Writing Genres You Didn’t Learn in College

So you’re a post-grad and want to submit your works to literary journals, only the call for submissions asks for genres you’ve never heard of. Remember when everything was simple– fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Scroll through literary databases now and you’ll come across (sub)genres they didn’t teach you in undergraduate writing courses. Flash fiction? Speculative fiction? Fabulist writing? Found poetry, erasure poetry, slipstream, cut up, steampunk, cyberpunk, and more. You might ask yourself why all the writing samples you have from college aren’t fitting into the modern mold. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly these niche publishers are looking for, because it certainly isn’t the cut and dry “action,” “crime,” “comedy,” “adventure,” “fantasy,” “horror,” etc, genres of yesteryear. There are open calls for submissions that align with those familiar styles from your undergraduate days, but this blurb’s intent is to highlight some of the not-so-proverbial styles of the 21st century.

Note: Although some of these (sub)genres aren’t “new” per se, they are more popular in today’s writing community and therefore are more widely exhibited & defined. Additionally, some known genres have multiple nomenclature and are listed here to further clarify. (And If you took a specialized course in college, or had a concentration in an aspect of creative writing, then you may be familiar with these terms–this article is intended as a writing overview.)


Narrative nonfiction  Narrative Non-fiction: i.e. creative non-fiction. Non-fiction, or fact-based writing, that incorporates literary devices seen in fiction writing, such as character development, setting the scene, imagery and sensory details, metaphor, etc. etc., with a compelling narrative that propels the reader. Think Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (published 1966). A form of creative non-fiction writing is the memoir, or an autobiographical account of a person’s experiences and memories–an example of this is one of my faves, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen (published 1993). Both examples use literary conventions to communicate real information in a way that reads like fiction.

Hybrid nonfiction  Hybrid Narrative: Similar to Fiction’s cross-genre writing, which combines elements of multiple genres–for example, prose and poetry, action and comedy, science fiction and westerns, etc. etc., the hybrid narrative is a non-fiction style that implores the writer to craft a non-fiction narrative that juxtaposes more than 2 elements. The piece can be fragmented, segmented, braided, etc., with sometimes conflicting elements, which create a journey for the reader to interpret.

More simply, “Hybrid novels [are] novels in which graphic devices like photographs, drawings and experimental typography are integrated into the written text. Within hybrid novels, word and image combine to create a text that is neither purely written nor purely visual.” (An example of this can be seen under my current projectsAmazing Grace is a non-fiction essay that braids the narrative with journal entries as well as excerpts and images from books, poems, movies, etc.) Also see: Alternative Labels: Jane Addams’ Travel Medicine Kit  by Terri Kapsalis (published 2011). This essay in book form, as part of the Jane Addams’ Hull-House Museum exhibit, combines documentary, biography, & mystery by blending historical facts with quotes, excerpts, and exposition.

food writing  Food Writing: Topic-centered writing that is not quite considered a “genre,” but incorporates a range of traditional genres. Although food writing can refer to poetry or fiction, this style of writing predominantly focuses on food as a cultural phenomenon, and in the literary sense, about providing readers with an aesthetic experience regarding food, not just communicating information. (An example of food writing can be seen under my writing samples here.) One of my faves is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (published 2007).

Travel writing  Travel Writing: This genre, commonly associated with guide books for tourists, also includes documentations of real traveler’s experiences and accounts of foreign cities and countries. Think On the Road by Jack Kerouac (published 1957). Niche (sub)genres focus on the natural or geographical aspect of long journeys and explore the environment and living/surviving outdoors. At its core, travel writing is intended to educate and inspire readers and is not limited to serious accounts. CNN lists these 15 as the funniest travel books written in English. This type of literature can be fictional in the sense that the work is based on real journeys. Think Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (published 1899).


Fabulist fiction  Fabulist Fiction: By definition, a fabulist is one who writes or tells fables. Fabulist fiction stems from magical realism, which tries to convey the reality of one or more actual worldviews and depicts real circumstances or people, with elements of the miraculous. Think George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm (published 1945). This animal fable was a social commentary on, and satirized, Stalinist communism and totalitarianism. Check out this list of 10 modern fabulist novels for an applicable understanding. Simply put, fabulist fiction combines elements of non-realism with a greater cultural or artistic meaning. Think Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (published 1865). This popular literary mag publishes “Fables, yarns, & tales” online and in print.

Mash up novel  Mash Up Novel: Derivative of cross-genre fiction, a mash up novel is a work of fiction that combines a pre-existing text, often a classic work of literature, with another genre, into a single narrative. Often this hybrid style blends horror with the antecedent text. Think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith with co-credit to Jane Austen (published 2009). This bootleg writing is accepted under the fair use doctrine of copyright law when the imitated work created is a commentary on the original or a parody thereof. This BBC article highlights the 2014 changes to UK copyright law which may mean trouble for mash up writers if their parodies convey a “discriminatory message.”  [The literary canon is also derivative of the music industry term mash up, which is a composition created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs.]


flash fiction  Nano or Flash Fiction: A style of fiction that exemplifies extreme brevity, or shortness of speech. These “palm-sized” stories are generally 300 words or less, with a cap of 1,000 words. An example is the shortest complete short story ever : For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn, attributed to Ernest Hemingway. “How short can a story be and still truly be a story?” This sub-genre might be a result of our society’s shortening attention spans, but famous authors like Kurt VonnegutFranz Kafka, and H.P. Lovecraft bring legitimacy to the craft. Flash fiction is also accredited to being a style that dates as far back as Aesop’s Fables (5th Century B.C.).  This niche within a niche writing entails that “You will learn to kill your darlings,” by being hypercritical about what text is necessary to the plot. Here are some tips for writing flash fiction.


Speculative fiction  Speculative Fiction: By definition, a collective term that encompasses any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements. More specifically, speculative fiction can be assigned to those stories “on the fringe,” i.e. ones that don’t fit perfectly into the genres of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror. Think The Twilight Zone series written by Rod Serling (1959). Think Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. Basically, this is a “super-genre” that categorizes a spectrum of “weird fiction.”

Writer & blogger Jill Williamson put it this way:

“Where all types of fiction tell a story of a hypothetical situation, speculative fiction often tells a story that takes place in a hypothetical story-world that is different from our own. Speculative fiction can take place on earth, but often takes place in other worlds envisioned by the author.”

Think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy (published 1954) or C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (published 1950 – 1956). An example of contemporary speculative fiction is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (published UK 1997 – 2007).

Cyberpunk  Cyberpunk: [The “punk” of all these speculative fiction subgenres is derived from the music industry term punk, which implies a style that is gritty, raw, urban, etc. In addition to that DIY mentality, punk refers to a counterculture living on the fringe of “mainstream society,” and aesthetically, the fashion style of punk is stereotypically choppy, confrontational, and destructive. Basically, a subversive, anti-establishment scene that embraces anarchy and social chaos, while maintaining a romanticized, low-life ambiance.]

Cyberpunk is a literary subgenre that simply put, focuses on “high tech and low life”  and is inspired by the Information Age. The prefix “cyber” refers to cybernetics, a termed defined by Norbert Weiner in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Cybernetics is an umbrella for systems-related scientific fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, information technology, virtual reality, etc. This dissertation further discusses the themes of cyberpunk.

Editor Lawrence Peterson of the fanzine Nova Express explains:

“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”

 This (sub)genre highlights the microcosms of individuals in an often near-future dystopian setting that is littered with prominent hopeless sentiments and the struggle of maintaining a sense of morality and humanity in a perverse, technologically-advanced society. Think Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (published 1968), known as the movie adaption Blade Runner (1982). Other examples can be found here.

Steampunk  Steampunk: A science fiction and fantasy (sub)genre with themes centralized around technology, inspired by 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery. The genre is notable for incorporating and reimagining the aesthetics of the industrial revolution with modern technologies in our contemporary world. Popular settings for this style include Victorian England, the American West, and post-apocalyptic societies. The conflicts generally embody “an emphasis on the empowerment of individuals in the face of industrial standardization and the advance of modern bureaucratic government.” The term steampunk was coined in the 1980s to categorized Tim Power’s Anubis Gates (published 1983).  Think H.G. Well’s The Time Machine (published 1895) and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (published 1870). 


breakfast of champions Slipstream: Referred to as “the New Weird,” slipstream meshes the fantastical with real elements while borrowing from literary fiction and conventional science fiction genres like speculative fiction, fantasy, and horror. The term, introduced by Bruce Sterling in 1989, explains that slipstream “…is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange… .” The overriding premise is that “the world is inexplicable, but that there is some feeling of connection nonetheless” and often in spite of, the fantastical nature of the stories that “slip” between the real and the weird. A famous example is Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery (published 1949). Other popular works include The Invisible Man (published 1952) by Ralph Ellison, and more contemporary, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (published 1972) or Breakfast of Champions (published 1973). What is remarkable about this genre is how the authors blend and weave recognizable human characters with elements of the bizarre. Here, the reader accepts the story without question, because the writer delicately crafts the normalcy of these characters within the backdrop of strange circumstances. These “impossible elements” color the story with something that doesn’t exist in real life.


found poetry  Found Poetry: “Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.” Found poetry is the art of taking existing passages, phrases, or words and crafting them by altering the text–adding, deleting, or even simply rearranging spacing to shape a new meaning. John Hollander, 20th century American Poet & Literary Critic explains, “Anyone may “find” a text; the poet is he who names it, “Text.”

 This style of derivative poetry allows the author to layer contexts, thus giving the poem more meaning. While “true” found poems consist entirely of the original text, some famous authors play with this genre by combining external excerpts with their works. A example of this is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Here Eliot crafts the poem using extracts from “Wagnerian opera, Shakespearian theater, and Greek mythology.” Think Ezra Pound’s  experimental collection The Cantos (written 1915 – 1962).

 Check out this comprehensive article on Found Poetry, contended as more of a technique than a poetic genre, from  Arc Poetry Magazine. Two types of Found Poetry include Erasure and Cut Up Poetry.


erasure poetry  Erasure Poetry: A poetic art form created by “erasing” existing text to craft prose or verse, which can be framed by the blackened-out text. Also referred to as “black-out poetry.” In line with found poetry, this style’s intent is to give new meaning to an existing text, and at its best, requires deliberate and precise erasures.  “Some erasure poems work with or against the original text; some erasure poems look for completely new and unrelated meanings than the original text; and some erasure poems are just complete nonsense.” Here is an example of a passage from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (published 1957) transformed.

On the Road


Cut up poetry  Cut Up Poetry: Similar to the craft of erasure poetry, this poetic art form, also called “cut ups,” requires literally “cutting up” different texts and crafting the pieces to create a new text. However, as demonstrated by author William S. Burroughs in the 1960s, this style can also be comprised of original works to create experimental pieces of cut up writing. See: The Soft Machine (published 1961) as part of a cut up trilogy, The Nova Trilogy. Burroughs used material from a preexisting manuscript, The Word Hoard.


pantoum  Pantoum:  Originating in Malaysia in the 15th century as a short folk poem, the pantoum was typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as Poets.org explains, “the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first.”  The beauty of a pantoum is the ebb and flow of the text, which subtly takes on new meaning as the poem progresses and lines repeated. Think Stillbirth by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (published 2007). Other modern examples can be found here. Here is an example of a borrowed lines pantoum I wrote called Kisses are a Better Fate (2013).

Post It Poem  Post-It Poem: One of the most analyzed modern poems, This is Just to Say (published 1934) by William Carlos Williams, is speculated as a type of found poem because its interpretation is ambiguous and left entirely for the reader. “This type of response poetry is more about the viewer—what do you see? What do you feel? What do you wonder?” It is also claimed as not being a poem at all, but rather a note left for his wife. While a Post-It Poem does not literally need to be written on a Post-It note, the idea is brevity combined with the autobiographical nature and intent of a jotted down message.   These nano-poems have no set rhyme or rhythm, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a definitive description of the cult genre that is most simply defined by the limited space an author has to craft the poem. An example of a Post-It Poem I wrote is Love, Mom (2013).

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