From the beginning of time, we’ve had some amount of appropriation taking place within stories. There is nothing new under the sun after all. Even when storytelling was a strictly oral form of communication, it wasn’t surprising that there were very common overlapping themes.
For a long time reading and writing were restricted to the well to-do and the clergy. But with the rise in literacy in the 19th century, as well as the advances in technology that allowed for true mass-production, we saw the emergence of companies that aimed at the lowest common denominator.
The first instance of this within the 19th century was probably the penny and dime novels, better known as penny-dreadfuls. The stories were uninspired, sensationalized or melodramatic, and sometimes blatant rip-offs of existing works. They were made cheaply and sold for a penny (or dime) each.
While they had a bad reputation at the time, they also had a very high consumption rate. For the more educated masses, it was the literature they could afford, and that they found entertaining.
This point I want to pause on. A lot of people take for granted how liberating reading is. No really, even the semi-literate have a huge advantage over the completely illiterate. Before literacy rates began to rise, people had to take certain things for granted. With the majority of the masses illiterate, that means you have only an elite few who act as the gatekeepers of information.That means that these gatekeepers can control the flow of information at their leisure.
With the masses able to consume literature and information for themselves, you have a public which can come to its own conclusions about current events, literature, etc. The consumption of literature, even crappy literature, is a good thing. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to riff on literature that doesn’t live up to its potential, but even reading crap is better than reading nothing at all.
The penny and dime novels began to wane in popularity around the start of the 20th century. There to take their place was pulp fiction. Pulp fiction was primarily an American phenomenon, though there were several pulp magazines that became popular in the UK. The first pulp magazine was published in 1896, and the market continued to be profitable until the 1940’s. Pulp fiction shared a lot of similarities to the penny and dime novels. It was overly sensationalized literature that was printed on cheap paper.
Now, that’s not to say that pulp fiction was entirely bad. It was popular enough that there was a lot of recognition to be had from writing a story for a pulp magazine. Authors like Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.P. Lovecraft, and H.G. Wells wrote for or got their start in pulp magazines.
That goes back to my previous point that stories (like fan fiction) that appeal to the lowest common denominator, and indulge in overused tropes are not inherently bad. They are a stepping-off point. Just because you start in a market that is formulaic does not mean that you have to stay there. Growth is key when you are an author.
After the market declined for pulp fiction, a rather infamous name stepped in to fill the void. When I think of mass-produced form writing at its worst, I tend to think of this company. In 1949 Harlequin enterprises was born.
Harlequin held the monopoly for romance novels until 1970’s when their penchant for hiring only British writers backfired. Competitive companies began hiring American writers, and quickly began to pull ahead of Harlequin in sales. Realizing the mistake Harlequin began to hire American writers as well.
Though I’d argue that its popularity has waned in the 2000’s, plenty of Harlequin books are still sold every year. Harlequin is what most people think of in terms of romance, and I think that’s a bit sad. For the most part Harlequin romances have cookie-cutter plots, rely heavily on character archetypes, and are very cliche.
They are what my mother used to call “potato chip books.” Easily consumed, mildly palatable, but not very good for you. I’d say that this description fits most of these lowest common denominator markets. If you’re not a discerning consumer, your standards aren’t high and you end up clogging your arteries with junk.
So how does this relate to the present? Well with books like Fifty Shades of Grey you have a book that is guaranteed readers. Fifty Shades of Grey is Twilight fan fiction. The characters are soulless replicas of Bella and Edward, with the added bonus of smut.
In terms of marketing, its a win. All you have to say is that it’s a good read for Twilight fans and you have buyers. Why would publishers go for something untried and untested when they can publish something that is guaranteed to sell?
Almost is a One Direction fanfic. The author has made six figures on a fan fiction about a boy band. Now that’s depressing. And scary, if this is the future of publishing.
The only way that we can stop it is to take chances, and make good literature popular. And how do we do that?
Read. Decide for yourself what you do and don’t like, and don’t be swayed by public opinion on what is good. Create your own standards, or write something in the same vein as what is popular, but make it better.
Alright, join me next time when I’ll be discussing character building.