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Bernice M. Murphy and Stephen Matterson, eds., Twenty-First-Century Popular Fiction

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1Bernice M. Murphy and Stephen Matterson, eds., Twenty-First-Century Popular Fiction

2Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. Pp250. ISBN-10: 9781474414852

3Christina Dokou

  • 1 As is the case with Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith, eds. Must Read: Rediscovering American (...)

4There is a Catch-22-type situation implicit in any academic study about popular fiction, namely that, while ignoring popular phenomena means neglecting a valuable source of cultural information in “one of the most vibrant and rapidly expanding areas of enquiry within contemporary literary studies” (1), by the time one publishes their research, it is probably already dated. Murphy and Matterson’s anthology struggles bravely with this dilemma, and this struggle determines to a significant extent the format of this book, defined as “an informed, accessible and authoritative snapshot of the current state” (2). As stated also in their introduction, where the defining traits of contemporary popular fiction are summarized (with an emphasis on hybridity), the editors choose breadth over depth, offering twenty essays on an equal number of popular (fiction) authors, short enough to accommodate a wide spectrum of genres, but not long enough for particularly deep analyses. The choice of authors, not hit works,1 as an ordering device is quite smart, for it tactfully equates one-hit wonders, where the author is identified with their work (like Dan Brown), with long-term professionals on the field (i.e., Stephen King), and brings the aura of the author as a traditional source of authority and talent to bear upon what may have actually been rather carefully-orchestrated marketing campaigns or lucky capitalizations on a trend. The authorial boost is compounded by the inclusion of each author’s annotated (key) works at the end of each essay, along with a list for annotated “Further Critical Reading.” The authors are also carefully selected so that each represents a major contemporary (sub-)genre, therefore there is also broad coverage in terms of the varieties of popular writing.

5Stephen Matterson opens the collection with an essay titled “Larry McMurtry’s Vanishing Breeds” on the Texan author of neo-Westerns and essayist on the fictional/performative nature of the so-called “Wild West.” It is a particularly well-written piece, packing inside a few pages not only an overview of the Western in its development, but also the position of McMurtry’s oeuvre in it, along with tracing of the key features of said oeuvre both to the author’s biography and philosophy, and to general historiographical trends about the idea of the American frontier. Matterson’s thesis is about the ambivalent stance of McMurtry vis-à-vis the Western, since he romanticizes the western as “a stubbornly defiant yet knowingly forlorn holding on to something that is losing value in a changing culture” (10) even as he exposes its performative nature, fueled by “the appetite of the settled East for images and stories of the unsettled West” (11). In a sense, Matterson identifies McMurtry as the latest link in the process of fabulization of the West, where while the author laments the old-school heroism of a West destroyed by oil-fields and modern technology, he also senses that its allure will only grow the more it recedes.

6Rebecca Janicker undertakes to profile perhaps the greatest living horror master in “‘Time to Open the Door’: Stephen King’s Legacy.” Given the immensity of this legacy (which, to be fair, peaked in the late 20th century, carrying King into the 21st more as an iconic horror guru rather than a popular author), Janicker only has the time to skim breathlessly over King’s career in relation to the definition and development of horror fiction, not to mention King’s branching out in other genres in the 21st century. She also lists the traits that seem to distinguish King from other horror authors, highlighting the “human interest,” “a firm sense of political motivation” and “social concerns” (23) in his stories as key. The latter half of her essay focuses on how King’s biographical experiences (broader and also particular) appear in, and inform, his fiction, taking The Shining and Dr. Sleep as case studies.

7“Humorous fantasy” follows in an essay by Jim Shanahan showcasing “Terry Pratchett: Mostly Human.” Shanahan focuses on the form, philosophy and plots of the ongoing Discworld novel series, whose zany episodes and characters, realistic details, toothsome breadth of cultural references and smart parody of literary and societal mores has cemented Pratchett’s reputation (mostly, as with King, in the previous century). Glibly written by a scholar who also clearly appreciates the fundamental difference between Pratchett and other past-oriented fantasy authors, i.e. the former’s belief in “progress, ...embracing change, and the benefits of new technology” (33), the essay could however have used an updating, even at the proofs stage, since texts published in 2017 are mentioned as forthcoming.

8Gerard Hynes’s “From Westeros to HBO: George R. R. Martin and the Mainstreaming of Fantasy” moves from a focus on literature in print to the transmedial experience that is a key 21st century feature in discussing the global phenomenon generated by the adaptation of Martin’s epic (sword-and-sorcery) fantasy fiction novels into the 2011-19 HBO series Game of Thrones. Starting from that milestone, and after a brief definition of the fantasy genre, Hynes focuses on precisely the interplay between the novels and the show, and how this affected not just the author’s voice but the whole fantasy genre drastically. He sides with the vast majority in identifying the particular charm of Martin as the true grit and unflinching realpolitik he brings to his medieval fantasy, elements of “a subgenre called ‘grimdark’” (43) which challenges mainstream fantasy tropes; but soberly acknowledges that, without HBO, Martin’s well-deserved reputation would not have generated enough thrust to escape the gravity pull of his fan circles.

9In “Nora Roberts: The Power of Love,” Jarlath Killeen mounts a spirited defense of romantic fiction, which is interestingly written in the format of a romantic novel: an introduction of the virtuous yet usually humble female protagonist (Roberts’s stunning output and success as “a force to be reckoned with” and “the most significant novelist alive today” [54] defended by sales statistics, though not academic or critical praise), followed by complication (instead of relationship challenges in the form of misunderstandings, clashes, and/or a ruthless female antagonist for the man-prize, here we have genre trouble due to lack of respectability and opposition by second-wave feminists), and ending happily ever after with “an alternative kind of love, one which is transformative and ultimately stabilizes the self” (60) cum inevitable great sex scene (here, as praise both for Roberts’s innovations in offering “feisty” female heroines and interesting subgenre mixes, and also the social usefulness of her “alternative” love recipe, cum quotes in the last paragraph of the postcoital “morning bloom[ing] bright with hints of summer” [qtd. 61). While one might remain skeptical about the “transformative hope” (61) potential in Roberts, Killeen’s homage must be applauded both for scholarship—breadth of references along with theoretical savvy—and ingenuity.

10Although the next author also works in fantasy fiction, he is unique in his contribution to adult comics in the late 20th century. In “The King of Stories: Neil Gaiman’s Twenty-First Century Fiction,” Tara Prescott breezes through Gaiman’s biography and earlier fame-setting career (with Good Omens and, mainly, The Sandman comics series, 1989-96), focusing instead on a detailed overview of Gaiman’s hefty production in the last 18 years, starting with American Gods (2001) and its success as a TV series and even including his latest, Norse Mythology (2017). She highlights the positive effect of Gaiman’s strong new media presence and interaction with fans, that, combined with his patent authorial talents, have made him “the muse of a new generation, as kind-hearted as his everyman protagonists and as lexically adept as even his most devilish trickster figures” (67). She also argues how Gaiman’s leading traits—his love and evocation of mythology, his respectful treatment of young readers, his inclusion of “compelling female characters” and “strong LGBTQ characters” (70), his transmedial reach and his delightfully smart plot twists—have turned even his most bizarre endeavors into popular favorites.

11The next chapter explores Norse crime fiction, or Nordic noir, through “Jo Nesbø: Murder in the Folkhemmet.” Clare Clarke chronicles the extraordinary, according to sales and translation statistics, career of Nesbø, whose fame is only comparable to that of his predecessor, Stieg Larsson (another author included in this anthology, though, oddly, his chapter comes after Nesbø’s). Clarke offers a detailed overview of Nordic Noir’s origins and history, accounting for the worldwide popularity of a genre situating gruesome murders with dark sociopolitical implications in a bleak landscape by its mature questioning of the projected image of Scandinavian countries as economic and cultural utopias—a questioning both Larsson and Nesbø excel in. This trend coincided with the replacement of the cowboy by the serial killer as the American folk obsession du jour (82), ergo Nesbø’s impact in the decisive American market. She offers an extensive analysis of The Snowman as paradigmatic of Nesbø’s winning traits, as well as the multimedia expansion of his work.

12Kate Roddy turns to comics in “‘It’s a Trap! Don’t Turn the Page’: Metafiction and the Multiverse in the Comics of Grant Morrison” to explore a phenomenon within a genre that has been a staple of popular fiction since the 1930s: metafictionality and its artistic and critical potential, as realized by Scottish comics auteur Grant Morrison. Although Morrison also was famous long before the 21st century, his work since the millennium has only increased his fame and presence in serious comics circles. Roddy offers an interesting approach to Morrison’s work via his early life influences and values that led him “to reclaim this figure [of the superhero] as an emblem of hope and utopian aspiration” (88-89) and provide serious, intricate, and profound scenarios with a fresh postmodern attitude in a medium historically charged with catering to puerile and brute tastes. The chapter concludes with a very astute analysis of The Multiversity as paradigmatic of the above virtues and also Morrison’s worries about the future of comics and the role of the reader in “crafting the ultimate meaning” of a narrative (97).

13Keith O’Sullivan in “Panoptic and Synoptic Surveillance in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Series” focuses on the multimedia phenomenon that has, since 2008, been the only reason for Collins’s fame. While also showcasing Collins’s main strengths as an author, O’Sullivan situates the appeal this post-apocalyptic teen fiction trilogy both in its being of the latest trend of its genre, dystopian fiction, and a thrillingly chilling Foucauldian exemplum of the regime of surveillance and punishment—but also resistance against it.

14It falls to Dara Downey to present “E. L. James and the Fifty Shades Phenomenon” as an inevitable feature of recent popular tastes in a chapter that should have come after the Stephenie Meyer one, since the Fifty Shades series was inspired by the Twilight one. Downey cites dutifully the unprecedented success of a first-time fan-fiction writer with no discernible talent on the basis of the series’ muti-genre blend of fairy-tale and nineteenth-century novels, but also “pornography, popular romance and erotica, and fan fiction” (113) and its ferocious promotional and merchandise campaign. Downey equally attempts to answer the question of why the series is hated so much (116), citing accusations of porn-pandering, misogyny, bad writing, and the promotion of trite, traditional domestic morality which “literalises the idea that a violent monster is an ideal life partner” (120).

15Another author identified with that one mega-hit that made their career is Dan Brown, discussed by Ian Kinane in “Fact, Fiction, Fabrication: The Popular Appeal of Dan Brown’s Global Bestsellers.” Kinane traces Brown’s meteoric rise from failure to stardom in the genre of the thriller, wisely attributing Brown’s success elsewhere than in talent and craft: “ironically, it is the reaction of powerful religious figures in the media to these claims [the pseudo-science and pseudo-apocrypha that constitute The Da Vinci Code] that elevates Brown’s fiction” (126), for it seemed to pander to the American public’s proclivity for conspiracy theories and populist addiction to “truthiness” (128); it also helped that the book was given a “substantial push in marketing and advertising by his publishers” (127).

16Kate Harvey takes on the Harry Potter phenomenon in “‘I Need to Disillusion You’: J. K. Rowling and Twenty-First-Century Young Adult Fantasy,” noting the tremendous impact it had on children’s literacy in the noughties and in the broader cultural imaginary as a series of films. She offers an overview of the Potter novels and online fan activities, highlighting their affinity with dystopian fiction, their “crossover” (138) appeal for both children and adults, and, for the last three volumes, “their self-conscious relationship with fan culture, as well as their awareness of the transmedial nature of readers’ experience of the ‘Potterverse’” (142). She concludes by stating that “The Harry Potter series not only created a new generation of young readers but was also a catalyst of a fundamental change in the relationship between reader and text” (143).

17The phenomenal and ongoing appeal of Jodi Picoult’s stories about personal tragedy and travail is examined next by Clare Hayes-Brady in “Jodi Picoult: Good Grief.” Dubiously marketed as “women’s fiction” (148), especially a subgenre known as “women’s grief fiction,” and criticized for being “formulaic and carefully contrived” (147) as well as “conventional, pot-boiling, superficial and saccharine” (148), Picoult’s impressive corpus and evident writing skills nevertheless command unceasing fan love and peer respect. Hayes-Brady then analyzes some of Picoult’s twenty-four novels on the basis of major themes, engaging techniques, and cathartic effect, interestingly comparing her works to novels on the same theme by a male author (149-52) to suggest that perhaps part of the problem with Picoult is critical gender bias; however, one is hard-pressed to think that Picoult’s only difference from Tsiolkas or Ishiguro, astute and unrelenting societal vivisectionists both, is just sexism among 21st century critics.

18Chapter 14 has Bernice M. Murphy engage with the 2012 “summer of Gone Girl” (158) in “‘We Will Have a Happy Marriage If It Kills Him’: Gillian Flynn and the Rise of Domestic Noir,” and the reason for its success: “Flynn’s creation of the most controversial female character in twenty-first century popular fiction so far” (158)—though Daenerys Targaryen fans would beg to revise that assertion. Murphy acknowledges Flynn as the creator of “one of the hottest new categories in publishing: ‘Domestic Noir’” (160), with her savage deconstruction of the holy American family, especially the Midwest variety Flynn knows organically. After an astute analysis of Flynn’s themes on gender and social mores, Murphy concludes that “Whatever the focus of her eagerly awaited fourth novel, Flynn’s thematic consistency and obvious talent suggests that she will remain an astute and provocative creator of scenarios that relentlessly challenge conventional notions of female identity, media representation, and victimhood” (166).

19The focus of Kirsten Tranter’s “‘The Bastard Zone’: China Miéville, Perdido Street Station and the New Weird” is almost as new and certainly as weird as his novels (or vocal public declarations supporting various social causes): the “British Boom” star “working at the intersection of fantasy, sci-fi and horror, a genre now known as ‘the New Weird’” (170) is noted for his blend of original and masterful (horror) stories with a strong socialist commitment. As he is the heart of New Weird, Tranter’s analysis of the key elements of the genre informs also her overview of Miéville’s fictional Bas-Lag universe, with its advocacy of hybridity and acceptance of otherness as the way into our common future.

20A sharp turn from Miéville’s political philosophy is Hannah Priest’s “Sparkly Vampires and Shimmering Aliens: The Paranormal Romance of Stephenie Meyer,” examining Meyer’s “Mormon vampires” in the Twilight series which constitutes the bulk of her work and the sole reason for her success (notably, while Priest does mention Meyer’s latest non-Twilight novel, The Chemist, she doesn’t even offer a plot synopsis for it in the annotated “Key Works” section!). She locates that success at the crossroads of the young adult fiction craze in the 21st century (184) with Meyer’s infusion of the romance formula with the paranormal element (183), be it “ethical” vampires or love-lorn alien parasites. Her presentational duties aside, Priest can’t help but sympathize with the academic and critical scourging of Meyer’s work (185) and predict an early demise for her individual fame, though perhaps not for the paranormal romance genre.

21Bernice Murphy offers a second essay in this volume (presumably to fill a gap that needed to be filled urgently?), titled “‘We Needed to Get a Lot of White Collars Dirty’: Apocalypse as Opportunity in Max Brooks’ World War Z,” examining the most powerful literary example of the phenomenon of “zombie apocalypse,” though, I would argue, not as popular as The Walking Dead comic-based TV series. Given the dearth of print antecedents for the outbreak of zombie literature in the 21st century, she chronicles briefly the history of zombie films and TV shows as the basis for it and for the wider fact that “the ‘zombie apocalypse’ has been elevated from the status of a fairly well known but still relatively niche cultural referent into one of the most significant and widely disseminated pop culture tropes of the current era” (193). She then focuses on Max Brooks’s original approach to the zombie genre, attributing his success to the “meticulously researched” realism of his events, the readers’ own anxieties about globality and survival in the event of an actual global environmental meltdown (seen as inevitable today).

22The last three chapters deal with authors that are not household names as all the previous are—at least not as globally—yet each critic mounts a spirited argument for their inclusion in this volume. Brian Cliff in “Genre and Uncertainty in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries” stresses French’s mixed-culture upbringing and background in theatre, film, and crime fiction editing as influences in her popular DMS crime fiction series, where she diversifies the usual mystery formula by having different (and refreshingly human and fallible) protagonist-narrators with rich psychological profiles for each volume in the series, straddling genres, and relating her mysteries to contemporary sociopolitical concerns in her adoptive Ireland (like the Celtic Tiger era). She thus manages to produce “Irish crime fiction [that] can be intensely local while still drawing in wider strands of genre and international literature” (212).

23Similarly, it is not some global mega-success of the Silo trilogy that motivates Stephen Kenneally’s “‘You Get What You Ask For’: Hugh Howey, Science Fiction, and Authorial Agency,” but rather this author’s unique, new media-enabled one-upmanship against the publishers’ hegemony, as “Howey is one of the most prominent authors to make a transition from publishing independently online to significant mainstream print success, and he did so on his own terms” (216). Furthermore, his personal example “touches on the related themes of power, information and control: themes that are also easily identifiable in his fiction” (216) about a post-apocalyptic world where survival hinges upon the utter totalitarian physical and mental control of the population literally encapsulated in underground silos. Kenneally traces Howey’s success on his ability to write well and also combine a realistic “technological orientation” of his sci-fi worlds (219) with “the processes and philosophies of their creation” (220), ultimately promoting a way to counter the limitations of a toxic patriarchal dystopia with an imaginative and inclusive spirit.

24The final chapter, by Catherine Siemann, is devoted to “Cherie Priest: At the Intersection of History and Technology”; it argues for Priest’s uniqueness as a representative of the genre of steampunk (adventures in alternative 19th-century realities, often infused with supernatural elements), because her stories—known as the Clockwork Century series—are set in the U.S., during an alternative Civil War, not in the Victorian era. After introducing steampunk in its multimodal manifestations (from print to conventions and fashion), Siemann focuses on Priest’s novels, offering synopses, main themes, and her added bonus of offering to steampunk “a mythology to account for all the minor tropes of it” (Priest qtd. 233).

25As is evident from the above, this anthology is a mixed bag, a motley who-is-who of steady values and flashes-in-the-pan; nevertheless, that is the nature of popular tastes, and an honest scholar must abide by it. Also like pop culture, the anthology is more useful when viewed collectively, to draw conclusions from the general associations and dynamics between authors, genres, and the trends that carry them regarding the zeitgeist the “snapshot” captures, rather than as studies on any one author.

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1 As is the case with Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith, eds. Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers—From Charlotte Temple to The Da Vinci Code, which I reviewed for EJAS 2013.2.

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Electronic reference

« Bernice M. Murphy and Stephen Matterson, eds., Twenty-First-Century Popular Fiction », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2019-4, Online since 11 December 2019, connection on 25 February 2020. URL :

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