Metanarratives of Authorship in Fin-de-Siècle Popular Fiction: “Is That All You Do, Write Stories?”

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This essay considers the rise of the professional author at the Victorian fin de siècle from the perspectives of two popular novelists and their metafictional treatments of authorship. Richard Marsh and Guy Boothby were prolific and commercially successful writers of the 1890s and the early 20th century, who attracted fierce censure from a cultural elite that deemed them key representatives of a new kind of author writing for a new kind of readership. Authors such as these, so the argument went, made of literature a trade – and the pursuit of profit and hence, popularity, led to the flooding of the market with novels of inferior quality that squeezed out properly literary work. The essay explores the context of fin de siècle debates about literary value and literary production, looking briefly at some fictional treatments of the subject in stories by George Gissing and Henry James, before moving on to an exploration of how these issues are negotiated in novels by Marsh and Boothby. Marsh and Boothby made use of literary settings and fictional authors, so the essay argues, in order both to write back to their critics, and to explore some of their own ambivalences about professional authorship. Reading the metanarratives of authorship of these avowedly popular authors uncovers perspectives on the rapidly transforming literary marketplace of the fin de siècle that are both importantly different from those of the self-consciously highbrow Gissing and James, but also sometimes unexpectedly convergent. In so doing, we gain a richer picture of fin de siècle debates on literary production than is provided by consultation of canonical works alone, and may even encounter new ways of considering the transformations in reading and writing that are underway today.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)362-389
Number of pages28
JournalEnglish Literature in Transition
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


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