Friday, June 9, 2017

"Dime novels," literature, and my own schizophrenia


First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:


It was on this day in 1860 that the first dime novel was published. It was called Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens (books by this author), and it was the first of 321 novels published by Beadle & Adams in their series Beadle's Dime Novels. The early dime novels were wrapped in a salmon-colored cover, and they actually cost 10 cents. Before long, the phrase "dime novel" was used to mean any cheap, melodramatic pulp fiction, some of which actually cost 15 cents. Many authors of dime novels wrote nothing else, but there were some established writers who tried their hands at writing pulp fiction. Theodore Dreiser may have helped write the Diamond Dick dime novels. Louisa May Alcott published more than 30 dime novels under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. She wrote to her friend Alfred Whitman: "I intend to illuminate the Ledger with a blood and thunder tale as they are easy to 'compoze' and are better paid than moral and elaborate works of Shakespeare, so don't be shocked if I send you a paper containing a picture of Indians, pirates, wolves, bears and distressed damsels in a grand tableau over a title like this: 'The Maniac Bride' or 'The Bath of blood, A Thrilling Tale of Passion.'" Upton Sinclair wrote boys' adventure novels; he would dictate about 6,000-8,000 words a day to a stenographer.

And there is this personal postscript:

This brief article about dime novels and pulp fiction has me thinking again about the real and imagined differences between popular and literary fiction. More to the point, avoiding complicated literary criticism that is involved in the matter, I wonder why some people look down their noses at certain types of fiction and come across as snobs in their celebration of literary fiction. And here is the big problem for me: I confess to being a pathetic schizophrenic reader in that I have at times embraced the "guilty pleasures" that come with reading popular fiction, but at the same time I have been guilty often of being one of those insufferable snobs who pontificate on the merits of literature and the defects of popular fiction; perhaps my M.A. course of study was part of my psychiatric downfall because I think I was quite effectively and irredeemably brainwashed by the snobs in academia. Well, I need to stop going on and on about my schizophrenia about popular and literary fiction, a condition that is not likely to be cured during my lifetime (i.e., on any given day I might either embrace or denounce popular fiction -- witness my recent posting on the Sherlock Holmes stories -- and then I might declare my exclusive commitment to certain literature -- witness my past postings on the Bible, William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Flannery O'Connor).

So, ending my incoherent babbling, I invite you to discuss your ideas about popular and literary fiction. So, what do you think?

Postscript:
Because of a discussion about Victorians and crime fiction at Margot Kinberg's fine blog -- Confessions of a Mystery Novelist -- I have just succumbed to an impulse, and I have downloaded a Kindle copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." This is one of those stories that seems to me to bridge the gap between popular and literary fiction. But enough about Jekyll and Hyde for now. Perhaps I will return to discussing it later.


2nd Postscript:
And speaking of popular v. literary fiction, Charles Dickens is a fascinating example for both sides of the argument. Today, it is worth noting, is the anniversary of his death. Read more about him via this Wikipedia link. And further complicating my reading plans -- always subject to change, even more frequently than most people change their socks -- I have also just downloaded a complete Kindle collection of Charles Dickens's work. Perhaps I will be reading and discussing Dickens in the future. Perhaps.



8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Tim, and for the link. I appreciate both. I'll look forward to any thoughts you choose to post about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is interesting to think about the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction. I often think the line is blurred. There are many crime novels, for instance, that could be considered literary, too (I'm thinking of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, as one example). And there are plenty of stories usually considered literary, that have elements of crime in them. Just look at Shakespeare, for instance.

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    1. Margot, I remember having permission from the department chairman to teach an elective English department course that focused on crime-detective-mystery fiction, and the backlash from others in the English department was both surprising and annoying; I never again attempted to violate the sacred boundaries imposed by the guardians of academic "standards," but I wish I would have persisted in the battle against the snobs.

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  2. Tim,

    I enjoy reading mysteries, SF/F, and fiction/literature. I don't feel guilty about reading any of those three types. I find it extremely difficult (so I'm not going to try) to compare the three because each has a different set of goals governing them.

    And, I won't fall into the trap of trying to define them, for that leads to long hours of quibbling and picking of nits. I can't define them, but I know what they are when I read them.

    I guess I just got frustrated and tired of hearing, "Yes, but what about..." after I had just spent considerable time trying to come up with a definition, and no comment was ever made about what I had come up with.

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  3. me, too... i read and have read classic lit, sci fi, mysteries, cowboys, mountain climbing, hiking, traveling, and a lot more... everything in fact except romantic; that never appealed very much... nowadays i'm more into popular mysteries and some sci fi, but it varies... i'm currently reading "Mountains and Molehills" by Frank Marryat, the son of Frederick, the great sea story author, whom i have read most of with affection and delight...
    i try not to feel guilty about reading, as i believe that all reading is a form of entertainment, even when it's pedagogical or classical; books are one of the good things invented by the species, and should be taken advantage of by all, in any form, imo... interesting subject, it is...

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    1. Mudpuddle, you make good points. See my comment below to Fred regarding Puritanical roots and academia fog.

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  4. Good Folks,

    Why should one feel guilty about reading anything but lit/fiction? I've never understood that.

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    1. Fred, I think the problems arise from at least two factors in my life. 1. I was indoctrinated as a child that work was valuable but pleasure and leisure were not valuable; yes, the Puritanical brainwashing was thorough in my home. 2. My academic background in English included assigned reading for purposes of analysis and crit (work) rather than ant time left for reading beyond assignments (pleasure and leisure); moreover, too much time in the classroom as a teacher reinforced that purposeful reading paradigm. In other words, as a reader I am too much a creature of outside rather than internal forces. Does that self analysis make sense?

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    2. Tim,

      Yes, that makes sense. I grew up in a different household.

      Second, I ended up in grad school in the English Dept when I was over 40, and I never could overcome those bad habits of non-critical reading for pleasure. In fact, many times I had to reread the assigned text in order to be able to view it somewhat critically and analytically.

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