Christopher Pawling Popular Fiction Ideology or Utopia

Category: Fiction, Novel
Last Updated: 15 Feb 2021
Essay type: Process
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Popular Fiction and Literary criticism Despite the growth of interest in popular fiction, it has been difficult to introduce courses on them in college and university syllabi because it is still not considered as mainstream literature, just a minor or peripheral genre. The self-definition of English literature depends heavily on what is absent from its field- its significant other- popular literature or paraliterature whose absence from the syllabus enables us to define the dominant literary culture.

Paraliterature is a sort of ‘taboo’ against which the ‘self’ of literature proper is fashioned. Darko Suvin says that a discipline which does not take into account 90% of its domain seems to have a distorted vision in the small zone it focuses on. i. e. high literature. In the last few years, there has been an attempt to initiate interdisciplinary courses. The prejudice against popular literature has gone down because it garners the widest readership. It is also more inextricably linked to ‘other’ aesthetic modes of communication like film and TV. Pop fic has been included in the curriculum since the 1960s.

This is not a ‘soft option’ but has generated a serious corpus of criticism predicated on theory. So reading pop fic is not as much of a peripheral preoccupation as was assumed earlier. Much of the secondary work on pop lit has been untheorised and eclectic. The prospective student has been faced with a) production, marketing and consumption of popular fiction which elude meanings embodied in the text themselves and b) Analyses using the tools of lit criticism to give an ‘internal’ account of the themes embodied within the text or genre, but are unable to make connexions between the literary artefact and the social context.

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In such situations, the socio-historical context is seen as something external. Sociologists have dealt with texts of popular culture as direct bearers of ideology. Popular fiction reflects social meanings/ mores and intervene in the life of society by organising and interpreting experiences which have previously only been subject to partial reflection. Pop fic, like all other cultural creations, interprets human experience. Genre Analysis Popular novels are not simple repositories of sociological data. They generate norms/ expectations on which the reader’s acceptance/ rejection of the text depends. See quotation from James: “Genres are essentially... contracts. ” The narrative of the thriller offers a form of pleasure (uncertainty between security and adventure) that is different from that of women’s romance. The ‘relative autonomy’ of the narrative helps to define boundaries of different genres. These genres do not exist in a vacuum but they circulate in specific social, cultural and historical contexts. We must acknowledge that our popular genres differ from those of other societies so they cannot be seen within umbrella terms like universal ‘archetypal structures.

Narrative and Ideology: Macherey and Goldman A breakthrough in cultural readings has been that the mediations between text and society are present in the text itself. Levi Strauss- Ideology is present in both the form and content of the myth as text and the narrative itself provides the crucial link between the ‘external’ reality of social experience and the ‘internal’ meaning which is derived therefrom. Frederic Jameson- narrative is a form of reasoning about experience and society. Pierre Macherey starts with an analysis of the internal logic or problematic of the text before going on to reconstruct the ideological field which lies behind the narrative.

The author tests out certain ideological propositions which form the basis of the literary discourse. The narrative may thus reveal any contradictions inherent in those assumptions and then suppresses them through magical resolutions. The narrative may get flawed if the author refuses this escape route and pursues the contradiction till they destabilize the text. Jules Verne’s story, The Mysterious Island begins with a supposedly straightforward celebration of ‘bourgeois’ science.

It is subverted by Captain Nemo who epitomizes a scientific spirit of enquiry untainted by social relations. This ‘ideal’ image of science is finally rejected by Verne and Nemo rejected as an anachronistic figure whose illusions destroy him and his island. It helps to undermine the effect of an all-conquering science. Verne’s story does not offer a conscious interrogation of the bourgeois image of science. Macherey’s reading reveals a flaw in the narrative which allows us to gain access to the repressed meanings of ‘political unconscious’ (Frederic Jameson) of the narrative. Martin Jordin’s analysis of 1950s novel Wolfbane shows that the narrative of Wolfbane just does not reproduce given ideological assumptions about the role of science in society but that it also puts that ideology to work ‘ testing, defining and reconstructing it in the process of interpreting the changing content of... historical experience. ’ Wolfbane reverses the science fiction formula by implying that science must first be liberated from its service to an irrational social order before it can become an instrument of human progress or produce a more free and equal society.

During this period, the readership of SF (the scientific middle class) had to be subordinated to the needs of the corporate economy. The text became a site of ideological struggle and not just a reflection of external social processes. The narrative ‘constructs’ rather than reflects an ideological position. Jordin’s analysis of Wolfbane emphasizes the disillusionment with science as part of a creative interrogation of ideology within the text. Mellor concentrates on the way in which science fiction expresses the ‘world vision’ of its readership, on its relative autonomy, rather than treating it as a relatively independent entity.

The flight from science reflects a process of fragmentation which is already detectable outside the text, in the developing ‘world vision’ of the ‘educated middle class. ’ Mellor constructs an overall picture of SF as a genre, whereas Jordin concentrates on the narrative mechanics of one moment of change and therefore is bound to privilege the more ‘autonomous’ features of the text. But the authors share the same philosophy. The Popular/ Elite Dichotomy: Lowenthal and Cawelti Macherey breaks with’ established’ literary criticism in his refusal to divide the sphere of literature between ‘elite’ literature (an autonomous realm which is somehow free from ideology), and ‘popular’ or ‘mass’ literature (supposedly a direct reflection of ideology and therefore not amenable to the sophisticated analysis given to ‘canonic’ texts). Macherey says a text is literary because it is recognized as such, at a certain moment, under certain conditions. It may not have been recognized as such before or after. Macherey’s highlights the relativity of literary value and he need to problematize categories such as ‘popular’ and ‘high’ literature. Verne has been added to the curriculum since Macherey, so we can conclude that the ‘canon’ is a historical construct, rather than a fixed entity, and that is open to revision. He challenged that a science fiction work by a minor author is not a literary text and has been proved right in a subsequent era. There are no separate mode of analysis for the study of popular fiction and real literature. This dichotomy leads to a reductionist approach.

According to Tony Bennett, “non-canonized texts are necessarily collapsed back into the conditions of production from which they derive. ” Popular fiction is often limited to an account of marketing strategies employed in promoting bestsellers. Or ‘mass’ fiction is studied as a component of ‘the culture industry. ’ Leo Lowenthal’s book Literature, Popular Culture and Society says that since the division of literature into ‘art’ and ‘commodity’ in the eighteenth century, the popular literary products can make no claim to insight and truth.

The emergence of a market economy has profound implications for the relationship between author and reader. Yet even ‘high’ art or ‘serious’ literature is not so impervious to markets, consumption patterns and economic profit as to warrant assessment only in terms of what Pierre Bordieux calls ‘symbolic profit. ’ (See Randal Johnson’s discussion of Bordieux’s argument about economic vs. symbolic profit in ‘Pierre Bourdieux on Art, Literature and Culture’- Editor’s Introduction to Pierre Bourdieux, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993, p. 15. ) John Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery and Romance argues that popular fiction is intrinsically more ideological than its ‘elite’ counterpart. For Cawelti, ‘formulaic’ fiction has the function of reproducing cultural consensus, in contrast to ‘mimetic’ (elite) fiction which confronts us with the problematic and contrasting reality of the world. Mimetic literature represents life as we know it while the formulaic reflects the construction of an ideal world without the disorder, ambiguity, uncertainty and limitations of the world of our experience. Formulaic literature is an ‘artistry of escape’ which makes it popular. The tensions, ambiguities and frustrations…. mystery” (p. 9) This model attempts to defend popular fiction by assigning it to the realms of escape and distraction. There is no place in Cawelti’s scheme for ‘a literature of genuine innovation, or for one of informal ‘underground’ education. That is confined to the domain of mimetic literature. If popular fiction is ‘conventional’ in an artistically conservative sense, all literature is concerned with the manipulation of narrative expectations in some way, and even the most sophisticated literary subversion inevitably sets up generic patterns after a while.

Even an arch modernist such as Theodore Adorno has recognised that formulae (which he terms as ‘stereotypes’) are an essential element in the organisation and anticipation of experience. It would be wiser to ask under what conditions specific literary genres become rigid and lose their creative potential while acknowledging that this is a question which applies to both popular and elite fiction. Cawelti privileges the consensual role of popular culture. Formulaic lit, he says, assimilates new interests into ‘conventional imaginative structures. The black-oriented action stories of the early 70s use a traditional formula- the ‘hard boiled thriller- but fill it with new content. The conventional forms of fantasy they use are not very different from the adventure stories that have been enjoyed by American audiences for several decades. Cawelti’s ‘functionalist’ theory has its origins in mainstream American sociology. American culture, he believes, embodies a set of ‘core’ values which gradually spread outwards to the periphery of society and eventually embrace ‘marginal’ groups such as the black minorities.

But this model takes certain values for granted and assumes that culture is a homogenous entity rather than seeing it as a site of struggle which is marked by contradictions. But while the black action stories tend to make the black man an initiator of action , they also glorify a ‘machismo’ image with the result that the cultural ‘integration’ of the male section of the community takes place at the cost of the woman, who experiences a double subordination. While Lowenthal condemns pop fic as a purveyor of ‘false consciousness, Cawelti tends to extol this function in a rather uncritical a manner. Cawelti highlights the harmonising, normative function of formulaic narrative whereas when we look at the ideological conflict within each text, it becomes clear that it is also potentially subversive of that consensus. Popular Fiction and ‘Common Sense’: the Influence of Gramsci Even the most banal narratives illuminate the material reality which lies behind the ostensibly unified, conflict-free world of ideology.

Rosalind Brunt’s chapter on Barbara Cartland’s romance stories highlights a contradiction in the narrative, between the intended message which focuses on the role of woman as a transcendent, spiritual being, and the actual process of narration which concentrates on the more mundane reality of ‘love and marriage’- historical necessities lead women to pursue men and to turn love into an ‘economically rational career. ’ Therefore virginity is seen a s a commodity which secures the heroine an economic place in the world through a ‘good’ marriage.

Cartland’s novels show women’s involvement in a patriarchal commodity market that is incongruous with her romantic idealism. The ‘spiritual union’ of marriage is always celebrated at the end of the novel but the impulse of the narrative is towards a materialist account of gender relations. Brunt focuses on the contradictions in the text. Her feminist reading shows that the author’s intentions are partially subverted at an unconscious level by a material reality that cannot be wished away by the ‘magical resolutions’ at the end of the text.

Cartland’s novels can be interpreted in a way that renders them potentially subversive of the author’s own intentions, They do not generate an ‘alternative view of female identity. In fact, they endorse values opposite to those of the women’s movement and Cartland undoubtedly opposes any move towards greater social and cultural equality for her sex. Gramsci terms the Cartlandian approach to her readers as ‘common sense’ (the space between hegemonic ideology and material reality).

Women are naturally subordinate to men and they know it. They have to operate in a different manner if they are to succeed as women. Women, therefore, are socialised into existing gender relations. Everything is enclosed within a circular narrative. The heroine has to decide between marrying for love or money. The choice has to be based on common sense, and there is no suggestion that there is a third choice- that of not marrying at all. Her dependence on marriage as a route to economic security is acknowledged unquestionably. There are contradictions in the world of ‘lived ideology’- stone age elements combine with principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history and intuitions of a future philosophy. ’ Here Gramsci highlights the dialectic between ideology and utopia which is so crucial in the making of popular fiction. A Stone Age element in Cartland’s fiction is, for example, is the fascination with the aristocracy. The intuitions of a utopian future are free from contradictions. Most formulaic fiction in normal times, says Gramsci, have a predominance of Stone Age elements.

At times of intensified political and cultural struggle, common sense adopts a more utopian outlook. At those times, there is an active popular demand for literature which embodies alternative values. Popular Fiction: Ideology or Utopia? What is the relationship between popular fiction and cultural politics at certain key moments in the post-war period? The seesawing dialectics between ideology and utopia has to be seen in this context. In the late 50s, British society was moving towards ‘the morality of affluence. The fear was that an old world of authentic value, associated with the pre-war working class, was on the verge of extinction. In Stuart Laing’s Room at the Top, the vision of a romantic haven based on an ‘alternative reality’- the relationship between the hero and the heroine- amidst the ‘rat race’ collapses with the heroine’s death. At the end, there is a cynical acceptance of the present and the inevitable values of affluence. In the 60s, there was a counter-culture which highlighted the need to reframe relationships within the frame of the perquisites of political change. Middle class pressure groups at the time attempted to make society live up to its stated ideals, rather than movements with a concrete vision of the ‘just society. ’ The counter culture was hardly a mass movement in the classic sense of the word because it was largely confined to the middle class. But it did have a populist outlook, rejecting cultural divisions and celebrating popular art as an arena of cultural struggle. Chapter by David Glover- concentrates on that ‘moment’ in the 1960s when certain writers of fantasy- Tolkein, Peake, Burroughs and Moorecock, acquired a cult status among the counter-culture.

Each of these authors reached maximum exposure and circulation through the medium of mass market paperbacks. Fantasy gave expression to the search for utopian alternatives. The taste for anti-realist texts among the among the counter-culture can be seen as a kind of literary equiavlent to the alteration of consciousness’, suggesting new ways of perceiving one’s relationship with others, society in general and the natural world. The content of these utopian tales offered the vision of a ‘human’ proportions, an organic society based on the small collective and the needs of the individual.

Glover concludes that the ‘enclosed world’ of utopia/ fantasy ‘provided a touchstone for a critique of existing social structures and the construction of alternatives, social models prefigured in the achievements of literary technique. ’ ‘Counter culture’ was a spent force by the early 70s. Popular fantasy developed instead in a cult of the sword and sorcery. The world vision of the counter culture had been inspired by the past, a need to recover a world which had disappeared with industrialism. There was a strong plea for traditional political values, not a mere revival of pastoralism.

Adams’ novel signalled that return to tried and tested conservative values. That was to prove an important component of political rhetoric in the 1970s. This book does not offer a comprehensive introduction to the study of popular fiction. There is an emphasis in Pawling’s book on studies which concentrate on the meanings which form around texts, genres or authors, rather than analyses which might examine the way in which those meanings have been understood by particular groups of readers. The concentration on the point of production rather than consumption is the outcome of a moment in cultural studies.

The process of ‘reception’ has been highlighted in determining the meaning generated by individual texts. Texts can have different meanings for different groups of readers. A work cannot merely be collapsed into its various moments of reception. It is necessary to focus on the text as a source of meaning creation. This allows the student to test his/ her reading of popular fiction against the various approaches on offer here. The function of a book like this should be to encourage others to embark on their own analyses.

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Christopher Pawling Popular Fiction Ideology or Utopia. (2017, Jan 22). Retrieved from

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