“Origins of the US Genre-Fiction System” in Book History

I have an article out in the new issue of Book History, modestly titled “Origins of the US Genre-Fiction System, 1890–1956.” By kind permission of the publisher I can also share the accepted manuscript version, which is both open access and richer in typographical errors.

_Publishers' Weekly_, January 25, 1941: 429.

Publishers’ Weekly, January 25, 1941: 429.

This is the first published piece of my current book project on the history of genre fiction. In the article I attempt to trace the formation of an institutionalized system of genre categories in American publishing. Here’s the abstract, with a few more reflections after the jump:

Though genre fiction is now ubiquitous, and though both book history and literary studies have devoted considerable attention to individual genres like science fiction and romance novels, the history of the system of popular fiction categories has been little studied. This essay traces the origins of the genre-fiction system in United States magazine and book publishing, bringing sociological and book-historical analysis to bear on changing practices of categorization in publishing, advertising, librarianship, and reader response from the 1890s through the 1950s. Genre categories were only intermittently in use through the 1910s; they were first institutionalized in pulp magazines in the 1920s and 1930s. The genre-fiction system was transmitted to book publishing only in the course of the so-called “paperback revolution” of the 1940s and 1950s, which made room for fiction-book production by categories while relegating it to a permanently low-status position. This transmission across publishing formats was far from deliberate; instead, the essay argues, the system of genre fiction arose and endured as a stable compromise articulating an expanded fiction-reading public to an expansive print culture industry, making new readers and new fiction—and new kinds of fiction—regularly available to each other in an enduringly hierarchized field.

My historiographic approach is quite literal-minded: I look for moments when people—publishers, librarians, retailers, fans, authors—started categorizing fiction by genre categories, and, especially, for when such categories started to appear commensurable with one another. This happened quite gradually and surprisingly late. 1956, the end date in my title, was the year when Publishers’ Weekly first gave separate tallies of fiction book publications in three popular genres, Mysteries, Westerns, and Science Fiction. The term “genre fiction” wasn’t in wide circulation for another decade or more after that. Yet it’s clear enough that those individual genres, and the other major genre-fiction categories, have earlier origins. It’s the system which crystallized gradually. I describe this system’s emergence first in pulp magazines in the mid-1920s, then in paperback publishing, and finally across the US publishing industry, after a number of false starts and considerable resistance from the guardians of culture in literary institutions. I include some of my favorite dismayed remarks about the “mental pabulum of the majority,” the “flood of stories cheap, and many worse than cheap,” the warnings against “following the earlier lead of the pulps as to covers and text.” The resistance was not simply to popular fiction as such but also to its dominant medium, the cheap periodical. I came to understand that genre fiction became fully established partly through the integration of magazine publishers into the book-publishing industry during the explosive phase mythologized as the “paperback revolution” of the 1940s and 1950s.

I hope the story itself is intrinsically interesting. We know a lot more about high-literary institutions than we do about the institutions of popular fiction. Genre fiction has its own distinctive social logic and its own historical trajectory. At the same time, I am trying to model the sociological approach to literature I am taking in my book, and which I hope could be extended to other cases. You won’t find any “close readings” of novels in this essay. There are plenty of textual interpretations, mostly of ads, trade journalism, reader letters, book paratexts, etc. But the goal is synthetic: I try to give explanations at the level of the literary field for the way a new set of institutions arose and endured, and for the ways a range of actors tried to use those institutions for their own ends.

Anyway, hope the essay will reach people interested in either the topic of genre fiction or the methodological issues of literary sociology. I’m quite proud that the essay appears in Book History, a journal I’ve admired for a long time. The spring 2023 issue is full of fascinating work across a wide historical and geographic range.