I am an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I study and teach twentieth-century literature in English. My research interests include genre fiction, the sociology of literature, modernism, South Asian literature in English, and the digital humanities. I am the author of Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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I’m presenting at this year’s conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing at the University of Reading. My talk is a first stab at a British-focused counterpart to my work on US genre fiction’s origins:

Three 1950 mushroom paperbacks from Scion Ltd

Yank Mags and Mushrooms: Genre Fiction in mid-century Britain

Tuesday, July 2, 11:00 a.m. in Palmer 1.05

When did popular fiction become genre fiction? Despite the proliferation of formulaic fictions in Britain from the 1890s onwards, the self-conscious systematization of fiction subgenres, with categories like detective fiction, thriller, science fiction, and romance regularly marked and enumerated in books, did not fully take hold in the British literary field until after the Second World War. I argue that the interwar popular fiction industry, dominated by a few firms and celebrity authors, actively resisted production by categories. No British equivalent of the USA’s original genre-fiction medium—the pulp magazines—successfully established itself, though the American pulps themselves circulated as cheap imports (“Yank mags”). Only after the war, with the oligopoly broken, did a genre-fiction system appear, not in magazines but in paperback book format. I consider Scion Ltd, one of dozens of “mushroom publishers,” a fly-by-night mass-producer of cheap fiction in the early 1950s. Scion’s hundreds of 128-page titles were sold at newsagents, each explicitly marked for genre: “Gangster,” “Science Fiction,” “Western,” etc. Thus Scion and other mushroom publishers adapted American cheap-fiction production strategies. If such imitation attests to a changed transatlantic balance of cultural power, I argue that it is also an unusual kind of literary cosmopolitanism from below. As an example, I consider one Scion author, John Russell Fearn, who transformed his early reading of Amazing Stories and other US pulps into a line of Scion science fiction novels he wrote as “Vargo Statten.” Though the likes of Penguin Books have been much celebrated as publishing innovators, I suggest Fearn and his ilk did as much to lay the groundwork for a full-fledged British genre-fiction system.

Here are my slides (image-heavy, narrative-free, good-taste-deficient): slides.pdf.

I disclaim any reference to the recent mycological turn in aesthetics.

The panel title is “Books, Class & Social Mobility,” though my main thought about the last of those, as the UK prepares to hand off from Sunak to Sir Keir, is: what mobility?

Image: John Russell Fearn, Lead Law! (London: Scion, 1950); Vargo Statten [J.R. Fearn, pseud.], Nebula-X (London: Scion, 1950); June Carole, Take Your Happiness (London: Scion, [1950]).

 

We’re in the midst of a busy month for the sociology of literature at Rutgers English. Usually the only person busy with the soc. of lit. is yours truly, but last week we welcomed a credentialed literary sociologist, Karl Berglund (Uppsala), in a double-header with Justin Tackett (Utah State) at the Initiative for the Book. Justin presented on “Clipped Reading” and the history of the intertitle; Kalle presented some of the findings from his terrific new book on audio readers—including the crucial question of how people go to sleep listening to novels.

This coming week, we have a packed Thursday and Friday in conjunction with the Colloquium on Independent Publishing. We welcome John B. Thompson from Cambridge to discuss his recent Book Wars: I’m on record with my enthusiasm for that book (and his previous work too), so I’m thrilled to have him at Rutgers. He’ll also be part of the broader discussion of independent publishing and the sociology of literature.

And I only just learned that the week after all this, there’s a big Bourdieu-fest happening at NYU! It’s April 25–27, with major figures from the Bourdieusian tradition including Gisèle Sapiro (blurbed by yours truly and also blogged by yours truly), Johan Heilbron, Mustafa Emirbayer, Gil Eyal, and John Guillory among other distinguished names. I’ll be there (when I can) in my specially made “Sociology is a Martial Art” dogi. Anyway, here’s the score for the events at Rutgers:

April 18, 2024
Second Colloquium on Independent Publishing

Academic Building West, Room 6501
15 Seminary Pl., New Brunswick, NJ

1:00 Lecture (in Spanish)
Editar literatura en lenguas originarias en el Perú
Dante Gonzalez Rosales (Pakarina Ediciones)
conversación moderada por Jorge Marcone (Rutgers)

4:30 Plenary Roundtable (in English)
Independent Publishing and the Sociology of Literature
Gustavo Guerrero (CY Cergy-Paris, Editions Gallimard)
Ana Cecilia Calle (Universidad Javeriana, Himpar Editores)
John B. Thompson (Cambridge, Polity Press)

April 19, 2024
Murray Hall, Room 302
510 George St., New Brunswick, NJ

12:00 Seminar with John B. Thompson (Cambridge)
The Digital Revolution in Publishing
hosted by Andrew Goldstone (Rutgers)

Abstract: What are the social forces shaping book publishing today? What new players and new relations has the digitization of production, distribution, and consumption introduced? And how has the book, print and digital, persisted and adapted in the face of the rise of Amazon, Google, and their ilk? John Thompson will discuss his recent book, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing (Polity, 2021).

Pre-circulated reading from Book Wars: go.rutgers.edu/thompson-cca2024.

 
teaching

It’s syllabus time again—what’s that you say? the semester has already started?—well I guess I’d better put something on the internet to show I have some idea what I’m going to be doing in class.

I am teaching a graduate seminar this term: Twentieth-Century Genre: The Case of the Detective. Through some unaccountable oversight I have been allowed to teach a course designated “theory,” which means all students will be required to rewrite Aristotle’s Poetics as if it were about Nancy Drew mysteries instead of tragedy. But seriously folks: the goal is to survey some of the variety of the genre over the last century-plus, from Nancy Drew to Percival Everett, and see what kind of shock we can give to our literary-historical and generic assumptions when we do that.

I am also renewing a course I haven’t taught in ten years, an undergraduate seminar designed around a selection of Anglophone novelists who have won the Nobel prize: Nobel Prizewinners. After much wrestling with my conscience I have had to leave off Patrick White in order to clear some room for the last decade’s very interesting new Anglophone-novelist laureates. The previous century’s laureates are represented on my syllabus by Kipling, Faulkner, Gordimer—and Morrison’s “Recitatif.” You decide which of these choices is trolling.

Those links go to course pages which summarize the schedule and link on to PDFs with the complete syllabuses. As time and the copyright window marches on, it is becoming ever easier for a twentieth-centuryist to point to digitized sources: it’s pretty to fun to be able to link to complete scans of pulp magazines and old mystery anthologies. So I did that. Long live the Internet Archive.

 

It’s been a while since I checked in on the statistics for what is laughingly called “the job market” in English for PhDs. But after a few demoralizing conversations with people looking at the thing from various angles (I was the one doing the demoralizing), I realized I wanted an updated version of a chart I last made in 2017, comparing new English PhDs and new faculty job openings. There was a pandemic in the interim.

Read more →

I have a review essay out in the new issue of American Literary History, under the title “Genre Fiction without Shame.” It’s a longish discussion of Mark McGurl’s Everything and Less and Kim Wilkins, Beth Driscoll, and Lisa Fletcher’s Genre Worlds, ornamented with my Strong Opinions™ about the study of popular genre. The journal permits authors to share an initially submitted version. Bonus features of the latter include a few embarrassing imprecisions in quotation and a far superior choice of typeface; for more precision and worse typography, refer to the published version.

From the essay:

Is literary studies on the verge of a genre turn of its own? When so eminent a literary historian as Mark McGurl argues that “genre fiction is the heart of the matter of literature” (xviii) in the present era, it might seem so. McGurl’s Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (2021) maps out a wide range of fiction subgenres, placing them at the center of contemporary fiction. Working in a different vein, Kim Wilkins, Beth Driscoll, and Lisa Fletcher illuminate the social dynamics of genre-fiction production in their collective monograph Genre Worlds: Popular Fiction and Twenty-First-Century Book Culture (2022). Yet, like the genre turn in literary fiction, this recent genre-fiction scholarship evinces a reified understanding of its subject. McGurl relies on high-literary assumptions about genre, even as he deflates the pretensions of literary fiction; Wilkins et al., writing as insiders, take the cohesiveness and autonomy of their “genre worlds” for granted. These contrasting limitations are both, it seems to me, responses to genre fiction’s status in the literary field. Without a fuller analysis of how that status is produced, work on genre fiction misses major aspects of the phenomenon, especially the contingency of genre categories and the variability of reader response.

Despite the Strong Opinions™, mainly I pay tribute to the new ground opened up by these two books for systematic studies of genre fiction in the full complexity of its social existence. Now if only I can get my own contribution done before the study of literary institutions becomes purely archaeological.