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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.

Larry Marder Interviewed at NYCC

An interview with Larry Marder, creator of Beanworld and former CEO of Image Comics, talks about a most peculiar comic book experience, 25 years of anthropomorphic beans and making comics vs. running a comics company.

Larry Marder's Website: http://larrymarder.blogspot.com/

I've been a fan of Beanworld since I first discovered it as a kid, and you will not find a stranger, more giddily wonderful comic.

The Meaning of Novelty: Convention, Form, Genre and an Existential Crisis

What is a Convention?

Allow me to describe a conception of art based around the twin poles of convention and novelty (which I will resist calling Convention and Novelty, because I am not French). A convention is simply a norm or collection of norms, and all art exists within certain conventions. In the visual arts, applying paint with a brush is a convention of method, and a landscape is a convention of genre, containing its own, respective conventions that can differ from time to time and place to place, as illustrated by the clear differences between traditional East Asian landscape paintings and traditional European ones. (European landscapes tend to be wider than they are high and emphasize the horizon, while East Asian landscapes tend to be higher than they are wide and emphasize scale. Each convention produces a remarkably different effect.) There is no art, or even expression, without conventions of some sort; conventions are the means by which things are expressed, the (sometimes literal, sometimes figurative) vocabulary and grammar we use to convey things. In this sense, conventions are a type of language.

Logicomix: A Short Review

I just read Logicomix. Very interesting. Should have taken the tractatus more seriously, but that's ok, even a lot of professional philosophers don't understand it.

The impact of World War One on modernity is beautifully captured by a two page layout of Wittgenstein standing in the middle of no man's land and a caption by Russell saying "put a man on the edge of the abyss, and in the unlikely event that he doesn't fall in he will become either a mystic or a madman."

The themes betray a computer scientist's fondness for Turing, algorithms, and computation that if not wholly misplaced is not the answer to everything that many computer geeks think it is.

Yet again i find myself wishing that more people would read Hubert Dreyfuss.

But Dreyfuss himself doesn't understand The Philosophical Investigations point on psychology and in his commitment ot Heideggerean phenomenology founded in metaphysics as opposed to a Wittgensteinian one founded in language, he concedes too much to the model makers.

Fan Service

"When I moved here from the west coast," said Marlin May, a black, homosexual SF fan who I met first on Twitter, and who compared "coming out" as an SF fan to "coming out" as gay, "I didn't know a lot of people. But when I started going to con[vention]s here, I felt like I was home. I was back where I belong."

It was a sentiment I heard over and over again from people at Arisia, New England's Largest Science Fiction Convention (attendance: about 3,000). On one panel, the moderator opined that cons are “where we seem to fit. In other places is where we're playing roles,” with the deliberate irony that the convention was full of role playing games. One woman I talked to referred to Arisia specifically as a “lifestyle con”. This was a convention run by fans for fans to come and hang out and play and fuck. Which helped explain the lack of corporate presence that one finds at your average comic book convention. There were no booths for major publishers here, no b-grade sci-fi actors being paid for autographs, no developers giving advanced previews of their latest video game offering. A panel on the future of Doctor Who, which at New York or San Diego Comic-Con would have been made up of writers, producers, and/or stars of the TV show, was instead made up entirely of fans. The moderator began “Well, we've only got fifteen seconds of footage to go on, so I'm not sure what we're going to talk about,” and then the panelists started talking about their favorite episodes of the show instead. Most of the panels were simply manned by other fans, who didn't seem any more qualified to talk about a given subject then those in the audience, which was probably why the audience felt so entitled to give their own opinions at length whenever the mood arose, as if everyone was part of the panel.

The Best of My 125 Book Year

Some years ago a "52-books-in-a-year" meme sprouted up, in which people "challenged" themselves to read a book a week for a year. I thought at the time, as I do now, that this is an absurdly small number of books; reading for merely a half-an-hour to an hour a day one can easily polish off a book a week (depending, admittedly, on the length and difficulty of the book and the reading speed of the individual). Considering that the "average" American supposedly watches four hours of television a day, sacrificing a quarter of that to book reading doesn't seem like much of a challenge, and I'm under the impression that most bibliophiles read quite a bit more and watch quite a bit less. To prove the point at the beginning of 2009 I decided to simply keep track of my reading. My final tally came to 125 books. You can see whole list at Library Thing. (The Doc Savage book "The Man of Bronze/The Land of Terror" counts twice as it's two books collected as one.) Below are short reviews of the best of this list.

Michael Moorcock: The Wet Asphalt Interview

This is part of my series on the work of Michael Moorcock.

Today marks the 70th birthday of Michael Moorcock, and for more the vast majority of those years the man has been publishing fiction read by millions. For more on his career, refer to my review of The Best of Michael Moorcock, from earlier in this series. Our interview took place via email over the course of a few months, and ranged widely in topics, including genre, ethics, feminism, imitation, comics, Jung and more.

In my initial email to him, I described my own introduction to his work. Normally, I would edit this sort of thing out of the interview, but I leave it here because it becomes important to his initial responses. In some cases where multiple questions were asked in one email and responded to in another, I spliced the emails together, or moved follow ups next to the questions they referenced, to make the whole thing read more fluidly. I apologize for any clumsiness caused by this technique.

Michael Moorcock's most recent book is Elric: In the Dream Realms.

National Novel Writing Month Redux

Three years ago, I wrote a post on this site called "Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month and Why You Should Too". Every year since then, as November draws near, that post is inundated with angry comments from NaNoWriMo'ers clamoring about my elitism, egotism, negativity, cynicism, bitterness, pretension, and at least in one case there was an implied comparison between (my impression of) NaNoWriMo'ers and terrorists ("notify Homeland Security!"). Not to mention the various trolls who simply hurled profanities at me, comments which I then deleted. The post has become the single most visited and the many-times-over most commented one on this site. There was even a reporter from an in-flight airline magazine who interviewed me about the subject a couple years back, and asked such insightful questions as "Why do you care? How does NaNoWriMo affect you, anyway?"