Popular Literature in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Popular Literature in English

Popular literature in English is writing which has shown wide and continued acceptance, measured by sales, frequent imitation, adaptation to other cultural forms and general commercial success. The word "popular" is meant as a synonym for "successful," not as an antonym for "serious.

Popular Literature in English

Popular literature in English is writing which has shown wide and continued acceptance, measured by sales, frequent imitation, adaptation to other cultural forms and general commercial success. The word "popular" is meant as a synonym for "successful," not as an antonym for "serious." Certain books are carefully tailored by authors and publishers to capture the attention of a wide range of potential readers.

In Canada, whether published in paperback or cloth editions or both, trade or general books are considered to have had satisfactory sales if they have sold 1500 copies (poetry, play), 3000 (first novel) or 7000 (political commentary); at double these figures the publisher may have a BEST-SELLER. Arguably the best-selling Canadian author of all time is Arthur HAILEY, many of whose novels, such as Hotel (1965) and Airport (1968), have sold millions of copies each. The much anticipated and best-selling works of contemporary fiction writers such as Margaret ATWOOD, Ann-Marie MACDONALD, and Michael ONDAATJE might also be labeled popular literature. Popular, nonfiction authors such as Farley MOWAT, Peter C. NEWMAN, and Naomi Klein, who write serious books of particular interest to Canadians, enjoy hardcover sales of 75,000-150,000 copies per title. As substantial as such figures may seem, they pale in comparison with the sales record of Coles Notes. This series of study aids in monograph form (over 400 titles since 1947) has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Reference Books

A number of notable, single-volume sources of Canadian information are revised and updated at intervals. The Government of Canada has compiled, irregularly since 1867, its official statistical record called Canada Year Book. Commercial publishing houses have brought out volumes with some overlap in coverage, such as Canadian Almanac & Directory, first published in 1847 and now containing over 47 000 entries. This almanac, which is also available as an electronic database, has been published by the American company Gray House since 2006. Scott's Canadian Sourcebook was published from 1965 to 2005. The Canadian World Almanac and Book of Facts, later titled The Canadian Global Almanac, appeared annually from 1987 to 2005. The more compact Quick Canadian Facts sold over one million copies from 1946 to 1987. Other annual tomes include Canadian Who's Who (1910- ), with some 14 000 biographies of prominent living Canadians, and Canadian Books in Print (issued from 1967 to 2006), which listed over 52 000 Canadian books. Since 1950 Library and Archives Canada has compiled a bibliographic catalogue of Canadian publications, titled Canadiana, now distributed as a CD-ROM and through electronic databases. A specialized, single-volume reference work is The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1997), general editor William Toye.


Books of recipes traditionally sell well, although this was not true of The Cook Not Mad; or Rational Cookery (1831), the first Canadian cookbook (or at least "Canadianized," for it reprints American recipes with some "Canadian content"), which was not reprinted until 1972. Probably more copies of Canadian Cook Book have been sold than have those of any Canadian competitor. It was originally compiled by Nellie Lyle Pattison in 1923 and has been frequently revised and enlarged. Large sales have been reported for more recent titles: The Laura Secord Canadian Cook Book (1966); Elizabeth Baird's Classic Canadian Cooking (1974); and numerous collections by Mme Jehane BENOÎT, particularly Enjoying the Art of Canadian Cooking (1974) and New and Complete Encyclopedia of Cooking (1978). The regional cookbook, such as Edna Staebler's Food that Really Schmecks (1968), is a staple in the fast-changing world of contemporary cuisine.

Romantic Fiction

Romantic novels are usually published only in mass-market, paperback editions. What such novels may lack in depth and sophistication, they more than make up in their strong appeal to a devoted North American readership that seems to be predominantly female. The field of romantic fiction is less interesting for literary than for social, psychological and commercial reasons. The world's largest publisher of romantic fiction is HARLEQUIN Books, founded in Winnipeg in 1949 and located in Toronto since the 1960s. Having found a market for reprints of romantic novels, the company discovered the successful formula of commissioning the novels, 65 000 words in length; it now issues about a dozen each month. Many are set in hospital wards or gothic castles. A Harlequin romance invariably has a happy ending.

At least 3 Canadian women authors have found success writing commercial romantic fiction. Novelists such as Joy Carroll, Joy Fielding and Charlotte Vale Allen have been called, by literary columnist Beverley Slopen, "paperback princesses," because their works, perhaps modelled on those of American popular novelist Jacqueline Susann, have sold many thousands of copies apiece. But the country's most prolific author of romantic and other popular fiction is a man: between 1962 and 1978, under various pseudonyms, W.E. Dan Ross wrote 342 novels.


Common to stories of intrigue and espionage, detective novels and thrillers, is the notion that a mystery is about to be revealed. In the past, Canadian addicts of mystery fiction have not required that their mysteries be Canadian in locale or character. The earliest Canadian work in this genre was probably James DE MILLE'sThe Cryptogram (1871), which followed by 3 years the English writer Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, which it resembles. Two turn-of-the-century writers with Canadian connections, Grant Allen and Robert Barr, enjoyed large Anglo-American readerships. Allen's An African Millionaire (1897) and especially Barr's The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont (1906) - with a French detective not unlike the later Hercule Poirot - are important in the history of world detective fiction.

Three residents of the US who were born in Canada - Hulbert Footner, Frank L. Packard and Arthur STRINGER - also contributed to the genre. The first detective in Canadian fiction, November Joe, "detective of the woods," was created by Englishman H. Hesketh Prichard in November Joe (1936). Although they lived in California for many years, Margaret Millar (who was born in Canada) and her husband Ross Macdonald (who was raised here) wrote many novels, some with Canadian characters and settings.

Howard ENGEL, in the series that begins with The Suicide Murders (1981), has created what many regard as the first truly Canadian private investigator in fiction: Benny Cooperman, who is something of a schnook, works in the small city of Grantham (modelled on St Catharines, Ontario). Eric WRIGHT's fictional Detective Inspector Charlie Salter of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department made his debut in The Night The Gods Smiled (1983). Other writers who have contributed notable novels to the genre are Hugh GARNER (The Sin Sniper, 1970), Ian Adams, David Gurr, Shaun Herron, Donald MacKenzie, Larry Morse, Philippe van Rjndt, Sara Woods and L.R. Wright. Michael Richardson edited Maddened by Mystery: A Casebook of Canadian Detective Fiction (1982), which includes 13 stories, a historical introduction and a list of over 100 Canadian fictional sleuths.

Of related interest is The Bootmakers of Toronto, founded 1970 as the Canadian counterpart to Britain's Baker Street Irregulars to study the Sherlock Holmes "canon." The Arthur Conan Doyle Collection of the Metropolitan Toronto Library was opened in 1971 and has the world's largest public collection of books relating to Doyle's detective.

Fantastic Fiction

Unreflective people who are content with their value systems and unenthusiastic about scientific research and technological development are unlikely to place a premium on fantastic fiction, ie, fantasy fiction, weird fiction and SCIENCE FICTION, which emphasizes the impact on man and society of imaginative, supernatural and innovative values, respectively.

Such reasoning has been used to explain Canadians' lack of awareness of their own fantastic tradition. The relative weakness of the periodical and BOOK PUBLISHING industry has meant the importation rather than the creation of mass-market genre fiction. Nevertheless, well over 1000 books in the fantastic vein have been written by Canadians or have been set in Canada by foreign authors. Two landmark novels are James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), an adventure set in a polar world of inverted values, and Frederick Philip GROVE's Consider Her Ways (1947), a satiric fantasy about sentient ants who maintain that their society is superior to man's.

A celebrated contributor to the so-called golden age of science fiction, A.E. Van Vogt, was born in Manitoba and wrote over 600 000 words of fantastic fiction (including his classic novel about a persecuted mutant, Slan, 1946) before settling in California. The distinguished anthologist of speculative literature, Judith Merril, reversed the migration and settled in Canada. Her donation of 5000 books and periodicals to the Toronto Public Library in 1970 formed the nucleus of The Spaced Out Library, which was created under the direction of former chief librarian Harry Campbell. In 1987, with holdings totalling 35 146 items, this was the world's largest public collection of such literature.

Two contemporary novelists command particular attention. Phyllis GOTLIEB, in her stories and especially in such novels as Sunburst (1964), writes with sympathy about humans and aliens in societies in which ESP is a fact. Richard ROHMER, in a series of near-future thrillers beginning with Ultimatum (1973), has found a wide readership for descriptions of disasters extrapolated from present social unrest.

Distinctive Canadian contributions to the fantastic genres include novels set in the Arctic, notably Sick Heart River (1941) by John BUCHAN (Baron Tweedsmuir) and The Time Before This (1962) by Nicholas Monsarrat (a South African novelist who spent several years in Canada); and novels concerned with Québec nationalism, such as Jules-Paul TARDIVEL'SPour la patrie (1895, translated into For My Country, 1975) and William Weintraub's The Underdogs (1979). Brian MOORE has written science fiction (Catholics, 1972), fantasy fiction (The Great Victorian Collection, 1975) and weird fiction (The Mangan Inheritance, 1979). Hugh MACLENNAN's Voices in Time (1980) is a remarkable, near-future story deeply rooted in contemporary social and spiritual problems. Two best-selling and award-winning novels are Neuromancer (1984), a Cyberpunk adventure by William Gibson, and The Handmaid's Tale (1985) a dystopian feminist work by Margaret Atwood.

Authors who write exclusively in the field of the fantastic in Canada include Michael G. Coney, Terence M. Green, Crawford Kilian, Donald Kingsbury, Edward Llewellyn, Spider Robinson, Charles R. Saunders and Andrew Weiner.

Authors of outstanding fantastic novels for younger readers (seeCHILDREN'S LITERATURE) include Pierre Berton, Monique Corriveau, Christie Harris, Monica HUGHES, Suzanne Martel, Ruth Nichols and Mordecai RICHLER. The standard anthology is Other Canadas (1979), edited by John Robert COLOMBO, which includes a short bibliography and a critical commentary. A work of related interest is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (2nd ed, 1987), by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi.

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