Beginning in June 2020, the New York Times ran a series entitled Why Does Art Matter?, in which more than a dozen artists, writers, and thinkers discussed the relevance of specific art forms and art in general to human life. The series inspired in me some thoughts about the artistic enterprise in which we are engaged.
Sometimes the most convincing proof of an art form’s relevance is that it has endured. Genre-fiction magazines have proved capable of holding their audiences for extraordinarily long periods of time. As our regular readers will know, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine will be concluding its eightieth year of continuous publication with the next issue to go on sale (November/December 2021). A somewhat longer unbroken run can be claimed by Analog Science Fiction and Fact, which is ninety-two, and our sister mystery publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, turned sixty-five this year, followed by Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is forty-four. Two titles older than any of these magazines, Weird Tales (1923) and Amazing Stories (1926), have been repeatedly revived. Those remarkable publishing records are evidence, I think, that deeper cultural needs are being met by these magazines than simply fulfilling the public’s appetite for particular genres.
The earliest genre-fiction magazine, The Argosy (1888), presented varied types of stories to its readers, banking on good storytelling being a greater draw than a particular genre. Theirs was an era of increasing literacy in the U.S. and because their costs were low—partly due to printing on “pulp” paper—The Argosy and similar titles that soon joined it could be priced for a mass audience and thereby create large national readerships, bringing together geographically and culturally diverse segments of the country.
By the time EQMM came on the scene in 1941, the landscape had changed. During the 1920s and ’30s, the many new pulps that appeared were all for specialized audiences (Western, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, or hard-boiled detection). Quality was no longer the touchstone it had been, especially as demand grew and speed was required to fill pages. EQMM’s founding editor, Frederic Dannay (who cowrote the Ellery Queen novels and stories with his cousin Manfred B. Lee), decided that an entirely new type of genre-fiction magazine was needed, one that would put quality first, and whose range, although nominally limited to crime fiction, would be broader than that of any of the existing titles.
The best of the crime-fiction pulps, Black Mask, was primarily targeted at a male audience, with stories of unflagging action—although Fanny Ellsworth, its influential editor from 1936 to 1940, brought in masters of psychological suspense such as Cornell Woolrich. Nowhere in the pulp world, though, were traditional mysteries to be found. Only the glossy magazines occasionally published whodunits. Dannay’s idea—a revolutionary one—was to bring all of the different types of mystery story, from the whodunit to the mean-streets crime tale, from psychological suspense to the police procedural, together in one publication. Equally important was his quest to find and reprint a mystery by every great fiction writer in history—in order, I suppose, to demonstrate that mystery is at the heart of storytelling itself. If he could do that, he could help break down the barriers between “genre” and “literary” fiction, and, as he wrote, “raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form.”
Much ink has been spilled in recent decades over the breakdown of the boundaries between genre and literary fiction, but it’s rarely noted that this process began at least eighty years ago, when it served as a driving principle for EQMM. The original work of so many literary writers appeared in the magazine (William Faulkner and Jorge Luis Borges the best known) beside genre writers like Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, that one modern scholar, Leah Pennywark, has credited EQMM with being a force in the development of postmodernism, through its interweaving of “high and popular culture.”* Here we have an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: I’ve always felt that a fiction magazine, to be any good, must be more than a collection of stories. The juxtaposition of works, both in an individual issue and over time, has transformative potential, and it is transformative potential that makes any art form matter. If Pennywark is right, EQMM helped to transform American literary culture and, through it, our wider culture.
It isn’t only at the higher levels of culture that art needs to have an impact in order to matter, and to illustrate how not only EQMM but the other genre-fiction magazines have influenced our culture as a whole I’d like to resurrect a concept that went out of fashion a few decades ago: that of the “intelligent general reader.” I think of that person as someone who may shy away from certain forms of experimental or “literary” fiction (which, to many, seems accessible only to the initiated), but who nevertheless has an interest in stories that engage the mind and convey something about the human condition. This is the wider audience to which EQMM and most of the other genre fiction magazines address themselves.
Since all of the current magazines in the genre-fiction category, including EQMM, bear reference in their titles to one or more particular genre, that may seem an odd thing to say. Doesn’t the mystery concern itself with puzzles and crime, science fiction with scientific concepts, horror with supernatural objects of fear, and so on? And aren’t those special interests?
The answer to both questions is yes—and yet there’s a lot more to most genre fiction than those tags suggest. In an interview for The Paris Review’s Art of Ficton section (No. 221) Ursula K. LeGuin contrasted her work to “hard” science fiction, in which interest in a scientific concept predominates, by saying, “I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating. . . . It’s helped to make my stuff more accessible to people who don’t, as they say, read science fiction.” In a similar way, through its exploration of human motivation, mystery fiction often appeals to readers who don’t self-identify as fans of the genre; the crime story, however focused on action, necessarily also shines a light on society, since crime is behavior aberrant to a society. Even the horror story, which may seem on the face of it the furthest removed from questions about the human condition, often touches on something larger than its fantastical elements: think of H.P. Lovecraft and the interest reflected in his fiction in humanity’s place in an uncaring universe.
If the concept of the “intelligent general reader” has fallen out of fashion in publishing, it’s largely because it’s more profitable to market to specialized audiences than to attempt a broad societal reach. We’re all enouraged, these days, by various forms of marketing, to self-identify in terms of specialized interests (even as pertains to the news we consume). The divide between the economic and educational opportunities and cultural interests of “elites” and “non-elites” has not been greater in recent memory. We all know from our recent national election, if from nothing else, that these many forms of division are a problem for our society, but have we considered how the breaking up of popular culture into ever narrower compartments may affect our ability to see the world from shared perspectives?
It wasn’t so long ago that what was striking at the level of popular culture was how common our interests were. The last episode of the network TV show M.A.S.H (1983) had 106 million viewers—an audience that obviously cut across social classes and ethnicities, since that was more than half the adult population of the country at the time. We don’t have anything that comes even close to that today; the last episode of the most popular recent TV show, Game of Thrones, had just over 16 million U.S. viewers, about twelve percent of American adults. Even delayed viewing doesn’t bring that show’s numbers close to the viewership peaks for shows like M.A.S.H. But it’s not just the numbers that matter; it’s the fact that there have come to be so few areas in which culture is shared across social classes at all today—literature not excluded.
If, for instance, one looks at the demographics of some of the best-known literary (as opposed to genre) magazines, one has to conclude that their readerships consist of the educational and economic elite. The Paris Review, for instance, shows more than half its readership as having traveled internationally, ninety-nine percent having recently visited a gallery or museum, more than three quarters placing restaurants high on their list of lifestyle spending. That is not rural or blue collar America or even the urban middle-middle class.
Content is not, I think, the primary reason such publications don’t appeal across more of the economic and social spectrum. As far as content goes, there’s significant overlap between the genre and literary magazines. EQMM’s current authors, for example, include two National Book Award winners, Joyce Carol Oates and Sigrid Nunez, and several others who are mainstays of various literary magazines. Conversely, many best-of-year anthologies in the mystery field contain stories drawn from the literary magazines. (They make up nearly half of 2019’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Jonathan Lethem.) What makes the literary magazines seem inaccessible to readers who don’t self-identify as part of the cultural elite is the perception (sometimes accurate) that they also contain cryptic content that may not repay the effort required to understand it. And then there’s the matter of cost. A single issue of The Paris Review is $20.00, compared to around $8.00 for a similar-length issue of any of the major genre-fiction magazines—a disparity justified by the high-quality paper and original art the literary magazines use, but which, nevertheless, may put them out of the reach of a large swath of the population.
Fiction magazines don’t simply find their audiences, they create them. They create a perception of themselves to which readers respond—or don’t. Literary magazines are mostly consciously targeted at an elite segment of society, and so people not belonging to that group often don’t even think of buying one. There was no certainty that Frederic Dannay could forge a common readership out of the disparate elements from which he was drawing back in 1941. In fact, it must have seemed quite a gamble. The classical whodunit (of the sort Agatha Christie wrote) usually turned around upper-class life—unsuprisingly, since it was most often written by those with privileged backgrounds and elite academic credentials, while the “hardboiled” story (popularized by authors such as Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler) was generally set in a world of violence and want, and written by those who’d had some experience of that sphere. There is no necessary correlation, of course, between the social stratum in which a work of fiction is set and the audience it ultimately commands, but previous magazines had targeted readerships more or less in line with the segments of society depicted. It took an editor like Dannay, willing to take risks himself, to draw readers out of their comfort zones and to forge an audience with a broad societal range.
It is, I think, a good thing that Dannay succeeded in his project of expanding and mainstreaming the crime-fiction genre, for it is often through shared stories (whether communicated via television or print or some other means) that we come to understand people unlike ourselves. Social class is not the only source of otherness, of course, but it is one of the sources that most bedevil us today. A publication that can reach across class and ethnic and geographic and gender lines and present a shared form of entertainment to an intelligent general readership has the potential to expand our understanding of one another, even if only in a small way. The genre-fiction magazines are among the few remaining publications that do this, and that is one answer to the question why they matter. —Janet Hutchings
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine: From Postpulp to Postmodern by Leah Pennywark, Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 9.2 (2018): 220-244