'! In a nutshell, environment has its impact on human beings. So naturalist writers write about reality of life of a person or/and social issues like poverty, violence, corruption, politics etc.
As opposed to romanticism, readers find naturalist plays pessimistic and their tone a bit philosophical. E.g. Rebecca Harding Davis' 'Life in the Iron Mills (novella)', Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening', Ernest Hemingway's 'Indian Camp', 'The Sun Also Rises'', and 'A Farewell to Arms'.
Novel - Picaresque
Novel - Picaresque
A scene from Dickens's 'David Copperfield', where young David is outside his aunt's house
Like naturalism, Picaresque is also quite contrasting to the concept of romanticism. It involves ideals, themes, and principles that refuse the so-called prejudices of the society. In this type, there is no plot, the main character is a poor, jobless, and always a social victim.
Few science fiction and fantasy novels have the style of picaresque novels. Besides adventure as a prime characteristic, picaresque novel has first-person narration. E.g. Charles Dickens' ''Great Expectations'' and ''David Copperfield'', etc.
Novel - Psychological
These novel is lay greater emphasis on the psychological perspectives of characters. You must have heard about stream of consciousness, flashback, soliloquies etc., these features reveal the psychology of a person. e.g. Samuel Richardson's ''Pamela'', Henry James' ''The Portrait of a Lady'', etc.
Novel - Satire
Though satire is a common form seen in comedy novels, this literary device tries to focus on facts of the society and their issues. These novels criticize the contemporary society. e.g. ''Gulliver's Travels'' (1726), by Lemuel Gulliver, ''Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' (1884) by Mark Twain, Kingsley Amis' ''Lucky Jim'' (1954), George Orwell's ''Animal Farm'' (1945), Randell Jarrell's ''Pictures from an Institution'' (1954), etc.
Novel - Stream of Consciousness
Also known as 'interior monologues', stream of consciousness is all about the thoughts coming up in the minds of the character. You will not find any sequential narration in such technique of writing. The term has been coined by James Joyce, Dorthy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf.
James Joyce used this term in his book, 'The Principles of Psychology' (1890), wherein he defined the concept as:
"Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life...."
Novel - Science Fiction
It's the most popular form. Everyone likes to dream, imagine life in space and to know about aliens, robots, paranormal activities and what not. e.g. 'The Time Machine', 'Dune', 'Brave new world', 'Harry Potter', 'Ringworld', 'Planet of Adventure', 'Level 7', 'Voyage', (the list goes on and on...) etc.
A novel may also cover diverse categories on social and political aspects like proletarian, protest, government, didactic, materialist, allegorical, Marxist, radical, revolutionary, anti-war, utopian, futuristic, anarchist, social philosophy, speculative, problem play, and novel of ideas, etc.
Fiction Literature - Poetry
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility. - William Wordsworth. How well these words explain the sentiment of poetic composition! Free verse is generally found in Greek poetry, whereas rhyming pattern is seen in Persian poems.
Sonnet is the short poem of 14 lines. E.g. 'To Fanny' by John Keats and Shakespeare's collection of sonnets are a few famous examples. Sonnet 18 - 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' is the most popular sonnet that deserves a mention.
Sonnet 18 - Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Elegy is a mournful poem wherein the poet is lamenting for the dead person or his near ones. e.g. 'Elegy Written in Country Churchyard' by Thomas Gray is one of the famous elegies marked as the saddest poem of the ages.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Ode is the formal and long poem, serious in nature. It addresses a person, place, or thing. Previously ode was composed along with music and dance due to its melody. When romantic poets started using it to express their sentiments, it was constrained to the lyrical form. E.g. "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" by William Wordsworth
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight,
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night,
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth.
Allegory has two symbolic meanings. One is the literal meaning and another is the deep/symbolic meaning. E.g. 'The Faerie Queene' by Edmund Spenser is the longest poem written in Spenserian stanza. You will be amazed to see the use of extended metaphor in the poem.
It has Greek origin. Lyric is a short poem which has song-like quality. It is poet's appeal to his readers about any incident or historical event. If you have read a lyric, you might know that the form of Lyric is almost similar to odes or sonnets. E.g. Emily Dickinson's 'I Felt a Funeral in my Brain'
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to-and-fro,
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed,
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a,
Drum - Kept beating - beating - till I thought,
My Mind was going numb.
Fiction Literature - Short Story
Short Stories are wonderful tales of quests and fantasies. The small commercial fiction, true or imaginary, smaller than a novel is known as short story. Short stories have a well-defined structure - easy and no complexity in the beginning, concrete theme, some dialogs and end with resolution.
Short stories can be oral and short-lived tales. Flash fiction is a short story, less than 1000 word count. e.g. Thomas Hardy's 'The Three Strangers', Rudyard Kipling's 'Jungle Book', etc.
Fiction Literature - Frame Narrative
Here we find a story within the main story. You must be wondering why would a writer prefer a story within a story and how does he present it? Well, it's one way to allow the reader to interpret every character in detail. Like... the story about a particular character's nature, family, work, and attitude etc. to make the character more lively.
There are lots of methods to write a frame narrative. Some writers use dream within a story, some opt for series of stories in the main story, or they use imagery language to represent plots. In an adventure story, the character narrates his own story (main story), within that he mentions different places and people, and their stories etc. are the frame tales. Some of the popular examples of frame narratives are Pegasus, Wuthering Heights, The Flying Horse, The Three Pigs, A Time to keep and the Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays, etc.
Non-fictional Literature
Nonfiction literature is about real things and incidents, so they're informative and comprise interesting facts, with a total amalgam of analysis and illustrations. The various types have been explained below.
Autobiography and Biography
An autobiography is the story of the author's own life written by the author himself. For example, 'Family Life at the White House' by Bill Clinton is about his life and achievements. 'Wings of fire' by Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam is the success story of a poor child, and how he became the President of India.
'Mein kampf' by Adolph Hitler not only reveals Hilter's love for paintings and his career, but also focuses on the history of second World War. Barack Obama's 'Dream From My Father' is one of the best-selling books in the world.
When an author writes about another person's life story, it is a biography. For example, Plutarch's 'Parallel Lives' written in the 1st century covers all famous Greek and Roman people of that time. Also 'Steve Jobs' (2001) by Walter Isaacson, 'Unbroken' by Laura Hillenbrand (about Louis Zamperini).
Generally, the authors' point of view about any particular topic explained in detail is called an essay. Essay has a simple way of narrating the main subject. Therefore they are descriptive, lengthy, subject-oriented, and comparative.
The different types of essays are classified as personal, expository, response, process, persuasive, argumentative, critical, interview, reflective, evaluative, application, compare and contrast essay, and narrative essay, etc.
Journals somewhat look like diaries, but they are different because they record infinite information, analysis, thoughts, experiences, etc. A personal journal is for personal analysis, where one can write his goal, daily thoughts, events, and situations.
Academic journals are for students who do research or dissertation on a particular subject. Creative journals are the imaginative writing of a story, poem, or narrative. Trade journals are used by industries where they dictate practical information.
Dialectical journals is used by students to write on a double-column notebook. The left side is for resources, wherein quotations, references, examples, facts, experiments, and observation are written. The right side can be a series of thoughts, following response, explanations and evaluation.
Anne saying goodbye to her cat in 'Diary of a Young Girl'
Diaries are the incidents recorded by the author without any means of publishing them. It is the rough work of one's daily routine, happenings, memorable days or events in their life. E.g. Anne Frank's 'Diary of a Young Girl' was published by her father in 1940s; it's a story of a girl trapped during German invade Amsterdam. Second example is 'The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem' by Ned Rorem.
Diaries consist of business letters, newsletters, weather listing. Some profound forms of diaries are online diary, travel, fictional, dream, and death diaries.
Remember that the terms diary, blog and journal mean different things, though they can be used interchangeably. When you write something private it's a diary, when you go one step ahead and add few event or business documents to it, then it becomes journal. Blogs can be in form of a diary or journal, the only difference is that a blog is online. Blogs are digital, while the diary and journal are handwritten.
Travel literature
It is the narration of any tour or foreign visit. Travel literature has details of events, dates, places, languages, culture along with the author's views. As the author shares his experiences, such piece of writing is also called itinerary or travelogue.
A few of sub-categories of travel literature include Travel guide, Travel journal, and Travel writing for newspapers and magazines. For example, Francis Bacon's natural philosophies in the middle of Seventeenth century is one of the famous examples of travel literature.
Literary criticism
Literary criticism is the critical study of a piece of literature wherein critics apply different theories, evaluations, discussions, and explanations to the text or essay. This way the work will be studied, criticized, and judged by a set of critics. Plato, Aristotle (Poetics), T.S. Eliot, Saussure and Frye were some of the famous critics.
There are lot of general theories, therefore it is a tough task for a critic to know which theory goes along with the work while criticizing and analyzing it thoroughly. So there are fewer critics than the authors. You will get books on literary criticism in series, or essays published in journals.
Different categories under media
Different categories under media
Media includes newspaper, magazine, movies, Internet, radios, etc. It is the newest and widely acceptable type of literature. Everyone follows it due to its multiple objectives to learn, entertain and promote. Newspapers are a collection of daily or weekly news of politics, sports, leisure, fashion, movies, business etc.
Magazines are all about current affairs, events, interviews, and opinions on several issues. It definitely won't be an exaggeration to say that movies, audio and video CDs that we see today are also a form of digital literature. Have you heard about digital poetry, it is an upcoming trend in poetry.
Outdoor literature
Outdoor literature is the literature of adventure devoted to the whole exploration of an event. Writing about leisure time, or hobbies like horse riding, fishing, trekking can be a part of literature. Some outdoor books are 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain, 'Treasure Island' by Robert Louis, 'Voyages' by Richard Hakluyt and 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' by Eric Newby.
Oral Literature
Oral Literature, also known as Orature includes folklore, joke, fable, parable, hearsay, and legend etc. Folklore is a traditional story that has been generating interest since ancient times. Now, almost all oral literature is available so far in written form, they are generally categorized into fictional literature. Folklores are generally superstitious and religious stories. Every nation has its own oral history in their respective languages like Chinese, African, Indian, American folks, etc.
Epic and Mock Epic
Epic is the narrative poem that conveys moral and culture of that period. For example, "The Odyssey" and "Iliad" are one of the largest philosophical epics written by Samuel Butler. If you're fond of mock epic, read 'Rape of the Lock'. It's interesting to see how a minor incident of cutting of curls can give birth to a great mock epic of 794 lines.
They are traditional sayings that influence the lifestyle of people through their culture. You must have heard of these wisdom proverbs, 'All that glitters is not gold', 'Even a small star shines in the darkness', 'The pen is mightier than the sword', etc. Proverbs are memorable sayings that are passed from one generation to another.
Proverbs are thoughts of wisdom and experiences. You can relate proverbs with your real-life experiences and take them as advice to overcome a situation. So it's an oral gift we have to pass on to the next generation.
Oral poetry - Hymns
Poem that is written for praising god or some supernatural being is hymn. It can be in the form of prayer, song, ode etc.
Oral poetry - Psalms
They are sacred songs used in worship of Christian and Jewish religions. E.g. The Bible - "When my spirit grows faint within me, it is You Who know my way. In the path where I walk men have hidden a snare for me." Psalm 142:3 (NIV)
Oral poetry - Ballad
Group of children singing ballads
Ballad is a narrative poem sung by the poet or group of singers. Its narrative style makes it more lively as if the narrator is taking the listeners to that time and telling a story. Generally, ballads are oral literature, but as we progress, it takes the form of written literature.
If Bishop Thomas Percy would have not published 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry' (1765), we would have been without the knowledge of this ancestral treasure of poetry. His collection of popular ballads are the first written form of ballad. (Please note, some of the ballads in the book are not written by him). An example of a ballad is 'Lord Lovel'.
'Lord Lovel was gone just a year and a day,
New countries for to see,
When languishing thoughts came over his mind,
Lady Nancy he must go see, see, see,
Lady Nancy he must go see.'
Folklore - Fairy tales
Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel looking at the gingerbread house
Any traditional stories, proverbs or songs are Folklore. Folklore studies culture, its rituals, traditions, and artifacts. A popular type of folklore is a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not real and they are told by someone with a starting phrase like, 'Once upon a time, there was-'. that takes you back to your childhood days.
Popular fairy tales include Hansel and Gretel, Cindrella, Tom Thumb, etc. These tales have fictional characters, dragons, witches, spirits, elves as well as supernatural elements like magic and some far-reaching powers, etc.
Folklore - Tall Tales
Tall tales are those wherein you find the exaggeration, imaginary animals and humans performing unbelievable things, and you will laugh at the end due to its humorous nature. While some tall tales end with a moral. They are the basic element of American folk literature, like storytelling.
'Callin' the Dog' from 'A Mississippi Tall Tale'.

"One man offered a hound dog pup to the person who could tell the biggest lie. Well, those stories started rollin' in, each one bigger and harder to believe than the one before.

Now, the last man to talk knew he didn't have a chance of winnin' that there pup on account of all them tall-tales the others told was so good. So he just said: "I never told a lie in my life."

"You get the pup!" Said the owner of the hound dog. And everyone else agreed with him.
Folklore - Parables
Parables are the religious or moral stories. They can be written or told in a prose or verse form, they are always found in a narrative form. There are no animal characters (which show emotions) like we have in Fables, and parables describe a universal truth. Bible is an example of parable.
Folklore - Myth
Myths are sacred, so they've a deep meaning. These are the tales of origin of the world and people. That's why you will find gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. You will find lots of adventure, magic, supernatural elements (creatures, giants) in them although they lack scientific proof.
Nature myth has stories of the stars and moon, weather, etc. e.g. Zeus is the god of thunder, lightening. Do you believe in afterlife? Well Chinese, Greek, Roman cultures had myths on rebirth, afterlife, and concepts of hell and heaven.
Other types of folklore include fables (stories with moral), cumulative, trickster (stories of god, goddess, man, spirit, or animal who disobeys normal rules and behavior), beliefs (power that controls human beings), ghost stories, and legends (collection of ancient religious stories of origin and human civilization such as story of Robin Hood), etc.

The above article includes the many types of literature that are known in English literature. Also, there are other types like comic books, cartoons, eBook, and online stories that are constantly adding up to new forms of literature, with every passing day.