Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

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by Eliza Murphy

Australian popular fiction has been the most significant area of growth in the nation’s publishing industry since the turn of the century. What’s more, it hasn’t just grown, it’s also been successful, both nationally and internationally: this year, Claire G. Coleman’s debut fantasy novel Terra Nullius made the Stella Prize shortlist, and crime writer Jane Harper’s The Dry won the British Book Award for the crime and thriller book of the year. However, despite this growth and acclaim, Australian popular fiction is yet to receive sustained attention from scholars.

Fortunately, that tide is turning through “Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century,” a research project funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant to undertake the first systematic examination of twenty-first century Australian popular fiction. The chief investigators are Kim Wilkins (University of Queensland), David Carter (University of Queensland), Beth Driscoll (University of Melbourne), and Lisa Fletcher (University of Tasmania). I’m lucky to be a research assistant on this project, and I’d like to share some of the exciting things the team has been working on in 2018.

But first—what are “genre worlds,” anyway?

The project’s concept of a “genre world” is adapted from sociologist Howard S. Becker’s 1982 book Art Worlds. Broadly, a genre world refers to a social and industrial complex in which people work together to create and circulate specific types of texts. For this project, we’re focusing on three genre worlds: crime, fantasy, and romance.

For Becker, art is the result of a collective activity. He dismisses the idea that artists are cooped-up recluses creating magnificent masterpieces all by themselves. Instead, he positions art as being produced by networks—and these are what he describes as “art worlds.” In these art worlds, there’s not just artists, but a whole range of other actors, such as critics, consumers, and curators. What these members have in common, though, is an embodied knowledge about how things are done—the conventions of the art world.

Becker’s model is great for the study of popular fiction, because conventions are so central to genre. For instance, the romance genre—as defined by the Romance Writers of America—is governed by two key textual conventions: “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” But genre conventions aren’t just textual; they can also be social and industrial. Knowing the standard word length required for a Mills & Boon category romance novel is an industrial convention; attendance at an event like Australia’s sci-fi and fantasy convention Swancon is a social convention.

A genre world, then, describes the collective activity that goes into the creation and circulation of genre texts. The project is interested in the communities, collaborations, and industrial pressures surrounding popular fiction. How are the genre worlds of crime, fantasy, and romance constructed? How do people collaborate within the genre world? How do genre worlds respond to industrial changes, like the rise of Amazon?

To answer these questions, the project uses a mixed methodology: the collection and analysis of publishing data, interviews with writers and other participants in genre worlds, and close and comparative readings of selected texts. In short, the goal is to track the data, talk to the people, and read the books. To understand the nature of a genre world, we need to think about the textual, social, and industrial dimensions of genre fiction.

These ideas have been put into practice in two recent articles: “Genre Worlds and Popular Fiction: The Case of Twenty-First-Century Australian Romance,” in The Journal of Popular Culture, and “The Publishing Ecosystems of Contemporary Australian Genre Fiction,” in Creative Industries Journal.

“Genre Worlds and Popular Fiction” is focused on the genre world of romance, and what makes it distinctive. Through three case studies—novels by Australian romance writers Anne Gracie, Bronwyn Parry, and Rebekah Turner—the article identifies three key characteristics of popular romance in Australia in the twenty-first century.

First up: the genre world of romance is both national and international. Australian authors of romance fiction do not necessarily write for an Australian audience or see their writing as being distinctively Australian. Gracie, for instance, who writes Regency romance, is much more focused on the United States, which is the largest marketplace for romance fiction. Parry, on the other hand, sees her work as being influenced by her national identity: all of her novels are set in Australia, and have an “Australian voice.” But Parry also recognises that this Australianness may be limiting her potential reach in US, where she is yet to be published.

Next: the genre world of romance is highly professionalised. Knowledge about how to write and how to publish is developed and shared amongst members. This can be something formal like attending a writing workshop, to something as simple as reading plenty of romance as a method for learning how to write it. There are also more direct relationships between romance writers. Writers throw around ideas with each other for potential plots, or offer more structured and direct feedback on each other’s drafts.

The genre world of romance is also built on a dynamic real-and-imagined sociality. Becker in Art Worlds is interested in the role of real, living people, but the genre worlds of popular fiction extend this model to include past authors and fictional characters. The links between members in the romance genre world, then, go beyond face-to-face social interactions. Turner, for example, speaks of the influence of Laurell K. Hamilton’s novels on her own work, while the heroines in Gracie’s Chance Sisters series take inspiration from the characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

“The Publishing Ecosystems of Contemporary Australian Genre Fiction” provides more of a broad overview of the industrial conventions that govern the crime, fantasy, and romance genre worlds. A publishing ecosystem refers to the networks of roles, institutions, and technologies that make up the publishing field. These ecosystems operate within genre worlds: they help to shape the textual, social, and industrial conventions of each genre, while also interacting with other publishing networks.

Using data from AustLit (a bibliographical database for Australian books), the article traces the number of Australian crime, fantasy, and romance titles being published in the twenty-first century. Good news: all three genres are growing! When combined, the number of books published across these genres has increased almost fivefold since 2000. Romance saw the biggest growth, followed by fantasy, then crime. In the publishing ecosystems of crime, fantasy, and romance, it is the smaller sectors (such as independent presses and self-publishing) that are the strongest drivers of growth.

However, this growth doesn’t mean that just anyone can go and publish popular fiction. While the increase in digital technologies associated with print and e-book production has made it possible for smaller players in the publishing industry to increase their capacity and reach, the publishing ecosystems can also limit and control how the genres grow.

This is something which is particularly evident in the activity of the big five publishers, seen through things like the launches and closures of genre-specific imprints.

Every publishing ecosystem has its own distinctive features. Analysis of the publishing ecosystem of fantasy reveals the strong tradition of small, fantasy-dedicated presses that publish titles not necessarily for commercial means, but out of a passion for the genre itself. Growth in self-publishing is also on the increase. Many writers have “hybrid” careers, where their work is both traditionally published and self-published.

Crime’s publishing ecosystem is the closest to mainstream and literary fiction publishing—reflecting the long-held conception that crime is the most “legitimate” genre of fiction for those who do not read genre fiction. Big five publishers operating in Australia have established crime writers on their lists, but growth has actually been the strongest in independent presses and self-publishing—although this growth is not nearly as strong as in the case of romance or fantasy. While crime produces the smallest output of the three genres, it is the most visible in broader literary culture (e.g. book reviews, shelf space).

Romance, on the other hand, is the largest in terms of output, but the least visible in the wider culture. The romance publishing ecosystem’s most distinctive feature is the way it largely operates at two extremes: there’s Harlequin, a subsidiary of big five publisher HarperCollins which produces huge numbers of category romance novels, but there’s also a thriving industry of self-publishing. Again, hybrid authors are a real feature.

What does this tell us about understanding the industrial dimensions of popular fiction? It points to the necessity to look on a smaller scale at the sectors of the publishing industry. While the data shows that across the board genre fiction is growing in Australia, it is only when we focus in on the publishing ecosystem of each genre that it becomes clear that there are key differences in the way this growth has been generated.

It’s been a busy and exciting year for the Genre Worlds team, and we’re looking forward to sharing more research with you in the future. If you’re interested in keeping up with the project’s progress, follow us on Twitter @PopFicDoctors.

About the author:

Eliza Murphy is a research assistant on the Australian Research Council Discovery Project “Genre Worlds: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” When she’s not thinking about contemporary popular fiction, Eliza is busy working on her PhD at the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania. Her doctoral research focuses on the representation of parties in British interwar novels.

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