Popular fiction defined – Glover and McCracken

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The Cambridge Companion to Popular FictionIntroducing the concept of ‘popular fiction’ for The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction, David Glover and Scott McCracken write:

“‘Popular fiction’ is a deceptively simple phrase, at once indispensable and commonplace, yet often left unsettlingly vague. One of the problems with finding a clear definition of popular fiction is that the object of study is not always clear. The cultural formation designated by ‘popular fiction’ has changed over time and varies according to its cultural and geographical situation. In this volume, we identify the late nineteenth century as the period when the genres that constitute so much of popular fiction emerge; but we recognise that the reception of these genres is in a state of continuous evolution.” (p.1)

The simplest definition, according to Glover and McCracken is to state that: “popular fiction is frequently thought of as those books that everyone reads, usually imagined as a league table of bestsellers whose aggregate figures dramatically illustrate an impressive ability to reach across wide social and cultural divisions with remarkable commercial success. In itself, this open-ended definition tells us very little, since it suggests that popular fiction is merely an empty box within which almost any novel might find a highly lucrative place. But a quick glance at the weekly charts shows that this is not so: certain popular genres predominate.” (p.1)

“The fact that it is possible to pick out recurrent topics and formulae in these weekly [bestseller lists] suggests another way of understanding popular fiction. According to this approach, popular fiction is primarily based upon a limited number of forms or genres of narrative pleasure, such as suspense, romantic complications, bodily horror or futuristic speculation. These repertoires of devices effectively bring their audiences into existence using fictional lures that hook readers into the text, so that they are driven to repeat the experience at regular intervals. In one of the earliest analytic surveys of science fiction, New Maps of Hell (1960), the novelist Kingsley Amis identified this type of pleasure-seeking as a type of addiction that characteristically begins in adolescence. To get to the heart of any given genre, so the argument goes, it is necessary to probe the nature of this intense fixation. Despite Amis’s somewhat dated insistence on the inherently addictive properties of genre reading – today we would speak of ‘fans’ or ‘fandom’ – readers who are strongly committed to particularly kinds of writing can certainly be identified.” (p.2)

“…it would be misleading to imply that the ‘popular’ in popular fiction is purely a matter of sales. In fact, the concept of the ‘popular’ has a longer and more complex political and cultural history that also impacts upon the ways in which popular fiction has been understood.” (p.3) Glover and McCracken discuss the etymology (and different nuances) of the term since its appearance in sixteenth-century legal texts, going on to write: “for anyone trying to make sense of the ‘popular’, this tension between what is genuinely a manifestation of popular taste or will and what is imposed upon people by those for whom culture is a business constitutes the central historical dynamic of modern popular culture, ‘the double movement of containment and resistance’, as the cultural critic Stuart Hall once characterised it.” (p.3)

“Like Stuart Hall, we, too, see the end of the nineteenth century as the period when the distinctive genres of twentieth-century popular fiction – detective stories, science fiction, romance and Gothic horror – emerge in their modern forms. This is not to deny their much older precursors. As Roger Luckhurst notes in Chapter 4, the roots of the Gothic are usually located in the eighteenth century and some critics date elements of detective stories, romance and science fiction as far back as the myths of antiquity. Nevertheless, it is the application of the new technologies of industrial production to publishing, an expanding market driven by increased literacy and urbanisation, and the emergence of new commercial media that together decisively change the conditions in which popular fiction is created.” (p.4)

Ref: David Glover and Scott McCracken ‘Introduction’ pp.1-14, Eds. David Glover and Scott McCracken (2012) The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK

Book blurb: “Popular commercial fiction emerged in the nineteenth century, with serialised novels and sensational penny dreadfuls. Today it remains a multi-million dollar industry giving pleasure to many, but it is also a field of growing interest for scholars and students of literature. This Companion covers the major developments in the history of popular fiction, with specially commissioned chapters on pulp fiction, bestsellers, and comics and graphic narratives. The volume also examines the public and personal everyday contexts within which popular texts are read, highlighting the ways in which such narratives have circulated across a variety of constantly changing media, including theatre, television, cinema and new computer-based digital forms. Case studies from key genres – crime fiction, romance and Gothic horror – as well as a full chronology and guide to further reading make this collection indispensable to all those interested in this complex and vibrant cultural field.”

Table of Contents

Introduction David Glover and Scott McCracken; 1. Publishing, history, genre David Glover; 2. Fiction, theatre, and early cinema Nicholas Daly; 3. Television and serial fictions John Caughie; 4. The public sphere, popular culture and the true meaning of the Zombie Apocalypse Roger Luckhurst; 5. The reader of popular fiction Nicola Humble; 6. Reading time: popular fiction and the everyday Scott McCracken; 7. Gender and sexuality in popular fiction Kaye Mitchell; 8. Pulp sensations Erin A. Smith; 9. Bestselling fiction: machinery, economy, excess Fred Botting; 10. Comic books and graphic novels Hilary Chute and Marianne Dekoven; 11. Popular fictions in the digital age Brenda Silver; Further reading; Index.

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