Portrait of the Künstlerroman as a Young Man

And now for something completely picaresque

James Dean

When we last left our hero—that’s me—he was trying to shoehorn every book on his list into neat categories. Fortunately, people who classify books professionally have already come up with some predefined categories that cover many fictional works. But since you and I are aren’t in the book-classifying profession, some of these categories sound made-up.

Take “Southern Gothic” as an example. What is it for? Stories about vampires that live on vast plantations? The Italian version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Historical accounts about Grant Wood’s other painting of farmers? It turns out that books in this genre are a mixture of romance and horror (naturally), with stories set in the American South. And no, Gone With the Wind doesn’t qualify. Not enough vampires, I suppose.

There’s also plain old “Gothic” fiction; as usual, the Union gets lumped in with the rest of the world. Here are a few more categories that were left out of my secondary school education.

  • Epistolary Novel. Deriving from the word “epistle” (letter), an epistolary story is built up from distinct newspaper articles, letters, diary entries, and other similar disparate elements.
  • Bildungsroman. A story that follows the psychological or moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood. A sub-genre called Künstlerroman focuses on protagonists who are artists, because a misunderstood people group needs an easy-to-understand category.
  • Trangressive. In a transgressive story, the main character breaks out of society’s norms by engaging in anti-social, illegal, or illicit behavior.
  • Modernist. Tied to other forms of modernism, these stories focus on the individual instead of institutions or absolute truths.
  • Magic Realism. In which magic is used to make reality more real. As in “more real.”
  • Metafiction. In this category, characters within a story are sentient enough to understand that they are characters in a fictional story. See also, nonfiction.
  • New Novel. As you might expect, this does not refer to new novels at all, but to French authors who use experimental novel-writing techniques that make the text unreadable. By placing a sticker on the book that says “New Novel,” publishers of such novels attempt to recoup some of their investment.
  • Picaresque Novel. In these typically satirical novels, a low-class but likable protagonist overcomes the corrupt leaders of society that battle against him.
  • Proletarian Novel. In these typically somber novels, a low-class and dour protagonist overcomes the corrupt leaders of society that battle against him. And he’s Russian.
  • Antinovel. Don’t ask.

Of course, the traditional categories apply as well, including Adventure, Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, and Westerns. Also, Southern Westerns. So the next time you are in the market for a work of fiction, don’t just stick with the same style. Step out of your comfort zone; be a bildungsroman.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here