Getting serious about popular literature

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A new postgraduate pathway in Popular Literature at the University of Birmingham.

The University of Birmingham is no stranger to the study of popular culture. Home to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded in 1964, the University of Birmingham has a long and important legacy in the field of popular culture, genre, and mass media. For a number of years, the School of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies (EDACS) has been developing its curriculum offerings in the area of popular literature with new undergraduate modules like The Uses of Genre: Nefarious Plots, Cheap Thrills and the Search for Meaning.

In Autumn 2018, the School of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies is launching a brand new Pathway on the MA Literature and Culture focusing on Popular Fiction. Comprising two core modules – ‘Cultures of Popular Literature’ and ‘Evolutions of Popular Literature’ – alongside a range of specialised optional modules, the new MA develops students’ understanding of critical and theoretical approaches to popular literature, as well as a knowledge of the development of popular fiction over time and across cultures and languages.

The full descriptions of the core modules are copied below.

Cultures of Popular Literature

How can Popular Literature help us to think about literature, our selves, and the world in which we live? Can popular writing be studied with the ‘standard’ tools of literary criticism, or does it provoke slightly different questions? And how has popular writing figured in wider debates about literary value in the last 100 years? This module introduces you to some of the major theorists of Popular Literature, situating your thinking alongside up-to-the-minute arguments about the best ways to approach this enormous, important, and historically neglected sector of culture. We will interrogate the legacy of distinctions between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” writing, theories of mass culture, critical appraisals of production, marketing and readership, and how approaches to popular fiction intertwine with discussions of gender, race, environment and globalisation. Writers and theorists discussed on this module may include Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, John Clute, Michael Saler, Ursula Le Guin, bell hooks, John Carey, Curtis White, Theodor Adorno, and Roland Barthes. This module will equip you to move beyond subjective or historical readings of the popular, encouraging attentive, detailed, and respectful engagement with a wide range of texts.

Evolutions of Popular Literature

From medieval myth to contemporary page-turners, this module examines the evolutions of popular literature across six centuries of literary production. Taking a long historical view, we will venture back in time beyond the explosion of mass media in the Victorian era, tracing the emergence of central tropes and concerns that laid the foundations for tastes and pleasures popularised during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Over the course of the semester we’ll work through different chronological eras, with each week examining a significant moment in the development and transmutation of popular literature. Key topics may include Norse mythology and Arthurian legend, courtship and adventure in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the development of genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, popular romance, and detective fiction. With a detailed focus on narratives of work, pleasure, and leisure that continue to resonate in the contemporary moment, this module will offer a rigorous historical framework for evaluating new iterations of old stories as they continue to burst onto the page and into our lives.

It is an exciting time in popular literature studies. One of the first posts on this blog pointed to a flurry of new academic publications and programmes of study that are engaging with lively public discourse on popular fiction (such as the ongoing conversation about genrefication started by Joshua Rothman). The new MA Pathway is emerging at an important moment for developing serious, academic engagement with popular literature and genre.

If you’d like to find out more about the MA Literature and Culture you can check out the University website or email the admissions tutor, Dr Chris Mourant:

Photo credit: Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

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