Genre Reading

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A genre is a category of literature that producers and audiences self-consciously recognize as marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. In contemporary usage, genre reading usually refers to genres that developed historically from pulp magazines in the early twentieth century—mysteries, Westerns, romances, and science fiction (sometimes including fantasy and horror). Genre fiction emerged because it made the business of publishing much more predictable and profitable; it made books into commodities that could be marketed much like soap or cornflakes to a specific audience of known size. Because genre fiction was always profit-driven and emerged from the pages of cheap magazines and paperbacks, it is frequently seen as lacking aesthetic or literary value.

A History of Cheap Publishing in America

From the 1840s to the 1890s, dime novel entrepreneurs like Beadle & Adams and Street & Smith pioneered the sale of cheap, mass-produced sensation fiction to the urban, working classes. Sold for five to ten cents, they featured tales of adventure on the frontier, accounts of great strikes, stories about crime in the cities, and narratives of honest working girls who marry millionaires. This blatantly commercial fiction was largely written by unknown authors who were paid by the word, and representatives of genteel culture disapproved of the whole enterprise. Public libraries did not carry dime novels; "respectable" magazines condemned them as sensational; and aristocratic societies for the prevention of vice prosecuted their publishers.

In an attempt to better market their cheap fiction, dime novels were often organized into series featuring a common setting (the West, the city), a central character (Buffalo Bill, Nick Carter, Old Sleuth), or a theme (war, love). Dime novel fiction was thoroughly commodified, and the various characters and series functioned like a brand name for consumers who wanted to buy the same set of narrative pleasures month after month. Michael Denning cautions, however, that genres in the dime novel overlapped and were very much in flux.

Modern notions of romances, Westerns, science fiction, and mystery arose in the pages of the dime novel's heirs, pulp magazines. When changes in postal rates in the 1890s made it prohibitively expensive to distribute dime novels through the mail, many of the largest publishers simply repackaged their cheap fiction as pulp magazines, selling the same kinds of stories at the newsstand instead. Named for the cheap, wood-pulp paper on which they were published, pulp magazines were unambiguously "trash." Pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner described himself not as an author, but as a "fiction factory." Most studies maintained that pulp audiences were socially and economically marginal—young, working class, poorly educated, and often immigrant. Librarians, social workers, and middle-class reformers lamented that the "proletariat" read little else besides pulp magazines.

At first, most pulps were general-fiction magazines, but specialization for niche markets began soon after. For example, the aptly named All-Story had been replaced by Love Story, Detective Story, and Western Story by 1930. Between the world wars there were about 200 highly specialized pulp titles dedicated to detective fiction, pirates, boxing, war, football, Westerns, aviation, science fiction, and romance. The readerships were clearly gendered. The endless variety of action/adventure pulps were for men; the romances, for women.

The pulp magazine market folded in the early 1950s from competition with comic books, television, and their descendants—mass-market paperbacks. Spurred by new technological innovations—the much faster magazine rotary press and quick-drying, synthetic glue—the paperback appeared on the scene in 1939 when Pocket Books launched a series of twenty-five-cent books to be sold and distributed like magazines at newsstands, drugstores, train stations, and bus depots instead of trade bookshops. The men who had learned how to sell cheap fiction in the pulp magazine business are the ones who started many of the paperback publishing houses, and paperbacks shared the pulps' low literary reputation and less-than-elite audience.

Genre Fiction and the Business of Publishing

Genre fiction took the guess work out of the business of publishing. Books are notoriously difficult to market and advertise, because each book is considered to be unique. As a consequence, publishing has never been a particularly predictable or profitable business. However, genre fiction offers publishers a way of selling similar books to the same audience again and again. It has a unique form of literary production that Robert Escarpit calls "semiprogrammed issue." Programmed issue (publication by subscription) offers a publisher a formal count of buyers to determine the size of the print run. Semiprogrammed issue uses some informal means (usually subscription lists from newsletters or magazines on a similar topic) to get an approximate count of the number of buyers for a particular kind of book. A publisher can estimate how big the audience for a new mystery is from the number of subscribers to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and can advertise the novel to interested parties in that periodical.

In The Political Unconscious Fredric Jameson explains, "Genres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact" (p. 106). That is to say that the genre label is both a promise to readers that it will meet a certain set of conventional expectations and an implicit set of instructions for the ways of reading the book will reward. Each genre meets specific needs for its particular audience.


Mysteries were the first mass-market category of fiction in the United States. Their audience came to book publishers already constituted from detective fiction pulps in the 1920s. Mystery readers make a distinction between "classical" mysteries written by authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and hard-boiled detective stories written by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. A classical mystery, often called a "cozy," frequently involves a closed community—a family, a small town. These books are intellectual puzzles in which a detective uses rational means to explain a crime, identify the single individual responsible for it, and ultimately restore social order by expelling that individual from the larger community. These stories allow readers to engage latent feelings of hostility and violence generated by the repressiveness of families or other institutions at the same time as they offer reassurance that we live in a just, rational society in which evil is the result of single individuals rather than corrupt social institutions (Cawelti, p. 105).

Hard-boiled stories, which originated in Black Mask and other pulps in the 1920s, were initially targeted to white, working-class men in America. These tough-guy detective stories addressed the deskilling of manual work, the rise of consumer culture, the changing role of women, and the links between class, language, and culture. Hardboiled heroes rely as much on brawn and tough talk as on their brains, and the worlds they inhabit are often overrun by systemic crime. Hard-boiled writers saw their fiction as a manly, American, "realistic" reaction against the silly, aristocratic English-country-house fiction written by women that dominated the literary marketplace between the world wars.

Fredric Jameson argues that detective stories are thoroughly commodified, that the ending or solution is what readers care about, so that the rest of the story is degraded to a means to that end (1979, p. 132). Studies of real readers reveal a variety of different ways of reading, many of which have nothing to do with the ending and a great deal to do with characters, language, setting, and other aspects that resonate with readers' everyday lives. Genre reading, then, is a good deal more complex, contradictory, and deeply enmeshed with readers' social and institutional positions than critics' models of reading would predict.


Street & Smith's pulp magazine Love Story, edited during its heyday by New Woman and former dress model Daisy Bacon, achieved the largest circulation of any pulp magazine when it peaked at 600,000 in the 1930s. Mass-market romance novels appeared on the scene in the late 1950s, when sales of mysteries began to decline and publishers—impressed by the sales of a number of gothic romances—began placing romances at grocery stores, drugstores, and (later) chain bookstores in malls. Harlequin Enterprises, a Canadian publisher, conducted unprecedented market research with women readers in the early 1970s in order to tailor their regular, monthly releases exactly to readers' specifications. Their substantial success inspired copycat lines from a number of other publishers.

Janice Radway's study of romance readers concludes that romances are a compensatory literature that makes the exhausting work of loving and nurturing a family bearable by giving a woman time and space for herself (time spent reading) and the fantasy of being loved and cared for by a man (the romance hero) as she loves and cares for her family. At the same time, the best-loved romances were lessons in patriarchy. In them, the distant, angry, or hostile hero is transformed by the heroine's love into a demonstrative, loving husband, suggesting that women should "read" coldness and anger as (misunderstood) signs of the depth of a man's affection.


Writers such as Zane Grey, Owen Wister, Louis L'Amour, and others from the 1890s through the 1950s nostalgically re-created an idealized American frontier for male readers. As the United States became increasingly urban and industrial, the labor process was deskilled, class and ethnic tensions often erupted into violence, and cities became overcrowded. Westerns offered men the fantasy of a class-free world full of open spaces in which a rugged, manly hero could single-handedly enforce justice, changing the world through the force of his individual will. Militarism excited by the war with Spain made the gun-toting cowboy the quintessential American hero.

Jane Tompkins argues that the Western was also an attempt to wrest control of the literary marketplace and the larger culture for men and their embattled concerns from the women who had dominated it since the mid-nineteenth century. The most popular fiction of the nineteenth century was sentimental fiction written by, for, and about women. After the Civil War, women also increasingly overran the (once all-male) public sphere as Progressive reformers, seeking to make the world a safer place through temperance, social settlements, and prison reform; founding kindergartens, playgrounds, libraries, and hospitals for the insane; and agitating for pure food and drugs, better municipal sanitation, and woman suffrage. The Western was a world without such women (and the kitchens, churches, and children associated with them), a world that placed men and manhood at the center of American life (pp. 43–44).

Science Fiction

Although a long tradition of narratives about the supernatural and space travel can be traced from ancient times, science fiction as a self-conscious body of narratives arose from pulp magazines in the 1920s. Hugo Gernsback, a Luxembourg emigrant, inventor, and electronics expert, founded Amazing Stories in 1926 after the success of a number of stories he ran as filler in his technology journal, Modern Electronics. The success of Amazing Stories spawned imitators—most notably Gernsback's own Wonder Stories as well as Astounding Stories, edited in its heyday by Jack Campbell. Until after World War II, science fiction existed almost exclusively in the pulps, introducing audiences to now well-known writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.

From the beginning, there was a close relationship between readers and writers of science fiction. Amazing Stories had always printed the full names and addresses of fans who wrote letters to the editor, facilitating the finding of pen pals and the founding of fan organizations. Often prominent fans in their late teens or early twenties were hired to edit the most important pulp titles. Initially, fans were almost exclusively white, male, and young. Self-professed nerds, many were well educated in science and technology, and the early promoters of the genre prided themselves on the "good science" in the fiction.

Early science fiction was marked by the privileged, masculine bias of its readers and writers. It shared an often-unquestioning faith in technology to solve the problems of modern society. It looked at the earth, undersea, outer space, other planets, nature, and (often) women and people of other races/species as so much territory to be colonized and subdued with the superior technology controlled by (white, male) heroes.

However, science fiction is above all about the encounter with difference, and its readers and writers certainly perceived themselves as alienated. Science fiction presents readers with a world that is profoundly different from the one in which they live, but it brings them into confrontation with the real world by denaturalizing some of its most common assumptions. What does it mean to encounter other worlds? People not like us? Nations or cultures living by different principles? What is the place of gender or race or nation in organizing our world and others? Science fiction is often a thought experiment about alternative ways to organize the world and the place of science and technology in it. After all, alien abduction is not so different from being kidnapped into slavery; interspecies contact is easily read as interracial or intercultural exchange; and conquering space ("the final frontier") can be a figure for colonizing less-developed nations.

The 1960s and 1970s revolutionized science fiction, appropriating it as a space to think about difference and diversity in alternative ways. African American and feminist writers such as Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Joanna Russ transformed the genre by imagining worlds without or beyond gender and race, worlds in which people's relationships to one another, to other living things, and to nature were imagined along different lines. Contemporary cyberpunk narratives such as William Gibson'sNeuromancer (1984) increasingly raised questions about how new computer and communications technology transform people's identities for the postmodern world.

See also: Books and Manuscripts, Comic Book Reading, Comic Magazines, Literary Societies and Middle-Brow Reading


Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America. Revised edition. New York: Verso Publishing Company, 1998. The original edition was published in 1987.

Escarpit, Robert. The Book Revolution. London: George G. Harrap and Company, 1966.

Jameson, Fredric. "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." Social Text 1 (Winter 1979): 130–148.

——. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. The original edition was published in 1984.

Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Smith, Erin A. Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

——. "'Both a Woman and a Complete Professional': Women Readers and Women's Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction." In Reading Sites. Edited by Elizabeth Flynn and Patrocinio Schweickart. New York: Modern Language Association Press, 2004.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Erin A. Smith