popular fiction

popular fiction
   Popular literature is no longer considered inherently lowbrow or intrinsically inferior to a ‘high’ culture. Accordingly, a text such as Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal now appears on A-level English syllabuses, and best-selling authors from Agatha Christie to Daphne Du Maurier and Stephen King are studied at university. Popular fiction could be said to cover at least the following categories: adventure stories, rural and local fiction, detective stories, fantasy, romance, historical novels, horror, police dramas, comic novels, sagas, science fiction, sea stories, thrillers, spy novels, war novels and, though not many are written outside the USA, westerns. Other popular authors do not fall easily into any of these categories, and possible new forms are always appearing (for example, the politician’s novel as written by Jeffrey Archer, Roy Hattersley or Edwina Currie, or the celebrity’s novel as produced by Hugh Laurie, Adrian Edmondson, Naomi Campbell, Michael Palin or Ben Elton). Several of the genres also now have their own prizes, such as the Crime Writers Association Awards or Boots Romantic Novel of the Year, the Historical Novel of the Year in Memory of Georgette Heyer, or the Hugo awards (for science fiction). It is worth saying a little in description of each of the major genres (see also thrillers; science fiction).
   Macho adventure stories have been the making of some enormously successful postwar figures such as Alistair Maclean, Wilbur Smith, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes. A new generation including Ken Follett and Craig Thomas appear to lean more heavily on research and rounded characters. Meanwhile, Dick Francis, an ex-jockey, has created a unique niche for himself writing hugely popular novels set in the world of horse racing, which almost invariably go straight to the top of the lists of bestsellers.
   ‘Romance’ has also now to cover less coy kinds of writing aimed at women, from contemporary glamour to ‘sex and shopping’ novels. Often these ‘bonkbusters’ revolve around the worlds of big business and movie stars, and, like the more innocent Mills and Boon shelf-fillers, are written to a formula. They require a considerable amount of marketing and are promoted by specialist publishers such as Bantam Press and MacDonald. The style is exemplified by Jackie Collins, sister of the actress Joan Collins, and Judith Krantz; more recent arrivals at the airport bookstores (where 25 percent of all books are sold in the UK) are Pat Booth, Shirley Conran and Vera Cowie. Detective stories are still associated with the canonical writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, and the leading contemporary practitioners, Ruth Rendell and P.D.James, are also women; both specialize in intricate, crafted plots, not unlike those found in Roald Dahl’s much-admired ‘twist in the tale’ short stories. Younger writers are Simon Brett, Lesley Grant-Adamson and Emma Page. In terms of police novels, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series and its television offshoot (like Rendell’s Wexford and James’s Dalgleish) have created staple British provincial identities.
   The most famously successful British popular authors are probably Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford and Barbara Cartland, who write absorbing, undemanding romantic family stories and interminable sagas. Others in a similar mould are Marie Joseph, Audrey Howard and Pamela Haines (who has an English MA from Cambridge). Fantasy writing has its roots in folk tales and mythology as well as gothic horror (most popularly continued in the novels of Clive Barker, Anne Rice and Stephen King in the USA) and science fiction. The classic exponent is J.R.R.Tolkein, whose The Lord of the Rings has repeatedly been voted the best or most popular novel of the century. Terry Pratchett’s more light-hearted Discworld series has probably been the most successful descendant, although Nancy Springer, Peter Morwood, Robert Holdstock, Piers Anthony and especially Michael Moorcock are also widely read. Humorous novels by Douglas Adams, Tom Sharpe, Peter Tinniswood and David Nobbs owe a lot to the style of Keith Waterhouse, and illustrate how the comic novel remains a largely male genre, notwithstanding the enormous sales in 1997 of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, a success only rivalled by the confessional, male-identity-crisis books of Nick Hornby. Lastly, historical novels by Jean Plaidy/ Victoria Holt/Eleanor Hibbert, Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters, and Joanna Potter/Joanna Trollope exemplify the pleasurable, escapist indulgence of the genre, and their authors’ penchant for pseudonyms illustrates how many writers opt for pen names which add mystery or anonymity, protect the reputation of an author known in another field, or, on occasion, change the writer’s sex.
   In the 1990s, popular fiction is enormously diffuse and the distinction between serious and popular literature is problematic to say the least, with authors as disparate as Mary Wesley, Irvine Welsh and Stephen Fry appealing to myriad and wide-ranging tastes.
   Further reading
   Hicken, M. and Pryterch, R. (1990) Now Read On A Guide to Contemporary Popular Fiction, Aldershot: Gower.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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