We’ve barely settled into a routine in this term’s classes but the call already went out for us to propose offerings for next year. This request seems to get earlier all the time, and often it’s an unwelcome distraction in the hubbub of the fall term. It’s also frustrating to have to make these decisions before you’re quite sure how things are going this time: the success (or not) of a particular course might be a reason either to try it again soon or to give it a rest for a while. This year I was glad to get the request, though, because it came just as I was thinking that — good as I think the readings are for my section of Intro to Literature, and confident as I am that the basic principles and sequences I follow make pedagogical sense — I am feeling a bit tired of the course and would like to try something different.
I do rotate through a fairly consistent set of classes most years, but I try to keep them fresh, which I do mostly by mixing up the reading lists. I’m passionate enough about the classes in Victorian literature that it’s hard to imagine ever tiring of them in any deep way, and the mystery class usually keeps me pretty engaged and entertained precisely because so much of what we cover is outside my usual territory. Intro classes can feel like more of a chore, though, partly because the ones I teach have such a generic mandate (literally generic, meaning, they are meant to introduce the major literary genres). That leaves a lot of latitude, of course, for building in thematic approaches or finding other ways to provide unity and momentum across the term. I think I haven’t done too badly with that over the years: we always read a lot of splendid short works and some of the combinations of longer texts I’ve assigned have been quite exciting to teach together. That includes this year’s pairing of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Carol Shields’s Unless: the first time I assigned them in juxtaposition it was actually kind of a random decision, but they turned out to play off each other quite brilliantly and I’m looking forward to working through them again.
Still: every intro class I’ve taught has been some variation on the same basic model, and when the call for proposals appeared in my inbox I was in the mood to seek out something genuinely new. As a result, I put myself down for a section of another of our intro-level courses, one I’ve never taught before: English 1050, Pulp Fiction. Here’s the basic course description from the university’s Calendar:
This course provides an entry point to the discussion of literature through ‘pulp’ genres such as romance, mystery/crime, the Western, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, sports literature, and comic books.
The first thing that might occur to you, looking at this, is that “pulp” is being used in a fairly imprecise way: the course sounds more like a general introduction to “genre fiction,” or to “popular” (rather than canonical) fiction. (I suspect that the course title was chosen partly as a marketing ploy.) Then, the list of possible genres covered is itself a bit oddly various. But we usually keep Calendar copy deliberately open-ended: specific enough to mark out some distinctive parameters for a class but vague or flexible enough that different people could take the job on and do it in a way that suits their interests and judgment.
I don’t know yet how I’ll approach the “pulp fiction” class, much less which books I will assign. I do know, though, that I’m already interested in thinking about these questions, so that’s exciting. Looking at book lists from a couple of my colleagues who have taught the class before, they don’t actually strike me as very “pulpy,” at least not in the longer texts, which have included works by Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Shakespeare. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Indeed, I can see how any of these writers might be used to provoke really exciting discussions about canonicity, literary prestige, historical shifts in taste and popularity, and so on.) I do have some relevant experience from teaching the mystery fiction class (a hard-boiled novel might make a good choice for this one), and over the last few years (thanks to Twitter and blogging friends) I have accumulated some helpful ideas about romance fiction, both in and out of the classroom (at the moment I’m tempted to assign Lord of Scoundrels). The Victorian period is also full of possibilities, including some I know well (Lady Audley’s Secret, for example) and some I know a bit about but haven’t actually read yet (such as H. Rider Haggard’s She or King Solomon’s Mines). I know basically nothing, so far, about Westerns (unless Cormac McCarthy counts, and though he is many things, I’m not sure “pulpy” is one of them), and have only a spotty sense of what might be a useful sci-fi or fantasy title for these purposes. Happily, I have until next fall to work out the reading list and until January 2017 to fix all the details — so you can expect to hear more about it here. If you have ideas for either primary or secondary sources to help me figure it all out, do let me know! I’d be especially interested to know how you would define “pulp fiction” as a category: it won’t be possible to make good choices for specific readings until I settle on a satisfactory working definition of the term, or at any rate choose the definition that my course will be organized around.*
It looks like I will also be teaching our survey of British Literature Since 1800, which I’ve done a couple of times before and very much enjoyed (but haven’t taught since 2010), plus two Victorian classes – The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy and an upper-level seminar on the ‘Woman Question’ (which I haven’t taught since 2011). So, my 2016-17 courses will be a good mix of levels and material, and will involve plenty of class prep that won’t seem at all routine.
But for now, it’s back to the realities of my 2015-16 classes … though not quite yet, since it’s a long weekend. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!
*Quick update: After posting this I read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was one of the first titles I thought of as I brainstormed possible readings. It certainly is lurid and suspenseful — and it’s short and reads briskly, too. That combination keeps it on the list of possibilities, as for a first-year course (and one that’s also supposed to spend class time on writing skills) I can’t get too ambitious with the reading list.
Louis L’Amour would be my suggestion for a Western; also Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan and/or A Princess of Mars) for early scifi/adventure… I might suggest Dumas, but he’s technically French, and also usually quite long (but I really love the Count of Monte Cristo, it’s ridiculous but fabulous). Does Moll Flanders count? Oh, so many options! What about Wacousta, for Canadian content?
Louis L’Amour is a name I know but I’ve never read any: good thing I have time to explore. I thought of Burroughs too — someone else I’ve never actually read. Length is definitely going to be an issue, and these will be first-year students, so Dumas seems unlikely! (Though now that you mention The Count of Monte Cristo, you remind me that I’d like to read it just for my own sake.)
The good thing about 20th century pulp (in contrast to the earlier stuff) is it’s usually very short; Burroughs & L’Amour are rarely much over 120 easy pages, in my recollection. Like Agatha Christie.
When I see the term ‘comic books’ in a course catalogue, I expect that the assigned text will be some terribly respectable ‘graphic novel’ along the lines of Maus, Fun Home, or Persepolis. If you include comic books in a course entitled Pulp Fiction, I’d urge you if possible to go for representatives of the genuine pulp article from the 40s or 50s before the ‘Comics Code Authority’ was instituted; there are lots of genres to choose from beyond superheroes: romance, SF, horror, westerns, crime, and war were widely exploited topics.
Was there any trend in Canadian popular fiction to portray the adventures of the RCMP, along the lines of the Western genre in the US? I recall a TV show from my 50s childhood with a Canadian setting: Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.
One thing I’m already pretty sure about is that I don’t want to approach the reading list in the spirit of “these genres can be highbrow too.” I’m not sure I’ll include a graphic novel or comic book (best case scenario is probably 3 or 4 “long” texts plus a scattering of short ones, so there’s no way to include every possibility) but if I do, I agree that something like Maus (which I’ve only just read, actually) is not the right kind of thing. I like the idea of looking for Canadian options.