Ten literary pillars of popular culture

In advance of International Day of the Book, Jennifer Horgan takes a personal look at ten of the publications that have had a huge influence on the world
Ten literary pillars of popular culture

In advance of International Day of the Book, Jennifer Horgan takes a personal look at ten of the publications that have had a huge influence on the world

1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by DH Lawrence

This was published privately in 1928 but not published openly in the UK until 1960 because of numerous obscenity trials against its publisher, Penguin.

This book dispelled the significant misconception that women don’t enjoy sex. Sex and the City didn’t come from nowhere!

Without this seminal work detailing Lady Chatterley’s enthusiastic lovemaking, it may have taken far longer for women to be viewed as anything other than prudes, content to crochet and arrange flowers.

2. The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger

Published in serial form in 1945–1946 and as a novel in 1951.

Did the teenager exist beforehand? Can we imagine a world without James Dean, Dead Poet’s Society, High School Musical, Beverly Hills 90210?

Holden Caulfield started it all, the straight-talking teen, at pains to protect his sister from ‘phonies’.

This book not only gave to society, it notoriously stole from us too. It was in the back pocket of Mark David Chapman when he shot John Lennon.

3. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Published in 1818 when she was only twenty. Two hundred years later, how many children still emerge as Frankenstein at Halloween?

It’s like kids somehow absorb his flat, stitched-up forehead in infancy.

Granted, Frankenstein was the name of the creator rather than the monster, but pedants have no place in dress-up.

Frankenstein is everywhere, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to The Addams Family. This idea of the self-created monster pervades popular culture.

I’m thinking Paul Rudd in Netflix’s recent Living with Myself, Gremlins, Black Mirror. I should probably give Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a nod here, but it stands behind Shelley’s classic in terms of its cultural clout.

4. Harry Potter, by JK Rowling

A world without Harry Potter might resemble a world suddenly stripped of mobile phones or tomato ketchup.

I considered not including this series, the first of which appeared in 1997, simply because it’s so obvious. But it can’t be denied; it has been translated into 80 languages, changing the face of young fiction forever.

It’s the best-selling book series in history. It made reading cool again and re-ignited our interest in fantasy, with Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and Game of Thrones coming along for the ride.

5. Dracula, by Bram Stoker

First published in 1897, this book tells the story of Count Dracula adventuring to England for fresh blood.

Enter the popular sexy vampire genre! Twilight. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The 1980s classic Lost Boys. Not to mention Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire (featured in another more personal list of mine!).

Linked to the romantic tradition, the deadly but powerfully enticing lover pervades modern culture. I’m even willing to cite Hozier’s ‘Take me to Church’ and the ‘deathless death’ he craves. Sex as death. With white plastic fangs.

Thank you, Bram Stoker!

6. 1984, by George Orwell

The India-born author’s final novel depicts a dystopian world wherein everything is controlled by Big Brother.

These days, there’s nothing we enjoy more than feasting on the spoils of surveillance cameras.

Watching Gogglebox is basically normal people on couches spying on normal people on couches.

We can trace this back to Orwell’s Oceania, where all inhabitants are closely monitored by telescreens. Love Island, here we come!

Honourable mention here to Huxley’s A Brave New World, written 13 years previously. And Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

7. Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne

First appeared in 1926 when Milne decided to create stories based on his son, Christopher Robin’s teddy bear. Is this the most beloved kids’ book of all time? Possibly.

How often have you thrown a ‘poohstick’ into a river or told someone to stop moping like Eeyore? Who could fail to recognise Pooh’s undersized red t-shirt and pot of hunny.

The text has been used to simplify complex philosophical concepts, eastern religions and mental illness.

It speaks to our hearts and minds in equal measure.

8. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

When it received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, making Walker the first black woman to win the prize.

The beautiful, brutal story of Celie and Hettie in 1930’s Georgia brings together issues of race and gender. Walker famously refused to print a Hebrew version to boycott Israel.

The 1985 film reignited controversy around the novel’s depiction of black men as violent, combining the talents of Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and music producer Quincy Jones.

It became a broadway musical in 2005 and Beyoncé quotes the movie in the liner notes of her first solo album. This is a text about the self-love of a black woman.

It is also about gay love. Walker was greatly influenced by another black woman, Zora Neale Hurston, and her classic Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Respectful nod here to Beloved by Toni Morrison also.

9. The Man in the Moone, by Francis Godwin

In 1638 a bishop in the Church of England wrote a strangle tale of a man who builds a spaceship powered by geese, and travels to another world.

Godwin’s novel arguably gave birth to A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and all things Ray Bradbury and HG Wells. Arguably…

10. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Published in 1868, this might be a personal favourite rather than an objective trailblazer (I may have brought my husband to Alcott’s house on our honeymoon).

Little Women pivots on Jo March’s rejection of Laurie, the eligible neighbour, in pursuit of her own independence.

With strong ties to Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, this is a simple ‘oh yes she did’ classic.

It has links to Frozen, as Anna lets it (love) go to help her sister Elsa.

Conceivably, it’s the blueprint text of ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’ as performed by Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox in 1985. ‘We’re coming out of the kitchen.’

We’re writing culturally significant novels like this one — and the other nine on this list.

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