Popular Fiction Ideology or Utopia? – Summary

Popular Fiction Ideology or Utopia? by Christopher Pawling deals with divergent issues of popular fiction but the primary objective of the essay is to establish the premise of Popular fiction as a serious branch of study and not just a “significant other” on which the identity of English literature as an intellectual discipline is dependent.

As the essay is an introduction to an edited book by Pawling therefore the divergent issues that are taken up by Pawling are not being elaborated in detail, but are merely put in brief terms so as to introduce the subject matter, which is being discussed by the essayists in the book.


In the essay, Pawling heavily denounces the Puritan academic world for undermining Popular Fiction (PF) and term it as “Para literature”. When the academicians feel that PF cannot be academically studied; and even if studied, then it can only be limited to “empirical surveys of the production, marketing and consumption of popular fiction” it fails “to make connections between the literary artifact and the social context in which it moves and has its being.” Any literary text or any kind of representation is produced within a particular context, the socio-political, cultural and economic context of the production of that text necessarily finds manifestation within the text.

For example, can we think of James Bond movies or the genre of thrillers without the bifurcation of the world into capitalist and communist blocks post World War II which led to the Cold War. In James Bond texts (written by Ian Fleming) finds manifestation the politics of the Cold War. One may read a Fleming novel or watch a James Bond movie and comment that ‘it is for pleasure of the male audience that the Bond movies are made in a particular way which appeals to the male audience.’ But a closer critical look at any Ian Fleming text or Bond movie will tell us that they are inherently racial, deeply patriarchal and championing Capitalism. When one reads a Bond text, one may not notice all these as the text is made in such a manner where the pleasure of the readers is much greater than merely telling the readers to look at the ideologies in the text which are represented. The immediate thrill of the text or the narrative of the film makes the readers/ audience forget about the ideological manifestations in the text, but that does not mean that ideologies are not there in a Bond text or movie.

Thus, while studying Bond texts, merely accounting the number of copies of the book sold or a statistical data of the popularity of the text should not be the domain of academic study as far as literary studies is concerned. Probably a marketing study can focus on these elements where the ambit of the study is sales of a particular narrative; but when it comes to the domain of literary studies or cultural studies, the study of the ideologies represented in the text is of paramount significance.

It is with these terms that Christopher Pawling made a critique of the general tendency of the academicians in his essay to give Popular Fiction (PF) its due – to place PF in the same parameter as that of any other literature.

Thus popular fiction has been studied, but merely to the extent of it being a product of mass consumption, but the study of the relationship between the product and the social and cultural milieu that produces the product is deliberately being evaded as that is the domain of the elite fiction. That ideology is manifest in each cultural production and reproduction is deliberately being eschewed so that popular fiction, along with other marginal cultural artifacts, can be seen as objects having no aesthetic value and no ideological significance as it is merely utopian in character.

Scholars like Lowenthal have gone a step further to think in terms of popular fiction being “purveyor of false consciousness.” Thinking along the Marxist terminology, Lowenthal argues that “ruling class ideas are the ruling ideas” of the society, then the dominant ideology that popular fiction reinscribes in it has to be the ideology of the ruling class which it uses so as to achieve hegemony. Leo Lowenthal condemns Popular Fiction as ‘purveyor of false consciousness’ primarily because he thinks that the role of popular fiction is limited to the reproduction of ‘false consciousness’ as men, because of their limited mode of activity, are unable to comprehend the real social contradictions and consequently tend to find solutions in discursive level/ mental level which conceal/ misrepresent the contradictions, in the process serving the interests of the ruling class. Lowenthal assumes Popular Fiction as such a literary artifact which seeks to find solutions to the social contradictions in wishful utopian reproduction. As Popular Fiction fails to bring forth the social contradictions and merely reproduces them, serving the interests of the ruling class, therefore Popular Fiction has no other function, according to Lowenthal, but to serve the interests of the ruling class.

Lowenthal in his book Literature, Popular Culture and Society claims that since the separation of literature into two distinct fields – Art and Commodity; commodity or popular literary artifact cannot be taken seriously to study society as the real social contradictions are concealed in the process of constructing these texts as the purpose of Popular Fiction is to eschew/ evade the social contradictions. Moreover, he thinks that Popular Fiction is significant to the extent of understanding the social change that leads to the separation of literature into art and commodity. Pawling finds Lowenthal’s approach ‘reductionist’ as Lowenthal simply thinks that capitalistic mode of economy or market economy has adverse impact on this form of literary reproduction. According to Pawling, the emergence of market economy has significant results in the relationship between the author and the readers but that does not signify that it has simpler implications for the ‘mass’ fiction.

For John Cawelti, Popular Fiction is “intrinsically more ideological” than elite fiction as it serves the function of reproducing ‘cultural consensus’ as opposed to the mimetic (elite) fiction whose supposed role is to make the readers confront the problematic and contradictory reality of the world. According to Cawelti, “the tensions, ambiguities and frustrations of ordinary experience” are glossed over by Popular Fiction in such a manner by “magic pigments of adventure, romance and mystery” that the problematic reality is not confronted by the readers (the mass). Thus, the social tension is managed by popular fiction in a way so as to promote cultural stability “by assimilating new interests into the conventional imaginative structures.”

But such a ‘functionalist’ reading of popular fiction extolling the consensual function is too simplistic and uncritical as culture is not such a homogenous entity as Cawelti thinks it to be. Moreover, the readers are not passive recipients of the culture, but have a definite role to play. Cawelti’s approach of Popular fiction being formulaic is similarly problematic as Pawling points out by quoting Patrick Parrinder who argued that there is no place in Cawelti’s scheme for “a literature of genuine innovation.” Using Theodor Adorno’s argument “no art can entirely dispense with them” (stereotypes/ formula), Pawling points out how if popular fiction is formulaic then elite fiction cannot claim that it is beyond the stereotype or formula.

Pawling then goes on to discuss how Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “common sense ideology” as central to the understanding of PF. By this time, you must have realized that PF is ideological in every sense of the term as any literary text necessarily will be an ideological manifestation of the society which it is portraying. But in case of Popular Fiction, which is written with the objective of salability in mind the dominant ideology of the society is represented in a fashion which makes it easily acceptable to the people, and yet at the same time, it needs to deal with utopian elements for the sake of wish fulfilment of the readers.

Gramsci therefore believes that it is the commonsense ideology which is often represented in PF. The ideology thus represented is so common sensical that often the readers are unable to notice it even as an ideology as they live by it in their everyday life. It can also be termed as “lived ideology.” Earlier, we have discussed how the genre of thrillers, especially James Bond books and movies represent racism, patriarchy and champions capitalism. But when one read a Bond book or watches a Bond movie, one does not even look at these as ideologies as one lives by them in everyday life. They are so common sensical to our everyday existence for the majority of the people in the society that we do not even see them as ideological.

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