A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fictional Genres

Olga’s latest essay at Middle Earth Reflections is about escape. As usual, it got me thinking. The way Tolkien and Lewis thought of escape, it’s necessary for modern people. The modern world delivers material benefit on a scale that would have been unimaginable even three hundred years ago, but it comes at a social cost – we all have our little boxes, and we have to stay in them or the system grinds to a halt. People want to expand themselves. They “don’t want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart” [1]. We don’t like being confined, no matter how well it pays, so “escape” is now (more or less) recognized as a legitimate desire, and a (more or less) valid purpose for literature.

But what about life before the industrial revolution overthrew the tyranny of Malthusian economics?  We can get an idea from folklore: many fairy tales involve people doing extraordinary things to get food. Children in mid-twentieth-century America had trouble understanding why, if someone offered to grant a character any wish they could think of, they’d ask for a roasted goose. Chapter 1 of Robert Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre [2] explains why: People were starving. Literally, the best thing they could think of was a decent meal.

Darnton isn’t the first to say that. Here’s Abraham Maslow: “Another peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need is that the whole philosophy of the future tends also to change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, Utopia can be defined very simply as a place where there is plenty of food.” [3]

Maslow's hierarchy of Needs

Hierarchy of Needs (1943)

Which brings us to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  (You only need to read that link if your boss has never hired a management consultant – to everyone else it’s a cliché.) It seems relevant to the classification of fiction into genres.  Hypothesis: Escapism is an important part of all fiction; different genres appeal to readers whose needs are at different levels.

Tolkien gave us the top of the pyramid. Darnton gave us the bottom. What about the rest of the levels of the hierarchy?

The second level from the bottom is “safety”. According to the hypothesis, there should be a literary genre in which people whose safety isn’t assured can read about characters who are threatened, but manage to triumph and find safety at the end. There is no difficulty finding two: Mysteries and thrillers fit the bill exactly. They are, respectively, #3 and #4 on the sales list. Nothing can be done for the corpses in Chapter 1 of those books, but the protagonist escapes danger with reassuring frequency.  “Escape” is literal, in most cases.

The third level up is “love”. (Most updates to Maslow’s work say “social” here, but I shall stick to the original term because we’re talking about “social science”, and “social” is too weak a word to do double duty. “Love” is not. Like Maslow’s, my readers all know how many definitions the word “love” has.) It is easy to find genres here, too. Romance novels are #2 on the list of best-selling categories of fiction for adults. I’m going to put bibles here, too. They’re #1 of all kinds of books ever sold. It’s a bit of a stretch, because bibles generally go under non-fiction (despite the unicorns). However, etymologically, religions exist for the purpose of forming a community; books are an important part of that; and they fit the hypothesis so well that I can’t pass them up.

For those whose physiological needs are met, who have a safe place to exist, and are solidly placed in a group, the next level of need is for “esteem”. Originally, status within the group was the focus. Now, self-esteem is added to this category. At this point an Idiosopher might get into trouble: Are “novels” genre fiction? The 19th Century novels, from Jane Austen onwards, which caused the form to have its enormous impact on culture, are about little else than the pursuit of social status. In the more egotistical 20th Century, self-esteem joined the more venerable pursuit. General Fiction, or as I think of it “Muggle Fiction”, is #1 on the sales list. If it didn’t provide entertainment featuring characters finally getting the esteem they deserve, there would be large gaps on those shelves.

At the top of the pyramid is “Self-actualization” which is where we started. Fantasy and fiction (to a great extent) contain a strong streak of self-actualization, providing escape from the confinement of the bureaucratic economy. Role-playing games have become so popular that they belong here, too, though that would involve jumping over to a different medium.

So, what is left?  According to this hypothesis, most lines on the Publishers’ Weekly chart can be filled in immediately.

Rank Genre Maslow Level
1 General Fiction Esteem
2 Romance Love
3 Suspense/Thrillers Safety
4 Mystery/Detective Safety
5 Graphic Novels (multiple)
6 Classics (multiple)
7 Fantasy Self-Actualization
8 Science Fiction Self-Actualization
9 Religion Love
10 Action Adventure Safety
11 Occult/Psychological/Horror Safety
12 Western (multiple)

There is no prose genre that doesn’t fit into one of the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  The hypothesis holds up well.  The lines marked “multiple” are due to Publishers’ Weekly breaking up books by how to sell them, not by their literary characteristics.  Graphic Novels and Classics can have any kind of thematic content. They could easily be separated into the other classifications.  Westerns are the same, though I’d bet the vast majority are actually thrillers.  Westerns used to be much more popular.  They’re down to about 1% of sales now, and I doubt they’ll exist as a separate genre much longer.


Other people have added other levels to the hierarchy since 1943. I think they’re not so well justified as the original five. Maslow himself suggested there might be other levels, but I’ve stuck with the basics. Except this one, which has a deep ring of truth and should not be missed.

Social-science experimentation in the 1940s wasn’t so bland and statistical as it is today. Maslow, speculating on a possible experimental test of the second tier of the pyramid, suggested: “…the child might be confronted with an exploding firecracker…”  I’d love to see how the Institutional Review Board responded to that proposal.

Works Cited

[1] Sting,“Invisible Sun”, Ghost in the Machine, 1981.

[2] Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. Basic Books, 1984.

[3] Maslow, A. H., “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Psychological Review, 50, p. 370-396, 1943.


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  1. But if these genres are fictional….

  2. I don’t know anything about Maslow except what I’ve learned at corporate seminars, which can be a very bad place to learn something.

    Are there hierarchies within the individual levels? Does romantic love rank higher than community love, or lower, or is there no concept of ranking within each level? And can certain needs fit into one band, but with aspects of an adjacent band as well?

    If so, I wonder if certain examples of each fiction genre could be similarly ranked. For example, I’ve never been scared by “slasher” horror films. I’ve just never worried that someone is going to try to chase me through the woods with a hatchet, so those stories don’t do it for me. But ghost stories and occult stories do scare me, because they threaten not just the characters’ safety, but also beliefs about the way the world works and our place in it. So would you think that ghost stories are in the Safety band, but “higher” because they strike at fears that go beyond that of our pure physiological well-being? Or am I seriously overthinking this?

    • Joe

      Maslow didn’t talk about any sub-levels, but I estimate the probability to be ~100% that some masters’ student somewhere has done so.

      If I wanted to escape from worries about belief, and my place in the world, I would probably read an accounting textbook.

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