SHARP 2024


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]).