Reviews

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.

What's Wrong with the Tournament of Books with Special Guests Ed Champion and Sarah Weinman

Every year, the Morning News website does a "Tournament of Books" in which a selection of reviewers compare books to one another, elimination style, until only one is left the victor. It's a pleasing concept and an addictive one, especially if you have a particular book or two you root for like a favorite sports team. The only problem is that there seem to be certain biases as to what books get picked for the tournament. Specifically, anything printed under a "genre" imprint (science fiction/fantasy/horror/romance/mystery/thriller/crime/whatever) gets ignored, pretty much as a rule. Which isn't to say they're opposed to genre concepts, for example, this year's tournament included Margaret Atwood's dystopian Year of the Flood, which even she refers to as a speculative fiction novel, though it's published as mainstream. One assumes then that it's not as much an explicit prejudice as simple ignorance.

To rectify the situation, I'm recommending some books from 2009 that were sadly overlooked, and I've recruited two excellent authorities, Ed Champion of Reluctant Habits and Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. It's too late to be included in this years proceedings but hopefully they'll take notice. And next year I plan to be more proactive in letting them know my selections before they begin, so they have no excuse!