Genre after mass reading

I confess that this week’s primary reading—Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only—struck me initially, at a kind of intuitive level, as new territory for our course: now we’re really reading mass-market fiction! Of course, it doesn’t get any more mass-market than the magazine stories of Black Mask and its ilk, and writers like Sayers and Conan Doyle were writing for enormous popular audiences in their own time (to say nothing of Nancy Drew!)… but none of that, I have to say, has really altered my unreasoning conviction that Paretsky has somehow a different status. After all, Peter Wimsey and Sherlock Holmes are classics now, comfortably within the province of the English department; and even the Black Mask stories benefit from a historical distance that converts them into literary “artifacts.” Paretsky is too close, too contemporary: a fact brought home most signally by the book’s cover, which conveys nothing of the self-reflexive canonization of the “vintage” imprints that have republished our course versions of Himes or Sayers. It is true that we are reading the “30th Anniversary Edition,” with a new introduction by Paretsky, and that this implies that some kind of canon is being recognized or constituted here: but the stronger signals that the book is giving off make clear that Indemnity Only is being marketed as a contemporary airport novel, and thus a foreign object in the seminar room—the giant, block-letter author name; the soft, compact paperback, made to be mobile; the cheap paper; the large author photo on the back inside cover, redolent of the fan club. At bottom, it is really just the book’s appearance that convinces me of its difference. This, of course, is the experience of genre in the most Frowian sense: the framing features that produce an intuitive conviction of a text’s interpretative status. Regardless of the intellectual knowledge that says that Paretsky is not fundamentally separable from the rest of the syllabus, that bone-deep generic knowledge remains hard to shake.

In this vein, the Griswold, McDonnell, and Wright is particularly interesting for its suggestion that the very label of “mass-market” is increasingly becoming an inoperative distinction. The defining stratification of our era, they argue, is not between mass-market and literary book readers, but rather between book readers and everybody else: the “reading class” and the rest. If we agree to accept this premise, then the decline of “mass reading” puts new pressure on a term like “mass-market” to justify itself: is there even a “mass market” for fiction anymore (138)? Or is all book-reading, whether it be John Grisham or Jorie Graham, an elite, prestige activity now? This wouldn’t necessarily mean a leveling of the literary field—Jorie will always have more cultural capital than John—but it does suggest, at minimum, that the age-old association between literary genre and mass reading will have to be fundamentally rethought. How much of our thinking about genre fiction will survive when it is no longer conceptually linked to the naïveté of a mass audience?

What have we learned?

Even on the basis of our brief acquaintance this semester, it is safe to say that critical work involving quantitative methods often seems, on the whole, to be more about what it hasn’t taught us. Like Moretti—who was forced to problematize and even revoke large swathes of his argument in the final pages of his essay—Underwood is constantly qualifying his findings, which in any case point in no clear direction, having failed to support any of his initial ideas. Indeed, if there is any rhetorical gesture that marks this genre of criticism, one is tempted to say, it is surely the cautious backpedaling of uncertain conclusions.

Of course, that their method may be more productive of ambiguity than certainty, I am sure distant reading’s practitioners would be the first to agree. Not for nothing does Underwood feel compelled to close his essay with a section titled “What have we learned?”—a tacit admission that the answer has heretofore been far from obvious. But the larger question that remains for me, at the close of Underwood’s article, is what kind of knowledge such methods are actually intended to produce. What would learning look like, on a good day? To put it another way: if we are adopting a critical practice that involves, as Underwood puts it, “bracketing the quest to identify underlying factors that really cause and explain the phenomenon being studied” (p. 2 in the downloaded PDF version), then to what degree are we really sacrificing understanding? And what kinds of new understanding are we looking to gain, that could compensate for our inability to explain or account for genre?

In this respect, it is striking how often our received notions of genre find affirmation here (for example, that Poe created the blueprint for all subsequent detective fiction), while our more theoretically sophisticated and nuanced understandings (genres as “fluid and tenuous constructions”) are troubled and unsettled (4, 5). The picture of genre that Underwood’s research paints is mainly new, it seems, insofar as it is so old: its novelty, from our current vantage, is precisely its outdatedness. In these pages, we are returned to a vision of genre as stable, unchanging, and intrinsically identifiable: detective fiction began with Poe, and remained fixed and coherent ever after. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of Underwood’s intention, having set out with a fluid view of genre based in “blurry family resemblances” and “the shifting practices of particular historical actors” (2).

It might behoove us to ask how Underwood’s quantitative methods have produced a result so antithetical to his own theoretical premises. In the meantime, the further irony is that even this state of straightforward coherence remains essentially opaque and inexplicable in his model. This is because, for Underwood, the linguistic consistency that marks the long-term coherence of the detective genre does not define it (“our goal is no longer to define a genre” –2): i.e., the genre’s coherence does not consist in its linguistic consistency (Underwood makes clear that genre is not a linguistic phenomenon), “words just happen to be convenient predictive clues”—predictive of a coherence, in other words, that is comprised of something else (2). What that something else is, the model has no way to tell us.

Underwood concludes his essay by opining “that quantitative methods can give literary scholars descriptive resources” (8); his basic move, throughout, has been to trade definition for description: instead of trying to define genre, we’ll just describe how it behaves. I am happy to meet him on those terms, which seem like a worthwhile trade-off to make: but I remain unsure of what description he has actually provided. All he can do, it seems, is tell us that there is indeed a thing called genre out there (but only sometimes—see the case of the Gothic): its content and features remain, if anything, more mysterious than they were before.

The position of the author

“A device aimed at the ‘eradication … of competitors’,” Moretti writes. “A device designed to colonize a market niche” (208). But designed by whom? Who is doing the aiming?

Not the authors themselves, it would seem: Moretti’s account makes it clear that Conan Doyle, at least, did not really know what he was doing when he began to employ clues that were more visible and necessary to the plot—he was only trying to burnish the heroic “myth” of his central character (215). His intention was decidedly not to craft a device that would (eventually) relegate his fellow writers of detective fiction to the ash heap. In what sense, then, can we say that this is what Holmesian clues are “aimed at,” or “designed to” do?

Moretti is working, it must be remembered, from a fairly odd comment that Benjamin makes of Baudelaire, in which the poet is imputed to possess a peculiar canniness (“his deep experience of the nature of the commodity”) that prompts him to innovate poetic form in certain specific and tactical ways designed to “devalue” the existing schools of romanticism and classicism (211). Moretti’s model, it seems, wants to generalize this rather extreme state of affairs to explain the conduct of all authors operating in a literary marketplace—only without authorial intention. Instead, we get a Darwinian theory of random mutation, in which the devices duke it out in a game of literary survival, but the authors who deploy them are ignorant of the consequences of their formal choices, the relative significance of choosing this or that device. This is perhaps a key difference between Moretti’s evolutionary model and Cohen’s model of “position-taking,” the latter of which feels like a more informed act, taken on the basis of one’s understanding of the literary field and of the “problematic” it poses.

In Moretti, the author sits uneasily: though officially disavowed, authorial intention continues to be invoked rhetorically as an explanatory gesture throughout the essay (e.g., “Conan Doyle’s rivals are still trying to find something better” –222). Even Cohen, however, whose model would seem to demand some kind of stock-taking of what authors themselves believed they were doing, seems to disregard this kind of evidence: she mentions “contemporary aesthetic theory” as “useful for establishing the coherence” of a text’s aesthetic logic, but not an author’s diaries, memoirs, non-fiction writings, or correspondence (23).

To phrase this as a question: what ought to be the status of the author’s own intentions in these kind of models, which are in some sense concerned to plot the ‘moves’ of literary gamesmanship (and to what degree is this ‘game’ a metaphor)? I keep coming back, in this regard, to the intention that Moretti ascribes to Conan Doyle—to choose “the myth of Sherlock Holmes” over the decodable clue—largely because the former (though Moretti treats it as an unfortunate mistake) seems actually to be a far more plausible explanation for the popularity of the Holmes stories, especially when we expand our temporal frame to include the whole of the 20th century, right up to the present. Why has Holmes so drastically outperformed later sleuths like, say, Christie’s Poirot, in terms of film and television adaptations? Does anyone really believe that Holmes has remained dominant because his clues are more decodable? Or is it simply character: the greater investment of audiences in this figure of the moody, imperious addict-genius (Dr. House, etc.), over Christie’s plump, fussy Belgian? Even within the scope of the 1890s, the level of care that Conan Doyle paid to establishing the eccentricities of his character seems to be a distinguishing feature of the stories worth considering. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing.