Popular Fiction: Literature or Commodity

“… Para literature occupies the space outside the literary enclosure, as a forbidden, taboo and perhaps degraded product against which the ‘self’ of literature proper is forged.” – Mark Angenot

“… a discipline which refuses to take into account ninety percent or more of what constitutes its domain seems to me not only to have large zones of blindness but also to run serious risks of distorted vision in the small zone it focuses on (so called high literature).” – Darko Suvin

Such is the instability of the premises on which stands the study of popular fiction. Or to probe the issue further, it is the same premise on which the so-called elite literature is constructed with it having supposed academic value as against the negligible status of Popular fiction. The very epithet employed in the perusal of this expressive manifestation of popular culture is more often than not, the vortex of a dialectic contention. To an adherent of the old (and conventional) school of literariness, Popular Fiction (PF) is a problematic issue, considered more as a banal scar on the face of real literature. PF is relegated to the status of ‘Para literature’ and perceived as a minor field of study. It encounters this kind of entrenched resistance chiefly on account of the fact that literary theorists ‘play it safe’ constrained within the gridlines of the established and consolidated intellectual paradigms – an act of adherence that leaves little room for much innovation, modulation or even exploration.

The American Journal of Popular Culture brands most of the work on popular literature (a major chunk of which is fiction) as ‘secondary untheorized and eclectic’. A surmise such as this almost bordering on offensiveness, definitely circumscribes ‘second rate’ exhortations endorsing the primary objective of ‘salability’; discourses that leave scant space for ‘serious socio-historic’ or literary exegesis. An instance that so denigrates the literary worth of popular literature would be the authoring of ‘pulp fiction’. If one treads the footprints of literature back into the past in the quest for it origin, one would certainly discover that literature has had its roots in the evolution of language – serving the function of satiating mankind’s elementary necessity of intercommunication. The function of communication having been successfully fructified after a time, language bred literature as an indulged offspring, to take on the role of a vehicle for the exposition of human glory. Soon, literature was conferred upon with an additional and more arduous responsibility of channelising and directing the episodes of human cultural finesse. It was at this juncture that literature diversified into other modes of aesthetic assertions such as art and cinema. Literature now coupled with its cousins became the altar of communicative practice, with social and historical roots. This is the very reason on account of which, alluding to Suvin’s belief, literature of the masses, namely popular literature/fiction, cannot be ignored and be deprived of a pedestal in the hallowed institution of (contemporary) literature.

From one standpoint, it would not be purportedly blasphemous to opine that in a way, PF has started digging its own grave. In its effort to intervene into an existing social set up – rather than assume the stance of a chronicling observer – with a self-sanctioned authority to modify and realign the system, all it has managed to accomplish is to circumnavigate around a rather turbidly problematic core of direct didacticism and sermonization, concealed behind a dangerously fallacious cloak of unwarranted fantasy and piquancy. Thereby, PF glances off the gloves of traditional concerns of both sociology and literary criticism. Thus, though PF seeks to excavate and then renovate social structure, this honest intention gets misdirected in the haze of misassumption to finally follow a diversion. The net result is an uncomfortable dichotomy between ‘external portrayal’ and the ‘motif embedded in the text.’ Thus, popular literature gets split into ‘a socio-historical external context’ and the pure and still undefiled centre of the literary text …” (Suvin)

Interestingly, the narrative structure of PF commendably alleviates to an extent the inherent crisis of this dichotomy. The ideological undercurrent that flows in the narrative technique of PF often ‘provides a crucial link between the external reality of social experience and the internal meaning which is derived there from. The design the PF author employs through his narrative technique to conciliate the two extremities of the dichotomy is to text out certain ideological propositions which forms the basis of literary ‘discourse’ (Pierre Macharey). Such ideological trials are carried out very intentionally, on the actions and motives of the characters. This in turn reveals either the contradictions or the acceptance of these imposed ideological dictates, by the characters constituting the production. These outcomes then enunciate themselves in an often abrupt ‘magical resolution’ or some kind of uncalled for tragedy.

Another quandary that PF finds itself stranded in – and one that possibly possesses a more serious character than the friction between ‘external context’ and ‘internal worth; — is the denial of a classification, technically a ‘canonization’ to be conferred upon PF, by the supercilious guardians of ‘high’ literature. As referred to earlier in the essay, Pf is often perceived as some ‘low brow’ fabrication with the cardinal aspiration to excite and maze its readership using superfluous contrivances of characterization, imagery and plot. Cawelti terms this kind of literature as ‘formulaic’ as opposed to ‘mimetic’ literature. He views formulaic literature as an ‘artistry of escape’ from a mundane everyday existence to create another ‘ideally unreal space which realist elements of disorder, ambiguity and uncertainty (hallmarks of mimetic literature) have been deleted. The unanimous consensus among the literary theorists is that PF is unwaveringly directed at the sole intention of ‘selling the stuff.’ According to them, what PF eventually seeks to achieve is to promulgate and subsequently propagate and consolidate among its readers a false consciousness. They uphold the opinion that PF is principally an eminently strategized endeavour to market literature (as an art form) as commodity. Leo Lowenthal says – “… since the separation of literature into two distinct fields of art and commodity in the course of the eighteenth century, the popular literary products can make no claim to insight and truth …” (Leo Lowenthal, “Literature Popular Culture and Society”). Hence the denial of a category, a canon, a genre, to popular fiction. Frederic Jameson has noted – “Genres are essentially contracts between a writer and his (sic) readers …”

On similar lines Claudio Guillen calls genres as ‘literary institutions’ which like other institutions of social life are based on tacit agreements or contracts. In accordance with these views, one notes with disdain that such a contract between a PF author and his readers has been hurriedly vested into redundancy by the proponents of the already exiting canons on the grounds already discussed. What has been very surreptitiously yet methodically overlooked is the fact that PF is the literature of the masses; that it is the upholder of contemporary consciousness. A case in point would be the amazing success of the ‘Shaft’ series in the 1970s – an era that witnessed a resurgence of black (Afro-American) consciousness. Another instance would be based somewhere around the timeframe of the mind 1960s which witnessed the rising of the counterculture that sought to transform existing social relationships looking at a goal of political change. This social emergence found expression in the unparalleled popularity of writers of fantasy, notably Tolkien, Peake, Burroughs and others who acquired cult status among the followers of this counterculture. The amazing success of these anti-realists may be perceived in literary equivalence, as an alteration of consciousness. We may, therefore, safely conclude that what may today be held in contempt viewed through condescending eyes, may tomorrow become the a la mode against which the credibility of literary configurations will be ascertained. How true this conjecture is, can be attested in the words of Lowenthal himself – “ … yet, since they (popular Literature) have become a powerful force in the life of modern man, their symbols cannot be over-estimated as diagnostic tools for studying man in contemporary society.”

Zeroing in on the question of whether PF (Formulaic Fiction) being a generic form of production, is imperatively cast in a definite, stereotypical model in contrast to the originality of ‘elite’ (mimetic) literature, one may argue that the most avant-garde form of literary subversion inevitably sets up generic pattern after a while (Patrick Parrinder). genres (or Canons) are not unimpeachable. When Macharey began his work on Jules Verne the later was not even recognized as being an author worth a literary analysis. In the wake of Macharey’s monumental research, this misconstrued notion was wholly discarded. A canon is a historically evolving edifice and consequently opens to revision. Literary history corroborates this fact. More than anything else PF being a better chronicle of human progression than any other canonized form of literature, it deserved a better ratification than what is presently accorded to it.

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