Trivial literature

20th century in literature

See also: 19th century in literature, other events of the 20th century, 21st century in literature, list of years in literature.

Literature of the 20th century refers to world literature produced during the 20th century. The range of years is, for the purpose of this article, literature written from (roughly) the 1900s through the 1990s.

The main periods are captured in the bipartite division, Modernist literature and Postmodern literature, flowering from roughly 1900 to 1940 and 1960 to 1990 respectively, divided, as a rule of thumb, by World War II.

The somewhat malleable term of contemporary literature is usually applied with a post-1960 cutoff point.

Technological advances during the 20th century allowed cheaper production of books, resulting in a significant rise in production of popular literature and trivial literature, comparable to the development in music. The division of "popular literature" and "high literature" in the 20th century is by no means absolute, and various genres such as detectives or science fiction fluctuate between the two. For the most part of the century mostly ignored by mainstream literary criticism, these genres develop their own establishments and critical awards, such as the Nebula Award (since 1965), the British Fantasy Award (since 1971) or the Mythopoeic Awards (since 1971).

Towards the end of the century, electronic literature develops as a genre due to the development of hypertext and later the world wide web.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually throughout the century (with the exception of 1914, 1918, 1935 and 1940-1943), the first laureate (1901) being Sully Prudhomme. The New York Times Best Seller list has been published since 1942.

The best-selling works of the 20th century are estimated to be Quotations from Chairman Mao (1966, 900 million copies), Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997, 120 million copies), And Then There Were None (1939, 115 million copies) and The Lord of the Rings (1954/55, 100 million copies). The Lord of the Rings was also voted "book of the century" in various surveys. Perry Rhodan (1961 to present) boasts as being the best-selling book series, with an estimated total of 1 billion copies sold.


The Fin de siècle movement of the Belle Époque persisted into the 1900s, but was brutally cut short with the outbreak of World War I (an effect depicted e.g. in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, published 1924). The Dada movement of 1916-1920 was at least in part a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests which many Dadaists believed were the root cause of the war; the movement heralded the Surrealism movement of the 1920s.

Interwar period

The 1920s were a period of literary creativity, and works of several notable author appeared during the period. D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was a scandal at the time because of its explicit descriptions of sex.

World War II

Postwar period

The intermediate postwar period separating "Modernism" from "Postmodernism" (1950s literature) is the floruit of the beat generation and the classical science fiction of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein.

Cold War period



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