Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Genres and niche markets

In a comment to my summary of our recent symposium The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, Jeff Sypeck challenges my claim about the fragmentation of the literary culture, saying that its source lies back in the past “more than 80 years ago, when critics started drawing distinctions that kept the genres popularized in pulp magazines and dime novel[s] out of the ‘republic of letters.’ ” I am not sure what events he is referring to, and I hope he will elaborate, but “pulp magazines and dime novels” go even even farther back, and the dichotomy between them and the Republic of Letters has never been quite as neat and tidy-looking as Sypeck suggests.

Among the earliest uses of the term popular culture is an anonymous Contemporary Review editorial, reprinted under that title in the New York Times, bemoaning its lack. The “addiction to low and vitiating forms of reading remains as the most widely operating cause of the virtual non-existence of a popular culture,” the editorial said. “Never before was there so little prospect of those given to such reading being driven to most wholesome mental food by a limited supply of garbage.”

The distinction between low and high was not an economic distinction. “Our marvelously cheap literature includes a wide range of high-class reading,” the editorial said. What is more, a generation before the “penny” literature was better:

True, even then penny dreadfuls were not unknown, but every week did not bring forth its new one. Nor did they appeal so directly to boys as do the existing race of dreadfuls. “The Boy Highwayman,” “The Boy Brigand,” “The Boy Pirate,” “The Boy King of the Outlaws,” &c., are modern inventions. The long drawn out “Mysteries of London” and “Mysteries of the Court,” the leading dreadfuls of the last generation, were happily not meat for babes. Then, as now, also penny serials—which should not be confounded with the penny dreadfuls—were a popular form of reading. But they were very much fewer in number and decidedly better in quality than those of the present day. Their to-be-continued-in-our-next stories were more robust, and their miscellaneous contents less trashy and frivolous.[1]The distinction, for lack of a better word, was literary. “High class” means high quality. I might quarrel with the value-terms robust and frivolous. But they were advanced in order to distinguish good “dime” literature from bad “dime” literature. The retail price of the literature was a different category of value altogether.

The common error is to confuse them. And the source of the problem is the substitution of economic terms—marketing labels, really—for the traditional names of genres.

Sypeck says, for example, that these days “genre boundaries are the most porous” they have been since James’s time, but what he really means is that literary markets are fluid. Readers and writers wash between detective fiction and “literary fiction” without caring overmuch what market niche a book belongs to. That’s the bookseller’s headache. The traditional meaning of the term genre has been distorted. Nowadays it is, as I wrote in an essay on Michael Chabon, “not a traditional kind of writing, but a publisher’s or bookseller’s category, grouping together books that attract readers who are looking for similar books. . . .” The markets for literature have become more porous.

Thus Sypeck speaks of “pulp magazines and dime novels” as if these were literary genres, but they are not. That they are not can be demonstrated by the way in which the term pulp was introduced into literary discourse. In a 1928 essay, the poet and novelist Henry Morton Robinson (who later went on to write The Cardinal, a bestseller of 1950 about a Catholic priest) writes:Wood-pulp literature is bought by the bale and sold by the long ton. It is printed on paper made (apparently) from gray oatmeal, pressed between illustrated covers seven times too vivid to be called garish, and shipped in car-load lots to all points of the English-speaking compass. “For sale at all newsstands,” it is avidly bought up by twenty million readers a week, and read in the best pool-rooms, banking houses, subway trains and University halls in the United States. Wood-pulp literature is the great unrecorded fact of American literature, the successor to the dime-novel as the standard literary diet of a thrill-hungry populace. It is the reading-dividend of a democracy; the weekly fiction light that dare not fail.Robinson goes on to distinguish pulp writing from “the tradition of beautiful letters,” but only in terms of working conditions for authors. For “that part of the tradition most painfully concerned with the mot juste, it seems impossible,” he says, ”not to say sacrilegious, that one man should be guilty of sixty thousand words a week.” But their guilt does not diminish their talent. “Their talent—and it is considerable,” he acknowledges—“is narrative; their genius—and it is magnificent—is stretching that narrative out into forty or fifty thousand words without loosening their hold on the lapel of the reader’s interest.”[2]

If pulp fiction must be defined as a literary genre, Robinson has provided the differentia: a prose narrative of forty or fifty thousand words with plenty of action. What determined whether it was pulp, though, when the pulps still existed, was how it was marketed: “For sale at all newsstands.” Pulp, then, is a misleading name for the genre. Action-filled prose narratives about fifty thousand words have been around at least since Apollonius. The distinction between “wood-pulp literature” and “beautiful letters” is a market distinction.

The fundamental error, as Alastair Fowler argues in Kinds of Literature, is to conceive genre as a system of classification. No sooner are the categories established than, as Sypeck observes, the boundaries turn out to be porous. This observation is not particularly new, however. Kames pointed out the problem in the eighteenth century, noting that “literary compositions run into each other, precisely like colours: in their strong tints they are easily distinguished; but are susceptible of so much variety, and take on so many different forms, that we never can say where one species ends and another begins.”[3]

Perhaps it would be more adequate to conceive of genre as the requirements for getting a piece of writing done. Whether fifty thousand words of prose action or fourteen decasyllabic lines of verse with a strict rhyme scheme, a genre is a list of the minimal conditions that a writer must meet. He may even bend the rules, writing more than fifty thousand words or fewer than ten syllables, to finish his job. The purpose of genre, though, is to provide the measure for determining completion. The question of what to include or exclude—how porous to make the boundaries—is a different question: perhaps a question of style. And once the job is finished, the text may be grouped or shelved with other texts that amuse or appall the writer. That’s not his business, however.

Nor is it the business of the critic, who is less worried how to classify a text than how to evaluate it. The categories that publishers and booksellers use to market books will be of little use to him. What might help would be to learn what other critics make of the text. If they are off in a different corner of the bookstore, though, refusing to read any books except for those on the shelves that surround them like a heavy coat on a winter’s day, they will be of little use to him too.

[1] “Popular Culture,” New York Times (August 7, 1881): 3.

[2] Henry Morton Robinson, “The Wood-Pulp Racket,” Bookman 67 (August 1928): 648–51.

[3] Henry Home, Lord Kames, The Elements of Criticism (1762) quoted in Alaistar Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 37.