Reading is generally regarded as an intellectual activity. However, highly sensational literature that features formulaic characters and shocking plot twists has had success for decades despite not being considered of the highest quality. The “trashy” novels we are familiar with today have an evolution rooted centuries ago.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the popularity of dime novels, short works of fiction costing ten cents. These novels are characterized by their fast-paced and dramatic storytelling. They were catered towards the lower class since they were cheap to produce and easy to read. Because the books were not considered to be highbrow, they were looked down on by members of the upper class.
Around the turn of the century, dime novels started to evolve into pulp magazines, also referred to as pulp novels or pulp fiction. Unlike dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on low-cost wood pulp paper. They were especially popular during the Great Depression, not only because they were cheap, but also because they provided escapist entertainment during difficult economic times. The pulp magazine industry collapsed after World War II due to paper shortages, the rise of television, and competition from comics and paperback novels.
The legacy of this literature can be seen today in the books that top bestseller lists. Many of the most popular contemporary authors take a quantity over quality approach to writing.
One of the most noticeable examples of this is the popularity of Colleen Hoover. Her rise to fame was so meteoric that in 2022, her books outsold the bible’s 2022 sales by over two million copies. The romance novelist publishes as many as three full length novels yearly. Despite her commercial success, her characters and settings lack dimension. Her books have also been criticized for setting a bad example for young readers about what a romantic relationship should look like.
Another massively popular author is James Patterson. Since publishing his first book in 1976, Patterson has released at least 263 novels, many of which are co-written with authors whose names appear much smaller than his on the cover.
One reason why dime and pulp novels saw popularity was due to the need for escapism. It’s possible that “trashy” novels of the 21st century thrive for the same reason. In a world where news seems to be only bad, the general public doesn’t want to read books about real-world problems.
An exclusively modern factor that contributes to the mass production of lowbrow books is the competition they face with countless forms of media. Social media, particularly, has corroded the attention spans of many users due to the amount of content that can be accessed. Authors must create fast-paced stories, or else readers will move on to something else.