contemporary popular fiction 1

an airport full of books

english literature 3018
avi sato (


you are doubtless aware of the scene. you’ve finished reading everything you brought with you and the music on your phone isn’t doing it for you. netflix isn’t cultural enough (is it ever?) for the moment and staring out the window gets old. so you walk into the bookstore to kill some time before your flight, being the good literature student you are, to buy a book that will keep your mind occupied for the next few hours of imposed stillness. it’s a great idea and you should certainly be congratulated! but when you get in there, you’re a bit dismayed by the selection. no literary fiction. no books of poetry — at least, none that don’t sound like they got stripped from adolescents’ twitter feeds. all there is is bestsellers — popular fiction. and you’re an alternative person, an ultra-liberal educated environmentalist who takes their tea green and unsweetened and vacations filled with protest marches and communing with nature. pop fiction is all about selling out to the mainstream, isn’t it? well, no. the line between serious literature with depth, meaning and beauty and frivolous silliness isn’t fixed. there is so much beautiful writing out there has often been dismissed by us academics by being “mainstream” or “cultural pornography”. together, we’re going to explore some of it, popular fiction from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


we will be meeting three times a week for ninety minutes each session. these will all be seminar blocks – monday, tuesday and thursday, 11.00-12.30.

note, this course outline has been updated since this instructor last taught it and scheduling information reflects its last instance, not its next.


this course focuses on you achieving the following. by the end of this course, you should be able to…

  • engage fully with the idea of popular culture expressed in literary terms.
  • explore the difference between the concepts of “popular fiction”, “genre fiction” and “contemporary literature”.
  • understand and discuss contemporary popular fiction in terms of its themes, how it is defined, its stories and its expectations.
  • have a clear sense of popular fiction’s meaning and where it resides in the expectations of its society and target readership.
  • have a clear definition of concepts including genre fiction, popular literature and popular culture.
  • make comparisons between diverse forms of popular fiction both in discussion and in writing.
  • understand and discuss the relationship between popular forms of literature, academic literature and criticism, literary writing and their culture and society.
  • discuss the relationship between popular literature and social issues, location, extremism, tribalism, politics, race, gender, sexuality and norms.
  • contribute to general understanding in a group setting of motivation, outcome and context of literary expression in the popular modes and for mass-consumption.

learning outcomes

during the course, you will be able to demonstrate…

  • creative and technical reflection on works of popular fiction.
  • social and cultural understanding of the place of reading for pleasure, educational knowledge, popular literature, viral promotion, publishing ideology and author as celebrity in the contemporary world.
  • understanding of the relationship between content and expression across cultures and personal experiences as expressed in popular/genre fiction.
  • cooperation within a group-editing situation.
  • self-directed and self-motivated working under short-term deadline and iterative workflow requirements.

curriculum details

this is a seminar course. this means that you will be responsible for participation at a level of engagement and depth in keeping with the level of this course. you will be called on occasionally to answer specific questions but most of your participation will be because you decide to contribute something. if you don’t contribute in class, it will be you who misses out on improving your understanding. you will not be graded on your talking but the effect will be visible in how well your submissions engage with what we have discussed. relevant discussion is encouraged and some of the topics will be those about which strong views are held but it is expected that you will be mindful of the emotional effect of your words.


this course uses twelve works of popular fiction. it is my assumption that you will have read each of these completely at least once, start to finish before the first class in which we will discuss it. while owning a copy of each is not a requirement to excel in this course, in the interest of fairness, i encourage you to buy as many as you are able. i have several copies of each, as do the department and the library. if you wish to get together with other students and share the cost of the books, that has worked well in the past for these courses, as long as you take responsibility for reading the work before class.

it would be great if you could bring them to class with you but we will mostly be discussing them rather than reading specific passages so don’t worry if you show up without the text. i am not going to ask who has read the works. if you haven’t, you won’t be able to contribute constructively to the discussion and i would ask you not to try to fake it. you are welcome to attend anyway. we will not be talking about each specific detail but we will talk about the book as a whole and then do some close investigation and analysis of specific sections — this means, in short, don’t just flick through the books, assuming an overall understanding of the plot and style will cover it.

isbn numbers may vary by edition, printing or format. you are welcome to acquire the electronic versions of any of these but i will give you the code for the paperback, when possible, more as a way of being standardized than as recommending that format. the dates are given for the initial publication, followed by the edition that is most readily available, that for which the isbn and publisher are given. we will be studying the works in approximately chronological order by first appearance.

  • murder in mesopotamia by agatha christie (1936/2011, william morrow, 978-0062073907)
  • red storm rising by tom clancy (1983/1987, berkley, 978-0425101070)
  • sophie’s world by jostein gaarder (1991/2007, farrar, straus and giroux, 978-0374530716)
  • northern lights by philip pullman (1995/2001, yearling, 978-0440418320)
  • malice by keigo higashino (1996/2015, minotaur books, 978-1250070326)
  • harry potter and the philosopher’s stone by j k rowling (1997/1999, scholastic, 978-0439708180)
  • angels and demons by dan brown (2000/2006, washington square press, 978-0743493468)
  • the kill artist by daniel silva (2000/2004, berkley, 978-0451209337)
  • the girl with the dragon tattoo by stieg larsson (2005/2011, vintage crime/black lizard, 978-0307949486)
  • labyrinth by kate mosse (2005/2007, berkley, 978-0425213971)
  • the ghost by robert harris (2007/2010, gallery books, 978-1439190555)
  • the nightingale by kristin hannah (2017, st martin’s griffin, 978-1250080400)


  • 10% reading & reflections journal (due friday of week 12)
  • 25% bi-weekly assignments (each worth 6%, due friday of weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10)
  • 25% independent assignment (due friday of week 12, although i encourage you to think of this as a midterm project and submit it no later than week 6 for its first marking)
  • 40% final assignment (due friday of week 12)


  1. you are expected to keep a journal throughout this course to document your reading and share your reflections on what you have experienced. popular literature is to a large extent about creating an in-the-moment experience, conveying emotion rather than making the reader search for deep understanding — often there is depth but, unlike in much literary fiction, enjoyment is measured by the superficial experience. the minimum requirement for this is three entries per week, a minimum length of two hundred words per entry. you are encouraged to complete these on an ongoing basis throughout the duration of the course but, as there is no way to check that this is being done, you are welcome to write as many of these at a time as you desire. as the course extends for twelve weeks, this works out to be a minimum of 36 entries and 7200 words. while absolutely daily entries are not a requirement for an excellent grade on this assignment, you are encouraged to write thoroughly thought-out, short reflections often rather than longer ones that attempt to do more than tackle a single idea. reflect on the work, how it was written, how it felt to you, whether you think it was effective and why, how it relates to your experience of life. you can be as analytic or personal as you like and these works will not be shared beyond the bounds of the course without your express permission. they will also not be shared with other students in the course, even as examples, without that permission. no matter what length this works out to be or how many entries, i will be happy to read it completely and offer suggestions on anything you submit. you are welcome to submit this assignment as often as you like for ongoing commentary and suggestions rather than waiting until the last day to send it for the first time. frequent and repeated submission of the work is optional but highly encouraged. it may be useful to keep in mind that while this is called a “journal”, it is expected that it will be submitted in digital, typed format, not handwritten in a physical book.
  2. we will be working our way through twelve books in thirty-six classes, which works out to be, on average, other than a few classes devoted to more general topics at the beginning and end, a new work every week. you are expected to write a deep-reading analysis of one or more passages from one of those books. you may approach this in any way you like but these questions may be helpful. please don’t feel like you should be trying to answer all of them – just pick one and answer it in some depth. it is expected that these be submitted for the first time on friday of each even week (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) except the last week of the course. while word count is not the important thing here, a minimum of 1500 words would be expected. if you are not certain about whether your approach will be well-received, you are welcome to discuss it before you begin.
    1. what is the underlying meaning? is that meaning clear?
    2. how do word choice and writing style contribute to communication?
    3. how does the choice of what to say and what to leave to the imagination (also called “framing”) relate to the experience of the reader?
    4. what is the intended audience and is that different from the group to which the author belongs?
    5. will this work still feel contemporary in the future? the distant future? is it still even contemporary today, even if it remains popular?
    6. what is the historical place this story inhabits? is it important that it is told at the time it was written and by a person in that place, situation and environment?
    7. what effect does the dialogue of the characters have on the reader? is it separate from the non-dialogue text? how about the inverse, the impact of the non-dialogue text on how the characters’ words are perceived?
    8. what is the importance of the location and culture of the author to the understood meaning of the work as a whole? is the author’s race/gender/socioeconomic identifiers relevant?
    9. why was this work created at this time and in this place?
    10. does this work reflect a greater cultural or social experience or is it specific only to the author?
  3. an independent assignment will take a book of popular fiction published in the past 10 years either originally in english or available in translation and in approximately 2500 words, answer the following question. why did it go viral? how you wish to approach the answer is up to you but my guidance is to focus on specifics rather than general commentary and reflection. i recommend submitting this for the first no later than the halfway point of the course, to allow you to focus more thoroughly on the final assignment. in theory, it may be possible to use a work whose english translation is not yet available if the language of the work is one in which you are comfortable and you complete the assignment in english but please discuss this with me before you begin — it would be helpful me if it were written in a language that i at least can manage to read excerpts in the original but that’s not a requirement.
  4. similar in form to the independent assignment is the final assignment. this assignment can be one of two possibilities. please complete one of them rather than both. it is expected that the length be a minimum of 2500 words and you are welcome to submit it at any time during the course. it is expected that you explore the question and the piece(s) you are studying thoroughly in terms of their language, their context, their creators, their audiences, their culture and society and their relationship to the present.
    1. select two books we have discussed during the course and answer this question along with a comparison between them. who is it created for, an individual, a group, a culture, and does it matter? an alternative to this is to answer the same question in more detail about a single piece and you are welcome to do this if you prefer.
    2. select a single work we have discussed during the course and answer this question. is the story relevant or simply how it’s told, the language that’s used?


any supplementary works will be provided electronically at least one week before the class discussing them and you will be expected to have absorbed them and be prepared to comment and engage in discussion. it is further expected that you will have read (completely) the work to be discussed in a particular class, although it is not necessary that you have a copy of the work with you, unless there is a particular section of text that you would like to read aloud specifically to demonstrate a perspective.

seminars will be divided into a brief opening discussion in general terms about a question or questions (listed here, at least in part), a more specific discussion of a particular aspect of the book in question and a closing reflection on the material covered. the last fifteen minutes of each class will be some background and targeting for the following class — questions to think through in the time between seminars and helpful information in preparation for the next discussion, along with any questions that might have come up and not been answered. the final classes will be revision and you are encouraged to have your own questions ready to get the most out of the class and end the term feeling successful.

we going to take these books approximately in chronological order — sophie’s world was published before northern lights. of course, malice was written before the first book of the harry potter series but wasn’t translated until much later and angels and demons was published in the same year as the kill artist so, unlike when talking about historic texts from a long period, chronology is understood far more loosely.

each class will either be a series of questions in general or ones to be addressed related to a particular book. while we may not address each question in the class, it will be useful if you have prepared at least a general answer before you show up — not in writing, necessarily, but at least a few basic thoughts so you will be more able to participate actively in the discussion. questions not addressed in any particular class may show up in the following class(es) discussing that particular book. specific discussion of the book will be addressed with questions in class but they are not presented here so you will have an opportunity to think about what strikes you when you read the book on your own — i would like to address your own questions and interests first before turning to what may have been left out of that discussion.

this is the first course in a pair. while you are encouraged to take both, they are both stand-alone in their content and discussions. what i should point out is that the second course takes up some of the same social and cultural topics in greater depth.

class 1

introduction and discussion of the assignments of the course. if we have time, we will look at a few excerpts from the books that we’re going to look at in the course and talk about how popular fiction is different from literary work that you have studied in other courses — and why contemporary popular fiction is so different from what was on bestseller lists only a few decades ago. why “if we have time”? that will depend on how many questions there are about the course content and assignments because it’s best to get those out of the way so there’s no confusion later about expectations and grading.

class 2

  • what does contemporary mean in the context of popular fiction?
  • is that different from what it means in other literary fields?
  • how does that relate to culture, race, ethnicity and linguistic/social divisions of this time?
  • who gets to decide what’s contemporary and does that matter?
  • what’s the difference between “going viral” in social media terms and popularity for mass-market fiction?

class 3

murder in mesopotamia (1/2)

  • can a book be contemporary even if it’s old?
  • where does the idea of popular fiction begin?
  • can a book be both literary and popular?
  • what difference does target audience make?

class 4

murder in mesopotamia (2/2)

  • is a recurring character helpful in making work popular?
  • are stereotypes a function of popular fiction?
  • what’s the importance of voice and dialogue in contemporary literature?
  • what is the relationship between popular fiction and plot?

class 5

red storm rising (1/3)

  • what is the place of reality/realism in popular fiction?
  • what happens to popularity and relevance when a book becomes long?
  • is violence a necessary feature for popularity?

class 6

  • what is the place of politics, extremism, tribalism, gender, race and minority in contemporary literature?
  • how does this relate to its place in popular culture?

class 7

red storm rising (2/3)

  • how does the everyday experience of characters figure in popular fiction?
  • what is the relationship between surprise and expectations?
  • is the rise in militarism/aggression in culture linked to its literary popularity?

class 8

red storm rising (3/3)

  • why is disaster popular?
  • why does popular fiction tend toward external conflict while literary work does the opposite, investigating conflict within characters?
  • what is the place of the happy ending?

class 9

sophie’s world (1/3)

  • can popular literature inform?
  • where is the line between fiction and non-fiction?
  • in a book with seemingly limitless meta textual references, is something lost by thinking of it as popular literature?

class 10

sophie’s world (2/3)

  • when does a book become outdated?
  • can popular fiction become a literary work over time?
  • is literature written for a specific time and place as important to us as work that is general and universal?

class 11

  • is social media popular fiction?
  • what about memes?
  • are television and movies part of a discussion of literature once we include popular writing as “real” lit? what about when they’re based on books? or books are based on movies and television?

class 12

sophie’s world (3/3)

  • what happens when a book takes a revolutionary stand and society moves on, making the stand look conservative?
  • can popular fiction bridge the divide between conservative anti-education politics and revolutionary liberalism where classrooms and traditional literature are on one side and television, movies and social media are on the other?
  • what is the role of original language and translation in popular literature?

class 13

  • can we study television and film in the same way we look at popular fiction?
  • what tools are useful across that divide?
  • given how much of popular visual culture is based on written scripts with dialogue, is it fair to make such a rigid distinction?

class 14

northern lights (1/3)

  • what makes children’s literature popular among adults?
  • what makes a parent/grandparent buy a book for their child?
  • can something be considered popular if the target audience nearly always makes the decision to read it at one step removed?

class 15

northern lights (2/3)

  • where is the overlap/division between fantasy and popular fiction?
  • why are we often so disappointed when a book becomes a movie?
  • can books really get away with being far more critical of society than other forms of popular culture?

class 16

northern lights (3/3)

  • is the popular audience capable of nuance (good/evil, right/wrong, us/them, black/white, east/west)?
  • does it matter who a book is written for if that’s not who reads it in the end?
  • can a person write effective social criticism from the perspective of a character in a different group from their own? (white male authors writing social criticism from the perspective of visible-minority women, for example, or american authors writing from the perspective of japanese women — this may be revisited in contemporary popular fiction 2 during the study of golden’s memoirs of a geisha)

class 17

malice (1/2)

  • can popular fiction effectively cross cultural/linguistic divides?
  • why are some books so location-specific and others don’t stop at any borders — and why is this not necessarily linked to the subject matter of the book?
  • what is special/interesting about amateur investigations in detective fiction? what makes this such a popular theme? (sherlock holmes, miss marple, nancy drew, veronica mars, scooby-doo…)

class 18

malice (2/2)

  • what is the role of ethics/morality in popular fiction and popular culture in general?
  • does empathy with characters function differently in popular literature?
  • what is the appeal of narrator inaccuracy?

class 19

  • what impact does society have on the popularity of writing and what is written at all?
  • what can be published?
  • what can be shared?
  • what can become popular?

class 20

harry potter and the philosopher’s stone (1/3)

  • how does a book become a cultural icon? (this is an ongoing question for this course but it seems most relevant to discuss it related to the only books ever to sell a half-billion copies.)
  • what is the relationship between the reading public and the publishing process? is it relevant today? how could it function without the filter of publication, promotion and investment?
  • what makes a character lovable? identifiable? attractive?

class 21

harry potter and the philosopher’s stone (2/3)

  • what makes fantasy the route to popularity in fiction? (the top-selling five books in history are all fantasy — coincidence?)
  • where is the line between high fantasy (lord of the rings, earthsea, the wheel of time) and low/general fantasy (harry potter, good omens, the borrowers, artemis fowl)?
  • does public controversy (magic in harry potter, paganism in his dark materials, islam in the satanic verses) change the place of a book in popular culture?

class 22

harry potter and the philosopher’s stone (3/3)

  • what is our relationship with books as we grow up?
  • can a book studied in school be popular?
  • when/how do people learn to love reading?

class 23

angels and demons by dan brown (1/3)

  • where are the science and fiction in “science fiction” (this totally aside from the question of whether this book in particular is or is not part of that genre)?
  • what is the role of the recurring character or continuing series in popular fiction?
  • how do plot and character interact in popular fiction? is this generally different from traditional literature?

class 24

angels and demons by dan brown (2/3)

  • can popular literature change the popular consciousness on issues? how? when?
  • is simplicity good/bad/indifferent in literature? in popular literature? what makes these answers similar/different?
  • does a book become popular because it sells or sell because it’s become popular?

class 25

  • what impact does/could popular fiction have on society?
  • is it ever revolutionary?
  • can writing be more than just revolutionary in the academic sense?
  • can popular authors contribute to social change? do they? should they?
  • are popular fiction characters real enough to incite social movements? (perhaps contemplate this in terms of tom clancy’s jack ryan, jk rowling’s harry potter, suzanne collins’ katniss everdeen and dan brown’s robert langdon, all of whom are easily seen being cosplayed at any large pop culture convention, for example.)

class 26

angels and demons by dan brown (3/3)

  • what is the importance of understanding the rest of an author’s work in reading a work of fiction? of popular fiction?
  • who reads popular fiction?
  • is physical action necessary in a book to keep a popular audience interested?

class 27

the girl with the dragon tattoo (1/3)

  • can a book both be shocking and popular?
  • what is our cultural attraction to violence?
  • does sex sell books or do books sell sex?

class 28

the girl with the dragon tattoo (2/3)

  • how do we address trigger issues (rape, violence) in popular fiction?

class 29

the girl with the dragon tattoo (3/3)

  • is it ok to study books that trouble people? is it ok to publish them? to write them?
  • what does what we read say about our culture?
  • can books get away with more graphic violence and sexuality than other forms of media?

class 30

labyrinth (1/2)

  • what is the role of beginnings — first paragraphs, first pages, first chapters — in popular fiction? is this about literature or about selling books?
  • how do characters far removed from our culture/time become popular fiction icons?
  • why is historical fiction rising in popularity?

class 31

labyrinth (2/2)

  • is magic the key to success? (would harry potter have been a popular culture revolution if hogwarts had been a quirky boarding school with the same characters? would labyrinth work without the supernatural overtones? would the bible still be in print if it confined itself to instructions on living a better life?)
  • what is the importance of length and detail in popular fiction? (why do many students complain that frankenstein (250 pages) and 1984 (400 pages) are far too long but read the deathly hallows (650 pages) and northern lights (450 pages) and can’t wait for more?)

class 32

the ghost (1/2)

  • what is the purpose of perspective in popular fiction?
  • what is the attraction of the story-within-a-story?
  • what is the tradition of conspiracy and duplicity in popular literature and what does that say about our society?

class 33

the ghost (2/2)

  • can we disconnect our understanding of a work of popular fiction from its on-screen adaptation once we have experienced both?
  • do books that we think of as popular fiction have a different target audience from the movies and television series made from them?

class 34

the nightingale (1/2)

  • can popular fiction tell us more about history than scholarly works?
  • who reads popular historical fiction?

class 35

the nightingale (2/2)

  • do ethically complex characters work when the target audience is the general public?
  • can a realistic story have a happy ending?
  • how do authors address death and suffering in popular fiction?

class 36

this class will be open to general questions related to the final assignment and revision of already-submitted work. i will encourage discussion of new topics and provide other sample work with whatever time is not used for these questions. if we have time, the question we will be focusing on is this — with the assumption of a 100% literacy rate (whether that’s true or not is a different discussion) in a modern, digital-focused world, what’s different about the connection between writing and life now that we have become separated from the notion that writing is only for the educated?


this document was last updated on 2020.1.18 and corresponds to the upcoming version of this course. for earlier course outlines, please get in touch directly as only the most recent version will be displayed here to avoid potential confusion.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.