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?