Potted histories of genre fiction
February 15, 2022 5:47 AM   Subscribe

One of my favourite recent books was 'Paperbacks from Hell' by Grady Hendrix: really fun and insightful commentary into the popular horror novel genre: kind of a potted history. I'm interested in reading similar guides to other popular genres.

Hendrix's book focuses heavily on the cover art (which is INCREDIBLE!) but also has really interesting insight into why certain horror genres were popular in certain decades, how certain fears loomed large in cultural consciousness and found expression in popular horror literature. It's a fun read, not heavy, but really informative. He talks about major authors of each decade, and recommends 'best of's. It's brilliant.

I'd love to read a similar, witty and informative potted history of popular favourites from other genres. The ones I'm interested in are romance, fantasy and science-fiction. I'm also interested in children's fiction and fanfiction.

Can MeFites (who are as a group far more well-read than I) recommend similar books dealing with popular literary genres that I might enjoy?
posted by unicorn chaser to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, by Thomas M. Disch. It's not a historical survey of SF/F, but it has a lot to say about how & why various types of SF reflected & interacted with the times when they were written (e.g., lots about the US military-industrial complex, doomsday cults, etc.). Disch was ferociously clever & insightful.

Jo Walton's Informal History of the Hugos would be great too. (Excerpt/overview here.)

Also, a bit niche and only tangentially related but maybe of interest: I find Typeset in the Future a fun dive into genre conventions. It's about typography & graphic design in SF movies. (Link is to website; there's also a coffee table book.)
posted by miles per flower at 6:28 AM on February 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

On romance: Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan. There are more academic texts by Tania Modleski (Loving With a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women - 2007) and Janice Radway (Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature - 1991).

John Sutherland has written several books on popular fiction. You might like Reading The Decades: Fifty Years of British History through the Nation's Bestselling Books.

You might also like Sheenagh Pugh's The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context.

On children's books - these may be a bit too specific and not witty enough, but maybe
* Helen Avelin's Unseen Childhoods: Disabled Characters in 20th-Century Books for Girls
* Julia Briggs's edited collection Popular Children’s Literature in Britain
* Marah Gubar's Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature
* Lois Keith's Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls
* Rosemary Auchmuty's two books, A World of Girls: the Appeal of the Girls' School Story and A World of Women: growing up in the girls' school story
* Ju Gosling's online thesis, Virtual Worlds of Girls
* Bridget Carrington and Jennifer Harding's edited collection, Beyond the Book: Transforming Children’s Literature
posted by paduasoy at 7:13 AM on February 15, 2022 [5 favorites]

First thank you, I meant to read Paperbacks from Hell years ago and it slipped through the cracks, off to the library!

You might enjoy “Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction”. It’s also heavy on cover art and goes into detail about major authors and changing trends. I really enjoyed it!
posted by lepus at 7:39 AM on February 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

This thread is germane to my interests! I am definitely going to look at the recommendations.

Here are some additional:

New books from PM Press:
Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980
Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985

The essays in both are sometimes pretty thin, but there are some really good interviews with authors, the color reproductions of covers are terrific and while the essays aren't always especially deep, they are extremely complete - I learned about a huge number of books I had never heard of in years of being interested in This Sort Of Thing.

Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps is a little pulpier than I'd anticipated - I hoped it would cover semi-pulp stuff like The Heart In Exile - but it's an engaging and informative read.

You might also like the Oddly Modern Fairy Tales series edited by Jack Zipes. These are less books about fairy tales than unusual fairy tales or fairy tale retellings from the past (ie, we all know various fairy tale retellings/modernizations from the nineties onward...but would you like some revised fairy tales from 1930?) but they are very informative about the genre.

The Secret Feminist Cabal is a very readable and interesting book about women fans and writers in SF.
posted by Frowner at 8:27 AM on February 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

There was a book collecting the lesbian pulps of the 50s and doing some analysis but I cannot recall the author or title and don't have the space at the moment to refine my cursory google results. There's a compilation of Anne Bannon's Beebo Brinker novels that seems like an okay place to start, though.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:40 AM on February 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree is an excellent history of science fiction.
posted by goatdog at 11:52 AM on February 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Once again, AskMe has understood the assignment. Thank you so much for these brilliant answers!
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:01 AM on February 16, 2022

If you're open to reading about movies as well as books, here's one I just put on my list: From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy by Scott Meslow (link is to NPR interview with the author).
posted by amarynth at 6:41 AM on February 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

This tweet - "if you liked Paperbacks from Hell, this is the indispensible sci-fi companion!" - has just come up in my timeline; I think we can take that as a timely second endorsement for Dangerous Visions and New Worlds.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:46 AM on February 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

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