Write it now, part 15: the rise and rise of the genre monster

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.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.
Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

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

15 thoughts on “Write it now, part 15: the rise and rise of the genre monster

  1. Great coincidence – I am just re-reading Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the whole “Trilogy of Five”.
    20th century science fiction done this way is still social commentary, I guess. But in a sense, it was also Urban Fantasy – depending on how we define this genre (?)


    1. Yes, scifi was always social commentary, one way or another – for me the best 20th century variant was always Cyril Kornbluth’s ‘The Marching Morons’. There’s modern commentary out there too in the genre today, though it seems hard to find sometimes amidst all the ‘shades of grey’. Mind you, that was true back then too – we forget the volume of hack-written ‘penny dreadfuls’ and later pulp magazines, now lost (and mercifully so).


  2. I’ve never thought about ‘War of the Worlds’ in that way. Makes complete sense when you put it in that perspective! Great post!


    1. Thanks. Yes, it was a pretty vicious indictment of Empire in many ways. I confess my imagery of that whole military-Imperial period has been rather affected by the Blackadder version, in which the British army attacked the peace-loving people of the Mboto Gorge, slaughtered them, and stole their fruit…


  3. A lot of my own writing, and frankly day-dreaming involves urban fantasies, and various alternate universes that could exist resulting from various catalysts.

    I just finished reading an urban fantasy ‘ish’ novel called Angel Falls, it could also be a social commentary. I’ve also been reading a lot of William Gibson over the winter.

    Great post – really made me think about all the things I want to read again. 🙂


    1. Thank you. Urban fantasy certainly seems to be the current growth genre, and a very versatile one at that. I suspect some historical stories might fall into that category to some extent – Sherlock Holmes, for instance, which very much defined the detective story – but was inevitably set in what we might now call an ‘urban’ setting, and Conan Doyle often relied on fantasy or mystic imagery (inevitably with an explanation) to progress the plots. A thought.


    1. Thanks. I enjoyed finding it out too… 🙂 (The thing about these posts is I usually know the content prior, but inevitably end up scrabbling for some key bit of info that the argument needs, and which I don’t have…a learning curve.)


  4. Urban Fantasy. I will have to look that up. I was thinking more toward ‘Baby Boomer’ Novels. Thanks for all the great information you post. 🙂


  5. I’ve been astounded at the sheer number of genres. When I was growing up, it was pretty much fiction, science fiction and romance. If you wanted to be REALLY fancy there was historical romance. Now there are so many different classifications I just can’t keep up.

    I do wonder if, with our ability to search by keyword, we miss out on reading works we might otherwise have read had we been browsing a bricks and mortar store. A bit like internet dating, where we check the boxes of our desired mate, do we seek out one of these new-fangled narrow definitions and stick with it?

    I’m sure not everyone does, of course, but I do wonder about the literary choices people make as we move more and more to digital selections, even if we buy the paper edition!


  6. Genre is a two-edged sword for both writers and readers. The downside is that perfectly good stories are pigeon-holed into genre categories for ease of marketing so might miss out on being found, but on the plus side, if you can reach fervent readers of a particular genre then you have access to an enthusiastic audience who will share your work with others of a like mind.
    I’m having a bob each way by putting a few short stories online that are in different genres to my usual cosy mysteries so I can reach readers of paranormal, comedy and romance. So far the paranormal story is winning hands down!


    1. I think genre is as much commercial vehicle as anything else – a device to allow authors to hit market slots. Certainly the latter are key these days. I’m finding, more and more, that books are saleable to publishers only if they can be constructed to meet specific market slots, e.g. ‘Father’s Day’ – and this, I think, is purely because the more general ‘broad market’ approach of even ten years ago simply isn’t economic to do now, certainly here in NZ. On the plus side, it’s sharpening up author thinking (mine, particularly… :-))


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