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Popular Fiction

With a deceptive ease, Gelder breaks new ground in treating popular fiction as a
distinctive cultural field with its own logic. The result is a rare combination of
clarity and accessibility and challenging insight.
Tony Bennett, Open University

Moving from a theoretically sophisticated overview, Gelder engages – closely,

uncondescendingly and entertainingly – with a stimulating range of samples.
This is a book which other explorations into this vast and largely uncharted
territory will build on. Most importantly, it’s enjoyable.
John Sutherland, University College London

In this important book, Ken Gelder offers a lively, progressive and comprehensive
account of popular fiction as a distinctive literary field. Drawing on a wide range
of popular novelists, from Sir Walter Scott and Marie Corelli to Ian Fleming,
J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, the book describes for the first time how this field
works and what its unique features are. In addition, Gelder provides a critical
history of three primary genres – romance, crime fiction and science fiction – and
looks at the role of bookshops, fanzines and prozines in the distribution and
evaluation of popular fiction. Finally, he examines five bestselling popular
novelists in detail – John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, Jackie Collins
and J.R.R. Tolkien – to see how popular fiction is used, discussed and identified
in contemporary culture.
This book is a groundbreaking study of a dynamic and prolific literary field,
essential reading for those interested in the way popular fiction works as a literary,
cultural and industrial practice.

Ken Gelder is a Reader in English at the University of Melbourne, Australia. His

books include Reading the Vampire (Routledge 1994) and, with Jane M. Jacobs, Uncanny
Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation (Melbourne University Press,
1998). He is co-editor of The Subcultures Reader (1997) and editor of The Horror Reader
(2000), both published by Routledge.
Popular Fiction
The logics and practices of
a literary field

Ken Gelder
First published 2004
by Routledge
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© 2004 Ken Gelder
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Acknowledgements vi

Introduction 1

Defining the field 9

1 Popular fiction: the opposite of Literature? 11

2 Genre: history, attitudes, practice 40
3 Processing popular fiction: bookshops, fans, fanzines
and prozines, organizations 75

Five popular novelists 101

4 (Lo-tech) John Grisham and (hi-tech) Michael Crichton:

putting the thriller to work 103
5 The Vampire Writes Back: Anne Rice and the (re)turn
of the author 118
6 Jackie Collins, anti-romance and the celebrity novel 129
7 J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 142

Conclusion 158

Bibliography 163
Index 173

This book was produced with the help of an Australian Research Council
grant, and I remain grateful to the ARC for their generous support. I must
also thank my research assistant, Rob Crompton, for his fine work and input
on various popular fictional matters. Many thanks, too, go to John
Sutherland and Lucy Sussex for their helpful comments on some early
drafts; and to Stephen Knight whose work on crime fiction has been forma-
tive and influential. I am also grateful to Liz Thompson of Routledge for her
encouragement, her professionalism and her patience, and to Kate Parker,
Emma Hunt and Antony Vincent for their careful work on this book.
Special thanks go to Hannah, Christian and Julian, to whom this book is
A version of part of Chapter 5 was initially published as ‘The Vampire
Writes Back: Anne Rice and the (Re)Turn of the Author in the Field
of Cultural Production’, Pulping Fictions: Consuming Culture Across the
Literature/Media Divide (eds). Deborah Cartmell et al. (London and Chicago:
Pluto Press, 1996), 29–42.
A shorter version of Chapter 7 was initially published as ‘Epic Fantasy
and Global Terrorism’, Overland, 173 (Summer 2003), 21–7.

This book provides a comprehensive introduction to what I call ‘the field of

popular fiction’, a phrase I shall account for in Chapter 1, although its
meaning is fairly self-evident. The following chapters describe how that
field works and how we can make sense of it, attending to its various logics
and practices and detailing aspects of the way in which it behaves as a dis-
tinctive but heterogeneous body of writing. Two key words for understand-
ing popular fiction are industry and entertainment, and they work firmly to
distinguish popular fiction from the logics and practices of what I regard
as its ‘opposite’, namely, literary fiction or Literature. Literary fiction is
ambivalent at best about its industrial connections and likes to see itself as
something more than ‘just entertainment’, but popular fiction generally
speaking has no such reservations, as Chapter 1 will demonstrate. It draws
together the industrial and entertainment – the latter being a particular
form of culture, of cultural production – so much so that they can often
be indistinguishable. The field of popular fiction is therefore quite literally
a ‘culture industry’. This term was invested with negative connotations back
in the 1940s by two influential, highbrow cultural critics, Theodor W. Adorno
and Max Horkheimer. For them, the term gave expression to the ‘manu-
factured’ and commodified nature of mass cultural forms in modern
capitalism which, as they saw it, deceived consumers and standardized or
rationalized production (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979; Adorno 1991). It
may be difficult even now to give the term ‘culture industry’ a positive spin.
But we can at least try to begin to use it here – in relation to popular fiction –
a little more sympathetically. It will mean amongst other things turning an
eye to the actual diversity of the field (formulaic as some aspects of it may
be), as well as its cheerful affirmation of features that certain other forms of
cultural production (like Literature) might either repress or envy, or both.
Another key word that is crucial to the field of popular fiction is genre.
Popular fiction is, essentially, genre fiction. Whereas genre is less overtly
important to literary fiction, the field of popular fiction simply cannot live
2 Introduction
without it, both culturally and industrially, as I shall show in Chapter 2. After
all, popular fiction is not just a matter of texts-in-themselves, but of an entire
apparatus of production, distribution (including promotion and advertising)
and consumption – or what I call, more broadly, processing. Generic iden-
tities flow through these realms in all kinds of ways: determining not just
what is inside the actual novel, but who publishes it, how and through what
venues it is marketed, who consumes and evaluates it, and how this is done.
Chapter 3 looks closely at this latter aspect of popular fiction, turning to
genre bookshops and fanzines and prozines (professional or industry
fanzines) and various genre-based organizations to see how aspects of this
field of writing are ‘fashioned’ and arranged. These various ‘processing
venues’ are indispensable to popular fiction, producing archives, organizing
genres and a mass of writers in some sort of comprehensible way, provid-
ing information, and evaluating a field that, in terms of sheer numbers of
books, can seem overwhelming to an outside observer – or even an inside
aficionado. Genre is a matter of knowledge, which some people have
(e.g. those writers who produce genre fiction and those readers who make
their way through it) and other people don’t. It is impossible not just to
write, but to market and sell and to review or read, a crime novel (for example)
without a good understanding of the history of the genre and the various
ways in which it has worked. Genre, in other words, has no time for naivety
or ignorance.
The size of the entire field of popular fiction is something close to
sublime – a single writer might produce well over 100 novels during his or
her lifetime – and no commentator can ever hope to capture the whole of
it. Those avid and dedicated readers who contribute to genre fanzines and
e-zines, like The Romantic Times or the science fiction and fantasy prozine
Locus, know this perfectly well: their expertise is usually genre-based, or even
subgeneric (providing specialized information on the historical romance,
for example, or on sword and sorcery fantasy). This generally means that,
at the very least, they know what they’re talking about: genre, as I’ve already
suggested, is all about knowledge and competence. Academics attempting
to account for the entire field, however, may be more precariously positioned.
Over recent years, the two best academic commentators on popular fiction
have been John Sutherland, who also writes expertly on popular fiction for
the UK newspaper, the Guardian, and Clive Bloom. My own book is
indebted to their pioneering work, which has also tried to move outside of
the novels themselves to look at the wider apparatus of publishing and sales:
to look at the field itself. Clive Bloom’s Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900
(2002) and John Sutherland’s Reading the Decades: Fifty Years of the Nation’s
Bestselling Books (2002) provide a wealth of information about the field at
large, recovering many now-forgotten writers as they register the historical
Introduction 3
range and variety of popular fiction. These books work primarily by listing
a large number of writers of popular fiction one after the other, and in each
case saying a few things about their work and the kinds of sales they’ve
enjoyed. Perhaps a broad-based academic book on popular fiction can do
little more than this. In my own book, however, I have tried to give the field
itself a much clearer definition. I prefer the term ‘popular fiction’ to ‘best-
seller’ precisely for this reason, because it lends the field its distinction.
Authors of literary fiction can have bestsellers, too, and conversely, not
every work of popular fiction sells successfully. Some popular novels
(e.g. some science fiction or horror) actually have quite small readerships.
Bloom’s book lists Salman Rushdie and Joseph Heller amongst his many
examples of popular novelists, but this seems to me simply to confuse the
nature of the field by putting authors of literary fiction (popular as they
may be) amongst bona fide writers of popular fiction. John Sutherland’s book
also notes a number of literary novels that have sold in high numbers, and
features on its cover a picture of a man surreptitiously reading a copy of
D.H. Lawrence’s erotic classic, Lady Chatterley’s Lover – a work of Literature,
not popular fiction, even though it became a bestseller after its unexpur-
gated publication in 1959 primarily because of publicity over its language
and subject matter. My own book, however, is about popular fiction as a
singular and definitive category, preferring this term to the more porous and
generally open-to-definition notion of a bestseller.
The field of popular fiction is so immense that even those commentators
who try to account for the whole of it inevitably reveal only the tip of the
iceberg. About half of Clive Bloom’s book provides a list of writers of
bestsellers arranged chronologically from 1900 to the present day. But even
though he draws attention to a number of now-forgotten popular novelists,
the 156 writers he accounts for over this period of time really amount to little
more than a drop in the ocean (if I can partially mix my metaphors) – an
average excavation of about one and a half novelists per year. He omits
Kathleen Winsor, for example, who wrote the bestselling historical ‘bodice-
ripper’ romance, Forever Amber (1944), as well as contemporary romance nov-
elists such as Nora Roberts and Johanna Lindsey, two of the biggest sellers
in the world (Roberts has mass market paperback first print runs of over two
million). The prolific US horror and science fiction writer Dan Simmons
isn’t there, nor is the SF novelist-turned-fantasy writer Orson Scott Card,
or Frank Herbert, who wrote the original Dune novels, or the bestselling
fantasy novelists Tad Williams and Stephen R. Donaldson. Fantasy and
science fiction writers are especially under-represented in Bloom’s list, but
arguably so is every other genre. He omits famous crime fiction writers such
as ‘Ellery Queen’, certainly a bestseller, as well as – to name just six out of
many contemporary crime novelists not in his book – Elizabeth George,
4 Introduction
Robert Crais, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and
Jonathan Kellerman. The enormously popular Dorothy Dunnett, who
wrote historical popular novels as well as modern mysteries about an
American secret agent (and who died in 2001), also isn’t there. All of these,
except for Winsor, Herbert and Kellerman, are also missing from John
Sutherland’s book. On the other hand, Bloom does mention James
Michener, whose bestsellers spanned four decades (until the 1980s), and
Jean Auel, whose ‘prehistoric romances’ have sold over 35 million copies
worldwide and go straight to the top of the bestseller lists upon release –
while Sutherland leaves these two out. I say all this not to criticize these two
important commentators, not least because their keyword ‘best-seller’ may
rule out some of the writers I have just listed anyway (depending on how it
is defined).1 Rather, I simply want to show the sheer impossibility of
accounting for everything produced under the heading of ‘popular fiction’.
No academic, nor anyone else for that matter, can hope to do it. To give an
idea of the scale of popular fictional production, there are probably well
over 100 writers currently producing Regency Romance alone, just one
subgenre amongst many others of romance fiction. Between about 6 and
12 Regency Romance novels are now published every month. Around 50
writers have written, or are still writing, detective fiction set in the Middle
Ages: again, just one small and highly specialized subgenre of crime fiction
amongst many others (Amos 2001: 3). Over 2000 romance novels and
between around 600 and 800 original fantasy, science fiction and horror
novels are now published each year. Somewhere between around 70 and
120 new crime novels are published every month. To try to account for
every writer across all the popular genres from over the last 100 years would
be enough to daunt even the most intrepid chronicler and would probably
clear several forests in the process.
My book will mention its fair share of popular novelists, but always in the
context of particular kinds of discussion: about genre, for instance.
Although I can certainly see the point of listing writers one by one and pro-
viding – as Bloom does – some brief comments about them as well as citing
a few better-known examples from their complete works, this way of pre-
senting the field can frustrate as much as it can illuminate. Both Bloom and
John Sutherland arrange their studies chronologically, and this can give
popular fiction some much-needed historical depth as well as provide
a sense of some changing trends. But it also means that listing – one writer
after another – is about the only way such a book can unfold. One conse-
quence of this is that the field of popular fiction itself isn’t given any clear
sort of definition. Another is that discussions of genres are dispersed and
even subsumed under the identities of particular writers, something which
then heavily dilutes the major defining feature of this field. There is no
Introduction 5
sustained discussion of romance in either Bloom or Sutherland’s books, for
example, the most prolific and bestselling popular genre of all. Just as
importantly, neither commentator says very much about the ways in which
popular fiction is marketed and processed or consumed. Both Bloom and
Sutherland have a lot to say about the relations between popular fiction
writers and publishers, although even here some key publishing imprints of
genre fiction are simply not mentioned (Avon, Bantam, Arrow, Tor,
Voyager, Pocket, etc.). They cover changes in publishing formats, the rise of
the paperback, and so on: all of this is wonderfully useful. But other aspects
of the industrial apparatus of popular fiction remain in the background.
My book wants to suggest that an understanding of the ways in which pop-
ular fiction is advertised and distributed, reviewed and evaluated, and read
is crucial to an overall understanding of the logics and practices of the field.
In fact, everything in the field of popular fiction is evaluated one way or
another – sometimes defensively, sometimes derisively, sometimes intelli-
gently, sometimes by way of unadulterated celebration. The very act of
reading popular fiction involves and provokes evaluation, as those of us who
have sat on a train or in an airport with a fantasy novel or a romance novel
in our hands – conscious, perhaps, of being assessed and judged by other
commuters as they move around us – will know only too well. Students of
literary fiction at schools, colleges and universities will have been taught to
read slowly and carefully, ‘seriously’ and ‘deeply’. But readers of popular
fiction may find themselves doing quite the opposite: reading fast, reading
at leisure, reading to ‘escape’, as one might do with one of Ian Fleming’s
James Bond novels or an historical romance. As we shall see with the Harry
Potter novels in Chapter 1, questions of reader literacy are sometimes at
stake here and all sorts of evaluations consequently come into play, includ-
ing in this case educational ones. Some are worth attending to and others
will merely reflect the prejudices of the people who utter them. But evalu-
ation happens nonetheless as a matter of course, by outsiders who know
very little about popular fiction (which, it must be said, includes a great
many literary academics) and by insiders who may seem, from an outsider’s
point of view, to know far too much to be good for them. This latter group,
who read popular fiction avidly – and seriously enough, under their own
terms – will have their own views about all this. As the one of the compil-
ers of the important US library resource, Genreflecting: A Guide to Reading
Interests in Genre Fiction (first published in 1982), Betty Rosenberg, defiantly
proclaims on her website to those who already know about popular genres:
‘Never apologize for your reading taste’ (Genreflecting homepage: http://
Much like Sutherland’s and Bloom’s, this book will omit a vast amount of
popular novelists even as it accounts for the field of writing in which they
6 Introduction
operate: this is a feature I probably should apologize for right at the beginning.
Even so, this book will range widely across the field, and may from time to
time mention novelists that very few readers will have heard of. The
resources for the excavation of popular writers, of course, are better than
ever: for researchers in the field, there is no longer an excuse to forget any
popular novelist, no matter how long dead and obscure. Some of these
resources will be noted through the course of this book, but let me make
special mention here of the often-derided value of the internet for popular
fictional research. Mega-bookselling online sites such as provide
a wealth of information about popular fiction, and most publishers as well
as bookshops now have their own homepages. Bestseller lists are available
from New York Times online (
bestseller/) as well as the indispensable internet site,,
which is full of industry information and news about popular fiction. There
are now websites that promote and organize genres and detail relevant
authors and their publications. For example, the Romance Writers of America
(, which claims 8,400 ‘aspiring and published
romance-writer members’, provides online information about the genre,
lists of monthly releases, links to a huge range of writers and their publish-
ers, and news about relevant forthcoming events amongst many other
things for genre enthusiasts, librarians and any other interested passers-by.
The Crime Writers Association of Great Britain (,
founded in 1953 and now online with 400 members, offers equally useful
genre and writer information. It would be difficult to research science
fiction without visiting the impressive Ottawa-based SF Site: the homepage for
science fiction and fantasy ( which processes a
huge amount of new writing and provides links to almost everything online
in the genre. There are also archival websites which recover long-forgotten
popular novelists, and collectors’ sites which chart – for example – the
fascinating histories of cover designs of popular novels, such as Bryan
Krofchok’s remarkable, which also has an excellent archival
database of articles on Bond and Ian Fleming. Many fanzines and prozines,
such as Locus, are now fully or in part online and anyone who wishes to keep
in touch with all the events (conferences, publications, interviews, reviews,
industry news and so on) connected to a genre of popular fiction needs to
be aware of these. Writers also usually have their own websites, some of
which can be quite spectacular. Some are self-managed, some are overseen
by their publishers, and some are put together unofficially; but most of
them are informative, usually comprehensively so. There is also a huge
number of fan sites online which pay tribute to writers of popular fiction and
process their genres, sometimes amateuristically but usually with a surprising
amount of knowledge and critical skill.
Introduction 7
The internet only underscores the sense that popular fiction is an
immense field of activity, potentially overwhelming in its scale. Perhaps as a
reaction against this sobering fact, I have also decided in this book to devote
sustained attention to a small number of modern and contemporary popu-
lar novelists, just five of them. J.R.R. Tolkien, Jackie Collins, Michael
Crichton, John Grisham and Anne Rice: these are all novelists whose
careers and output can be examined closely in order to make more sense of
the ‘culture industry’ that is popular fiction, as well as the kinds of evalua-
tions that are routinely applied to the field. It seems to me just as important
to look at case studies of popular fiction writers – to compile and evaluate
‘profiles’ of the writers or to look at the way a writer’s work has itself been
evaluated – as it is to move broadly through the field of popular fiction
itself. The last chapter of this book (Chapter 7) is an account of the ways in
which J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, first published during the
1950s, is put to use in contemporary political culture, in particular, in
relation to anxieties about global terrorism. One might imagine that
‘escapist’ epic fantasies about Middle Earth couldn’t be any more remote
from reality. Yet New Zealand, where Tolkien’s trilogy was filmed at the
beginning of a new millennium under the direction of Peter Jackson, has
been promoting itself globally as Middle Earth to tourists as part of its care-
fully developed reputation as a ‘safe destination’ in these terrorist-conscious
times. As the world is taken up with discussions of who is ‘evil’ and who
isn’t, epic fantasy can come to seem more real and perhaps more relevant
than ever before. Popular fiction is so often cast not just as escapist, but as
ephemeral, transient, destined for almost immediate obscurity – which in
many cases is true. But sometimes this field of writing can find itself, unex-
pectedly, hooked into culture more broadly speaking, and hung on to: made
to speak, in this case, for urgent global realities some 50 years after publica-
tion. The second part of this book, then, gives me a chance to look more
closely at what we might call the predicaments of popular fiction: some of which
are predictable enough, and others of which may cause a little surprise.

1 The amount of novels sold to produce a top-seller – that is, the bestselling
bestsellers – has increased substantially over the years. In the early 1800s – during
Sir Walter Scott’s time – sales of over 10,000 copies would have suggested real
popularity (Terry 1983: 28). By the 1970s, records were broken with sales of
around 300,000. By the 1990s, a top-selling novel meant sales of over one million.
Indeed, first print runs for top-sellers can now be one million, or more: sometimes
a lot more. Records are continually broken by top-selling fiction – as well as non-
fiction. See Daisy Maryles, ‘The Stakes Rise for Chart Toppers’ (Maryles 2004:
Part I
Defining the field
1 Popular fiction
The opposite of Literature?

This chapter argues that popular fiction is best conceived as the opposite of
Literature (to which I shall ascribe a capital L, distinguishing it from litera-
ture as a general field of writing). The reverse is also true and, in fact, it can
often seem as if Literature and popular fiction exist in a constant state of
mutual repulsion or repudiation. By Literature, I mean the kind of writing
(and let us stay with prose fiction broadly speaking) produced by, for example,
Jane Austen, George Elliot, Henry James, James Joyce, William Faulkner –
although his novel Sanctuary (1931) has ‘many of the ingredients that belong
in a thriller’ (Glover 2003: 143) – Saul Bellow, D.H. Lawrence, Flannery
O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis – although he has tried his
hand at genre fiction with the police procedural novel, Night Train (1998) –
Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen,
Arundhati Roy, Don DeLillo, Tobias Wolff and so on. The work of some of
these writers (e.g. Austen) has certainly been popular, in which case it could
reasonably be identified as Popular Literature. Some of these writers may
even have written what could be termed ‘best-sellers’, although this term is
quantitatively open: a bestseller can mean sales of anything from around
20,000 copies to several million (after which, we might use the terms ‘super-
seller’ or topseller), and some works of Literature, whether it happens over
an extended period of time or immediately after publication, can indeed do
well in the marketplace. Nevertheless, aside from one or two exceptions to
the rule noted above (and there are others), none of these writers has actu-
ally produced popular fiction and nor would they wish anyone to imagine
that they had. They identify, and are rightly identified in turn, as authors of
Literature. Indeed, as we shall see, many of them spend a great deal of time
and effort distinguishing themselves from popular fiction and everything it
seems to stand for. This is not a criticism of Literature, of course, and it
would be a blinkered reader who assumes that this book – even as it speaks
up for the reputation of popular fiction – is somehow therefore taking a
kind of ‘anti-Literature’ position. It is simply one way of noting that
12 Defining the field
Literature deploys a set of logics and practices that are different in kind to
those deployed in the field of popular fiction. Readers, of course, may very
well move from the one to the other, since reading interests can at times be
flexible and adaptable. But in doing so, these different logics and practices
are surely registered, which means that Literature and popular fiction will
necessarily not be read or ‘processed’ in the same way.
The radical differences between popular fiction and Literature – for that
is really what they are – were beautifully represented not long ago in the
Spike Jonze film, Adaptation (2002). Here, the actor Nicholas Cage plays the
parts of both the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his (fictional)
twin brother Donald. Charlie has been commissioned to adapt the urbane
New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, an
account of a particularly obsessive orchid dealer and a meditation on the
flowers themselves. Like a stereotypical writer of Literature, Charlie relishes
the non-generic aspect of his work, imagining that he can do without dra-
matic conflict as he writes about ‘ordinary life’, believing that to meander
aimlessly is perfectly appropriate to the task, making everything he writes
intensely personal, untroubled by the question of what his audience might
want, and then suffering his inevitable bouts of writer’s block with an
almost masochistic intensity. Donald, on the other hand, attends the seminars
of Robert McKee, guru-author of a bestselling book on scriptwriting called
Story (‘thou shalt respect thine audience’: see McKee 1999). He finishes his own
script in record time – while Charlie continues to flounder – producing a
blatantly commercial piece of genre writing about a cop-turned-serial killer
which he promptly sells to Charlie’s agent for a small fortune. The film has
some admiration for Donald, since it also knows it has to commercialize
(adding dramatic conflict, etc.) in order to succeed. But its sympathies are with
Charlie and the imperatives of Literature: it remains, more or less, an art
house film, rather brutally underwriting its position in the cultural field by killing
Donald off at the end.
The Kaufman twins embody some of the key features of the polar oppo-
sites that are Literature and popular fiction. We can shortly begin to list these,
and many others, in order to define both of these literary fields (since it is
impossible to characterize one without characterizing the other). But first, it
is necessary to give the term ‘field’ some accountability. I take it rather loosely
from the influential work of the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu –
who speaks broadly of the ‘field of cultural production’ (Bourdieu 1993).
Bourdieu had seen that cultural production (e.g. cinema, television, any kind
of literary activity and so on) was the result of a range of different cultural-
social positions, each of which is related (conflictually or otherwise) to one
another. An obvious example is the distinction between high and low cultural
production: for example, opera on the one hand, and soap opera on the other.
Popular fiction 13
Obviously, opera is a form of high cultural production, usually expensive to
see and requiring a significant amount of cultural-social education from its
audience, which remains small and dedicated. Opera audiences are likely to
be reasonably well heeled, probably well educated and (at the very least)
middle class; opera itself, so cost-intensive that it usually needs financial
support from the state in order to get off the ground, thus stages itself as an
‘event’. It may very well have popular or recognizable features (think of the
aria of Madame Butterfly, for example), but on the whole it occupies a high
cultural/restricted position in the cultural field. Soap opera, on the other
hand, is a routine feature of television, cheap to produce and cheap to watch,
and therefore able to attract the widest possible audiences. It doesn’t require
a culturally educated viewer: even though each soap opera elicits particular
tastes and sympathies, pretty much anybody can watch them and understand
what is going on.
Bourdieu characterizes high or highbrow cultural production (works of
visual art, opera, experimental media, art house cinema, all kinds of avant
garde cultural production, etc.) as ‘autonomous’: indifferent to the buying
and reading/viewing public, often openly contemptuous of the market-
place and the demand for profit, underwritten by a sense of ‘creativity’ and
‘originality’, and using the language or discourse of ‘art’. High cultural
producers are self-identified as ‘creative artists’; by doing so, however, they
position themselves in what Bourdieu calls ‘the field of restricted produc-
tion’, necessarily directing their work at small audiences, fellow-artists and
like-minded or similarly trained social-cultural groups. By contrast, a form
of low cultural production such as soap opera is described by Bourdieu as
‘heteronomous’: open to mass audiences and necessarily caught up in
the logic of the marketplace, which means it remains conscious of its
viewers/readers, and is determined to please them. It usually doesn’t draw
on the language of art to define itself; more commonly, it uses the language
of industry and production instead, engaging positively and enthusiastically
with ‘worldly or commercial success’ (Bourdieu 1996: 218). It values
conventions over originality. And of course, usually (but not always) it is
positioned in what Bourdieu calls ‘the field of large-scale production’ – with
a potentially immediate, broad-based distribution (see Bourdieu 1993:

Industry, work, output

The term ‘field’ expresses the sense that these quite different cultural-social
positions are nevertheless always in relation to each other. They may be mutu-
ally antagonistic, but they need each other for their self-definition. Any form
of cultural production, in other words, is dependant upon those features
14 Defining the field
attributed (rightly or wrongly) to the forms from which it distinguishes itself.
Now, all of this makes good sense when we look at the characteristics of
Literature and popular fiction – the way they self-define, and the ways in
which the one works to define the other. In the literary field, Literature
shares many of Bourdieu’s ‘autonomous’ characteristics, while generally
speaking popular fiction rests fairly comfortably at the ‘heteronomous’ end
of things. For example, Literature draws on the language of the art world
when it ties its authors innately to notions of creativity. An identifiable
concept of the ‘author’ is important here since – the various assaults on this
concept from structuralist and post-structuralist literary critics notwith-
standing (e.g. Barthes 1986: 49–55) – creativity (one of the legacies of
Romanticism) remains routinely linked to individuality, origin and essence.
The following remarks from British novelist Martin Amis in 1997 about a
collection of stories by the great American literary author, Saul Bellow,
perfectly capture these aspects of Literature:

There is a great deal going on in these short fictions, tangled plots (for
tangled lives) and intense formal artistry. But what accounts for their
extraordinary affective power? When we read, we are doing more than
delectating words on a page – stories, characters, images, notions. We
are communing with the mind of the author. Or, in this case, with
something even more fundamentally his. Bellow’s first name is a typo:
that ‘a’ should be an ‘o’.
(Amis 2001: 327)

An author of Literature couldn’t be more originating than this: ‘Soul’

Bellow. Readers communicate directly with his essence in Amis’s tribute, as
if the author, as some thing-in-himself, subsumes and transcends the very
thing he creates (much as God is supposed to do, with us). The language of
the art world helps to direct this Literary sentiment in formal terms:
Bellow’s stories have ‘intense formal artistry’ and ‘tangled plots’ which
perfectly capture the ‘tangled lives’ found in the ordinary outside world.
For popular fiction, however, ‘tangled plots’ would be a damming criticism,
rather than something to be proud of – and as for ‘intense formal artistry’,
perhaps the less said the better. Popular fiction doesn’t tend to use the
‘autonomous’ language of the art world, although this is not to say that it is
without any artistic merit. It simply means that popular fiction, as a form of
literary production, occupies a different position altogether in the literary
field, one that is not so dependant upon, or engaged with, art world dis-
course. Writers of popular fiction are also differently conceived to authors
of Literature: as we shall see, they are rarely considered to be the originat-
ing ‘souls’ of tangled masterpieces. For popular fiction, the term ‘writer’ is
Popular fiction 15
preferred to ‘author’ (although, as we shall also see with Anne Rice, the
‘author’ can return to the realm of popular fiction under certain, pressing
circumstances). This is because popular fiction has less to do with discourses
of creativity and originality, and more to do with production and sheer hard
work. The key paradigm for identifying popular fiction is not creativity, but
industry. This point was not lost on one of popular fiction’s greatest early
practitioners, Sir Walter Scott, who often reflected on his own literary
reputation – as someone who earned considerable sums of money from his
fiction (usually, historical adventure-romances). This is what Sir Walter
Scott wrote in the introduction to his adventure novel, The Fortunes of Nigel
(1822), which incidentally sold 7,000 copies the first morning of its publi-
cation: ‘I do say it, in spite of Adam Smith and his followers, that a
successful author is a productive labourer, and that his works constitute as
effectual a part of the public wealth as that which is created by any other
manufacture’ (Scott 1886b: 14). For popular fiction, then, the language of
the art world is subordinated to the language of industry. Popular fiction is
a kind of industrial practice. It is worth noting, in passing, that all this is
established well over a century before Adorno and Horkheimer began to
speak of a ‘culture industry’. A writer’s output – how productive he or she
is, how much ‘labour’ he or she undertakes – is thus of prime importance,
as Scott also knew only too well: ‘I have looked round my library and could
not but observe’, he wrote at the beginning of The Abbot (1820), ‘that, from
the time of Chaucer to that of Byron, the most popular authors had been
the most prolific’ (Scott 1886a: 2).
Popular fiction writers can indeed be incredibly prolific, churning out
one, two, three or more novels a year and maintaining their output over
long periods of time (see, e.g. Worpole 1984: 18–20). Stephen King has
published around 60 books to date (and occasionally threatens to publish no
more); the crime novelist Ruth Rendell has published around 45 so far, with
another 11 novels under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. Agatha Christie
(1890–1976) published close to 90 novels and story collections over
about 60 years. The now-forgotten fantasy and Gothic writer Marie Corelli
(1855–1924), the most popular novelist of her time, wrote around 40 novels
and collections of stories, as well as volumes of poetry and non-fiction. One
of her novels, The Sorrows of Satan (1895) – about a failed literary novelist
who, even with the Devil as his literary agent, is still unable (rather like an
early version of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation) to compete with a naturally
gifted bestselling woman writer – broke all previous publishing records.
Her contemporary H.G. Wells (1866–1946), who she outsold during her
peak, published 57 novels and a large number of story collections. Nat
Gould (1857–1919), the famous sports writer, published 115 novels about
horse racing and was declared by one newspaper in 1913 to be ‘the most
16 Defining the field
popular of living novelists’ (Bloom 2002: 122). Catherine Cookson
(1906–1998), the romance and family saga novelist, published well over 100
novels during her lifetime and her phenomenal sales helped to challenge the
pre-eminence of the primary mass-publisher of romance fiction, Harlequin
Mills and Boon. Many romance writers have outputs in the three or four or
five hundreds. The western novelist Louis L’Amour has now published over
120 novels, perhaps most famously, The Quick and the Dead and Shalako. His
best-known predecessor in the still-popular genre, Zane Grey (1872–1939),
published around 60 westerns amongst many other things, including
comic books and baseball stories – and, incidentally, sold something like
250 million copies of his books during and after his lifetime which, as John
Sutherland notes, ‘puts him in the stratosphere with Agatha Christie and
Erle Stanley Gardner’ (Sutherland 1997: 26), as well as many others nowa-
days. The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon (1903–1989), famous for his
intuitive detective character Maigret, had written more than 200 novels by
the time he was thirty, using some two dozen different pen names. Of his
final output of around 400 novels, 75 were about Maigret himself. Sir
Walter Scott himself wrote a relatively modest 27 novels, beginning with
Waverley in 1816 and ending with Castle Dangerous in 1831 – but it still meant
that he often published two or three novels in a single year. His fellow-
Scotsman R.L. Stevenson (1850–1994) was another modestly prolific
producer of popular fiction, including the adventure stories Treasure Island
(1883) and Kidnapped (1886): 16 novels and story collections in total during
a short lifespan, as well as collections of essays and travelogues and poetry.
More recently, one of the bestselling novelists in the world, the comic
fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, has so far published around 30 Discworld
novels and a variety of other things, including graphic novels and explana-
tory guides to Discworld science, its characters and its landscapes. The
Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin, whose novels are reported to account
for 10 per cent of fiction sales in Britain, has published 22 novels to date
since 1987 (Daley 2003: 3). John Grisham, the legal thriller writer, famously
worked to an annual publication deadline (‘John Grisham Day’), releasing
a novel on the 4 February of each year: so far, he has published 17 novels,
recently increasing his rate of production.
Not every writer of popular fiction is prolific, but most are and realize
that they have to be (they may also want to be). A crime novelist (e.g.
Reginald Hill or Patricia Cornwell) will continue to write about his or her
investigator over and over again, producing sequels that readers can follow
as they progress from the beginning. Indeed, serialization secures a loyal
readership and consolidates a novelist’s reputation. Fantasy is another
genre that is routinely serialized: Robert Jordan’s contemporary The Wheel
of Time fantasy saga is (as I write) into its eleventh volume, each one around
Popular fiction 17
600 pages in length, and it shows no sign of coming to an end. To serialize
is to commit oneself to regular deadlines and long-term publication sche-
dules, one novel after another in an ongoing process of demand and supply
that even a writer’s death may not be sufficient enough to bring to an end.
Production, output, deadlines, sequels, work: these are some of the fore-
grounded logics and practices, then, that help to distinguish popular fiction
from Literature. A version of this distinction is crisply expressed by crime
novelist Elizabeth George in her introduction to the fantasy writer Terry
Brooks’ autobiographical book, Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a
Writing Life (2003). Here, she talks about the need for popular novelists to
prepare to work both hard and systematically:

The difference...between a one-off novelist and a long-term successful

writer is that the long-term writer can do it again. And again. And again.
The reason for this is not a more active imagination, greater creative
drive, or better luck. It is simply that the long-term successful writer has
a game plan called craft.
Terry Brooks is just that sort of writer. With more than two decades
of acclaimed commercial fiction to his credit, he does not sit down at
the word processor, the typewriters, the legal pad, or the index card
and hope to get in touch with the cosmos. He goes into the creative act
knowing that there will be work involved – work that he is willing to do
because he knows it’s essential to the outcome he seeks.
(George 2003: viii)

Literature is enmeshed with the art world; by contrast, popular fiction here is
a ‘craft’. George’s complaint is two-fold: against writers who get lucky just once
without a long-term ‘game plan’, and against writers who might nurture the
kind of sensibility commonly attributed to Literature (i.e. inspirational, hoping
‘to get in touch with the cosmos’). These approaches are quite unsuited to the
career of the popular novelist, which is neither cosmic nor accidental.

Henry James and R.L. Stevenson: Literature

and romance
John Sutherland’s pioneering book on popular fiction, Bestsellers: Popular
Fiction of the 1970s (1981), begins perhaps unexpectedly with some remarks
from an 1899 essay on ‘The Future of the Novel’ by Henry James
(1843–1916): one of the greatest, but least popular, exponents of literary fic-
tion or Literature as an art form. For James, the biggest threat to Literature’s
future was in fact popular fiction itself, the kind of fiction sold at the time at
railway bookstalls, circulated through the commercial lending libraries,
18 Defining the field
advertised in the newspapers and read or ‘absorbed’, as he puts it, by those
‘millions for whom taste is but an obscure, confused, immediate instinct’
(Shapira 1964: 181; Sutherland 1981: 1). James’s literary elitism is well
known – and it is still not uncommon even today for high literary folk to
think of readers of popular fiction as tasteless and sensuous (rather than
tasteful and intellectual), selecting their writers out of some undefined
‘instinct’ rather than through careful, informed discernment. In an earlier
essay, ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1884), James speaks of the ‘vulgarization’ of the
novel by popular writers. He valued instead what he called ‘discretion’: the
restraints of Literature, as opposed to the excesses of popular fiction. James
also comments on a prevailing distinction between the novel and the
‘romance’, a generic term in those days for adventure fiction – offering,
precisely, a version of the distinction between literary fiction and popular fiction
I have been discussing above. For James, a novelist writes out of and about
‘all experience’ and aims to represent nothing less than ‘life’ itself in all its
complexities, much like Saul Bellow’s ‘tangled plots’ which work as a reflec-
tion of ‘tangled lives’. By way of contrast he then turns his attention to
R.L. Stevenson’s bestselling children’s adventure tale, Treasure Island, which
he considers ‘delightful’ but, of course, it is nothing more than a fantasy:
‘I have been a child in fact’, James writes, ‘but I have been on a quest for a
buried treasure only in supposition’ (Shapira 1964: 64). Stevenson himself
had, by this time, a substantial reputation as a popular romance (i.e. adventure)
novelist, and he had written a famous essay in defense of the form, satirizing
the aspirations of authors of literary fiction: ‘It is thought very clever to write
a novel with no story at all, or at least with a very dull one’ (Stevenson 1924:
124). He responded to James’s essay with another defense of ‘romance’ and
popular fiction, ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ (1884), speaking up precisely for
those qualities found in ‘the novel of adventure’ that Henry James had so
disdained: a plot or a ‘story’, as well as ‘danger’, ‘passion’ and ‘intrigue’. The
adventure novel has the kind of excess and exaggeration that James deplored –
but it is also a highly controlled and contained narrative form. Characters
are developed only in so far as they service the story and ‘realize the sense of
danger’: ‘To add more traits, to be too clever, to start the hare of moral or
intellectual interest while we are running the fox of material interest, is not
to enrich but to stultify your tale’ (Stevenson 1924: 138). In contrast to
James’s emphasis on complexity as the key feature of Literature and a key
aspect of the pleasure to be gained from it, Stevenson – in his defense of
popular fiction – speaks up for simplicity:

And as the root of the whole matter, let him bear in mind that his novel
is not a transcript of life, to be judged by its exactitude; but a simplifi-
cation of some side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant
Popular fiction 19
simplicity. For although, in great men, working upon great motives,
what we observe and admire is often their complexity, yet underneath
appearances the truth remains unchanged: that simplification was their
method, and that simplicity is their excellence.
(Stevenson 1924: 142)

These fin-de-siecle commentaries on Literature and popular fiction encapsulate

a set of differences between the two that remain in currency today.
Literature is complex, popular fiction is simple. The pleasures they each
offer are built around these distinctive characteristics, which means that the
experience of reading Literature will be substantially different in kind to the
experience of reading popular fiction. Literature is intimately connected to
life, while popular fiction gives itself over to fantasy. Literature is cerebral,
but popular fiction is sensuous: caught up with ‘danger’ and ‘intrigue’.
Literature is restrained or discrete, popular fiction is excessive, exaggerated.
Literature doesn’t need a story or a plot, but popular fiction couldn’t func-
tion without one. To take Stevenson’s side for a moment: Literature is ‘dull’,
while popular fiction is, simply (and perhaps simplistically, depending on
your loyalties and point of view), exciting.
Such differences are relational – one cannot advocate simplicity without
some sense of what one means by complexity, obviously – but they are also
positioned. For Pierre Bourdieu, cultural production broadly speaking is a
question of position-taking, as well as a question of what he called dispositions
(Bourdieu 1993: 61–7). One is inevitably disposed (for a range of social and
cultural reasons, and for better or worse) towards some cultural forms and
practices and not others: opera, perhaps, but not soap operas, or vice versa.
One accordingly takes a position in the cultural field: speaking up for opera
may mean that you find yourself speaking against, or perhaps simply ignor-
ing, soap operas. (It may well be perfectly possible to enjoy both, but they
will each be enjoyed on different terms and under quite different logics.) In
terms of our examples of Literature and popular fiction, someone who is
well disposed towards the former might very well speak against the latter,
drawing on precisely those distinctions outlined earlier. From the point of
view of Literature, as it were, popular fiction would seem to lack certain
qualities: it isn’t complex enough, it isn’t restrained enough, it doesn’t have
Literature’s ‘intense formal artistry’, its ‘tangled plots’ and so on. Those
professional literary critics and commentators who do indeed speak up
for Literature (from Henry James to F.R. Leavis, Harold Bloom, Frank
Lentricchia, Martin Amis, John Bayley, Edward Said, James Wood and
so on) would almost certainly think that Literature possesses precisely
all the qualities that popular fiction doesn’t have. For them it is conse-
quently and inevitably better than popular fiction, higher up in the literary
20 Defining the field
hierarchy; the complex pleasures it offers would be enough to ensure that
this is so. But from the point of view of popular fiction, it is Literature that
would seem to be lacking. It can lack a decent plot and visceral excitement,
for example. It can lack simplicity because it is too complex, and too diffi-
cult, unnecessarily so from popular fiction’s point of view. And of course,
although this is really a matter of scale and it depends entirely upon the
novel in question, Literature also lacks the thing popular fiction values most
of all: a large number of readers.

Although Henry James was himself a prolific novelist, he remained
unpopular, securing only a small income from his work: his output was high
simply in order to try to make ends meet. The 24-volume New York Edition
of his collected novels and tales, published in 1907 and on which James
had worked for around four years, sold abysmally, earning him a royalty
cheque of only £211 (Edel 1985: 663). It would be worth comparing the
fortunes of one of the most famous nineteenth century popular novelists,
Sir Edward G.D. Bulwer Lytton (1803–73), whose bestsellers included
The Last days of Pompeii (1834) – and who over half a century before James,
in 1853, had received a publisher’s advance of £20,000 for the rights to
republish his collected works in a railway edition (Murray 2003: 14). James
turned to drama as a way of boosting his own popularity but the public
response was indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the performance of his
work. Even so, James’s literary reputation is paramount and he remains the
‘father’ of the modern literary novel, introducing the ‘stream of conscious-
ness’ mode of writing so important to Modernist fiction. Academic studies
of the modern novel routinely begin with Henry James and in some cases
even conclude with him, too, while never mentioning a single work of pop-
ular fiction along the way: as if the modern novel and popular fiction do
indeed inhabit two quite different universes (see, e.g. Matz 2004; Morrison
2003). As it developed in the early twentieth century, however, the literary
novel – especially in its Modernist incarnations – was less popular than ever.
Indeed, the Modernists actively encouraged what Bourdieu calls the
‘restricted production’ of their work, publishing in literary magazines with
very small circulations and/or usually with small presses, often in relatively
expensive private editions. James Joyce’s early collection of short stories,
Dubliners, sold only 499 copies in 1914, just short of the amount required for
Joyce to receive royalties. The first edition of James Joyce’s literary master-
piece Ulysses (initially serialized in the American literary journal, The Little
Review) was published in Paris in February 1922 by a local amateur press,
Shakespeare and Company, the imprint of an English-language bookstore
Popular fiction 21
and lending library owned by the American expatriate, Sylvia Beach. This
publishing outcome, of course, was partly the result of part of Joyce’s book
having been previously identified in court as obscene (see Ellmann 1983:
504). But as Lawrence Rainey notes, Beach’s production of Ulysses was sub-
sequently directed not at ‘ordinary readers’ at all, but at ‘the investor, the
collector and the patron’ – to the degree, he argues, that readers themselves
were ‘rendered altogether unnecessary to [its] success’ (Rainey 1997: 11).
The first printing was small indeed, just 1,000 very expensive copies. When
the Egoist Press in London republished the book soon afterwards, it again
appeared as a private edition, with 2,000 copies printed. Of course, as we
shall see, popular fiction can also appear in limited, expensive editions; the
difference is that it usually also appears in mass marketed paperbacks.
Rainey writes convincingly of the ‘market dynamics of the limited edition’,
whereby literary Modernism required ‘not a mass of readers, but . . . a core
of patron-collectors’, much like the art world (Rainey 1997: 12–13, 1998).
In this respect, it would be worth contrasting Joyce’s publishing history with
that of one of his contemporaries, the Italian-born popular historical nov-
elist Rafael Sabatini (1875–1950), who counted popular novelists Scott and
Stevenson, as well as Alexander Dumas, amongst his influences. Sabatini’s
swashbuckling adventure novel about the French Revolution, Scaramouche,
was published simultaneously, and cheaply, in 1921 by Hutchinson in the
United Kingdom and Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in the United States, two of
the biggest publishing houses at that time. Its sales made Sabatini wealthy
overnight and a trans-Atlantic literary sensation. Unlike that of Joyce,
Sabatini’s fiction was never troubled by accusations of obscenity – or
incomprehensibility and elitism (Ellmann 1983: 503). In 1922, the same
year as Ulysses, Sabatini published Captain Blood (subtitled, interestingly
enough, His Odyssey), the first of three novels about this daring, exiled pirate,
again securing a simultaneous release in the United Kingdom and the
United States. His success led to the republishing of almost all of his earlier
novels and stories and kept the remainder of his output high, at least one
novel a year for the next two decades (The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini: Sabatini’s publishing history is quite differ-
ent to Joyce’s, then, involving major professional trans-Atlantic presses and
large-scale circulation, as opposed to a local amateur enthusiast or a priva-
tizing London small press with restricted literary interests. Hutchinson
has now been absorbed by the massive publishing conglomerate, Random
House. Houghton Mifflin remains a significant publishing company,
making strong profits later on when it secured the publishing rights to
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sabatini himself was connected
to professional publishing, working as director of Martin Secker, Ltd, from
1913 to 1918. It might be worth noting that in 1915, during Sabatini’s time
22 Defining the field
there, Secker was one of several major publishers to reject Joyce’s earlier
novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
For Tom Shippey, who has written the best study of the 1950s epic fantasy
The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was the ‘author of the [twentieth] century’,
greater even than Joyce himself. In fact, Shippey is scathing about Tolkien’s
near-contemporaries, the Modernists – ‘cosseted upper-class writers’, as he
calls them, rightly or wrongly – and he notes some of the ways in which
Tolkien’s work was ‘radically different’ in its literary philosophy to theirs
(e.g. it has little interest in introspection) (Shippey 2001: 142, 315). Certainly,
in terms of sheer numbers of readers, Tolkien has far outpaced Joyce
although, working as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University,
he may have been just as ‘cosseted’ and ‘upper-class’. But the scale of dif-
ference between popular fiction and literary fiction is registered not simply
in terms of numbers, and in fact, much like blockbuster films that find
themselves failing at the box office, a lot of popular fiction secures audi-
ences that are relatively and often disappointingly small (which is another
reason why the term ‘best-seller’ isn’t always useful when we think about
popular fiction). The scale of difference between literary and popular fiction
is in one sense more accurately registered in terms of intention, rather than
actual achievement. A writer produces popular fiction because he or she
intends (or, would prefer) to reach a large number of readers. Whether that
intention is realized depends upon the case – since not every work of popu-
lar fiction is a bestseller – but even so, a choice has been made and a
particular kind of career subsequently grinds into motion. Scott Turow,
whose novels include the bestselling courtroom thrillers Presumed Innocent
(1987) and The Burden of Proof (1990), has written about this intention –
choosing a career in popular fiction – in an article published in January
2000, titled ‘The law of being a best-seller’. As a college freshman in the
United States, Turow had read James Joyce’s earlier masterpiece, Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and decided, ‘I wanted to be a novelist just
like him’ (Turow 2000: 24). His college tutors had taught him that Joyce’s
Ulysses was ‘hands down the best novel ever written’. But the single copy of
Joyce’s great novel in the college library had almost never been borrowed: no
one seemed to be reading it. Reflecting on this, Turow gives expression to the
reason why he turned away from literary fiction and began to write popular
fiction, the kind of fiction people would want to read:

Thus began the questions that plagued me for years. Was Ulysses really
a great work of literature if almost no one read it for leisure, and if the
few who dared found it so taxing? What did writers owe their audience?
How easy were we supposed to make things for them? And what were
we entitled to demand in return?
Popular fiction 23
It was obvious that every writer, at least those who sought to publish,
craved an audience. But on what terms? The modernists, for example,
did not aim to be read by everybody. Their attitudes were well
expressed in . . . Ezra Pound’s declaration: ‘Artists are the antennae of
the race, but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great
In the modernists’ view, the writer’s job was to lead culture, to reinvent
art constantly, thereby providing society with previously undiscovered
insights. It did not matter if the bullet-headed didn’t understand
Ulysses, provided the few who could change culture did.
The radical democrat in my soul who was running amok in the ‘60s
had a hard time buying this.
(ibid.: 24)

Turow’s commentary captures some more differences between the fields of

Literature and popular fiction: in particular, the necessary elitism of the
former, and the ‘democratic’, inclusive yearnings of the latter. His question
about Ulysses – how can it be great if almost nobody reads it? – can only
come from the position, or perspective, of popular fiction itself. In fact,
Turow’s question is significantly qualified: ‘ . . . if almost no one read it for
leisure’. From the perspective of popular fiction, all reading is leisured: one
generally does not read popular fiction ‘seriously’, in the way that one might
be expected to read Literature. This is a profound difference with important
consequences for the ways in which we can, and do, approach popular
fiction, and it is discussed further later on in this chapter.
Drawing on his professional training as a lawyer and reacting against the
literary disavowal of plot and action, Turow produced a series of bestselling
fiction and came to embrace the career he chose: ‘I have, frankly, learned
to enjoy all the rewards of bestsellerdom, but none more than the flat-out,
juvenile thrill of entering so many lives. I love my readers with an affection
that is second only to what I feel for my family and friends . . . ’ (ibid.: 24).
This sentiment – ‘I love my readers’ – is common to popular fiction writers,
who often work hard to maintain a sense of ‘intimacy’ between their read-
ers and themselves (although, as we shall see with Anne Rice, this can have
its darker side, too). Most contemporary popular novelists have their own
online homepages and some actively engage with their fans – a feature I shall
examine in Chapter 3, but for now, simply look at crime novelist Ian Rankin’s
FAQ webpage (,
where he painstakingly answers every question his fans ask him (e.g.
‘Callum [“an ageing punk rocker”] asks if I’ll bang together the heads of Tom
Paulin and Germaine Greer next time I’m on “Newsnight Review”...’).
Popular fiction is by nature mindful and respectful of its audience, following
24 Defining the field
Robert McKee’s advice, noted earlier, to the very letter. For writers of popular
fiction, readers are their marketplace, their destination and the providers of
their income: it would be impossible not to want to engage positively with
this domain, and indeed, the intention here would doubtless be to maximize
its potential, to increase the size of that domain as much as possible. When
popular fiction succeeds, of course, its readerships are huge, both nationally
and globally. Catherine Cookson has sold at least 100 million copies of her
novels across at least 30 different countries, for example, and a lot of popu-
lar writers have sold much more: over 250 million in a number of cases,
as we have already seen. Many popular novelists are translated either out of
or into English on release – although English remains the primary and
dominant language of popular fiction worldwide. This is what the Publishers
Weekly website ( said about the contemporary
crime novelist Jonathan Kellerman in May 2003, capturing some of the
features of popular fiction discussed so far (regular, sustained output; serial-
ization) and giving an idea of popular fiction’s global reach: ‘Jonathan
Kellerman has been a regular on the national bestseller charts since 1985.
His latest, A Cold Heart, lands in the #7 spot with 350,000 copies in print.
Ballantine estimates that there are more than 35 million copies in print in
24 languages of Kellerman’s oeuvre, which includes 17 Alex Delaware
thrillers’. Most popular novelists have simultaneous UK and US releases at
the very least, as Agatha Christie did with her publishers Dodd, Mead &
Co. in America and Collins in Britain. Writers of popular fiction may or
may not love their publishers, of course. When he felt mistreated over the
publication of Treasure Island in 1883, for example, Stevenson called his
publisher, Cassell, a ‘doomed mansion’ and prophesized that a ‘huge
establishment, that cannot answer letters, nor even acknowledge registered
packets, is doomed. I give it five years to bankruptcy’ (Mehew 1997: 232). But
like the managers of football clubs with their fans, writers of popular fiction
(almost) never speak against their readers, their buying public.
By contrast, authors of literary fiction can sometimes seem utterly
remote from their readers, disdainful of them or simply indifferent to their
needs. Here is an account taken from an interview with the contemporary
New York-based literary novelist, Don DeLillo, author of Underworld (1997)
and Cosmopolis (2003):

DeLillo says he has no reader in mind when he writes a novel: ‘I write

for the page. That’s the best way I can put it. Sometimes I like to think
that some young man or woman in some small town somewhere is
picking up one of my books in the library, but I don’t write for a
particular person at all’.
( De Bertodano 2003: 3)
Popular fiction 25
The sentiment here is quite the opposite of Turow’s, although DeLillo
doesn’t exactly express indifference to his readers; his imagined, or pre-
ferred, reader is in fact rather quaintly presented, provincial rather than
global, small-scale rather than universalized (contrast Turow’s ‘thrill of
entering so many lives’). DeLillo is typically cast in this account as a quint-
essentially literary author who ‘does not like his fame and wants only to
write, sometimes taking days over one sentence’ (ibid.: 3). Writers of popu-
lar fiction may also only want to write, but they are often very comfortable
indeed with their fame and, as I’ve noted, tend to produce their work
rapidly and frequently, on demand: many sentences in a single day, rather
than many days for a single sentence.
Literary authors may be more ambivalent about their fame and popularity
than DeLillo, of course. A good contemporary example is Jonathan
Franzen, author of The Corrections (2001), hailed as an American literary
masterpiece, as well as a collection of essays titled, significantly enough for
Literature, How to Be Alone (2003). This collection reprints an essay first
published in the American magazine Harper’s in 1996, and now re-titled
‘Why Bother?’ The essay is a complaint about the way in which the
American ‘mainstream’ no longer seems interested in Literature and liter-
ary values – in which case, literary novelists are obliged to ask themselves
the question in Franzen’s title. The rise of television and other popular
media provides one reason for Literature’s decline. But so, it seems, does
popular fiction which, for Franzen, has also worked to edge Literature out
of its once-dominant cultural position:

. . . my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance

with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put
them on its cover and Time, for my father, was the ultimate cultural
authority. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice
enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and
Stephen King. These are honourable writers, but no one doubts that it
was the size of their contracts that won them covers. The dollar is now
the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which long
ago aspired to shape the national taste, now seems mainly to reflect it.
(Franzen 2003: 62)

This is a particularly literary anxiety: that Scott Turow, who once wanted to
write like Joyce, as we saw, has now actually come to replace Joyce on the
cover of Time. And the explanation for this is also a literary one. Franzen
seems to think that Turow and Stephen King can only be on the cover of
Time because they make lots of money, a fact which then allows him to think
that this once-great national magazine has now lost its literary credentials.
26 Defining the field
We need to understand that the reduction of popular fiction down to the
bare necessities of the marketplace (‘the dollar’) is a response that is com-
mon to those who speak from a literary position, from the perspective of the
field of Literature. Whether one is conscious of it or not, it is essentially a
literary ‘feeling’, carrying with it a familiar set of accompanying complaints
about declining literary standards, ‘dumbing down’, the absence of
‘national taste’, the stupidity of the ‘masses’, the dominance of economic
value over cultural value and so on – much as we saw earlier with Henry
James. Franzen gained some notoriety as a literary novelist when he refused
to allow his novel, The Corrections, to be endorsed by the influential black
American celebrity, Oprah Winfrey. Oprah’s Book Club is by far the largest
book club in the world, and Oprah’s endorsement – she promotes literary
fiction, not popular fiction – can dramatically increase an author’s sales and
profile. Commentators were bewildered by Franzen’s rejection of Oprah’s
support. Here is Jonathan Yardley from the Washington Post, who notes in an
article cheekily titled ‘The Story of O’ that Oprah’s anointing of The Corrections
should have made Franzen ‘the most happy fella imaginable’:

Even writers in ‘the high-art literary tradition’ dream, in the privacy of

their chambers, about commercial success such as is ordinarily enjoyed
by the likes of Stephen King and Danielle Steel. Being chosen by
Oprah Winfrey’s book club is a lead-pipe-cinch guarantee of precisely
that. Members of the club are so loyal and dutiful that sales of about
750,000 copies are practically guaranteed; to put that in perspective,
consider that ‘The Corrections’ shot to the top of the best-seller list
with a first printing of 90,000.
How lucky can a guy get? Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Franzen’s
publisher, scrambled to put another 680,000 copies of ‘The Corrections’
into print (as was reported last week in the New York Times), the kind of
numbers that can relocate an author into the tract mansion of his choice
on Easy Street. Franzen had to be thrilled. He had to be dancing on the
ceiling, à la Fred Astaire, and singing in the rain, à la Gene Kelly, and
building a stairway to paradise, à la George Gershwin. Right?
Wrong. In a move so stupid as to defy comprehension, Franzen did
everything he could to take Oprah Winfrey’s money and then run as
far away from her as possible.
( Yardley 2001: 2)

But Franzen’s response is only too comprehensible from the point of view of the
field of Literature. It rests upon Literature’s ambivalence towards (or even,
downright disdain for) the marketplace, fame, commercial success and
‘brand names’. Franzen refused to have the ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ logo stuck
Popular fiction 27
to the front cover of his novel: presumably, amongst other things, it dilutes
the aura of the literary author by putting it alongside a brand name as
if they naturally belong at each other’s side. His essay ‘Why Bother?’ works
itself out in this cultural-ideological context, as an agonized meditation on
the role of the literary author in a modern cultural economy that seems to
be underwritten, if not saturated, by commerce and brand names. ‘There’s
never been much love lost between literature and the marketplace’, he
writes. ‘The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium,
wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with
each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness’ (Franzen 2003: 63).
He could, of course, very well be talking about popular fiction here, which
is certainly conceived and marketed as a ‘product’ (although it sells rela-
tively cheaply) – a point already made 200 years ago by Sir Walter Scott
who, as we saw earlier, thought that the works of a popular novelist consti-
tuted ‘as effectual a part of the public wealth as that which is created by any
other manufacture’. Franzen remains uncomfortable about literary fame
and uneasy about his popularity, such as it is: this is why his collection of
essays is titled, perhaps rather cynically, ‘how to be alone’. The sentiment
expresses not just a disavowal of readerly interest. It also asks that the
literary writer be left alone by industry: by those culture industries, in
particular, that would seem to have nothing to do with Literature at all.
‘Publishing’, he laments, ‘is now a subsidiary of Hollywood, and the block-
buster novel is a mass-marketable commodity, a portable substitute for TV’
(ibid.: 85). Keen to distance himself as much as possible from the culture of
the ‘blockbuster novel’, what Franzen objects to most of all with both
Oprah and America’s consumer economy broadly speaking is exactly the
thing with which popular fiction is most willingly affiliated: entertainment.

Entertainment, product and brand: Holmes,

Bond and Potter
In his book Bestsellers, Clive Bloom notes that in the 1950s, Ian Fleming, who
wrote the James Bond novels and stories, ‘was already “sold” as a brand
name; this was unusual at the time, but by the 1990s, Stephen King, John
Grisham or Catherine Cookson had become brands in themselves’ (Bloom
2002: 75). However, writers of popular fiction functioned as ‘brand names’
long before the 1950s. Marie Corelli, who was Britain’s bestselling writer
during her lifetime and received publishers’ advances of around £10,000
a title, was avidly read by Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Gladstone and the
Prince of Wales. Her popular novel, The Sorrows of Satan, was used by the
‘fashionable preachers of the day’ (ibid.: 116), and turned into a film by
D.W. Griffiths in 1927, starring Lya de Putti. E.S. Turner notes that a town in
28 Defining the field
Colorado was named after her and that, like Shakespeare and Robert Burns
before her, she had her own ‘tear-off calendar’ with her thoughts of the day on
each page (Turner 1999: 30). For John Sutherland, in fact, ‘Marie Corelli’s
place is in the history of celebrity, not literature’ (Sutherland 1999: 36); tied
to the logic of entertainment, her name comes to stand for a set of available
values and positions in society. It isn’t unusual for popular writers to find their
work routinely produced in other entertainment fields, like cinema and the-
atre. The post-publication history of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1816)
is to a large degree a theatrical one, since it was almost immediately (and then
continually and successfully) adapted for the stage in Britain and Europe and
the United States – and the same is true for many other early popular novels.
Baroness Orczy (1865–1947), who was initially unable to get her manuscript
of The Scarlet Pimpernel accepted by a publisher, adapted it for the stage herself
in 1904, to popular acclaim. It is often suggested nowadays that popular nov-
elists write their fiction with screenplay adaptation in mind – which may well
be true, since so much popular fiction is built around plot, action, ‘scenarios’,
character conflict and dialogue. There are some popular novelists who do
indeed spread themselves widely across the entertainment industry: think of
Michael Crichton, whose novels were often written precisely for film adapta-
tion, but who has also written for and directed films himself and was respon-
sible for the successful television medical drama, E.R. The Steven Spielberg
film of Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park (1993) certainly knew all about ‘products’
and merchandizing, since it famously (or infamously) included a scene within
its narrative which pans across the shelves of the theme park’s shop already
stocked with Jurassic Park logo’d toy dinosaurs. Stephen King may be the
most adapted contemporary popular novelist, with somewhere between 50
and 60 film adaptations of his stories and novels – if we include sequels like
parts two, three, four and five of Children of the Corn. Brian DePalma’s Carrie
(1976) was the first film adaptation of King’s work and had its own sequel,
The Rage, produced in 1999. Since Carrie, almost every novel and a number of
stories have been turned into film, for better or worse, including The Shining
(1980), directed by the late Stanley Kubrick (King had written the screenplay
but Kubrick reportedly didn’t even look at it) and praised as a masterpiece by
a cultural critic usually associated with Literature and art house cinema,
Fredric Jameson. The first film actually directed by King was Maximum
Overdrive (1986), a box-office failure.
About half of John Grisham’s novels have been turned into films, usually
to unenthusiastic reviews even though they have provided venues for major
American actors such as Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Gene Hackman.
The novels of Catherine Cookson, on the other hand, were primarily
adapted for television. Ray Marshall produced a number of these for the
BBC in the United Kingdom, beginning with The Fifteen Streets (1989) which
drew around 10 million viewers. A number of crime novelists have seen
Popular fiction 29
equally popular television serials built around their own works: Ian Rankin’s
Rebus novels, for example, or Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, or
Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. Popular writers like King,
Grisham, Cookson, Michael Crichton and many others are certainly
imprinted over their work like brands or logos, just as their own names
(usually larger than the size of the book’s title) preside over the covers of the
novels they produce. But this isn’t always a guarantee of success. It is possi-
ble that more people read a John Grisham novel than see some of his film
adaptations: in 2001, Grisham was Britain’s second bestselling novelist,
outstripped only by J.K. Rowling (Sutherland 2002: 170). Stephen King
himself has been critical of some of the film adaptations of his fiction –
taking a lawsuit out against the producers of The Lawnmower Man (1992),
for example, which resulted in the removal of his name from the credits.
Terry Pratchett has said that he never wants to see a film adaptation of his
Discworld novels, although a few (like Wyrd Sisters) have been turned into car-
toons for television and there is also some Discworld merchandizing: chess
pieces, miniatures, jigsaw puzzles, games and so on. For Pratchett, this is
a ‘small-scale’ economy over which he retains some authorial influence:
‘Most of it is done by people who are fans first. You have to keep an eye on
a few things. The nice thing is that – within reason – I can raise my finger
if I want to stop something. It’s harmless: a bunch of fans making a bob or
two and that seems to be very much in the spirit of the whole thing’ (Sussex
2003: 8). The industry of popular fiction is here identified, perhaps not sur-
prisingly for a fantasy writer like Pratchett, as a cottage industry (which may
itself be something of a fantasy). Elsewhere, however, merchandizing flour-
ishes on a much grander scale. Crichton’s Jurassic Park has already been
mentioned: as I note in Chapter 4, it revitalized global interest in dinosaurs,
especially amongst young boys who may never have heard of Crichton,
merchandizing its own logo’d toys, children’s books, computer games and
so on, and generating a broad-based scientific curiosity about prehistoric
creatures and their periods (bringing paleontology and the entertainment
industry close together, although not for the first time). But when characters
become far better known than the popular writers who produced them –
that is, when characters become their own brand names – then merchan-
dizing can seem to know no limits. The three best examples are Sherlock
Holmes, the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming’s James
Bond and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Serialization, as I have noted, is one of the keys to a character’s popularity
since it ensures longevity and, if successful, generates ongoing audience loyalty.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) published 4 novels and 5 collections of
56 short stories in total about his detective Sherlock Holmes between 1887
and 1927. Holmes was very soon a marketable product for Conan Doyle, even
though his literary aspirations were set higher; it made him a celebrity and
30 Defining the field
‘opinion leader’ (see McDonald 1997: 118–71). The British high-circulation
illustrated magazine, The Strand, initially paid him 30 guineas per story, but by
the time Conan Doyle serialized The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902 he was
being paid between £480 and £620 an episode, depending on the length. But
during that time, and certainly afterwards, Holmes seemed to develop a life
of his own, eventually leaving Conan Doyle far behind as he moved out of
the stories and into theatre, radio and cinema, television, graphic novels
and comic books, and more recently, the internet, still showing no signs of
exhaustion. You can buy Sherlock Holmes costumes (including deer stalker
hats), playing cards, pewter figures, mouse pads, key rings, magnifying
glasses, letter openers and so on from a range of dealers, all under the
generic title of ‘Sherlockania’. On film, Basil Rathbone starred as Sherlock
Holmes 14 times during and just after the Second World War. Other actors
who have played Holmes on screen include Maurice Costello (in 1905),
John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, Christopher Plummer, Nicol Williamson,
Richard Roxburgh and the comedian Peter Cook, amongst many others,
and films have been made about Sherlock Holmes’s private life (1970), his
meeting with Sigmund Freud (1976), his investigation of Jack the Ripper
(1979) and his adventures as Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). The best television
series of the Holmes stories ran on Granada Television in the United
Kingdom and PBS in the United States from 1984 to 1993, starring Jeremy
Brett as the famous detective. Hundreds of popular novelists have produced
their own novels and stories about Holmes since Conan Doyle.
Contemporary examples include a series by Laurie R. King about Sherlock
Holmes and his partner and wife, Mary Russell (Holmes never married in
the Conan Doyle stories), as well as a series of novels by Val Andrews, and
Sena Jeter Naslund’s Sherlock in Love (1993). Holmes seems to have attracted
writers across a range of genres. Horror novelist Stephen King wrote a
Sherlock Holmes story; so did crime novelist Michael Dibdin, a novel
entitled (although it was certainly not) The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978);
so did the SF and/or fantasy writers Michael Moorcock, Philip José Farmer
and Stephen Baxter, who has Holmes visited by H.G. Wells; and so did
ex-Beatle John Lennon, surrealistically, in 1965. The first pastiche of
Sherlock Holmes has been dated from 1893, written by J.M. Barrie 10 years
before he wrote Peter Pan (Watt and Green 2003: 78); a riotous contempo-
rary example is Texan novelist Kinky Friedman’s parodic crime novel,
Spanking Watson (1999). A host of Holmesian societies have sprung up
around the world, from the invitation-only Baker Street Irregulars founded
in New York in 1934 (which publishes the Baker Street Journal ) to The Sydney
Passengers in Australia, who take their name from the Holmes story, ‘The
Adventure of the “Gloria Scott” ’, publish a newsletter, The Passenger’s Log,
and meet regularly for Holmesian events such as the celebration of
Popular fiction 31

Holmes’s ‘birthday’ on 9 January each year. Other Holmesian societies can

be found in Denmark, France, Malaysia and Japan, the latter having a long
history of interest in Sherlock Holmes. Many of these societies now have
their own homepages on the internet, which also plays host to a variety of
useful Holmesian resources. The best of these is probably Chris Redmond’s
Sherlockian.Net (, created in 1994 at the
University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, which also links to a huge
range of Holmesian special interest sites – including the listserve operated
by the wonderfully named Hounds of the Internet.
Like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld merchandize, Sherlockania or
Holmesiana is also a kind of cottage industry (albeit a global one), run by
fans and aficionados: those readers already familiar with Holmes and
equipped with Sherlockanian knowledges, and fond enough of Holmes’s
era (late Victorian, Edwardian) to continue to simulate it even in the twenty-
first century. Ian Fleming’s James Bond, on the other hand, is firmly
attached to large-scale corporate interests. Although Fleming’s first Bond
novel, Casino Royale (1953), sold poorly, he continued to serialize his charac-
ter, producing one novel a year into the mid-1960s – by which time his
novels had sold around 40 million copies (Sutherland 2002: 43). In 1962,
Terence Young directed the first Bond film, Dr No, produced for United
Artists by the American Albert ‘Cubby’ R. Broccoli in partnership with a
British-based Canadian, Harry Saltzman. These two producers set up their
own Bond-based film company, EON (‘everything or nothing’) Productions,
and another, Danjaq (named after their wives, Dana and Jacqueline), to
look after copyright (Chapman 2000: 55). Fleming’s name was prominent
in the early Bond films, which also increased sales of his novels: Dr No jumped
from 85,000 in 1961 to over half a million in 1965. But Fleming died in 1964,
after the second Bond film, From Russia with Love, was released – after which,
the films began to move further away from the novels, developing their own
versions of James Bond and massively expanding their franchise.
The best analyses of the Bond films can be found in Tony Bennett and Janet
Woollacott’s Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987) and
James Chapman’s License to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films (2000).
The ‘production ideology’ of the films (as Chapman calls it) was primarily
expansionist, as these remarks from Cubby Broccoli in 1979 make clear:

With each new Bond picture we have to be bigger, better, more spectac-
ular, more exciting, more surprising than the previous ones.... Costs are
a big headache. But all the James Bond films have been very profitable.
So I guess you have to be philosophical about it and lay out money to
make money.
(ibid.: 59–60)
32 Defining the field
The films developed their own iconic signatures and title sequences:
Maurice Binder designed the famous opening image of Bond seen through
the barrel of a gun, while Syd Cain and Ken Adam produced many classic
set designs. The ‘James Bond Theme’, composed by Monty Norman
(although another version lists John Barry as the composer), also provided
a signature to the films and gave instant recognition to the character of
Bond (Smith 2003: 122–4). Subsequent Bond theme music composed by
John Barry amongst others and performed by famous singers such as
Shirley Bassey and Paul McCartney and later, pop groups such as Duran
Duran and Garbage, produced a string of chart hits. As Jeff Smith has
noted, ‘on balance no other film series could boast [such] long-term success’
(ibid.: 131). The Bond films built themselves around other marketable fea-
tures, too, such as the actresses who played their women, and of course, the
gadgets and hardware. While Fleming was alive, Broccoli and Saltzman
were able to promote only certain kinds of Bond merchandize – in partic-
ular, spirits and tobacco, in tune with Bond’s tastes. At this time, Fleming
himself was probably ‘the most saleable element of their commodity’ (ibid.:
121). After his death, however – as Jeff Smith puts it – ‘the floodgates
opened’: ‘By February 1966 the Licensing Corporation of America esti-
mated that the total sales of Bond merchandize amounted to some $50 mil-
lion’ (ibid.: 127). The Bond character has been used to promote cars (Aston
Martins, BMWs) and watches (Omega), amongst many other things. There
are Bond collectibles designed for the Bond ‘connoisseur’: from toy cars to
statuettes and poster art. There are dozens of books cataloguing Bond phe-
nomena including, most recently, Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall’s The
Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007 (2002) and Maryam
d’Abo and John Cork’s Bond Girls are Forever (2003). There are a range of
Bond Playstation, GameCube and XBox games, the latest of which from
Electronic Arts is named after Broccoli and Saltzman’s production com-
pany, Everything or Nothing. The internet is now a wonderful source for Bond
merchandize and information: one of the best websites is just as appropri-
ately titled Universal Exports (, established
in 1996. The Ian Fleming Foundation, a non-profit organization based
in California, also hosts an excellent website, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
(, full of archival and up-to-the-
minute information about Bond and related topics. There are Bond spin-
offs and spoofs (e.g. the Austin Powers films), and Bond continues his
post-Fleming adventures in fiction, too, with a series of novels from the
1980s onwards written by John Gardner and Raymond Benson.
Fleming’s Bond novels were produced through some of the major
mid-twentieth century paperback publishing houses, notably, Pan in the
Popular fiction 33
United Kingdom and Signet in the United States. Pan, established in 1944
and now part of PanMacmillan, was a mass-marketing paperback publisher
and by 1964 Fleming’s Bond novels accounted for one-fifth of its total sales.
In the United States, Signet presented the Bond novels as pulp fiction – the
lower end of the popular fiction market – with lurid covers and altered
titles: Casino Royale became You Asked For It, and Moonraker was Too Hot to
Handle. The contrast with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, published in
the United Kingdom by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and in the United
States by Scholastic, could not be more striking. Founded in 1986 ‘on the
principle of publishing books of the highest quality’, Bloomsbury continues
to deal primarily with literary fiction: they publish work by Michael
Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Jay McInerney, John Irving and Joanne
Trollope – although, interestingly, they also published Scott Turow’s
Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof. (Turow’s US publishers are Farrar
Straus and Giroux and more recently, Warner Books Paperbacks.) Until
J.K. Rowling, however, Turow was the only popular novelist on their list.
Scholastic is a US-global entertainment and educational children’s publish-
ing and media company, able to connect its bestsellers and various film
tie-ins to primary and secondary school syllabi (reaching nearly every
school in the US). To be published by literary and educational presses
certainly distinguishes the Harry Potter novels from Fleming’s James Bond.
And both publishers have, of course, been profoundly enriched by (and able
to expand their operations because of) the Potter ‘phenomenon’: 5 novels by
2003, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997. The com-
bined US/UK first print-runs themselves are record-breaking, now over
6 million copies. By the end of 2003, total sales had reached around
250 million across 200 countries, with the novels translated into 60 lan-
guages, including Latin and Welsh. But the phenomenon of Harry Potter
spread far beyond the novels themselves. The first Harry Potter film adap-
tation by Warner Bros. became at the time the second-highest grossing film
in history (beaten only by James Cameron’s The Titanic). A huge amount of
media spin-offs and merchandizing helped to keep Harry Potter at the
centre of global cultural interest, as Suman Gupta reports:

The Stone film sound-track by John Williams became in February 2002

the eighth top-selling ‘classical album’ in the UK. Numerous Harry
Potter-related products industries found their share prices and profit
margins boosted by the association: an audio-recording of Goblet by the
actor and writer Stephen Fry attracted £1.8 million worth of advance
bookings in the UK alone in April 2001.
(Gupta 2003: 16–17)
34 Defining the field
The merchandizing of Harry Potter by Warner Bros. was much more
large-scale than this account suggests, however, and included a deal with the
US toy giant Mattel in February 2000 for a license for the Potter characters.
But the Potter novels’ connections to educational institutions has also meant
that their merchandizing has not gone without protest. At the end of 2001,
for example, the non-profit Centre for Science in the Public Interest, along
with 40 cosponsoring organizations, launched, a website
aiming to bring to an end Coca Cola’s use of Harry Potter to market what
the website calls ‘liquid candy’. Keen to secure its rights over Harry Potter,
Warner Bros. notoriously tried to crack down on unofficial fan websites
dedicated to the character (there are hundreds of them), finally backing
down in March 2001 when it agreed that Claire Field, the 15-year-old
owner of, could continue her noncommercial use of
the domain name. J.K. Rowling herself has been anxious about how exten-
sive and exclusive the merchandizing of her character should be. In this
context it isn’t surprising to see a book on Harry Potter published by the
Left-wing London press Verso printing the following disclaimer on its front
cover, above a picture of a pot overflowing with money:

Verso is delighted to make it clear that this book is not part of the
Harry Potter series. Neither the font nor the colour is intended to con-
fuse readers – after all, Warner Bros., J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury
Publishing plc have spent very substantial sums of money marketing,
advertising and protecting the Harry Potter brand.
(Blake 2002)

Indeed, this book, by cultural studies critic Andrew Blake, sees the Potter
phenomenon almost entirely in terms of brand names and merchandizing. It
concludes with a chapter titled ‘Harry Potter and the Rebranding of
Britain’, which comments on the British Tourist Authority’s 2002 campaign
to introduce tourists to ‘the Magic of Britain’ through links to Harry Potter
and other ‘moviemap’ sites. Here are Blake’s concluding remarks, in a study
that rather affectionately reduces J.K. Rowling’s novels and their spin-offs
down to a set of purely ideological functions: ‘The Harry Potter phenome-
non has indeed rebranded, and reglobalized, Britain, presenting to the
world a country confident in its past but trying harder than usual to work
out the possibilities for the future’ (ibid.: 112–13). Popular fiction from one
point of view is escapist, ephemeral and superficial: ‘mere’ entertainment.
But here – in a manner that compares with New Zealand’s use of The Lord
of the Rings trilogy, discussed in Chapter 7 – the Harry Potter novels could
not be more central to the fortunes of a nation as it advertises itself to the
global community.
Popular fiction 35
Ideologies of reading, reading practices
To answer properly the question of what ideological functions are served
by popular fiction means that one must deal with precisely the features
I have ascribed to popular fiction above: its role as ‘entertainment’, its
self-identification as a form of industrial production or ‘manufacture’, and
its commercial and merchandizing potential. These features have made it
commonplace to regard popular fiction derisively as capitalism’s most
perfect literary form. It is as if popular fiction is ‘pure ideology’, simply a
matter of commerce, nothing more or less than a ‘product’ – whereas
Literature (so the argument goes) is more complicated, resisting ideological
reduction, disavowing its commercial identity, able to criticize rather than
capitulate to capitalism, enmeshed in nothing less than life itself. Of all the
distinctions between popular fiction and Literature listed in this chapter, this
one is itself the most ideological. It has been used for many years to relegate
popular fiction to the edges of Literature programs in educational institu-
tions and in particular, in English departments at Universities (with popular
fiction being taught mostly at the ex-polytechnics in the UK, for example).
The method of popular fiction, R.L. Stevenson had written, is ‘simplification’
and Universities are not supposed to teach simplification. In spite of the fact
that almost no one ever borrowed Ulysses from Scott Turow’s college library,
students are supposed to read Literature precisely because of its complexities,
its ‘ambiguities’, its depth of character, its refusal to resolve difficult issues,
and so on. If Literature is about ‘all experience’, as Henry James had
claimed, then it can indeed be difficult to reduce it down to, or put it in the
service of, ‘pure ideology’. Accordingly, it must be read seriously, which is
what students of Literature are also supposed to do. Students of Literature
are in fact asked to become readers – whereas those who read popular fiction
are rendered ideologically, as (merely) consumers.
Andrew Blake presents exactly this kind of characterization at the end of
his book on the Harry Potter phenomenon when he says, perhaps rather
awkwardly, that the reader of J.K. Rowling’s novels is both ‘preserved and
modernized into the new – functionally literate – consumer’ (ibid.: 113). The
reader of popular fiction here is made to resemble the modern shopper, the
prime object of marketing attention: in this case, involving children,
teenagers and adults (since the Potter novels were repackaged for an adult
market). But this kind of identity was troubling in the context of the kind of
role these novels were playing out in educational institutions. It was broadly
accepted that the Harry Potter novels raised literacy levels at schools,
especially amongst boys. But anxieties remained about how (and why) the
novels were being read. If popular fiction is simply meant to be consumed,
could the Harry Potter novels be read seriously – like Literature?1 Could they
36 Defining the field
even be ‘read’ at all? For some commentators, the answer is no. For Pam
McIntyre, the editor of the Australian young adult literary magazine,
Viewpoint, ‘the Harry Potter thing is less about reading than it is about mer-
chandizing’ (McIntyre 2001: 16). Reading and merchandizing need not be
the opposite of each other, of course – but they provide an ideological
distinction between Literature and popular fiction that has been and con-
tinues to be persuasive to many people. Suman Gupta, in his book
Re-Reading Harry Potter, is even more dismissive of the ability to read the
Harry Potter ‘brand’ in a serious, literary way:

More and more people in more and more contexts unthinkingly read
the Harry Potter books, absorb their film versions and advertisement
images and computer and video games and other consumer products
that derive from them, because they are inclined by our world to do so.
The question is: are the Harry Potter books really read in the sense that
some people speak of ‘reading a face’ or ‘reading a situation’ – read,
that is, as being thinkingly understood?
(Gupta 2003: 164)

Since this question concludes Gupta’s book, it never actually gets an answer.
But his ideological position is clear enough: readers of popular fiction are
‘unthinking’, dumb consumers at the mercy of ‘our world’ – and are to be
distinguished from readers of nothing less than life itself (a face, a situation),
to which Literature as we have seen is so intimately and routinely attached.
My own book on popular fiction wants to refuse to take this easy, patron-
izing kind of distinction between readers of Literature and popular fiction for
granted. In fact, readers of popular fiction are careful discriminators of the
field – and careful readers of the work they process, often in exquisite detail,
as I shall show later on. The view of this kind of reader as ‘unthinking’ can
only be taken from the perspective of the field of Literature, of course, and
is a commonplace (but elitist) way of regarding those who participate in
‘lower’ cultural forms. In fact, readers who are unfamiliar with the field of
popular fiction can be easily overwhelmed by the kinds of knowledges a
popular fiction aficionado can possess. Even so, differences in reading prac-
tices remain. To recall the comment made earlier by Scott Turow, popular
fiction is so often read while one is at leisure, as something special to turn to
while on vacation (perhaps in those holiday houses or B&Bs with book-
shelves full of old thrillers, romances and Agatha Christie novels). Reading
while on vacation is literally the opposite of reading ‘seriously’ and educa-
tionally. The former empties or ‘vacates’ the mind, while the latter is sup-
posed to fill it up. But again, this distinction is as much ideological as it is
real – and one may very well read better on vacation anyway, unencumbered
Popular fiction 37
by educational apparatuses and pedagogical pressures, free from workplace
stress. It is also true that readers of popular fiction read faster. They do, in this
sense, consume their fiction. Popular fiction is meant to be read quickly, some-
times in one sitting. It is characterized as ‘compulsive’, ‘unable to be put
down’, a ‘page-turner’: ‘I couldn’t wait to get to the end’ is a typical reader’s
sentiment. A comment from London’s Time Out magazine on the paperback
cover of Michael Crichton’s Prey (2002) suggests that this novel is ‘Like tak-
ing a speed reading course, your eyes flying across the page . . . ’ (Crichton
2002). This imperative to read popular fiction fast would indeed seem to be
generically unsuited to Literature and to the kind of educational protocols
that build themselves around literary fiction. Here is the American critic
J. Hillis Miller from his book, On Literature, published the same year as
Crichton’s novel:

Good reading...also demands slow reading.... A good reader is some-

one on whom nothing in a text is lost, as [Henry] James said a good
writer is in relation to life: ‘Try to be one of those on whom nothing is
lost’ . . . . Such a reader pauses over every key word or phrase, looking
circumspectly before and after, walking rather than dancing . . . . Slow
reading, critical reading, means being suspicious at every turn, interro-
gating every detail of the work, trying to figure out by just what means
the magic is wrought.
( Miller 2002: 122)

In today’s information-overloaded society, this view of reading may of

course seem like a quaint anachronism – and certainly, it is miles away from
Michael Crichton. But it typically represents the reader of Literature, as
someone who can contemplate without interruption what is written on the
page: someone who is free of distractions, including the distractions of
movie spin-offs, media tie-ins, merchandizing, branding, leisure activity and
so on. We might therefore characterize our distinction as follows: the reader
of Literature is contemplative, while the consumer of popular fiction is
‘distracted’. The former, it is implied, is therefore closer to life itself (‘one of
those on whom nothing is lost’), while the latter is removed from it, made to
occupy some other, fantasy space elsewhere. Hence the general assumption
that popular fiction is escapist. This powerful ideological distinction is rou-
tinely invoked by advocates of Literature, wittingly or unwittingly. To give
just one contemporary example: the English philosopher Alain de Botton’s
tribute to one of the greatest literary authors, Marcel Proust, in How Proust
Can Change Your Life (1997), relies utterly on a sense that works of Literature,
sharing the characteristics of works of art, ‘properly affect rather than
simply distract us from life’ (De Botton 1997: 25). In this account, Literature
38 Defining the field
brings readers closer to ‘their own selves’ and therefore closer to life
(although De Botton’s rendering of it here may itself be closer to narcis-
sism). But his point can only be made on the back of a sense that something
else out there, something quite distinct from Literature, works to distract us
from these things. Botton doesn’t have to spell out what this something else
is. He invokes a distinction that is as much ideological as it is real, a way of
claiming high cultural forms (art, Literature) as life-enhancing while –
whether by implication or overtly – deriding lower cultural forms (enter-
tainment, popular fiction) as frivolous, escapist: ‘simply’ distracting us from
life, and from the self, whatever these might mean.2
Another distinction arises from J. Hillis Miller’s comments above. For
him, the reader of Literature responds not just critically to the text, but
sceptically: ‘suspicious at every turn’. By contrast, it is commonplace to
imagine the reader of popular fiction as uncritical, someone who actually
comes to believe in the remote worlds he or she reads about and even (in,
say, genres like fantasy and romance or some historical popular fiction)
inhabits them or replicates them – just as those Australian Sydney Passengers
seem to inhabit and replicate the era of Sherlock Holmes. But the role of the
reader of Literature, for Miller, is to disenchant the text, to disbelieve, by
‘trying to figure out by just what means the magic is wrought’. We can be
certain that Miller doesn’t have the Harry Potter novels in mind here, because
popular fiction is usually credited with the opposite function: it enchants its
readers, which is another way of saying that it distracts them. It would, of
course, be difficult to imagine a disenchanting (or disenchanted) reader of
popular fiction. So we can conclude by saying that readers of popular fiction
may very well be leisured, fast, believing and enchanted consumers. But this
is not to say that they are ‘unthinking’, uncritical or even undiscriminating.
Indeed, just like the reader of Literature, they may also be people upon
whom ‘nothing is lost’. Although popular fiction is indeed usually read
quickly rather than ‘closely’, its minutiae are nevertheless registered and
responded to in all sorts of ways, as we shall see in Chapters 2 and 3.

1 The gendering of the debates here works in the opposite way to much earlier
anxieties about women readers and women’s novels. Terry Lovell has traced out some
of these anxieties, looking at commentaries on the ‘moral danger’ that fiction written
by women posed to its women readers around the turn of the nineteenth century.
‘The moral danger attached to novel reading, seen as an addiction’, she writes, ‘was
linked to the amount of time “wasted” in reading them’ (Lovell 1987: 10).
2 The best discussion of the ideological-cultural differences between high and low
cultural forms is Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture,
Postmodernism. His phrase, ‘the great divide’, expresses ‘the kind of discourse
Popular fiction 39
which insists on the categorical distinction between high art and mass culture’
(Huyssen 1986: viii) – a distinction still routinely made both inside and outside the
Universities. Huyssen’s chapter ‘Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other’
begins by looking at the literary novelist Gustave Flaubert’s heroine in Madame
Bovary (1856–57). Madame Bovary is an avid reader of popular romances. This
distracted woman readily identifies with the books she reads, in contrast to
Flaubert who cultivates all the qualities of Literature: ironic detachment, critical
distance and so on. For Huyssen, this distinction underwrites a modern split
between high cultural forms such as Modernism and mass or popular culture –
the latter being identified as in some way ‘female’ (always distracted, subjective,
passive) while the latter is always male (contemplative, objective, active, authori-
tative). The gendered logic of this distinction is essentially ideological. It might be
worth noting that Alain de Botton, in the study cited above, captures exactly this
gendered logic when he compares his ‘girlfriend Kate’ to one of Proust’s heroines.
His girlfriend reads Marie Claire, while De Botton, of course, reads Marcel Proust
(see De Botton 1997: 24).
2 Genre
History, attitudes, practice

One of the most productive ways to think about popular fiction is in

terms of genre, a term that simply means – in our case – the type or
species of fiction being written. The entire field of popular fiction is writ-
ten for, marketed and consumed generically: it provides the primary logic
for popular fiction’s means of production, formal and industrial identifi-
cation and critical evaluation. Individual writers can obviously stand out
in the field but they do so always in relation to the genre they write in, so
that it is impossible to disentangle the two. Many, although by no means
all, popular novelists write in a single genre, which means that generic
identification is often straightforward. For example, Agatha Christie is
a crime writer, Clive Barker is a horror writer, Isaac Asimov is a science
fiction or SF writer, Louis L’Amour writes westerns and so on. By con-
trast, in the field of Literature the names of authors usually stand on
their own: genre has a much less overt role to play here. Indeed, a work
of Literature is often thought to have ‘transcended’ genre, that is, risen
above the lower literary level that popular fiction (because it is generic) is
supposed to occupy. It would be much better and more accurate to say,
however, that Literature bears a different (or indifferent) relation to genre,
one that is less obviously shaped or serviced by it. Stephen Heath has dis-
cussed these distinctions in his essay ‘The Politics of Genre’, noting that
the field of Literature is ‘seen as full of individual works’ whereas the field
of popular fiction (as well as other forms of popular media, such as tele-
vision) is structured by ‘the power of genre conceptions’ (Heath 2004:
173). A work of Literature is thus commonly regarded as self-contained,
enclosed and completed by the author’s apparent uniqueness, rather
than as part of a shared and broad-based species of writing such as
‘crime fiction’. This point of view or ‘position’ is both typified and illu-
minated in the following passage from a recent, award-winning academic
study of the supernatural in contemporary culture, Victoria Nelson’s
Genre 41
The Secret Life of Puppets (2001):

After reading Moby-Dick a reader does not feel compelled, in a week or

two, to seek out another adventure story with whales in it. Reading
Henry James’s Turn of the Screw or a tale by [ Isaac Bashevis] Singer,
[Bruno] Schulz, or [Franz] Kafka does not trigger an insatiable hunger
for more stories about demons real and possible or men turning into
insects. These works are self-fulfilling in some mysterious way; they
are inherently satisfying in themselves and can, in time, be re-read
with even deeper appreciation for their levels of meaning . . . . Reading
a murder mystery, in contrast, or a ghost story or a romance – all the
genres whose readers are accurately described as ‘addicts’ – is in
essence . . . to embark on an endless cycle in which the true catharsis
seems oddly displaced, moved forever forward into the future as the
reader ‘devours’ story after story.
(Nelson 2001: 133)

This passage provides us with some more distinctions commonly drawn

between readers of popular fiction and readers of Literature, based this
time on their relations to genre. Literature is singular, Nelson seems to
suggest, so the reading experience here is also singular: one emerges
‘satisfied’ from the literary text. Popular fiction, on the other hand, is
generic – which compels readers continually to go in search of the next
example of the genre they happen to be reading. The singularity of
Literature means that its readers are politely restrained creatures: one text
by one author is quite enough to be getting along with, and rewarding
enough to be ‘re-read with even deeper appreciation’ later on. The reader
of popular or genre fiction, however, is an ‘addict’ who ‘devours’ one
work after another. There is no re-reading here: once a work has been
read, it is put aside and the reader moves on to the next generic example
(or, perhaps, the next novel in the series). Satisfaction therefore would
seem to escape these poor folk entirely as they give themselves up to the
constant lure of their genres, spreading out horizontally across a great
number of novels rather than (as Literature tends to require) reading a
single text vertically for its ‘depth’. Of course, this distinction not surpris-
ingly relies on a mystification of the reading process (that Literature ‘is
self-fulfilling in some mysterious way’) rather than anything concretely
understood. It is therefore made to carry ideological baggage: Literature
is innately satisfying for Nelson, whereas popular fiction is not. She also
means to preserve Literature’s non-generic identity: Henry James, in her
account, is definitely not a writer of ghost stories (although he did, in fact,
write a number of them).
42 Defining the field
From the broadest perspective, of course, genre as a literary term
accounts for the three fundamental species of literary writing: prose, poetry
or lyric and drama. If we take prose fiction as one generic category of prose
(others would be autobiography, the essay, letters, etc.), then this can be fur-
ther divided generically into Literature and popular fiction, the two fields
already discussed in Chapter 1. I prefer the term ‘field’ to ‘genre’ here, but
nevertheless it is possible to argue that Literature is indeed a genre of prose
fiction, with its own characteristics and patterns, its own way of behaving,
its own logics and practices, its priorities and protocols and so on. Literary
fiction might also be further divided in various ways, too, because in spite
of their uniqueness or ‘self-fulfilling’ identities, certain works of Literature
do have things in common with each other: think of the Modernist novel,
the novel of manners, the bildungsroman or novel of education, or the post-
modern novel. Sometimes these generic features are visible in literary fic-
tion, sometimes not, and you may need to know something about particular
authors and their novels or particular periods of literary history before they
become recognizable to you. But with popular fiction, generic identities are
always visible. This is how it differs from Literature. Popular fiction announces
those identities loudly and unambiguously: you know and need to know
immediately that this is romance, or a work of crime fiction (and/or spy fic-
tion), or science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, or a western, or an historical
popular novel or an adventure novel.
These are in fact the eight primary genres of popular fiction, although
some readers may quibble with the categories. Crime fiction and espionage
or spy fiction, for example, may be considered by many as quite separate
genres. Stephen Knight’s comprehensive study, Crime Fiction 1800–2000
(2003b), for example, makes a generic choice not to discuss Ian Fleming’s
James Bond novels (although Fleming is mentioned in passing) or the Cold
War spy novels of John Le Carré or Frederick Forsyth’s phenomenal
bestseller, The Day of the Jackal (1971) even though, strictly speaking, the pro-
tagonist’s investigation of a crime or his intention to commit one is central
to their works. On the other hand, The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction
(2003a) has a chapter devoted to spy fiction by David Seed. Julian Symons’
much earlier study of the genre, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the
Crime Novel (1972), also includes a short history of the spy story. Others may
see the spy or espionage novel as a part of the adventure genre, which is also
a fairly open category: ranging from the naval adventure novels of
C.S. Forester (1899–1906) and Patrick O’Brian (1914–2000) to the spy-
adventure war novels of Jack Higgins, who wrote the classic Second World
War adventure, The Eagle Has Landed (1975) – or from the politico-military
techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy to the wilderness and exploration adventure
novels pioneered by H. Rider Haggard in King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and
Genre 43
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the ‘Professor Challenger’ stories and carried on
by blockbuster novelists such as Wilbur Smith and Michael Crichton.
Nevertheless, it seems to be generally agreed that these are the eight pri-
mary generic categories for popular fiction. This chapter discusses three of
them in some detail – romance, crime fiction and science fiction – making
a set of broader points about genre and popular fiction along the way.
The visibility of genre in the field of popular fiction means that popular
fiction is often accused, by literary critics in particular, of being merely
a matter of formula. This is partly why Literature’s relationship to genre is
far less immediately registered, much less of a primary defining character-
istic: it simply cannot afford to be seen as formulaic, or conventional. So
much literary fiction, heavily invested in a sense of its own uniqueness,
tends instead to see itself as unconventional, the countercultural counterpart
to popular fiction’s ‘conservatism’.1 But like some of the differences
between popular fiction and Literature listed in Chapter 1, this one is also
as much if not more ideological than real – tied less to the inherent prop-
erties of each field and more to particular instances within each field. Some
works of Literature are deeply conservative, some are not; much the same
applies to popular fiction, which also has its ultra-conservative writers as
well as its liberals and radicals.

Romance, formula, industry, subgenres

Indeed, some genres of popular fiction are themselves often seen as more
conservative – more convention-bound – than others. Romance is notori-
ously accounted for in this way, as much more tied to formula and conven-
tion than, say, science fiction (some works of which can occasionally have
literary aspirations). This is especially because of the genre’s association
with two mass-publishing houses that had laid out, and continue to do so,
the formulae to which their writers must conform. Mills and Boon was
founded in the United Kingdom in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles
Boon, two former employees of Methuen – which had published Marie
Corelli’s bestselling fiction. Mills and Boon began as an educational and
general press, with a range of different genre interests (for example, the writer
Jack London was contracted to them). But by the 1920s it began to con-
centrate on romance fiction. It successfully linked this to the fast turnover
operations of commercial lending libraries at the time: as Joseph McAleer
notes, Boots Booklovers Library alone would purchase ‘between 300 and
500 copies of each title’ (McAleer 1992: 104), making books cheaply available
to wide and increasingly demanding audiences. Harlequin, a Canadian com-
pany founded by Richard Bonnycastle in 1949, initially specialized in reprints
of British and American books, including westerns and thrillers and some
44 Defining the field
literary classics. In 1957, it began to buy the rights to Doctor/Nurse
romance novels from Mills and Boon. Harlequin’s operations rapidly
expanded and in 1971 it acquired its rival British company which became
Harlequin Mills and Boon Ltd. With annual sales of around 200 million by
the end of the 1980s, Harlequin went on to dominate romance sales ‘in over
100 international markets’ (see Bloom 2002: 104; and The sheer volume of output
through this company has helped to confirm the sense of the conventionality
of its romance fiction, as Ken Worpole notes:

. . . there is a strong sense that the main problem about the romantic
novel is that under heavy commercial pressures, it has become over-
determined and over-conventionalized . . . . Certainly the prolific output
of some writers in the genre conforms this view that once the setting
has been chosen, the characters assembled and named, the novels more
or less write themselves.
(Worpole 1984: 33–4)

Harlequin and Mills and Boon have long been synonymous with romance,
and it can certainly seem as if the brand name of the publisher overshad-
ows the writer, who is quite literally subsumed into industry. John
Sutherland, using an unfortunate metaphor, notes that the women who
wrote romances for these publishers worked to their formulae ‘like so many
battery hens’ (Sutherland 2002: 15). Romance readers are often given
equally undignified identities, cast rather like Nelson’s caricature discussed
earlier, as ‘addicts’ who believe what they read and who appear to be
content to remain stuck in the groove of the formulae Mills and
Boon/Harlequin provide for them (although, on the other hand, this would
also be a form of literary ‘re-reading’: rather like returning to the same text
again and again). Germaine Greer, for example, had no time for romance
readers in her famous feminist manifesto, The Female Eunuch (1970): they
were a prime example of her ‘castrated’ (i.e. pacified, exploited, deceived,
manipulated) women, and feminists, so it seemed at the time at least, were
destined to leave them behind in their quest for liberation and ‘real female
love’ (Greer 1970: 188).
Two points can be made here about this most formulaic of popular genres
and its readers, perhaps not to defend them so much as to offer some
complications to the negative images that routinely bedevil them. To take
readers first, it is worth turning to the best academic book on romance
readers and, arguably, on the genre itself: Janice Radway’s Reading the
Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984). Radway had in fact
studied a small group of romance readers – all women – who bought
Genre 45
their fiction from a bookshop in a midwestern US town she called
‘Smithton’. As a feminist herself, Radway disapproved of the ‘patriarchal’
ideology of romance, understanding it to be a conservative (and always
heterosexual) literary genre. So she didn’t expect to find any radical or
‘oppositional’ romance readers in her study group. But she also didn’t want
to dismiss them as mindless addicts. For the readers, it turned out, romance
certainly did not provide a critique of ‘patriarchal’ institutions such a
marriage, since marriage is usually the longed-for outcome at the end of the
story. But it did seem to offer them a way of coping with their own
marriages, and their own, real predicaments. The act of reading romances
carries with it a small-scale protest about the ordinary pressures of daily life
(e.g. raising a family) and the things that are missing from readers’ lives: the
care and attention that romantic heroines get from their heroes, for
example (Radway 1984: 12–13). The Smithton readers preferred intelligent
and independent (‘spunky’) rather than passive, helpless heroines, and
valued tenderness and a sense of humour in their heroes. Moreover, they
knew they read romances in a climate of ( primarily male) disapproval.
The subsequent need to justify or legitimate their ‘self-interested’ reading
habits enabled them to become more assertive as well as more strategic.
Reading romances is neither an ‘oppositional’ nor a ‘progressive’ act,
but given these features it might well be a act of refusal, however mild and
short lived:

In picking up a book . . . they refuse temporarily their family’s otherwise

constant demand that they attend to the wants of others even as they
act deliberately to do something for their own private pleasure. Their
activity is compensatory . . . in that it permits them to focus on them-
selves and to carve out a solitary space within an arena where their self-
interest is usually identified with the interests of others and where they
are defined as a public resource to be mined at will by the family.
(ibid.: 211)

The second point to make returns us to the genre itself. In fact, although
romance generally does work to formulae, it is a highly varied genre with
a range of subgeneric identities. The Smithton women perplexed Radway
when they told her that the heroines of romance were all ‘different’ –
Radway had simply assumed that the plots of romance, with their ‘reassur-
ing’ endings, were all pretty much the same. But many different kinds of
romance work themselves out under the broad generic heading. The end-
ings may well be much the same overall, but how they arrive there – and
with what kind of heroine and hero – can be entirely up for grabs. It can
help instead – as we shall see with the other genres of popular fiction – to
46 Defining the field
think more specifically about subgenres in this respect. The UK-based
Harlequin Mills and Boon have several ‘brand portfolios’ in the romance
genre, each of which offers distinctive subgenre fiction: Mills and Boon,
Silhouette, and MIRA. Mills and Boon itself currently publishes Modern
Romance (‘intense relationships, often very sensual, reflecting shared feel-
ings, desires and dreams’), Tender Romance (‘Sparkling, fresh and tender
love stories’), Sensual (‘Sexy, sassy and seductive, hot, sizzling romance’),
Medical (‘set against the background of the medical profession’), Historical
(‘From medieval sagas to the roaring twenties, rich and vivid’) and Blaze
(‘sultry days and steamy nights’), as well as other romance series. Silhouette
offers Desire, Special Edition (novels which ‘tackle sensitive issues’),
Sensation (‘A thrilling mix of passion, adventure and drama’) and Intrigue
(‘Romance suspense at its best: Danger, deception and desire’), amongst
others. MIRA (‘the Latin word for wonderful’) was launched by Harlequin
in 1994, offering what they loosely call ‘women’s fiction’, publishing
Historical Romance, Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense, as
well as Thrillers and a broader romance series simply called Fiction (‘where
anything can happen’). In the United States and Canada, Harlequin has its
own subgeneric divisions, including the famous Temptation line.
We can list other romance subgenres here: Inspirational Romance and
Gothic Romance, for example, or the historical subgenres of Regency and
Restoration Romance. One of the greatest early examples of Restoration
Romance was Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944), a novel of over
900 pages published by Macmillan which sold around 100,000 copies in its
first week. Its orphaned, illegitimate heroine, Amber St Clare, lives in
Restoration England but escapes penury by taking a number of lovers, end-
ing up in the bed of Charles II and finally becoming a Duchess. Banned in
Massachussetts because of its sexual content and downright bawdiness, the
state’s attorney general noted ‘that he had found 70 references to inter-
course, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions and almost 50 “miscel-
laneous objectionable passages” in the novel’ (Anon 2003: 17). Regency
Romance, returning to England, 1811–20, and identifying the novelist Jane
Austen as its source and inspiration, is often a good deal tamer, with its
chaste but witty and determined heroines, civilized good manners and ide-
alization of the aristocracy. Perhaps the two best-known modern Regency
Romance novelists were Georgette Heyer (1902–74) and Barbara Cartland
(1901–2000). Cartland, a Dame of the Order of the British Empire and
step-grandmother to the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (and with
a particular fondness for pink and small dogs), published over 500 novels.
Heyer produced 24 Regency Romances (amongst other genres), beginning
with The Black Moth in 1921; her second Regency Romance, The Transformation
of Philip Jettan, was published by Mills and Boon in 1923. Her attention to
Genre 47
historical fact has helped to imprint her name, or brand, on this period:
‘Georgette Heyer’s Regency England’.
Regency Romance provides a point of entry into an historical period,
encouraging historical accuracy and a love for detail: about costumes, for
example. The Romance Writers of America organization has a chapter called ‘The
Beau Monde’ which specializes in Regency Romance and offers advice and
detailed information about the period (in ‘The Regency Realm’), covering ref-
erence works about aristocratic rankings, costumes and fashion, eating habits,
coaching and so on (The Beau Monde:
A great many writers (Beau Monde itself lists over 90 in the United States and
Canada alone) now identify themselves specifically with the genre, relishing its
potential for historical detail, no matter how obscure, as well as its wide range
of character types. Melbourne-raised Stephanie Laurens is a consistent world-
wide bestseller, writing Regencies (her first, Tangled Reins, was published
by Mills and Boon in 1992) as well as historical romances that move out of
the Regency period and into the later part of the nineteenth century – with
exactly the kind of ‘spunky’ heroines that Radway’s readers seemed to enjoy.
Here is Laurens’ important explanation of why she sets her romances in
the Regency period:

First – and for a romance author very definitely foremost – the concept
of love as an appropriate, useful, and perhaps even desirable element
within marriage within the upper echelons of society evolved and
gained acceptance during the Regency . . . . It could be said that the
Regency is the first time we see love within marriage as we now know
it, and the very fact that this circumstance was unusual – not the norm –
makes it easier to highlight, easier to showcase its desirable qualities . . . .
By the dawn of the Regency, society itself had become distinctly
English in a highly recognizable way – rules abounded. It was an
extremely strictly-mannered society . . . . But, like all things English, for
instance, the English language, all the rules of the Regency had their
So while there were countless rules about just about everything, there
were always exceptions – this creates a very dynamic situation, where
virtually every case has to be considered on its merits . . . . While such
a rigid but exceedingly variable social structure imposes and requires
a great deal of care to be exercised by the author, it simultaneously pres-
ents untold opportunities for all sorts of situations guaranteed to a) bring
our hero and heroine together, b) put them in circumstances where they
have to act, or are impelled to act demonstrating their characters and c)
to create satisfyingly exciting scenarios through which they move as their
love develops and evolves into a grand passion.
48 Defining the field
Where, you ask, do the exciting scenarios come from? Ah – that’s the
other side of the Regency that makes it so beloved of romance authors.
For beneath the glitter and glamor of the ton’s balls, behind the elegance
and wealth of the upper classes and their indolent and hedonistic
lifestyles, England was changing dramatically. It would never be the
same again. The Regency was one of those rare times in history when
an old order was being put aside, superseded, by a new order – but it
all happened peaceably.
(Laurens n.d.:

These fascinating remarks tell us a great deal about the logics of contem-
porary romance – attracted to a moment in time which is cast here as
progressive, even revolutionary in its own way (although its focus on the
aristocracy at this time may make this seem a little like a contradiction in
terms). The key words for romance are, of course, love and marriage. But
here, they are brought together as if for the first time. The Regency is thus able
to imagine itself as a progressive response to the rules and regulations of an
‘old order’ unsympathetic to the romance genre’s needs. The emphasis is on
the ability of a character to choose and, in so doing, to become ‘excep-
tional’: a generic feature that is central to a great deal of romance fiction.
Another bestselling contemporary example is Welsh-born, Canadian-
based Mary Balogh who has produced over 60 Regency and related
Historical Romances since her first, The Masked Deception, in 1985 – which,
like many of her other novels, was published by Signet Regency, a division
of Penguin Books USA established in the mid-1970s specifically for this
subgenre. A great admirer of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, which
enables her then to locate herself in a Regency Romance ‘tradition’,
Balogh’s most recent novels include the Bedwyn series, about six feisty,
passionate and reckless aristocrats. Unusually for the subgenre – although less
so nowadays – Balogh’s witty, independent heroines often enjoy explicit sex
scenes, as she notes in an interview for All About Romance in February 1998:

My very first book had explicit sex in it and it was accepted right away.
When I submitted my second book, and that was also to have explicit
sex, I think my editor was a little wary. She had this stereotype of little
old ladies reading Regencies who wouldn’t like it. My experience has
told me that these very same little old ladies are among my biggest fans
of these more explicit books. Another point I would make is about rules.
I always sort of sit up and take notice when people use this word about
Regencies. People always say there are rules about Regencies. What are
these rules? Who made them up? I’d like to see this list of rules!
(Anon 1998:
Genre 49
Like Laurens, Balogh casts her romances in defiance of accepted ‘rules’ of
behaviour. She also feistily reacts against the conventional view of romance
as formulaic here, establishing a kind of empathetic link between her own
disdain for ‘rules’ as a novelist and the similarly disdainful recklessness of
her Regency heroines. One of the keys to a great deal of romance fiction is
precisely this: that it can thrive upon a disavowal of rules and formulae
(rhetorical as this may be) even as it requires them in order to be what it is –
since no genre can exist without rules of behaviour. It isn’t uncommon for
romance, in fact, to reflect this by actually pitching a rule-breaking heroine
against one who conforms to the rules: disobedience and obedience jostling
with each other in the same narrative. Perhaps the greatest example of
a Historical Romance which works in this way is Margaret Mitchell’s epic
Gone with the Wind (1936), set in Georgia during the American Civil War,
with its passionate green-eyed heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, and the gentle,
wifely Melanie Hamilton. This novel had sold 50,000 copies before its
release date; by the time of Victor Fleming’s famous 1939 film of Gone with
the Wind (the rights for Mitchell’s first novel, $50,000, set a record at the
time), over one and a half million copies had been sold.
Some romance writers use pseudonyms when they venture into other
subgenres. For example, the bestselling British novelist Eleanor Burford
Hibbert (1906–93) used six pseudonyms, the best known of which was
Victoria Holt, to write Gothic and Historical Romances from a range of
historical periods (the ‘French Revolution’ series, the ‘Lucrezia Borgia’
series, the ‘Queens of England’ series and so on). It can seem as if romance
fiction can locate itself anywhere, at any time: no genre may be quite this
adaptable. The wonderfully informative Texas-based Romance Designs
homepage ( offers links to further
romance subgenres, or what they call ‘romance communities’, each con-
taining detailed industrial news and information: Historical Romance, as
well as Fantasy Romance, Paranormal Romance, eRomance, Suspense
Romance, Young Adult Romance and – perhaps not surprisingly – Time
Travel Romance, the latter testifying to romance’s ability to wander about
pretty much all over the place at the drop of a handkerchief. The contem-
porary expansion of romance subgenres has been assisted by a proliferation
in the number of publishers now producing romance fiction, allowing the
genre to develop beyond the convention-bound restrictions of brand name
or category romance such as those published by Harlequin Mills and Boon
and Harlequin/Silhouette – although category romance itself remains
a superselling feature of the genre, and other publishers have replicated the
form. Signet has already been mentioned, a division of a much larger pub-
lishing house. Avon is another, a division of HarperCollins (acquired in
1999); so are Bantam and Dell which are divisions of Random House; and
50 Defining the field
so is Jove, also a division of Penguin Books USA. Zebra Books, which
publishes a huge range of romances, including Regencies, is an imprint of
Kensington Publishing Corp., an independent US publishing house estab-
lished in 1974 that now publishes around 200 romances each year.
Dorchester in another US independent, publishing over 100 romances each
year. The romance market is now worth over $1.6 billion a year globally
and romances make up a significant percentage of all paperback sales
(estimates are usually somewhere between around 30 and 55 per cent).
Some of the biggest publishing advances have been paid to romance
writers: in 1977, Avon offered Colleen McCullough $1.9 million for her
romantic Australian family saga, The Thorn Birds, a world-record figure at
the time. In 1992, a five-book contract signed with Dell/Delacorte
Publishing Co. earned Danielle Steel – whose hardcover print runs are into
the 800,000s – around $60 million (Bane and Benet 1994: 2). It should be
fairly clear from all this why the critic Jerry Palmer suggests, perhaps in
something of an understatement, that genre, amongst other things, ‘functions
as a commercial device’ (Palmer 1992: 116).
In a chapter appropriately titled ‘The Romance Industry’, from her book
Good-Bye Heathcliff (1988), Mariam Darce Frenier describes the ‘romance
wars’ of the late 1970s and early 1980s which saw the number of publish-
ers involved in romance increase considerably, while others (Mills and Boon
and Harlequin) consolidated and expanded their operations. She also notes
the exponential rise in romance purchasing during the early 1980s, along
with the movement away from category or brand named romances and the
rising interest in particular romance writers – many of whom were able to
claim loyal and well-informed readerships. At this time, Harlequin’s main
US rival (which it later acquired) was Silhouette, an imprint of Simon &
Schuster. Romances were heavily promoted: ‘At the peak of the romance
battle, 1983, Harlequin Enterprises Limited and Silhouette were spending
$20 million per year on total consumer advertising’ (Frenier 1988: 9). Print
runs substantially increased to service a growing market:

The average reader [of romances] . . . was a white woman under 50,
college educated . . . affluent, and white-collar. Heavy readers . . . bought
47 per cent of the books they read, and read 24 books every six
months . . . in 1983 romances constituted the largest category of fiction
books purchased by American women (26 per cent), and . . . historical
novels formed the second largest category (23 per cent). Since most
historical novels are romances, the combined percentage, 49 per cent,
illustrates the importance of romances to American publishers.
(ibid.: 9)
Genre 51
Around half of the 50 million romance readers in the United States are
married, and the highest percentage of romance readers are in their late
thirties – although most romance readers have read at least one romance
novel by the time they are 16 years old (see Romance Writers of America: Even over the last five years,
romance readerships have grown considerably. One of the world’s
bestselling romance novelists, Nora Roberts, who was first published by
Silhouette in 1981, now sells tee-shirts to her fans which say, no doubt accu-
rately enough, ‘What is America Reading?’. With
three romance novels, each published by Jove, in the Publishers’ Weekly mass-
market paperback top 10 bestseller list for February 2004 (as I write this
chapter), and with 102 New York Times bestsellers since 1991, her claim that
she sells 21 books every minute is probably about right and gives an idea of
just how consumable romance actually is (see
funfacts.htm) (Harlequin sells more than 5.5 books a second: 160 million
books worldwide in 2003).
Romance is, indeed, an industry; and as it beckons its readers to ‘escape’
into its various realms (the historical, the paranormal, the erotic, etc.) it pre-
cisely acts out the conventional sense of the term, ‘entertainment industry’.
On the other hand, its phenomenal sales suggest that it also continues to
speak to its readers closely, intimately. This is a feature many contemporary
romance writers nurture and encourage on their websites or through
newsletters and fanzines such as Romantic Times, as they reveal often quite
private aspects of their lives, their tragedies, the people they care for
(a number of romance writers support charitable causes), and especially
their achievements. A new kind of romance emerged during the late 1970s
that seemed in this sense to capture the spirit of the times, announced by
the title of British-born romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford’s
A Woman of Substance (1979) – which to date has sold around 20 million
copies. Its heroine, Emma Harte, pulls herself out of poverty, coming finally
to preside over the world’s largest department store, Harte Enterprises –
distinguishing herself in the process from the prevailing caricature of the
swooning, submissive, empty-headed romance heroine. In fact, this novel is
much more about the realization of a career at any cost than about the
attainment of love. Harte Enterprises becomes Emma’s life and the manag-
ing of it continues unabated, occupying her granddaughter Paula in several
equally super-selling sequels (Hold the Dream in 1985; To Be the Best in 1988,
and most recently, Emma’s Secret in 2003). Romance fiction, of course, has
enjoyed the company of capable, independent heroines for some time. But
by the 1980s, its interest not only in the heroine’s romantic dalliances but in
her career was also well established, with or without the help of feminism.
52 Defining the field
Even Mills and Boon was advising its writers to incorporate a career into
the life of their heroines: the emphasis shifted towards achievement, and not
only in love although that certainly helped.
In 1994, Guardian and New Statesman & Society journalist Yvonne Roberts
published her first romance novel in a similarly entrepreneurial spirit, Every
Woman Deserves an Adventure (1994). This is a book about a 44-year-old
woman who breaks out of an unhappy marriage, and has a great deal of
sex along the way: it sold to PanMacmillan for £155,000. An article about
Roberts in the UK newspaper the Independent, begins like this: ‘Once upon
a time there was a left-wing feminist called Yvonne Roberts . . . ’ (Picardie
1994: 18). It then charts what we might think of as a career change, from
feminism into romance fiction, the latter encouraging Roberts to distance
herself from the former, as this passage explains:

‘I can’t stand feminist fiction’, says Roberts. ‘You screech to a halt on

page 32 when the heroine is given a long diatribe about victimhood
and empowerment. Life isn’t like that.’
Life, she discovered, was full of ‘girlfriends with good jobs, who just
seemed to put up with so much rubbish at home. It made me think
about how women value themselves. Once you begin to think you’re
worth something, then all sorts of things happen. That’s all I was try-
ing to say. If people by the book and just have a laugh, that’s fine. But
if they buy it and say, “Hang on a minute, this is something to do with
my life and maybe I could take a risk now and then”, that’s better still’.
(ibid.: 18)

These perceptive comments turn the cliché that romance fiction is simply
escapist on its head: here, it is feminism (and, it seems to suggest, the way
feminism plays itself out in literary fiction) that is remote from the realities of
women’s lives, not romance. The comments go on to allow for the kind of
superficial, throwaway readings popular fiction is supposed to attract, as ‘mere’
entertainment (‘If people buy the book and just have a laugh...’). But they also
allow for a second option, for something like the kind of possibilities that Janice
Radway had identified in romance and which may help to account for the
genre’s remarkable popularity: that romance can indeed sit closer to women
readers’ actual lives and aspirations than one might at first imagine.

Crime fiction: subgenres, referentiality,

The genre of crime fiction couldn’t be more different to romance. We
might say that these genres each convey different ‘attitudes’, as all genres do,
Genre 53
which means amongst other things that they attract certain kinds of readers
and not others. The very look of each genre is different: the lilac-grey-coloured
rose and background on the Avon paperback cover of Johanna Lindsey’s
romance novel Love Me Forever (1996) is a long way away from the coated
figure walking along a grim Edinburgh streetscape on the Orion paperback
cover of Ian Rankin’s detective novel, Dead Souls (1999). If the shape of a love
heart ever appears on the cover of a crime novel – as it does on LA-based
Michael Connelly’s Blood Work (1998) – then there is a good chance it will
be deep red and sliced through the middle. Genres tend to be relatively self-
contained and self-generating, which means that it is unlikely that you will
see a romance novelist lending her critical endorsement to the front or back
cover of a crime novelist’s latest work. Crime novels need to be endorsed
only by other crime novelists: this provides generic identification, legitima-
tion and approval. Indeed, crime fiction is strongly writer-identified. John
Burdett’s Bangkok 8 (2003), a wonderful mystery thriller featuring a part-
Thai, part-American detective called Sonchai Jitpleecheep, carries endorse-
ments on its covers from three particularly well-known contemporary crime
writers, Jeffrey Deaver, Carl Hiaasen and James Ellroy (who says, loudly and
apocalyptically, ‘Read this book! Savor the language! It’s the last, and most
compelling word in thrillers!’). These three writers help to usher Burdett’s
novel into the generic world they already inhabit, sealing its identity as
a work of crime fiction. They mark it generically with their own names, which
means they themselves perform a function that is authorial and industrial
(as Jerry Palmer had noted, genre works commercially) while also saying
something about content and quality.
A new crime novel can attract the most effusive tributes from other, often
more established crime writers who seem happy to lend their names and
reputations as support – secure in the knowledge that readers who may not
know the new novelist will certainly know (and trust) them. Dan Brown’s The
Da Vinci Code (2003), about a Harvard professor of religious symbology, no
less, who investigates a complicated code and comes up against an ancient
religious secret society, is endorsed on its covers by Harlan Coben, Clive
Cussler, Nelson de Mille and Robert Crais, all bestselling contemporary
crime novelists. Here are Crais’s comments on the back cover, written
directly to the reader/purchaser: ‘I would never have believed that this is
my kind of thriller, but I’m going to tell you something – the more I read,
the more I had to read. Dan Brown has built a world that is rich in fasci-
nating detail, and I could not get enough of it. Mr Brown, I am your fan.’
These remarks capture the ‘addiction’ of popular fiction: that once one
begins, one cannot not keep going. But they also express a kind of conver-
sion for Crais: the focus of his addiction changes as he moves (sceptically at
first) from one subgeneric position to another. Having done so, he then
54 Defining the field
seems happy to register another conversion as the novelist becomes the fan.
Crais, himself a strong selling crime writer with his series of novels about
the private detective Elvis Cole, welcomes a new and rather different book
into the fold but also recognizes what might very well be a greater talent,
a ‘phenomenon’ in the genre. In fact, Dan Brown’s novel was in the New York
Times bestseller top 5 for most of 2003 and remained there well into 2004
with around 5.5 million copies in print at the beginning of that year: for an
emerging contemporary crime novelist, this is indeed phenomenal.
The genre of crime fiction responds both to new talent and older
precursors: it is acutely aware of its own history and traditions. Here is
Michael Connelly, himself a bestselling crime novelist (and currently
President of the Mystery Writers of America), anointing the Boston-based
novelist Dennis Lehane on the back cover of Lehane’s Mystic River (2001):
‘Dennis Lehane is the heir apparent. You read his stuff and think he’s got the
great ones – [Raymond] Chandler, [Ross] Macdonald, [Robert B.] Parker –
watching over him as he writes every page. But his voice is an original.’ This
is a purely generic remark, of course, and makes no sense at all outside of
the realms of crime fiction. It shows that crime fiction, unlike romance, can
be cast as something of a man’s world, with younger sons watched over by
ghostly fathers – even though there are, and have been, many women crime
novelists, too. The claim that Lehane’s voice is ‘original’ is necessary to a
genre that continues to value uniqueness and individuality, as I shall show
later on. But it belatedly follows a much more determining remark, an insis-
tence that crime fiction is aware of, and always indebted to, its predecessors,
in this case, some of the great noir private eye novelists from the American
‘hardboiled’ tradition of the 1940s. Indeed, Robert B. Parker – one of
Lehane’s ghostly fathers listed above – remained immersed in this tradition,
writing about 50 years after Chandler and Macdonald but in more or less
exactly the same vein. As Stephen Knight notes:

Learned in the form, having a PhD on its origins and values [ Parker
wrote his dissertation in 1971 on Dashiell Hammett, Chandler and
Macdonald], Parker avows continuity. His detective Spenser, with the
Renaissance poet’s spelling, is a play on the name of Marlowe
[Raymond Chandler’s private detective], though he is located in
Boston. Parker also completed Chandler’s unfinished Poodle Springs
(1989) and Perchance to Dream (1991) is effectively a sequel to The Big Sleep.
(Knight 2003b: 138)

The ‘recycling’ of the work of earlier practitioners in the genre occurs in

obvious ways – through the name of Joe Gores’ retired Pinkerton detective,
Samuel Dashiell Hammett in Hammett (1975), for example – but also in
Genre 55
terms of styles and method. It may be impossible for crime fiction not to
refer to previous examples of the genre, especially the work of those writ-
ers who have attained classic status. One might often see across a range of
crime subgenres scattered and often quite self-conscious references to the
greatest literary detective team of all, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.
Agatha Christie (1890–1976) invokes them in a number of her novels, for
instance (and there is probably no need to mention Kinky Friedman’s
Spanking Watson [1999] again).
We might therefore say that crime fiction is both self-referential, and
(albeit sometimes mockingly) self-reverential – and in fact, all genres are. But
referentiality is the key. It is impossible both to write and to read genre fic-
tion without a sense of that genre’s history, without a knowledge of the
work of generic predecessors. This important point has already been made,
but is worth repeating: as Jerry Palmer has noted, genre is ‘part of the
author’s and reader’s competence’ (Palmer 1992: 116). It simply couldn’t
function unless its writers and readers had at least some knowledge about
the genres in which they participate, the more the better. Often, just as we
saw with romance writers, particular subtraditions will be cheerfully identi-
fied as newer writers insert themselves into a genre. Michael Connelly
‘decided to become a writer after discovering the books of Raymond
Chandler while attending the University of Florida’ (see http://www.; like
many crime novelists, he locates a literary source in the genre with which he
can identify and be identified. Crime fiction has several available points of
origin for subsequent writers: Chandler is one, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock
Holmes is another, Agatha Christie is yet another. It helps to know the
genre’s relation to its literary sources in this respect; which is another way
of saying that it helps to know the genre’s history. All genres, to borrow a
phrase from the late Marxist critic Louis Althusser, are ‘relatively
autonomous’ and have their own specific histories. The history of crime fic-
tion has been well documented by Stephen Knight both in his pioneering
book, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (1980) and in his more recent study,
Crime Fiction 1800–2000 (2003b), already mentioned – and mapped out
again in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (2003a), a project that indi-
cates the relatively high level of academic interest in the genre in the wake
of Robert B. Parker’s 1971 dissertation (there is, incidentally and perhaps
unsurprisingly, no Cambridge Companion to romance thus far). For Knight,
crime fiction’s sources can be traced back to the Newgate Calendar stories
which appeared throughout the eighteenth century, as well as the Mémoires
(1828–29) of Eugene Francois Vidocq, a criminal-turned-detective. Edgar
Allan Poe wrote three detective stories in the early 1840s, introducing his
metropolitan bohemian protagonist, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin.
56 Defining the field
The establishment of police forces – bureaucratic systems of discipline and
investigation – in major cities such as London and Paris provided the
context for the development of the detective novel. This embryonic genre
reached a highpoint in the nineteenth century with Wilkie Collins’s The
Moonstone (1868), a novel that introduces Inspector Seegrave and Sergeant
Cuff, amongst others, who investigate the theft of a valuable jewel. A little
earlier, Charles Dickens had also introduced a detective, the enigmatic
Inspector Bucket, into his novel, Bleak House (1853). But Dickens was an
author of Popular Literature, not a writer of popular fiction. As Stephen
Knight notes, although he ‘circled around crime fiction a great deal’ in his
novels, he ‘never wrote a text that could fairly be allotted to the genre’
(Knight 2003b: 47). Of course, Dickens was also a bestselling author who
knew about the marketplace and famously took his novels on tour with him,
earning huge sums of money as he performed his characters to adoring
audiences – prefiguring the kinds of publicity tours popular novelists do as
a matter of routine these days. Nevertheless, even though some readers will
argue the point, Dickens did not write popular fiction.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly did, however, and his character
Sherlock Holmes is often taken as the source for crime fiction: another
urbane bohemian amateur like Poe’s Dupin, bored with life but fond of
music, addicted to cocaine, a close reader of newspapers and a compulsive
filer of even the most obscure facts and information. In a number of stories,
Holmes helps distressed women who are persecuted by older male relatives
(such as step-fathers), usually over issues like inheritance. Far from the
clichéd view of Holmes as aloof and removed from ordinary life, he listens
to these women and responds paternally – although he never marries, a fea-
ture so many of the private detectives who come after him replicate. The
stories are domestic in kind, and in fact when the crimes move beyond the
household Holmes is unable to resolve them – as with the large-scale crim-
inal organization in ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891). Holmes’s popularity
meant that he overshadowed a genre that already had a great many practi-
tioners even by the 1890s. The BBC broadcaster Hugh Greene – brother of
the novelist Graham Greene – resurrected a number of these in his The
Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and its various sequels, published in Penguin’s
green-covered paperback crime fiction series established back in 1935 by
Allen Lane. Penguin’s original paperbacks were in two other colours:
orange for contemporary fiction and dark blue for biography. A colour code
for crime fiction testified to its presence and its respectability at this time: it
was the only popular genre to be taken up by Penguin in this way.
Conan Doyle had published many of his later Sherlock Holmes stories in
other magazines, not just The Strand: the US illustrated magazine, Collier’s, the
National Weekly, for example. Founded in 1888, Collier’s gained a circulation of
Genre 57
one million by the beginning of the First World War. Amongst many other
things, this politically liberal weekly famously published the ‘Fu Manchu’
stories of Sax Rohmer, beginning with ‘The Zayat Kiss’ in 1913 and ending
with the final installment of ‘Hangover House’ in 1949. The time-period
here also happens more or less to span what is called the ‘golden age’ of
crime fiction. In fact, Stephen Knight dates it precisely from 1913 with the
publication of Edmund Clerihew Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, a crime novel
dedicated to G.K. Chesterton who had published his ‘Father Brown’ ama-
teur detective stories a couple of years earlier: an early instance of the
genre’s self-referentiality. In spite of Bentley, however, crime fiction’s ‘golden
age’ is mostly associated with Agatha Christie, the ‘Queen of Crime’ who
continues to sell several million novels each year. Her first novel, The
Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920 – it is worth remembering
that Conan Doyle published his last Sherlock Holmes story, ‘Shoscombe Old
Place’, in 1927 – and she continued to publish for over 50 years. Christie’s
fiction consolidated and globalized the subgeneric features of this kind of
crime writing, which also came to be known as the ‘clue-puzzle’ mystery.
First, Knight suggests, there had to be a murder, something that was fairly
new to the genre (Knight 2003a: 77). There had to be multiple suspects and
a sequence of clues, and it helped if the setting was both isolated and
enclosed, like a country house. The clue-puzzle mystery subgenre has usu-
ally been identified with England (rather than Britain): the other best-known
practitioner at this time was Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), whose charm-
ing Oxford amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was introduced in Whose
Body? (1923) and went on to reappear in fourteen subsequent novels and
story collections. But there were also some important US writers of the clue-
puzzle subgenre during the 1920s and into the 1940s: ‘S.S. Van Dine’
(Willard Huntington Wright) and ‘Ellery Queen’ (the name used by two
cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee), both of whom set their
fiction in New York. Even so, American crime fiction was developing along
quite different subgeneric lines at this time. While Torquay-born Christie
was writing her first clue-puzzle novel, Pinkerton Detective Agency opera-
tive Dashiell Hammett was starting to publish ‘tough-guy’ detective stories in
an important new American magazine, Black Mask, providing crime fiction
with another, crucial point of origin.
Black Mask was a pulp magazine launched in April 1920 by
H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, as a means of supporting
a sophisticated literary magazine they were running at the time, The Smart
Set, which was losing money. (The Smart Set, interestingly, had been edited by
Willard Huntington Wright, aka ‘S.S. Van Dine’, from 1912–14. He was
the first US editor to publish a story by James Joyce.) Pulp magazines had
established themselves in the 1880s and 1890s, publishing on cheap paper
58 Defining the field
and serializing ‘sensational’ stories often with lurid illustrations. Argosy and
All Story were two early pulp magazines: Edgar Rice Burroughs published
‘Tarzan of the Apes’ in All Story in October 1912. The first crime fiction pulp
magazine was Street and Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, a weekly which began
in 1919. Initially, Black Mask was multi-generic, subtitled ‘Western, Detective
and Adventure Stories’; its popularity grew so quickly that Mencken and
Nathan, having invested $500 into its establishment, were able to sell it
after eight issues to publishers Eltinge Warner and Eugene Crow for $12,500
Gruber 1967: 135–47). Dashiell Hammett published his first story in Black
Mask in 1922, by which time the magazine’s circulation was over 60,000.
Around the time Black Mask serialized Hammett’s classic hardboiled novel,
The Maltese Falcon – between 1929 and 1930 – circulation had risen to over
100,000. And then, in the early 1930s, Black Mask published its first stories by
Raymond Chandler. Chandler and Hammett are taken as the sources of the
American hardboiled subgenre, which introduces a private detective –
Hammett’s ‘Continental Op’ and Sam Spade, and Chandler’s Philip
Marlowe – who is cynical but compassionate, solitary, tough-yet-vulnerable,
moving through a corrupt and violent urban world, and then all-too-typically
discovering that the crime was committed by a woman (rather than, say,
a corrupt or criminal organization). Chandler gave this figure a romantic
and extraordinarily influential spin in his celebrated essay, ‘The Simple Art of
Murder’ (1944):

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who
is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must
be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete
man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use
a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour . . . .
(cited in Porter 2003: 97)

In fact, Chandler thought that real detectives had ‘about as much moral
stature as a stop-and-go sign’ (Hiney and MacShane 2000: 115). Even so,
the hardboiled fictional detective in these early novels provided what
Stephen Knight calls ‘a national self-concept’ for Americans (Knight
2003b: 111), underwriting the rise of film noir during the 1940s and contin-
uing to impact on later films such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)
and even Ridley Scott’s future-noir science fiction film, Bladerunner (1982)
amongst many other things. The subgenre also influenced a great many
US crime novelists who followed in their wake, from Sara Paretsky to
Robert Crais and James Lee Burke – as well as crime novelists elsewhere,
like Peter Corris in Australia and Mike Phillips in the United Kingdom.
Genre 59
Crime fiction is often broadly divided between hardboiled, tougher
detective thrillers and clue-puzzle mysteries. This is also sometimes regis-
tered as a masculine–feminine distinction – for example, Chandler versus
Christie – even though men like ‘S.S. Van Dine’ and ‘Ellery Queen’ wrote
the latter and a number of women, such as Sara Paretsky, continue to write
the former. In fact, at the end of Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely (1940), a
character explicitly distinguishes the hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe not
from one of Agatha Christie’s detectives but from ‘S.S. Van Dine’s’ puzzle-
solver, Philo Vance, with his ‘charming light smile and a phony English
accent’ (Chandler 2002: 435). Subgenres are often self-distinguishing in this
way, deriding or distancing themselves from another subgenre – and doing
it explicitly, in the work itself – in order to announce their own particular
qualities. ‘It’s not that kind of story’, Marlowe replies about the subgenre he
literally occupies, ‘It’s not lithe and clever. It’s just dark and full of blood’
(ibid.: 435). A subgenre gains its identity always in relation to other sub-
genres, actively so, and it can often quite aggressively mark out its difference
from them. Michael Denning makes this point in his useful study of the ide-
ology of British spy thrillers, Cover Stories (1987): ‘themes and formulas in
popular fiction never appear inertly, simply to be catalogued, but emerge as
part of antagonistic collective discourses’ (Denning 1987: 15). This is an
important point to note: that genres are internally antagonistic, their sub-
genres needing to carve out differences in kind for themselves – which may
mean knocking other subgenres out of the way in the process. Spy fiction,
for Denning, might be either realistic (like John le Carré) or romantic (like
Ian Fleming) – and the former in particular will criticize the latter for its
unreality, its fantasy scenarios, its lack of psychological depth and so on.
Some crime fiction is attracted to understatement and subtlety, while other
kinds can enjoy sensationalism and excess. This distinction was famously
drawn by Dorothy L. Sayers in 1929 when she spoke of two kinds of crime
fiction, the ‘purely Intellectual’ and the ‘purely Sensational’ (Sayers 1929: 19).
A similar distinction might also be drawn between crime fiction that is
literary in character or aspiration, and crime fiction that isn’t. Chandler him-
self is often associated with the former, as a great stylist who remained
dissatisfied with the lowbrow identity of early private eye crime fiction: he
complained to his publisher, Alfred Knopf, that his first novel, The Big Sleep
(1939), was ‘still too much pulpy’ (Hiney and MacShane 2000: 15). Dennis
Porter notes that Chandler was adored by a host of literary authors, like
W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, and Porter himself pays further tribute to
Chandler’s literary stature, invoking the notion that Literature transcends
genre: ‘In the course of his career, he came to appreciate more fully,
like Gustave Flaubert 100 years earlier, that great literary art could rise
above genre limits’ (Porter 2003: 103). Crime fiction and literary skill might
60 Defining the field
aspire either to be bedfellows or to be content to live on opposites sides of
the fence. It is also worth remembering, as Julian Symons does, that Cecil
Day-Lewis (1904–72) was ‘the only detective story writer to have been a
Poet Laureate’, writing under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake (Symons
1985: 114). Some crime fiction can indeed aspire to the kind of stylishness
often attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Literature. The American novelist
Gore Vidal is fond of the Italian ‘metaphysical mystery’ writer, Leonardo
Sciascia (1921–89), for exactly these reasons. Patricia Highsmith (1921–95),
who wrote a sequence of mystery-thrillers about the con-man and killer
Tom Ripley beginning with The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), is another
favourite of Vidal’s and was also cast as a writer who transcends her generic
‘limits’. For the critic and crime novelist Joan Smith, writing in the Los
Angeles Times, Highsmith is ‘no more a practitioner of the murder mystery
genre (under which she is all too frequently classified) than are Dostoevsky,
Faulkner and Camus’ (Smith 2001: 18). Highsmith in fact wrote a how-to
manual on a subgenre of crime fiction – Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
(1966) – which worked in part along similar lines, potentially lifting suspense
fiction into the realms of Literature:

the beauty of the suspense genre is that a writer can write profound
thoughts and have some sections without physical action if he wishes to,
because the framework is an essentially lively story. [ Dostoevsky’s]
Crime and Punishment is a splendid example of this. In fact, I think most
of Dostoevsky’s books would be called suspense books, were they being
published today for the first time. But he would be asked to cut,
because of production costs.
(Highsmith 1990: 3–4)

Suspense fiction may well be one of the more literary subgenres of crime fic-
tion, linked as it often is to realism, to ordinary life and everyday characters
(albeit with pathological tendencies). Ruth Rendell, writing as ‘Barbara Vine’,
is another fine practitioner: the Vine novels offer psychological depth and
often move painstakingly through their paces, sometimes appearing to be
without a plot or even a central protagonist, allowing the suspense to develop
slowly and surely. By contrast, the thriller embraces the lowbrow end of the
genre, focused and relentless. David Glover’s excellent essay on the thriller
begins with a symptomatic remark from the super-selling espionage-thriller
novelist Robert Ludlum (1927–2001): ‘It’s a lousy book. So I stayed up until
3 am to finish it’ (Glover 2003: 135). Glover then notes: ‘This anecdotal,
tongue-in-cheek confession neatly captures the ambivalence associated with
a hugely successful mode of crime writing, a guilty sense that its lack of literary
merit has always somehow been inseparable from the compulsiveness with
Genre 61
which its narrative pleasures are greedily gobbled up, relegating the thriller to
the most undeserving of genres’ (ibid.: 135). Spy-thrillers developed during
the 1870s and 1880s: one of the bestselling early international spy-thriller
writers was the prolific E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866–1946), whose novels
include The Mysterious Mr Sabin (1898), often credited as the first spy novel.
Another important source for spy fiction is The Riddle of the Sands (1903), by
the Irish Nationalist Erskine Childers (1870–1922) – the only novel he pub-
lished, a seafaring spy-thriller which has its characters uncover a German plot
to invade England. In his introduction to a reprint of Childers’ novel in the
Oxford Popular Fiction series, David Trotter describes it as ‘purposeful’ and
‘functional’, two key words for the thriller which, as Glover notes, ‘is unusual
in its reliance upon, or subordination to, the single-minded drive to deliver a
starkly intense literary effect’ (Trotter 1995: xx; Glover 2003: 135). The ‘King
of Thrillers’ at the beginning of the twentieth century was Edgar Wallace
(1875–1932), once described by Graham Greene as ‘the human book-factory’
because he was able to put a novel together in the space of a few days (cited
in Glover 1995: ix). Wallace’s first bestseller was also his most famous work,
The Four Just Men (1905), a short thriller that he printed through a company
he set up for the purpose, The Tallis Press, after his manuscript was rejected
by a number of publishers. The Four Just Men turns on the assassination of
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, who supports a Bill that would send a Spanish
political refugee back to Spain and to his enemies. It happens, however, in a
locked room surrounded by staff and police, and the assassins escape unde-
tected. Wallace gave the book heavy publicity, offering a £250 prize to the
reader who could guess how Sir Philip Ramon was murdered. A number of
them did so, and the whole venture cost Wallace more than the initial sale of
almost 40,000 copies earned him in return. Even so, the novel established the
logic of the modern thriller: melodramatized events, a sequence of sharp
climaxes, fast dialogue and short paragraphs, and ‘scarcely a single wasted
word’ (ibid.: xv).
The thriller in this sense is popular fiction at its purest, soliciting the
reader’s belief as it unfolds and using its sheer pace to carry that belief
along intact. Andre Juté, in another how-to manual, Writing a Thriller (1999),
says that the ‘pace requirement is more strenuous than in any other kind of
fiction except the adventure story’ ( Juté 1999: 10). The suspense-thriller
novelist Jeffrey Deaver, whose primary investigator is Lincoln Rhyme, the
ex-head of forensics at the New York Police Department, understands this
only too well. He employs what he calls ‘the Deaver framework’ on novels
like The Bone Collector (1997), writing longer sentences early on and then
changing to an increasingly clipped style, with shorter chapters and sharper
language: ‘My whole point of writing is to give readers something they will
enjoy. One of the things they enjoy most, I’ve learnt, is the sort of book
62 Defining the field
I now write – taking place over a short time frame, involving multiple plots,
frequent deadlines, surprising plot twists and turns, endings that bring
together all the plot strands in a whammy twist or two’ (Glorfeld 2002: 7).
The thriller typically relies on intensity and escalation, raising ‘the stakes of
the narrative, heightening or exaggerating the experience of events by
transforming them into a rising curve of danger, violence or shock’ (Glover
2003: 137). If they pause, it is usually to provide technical or locational
information, as Deaver also notes: ‘every time I describe the gas chromato-
graph or the compound microscope, I have to explain what that device is,
how it works, and therefore whenever a reader picks up one of the Lincoln
Rhyme books, they’re going to come to the gas chromatograph definition’
(Glorfeld 2002: 7). Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code begins with a sequence of
facts about the Louvre in Paris (the Grand Gallery ‘was around fifteen hun-
dred feet, the length of three Washington Monuments laid end to end’),
where the early action unfolds (Brown 2003: 33). John Burdett’s Bangkok 8
has a long discussion about transsexuals and the surgical details of sex
change operations. Crime fiction is often informational, and technical –
although it is by no means the only genre of popular fiction that relies on
the provision of often intensely researched details: even romance can do
this. The entwining of entertainment and information is a key feature of
much popular fiction. Readers can quite literally learn from it although, as
I have noted, popular fiction sits outside official educational apparatuses.
Since Wallace, the thriller subgenre has gone in various directions. It can
certainly be a brutal literary form: an early notorious example is James
Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), a gangster novel about
the kidnap, torture and rape of the daughter of a millionaire – and the
subject of a famous 1944 essay by George Orwell who criticized its
‘Americanisms’ (Orwell 1970: 246–60). But there are now also legal thrillers
(Grisham, Turow, etc.), racing thrillers (Dick Francis), historical thrillers
(Karen Harper publishes a series of novels which present Elizabeth I as a
crime investigator), political thrillers, action thrillers and so on. The crime
fiction genre broadly speaking has also been increasingly fragmented over
the last 50 years. There are serial killer novels (e.g. Thomas Harris’s psycho-
thrillers), police procedurals (think of Ed McBain), forensic science
psychodramas (Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs), ‘cozies’ (Natasha
Cooper), medieval detective fiction, futuristic detective fiction (e.g. Douglas
Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency [1987]), even what Stephen
Knight calls ‘postmodern crime fiction’. Detectives are often still disillu-
sioned white men, but they can also be gay or black; and amongst the
women detectives, there are feminists (Sarah Dunant’s Hannah Wolfe),
lesbians (the Australian Claire McNab’s Inspector Carole Ashton) and so on.
Women have been producing crime fiction for some considerable time, of
Genre 63
course. The gendered nature of the genre re-announced itself, albeit in a
rather negative way, with P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) –
a title that is worth contrasting to Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of
Substance, the romance novel noted above, published seven years later.
James’s female detective, Cordelia Gray, remains an occasional figure: this
writer is best known for her male detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.
But other women crime novelists – from Sujata Massey to Sue Grafton
(whose novels are systematically making their way through the alphabet:
A is for Alibi, etc.) – present their women investigators confidently, as strong
and determined and pretty much suited to the job they have.
Crime fiction is a busy, crowded genre and – unlike most romance novels –
its subgenres can also often bleed into each other. It may be difficult to carve
out a unique identity in such a field, with so many different kinds of inves-
tigators in so many different kinds of places (all the major cities and most
outlying regions, too) carrying out their business in so many different ways.
Since up to 100 or more crime novels compete for attention every month in
the genre marketplace, much can depend on the specifics of a novel’s
description: the synopsis on the back cover, and the snippets of reviews and
recommendations that often accompany it. Genre enthusiasts need to be
convinced that the novels they choose are the most appropriate to their
tastes and interests, and there is a lot of promising material to sort through,
new and old. Crime fiction therefore invests a great deal in the character of
the investigator, especially if he or she is serialized, as they often are. New
York-based Steve Hamilton’s A Cold Day in Paradise (1999) won the Edgar
Allan Poe Award and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award
for the Best First Novel, the only crime novelist to do so. It introduces an
ex-cop private detective from Detroit, Alex McKnight, who comes to settle
in snow-bound Paradise, northern Michigan. This is what a review snippet
from Booklist says about McKnight: ‘Paradise, Michigan, the small-town set-
ting of the novel, is the kind of place you’d like to visit (dress warmly), and
McKnight is the kind of fellow you’d like to meet – he’ll shake your hand,
buy you a beer and, as long as you didn’t get on his wrong side, be your
friend for life. This is the kind of book you climb inside and, when you’re
forced to leave, you wish you could stay a little longer’ (Steve Hamilton – the
Official Site:
Not all detectives or all locations are so amiable, but the point remains: that
crime fiction needs you to stay with its investigator, following the particu-
larities of his or her career from novel to novel. It means that crime fiction
is as ‘individualized’ as a genre can be: a mass-marketed genre that turns on
the details, and the idiosyncrasies, of an investigator’s personality, history,
circumstances (Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, for instance, is a quadriplegic who
can only move one finger), approach or method, and environment.
64 Defining the field
Science fiction, entertainment, politics
A genre requires something quite fundamental to be installed at its core: an
‘attitude’, a sensibility, a paradigm. The experiences of its characters are
then traced in relation to that paradigm, often to the exclusion of pretty
much everything else. Romance fiction, for example, builds a set of atti-
tudes around heterosexual love through which its protagonists’ lives are
then charted. Crime fiction builds its sensibilities and its characters’ careers
around issues and ideologies of crime, law and justice. The western
expresses itself through frontier heroics and pioneer ideologies about the
United States (which can also involve issues of crime, law and justice).
Science fiction or SF, of course, needs to have at least something to do with
a scientific view, or what I would more broadly call a scientific-social view,
of the world (or the universe). But this is really just a point of departure for
the genre. The key words for SF are extrapolation and speculation: whatever sci-
entific interests it has must be recast imaginatively, put to use in some alter-
native realm, some place other than or adjacent to the here-and-now.
Science fiction plays out the tension between scientific interests and imagi-
native speculation, its generic name seeming at times to be something like a
contradiction in terms. The contemporary SF novelist Nancy Kress expresses
this tension in relation to her novel, Probability Moon (2000), which is

far-future, offworld, aliens, spacewar, and the science it uses is physics,

rather than genetic engineering. I don’t know a lot of physics. Partly
I’m reading, partly I’m picking Charles’s [ her late husband Charles
Sheffield, also an important SF writer] brains, and partly I’m inventing
like mad. When he reads it, he’s going to turn pale and say, ‘This is
gibberish’, and we’ll have the same argument we always have. I’ll say,
‘I know it’s gibberish. It’s science fiction. If it were real, it would be
a monograph’. He pronounces it science fiction, and I pronounce it
science fiction.
( Kress 2000: 6)

These comments reveal some of the divisions within the genre: in particular,
between writing that subordinates its fiction to the demands of ‘real’ science,
and writing that subordinates ‘real’ science to the demands of fiction. This is
usually expressed as the difference between hard SF and soft SF – a version
of the distinction between hardboiled and clue-puzzle mystery crime fiction
we had seen earlier. It is also accounted for here as a gendered distinction:
the difference, in this case, between husband and wife.
Science fiction may have a necessary connection to science and scien-
tific perspectives, but it is also invariably a social genre, that is, a genre
Genre 65
underpinned by its commitment to thinking socially – no matter how
‘offworld’ and ‘far future’ its setting may be. It is true that, like crime fiction
again, some science fiction has built itself around isolated, even alienated,
‘special’ figures: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) or Orson
Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) or Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age
(1995). But even these figures ultimately have a social role to play, usually a
redemptive one. Elsewhere, science fiction busily creates entire societies and
puts them to work, for better or worse. Even when SF is about alien con-
tact, it is as much a social genre as a scientific one. For some critics, in fact,
the social role of science fiction has almost wiped science from the picture.
Adam Roberts regards science fiction as a genre about ‘the encounter with
difference’ – although his upbeat conclusion, that the crucial ingredient in
this encounter is ‘love’, runs the risk of making science fiction sound rather
too much like the romance genre (Roberts 2000: 183–4). In some SF, of
course, the encounter with alien difference involves anything but love. Even
so, they are always cast as encounters between social groups, no matter how
opaque or remote or ‘othered’ those aliens might be. Contact is always con-
tact between different social systems, a feature which often requires science
fiction to locate itself at some kind of frontier – comparing in this respect
to the western genre, which is also often about frontier encounters between
different social systems. Not surprisingly, the historical context for science
fiction is modern colonialism and, more recently, postcolonialism.
We can appreciate this last point by looking for a moment at one of the
earliest and most influential SF novels of all, H.G. Wells’s The War of the
Worlds (1898). The narrator of The War of the Worlds describes first-hand the
Martian invasion of Earth and the devastation it causes. Early on, he draws
an analogy: that the Martians are doing to Earth what British colonizers did
to the Tasmanian Aborigines in the earlier part of the nineteenth century:

And before we judge them [the Martians] too harshly we must remember
what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought.. . . The
Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out
of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immi-
grants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to
complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
(Wells 2002b: 5)

In fact, the novel is not completely genocidal: much as it was in Tasmania at

that time, many people are killed but a number of them are also dispos-
sessed, the narrator amongst them. He leaves his home and his wife, inter-
estingly enough, returning to her only at the novel’s end. In the meantime,
he describes the Martians’ social system, an extrapolation of human society
66 Defining the field
as it might become in the distant future. The sense of being colonized and
dispossessed (resulting in mass-exodus from the major cities) is powerfully
rendered in the novel and establishes both an historical context – British
colonialism – and an imaginative structure for science fiction which the
genre since has reproduced over and over. It also tied SF to the adventure
novel: the man who leaves his wife at the beginning, goes on a dangerous
journey and returns to her at the end is a classic and we might even say,
classical (think of The Odyssey), adventure format.
The often close connection between SF and the adventure novel has
both defined and troubled the genre. In Wells’s time, the generic word for
SF was ‘scientific romance’, a term first deployed in 1886. ‘Romance’ here
is used as R.L. Stevenson had used it, meaning adventure and involving
travel away from home to outlying places, as in Treasure Island. Scientific
romances had already taken its characters on what Brian Stapleford, in his
excellent study of early SF, calls ‘imaginary voyages’ (Stableford 1985:
18–23). Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to
the Moon (1865) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) were immensely
popular before Wells. Verne is often considered primarily an adventure
novelist, and secondarily a science fiction writer. Wells reverses the order
here, but adventure still underpins his own scientific romances. The First
Men in the Moon (1901) is a lunar voyage, built around two characters: the
‘modern entrepreneur’ and fortune-hunter Bedford, and the scientist
Cavor, cold and calculating, ‘detached from the ordinary currents of social
life’ (ibid.: 67). Together, they go to the Moon, but only Bedford returns to
bring the adventure to a close, perhaps a little wiser than before. These
characters also give some literal embodiment to the difference between
popular fiction and Literature – or in this case, the commercial ambitions
of SF and its purer, scientific aspirations. It is Bedford who returns to nor-
mality at the end of Wells’s novel; Cavor remains on the moon, disavow-
ing all social responsibility and finally disappearing altogether: a victim of
his ‘disastrous want of vulgar common sense’, as Bedford pragmatically
puts it ( Wells 2002a: 219). Bedford and Cavor stand at either end of the SF
genre, which continues to map itself out precisely in terms of its commer-
cial imperatives on the one hand, and its purity on the other. Hard and soft
SF provide one distinction internal to the genre; but so does lowbrow and
highbrow, SF as entertainment/adventure and SF as a cerebral literature of
scientific ideas.
Indeed, for Brian Stapleford these differences provide the actual,
material context for the emergence of the scientific romance at the end of
the nineteenth century. ‘If we are to understand its origins more fully’, he
writes, ‘we will need to look at certain aspects of the economics of the
British literary marketplace’ (Stableford 1985: 11). Before 1890, the literary
Genre 67
market was sharply divided into the three-volume or triple-decker literary
novel, and popular fiction’s penny dreadfuls and so-called ‘yellow backs’
(named after the colour of their covers, and comparable to the American
‘dime’ novels of the time) (McAleer 1992: 15–16). The former was long and
expensive, the latter were cheap. But the expansion of the subscription
libraries around this time (Boots Booklovers Library was founded in 1899,
the main competitor to Mudie’s Library and the W.H. Smith Circulating
Library) and the development of new magazines like The Strand – which had
published Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories – reconstituted the liter-
ary landscape. Amongst other things, it enabled writers to build their
careers by showcasing short pieces and perhaps developing them later on,
as Wells did with some of his own work. Writers of popular fiction were
increasingly disinclined to provide their stories with the ‘padding’ required
by the triple-decker novel format (Terry 1983: 46–8). As Joseph McAleer
notes, this costly and rigidly conceived procedure was replaced by cheaper,
single-volume editions; and with ‘publishing increasingly in the hands of
accountants and marketing men, and overtly aiming at a “mass” market,
writing became a profession, and “fiction” was detached from “literature”
as each attracted different publics’ (McAleer 1992: 27). The professional-
ization of writing in fact helped to consolidate the distinction between
Literature and popular fiction, even though both could now be published
cheaply. An increase in the number of new magazines and periodicals cer-
tainly helped the latter’s fortunes, and many of them were genre-based.
Like crime fiction, SF found its way into the American pulp magazines in
the 1920s, marketed to specialist readerships. Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing
Stories started in April 1926 and republished Wells and Verne, amongst
many others, establishing the scientific romance as a literary source.
Astounding Science Fiction began in January 1930, initially edited by Harry
Bates (Hiram Gilmore Bates III) who valued action and adventure in the
genre. In 1939, however, the magazine’s third editor, John Campbell, Jr,
encouraged SF stories that combined a response to current scientific work
with social comment. Astounding counted Isaac Asimov (1920–92), James
Blish (1921–75), Frank Herbert (1920–86) and Robert A. Heinlein
(1907–88) amongst its contributors; it changed its name in January 1960 to
Analog and is still in production.
For Frank Cioffi, pulp publishing during the 1930s and 1940s represented
‘the transition period between SF as a type of adventure and SF as a clearly
demarcated body of literature with its own formulas and aesthetic
conventions’ (Cioffi 1982: vii). The genre of science fiction certainly clarified
itself during the 1950s. But science fiction continues to be divided into
adventure novels-for-entertainment and more serious kinds of projects, its
pulp inheritance carrying on regardless as SF’s most professionalized and
68 Defining the field
lucrative field of activity. The bestselling SF novels nowadays are what are
called media tie-ins: the Star Wars and Star Trek novels, for example, as well as
numerous specific projects. In 1997, the US publisher Bantam Spectra was
paying $60,000 for a hardcover Star Wars novel and $40,000 for a paperback:
a lot of money in the world of SF where readerships are relatively small,
although five-figure publishing deals for SF writers are not entirely uncom-
mon (see Anon 1997b: 5). The following year, Bantam lost its Star Wars
licensing rights to Del Ray, an imprint of Ballantine which had been pub-
lishing Star Wars novels since 1976. By 2003, a new SW novel was being
released more or less every month, written by many well-known writers in
the genre, including R.A. Salvatore and the Australians Sean Williams and
Shane Nix. The first print run for Salvatore’s Vector Prime (2003) was 130,000
(it was notorious as the novel that killed off Chewbacca), and it is not unusual
for Star Wars novels to get close to half a million in sales. Other media tie-in
novels can command even larger advances than the Star Wars franchise,
however. In 1994, Bantam paid more than $500,000 for Bladerunner II and
Bladerunner III (novel-sequels to Ridley Scott’s famous 1982 film, itself based
on a novel by Philip K. Dick), to be written by K.W. Jeter. Jeter is a prolific
writer who has since published Bladerunner 4: Beyond Orion (2000), as well as
novels in the Star Wars series, and some Alien Nation and Star Trek novels (both
published by Pocket): a bestselling SF/adventure novelist who remains on
the fringes of SF’s ‘serious’ self-image.
The Star Trek series itself had begun with novelizations of the TV
episodes in the 1960s. James Blish – once a severe critic of some aspects of
SF writing – produced a dozen novelizations from 1967 to the mid-1970s,
as well as the first original (i.e. not a TV adaptation) Star Trek novel, Spock
Must Die! (1970). It is worth remembering that Douglas Adams’s bestselling
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) was also a media tie-in, beginning
life as a BBC radio series and then, after the book (which has sold around
15 million copies worldwide), becoming a popular TV series. But as I’ve
suggested, media tie-in SF novels struggle for legitimacy in a genre that can
counter-react by talking up its cerebral, literary qualities. Damien
Broderick, an SF novelist and critic, has been particularly scathing about
the conventions of ‘popular’ SF, even as he laments the genre’s utter neg-
lect in actual literary circles (never making the Booker Prize short-lists, for
example): as if serious science fiction has no place to call its own (Broderick
2000: 49). The prolific SF and genre novelist Norman Spinrad has been
even more brutal about media tie-ins like the Star Wars novels, noting dis-
missively that the writers turn themselves ‘into brand names’: ‘I used to
complain that this schlock was creating a false image of what science fiction
was in the mind of the general public. No more. In terms of economic
dominance and rack space, this evil stuff is now what the science fiction
Genre 69
genre has actually become’ (Spinrad 1998: 25). It might be worth noting
that around the time Bantam was losing its Star Wars licensing rights to Del
Ray, it was telling Spinrad that he was ‘unsaleable’, his second book out of
a three-novel deal getting a print run of only 11,000 (Anon 1997a: 4–5). To
put this in some perspective: Camille Bacon-Smith, in her useful study
Science Fiction Culture (2000), notes that most SF writers ‘would be happy to
sell 60,000 copies’ of their books, and she quotes an SF publisher who ‘calls
the 40,000-copy-seller the bread and butter of the genre’ (Bacon-Smith
2000: 208). It is generally agreed that SF nowadays sells relatively poorly,
eclipsed by the genre to which it is often attached, fantasy (see Rosen 2003:
The bestselling contemporary SF novels (perhaps loosely defined)
belong to Michael Crichton and Stephen King; but science fiction can also
manage to sell steadily over time, especially through the republication of
classic work (e.g. in the British publisher Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series)
or through the gaining of cult status, as Adams’s Hitchhiker had done. There
are some other important SF longer term bestsellers. John Sutherland
includes Frank Herbert’s epic SF blockbuster Dune (1965) in his study
Reading the Decades, noting that it turned over two million copies by 1977
(Sutherland 2002: 77). Twenty years later, sales were around 10 million. Its
considerable fortunes have been tied to other media productions, such as
the US ABC/Sci-Fi Channel TV series of 2002, as well as a host of sequels
co-written by his son Brian which also make the bestseller lists. (Publishers
Weekly reports that Bantam offered Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
$3 million for a trilogy of prequels to the Dune series.) Dune may seem like
an unusual SF novel: an epic account of a noble family set on the desert
planet of Arrakis, with its own ‘special’ hero, Paul Atreidis, who is trans-
formed into the powerful Muad’Dib. There is, of course, a buoyant sub-
genre of science fiction about coming messiahs, something it has in
common with epic and heroic fantasy. But Dune is also what is called a space
opera: it influenced George Lucas’s Star Wars films, which replicated Dune’s
messianic vision through Luke Skywalker and kept the noble family lines
and the desert settings. ‘Space opera’, as David G. Hartwell and Kathryn
Cramer note in their introduction to an anthology of hard SF, ‘used to be
a pejorative locution designating the worst form of formulaic hackwork’
(Hartwell and Cramer 2002: 15). It once again emphasizes adventure at the
expense of science, and usually presents space warfare: the kind of SF one
would have found in the pulps. On the other hand, a great many
respectable SF novelists have turned their hand to it. Robert A. Heinlein’s
Starship Troopers (1959) is a controversial early example, adapted into a film
by Paul Verhoeven in 1997. James Blish, Larry Niven, Nancy Kress and
Iain M. Banks are all known for their space operas; Isaac Asimov’s classic
70 Defining the field
Foundation series (the first novel published in 1951) is also a space opera, built
around the rise and fall of nothing less than the Galactic Empire.
An important SF novelist championed by literary critics for his ‘postmod-
ernism’, Samuel L. Delany, wrote a wonderfully bohemian space opera,
Nova (1968): Lorq van Ray, captain of the space ship Roc, owes something
to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab as he takes his motley crew on an
obsessive search for a precious energy source. One of the bestselling SF
novels of 2002 was John C. Wright’s The Golden Age: A Romance of the Far
Future, the first part of an anti-utopia saga which self-consciously repro-
duced all the classic features of space operas and referred back through its
title to the ‘golden age’ of the pulps. This novel offers intergalactic action
on a grand scale with its heroic protagonist, the planetary engineer
Phaethon, named after the son of the Roman sun-god Helios (Phaethon’s
father is Helion in the novel). The subtitle to The Golden Age returns us to
R.L. Stevenson’s notion of the romance as adventure, but Wright himself
has drawn attention to another source:

I am writing in imitation of, and as a rebuke to, Last and First Men
[1930] by Olaf Stapledon. My subtitle ‘Romance of the Far Future’
was meant to echo his subtitle, which (if memory serves me) was
‘A Romance of the Near and Far Future’.
As much as I admire him, Mr Stapledon and I are philosophical foes.
At the zenith of his human evolution, his Eighteenth Human Race on
Neptune has a communist utopia with no private property; at the zenith
of my human evolution, my Seventh Mental Structure is a libertarian
utopia with no public property. His Neptunians are wiped out when the
sun increases radiation output; my Helion re-engineers the internal
plasma structure of the sun to control the radiation output.
(Gevers 2002:

Genres, as I’ve already noted, are always internally antagonistic. Here,

Wright distinguishes his anti-utopian space opera from a much earlier, clas-
sic SF socialist fantasy from British novelist Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950).
Science fiction has long been fascinated by evolutionary projections: Wells
had imagined far-future humanities, just as Stapledon did and Wright has
done. A key word for science fiction is scale, often the largest scale imagina-
ble. It can open up the widest panoramas in space and time, traversing
beginnings and ends or even endlessness, often clearly signaling its
ambitions with titles like Foundation, Genesis (Poul Anderson’s last novel), Eon
and Eternity (novels by Greg Bear) or The End of Eternity (Asimov again), or
Sailing Bright Eternity (Gregory Benford) and so on. Wright’s novel is similarly
scaled up: ‘at the zenith of my human evolution’. But his comments above
Genre 71
also hint at another definitive feature of the SF genre worth commenting
on here, namely, its politics.
Science fiction is a polemical genre, arguing its case, declaring its
position, claiming its allies and distancing itself from writers of whom it dis-
approves. Its social commitments and technological investments mean that
SF inevitably has a far more overt political identity than other genres (some
of which, like romance, can seem distinctly non-political) – and as Wright’s
remarks suggest, this can even be true for adventure-oriented space operas.
H.G. Wells was a socialist who wrote a number of utopian novels which
imagined socialism living itself out at some point in the future – such as
When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and the epic The Shape of Things to Come (1933),
published just a few years after Stapledon’s far-future utopian extrapolation.
For Darko Suvin, an early academic commentator on SF, imagined utopias
are a ‘socio-political subgenre of science fiction’ (Suvin 1979: 61). But
perhaps utopias were increasingly difficult to imagine as the twentieth
century moved on. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) is subtitled
‘An Ambiguous Utopia’. It presented an anarchic socialist society on a bleak
moon, Anarres, and contrasted it with life on Urras, a place that mirrored
the United States with its wealth and its poverty, war and commerce. The
physicist Shevek attempts to reunite these two polar opposite planets, in a
novel that reflected the politics of its time. Feminist SF novelists also
produced their utopias during the 1970s: Joanna Russ’s Female Man (1975),
a fantasy about women on another planet who are able to reproduce with-
out men, in fact echoed a much earlier SF/fantasy novel on the same topic,
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915).
The utopian possibilities of science fiction have drawn the interest of
some influential Left-wing cultural critics, such as Raymond Williams and
Fredric Jameson. After all, SF is generically disposed to imagine better
worlds than the one we inhabit ourselves. But the twentieth century is prob-
ably better known for its dystopias, or anti-utopias. The Russian novelist
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932),
George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) pro-
vide four famous examples. John Sutherland perhaps idiosyncratically calls
Orwell a ‘Tory anarchist’, whose dystopia was coloured by his hatred of the
British Labour government at that time (Sutherland 2002: 25). Anti-utopias
can certainly err to the Right, as we saw earlier with Wright’s The Golden Age:
‘my Seventh Mental Structure is a libertarian utopia with no public
property’. The term Libertarian is used in the SF genre to describe writers
committed to freedom and individualism, and opposed to government inter-
ference: what is sometimes called Right-wing anarchism (much like Orwell’s
‘Tory anarchism’). The subgenre likes rebellious individuals, hackers and
freewheeling cowboys; it can imagine alternative histories (with revolutions
72 Defining the field
that succeed); it can certainly be space operatic, but it can also enjoy the
features of hard SF. The Libertarian Futurist Society, founded in 1982,
values SF ‘that dramatizes . . . the possibilities that a free society unleashes’
( Libertarian SF grounds itself in the work of Ayn
Rand (e.g. her SF dystopia Anthem [1938]) and Robert A. Heinlein, as well
as Orwell’s 1984; its more recent practitioners have included Poul Anderson
and the computer ‘prophet’ Vernor Vinge, as well as Ken MacLeod and
L. Neil Smith, SF bestseller and gun lobbyist. A recent Libertarian SF
anthology, Give Me Liberty (2003), was published by Baen Books, which
specializes in military science fiction; a long-running Libertarian e-zine calls
itself Nuketown (
There have, in fact, been intimate connections drawn between SF and
actual techno-politics. Jerry Pournelle, once a President of the Science
Fiction Writers of America (and the editor of a series of anthologies under
the provocative general title, There Will Be War), famously arranged for a
number of SF novelists – Poul Anderson, Larry Niven (who has collabo-
rated with Pournelle), Gregory Benford, Heinlein – to work alongside
NASA officials and US military representatives in the early 1980s, advising
Ronald Reagan on his Strategic Defense Initiative (‘Star Wars’) program
(see Spinrad 1999:; Pournelle
2000: Other SF
novelists – Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov – were opposed to the development
of space weapons. Politically, SF found itself split into Libertarians and
liberals. Some writers, however, like Gregory Benford or Greg Bear, may be
difficult to identify clearly one way or the other. Benford, a professor of
physics at the University of California, Irvine, is still an advisor to NASA
and the White House. He is also a futurist, thinking about time in terms of
the largest scales possible – as he does in his classic SF novel, Timescape
(1980), as well as in his non-fiction study, Deep Time: How Humanity
Communicates Across Millennia (1998). He is a hard SF novelist, but he is also
part of the genre’s frontier-adventure tradition. Like Greg Bear, Benford
writes SF ‘thrillers’ at the lower end of the genre, although he still allows
room for hard SF features: ‘singularities’ and ‘pocket universes’, for example.
Interestingly enough, Benford wrote the Foreword to a reissue of
Stapledon’s socialistic Last and First Men (1999). On the other hand, his novel
The Martian Race (1999), about a competition to be the first to reach Mars
and return to Earth, is a Libertarian favourite – one of a number of
contemporary SF novels that answers back to NASA’s inability (too much
government interference?) to take manned spacecraft even to the nearest
moons and planets.
Since Verne and Wells, Mars has remained at the core of science fiction’s
imagination, as if the genre has something to prove about the red planet.
Genre 73
In contemporary SF, however, the most influential Mars novels have been,
perhaps rather surprisingly (and in contrast to Libertarian interests), noth-
ing less than a set of commutarian utopias: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red
Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1995). These hard SF novels
imagine one hundred multi-nation scientists arriving on Mars in 2027,
preparing it for habitation and settlement and then underwriting its social,
ecological and political development. Mars begins as a frontier and ends as
a politically independent planet, liberally and humanistically conceived.
On the other hand, the novels – as they allow the reader to see ‘real’ science
(geologists etc.) at work – are generally considered dry, even tedious in
places. As one reviewer notes, ‘Robinson is willing to let everything else
grind to a halt while he explains the possible mechanics of Venusian terra-
forming or the neurobiology of memory’ (Wolfe 1996: 18). Robinson’s first
novel, The Wild Shore, was published in 1984, the same Orwellian year as
William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which introduced cyberpunk to the SF genre.
For every movement in science fiction, there is a counter-movement; and,
certainly, Robinson and cyberpunk are seen as polar opposites. For
Robinson, cyberpunk – usually earth-bound, urban SF adventure novels
about ‘people uploading or downloading their minds into computers’ – is
simply not scientifically credible: ‘in fact there is no possibility that any such
process will ever come to pass. It’s an idea that ignores or misunderstands
the complexity of the brain, the nature of computers, and the utter absence
of any conceivable method to transfer the one to the other’ (Robinson
2002: 3). It is worth noting, however, that Robinson wrote his PhD on the
novels of Philip K. Dick (1928–82), the ‘father’ of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk
is generally understood as a dystopian, near-future, anti-humanist and
‘post-modern’ genre. If its heroes and heroines were more revolutionary –
as Nell is in Neal Stephenson’s post-cyberpunk future history, The Diamond
Age (1995) – it might even be considered Libertarian. Its spokespeople, on
the other hand, are liberal radicals. The most energetic, ubiquitous and
declaratory is Bruce Sterling, who edited the first cyberpunk anthology,
Mirrorshades, in 1986. He also wrote the definitive cyberpunk non-fiction
book, The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992),
an account of the US electronic ‘civil libertarian’ movement, amongst other
things, and a testimony to the role of the hacker, cyberpunk’s hero – quite
different in kind to Robinson’s earnest and increasingly mythologized
Martian scientists.
I have suggested that science fiction is an internally antagonistic (some
might even say, agonistic) genre. This is partly because, like all genres, it is
able to make space for a wide range of different kinds of writing that each
compete for the genre’s attention. As Nancy Kress notes about her SF
colleagues, ‘we are a rich field, or fields, ranging across category as well as
74 Defining the field
across time’ (Kress 2003: 3). Subgenres stake out a realm for themselves and
work it through, repetitively in some senses and progressively in others.
They each have their own look, attitudes, politics, ideologies, degrees of
literariness and degrees of success. Subgenres – and genres themselves –
also have varying degrees of purity and, indeed, a number of writers of
popular fiction have worked across genres or moved from one to another:
for example, Janet Evanovich, who now writes crime fiction about a detec-
tive, Stephanie Plum, used to write romances. Other writers have blended
aspects of them in various ways (as in, to give two of the more unusual
current examples, the ‘Gothic Western’ or ‘Steampunk’). This chapter has
examined three primary genres of popular fiction in order to convey a sense
of how they have developed and behaved – and continue to behave. I have
wanted to show that each genre has distinctive cultural and industrial, as
well as formal and historical, features. I have also wanted to show that
genres play host to a myriad of subgenres, each of which develops its own
distinctive logics and practices. I am reluctant to conclude by suggesting
that genres have become more complex than ever, more fractured, more
hybrid, more active and activating, more internally antagonistic and cross-
referenced; something like this may well be true, but the eight primary
genres of popular fiction are in the most other respects more intact and
determining than ever before.

1 This is the argument in Peter Widdowson’s Literature (2001), for example, which
suggests that literary texts are necessarily and essentially countercultural: an
important example for him is Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), the long discussion
of which concludes his book. The primary tool of literature in Widdowson’s last
chapter is ‘defamiliarisiation’, which is also a counter-generic literary feature
(Widdowson 2001: 151, 165–6).
3 Processing popular fiction
Bookshops, fans, fanzines and
prozines, organizations

This chapter examines some of the ways in which popular fiction is

‘processed’. The field of popular fiction is made up not simply of the novels
themselves but an entire apparatus of production, distribution and
consumption: as I have noted already, it is both cultural and industrial/
commercial in character. The kinds of readings academics occasionally bring
to bear on popular writers and genres have not responded well to this feature,
tending instead to read popular fiction formally first and foremost – that is,
reading out of or from the novels themselves – in order to say something
about their relationship to their genres, or in order to deduce something
about their specific social or ideological function (in what used to be called
‘form-and-ideology’ readings).1 Both of these kinds of readings have their
uses, of course. Even so, academic accounts of popular fiction are a small and
probably not-very-influential part of a much greater realm of processing
activity, involving publishers and bookshops, organizations committed to
genre fiction of one kind or another, fanzines and prozines – professional
genre magazines – and an extraordinarily wide range of fans and readers out
there who also have their say. Much of this activity is in fact academic in its
own way, often concentrating on the finer details of the fiction and even work-
ing at the level of literary scholarship. We might call it quasi-academic or
para-academic: giving detailed attention to a literary field outside of the uni-
versity, but in a recognizably academic, even scholarly, manner. This view of
the way in which popular fiction is processed out there – as a kind of para-
academic activity – will take us well away from the conventional, disparaging
image of popular fiction’s ‘distracted’, ‘sensual’ and undiscriminating reader.
Indeed, these various venues are obliged to demonstrate their understanding of,
and knowledge about, the field. A professional genre magazine can provide
important information about the most obscure popular novelist: as we shall
see, one of the tasks of a good genre magazine is precisely to thicken the field,
to recover or excavate forgotten writers, to pull them back on board. They
can function, in other words, as archives of popular fiction, resources for
76 Defining the field
readers who do indeed take their genres seriously. But excavation is just one
of their tasks. Their primary role – and this is also true of the fanzines and
prozines – is to process new works in the field. And yet, with so much new
fiction being published every month this can be an immense task. It means
that these venues inevitably sift, organize, arrange and select: that is, they
must, and do, evaluate. This chapter therefore also examines some of the
various logics of evaluation at work when popular fiction leaves the publisher
and heads out into the world.

Bookshops, knowledge, culture

Popular fiction is sold through a range of bookshop venues: from
supermarkets and drugstores, to chain bookshops such as Barnes & Noble
and Borders (which routinely separate popular fiction from literary fiction),
to specialist genre bookshops, the latter usually concentrating on romance,
or on crime, or on science fiction, fantasy and/or horror. It is usually
arranged in a rudimentary way in the chain stores, divided generically but
built around current bestsellers and with little or no explanatory apparatus.
In the online megastores such as and, however,
space is given to popular genres to help with reader navigation – even as the
primary content of these sites is also determined by current bestsellers.’s book site has links to ‘Mystery and Thrillers’, ‘Romance’ and
‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’: four of the eight primary genres. Only
romance is subdivided generically. Each site is built around current bestsellers
and new releases, with some commentary attached through links to each
novel: publishers’ blurbs and a selection of trade journal reviewers’ com-
ments as well as customers’ reviews (a democratizing and often interesting
feature of the megastore websites). Since its content is utterly determined
by currently available novels, however, the archival potential of
is limited – one really has to know in advance what one is searching for. On
the other hand, it has a small selection of writers’ ‘stores’ which list all the
available work and tie-in material of a couple of key bestsellers: the Science
Fiction and Fantasy site has featured ‘stores’ for J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert
Jordan, for example (see’s Science Fiction and Fantasy:
At the Barnes and Noble (B&N) website, popular fiction is accessed initially
through bestseller lists, which are not generically arranged. When I visited
this site early in 2004, one of their nine ‘special collections’ was devoted
to John Grisham, although it simply listed available works and DVD
movie adaptations, with a short interview built around the release of his latest
novel, The Last Juror (2004) (see There
are a number of genre sites here, but you have to search for them – Mystery
Processing popular fiction 77
and Crime, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, even Westerns – and many
of these are generically subdivided. For example, Mystery and Crime is
given a small and perhaps idiosyncratic number of subgeneric divisions
(e.g. ‘multicultural detectives’) and at the time of my visit it had seven
‘featured authors’, including Grisham. These sites only provide a list of
available novels ‘sorted in best-selling order’, however: any further navigation
is up to the browser. A single novel can itself have commentaries attached,
of course: review snippets, customer reviews and so on. But the field of
popular fiction is soon atomized here under the weight of so much available
material. The contrast to B&N’s treatment of literary fiction is striking. At
the time of my visit, this website included a ‘Barnes and Noble classics’ link
amongst their nine special collections – alongside the Grisham link. This is
devoted to their reprints of literary fiction, the kind of writing which, the
site tells us in Harold Bloomian fashion, celebrates nothing less than ‘the
genius of the human heart’. Classic literary fiction is held together as a field
through this kind of discourse, although the actual presentation of the
novels is perhaps less romantically conceived. Each B&N literary classic is
provided with an explanatory apparatus designed for serious student-readers:
a ‘newly commissioned Introduction’ to texts, ‘footnotes’ (‘designed to inform,
and never to intrude’), ‘endnotes’ (which ‘may explore a controversy, clarify an
historical reference, or provide important information relevant to the text’),
‘further reading’, and so on. Literary fiction, with its introductions and foot-
notes, is located in an educational, academic context while popular fiction,
with its publicity blurbs and usually positive review segments, is placed in a
commercial context: this is a now-familiar distinction between these two fields.
On the other hand, it might be worth noting that B&N’s literary ‘classics’
include a reprint of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Like the term ‘best-
seller’, the notion of what constitutes a literary ‘classic’ remains a little porous
or pliable around the edges. Even so, having slipped into the domain of the
literary classic, popular fiction still inhabits its own space, creating its own
homology. The website also tells us that those readers who bought The War of
the Worlds purchased Bram Stoker’s horror classic Dracula (1897) as well as
Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and The Invisible Man (1897) – and also, inter-
estingly enough, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1949), the tale mentioned in
passing by Nelson in Chapter 2 about a man who wakes up to find himself
transformed into an insect, from a writer who crosses over from literary fiction
to ‘speculative’ science fiction and/or fantasy.
The world’s genre bookstores inevitably spend more time with their
genres. At the very least, they organize, arrange and classify, guiding
readers/browsers carefully through their often extensive holdings. In a sense
they work rather like university libraries, which also depend on a system of
classification to help readers navigate their way through a mass of literary
78 Defining the field
works (amongst other things). It is generally true to say that university
libraries are devoted primarily to collections of literary fiction rather than
popular fiction. On the other hand, a number of university libraries – more
than one might think, perhaps – do in fact have extensive popular fiction
holdings: crime fiction at Columbia University in New York, for example,
or Indiana University (which also holds Ian Fleming’s James Bond manu-
scripts), science fiction at the University of Liverpool and so on. In terms of
the prevailing logics and practices of popular fiction, however, these are
‘dead’ collections. Lifted out of their commercial context and relocated in
an educational context, they rest in a space traditionally and structurally
more appropriate to literary fiction and the academic imperatives that
necessarily and ‘naturally’ surround and imbue it. Students may not be
reading Joyce’s Ulysses in university libraries, but it is also unlikely that they
will be working their way through whatever collection of popular fiction a
university library may hold – which de-activates popular fiction’s commercial
function, shutting down what we might think of as its necessary worldliness.
University libraries are quite different to municipal libraries, of course,
where popular fiction continues to be borrowed on a grand scale. As I have
noted, popular fiction gained its broader circulation during the twentieth
century precisely through its association with lending and commercial
libraries such as Mudie’s, W.H. Smith and Boots: again, outside of the
university’s educational apparatus. There are, interestingly, examples of
genre bookshops with their own lending libraries – such as Partners & Crime
Mystery Booksellers in Manhattan. I remarked earlier that at the chain
bookstores and the online megastores, popular fiction may only have a
commercial function. But at the genre bookstores, something cultural is
added: a set of attitudes, a sensibility that accompanies the focus that genre
bookshops offer, an explanatory apparatus that arranges and evaluates, as
well as a number of affiliated activities designed to turn browsing readers of
popular fiction into active participants.
The erotic thriller novelist and crime enthusiast Maxim Jakubowski’s
Murder One, which opened in London in 1988, is the biggest crime and
mystery genre bookstore in Europe. It also stocks SF and fantasy as well as
romance. It regularly produces a huge ‘crime catalogue’, classifying hun-
dreds of new crime novels through the use of a large number of subgeneric
abbreviations: from A for ‘art & antiques’ crime fiction, through to WS for
‘woman sleuth’. It also arranges itself in terms of US and UK hardcovers,
trade paperbacks and mass-market paperbacks, offering writer-focused
listings – with each entry given a short review, some of which are itemized
as an ‘event’. New books sit alongside second-hand and rare books, and
there is also a Sherlock Holmes section which places Conan Doyle’s stories
beside subsequent and new novels about Holmes. A section devoted to True
Processing popular fiction 79
Crime adds to the ‘culture’: readers enter a world of crime narratives, finding
its source in Sherlockania and ranging across 30 or more different subgenres
of crime and mystery. Murder One’s website (
thickens the culture of crime genres through its links to the homepages of
crime novelists, crime magazines and publishers, online guides to detective
fiction, crime fiction organizations – such as the California-based Mystery
Readers International, the largest mystery fan/reader organization in the
world – and Sherlockian online sites. A genre bookshop, in other words,
constructs a cultural network around its fiction; it sells novels, obviously, but
it also folds them into an appropriate set of practices and attitudes, a kind
of cultural logic. The Mysterious Bookshop in New York was founded in 1979.
Its proprietor, Otto Penzler, was the publisher of an important genre
magazine, The Armchair Detective, for 17 years. This bookshop organizes itself
around the mystery, crime, suspense, espionage and detective subgenres.
It also divides itself into ‘clubs’, offering signed first editions of crime nov-
els to those who participate: ‘The First Mystery Club’, ‘The Soft-Boiled
Club’ (formerly the ‘Malice Domestic Club’), ‘The Hard-Boiled Club’ and
so on. Here, the incentive is not simply to read, but to collect: to immerse
yourself in crime fiction as artifact. The emphasis is on the reader’s experi-
ence of the ‘fine’ qualities of crime fiction, both as an investment and as
a literary form. Commercial imperatives are thus welded to cultural value,
and the genre bookstore’s various clubs (with their functions, newsletters,
and so on) help to nurture and develop these features amongst their
The Romance Writers of America devote special attention to romance genre
bookstores. This national organization, founded in 1980, has 8,400 mem-
bers worldwide – 1600 of these are published writers – and chapters in every
US state as well as in many other countries. It is an influential organization
that, amongst many other things, offers advice to romance booksellers. Their
website ( tells us, ‘The relationship between the
romance genre and booksellers is a marriage made in heaven’. Here are their
six points of advice in a ‘menu’ for booksellers who might be thinking about
giving their attention to the genre that now makes up around 50 per cent of
total popular fiction sales in the United States:

Staff your store with several romance ‘experts’ who are familiar with
the genre and can recommend similar titles and anticipate best-sellers.
Once romance readers discover a new author, they’ll want to read her
backlist – please facilitate special orders for books that aren’t newly
Schedule in-store author booksignings and promotional events with
‘romantic’ holidays or the release of a local author’s new title.
80 Defining the field
Coordinate a romance readers’ group from among your faithful
romance customers. Encourage them to have a discussion group about
what their [sic] reading once a month in your store.
Display and promote books that have won RWA awards – such as our
RITA award or our Top Ten Favorite Books of the Year! These are
the best books the genre has to offer, and will keep readers coming
back for more.
Introduce romance fiction to new readers who may not realize the diver-
sity, fun and down-right good reading that romance fiction has to offer.

RWA asks booksellers who represent the romance genre not just to provide
expertise for readers – a genre bookseller must know the genre – but, once
again, to nurture them, rewarding the most ‘faithful’ romance readers with
a reading group, for example. To sell a genre means that one must be actively
involved with it, participating in its logics and practices as much as the most
knowledgeable fan. A good genre bookseller in effect must be an aficionado:
out-reading or at least out-knowing the readers to whom he or she sells.

Fan organizations and genre magazines

Each genre of popular fiction is able to generate its own cultural logic, its
‘homology’: a set of attitudes and practices that seem to fit the kinds of
things the genre stands for (and even, some that apparently don’t). There are
now a number of readership sites online which coalesce around particular
genres and build a cultural logic around them. The western – the most
ideologically focused of all the genres – offers a good example. American
Western Magazine – ( is a
Library of Congress registered online site established in 1998 by Colorado-
based writer and western loyalist, Taylor Fogarty. It promotes the western
genre, linking to a large number of western writers and their works, but it
also celebrates a particular idea of the American West. The western is an
endangered genre – the site has a section which asks for more Hollywood
westerns, telling readers, ‘The future of the western depends on YOU!’ – but
it is also cast here as central to US frontier traditions. The February 2004
issue links to sections on ‘cowboy chic’, ‘rodeo cosmetics’, ‘saloon music
CDs’ and so on, attaching the western genre to a set of broader cultural, or
perhaps subcultural, interests. There are also links to cowboy histories, which
are obviously crucial to the culture of the western. Readers are encouraged
to participate in current cultural and political activities. For example, the site
asks readers to support its adopted battalion in Iraq, the Iron Rangers, by
making a ‘cowboys care’ donation: ‘Let’s show ‘em what the cowboy spirit is
Processing popular fiction 81
all about!’ ( This is indeed
a site that aims to capture the ‘cowboy spirit’, from the artwork and histori-
cal writing it promotes to its political convictions and, of course, its immer-
sion in western genre narratives in all their various manifestations. Mystery
Readers International (, mentioned earlier,
works with crime fiction in a similar way, although without the overt politi-
cal commitments. This is also an online site, established in 1987 by Janet A.
Rudolph (the ‘Mistress of Mystery’), a Californian crime fiction enthusiast
who writes for The Armchair Detective, amongst other magazines, and edits the
Mystery Readers Journal, MRI’s official publication: a quarterly with excellent
special features on the genre for what it regards as the ‘intelligent’ reader.
Paraphrasing American Western Magazine, we might say that this site captures
the ‘mystery spirit’, folding a culture of crime around the genre. It links not
just to reviews and interviews with crime writers, but crime fiction reading
groups and mystery bookstores across the United States, crime magazines
and e-zines – as well as crime ‘recipes’ and even an acting troupe dedicated
to crime scenarios (‘Mystery on the Menu’, guaranteed to ‘add suspense and
intrigue to your next special event’).
At these sites, and others like them, readers can move outside their novels
and into the kinds of cultural ‘worlds’ those novels inhabit. Of course, there
are readerships which do indeed actively participate in those worlds, those
cultures, and even help to create them. Popular fiction often enjoys a par-
ticular kind of reader loyalty, one that can build itself around not just a
writer and his or her body of work (which certainly happens) but the entire
genre and the culture that imbues it. In other words, popular fiction has fans –
readerships which live through their genres, inhabiting them and claiming
them – we might even say, territorializing them. Literary fiction has its fans,
too: fandom isn’t unique to popular fiction, but it is much more of a defin-
itive readerly condition. A university academic who devotes his or her
career to James Joyce and mixes with other Joyceans might also be identi-
fied as a ‘fan’, although that terminology isn’t readily applied in literary
academic circles. Fandoms of popular fiction, however, organize themselves
outside the university, even – as I’ve already suggested – as they may share
certain ‘academic’ characteristics. Of all the popular genres, science fiction
has the longest history of organized fandom and, in keeping with the nature
of the genre, perhaps the most internally antagonistic fan history, too. The
best chronicler has been Sam Moskowitz, author of The Immortal Storm:
A History of Science Fiction Fandom (1954) and one of the genre’s earliest fan
activists. Moskowitz begins his history by returning to Hugo Gernsback’s
original SF pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, founded in 1926. C.A. Brandt,
an SF collector who knew the genre intimately, worked as a reviewer
and adviser to Gernsback – who called him ‘the greatest living expert on
82 Defining the field
scientifiction’, Gernsback’s term for science fiction at the time (Moskowitz
1994: 18). The genre enthusiast is already endowed with expertise here, a
feature Gernsback soon realized was widespread. He used the word ‘fans’
to describe the increasing number of readers who wrote letters to Amazing
Stories, noting in an essay in his magazine titled ‘The Lure of Scientifiction’:

There is not a day now, that passes, but we get from a dozen to fifty
suggestions as to stories of which, frankly, we have no record, although
we have a list of some 600 or 700 scientifiction stories. Some of these
fans are constantly visiting the bookstores with the express purpose of
buying new or old scientifiction tales, and they even go to the trouble
of advertising for some volumes that have long ago gone out of print.
(cited ibid.: 27)

Capitalizing on the connection between fans and generic knowledge,

Gernsback encouraged his magazine’s readers to correspond with each
other. The results saw the first organized SF genre societies: the Alabama-
based Science Correspondence Club (SCC) in 1929, and the New York-
based Scienceers at the end of the same year. By 1930, the Chicago branch
of the SCC was publishing its own fan magazine, The Comet, later renamed
Cosmology. At this time, Gernsback had lost Amazing Stories, having declared
bankruptcy. The US Depression took its toll on pulp publishing, but by
1933 he emerged with a new magazine called Wonder Stories. In April 1934,
Gernsback and his new editor and SF enthusiast Charles D. Hornig
announced the development of the Science Fiction League, aiming to
co-ordinate SF fans ‘into one comprehensive international group’ (ibid.: 42).
However, two other enthusiasts, William S. Sykora and Donald A. Wollheim
(who was later instrumental in publicizing Tolkien in the United States and
began his own SF and fantasy publishing house, DAW Books), had formed
another aspirant international SF group: the International Scientific
Association (ISA). Robert A. Madle has charted the rivalries and feuds
between these two groups, but they came together in October 1936 for
what was effectively the first SF convention (Madle 1994: 37–51). Wonder
Stories closed for business around this time, and the ISA folded not long
afterwards. But other, new SF organizations rose up: Moskowitz himself
formed New Fandom with Sykora, Hornig launched new SF magazines,
and Wollheim’s group became known as the Futurians, a highly influential
and active group in SF editing and publishing. In the United Kingdom, SF
fandom was also organizing itself. The first printed genre fanzine,
Scientifiction – edited by Walter H. Gillings, under Gernsback’s influence –
appeared in January 1937, the year that also saw the formation of
Britain’s first national fan organization, the Science Fiction Association
Processing popular fiction 83
( Jeeves 1994: 113). Shortly afterwards, in July 1939, the genre held its First
World Science Fiction Convention (a popular genre’s equivalent of a literary
festival) in New York; its internationalization developed rapidly after this
founding moment.
The links between genre magazines and fan organizations reveal the kind
of bonds that can exist between writers of popular fiction, editors who pub-
lish their work and fans or aficionados who read and review it – readers who
know the field intimately and who make a point of staying with it. Popular
fiction can claim to have several different kinds of publishing histories. First,
its history can be charted through the publishing houses who bring out the
novels: Methuen, Hutchinson, Mills & Boon, Dell, Signet, Pocket Books
and so on. Second, popular fiction also has a long history of publication in
broad-based, non-generic or multi-generic popular magazines. Britain’s The
Strand and the US weekly Collier’s have already been mentioned in Chapter 2,
but there are and have been many others – from fiction magazines operated
by publishers (like Cassell’s Magazine of Fiction and Popular Literature, which
began in 1912) to men’s magazines such as Playboy (which had published Ian
Fleming, amongst many other popular writers) to various women’s maga-
zines like The Women’s Weekly which have long featured serialized romances.
Third, popular fiction’s publishing history can also be charted through
magazines solely devoted to specific genres, like Amazing Stories or Black
Mask, also mentioned in Chapter 2 This chapter will spend some more time
with the genre magazines, because these are the sites through which popular
writers, editors and readers most visibly interact. Genre magazines can show-
case new works of popular fiction (short stories, or excerpts), but they make
other kinds of space available, too: for editorials to say something about the
genre, for readers to respond to the contents, and often, for popular fiction to
be reviewed and evaluated – processed – by those in the know. All of these
things work to give shape and distinction to the field of popular fiction.
Weird Tales is a US horror/fantasy magazine, famous for publishing stories
by H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), Ray Bradbury (1920–), Robert Bloch
(1917–94) – who wrote Psycho (1959) and published his first story in Weird
Tales at the age of seventeen – and a host of other important writers from
these genres. It started shakily in 1923 (before Amazing Stories) and ran to
1954, then resurfaced in 1973 and again in 1981 and several times after that,
resurrecting itself finally and once more in 1998 when it was licensed to
DNA Publications. Its subtitle, ‘The Unique Magazine’, is thus not surpris-
ingly supplemented by another tag suited both to its fortunes and the genres
it inhabits: ‘the magazine that never dies . . .’. Weird Tales represents its con-
tent not in the conventional terms of popular fiction (e.g. as entertainment),
however, but as a form of art; that is, it defines itself through a discourse
more commonly available to Literature. This is partly because of horror
84 Defining the field
fiction’s potentially transgressive position in the literary field. It is a genre of
popular fiction that likes to regard itself as marginal, countercultural, differ-
ent, conceiving of its ‘popular’ status in quite a different way to romance, for
example: as more subcultural than mass cultural. Here is an extract from an
editorial in the 1924 first anniversary issue of this seminal genre magazine:

Up to the day the first issue of Weird Tales was placed on the stands,
stories of the sort you read between these covers each month were
taboo in the publishing world. Each magazine had its fixed policy.
Some catered to mixed classes of readers, most specialized in certain
types of stories, but all agreed in excluding the genuinely weird stories.
The greatest weird story and one of the greatest short stories ever writ-
ten, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, would not have stood the ghost of a
chance in any modern editorial office previous to the launching of
Weird Tales. Had Edgar Allan Poe produced that masterpiece in this
generation he would have searched in vain for a publisher before the
advent of this magazine . . . .
The writing of the common run of stories today has, unfortunately,
for American literature, taken on the character of an exact science.
Such stories are entirely mechanical, conforming to fixed rules. A good
analogy might be found in the music of the electric piano. It is techni-
cally perfect, mechanically true, but lacking in expression. As is the
case with any art when mechanics is permitted to dominate, the soul of
the story is crushed – suffocated beneath a weight of technique. True art –
the expression of the soul – is lacking . . . .
Writers of highly imaginative fiction have, in times past, drawn back
the veil of centuries, allowing the readers to look at the wonders of the
present. True, these visions were often distorted, as by a mirror with a
curved surface, but just as truly were they actual reflections of the present.
It is the mission of Weird Tales to find present-day writers who have this
faculty, so that our readers may glimpse the future – may be vouchsafed
visions of the wonders that are to come.
(Weird Tales, The Unique Magazine: the official website:

This provocative editorial would seem to be positioning horror fiction

against the industrial/formulaic logics of popular fiction. Yet these qualities
are ascribed instead to literary fiction (‘American literature’), characterized
here as ‘mechanical’ and lacking ‘soul’. This account is thus the exact oppo-
site of the one we saw in Chapter 1 from Martin Amis about one of the
great American literary authors, Saul Bellow. The source for Weird Tales is
in fact Poe, a marginal figure in the American literary canon whose graphic
Processing popular fiction 85
horror/detective story is championed on the grounds that, in 1924, it would
seem to be more marginal than ever – which then makes it all the more
appropriate for Weird Tales. Horror/fantasy fiction in this account may not
have much in the way of ‘technique’ but it has the thing that Literature
(contra Amis) apparently doesn’t, ‘the expression of the soul’. Indeed, it is
represented here as nothing less than visionary.
Like many genre magazines, Weird Tales constantly reflects on its generic
role, offering definitions and distinctions through its editorials and letters,
the stories it publishes and the profiles of the writers it features. To take just
one example: the Spring 1990 issue was partly devoted to David J. Schow,
a good example of a horror writer who tries carefully to position himself,
even as he is positioned by others, in his chosen generic field. Known as a
‘splatterpunk’ novelist, Schow’s books include The Kill Riff (1988) and Rock
Breaks Scissors Cut (2003), the latter released as a limited edition by Michigan-
based speciality horror publisher, Subterranean Press – whose name itself
gives expression to horror’s preferred position in the literary and cultural
field. But Schow is a fan of the genre, as well as a writer. He has edited hor-
ror anthologies, including three volumes of ‘lost’ pulp stories by Robert
Bloch (enabling Schow to link himself to a major horror precursor, also
published in Weird Tales); and he has written screenplays for lowbrow com-
mercial horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 and for television horror
series such as The Outer Limits (see Black Leather Required: the official David
J. Schow website: This Los
Angeles-based novelist is profiled and interviewed in Weird Tales by other
genre aficionados, with three of his stories featured. The profiles oscillate
between literariness (one commentator speaks of Schow’s ‘protean diversity,
enfolding multifarious literary forms and...demonstrating startling variations
of style, texture, and mood’) and pure generic hyperbole (‘Dave’s writing
is . . . lethal in its precision, possessed of incendiary acuity and more sheer
bang-per-byte fun than anything written by anyone, anywhere’) (Hadji and
Spector 1990: 14–15). In the interview, Schow negotiates similar extremes,
distinguishing himself from ‘bad horror writing’ while complaining – as
someone tagged with the label ‘splatterpunk’ – about being placed in
‘a genre ghetto’ (Warren 1990: 22, 24). This kind of position-taking says a
great deal about the horror genre, and about the predicament Weird Tales
finds itself in as a genre magazine. How ‘literary’ can it actually be? Does
it present ‘startling variations of style’ or might it be ‘bad horror writing’ in
spite of itself ? Is this potentially visionary magazine also, inevitably, in
a ‘genre ghetto’? A publication like this, of course, necessarily generates
its own homology, its own cultural logics and referents, its own like-
mindedness – which may well narrow the field it inhabits. The editors print
several readers’ letters, one of which has an opening line that beautifully
86 Defining the field
captures Weird Tale’s predicament: ‘As a professional gravedigger, I have
particular interest in your magazine’.
Each genre of popular fiction has its representative genre magazines,
professional or semi-professional productions which have both a cultural
and an industrial function. Romance’s premiere genre magazine, Romantic
Times, was founded by Kathryn Falk in June 1981, beginning as a 24-page
newsletter and developing into 128-page glossy magazine that now sells
internationally, with over 150,000 subscribers. Falk was already a romance
aficionado, publishing reference books on the genre. Romantic Times is as com-
plete an account of the genre as one could imagine, covering pretty much
everything, directing itself at writers, readers (with its Readers’ Forum,
amongst other things), publishers, booksellers and so on. It involves every-
one in the genre industry, including even the models who pose for romance
book covers (Falk is supposed to have discovered the most famous of
romance’s male models, Fabio). This is a hands-on magazine which
promotes new writers, charts publishing trends in the genre, and provides
information about how to publish, how to prepare a manuscript and so on.
In 1982, the magazine hosted the first annual Romantic Booklover’s
Convention in New York, tapping in to the extraordinary expansion of
romance publishing at this time (noted in Chapter 2) and confirming its role
as a major advocate for the genre. Romantic Times presents itself as a ‘family’,
a meeting of ‘kindred spirits’; but it is also an entrepreneurial magazine
which networks across business interests just as effectively as it speaks to read-
ers and nurtures a romance culture. As its publisher, Carol Stacy, remarks,
‘we became the only romance organization that brought everyone under the
same roof, allowing the synergy and enthusiasm of the readers to take hold.
The very idea of networking started with Romantic Times’ (The Romantic Times
BOOK Club Magazine, History: This maga-
zine’s website links to a whole range of romance features: current conven-
tions in the United States, industry news, reviews (up to 200 each month,
divided subgenerically), links to writers and publishers, interviews, how-to
advice, various romance-based competitions, even (perhaps comparing to
American Western Magazine) a link to ‘Operation Shoebox’, an appeal for
readers to send goods out to American soldiers stationed in Iraq.
With so many novels published each month, readers’ reviews are short
and usually upbeat. Falk characterizes romance readers as ‘book lovers’,
giving their relationship to the fiction they read a positive as well as intimate
gloss. On the other hand, although romance readers may indeed love the
books they read, they can still be choosy. Genre magazines do usually tend
to support the fiction they review, but they can be critical from time to time,
too, as we shall see. Romantic Times allows its reviewers a few paragraphs for
narrative summary and a concluding assessment, and a final star rating out
Processing popular fiction 87
of five. For Kathe Robin, May McGoldrick’s historical romance The Rebel
(2002) is worth only three stars: ‘The characters, though well drawn and
clearly well motivated, never stirred me to become emotionally involved
with them’ (ibid., Reviews 2002: This
reader typically values romance novels that ‘stir’ one’s emotions: this is
more about affect than arousal. For Deborah Brent, Joan M. Fox’s
The Reluctant Duke (2003), set in England in 1845, is only worth two stars:

Jarring language, like the use of modern words like ‘libido’ and ‘genes’,
sometimes pulled me out of the story. In addition, a multitude of
superfluous internal thoughts slowed the pace. Those elements
detracted from characters who were well developed, research that was
well done and an excellent explanation of the British Peerage.
(ibid., Reviews 2003:

Brent values historical consistency and accuracy: as I noted in Chapter 2, the

romance genre often relies on well-researched historical detail and readers can
be connected to it informationally as well as emotionally. But the review also
likes precision, clarity, action, pace – as opposed to introspection and reflection
(‘a multitude of superfluous internal thoughts’), qualities usually associated with
Literature. Indeed, unlike the account of horror we saw in Weird Tales, romance
here remains generically secure, reiterating its core values over and over again.
Crime fiction is represented by a host of fanzines and prozines. Ellery
Queen’s Mystery Magazine was established in 1941 (‘Ellery Queen’ was editor
from 1941 to 1982) and claims to be ‘the world’s leading mystery maga-
zine’; it produces 11 digest-size issues annually, devoted almost entirely to
new stories with some short reviews of new work and no editorial. Its sta-
blemate is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, established in 1956 as a media
tie-in to the popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. Other US crime
magazines include the New York-based Mystery Scene and The Armchair
Detective, both currently edited by Kate Stine, Gary Lovisi’s Hardboiled – also
from New York, established in 1985 – and the excellent bi-monthly news-
letter, The Drood Review of Mystery. The Mystery Review is a quarterly from
Ontario, Canada, and Crime Factory is edited by David Honeybone, from
Melbourne, Australia. UK crime magazines include Shots: The Magazine for
Crime and Mystery, edited by Mike Stoller (an e-zine since March 2002, at, and Geoff Bradley’s scholarly but irregular
Crime and Detective Stories (CADS), both coincidentally from Essex – as well as
Peter Dillon-Parkin’s Crime Time, from London, and Crime Wave, a glossy
quarterly from Ely, Cambridgeshire. There are also special interest crime
magazines: for example, the Sherlock Holmes Gazette & Classic Detective
Magazine, Sherlock Holmes: The Detective Magazine, David Stuart Davies’
88 Defining the field
Sherlock, and even The Strand Magazine, resurrected as an excellent quarterly
in the United States in 1999 by Andrew F. Gulli.
As noted, some of these magazines are devoted primarily or even
exclusively to publishing new crime fiction. Others have no fiction at all: their
task is solely to review and assess, to promote, and to excavate the genre: that
is, to process. CADS is a magazine entirely devoted to excavation, with articles
on a range of forgotten or neglected crime writers. Ian H. Godden’s com-
mentary in the May 2003 issue on the golden age crime novelist Henry Wade
(1887–1969) – the pseudonym of English baronet, Henry Lancelot Aubrey-
Fletcher – begins by berating mainstream and academic commentators for
leaving him out of their surveys: ‘Wade is not even mentioned in Julian
Symons’s Bloody Murder [1972], nor in Erik Routley’s The Puritan Pleasures of the
Detective Story [1972]’ (Godden 2003: 17). We might wonder about these two
30-year-old sources, but Godden’s point is typical of the more scholarly genre
magazine. It pitches itself against neglect elsewhere, especially in academia,
replacing it with a much fuller, para-academic knowledge of the field: giving
itself the amateur’s time and space to fill in the gaps. Essays in this magazine
are immersed in the genre, lovingly rendering its various details, tracing out
themes or locations (gardens and gardening in crime fiction, Sherlock Holmes
and sport, ‘Fog in Crime Fiction: Some Thoughts’, ‘Transportation in the
Detective Fiction of John Dickson Carr’). The emphasis here is on detail:
a kind of literary trainspotting. But the primary role is recovery, usually
with complete bibliographical details – for example, in Sue Feder’s article on
E. Richard Johnson (1938–97), a sometime-itinerant American novelist best
admired for his detective, Tony Lonto (Feder 2002: 15–19). An ongoing series
is titled ‘Digging up the Unknown’, which literally recovers forgotten crime
novels. Marvin Lachman contributes an ‘Obiturarian’ column which docu-
ments the deaths of even the most minor crime writer: it is in fact a wonder-
ful resource, entirely directed at the genre enthusiast. There is a great deal
of nostalgia here for the golden age of crime fiction, for generic times past:
hence the obituaries. Crime fiction becomes a kind of garden for the amateur
scholar to dig over, attending to its idiosyncrasies, its particularities and
quirks. Because these values drive the magazine’s interests along, it has no
time for formulaic writing. Here is a segment of a review of James Patterson’s
1st to Die (2002):

There’s nothing wrong with this novel. It’s just not very good. The formula
according to James Patterson, thriller writer by numbers.... Everything
is calculated, every reaction worked-out, blue-printed, every feeling
programmed. A computer could have written this, maybe a computer
did.... No blood here, no flesh, no humanity. No smell of human frailty.
(Foster 2002: 69)
Processing popular fiction 89
This complaint might recall the Weird Tales editorial, cited earlier, which
saw American literature as ‘technically perfect, mechanically true, but lack-
ing in expression’. Such remarks show us that serious readers of popular
fiction can position themselves against formula – and so can many popular
writers. Weird Tales had wanted horror fiction with ‘soul’, while CADS wants
crime fiction with ‘humanity’. These are genres of popular fiction which can
distance themselves from features conventionally associated with genre
(predictability, technical adeptness, etc.) – aspiring to be, perhaps, more
‘literary’ or, as with Weird Tales, something more than ‘literary’.
The tastes of crime magazines can be much more catholic, however. In
the UK magazine Crime Time, Steve Holland criticizes George Orwell’s
famous 1944 essay on James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish –
mentioned in Chapter 2. Orwell had compared Chase’s hardcore gangster
novel unfavourably to E.W. Hornung’s Raffles (1899), with its refined gen-
tleman thief. But Holland is a fan of lowbrow pulp action novels like
Richard Allen’s Skinhead (1970), and has no time for Orwell’s snobbery:

Chase was a favourite of my dad’s and we had plenty of them around;

I’d already worked my way through his John Creaseys . . . . I always
remember the phrase Orwell used to lead into the Chase novel: ‘Now
for a header into the cesspool ’. There was me, in the cesspool thinking it was
a great place to swim . . . .
(Holland 1996: 28)

This warmhearted defense of tough-guy pulp fiction sits alongside

interviews with Sara Paretsky, the prolific British crime novelist Gwendoline
Butler, Californian writer Joseph Hansen, James Ellroy (a complete bib-
liography accompanies each writer), articles on post-Second World War
paperback cover art, Frank Miller’s Batman graphic novels and genre self-
publishing, as well as reviews and crime fiction news. Pulp fiction, women’s
police procedurals, ‘dark’ classic crime fiction, gay detective fiction,
American tough-guy and tough-girl crime fiction, graphic design, associated
forms of cultural production: the range is typical of most genre magazines.
They will also combine interviews with, or articles on, current writers with
reviews of older material – like Holland’s account of Chase, mentioned
above. The first issue of Shots in 1998, for example, opens with an equally
engaged article on a very different kind of crime writer, Dorothy L. Sayers,
by British horror fantasy novelist Chaz Brenchley. Brenchley’s involvement
with Sayers’ fiction is presented as a kind of adolescent rite of passage,
beginning at 17 years of age during a train journey through Oxford. He
had already read a couple of Sayers’ novels and knew about her detective,
90 Defining the field
Peter Wimsey, but on this journey he buys Gaudy Night (1935):

Gaudy Night . . . was my first encounter with Peter Wimsey as a genuine

human being. . . . the revelation comes as a result of our finally seeing
this suave and competent gentleman baffled . . . by the emotional
complexities of real life as the rest of us must live it, though even his
bafflement is illuminated by a brighter, sharper light and more precise
focus than the most of us can imagine.
(Brenchley 1998: 7)

Holland’s account has a genre novelist handed down from father to son;
Brenchley’s account is about a teenage boy’s ‘revelation’, a different sort of
rite of passage. Unlike Holland, who relishes his lowbrow pulp interests,
Brenchley returns to a gentleman in crime fiction and speaks up for the
genre’s literary potential (expressing ‘the emotional complexities of real
life’) – although the qualification at the end is also worth noting. Genre
magazines privilege close readings like these: close not just in terms of
attending to the details of a work, but in terms of intimacy (‘my first
encounter . . .’). This is a long way away from the conventional image of the
‘undiscriminating’, merely sensual reader of popular fiction. Aficionados of
popular fiction are not only knowledgeable about their genres, they cherish
them. They are indeed, as Romantic Times succinctly puts it, ‘book lovers’.
Genre magazines, as we have seen, can provide an opportunity for
aficionados – for those readers who are intimate with a genre – to move
towards a kind of literary appreciation of a work: critical of predictability
and formula, valuing ‘humanity’ and complexity. But at the risk of stating
the blindlingly obvious, genre magazines are also all about genres. Like the
genre bookshops, they devote all of their attention to genres, which means
that the roles of fan and scholar are played out here simultaneously. Genre
magazines are venues through which the logics and practices of particular
genres are given focus and made explicit; they provide genres with a certain
realized intensity through the intimacies and knowledges their contributors
bring to bear upon them.

Genre magazines and cultural capital

In The Field of Cultural Production, Pierre Bourdieu talks about the different
kinds of ‘capital’ that cultural producers (writers, film-makers, artists, musi-
cians, etc.) accumulate in the cultural field. Economic capital is one kind, the
capital one gains when one produces cultural goods for the mass market, for
large-scale circulation: the money one makes, in other words. Certainly,
Processing popular fiction 91
many popular writers produce their novels with the intention of making
money, gaining ‘economic capital’ – although this intention is by no means
always realized. Symbolic capital is another kind, involving peer recognition
and prestige. A cultural producer may not make much money out of his or
her work, but it may have been a prestigious thing to do: like some academic
writing, for example, or like Literature, literary novels as well as poetry.
Bourdieu calls this kind of production ‘autonomous’, since it lives out a sort
of ‘art for art’s sake’ ideology. Audiences are small and levels of production
as well as circulation are restricted, but economic losses can be offset by dif-
ferent kinds of values, ‘symbolic’ ones endowed by those already holding
prestigious positions in the cultural field (e.g. a university appointment, state
support, a literary award, an article written about you in a prestigious but
equally small-scale journal, etc.). For Bourdieu, this is ‘the economic world
reversed’, because symbolic capital sometimes flows when economic capital
is least available (Bourdieu 1993: 29–73, 1996: 216–17). Poets can be valued
precisely because they don’t sell many copies of their poetry; this is the thing
that, paradoxically, makes them special. But this value is only symbolic: poets
usually do not earn much money from their art and their circulation is,
indeed, small. On the other hand, although writers of popular fiction can cer-
tainly make a great deal of money, they can also lay claim to kinds of symbolic
capital within the framework of their literary field, as I shall note below.
Cultural capital is the third kind of capital discussed by Bourdieu (see
Bourdieu 1993: 7–8). It is built around the accumulation of cultural knowl-
edge, the amount of knowledge one has about an aspect of the cultural field.
When it is placed in an academic, educational context, Literature (poetry,
literary novels) generates cultural capital in the sense that students are trained
to read and appreciate it, to develop their knowledges of it – so that a teacher
might say: you cannot know about Literature until you have read Milton, or
George Elliot, or Shakespeare, and so on – and this is registered formally
when students of Literature write their essays and do their exams. In the field
of popular fiction genres also generate cultural capital, except that the con-
text is para-academic, taking place outside of the universities. I have already
noted that writers of popular fiction cannot afford not to know about the gen-
res they inhabit. It may well be that the more cultural capital one is able to
claim on behalf of a genre – Gwendolyne Butler typically advises new crime
writers, ‘Read a lot, and analyze what you read’ (Butler 1998: 12) – the better
genre novels one writes. We have also seen the importance of cultural capital
for genre bookshops and genre magazines: neither of these processing venues
can afford to be generically naïve or ignorant. Writers of popular fiction lend
themselves to genre bookshops as a matter of routine, visiting them on their
publicity tours, signing books, speaking to their readerships, attending their
functions and so on. They also involve themselves heavily in the genre
92 Defining the field
magazines: not simply by being interviewed, but by writing features and even
editing them. Ed Gorman, a prolific writer of horror, mystery fiction and
westerns (who also edits genre anthologies), has written for Cemetery Dance and
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. He has also been the executive editor of the
crime magazine Mystery Scene, where he contributes brief commentaries on
the various predicaments of popular fiction in a column titled ‘Gormania!’
Here is one brief sample, pertinent to the discussion so far:

Read a funny letter on a science fiction pod a couple of weeks ago. The
writer asked what it means exactly when a reviewer says that a novel
‘transcends genre’.
That reminded me of an agent who used to call me. If he liked a
book, he’d invariably say ‘It really transcends genre’. I never knew what
the hell he was talking about.
(Gorman 2003: 58)

Obviously, genre magazines are an affirmation of genre, and writers participate

in this wholeheartedly. It means that they, too, combine the roles of fan and
scholar. Indeed, they have to do exactly this; as Gwendolyne Butler had
advised, they must read and analyze the genre before they can expect to
perform well as genre writers. Writers of popular fiction need as much
cultural capital as they can get precisely in order not to transcend genre.
Cultural capital gives the genre magazines what I have called a para-
academic identity: deploying their scholarship outside of the university, outside
of official educational apparatuses. Excavation, as we saw with CADS, is central
to their identity. Genre magazines must show that they know more about their
genres than anybody else. Their cultural capital is demonstrated every time they
recover a now-forgotten writer or fill in the blanks in a writer’s bibliography.
A long-running genre magazine can even do this to itself. Amazing Stories was res-
urrected in 1999 by US games publishing company Wizards of the Coast and
continued in the tradition of Hugo Gernsback’s earlier ‘golden age’ SF. Here is
an excerpt from Kim Mohan’s editorial about one of the classic SF writers:

Anything I could say about the career of Frederik Pohl [1919–] would
be going over ground that has already been covered by fans and critics
during the last several decades – except for one fact that I suppose
some of you don’t know: Amazing Stories was the first professional
magazine to publish his work. That piece is a poem titled ‘Elegy to a
Dead Satellite: Luna’. It appeared in the October 1937 issue of this
magazine under the pseudonym Elton V. Andrews.
(Mohan 1999: 4)
Processing popular fiction 93
Amazing Stories gains its cultural capital here by printing a relatively
unknown fact about SF publishing history, and claiming that fact as part of
its own history. It excavates itself, in other words, and can thus complete
Pohl’s bibliographical record – or at least, claim to begin it.
Genre magazines do often aim for completeness, for a full record of a
writer and his or her output. They can accordingly be critical of academic
approaches to genre fiction which, as I have already noted, can be seen as
lacking in this regard, as necessarily and unsurprisingly ( because they are
academic...) incomplete. Genre magazines provide a corrective to the things
academics leave out and they can often relish this task. There are other
differences between academic approaches to genre and those of the genre
magazines, too. Genre magazines can certainly analyze their generic fields, but
they tend not to theorize them as academics sometimes do. However, this does
not mean that genre magazines are necessarily anti-academic. Louis Phillips has
a column in The Armchair Detective called ‘Dial N for Nonsense’, a play on the
title of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1954 film, Dial M for Murder. The contents of
this column are typically para-academic: scholarly bits of trivia about the
details of crime fiction. A short piece titled ‘Detective Fiction Theory’ quotes a
passage from an article on crime fiction written by Berel Lang and published
in a prestigious US academic journal, The Yale Review, in October 1995:

And so mystery stories are remembered not for the puzzles they set or
for their solutions (the exceptions are recalled as exceptions: a pur-
loined letter, a dog that didn’t bark) but for the characters and the
worlds to which they give life, their portraits of detail: the eccentric
resources of Sherlock Holmes, the hermetic sensibility of an English
village punctured by the frail Miss Marple; the fat of [ Rex Stout’s
detective] Nero Wolfe, settled in his New York brownstone, sending his
intelligence out to work for him on his feet. The mystery of the story,
then, is at once a disguise and a clue, a nonliterary pretext for the
literary disclosure of trustworthy and comforting worlds.
(Phillips 1996: 217)

Although this passage appears in a column called ‘Dial N for Nonsense’, it is

not actually ridiculed; it is simply presented, without comment. Of course, the
passage isn’t ‘theory’ at all and although its range is limited it may well be true
enough to get by – even if its point rests on the cardinal sin of imagining read-
ers as some kind of abstracted mass and then speaking on their behalf (‘And so
mystery stories are remembered for...’). Reviews of crime fiction in the genre
magazines, at least, do indeed seem to value characterization and setting, which
is the point this passage makes. It also notes that readers value the ‘detail’ in
crime fiction, which again seems to be generally true. Even so, by placing it in
94 Defining the field
a column devoted to trivia and curiosities, Phillips distances it from the interests
and approach of his genre magazine – which are neither theorized nor (prop-
erly speaking) academic. The point is underscored by the next entry in his
column, a letter to the editor of the pulp magazine Black Mask, by Erle Stanley
Gardner (1889–1970), famous for his bestselling Perry Mason novels:

Dear Sirs,
‘Three O’Clock in the Morning’ is a damned good story. If you have
any comments, write them on the back of a check.
(ibid.: 217)

This pithy comment works to undercut the rather genteel piece of academic
analysis Phillips had just presented, returning us to the commercial world of
crime fiction with a vengeance. It’s a world (with an accompanying ‘attitude’)
remote from academia, but one to which the genre magazines – industrially
as well as culturally immersed in their genres – invariably pay their respects.
Genres have very few academic journals devoted to them. Predictably,
perhaps, science fiction has the most: the quarterly Foundation: The International
Review of Science Fiction, which comes from Buckinghamshire Chilterns
University College, England; Science Fiction Studies, from DePauw University,
Indiana; and Extrapolation, from the University of Texas at Brownsville and
Texas Southmost College. Extrapolation is the earliest of these, founded in
1959 by Thomas D. Clareson, who had chaired the first Modern Language
Association seminar devoted to SF the previous year. It might be worth not-
ing that the rise in academic interest in SF seems to have followed on the
heels of the end of pulp SF publishing in the mid-1950s. The genre first
developed as an academic interest in the US colleges in the early 1960s,
although Sam Moskowitz had taught college-level seminars on SF at City
College in New York as early as 1953. SF’s academic golden age arrives in
the 1970s, with something like 500 courses in SF being taught around the
United States by this time – there are probably around 400 now. Clareson
was the first president of the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA),
an academic body founded in 1970. Foundation was established in 1972, and
Science Fiction Studies in 1973. What is still the most formidable academic
study of SF – Darko Suvin’s Metamorphosis of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and
History of a Literary Genre – was published in 1979. Of all the genres of pop-
ular fiction, only SF could be described as having a ‘poetics’, a formal con-
dition generally associated with Literature. In fact, Suvin was dismissive of
a great deal of genre SF, valuing only its highest forms and grounding it in
theoretical concepts like estrangement, cognitive logic and the ‘novum’,
that is, an intellectual/technical innovation of some kind, something new
in the work that was able to define SF as SF: the kinds of concepts that came
Processing popular fiction 95
to underwrite academic approaches to postmodernism soon afterwards. Of
the journals, Science Fiction Studies is the one that most enjoys its theoretical
associations, with special issues actually devoted to SF academic criticism
and contributions from some of the heavyweights of literary theory, such as
Fredric Jameson – a commentator on postmodernism who also reads exten-
sively in the genre. Foundation, on the other hand, is a cross-over journal, with
contributions from a number of SF writers.
Academic criticism of science fiction may well range more widely than
ever before. Science Fiction Studies, for example, now talks about ‘global sci-
ence fiction’ (see the November 1999 and March 2000 issues) and devotes
space to SF from Japan, Australia and Europe. But at the risk of reducing
this range, it seems to me that form-and-ideology approaches continue to
dominate here. Academic studies of SF spend a lot of time reviewing and
revising the history of the genre, but they still read the fiction itself both
formally (e.g. ‘The Monomyth as Fractal Pattern in Frank Herbert’s Dune
Novels’) and in relation to Literature (‘Uses of Madness in Cervantes and
Philip K. Dick’), as well as in terms of its social role and its cultural politics.
There is little interest in the industrial and commercial aspects of the genre;
and of the three academic journals listed here, only Foundation reviews new SF
releases. These features – the processing of new works and a direct engage-
ment with genre as an industry – remain with the genre magazines, although
one ‘hybrid’ SF publication, the New York Review of Science Fiction, does attempt
to bridge the divide between academic study and ‘in-field’ genre processing
(see Hartwell 1997:
The ‘culture industry’ of SF, however, is best exemplified in the biggest and
most professionalized of its genre magazines, Locus, founded in 1968 by
Charles N. Brown, who is both its publisher and editor-in-chief.
Locus is subtitled ‘the newspaper of the science fiction field’, but this may
understate its range and capacity (not least because it covers fantasy and
horror writing, too). It certainly features industrial news and advertises new
fiction, things the academic journals don’t do. But as a prozine that is fully
immersed in SF’s industrial and cultural features, it can claim something
close to total generic representation. Its news includes publishing develop-
ments, reports on conventions and workshops, media tie-in accounts, obit-
uaries, reports on awards, compilations of genre bestsellers, complete lists
of monthly publications and end-of-the-year figures on sales. Locus also
launched its online service in 1998 (, as a kind of
adjunct service. The magazine’s global range can far exceed the academic
journals: the January 1998 issue, for example, has features on SF from
Argentina, Cuba, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Ireland, amongst other
places. It interviews writers and lists bookshop tours. It reviews extensively,
from longer, considered review articles to short notices. The staff reviewers
96 Defining the field
have considerable expertise, reading the fiction closely, placing it in the
framework of the writer’s publishing history, situating it generically, captur-
ing trends. Here is an example, a review of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation
Space (2000) and Jack McDevitt’s Infinity Beach (2000) – writers who would
be unlikely to find themselves discussed in an academic journal – by con-
tributing editor Gary K. Wolfe, who is in fact a professor of English at
Roosevelt University, Chicago:

One could make the argument that for a good part of its history, hard
SF has been involved in an ongoing effort to redeem, in both literary
and speculative senses, the old guilty pleasures of the swooping Doc
Smith-style space opera, a form that for many readers defined that raw
SF version of the sublime which in the vernacular came to be called
the Sense of Wonder . . . . In the last couple of decades, an impressive
number of writers – Greg Bear, Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge, Paul
McAuley, and Stephen Baxter among them – have developed sophisti-
cated strategies for reclaiming the wildest features of space opera without
sacrificing too much in the way of human drama, coherent storytelling,
or simple plausibility – and now, with big novels that seem to signal a
promising millennial year for SF, both Alastair Reynolds and Jack
McDevitt bid to join that company.
(Wolfe 2000: 21)

This passage is typical of SF position-taking, as it oscillates back and forth

between the (cheerfully admitted) ‘guilty pleasures’ of lowbrow entertainment
and higher, literary aspirations – between the ‘vernacular’ and the ‘sublime’,
as the review puts it. But it is also informative, and typical of genre analysis
broadly speaking. For example, it provides a genealogy, linking current writers
to precursors (in this case, Edward E. ‘Doc’ Smith [1890–1965]). The cultural
capital of reviewers – and writers – is demonstrated through the genealogies
they compile and invoke. It also notes an example of the genre re-inventing
and differentiating itself, which is always important to generic well-being. As
well, Wolfe’s remarks list some key writers, forming a canon into which new
writers are welcomed. Genres must be continually processed, re-animated,
added to – which makes genre analysis in the magazines a excitable business,
ranging across the field in search of new stars.

Evaluation, awards, canons

The genre magazines – and there are many more, as well as an increasing
amount of genre e-zines – add to genres by excavating now-forgotten older
writers and processing many of the new ones. It might seem, as a result, as
Processing popular fiction 97
if genres are condemned to be overcrowded, amorphous masses. But in fact,
this kind of processing is underwritten by a sense of the genre as a hierarchy,
an arrangement of fiction which sees the best work rise to the top. Obviously,
bestsellers provide one way of arranging genres: the novels which stand out
are the ones that sell the most copies, the ones at the top of the bestseller lists.
As we have seen, however, genre magazines and the various fan and writer-
based organizations that build themselves around genre fiction are also ori-
ented towards the best writing they can find. They evaluate; but as I have also
noted, evaluation in the field of popular fiction can slide in two directions:
towards the essence of the genre on the one hand (pace, precision, plot,
detail, a ‘sense of wonder’, no ‘superfluous internal thoughts’, etc.), and
towards something akin to ‘literary values’ on the other (humanity, soul,
‘startling variations of style, texture, and mood’, etc.). At times, these two
apparently opposite positions enfold together. Here is the fantasy/science
fiction novelist Elizabeth Hand in 2003 reviewing new novels from a fine
writer working across the same genres, M. John Harrison:

Harrison trained as an engineer when he was young, and it shows in the

meticulous care he puts into constructing his tales. Not just the machine-
work of what used to be called worldbuilding . . . but [what] might
be better described as world-shaping; not just his characterization,
which ranks with that of masters like Robert Stone [1937–] or Graham
Greene [1904–1991]; not merely his prose style, elegant and devastating
as a twenty-eight-gauge stainless steel garotte; not just his subject matter,
which is nothing less than the mutable nature of our world (or any
other)....Harrison does all of these things, while at the same time giving
readers a powerful sense of the author’s own engagement with these
issues, and with his own work; a great, almost immeasurable gift from
an author to his readers.
(Hand 2003: 39)

This extract is fairly typical of the kind of tribute one genre writer pays to
another, which can often run the risk of overstating its case. But it also
illustrates the way popular fiction, as it is processed in this way, can be
pulled towards the kind of things one might value in Literature. The extract
begins by stressing the ‘mechanical’ aspects of popular fiction, emphasizing
Harrison’s training as an engineer and the role it plays in the precision of
the fiction. Then it transcends this: shifting from ‘worldbuilding’ to ‘world-
shaping’. Harrison is also a ‘master’, linked to two other great literary
writers. But he transcends these, too, since he does all the things they do
(to both ‘our world’ and ‘any other’: as a realist and a fantasy novelist), and
more besides. He is precisely the kind of writer who, recalling the words of
98 Defining the field
Ed Gorman’s excitable agent, ‘transcends genre’. Popular fiction may love
its bestsellers, but it also admires greatness. The history of popular fiction is
littered with masters, not to mention mistresses and queens (the ‘Queen of
Crime’, ‘Mistress of Mystery’, etc.) – although there is usually no tran-
scending of genre here at all. There are now Masterworks series of fantasy,
science fiction and crime fiction, all published by Orion/Gollancz, which
collect and reprint what this UK publisher sees as the greatest works in
these genres, arranging them numerically, from number one onwards.
The Romantic literary discourse of genius is not used very much in popu-
lar fiction – it likes ingenuity instead – but the field nevertheless canonizes
insistently and relentlessly as it goes about arranging itself, or, hierarchizing
itself. Popular fiction has far more canonized writers in its domain than
Literature, and it makes sure they are duly awarded.
There are probably well over 60 annual awards available in the science fic-
tion and fantasy genres alone. The best known SF awards are the Nebula
and the Hugo (named after Hugo Gernsback). The Nebula Awards are
given annually by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers
of America to the best SF novel, novella, novelette, short story and (although
this is a recent addition) film script. The first Nebula went to Frank Herbert’s
Dune in 1965; the first Nebula ‘Grand Master’ was Robert A. Heinlein, in
1974, and there have been SF Grand Masters ever since. The Hugos (also
known as the Science Fiction Achievement Awards) are sponsored by the
World Science Fiction Society (, voted for
by its members, and administered by the committee of Worldcon, the
World Science Fiction Convention. The first Hugos were awarded in 1953,
covering the best novel (Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man), professional
magazine (joint winners, Galaxy and Astounding), ‘excellence in fact articles’
(Willy Ley), cover artist ( joint winners again, Ed Emshwiller and Hannes
Bok), interior illustrator ( Virgil Finlay), new SF author or artist (Philip José
Farmer) and ‘number 1 fan personality’ (Forest J. Ackerman). Since 1953,
other categories have been added to the list (novella, novelette, short story,
professional editor, fan writer, semi-prozine, non-fiction book, etc.), as if
everyone involved in the generic field in some way must be duly acknowl-
edged and rewarded. At least a dozen countries present annual SF awards;
so do some of the academic organizations, like the SFRA. SF novelists have
given their names to some major awards in the genre: the Philip K. Dick,
the Arthur C. Clarke, the Theodore Sturgeon, and on behalf of the semi-
nal editor of Astounding and Analog magazines, the John W. Campbell. It
can seem as if SF carries its mastery along with it as a kind of ever-present
literary heritage. This is something like the point genre novelist Jack Dann
makes in his introduction to Nebula Awards 32 (1998), when he folds together
SF’s love of awards with an aficionado’s need constantly to recall those
Processing popular fiction 99
writers the genre leaves behind:

I’ve ceased to be surprised when intelligent science fiction readers tell me

they’ve never heard of – much less read – writers such as Clifford Simak,
Edgar Pangborn, Keith Roberts, C.M. Kornbluth, Cordwainer Smith,
Theodore Sturgeon – the list goes on and on. Sadly, the culture – and the
publishing industry – are geared to the ‘right now’, to what’s new and hot.
These Nebula volumes, however, not only represent the cutting edge
of ‘right now’; they are also weighted with history: the ‘not now’ that
our genre rests upon.
(Dann 1998: vii)

Apart from Sturgeon who now has an award named after him, it might seem
difficult to find a more obscure list of genre novelists. (On the other hand,
Clifford D. Simak [1904–88] was a Nebula Grand Master in 1976.) But this
is cultural capital at work: a widely read genre enthusiast in a book about
present-day award winners recalling some of the genre’s now-forgotten
achievers: excavating minor writers out of the genre’s past, thickening the
genre’s genealogy, underpinning science fiction’s ‘right now’ with ‘not now’.
The field of popular fiction gains much of its dynamics from the fact that
these contradictory impulses – the forgotten features of its deep history and
the showcased phenomena of its present moment – can sit side by side.
The biggest award in the fantasy genre is the World Fantasy Award: a tro-
phy in the form of a bust of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Horror’s most
prestigious award is the Bram Stoker, administered by the Horror Writers
Association – which also presents awards to specialty publishers and the
HWA librarian of the year. The International Horror Guild, an organization
of critics and reviews, also offers an award in the genre. The Spur Awards
were first offered in 1954 by the Western Writers of America and cover
a number of categories, including best juvenile fiction and best first novel
(the ‘Medicine Pipe Bearer’s Award’). Crime fiction is in receipt of dozens
of awards: the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention’s teapot-shaped
Agatha Award for ‘cozy’ mysteries, the British Crime Writers Association’s
Dagger Awards, the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Allan
Poe Awards – as well as their own Grand Master Award and their occasional
Ellery Queen Award – the Crime Writers’ Association of Australia’s Ned
Kelly Awards, Mystery Readers International’s Macavity Awards (named
after the mystery cat in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats [1939]),
the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award for the best private eye
novel – and so on. Romantic Times offers several awards, including the won-
derfully named Melinda Helfer Fairy Godmother Award, named after one
of RT’s reviewers and available to anyone who supports the romance genre.
100 Defining the field
This brief list – the tip of the awards iceberg – also testifies to the number
of organizations and associations operating in the field of popular fiction:
these are the source of most of the genre awards. Every genre has its rep-
resentative organizations, a number of which have now already been noted.
They form themselves around writers, as well as reviewers, editors, book-
sellers and readers, with varying degrees of professionality. These organi-
zations respond to the field and sometimes even preside over it. They
process, promote and award it: building themselves around genres, invest-
ing in them and giving them arrangement and coherence. In doing so, they
turn the field of popular fiction into something like a system, which constantly
looks at itself and tries to do justice to what it sees.

1 See, for example, Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (1980) or
Michael Denning, Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller (1987);
see also Scott McCracken, Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction (1999). McCracken’s essen-
tially ideological account of popular fiction approaches the field the other way
around, that is, from the outside in: from a broad theoretical position to the works
themselves. But it tends to remain broad-based in its views, offering highly gener-
alized statements – for example, that ‘popular fiction must engage with its con-
tradictions in order to be successful’ or that contemporary popular fiction ‘is a
quintessential product of the modern world’ (McCracken 1999: 6, 16). The former
statement (although its meaning is actually unclear) would be news indeed to
many popular novelists and has little to do with success at all; the latter statement
might be said of any contemporary form of cultural production. This study wants
to argue that popular fiction ‘mediates social conflict’, but again, this is true of
any dramatic narrative form from literary fiction to cinema and theatre. The view
that contemporary popular fiction ‘commonly sets its characters amidst the mod-
ern systems of international finance, and technological and political networks,
which are part of the organizational power of modernity’ (ibid.: 6, 7) cheerfully
ignores what is actually going on in the genres of fantasy, romance and the west-
ern, as well as in various subgenres of crime fiction, SF and horror, and pretty
much every popular historical and historical/adventure novel. McCracken’s book
is a lesson in the danger of drawing broad ideological generalizations out of
a dynamic and highly differentiated literary field.
Part II
Five popular novelists
4 (Lo-tech) John Grisham and
(hi-tech) Michael Crichton
Putting the thriller to work

This chapter looks closely at two bestselling ‘veteran’ contemporary

popular novelists, offering a reading of them in terms of their treatment
of, and responses to, work and commerce – two of the cultural/industrial
features of popular fiction. Both Grisham and Crichton, as we shall see,
extol the virtues of work. They work rigorously and systematically to com-
plete their novels on schedule, and both have industrial reputations as hard
workers. Both novelists have also set their thrillers inside the workplace: the
law courts, for example, or the modern office in Crichton’s Disclosure
(1994). In each case, the workplaces these novelists describe are privately
operated, ‘free enterprises’. The protagonist of The Firm (1991), Mitch
McDeere, graduates from Harvard University to work in a small law prac-
tice in Memphis – which conducts its business in quite a different way to
the university. Characters in Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990) are advised that
universities severely restrict one’s capacity to carry out research: it is better
to move into the private, corporate sphere if one wants generous funding
and the freedom to pursue one’s research interests without limits. We
might say that these novels act out one of the predicaments of popular fic-
tion itself, which also conducts its business outside the frame of the uni-
versity, away from state regulated cultural economies. The economies these
novelists investigate are deregulated; the money they can generate is poten-
tially unlimited and their interests are indeed primarily commercial.
Grisham and Crichton represent this predicament and respond to it
morally and ethically, producing popular fiction that ‘intervenes’ in con-
temporary debates about how far deregulated economies might go and
what their responsibilities might be. This chapter looks closely at The Firm
and Jurassic Park – both published roughly around the same time – partly
because these two novels couldn’t be more different from each other. But
they also have something in common, both offering an ethical but invested
commentary on exactly the kind of deregulated cultural economy in which
popular fiction flourishes.
104 Five popular novelists
John Grisham’s The Firm: restraint,
production, excess
Grisham gained a law degree at the University of Mississippi in 1981 and
went on to practice criminal and civil law in Southaven, a suburb of the
small Mississippi town of Hernando. His first novel, A Time to Kill, was
published in 1989 and sold modestly. But his second novel, The Firm, spent
47 weeks in the New York Times bestseller lists and became the top-selling
novel of 1991. Before the novel was published, Paramount Pictures had
purchased the film rights for $600,000; the film of the novel was released in
1993, directed by Sydney Pollack, with Tom Cruise cast as Mitch McDeere.
In the meantime, Grisham was releasing a novel in early February of every
year, dominating the bestseller lists. The Chamber (1994) sold around 3 million
hardcover copies; The Rainmaker (1995) sold around 2.3 million; The Brethren
(2000) sold over 2.8 million. Grisham has consistently been the annual top-
selling novelist for almost a decade – with total follow-on paperback sales of
well over 80 million. In 2003, only a half dozen novels sold more than 2
million hardcover copies: they included Grisham’s King of Torts, and four
novels by romance writer Nora Roberts. Grisham’s 17th novel, The Last
Juror (2004), had a first print run of 2.8 million, underscoring Grisham’s
longevity as a top-seller. Even Grisham’s non-legal thriller novels do well:
Skipping Christmas (2001) sold over 2 million in its first year and was selling
more than half a million copies two Christmases later. By 2003 there were
8 movie adaptations of Grisham’s novels, each purchase climbing in value –
20th Century Fox paid a reported $8 million for the film rights to The
Runaway Jury (1996), for example. Only one-off novels, like Dan Brown’s
The Da Vinci Code or Jean Auel’s Shelters of Stone (2002), beat him to the
annual top-selling position.
Grisham’s approach to popular fictional production is regular and
systematic, a feature which heightens its impact across the cultural field.
Jeff Zaleski, in an article on, has this to say about
‘The Grisham Business’:

While the extent of Grisham’s own earnings remains a secret known to

himself . . . the worldwide gross of his novels and their spinoffs, includ-
ing the movies, easily exceeds $1 billion. The Grisham business is very
big business . . . . To accommodate it, booksellers around the country
clear miles of shelfspace; book and audio clubs quicken to fill orders;
motion picture studios cajole and connive to get a first peek at galleys.
It’s no exaggeration to say that thousands of media folk, from publish-
ing and printing executives to bookstore owners, film producers, direc-
tors and actors and beyond, profit from, and to some extent depend
John Grisham and Michael Crichton 105
upon, the annual Grisham blockbuster. So do, indirectly, a host of
other legal-thriller authors like Steven Martini, Richard North
Patterson, Brad Meltzer and Phillip M. Margolin, who have bobbed
into prominence in the wake of Hurricane Grisham.
(Zaleski 1998:

Grisham is certainly the most commercially successful legal thriller novelist

in the world. But these remarks also note that a popular writer is tied to
a broad-based cultural economy – one that is literally put to work each time
he publishes a novel and which therefore comes to rely on Grisham’s regu-
larity. In the same article, Grisham wonders what might happen if he didn’t
publish in this way, releasing one novel every year:

I’ll tell you what I think about: When I’m in one of those real small
bookstores, some of the stores I’ve gone to for years to sign books . . . I
confess I’ve had the thought, ‘What if I skipped a year?’ It would have
a significant impact on the store.

Here, Grisham entertains a ‘top-down’ ethical concern: large-scale produc-

tion (through his current US publishers, Doubleday/Dell, his movie deals
and so on) literally impacts on the fortunes of small-scale, small-town busi-
ness. This concern neatly reflects a theme in Grisham’s fiction, which itself
often examines the impact of corporate interests on small-town practices,
usually legal ones. On the other hand, Grisham is responding to the regu-
larity – and the predictability – of his output. To not produce is one thing,
but to produce too much is quite another. In the same article, Grisham is
also concerned about his overexposure as a novelist. He refuses to do com-
mercials and worries about ‘audience overload’ when films and novels
are released together or when more than one novel at a time makes the
bestseller lists. In this account, the corporate production of popular fiction
(‘big business’) thus walks a fine line between too little and too much. Its
regularity of production is good for small-town business. But the loss of
regularity – either nothing at all, or a deregulated economy which overloads,
where anything goes – is where the troubles begin. This is also a feature of
the thriller genre, of course, which needs a deregulated protagonist to get the
job done, someone who doesn’t quite play by the rules of an organization,
someone unpredictable (but acceptably so: within limits).
The Firm begins when taxation law graduate Mitch McDeere is interviewed
for a job with a Memphis law firm. He is made a lucrative offer – better
than big-city law firms – which he enthusiastically accepts. His employers
then literally put Mitch to work, 90 hours or more a week, mapping out his
future in terms of salary increases. But Mitch’s immersion in the firm sparks
106 Five popular novelists
his curiosity about it, and he comes to realize that it is under investigation
by the FBI for its links to a Mafia organization. This is not a legal thriller
that unfolds in the courtroom; it is based instead in and around the office
and much of the earlier part of the novel is in fact about the banality of
office life and the tedium of the daily practice of taxation law. Mitch’s role in
the firm is purely functional: hard work earns lots of money. In the midst of
the firm’s capital overload, as it were, Mitch does the billing, makes arrange-
ments over the phone, files documents and organizes photocopying. The novel
describes all this is an equally functional way: there are no metaphorical flour-
ishes in Mitch’s office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the central structural relation-
ship at the firm in the earlier part of the novel is therefore between Mitch and
his secretary. The firm makes sure it hires unattractive, older secretaries (‘the
oldest and homeliest’ [Grisham 1991: 21]) because, it argues, it doesn’t want
its lawyers – all of them men – to be distracted from their work. We might say
that the novel similarly doesn’t want to be distracted from its own functional-
ity. But when Mitch visits a private detective, he meets quite a different kind of
secretary. Tammy is also an older woman like the secretaries at the firm, but
she is sexually coded. The passage introducing her is metaphorically active
enough (one might even say, hyperactive) to quote here in full:

A shapely platinum blond with a constricting leather skirt and matching

black boots asked for his name and pointed to an orange vinyl chair next
to a window.... The ashtray on her desk was filled with butts smeared
with pink lipstick. While typing with her left hand, the right one instantly
and precisely picked another cigarette from the pack and thrust it
between her sticky lips. With remarkable coordination, she flicked some-
thing with her left hand and a flame shot to the tip of a very skinny and
incredibly long liberated cigarette. When the flame disappeared, the lips
instinctively compacted and hardened around the tiny protrusion, and
the entire body began to inhale. Letters became words, words became
sentences, sentences became paragraphs as she tried desperately to fill
her lungs. Finally, with an inch of the cigarette hanging as ashes, she
swallowed, picked it from her lips with two brilliant red fingernails and
exhaled mightily. The smoke billowed toward the stained plaster ceiling,
where it upset an existing cloud and swirled around a hanging fluores-
cent light. She coughed, a hacking, irritating cough which reddened her
face and gyrated her huge breasts until they bounced dangerously
close to the typewriter keys. She grabbed a nearby cup and lapped up
something, then reinserted the filter-tip 1000 and pecked away.
(ibid.: 134–5)

In such a functional novel, this passage lifts itself right off the page. It has
a kind of grotesque eroticism, the only example of its kind in the novel,
John Grisham and Michael Crichton 107
turning Tammy into some sort of bird-like predator. But it is also built
around the activity of writing. Tammy is a productive secretary (‘sentences
became paragraphs’); she can write with great ease even while she smokes,
in spite of the coughing. Tammy stands out here because the novel – until
now – has been non-sexual and metaphorically restrained: giving itself over
to the banal details of work. This is its first moment of excess, its first (and
only) moment of ‘bad taste’. Grisham is well known as a ‘middle America’
novelist, an anti-smoker, happily married, a Baptist who teaches Sunday
school and coaches Little League baseball, respectably middlebrow and
middle class. When characters appear from outside this middle-American
realm – like the armed homeless man at the beginning of The Street Lawyer
(1998), for example – they can unsettle the narrative, taking it in another
direction, if only for a moment. As Mitch talks with Tammy’s employer,
a private detective, it might seem as if The Firm is also about to change
direction: to become a mystery investigation. But the detective is killed soon
afterwards and the possibility of generic change is rejected. His murder at
least allows Mitch to hire Tammy as his secretary later on. When we see her
again in the novel, however, she has been transformed, or perhaps we
should say reformed – wearing ‘a simple, short-knit dress with no plunging
necklines’ and no ‘kinky shoes’ (ibid.: 282). No more bad taste or metaphor-
ical flourishes. She does retain some sexual potential – as they investigate the
firm, Tammy sets up an office on the Cayman Islands and wears a revealing
bikini to seduce Mitch’s corrupt colleague, Avery. But she is primarily iden-
tified through her work, carrying boxes from room to room, photocopying
documents (‘a Canon Model 8580 copier with automatic feed and collator
sat in the corner with engines running’ [ibid.: 336]), and even thinking about
giving up smoking. Mitch’s wife Abby joins her – a loyal and dutiful woman
who waits patiently for him to come home late from the office. As they work
together for Mitch, Tammy does not become a sexual threat. Instead, Abby
becomes more secretarial. The novel in fact reflects the view of women held
by the firm, literally cleaning up their excesses, putting their cigarettes out:
restraining them, regulating them, keeping them respectable.
Mitch and the two women make up a team perfectly designed for work
(rather than, say, sex), with a secretarial wife and a reformed secretary who
can turn words rapidly into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. In this
respect, they become something like an allegory for the perfect popular
fiction-producing machine, totally focused on word production, without dis-
tractions. Working together, they ‘sting’ Mitch’s firm and make a great deal
of money – literally living out a ‘work ethic’, that is, an ethical sense that
hard work will ultimately generate wealth. In The Firm, then, the office is the
primary site for events and work is the primary activity. Until the end, when
Mitch is being chased, this is therefore not a fast-paced novel at all. Indeed,
since it builds itself around the banality of work (long hours, paperwork, etc.),
108 Five popular novelists
it runs the risk of being as tedious as the work practices it details. The
legal thriller can certainly be the slowest-paced of all the thriller subgenres.
This was a complaint made about Stephen L. Carter’s bestselling The
Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), a Christian-infused novel which Grisham had
promoted on Good Morning America. It gained a huge advance from its pub-
lisher Random House but drew mixed reviews, like this critical one from
Lorin Stein in the (albeit literary-oriented) London Review of Books: ‘The
Emperor of Ocean Park lies somewhere south of John Grisham and north of
Nancy Drew. It is long-winded, shoddily put together and riddled with
repetitions and small inconsistencies . . . ’ (Stein 2002: 14). Legal thrillers are
often written by lawyers, or ex-lawyers: Steve Martini, Geroge V. Higgins,
Scott Turow and of course, Grisham himself. Grisham has written about
why lawyers are drawn to the legal thriller subgenre – he calls it, perhaps
more accurately, ‘legal suspense’ – in a 1992 article that also considers the
‘current spate of novels written by lawyers’ to be, precisely, ‘quite tedious’
(Grisham 1992: 33). First, lawyers see stories unfolding in the courtroom, so
they have stories to tell – something that doesn’t help The Firm, however.
Second, life as a lawyer is very boring: ‘most lawyers’, Grisham says, ‘would
rather be doing something else’. Third, lawyers ‘dream of big, quick money.
A gruesome car wreck, an oil spill, a fat fee for a leveraged buyout, a large
retainer from a white collar defendant. It just goes with the turf ’ (ibid.: 33).
This last point presents lawyers negatively, with their ‘dreams’ of big money
structured into the very practice of doing law. Mitch also has these dreams
in The Firm, as he hustles for bigger payments from the FBI (‘Your offer is
too low . . . . Three million, at least’ [Grisham 1991: 277]). It means, amongst
other things, that after a while the novel doesn’t seem to like him very much.
The firm Mitch works for is highly regulated, too regulated; by contrast,
Mitch becomes too deregulated. The novel charts his compulsive greed,
which really starts when he accepts his job at the firm because it offers him
the most money. Much later on his colleague Lamar tells him to slow down:
‘You can’t make a million bucks the first year’ (ibid.: 360). But by this time,
Mitch has done his deal with the FBI. ‘I made a million bucks last week’, he
thinks to himself.

In ten seconds the little account in Freeport jumped from ten thousand
to one million ten thousand. And fifteen minutes later the account was
closed and the money was resting safely in a bank in Switzerland. Aw,
the wonder of wire transfer.
(ibid.: 360)

This passage – Mitch’s ‘thoughts’ – crudely captures the rapid escalation

of his wealth. Perhaps this is simply his reward for so many hours spent as
John Grisham and Michael Crichton 109
a taxation lawyer who does indeed end up ‘doing something else’. But it
raises one of the ambivalences of contemporary popular fiction, especially
when its own narratives are built around a rags-to-riches story. The produc-
tion of popular fiction is itself a combination of hard work and (if successful)
large sums of fast money. In The Firm, Grisham literalizes these features, the
former in all its tedium and the latter in its breathless accumulation – which
is where much of the pace of this thriller actually lies. The firm itself
provides a lesson about the unethical aspects of overproduction: earning
too much money, too quickly. On the other hand, it also valorizes hard
work. The ideology of the novel runs close to the ideology of the firm itself
here, even as Mitch exposes its corrupt business links. If this rather bland
novel has a ‘problem’, then this is it: how does a popular novelist who is
about to become phenomenally successful present the rapid accumulation
of wealth in an ethical way? How does it regulate its own deregulated
Grisham has been an advocate for restraint elsewhere in the entertainment
industry, writing a notorious article about Oliver Stone’s ultra-violent film,
Natural Born Killers (1994) – first published in a literary journal Grisham
part-owns, The Oxford American, a ‘Southern Magazine of Good Writing’
founded in 1992. In his article, Grisham describes two teenagers who had
watched Stone’s film before killing a man in Hernando, Mississippi, and
a woman in a small town in Louisiana. He runs an uncomplicated cause-
and-effect argument, that the film – an ‘orgy of violence’ made for enter-
tainment, literally a ‘thriller’ – inspired people who had never killed before
to go out and do so. Then he offers a suggestion for restraining Hollywood,
for making it more responsible: take out a lawsuit.

The notion of holding film-makers and studios legally responsible for

their products has always been met with guffaws from the industry.
But the laughing will soon stop. It will take only one large verdict
against the likes of Oliver Stone . . . and then the party will be over. The
verdict will come from the heartland, far away from Southern
California, in some small courtroom with no camera. A jury will finally
say enough is enough . . . .
(Grisham 1996: 235)

Grisham’s complaint about the excesses of Hollywood rests typically on a

strong evocation of small-town, homely America: one of the murders
occurs in Hernando where Grisham had once practiced law and ‘hung out’,
and then there is a fantasized lawsuit from ‘some small courtroom’ in
America’s ‘heartland’. Lawyers are also cast here as small-town and made
to stand for restraint and regulation, the opposite of what Hollywood is
110 Five popular novelists
supposed to represent in Grisham’s polemic. But in The Firm, as we’ve seen,
lawyers can be excessive too, dreaming of ‘big, quick money’. In this
respect, as I have suggested, lawyers are indeed like writers of popular
fiction, who can also relish excess (e.g. massive sales). Like Hollywood, of
course, popular fiction is an entertainment industry. But with Grisham,
these two keywords sit awkwardly together. The former may well take pop-
ular fiction down the path of excess, but the latter – which in Grisham’s
case advocates and even literalises sheer hard work (‘the firm’) – pulls it
back, regulating popular fiction’s cultural economy. We might think of
Grisham, as he sets aside half a year every year to produce his annual novel,
as erring on the side of industry here: the regularities of work over the
heady thrills of entertainment. The British poet and literary writer Blake
Morrison has in fact written in exactly this way about him, as one of pop-
ular fiction’s ‘clockwork performers’ who produces his novels with ‘speed
and efficiency’ – as if writing is an industrial practice (or a legal practice)
and nothing more. For Morrison, this runs counter to one of the key charac-
teristics of Literature, which arrives when it wants to arrive, a creature not
of regular work schedules but of ‘inspiration’:

To accountants and marketing departments, an annual cycle like

Grisham’s makes sense . . . . Of course, we’d all like to write with effort-
less speed and brilliance. But if writing doesn’t run swiftly and
smoothly, that’s probably no bad thing . . . . Researches have to be done
and ideas nurtured, for which a year feels far too short. The writing
stops. Or never starts. Or if it’s going well get sabotaged by life. You
can be organized, put yourself at a desk, draw up schedules and all the
rest, and still produce nothing worth keeping. A word sometimes used
to describe what’s needed is ‘inspiration’.
(Morrison 1999: 17)

To counter this literary complaint we might recall Tammy in The Firm, the
ideal popular fictional secretary who rapidly and easily turns words into
sentences into paragraphs. From the perspective of Literature, writing
should go at its own pace, which usually means slowly. For the field of
popular fiction, however, this is simply under-productive; what is worse,
no business, big or small, could rely on it. Grisham’s industrial identity
certainly distinguishes him from Morrison’s account of the inspirational
world of Literature. But he also distances himself from the excesses of
entertainment-as-thrill, as we have seen. For Grisham’s brand of legal
thriller, excess is tied not to thrills but to the rapid accumulation of
wealth, something that far outpaces even sheer hard work. It is also some-
thing lawyers seem to want, as The Firm demonstrates. This means that
John Grisham and Michael Crichton 111
Mitch – a lawyer caught between his love of hard work and the thrill of
negotiating huge financial deals for himself – necessarily gains Grisham’s
approval, but only just.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park:

the dinotainment industry
Michael Crichton has quite a different relationship to entertainment, as
a media tie-in or ‘multimedia’ writer linked directly to the entertainment
industry, but also as a ‘high concept’ novelist linked to the production of
‘ideas’. He began publishing under pseudonyms while studying medicine at
Harvard – initially John Lange (his first novel was a thriller, Odds On [1966])
and then Jeffrey Hudson (whose A Case of Need won the Edgar Allan Poe
Award in 1968), and also as Michael Douglas (where Crichton co-authored
with his brother, sharing their first names). His first novel as Michael
Crichton was The Andromeda Strain (1969), which had a 45,000 first hardcover
print run with Knopf and became the fifth bestselling novel of its year.
Subsequent novels did well enough, but sales remained in the low six figures.
Crichton was routinely eclipsed by writers like Stephen King, Danielle Steel
and Tom Clancy during the 1970s and 1980s, each of whom could sell over
a million copies of their novels. The hardcover release of Jurassic Park in
November 1990 continued Crichton’s strong (but not top-) selling fortunes,
turning over 230,000 copies by the end of that year. But when Steven
Spielberg released the film of the novel in 1993, the level of sales rose expo-
nentially. Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is itself one of the highest-grossing films of
all time; Crichton’s novel has sold around 12 million copies in the US alone
(Maryles 1999: Subsequent novels, like
Rising Sun (1992) and Disclosure (1994), continued as bestsellers but not top-
sellers. The sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World (1995), finally broke the
one-million mark in hardcover sales – but with the exception of Jurassic Park,
Crichton never sold as well as John Grisham during the 1990s. On the other
hand, his first novel with HarperCollins, Prey (2002), had an initial printing
of 1,580,000 hardcover copies, the largest for Crichton since The Lost World –
suggesting that, like Grisham, this writer has been able to take his high-selling
profile into the twenty-first century. But Crichton’s success also comes from
work in other media, especially film and television. He directed a number of
films of his own novels, including Westworld (1973) and The Great Train Robbery
(1978). Crichton was also a co-writer on other films of his books, including
Jurassic Park. He created the immensely popular television series ER in 1994,
which has now been running for over a decade. In 1999, he moved into the
world of interactive software, launching a computer games company,
Timeline Studios, with David Alan Smith (who helped set up Tom Clancy’s
112 Five popular novelists
Red Storm Entertainment company) as CEO. With Eidos Interactive, they
produced a computer game built around Crichton’s 1999 novel, Timeline – a
novel that returns its characters to the fourteenth century and which was also
adapted as a film in 2003.
In the framework of the entertainment industry, then, Crichton is an
‘integrated’ novelist, much more so than Grisham. He is also a ‘high concept’
novelist of ideas, building his novels around meticulous research, the fruits of
which are often reproduced wholesale in the narratives in long, explanatory
passages. His SF- and techno-thrillers, in other words, are by no means solely
devoted to action, although they do rely on the regular manufacture of
‘thrills’ – using cross-cutting techniques, for example, where the narrative
divides into two or three different strands, leaving one strand at a ‘cliff-hanger’
to move across to another and so on. Even so, Crichton is primarily valued in
the industry for his ideas. In Time magazine’s tribute to Crichton, Sonny
Mehta, the editor-in-chief at Knopf, Crichton’s former publisher, says, ‘When
Michael delivers a manuscript, we are all struck by how much we are made to
think, and how much information there is, and how well researched it is. I’m
always learning something every time I work with Michael’ ( Jaynes 1995: 8).
It would be worth contrasting Grisham’s The Firm, which rarely gets
beyond the office photocopier in its technological range, with Crichton’s SF
thriller Prey, a novel about nanotechnologies (‘molecular manufacturing’),
biotechnology and computer technology which is written from the point of
view of one of the scientists. Although both novelists underwrite their fic-
tion with technical information, Grisham is resolutely lo-tech alongside
Crichton’s hi-tech interests – and a great deal of space is taken up in this
novel explaining hi-tech concepts. What both novels have in common, how-
ever, is their work ethic, their belief in the value and necessity of sheer hard
(white- or gold-collar) labour. Indeed, in Prey hard work is a matter of con-
tinual acceleration as demands increase and deadlines are moved forward.
Perhaps paradoxically, this is where this novel’s action is most intensely real-
ized. In effect, work is tied to the logic of the thriller itself, to speed or pace,
without distractions:

The companies of Silicon Valley are the most intensely competitive in

the history of the planet. Everybody works a hundred hours a week.
Everybody is racing against milestones. Everybody is cutting develop-
ment cycles. The cycles were originally three years to a new product,
a new version. Then it was two years. Then eighteen months. Now it
was twelve months – a new version every year. If you figure beta
debugging to golden master takes four months, then you have only eight
months to do the actual work. Eight months to revise ten million lines
of code, and make sure it all works right.
John Grisham and Michael Crichton 113
In short, Silicon Valley is no place for the passive person, and I’m not
one. I hustled my ass off every minute of every day. I had to prove
myself every day – or I’d be gone.
That was my idea about myself. I was sure I was right.
(Crichton 2002: 94–5)

This might also easily be a passage about the entertainment industry – or

even about Crichton himself, an immensely productive writer/entrepre-
neur in the entertainment field. Silicon Valley becomes a codeword for a
deregulated economy driven by pace and fast production; in Prey, of course,
it loses control of itself and produces monsters.
Crichton’s thrillers are precisely about the ways in which the careful plans
of deregulated economies do indeed become monstrous – and in Jurassic
Park, this is spectacularly imagined. Jurassic Park is not simply a ‘dinosaur’
novel in the tradition of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), an inevitable
influence on Crichton and, as José Luis Sanz notes, a major source for this
subgenre, with its combination of adventure, extrapolation and scientific/
paleontological fact (Sanz 2002: 16). It is instead a dinosaur theme park novel,
and its island setting is effectively turned into a kind of scientific-industrial
estate. The architect of the dinosaur theme park is John Hammond, who
recruits his key scientist, Henry Wu, from Stanford University in exactly the
way Mitch is recruited in The Firm: by offering him a large amount of
money. Wu had expected to become a university researcher, but
Hammond’s response captures the sense that ‘real’ work (that is, work that
is tied generically to thrills/the thriller, to acceleration, pace, excitement)
takes place elsewhere:

‘. . . let’s face facts’, Hammond said. ‘Universities are no longer the

intellectual centres of the country . . . . Universities are the backwater.
Don’t look so surprised. I’m not saying anything you don’t know. Since
World War II, all the really important discoveries have come out of
private laboratories . . . . If you want to get something done, stay out of
universities . . . . I’m talking about work’, Hammond continued. ‘Real
accomplishment . . .’.
(Crichton 1991: 123–4)

The novel casts Hammond as a rabid commercializer, fusing his scientific

interests with a background in entertainment (he is a ‘born showman’). Since
Jurassic Park is a theme park with commercial/entertainment imperatives, it is
perhaps not surprising to see that another of his scientists, Arnold, had pre-
viously worked for Disney. But Hammond’s company, Ingen, is also resolutely
secretive, just like the firm in Grisham’s novel. He is one of a number
114 Five popular novelists
of characters to get eaten by dinosaurs after the theme park falls apart; Wu
is also devoured. Spielberg’s film of Jurassic Park has more sympathy with
Hammond, salvaging him from the theme park at the end but also making
him more ‘lovable’ – and perhaps even creating an affinity between
Hammond and Walt Disney himself, as two like-minded theme park entre-
preneurs. But Crichton’s novel reserves its primary sympathies for the pale-
ontologists Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, and the ‘chaos theorist’, Malcolm,
whose role in the novel is a little like Mitch’s role in The Firm. Jurassic Park
offers an ‘excessive’ vision of a totally regulated dinosaur theme park, pro-
duced within the framework of a deregulated, privatized economy. But
Malcolm is there to de-regulate in turn, querying the ‘facts’ and worrying
at the ‘predictions’, offering the spectre of ‘unpredictability’ which is also so
necessary for the thriller genre and, simultaneously, advocating restraint in
response to the sheer excess of Hammond’s vision.
Jurassic Park forms a kind of ideological circle around itself, fusing science,
commerce and entertainment together in a seemingly unbreakable bond.
The collapse of the dinosaur theme park and the death of Hammond in the
novel are generic features of a cautionary tale rather than ‘critiques’ of this
capitalistic trinity, which of course survives intact into the various sequels
(The Lost World, the film sequels) anyway. Costa Rica, the theme park’s loca-
tion, exemplifies this, initially sealed off from the rest of the world but then
increasingly leaking its creatures into its surroundings: as if the fusing of sci-
ence, commerce and entertainment, captured in the bodies of the dinosaurs
themselves, is destined ultimately to be everywhere. The novel – and
Spielberg’s film even more so – thus presents an image of global capitalism
at its most perfected. Indeed, capitalism’s sparkle seems literally to radiate
out from the huge dinosaurs as the characters stare up at them, awe-struck.1
Since Crichton’s novel is a work of popular fiction, it doesn’t ironise these
features. Rather, it lays them out for everyone to see and to ‘debate’ – and
in fact, they are already subjected to debate in the novel itself. It is conscious
of its predicament, rather than self-conscious, and perhaps it should be
since the novel is in effect dramatizing the characteristics of its own position
in the field of popular fiction. The dinosaurs may look natural enough – real
enough – but they are creatures of commerce, created to entertain.
Although he is something of a villain in the novel, Dr Wu gives the best
account of this topic, sliding from the one position (dinosaurs are real) to
the other (dinosaurs are entertainment) as he argues with Hammond:

‘The dinosaurs we have now are real’, Wu said, pointing to the screens
around the room, ‘but in certain ways they are unsatisfactory.
Unconvincing. I could make them better . . . . For one thing, they move
too fast . . . . I’m afraid visitors will think the dinosaurs look speeded up,
like film running too fast’.
John Grisham and Michael Crichton 115
‘But Henry, these are real dinosaurs. You said so yourself . . . . Nobody
wants domesticated dinosaurs, Henry. They want the real thing’.
‘But that’s my point’, Wu said . . . . ‘You said yourself, John, this park is
entertainment . . . . And entertainment has nothing to do with reality.
Entertainment is antithetical to reality . . . . Why not push ahead to make
exactly the kind of dinosaur that we’d like to see?. . . . A slower, more
docile version for our park?’
Hammond frowned. ‘But then the dinosaurs wouldn’t be real’.
‘But they’re not real now’, Wu said. ‘That’s what I’m trying to tell
you. There isn’t any reality here’. He shrugged helplessly. He could see
he wasn’t getting through.
(ibid.: 121–2)

Here, entertainment slips in and out of the real, as if the two are not so much
antithetical as indistinguishable – or rather, as if entertainment swallows real-
ity up, subsuming it or even standing for it. A number of academic commen-
tators have noted these features in discussions of Spielberg’s film of Jurassic
Park, which flaunts its commercial interests even as it offers up the most ‘real-
istic’ images of dinosaurs thus far seen (precisely in order to entertain). Peter
Wollen draws attention to the scene in the film which tracks along the logo’d
items in Jurassic Park’s museum shop, turning a film about dinosaurs into a
film about commodities, its theme park creations ‘harnessed now to the inter-
ests of the entertainment industry’: becoming ‘dinotainment’ (Wollen 1993:
7–8). A more developed account is given in a chapter titled ‘Carnosaurs and
Consumption’, from W.J.T. Mitchell’s fascinating The Last Dinosaur Book
(1998). For Mitchell, the film of Jurassic Park is a ‘spectacle of consumption’,
quite literally so since there are a great many instances of actual eating (from
dinosaurs devouring people and other dinosaurs, to Hammond eating large
tubs of melted ice cream and hungry children tucking into cakes). Mitchell
looks at the scene where the T Rex attacks the Bronco which contains the two
children, Lex and Tim, seeing this as a rendering of a dinosaur attack on ‘the
world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels, the automobile’ (Mitchell 1998:
221–2). The Bronco then replaces the T Rex as a threat when it chases the
children down the tree, animated like a ‘monster in pursuit’. Spectacles of
excessive consumption are scattered through the film and the novel (where
many more characters are eaten). But more than this, the creatures that come
to stand for excessive consumption/entertainment are shown to be increas-
ingly intelligent and heading out into the world, as if there is no stopping
them. For Mitchell, it all proves too much: ‘Jurassic Park is an indigestible feast,
finally, because it is too smart for its own good’ (ibid.: 226).
It is by no means contradictory for a novelist who speaks up for scientific
restraint to stand for consumer excess. Crichton is quite different to
Grisham in this respect, a consequence of his fuller integration into the
116 Five popular novelists
entertainment industry. The merchandising that accompanied Jurassic Park
has certainly been excessive by any account. Here is the opening paragraph
of Martin Amis’s review of the Crichton’s sequel, The Lost World: ‘When the
dino colouring-books have at last been put aside, and they’ve cleaned their
teeth with dino brushes and dino paste, and they’re lying in dino pyjamas,
under dino duvets, what do children want to talk about? Dinosaurs’
(Amis 2001: 219). Here, a literary author’s children are quite literally occu-
pied – and preoccupied – by the tie-in products of popular fiction, as if
there is indeed no escape from it all. For Amis, The Lost World is grudgingly
accepted as smart, scientifically and commercially – but, true to his literary
disposition, it is also vilified as ‘dumb’, full of bad prose and underdevel-
oped characters. ‘When you open The Lost World’, he writes (although
perhaps to no one in particular), ‘you enter a strange terrain of one-page
chapters, one-sentence paragraphs and one-word sentences’ (ibid.: 222). For
Amis, it seems here – in a passage that flows in the exact opposite direction
to Grisham’s description of Tammy in The Firm – as if popular fiction itself
is a ‘lost world’, prehistorical in its simplicity. But Crichton’s dinosaur
novels, as well as the films adapted from them, are better understood in the
kind of terms I had outlined for the Harry Potter novels in Chapter 1. Their
self-identification as mass entertainment as well as their generic identifica-
tion as thrillers means that their formal method can only be, to recall
R.L. Stevenson’s keyword, a matter of ‘simplification’. On the other hand,
their scientific interests (and there is nothing simple about the long expla-
nations of scientific and technological practices) tie them at least potentially
to an elaborate educational apparatus. Dinotainment is not a new phe-
nomenon, of course: dinosaurs have been able to combine entertainment,
commercial imperatives and scientific/educational interest for some time.
Peter Wollen reminds us that the first large-scale dinosaur models were in
fact built in the 1860s, exhibited at Crystal Palace in Sydenham, South
London, on a small artificial island at the edge of what was essentially a
200 acre prototype theme park. ‘There were tie-ins, too’, Wollen notes,
‘wall charts and small-scale models. Plainly the newly minted dinosaur was
in at the very birth of the theme park, mixing science with spectacle as
ever . . . ’ (Wollen 1993: 8). The official website for the film of Jurassic Park
( works in a similar way. The main gate at this
site opens connections to the various Jurassic Park films. But it also reveals a
site called the Jurassic Park Institute ( – which had
linked (since it no longer seems to be active) to a range of educational
resources designed for schools, with a DinoLab, Dinosaur Academy, Dino
News, Dinopedia and so on. The BBC’s dino-documentary, Walking with
Dinosaurs – its computer-generated creatures owing a great deal to
Spielberg’s film – also combined entertainment and pedagogy, the website
containing elaborate explanations designed for school use as well as games
John Grisham and Michael Crichton 117
to play (see BBC – Walking with Dinosaurs:
Other combinations of entertainment and education followed in the wake
of Crichton’s novels – such as James Gurney’s Dinotopia books, first pub-
lished in 1992, which imagine an island inhabited by scholar-dinosaurs who
talk and write and live harmoniously with people, charting their society in
anthropological detail. The thriller genre slips into the background here,
replaced by educational/informational imperatives: as if the dinosaurs have
literally been put to work. In dinosaur popular fiction like Jurassic Park,
the simplicity of the narrative method perhaps sits awkwardly alongside the
complexity of the descriptions – anthropological, scientific, technical and
so on. It can accordingly be difficult to know what exactly the readerships
are for these novels. For Martin Amis, Crichton’s fiction is for children who
‘are all PhDs’, intelligent pre-teens – although this may be truer of the films
than the novels (Amis 2001: 219). But Crichton himself gives a different
account. His official website is full of brief, terse, authorial comments on his
fiction, nowhere more so than with Jurassic Park. Here, Crichton notes that
the first drafts of the novel were written from the point of view of a boy,
presumably Tim. But none of the acquaintances to whom Crichton had
given his manuscript to read had liked it. ‘Finally’, he writes,

one of the readers said they were irritated with the story because they
wanted it to be from an adult point of view, not a kid point of view.
They said, ‘I want this to be a story for me’. Meaning for an adult.
So I rewrote it as an adult story.
And then everybody liked it.
( :

This rather disarming comment slides right over the problem of the kind of
readership to which a novel like Jurassic Park is directed. But it stands provoca-
tively as the opposite of Amis’s point. Here, the novel is claimed back from
children, even those with PhDs. A certain amount of seriousness-of-purpose is
being recovered here by a popular writer who is highly regarded for his ‘adult’
ideas and concepts. On the other hand, popularity is also its own reward, the
ultimate, uncontestable justification for whatever narrative strategy a popular
novelist may have finally deployed: ‘And then everybody liked it’.

1 Elizabeth A. Trembley provides a ‘Marxist’ reading of Jurassic Park in her book,
Michael Crichton: A Critical Companion (1996). It is rather crude and unsurprisingly
self-defeating (see 130–4).
5 The Vampire Writes Back
Anne Rice and the (re)turn
of the author

Anne Rice is a hugely popular New Orleans-based writer best known for
her ‘vampire chronicles’, beginning with Interview with the Vampire (1975) and
continuing through to the most recent novel to date, Blood Canticle (2003) –
reportedly the last in the series. With other horror-romance novels such as
‘The Lives of the Mayfair Witches’ series (The Witching Hour [1990], Lasher
[1992], Taltos [1994]), the Egyptian romp The Mummy (1989) and the
eighteenth century Venetian novel about male castrati opera singers, Cry to
Heaven (1990), she has published 26 books so far – including two under the
pseudonym of Anne Rampling and three ‘Beauty’ novels (her trilogy of
literary S&M erotica) under the pseudonym of A.N. Roquelaure. Her ‘vam-
pire chronicles’ introduced the character Lestat, a powerful, charismatic
vampire with whom both Rice and her fans have a special, intimate rela-
tionship. This chapter looks at the behaviour – the cultural practices – of
this popular writer in relation to the film of her first novel, her first movie
adaptation: Interview with the Vampire was released as a film at the end of
1994, directed by Neil Jordan and starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. It will
then examine Rice’s profile as a writer who relates both endearingly and
antagonistically with her fan communities, struggling with them in recent
years in particular over the ‘possession’ of Lestat. I shall use Anne Rice
as a case study of how the writer might function in ‘the field of cultural
production’, since she operates, like so many writers of popular fiction, at
a kind of cultural crossroads where her role as a novelist intersects with the
world of film-makers and actors, her fans, and various interested media, as
well as commercial interests.
Rice is a writer of popular fiction, but when her first novel was being
filmed and when fans were laying claim to her vampire character Lestat,
she responded by relating to that character as an author. Indeed, it is
precisely when her work is claimed and adapted by others – at the moment
when one might expect a writer to lose some of her authorial control – that
Rice seemed to be more in possession of her fiction than ever. We might say
The Vampire Writes Back 119
that Rice provides us with something like the opposite scenario to the one
Roland Barthes had in mind when he spoke of the ‘death of the author’ in
the 1970s, because the author is not quite dead, not even in the field of
popular fiction (Barthes 1986: 49–55). Indeed, the author – and the image
is obviously appropriate for an author of vampire novels in particular – may
well be ‘undead’ in the paradoxical sense that she (in this case, Anne Rice)
is able to recover her authority at the moment when her work is reproduced
or her character is redeployed elsewhere in the cultural field. The notion of
the ‘death of the author’ has two kinds of applications. First, as Roland
Barthes has used it in relation to Literature, it refers to the author’s disap-
pearance in the very act of writing, which enables readers to take meanings
away from a work that may be far removed from the author’s actual inten-
tions. Second (although this perhaps owes more to Walter Benjamin than
Roland Barthes), it refers to the author’s disappearance at the moment of
‘mechanical reproduction’ (e.g. through the adaptation of the novel as a film),
where a writer’s intentions may be only one contributing factor amongst
many others (see Benjamin 1973: 211–44). But during the filming of
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice did not disappear. She returned to the
scene of reproduction – and this is why I have broken the word in two in the
title to this chapter – by throwing a turn, a tantrum. She made the film an
occasion for the writer of the novel-on-which-it-was-based to ‘have a turn’,
in both senses of that phrase. By ‘writing back’ to the film of her novel –
and later, to her fans – she transgressed the usual limits of the writer’s
cultural position by becoming an author who did not quite behave like an
author, a writer who did not seem to know her proper place in the cultural
Pierre Bourdieu’s book, The Field of Cultural Production, is useful for this
chapter because it helps to organize our sense of how cultural production
can position itself in relation to cultural reproduction – like the film adapta-
tion of a novel. As we have seen, the cultural field is structured by what
Bourdieu calls ‘the distribution of available positions’ (Bourdieu 1993: 17).
It gains its dynamics through ‘position-takings’ which are always relational:
a writer, for example, may take a position in relation to positions already
occupied by other writers (as well as other cultural producers) he or she may
wish to be identified with, or distinguished from and so on. This is not
a matter between or amongst writers-as-individuals, however – although
this can certainly be one of the effects of position-taking – so much as a
means of self-identification built around those ‘available positions’ and the
‘orientation of practice’ a writer adopts in relation to them (ibid.: 17). One
chooses or intends to become a popular novelist, as I have noted, and so
adopts a distinctive and distinguishing set of logics and practices. But
writers of popular fiction can also occupy an ‘available position’ in relation
120 Five popular novelists
to conceptions of popularity, too, which is not itself a homogeneous thing –
conceptions which are already available in that field, and which have
certain values and logics attached to them. Anne Rice is a rather highbrow
kind of popular writer, attracted to literary authors such as Virginia Woolf
and Henry James. Knopf had published Interview with the Vampire in hard-
cover in 1976, initially selling around 26,000 copies; since then, Rice has
had her work released in expensive limited editions, alongside mass-market
paperbacks. Her book covers are adorned with reproductions from the
world of baroque high art: Guido Reni’s early seventeenth century painting
Saint Sebastian on the cover of Violin, for example. Indeed, violins are them-
selves important to Rice, a part of her high cultural ‘attitude’. Her won-
derfully elaborate official website, (
welcomes browsers with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35’,
performed by Leila Josefowicz on her own compilation CD, ‘Violin for
Anne Rice’. On the other hand, she enjoys Conan the Barbarian (1982) and
Sidney Sheldon and likes violent blockbuster movies (see Riley 1996: 170,
182). Rice moves between a select range of high art forms and the lower
end of popular culture: ‘a place’, as she puts it, ‘where Ezra Pound and
Mickey Spillane touch’ (ibid.: 182). That place may itself have a certain
improperness about it, fusing or confusing high Literature and lowbrow
popular fiction. But the folding-together of these two opposite domains can
have its advantages, too, as we shall see.

Rice and Lestat (and Tom Cruise)

Rice is also a self-acknowledged ‘slow reader’ who is much more readily
attracted to cinema. Her website is full of movie recommendations to her
fans; ‘I love movies’, she wrote in her now-defunct newsletter, Commotion
Strange, ‘I find that movies are my mainline to the contemporary culture’
(Rice 1996: 173). The potential for the film adaptation of her novels has
been important to Rice, who sold the rights for Interview with the Vampire to
Paramount for $150,000 shortly before the novel was published. But
Paramount did nothing with the novel for ten years. With the help of pro-
ducer Julia Philips, an important figure in Hollywood at the time, Rice then
moved the film rights for Interview to Lorimar, after which it was picked up
by Warner Bros. Producer David Geffen then bought the rights for Interview
and its two sequels, The Vampire Lestat (1985) and Queen of the Damned (1988),
for $500,000. Various people wrote the filmscripts, and various directors
were asked to be involved, without success. In the meantime, one of Rice’s
particular interests was in who might be cast as Lestat, her ‘favourite’ vam-
pire. In an interview in Movieline in January/February 1994 Rice began by
suggesting the actors Jeremy Irons – ‘When an actor’s that great . . . he could
The Vampire Writes Back 121
have done the role’ – John Malkovich, Peter Weller and Alexander
Godunov for the part (Frankel 1996: 178–9). But by this time the matter of
which actor would play Lestat had already been settled. When the film was
handed over to Irish director Neil Jordan, the role was given to Tom Cruise,
not long after his role as Mitch in The Firm.
Rice thought that this was a disastrous choice: ‘The Tom Cruise casting
is so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work, and
it’s really almost impossible to imagine how Neil and David and Tom could
have come up with it. I have one question: Does Tom Cruise have any idea
of what he’s getting into?’ (ibid.: 178). In an interview with the Los Angeles
Times, Rice was even more blunt: ‘Cruise is no more my vampire Lestat
than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler’ (cited in Abramowitz 1995: 70).
Here is a writer of popular fiction, then, intervening in the casting of her
favourite character in a film of her novel that seems increasingly to be mov-
ing out of her sphere of influence. We might say that, with these comments,
Rice ‘writes back’ to the film: staking her claim on ‘my vampire’. In the
latter remarks, she also links the film of her own novel to the iconic American
popular film epic, Gone with the Wind. That is, her rejection of Tom Cruise
is channelled through a monumentalization of the film-to-be of her novel:
as if Jordan’s film should aspire to this kind of scale (in fact, the film of
Interview with the Vampire became in its opening week the fourth-highest earn-
ing film in the US). So Anne Rice is a writer who does not sit quietly in the
field of popular fiction – which, relative to high-grossing, popular epic
cinema, can itself seem like a case of restricted or small-scale production
(although by the mid-1990s, Interview with the Vampire had sold around six
million copies). In People magazine, Rice went on to say about Cruise:

I don’t want somebody ‘less clean cut’ to play the vampire Lestat. I
wanted a great actor of appropriate voice and height who would carry
the part – Malkovich, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons. It’s a different
league. Do any of you actually read? When you’re talking Lestat,
you’re talking Captain Ahab, Custer, Peter the Great . . . .
(ibid.: 71)

These comments engagingly bundle popular fiction, Literature (Melville’s

Moby Dick), movie actors and real historical figures together. In this context,
the complaint, ‘Do any of you actually read?’ has little to do with the liter-
ary field itself. The remarks once again work to monumentalize Rice’s
vampire: he is as great as Custer, and needs an equally great actor (Rice is
also alluding to Cruise’s diminutive size here) to play the role.
When the film of Interview with the Vampire appeared, Tom Cruise was
himself interviewed in a number of popular media venues, from Britain’s
122 Five popular novelists
OK! Magazine to film industry magazines such as Film Review, Premiere and
Empire. These venues all worked to position Tom Cruise in relation to the
film, and to allow him to take a position. But in each interview, the stress falls
on Cruise’s ‘diplomatic’ response to Anne Rice’s criticisms: the actor, in
other words, never returns the favour by criticizing the writer. Empire called
Cruise ‘politely diplomatic’ when he said of Rice, ‘She was opposed to me
being Lestat based on other characters that I’ve played. . . . She had created
Lestat and feels great affinity for this character because of her family, her
daughter and what occurred. It was very important to her – but it hurt me’
(Dawson 1995: 68). The writer’s intimate, personal relations to her
character are noted here: Interview was supposed to have been written by
Rice in part as a response to the death of her five-year old daughter from
leukemia (see Ramsland 1991: 117–41). But at least the actor is ‘hurt’ by this
writer, registering the effect of her criticism. In the interview in Film Review,
Cruise said, ‘As an actor I had a great time playing Lestat, but it certainly
was unusual to start a movie with someone not wanting you to do it’
(Rynning 1995: 35). There is a sense here of the actor remaining un-authorized
by Anne Rice even as the filming gets underway, and it carries over into
Cruise’s commentary about the film itself. In Premiere magazine, Rachel
Abramowitz asks Cruise about the erotic aspects of his performance as the
vampire Lestat: ‘ “You’re going to have to see for yourself ”, becomes his
standard answer to questions,’ she says, ‘until he finally gets frustrated: “It
doesn’t matter what I think about a movie” ’ (Abramowitz 1995: 71). This
response only heightens the sense that Cruise, the actor, has an un-authorized
role in relation to the film. An actor, in other words, is not an author: it
‘doesn’t matter’ what he thinks about his role, although it may matter (to
him) what an author thinks of his role. So Anne Rice and Tom Cruise stand
at opposite ends of the cultural field in this respect. While Anne Rice inter-
venes in the filming of her novel by asserting her authorial rights, Tom
Cruise withdraws from commentary altogether. In other words, whereas the
author uses the film as a means of occupying more ‘available positions’ than
she might otherwise have occupied as the mere writer of a novel – by
becoming transgressive, in this sense – the actor uses the film in order to
limit or restrain himself, sitting ‘diplomatically’ or conservatively within the
frame of an ‘available position’ defined by his role as an actor. The actor
remains in his place as an actor, in other words. In spite of his leading role
in the film, he disavows any authorial claims on it.
It probably seems like an obvious thing to say: an actor is not an author.
But in relation to film, the actor may well carry an authorial role simply by
virtue of the fact of his or her visibility on the screen and in screen-oriented
media. Actors imprint their own ‘signature’ on a film – and this signature
may be complete enough to erase other kinds of authorial signatures,
The Vampire Writes Back 123
including the signature of the writer of the novel-on-which-the-film-may-
have-been-based (which is often placed low down in the list of credits) and,
even, the signature of the film’s director. The problem is that the actor’s
signature in a film is split between the actor himself and the character he
plays. Because the actor is engaged (increasingly so) in promoting his or her
image outside the film itself, he or she is less likely to be taken as the char-
acter in the film and nothing more. Celia Lury, in her important book
Cultural Rights: Technology, Legality, and Personality (1993), goes on to note one
outcome of this split, where the actor in fact can never actually be the
character he or she plays precisely because the image marketed outside of
film continually collapses back into the film itself (Lury 1993: 71–2). In a
specific sense, the actor can no longer act, meaning that he or she can no
longer be anything other than their marketed image outside of the film
which has cast them in a given role in the first place. From this perspective,
Tom Cruise can never be anything other than Tom Cruise, as Anne Rice
had suggested – although she had also suggested that other actors could
indeed become the character Lestat. Celia Lury turns to Bruce King’s
article ‘Articulating Stardom’ (1985) to clarify this point: that acting these
days is valued less in terms of impersonation where the actor disappears into the
role – the ‘death of the actor’, perhaps – and more in terms of personification
where the film role is subordinate to the actor’s off-stage persona (ibid.: 72;
see also King 1995: 27–50).
Yet when Cruise finally performed his role as the vampire Lestat in the
film of Interview, Rice completely changed her position. She famously took
out a two-page, $3,450.00 advertisement in Variety in September 1994, in
which she declared her love for the film of her novel, praising the actor cast
as her character:

I loved the film. I simply loved it. I loved it from start to finish and I
found myself deeply impressed with every aspect of its making . . . . But
most personally, I was honored and stunned to discover how faithful
this film was to the spirit, the content, and the ambience of the novel,
Interview with the Vampire . . . . I was shocked to discover that Neil Jordan
had given this work a new and distinctive incarnation in film without
destroying the aspects of it which I hold so dear . . . . The charm, the
humor and invincible innocence which I cherish in my beloved Lestat
are all alive in Tom Cruise’s courageous performance . . . . I wish every
author could know the happiness you gave to me.
(Rice 1996: 185–6)

Rice emphasizes the film’s faithfulness to her novel: it is enough to make her
authorize the film. She is quite specific about what she now values in Tom
124 Five popular novelists
Cruise’s performance:

I was swept away . . . . The high point was to see Cruise in the blond hair
speaking with the voice of my Lestat. He makes you forget the boyish
image of his past films. He is that mysterious and immortal character.
I found it an uncompromising movie: I was kind of sick before it came,
and I’m cured.
(Abramowitz 1995: 71)

In terms of authorial rights – cultural rights – we find Rice now suggesting

that Tom Cruise can successfully impersonate her character Lestat, to the
extent that by becoming Lestat, his off-screen persona and all previous cin-
ematic performances are utterly erased. He has achieved, in other words,
the total impersonation of an author’s character. And that character is con-
tinually claimed by Rice: ‘my Lestat’. The actor is subordinated to, and
erased by, the character because the novelist says so; he has, in this sense,
been completely authorized. It is a tactical response to the loss of her char-
acter, and the loss of control over her character, at the moment of the
novel’s reproduction as a film. Rice’s character Lestat, in other words, is
powerful enough to make the journey from novel to film intact as Lestat –
and in doing so, he is powerful enough to make us ‘forget’ Tom Cruise.

Impersonating a character: Rice,

Lestat and fanfiction
For Rice, Lestat is such an important character that he is able to rise above
his generic environment. He is able, it seems, to ‘transcend genre’ – standing
out perhaps as a kind of Literary figure might in the midst of the field of
popular fiction. This is partly because Rice encourages a deep identification
with him, so deep that everything else is sheared away:

The common denominator that runs through everybody’s response, from

all sides, all classes, all genders, is an identification with the characters.
That’s what I hear over and over again. Whether they say they like vam-
pire novels or they don’t, or they read Gothic fiction or they never have,
or they’re science fiction readers, or romance readers, or just general read-
ers of literature, or whatever, that’s what they say: ‘I cared so much for
Lestat and what was happening to him. I didn’t care about anything else’.
(Riley 1996: 13)

Rice’s novels are unusual examples of popular fiction because they can
build themselves up to epiphanies, rather than climaxes – as if delirium and
The Vampire Writes Back 125
anguish drives them along as much as plot. They offer precisely what our
reviewer of romance fiction in Chapter 3 had objected to: ‘a multitude of
superfluous internal thoughts’. Paradoxically for the field of popular fiction,
they are introspective as well as action-driven, slow-moving as well as
fast-paced. Readers are indeed encouraged to identify with the key figures,
whose charisma and yearnings structure the novels: Lestat in particular. Of
course, reader–character identification may itself be a trait more common
to popular fiction than Literature (which can encourage the opposite read-
erly condition of ironic detachment). A popular novelist can intervene in
various ways here, encouraging reader intimacy. Rice often uses first-person
narration, for example: Lestat likes to talk in his novels. This is what Rice
makes him say at the beginning of Blood Canticle:

I’m the Vampire Lestat, the most potent and lovable vampire ever
created, a supernatural knockout, two hundred years old but fixed forever
in the form of a twenty-year-old male with features and figure you’d
die for – and just might. I’m endlessly resourceful, and undeniably
charming . . . . Doesn’t that make me sound irresistible?
And before I continue with my fantasy let me assure you . . . you’re
going to get a full-dress story here – with a beginning, middle and end.
I’m talking plot, characters, suspense, the works.
I’m going to take care of you. So rest easy and read on.
(Rice 2003: 1)

Popular novels, even those with first-person narration, usually do not

address readers so directly – or immodestly. Here, Lestat begins a new (but
probably the last) novel in a series that is now almost 30 years old by actively
soliciting new readerships: telling them how ‘lovable’ and ‘irresistible’ he is,
and reassuring them that this is popular fiction (with ‘plot, characters,
suspense’, etc.). But older readers are also harangued by this character, who
mocks rather than ironises:

Now to those of you who worship me. You know, the millions.
You say you want to hear from me. You leave yellow roses at my gate
in New Orleans, with handwritten notes: ‘Lestat, speak to us again.
Give us a new book. Lestat, we love the Vampire Chronicles. Lestat,
why have we not heard from you? Lestat, please come back’.
(ibid.: 2)

This first-person-narrated passage allows us to say, recalling the terminology

introduced earlier, that Anne Rice impersonates her character, as if he, rather
than she, is the author of the novel. The passage flips Lestat out of the novel
126 Five popular novelists
and into the world Rice herself inhabits, her house in New Orleans, to
which fans make their pilgrimage – as they indeed have often done. Like
Sherlock Holmes with Conan Doyle or James Bond with Ian Fleming, then,
Lestat has eclipsed the author and gained a reality of his own. This is the
writer’s intervention in the creation of character intimacy: to impersonate
her character, to disappear into her character, to be eclipsed by him. The
‘death of the author’ in fact occurs right here. If I can loosely rewrite the
last sentence of Roland Barthes’s famous essay, the death of the author – in
popular fiction, at least – is the birth of the character (see Barthes 1986: 55).
Rice has certainly promoted Lestat’s extra-textual life, writing on her
website about his various appearances in New Orleans and encouraging
readers to seek him out – or rather, advising them against it. Her only ‘offi-
cially sanctioned’ fan organization was the Vampire Lestat Fan Club, now
disbanded. She is a writer who has helped to nurture fan involvement with
her characters and her worlds, vampires and witches, mostly. Charisma,
lovability, anguish, a kind of delirious sexuality (usually structured through
dominance-and-submission): these are the sensibilities she promotes
through her fiction. These sensibilities are identifiably Goth, linking her fic-
tion to a subculture which is also built around a particular kind of imper-
sonation, one’s disappearance into a role, a character type. Rice herself has
fashioned a Goth ‘look’, with her straight black hair and black gowns.
Author signings can become a Goth event – and fans themselves organize
annual ‘Coven Balls’, extravagant dress-ups that honour Rice and her
novels and celebrate the worlds she constructs (see Mabus-Vosper 1996:
63–71). We might say that Rice and her fans mutually produce a kind of
Goth ‘homology’, a set of shared or shareable attitudes or, even, ways of
living. As Rice notes herself:

My readers, for instance, the ones who come to the signings, they dress
in very similar ways. All the way from Boston to Portland, Oregon, they
wear the same clothes. In fact, those clothes are now in
fashion . . . . Crushed and distressed velvet, antique lace, tall leather boots
and tight little skirts, and extremely white face makeup with very red lip-
stick, huge red nails – all of this is in fashion now. Perhaps all of these
people are in some way rebels in their community and see themselves as
dressing differently, so sometimes they’re surprised to discover they look
similar to the people in Los Angeles or other places. Also sometimes
they’re happy to discover that. That’s part of what started the fan club –
people who said, basically we all share the fact that we like her books
and we like crystals and we like velvet and we like leather jackets; so they
made this huge network where they all write to each other and to me.
(Riley 1996: 60–1)
The Vampire Writes Back 127
The Goth world of Anne Rice, then, is a world of shared tastes, looks and
attitudes: a culture, in other words, or a subculture. It is helped along by the
setting for many of her novels, New Orleans, where she also lives. Rice’s
presence is now imprinted on New Orleans, quite literally. She owns some
well-known properties there, including St Elizabeth’s, once an orphanage
and now one of the largest private residences in the United States. She also
directed the Anne Rice Tour Company in New Orleans, and set up a store
to sell her merchandise, including exquisite hand-crafted dolls and t-shirts.
A culture that emphasizes intimacy and love also has commercial impera-
tives, as Rice notes in one of her website postings when she describes her
store: ‘This is a really a labor of love . . . this is one of those enterprises,
our merchandising our dolls and so forth, where creativity and energy meet
the material, and form some kind of alchemy. But it is not an effort to take
your money, and let me remind you that a penny saved is a penny saved’
(AnneRice.Com, the offical website:
Rice takes a position on the ‘culture industry’ of popular fiction and its tie-ins
here, juxtaposing commerce (and ‘labour’) with ‘love’ – and then reconcil-
ing them. This is a small-scale, ‘intimate’ industry, rendered so by a writer
whose cultural identity rests on the nurturing of an intensely personal
relationship between a writer and her fans, and her consumers.
Rice is an interactive writer of popular fiction, routinely posting
messages on her website (‘Enter the World of Anne Rice’) and responding
to emails from her readers. She even has a telephone line connection: fans
can leave messages for her, and she sometimes replies. Rice’s willingness to
engage with her readers is a striking feature of this website, and she is
talkative and opinionated. But as we have seen, Rice is also a possessive
writer, an author whose connection to her fiction and her characters is cast
as a matter of impersonation: losing herself in Lestat, for example. Fans
accordingly have to know their own place in the cultural field. Fanfiction is
fiction that borrows a writer’s characters and builds new scenarios around
them: copying, but with a difference. Sometimes, fans can produce whole
new character predicaments in their stories. A notorious example is the kind
of ‘slash’ fanfiction which takes up Captain Kirk and Mr Spock from the
Star Trek series and presents their relationship as a homosexual one. On
7 April 2000, Rice posted this message on her website: ‘I do not allow fan
fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think
about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own
original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you
respect my wishes’. She accordingly asked the primary fanfiction site, (founded in 1998), to remove all of its Rice-based stories. The
issue here is again one of cultural rights, and authorial rights. We might
think of fanfiction as an expression of the ‘limits’ of fan appreciation, since
128 Five popular novelists
it involves loyally inhabiting a writer’s fiction, but also transgressing that
fiction in the sense that you take that writer’s character away with you and
use it in different ways. Fanfiction in this sense is another kind of media
tie-in. It also marks another point where the author might ‘die’, losing her
characters to others: watching others impersonate them. On the other hand,
as we have seen, this had already happened at the movies when Tom Cruise
impersonated Lestat in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire – and Stuart
Townsend played the character again in Queen of the Damned (2002). A
Broadway musical of The Vampire Lestat, written by Elton John (‘Anne Rice
is one of my favourite authors’ [Keller 2003:
Items/0,1,11733,00.html]) and Bernie Taupin, is also planned for 2005.
These relationships – between a writer and her character, film adaptations,
media tie-ins, fanfiction – convey the tensions between authorial possession
and those forces elsewhere in the cultural field which can work on popular
fiction with or without a writer’s blessing. A novelist may recover her
authority in some respects and lose it in others, or, to others. The world a
writer like Anne Rice creates is permeable and the mixture of love and
commerce may well work both ways. Following her husband Stan’s death in
December 2002, Rice sold her properties in New Orleans and has moved
to Florida. She has said she is now ‘weary of the constraints’ of the vampire
novel; Blood Canticle, reportedly the last novel in the vampire chronicles, is
‘sort of about the repudiation of the form’ (Associated Press 2004:
F968F5CA2704.shtml). She may not need or want to ‘write back’ any more.
6 Jackie Collins, anti-romance
and the celebrity novel

If any readers still imagine (having got this far) that popular fiction and
Literature are really not so very different from each other, then spend a few
moments with Jackie Collins.1 In Chapter 2, I had suggested that the thriller
exemplifies popular fiction at its most pure: focused totally on pace and
event, without distractions. Jackie Collins’ novels are also examples of pop-
ular fiction in its purest form. Here, however, the logic of production is
quite different. Her novels are character-driven; they build themselves
around key events, but are not necessarily fast-paced. What purifies them,
in the field of popular fiction, is their sheer superficiality. Distraction is the
thing her characters compulsively pursue. Collins’ novels are about light
entertainment and are set in the midst of the entertainment industry:
Hollywood, usually. Many of her characters want only three (not entirely
unrelated) things, celebrity-style fame, lots of money and good sex. If there
is any pace associated with her novels, it lies here: money and fame need to
come quickly, and the sex also tends to be hurried along. Although she often
casts herself in this way, Collins is therefore not an erotic writer, nor does
she specifically write pornography. Her sex scenes are perhaps best
described as ‘zipless’, an adjective coined by Erica Jong in her bestselling
erotic literary novel, Fear of Flying (1973), about a young woman who leaves
her loveless marriage to a psychiatrist and embarks on some sexual adven-
tures. But even this word may overly romanticize the sex scenes in Collins’
novels, which are quick, economical and utterly anti-romantic – radically
different, in particular, to the kind of lusciously evoked, lingering sex scenes
one finds in women’s erotic romance fiction. This chapter looks at Collins
as an anti-romantic novelist, or what is sometimes called a ‘sex-and-shopping’
novelist, who represents the entertainment industry precisely as a matter of
(albeit melodramatized) superficiality. Indeed, superficiality is stubbornly
defended here: her novels have no depth whatsoever, a feature which under-
writes their purity as works of popular fiction. I shall say something about
the ‘celebrity novel’ in this context, and I shall also talk about Collins in
130 Five popular novelists
relation both to camp and feminism. It is worth remembering that Collins’
second novel, The Stud, appeared in paperback the same year, 1970, that
Kate Millet published Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer published The
Female Eunuch – both bestselling non-fictional feminist works which dealt at
length with the subordination of women in a ‘patriarchal’ culture. The
provocatively titled sequel to The Stud, The Bitch, was published in 1979,
the same year that Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar published their
ground-breaking study of nineteenth century literary women writers, The
Madwoman in the Attic – and just one year before Michelle Barrett published
her study of what used to be called Marxist feminism, Women’s Oppression
Today (1980). Collins’ career developed side-by-side with feminism, as its
politically incorrect (and so much popular fiction is politically incorrect)
bad-sister-in-arms. With her own emphasis on glamour, good looks (at any
price) and success (also at any price) for women, Collins operates as ‘career
feminism’s’ logical conclusion as well as its outright contradiction.

Hollywood-as-genre: Kenneth Anger and

Jacqueline Susann
Jackie Collins is probably contemporary popular fiction’s most entertainment-
identified and embedded novelist. Most of her characters work in
Hollywood, usually having something to do with movies (starlets, directors,
producers, etc.) – like the actress Sunday Simmons in Sinners (1984), a novel
first published in 1972 under the more prosaic title of Sunday Simmons and
Charlie Brick. But Collins’ Hollywood is of a particular type. It is, in a pre-
cise sense, generic. Built around scandal, exploitation and excess, it has its
non-fictional counterparts in the tabloid celebrity gossip columns and in the
kind of celebrity-exposé narratives that former child movie actor and
underground film-maker Kenneth Anger had chronicled in his notorious,
bestselling book, Hollywood Babylon – first published in Paris in 1959 and
released in the United States initially as a ‘bootleg’ edition in 1965 and then
as a broader, ‘authorized’ version in 1975. In Anger’s book, Hollywood is
defined by a ‘lifestyle’ of decadent extravagance, scandal and sin, to be both
relished and disapproved of. Anger’s moralizing accounts of the lives of
stars and starlets and other industry folk in Hollywood thus always unfold
in the same way: as lurid narratives of exposure and decline. Here is his
rendition of ‘tinseltown’ during the 1920s:

Scandals exploded like time bombs throughout the delirious decade of

‘Wonderful Nonsense’, as screen career after screen career was
destroyed. Each star wondered if it was his turn to be the next scape-
goat. For Hollywood the fabled ‘Golden Age’ was more like a lavish
Jackie Collins, anti-romance and celebrity novel 131
picnic on a shaky precipice: the road to glory was beset with booby
Yet for the vast public out there H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D was a magic
three syllables, invoking the Wonder World of Make Believe.
(Anger 1975: 15)

For Anger, Hollywood projects itself onto the screen as it would like to be
seen; this is its superficiality, its falseness. The ‘depth’ of Hollywood is
therefore conveyed by way of a revelation (e.g. that the actress one sees in
a movie is in reality a heroin addict), where something hidden or secret is
then publicly revealed. Jackie Collins’ Hollywood is cast in exactly the
same way, as a venue for chronicling decadent lifestyles and exposing scan-
dals and secrets. Her task is thus to reveal ‘truths’ about an entertainment
industry, especially as they relate to young (as well as older) women who try
to make their way through this world. The Pan paperbacks of her novels
each reproduce the same publicity statement about Collins inside their
front covers:

In a series of sensational best-sellers, she had blown the lid off

Hollywood lives and loves. ‘It’s all true’, she says. ‘I write about real
people in disguise. If anything, my characters are toned down – the
real thing is much more bizarre’.
There have been many imitators, but only Jackie Collins . . . chronicles
the real truth.

This commentary is perhaps less straightforward than it might at first seem,

however. It tells us that Collins’ fiction chronicles ‘the real truth’, as if the
truth alone is not quite enough – as if truth on its own is something one
would expect only from her ‘imitators’. On other hand, she writes about
‘real people in disguise’. That is, she may well expose Hollywood’s ‘reality’
at one level but she conceals it at another. And yet ‘the real thing is much
more bizarre’ than her fiction anyway – a confession that would seem to
take the edge off the kind of chronicles Collins provides, returning scandal-
seekers to the non-fiction of someone like Kenneth Anger. The ‘real’ seems
elusive here, in spite of the fact that the word is italicized and repeated over
and over as part of Collins’ profile. Of course, since she writes fiction, this
is perhaps hardly surprising. But her profile as a writer is underscored by
claims that, as a Hollywood ‘insider’ herself, Collins can indeed reveal its
hidden truths: ‘She is known’, her website assures us, ‘for giving her readers
an unrivalled insiders knowledge of Hollywood and the glamorous lives and
loves of the rich, famous, and infamous!’ ( Jackie The official Jackie
Collins website:
132 Five popular novelists
The query here – how ‘real’ can an ‘insider’s’ fiction about the world of
entertainment actually be? – is again best answered generically. It will help
if we recall the first great anti-romance novel to trace out the fortunes and
misfortunes of young women as they migrate into the world of movies and
television. Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) was published one
year after Hollywood Babylon’s first US release and just two years before
Collins’ first novel, The World is Full of Married Men. It is also one of the two
or three bestselling novels of all time (at over 30 million copies). The novel
chronicles the journey three young women make first to New York and then
to Los Angeles, moving into show business, having affairs, taking pills, get-
ting abortions, attempting suicide (and in one case, succeeding), and taking
more pills: the ‘dolls’ of the title. The aspirations of the characters, and the
toll that the entertainment industry takes on them, means that love, which
is so obviously crucial to the romance genre, is almost never attainable here.
Indeed, Valley of the Dolls ends with Anne, one of its protagonists, reflecting
(as she takes another red pill) that she will love her philandering husband
less and less after each affair, ‘until one day there would be nothing left – no
hurt, and no love’ (Susann 1985: 510). The novel establishes the central tra-
jectory of the anti-romance genre it has founded, which has a young girl
leave her small town (‘Lawrenceville’) and head for the big city in a version
of the nineteenth-century bildungsroman: the ‘novel of education’. In the
bildungsroman, the journey from the provinces to the metropolitan centre is
usually one of self-discovery; but here it is more likely to involve escalating
self-deception. In Valley of the Dolls, a character’s migration into big-city
show business makes that character less real, rather than more. She is remod-
elled, worked over, reinvented, until she becomes – as the aspiring actress
Neely is described at one point – a ‘phantom’. In this novel, entertainment
is cast as the opposite of reality; or rather, it is its own reality, self-enclosed,
self-congratulatory and self-perpetuating. A character is transformed into a
product to be marketed, much as Susann had marketed both herself and
her novel when it was first published. Susann was herself deeply embedded
in the world of show business and knew that products needed to be pro-
moted in order to sell. As John Sutherland notes in an article first published
in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Susann, with her husband, Irving Mansfield,

changed the way popular books were and are sold . . . . Between them,
they virtually invented the promotional tour in its current form. They
perceived, before the rest of the book trade, that radio and (increas-
ingly) television talk-shows were ideal platforms for the pushy
author . . . . Susann would do up to 30 appearances a week for her forth-
coming novel . . . . And it was as a promotional gimmick that Jackie
developed her most garish outfits – the Pucci print dresses and trouser
Jackie Collins, anti-romance and celebrity novel 133
suits with which she is associated . . . . What she and Mansfield realized
was that Susann, not the book, was the product.
(Sutherland 1998: 5)

Susann’s self-transformation of a novelist into a ‘product’ is reproduced as

a set of anxiety-inducing narratives in Valley of the Dolls, and is no doubt
structurally tied to the novel’s generic position as an anti-romance. It means
that the novelist is literally as implicated in the entertainment industry – in
its commodifying logics and practices – as her novel.
Jackie Collins’ role as a Hollywood ‘insider’ is equally a matter of
self-transformation into a ‘product’ or (recalling the discussion in Chapter 1)
a ‘brand’. She went to Hollywood at the age of 15, living out the bildungsroman
of the migration from province to metropolitan centre alongside her
equally glamour-oriented sister, Joan – who was to be cast as the predatory,
sexually-active Fontaine in Quentin Masters’ film adaptation of The Stud
(1978) and its sequel, The Bitch (1979), directed by Gerry O’Hara. Jackie
Collins’ success as a novelist, with around 300 million copies sold in over 40
countries, is now firmly tied to her role as a Hollywood celebrity and advo-
cate of ‘Hollywood style’, as if she now stands for Hollywood, as a kind of
representative figure. Her website proudly announces her many media
tie-ins and talkshow appearances (Entertainment Tonight, etc.), and features
publicity shots of Collins as well as images of her adopted icon, the black
panther. In her Beverley Hills mansion, one magazine article tells us,
the ‘panther statues and other ornaments that fill her rooms could pass for
a setting in one of her steamy novels’ (Morrison 1999: 27). Like Susann,
Collins also cultivates a ‘look’: big hair, a lot of jewellry (usually gold), cleavage,
heavy make-up, the fake skins of big cats (tiger, leopard, although not – so
far as I have seen – black panther). This look ties her to a particular kind of
Hollywood aristocracy, now probably rather dated, although it can also be
surprisingly resilient. Defined by a ‘tasteless’ form of glamour, by excess and
exaggeration, and even a form of defiance – as Collins so often looks
directly into the camera – the best way to account for this product would be
through the generic term, camp.

Camp, feminism, entertainment

This term came into some prominence in 1966 – the year of Valley of the
Dolls – with the publication of Susan Sontag’s essay, ‘Notes on “Camp” ’, in
her influential collection of literary and cultural criticism, Against
Interpretation. For Sontag camp is an aesthetic sensibility, one that embraces
bad taste for its own sake and which is underwritten by the ‘ultimate camp
statement: it’s good because it’s so awful’ (Sontag 1969: 293). Camp exists at
134 Five popular novelists
the scandalous end of the cultural field, traceable back to the plays and
writings of Oscar Wilde during the 1890s. It is linked to decadence and
frivolity: a defiantly projected lack of seriousness. Camp is an artistic sensi-
bility that values leisure and pleasure over work, or combines the two so that
work is pleasure and vice versa. It relishes superficiality and eschews any
attempt to make its products meaningful (so that Sontag’s book, Against
Interpretation – which argued against the prevailing critical tendency to
provide interpretations to literary texts – was itself a camp project). It
prefers surface to depth, distraction over contemplation. It enjoys short-
term gratification, spending quickly, valuing the disposable, never worrying
about the future, never saving or making commitments: this is where its
potential anti-romanticism lies. The camp sensibility is self-indulgent, unre-
strained. We might think here of the great camp soap operas (Dallas,
Dynasty, Melrose Place, and more recently, Sex in the City), as they turned self-
indulgence into a way of life, perhaps best exemplified by Joan Collins’
character Alexis Carrington Colby in Dynasty, which took the aristocratic,
indulgent aspirations of camp to dizzy heights. It is worth noting that
Sontag, who is also a literary novelist, did not seem to have popular fiction –
or soap operas – in mind when she wrote her essay. Nevertheless, these are
zones in which camp also flourishes, perhaps more excessively than any-
where else. In popular music, the camp sensibility expresses itself through
disco, a musical form often coded precisely as disposable, self-indulgent,
superficial – and synthetic. The film of The Stud capitalized on this associa-
tion, building itself around disco music with extended dance routines and
performances at Fontaine’s nightclub, and anticipating the revival of the
equally camp seventies disco-nostalgia film (Studio 54, The Last Days of Disco)
some 20 years later on. Camp is also about masquerade, impersonation,
disguise, artifice and fakery: one reason why the drag scene enjoys camp so
much. It is a genre that works by pushing reality to one side – which means
that a camp novelist like Jackie Collins, who tells the ‘real truth’, writes about
‘real people in disguise’, and suggests that ‘the real thing is much more
bizarre’, is doing nothing much more than showcasing her own brand of
The main difference between Collins’ anti-romantic fiction and Susann’s
Valley of the Dolls – as well as the Hollywood Babylon books – is that Collins is
interested more in success than in failure and decline. Her women, like
Fontaine in The Stud, are strong and resourceful, relentlessly pursuing their
goals (good sex, lots of money, celebrity status). A typical character type is
Montana Grey from Hollywood Wives (1983), summarized on the back cover as
‘gorgeous renegade, she’ll stop at nothing to make it in the male-dominated
world on the other side of the camera’. Collins’ women succeed even as they
are exploited, living out ‘career feminism’s’ aspirations while demonstrating
Jackie Collins, anti-romance and celebrity novel 135
that ‘patriarchy’ remains in place and as predictable as ever. I have already
noted that Collins’ own career as a writer develops alongside feminism,
beginning around the end of the 1960s. But hers is an off-beat kind of femi-
nism which – taking a cue from Pamela Robertson’s book on the subject – we
can perhaps identify as ‘feminist camp’. Robertson’s Guilty Pleasures: Feminist
Camp from Mae West to Madonna (1996) looks at the ways in which ambitious,
sexy women in popular culture have put camp to use. Here, however, camp
has both advantages and drawbacks. Feminism is supposed to be progres-
sive; camp, on the other hand, is a conservative aesthetic and tends to
preserve the status quo. ‘If camp is the weapon of “the woman without
scruples” ’, Robertson writes, ‘it is also, sadly, almost inevitably, the weapon
we use against her. Camp may appropriate and expose stereotypes, but it also,
in some measure, keeps them alive. Camp is both a mode of excess and a
method of containment’ (Robertson 1996: 142). Fontaine, the opinionated
anti-heroine in The Stud and The Bitch, is certainly a woman without scruples,
exploiting stereotypes even as she reproduces them wholeheartedly to get
what she wants. The term ‘bitch’ is thus used both positively and negatively
here. Fontaine is a bitch, but it is also integral to her success and her ‘mode of
excess’; in the meantime, she satirizes Tony’s deluded sense that he is a ‘stud’
in bed. The ‘bitch’ is central to the anti-romance genre, cast as a woman who
refuses to love or be loved. ‘I have a great distaste for kissing’, Fontaine says at
one point, running counter to every romance novel every written (Collins 1984:
28). Her first lover calls her a bitch when she wants more sex than he can
physically provide. When Alexandra’s boyfriend in The Stud tries to rape her
and she successfully fends him off, he calls her a ‘little bitch’ – but her response
is remarkably matter-of-fact: ‘I couldn’t wait to tell Madeleine’ (ibid.: 45).
Of course, Joan Collins, who had played Fontaine on film and Alexis
Carrington in Dynasty, was herself cast in media as a ‘bitch’ (‘rhymes with
rich’, as one headline noted). The ‘bitchiness’ of both Jackie and Joan Collins,
projected through their campness, also turned them into gay icons.
The word ‘bitch’ is routinely absorbed here by Collins’ women characters
as part of their life experience and career development. No doubt this is one
of many reasons why feminism (which has had very few good words to say
about popular fiction anyway) has rarely championed either Collins or the
‘sex and shopping’ genre. An exception is Naomi Wolf, a bestselling ‘third
wave’ feminist who is untroubled by commodity capitalism and who has
famously spoken up for women’s sexual freedoms. In a chapter titled
‘Money and Worldly Power: the Sheba Principle’, from her book Fire with
Fire (1993), Wolf notes that women ‘lack a positive emotional vocabulary
about money . . . women have very little narrative relationship to the idea of
wealth, or the drama of seeking, building, or losing a fortune’ (Wolf 1993: 40).
She turns to the sex-and-shopping novel as one place where such a narrative
136 Five popular novelists
exists, seeing an early precedent here in Scarlett O’Hara (‘I won’t be poor’)
from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind – a novel Neely carries with her
in Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. For Wolf, the sex-and-shopping novels of
Jackie Collins and others ( Judith Krantz, Ivana Trump) provide a ‘how-to
manual for the heroine to engage with the marketplace . . . [developing] a
long-dormant part of female psychology that was eager to rehearse without
penalty the still-unfamiliar experience of channelling ambition, exerting
mastery, and generating wealth’ (ibid.: 42, 44). They present examples of
‘female mastery’, not female victimization; so they are different in kind from
Susann’s Valley of the Dolls in this respect although, as I have noted, Collins’
heroines remain exploited even as their ‘mastery’ flourishes. They are domi-
nant women, but they submit utterly to the logic of fast-track capitalism. The
campness of the novels resides in this apparent oxymoron, ‘female mastery’,
where mastery here is a form of feminine excess, a way of responding to the
demands of a system (the entertainment industry) that is cast here as just as
excessive, and just as camp (superficial, in need of immediate gratification, etc.).

Vulgarity, pornography, celebrity, evaluation

In this nexus of camp women and a camped-up entertainment industry,
the ‘real’ is more or less evacuated as these novels give themselves over to
artifice and fantasy. For the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton – who
once reviewed Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz for the Times Literary
Supplement – the world of the sex-and-shopping novel is in fact something
close to ‘sublime’ in its evocation of untold wealth and luxury, since all this
is so excessive that the novels can hardly begin to represent it. Of course,
great wealth has been the subject of works of Literature, too. The differ-
ence for Eagleton is that while Literature uses wealth as the means to reflect
on ‘higher things’, for popular fiction wealth appears to be its own reward:

Being in possession of a vast fortune can of course free you for spiritual
riches, as some of Henry James’s characters attest. The point with
them is to have so much money that you don’t need to think about it,
and so can turn your mind to higher things. Vulgarity consists not in
being stinking rich but in spending all your time thinking about it; and
Krantz’s and Jackie Collins’ protagonists do this, not only because they
are monstrously vain and venal, but because immense wealth addles
their brains and leaves them with no topic of interest but itself.
(Eagleton 1993: 7)

Here, Eagleton gives us a powerful ideological distinction between

Literature (which aspires to be spiritual) and popular fiction (which remains
Jackie Collins, anti-romance and celebrity novel 137
resolutely materialist) – a distinction that seems able to be drawn even when
they both soak themselves in riches. It would be hard to imagine a less sym-
pathetic reviewer for Jackie Collins; even so, the moralized coding of her
unscrupulous female protagonists as ‘monstrous’, vulgar, narcissistic and fix-
ated on the accumulation of wealth is telling. From one point of view, this
no doubt seems an accurate enough description. From another, of course,
it returns us to Robertson’s account of ‘feminist camp’ and Naomi Wolf ’s
notion of ‘female mastery’ over money, invoking in negative terms precisely
the images of women that these feminists speak up for. It is worth wonder-
ing what it means for a highbrow male literary critic to complain about the
vulgarity of women in popular fiction. But Eagleton’s complaint is also
about the manner or mode in which these women novelists express their
characters’ aspirations. There is hardly, he says, an ‘authentic feeling’ to be
found here, a feature reflected in the prose itself, which unfolds as a

tight-lipped, abrasive, degré zero brand of English [that] betrays the very
grim functionalism Hollywood fantasy exists to relieve. It is a style
which belongs to making money, not enjoying it; and if the world of
Collins and Krantz is emotionally dire, it is because the ruthless instru-
mentalism associated with the former is likely to interfere badly with
the latter.
(ibid.: 8)

This fascinating passage – which is utterly oblivious to the pleasures of the

‘feminist camp’ aesthetic – reduces the anti-romance novel down to its low-
est denominator. Even so, it paradoxically seems to suggest that Jackie
Collins’ novels, their prose and their form – far from reflecting the fantasies
of Hollywood – actually stand for their complete opposite. That is, her novels
(stylistically, at least) are real. In this respect, Eagleton would seem to outpace
even Collins’ own publicity: for him, her novels evoke reality without any
disguise at all. They reflect the ‘grim functionalism’ of nothing less than life
itself. Her prose style, he also suggests, is more aligned to ‘making money’
than ‘enjoying it’. That is, devoid of pleasure and wiped clean of emotion,
it is purely instrumental. The scandal of a Jackie Collins novel, for
Eagleton, is that it ties women and money together so completely that there
seems to be nothing else left to describe. It would be difficult to be any more
anti-romantic than this.
Eagleton’s account of the sex-and-shopping novel – as instrumental or
functional, devoid of emotion and ‘authentic feeling’, vulgar, narcissistic,
linked directly to the need to make money, single-minded – might recall
another equally anti-romantic genre: pornography. I have suggested that
Collins’ sex scenes are not pornographic in themselves. Nevertheless, they
138 Five popular novelists
can certainly draw on pornographic tropes and stereotypes (exotic lingerie,
sex scenes in elevators, etc.). We might say that they live out a sympathetic
relationship to pornography, even if they don’t bear out its full potential.
Andrew Ross’s essay, ‘The Popularity of Pornography’, from his book No
Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (1989), turned to pornography pro-
duced or written by women and made some important points about the
genre. Pornography, as critics of the genre have noted, reduces everything
down to the level of action and event. For Steven Marcus, it takes us ‘away
from language’ and has a ‘singleness of intention’, and for these (and related)
reasons ‘it can never be true “literature”’ (Ross 1989: 182). The British liter-
ary novelist Louisa Young considers pornography to be, simply, Literature’s
dumb, unsubtle cousin: ‘Literature will always have it over porn – because
although literature has learnt from porn, porn has never learnt from litera-
ture’ (Young 1999: 5). Unlike Literature which ‘develops’, pornography is
supposed to be monotonous and repetitive; it has no depth of meaning, it
lacks taste, it can indeed be instrumental and vulgar, its gratifications are
‘superficial’, and its interests lie less in the representation of emotionally
fulfilling relationships than in forms of ‘mastery’: most often, men’s mastery
over women. Not surprisingly, as Ross points out, pornography found itself
under attack from feminists, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. But
‘antiporn’ feminists found their often conservative agendas opposed by ‘anti-
anti-porn’ feminists, partly in response to an increase in women’s involvement
in the production of pornography but also as a reaction against the way
‘antiporn’ feminism had projected women and women’s desire: as ‘natural’,
‘passive’, ‘feminine’, nonpromiscuous, romantic and so on. By contrast, anti-
anti-porn feminism engaged more positively with the way pornography
showed women ‘actively seeking sexual pleasure with impunity’. It seemed,
to them at least, to advocate ‘sexual adventure, sex outside of marriage, sex
for no reason other than pleasure, casual sex, anonymous sex, group sex,
voyeuristic sex, illegal sex, public sex’ (ibid.: 191). These are also the kinds of
sexual ‘adventures’ we find in Jackie Collins’ novels. She may not explicitly
write pornography, but she is certainly ‘anti-anti-porn’, rejecting all the con-
servative cultural stereotypes about women that Ross outlines – as ‘natural’,
nurturing, maternal, etc.
There is nothing ‘natural’ about either Collins herself or the characters
she creates – a feature that may make this novelist and her work ‘monstrous’
for some, and emblematic of a camped-up, ‘pornographic’ entertainment
industry for others. Fontaine in The Stud says, ‘I don’t want children. What
for? They ruin your figure . . . . I don’t have what I suppose is called the mater-
nal instinct’ (Collins 1984: 17). This is the language of a woman immersed in
the entertainment industry, a celebrity who has turned her body into an
artifice: going, just like the decadents at the end of the nineteenth-century,
Jackie Collins, anti-romance and celebrity novel 139
‘against nature’. In this respect, it will also help to think of Collins as
a ‘celebrity novelist’, a generic identity which for some commentators may
be reason enough to place her fiction at the very bottom of the literary hier-
archy. In fact, her sister Joan has provided a spectacular example of exactly
this kind of identity. Joan Collins is a novelist as well as an actress, publishing
her first work of fiction, Prime Time, in 1988 – a novel about five ambitious
actresses who compete with each other for a leading part in a film. Love &
Desire and Hate (1990) returned to the 1950s, built around a murder amongst
entertainment folk in Acapulco and featuring an Italian fascist ex-general
who turns film producer. Around this time, Collins had received a $4 million,
two-book contract from Random House. However, when Random House
read one of her manuscripts, to be titled A Ruling Passion, it judged it to be –
to quote from coverage in Time – ‘below the threshold of trashiness’ (Gray
1996: 75). It decided to sue for the return of her $1.3 million advance, and
in early 1996 the publisher took Collins to court. Collins famously won the
case since she had technically completed a manuscript, as required, but the
issue itself – how unpublishable can a celebrity novel be? – drew much
media attention. In his article for Time, Paul Gray traces the celebrity novel
back to Jacqueline Susann and then looks at the way publishers have
responded to the ‘Jackie phenomenon’:

Why wait around for authors to turn themselves into celebrities when
it’s possible to sign up people who are famous or semi-so? Whether
such people could actually write novels mattered hardly at all . . . . And
so the public was favoured with novels by, yes, Joan Collins, Ivana
Trump, Martina Navratilova, Britt Ekland and supermodel Naomi
Campbell, whose publisher provided her with a 250-word synopsis of
her book so that she would be able to discuss it with reporters.
(ibid.: 75)

Naomi Campbell’s Swan (1994) was generally taken as a quintessentially

‘dumb’ celebrity novel, the end of the line in trash fiction. Collins’ court
case was also seen in this way, a kind of literary watershed – the last gasp
‘for brand-label fiction’, as Gray calls it. ‘Whether economics or a recovery
of good taste lies behind this dispute’, he writes, ‘the news for book lovers
may be good. Fewer bogus novels by transient celebrities may free up some
contracts for actual writers, a few of whom may eventually become big
names’ (ibid.: 75). We might say once more that these remarks are cheer-
fully oblivious to the camp sensibility as they look forward to ‘good taste’
amongst readerships, hoping that the fake (‘bogus novels’) will eventually be
replaced by the real (‘actual writers’). Of course, Joan Collins herself is by
no means a ‘transient celebrity’ – and in the event, she went on to publish
140 Five popular novelists
a new novel, Infamous, in 1996 with Dutton, reviewed favourably in Time two
months later (see Bellafonte 1996: 73).
Both Joan and Jackie Collins are, in fact, exercises in celebrity longevity,
their careers spanning five decades. Jackie Collins is reputed to have writ-
ten The Stud with her sister in mind as Fontaine; according to an article in
People Weekly, the Quentin Masters film of the novel (for which Jackie Collins
wrote the screenplay) ‘brought Joan’s career out of a slump’ and established
her long-running film and television (and mass media) identity as a sexually
active, ambitious and confident woman (Haller 1984: 57). The British novelist
Jeanette Winterson, responding to the news in 2001 that Collins was going
to marry a man less than half her age, declared, ‘I love Joan Collins. While
70s feminists were wondering whether all men were rapists and all sex was
power, Joan was out there, ball-breaking in her stilettos, looking like a
Playboy centrefold and maddeningly in charge’ (Winterson 2001: 16). I have
noted in this chapter that the anti-romance celebrity novel, camp (or
‘feminist camp’) and pornography (or at least, an ‘anti-anti-porn’ position)
each share a set of similarly definitive features. One’s view of these various
forms will no doubt depend on one’s own cultural dispositions, one’s ‘tastes’
and so on: one may love them, or not, depending on the case. If the Collins
sisters are to get a sympathetic hearing, then camp – especially as it flows
through the field of entertainment – may need to be the primary keyword
here. The academic subdiscipline of ‘celebrity studies’ can sometimes rec-
ognize this but can also sometimes repress it, as it contemplates a world built
around distractions. Chris Rojek, in his book Celebrity (2001), takes the dour,
pessimistic route away from camp:

Celebrities are part of the culture of distraction today. Society requires

distraction so as to deflect consciousness from both the fact of struc-
tured inequality and the meaninglessness of existence following the
death of God . . . . Celebrity culture is a culture of faux ecstasy, since
the passions it generates derive from staged authenticity rather than
genuine forms of recognition and belonging.
(Rojek 2001: 90)

One might respond by saying that the anti-romance celebrity novel doesn’t
so much ‘deflect’ attention away from ‘structured inequality’ as turn atten-
tion directly towards it in all its inglorious excess. The Godless world of the
sex-and-shopping novel is happy enough to admit to its meaninglessness,
too: no deflection of consciousness here. Like Terry Eagleton, Rojek yearns
for something ‘authentic’ in a cultural field that flaunts its inauthenticity
and so is doomed to see celebrities only in terms of lack (as surface, not
depth; as something false, not real, etc.). If reality is really so bleak – and
Jackie Collins, anti-romance and celebrity novel 141
I cannot help recalling Jackie Collins’ publicity statement here, that ‘the
real is even more bizarre’ than her fiction – then, of course, distraction may
well be the only option. But to analyse celebrities and, indeed, celebrity fiction
without a trace of camp sensibility seems to me to run the risk of repro-
ducing a good deal more of what Eagleton had called ‘grim functionalism’
than we would find in the novels of Jackie Collins.

1 John Sutherland quite rightly speaks of ‘the yawning gulf between Jackie Collins
and Michael Ondaatje’, that is, between the fields of popular fiction and
Literature (Sutherland 2002: 149). Of course, the radical distinction between
these two fields of writing notwithstanding, there may very well be readers out
there who are adaptable enough to read Collins one week, and Ondaatje the
next. The point is, however, that it would be impossible to read these two writers
in the same way; quite different or even opposite logics of evaluation will be
brought to bear upon each of them.
7 J.R.R. Tolkien and global

This chapter looks at J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy –
first published during the 1950s and then adapted into three phenomenally
successful films by Peter Jackson in 2001, 2002 and 2003 – alongside recent
commentaries on, and anxieties about, the rise of global terrorism and the
‘war on terrorism’. This may seem like an odd thing to do, not least because
a fantasy about Middle Earth no doubt seems very far removed indeed from
contemporary political realities. But the point of this chapter is to examine
how popular fiction can not only survive (in contradiction to the usual view
of it, as ephemeral and disposable) but become relevant as if for the first time
to world events at a much later date. This is an especially strange outcome
for fantasy, which is supposed to be an escape from reality rather than the
basis for a commentary on it. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s trilogy – transformed
into a massive cinema/entertainment experience 50 years on – found
itself put to use in the context of twenty-first century debates over global
terrorism, much of which itself relied on what we might call ‘fantasy
A few connections have already been drawn between western reactions
to global terrorism and Literature: for example, Jason Epstein has com-
pared the United States, in its pursuit of terrorists, to Herman Melville’s
Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1851) as he frantically searches for the white
whale (Epstein 2003: 13–14). But it may be that some genres of popular fic-
tion, such as fantasy, are able to speak more directly and insistently to this
predicament. An article by Mike Davis in the New Left Review in fact situates
the terrible aeroplane bombings of the World Trade Centre buildings in
New York on 11 September 2001 in the context of fantastic images of the
fire-storming of Lower Manhattan in a bestselling work by H.G. Wells,
War in the Air, first published in 1907. Under zeppelin attack by Imperial
Germany, ‘ragtime New York’ in Wells’s apocalyptic novel, Davis suggests,
‘becomes the first modern city destroyed from the air’ (Davis 2001: 34).
Mike Davis has been one of a number of commentators on 9/11 who has
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 143
read the reality of the event through the logic of fantasy, as if it was a
moment of terror, or terrorism, that made it impossible to distinguish
between the two: ‘the attacks on New York and Washington DC were
organized as epic horror cinema with meticulous attention to mise en scene.
Indeed, the hijacked planes were aimed to impact precisely at the vulnera-
ble border between fantasy and reality’ (ibid.: 37). That phrase – ‘the
vulnerable border between fantasy and reality’ – already alerts us to the
possibility that fantasy can find itself inhabiting (rather than escaping from)
the world we know. It also resonates with anxieties about terrorist activity
itself, planned and executed in the case of 9/11 from within the borders of
the United States, and so speaking to America’s own sense of border vul-
nerability: of the possibility that what is outside the world it knows best can
actually come inside. It may well be that counter-terrorism policy itself has
something ‘fantastic’ about it, the more so since terrorism ( like Islamism, to
which it is now so often aligned) became the demonized Other of the
United States and its allies. But fantasy already flourishes inside the world
we know best. Mike Davis has also written about Los Angeles as a city upon
which fantasies of self-destruction seem to be endlessly projected: ‘No other
city seems to excite such dark rapture’, he comments in his book, Ecology of
Fear (1998), at the beginning of a long chapter on the many literary and
cinematic representations of the obliteration of Los Angeles (Davis 1998: 277).
It is, he says, ‘the disaster capital of the universe’, destroyed in fiction and
film at least 138 times since 1909. Davis sees all this as an expression of fan-
tasy wish-fulfilment, the destruction of Otherness inside the United States:
‘The obliteration of Los Angeles is often depicted as, or at least secretly
experienced as, a victory for civilization’ (Campbell 2003: 2). So how real
are these fantasy accounts of obliteration at home? A sense that Davis
relished the telling of the sequential story of Los Angeles’ destruction – and
self-destruction – led to accusations that this social commentator was
himself too enmeshed in the generic features of epic fantasy and SF, turn-
ing into a kind of latter-day Wellsian. Davis noted in an interview with
Mark Dery, ‘I’ve profited greatly from peddling apocalyptic visions to people’
(Dery 2001:
The connection between the twenty-first century ‘war on terrorism’ and
the genre of epic fantasy – especially Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – was
helped along by a cheeky visual image circulating around the internet, titled
‘Frodo has failed: Sauron prepares to invade Iraq’ (Figure 7.1). It shows US
President George W. Bush wearing the Ring of Sauron. ‘Frodo has failed’ is
taken from just one of many sites showcasing the image:,
posted 2 February 2003. is an open website and people offer their
own commentaries on what it posts. Here is one of them, posted underneath
144 Five popular novelists

Figure 7.1 Frodo has failed: Sauron prepares to invade Iraq.


the image of Bush wearing the Ring of Sauron:

Sauron was trying to take away the freedom of the peoples of Middle
Earth. Is Bush doing the same thing? Is taking away the freedom of a
corrupt and dangerous government truly evil? OK – so I just set myself
up for the comment that some people think the US is corrupt and
dangerous. But, are we as corrupt and dangerous as Iraq? Is the current
administration making up the stories of Iraqi horrors? It seems to me
that Saddam Husein is a very bad man and his regime puts the US at
high risk. One thing is for sure. The current technology of weapons
means that wars can’t be fought on old terms. The idea of preventing
Saddam from hurting us before it happens might sound a bit like
‘Minority Report’ . . . but, what if none of the war-talk had ever hap-
pened? Would we have been the victims of an attack from Saddam or
terrorists he’s funded? If so, wouldn’t we all wish we’d gone to war?

This posting captures an ambivalence found in much of the commentary

on terrorism and the ‘war on terrorism’ today, an ambivalence that wonders
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 145
whether the ‘evil empire’ of the United States is more, or less, evil than
terrorism itself. The question of evil is central to these commentaries and,
of course, central to the fantasy genre as it developed through the nine-
teenth century and into the twentieth century: into the kind of epic fantasy
that Tolkien pioneered. The posting above connects itself to another
fantasy text, the film Minority Report (2002), based on a story by the SF writer
Philip K. Dick. This is followed in turn by a sequence of fantasy projections
that work again as wish-fulfilments (‘wouldn’t we all wish we’d gone to
war?’), but only in some indeterminate past-future realm (‘would we have
been the victims . . . ’). The account here imagines terrorism as a sort of
phantasm: a terrorism that is yet to make itself manifest: a terrorism in
which the principal villain, like Sauron himself in The Lord of the Rings or like
Osama bin Laden, is both manifest and simply not there. As it is currently
conceived, what is now called global terrorism does indeed seem to have
both an immediately felt and an ethereal ‘body’: a violently registered pres-
ence, and a disconcerting absence that seems almost against the odds to
continue to keep itself that way. For Binoy Kampmark, in an article titled
‘The Spectre of bin Laden in the Age of Terrorism’, bin Laden is nothing
less than a kind of hyperreality living as a perpetual ‘afterlife’, his body and
voice needing ceaselessly to be verified or authenticated (Kampmark 2002:⫽355). Roland Jacquard’s book, In the
Name of Osama bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the bin Laden Brotherhood (2002),
makes a similar point about bin Laden’s terrorist organization itself: that
‘al_Qaeda, bin Laden’s creation, no longer needs either his physical exis-
tence or his funds; alive or dead, he has become a talisman for a diffuse,
self-sufficient terrorist network with every intention of fulfilling its mission
to “lead the world into the apocalypse” ’ (Baird 2002: 31). These various
tropes, yoking terrorism to an absent source, to phantasm, but also to
networks of alliance and to a global apocalypse, should begin to further
identify and clarify the connection between terrorism and modern genre of
epic fantasy exemplified in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien famously disavowed allegorical readings of The Lord of the Rings
(‘It is neither allegorical or topical’), partly to distinguish himself from the
fantasies written by his friend and colleague, C.S. Lewis (Tolkien 2003: xx).
But allegorical readings of his work are commonplace all the same, espe-
cially those that place the fantasy works in the context of Tolkien’s own
experiences during the First World War where he lost a number of close
friends and was himself stricken with ‘trench fever’. The three parts of The
Lord of the Rings were written during the 1930s and throughout the duration
of the Second World War, with the first part – The Fellowship of the Ring –
published in July 1954. Part two, The Two Towers, was published in November
1954, and Part three, The Return of the King, was published in April 1955.
Peter Jackson’s cinematic version of The Lord of the Rings has become the
146 Five popular novelists
most expensive set of films ever made; the film of The Fellowship of the Ring
appeared just a few weeks after 9/11, and the annual release of the other
parts meant that they were necessarily caught up alongside the ‘war on
terrorism’, the invasion of Iraq and the search for ‘weapons of mass
destruction’ (another phantasm so far, as I write this chapter), as well as the
search for Osama bin Laden and global terrorist cells and networks. It is
certainly possible to situate The Lord of the Rings cinematic project, as well as
the trilogy’s contemporary publishing fortunes, in this context: as if entertain-
ment really does touch the sphere of contemporary political reality. In 2001,
Tolkien’s publishers – Houghton Mifflin (which publishes hardcovers and
gift editions), Del Ray and Ballantine, HarperCollins – had sold 11 million
copies of Lord of the Rings and ‘Tolkien-related’ book items even before the
film of The Fellowship of the Ring was released. The epic fantasy lodged itself
at the top of the bestseller lists at the end of 2001, sitting alongside non-fiction
books on Osama bin Laden and Islam. In 2002, sales reached nearly
13 million. Clay Harper, Houghton Mifflin’s director of Tolkien projects, is
quoted in a Publishers Weekly article as saying that Tolkien’s trilogy endures,
especially in the United States, because ‘you can reflect on the history of
your own time in the characters. The Hobbits realize the world is larger and
more frightening than they wanted to know, but they have to engage with
it’. Harper’s point, the article goes on to note, ‘might speak to an American
audience still wrestling with a new sense of vulnerability’ (Maas 2002: By drawing vulnerable Hobbits and
vulnerable Americans together, the point explicitly recalls Mike Davis’s
phrase, ‘the vulnerable border between fantasy and reality’: fiction and
non-fiction, epic fantasy and global terrorism.

J.R.R. Tolkien after 9/11: from Iraq

to New Zealand
The Center for Libertarian Studies (and we have come across Libertarians
before, in Chapter 2) is a non-profit organization based in Burlingame,
California, with a website that links to for coverage of US foreign
policy. Carlo Stagnaro, an Italian who is co-editor of the Libertarian magazine
Enclave and who has written a book on Waco, has posted an article on this site,
titled ‘Tolkien’s Lesson for September 11’. ‘The conservative and liberal élites’,
he writes,

have been portraying Bush’s war on terrorism as a sort of crusade of good

against evil. They have even tried to enlist John Ronald Reuel of the ‘Book of the Century’, The Lord of the Rings, for
this endeavour. In their view, the coalition led by the United States is like
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 147
the ‘league of the free’ who fight against Sauron of Mordor – that is, bin
Laden of Afghanistan.
(Stagnaro 2002:

This is an informed article that answers back to the conservative appropriation

of Tolkien’s work, placing this writer instead in a tradition of civil dissent.
‘J.R.R. Tolkien’, Stagnaro writes, ‘would hardly have taken a position in
favour of the war on terrorism’. The aim of Tolkien’s work is the destruc-
tion of the Ring itself, the source of unlimited and always-corrupting power –
a point which leads Stagnaro not to read the fantasy of The Lord of the Rings
as an allegory for reality, but the inverse, that is, to read reality as an allegory
for fantasy:

today’s war on terrorism seems a war to own the Ring, rather than
a war to destroy it. Neither Bush’s nor bin Laden’s supporters fight for
liberty; they all fight to strengthen their own power. One can hardly
choose to join one or the other – and should ask whether there is still a
place for common, peaceful people in the lands of opposing war lords.
Indeed, the only rational position is that of Treebeard [an Ent in The
Lord of the Rings]: ‘I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because
nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me . . . . And there
are some things, of course, whose side I’m altogether not on; I am
against them altogether’.

Here, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings provides the very means of articulating
one’s position on global terrorism. This epic fantasy text from the 1950s gains
its power because it now accommodates, and speaks on behalf of, a contem-
porary war scenario. It ‘picks up’ a terroristic allegory, just as Chris Mooney
notes in an article first published in The Washington Post on 29 December 2002
(around the time of the release of the film of The Two Towers), titled, precisely,
‘Tolkien picks up a few more bits of cultural baggage’. Mooney focuses on the
orcs in the epic fantasy as dissenters, complaining about the Ringwraiths and
wanting only to be able to slip away and loot in a place where there are no
‘big bosses’. ‘One can easily imagine’, Mooney writes, ‘a similar conversation
among lower-level al Qaeda henchmen or Iraqi troops’ (Mooney 2003: Mooney then goes on to
register the ambivalence of evil, both in the novel and in the context of global
terrorism: ‘The analogy between bin Laden and Sauron is not an empty one’,
he writes, but ‘for the bearer of the Ring of Power, he would need to look no
further than George W. Bush’ (ibid.).
148 Five popular novelists
The final commentary to note here comes perhaps surprisingly from the
Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online: a front-page piece titled ‘The “Ring”
and the remnants of the West’, by a correspondent identified only as
‘Spengler’ – named after Oswald Spengler, author of the apocalyptic
socio-political tract, The Decline of the West (1918–22). This commentary
takes the release of the films of The Lord of the Rings as the ‘most important
cultural event of the past decade’, since in these texts ‘No better guide exists
to the mood and morals of the United States’ (‘Spengler’ 2003: It charts
Tolkien’s relation to Wagner and the Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, seeing
them both – even though Tolkien thoroughly ‘recast’ the earlier text – as
elegies that track the departure of the immortals: in Tolkien’s case, the
Elves, who finally renounce the world and depart. The difference between
Wagner and Tolkien’s works is that whereas the former was neo-pagan and
heroic, the latter is Christian (Tolkien was a devout Catholic) and anti-
heroic. It is centred on the role of the hobbit Frodo as Ring-bearer, who
wishes that the Ring ‘had never come to me’. Spengler thus sees the end of
The Lord of the Rings as a return to ordinary life, and so casts the work not as
epic fantasy at all, but as an anti-epic. This commentator then reads the
United States accordingly, not as an empire but as ‘anti-empire’:

Boorish and gruff as the new American empire might seem, it is an

anti-empire populated by reluctant heroes who want nothing more
than to till their fields and mind their homes, much like Tolkien’s hobbits.
Under pressure, though, it will respond with a fierceness and cohesion
that will surprise its adversaries.

In this article from the East about the West, Americans are indeed like
hobbits, content to remain in the West, insular, isolated from the outside
world, the pressures of globalization and, in this case, the threat of global
terrorism. This is a commonplace view of the United States, as an empire-
building nation that can also seem ignorant of the world beyond its own
vulnerable borders, beyond the world it knows best. It is shared by, for
example, Naomi Klein in a short article first published in The Nation in
October 2001: ‘In the weeks since September 11, we have been reminded
many times that Americans aren’t particularly informed about the world
outside their borders’ (Klein 2002: 146). Of course, if the hobbits have any
equivalent nationality in the real world at all, they are probably English.
Tolkien certainly claimed them as such, locating the Hobbits’ Shire just
outside of Oxford where he worked as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon. His
biographer Michael White notes that Tolkien liked to identify himself as
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 149
a hobbit, equally sealed off from the outside world in ‘his ivory tower in
Oxford’ (White 2001: 159). Tolkien’s Oxford – his hobbits’ Shire – is echoed
in Michael Taussig’s essay on terror in The Nervous System, when he describes
an American university where a discussion of state terrorism is being held:
a ‘middle class, largely white, fortress’, as he puts it, ‘with fear-ridden blocks
of lofty spires’: ‘a perfect copy of an Oxford college’ (Taussig 1998: 15).
Fantasy and reality are entangled in Oxford and then simulated back in
America in this account of places sealed off from the world outside. But
through the production and release of Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of
the Rings, a newer, twenty-first-century entanglement of fantasy and reality
takes place: the perhaps rather unexpected identification of Middle Earth
itself with New Zealand.
The three films in The Lord of the Rings series were shot on location in New
Zealand, using scenery in both the North and South Islands: when The
Fellowship of the Ring won an Oscar for cinematography, tourist officials
jokingly claimed their nation as the ‘Best Supporting Country’. New
Zealand has been quick to capitalize on the tourism value of its association
with Tolkien’s fantasy world. The capital, Wellington, was officially
renamed ‘Middle Earth’ when The Fellowship of the Ring was released in
December 2001. As Tolkien-based tourism flourished across the islands, the
minister for tourism became known as the ‘Minister Responsible for Lord
of the Rings’. Air New Zealand has painted two of its planes with images
from the films and has adopted the slogan, ‘The Airline to Middle Earth’.
The New Zealand Tourism website has mapped out New Zealand accord-
ing to the set locations of the films, imprinting the Shire, Mordor and many
other fantasy locations onto the landscape of New Zealand (see New Zealand,
Home of Middle Earth:
In the wake of 9/11 and the ‘war against terrorism’, this kind of fantasy
identification has a particular resonance. New Zealand Tourism speaks of
New Zealand as a ‘safe destination’ in an otherwise unsafe world: much like
the Hobbit’s Shire just prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings. New
Zealand has de-militarized itself and no longer contributes to the
Australian-US alliance. It also refused to join the ‘coalition of the willing’
in the war on Iraq, distinguishing itself carefully from Australia in this
matter. At the same time, The Lord of the Rings films have given New Zealand
global recognition: through scenery that is simultaneously natural and
otherworldly; and through the development of sophisticated computer-
generated effects, locally and cheaply produced, that have made New
Zealand the preferred destination of other cinematic fantasy productions.
New Zealand in this account becomes a place that ‘fits’ Middle Earth
perfectly even though the latter doesn’t belong there. It offers a safe, secure
place in a globalized world, a remote and tiny nation identified both locally
150 Five popular novelists
and globally as terrorist-free – which is precisely the fantasy at stake in its
identification with Tolkien’s trilogy.

Epic fantasy, exile, emergency, evil

Jacqueline Rose has been one of only a few recent commentators to talk
about fantasy in relation to the nation, although she takes fantasy as a psychic
condition, not a literary genre. In States of Fantasy, Rose nevertheless begins
her commentary precisely by following the formula of modern epic fantasy
as it is laid out in The Lord of the Rings. That is, she goes on a quest: ‘This
book begins in 1980’, she writes, ‘during a visit to Israel’, a journey ‘to a
country where you do not belong’ (Rose 1996: 1). Exile becomes the means
of experiencing a fantasy state, belonging yet no longer belonging – like
Freud when he leaves Vienna, and like Frodo when he leaves the Shire. The
state itself exerts a magical, fantasmatic power over its subjects, as Max
Weber had noted (ibid.: 8); but fantasy also travels beyond the state (like the
exiled Jew or the hobbit) and so both undoes it and provides a means of
articulating its deepest yearnings. Modern epic fantasy also plays out this
role, protecting the state’s identity and yet troubling the state as it continu-
ally moves beyond its borders – or, as it renders its borders vulnerable or
porous, as the Shire becomes in The Lord of the Rings. It is still common to
regard works of popular fantasy as, to quote the title of a recent study of
the genre by Richard Mathews, a vehicle for ‘the liberation of the imagi-
nation’ (Mathews 2002) – since it seems free enough to imagine other
worlds that are ‘unknown’ and not real. But modern epic fantasy in fact
continually worries about reality: about the place it has left (usually, trau-
matically), its borders and its vulnerability, about whether that original or
originating place can still be, like New Zealand, a ‘safe destination’. The
genre knows that ‘liberation’ must also (rather like the war in Iraq) entail
occupation, border protection, regulation, surveillance, constraint. As it
goes into exile, characters and places lose their identities, only to return to
them in desperation (and nostalgically) over and over again.
The epic fantasy genre – or subgenre – grew out of the experiences of world
wars to become literally the grandest and greatest of the literary genres:
nostalgic for ‘safe destinations’, but charting the vulnerability of borders
and identities with an almost masochistic intensity. The genre can therefore
often refuse to resolve itself: as I noted much earlier on, Robert Jordan’s
The Wheel of Time series is, as I write, up to its eleventh volume, each one
around 600 pages, with no signs even at this stage of reaching (to use a word
often associated with traumatic memory) ‘closure’. Tolkien’s sagas also
grew, escalating into a series of volumes published posthumously by his son,
Christopher, as if the battles and struggles can never stop or be stopped.
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 151
Indeed, the genre charts what Dilip Hiro, in a book on the global response
to Islamist terrorism, has called a ‘war without end’ (Hiro 2002) – or what
Michael Taussig in his chapter on terrorism (and under the influence of
Walter Benjamin) refers to as a permanent state of emergency, or what
Fredric Jameson has called, ‘a new sort of war without . . . a foreseeable end’
( Jameson 2002: 310). Characters in modern epic fantasy are mobilized on
a quest and a war that may similarly be endless, sent to realms beyond their
borders, as the hobbits are in The Lord of the Rings or as Lyra is in Philip
Pullman’s contemporary series, His Dark Materials (1993–99), which actually
begins in the ivory towers of Oxford but soon travels far away. Exile is
necessary in epic fantasy. Indeed, its characters travel incessantly, almost
obsessively, into other lands and other people’s territories. It is evil that
drives them outwards: it comes into their home (i.e. it is proximate) and yet
it remains utterly remote, distant, absent, unable to be seen even as its
effects are continually registered: much like the perpetual absence of
Osama bin Laden. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is an eye that sees the
hobbits only when they become invisible; paradoxically, when they can see
themselves they remain out of Sauron’s sight. Jane Chance, in her book on
Tolkien, thus reads these epic fantasy novels in the context of Michel
Foucault’s account of the Benthamite panopticon with its universal ‘gaze’,
its sense of total surveillance, which is as good a reading as any (Chance
2001: 21). A similar reading might turn back to Michael Taussig, who
describes the atmosphere of terror as one ‘whipping back and forth
between clarity and opacity’, generated centrally through some organiza-
tional force and yet which is radically de-centred, everywhere: ‘an eye
watching’, he says, ‘an eye knowing’, like Sauron (Taussig 1998: 21).
As I also noted earlier on, the best academic study of Tolkien’s work is
Tom Shippey’s book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Shippey’s discussion
of evil in The Lord of the Rings emphasizes both its power and its intangibil-
ity, signified through the Ringwraiths: shadowy figures who were once men
but who were utterly changed through their ‘addiction’ to the Ring – and
who seem able to go anywhere in Middle Earth, creating ‘panic’ (Shippey
2001: 125). These are certainly terroristic creatures. ‘The spectacle of a
person “eaten up inside” by devotion to some abstraction’, Shippey says,
‘has been so familiar throughout the twentieth century as to make the idea
of the wraith, and the wraithing-process, horribly recognizable, in a non-
fantastic way’ (ibid.: 125). Links between fascism and terrorism – drawing
the mid-twentieth century into the end of the millennium – have been
made by commentators such as Christopher Hitchens; but it seems to me
that Tolkien’s shadowy, panic-causing Ringwaiths are more terrorist than
fascistic both in their devotion to abstractions and through their sheer
otherness. Shippey has a slightly different argument to run, however. For
152 Five popular novelists
Shippey, the Ringwraiths and the Ring itself form the two sides of evil in
the fantasy work. The first is ‘Boethian’, generated internally: absent as
a thing-in-itself, and causing self-alienation and corruption. The second is
Manichean, generated externally: an outside force, remote but powerful,
and never inactive. The Boethian conception of evil is cast by Shippey as
a literary trope, deployed especially by Tolkien’s modernist counterparts:
‘the cosseted upper-class writers of the “modernist” movement’, as Shippey
had called them (ibid.: 142). Epic fantasy, however, is able to deploy the
Manichean conception of evil as well, which for Shippey thus makes fantasy
(unlike literary Modernism) more directly relevant ‘to the real world of war
and politics’: communal or affiliated, not individualized or alienated;
universal, not contingent; militant, rather than dialogic and introspective.

Epic fantasy, terror and despair

I have suggested that terror in modern epic fantasy is both proximate and
remote, here and always at the same time elsewhere. It has something sub-
lime about it, as Taussig has noted and as the Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe
had noted in 1826 through her classic distinction between terror and hor-
ror which, she wrote, ‘are so far the opposite, that the first expands the soul,
and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts,
freezes, and nearly annihilates them’ (cited in Botting 1998: 124). Terror is
a ceaseless, immanent threat here, a permanent state of emergency – while
horror realizes that threat, bringing atrocities close to home, provoking
a sickening disgust, a state of despair. We might say that horror is the banal-
yet-fatal conclusion or realization of terrorism. It is the task of epic fantasy –
fantasy on the grandest scale – to mediate between the two, to hold them in
some kind of imbalanced tension. Epic fantasy is a genre of popular fiction,
of course, but its logics and sensibilities also find expression elsewhere in the
cultural field. A perfect contemporary example lies in the work of the archi-
tect, Daniel Libeskind, who won the competition to build a set of new tow-
ers in the place of the World Trade Centre (WTC) towers. Those WTC
towers, designed by Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki, were
already, as Angus Kress Gillespie notes, ‘a global symbol, instantly recog-
nized to stand for America’ (Gillespie 2002: 5). They had previously been
a terrorist target and terrorism remained an immanent threat. Their bomb-
ing transformed the site into a place of horror, provoking disgust, despair,
grief, anger: and Libeskind’s new tower project seemed designed both to
preserve these horrific features while at the same time return the site to
a condition of terror, of sublimity and immanence. Hal Foster captures this
combination of horror and terror in the Libeskind design when he says it
embodies ‘both the traumatic and the triumphal’ (Foster 2003: 17). The
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 153
project is certainly epic in scale. Libeskind, who also designed the Jewish
Museum in Berlin, created for New York a spiral of high-rise towers culmi-
nating in a 1,776-foot spire, out-symbolizing the WTC towers as a ‘spire of
liberty’ through its echo of the Statue of Liberty – a work of epic fantasy,
no less, a ‘liberation of the imagination’, but also an expression of freedom’s
vulnerability (McGuigan 2003: 62). The angular towers around the spire
are designed ‘so that each year on September 11, between the hours of
8.46 am when the first plane hit, and 10.28 am, when the second tower
collapsed, the sun will shine without shadow’ (Overington 2003: 12).
Portentous names are given to various parts of the building: the memorial
plaza is ‘Park of Heroes’, the museum is ‘Edge of Hope’, the spire itself is
‘Life’s Victorious Skyline’. ‘Libeskind loves metaphor’, Cathleen McGuigan
has noted, ‘a ruin at the bottom; life blooming at the top’ (McGuigan 2003:
62). Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of the New York Times,
declared, ‘If you are looking for the marvellous, here’s where you will find
it’ (cited in Sudjik 2003: 16): in other words, architecture as epic fantasy.
It was difficult not to notice the synchronicity between New York’s
destroyed twin towers and the second book of Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The
Two Towers – signposted as an already completed film-yet-to-come shortly
after the 9/11 attacks. Tolkien’s dark towers (and so many works of epic
fantasy have dark towers, as Stephen King readers would know very well)
are evil and remote; New York’s towers became proximate; but both have
functioned as ‘marvellous’ symbols, installed at the centre of some sort of
epic struggle. The fantastic aspect of the twin towers and of the 9/11
attacks themselves was not lost on some of the better-known cultural com-
mentaries that followed. Slavoj Zizek’s essay ‘Welcome to the Desert of the
Real’ takes its title from Jean Baudrillard via The Matrix (1999), drawing on
that overwrought SF/fantasy film’s evocation of fantasy as false comfort –
with the rubble of 9/11 as the real and banal supplement to the fantasized
abstraction of the towers themselves. Everything in this reading is infected
by fantasy: the dream of the United States as a safe haven, for example; or
the identification of Osama bin Laden as ‘the real-life counterpart of Ernst
Stavro Blofeld, the master-criminal in most of the James Bond films, who
was involved in the acts of mass-destruction’ (Zizek 2002: 387).1 The
United States, creating ‘catastrophes’ everywhere else, also ceaselessly imag-
ined its own self-destruction, so that ‘in a way’, Zizek notoriously suggests,
on 9/11 ‘America got what it fantasized about’ (ibid.: 387). This is just as
Mike Davis had said of Los Angeles – except that Davis was indeed talking
about fantasy. Baudrillard himself, in ‘L’Esprit du Terrorisme’, takes this
point a little further, reading fantasy as wish-fulfilment: ‘We could even go
so far as to say it is they who perpetrated the attack, but it was we who
wished it’; ‘The West’, he adds apocalyptically, ‘has . . . declared war upon
154 Five popular novelists
itself ’ (Baudrillard 2002: 404–5). Baudrillard puts into effect precisely the
fantasy of The Lord of the Rings, that ‘power itself is accomplice with its own
destruction’. The nearer it gets to ‘perfection’, the faster it propels itself
towards self-destruction: this is one of the logics of modern epic fantasy.
Baudrillard has no time for this popular genre, of course. Even so, 9/11
seemed to show through its very spectacle that reality and fiction, as he
writes, ‘have become a tangled mess’, impossible to separate (ibid.: 413): the
kind of entanglement Tolkien himself ascribed to children, the most ‘natural’
readers of epic fantasy (see Turner 2001: 17).
These various claims return to the question posed by commentators on
the ‘war against terrorism’ at the beginning of this chapter, namely, where
is the greater evil: here, or over there? Inside or outside? In the West, or else-
where? Epic fantasy’s ambivalent conception of evil, as I have noted, locates
it inside and outside simultaneously – although, since the hobbits survive the
corrupting power of the Ring, it may finally and inevitably lean towards the
latter. Evil performs at its most terroristic as a remote Other, like Sauron
and his network of alliances. It has in fact been commonplace to talk these
days of terrorist ‘networks’, dispersed groups which affiliate across and
beyond state borders to conduct what has been called a ‘netwar’, where the
‘protagonists . . . use networked forms of organization, doctrine, strategy and
technology attuned to the information age’ (Voll 2001: 4). Networked
alliances have been crucial to modern epic fantasy: think of Sauron and the
orcs, trolls, warcs and various birds and so on in The Lord of the Rings, or the
witches, the gypsies and the armoured bears in Philip Pullman’s trilogy.
The Lord of the Rings even deploys its own ‘coalition of the willing’ to deal
with these networks, the ‘fellowship’ between men, elves and dwarves. It
could well be worth thinking of George W. Bush, Britain’s Tony Blair and
Australia’s John Howard as real-life counterparts to Aragorn, Legolas and
Gimli (in that order). These leaders’ counter-terrorist rhetoric has
absolutely relied upon a Manichean conception of evil from which liberal
democracy in the West is then earnestly distinguished. But there have been
plenty of recent academic and journalistic commentaries operating in
exactly the same way. Roger Scruton’s The West and the Rest: Globalization and
the Terrorist Threat (2002) provides a spectacular recent example: an hysteri-
cal commentary which sees the West under threat from a network of ‘death-
intoxicated’ Islamist ‘brotherhoods’ whose effect has been intensified and
extensified, paradoxically perhaps, by western-driven globalization. Here is
a passage that might just as easily have been written about modern epic
fantasy (and which is the exact mirror image of the view of Americans
given in Asia Times Online, as an ‘anti-empire populated by reluctant heroes
who want nothing more than to till their fields and mind their homes’ until
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 155
global ‘pressure’ activates them):

In the days when East was East and West was West, it was possible for
Muslims to devote their lives to pious observances and to ignore the evil
that prevailed in the dar-al-harb [ house of war]. But when that evil
spreads around the globe . . . old antagonisms are awakened, and with
them the old need for allies against the infidel.
(Scruton 2002: 123)

The work of Bernard Lewis (What Went Wrong?) or Simon Reeve (The New
Jackals) or any number of media commentators following in the wake of
Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilization’ prognosis, reproduce exactly the
apocalyptic scenarios of modern epic fantasy: Manichean divisions between
the West and Islam. The opposing position is held by commentators such as
Gilles Kepel and Edward Said. Kepel, in his book Jihad: The Trail of Political
Islam (2002), takes globalization as a force that necessarily dilutes the identity
of Islamism, which leads him to read 9/11 as ‘a desperate symbol of the iso-
lation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its
irrepressible might’ (Kepel 2002: 375). This is an anti-apocalyptic response:
it stands against the prevailing logic of modern epic fantasy. Edward Said had
advocated ‘secularism’ over ‘fundamentalism’ in his work, which is equally
anti-apocalyptic. Islamists, he writes ( pouring cold water on the apocalypse,
even before it has begun) ‘have by and large lost the battle’ (Said 1997: xxvii).
Said has been critical of Bernard Lewis, amongst others, for demonizing
Muslims ‘as one terrifyingly collective person enraged at an outside world
that has disturbed his almost primeval calm and unchallenged rule’ (ibid.:
xxxii). For Said, this is indeed a fantastic perspective: the kind of thing one
would find, precisely, in modern epic fantasy.
The genre of modern epic fantasy, as it battles an evil without end, offers a
form of literary fundamentalism that troubles secular ideals.2 But it can also –
sometimes, not always – trouble the kind of political fundamentalism that
relies on Manichean binaries of good and evil. For Said, Bernard Lewis and
others satisfy a ‘market’ in the West of representations ‘of a monolithic,
enraged, threatening, and conspiratorially spreading Islam’ which is ‘much
greater, more useful, and capable of generating more excitement, whether for
purposes of entertainment or of mobilizing passions against a new foreign
devil’ (ibid.: xxxviii). In this chapter, I have noted that modern epic fantasy can
indeed generate an ‘excitement’ for the purposes of entertainment (as all gen-
res of popular fiction do) that may well rely upon a ‘monolithic’ representation
of evil, terroristic in its incarnation. But in a work like The Lord of the Rings, the
question of where evil actually resides is never fully resolved. It remains, as
156 Five popular novelists
I have noted, outside and inside, elsewhere and here, simultaneously. As it
charts ‘the vulnerable border between fantasy and reality’, Tolkien’s trilogy
knows that evil is both remote and already inside the world one inhabits and
knows best. Modern epic fantasy thus conveys a loss of innocence; its charac-
ters, like Frodo, are in fact paradoxically called upon to lose their otherworld-
liness, to become worldly. Readers have remarked on the despair of The Lord of
the Rings, as a work that turns upon itself, ‘quietly running down’, as Jenny
Turner has noted. ‘It’s a struggle with despair’, she writes, ‘a panoramic por-
trait of the depressive state’ (Turner 2001: 23–4): as if worldliness brings depres-
sion with it. The despair of the novels lies not so much in an externalized sense
of evil, but in what is lost as the occulted otherworld changes – the Elves in
particular, who ‘diminish’ after Sauron has been destroyed. The video release
of The Fellowship of the Ring was accompanied by a disc produced by National
Geographic, which uses Tolkien’s work to chart a commentary both on the
impact of the world wars on Britain, and on a romantic mode of anthropol-
ogy, concerned with the loss of ancient northern European oral traditions.
The latter focuses on the Finnish epic song tradition of the Kalevala, linking
it to Tolkien’s research behind the language of the Elves – and mourning its
actual passing from the modern world. The elegiac mode of the National
Geographic disc shows another ‘clash of civilizations’, important to Tolkien as
an anti-modern who loathed everything about the industrial West even as he
ceaselessly registered its ever-encroaching presence. Michael White writes that
Tolkien hated ‘technologists, modernizers, polluters and inveterate consumers’
(White 2001: 209). His vehement anti-modern position can situate him, these
days, perilously close to the prevailing caricatures of Osama bin Laden and
Islamism. For Colin Wilson, in fact, The Lord of the Rings was nothing less than
an ‘attack’, as he saw it, ‘on the modern world’ (ibid.: 209). Epic fantasy, soaked
through with nostalgia for lost traditions and dying cultures which it then
systematically reinvents and reanimates, has been venting its spleen on the
modern world for over half a century now. This is another reason why it is pos-
sible to see epic fantasy today not as escapist, but as terroristic on a global scale.

1 Compare the distinguished cultural commentator Tzvetan Todorov’s diagnosis of
the West’s relations to terrorism after 9/11:

It is almost as if George Orwell had lost out to Ian Fleming in predicting

the future. Instead of a world reduced to the conflict between vast totalitarian
empires, as foreseen in 1984, we have a single empire watching in shock as a
megalomaniac billionaire hidden in an underground cave dispatches kamikaze
pilots to destroy targets in American cities.
(Todorov 2003: x)
J.R.R. Tolkien and global terrorism 157
These may indeed be unusual times, when Tolkien and Fleming (Todorov goes
on to speak of this ‘James Bond scenario’) find themselves invoked as the means
of accounting for contemporary realities.
2 Not all contemporary epic fantasy can be co-opted into a tradition of civil dissent,
and of course, the reactionary aspects of much in this genre should also be noted.
The work of bestselling contemporary US fantasy novelist Terry Goodkind, who
is influenced by Ayn Rand, is a good example. His novel, The Pillars of Creation
(2001) – part of his ‘Sword of Truth’ series – is earnestly dedicated ‘to the people
in the United States Intelligence Community, who, for decades, have valiantly
fought to preserve life and liberty, while being ridiculed, condemned, demonized,
and shackled by the jackals of evil’ (Goodkind 2001: n.p.).

This book has said a great deal about the ways in which the field of popular
fiction actually works, outlining what I have called its logics and practices:
the various things that lend popular fiction its distinction. But it has also
wanted to convey a sense of just how diverse or heterogeneous that field
actually is. The ‘popular’ is itself a relatively open category, and the various
cultural forms produced under its umbrella by no means perform or circu-
late in exactly the same way. There are, obviously, a great many distinctions
to be drawn inside the frame of the popular, in other words. Even so, I have
wanted to argue that popular fiction does identify (or, is identified) in a par-
ticular way. Its logics and practices, as I have shown, are primarily industrial
and commercial; it is intimately tied to the category of entertainment (some-
thing that is true even for the most ‘cerebral’ works of science fiction); it
mostly operates outside of official, educational apparatuses (even though
it can be meticulously researched and therefore informational); it is closer in
kind to ‘craft’ than to the discourse and practices of the art world; and
it deploys, to lesser or greater extents, a set of formal features ( plot, convention,
simplicity, event, exaggeration, pace and so on) that underwrite its identifi-
cation and structure the manner of its production as well as the means by
which it is marketed, processed and evaluated. I have argued that popular
fiction is the ‘opposite’ of Literature, providing a lot of information and evi-
dence to make what might be a rather polemical point for some as clear as I
can. In Chapter 2, I note that popular fiction is essentially genre fiction and,
indeed, it flaunts its generic identity; but in literary fiction, genre is much less
visible and has far less of a determining, identificatory force. Some literary
academics, invested as they may be in Literature as an all-inclusive category,
might think that the differences I have outlined between popular fiction and
Literature perhaps overstate the case – which is why, at the beginning of
Chapter 6, I asked readers who may still be sceptical about these matters to
spend a few moments with the fiction of Jackie Collins. It is true, as I have
remarked from time to time, that some popular fiction aspires to a kind of
‘literary’ condition (e.g. some works of horror, some crime fiction) even as it
Conclusion 159
remains generic. There are also canonical or ‘respectable’ works of popular
fiction that readers who know little about the field broadly speaking may well
be familiar with. It is also true that certain works of Literature can share or
engage with some of the features of popular fiction, especially in cross-over
genres (the family saga, the historical novel, Gothic fiction and so on). And
we can identify the category of Popular Literature (e.g. the novels of Jane
Austen or Charles Dickens), which is often marked by long-term popularity,
usually generated through educational apparatuses these days, and which
can indeed have a structural or symbiotic relationship to popular fiction
itself. There are always composites, blurrings and hybrids of one kind or
another. But on the whole, popular fiction and Literature inhabit different
worlds. I have not wanted to say that one world is any better or worse than
the other, which would be a pointless task and impossible to prove anyway.
Whatever conclusions one might draw here would depend completely on
one’s position, and one’s dispositions, in the broader cultural field. And
although there will be a host of constraints at work here, many readers will
be adaptable enough to read selectively across both worlds. One’s reading
interests might very well cover (for example) Henry James and Jacqueline
Susann, James Joyce and J.R.R. Tolkien, D.H. Lawrence and Dan Brown,
Michael Ondaatje and Marie Corelli, Saul Bellow and Stephanie Laurens,
Jonathan Franzen and John Grisham, Arundhati Roy and Anne Rice. But as
I have shown in Chapter 3 and elsewhere in this book, the reading practices
and the logics of evaluation one applies to the first of these partners will be
quite different in kind and context to those applied to the second.
At the end of 2003, the bestselling horror and fantasy/SF novelist
Stephen King was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to
American Letters by the US-based National Book Foundation, an influen-
tial, educational organisation which also administers the National Book
Awards. Previous NBA winners for fiction had included Saul Bellow (several
times over), William Faulkner, Don DeLillo, E. Annie Proulx, Susan Sontag,
Jonathan Franzen, and in 2003, Shirley Hazzard. The closest this award
had come to genre fiction was for Pete Dexter’s novel, Paris Trout (1988),
a ‘noir’ tale about a white, psychotic racist in a small American town –
but Dexter’s stylish fiction is usually taken to have literary qualities.1
The NBAs have been awarded for over 50 years now, but the Medal
for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was first awarded in
1991. Most of the recipients have also been literary authors ( John Updike,
Toni Morrison, Philip Roth) and people who have promoted literary fiction
(including Oprah Winfrey), although in 2000 this award was given to
Ray Bradbury, an eminent science fiction writer who has also crossed over
into literary circles. But Stephen King was a different kind of recipient,
far more completely immersed in the fields of popular fiction and
entertainment – a one-person ‘industry’ who is reputed to make around
160 Conclusion
$50 million a year from his work. For Nichola McAllister, writing in the
UK’s Guardian newspaper, King, and his occasional co-writer, the horror
novelist Peter Straub, are ‘skilful, deliriously silly showmen who teeter close
to vaudeville and whose talents highlight both horror’s inherent childishness
and its boundless thrills’ (McAllister 2001: 16). King does not, in other
words, write Literature – a view which seems to be broadly shared both by
literary reviewers and genre enthusiasts. Even so, some commentators have
drawn attention to literary qualities in King’s fiction. For Matt Thorne,
King’s Bag of Bones (1998) and Hearts in Atlantis (1999) are ‘the equal of any-
thing by DeLillo or Updike’, while Dreamcatcher (2000) is ‘something rather
different’, that is, resolutely lowbrow (Thorne 2001: 10). John Leonard, in
an article published in The New York Review of Books in February 2002, sug-
gests that Stephen King’s fiction is in fact a heady amalgamation of high-
brow, lowbrow and ‘middle-management’ references: ‘a bouillabaisse of
Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland, Gertrude Stein and Hansel and Gretel,
Machiavelli and Humpty Dumpty. . . . Ingmar Bergman and Steven
Spielberg’ (Leonard 2002: 34). Leonard speaks up both for the literary fea-
tures of King’s fiction, and for its sheer schlock, its ‘bootleg’ brand of hor-
ror: he pays tribute, in fact, to the astonishing cultural range of this prolific
horror novelist. But other literary commentators may be more narrow in
their perspective and more condemnatory as a result. The conservative
literary academic Harold Bloom in fact took the awarding of the DCAL
medal to King as reason to despair about the future of literary culture:

The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for
‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another
low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve
described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps
even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What
he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence,
paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. The publishing industry
has stooped terribly low to bestow on King a lifetime award that has
previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to
playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King they recognize nothing
but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do
little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat. If this is
going to be the criterion in the future, then perhaps next year the com-
mittee should give its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle
Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling.
(Bloom 2003:
Conclusion 161
Here is a rant that can only make sense from the – in this case, unusually
embattled and embittered – perspective of the field of Literature. But it does
serve as a reminder (and we might also recall Damiem Broderick’s com-
plaint, noted in Chapter 2, about science fiction and the Booker Prize) that
writers of popular fiction are indeed rarely admitted into the realms that
Literature claims for itself – and vice versa. When they are admitted, then the
differences between the logics and practices of these two fields often become
strikingly apparent. In his DCAL acceptance speech, Stephen King spent
much of the time responding to these differences from his own perspective,
that is, from the point of view of the field of popular fiction:

There are some people who have spoken out passionately about giving
me this medal . . . . [but] I salute the National Book Foundation Board,
who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as
a rich hack. For far too long the so-called popular writers of this coun-
try and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with ani-
mosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always
been . . . . But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in
the future things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. Bridges
can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called
literary fiction.
(King 2003:

King’s suggestion that the very different fields of popular fiction and literary
fiction can come to some sort of mutual recognition or reconciliation gives
us an open-hearted, utopian possibility – but as he seems to realize, it is also
unlikely to happen. He goes on to wonder if the National Book Foundation
is ‘tokenistic’ regarding popular fiction, which remains marginal to its inter-
ests. In his speech, he invokes Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, Norah
Lofts (who wrote historical romances) Peter Straub, the thriller writer Greg
Iles, and the violent-horror novelist ‘Jack Ketchum’ (Dallas William Mayr),
amongst others, and he suggests, correctly enough, that many of these will
necessarily lie outside of the Foundation’s field of vision as it goes about
identifying its award-worthy, mostly literary writers. ‘This is not a criticism’,
he says, ‘it’s just me pointing out a blind spot in the winnowing process, and
in the very act of reading the fiction of one’s own culture’.
My own book has wanted to turn to that ‘blind spot in the winnowing
process’ to give it visibility and definition, capturing as much of its sheer scale
and diversity as I can in the process. Stephen King’s speech generated a little
anxiety amongst its audience, and in her own acceptance speech for the 2003
National Book Award for fiction, literary author Shirley Hazzard ventured
162 Conclusion
a response. Her comment again reveals differences in the way the fields of
popular fiction and literary fiction operate in and imagine the world:
I want to say in response to Stephen King that I do not – as I think he
a little bit seems to do – I don’t regard literature (which he spoke of
perhaps in a slightly pejorative way) I don’t regard the novel, poetry,
language as written, I don’t regard it as a competition.
(Hazzard 2003:

These gently awkward and strangely tentative remarks are quite unnec-
essarily defensive, since King was not attacking Literature at all – merely
speaking up on behalf of popular fiction, as I have done. We might ungen-
erously note that they would seem to disavow the very process that enabled
Hazzard to win her award (‘I don’t regard it as a competition’). But it is
more likely that she simply means to suggest that Literature is not, or should
not be, a competitive activity: it should not compete with popular fiction,
and it should not be competitive per se. Of course, Literature operates in a
marketplace like any other form of cultural production, and literary writers
know only too well that they do and must routinely compete with their peers
(for ‘symbolic capital’, etc.). But the disavowal may need to be made all the
same, as if Literature must somehow be situated ‘above’ marketplace
imperatives almost in spite of itself. In the overcrowded, hyperactive field of
popular fiction, however, such a disavowal would be utterly out of place and
probably quite incomprehensible. To recall the words of Sir Walter Scott
again, popular fiction is a form of ‘manufacture’, a commercial/industrial
activity just as much as a literary/cultural one. The overt recognition that
these things are inseparable helps to lend the field of popular fiction its
distinction and provides the basis for its critical and conceptual analysis.

1 See, for example, Xan Brooks’s review in the Guardian of Pete Dexter’s more
recent novel, Train (2004):

The dust jacket for Dexter’s sixth novel comes emblazoned with palm trees and
sports a fulsome cover quote from Scott Turow. This might lead buyers to
expect some fast-paced rush of genre entertainment, a high-concept thriller
full of glamour and amour, in which hard-boiled goodness triumphs over
slippery evil. If so, they are likely to be disappointed. Train inhabits the wilder
end of the noir spectrum. Its narrative is murky and ambiguous; its characters
turbulent and often unreadable. The language, too, proves more formally
inventive than your usual hard-bitten gumshoe prose.
(Brooks 2004:

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Bradford, Barbara Taylor (1979), A Woman of Substance, New York: Doubleday.
Brown, Dan (2003), The Da Vinci Code, London and New York: Bantam Press.
Burdett, John (2003), Bangkok 8, London and New York: Bantam Press.
Chandler, Raymond (2002), The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; The High Window, intro.
Diane Johnson, New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.
Collins, Jackie (1984), The Stud, London: Pan.
Crichton, Michael (1991), Jurassic Park, London: Arrow.
Crichton, Michael (2002), Prey, Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers.
Goodkind, Terry (2001), The Pillars of Creation, London: Gollancz.
Grisham, John (1991), The Firm, London: Arrow Books.
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d’Abo, Maryam 32 Barry, John 32

Abramowitz, Rachel 122 Barthes, Roland 119
Adams, Douglas 68, 69 Bates, Harry 67
adaptation 28–9, 31–2, 68, 104, 105, Baudrillard, Jean 153–4
114, 118–24, 134, 140 Baxter, Stephen 30
Adorno, Theodor W. 1, 15 Bayley, John 19
adventure novels 15, 18, 42, 66 Beach, Sylvia 21
Allen, Richard 89 Bear, Greg 70, 72
Althusser, Louis 55 Bellow, Saul 11, 14, 18, 84, 159, 160
Amazing Stories 81–2, 83, 92–3 Benford, Gregory 70, 72 6, 76 Benjamin, Walter 119, 151
American Western Magazine 80, 81, 86 Bennett, Tony 31
Amis, Martin 11, 14, 19, 84, 85, Benson, Raymond 32
116–17 Bentley, E.C. 57
Anderson, Kevin J. 69 Bester, Alfred 98
Anderson, Poul 70, 72 bin Laden, Osama 145–7, 151,
Andrews, Val 30 153, 156
Anger, Kenneth 130–1 Black Mask 57–8, 83, 94
anti-romance fiction 129–41 Blair, Tony 154
Armchair Detective, The 81, 93 Blake, Andrew 34–5
Asimov, Isaac 40, 67, 69–70, 72 Blish, James 67, 68, 69, 70
Astounding 67, 98 Bloch, Robert 83, 85
Atwood, Margaret 33 Bloom, Clive 2–5, 27
Auden, W.H. 59 Bloom, Harold 19, 77, 160–1
Auel, Jean 4, 104 Bond, James 5, 6, 27, 29, 31–3, 42,
Austen, Jane 11, 46, 48, 159 78, 126, 157n
awards 98–100, 159–62 6
Bonnycastle, Richard 43
Bacon-Smith, Camille 69 bookshops 45, 75, 76–80, 91
Baldwin, James 25 Boon, Charles 43
Balogh, Mary 48–9 de Botton, Alain 37–8, 39n
Banks, Iain M. 69 Bourdieu, Pierre 12–13, 19, 20,
Barker, Clive 40 90–1, 119 76–7 Bradbury, Ray 71, 83, 159
Barrett, Michelle 130 Bradford, Barbara Taylor 51, 63
Barrie, J.M. 30 Brenchley, Chaz 89–90
174 Index
Brett, Jeremy 30 Cornwell, Patricia 16
Broccoli, Albert ‘Cubby’ R. 31–2 Corris, Peter 58
Broderick, Damien 68, 161 Crais, Robert 4, 53, 58
Brooks, Terry 17 Cramer, Kathryn 69
Brooks, Xan 162n Crichton, Michael 7, 28, 29, 37, 43,
Brown, Charles N. 95 69, 103, 111–17
Brown, Dan 53–4, 62, 104, 159 Crime and Detective Stories 87–8, 92
Burdett, John 53, 62 crime fiction 3, 4, 16, 23, 28–9, 30, 40,
Burke, James Lee 4, 58 42, 52–63, 64, 67, 78, 81, 87–90, 99,
Burns, Robert 28 158; see also hardboiled crime fiction,
Burroughs, Edgar Rice 58 legal thrillers, mysteries, spy fiction,
Bush, George W. 143–4, 147, 154 suspense fiction, thrillers
Butler, Gwendolyne 89, 91, 92 Crime Time 89
Crime Writers Association of Great
Cage, Nicholas 12 Britain 6
Cameron, James 33 Cruise, Tom 28, 104, 118, 121–4
camp 133–6, 140, 141 Cussler, Clive 53
Campbell, Jr, John 67 cyberpunk 73
Campbell, Naomi 139
Card, Orson Scott 3, 65 Dann, Jack 98
Carr, John Dickson 88 Davis, Mike 142–3, 153
Carter, Stephen L. 108 Day-Lewis, Cecil 60
Cartland , Barbara 46 Deaver, Jeffrey 53, 61–2, 63
celebrity 27, 28, 29, 138–41; novel Delany, Samuel L. 70
138, 139–41 DeLillo, Don 11, 24–5, 159, 160
Chance, Jane 151 Denning, Michael 59, 100n
Chandler, Raymond 54, 58–9 DePalma, Brian 28
Chapman, James 31 Dery, Mark 143
Chase, James Hadley 62, 89 Dexter, Pete 159, 162n
Cheever, John 25 Dibdin, Michael 30
Chesterton, G.K. 57 Dick, Philip K. 68, 73, 145
Childers, Erskine 61 Dickens, Charles 56, 159
Christie, Agatha 15, 16, 24, 36, 40, dinosaur novels 113–17
55, 57, 59 Disney, Walt 114
Clancy, Tom 42, 111 Donaldson, Stephen 3
Clareson, Thomas D. 94 Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan 29–30,
Clark, Mary Higgins 161 43, 55, 56, 57, 67, 78, 113, 126
Clarke, Arthur C. 72, 98 Drew, Nancy 108
Coben, Harlan 53 Drood Review of Mystery, The 87
Collier’s 56–7 Dumas, Alexander 21
Collins, Jackie 7, 129–41, 158 Dunant, Sarah 62
Collins, Joan 133, 134, 135, 139–40 Dunnett, Dorothy 4
Collins, Wilkie 56 dystopian SF 71
commerce and marketing 29, 32,
33–5, 79, 103, 108–9, 113, 116, Eagleton, Terry 136–7, 140–1
118, 127, 158, 162 Eliot, T.S. 99
Connelly, Michael 4, 53, 54, 55 ‘Ellery Queen’ 3, 57, 59
Cookson, Catherine 16, 24, 27, 28, 29 Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine 87, 92
Corelli, Marie 15, 27–8, 159 Elliot, George 11
Cork, John 32 Ellroy, James 53, 89
Index 175
entertainment 1, 28, 33, 34, 35, 51–2, Goodkind, Terry 157n
66, 67–8, 109–10, 113–17, 129–41, Gores, Joe 54
142, 155, 158 Gorman, Ed 92, 98
epic fantasy 143, 148, 150–1, 152, Gould, Nat 15
154–6, 157n Grafton, Sue 63
Epstein, Jason 142 Gray, Paul 139
Evanovich, Janet 74 Greene, Graham 56, 61, 97
evil 145, 152, 154–6 Greene, Hugh 56
Extrapolation 94 Greer, Germaine 23, 44, 130
Grey, Zane 16
Falk, Kathryn 86 Griffiths, D.W. 27
fanfiction 127–8 Grisham, John 7, 16, 27, 28, 29, 76,
fan organizations 80–3, 126–7 103–11, 112, 115, 116, 159, 162
fantasy 3, 4, 5, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 29, Gubar, Susan 130
38, 69, 76, 89, 97, 99, 142–57; Gupta, Suman 33, 36
see also epic fantasy
Farmer, Philip José 30 Hackman, Gene 28
Faulkner, William 11, 159 Haggard, H. Rider 42
Feder, Sue 88 Hamilton, Steve 63
feminism 44, 45, 51–2, 71, 130, 135, Hammett, Dashiell 54, 57–8
138, 140 Hand, Elizabeth 97
Fenier, Mariam Darce 50 Hansen, James 89
Flaubert, Gustave 39n, 59 hardboiled crime fiction 58–9
Fleming, Ian 5, 6, 27, 31–3, 42, 59, Harper, Clay 146
78, 126, 156–7n Harrison, M. John 97
Fleming, Victor 49 Hartwell, David G. 69
Fogarty, Taylor 80 Hazzard, Shirley 159, 161–2
Forester, C.S. 42 Heath, Stephen 40
Forsyth, Frederick 42 Heinlein, Robert A. 65, 67, 72, 98
Foster, Hal 152 Heller, Joseph 3
Foucault, Michel 151 Herbert, Brian 69
Foundation 94–5 Herbert, Frank 3, 67, 69, 98
Fox, Joan M. 87 Heyer, Georgette 46–7, 48
Franzen, Jonathan 11, 25–7, 159 Hiaasen, Carl 53
Freud, Sigmund 150 Highsmith, Patricia 60
Friedman, Kinky 30 Hill, Reginald 16, 29
Hiro, Dilip 151
Gardner, Erle Stanley 16, 94 historical popular fiction 4, 38
Gardner, John 32 Historical romance 49, 161; see also
Geffen, David 120 Regency romance, Restoration
genre 1–3, 40–74, 80–100 romance
Genreflecting 5 Hitchens, Christopher 151
George, Elizabeth 3, 17 Holland, Steve 89–90
Gernsback, Hugo 67, 81–2, 92 Hollywood 109–10, 129–33, 137
Gibson, William 73 Holmes, Sherlock 29–31, 38, 55, 56,
Gilbert, Sandra M. 130 57, 67, 78, 88, 93, 126
Gillespie, Angus Kress 152 ‘Holt, Victoria’ 49
Gillings, Walter H. 82 Horkheimer, Max 1, 15
Glover, David 60–1 Hornig, Charles D. 82
Godden, Ian H. 88 Hornung, E.W. 89
176 Index
horror 152; fiction 4, 42, 83–6, 99, Krantz, Judith 136, 137
158, 161, see also splatterpunk, Kress, Nancy 64, 69, 73–4
vampire fiction Krofchok, Bryan 6
Howard, John 154 Kubrick, Stanely 28
Hugo Awards 98
Huntington, Samuel 155 Lachman, Marvin 88
Hussein, Saddam 144 L’Amour, Louis 16, 40
Huxley, Aldous 71 Lang, Berel 93
Huyssen, Andreas 38n, 39n Laurens, Stephanie 47–8, 49, 159
Lawrence, D.H. 3, 11, 159
ideology 34, 35, 36, 43, 45, 72, 74, 75, Leavis, F.R. 19
100n, 114 Le Carré, John 42, 59
Iles, Greg 161 legal thrillers 16, 22, 23, 62, 104–11
industry 15, 28, 29, 31, 35, 50–1, 95, Le Guin, Ursula 71
104–5, 110, 127, 158, 162 Lehane, Dennis 4, 54
Irons, Jeremy 120 Lennon, John 30
Irving, John 33 Lentricchia, Frank 19
Leonard, John 160
Jackson, Peter 7, 142, 145–6, 149 Lewis, Bernard 155
Jacquard, Roland 145 Lewis, C.S. 145
Jakubowski, Maxim 78 Libertarian SF 71–2, 73
James, Henry 11, 17–20, 26, 35, 41, Libeskind, Daniel 152–3
120, 136, 159 libraries 5, 43, 67, 78
James, P.D. 63 Lindsey, Johanna 3, 53
Jameson, Fredric 28, 71, 95, 151 literary fiction (Literature) 1, 3, 5,
Jeter, K.W. 68 11–39, 40–3, 67, 74n, 77, 81, 84–5,
John, Elton 128 89, 91–2, 94, 95, 98, 100n, 110, 119,
Johnson, E. Richard 88 124, 134, 136, 138, 141n, 158–62
Jong, Erica 129 Locus 2, 6, 95–6
Jonze, Spike 12 Lofts, Norah 161
Jordan, Neil 118, 120–1, 128 Lovecraft, H.P. 83
Jordan, Robert 16, 76, 150 Lovell, Terry 38n
Joyce, James 11, 20–3, 25, 57, 78, Ludlum, Robert 60
81, 159 Lury, Celia 123
Juté, Andre 61 Lytton, Sir Edward G.D. Bulwer 20

Kaf ka, Franz 41, 77 McAleer, Joseph 43, 67

Kampmark, Binoy 145 McAllister, Nichola 160
Kaufman, Charlie 12, 15 McCracken, Scott 100n
Kellerman, Jonathan 4, 24 McCullough, Colleen 50
Kepel, Gilles 155 McDevitt, Jack 96
‘Ketchum, Jack’ 161 Macdonald, Ross 54
King, Bruce 123 McGoldrick, May 87
King, Laurie R. 30 McGuigan, Cathleen 153
King, Stephen 15, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, McInerney, Jay 33
69, 111, 153, 159–62 McIntyre, Pam 36
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Mr 32 McKee, Robert 12, 24
Klein, Naomi 148 MacLeod, Ken 72
Knight, Stephen 42, 54, 55, 56, 57, McNab, Claire 62
58, 62, 100n Madle, Robert A. 82
Index 177
magazines and journals 57, 67, 75, 80, Oppenheim, E.P. 61
81–97, 122 Orczy, Baroness 28
Malkovich, John 121 Orlean, Susan 12
Manfield, Irving 132 Orwell, George 62, 71, 72, 89, 156n
Marcus, Steven 138 Oxford American, The 109
Marshall, Ray 28
Martini, Steven 105, 108 Palmer, Jerry 50, 53, 55
Massey, Sujata 63 Paretsky, Sara 58, 89
Masters, Quentin 133, 140 Parker, Robert B. 54, 55
Mathews, Richard 150 Patterson, James 88
media tie-ins 68, 69, 104, 111–12, 128 Paulin, Tom 23
Mehta, Sonny 112 Penzler, Otto 79
Melville, Herman 70, 121, 142 Pfeiffer, Lee 32
Mencken, H.L. 57 Philips, Julia 120
Michener, James 4 Phillips, Louis 93–4
de Mille, Nelson 53 Phillips, Mike 58
Miller, Arthur 160 Pitt, Brad 118
Miller, J. Hillis 37–8 Poe, Edgar Allan 55, 56, 84–5, 160
Millet, Kate 130 Pohl, Frederik 92–3
Mills, Gerald 43 Pollack, Sydney 104
Mitchell, Margaret 49, 136 pornography 129, 137–8, 140
Mitchell, W.J.T. 115 Porter, Dennis 59
modernism 20–3, 39, 42, 152 Potter, Harry 5, 29, 33–6, 38, 116
Mohan, Kim 92 Pound, Ezra 120
Moorcock, Michael 30 Pournelle, Jerry 72
Morrison, Blake 110 Pratchett, Terry 16, 29, 31
Morrison, Toni 11, 74n, 159 Proulx, E. Annie 159
Moskowitz, Sam 81–2, 94 Proust, Marcel 37, 39n
Murder One 78–9 publishers 5, 16, 21, 22, 24, 26,
Muschamp, Herbert 153 27, 33, 34, 43–4, 46, 49–50,
mysteries 57, 59, 77, 81, 87 51, 52, 56, 59, 61, 66–9, 72,
Mysterious Bookshop, The 79 76, 83, 86, 104, 105, 108, 111,
Mystery Readers International 79, 81 139, 146
Mystery Scene 92 6, 24, 51, 104, 146
Mystery Writers of America 54 Pullman, Philip 151, 154

Nabokov, Vladimir 11 Radcliffe, Ann 152

Naslund, Sena Jeter 30 Radway, Janice 44–5, 52
Nathan, George Jean 57 Rainey, Lawrence 21
Nebula Awards 98 Rand, Ayn 157n
Nelson, Victoria 40–1, 44, 77 Rankin, Ian 16, 23, 29, 53
New York Review of Science Fiction 95 Rathbone, Basil 30
Niven, Larry 69, 72 reading 35–8, 41, 44–5, 50–2, 75, 80,
Nix, Shane 68 86–90, 117; see also fanfiction, fan
Norman, Monty 32 organizations
Reagan, Ronald 72
O’Brian, Patrick 42 Reeve, Simon 155
O’Connor, Flannery 11 Regency romance 4, 46–9, 50
O’Hara, Gerry 133 Rendell, Ruth 15, 29, 60
Ondaatje, Michael 11, 33, 141n, 159 Restoration romance 46
178 Index
Reynolds, Alastair 96 sex-and-shopping novels 129–41; see
Rice, Anne 7, 15, 23, 118–28, 159 also anti-romance fiction
Rice, Stan 128 SF Site 6
Roberts, Adam 65 Shakespeare, William 28, 91
Roberts, Julia 28 Sheffield, Charles 64
Roberts, Nora 3, 51, 104 Sheldon, Sidney 120
Roberts, Yvonne 52 Shelley, Mary 28
Robertson, Pamela 135, 137 Sherlockian.Net 31
Robinson, Edward G. 121 Shippey, Tom 22, 151
Robinson, Kim Stanley 73 Simak, Clifford D. 99
Rohmer, Sax 57 Simenon, Georges 16
Rojek, Chris 140 Simmons, Dan 3
romance fiction 4, 5, 16, 38, 42, Smith, David Alan 111
43–53, 64, 65, 76, 79–80, 86–7, 125, Smith, Edward E. ‘Doc’ 96
129; see also Historical romance, Smith, Jeff 32
Regency romance, Restoration Smith, Joan 60
romance Smith, L. Neil 72
Romance Writers of America 6, 47, 51, Sontag, Susan 133–4, 159
79–80 space opera 69–71
Romantic Times 2, 51, 86–7, 90, 99 ‘Spengler’ 148
Rose, Jacquline 150 Spengler, Oswald 148
Rosenberg, Betty 5 Spielberg, Steven 28, 111, 114, 115,
Ross, Andrew 138 116, 160
Roth, Philip 159, 160 Spillane, Mickey 120
Rowling, J.K. 29, 33–5, 160 Spinrad, Norman 68–9
Roy, Arundhati 11, 159 splatterpunk 85
Rudolph, Janet A. 81 spy fiction 42, 59, 61
Rushdie, Salman 3, 11 Stableford, Brian 66
Russ, Joanna 71 Stacy, Carol 86
Stagnaro, Carlo 146–7
Sabatini, Rafael 21 Stapledon, Olaf 70, 71, 72
Said, Edward 19, 155 Star Trek 68, 127
Saltzman, Harry 31–2 Star Wars 68, 69
Salvatore, R.A. 68 Steel, Danielle 50, 111, 160
Sanz, José Luis 113 Stein, Lorin 108
Sayers, Dorothy L. 57, 59, 89–90 Stephenson, Neal 65, 73
Schow, David J. 85 Sterling, Bruce 73
Sciascia, Leonardo 60 Stevenson, R.L. 16, 18–19, 21, 24, 35,
science fiction 3, 4, 42, 64–74, 81–3, 66, 70, 116
92–9; see also cyberpunk, dystopian Stoker, Bram 77
SF, Libertarian SF, scientific Stone, Oliver 109
romance, space opera, utopian SF Stone, Robert 97
Science Fiction Studies 94–5 Stout, Rex 93
scientific romance 66 Strand, The 30, 56, 67, 88
Scott, Ridley 58, 68 Straub, Peter 160, 161
Scott, Sir Walter 7n, 15, 16, 21, Sturgeon, Theodore 98, 99
27, 162 subgenres 45, 46, 52, 57, 59, 60–3,
Scruton, Roger 154–5 74, 78
Seed, David 42 Susann, Jacqueline 132–3, 134, 136,
139, 159
Index 179
suspense fiction 60 Wade, Henry 88
Sutherland, John 2–5, 16, 17, 28, 44, Wagner, Richard 148
69, 71, 132, 141n Wallace, Edgar 61, 62
Suvin, Darko 71, 94 Waugh, Evelyn 59
Sykora, William S. 82 Weber, Max 150
Symons, Julian 42, 60, 88 Weird Tales 83–6, 89
Wells, H.G. 15, 30, 65–6, 71, 72, 77,
Taupin, Bernie 128 142–3
Taussig, Michael 149, 151, 152 westerns 16, 40, 42, 64, 80–1
techno-thrillers 112 White, Michael 148–9, 156
terrorism 142–57 Widdowson, Peter 74n
Thorne, Matt 160 Wilde, Oscar 134
thrillers 42, 59, 60–2, 105, 112, 113, Williams, Raymond 71
117, 161; see also legal thrillers, Williams, Sean 68
techno-thrillers Williams, Tad 3
Todorov, Tzvetan 156n Wilson, Colin 156
Tolkien, Christopher 150 Winfrey, Oprah 26–7, 159
Tolkien, J.R.R. 7, 21, 22, 76, 82, Winsor, Kathleen 3, 46
142–57, 159 Winterson, Jeanette 140
Townsend, Stuart 128 Wolf, Naomi 135–6, 137
Trollope, Joanne 33 Wolfe, Gary K. 96
Trotter, David 61 Wolff, Tobias 11
Trump, Ivana 136, 139 Wollen, Peter 115, 116
Turner, E.S. 27 Wollheim, Donald A. 82
Turner, Jenny 156 Wonder Stories 82
Turow, Scott 22–3, 25, 33, 35, 36, Wood, James 19
108, 162n Woolf, Virginia 120
Woollacott, Janet 31
Universal Exports 32 work 15, 17, 103, 105–11, 112, 132
Updike, John 159, 160 World Fantasy Award 99
utopian SF 71, 73 Worpole, Ken 44
Worrall, Dave 32
vampire fiction 118–28 Wright, John C. 70, 71
‘Van Dine, S.S.’ 57, 59
Verhoeven, Paul 69 Yardley, Jonathan 26
Verne, Jules 66, 72 Young, Louisa 138
Vidal, Gore 60 Young, Terence 31
Vidocq, Eugene Francois 55
‘Vine, Barbara’ 15, 60; see also Zaleski, Jeff 104
Rendell, Ruth Zamyatin, Yevgeny 71
Vinge, Vernor 72 Zizek, Slavoj 153