College of General Studies / General Honors

English 586.601--Popular Fictions: The Bestseller from the Greeks to Grisham

Spring 1997

The course is also listed as General Honors 211

Instructors: Michael Ryan & Daniel Traister
Offices: Special Collections, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Phones: 215 898 7552 (Ryan); 215 898 7088 (Traister)
Fax: 215 573 9079 (both)

E-mail can be sent directly to both and

Traister's URL-- the site on which this syllabus is mounted.

Click here to send an e-mail message to the class list (at this address:
NOTE: This address will not be operative until the start of the spring semester.



In this course, we will read books written for or eagerly embraced by large numbers of readers. We will begin with representative romances of the later classical period, continue with the revitalization of, first, romance at the hands of such Renaissance writers as Ariosto and Cervantes (and Shakespeare), and, second, dramas of spiritual salvation at the hands of such writers as Bunyan. We will then move to works, such as those by Richardson, Goethe, and Hugo, that immediately captured and long kept huge reading publics. We will end by looking at the "bestseller," represented by works of writers such as Margaret Mitchell and John Grisham.

Our concerns include such questions as these:

  1. What characteristics (if any) distinguish between or relate to one another "popular" and "literary," "low" and "high," forms? Do distinctions of these kind make any sense? Can "literature" be "popular"? Or is its popularity an automatic signal that a work is not "literary"?

  2. Can we determine whether there are--and, if there are, what are--characteristics more or less common to works that attain widespread and longlasting popularity? If such characteristics exist and can be defined, do they tend primarily to be rhetorical and stylistic, or do they reside rather in plot, character, action, or theme?

  3. Can we determine whether there are--and, if there are, what are--characteristics more or less common about the ways such works are received and appropriated by their audiences? What, that is, are the uses--the social functions--of popular fictions? Can we begin to trace a history of how popular fictions are read? or otherwise used?

  4. Perhaps by indirection, can we begin to explain why some works of "literature," however uniformly legions of authorities may agree that they are "great books," do not attain popularity? Some books, however much a part of "the curriculum" they may become, never receive widespread, voluntary, unforced (= unassigned and untested) circulation to people from varied walks of life and varied intellectual and educational backgrounds. Why not? and what, then, does "canonicity"--or, for that matter, "authority"--have to do with "popularity"?

Note: This course is open to undergraduates who are not registered in General Honors by permission of the instructors.
This course requires substantial reading, a number of classroom presentations (the exact number to be determined by the number of students in the class), and a 10- to 15-page final paper. The instructors anticipate no final exam (but they may give unannounced quizzes).

Course mechanics

This course meets on Thursdays from 4:30 P.M. to 7:10 P.M. in the Henry Charles Lea Library, located on the 6th floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. We may occasionally reschedule or relocate in order to accommodate the showing of movies or tapes.

The instructors's offices are nearby, in the Department of Special Collections, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. You can reach them by telephone (215 898 7552 [Ryan] or 215 898 7088 [Traister]) or in person at that location. They are normally in the office between 9 and 5 weekdays but, because their schedules and locations vary, please telephone before you show up.

Repetition: you can also communicate by e-mail directly with Ryan and Traister or indirectly to the class list.

Your final essay should consider not only works read for class but also some materials not read for class, and should include some sort of primary materials. CHOOSE A TOPIC AND WRITE THIS PAPER ONLY AFTER DISCUSSING IT WITH THE INSTRUCTOR. Follow MLA or Chicago format rules in preparing these essays. Death (preferably yours) is the acceptable excuse for lateness. Note, in addition, this important fact:

Class presentations CONSTITUTE the class for which they are due. Your absence or lateness will, in effect, cancel the class. The instructors will be unamused, their responses uncharacteristically harsh and unfriendly.

In general, the instructors appreciate either good writing or a reasonable simulacrum of it. They look with extreme disfavor upon poorly-written essays. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking. USE THE WRITING CENTER IF THIS IS AN AREA IN WHICH YOU KNOW--OR LEARN--THAT YOU NEED HELP. Click here for information about the writing center. See also Traister's composition links.

As is already evident from the emphasis above on classroom presentations (seminar papers), this class will work largely through discussion. Since your attendance and participation will make a difference in its success, both will make a difference in your grade. In short, speak--and speak up. Basic ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite. Do not let politeness prevent you from making your points.

The instructors labor under several delusions. Of these, the most important to them is that the reading they have so blithely assigned will prove to be fun for you. If, to the contrary, it proves burdensome, don't let it rain all over you: open your mouth. Come see them. Tell them why. Their inquiring minds want to know.

Course books

Required texts are available at the Penn Book Center, 3726 Walnut Street. BULKPACK items (if any) will be distributed in class. A number of books consider the bestseller and popular literature, including John Sutherland's Bestsellers. [MORE OF THESE TK] Students may want to consider some of these books as the course progresses.

Other resources

  1. Eve Brann, "Mere Reading," Philosophy and Literature, 20:2 (1996), 383-397

  2. Roger Shattuck, "A Reciprocating Engine--Like Proust," Philosophy and Literature, 20:1 (1996), 104-110 (Proceedings of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics: I. Intellectual Craftsmanship: How to Read a Book)


    Week 1 (January 16)--Introduction.
    Assignment: For next class, read Ovid, Metamorphoses, in its entirety if possible BUT, if necessary, minimally Books 1-5 and Book 13 (from p. 306 to its end), Books 14 and 15.

    Instructions for classroom presentations

    Starting with Week 4 (Ariosto), and for most week afterwards, the instructors will assign classroom presentations (= seminar papers) on a rotating basis. Topics will appear beneath the week's assigned reading. You can, however, write on a different topic of your choice if you consult with one of the instructors and get his approval FIRST. Presentations should be typewritten and properly documented for submission, immediately following the class at which they were presented, to the instructors, who will read and mark them. They should be about five to seven pages in length, or about ten to fifteen minutes read aloud. (These figures are based on an assumption that you will get about 250 words per page; figures may vary considerably if you like to play around with computer fonts.) Because these papers and their discussion will constitute a major portion of each class, they MUST be ready on time.

    Week 2 (January 23)--Ovid, Metamorphoses

    See, for some indication of the influence of Ovid, The Ovid Project page at the University of Vermont. See also Ovid im WWW (from the Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg); a secondary school's Ovid page developed at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass.; and Recent Ovidian Scholarship (maintained by Sean Redmond).

    Some possible DISCUSSION (NOT yet paper!) topics:

    1. A basic question: did Ovid believe all this stuff? Did his audience?

    2. What is the function of the last two-and-a-half books or so?

    3. What makes metamorphosis itself an attractive theme?

    4. What is the role/are the roles in this poem of "the gods"? and how does it/do they differ from or intersect with the role(s) of the human characters?
    Week 3 (January 30)--Heliodorus, Ethiopica; Longus, Daphnis and Chloe
    Some possible DISCUSSION (NOT yet paper!) topics:

    1. Isn't there a little too much incident, and a lot too much coincidence, in Heliodorus?

    2. How did his audience understand the use of "magic" in this book? (This is a variation of the question above about Ovid: did the author believe in this stuff? his audience?)
    Week 4 (February 6)--Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (Book I)
    For a sample book report about a study of Orlando Furioso, click here.
    Topics (Katie Burns-Howard):

    1. Discuss the nature of Orlando / Angelica / or another character of interest.

    2. What is the function in OF of magic, witchcraft, and the supernatural?

    3. Why does Ariosto adopt the odd structure, interlaced and convoluted, that OF exhibits? why the delight in variety and the multiplicity of invention?
    Week 5 (February 13)--Cervantes, Don Quixote (Book I)

    Enthusiasts will want to check out the Don Quixote tee-shirt site.

    OPTIONAL--that is, if you can manage it--Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

    Topics (Chris Spenner):

    1. What is the structure of this novel?

    2. Consider the character of Don Quixote/Sancho Panza.
    Week 6 (February 20)--Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress

    One example of the many allusions to Bunyan's book can be found here.


    1. In the plainness and lack of "pretentiousness" of its language, this is a very different book from most other books of "high literary culture"; clearly, it does not emerge from the ranks that produce most such books. What function does Bunyan's language have in giving the book to its audience effectively, and why is it effective? (Or: is it "effective"?)

    2. One could compile a Roget's Thesaurus of terms for "pilgrimage" and "journey" to be found in Bunyan. Why so reiterated an emphasis?

    3. Bunyan tells us how his allegory is supposed to work. Are you convinced by his explanation? by his practice?
    Week 7 (February 27)--Richardson, Pamela
    Topics (Julie Rajan):

    1. One

    2. Two
    Week 8 (March 6)--Goethe, Sorrows of Young Werther

    1. One

    2. Two
    Week 9 (March 13)--SPRING BREAK: NO CLASS

    Week 10 (March 20)--Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame


    1. One

    2. Two
    Week 11 (March 27)--Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

    George Landow and Brown University's Dickens Page is worth consulting. So is the Dickens page maintained at Nagoya University by Mitsuharo Matsuoka. The Philadelphia Dickens Fellowship maintains a website that Dickensian enthusiasts will surely want to visit.


    1. One

    2. Two
    Week 12 (April 3)--Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin

    1. One

    2. Two
    Week 13 (April 10)--Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (first half)

    Enthusiasts will want to visit The Margaret Mitchell House and the Margaret Mitchell Home Page.


    1. One

    2. Two
    Week 14 (April 17)--Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (complete)

    1. One

    2. Two
    Week 14 (April 24)--Grisham, The Runaway Jury

    1. One

    2. Two

    Final papers are due in one or the other of the instructors's offices on Thursday, May 8, by 4:45 P.M.

    Reserve Books

    The instructors have placed a small number of books on reserve (in the Rosengarten Reserve Room, ground floor, Van Pelt Library).

    You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at

    Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.