The Best Genre-Specific Classic Novels

BY CHELSEA ENNEN • April 19, 2024

The Best Genre-Specific Classic Novels

The most important thing for a writer to do is write. But the second most important thing is reading. 

Walk into any bookstore and you’ll be surrounded by the work of talented authors who are writing and reading, here and now. Immersing yourself in the work of contemporary writers will not only give you an accurate picture of what the current market for your genre looks like, but it also allows you to get to know your writer colleagues. 

It’s never a good idea to be the kind of writer who has only ever read the classics, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a look. Check out these suggestions for the one staple worth reading if you want to write in a particular genre. 

Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is the iconic story of the powerful, malignant One Ring and the ragtag group of hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, and humans who band together to destroy it before the evil Sauron can use it to take over the world. 

Technically this is three books. Four if you count The Hobbit. But The Lord of the Rings is such an iconic series, and one that so many contemporary fantasy authors continue to reference and pay homage to, that it’s worth reading at least one of the books in this series. 

Epic fantasy authors, and authors who write historical fantasy, know better than to skip this one. But don’t forget that The Lord of the Rings is also a master class in how to build detailed and beloved characters who stand out against a high-fantasy background. Who could forget the beautiful friendship between Sam and Frodo or Arwen and Aragorn’s forbidden romance? 

Even today, many—if not most—fantasy authors of all stripes cite The Lord of the Rings as an inspiration. So if you’ve only seen the movies but want to write a fantasy novel, the books are worth reading. 

Romance: Pride and Prejudice

The enemies-to-lovers novel that started them all, Pride and Prejudice is the story of how the penniless Elizabeth Bennet comes to fall in love with the wealthy and brooding Mr. Darcy. 

Many romance writers have read every word Jane Austen ever put to paper. But if you’re only going to read one, Pride and Prejudice is the box to check. Have you ever noticed how a lot of romance novels open with the phrase “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .”? Yes, they’re pulling that from this book. 

Pride and Prejudice is a master class in building tension and chemistry between two people who don’t immediately realize they love each other. But Jane Austen knew that the best romance stories are set firmly in the world of social reality; this book is also about money, gender, and the ugly reality of what women stand to lose by trusting a handsome face. 

Mystery: The Hound of the Baskervilles

So much of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work featuring the one and only Sherlock Holmes is in short story format, but if you’re unfamiliar with the detective of Baker Street, the novel-length The Hound of the Baskervilles is well worth your time. 

When Dr. James Mortimer asks Holmes for help, he has a bizarre story to tell. Mortimer’s dear friend, Sir Charles Baskerville, has recently died, supposedly of a heart attack. But there is evidence to suggest that he actually fell prey to a terrible curse that follows many of the Baskerville heirs to an early grave—a demonic hound that hunts them down across the vast estate. As the executor of Sir Charles’s will, Mortimer fears that the new heir to the Baskerville estate is in danger. Holmes initially dismisses the curse as a silly superstition. But when he makes his way to the remote Baskerville estate, things start to get spooky as he is haunted by the mysterious hellhound that supposedly prowls the moors. 

Like any Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles is, of course, a brilliant mystery. But the supernatural element makes it an especially good book for mystery writers because it highlights Doyle’s character work. Sherlock Holmes’s defining trait is his logic, his ability to clearly and precisely see evidence and form no-nonsense conclusions. So how does the great detective react when faced with compelling evidence of the supernatural? What does he do when he’s away from his pipe and the comfort of Baker Street, stranded outside, and hearing the vicious howls of the legendary hound? And how would the culprit pull off a seemingly supernatural kill without all the resources of a modern-day murderer? 

Know Where You Come From 

So many writers felt their first itch to write when they were kids in school reading books for English class. And even today, most English teachers, from elementary school through college, lean heavily on the classics when designing their syllabi. 

But there are so many classics out there that no one would ever be able to reasonably read them all, no matter how much homework their teachers assigned. And by the time you realize you want to write in a specific genre, that book report might be decades in your past. 

Nothing can make up for a thorough knowledge of the contemporary publishing landscape. But choosing one or two foundational novels in your genre can also help you better understand where the books of today came from and how your genre of choice has evolved over the years. 

Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn with her husband and her dog. When not writing or reading, she is a fiber and textile artist who sews, knits, crochets, weaves, and spins.

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