In one of his essays, author George Orwell raised the question of whether “bad” literature can still be readable. The issue may seem far-fetched and indicate a rather highbrow attitude to literature, but who should be the judge of what is good and bad literature – the literary scholar or the reader?
Critics might classify "bad" books as sub-standard writing that does not appeal to the intellect. They would probably claim that taste and popularity are not the same as quality. They may have a point, but it seems a bit pretentious to discard the literary preference of millions of readers.
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Let us take a look at some of the most popular sub-genres of what is staple reading for the masses. These books will be available at a newsagent or in the supermarket rather than a book store. And this kind of literature has been and still is enjoyed by millions who just seek the pure entertainment of a reading experience.
The western used to be immensely popular reading up until some decades ago, but today the market seems to have outgrown this particular genre. The master of western fiction was Zane Grey (1872-1939) who had a vast production of novels about the heroes and villains of The Wild West. It is an interesting fact that Norwegian Kjell Hallbing alias Louis Masterson also had great success with his series about cowboy hero Morgan Kane, also in America. The heroes are many – Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Buck Jones, Roy Rogers, all of them quick gunslingers, fighting fearlessly against outlaws and savage redskins. The western soon became popular film material starring famous Hollywood actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and even Ronald Reagan. The genre, in both literature and film, is characterised by certain mandatory elements, such as the loner or the passing stranger, the saloon with drinking, card playing, fist fighting and loose women, the useless sheriff and his even more useless deputy, the bad guy(s) who is eventually rounded up after a shoot-out or killed in a duel in the dusty main street, after which the stranger mounts his horse and rides off into the sunset. Some elements may be historically correct, but most of this literature is pure fiction built up around the romantic image of the Wild West.
The Hospital Romance
Intrigues at the hospital ward are the basic features of this genre. Unreciprocated love, romance and affairs between the members of the staff are common ingredients. A typical situation is the tension at the operating table between the surgeon and his assisting nurse who is secretly in love with him, or there may be edginess because they have just broken off an affair. The doctor is usually a handsome and very professional bachelor, and will be bossy with the nurses in an arrogant but often flirting manner. In this universe we meet the traditional sex roles; the female nurses flock around an attractive male who relishes his position and status. We will also get a glimpse of the natural pecking order in a hospital ward. In recent times this genre has had spin-offs in a number of hospital series produced for TV. There is of course a massive drama potential in this setting, which is easily exploited commercially.
The Family Chronicle
Usually this literature has a historical setting where we follow a certain household through generations. The books come in series that go on and on, because the universe of such literature is literally inexhaustible. The characters usually live at a remote farm with little or no contact with the outside world. We follow the intrigues and conflicts connected to love, marriage, jealousy, traditions and expectations, class, inheritance, and friction with neighbouring freeholders. The narrative often has an element of supernatural or mystic events and perhaps some issues related to religion and superstition. These books have an amazingly large audience; they clearly outsell any other genre, and a series may contain up to one hundred volumes.
The development of rocket science and the idea of possible extra-terrestrial life have opened a market for fiction that is evolving around space missions and encounters with aliens from outer space. This started out as literary genre and had a huge audience, particularly in America, but the genre was gradually taken over by a spectacular Hollywood film production. Some of the most famous film narratives are 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Alien, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the extremely popular Star Wars series. There is also a more “serious” type of science fiction literature that points a finger at certain questionable features of our modern society and works as a warning of a disturbing future; examples are Gorge Orwell’s 1984 and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Follow the link below for a more in-depth study of the genre and its sub-genres
Crime and Horror
This genre is also very popular; many people find it relaxing to chill out with a thrilling crime story. However, diving into a dark and disturbing universe with killing, torture, and molesting is far from what one should think most people would find relaxing. But for some reason people are thrilled by this sombre universe of bloodshed and death. And it seems they crave even more - the current trend in international crime literature is quite unsettling. The killings are becoming increasingly cunning with detailed descriptions of mutilation and torture. The gory details fill page upon page and the killer shows no restraint in his horrid proceedings, leaving behind severed body parts and bloody intestines.There seems to be no limit as to how far the writer will go to shock the reader. But the reading audience is apparently insatiable however brutal and repulsive the narrative may be. Like the western, this genre also has a frame of familiar and basic ingredients. Follow the link for a more in-depth analysis of the genre.
The writers of mass-literature have never been accepted by the scholars as genuine and legitimate authors. Most of them are not even accepted as members of the Society of Authors, because they represent what the critics would call “non-literature”. The question is purely of academic interest. It is of course fully legitimate to read whatever gives you an enjoyable reading experience, which is also George Orwell’s conclusion in the mentioned essay. After all, “bad” literature is a label that is helpful only to categorise literature by strictly academic standards. Such a label says absolutely nothing about the reader. We are different people, and our cultural preferences differ, it is as simple as that.
Comprehension and Discussion
- Why and by whom are these books referred to as "non-literature"?
- To what degree is the Western based on historical facts?
- Discuss the possible connection between the laws of the Wild West and today's weapon legislation in the USA.
- List some of the TV series you have seen that are based on intrigues at a hospital. Why do you think these series are so popular?
- Do you know any examples of a long series of Family Chronicles? Why are these series so long, and why do so many people love this genre?
- Why do you think that horror literature has become more explicit? Is there a limit to how far this trend can be developed in literature and film?
- This kind of literature is characterised by what we call clichès. How would you define a clichè? Try and make a difference between structural and verbal clichès. If you don't know you may follow this link for information. Literary Terms
- Check the books on offer at your nearest supermarket. Do you recognise any of the genres mentioned in the article? (You could also check if the same titles are for sale at a book store.)
- Google "mass literature" and see what you can come up with for a definition and a survey of its reading public.
- Check with some libraries and make a list of the most popular genres and books borrowed. Can you place any of them in some of the categories mentioned in the article?
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