One of the big literary inventions of the nineteenth century was one that transformed the novel-writing scene. Genre.
When novels first emerged in the early part of the century they were, as often as not, social commentaries. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was typical. So were Charles Dickens’ various stories. They were joined by others that we might , indeed, call ‘genre’ – notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But for a long while these things were few and far between.
That changed with the commercialisation of novel writing – with the advent of the steam driven printing press, with the advent of mechanisms for mass-producing and mass-selling novels to the rising urban middle classes of the developing world who had the leisure time – and the spare cash – to buy books and then read them.
One of the earliest genres was science fiction, a device for social commentary. Jules Verne introduced the world to it, using his ‘science fiction’ stories –really, travel romances – to lampoon national cliches; German stern-ness and order (Professor Lidenbrock/Journey To The Centre of The Earth), American go-getting (From the Earth to the Moon) and British reserve (Phileas Fogg/Around The World In Eighty Days) among them.
H. G. Wells used science fiction for social commentary towards the end of the century. When five British Maxim gun crews slaughtered 1500 spear-wielding Matabele at the Battle of the Shangani river in October 1893 – and another 2500 a week or so later at Bembese - the world was horrified. ‘Whatever happens/we have got/the Maxim gun/and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in The Modern Traveller, a little later. From that also emerged Wells’s The War Of The Worlds, a remarkably slim book pivoting on one question; how would the British feel if a superior technology descended upon London?
Detective stories flourished. Conan Doyle effectively popularised and defined the ‘short story’ format for them at the end of the nineteenth century – giving the world one of its most iconic and enduring literary characters in the process.
And on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans thrilled to their own genre – westernsl, celebrating the myths of frontier. A form epitomised by Zane Grey, who spent periods big-game fishing in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.
The point was that popular genres changed as society changed. Cowboy stories went in and out, detective stories rose and fell. Science fiction, which began life for social satire and comment, retained that function into the twentieth century – but became a way of popularising tech-wonders.
If anything, genre change is moving at hyper-speed on the back of the web revolution. We have to keep up with – and ahead of – the trend if we’re to succeed.
Urban fantasy, anyone?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013