If you spend any time around writers at all, you’ve got to know the term “genre fiction.” In the modern parlance it pretty much means science-fiction, fantasy, romance, or any other subgroup that would rather go by “genre” than the more pejorative (and generally accurate) “pop” or “pulp” labels. But the practice, if not the term, goes back as far as the written word. Earlier generations had their own sparkly-vampire-novel phenomena…most of which have since been almost entirely forgotten outside of English lit curricula. Hopeful news for the Twilight-haters, right? Here are a few of yesteryear’s blockbusters:
THE COLONIAL ADVENTURE
The Gist: A man or group of men from England or America, or more rarely non-Anglophone European countries, travel in a colonial territory. Both the native inhabitants and the environment get in their way as they pursue some objective, either for personal profit or, more commonly, for patriotic good and the prevention of disaster.
The Blockbuster Years: The boom in colonial exploration novels peaked some time after the actual colonial exploration had started to go stale, with the 1880s and 1890s really defining the genre. British imperialism didn’t last a whole lot longer itself; the novels were fairly passe by the time Kipling was winning the Nobel Prize in literature, and a new generation of writers got started on post-colonial and even violently anti-colonial novels as early as the end of the First World War.
Why No One Writes Them Anymore: It turns out that Queen Victoria might actually have been worse than Hitler, if a little more hands-off. Even well-meaning authors in the genre wrote really, really horrible things — things you know they went to hell for and they didn’t even know it was coming, the poor bastards. But don’t worry. Stories of crossing dangerous peaks and jungles to bang dark-skinned beauties and massacre villages were too good to give up, so they’ve been cagily shuffled into the realm of fantasy, where the minorities don’t get a lobby group.
THE SCHOOLBOY STORY
The Gist: A young boy comes of age in the company of other young boys and their aging Masters. Pranks are perpetrated, scrubs are hazed, and everyone eventually learns to be a good upstanding chap.
The Blockbuster Years: About the same time America was tearing itself apart in the Civil War, the Brits were devouring stories about rugby scrums like you or I chow down on cold pizza for breakfast. For a popular genre the school-story was remarkably long-lived, enjoying great popularity in serialized and complete publications on up through the turn of the century. The First World War finally did the schoolboy story in, largely by killing off the vast majority of school-age boys in Great Britain.
Why No One Writes Them Anymore: Schools in England integrated genders in the 20th century, which made a lot of the traditional scenarios impossible, inappropriate, or both. Various real-life horror stories about hazings gone out of hand made glorifying the older-boys-abuse-younger-boys relationship dicey, and a slew of mid-20th century literary critics decided that a lot of the classic boy’s school stories were secretly really, really gay. Perhaps the shirtless rugby games tipped them off?
THE SLAVE NARRATIVE
The Gist: A slave is auctioned in a horrible scene, usually with the family being forcibly broken up. He or she experiences all the horrors of plantation life and usually makes several escape attempts, suffering punishments for failed ones. Most narratives include an explanation of where the slave acquired the education to write a first-hand account, usually with lavish credit given to a white, abolitionist editor and friend.
The Blockbuster Years: Antebellum America both generated and consumed the majority of slave narratives, though some of the more successful ones made their way across the Atlantic as well. They went on being published after the Civil War, and were taken and recorded in large numbers as a WPA project during the Great Depression, but their sparkly-vampire heights of popularity came in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.
Why No One Writes Them Anymore: While the subject matter is touchy, there are actually quite a few successful modern novels about antebellum slavery. The reason we don’t see piles and piles of slave narratives, other than that the subject matter isn’t of as immediate interest as it was when we were about to fight a war over it, is that it required less willing suspension of disbelief in 1850 to convince yourself that a real slave wrote these real words, really (as long as a white person helped him/her). These days it’s a stretch for the old imagination, so most authors avoid the “factual” first-person narrative.
THE CAPTIVITY NARRATIVE
The Gist: Decent white folks get captured by indecent, savage, non-whites! Some sort of interaction or cultural exchange takes place — usually the whites get a better sense of how to live in harmony with their strange new land, and the savages get Jesus. Either everyone goes home happy or there’s a massacre. Sometimes there’s a massacre, after which all of the non-massacred people go home happy.
The Blockbuster Years: People in late 18th-century America couldn’t get enough of these. The stories taught such a great moral lesson that even women were allowed to write them, accounting for a massive publishing spree leading up to the turn of the century. The passion then dropped off in favor of very slightly less offensive interpretations of the wise savage and the generous white man, which we’ve already lambasted on this blog.
Why No One Writes Them Anymore: Primarily because they’re painfully offensive, although the genre has shown some staying power in odd ways. Anna and the King of Siam, 1944, was practically a captivity narrative…and arguably, so was Avatar. But like the colonial adventure novels, the genre has mostly yielded its popularity to fantasy, where entire races can be unambiguously savage without ruffling feathers (unless they happen to be avian races, I suppose).
THE GOTHIC OCCULT
The Gist: Supernatural things happen in a remote and foreboding place. This is almost always the result of some kind of pact with the devil, though the main character may be either an innocent victim of the supernatural or its actual agent (and occasionally, Faust-like, both). Transgressions of deep taboos are used to provoke the emotions — blasphemy, rape, incest, and murder tend to occur in various combinations and permutations until the Devil finally claims his due.
The Blockbuster Years: The original gothic occult novels mostly came from the last decade of the 18th century, when they were the titillating must-read for every young lady. They resurged in popularity briefly after the (appropriately posthumous) publication of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, whose heroine reads Gothic novels obsessively, and various authors have co-opted the label since, but the heyday of the classic Gothic occult novel ended around 1800.
Why No One Writes Them Anymore: Most modern readers find Northanger Abbey a bit of a dry read. Given that it’s a light-hearted parody of an older and denser style, it’s no surprise that the true Gothic, in all its moody and florid prose, has been watered down into oblivion. It’s also been a while since young female readers have been thrown into great emotional distress by descriptions of desecrated altars and murderous monks — and if they wanted to shock themselves with sexual deviancy, there’s 4chan.
So readers take heart, next time someone’s going on about “genre fiction” like no one ever thought of themselves as a “genre” writer before. People have been doing this scholck since the printing press was invented — actually, they’ve been doing it since before, if we get into genres like the 3rd and 4th century “calendars” of hagiographies, or the Greek epics. But that’s a post for another, sparkly day…