Popular Fiction 100 Years Ago: An Unexplored Tract of Literary History

Popular Fiction 100 Years Ago: An Unexplored Tract of Literary History

Popular Fiction 100 Years Ago: An Unexplored Tract of Literary History

Popular Fiction 100 Years Ago: An Unexplored Tract of Literary History

Excerpt

There are few literary problems of such general interest as the dispute about comparative levels of taste at different periods of history. Laments about the 'common reader' occupy the professional critic or teacher; recollections of what their grandparents read sometimes trouble the subscribers of the threepenny and sixpenny lending libraries; an angry parent matches the highly coloured comic from his offspring, with the remark that when he was young there wasn't all this trash putting ideas into kids' heads. The deterioration of taste (not of course always described in those words) is accepted by most people as an example of the natural tendency to degeneration shown everywhere in human life. There is much talk about the bad driving out the good, about 'mass- media', about the power of vested interests to force on the public books and periodicals produced with the sole object of making money. There is a general conviction that in literature as in life things are not what they used to be.

There is particular force in the conviction that 'popular' literature nowadays is far more degraded and degrading than that of earlier times. (By popular literature we understand here the books and magazines that are read purely for pleasure by people to whom pleasure is incompatible with the expenditure of intellectual or emotional effort.) It is widely believed that such modern publications as comics, crime fiction, and love stories of the 'true confession' type are much worse than their counterpart of former days. Yet an attempt to investigate the truth of this conviction brings one up against the fact that very little indeed is known about the popular literature of the past. The few modern writers who have touched on the subject deal with it briefly during the discussion of more considerable topics, or else confine themselves to a very small aspect of it.

The Victorians and their Books, by Amy Cruse, discusses books of every type and price, both fiction and non-fiction, and . . .

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