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Distant HorizonsDigital Evidence and Literary Change$
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Ted Underwood

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780226612669

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226612973.001.0001

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The Life Spans of Genres

The Life Spans of Genres

(p.34) 2 The Life Spans of Genres
Distant Horizons

Ted Underwood

University of Chicago Press

Disagreements about the history of genre are hard to resolve because contemporary readers inevitably see earlier works through a retrospective lens. We may call the novels of Mary Shelley "science fiction," for instance, but that phrase didn't exist when she wrote them, and it is difficult to be sure that the genealogical connections we perceive aren't shaped by a need to find ourselves reflected in the past. There may be no perfect solution to this dilemma, but statistical models of genre do provide a new kind of leverage on it, because a model defined only by nineteenth-century examples can be genuinely ignorant about the present, and can serve as a proxy for the literary standards of a vanished era. Using this method, the chapter examines the history of science fiction, detective fiction, and the Gothic. The generational divides predicted by Franco Moretti do not appear. Models trained only on pre-Gernsback "scientific romance" are capable of recognizing their kinship to contemporary science fiction. Detective fiction, similarly, is revealed as a tightly unified genre, with a continuity that stretches back to Edgar Allan Poe. The Gothic, on the other hand, falls apart into several different subgenres.

Keywords:   genre, science fiction, detective fiction, Gothic, mystery, Edgar Allan Poe, scientific romance, genre theory, perspectival modeling, Jules Verne

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