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An Insatiable Market for Minor Characters: Genre in the Contemporary Literary Marketplace


Much of the recent revitalization of the field of genre theory takes as axiomatic the premise that scholars can extrapolate, from a genre’s conventional form, its underlying social logic. But how does literary form come to index or encode the social? This essay argues that we can produce a fuller account of how and why genres emerge and flourish, and of their reciprocally determining relation with their sociohistorical moments, by analyzing how the social logic of literary forms gets deployed in their more immediate contexts: the institutional locations, channels of production and reception, and the commercial and symbolic economies through which such forms circulate. The flourishing contemporary genre “minor-character elaboration” makes for a particularly revealing case of an emergent literary form that gets taken up and spurred by producers for its ability to fulfill social needs that are promulgated, if not manufactured, by the publishing industry, because it is a popular form that trades on the prestige of the traditional literary canon while accommodating voices from the margins. The essay demonstrates how the market logic of the book industry and the symbolic economy of the literary field shape the conventional forms that come to dominate that field. Today’s risk-averse publishers have embraced and actively promoted minor-character elaboration because its formal logic—explicit intertextual dialogue tethered to the adoption of diverse points of view—helps them identify and appeal to niche markets: an educated and wellcapitalized “bibliophile” niche of readers who recognize the prestige of the great books even if they haven’t read them, and identity groups that are reconceived as target publics. The genre proliferates, that is, because of the particular ways it is instrumental in helping producers accrue economic and symbolic capital.