The world of English literature is full of buzzwords. From ‘medieval’ to ‘post-postmodern’, it’s easily to be overwhelmed by just how much choice you have with reading. It’s a sad fact that we can’t read all the books we would like to.
Yet certain literary movements and periods are glanced over, and for this blog post, we’ll give them a moment in the storytelling sun. These movements range from small to world-defining, but are perfect for those who love reading, and are always thirsty for the next great read.
Note: Most of these movements are firmly in the English language, but there is some overlap, especially with Germanic and Romance languages.
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Old Norse Sagas
Time period: 9th to 13th centuries.
There’s something sizzling and mysterious about Scandinavia, that bristles with ancient magic and adorned with medieval beauty. The time period of the Old Norse sagas is also fascinating, with stories of Vikings, blood, and fading glory. Every Icelandic or Norse saga does more than tell a story: it welcomes you to a world of romance, mythology, adventure, and faith.
However, the epicness does not stop there. The Old Norse writers documented their histories through letters, that offer an insight into their lives. As the centuries pass by, the Old Norse sagas have left a mark, by inspiring generations of fantasy writers. Yet Old Norse sagas offer lessons to any writer or student of literature.
Time Period: Ongoing, but with emphasis on the Middle Ages
Christianity developed and evolved over the middle ages, and transformed Europe. It also produced famous saints and philosophers (a favourite being Aquinas, of course!), but doctors, lawyers, politicans, strategists and writers. “Christian Mysticism” which marries mysticism with the Christian faith, is legendary in itself.
Yet what makes Christian Mysticism so great isn’t just the fantastic poetry of Dante, or the letters of Catherina of Siena, or the Rhineland mystics. No, what makes Christian Mysticism so great is that it contributes to ongoing theological discussions about God, Jesus Christ, the New Testament, various sects and interpretations. Christian mysticism demonstrates that literature can exist for philosophical, theological and political purposes, and could be a positive development.
The History Plays Of Shakespeare
Time Period: Elizabethan England
Often, we focus on Shakespeare’s tragedies. And that makes sense- they are rich, well written and evokes deep thoughts about human character. You’ve may have studied Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth in high school. Yet what is underserved is Shakespeare’s histories- plays that explore historical moments and characters, and the often tragic fates that awaits them.
From Richard III, to King John, Shakespeare’s histories aren’t as well sharped as the tragedies. Although well written, there is no denying the propaganda aspects of Elizabeth I. That being said, Shakespeare’s thoughts about corruption, evil, war, and love are delicious to interrogate and study.
You may reach for Othello– but don’t ignore Shakespeare’s history plays.
Time Period: Around 1800 – 1850
Romanticism is an interesting period, mainly because it reveals fundamental truths about humanity. For one, we are nostalgic about the past. And if you are a romantic writer, that meant rejecting industrial modernity in favour of something more authentic. There is also a raw sorrow to romanticism, that you can’t stop the wheels of history from moving forward, and the world around you changing.
Romantic writers- from Victor Hugo in France, to Lord Byron in England, helped create romanticism in literature. Because of that, romanticism is heavily studied in literature courses. In modern academia, some historians link romanticism to certain political philosophies- ranging from sentimentalism to Nazism.
Either way- Romanticism expressed the angst many felt in the early 19th century. And perhaps, such feelings still exist today.
Time Period: 1848 to the turn of the century
Like romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood praised a period long gone. The rich Quattrocento Italian art from the 15th century was the source of inspiration for these English painters, poets and critics. They were also fascinated by the medieval and nature, with famous artworks such as Ophelia by John Everett Milais, manage to capture the imagination of many generations.
Key writers include William Michael Rossetti, Federic George Stephens and the poet Thomas Woolner. For the brotherhood’s reception, the visual overpowers the written. However, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood manages to inspire writers with its core values about nature, but also its drive to express authentic and original ideas.
Time Period: Late 1910s to 1950s
Surrealism, with its origins from France and Belgium, will delight any reader living today. Although surrealism is far from an English movement, it has certainly made a mark on the Anglosphere. It’s also tricky to define. However, surrealism works like a dream. It’s a genre that pastes seemingly unrelated imagery and ideas together, in order to form a narrative or idea.
In Breton’s ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ he outlines a goal of surrealism, to express the ‘real functioning of thought.’ And because of that, surrealism will be interpreted in a thousand different ways. It’s also deeply philosophical: with many writers drawing on the works of Walter Benjamin.
Overall, surrealism is certainly strange. Yet if you pay enough intention, surrealism reveals the tensions of a transforming, war-torn world and the growing interest of communism.
Postcolonial Magical Realism
Time Period: 20th century to present
‘Postcolonial’ is an emotionally charged word, with layers of history and meaning. Novels such as Midnight’s Children and A Hundred Years Of Solitude feature countries trying to make sense of their histories, and fractured yet developing identities. Magical realism, on the other hand, signifies the acceptance of the unreal, the strange and the curious. This clash of styles results in fascinating literature that cuts deep into the human soul.
Popular in Latin America and India, postcolonial magical realism is enchants yet saddens the reader. That’s because postcolonial magical realism is like reading an account of history, with it’s tragic underbelly and bewitching appearance.
Classic Science Fiction
Time Period: 1930s to late 1960s
Science Fiction is a favourite genre of mine, and many other literary fans. Yet the classical period of science fiction, from the 1940s to the 1960s, triumphs. From Fritz Lang’s landmark film Metropolis, to various Superman comics, and to authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov- classic science fiction showed us the delights and the horrors of a future yet to be lived.
Of course, I must mention George Orwell’s 1984, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not only do these texts comment on science, the future, and humanity, but also human and natural history, and it’s ability to contradict and challenge. Because of that, classic science fiction is an utter treasure for any reader.
Time Period: 1990s to present
David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, desired to challenge the postmodern tendency of cynicism. Whilst in many ways, IJ is still ‘postmodern,’ Wallace was still effective at ushering a new outlook in literature.
‘New Sincerity’ means exactly what it sounds like. Literature that is sincere in its goals, and does not seek to manipulate the viewer. Characters are often sympathetic, as opposed to the subject of ridicule. Whilst filmmakers such as Michael Haneke and David Lynch are far from this definition, it fits well with Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola. Authors that also fit include Zadie Smith, Art Spiegelman and Jonathan Franzen.
Although New Sincerity is important in studying literature and music, I believe it never reached its ambitious heights. I think that is because albums such as Kid A by Radiohead and films such as Fight Club managed to speak to the general public in a way that ‘New Sincerity’ never did. That, and even the speakers of the movement are often considered pretentious, which is the anithesis of sincerity.
What are your favourite literary movements, periods and genres? Comment below, especially with any recommendations for further reading.