reading the history of popular literature

Reading Popular Literature Interlude 1: The Romance Problem

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

While I've made an effort to be inclusive about the genres I read in this series, you may notice one obvious omission: Romance novels. So why would I exclude a whole genre? You'd think any attempt to cover the history of popular fiction would have to include one of the most popular categories of books of them all.

I guess I just never got past the stereotype of the romance genre as porn for middle aged suburban house wives (as opposed to erotica, porn for the more adventurous, urban woman). When a pre-teen, before the Internet exploded, I used to sneak into the romance section of the library and page through the books looking for the sex scenes, simultaneously getting horny and giggling at the language ("his turgid manhood thrust into the triangle of my femininity" etc.).

And yet, it's not as if I don't like romantic story lines; I actually like them quite a lot. And I certainly don't have anything against a good sex scene. I've also read people talking about romance as a real genre, one every bit as respectable as mystery or science fiction. But I don't know where to start. Barbara Cortland and Danielle Steel, who are both on the best-selling all-time writer list, seem kind of execrable.

So I turn the matter over to you, my readers. If you've been reading my essays so far, you know something about my taste. Recommend me something in the romance category. Fantasy or paranormal romance are perfectly acceptable, as are more realist fare. Just as long as there are characters with more than one dimension, a premise and plot that aren't insulting to my intelligence, and a style that doesn't make me want to claw my eyes out. Prove to me, if you can, that my long held prejudices are wrong.

Any suggestions?

Reading Popular Literature part 4: The Pulp Era (1920-1941)

Edit: Corrected some embarrassing factual and spelling mistakes

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

Advances in publishing technology in the late 19th and early 20th century gave rise to huge numbers of cheaply produced magazines written to appeal to the widest possible audience. By the 20s and 30s, before television and with radio still new, these magazines were a primary form of home entertainment and sold in the millions of copies. They typically cost 10 cents and were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, and thus called "pulps" to differentiate them from the more expensive, glossy-paper "slick" magazines.

The argument could be made that much of what we think of as popular fiction today was codified in the 1920s and 1930s during the boom period of the pulps. Hard boiled crime fiction, romantic stories both sentimental and lurid, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and horror all become recognizable in the pages of various pulp magazines. Indeed, before the pulp era, "genre" was a word commonly used to differentiate forms like poetry from prose. It was magazines like Astounding Stories (for science fiction) and Weird Tales (for horror and fantasy) that created the notion of categories of fiction separate from one another, with sets of common tropes and history. In the letter pages of these magazines and in the burgeoning hobby of ham radio, the first genre fandoms begin to arise, as people with common interests begin to find each other and communicate and eventually form the first "fan clubs."

The pulp era ended more-or-less in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America's subsequent entry into the Second World War. Paper shortages caused by the war made pulp paper much more expensive, causing many of them to shut down or change format and pricing. (The war had similar impacts on the production and distribution of popular entertainment in other parts of the world as well.) Soon enough comic books, television and the paperback revolution rose up to take pulp's place as providers of cheap entertainment for the masses.

Reading the History of Popular Literature part 3: The Progressive Era and WWI (1900-1919)

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

What we call the Progressive Era in the United States coincides roughly with the Edwardian Era in the United Kingdom, the period after the turn of the century up until the first world war. It was a time of optimism and ideals mixed with chaos and social and political disruption; big ideas like woman's suffrage, alcohol prohibition, eugenics, occultism, Communism and Anarchism were all gaining traction, and major technological advances—the automobile, electricity, the telephone, the movie camera, the machine gun, etc.—were changing everyday life at an unprecedented rate. The rise of industry led to corporate power on a level no one had seen before, and American industrialists like Rockefeller, Morgan and Hearst ranked among the wealthiest people in the world. All this went hand-in-hand with plenty of violence, in the form of state-sanctioned genocide, revolutionary agitation, the assassination of major political figures and finally the bloodiest war Western history had seen to that point.

In popular literature, reaction to all this change generally manifested as yearning for a simpler time or a simpler world. This simpler world might be in the past, in the future, on another planet, over the rainbow or even just in the cops-and-robbers dramas of the newspaper, but one thing you could count on was that the characters would be larger-than-life, good and evil would be clearly demarcated and good would most certainly triumph in the end.

In America, and to a lesser extent Britain and Europe, there was also a massive influx of immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as new technologies (like the steam and then the gasoline engine), and economic and political changes allowed population movement on an unprecedented scale. The racial and class anxiety this caused in the West manifested in popular literature as bald racism and stories where heroic whites battle against corrupt and evil foreigners or dark-skinned monsters.

Reading the History of Popular Fiction Part 2: The Mid-to-Late Nineteenth Century

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin, not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (United Kingdom - 1819) (Not finished)

A 1819 publication date is obviously a little early for a book's inclusion in an article called "The Mid-to-Late Nineteenth Century", but it's not a Gothic novel so I'm fitting it in here.

Ivanhoe, like The Castle of Otranto, is set in the 12th century, but trades the more spooky and fantastic trappings of the Gothic for Romantic knights in tournaments, historical intrigues, and bald soap opera. One of the supporting characters is Robin Hood, and a principle character is a Jewish lady in one of the early positive portrayals of a Jew in European gentile literature. The book was very popular, and was part of a long series of books the author wrote about the period, which in turn inspired numerous imitators and led to a boom in historical medieval fiction that's an important part of the lineage that stretches from the heroic epics of the 16th century like Orlando Furioso to the quasi-medieval fantasies of JRR Tolkein and his heirs.

Reading the History of Popular Literature part 1: The Gothics

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin, not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.


The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole (England - 1764) and an introduction to the Gothic

Rarely can a literary movement be traced so definitively to one book. So why is The Castle of Otranto subtitled "A Gothic Story"? The word "Gothic" referred originally to the Goths, a Germanic people famous for being the barbarians who sacked Rome during the fall of the Roman empire. For much of European history, then, the term "Gothic" was synonymous with "barbaric". In the Renaissance period, artists began to refer to earlier styles of Medieval art which they were rebelling against as ugly and Gothic. Eventually, the cultural period in which that art flourished, approximately the 12th to 16th centuries, became known to scholars simply as the Gothic period.

The subtitle of the Castle of Otranto, then, refers to the fact that it takes place at the beginning of that period, in the 12th century.

Reading the History of Popular Literature: Introduction

After considering the history of genre and popularity, and looking at my reading list full of popular novels I missed during my years of literary fiction snobbery, I decided the best thing to do would be to put all the books I wanted to read in chronological order, and with them other books I hadn't read that might help illuminate the lineage of contemporary popular literature -- which is to say the popular literature of the culture I live in, America in the 21st century. This way I could get a feel for how the the work developed over time and get a sense of its context.

Of course, any such lineage could be traced back at least to Gilgamesh. For practical purposes, I decided to begin with the Gothics because it appears that a lot of the tropes and tendencies we associate with popular genres developed there. The list is also, unfortunately, predominantly Western. With certain notable exceptions, such as The Arabian Nights, popular literature in the West has been almost exclusively from the West, with relatively little from other regions getting translated into Western languages and brought to Western shores at all. Even today, with the welcome exception of Japanese manga and anime, most of the popular culture we consume is Western, and in America most of that is American or, at best, British.

The list is also largely dominated by science fiction and fantasy and its antecedents for the simple reason that it's what I want to read. There will, however, be forays into crime, mystery, western, thriller and other popular genres, in order to get a flavor of what else was going on at the time. I'm also going to mention some works I read before starting the project if they help illuminate or represent something that I think is important about a particular period.