Appreciating Literature: Understanding Bestselling Fiction
“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” – Groucho Marx
Information at a Glance
- Evening Class
- Wednesdays 18:00 - 20:00
- 20 weeks: October to March
- 2 hours taught time per week
- Tutor: Claire Griffiths
- Fees from £210 to £395
- Location: Imperial College, South Kensington Campus
On this lively, supportive and inclusive course your tutor, Claire Griffiths, will will take us on a journey to look at works of literature which have achieved the highly-prized "bestseller" status in Britain. Our aim will be to get more enjoyment out of the books many of us love to read, discovering what those books mean, plots and sub-plots, and to discover what makes a book a bestseller.
Our starting point will be an investigation of the term ‘bestseller’: what it means, how it is defined, and what kinds of books we associate with it. Each week, we will work backwards chronologically, looking at a different topic connected to bestsellers. We will explore each subject with reference to a particular book, and alongside a consideration of historical developments in the fields of religion, technology, science, sex and politics.
We will draw connections between our reading, creating dialogues between bestsellers past and present, and discuss questions such as: what concerns of contemporary society are reflected by bestselling books? Do certain themes and interests recur? And to what extent do bestselling books demonstrate change in our society? In this way, reading bestsellers becomes a fascinating way of reading Britain over the last two-centuries and more.
By the end of this course you will have:
- been encouraged to read a wide range of works which have achieved bestseller status.
- given the opportunity to think critically about why particular works appeal to a broad spectrum of people.
- encountered a variety of debates about the term ‘bestseller’.
- had a chance to consider bestsellers in relation to each other and understand what they reveal about Britain today.
- explored stereotypes such as the debate between ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ reading.
- gained knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth-century culture, history and politics as they have influenced different writers.
Provisional Course Programme
Week 1 - Introductory Week – ‘Defining a Bestseller’.
In this session we explore the idea of the bestseller: how do we define bestsellers, and what can they reveal to us about the society which produced them and the time in which they caught the public imagination?
Week 2 - ‘Contemporary Concerns: The Brexit Novel’ – Autumn by Ali Smith (2016).
This session will look at bestsellers which directly reflect or respond to contemporary issues, focusing on the recent emergence of the ‘Brexit novel’.
Week 3 - ‘The Dominant Genre’ – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012).
A staple of bestseller lists, what makes the Crime and Mystery Thriller genre so popular among UK readers?
Week 4- ‘The Critical Crossover’ – Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006).
Here, we’ll consider those rare books which receive widespread critical acclaim as well as commercial success, asking what elements must be present for writers to achieve this feat.
Week 5 - ‘The Publishing Phenomenon’ – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997).
Our course wouldn’t be complete without a look at the bestselling book series of all time. We’ll look at how an unknown author from Edinburgh changed the literary world.
Week 6 - ‘Thrill and Spills: Cooper and Archer’ – Riders by Jilly Cooper (1985) or Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer (1979).*
Jilly Cooper and Jeffrey Archer had a stranglehold on UK book sales throughout the 1980s yet were critically maligned. We’ll delve into the idea of ‘high’ versus ‘low’ reading and revisit these works with fresh eyes.
*Students will choose one of these novels to read for this week.
Week 7 - ‘The Book Club Effect’ – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970).
Morrison’s first novel only became an international bestseller after it was picked for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club in 2000. We’ll look at the power of the Book Club to change the fortunes of neglected titles.
Week 8 - ‘The Literary Boom’ – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967).
Focusing on the Latin American Magical Realist explosion of the 1960s, this class will investigate literary ‘booms’ – where writers from particular countries or cultures break into the mainstream at the same time.
Week 9 - ‘Teenage Kicks: Enduring Characters’ – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951).
This half of the course will conclude with a look at unforgettable characters and their importance to bestsellers. Our focus will be Salinger’s iconic teenage rebel Holden Caulfield.
*** Christmas Break ***
Week 10 - ‘Revisiting the Bestseller’.
In this session we will reflect on our learning from the first part of the course and consider in what ways our definition of ‘bestsellers’ may need to change as we reach further back into wartime, the roaring twenties, the Victorian era and beyond.
Week 11 - ‘Wartime Reckonings’ – The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank (1947) or Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).
It is no coincidence that two of the highest-selling books about World War II are memoirs – was this an event which tested both fiction’s and readers’ limits?
*Students will choose one of these memoirs to read for this week.
Week 12 - ‘Prequels and Sequels’ - The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
We will look at how the success of Tolkien’s fantasy adventure paved the way for his masterwork The Lord of the Rings and spawned the trilogy trend within the fantasy genre.
Week 13 - ‘The Golden Age’ – Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934).
In this session we will turn to the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, using one of its most famous figures, Hercule Poirot, to explore the subgenre’s enduring appeal.
Week 14 - ‘The Decade that Roared?’ – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).
Some bestsellers come to epitomise particular periods of history. Fitzgerald’s novella is synonymous with the 1920s, but also offers a subversive critique of the world it portrays.
Week 15 - ‘Finding Neverland’ – Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (1911)
What was it about Barrie’s tale of Lost Boys and fantastical adventures that captured the imagination of readers in the Age of Progress?
Week 16 - ‘A Blessing and a Curse?’ – The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1905)
Despite killing off his most famous character in 1893, Conan Doyle revived Sherlock Holmes due to popular demand. We will look at the potentially negative aspects of being a bestseller, including pigeonholing.
Week 17 - ‘Science-fiction: Encountering the Other’ – The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
Through this classic example of invasion literature, we will look at readers’ enduring fascination with encountering the other – and the wider societal concerns it may speak to.
Week 18 - ‘Author Focus: Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870)*
Some writers are as famous for their canon as the individual works in it. In two special classes we will focus on authors with perennial appeal. We will begin with Dickens, who remains one of the UK’s bestselling authors, generating nearly £300 million per year.
*Students will choose one Dickens novel to read for this week.
Week 19 - ‘Author Focus: Jane Austen’ (1775-1817)*
Unlike Dickens, Austen was not a bestseller in her lifetime. We will consider the perception of women writers at this time, and the events which led to Austen’s slow recognition as one of the UK’s most popular and acclaimed novelists.
*Students will choose one Austen novel to read for this week.
Week 20 - The King James Bible*
With over 5 billion copies sold, the Bible is the bestselling book of all time. Our final class will analyse this text purely as a work of literature, with reference to our previous learning about what makes a bestseller.
*Extracts from the King James Bible will be provided by the tutor.
The course description includes the books we will look at during the course. Do not worry if you cannot read every book every week, try to read as many as you can and still come to the classes to gain an insight into the books ready for when you do read them.
Dr Claire Griffiths is a writer of short stories and novels, and an enthusiasic and highly knowledgable tutor of creative writing. She has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia, University of Creative Arts and the University of Westminster.
After graduating with a First for her BA Hons degree in American Literature with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2007, Claire was selected for the institution’s renowned Creative Writing: Prose MA programme, for which she received a Distinction. This was followed by a scholarship-funded PhD in Creative and Critical Writing, completed in early 2015.
As a writer of literary fiction, Claire has had short stories published in several major publications, and has been shortlisted for and won awards including the Bristol Short Story Prize. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and her new novel The Lagermuseum is currently in preparation for publication.
Course Fees and Rate Categories
|Hours||Weeks||Standard Rate||Internal Rate||Associate Rate|
|40||20||£395 (Early Bird Rate: £360*)||£230 (Early Bird Rate: £210*)
||£305 (Early Bird Rate: £280*)|
|* The Early Bird rate is available for enrolments made before the end of 30 September for courses starting in October | All fee rates quoted are for the whole course.|
Rate Categories and Discounts
- Applicable to all except those who fall under the Internal Rate or Associate Rate category, respectively.
- Applies to current Imperial College students and staff (incl. Imperial NHS Trust, Imperial Innovations, ancillary & service staff employed on long-term contracts at Imperial College by third-party contractors).
- Current Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC) staff, current CLCC PhD students, Science Communication (Sci Comm) postgraduate students, and students enrolled on an Imperial College 'Language for Science' degree programme should email evening firstname.lastname@example.org before completing the online enrolment form.
- Students (non-Imperial College)
- Alumni of Imperial College and predecessor colleges and institutes
- City & Guilds College Association members
- Members of the Friends of Imperial College
- Francis Crick Institute staff, researchers and students
- Friends of the South London Botanical Institute
- Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council staff
- Harrods staff
- Historic Royal Palaces staff
- Natural History Museum staff
- Science Museum staff
- Victoria and Albert Museum staff
- Royal Geographical Society staff
- Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music tutors and other staff
- Santander Bank staff (Imperial College Walkway branch only)
- Austrian Cultural Forum staff
- Staff of Exhibition Road Cultural Group (Discover South Kensington) organisations
- Lycee Charles de Gaulle staff
- Tutors and other staff of other universities and higher education institutions
- Tutors and other staff of institution members of the Association of Colleges
- Residents of postcodes SW3, SW5, SW7, SW10 and W8
- Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
- Members of the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI)
It is possible to enrol on many CLCC Evening Class and Lunchtime Learning programmes after the course has started, subject entirely to agreement by the tutor delivering the course. If you want to join a course late do bear in mind there might be work you will need to catch up on, particularly in language courses.
Applicable terms & conditions
Please read the Evening Classes & Lunchtime Learning terms and conditions [pdf] before enrolling on any course.
|Hours||Weeks||Autumn term||Spring term||Summer term|
|40||20||14 Oct - 12 Dec 2019 (9 weeks)*||6 Jan - 19 Mar 2020 (11 weeks)||n/a|
|* Followed by the Christmas break|
Web enrolment starts 1 August
Enrolment & payment are through the Imperial College eStore. Please use above booking link noting below instructions:
- Our rate categories are explained on this page and your applicable category must be selected on the eStore
- First-time eStore users please create an account by entering an email address and password. These credentials should also be used for future bookings. Imperial College users please note the eStore is not a single-signon College system
- The booking process involves entering payment details before your course choice and applicant details are queried on an in-built questionnnaire which completes the process
- The following email notifications will be sent
|What is sent||When is it sent||What does it contain|
|1. Payment confirmation||Instantaneously following submission of your online application||
|2. Enrolment confirmation||Sent in due course but likely not before the end of September. Please treat your payment confirmation as confirmation that your applicant details and payment have been received||
|3. Programme information||Usually sent Friday late afternoon the week before term starts||
|If you need further help with the above information please ring 020 7594 8756
Certificate of Attendance
Our adult education evening and daytime classes do not offer academic credits, but we do offer an attendance certificate to those learners who attend at least 80% (16) of the taught classroom sessions. Eligible learners receive their certificate by email after the end of the course.
Questions regarding the content and teaching of the above course should be addressed to the course tutor, Dr Claire Griffiths at email@example.com