(Many thanks to Anne Stevens for providing an edited text of the brilliant talk that she gave at the ‘Institutions as Actors’ workshop, along with a copy of her PowerPoint.)

Circulating and Subscription Libraries: Institutions as Creators of Genres

Anne H. Stevens, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

In his opening remarks at the first of the “Institutions of Literature” workshops, in Glasgow, Matthew Sangster talked about the fundamental role of institutions in shaping literature through networking, validation, funding, dissemination, and commemoration.  To this list I would add, as the title of my paper suggests, genre creation.  That is, I see the creation of genres as fundamentally a collective effort, one in which institutional actors play a significant role.  While individuals create works, institutions and the networks in which they are enmeshed create genres.

In his Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure describes a similar dynamic in relation to the way languages change over time.  An individual can coin a new word, but that coinage does not become a part of a language until other members of the linguistic community utilize the word and institutions validate it.  Just as languages are not the product merely of individual creativity but are collective endeavors, so too are genres.  An individual cannot invent a new genre; a genre is established when other creators imitate and vary a pattern and when institutions recognize this pattern of imitation and variation and codify it into a category.  In John Rieder’s words, “there cannot be a first example of a genre, because the generic character of a text is precisely what is repeated and conventional in it” (20).  When Horace Walpole publishes the bizarre, striking novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764, “the gothic” as a genre is not born at that moment.  In fact, more credit may be due to Clara Reeve, whose novel The Champion of Virtue, later renamed The Old English Baron, repeats the subtitle A Gothic Story that Walpole had added to later editions of his work.  By repeating that subtitle, Reeve changes the meaning of “a gothic story” from a descriptor of an individual work into a category.  That said, it isn’t until the 1780s when many more titles are produced and the 1790s with Ann Radcliffe’s success that the gothic becomes a recognizable and indeed flexible genre or family of genres.

Scholars in other fields have detailed the ways that institutions create genres more broadly.  The role of institutions in generic formation can be seen most vividly in the most commercial sectors of the culture industry.  Film historian Thomas Schatz, for example, has analyzed the way that the studio system fostered the creation of genres or formulas during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Schatz doesn’t see this as leading to inferior, “formulaic” filmmaking; in fact, his study is entitled The Genius of the System because he believes the system itself was generative.  He discusses, for example, the way that Universal “cultivated a few standard movie formulas like women’s pictures and gangster sagas” to complement its “signature genre in the early 1930s…the horror film” (87).  Likewise, Jason Mittell, in his study Genre and Television, has examined industry’s role in producing both film and television genres “through techniques such as marketing (advertising campaigns, trailers, posters, press releases, star publicity, internet presence, merchandising), distribution…exhibition…and nontheatrical practices” (57).  Sometimes genres even arise through unexpected institutional circumstances, such as reality television’s U.S. rise during a writers’ strike.

Within literary studies scholars have studied the role of institutions in shaping genres as well.  Mark McGurl’s influential The Program Era studies the way MFA creative writing programs in the U.S. shaped the genres and aesthetics of the short story.  Like Schatz and Mittell, McGurl doesn’t denigrate the role of institutions in creating genres: “it would in any case be a great loss to literary history if our disrespect for institutional relations as somehow embarrassing to art…made us less than vigilant in remembering and understanding them” (xii).  He argues that institutions create genres like minimalism (a la Raymond Carver) in the highbrow literary world, not just in commercial fiction, while stressing that minimalism can both be seen as a “product of the corporate educational technology and textbook business of the 1960s and 1970s” and at the same time a “singular aesthetic triumph of that enterprise” (293).

Institutions’ role in genre creation is not a twentieth-century phenomenon, of course.  Institutions shape the long history of the novel, in ways ranging from length (the triple decker) to subject matter (deeming certain subjects off-limits or encouraging others) to modes of distribution.  For British popular fiction of the Romantic era the most significant institutions would primarily include booksellers and publishers, reviews, and most importantly, circulating and subscription libraries.  Circulating libraries proliferated in the second half of the eighteenth century, especially, as William St. Clair has described, after the 1774 decision that ended perpetual copyright in Britain.  An 1825 guide to London, The Picture of London Enlarged and Improved, lists 27 circulating libraries in London alone, and every major British metropolis and spa town had multiple circulating libraries by the end of the eighteenth century.

As the circulating library system expanded, more readers had access to more novels than ever before.  The nature of the system, where subscribers could borrow individual novels for a fee, led to increased consumption of novels and to reading practices that put a premium on novelty and quantity, as has been well documented.  As St. Clair explains, because of these circumstances, in the 1780s and 1790s demand for new novels exceeded output.  Publishers were in such need of new titles that they would advertise in the backs of books.  For example, in the back of the 1790 Mary Anne Radcliffe novel Radzivil, a Romance, publisher William Lane of Minerva Press fame ran an advertisement reading, “Any lady or gentleman having Novels, &c. in manuscript, which they would wish introduced to the public, on favouring a line, may depend on having them printed in the most correct and elegant manner.”

As the demand for new titles grows during these decades, novelistic subgenres and formulas flourish.  Genres like the historical novel and the gothic novel, both of which pre-date the 1774 copyright decision, explode in popularity in the 1780s and 1790s, alongside many other subgenres and microgenres.  The speediest way to produce new works is to imitate existing works.  Just as Hollywood studios in the 1930s kept pace with demand for new films by developing formulas like the gangster film, the Universal horror film, or the women’s picture or by cultivating franchises featuring Abbot and Costello or Andy Hardy, the circulating library system developed formulas that kept readers coming back for more.  The pages of circulating library catalogs suggest one way that generic formulas worked, where keywords in titles signal generic affiliation.

The microgenre of the “season novel,” a subset of the broader category of the “fashionable novel” that flourished between 1806 and 1824, illustrates the role of institutional actors in using titles and subtitles to create and consolidate genres.  This microgenre flourishes following the success of one work in particular, Thomas Skinner Surr’s A Winter in London.  Surr’s novel in itself is not particularly distinctive or innovative.  It depicts fashionable London society, features a foundling young protagonist who marries his true love in the end, and contains a Gothic interlude involving villainous Italians.  It was highly successful, however, and that success spurred imitation, as successes often do. Looking back upon this sequence of novels, a reviewer in 1827 lamented, “about twenty years ago, in consequence of the success of a novel…called the Winter in London, the Town was inundated with a succession of the filthiest trash that ever disgraced the press of the country” (“Fashionable” 374).

Examining this succession of filthy trash closely, as I do in a recent article in Victoriographies, provides some insight into how institutions such as publishers and booksellers help to establish novelistic subgenres.  In the case of the success of Surr’s novel, publishers began producing works that affiliated themselves with A Winter in London through titles or subtitles within a year.  The earliest such text, A Summer by the Sea, bears little resemblance to the features of Surr’s novel.  The five season novels published in 1807, however, imitate A Winter in London more closely by focusing on a fashionable season and recycling plot elements such as divorce and infidelity.  Among these novels of 1807, the one most worth noting is the one that has not survived to the present day, Mrs. E. G. Bayfield’s A Winter at Bath; or, Love as it may be and friendship as it ought to be, produced by the infamous publisher J. F. Hughes.  An account from the time provides some context:

The success of Mr. Surr’s Winter in London, has, as is usually the case under such circumstances, called forth a herd of imitators. Amongst these, A Winter in Bath claims the first notice. Without the aid, however, of an imitative title, its intrinsic merit would have insured and commanded a gratifying reception from the public. The story is well written, the incidents are good, and the characters are excellently pourtrayed.

About the same time that A Winter in Bath made its appearance, a Mrs. Bayfield had a novel ready for publication, under the title of Love as it may be, and Friendship as it ought to be. Her bookseller, however, imitating Mr. Surr’s title, and perhaps conceiving that he might safely practise an imposition on the public, gave Mrs. Bayfield’s novel the title of A Winter AT Bath. This circumstance excited much contention between the booksellers; and we are not certain whether some legal proceedings were not commenced upon the subject. Mrs. Bayfield very candidly declared, not only that the fraud was carried on without her approbation, but without her knowledge.

Hughes, publisher of such imitative works as The Monk of Udopho and the novels of “Caroline Burney”, here retitles a completed novel in order to capitalize on a recent success.

Titles indeed were one of the most important ways that publishers and booksellers marketed their works, using keywords in titles to try to capture readers’ interest.  A scene in Honoria Scott’s A Winter in Edinburgh (1810) takes direct aim at Hughes’s publishing practices.  An advertisement at the start of the volume suggests that Hughes had advertised a book under the same title: “The Publisher of the Winter in Edinburgh, feels himself called upon, however reluctantly, to make a Reply to an Advertisement of Mr. T. F. Hughes, Bookseller, Berner Street (late of Wigmore Street), in the Morning Post, wherein he asserts, that the title of his Book has been copied, and that he has no Connection with the Publisher of the present Work. – Should ever Mr. Hughes’s Book appear, the Public will judge how far his statement is Consistent with Truth, should they be at the Trouble to look into it.”  Within the novel itself, a character named Owen plans to write a work called A Winter in Wales.  After this work is advertised,

the morning brought forth a confirmation of the title being a taking one. Mr. Wigless, a bookseller, certainly of celebrity; for, under his guidance, the literary bantlings of the Miss Muffins were ushered into the world as follows;

‘The Horrors of the Church-Yard; by Mrs. Radcliff.’

‘Euphrosyne in Frocks, by Miss Burney.’

So delighted was he with every work of genius, and so desirous of making it his own, that when The Autumn in Bristol caught his eye, he embroidered it on his own foolscap; but dire mishap! apologies soon flew about, were posted in every blue cover, and appeared in every shape: — the Autumn in Bristol shed its fruit in other hands; and Mr. Wigless’s book remained as it may be. [3: 196-97]

Scott transforms the controversy over A Winter at Bath into The Autumn in Bristol and Hughes of Wigmore Street into “Mr. Wigless.”  In this incident, Wigless advertises a book using Owen’s proposed title, just as Hughes had done with A Winter in Edinburgh.  The fact that no record of a second novel called A Winter in Edinburgh survives suggests that he may have withdrawn the title from publication.  In fact, a review published just a couple of months after the publication of A Winter in Edinburgh suggests that Hughes’s name had just “appeared in the Gazette, in the list of Bankrupts” (194).

Though Hughes’s career illustrates the extreme version of publishers creating genres by imitating recent successful works, in a broader sense all generic formation works in this way.  It’s my contention that literary scholars need to pay more attention to those aspects of the process of book publishing we often tend to dismiss as unworthy of our time: works that are derivative, imitative, and so forth, because it is only through the process of imitation, spurred by publishers, booksellers, and circulating libraries, that new genres are formed.


Anne H. Stevens (University of Nevada, Las Vegas): ‘Circulating and Subscription Libraries: Institutions as Creators of Genres’ PowerPoint