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.

I've already read about half the list and sometime this week I will post the first installment on the Gothic writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It's interesting to see both how the popular literature represented the time in which it emerged and how it fed into the popular consciousness to form many of the preconceptions about the world and about fiction that we now take for granted. I hope you all enjoy coming along for the ride.