The instant expert: All kinds of stories

This week the avid reader Rick Arthur gets tangled up in the sticky web of literary genres.

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Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week the avid reader Rick Arthur gets tangled up in the sticky web of literary genres, and vows to find himself a good book.

THE BASICS, PART ONE Let's back into this one, bibliophiles, shall we? A literary genre is not a category of the age of a book's intended audience (adult, young-adult or children). It is not a literary format, such as graphic novel or picture book. It is not a literary technique, such as parody or stream of consciousness.

THE BASICS, PART TWO "Genre" is French, from the Latin genus, generis, meaning "a kind". There are two genres of literature: fiction and non-fiction. Their sub-genres (some would call them genres also) could fill the Instant Expert's meagre space, but fiction includes drama, fantasy, folklore, humour, mystery, mythology, poetry, romance and science fiction; non-fiction includes autobiography, biography, the essay and the narrative. Oh, and we cannot overlook the non-fiction sub-genre in which we labour and that, we are certain, you so enjoy: journalism.

STILL... It's all subjective. As the Muse of Literature writes on the website of the Exploring the Arts Foundation, "Perhaps no other literary term or concept has been so misunderstood, so loosely defined or so often used and misused in so many varied ways by so many different people. Many of the ways in which genre is used are flat-out incorrect; and many of those who use the term incorrectly are critics, educators and writers, all of whom should know better." OK, Ms Muse, we're being careful.

THE CROSSOVER What to make, then, of the non-fiction novel? Never mind that the term is an oxymoron; is it a genre? Yes, we submit. There's simply no other good way to categorise this hybrid in which the storytelling techniques of fiction are used on historical figures and events. Truman Capote pioneered the genre with In Cold Blood (1965); those who followed include Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.

WHODUNITS Consider the mystery as a popular example of a sub-genre of fiction, and one that spawns sub-sub-genres. It is, as you might suspect, a narrative about the solution of a crime. Prominent mystery authors include Agatha Christie (see right), Edgar Allen Poe and Ellery Queen. The mystery's sub-subs include the detective story, the police procedural, the legal thriller, the medical thriller and the spy story.

BODICE-RIPPERS Romance novels, while hardly the Instant Expert's mug of Earl Grey, form a robust sub-genre (see right). Sub-sub-genres are gothic (Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë), Regency (The Rake and the Reformer by Mary Jo Putney) and woman-in-danger (I'll Be Seeing You by Mary Higgins Clark).

MORE, MORE, MORE... Look at speculative fiction as another sub-genre that has many sub-sub-genres (and sub-sub-sub, and sub-sub-sub-sub, and beyond). Broadly speaking (we know you're watching, Ms Muse), speculative fiction could be broken down into science fiction, horror and fantasy. Science fiction could be broken down into hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, space opera, punk, alternative universe and sci-fi romance. Punk could be broken down into cyberpunk, steampunk and biopunk. Cyberpunk could be broken down into dieselpunk, atompunk, nanopunk and postcyberpunk. It's like those Russian nesting dolls, isn't it?

... AND EVEN MORE If you can't find something to read here, there's no hope for you: absurdist fiction, adventure novels, comic novels, experimental fiction, historical fiction, philosophical fiction, pulp fiction, sagas, Westerns, women's fiction.

THE END A book is like a garden carried in the pocket, according to a Chinese proverb. We don't care what genre it fits into.

The top five best-selling fiction writers

Who are the best-selling fiction authors of all time? The question can be answered only with educated guesses based on estimates, given that we don't have records that cover all of history, even relatively modern history. Thus, authors including Jane Austen, Miguel de Cervantes and Charles Dickens cannot be reliably listed. That said, here's a probable top five:

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE The British playwright and poet has sold between 2 billion and 4 billion books.

AGATHA CHRISTIE The pioneering British writer of detective fiction also has sold from 2 billion to 4 billion books.

BARBARA CARTLAND The British romance novelist produced an astonishing 721 titles and has sold from 500 million to 1 billion books.

DANIELLE STEEL The American romance novelist has sold about 800 million books and is probably the best-selling living author.

HAROLD ROBBINS The New York/Hollywood/adventure novelist has sold about 750 million books.