At first glance, modernist literature seems to have little in common with the practice of genre fiction. After all, genre fiction, say the genre of detective fiction, operates according to a set of conventions (there must be a crime, the main character is a detective, the plot follows the solution of the enigma surrounding the crime, etc.) and expectations on the part of its readership (readers of detective fiction, we presume, expect “a good mystery” just as readers of adventure stories expect lots of action). An apt contemporary analogy is with the cinema: for most spectators a film labeled a “romantic comedy” suggests an entire set of identifiable conventions. Whereas the experimental works of modernist authors appear designed to break with conventions and to frustrate the expectations of readers. The notorious and oft-tauted “difficulty” of modernist fiction (of Woolf, of Joyce, of Proust, etc.) is said to consist in part in its resistance to pre-established categories of fiction and storytelling. Is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) an epic? a psychological novel? a social novel about life in Dublin? or something entirely new and distinct? Perhaps no single answer to the questions a novel such as Ulysses inevitably raises will strike one as adequate. The exclusivity of that readership is also at issue. While works of genre fiction tend to be marketed to a wide audience, modernist texts seem to call for a smaller group of more specialized readers.
Upon closer inspection, however, the general relation of types of popular genre fiction to modernist novels is not so antithetical. In the first place, the modernists were, without apparent exception, prolific readers of the fiction of the nineteenth century, much of which fell within one genre or another. Indeed, many of the key genre categories — which continue to describe most fiction published today — had either their heyday or origin in the Victorian era: detective fiction, the Gothic, romance, the literature of sensation, melodrama, espionage, thrillers, science fiction, etc. Joseph Conrad, for one, had an extensive knowledge of romance, specifically the popular romances that concerned adventures at sea. Graham Greene, for his part, even devoted most of his own writing to the genre of the spy thriller.
Conrad’s relation to genre fiction, for instance, is hardly anomalous among the modernists; on the contrary, it is exemplary. Its exemplarity may be attributed to its two aspects: (1) Conrad is not dismissive of the genre of romance; rather, his novels are often structured according to plot devices familiar to readers of the genre; (2) at the same time Conrad does not passively absorb the influence of the romance genre; he transforms it by lending romance a psychological, political, and formal complexity rarely — if ever — encountered in even the best products of the genre. A novel such as Lord Jim (1901)is fully aware of its precedents in the genre. Conrad even goes so far as to make his title character, the enigmatic Jim, an avid reader of “light holiday literature” of the sea. But the gesture, on Conrad’s part, is not strictly one of homage; for part of Jim’s problem in the novel is precisely his over-reliance on the image of heroism he derives from his reading. Jim’s romantic sensibility becomes an obstacle in the performance of his duties as a sailor, not an inspiration. Thus, even in this small way, Conrad registers a fundamental ambivalence: popular romantic literature obviously offered him a reliable framework of incident and setting as a writer (one that corresponded to his personal experiences in the French and British merchant marines) but he illustrates, in the case history of Jim, how this literature gives one a distorted view of reality. Add to this the fact that, throughout his correspondence, Conrad was horrified at the idea of being thought of only as the writer of sea adventures — as opposed to a writer of deep psychological and social insight on the order of Gustave Flaubert — and we begin to glimpse just how vexed the relation of modernism and popular fiction could be.