Paraliterature usually refers to types of literature that are more commercial in nature. This includes pulp fiction, commercial writing, and types of genre fiction. The latter refers to genres like science fiction, romance, comedy, and fantasy. These are generally not considered to be “high” literature.
The term originated in France in relation to literary studies and has since fallen under much debate. Some scholars and writers choose not to use the word, seeking to do away with the bias in regard to what is good literature and what isn’t.
Paraliterature pronunciation: pair-uh-lit-tur-uh-tuhr
Paraliterature is a term used to refer to pieces of writing that are deemed low-brow. It is tied to the differences between the novels, stories, and plays written for the upper classes, who had broader educations, and the same formats written for the lower classes, many of whom had no education.
The traditions of “low brow” and “high brow” literature can be seen in the differences between the works of authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Nathanial Hawthorne and the popularity of dime novels and penny dreadfuls during the same era.
The latter was far more attainable for the lower classes. These fast fiction stories were easy to read, cheap to buy, and exciting. They also came with a stigma for the upper classes.
Today, the term paraliterature is rarely used. When it is used, it is often utilized by those seeking to break down the barrier between classes of literature and elevate contemporary genre fiction to the level it deserves.
Types of Paraliterature
Below are a few examples of what would traditionally be described as paraliterature. Today, the term is somewhat outdated, harkening back to a past in which nothing but the peak of literary accomplishment was referred to as “literature.” All the works below should be, and are, considered literature and are valuable in their own right.
- Romantic comedy
- Horror fiction
- Science fiction
- Comedy writing
- Comic books
- Pulp fiction
- Mystery novels
Examples of Paraliterature
Adventure Pulp Magazine
Adventure was first published in 1910 in the United States. It was one of the most popular and profitable pulp magazines in America at the time. Throughout its run, the company, Ridgway, published 881 issues. Throughout the magazine’s history, it featured the works of writers like Rider Haggard, Rafael Sabatini, and William Hope Hodgson.
Stories in Adventure magazine spanned several different genres. There were mystery and detective stories as well as stories about medieval Europe and America, Westerns, stories set in India, Ancient Rome, and South America, as well as those that delved into aspects of US history and were comedic in nature.
The publication also featured backgrounds on the authors, discussions with readers, and more. There were other sections of the magazine that connected friends, were dedicated to folk songs, and even included questions and answers about people, places, and events.
Conan the Barbarian
This series of fantasy novels were originally created by Robert E. Howard. Since numerous authors have written stories using the same characters, this includes short stories as well as novels. Writers who have blitzed the Conan characters include Sean A. Moore, Lin Carter, Leonard Carpenter, and John Maddox Roberts, among many others.
Some of Howard’s original manuscripts were left unfinished, allowing some of these authors a good starting point. The first hardcover versions of these books were published in the 1950s when the series was at its most popular. This included stories like The Coming of Conan, Conan the Barbarian, and The Sword of Conan. The second of these actually featured five fantasy stories originally featured in Weird Tales, a fantasy magazine. Here is a quote from The Complete Chronicles of Conan by Robert E. Howard:
Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.
The stories featured strange places, unusual people, magic, sorcerers, and thrilling adventures.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
A Princess of Mars is a science fiction novel that was first published as a serial story in All-Story Magazine in 1912. It features some of the classic elements of science fiction and fantasy, including adventures on different planets, elements of western, romance, and dramatic fight scenes. Here is a quote from the novel:
I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later. My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes. However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.
It was part of the Barsoom series, a collection of science fictions stories that inspired writers like Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Even well-loved astronomer Carl Sagan is quoted as having read and enjoyed A Princess of Mars when he was a child.
This type of literature is important because it has inspired generations of writers and resulted in some of the most popular stories of all time. Despite their negative connotation, these tales are commonly read and well-loved.
Pulp fiction is action-based. It often features outlandish characters who accomplish outrageous feats of strength. The stories could take the form of westerns, science fiction tales, horror stories, fantasy stories, and more.
This type of fiction was and still is so popular because of the way it can excite readers. It does not waste time with artistic-sounding prose, nor does it seek to be anything that it’s not. It presents an action-filled story with no posing or pretense.
Related Literary Terms
- Penny Dreadful: cheap, serialized form of literature popular in the nineteenth century.
- Dime Novel: a form of short, cheap fiction popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based in science.
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
- Read: A History of Dime Novels
- Watch: Pulp Fiction – The Golden Age of Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Adventure
- Watch: Pulp Magazines in the 1920s