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Topics Literature & Society

ENGL 293.301
TR 9-10:30

The readings and discussion in this course focus primarily on an array of bestsellers and the scholarship that attempts to make sense of the bestseller phenomenon. Texts include long-term bestsellers such as Joseph Heller's Catch 22 that seem to require no promotion and have gained academic credibility; samples and representatives of the King-Grisham-Crichton short-term bestseller type; bestsellers that feed on political scandal (take your pick!); the Harry Potter phenomenon (J.K.Rowling) that has captivated as many adults as children; apocalyptic bestsellers generated by the millennium; and books based on films or films based on books.

'Bestseller' is a ubiquitous term. Lists of literary and non-fiction bestsellers are published weekly and monthly. However, the culture and 'cult' of the bestseller are rather complex; neither scholarship nor the publishing industry has come to terms with it in satisfactory ways. Are monthly bestsellers to be seen in the same way as steady sellers? Is a product for the mass market instantly and necessarily 'literature of a lesser kind'? (What should we make of Oprah's book club?) Are bestsellers part of popular culture? Do advertisement and lists determine 'the public's reading'? What is involved in the writing and making of a bestseller? Shifting our focus to the public sphere--how do we understand the self-therapeutic need for narrative? How do we explain the occasional influence of historical and social factors on un-promoted books by unknown authors that nonetheless become bestsellers despite literary critics and the book industry?

These are the kinds of questions that we will ask in the discussions in our class. Throughout the course, there will be readings of scholarly texts concerning the public sphere; the history of research on the bestseller as well as case studies; definitions and politics of the 'popular' as well as of cultural studies; not to forget the 'bestsellers' that reveal the 'secrets of successful writing' and 'the literary agent who takes you inside the book business.' Yet our main preoccupation will be the analysis of the wide variety of bestsellers themselves and the culture that produces and consumes them.

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