Establishing literary firsts is a messy business – literature has been such a deeply rooted part of human civilization that it has links to a time before humans had history. However, nobody can deny the fact that that some books are simply so iconic or impactful that they become the icons, and often the pioneers, of their genre. Here are some such books that may have marked the beginnings of your favourite literary style-
1. Men Behind the Mask
The Scarlet Pimpernel published in 1905 and written by Hungarian-British authoress Baroness Orczy, details the life of a British aristocrat who leads a double life – while society assumes him to be wealthy, airheaded fool, he is actually a gifted swordsman and a quick-thinking, street-smart hero, identified only by the scarlet pimpernel flower he carries on his person. Sounds familiar? Since its inception, the hero with a secret identity has been a mainstay in popular culture, and today many superheroes, including Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, to name a few, are normal people (or super rich billionaires) with a secret.
2. The Art of Science
Mary Shelley’s life in itself is worthy of literary awe, and makes for an amazing read. However, it is Frankenstein, her story about a young student who creates a monster in a science experiment that is considered to be a marker of not only gothic literature, but also the formal start of science fiction as a genre. However, it would be remiss to miss out on several other authors of the time who contributed, including the scientist Johannes Kepler, Margaret Cavendish and her work The Blazing World, and some works of Voltaire and Edgar Allen Poe are also considered important. Indeed it was more of the social context than specific authors that led to the development of science fiction – age of rationality combined with technological changes of the time made for interesting thoughts about the future.
3. Young Adult Dystopia
The last ten years of literature have been in particular dominated by a specific genre that has polarized readers – young adult novels of the dystopian variety. The Maze Runner and Divergent trilogy are just some of the new examples that have dominated Kindles and movie screens, seemingly following the same general outline – a small population divided along some arbitrary lines, some powerful people conducting scientific experiments, and a special Chosen One who is special for, uh, some reason. Many trace this overabundance of the genre to the massive success of the Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ 2009 publication. Call it a cash-grabbing effort or a genuine interest in our near future, but this genre is likely to stay around.
You can be on the fence about this one as well, but fanfiction today is recognized as a major genre by the three units that matter – audience, publishers and movie-makers. Though book-based fanfiction dominate today, it is Star Trek that started the trend, with early ‘fanzines’ published in the 1960s often containing works written by fans. The invention of the internet made exchanging ideas and stories all the more easy, and today, sites like Tumblr, Fanfiction.net, and AO3 are the mainstays of such stories, adding millions of stories across types and genres to its repertoire every year. Many have also been published as ink-paper novels, a move that has again drawn mixed reaction from readers.
Murder mysteries are one of the most compelling forms of fiction, and readers are likely to be found in the same spot reading for hours on the end, hoping desperately to find the killer before the book reveals them. Elements of a whodunit have been found in the One Thousand and One Nights collection, namely in the story The Three Apples. While full of entertaining twists and turns that would have delighted Doyle and Christie, the story lacks one very important thing – an actual detective. Indeed, fate and luck often step in to play the role. The Moonstone is considered to be the novel that defined the framework of the modern detective novels, and The Mystery of the Yellow Room is credited with upping the ante and intellectual engagement by providing one of the first locked-room mysteries.
While all works of literature have their own efforts and merits, it takes something extra, in terms of both imagination and effort, to create something that breaks moulds, or indeed, creates new ones. While there may be many books that are the icons of their genres, it is these above, and many others, that actually created the frameworks and tropes that we are today so familiar with.
By Niharika Rawat