Genre fiction redux

by Chris Bertram on November 26, 2003

I’ve been following the discussions about genre and literary fiction in the threads started by Henry and Maria with some interest. As I mention in a comment to Henry’s thread, I’ve always rated Ken Worpole’s writing on this topic both in his Dockers and Detectives and in another little book he produced called Reading by Numbers: Contemporary Publishing and Popular Fiction (Comedia, 1984). I picked it up of the shelf this evening to check on a passage I dimly remembered about book design:

Paperback cover design in the 1940s and 1950s was often very strong and innovative, employing traditions borrowed from Expressionist and Surrealist styles of the early part of the century. Typography was often highly innovative too.
Unfortunately, what displaced this bugeoning populist publishing tradition was the introduction of the “trade paperback” in the 1970s, a development of questionable value. The “trade paperback” is a larger format, more expensively produced paperback designed exclusively for bookshop sales, and carries an aura of a higher “seriousness” than the cheap, easy-to-fit-in-your-pocket book. Many publishers moved their more “serious” writers over into their new “trade” paperback lists or re-printed books with new “classical” covers … This not only raised the price of the books but literally took them out of the supermarkets and the chain-stores. The “trade” paperback was designed specifically to be sold by the book trade. Much writing was thus taken out of the arena of popular literature, as can be gauged by thumbing through the paperback sections in second-hand bookshops, where it is not unusual to find Sartre, Trocchi, Lawrence, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Nell Dunn, Mary McCarthy, Cesare Pavese, Ignazio Silone, Norman Mailer and many others being promoted as sensational fiction with garish covers – and being sold in their tens of thousands rather than thousands. It is the development of the trade paperback which further separated out “serious” literature from “popular” literature and created a vacuum in the cheap paperback field which formula writing rushed to fill. (pp. 7—8)

Now I don’t know about the very last bit there, but he’s definitely onto something with his observation that the publishing industry does a great deal via its marketing and packaging of books to categorise some as “popular” or “genre” and others as “serious” and “literary” and that this leads some readers to think of certain books as beyond them and others to think of other books as beneath them (quite independently of the actual content)—and that’s a great pity.

One question to ask is which books could survive—and indeed flourish—when repackaged on the “wrong” side of the divide. Most of the writers Worpole lists clearly can, as can Hemingway, Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte (I’ve a wonderfully garish supermarket Wuthering Heights somewhere). I mentioned Dashiell Hammett in Henry’s thread. Philip Roth could do well in both incarnations but Don DeLillo …. sorry, I fell asleep there for a moment.

I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that it is necessarily a bad thing if a book could not be successful if repackaged in a popular format. Some books both great works and only accessible to a restricted readership. But many other works can, if not presented in an inaccessible not-for-the-likes-of-me form serve as a bridge between popular and literary work.



Henry 11.26.03 at 9:44 pm

Funnily enough, John Holbo “posted”: on this self-same issue yesterday, with a particularly juicy piece of Hemingway cover-tat.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.26.03 at 11:53 pm

Publishers, by and large, would be delighted to keep selling those books in grocery stores and other non-bookstore outlets. It’s been changes in what the mass-market distributors (who are primarily in the periodical business) will take that have driven publishers to repackage those kinds of works into “trade paperback.” (Also encouraged by bookstores, who never liked cheap mass-market books all that much.)


Matt Weiner 11.27.03 at 12:18 am

I’d like to resurrect a comment I made on the other thread–one of the writers who succeeded in the mass market seems to be Ms Shirley Hazzard herself. There’s a Playboy Paperbacks edition of Transit of Venus with a sexy cover (which has nothing to do with the novel–I think they even get the heroine’s hair color wrong). And in fact it had precisely the beneath-me effect you describe–one of my friends was astonished that a book with that cover could also have the jacket quote, “A nearly perfect novel.”


des 11.27.03 at 10:11 am

One of the great joys of French publishing is that the cheap and cheerful “poche” format still accommodates Serious Books, from Descartes through Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss and Barthes.

Plus, they are pocket-sized, cheap and the covers are often suitably tacky. Vive l’amazon-france!


Arthur D. Hlavaty 11.30.03 at 4:17 pm

Worpole is a bit off on his dates. Trade paperbacks started in the late 40s with Anchor and Vintage, then mass-market size but priced a bit higher and with less garish covers (many of Anchor’s were drawn by Edward Gorey). By the early 60s Serious Lit (Hemingway, Faulkner) had moved up to the trade pbs, but almost any new novel would appear in mass-market pb a year after publication. Then the standards for direct-to-trade started getting more inclusive: John Barth, then Philip Roth and Gore Vidal, by now John Gregory Dunne and Andrew Vachss.

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