Literary Fiction and the Genres of Genre Fiction

By now, it has become a critical commonplace to remark on the boom in literary fiction that incorporates various kinds of genre fiction. In fact, even pointing out what a cliché it is to observe this trend has become a cliché.1 All of which suggests that I might be either late to the party or showing up at just the right time with some needed clarity and a few bags of ice. Let me quickly invoke some of the usual suspects of this trend Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jennifer Egan refer to particular titles, other examples, and the malleability of this list in a footnote, and get to the heart of the matter.2  Despite the widespread agreement that something is going on here, I will contend that literary scholars have not explained it adequately, and have even gotten it wrong frequently. In particular, they misstate the case when they assert that the "genre turn" indicates "the changing status of genre fiction" or a "revaluation of the popular."3 Such scholars tend to see in this phenomenon a continuation of a postmodernist project that mixes high and low forms but neglect the way these novelists pursue high cultural prestige and remain committed to an influential version of modernist political aesthetics that valorizes formal innovation and seeks to distance itself from the marketplace.4 In fact, when one looks closely at the novels in question, a notable pattern resolves into view: many of them work with popular genres and yet portray popular culture as formulaic and worry about its effects on a society that greedily consumes it. How are we to understand this phenomenon in light of such tensions the fact that Whitehead's Zone One (2011), to take one of my central examples, revels in its play with a popular genre, the zombie novel, but suggests, in a manner reminiscent of some of the most strident critiques of the culture industry, that popular films and television shows are what turn people into brainless, consumerist zombies in the first place?

The answer, I believe, lies in the difference between "genre" and "genre fiction." I understand "genre" as an existing literary framework or recipe that writers may adapt and vary according to their needs, and "genre fiction" as a subfield of literary production that is largely synonymous with "popular fiction," an arena composed of particular institutions of publishing, distribution, and reception, in which genre functions as a fundamental organizing principle, and which is often distinguished from the subfield of "serious" or "literary fiction."5 In this essay, I contend that esteemed writers of contemporary literary fiction use the frameworks of genres that have flourished in popular culture, but want to maintain their distance from the subfield of genre fiction. These novelists embrace the genres of genre fiction, not genre fiction as such. They avail themselves of the generative capacity and plasticity of genre frameworks such as SF, fantasy, detective, and zombie novels. But these writers also take pains to mark their literariness by deploying recognizable literary techniques and by differentiating themselves from, often by denigrating, the lion's share of popular culture's voluminous output. By clarifying the relation between genre, genre fiction, and literary fiction, and analyzing the varied uses to which today's literary writers have put popular genres, this essay offers to explain a highly visible phenomenon in contemporary fiction, elucidating the functional appeal of genre for such writers, as well as their efforts to maintain the distinctiveness and distinction of the literary, which they perceive to be under threat.

The phenomenon in question can be traced to a range of sometimes conflicting factors, including literary novelists' attempts to juggle the tasks of preserving a sphere of literary distinction while making their work more fun, plot-driven, and accessible to provide "ripping good yarns," in the words of Chabon.6 Insofar as this phenomenon constitutes a "genre turn" in contemporary literary fiction, it is a turn to certain genres not a turn to genre, per se, since all literature and all speech acts draw on extant genres even if conceptions of literary art that held sway for much of the twentieth century tried to deny or repress this fact by emphasizing the uniqueness of individual works of art.7 The genres employed by literary writers today are now also the genres of popular culture, the SF, detective, fantasy, romance, western, and spy thrillers, which had been considered "subliterary" and at times even as zombie-like half-dead forms for much of the twentieth century.8 In this period, writers pursuing literary distinction had frequently sought to distance their work from such genres and the commercial channels through which they were produced even if such distance was more a matter of carefully cultivated belief than reality.9

The turn toward these genres demonstrates literary writers' recognition that the genres that flourish in popular fiction are not dead, inert, or worn-out, but as generative and malleable as any other genres.10 To think otherwise, the novels of Ishiguro, Whitehead, or Atwood, seem to say, would be to adhere to a kind of generic fallacy: the notion, familiar since Aristotle, that certain genres are inherently superior to others. The stance of such novelists, rejecting any such hierarchy of forms, is perhaps most succinctly articulated in Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), in which Rosa Saks, the girlfriend of comic-book artist Joe Kavalier and daughter of an eccentric surrealist, states simply: "No medium is inherently better than any other ... It's all in what you do with it."11 Here, Rosa refers to the medium of comics not to a genre, but an analogous assertion of equality, of not granting inherent privilege to any one aesthetic form over another, becomes visible in contemporary literary novelists' embrace of popular genres.12

But at the same time, we see that these novelists' incorporation of popular genres into literary fiction does not dismantle cultural hierarchies, as postmodernist literature has sometimes been alleged to do, but is done in such a way that seeks to maintain a realm of "high" literary distinction.13 We should notice that while Rosa's dictum is egalitarian toward all media, it leaves in play a hierarchy of outcomes: the possibility that what one does with the raw material at hand will be better or worse. While Kavalier & Clay asserts that comics is not inherently inferior to any other medium, and explores the process of experimentation through which a prodigious talent like Joe Kavalier can exploit that medium's potential, the novel also suggests that most of what gets churned out by the industrial matrix of comics publishing is rapidly produced, low quality, and highly derivative due to publishers' desire to keep overhead down and maximize profits and politically handcuffed by a corporate ownership eager to remain inoffensive.14 It would be foolish to blame the medium, Chabon suggests, but one might still find fault with the commercial landscape that produces comic books and regard most of its prolific output as inferior. The writers of literary fiction who have turned to genres like SF, fantasy, and the detective novel often express a similar attitude toward the subfield of genre fiction. The genres themselves are not the problem; rather, for these writers the wider field of popular culture is compromised aesthetically and politically by the industrial imperatives according to which it is produced.

Which is not to say that we must agree with them. Popular culture, as many literary and cultural scholars have shown, is a huge and diverse field not a monolithic one. Even the most formula-driven segments of the field are full of variations. And devoted readers and fans actively reshape and repurpose the works and genres they adore, rather than being passive consumers.15 That said, "genre fiction" and "literary fiction" remain relatively coherent and meaningfully distinct subsets of the literary field, with different value systems, institutions, and even physical formats in which books appear though they are fluid and dynamic fields that blur at their borders. (Their relations are rendered still more complex in the context of the consolidated global publishing industry, in which the same parent company controls both mass-market imprints dedicated to particular genres and venerable literary brands.) In the first section of this essay, I argue that distinguishing among "genre," "genre fiction," and "literary fiction," helps make sense of the "genre turn" in contemporary literary fiction. While genres are established but variable recipes, "genre fiction" and "literary fiction" refer not to the presence or absence of certain genres, but to relational subfields of production, circulation, and reception. These subfields are, as Pierre Bourdieu emphasizes, always fluctuating, their borders sites of contestation over what counts as "legitimate" literary art.16 Though we may expect to find certain formal features in each category, "literary fiction" and "genre fiction" are not primarily formally delimited designations, but rather are determined institutionally: produced by particular imprints, in certain formats, and received by agents, readerships, and reviewers that are oriented toward each subfield. For example, when Samuel Delany's Dhalgren (1975), initially published by Bantam Books, appears decades later in a new Vintage edition, complete with blurbs comparing Delany to Joyce, Gass, and Nabokov, the new edition signifies a shift in the novel's field from genre fiction to literary fiction, but clearly its formal properties have stayed the same.17 Each subfield is organized around values, hierarchies, and forms of recognition that are particular to it; while genre fiction may be regarded as low quality from within the literary subfield, fans of genre fiction often find literary fiction to be snobbish and boring.


Because these subfields possess their own values and logics, they tend to generate a certain degree of formal regularity. As Chabon points out in Kavalier & Clay, institutional and marketplace dynamics exert formal pressures on the field of genre fiction, as mass production methods and a desire to imitate previous successes can lead to the development of conventional forms. But the formal features one finds in each subfield are also subject to change. Many recent commentators have, for example, noted the increasing prevalence of historical novels, among prizewinning works of literary fiction.18 Literary institutions, then, do not adhere to a fixed set of formal or thematic criteria; the only consistent requirement they have is quality.19 The literary writers who have been employing the genres that have thrived in popular fiction similarly reveal a developing recognition of the artistic capacity of these genres. But at the same time, as we see a growing appreciation for the ways the historical or zombie novel can be deployed in the right hands, and hence a shift in the genres and associated formal features that we are likely to find in the subfield of literary fiction, that subfield maintains some comparatively durable values, including poetic or lyrical language often associated with the stylistic signature of the individual author innovation in narrative structure, and incisive psychological, philosophical, or sociopolitical work.20 So, for example, a New York Times Sunday Book Review write-up of Zone One acknowledges Whitehead's use of familiar conventions from the zombie novel genre ("People are bitten, infected, transformed"), but maintains that since "he's a literary writer" he is "hard-wired or self-schooled to avoid the clichéd, the formulaic, the rote ... So in the action sequences we get essayistic asides and languid distentions, stray insights, surprising correspondences, ambivalence, paradox. We get, in short, an attempt to take the psychology of the premise seriously." The review also notes the novel's satirical and "existentially hard-line" agendas; it is a "story of lost love" for America's "cultural protocols" and for "humanity's love of ritual, its dependence on ways of imposing meaning on the void."21 This review is typical in claiming that Whitehead's literariness (which it sees as both ingrained, "hard-wired," and a product of "self-schooling"; one might wonder if just plain "schooling" also plays a role) inheres in his innovative use of language and form, and the priority of slow-paced thematic patterns and meditative insights over dramatic action in his writing.22 The reception and marketing of novels in which literary writers utilize popular genres tend to emphasize their "serious" or ambitious transformation of the genres they appropriate, their "genre bending" ability, rather than laud them for having produced a fine example of the genre.23 As formal experimentation, stylish writing that avoids cliché, and social acumen are prized in the subfield of literary fiction, writers who want to adopt popular genres but gain literary prestige can strategically deploy these features, along with other literary markers such as a high degree of allusiveness, a thematizing of readers and reading, and other self-reflexive attempts to distance "serious" literary production from commerce.24

That said, texts published in the subfield of genre fiction can possess many of the features we conventionally identify as "literary" and can lay claim to transformation rather than rote repetition of the frameworks they inherit. Undoubtedly, we could name linguistically rich and socially perspicacious works published by Tor, and likewise gripping, fast-paced plots that have won the National Book Award. If works published in different subfields often share many qualities, this fact suggests the way the literary subfield's distinction is a matter of belief that is concretized in institutions. As with Whitehead's purportedly "hard-wired" avoidance of cliché, these institutions rely on an ideology that emphasizes literary writers' innovation, and minimizes their reliance on previous works, in opposition to an allegedly formulaic genre fiction, and asserts that their relative autonomy from the market renders their work fundamentally distinct and categorically superior. This is why several of the novels I analyze here depict popular culture in pejorative terms; they tout their own literary bonafides by critiquing and asserting their distance from the popular, and thus also reinforcing a belief in the distinctiveness of the literary.

In the second part of the essay, I elucidate the ways in which esteemed literary writers who have embraced popular genres demonstrate their adaptability to a variety of aesthetic and political projects. Taking as my central examples Whitehead's Zone One and Emily St. John Mandel's post-pandemic chronicle Station Eleven (2014), I show how these writers adapt the genre of the post-apocalyptic novel in disparate ways and for widely divergent ends: Whitehead to critique the inhumanity of modern life and the spurious individuality of subjects living in the consumer culture of global capitalism, and Mandel to pay homage to the underappreciated miracles of technology and the resilience of human goodness through the bleakest of circumstances. At the same time, both novels deploy strategies to establish their literariness and make distinctions between what they see as legitimate art and banal, repetitive commercial production. Station Eleven marks its literariness with its use of Shakespeare as a central allusion and structuring device, and by valorizing the handmade graphic novel written and illustrated by an artist who has no interest in selling her work. Zone One asserts its difference from the hordes of zombie novels out there implicitly, with its elevated diction and its critique of the zombifying effects of popular culture. Focusing on these novels but detecting similar strategies in books by Atwood, Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Viet Than Nguyen, and Gary Shteyngart, I show how literary writers adopt and adapt genre fiction genres and simultaneously reassert distinctions between high and low literature, even if these distinctions are made along slightly shifted lines.

This essay seeks to demonstrate that we can read within the novels of the literary writers who adopt popular genres their desire to preserve distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction. When writers who work in the field of genre fiction do gain recognition from institutions in the literary field (literary prize committees, publishing houses, scholarly editions), these writers are often materially "extracted," not out of their genres, but out of the subfield of genre fiction as when the Library of America publishes the collected works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Dashiell Hammett, and H.P. Lovecraft.25 Such instances of consecration register a waning of prejudice against the genres of SF or the detective novel, acknowledgement within the literary subfield that they can be used to produce important works of literature. But these instances don't eliminate the presence of a meaningfully distinct subfield of genre fiction or of cultural hierarchies. (The Library of America is nothing but an effort to register hierarchy.) Thus we see an increasing appreciation of the capacity of great literary works to be created using popular genres, at the same time as hierarchies of value are produced and refined.26

Kazuo Ishiguro's comments about his Arthurian fantasy The Buried Giant (2015) and the forceful response they elicited from Le Guin loom as perhaps the most highly visible evidence for my contention that writers of literary fiction utilize the genres of genre fiction while asserting their difference from genre fiction though I will show that their novels frequently betray this intention as well. In an interview with Alexandra Alter of the New York Times, Ishiguro worried that readers might "be prejudiced against the surface elements" of The Buried Giant  presumably its knights, dragons, ogres, and pixies. "Are they going to say this is fantasy?" he wondered.27 In a blog post, Le Guin retorted: "Well, yes, they probably will. Why not? It appears that the author takes the word for an insult. To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice, that I had to write this piece in response."28 But rather than demonstrating prejudice against fantasy, Ishiguro seems to have conflated, and worried that his readers would conflate, genre with genre fiction, fantasy with lowbrow entertainment. His comments reveal his fear of scaring off a literary readership that he thinks of as his primary audience. Le Guin rightly accuses Ishiguro of being afraid to "pollute his authorial gravitas" of being concerned to maintain his status as an esteemed literary writer.29 In the same blog post, she contends that "No writer can successfully use the 'surface elements' of a literary genre far less its profound capacities for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it." (One might wonder if Le Guin underestimates the capacity of artists to loath themselves and still produce good work. In Lethem's Fortress of Solitude [2003], the protagonist's father paints cover art for SF paperbacks, and his self-loathing at producing this commercial art does not prevent his garnering a Hugo Award.) But while it is clear that Le Guin does not think "fantasy writer" to be a pejorative label, and that she thinks, and her oeuvre abundantly demonstrates, that genres like fantasy have "profound capacities" for "serious" writing, she too acknowledges that much of the work that utilizes the fantasy genre is formulaic, commercial, and low quality in other words: genre fiction. The "surface elements" of fantasy, she writes, "which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d'Arthur, and Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork."30 If Ishiguro "feared identification," it was with the imitative "commercial hackwork," not with the fantasy genre as a whole, and clearly not with its most renowned practitioners. Writers like Ishiguro have embraced the genres of genre fiction for their "profound capacities," recognizing that such genres can also be varied endlessly. At the same time, these writers attempt to differentiate their work from the great majority of popular production.

Genre, Genre Fiction, Literary Fiction        

Part of the consternation surrounding literary writers' appropriation of popular genres stems from the confusing terminology I have already referred to from the fact that we use the same word to refer to preexisting frameworks and recognizable formulae, to which all texts and speech acts have recourse, and to a particular subset of the cultural field and marketplace that has been viewed, historically, in pejorative terms.31 As this huge swath of popular literary production has long been perceived to be over-reliant on such formulae and deeply embedded in commerce, it has stood at odds with a prevalent ideology of art that prizes originality and relative autonomy from the market. But this subfield of production, which we refer to as "genre fiction" or "popular fiction" should not be confused with "genre," which is omnipresent across all echelons of literary and cultural production.

Literary fiction has always worked with existing genres, because all texts use genres.32 The dominant ideology of literary modernism, however, which still exerts considerable force, has worked to obscure this fact. Central to this ideology is a commitment to "technical revision" and a "resistance to mass culture on the part of professional or cultural elites."33 Locating a literary work's value in its novelty, the degree its techniques departed from previous models, and its professed autonomy from mass culture, this particular modernist aesthetic ideology has worked to conceal the reliance of all texts on existing genres, and to proscribe certain ones: those that flourish in the realm of mass culture. But if one recognizes that there exist many more genres than the popular ones that have dominated the marketplace in the last century, and if one understands genre, as do many of today's scholars of rhetoric and literature, not as a rigid category that texts "belong to" or a set of rules that one must abide by, but as a flexible set of techniques that can be adapted according to the needs of its users, one sees that genre is nothing new in the field of prestigious literature.

Today's genre theorists tend to follow the example of those like Alistair Fowler and Thomas Pavel, who stress that genres are variable models for literary and rhetorical practice that differ in their features and status over time. Paul Kincaid, for example, contends that scholars' perennial difficulty defining and determining an ur-text for science fiction stems from the fact that genre functions as a variable, constantly evolving pattern, not a rigid model or set of features:

Once we have this identifiable pattern ... some people will work strictly within the pattern, others will deliberately avoid the pattern, still others will occupy a vague hinterland part in and part out of the pattern.... Yet none of them, even those working strictly within its boundaries, will replicate the pattern precisely in every instance.... The pattern, the genre, is hence in a constant state of flux.34

In a similar fashion, Pavel argues that viewing genre "as a set of good recipes, or good habits of the trade, oriented toward the achievement of definite artistic goals makes the instability of generic categories less puzzling and less threatening." He continues:

Genres other than strictly formal ones [like the sonnet] are unstable and flexible because the goals pursued by writers with their help vary, as do the ways of achieving these goals. The good habits ... are therefore subject to change. [Though] in some cases, [they] are unduly codified.35

Genres are patterns in flux, subject to change as writers adapt them in pursuit of varied representational ends. Fowler in turn reminds us that those with symbolic power accord genres different status at different moments the novel itself is prime evidence which suggests that at one level what we are witnessing today is the oldest game in town.36 Literary history could be described as the story of writers adopting, parodying, mixing, and transforming popular forms. The novel, in particular, from Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and Northanger Abbey to Eco's The Name of the Rose, has, since its inception, played with the popular genres that surround it. The raw material today is composed of different genres, and this recent turn reacts against a particular construction of modernist aesthetic ideology that has powerfully shaped today's cultural field, and also worked to obscure the long history of this process of generic transformation.

The use of generic "patterns" or "good recipes" happens in a particular institutional context, however.37 While genres are malleable and subject to incessant change, these contexts can exert a force that, as in the case of the field of genre fiction, produces a considerable degree of formal regularity though variations will always persist. Janice Radway's influential study of "The Institutional Matrix" of romance publishing traces the industrial imperatives that caused publishers to "concentrate on a single literary subgenre" in "the interest of establishing better control over their market."38 Using Robert Escarpit's term, Radway writes that "semi-programmed issue" helps publishers target a pre-established audience in order to combat the uniqueness and hence unpredictable sales of any given book. These publishing decisions were often made "in connection with related fan magazines that foster the creation of a generic formula or orthodoxy."39 But the institutional matrix, imperatives, target audiences, and the orthodox formula that emerge shouldn't be confused with the genre itself. A genre isn't reducible to its most formulaic, commercially driven instances, and writers working outside of the institutional matrix are free to adopt the genre at will. One may plod away, working with a genre even if one is wholly ignored or cast out by the powers that be. One can draw on the resources of genre even though one disavows one's own "membership" as when Le Guin rebuked Atwood, and later Ishiguro, for refusing the labels of "science fiction" and "fantasy."40 To take another example, Whitehead's Zone One clearly utilizes the genre of the zombie-apocalypse, but it has been largely ignored in institutions and fan communities dedicated to that genre, and warmly welcomed by those in the literary field. Zone One was lauded in the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Contemporary Literature.41 But Whitehead and his novel are completely absent from fan sites like Max Brooks's website Zombies Defined, the ZombiePedia Fan Wiki, and from the Zombie Research Society.42

"Genre fiction" and "literary fiction," insofar as they can be considered genres, are not formally constituted ones, but rather name subsets of the larger literary field and marketplace.43 They are produced by certain publishers or certain imprints of publishing conglomerates, displayed in certain sections of the bookstore, aimed at particular audiences (though these may well overlap), and generally able to access differing kinds of capital and forms of institutional recognition.44 But these subfields are shifting and permeable. Particular cases highlight their contingent character. Many of Le Guin's novels were initially published by SF publisher Ace Books, and later by the prestigious Library of America. Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007) was reviewed in the London Review of Books but won the Hugo and Nebula, and was short-listed for the Edgar, as it blends alternate history with the noir detective novel. But the fact that such instances reveal the provisional and relational nature of such fields, their internal heterogeneity and hierarchies, and the dynamic catalogue of texts produced and received in each of them, does not eliminate the relatively distinct character and set of institutions that constitute each. We still expect certain kinds of books from Tor and others from Knopf. And while we might expect to find certain formal features in these categories fast paced plot, streamlined prose, lots of dialogue, reader expectations routinely met, in genre fiction; or poetic language, depth of psychology, and social acumen in literary fiction these designations are not primarily formal.45 The values of each subfield generate norms that lead us to expect certain formal features, but we won't be terribly alarmed if we encounter a slow-paced historical romance or a densely metaphorical work of SF because genres are flexible in practice and the subfields allow for and even encourage variation. The fact that some genres are primarily constituted by target audience, and institutional and marketplace location is perhaps most visible in the case of Young Adult literature, which encompasses multiple formal genres including historical fiction like The Book Thief (2005), dystopian SF fare like The Hunger Games (2008), and teen paranormal romance like Twilight (2007). "Genre fiction," though it has sometimes been conflated with non-realistic forms while literary fiction is mistakenly identified with realism is a subfield that similarly encompasses widely divergent genres: SF and romance, non-realistic forms like fantasy but also genres that are committed to social realism like historical fiction, legal procedurals, spy thrillers, and crime novels.46

Another name for "genre fiction" is "popular fiction." Ken Gelder's Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field helps clarify that these terms are often used interchangeably because of the central role genre plays in organizing this subfield.

Popular fiction is, essentially, genre fiction. Whereas genre is less overtly important to literary fiction, the field of popular fiction simply cannot live without it, both culturally and industrially.... [P]opular fiction is not just a matter of texts-in-themselves, but of an entire apparatus of production, distribution (including promotion and advertising) and consumption.... Generic identities ... determin[e] 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.47

It is important to stress, as Gelder does, that popular/genre fiction and literary fiction are fields, in the sense developed by Bourdieu. These fields are constituted by particular agents and institutions but are also relational, heterogeneous, internally stratified, and sites of conflict over values and struggle for scarce resources of symbolic and economic capital. And the borders of these fields are permeable and shifting. A novel published by a literary imprint may become a hugely popular bestseller (though "bestseller" can designate a wide range, from 20,000 units to sales in the millions), and a work published in the field of genre fiction might later appear in reissued paperback classics edition. Nonetheless, these fields are mutually constitutive and frequently defined in opposition to one another. As in Bourdieu's account of the subfields of restricted and large-scale production, literary fiction generally reaps relatively low economic rewards and relatively high symbolic ones, while the reverse is true in genre fiction.48 Gelder uses capital-L "Literature" synonymously with "literary fiction," and contends that "popular fiction is best conceived as the opposite of Literature." "[A]uthors of Literature ... spend a great deal of time and effort distinguishing themselves from popular fiction and everything it seems to stand for."49 Similarly, Claire Squires explains that while its defining qualities are "contingent and shifting," literary fiction is generally "defined by a process of negation": it is "not formula fiction or genre fiction, not mass-market or best-selling fiction."50

And while literary fiction is indeed a marketing category, it is "formally undefinab[le]," and constituted not by adherence to any one genre but by its occupancy of a prestige position in the field and marketplace: "'Literary' then is an assurance of quality, a guarantee that what is to be approached here is 'good' writing."51 Certainly, this is not to suggest that readers will agree that everything marked as "literary fiction" will be any good and of course not to say that there aren't great works marketed in "genre fiction" but rather that literary fiction, its producers, and the institutions of reception dedicated to it, trade on the "assurance," backed by a reputation built over time, that they offer quality works. Moreover, Squires explains, literary fiction is constituted by a range of institutional factors and agents: books "published by literary imprints..." and denoted by other "structural and contextual segmentation," such as "book prizes, material considerations (such as cover designs and book formats), media coverage, bookshop design, and bestseller lists."52 Like genre fiction, then, literary fiction is constituted by a set of institutions and their practices.53

This does not mean, of course, that literary fiction has no relationship to genre, in the sense of existing "patterns" or "recipes." Gelder is right to add the caveat that "genre is less overtly important to literary fiction" (emphasis added). Though it has become something of a critical truism of late to say that literary fiction is its own genre with its own conventions, this claim is often made without specifying what those conventions are, or by mistakenly conflating literary fiction with white, bourgeois realism usually in the body of Jonathan Franzen. In fact, "literary fiction" has, long predating "the genre turn," encompassed various formal genres and stylistic features: realism and historical fiction, but also multicultural novels, magical realism, ludic postmodernism, and historiographic metafiction, unadorned Carver-esque prose, and Rushdie-esque verbal profusion.54 Among these recognizable subsets of "literary fiction," Anglophone writers of literary fiction have long relied on many other time-tested and more recent genres: romance (e.g., Byatt's Possession), comedy/satire (Martin Amis's Money [1984]), pastoral (T.C. Boyle's Budding Prospects: A Pastoral [1984]), picaresque and bildungsroman (Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March [1953]), family saga (Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club [1989]), the novel of manners (Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho [1991]), and the neo-slave narrative (Margaret Walker's Jubilee [1966]) to cite a few of what could be endless examples. All novels use existing genres, and since writers often combine genres, we often find many intertwined in the same book. For example, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (2011) draws on the genres of the campus novel, the bildungsroman, the historical novel (of the 1980s), the philosophical novel (engaging deconstruction), romance, and metafiction. Writers of literary fiction have never been averse to genre. But today they have expanded their repertoire to incorporate the genres that have flourished in popular culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

As such, this phenomenon demonstrates a waning of prejudice against such genres. (Ishiguro's comments, however, suggest a fear that readers might still harbor such prejudice.) These writers acknowledge that popular genres are compatible with the production of serious literature, in the right hands. But they don't eliminate the belief that some works qualify as literature and others are low, popular entertainment. Chabon's treatment of the comic book in Kavalier & Clay is again emblematic here. Crucially, the novel suggests that it is only certain, particularly gifted artists like Joe Kavalier who can take the raw material of comics and transmute it into the stuff of art. "Joe had that authentic air of the solitary bricoleur, the potterer of genius, like the Facteur Cheval or that strange and diffident other Joe, Mr. Cornell, striking out toward the sublime in a vessel constructed of the commonplace, the neglected, the despised" (319). Though Chabon is clearly asserting here that the lowly, popular medium of comics can be harnessed for the production of genuine art, he depicts the process as occurring through procedures that accord with an ideology common to both Romantic and modernist aesthetics that emphasizes the solitary genius working in obscurity: comics insofar as it is art, is not produced through industrial means, by armies of illustrators, or through the combined efforts of editors, producers, and corporate vice-presidents, but by the "authentic genius," the "solitary bricoleur," who is able to overthrow conventions and clichés to perform the alchemical transubstantiation of the quotidian into the sublime. Writers like Chabon think that the raw materials of popular culture can be made into art, but they don't reconsider the status of the entire field of popular production.

The Varied Uses of Genre

It might be tempting, if you held a rigidly categorical view of genre, to sort Zone One and Station Eleven into different boxes: Zone One is a zombie novel and Station Eleven a post-apocalyptic or post-pandemic novel. I consider them together, not because Zone One also envisions its zombies as a plague though this fact points up the multiple ways one could classify a given novel and hence further problems with any strict categorization but because of how structurally similar they are, interspersing their post-crisis imaginings with flashbacks to how things were before disaster struck. If I were primarily interested in categorizing, I might term them "backwards-facing post-pandemic novels." To this list, we could add Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2004), which diverges from these books in an interesting manner by having its flashbacks return to a time that is still well in our future. Whereas Zone One and Station Eleven return relentlessly to our present, interweaving their post-apocalyptic imaginings with realistic depictions of the contemporary.55 The heterogeneity one finds within such texts and across any given genre frustrates scholars' attempts to posit a singular function for a form, or to claim that it is necessarily freighted with a particular politics. Fredric Jameson famously argues that "[g]enres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact."56 But what becomes apparent when one reads closely the novels of Mandel and Whitehead is that writers can modify the genres they utilize in pursuit of varied representation goals, not simply one designated as its "proper" use.

Whitehead couches his own methods in terms that are similar to those I'm using here. He calls The Intuitionist (1999): "my first stab at trying to repurpose a known genre the detective novel for my own purposes."57 His unmistakable objective in Zone One is to reject redemptive narratives of human progress and individuality. The novel drags to the surface the latent meaning of the "zombie renaissance," that Mark McGurl diagnosed a year before the novel's publication, as its zombies figure the absence of the autonomous and unique subjectivity that the realist novel is so dedicated to mapping, and by some accounts producing.58 Throughout the novel, Whitehead confronts us with the specter that humans were always already zombies an undifferentiated mass, trapped in learned, repetitive behaviors, rather than unique individuals shaping our own destinies, according to our own desires. The novel bludgeons us with the realization that a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the world, and yet very little has changed. Here, "zombie ennui" names not the feeling inspired by the release of yet another zombie novel or film, but Zone One's attitude toward human existence: a tedious series of rote behaviors, which even apocalypse fails to spice up.

Supporting the sense that the plague hasn't changed much, Whitehead introduces a subclass of zombie called "stragglers," which remain mysteriously fixed to some place rather than roaming hungrily in pursuit of flesh. But the stragglers merely pare down the automatic routines in which humans had already been trapped: "Their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures; now their existences were winnowed to this discrete and eternal moment."59 Whitehead's language continually underscores the notion that we were mindless automatons even before the zombie plague. Living residents of an apartment co-op "shambled through the identical outlet showrooms" (73). Walking through Tribeca, protagonist Mark Spitz passes a nightclub and recalls a time before the plague, when "bouncers dragged out the velvet rope and started choosing survivors ... bedraggled drones convened on stools and soft low-slung couches ... trying to forget that the minute you bury the miserable day it rises from its coffin the next morning, this monster" (183). Insistently, overwhelming you with their numbers like the zombies themselves, Whitehead's metaphors describe life prior to the plague as zombified. "Sunday night's recurrent epidemic: Back to work" (84). The imitative displays of middle-class consumerism and the looped routines of white-collar labor are the actual menaces that dominate Zone One.

In stark contrast, Mandel's Station Eleven uses its backward-facing structure to make us appreciate just how good civilization is by imagining its destruction. Set after a ferocious mutant swine flu has eradicated more than 99% of the world's population, Station Eleven seems almost a direct rebuttal to Zone One. If Whitehead suggests that surviving the apocalypse may not be that different from being swallowed by the horde, the motto of Mandel's novel is: "Because survival is insufficient."60 This is the slogan tattooed on the left arm of Kirsten, Station Eleven's protagonist, and branded on the lead caravan of the Traveling Symphony, a band of classical musicians and Shakespearean actors, who tour the surviving settlements of the Great Lakes region, bringing the light of civilization, via the music and drama of Western culture, to the endarkened post-plague days. Though the novel acknowledges that it lifts that line from Star Trek, it motivates both this particular pop culture reference and the form of post-apocalyptic fiction to pay homage to civilization and its most illustrious literary representative.

Station Eleven chooses not to depict any of the violent calamity that it suggests occurred in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. At times it acknowledges problems with human civilization and social arrangements, flirting with an attitude similar to that of Zone One, only to swerve back toward a universalizing optimism that valorizes human relationships, the unifying power of culture, and the benefits of technological advance. "The problem with the Traveling Symphony was the same problem suffered by every group of people everywhere since before the collapse" (46-47). The age-old problem: not exploitation or cruelty, but each group's "collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments" (47). Art and the more cheerful aspects of human community redeem things, however: "what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy" (47). The novel nods at existential despair but returns always to hope via human kindness and art's power to remind us of the beauty in the world. An ex-boyfriend of Kirsten's scrawls "Sartre: Hell is other people," on one of the caravans (48). But upon reflection and the death of a dear friend, Kirsten revises this thought: "Hell is the absence of the people you long for" (144). Station Eleven repudiates Zone One's depiction of the inhumanity of humanity and the hollowness of late capitalism, alerting us to the moments of human life elided by abstractions like "late capitalism" and "the modern world." Jeevan, another of the novel's principal characters, finds himself "thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie... it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed..." (178). The death of billions and the erasure of modern technology allow Mandel's characters to notice all they had failed to appreciate. "Incredible in retrospect, all of it, but especially the parts having to do with travel and communications ... These taken-for-granted miracles that had persisted all around them" (233). In the vein of such appreciation, another character slowly builds a Museum of Civilization in an airport that has become home to several hundred survivors and stands as monument to "the beauty of flight" (247). The Museum embodies the project of Station Eleven, which constructs an anthropology of the present, and places the "miracles" and "beauty" of civilization on a pedestal. In the opposing views of Zone One and Station Eleven, then, we see how genres are useful but not for just one thing. Today's literary writers have "repurposed" the post-apocalyptic genre in divergent ways, finding its recipe adaptable to conflicting agendas.

Using the Genres, Scorning the Generic

If Mandel and Whitehead imagine apocalypse to arrive at very different conclusions about humanity and modernity, they share a commitment to traditional literary values. Zone One marks its literariness with Whitehead's stylish prose, an inexorable flood of metaphorical language, and by establishing its own knowing, ironic distance from the formulaic genre films and television shows that it suggests foster the drone-like social conformity of consumer culture. The novel taxonomizes the repetitiveness and spiritual vacuity of our own time, but simultaneously reanimates them through Whitehead's vivacious prose and biting humor. Take for example his rendering of the traffic Spitz and a friend encounter, unwittingly returning from Atlantic City to a zombie apocalypse in full swing:

They were up past dawn, crashed, were granted absolution in its secular manifestation of late checkout.... The traffic was atrocious and shaming, of that pantheon of traffic encountered when one is late to a wedding or other monumental event of fleeting import. Surely an accident unraveled its miserable inevitabilities ahead and now all was fouled, decelerated, the vehicles syllables in an incantation of misfortune (83).

Whitehead continues his assault on the existential vacuum of contemporary life. Hotels "grant absolution," gridlock belongs to a "pantheon," and our "monumental" life events are of "fleeting" import. But if the traffic epitomizes tedium, Whitehead's metaphors and sibilant consonance transfigure it into resonant "incantation." Andrew Hoberek notes the way Zone One's language, "the conspicuous mastery of Whitehead's prose," stands in tension with the novel's insistently dehumanizing, de-individualizing gaze.61 If human life is "an interminable loop of repeated gestures," this monotony does not apparently afflict the novelist himself, who alone manages to evade and combat the onslaught of zombifying consumerism and popular culture, with his inventive use of language.

Across the range of literary writers' work with popular genres, style remains a firm marker of distinction from the generic.62 Viet Than Nguyen's narrator in his Pulitzer-winning The Sympathizer (2015) hyperbolically exaggerates his aesthetic commitments, in a manner that retains more than a grain of truth: "It seemed as much of a crime to commit a cliché to paper as to kill a man."63 Here Nguyen's narrator draws attention to his creator's linguistic exuberance, with a more-than-faint echo of Humbert Humbert's "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."64 The frequent allusions in Nguyen's spy novel, to Nabokov, Ellison, Roth, and many others, serve as another conspicuous marker of its literariness. Similarly, in Chabon's play with popular genres, his finely-crafted prose style stands out as the artistic signature that seeks to differentiate his works from repetitive commodity production. His swashbuckling adventure Gentlemen of the Road (2007), for example, begins with a characteristic flourish:

For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its abilities to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve.65

In its description of the bird's astounding cursing proficiency, Chabon's opening sentence both performs and thematizes the ability to use language with ingenuity and panache, signaling for the literary-minded reader that she won't have to search far to find plenty of wordplay amid the novel's swordplay.

At the same time as they draw attention to their own singular style, such writers depict the production of commercial, popular fiction as repetitive, imitative fare that lacks individualizing marks, as it is produced rapidly and unthinkingly, with minimal effort on the part of the artist. In Kavalier & Clay, Chabon portrays Sammy Clay's huge output for pulp comics publishers as the work of a machine-like automaton:

[O]ver the years his brain had become an instrument so thoroughly tuned to the generation of highly conventional, severely formalistic, eight-to-twelve-page miniature epics that he could, without great effort, write, talk, smoke, listen to a ball game, and keep an eye on the clock all at the same time. He had reduced two typewriters to molten piles of slag iron ... and when he went to bed at night his mind remained robotically engaged in its labor while he slept (486).66

While Sammy is esteemed in the comics business for his enormous output, and while there is indeed something impressive in this account of his ability to crank out epics while talking and listening to a game, Chabon also suggests that Sammy's brain has become "an instrument," that generates "highly conventional" plots "robotically" and "without effort."

In contrast with Sammy's machinery, which is finely tuned to the formulaic, Chabon's entire corpus, like Whitehead's, exhibits a virtuosity that strains against the de-individualizing claims Zone One strives so hard to support. Asked about the range and facility with genre exhibited in his work, Whitehead affirmed: "I try to have each book be an antidote to the one before ... The terror of figuring out a new genre, of telling a new story, is what makes the job exciting, keeps me from getting bored, and I assume it keeps whoever follows my work from getting bored as well."67 Here Whitehead couches repetitive production as the zombifying disease, and prescribes genre-switching as panacea for the boredom of reader and writer alike. It's easy to see that writers like Ishiguro and Chabon subscribe to a similar regimen of making it new, with each novel taking formal flight from the last.

If repetitive production is the disease, for which the genre-switching novelist may concoct one "antidote," it's not surprising that, in addition to flaunting its linguistic ingenuity, Zone One also poses generic popular film and television as part of the mass-production apparatus that churns out legions of zombie-like persons. Throughout, the novel links the absence of human individuality to the consumption of popular media. Spitz's partner "Gary had started employing the vocab of the polyglot city, as it had been transmitted through popular culture: the eponymous sitcoms of Jewish comedians; the pay-cable Dominican gangster show; the rat-a-tat verses of totemic hip-hop singles" (26). Whitehead's syntax here and throughout the novel emphasizes the category, the type, the generic nature of the retail and living spaces of late capitalism, and of the consumer and cultural products people devour: "the local megamall's discount appliance emporium" (22); "the 24-7 gas-and-cigarette vendor" (23); "that juggernaut clothing empire" (46); "the desolate consumer-electronics showroom" (61); and, most ubiquitous, "[t]he coffee company" that started "with a single café ... and metastasized into an international franchise entity" (184). The novel never specifies the proper names of these cancer-like franchises because we probably know the ones Whitehead means, but also because there is no longer a difference between the type and the particular. But Whitehead lingers on popular culture as a particularly effective generator of conformity, as itself a kind of un-killable zombie that spreads its infection far and wide. "[E]verybody loved the same shows back then ... He couldn't help but think that the juggernaut sitcoms and police procedurals were still ... lumbering forth in the evergloom" (157). Whitehead repeatedly points out that people ape the language, style, and behavior they see on TV. A "Friends"-type program about young people living in New York receives special scorn, as the novel evokes familiar accounts of the brainwashing power of mass culture. Spitz notes that a zombie he is about to kill "wore its hair in a style popularized by a sitcom" (17). Legions of young people come to New York because they're "powerless before the seduction of the impossible apartment that the gang inexplicably afforded ... unable to resist the scalpel-carved and well-abraded faces ... Struck dumb by the dazzling stock footage of the city ... indoctrinated by that enervating glow" (72-73). Those with "underdeveloped cultural immune systems" become "[i]nfected by reruns" (73). Here, the images purveyed by popular culture are the epidemic and bleakly enough also the only cure, as despairing survivors "snuffed themselves according to the recipes offered by the manual of pop culture" (165).

While Zone One presents popular culture as an unstoppable "juggernaut," which "enervates" its victims before "indoctrinating" them into imitative consumer behaviors, it distances its own use of genre from the bulk of such production, through the cynical eyes of its protagonist, an avid consumer of apocalyptic film. Like everyone who watches such films, Spitz identifies with the survivors:

When he used to watch disaster flicks and horror movies he convinced himself he'd survive the particular death scenario: happen to be away from his home zip code when the megatons fell ... spread-eagled atop the butte ... when the tsunami swirled ashore, and in the lottery for a berth on the spaceship, away from an earth disintegrating under cosmic rays (165-66).

If the novel's awareness of the conventionality of these scenarios weren't obvious enough, after this tidal wave of clichéd genre tropes, which I've abridged considerably, Whitehead has Spitz make clear the distinction between this story and all those disaster films out there: "By his sights, the real movie started after the first one ended, in the impossible return to things before" (166). Though Zone One retains a number of conventional disaster elements, throughout Whitehead endeavors to differentiate the originality of his deployment of the zombie genre from the faceless hordes generated by mass culture.

Station Eleven, meanwhile, marks its literariness with its use of Shakespeare as a focal point for its several intertwining narratives, and by valorizing autonomous artistic production in its depiction of the genesis of the graphic novel "Station Eleven." The Museum of Civilization is filled with the now-useless gadgets of the digital age, but the artifacts Mandel's novel treasures most dearly are The Bard's plays and the fictional graphic novel that lends her novel its name. Mandel's book opens with a performance of King Lear, and Station Eleven's characters and storylines are skillfully woven around this single performance. But why Lear? One could read the apocalyptic swine-flu as forcing all of humanity to become "a bare, fork'd animal."68 But the novel doesn't make this connection or invoke this famous line. Instead, Lear functions, appearing on page one, and prior to any intertextual interpretation a reader might venture, to signpost the fact that Station Eleven is an allusive piece of literary fiction. Within the novel, however, the primary function of Shakespeare is to epitomize the endurance of art and culture, to signify the human commitment to preserving "beauty in the decrepitude" (296). Shakespeare is a necessary reminder in a world turned so bleak and so violent: "The thing with the new world is it's just horrifically short on elegance" (151). The Traveling Symphony "performed modern plays sometimes ... but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings" (38). Kirsten's friend Dieter explains this preference simply: "People want what was best about the world" (38). Kirsten is surprised that the appeal of Shakespeare of all writers! persists. Dieter, by contrast, suggests that prestige reproduces itself, even after near-apocalypse. But ultimately Mandel's novel contributes to this reproduction, rather than questioning it.

Station Eleven appears to temper its cultural conservatism by posing the graphic novel as an artifact that has survived the pandemic to become one of Kirsten's most treasured possessions. What endures to transmit meaning across time is arbitrary, Mandel seems to suggest. And yet we quickly discover that the graphic novel is not a demonstration of the equivalence of cultural forms, so much as an autonomous work of artistic production in mass culture's clothing. "The contrabassoon, who prior to the collapse was in the printing business, told Kirsten that the comics had been produced at great expense, all those bright images, that archival paper, so actually not comics at all in the traditionally mass-produced sense, possibly someone's vanity project" (42). When we encounter, in a flashback, Miranda, the artist and author of the book, we learn that she has created it for its own sake, indifferent to whether or not it is published. "'It's the work itself that's important to me.' Miranda is aware of how pretentious this sounds, but is it still pretentious if it's true?" And her husband's dinner guests respond approvingly: "It's like, the point is that it exists in the world, right?" "Very admirable ... it reminds me of a little Czech film about an outsider artist who refused to show her work during her lifetime" (93). Mandel thus valorizes along with Shakespeare's enduring power, not the mass-produced comic but the singular work, composed with great care by the artist wholly uninterested in the market.

Imagining "Station Eleven" as an autonomous art object fashioned out of the raw materials of popular culture, Mandel's novel figures its own desired position in the literary market, and in doing so, it shares a great deal with others that have appeared in recent literary fiction. Chabon's Kavalier & Clay charts the flowering of experimental comics art produced by its title characters, but when the novel describes Joe Kavalier's magnum opus it adheres to a familiar modernist aesthetic ideology; what constitutes art is fragmentation and radical formal innovation, and such experiment can occur only when the artist ignores the demands of the market. When Joe returns to New York after years in self-imposed exile, Sammy learns that his cousin has been writing "[a] comic book novel" (543), The Golem, which weighs in at 2,256 pages. Chabon thus imaginatively installs Kavalier as the inventor of the graphic novel. Joe has great ambitions for this work, hoping it would "transform people's ... understanding of the art form that ... he alone saw as a means of self-expression as potent as a Cole Porter tune in the hands of a Lester Young, or a cheap melodrama about an unhappy rich man in the hands of an Orson Welles" (577). Here again Chabon conveys the idea that any art form can be transfigured in powerful ways in the right hands. But, as the formally-fractured pages pile up, Chabon suggests that The Golem has become more a work of "self-expression" than a book that will revolutionize people's attitude toward comics. "[T]he work ... was helping to heal him. All of the grief ... went into the queasy angles and stark compositions, the cross-hatchings and vast swaths of shadow, the distended and fractured and finely-minced panels of his monstrous comic book" (577-8). Joe refracts his grief into the fragmented form of the graphic novel. But in the process, it becomes a work produced only for the artist himself. "I don't think you will like that," he tells Sammy. "Probably no one will like that. Too dark" (576). The Golem satisfies only the demands of the artist's mind, disregarding the tastes of its audience. As Sammy flips the pages and notices that there "were no balloons in any of the panels, no words at all," Joe acknowledges "there is a script. In German." When Sammy replies, "That ought to go over big," Joe says flatly: "It will not go over at all. It's not to sell" (578). In having Joe abandon his ambition to revolutionize public opinion and produce a private book that is not for sale, Chabon solidifies his account of the aesthetics of comic book production. Comics as a medium is, as Rosa Saks insists, equal to any other, able to be fashioned into art. Its conventions, low history, cheap materials, and commercial character can all be transcended in the hands of the "potterer of genius." But ultimately, great works of art follow the inner dictates of the artist and are made without regard for the market. They are not for the market.

Similarly, in Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, the protagonist's father is a painter who alternates between meticulous brushwork on celluloid, for an avant-garde film that no one will ever see in its entirety, and the drudgery of painting cover art for science fiction novels. Lethem positions Abraham Ebdus's commercial output, his remunerative labor, alongside his labor of love. And Lethem makes clear which is more demanding: "Abraham made film early mornings and late nights, his best hours, reserving lunch-dulled afternoons for painting outer spacescapes and electrical gremlins ... whatever the latest art director required. Book jackets took care of themselves; he could be half asleep."69 When Abraham wins a Hugo Award for cover design, he gives the trophy to his son for use as a doorstop. In Abraham's disdain for painting sci-fi cover art and dedication to his private film, Lethem depicts the persistence of an anti-commercial, avant-garde sensibility. By embedding in their novels art-objects made out of the media and genres of popular culture, today's writers of literary fiction imagine the synthesis that they desire for their genre-bending novels: they work with the raw materials of popular culture but aim to transfigure them into the sublime fabric of art.

The Preservation of the Literary

Zone One and Station Eleven illustrate in vivid fashion how genre can be put to quite disparate uses, expressing radically different conceptions of humanity. But they also demonstrate how the adoption of the genres of genre fiction by literary writers does not entail the abandonment of traditional literary values, or a leveling of cultural hierarchies. Rather, their blending of elements from popular genres with recognizably literary traits positions their novels in an enviable cultural middle ground, making literary fiction look more like entertainment for popular audiences, while simultaneously maintaining the distinctiveness of the literary field from the broader terrain of popular culture, and appealing to institutions that confer literary prestige. In staking out such a position for the literary against the bulk of popular cultural production, Whitehead and Mandel align themselves with many of the literary novelists who have utilized the genres of genre fiction, in recent years. In Atwood's Oryx and Crake, part of what allows Crake to wipe out the human species without any compunction is his immersion in internet pornography and violent video games the popular forms that continue today to generate the most concern about the social harm they might inflict on their consumers like "Extinctathon," and "Three-Dimensional Waco."70 The novel's protagonist Jimmy, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned "word person," who attends the Martha Graham Academy, "an Arts-and-Humanities college" that offers courses of study that are "no longer central to anything" (186-87). Attempting to adapt to the new, neoliberal order, the Academy places the slogan "Our Students Graduate with Employable Skills" under its "original Latin motto, which was Ars Longa Vita Brevis" (Art is long, life is short) (188). Jimmy decides that though the world considers his studies "an archaic waste of time," he "would pursue the superfluous as an end in itself. He would be its defender and preserver" (195). But Atwood presents the arts and humanities as more than ends in and of themselves; they are what cultivate Jimmy's capacity for ethical thought: he objects to the practices of the biotech firms that dominate the novel's world and to Crake's genocidal plans. Atwood's novel thus uses post-apocalyptic fiction to defend the value of literary art and the humanities against a marketplace that increasingly finds them useless.

Similarly, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story (2011) uses a science-fictional framework to depict a future U.S. that has become a failed state after China comes calling for its debts. Lenny Abramov, the novel's protagonist, is also an old-fashioned bibliophile, who treasures his "bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifacts," in spite of the prevailing belief among younger generations that books smell terrible.71  "I celebrated my Wall of Books," writes Lenny. "I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf. 'You're my sacred ones,' I told the books. 'No one but me still cares about you ... And one day I'll make you important again.'"72 Lenny's taste for old Europe, modernist furnishings, and books collides with the hegemony of a youth-worshipping culture and marketplace, embodied by his boss Joshie, who doesn't seem to age and who advises Lenny, "these books, they are the problem ... You have to stop thinking and start selling."73 Shteyngart's novel, like Atwood's, attempts to defend the sacredness of a waning, literary culture against the rise of an image-driven, hyper-capitalist marketplace.

These novels adopt popular genres but valorize the literary and worry over a cultural milieu and market conditions that increasingly marginalize it. If they are any indication, "the genre turn" does not reject the notion that some cultural products are more formulaic than others, or that formulaic production might be spiritually deadening or politically enervating. They do not reject the notion that some texts use language, or genre, in more interesting ways than others, that some texts demonstrate the versatile genius or unique stylistic signature of their authors, or that some texts survive because people continue to view them as superior. In other words, these texts don't reject hierarchy; they just reject the wholesale dismissal of certain genres. Instead, they recognize that these genres are useful, flexible, not zombie-like clones, but frameworks that can be reinvigorated endlessly, for continued literary production.

In demonstrating the utility of popular forms while articulating aesthetic values that reassert a difference between the innovative and the imitative, such novels make a nuanced attempt to carve out a distinct space for the literary in a culture overflowing with competing media. It's no coincidence that while Lethem's Fortress of Solitude depicts comic-book loving kids who discover a magic ring that lets them become vigilante superheroes, the novel also offers a sympathetic portrayal of Barrett Rude, Jr., an aging Motown star, who loathes the new funk and disco, and made his name as a member of the band the "Subtle Distinctions." If accounts of postmodernism have frequently called attention to the blurring of high and low, these genre-bending writers attempt to make more subtle distinctions seeking to stratify and carve out niches in an immensely crowded cultural marketplace. These writers aim to reconfigure the literary subfield as a space that is neither defined by a particular genre, nor the absence thereof all genres are welcome here but by its distinction from the popular. They reassert this distinction by agonizing over the effects of popular culture, by depicting artist characters who revolutionize popular forms, by employing polished language, and by highlighting the ways they bend the genres they adopt into new and varied shapes that could not be mistaken for the cookie-cutter products of industry.


Jeremy Rosen is an assistant professor of English at the University of Utah. His work has appeared in ASAP/JournalNew Literary HistoryContemporary Literature, and Post-45. His first book, Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace, was published as part of Columbia University Press's "Literature Now" series in 2016.



  1. China Miéville quipped that commenting on this phenomenon has become trite, the kind of thing we might expect in genre fiction: "[A] detente between litfic and its others is real. It's a cliché to point out that generic tropes are infecting the mainstream, with a piling-up of various apocalypses by those guilty of literature." The language of popular culture as infection returns with a vengeance in Colson Whitehead's Zone One, but I will argue against using language that attributes agency to the tropes of genre fiction, in order to emphasize that literary writers have been strategically deploying those tropes. China Miéville, "The Future of the Novel," Guardian, August 21, 2012. Tim Lanzendörfer cites Miéville's "cliché" comment in "Introduction: The Generic Turn? Toward a Poetics of Genre in the Contemporary Novel," in The Poetics of Genre in the Contemporary Novel, ed. Tim Lanzendörfer (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016), 1-14; 3. Günter Leypoldt notes the cliché in "Social Dimensions of the Turn to Genre: Junot Díaz's Oscar Wao and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant," Post45: Peer-Reviewed, March 31, 2018.[]
  2. See: Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000) and the MaddAddam Trilogy (2003-13); Chabon's The Final Solution (2004), Gentlemen of the Road (2007), and The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007); Whitehead's The Intuitionist (1990) and Zone One (2011); Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005) and The Buried Giant (2015); and Egan's The Keep (2006). One could add many other examples: Cormac McCarthy's westerns, No Country for Old Men (2005), and The Road (2006); Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker (1995); Viet Than Nguyen's The Sympathizer (2015); Lydia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan (2017); Louise Erdrich's The Round House (2012). But this list is highly flexible since, as I argue below, texts frequently utilize many genres and hence can be categorized in multiple ways, and what counts as "literary fiction" and a "genre fiction genre" is contingent and shifting.[]
  3. For the "genre turn," see Andrew Hoberek, "Cormac McCarthy and the Aesthetics of Exhaustion," American Literary History 23 no. 3 (Fall 2011), 483-499. Here, Hoberek describes "an emergent phenomenon in which genre fiction resumes its status as a respectable terrain for serious writers" (486). In this essay, I show that using the genres that have flourished in popular culture can be a respectable technique, but that literary writers seek to actively distance themselves from the cultural "terrain" of "genre fiction," which remains low in status. For "the changing status of genre fiction" see Hoberek, "Introduction: After Postmodernism," Twentieth-Century Literature 53 no. 3 (Fall 2007), 233-247; 240. Here Hoberek writes of "a newer tendency to confer literary status on popular genres themselves." But rather than granting literary status to popular genres themselves, works by the likes of Chabon demonstrate that such genres can be used to produce literary works. These writers deploy such genres in ways that are marked as literary, both in their internal features and in the manner in which they are marketed and received in the literary field. Thus, certain works using these genres are marked as high-status while the bulk of popular production utilizing them gains no status boost whatsoever. For example, when Viet Than Nguyen writes a Pulitzer-winning novel about a North Vietnamese spy, his use of the genre does little for the status of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy. Hoberek acknowledges the persistence of the divide between literary and genre fiction when he writes that Jonathan Lethem, "with his 2003 The Fortress of Solitude ... definitively crossed the divide from genre writer to serious artist." ("Introduction," 237). For "revaluation of the popular," see Hilary Chute, Ragtime, Kavalier & Clay, and the Framing of Comics," Modern Fiction Studies 54 no. 2 (Summer 2008), 268-301; 271. In similar fashion, Theodore Martin refers to "'high cultural' contributions to genre fiction." But I contend that literary writers take pains to mark themselves as distinct from the realm of genre fiction, not "contributors to" it. Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 8. Jason Gladstone and Daniel Worden address "Chabon's heartfelt embrace of genre fiction," rather than what I contend is his embrace of the genres of genre fiction. "Introduction," in Postmodern/Postwar and After, ed. Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Worden, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016), 1-24; 1. In a more recent essay, Hoberek writes: "Lethem's NBCC Award thus seemed to confer legitimacy not only upon him and his book but also upon genre fiction as a whole." Hoberek, "Literary Genre Fiction," in American Literature in Transition, 2000-2010, ed. Rachel Greenwald Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 61-75; 64. In this latter essay, Hoberek acknowledges that the "post-postmodern turn" to "a long-neglected storehouse of genre models ... does not entirely efface the distinction between literary and genre fiction." But he asserts that "this distinction has re-hardened in significant ways around gender." I will argue, by contrast, that both male and female literary writers seek to mark their literariness when they adopt the genres of popular fiction, and that the distinction between literary and genre fiction remains oriented around familiar poles of the unique stylistic signature of the individual author, formal innovation, and the attempt to distance "serious" literary production from commerce. Hoberek also overstates the case when he writes that "[g]ender continues to mark the outer limits of what counts as literary, with the category of nonliterary genre fiction largely associated with work by women." While much genre writing by women, and romance in particular, continues to be considered "nonliterary," many male writers like John Grisham, James Patterson, and Dan Brown remain at the center of "the category of nonliterary genre fiction." "Literary Genre Fiction," 70. See also James Dorson, who writes: "As a writer of four Westerns, a crime thriller, and a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel, to say that Cormac McCarthy writes genre fiction is to state the obvious." But I will argue that writers like McCarthy use genres like the crime thriller, but are marketed and received as literary writers not as producers of "genre fiction." Dorson, "Cormac McCarthy and the Genre Turn in Contemporary Literary Fiction," European Journal of American Studies, December 3, 2017.[]
  4. The wealth of scholarship emerging under the banner of the "New Modernist Studies" has demonstrated the diverse range of modernist artifacts, aesthetic stances, and avenues of production. In referring here and throughout the essay to "an influential version of modernist" aesthetic ideology dedicated to formal experiment and professed antipathy to the marketplace (not actual autonomy from it), I do not mean to suggest a unitary account of modernism. Rather, I refer to several pillars of modernist ideology that have been institutionalized and held considerable sway in the postwar literary field. For an overview of the "New Modernist Studies," see Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, "The New Modernist Studies," PMLA Vol. 123, No. 3 (May 2008), 737-748. See also: Amy Hungerford, who contends that "the second half of the twentieth century sees not a departure from modernism's aesthetic but its triumph in the institution of the university and in the literary culture more generally." "On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary," American Literary History Vol. 20, No. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2008), 410-419; 418; and Mark McGurl, who writes of "the fate of U.S. literary modernism after World War II, when the modernist imperative to 'make it new' was institutionalized" in higher education. Similarly, McGurl prefers "technomodernist" to "postmodernist" because his neologism "reasserts the obvious continuity of much postwar American fiction with the modernist project of systematic experimentation with narrative form." The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 4.[]
  5. For genre as a "set of recipes," see Thomas Pavel, "Literary Genres as Norms and Good Habits," New Literary History 34 no. 2 (Spring, 2003), 201-210; 210; By contrast, David Duff writes that "the term [genre fiction] is often used, sometimes pejoratively, to denote types of popular fiction in which a high degree of standardisation is apparent: for instance, detective stories, historical romances, spy thrillers and science fiction. These are collectively known as 'genre fiction', as distinct from more 'serious', highbrow fiction." Duff, ed. Modern Genre Theory (New York: Routledge, 2014), xiii. See also Chris Baldick, "Genre Fiction," in The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Fourth Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 150.[]
  6. Michael Chabon, "The Editor's Notebook: A Confidential Chat with the Editor," McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, ed. Michael Chabon (New York, Vintage, 2003), 5-8; 6.[]
  7. See Duff for "the modern period" as one "characterized by ... the emergence of aesthetic programmes which have sought to dispense altogether with the doctrine of literary kinds or genres," and the idea that the "dissolution of genres" has been "an apparently liberating ambition that links the otherwise radically opposed poetics of Romanticism and Modernism." Duff, "Introduction," in Modern Genre Theory, 1-24; 1.[]
  8. "The older generic categories do not, for all that, die out, but persist in the half-life of the subliterary genres of mass culture, transformed into the drugstore and airport paperback lines of gothics, mysteries, romances, bestsellers, and popular biographies, where they await the resurrection of their immemorial, archetypal resonance at the hands of a Frye or a Bloch." Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 93. Today's writers use of popular genres has high literary precedents  take works like Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980), Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (1987), A.S. Byatt's Possession (1990), and even Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or, Ardor (1969).[]
  9. For more on the "dialectical relation" of modernist novelists to mass culture, their efforts to dissociate themselves from popular readerships and mass culture and "reinvent [the novel] as fine art," while simultaneously "working for the most part within the institutions of an expanding mass market," see Mark McGurl, The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 6. See also Pierre Bourdieu for "the fields of cultural production" as "universes of belief," which rely on "the denial of the ordinary practices of 'the economy'" and "[t]he opposition between the 'commercial' and the 'non-commercial,'" which "reappears everywhere" and is "the generative principle of most of the judgments which ... claim to establish the frontier between what is and what is not art." Bourdieu, "The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods," in The Field of Cultural Production, ed. and trans. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 74-111; 82.[]
  10. In this essay, I demonstrate that genres can be continually altered and adapted for new uses by the writers who employ them. By contrast, Franco Moretti's evolutionary and anthropomorphic account of genres has been the most prominent recent account to posit that genres eventually outlive their usefulness; it imagines that literary forms compete for dominance and live or die according to their fitness to survive a given historical moment. "[A form's] journey 'down the inevitable road from birth to death' can ... be explained by focusing ... on the relationship between ... the form and its historical context: a genre exhausts its potentialities and the time comes to give a competitor a chance when its inner form is no longer capable of representing the most significant aspects of contemporary reality. At which point, either the genre loses its form under the impact of reality, thereby disintegrating, or it turns its back on reality in the name of form becoming a 'dull epigone' indeed." Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London: Verso, 2005), 17n7.[]
  11. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (New York: Random House, 2012), 363; all further references to this edition will be cited parenthetically.[]
  12. Here I refer to an "aesthetic form" in the loose sense of "kind" not in the sense of a text's structural composition. Duff writes that "form" is "often used synonymously with genre to mean simply a type or category of literary work." Duff, Modern Genre Theory, xiii and 17. The relation between genre and literary form (in the sense of "structure") is a complicated topic, but most complex literary genres combine formal and thematic attributes. Pavel argues that literary genres can sometimes, but not exclusively, be defined by formal features: "the vocabulary of literary genres thus includes 'content' terms that are shared with our moral and existential vocabulary ('tragedy,' 'comedy'), terms of art that have a simple formal definition (for example, 'sonnet'), and terms of art that refer to what I called 'extratextual properties' and therefore require from their users a certain level of hermeneutic dexterity ('fiction,' and, as we will see in a moment, 'novel'). Pavel, "Literary Genres," 205. For comics as a medium, see Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (The Invisible Art) (New York: Harper, 1994), 4-6.[]
  13. See, for example, Marianne DeKoven's discussion of the "postmodern egalitarian, popular indifferentiation, 'sampling,' 'versioning' pastiche: the open-ended, free mixing of previously distinct modes of cultural practice and form." DeKoven, Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 17. While today's literary writers freely mix high and low cultural forms, I will argue that they seek to differentiate, not between forms or genres that are inherently better or worse, but on the grounds of quality.[]
  14. After depicting the experimental work of Kavalier and Clay in creating "the so-called modernist or prismatic Escapist stories," Chabon dedicates much of second half of the novel to Sammy Clay's career as a writer for the pulp comic publisher Pharaoh Comics, which operates according to "a program of cost-cutting and slavish imitation." Chabon, Kavalier & Clay, 363; 485.[]
  15. For debates over popular culture's aesthetic and political merits, see John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, Sixth Edition (New York: Routledge, 2012), 5-14. For recent rethinking of popular culture, contra mid-century mass culture critics, see also Evan Brier, A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 5-6.[]
  16. "[T]he field of cultural production is the site of struggles in which what is at stake is the power to impose the dominant definition of the writer.... In short the fundamental stake in literary struggles is the monopoly of literary legitimacy ... the power to consecrate producers or products." Pierre Bourdieu, "The Field of Cultural Production," in The Field of Cultural Production, ed. and trans., Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 29-73; 42.[]
  17. Ken Gelder writes of the opposing values traditionally held by Literature/literary fiction (complexity, life, cerebral pleasure, restraint, seriousness, "formal artistry," and ambivalence toward the marketplace) and popular/genre fiction (simplicity, fantasy, sensuous pleasure, excessiveness, excitement, and the desire to please large audiences). Below, I stress that these subfields overlap in practice and that these values describe general tendencies, not blanket statements; one will certainly find qualities from each of these sets of values in the other subfield. But Gelder accurately describes the qualities that have historically been prioritized and remain central to each subfield. Gelder, Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field (New York: Routledge, 2004), 19-28.[]
  18. See Claire Squires, Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 72-3; Perry Anderson, "From Progress to Catastrophe," London Review of Books, July 28, 2011; James F. English, "Now, Not Now: Counting Time in Contemporary Fiction Studies," Modern Language Quarterly 77 no. 3 (September 2016), 395-418; and Alexander Manshel, "The Rise of the Recent Historical Novel," Post45: Peer-Reviewed, September 29, 2017.[]
  19. The Man Booker prize, for example, mentions only the criteria of quality. It "aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English." The prize's website notes that, in order to "maintain the consistent excellence of" the prize, "judges are chosen from a wide range of disciplines, including critics, writers and academics, but also poets, politicians and actors, all with a passion for quality fiction." "Finest," "best," "excellence," "quality": these are the criteria the Booker recognizes, not any fixed formal or thematic attributes. Such vagaries illustrate the fact that the subfield of literary fiction is largely defined by its prestige position in the field, its promise of quality, rather than any particular formal features or thematic concerns.[]
  20. Joyce Saricks, in her The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction  a work regrettably neglected by literary scholars names style, poetic language, complex structure, the importance of character over plot, thought-provoking, serious subject matter, and slower pacing as some of the most common characteristics of literary fiction. (Chicago: American Library Association, 2009), 165-6. Leypoldt also offers a good summary of the some of the predominant criteria in determining literary prestige today: "Writers become 'literary' when the authorities honor them for stylistic or formal innovations that expand a novel's aesthetic possibilities, a 'privileged' imagination or intellectual distinction resulting in 'world-disclosing' new visions, or an expressive representativeness that captures a cultural or historical moment or the way a culture thinks and feels about itself." Leypoldt, "Social Dimensions."[]
  21. Glen Duncan, "A Plague of Urban Undead in Lower Manhattan," New York Times, October 28, 2011.[]
  22. Whitehead seems aware that his use of language, slow pace, and consideration of weighty issues render Zone One less suitable for fans accustomed to the action often emphasized in the subfield of genre fiction, and more apt for literary fiction: "I don't play video games, but I assume that Zone One would make a pretty boring [first-person] shooter [game], what with all the thinkin' and meditatin' and musin' about society and whatnot." Jeremy Keehn, "Zone One: Six Questions for Colson Whitehead," Harper's Magazine, October 17, 2011.[]
  23. Reviews that laud the "bending" or transformation of genres in the hands of literary writers abound. For example, an Esquire interview with David Mitchell refers to his "seminal genre-bender, The Bone Clocks, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize." Jill Krasny, "Talking to David Mitchell About Twitter, Ghosts, and His New Novel Slade House," Esquire, October 23, 2015. See also, Susan Cokall, "Jews with Swords," New York Times, October 28, 2007, which notes that Chabon "delights in reinventing genres." Of course, one can find similar praise in the field of genre fiction; both subfields value novelty and innovation. But the literary field tends to valorize works that seem to "transcend" their genres, while the popular subfield frequently applauds books that do well exactly what the genre is supposed to do.[]
  24. For allusiveness and thematizing of reading as strategies of annexation and marking literariness, see Jeremy Rosen, Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre in the Contemporary Literary Marketplace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), esp. 131-4.[]
  25. Lanzendörfer agrees with Lev Grossman: "as Grossman points out, 'as soon as a novel becomes moving or important or great, critics try to surgically extract it from its genre' ('Literary Revolution'): genre often simply ceases to be when it encounters the academy, or even before, when genre fiction gets marketed as literary fiction in an attempt to retain for it the kind of prestige that does not yet come with genre." Lanzendörfer, "Introduction," 2. I would argue that rather than extracting a work from its genre, such instances of consecration extract a work from the subfield of genre fiction, as literary publishers offer new editions, and prize committees offer field-specific forms of prestige. When the Library of America publishes Hammett's work, no one stops considering The Maltese Falcon a detective novel. Noting the Library of America's institutional power to grant prestige also helps demonstrate that literary scholars are not the only, and perhaps not the most, relevant parties in determining a work's place in the field. Delany notes the long history of scholarly interest in SF: "the Continuing Seminar on Science Fiction of the Modern Language Association was founded in 1958." But he also suggests that scholarly interest may have little effect on the hierarchy of values that privileges the literary, which has more to do with the importance of the publishing industry's segmentation of literature and SF: "The encounter [between a literary and an SF text] comes after both texts are read, in the whole space of values, judgments, ways of response ... and it's only when we reach the question 'Which text is more available?' that the whole economic situation which lurks behind our initial set of images for this encounter intrudes on and contours [it]." Samuel R. Delany, "Science Fiction and 'Literature' or, The Conscience of the King," in Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, ed. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005), 95-117; 99; 102.[]
  26. See James F. English and John Frow who discuss today's literary field as one in which cultural hierarchies and valuation systems are not disabled but rather increasingly complex: a "vastly expanded (and still expanding) array of symbolic instruments and institutions [that] operate as ... an 'industry' of literary value production." English and Frow, "Literary Authorship and Celebrity Culture," in A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, ed. James F. English (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 39-57; 46.[]
  27. Alexandra Alter, "For Kazuo Ishiguro, 'The Buried Giant' Is a Departure," New York Times February 10, 2015.[]
  28. Ursula K. Le Guin, "Are they going to say this is fantasy?" March 2, 2015.[]
  29. Ibid.[]
  30. Ibid.[]
  31. Delany notes the way the commercial imperatives motivating SF publishers result in distinct modes of production: "[f]orty-nine out of fifty SF novels are bought before they are written." Samuel R. Delany, "Letter to a Critic: Popular Culture, High Art, and the SF Landscape, 1972," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 195-206; 196.[]
  32. "Genre," writes John Frow, "is a universal dimension of textuality." Genre (New York: Routledge, 2005), 2.[]
  33. "So much of the artistic passion of the period was stirred by questions of technique, where 'technique' should not suggest attention to 'form' as opposed to 'content,' but should imply rather the recognition that every element of the work is an instrument of its effect and therefore open to technical revision." Michael Levenson, "Introduction," in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, ed. Michael Levenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1-8; 3. "[O]ne plausible way of defining the modernist movement in literature has been to claim that it represents some form of retreat from, or resistance to, mass culture on the part of professional or cultural elites." McGurl, Novel Art, 3. Again, this resistance was often more a matter of belief, the product of a modernist novelists' dialectical struggle to escape their enabling conditions, than reality. See also note 9 above.[]
  34. Paul Kincaid, "On the Origins of Genre," Extrapolation 44 no. 3 (2003), 409-19; 413. Similarly, in an article that seeks to account for perennial difficulty in defining SF, but that applies equally to all genres, John Rieder summarizes "a paradigm shift which has become a near-consensus in recent genre theory," which has shifted from the task of "identifying and classifying fixed, ahistorical entities to studying genres as historical processes." Rieder enumerates five "propositions," all of which stress the dynamism of genres, the historical changes in their characteristics, status, and corpus of the texts which are identified as utilizing the genre: "1) sf is historical and mutable; 2) sf has no essence, no single unifying characteristic, and no point of origin; 3) sf is not a set of texts, but rather a way of using texts and of drawing relationships among them; 4) sf's identity is a differentially articulated position in an historical and mutable field of genres; 5) attribution of the identity of sf to a text constitutes an active intervention in its distribution and reception." John Rieder, "On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History," Science Fiction Studies 37 no. 2 (July 2010), 191-209; 193.[]
  35. Pavel, "Literary Genres," 210. Recognizing that genres typically have no fixed rules points to the problem with Nicholas Brown's argument that working within the genres of genre fiction "opens up a zone of autonomy within the heteronomous space of cultural commodities. The requirements are rigid enough to pose a problem, which can now be thought of as a formal problem like the problem of the flatness of the canvas or the pull of harmonic resolution." But the requirements are not rigid in most complex genres. What are the requirements of an SF or even a detective novel? We can think of examples of the latter in which the "detective" is not really a detective, some where there is no crime, others with no solution. Are all of these therefore autonomous works of art? And who decides whether an existing "requirement" I would prefer generic "convention" is varied to a great enough degree to count as an autonomous artistic gesture, versus the degree of variation that Kincaid notes is present even in the most conventional of texts, lest they reproduce their predecessors exactly? Finally, do genres like SF or the police procedural or rock and roll (the latter two are Brown's examples) have a single formal problem? Brown, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Real Subsumption under Capital," nonsite, March 13, 2012.[]
  36. Fowler writes that Ruskin put Dickens "out of pale of great authors," but Henry James could: "unpreposterously aver that 'the novel remains ... under the right persuasion, the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms.'" Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (New York: Oxford, 1982), 226.[]
  37. For the relation between the evolving formal features of a given genre and its institutional context, see Rosen, Minor Characters, especially Preface and Introduction.[]
  38. Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 26.[]
  39. Escarpit, cited in Radway, Reading the Romance, 26.[]
  40. For the debate between Atwood and Le Guin, see Gerry Canavan and Patricia Wald, "Preface," American Literature 83 no. 2 (June 2011), 237-49.[]
  41. See Duncan, "A Plague,"; Ron Charles, "'Zone One,' by Colson Whitehead: Zombies abound," Washington Post, October 19, 2011; Andrew Hoberek, "Living with PASD," Contemporary Literature 53 no. 2 (Summer 2012), 406-13.[]
  42. Search for "Zone One," Zombies Defined; Search for "Whitehead," ZombiePedia Fan Wiki; Search for "Whitehead," Zombie Research Society, accessed July 30, 2018.[]
  43. It's useful to remember that there are "different genres of genre." (Thanks to Scott Black for this point.) We discuss the "major formal genres" of poetry, fiction, and drama. We use the word to refer to very delimited forms like the sonnet, loose baggy ones like the novel, and subgenres like the detective novel. Pavel refers to genres like tragedy and comedy as formally delimited at given moments, but also carrying "moral and existential" meanings and a semantic flexibility that allows us to say things like "his life was a tragedy." And "fiction" for Pavel is a genre, the defining feature of which is "extratextual," something like "a spiritual property." Pavel, "Norms," 204. My contention that "literary fiction" and "genre fiction" are constituted by their situation in the literary field resembles Leypoldt's "practice space." But Leypoldt suggests that a practice space is one of the meanings of "genre," whereas I contend that to think of genre as a practice space conflates "genre" with "genre fiction." Leypoldt, "Social Dimensions."[]
  44. This is why when James English wants to use digital methods to analyze the historical settings of works of literary fiction or what he calls the "upper, reputationally advantaged space of literary practice: the space of prestigious writers, influential critics, legitimate works of art, and others well-heeled in cultural capital and hence granted a certain degree of recognition or symbolic credit" he collates "all novels either awarded or short-listed for a major novel-of-the-year prize in the English-speaking world, from 1960 to the present." And when he wants to compare the settings of this set with the broader field of novel publishing, he derives a representative sample of the field of popular/genre fiction by making a data-set out of "the top ten best-selling novels in the combined US and UK markets for each year from 1960 to the present." This set of bestselling titles is representative of most of what people read, since "[t]he tremendous concentration of book sales on a relative handful of multimillion-selling blockbusters means that these days just the top ten best sellers account for more sales volume as much as 20 percent of total sales than all the tens of thousands of titles in the long tail of the book trade." English, "Now, Not Now," 400; 405; 404; 403.[]
  45. Gelder writes that "much popular fiction is built around plot, action, 'scenarios', character conflict and dialogue." Gelder, Popular Fiction, 28; for literary fiction, see Saricks, note 20 above.[]
  46. Hoberek and Leypoldt overlook the extent to which many forms of genre fiction are realist, and the fact that literary fiction is not isomorphic with realism. Hoberek conflates literary fiction with realism ("it is no longer possible to distinguish realism confidently from genre fiction") and genre fiction with non-realistic forms ("the simultaneously nonrealistic and nonexperimental world of genre fiction"). "Literary Genre Fiction," 67; 69. While Leypoldt acknowledges the existence of "genre fiction with stronger realist leanings," he also suggests that "literature and genre fiction differ ... in their modes of representation or epistemologies (the realistic vs. the fantastic, the actual vs. the speculative or counterfactual)." Leypoldt, "Social Dimensions." Definitions of realism differ, sometimes focusing on mimesis of social reality, others having to do with verisimilitude or plausibility. While some might find the plot contrivances of spy thrillers, police procedurals, or legal thrillers to verge on the implausible, these genres clearly do not trade in fantastic or counterfactual epistemologies, but are typically grounded in realistic social settings, like the intelligence agencies, police departments, and legal systems of modern nation states. See Pam Morris, Realism (London: Routledge, 2003), 1-6.[]
  47. Gelder, 1-2.[]
  48. See Bourdieu, "Field of Cultural Production," 38-55. Literary fiction is certainly not actually autonomous, just relatively so. Bourdieu's "restricted field" of "production for other producers" corresponds more closely, in the U.S. today, to avant-garde literary journals, the output of experimental creative writing programs, and the like, which are often underwritten by university presses and non-profits, and in which field-specific symbolic capital from other producers is quite high, and wider public renown and sales quite low.[]
  49. Gelder, 11.[]
  50. Squires, 6; 4; 4. In her section on "Crossovers," Squires analyzes individual examples that bridge both fields and provoke controversy over the values of each.[]
  51. Ibid., 4.[]
  52. Ibid., 5.[]
  53. The fact that the literary is constituted by specific institutions as well as, in Bourdieu's terms, by "belief" in the distinctiveness of the literary offers one of several reasons the prevalent metaphors of genre "ghettos" and "gentrification" misrepresent the relation between literary and genre fiction. In 2009, Atwood launched a now-notorious kerfuffle when she attempted to divorce her works from the genre sometimes known as science fiction. Narrowly defining SF as "rockets and chemicals," "talking squids in outer space," and "aliens and spaceships and the other usual things," Atwood prompted the indignation of SF fans and writers alike. Le Guin famously responded that Atwood "doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto." Undoubtedly, the segmentation of bookstores, largely a function of the publishing industry's aims to segment and identify repeat buyers, can have harmful consequences on limiting readers' exploration. But how similar is the process by which writers decide to publish their work with a given press and publishers decide to segment and market books in different parts of bookstores to the forms of economic inequality and structural racial and ethnic barriers that produce ghettos? The idea of "ghettoization" further ignores SF's continued commercial success, the internal stratification of SF institutions, and real differences between SF and "the literary," in the latter's specific sense. One only has to invoke the Star Wars franchise to recognize that if SF were a neighborhood, it would be quite a high-rent one. The impoverishment of SF relative to "literary" fiction is a matter of a deficiency in symbolic capital, while economically SF has been quite profitable since the 1970s. Urban ghettos generally have material, not just symbolic, deficiencies. (A wealthy but low status neighborhood of McMansions might be more apt.) Neither is SF uniformly poor in symbolic capital; the history of SF institutions has produced internal stratification and hierarchy in terms of what has been deemed quality SF production. Prominent SF writers and editors have throughout the genre's history worried about its respectability, and sought to differentiate serious and intellectual production from highly conventional, popular output. Similarly, the development of the quality markers and distinction granting mechanisms like the Hugo, Nebula, and dozens of other genre-specific prizes, register the effort to confer distinction and hierarchize within the field of SF production. A third problem with the metaphor of SF as "ghetto" is that it fails to deal with the fact that "the literary" is a contingent category, a contested prestige designation conferred by particular institutions, to begin with. To be literary is to be produced and acclaimed by certain producers or agents and institutions of reception; the structure of this field, predicated on competitions for prestige, is not analogous to the structure of a neighborhood, as where one "resides" is not determined by competition for judgments of quality. For the debate between Atwood and Le Guin, see Canavan and Wald, "Preface." For efforts of writers and editors to make SF respectable see, Gary Westfahl, "The Mightiest Machine: The Development of American Science Fiction from the 1920s to the 1960s," in The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction, eds. Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 17-30, esp. 20-29.[]
  54. Most notably, McGurl taxonomizes postwar fiction into "technomodernism," "high cultural pluralism," and "lower-middle-class modernism." The Program Era, 32.[]
  55. These novels illustrate the ways popular genres can be adopted in order to depict the contemporary, whereas much recent literary scholarship focuses on how writers have used popular genre frameworks to either imagine utopian futures or revise history. See, for example: Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005); Ramón Saldívar, "Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction," American Literary History 23 no. 3 (Fall 2011), 574-599; Brian McHale, "Genre as History: Genre-Poaching in Against the Day," Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 42 nos. 3 and 4 (Fall and Winter 2009), 5-20. One clear exception is Martin's Contemporary Drift. But Martin's frequent use of evolutionary and anthropomorphizing language ("how genres become contemporary: how familiar aesthetic conventions mutate in response to changing historical conditions") tends to suggest that genres do one thing at a given moment ("Through the global travels of the Western, we discover the basis for a truly global view of global warming"; "The post-apocalyptic novel is preoccupied with how we occupy our time"). Martin, Contemporary Drift, 13, emphasis in original; 22; 161. By contrast, I emphasize that genres are recipes or frameworks that writers use, rather than agential entities in themselves, in order to underscore the fact that such writers can deploy genres in different ways, rely on or depart from convention, in pursuit of diverse agendas.[]
  56. Jameson, Political Unconscious, 106; original emphasis. Thinking of genre as a contract or set of rules are common metaphors in writing about genre. But what kind of contract is genre? Readers can't ask for their money back if expectations aren't met, and, as Kincaid notes, in even the most commercial popular fictions writers vary formula to at least some degree, lest they offer Pierre-Menardian word-for-word reproduction of previous texts. In a cultural field that prizes formal innovation, so-called violation of the contract is often instrumental in obtaining prestige. Moreover, the constitutive elements of genre are manifold, indeterminate, and historically shifting unlike contracts. Generic conventions are familiar patterns of practices that set expectations not rules, and they can be "violated" without consequence and even to the delight of readers.[]
  57. Keehn, "Six Questions."[]
  58. Mark McGurl, "The Zombie Renaissance," n+1 no. 9 (Spring 2010).[]
  59. Colson Whitehead, Zone One: A Novel (New York: Anchor, 2012), 62, emphasis added. All further references to this edition will be cited parenthetically in the text.[]
  60. Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (New York: Vintage, 2014), 119. All further references to this edition will be cited parenthetically in the text.[]
  61. Hoberek, "Living with PASD," 410.[]
  62. The "conspicuous" prose style of these writers and the other markers of literariness that they frequently deploy for example, the allusive use of Shakespeare in Station Eleven, or the mock-scholarly apparatus of footnotes in Junot Díaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) complicate Leypoldt's contention that such novels adopt a "grit aesthetic." In my view, these writers seek to consciously elevate their deployments of popular genres. Rather than adopt the "gritty" parts of the popular genres, that is, they adopt the frameworks and cover them with expensive finishes. See Leypoldt, "Social Dimensions."[]
  63. Viet Than Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove, 2015), 318.[]
  64. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (New York: Vintage, 2010), 9.[]
  65. Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure (New York: Del Rey, 2007), 3.[]
  66. Elsewhere, Chabon extends this motif, describing Sammy speaking to his wife while writing "the tiny bold block letters he produced, regular and neat, as if he had a typewriter hand" (563). Though we see Sammy spinning orderly plots, "combing out into regular plaits what grew in wild tufts in his mind," he also writes with "mechanical progress" (563; 564).[]
  67. Keehn, "Six Questions," emphasis added.[]
  68. William Shakespeare, King Lear in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., eds. G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 3.4.107-8.[]
  69. Jonathan Lethem, Fortress of Solitude (New York: Vintage, 2003), 230.[]
  70. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (New York: Anchor, 2004), 40. All further references to this edition will be cited parenthetically in the text.[]
  71. Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (New York: Random House, 2010), 90.[]
  72. Ibid., 52.[]
  73. Ibid., 66.[]