Popular Reading

Low to Middling Genres, 1890–1945


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This course explores a key period in the history of pleasure reading and genre writing in English: the first half of the twentieth century. By 1900, more books were being published and more people were reading for entertainment than ever before, on both sides of the Atlantic. What did people read? This seminar looks at the beginnings of genres that rose to popularity around 1900 and continue to flourish today, even if they aren’t always classified as “literature”: mystery, romance, thriller, science fiction. We will also read some examples of popular poetry and of a more respectable novelistic genre that was nonetheless too popular for the most advanced taste: the realist novel. We will pay special attention to gender among readers and writers; developments in publishing; sincerity and self-consciousness; sex and violence; the question of realism and the fantastic; the fictions of social class; the impact of war; and the varieties of prose style.

This reading-intensive seminar will culminate in a research paper requiring each student to choose and study a further example of one of the genres studied in the course. In order to build meaningfully to the paper, this course will require a series of exercises which are more like problem sets than self-sufficient essays. Over the course of the semester these exercises will afford practice in the skills of formal analysis of a single text, reflecting on texts within a genre, studying responses to a literary text, and identifying primary and secondary sources for research. A research presentation at the end of term, before the paper is due, will create an occasion to synthesize research results ahead of the formal paper—and give everyone a chance to share the fruits of their work in the course with one another.

Learning goals

  1. Think and write critically about individual texts in terms of genre.
  2. Write a researched literary-historical argument that requires independently finding primary and secondary sources.
  3. Join the scholarly conversation about low and high culture, literary taste, literary value, and the uses of imaginative writing.
  4. Acquire broad knowledge of popular literatures in English in the 1890–1945 period, including some familiarity with the history of publishing and readership.