“Genre Fiction without Shame” in American Literary History


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.