SERIOUS AND POPULAR FICTION
SEMESTER : III
AIMS : Identifying the differences of popular and serious fiction
- Key Answer
Source : Maxwell, Ann and Elizabeth Lowell. “Popular Fiction: Why We Read It, Why We Write It” 5th September 2007 <www.elizabethlowell.com/popfiction.htm>
Developed by : Asih Sigit Padmanugraha
SELF ACCESS LEARNING CENTER
ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE STUDY PROGRAM
ENGLISH EDUCATION DEPARTMENT
FACULTY OF LANGUAGES AND ARTS
STATE UNIVERSITY OF YOGYAKARTA
Popular Fiction: Why We Read It, Why We Write It
by Ann Maxwell/Elizabeth Lowell
My life's work has been popular fiction. Writing alone and with Evan, I have published more than sixty books. They range from general fiction to historical and contemporary romances, from science fiction to mystery, from nonfiction to highly fictional thrillers.
Through the years, I've discovered that most publishers talk highly of literary fiction and make money on popular fiction; yet asking them to describe the difference between literary and popular fiction is like asking when white becomes gray becomes black.
Some people maintain that, by definition, literary fiction cannot be popular, because literary equals difficult and inaccessible. Rather like avant-garde art: if you can identify what it is, it ain't art. Rather than argue such slippery issues as taste and fashion, I'll simply say that there are exceptions to every rule; that's how you recognize both the rule and the exceptions. As a rule, accessibility is one of the hallmarks of popular fiction.
In literary fiction, the author is often judged by critics on his or her grasp of the scope and nuance of the English language, and on the lack of predictability of the narrative itself. The amount of effort readers put into this fiction can be almost on a par with that of the authors themselves. In order for an author to be successful in literary fiction, positive reviews from important critics are absolutely vital. Indeed, in a very real sense, the critics are the only audience that matters, which explains why literary fiction often pays badly: critics get their books for free.
In popular fiction, the only critics who really matter are the readers who pay money to buy books of their own choice. Reviews are irrelevant to sales. Readers of popular fiction judge an author by his or her ability to make the common language uncommonly meaningful, and to make an often told tale freshly exciting. The amount of effort a reader puts into this fiction is minimal. That, after all, is the whole point: to entertain readers rather than to exercise them.
Critics are human. They don't like being irrelevant. They dismiss popular fiction as "formulaic escapism" that has nothing to do with reality. From this, I'm forced to conclude that critics view life (and literary fiction) as a kind of nonlinear prison.
This would certainly explain why the underlying philosophy in much literary fiction is pessimistic: Marx, Freud, and Sartre are the Muses of modernism. Life is seen as fundamentally absurd. No matter how an individual strives, nothing significant will change. Or, in more accessible language, you can't win for losing.
The underlying philosophy of much popular fiction is more optimistic: the human condition might indeed be deplorable, but individuals can make a positive difference in their own and others' lives. The Muses of popular fiction are Zoroaster and Jung, the philosphy more classical than to modern. Popular fiction is a continuation of and an embroidery upon ancient myths and archetypes; popular fiction is good against evil, Prometheus against the uncaring gods, Persephone emerging from hell with the seeds of spring in her hands, Adam discovering Eve.
In a word, popular fiction is heroic and transcendent at a time when heroism and transcendence are out of intellectual favor. Publishers, whose job is to make money by predicting the size of the market for a piece of fiction, are constantly trying guess where a manuscript falls on the scale of white to gray to black. Publishers to understand why readers read the books they do. Marketers give tests, conduct surveys, consult oracles, etc., and constantly rediscover a simple fact: people read fiction that reinforces their often inarticulate beliefs about society, life, and fate.
People who believe that life's problems can be solved through intelligence and effort are often attracted to crime fiction, which centers around the logical solution of various problems. People who believe along with Shakespeare that there are more things on heaven and earth than we dream, are attracted to science fiction of various kinds.
People who believe that a good relationship between a man and a woman can be the core of life are attracted to romances.
People who believe that absolute evil lurks just beneath the surface of the ordinary are attracted to horror. And so on.
Think about that the next time you hear someone dismiss what they (or usually other folks!) read as "escapism." Existentialists escape into their fictional world. We escape into ours. The fact that our world feels good and theirs feels bad doesn't mean theirs is always more valuable, much less more intelligent: I have known many intelligent people who need to be reminded of the possibility of joy; I have known no intelligent people who need to be reminded of the reality of despair.
Some things are worth escaping from. Despair is definitely one of them.
So much for escapism. What about the charge that popular fiction is formulaic?
The concept of formula has an interesting history as first a literary device and then a literary putdown. The Greeks divided literature into tragedy and comedy. A tragedy had a political, masculine theme and ended in death. A comedy had a social, often feminine theme and ended in marriage, the union of male and female from which all life comes. We have kept the scope of tragedy, of death and despair, but we have reduced the concept of comedy to a pottymouthed nightclub act. Perhaps that is why critics of popular fiction reserve their most priapic scorn for the stories called romances. Romances follow the ancient Greek formula for comedy: they celebrate life rather than anticipate death. In addition to being almost exclusively female in their audience and authorship, romances address timeless female concerns of union and regeneration. The demand for romances is feminine, deep, and apparently universal. Harlequin/Silhouette has an enormously profitable romance publishing empire in which the majority of the money is earned outside of the American market, in more countries and languages than I can name.
Even worse than their roots in ancient feminine concerns, romances irritate critics because they often have a subtext of mythic archetypes rather than modernist, smallerthanlife characters.
I have heard mystery authors complain that they don't get any respect from critics. As a mystery author, I agree. I have heard science fiction authors complain that they don't get any respect. As a science fiction author, I agree. But as a romance author, I have experienced amazing intellectual bigotry.
For example, mysteries, like romances, were once scorned as badly written, formulaic, lurid escapist fare best read in closets. Then, about seventy years ago, the idea of class warfare came into intellectual vogue. Mysteries, particularly American mysteries, came to be viewed as politically correct (and therefore) wellwritten metaphors of class warfarethe downandout detective bringing justice to the little guy in a society that cares only for privilege and wealth.
That's a pretty heavy load to lay on Lew Archer's modernist shoulders, but I suspect the male academic types were tired of getting their thrills reading by flashlight in a closet. The fact that mysteries at the time were written by men for men did not hurt the genre's status at all.
Yet many authors continued to write mysteries in which brains, bravery and brawn mattered more than political commentary; these books were roundly disdained by critics...and avidly bought by readers. The division between mythic and politically correct mysteries still exists. You can usually tell which is which by the tone of the review.
Science fiction, like romance, was once scorned as badly written, formulaic, lurid escapist fare best read in closets. Then, in the nineteen fifties, there was a rash of AftertheBomb science fiction books. Either directly or indirectly, these books criticized the course of modern civilization. Their stories predicted disaster for the human race. Endlessly.
Voila. The genre of science fiction became politically and intellectually correct, a wellwritten body of literature with a proper appreciation of man's raging greed, stupidity, and futility. Gone were the garish covers of little green men hauling busty blondes off to far corners of the galaxy for an eternity of slap and tickle. Gone were the heroic rescuers of said blondes. In their place were caring and despairing antiheroes who tried and tried and tried to make things right, only to finally fail, going down the tubes with a suitable Existential whimper.
The critics loved it.
The fact that science fiction at that time was largely written by men for men did not hurt the genre's status one bit. The retrograde authors who continued to write rousing galactic adventures in which bravery, brains and brawn saved the day were roundly disdained by critics...and avidly purchased by readers. Again, the tone of the reviews told you which was which.
Westerns were once scorned as badly written, formulaic, lurid escapist fare best read in closets. Westerns are still often viewed that way, despite valiant efforts on the part of a few academics to push politically correct westerns (antiheroes, disease, cruelty, bigotry, degradation, despair and death). The readers were not fooled. They avoided these academic westerns in droves. The heart of the western's appeal is largerthanlife; it is heroism; it is people who transcend their own problems and limitations and make a positive difference in their own time and life. That is what made Louis L'Amour one of the bestselling authors in the English language—or any other language, for that matter. That is what readers pay to read.
That is what critics disdain. Heroism. Transcendence.
Romances were once scorned as badly written, formulaic, lurid escapist fare best read in closets. They still are. I suspect they always will be. Their appeal is to the transcendent, not to the political. Their characters, through love, transcend the ordinary and partake of the extraordinary.
That, not bulging muscles or magic weapons, is the essence of heroic myth: humans touching transcendence. It is an important point that is often misunderstood. The essence of myth is that it is a bridge from the ordinary to the extraordinary. As Joseph Campbell said many times, through myth we all touch, if only for a few moments, something larger than ourselves, something transcendent.
Unfortunately, transcendence has been out of intellectual favor for several generations. Thus the war between optimism and pessimism rages on, and popular culture is its battlefield. Universities and newspapers are heavily stocked with people who believe that pessimism is the only intelligent philosophy of life; therefore, optimists are dumb as rocks.
How many times have you read a review that disdains a book because it has a constructive resolution of the central conflict—also known as a happy ending? The same reviewer will then praise another book for its relentless portrayal of the bleakness of everyday life.
This is propaganda, not criticism. What the critics are actually talking about is their own intellectual bias, their own chosen myth: pessimism. They aren't offering an intelligent analysis of an author's ability to construct and execute a novel.
Contrary to what the critics tell us, popular fiction is not a swamp of barely literate escapism; popular fiction is composed of ancient myths newly reborn, telling and retelling a simple truth: ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Jack can plant a beanstalk that will provide endless food; a Tom Clancy character can successfully unravel a conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions. A knight can slay a dragon; a Stephen King character can defeat the massed forces of evil. Cinderella can attract the prince through her own innate decency rather than through family connections; a Nora Roberts heroine can, through her own strength, rise above a savagely unhappy past and bring happiness to herself and others.
The next time you hear a work of popular fiction being scorned as foolish, formulaic or badly written, ask yourself if it is truly badly written, foolish and formulaic, or is it simply speaking to a transcendent tradition that emphasizes ancient hope rather than modernist despair?
In our society, popular fiction is story after story told around urban campfires, stories which point out that life is not a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. There is more to life than defeat and despair. Life is full of possibilities. Victory is one of them. Joy is another.
And that's why people read popular fiction. To be reminded that life is worth the pain.
Maxwell, Ann and Elizabeth Lowell. “Popular Fiction: Why We Read It, Why We Write It” 5th September 2007 <www.elizabethlowell.com/popfiction.htm>
Read the text carefully!
Identify some differences between serious and popular fiction based on the article available!
Fill in the table provided!
III. KEY ANSWER
3. Varied and complex
5. Valuable Criticism
7. To exercise
7. To entertain
8. No hero
8. The main character
9. Happy ending