Harry Potter popularity


On the charge of commodification (which has been laid against the Harry Potter series), Vandana Saxena writes that there is “some justification. The Harry Potter brand is worth about 15 million dollars. Movies, computer games, a Harry Potter theme park – all are part of the phenomenon now termed Pottermania.
“To an extent, sales and statistics are valid since popular could be defined as that which people enjoy, buy and consume. As of 2011, the series had sold more than 450 million copies and has been translated into 70 languages. Also in circulation are unauthorized translations of true Harry Potter books and published pastiches or fanfictions that have attempted to pass themselves off as real books.” (p.8)

“Several critics have found the Potter series worth serious academic scrutiny precisely due to its popularity. Anthologies of critical essays problematize the simplistic equation of the popularity of the series with market strategies (Anatol, Reading Harry Potter; Whited, The Ivory Tower; Hielman, Critical Perspectives). Critics like Alison Lurie have embraced the idea of commercial success as a part of the series, an indispensable element of the Harry Potter phenomenon (‘Pottery’).” (p.9)

Ref: Vandana Saxena (2012) The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, NC and London.

Popular fiction is…


I like this quote (the crux of the essay that precedes it):

“Popular fiction is not a symptom of the decline of the public sphere. It is, rather, one of the most vibrant places to find arguments about the nature and limits of the public.” (p.83)

Ref: Roger Luckhurst ‘The Public sphere, popular culture and the true meaning of the zombie apocalypse’, pp.68-85 Eds. David Glover and Scott McCracken (2012) The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK

Popular fiction defined – Glover and McCracken


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.

the depoliticization of social reality


I thought this statement of Manfred Steger’s interesting:

“The values disseminated by transnational media enterprises secure not only the undisputed cultural hegemony of popular culture, but also lead to the depoliticization of social reality and the weakening of civic bonds.” (p.81)

(obviously, I haven’t provided the context in which he made it, but it is an interesting statement, that’s all!)

Ref: Manfred B. Steger (c2003) Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Summarising the Twilight product


Firstly, I like the way Happel and Esposito summarise the production of Twilight

“The movie Twilight, directed by Catherin Hardwicke and produced by Summit Entertainment, was released in November of 2008. The screenplay was based  in the 2005 novel of the same name, which was the first of four novels in a series written by Stephanie Meyer. Meyer’s book series has sold more than 42 million copies worldwide, and it has been translated into 37 languages. The novel was adapted for the screen by Melissa Rosenburg in 2007. The popularity of the book series led to the overwhelmingly positive reception of the film. Following the books, the film was an immediate success; it grossed 70.5 million dollars on its opening weekend, and has since grossed over 310 million in box office sales (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twilight (2008 film)).

The film has been very popular with young adults, and it has been marketed heavily to preteens and teenagers. Besides the usual movie marketing strategies, the marketers of Twilight invested heavily in online marketing that specifically targeted young adults. The advertising for Twilight was Web savvy, and it included easily accessible trailers of the movie, along with advertisements in heavily trafficked young adult online spaces such as Myspace, I-tunes stores, Facebook, and YouTube. The age-specific marketing strategies, along with the popularity of the book series, have facilitated the tremendous popularity of the film. Indicative of its popularity among young adults, the film was nominated for seven MTV movie awards and won five of the awards in June of 2009. Given the film’s popularity, and also its spawn of material goods and related products, we view the film as an important part of youth’s lives and, thus, a site in need of critique. We need to [-p.525] understand the ways the film speaks to, for, and about youth. It is for these reasons we have chosen to review the film. We argue that, although this movie works to interrupt some stereotypical notions of gender, overall, it sexualizes violence. We see the movie as one way in which young girls are taught to romanticize sexualized violence and, as feminists within the field of Education, we believe it is vital for those of us working with youth to critically engage patriarchal messages being sold to young girls.” (pp.524-525)

Also, their framing of Twilight in terms of postfeminism is interesting. It’s only a short article and they don’t get into any deep criticism, but still …. Their criticism of the film is based largely on what they describe as its postfeminist representation of Bella as having the right to choose any kind of relationship, even a dangerous or violent one; they explain:

Twilight’s main theme, Bella’s love for a boy who wants to kill her, sexualizes violence. Throughout the movie, Edward warns Bella about the dangers of being around both him and his family, yet she continues to put her life in jeopardy because of her love for him. The movie is consistently sensual, and the eroticism seems to be heightened during scenes involving violence. Bella’s body language during violent scenes throughout the movie is noticeably sexual; she often appears breathing heavily with her mouth open and her cheeks flushed. Also, the movie suggests that there is a correlation between her love for Edward, and how dangerous he is to her. This sexualization of violence is related to postfeminism in that postfeminism claims that women have the power and agency to choose any kind of relationship for themselves, even relationships that have the potential for danger and/or violence. Postfeminism’s insistence on individualism and assumed equality is the foundation for the audience to view Bella’s relationship with Edward as an innocuous choice that does not need to be contextualized in histories of violence against women. This ahistorical and decontextualized presentation of sexualized violence through the employment of postfeminism actually serves to uphold and perpetuate patriarchal [-p.530] (and highly dangerous) notions about love, sexuality, and gender roles. Because postfeminism assumes that women have already fought for equality and won, Bella’s choice to be with Edward is seen as a personal choice that was made autonomously, and therefore should be respected and not challenged.” (pp.529-530)

“Like Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the [Rihanna being beaten up by Chris Brown] incident encourages girls to help tame their beast, to make him into a better man. We believe Twilight encourages a similar message.” (p.530)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Alison Happel & Jennifer Esposito (2010): Vampires, Vixens, and Feminists: An Analysis of Twilight, Educational Studies, 46:5, 524-531

emotions, knowledge and serial killers


I read this article on emotions by Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram the same day as I read some of the literature on Dexter. This following statement stuck out for me as a result…:

Because emotions have been perceived as occurring predominantly at the level of individual experience, they have been dismissed as a disturbance: irrational and, consequently, unreliable and insignificant. However, this obscures the point that they also operate socioculturally; they act simultaneously as structures of meaning and structures of power. After all, discourses of the body also function largely experientially and at the level of the individual. However, as much recent theory has shown, discourses of the body are intimately connected to larger social operations. Indeed, they are the means by which social and cultural discursive formations are embodied . We are arguing a similar set of conditions for the emotions / they are the means by which social and cultural formations affect us, that is, render us as feeling beings in a series of complex, specific ways. Simply because emotions principally are enacted (‘experienced’) at the level of the individual does not exclude them from being simultaneously implicated in larger cultural processes and structures nor, for that matter, does it make them immune to theorization.” (p.871)

I couldn’t help thinking of Dexter and his inability/desire to feel emotions like ‘normal’ people – and his development as a father and family man…

Further on in this same article (discussing Larry Grossberg’s work on affect), Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram also explain that:

“Grossberg’s point is that affect needs to be taken into account as a constitutive aspect of popular culture. It is insufficient to heed popular culture only when it is transformed, through interpretation, into either ‘art’ or, as in some avenues of cultural studies, ideology/hegemony, that is to say, when it takes on meaning.

“A potential problem with a position that argues the prevalence of an affective dimension in popular culture is that its application may lead to too dramatic a bifurcation of popular culture from elite culture, or of feeling from thinking. This may suggest an antithetical relationship between high art and pop culture, as well as between meaning and affect, as if high culture audiences do not feel and popular culture audiences do not think. But, significantly, Grossberg observes that popular culture’s dominantly affective dimension is not inherent but historically constituted and that ‘a large part of the struggle over popular culture concerns the ability of certain practices to have such effects’ (1992, p. 79). That is, popular culture practices have fought to represent and retain their association with affective experience.

The ‘interpretive task’ facing cultural studies and left-wing politics alike is to identify the strategies and sites where affective empowerment might be possible, beginning with popular culture forms that resonate affectively for consumers (1988, p. 290): ‘Those differences which do matter [affectively] can become the site of ideological struggle’ (1992, p. 105). Things that matter affectively can be taken up as sites of ideological assertion or contestation. Political positions can be claimed through and shaped by modes or instances of felt popular culture.

Arguably, this is what many contemporary cultural theorists have attempted to do in the move towards the analysis of popular culture. Specific subjects from pop culture are chosen for study, not because they are a priori ‘artistically’ significant to a trained critical eye or carry some other elite cultural value but, precisely the opposite, because they have mass emotional appeal. To continue with the example of popular music, in the case of ‘Madonna studies’ critical effort has been directed towards recapturing, for historical record, the basis of her wide appeal. Theoretical activity is taken up after popular fact, in an attempt to account for the widespread emotional affiliation of fans and to pinpoint that which is so resistant, in Williams’ terms, to historical investigation and documentation. What are the sources and effects of extensive popularity? Can they be turned into political statements or acts? Can such affective investments and energies be used to identify emergent subcultural identities?” (p.874)

I found this article really quite fascinating… how do laughter, fear, feelings of neglect, abandonment and I don’t know what appear in popular fiction… to what effect? What of feelings in Adolescent Fiction? Is there anything special about feelings in this ‘genre’? It’s interesting to consider! A couple more quotes are relevant here:

“Following Jaggar’s arguments, […] emotions are pivotal in identity formations, in the recognition of alienation from or connection to. She discusses how unexplained or uncoded feelings may cause one to feel isolated or ‘abnormal’, while recognition of others with similar feelings can serve as the ground for the formation of subcultural groups (1989).” (p.875)

We are arguing that, among other forces, emotion makes possible the exertion and reception of the effects of power relations, thereby constructing the subject and, more specifically, the emotional subject. In other words, the subject who feels is critical to the circulation of power, the establishment of social relations, and the construction of discursive and institutional formations.
Emotions are forces of energy creating ongoing movement that propels social relations. The circulation of emotion produces in and between people connections, ruptures, dependencies, responsibilities, accountabilities, and so on. In other words, people care / they are invested. If people care, certain effects are produced: they feel and act in certain ways. Individuals have emotional relations, a significant form of social relations. It is through these relations that subjects are ‘affected’, that they are constituted into specifically contoured kinds of feeling beings. Following Grossberg, the task facing cultural studies is to identify the strategies and sites where emotional authority might be possible, in addition to pinpointing the locations and terms within which emotions subordinate.” (p.879)

[Do we invest conceptions of ‘work’, ‘financial security’, ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘marriage’, etc. with emotional authority?]

In contemporary Western cultures, a prevailing assumption exists that men suppress emotion more frequently and more extensively than women - to varyingly positive or negative effects -/ while women display and release emotions more readily. Women tend to be seen as more emotionally ‘skilled’ and ‘fluent’, which confers a positive meaning. However, in contrast, being ‘more emotional’ is most often equated with being less in control of feelings in a pejorative or problematic way and has served as justification for women’s exclusion from any number of corridors of power.
Further, the gendered expression of emotion is dependent upon the emotion being considered. Men are regarded as better able to express certain emotions / anger, frustration, impatience. It then becomes possible to analyse emotions, such as anger or non-anger, as gendered structures of feeling. Such views need not be construed as essentializing. Rather, gendered subjects can be seen as constructed in/through specific discursive events such as the expression or ‘repression’ of emotion. In this case, individual subjects must live and feel the specificities of such constructions, and they must constantly re-enact / relive, refeel / those specificities in order to sustain their identities.” (p.881)

An analytics of emotion must examine specific occurrences and concrete examples. It must thoroughly examine: how emotions might be constituted and experienced; how they are used, that is, what their effects might be; how they might function with/in structures of power, towards both dominant and resistant ends; and what role they play in the formation of subjectivity and identity in the everyday lives and practices of individuals.
In other words, in order to further develop an analysis of emotion and relations between emotion and power, subjectivity and culture, we think that ‘power and emotion’ need to be discussed in detail and in relation to concrete examples.” (p.882)

Ref: Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram (2004): Losing our cool? Following Williams and Grossberg on emotions  Cultural Studies, 18:6, 863-883

Teachers in children’s story books: narrative texts serve as ‘mirrors and windows’


The public text of ‘teacher’

I just enjoyed a study of the representation of teachers in picture story books aimed at children about to start school. There are several aspects to it that could be extended to a study of adolescent fiction (in particular, the framework they borrow from Triplett and Ash around teachers’ relationships with children, and the way in which they consider the monocultural presentation of education in these books).

The authors explain: “It has been argued that narrative texts serve as ‘mirrors and windows’ (Cullinan & Galda, 1998) and that ‘children’s perceptions of the teaching profession are subtly shaped’ by what they encounter in books about school (Trousdale, 1994, p. 213). Several studies have investigated the representation of teachers and schools in children’s literature. Notable among these are Greenway’s (1993) focus on negative images of school; Barone, Meyerson and Mallette’s (1995) identification of positive and negative images of teachers; Radencich and Harrison’s (1997) images of principals; and Trousdale’s (1994) analysis of teachers in picture books.” (p.34)

“One of the few teachers who asked a lot of questions….” (p.39 Dockett et al.)

Concluding their study, the authors write that: “the overall image of teachers from the current study was of a relatively bland, caring person, who made sure that the environment was set up and ready for children, greeted children and parents, provided directions, encouraged children to play without necessarily engaging in play themselves, and who generally ensured that children were happy and comfortable. In short, many teachers seemed to be ‘nice ladies who loved children’ (Stonehouse, 1994).” (p.39)

“One of the sources of children’s knowledge about school is popular culture, which can provide a resource for children to learn about specific communities (such as school) and their roles and relationships within these communities (Haas Dyson, 1997). Weber and Mitchell (1995, p. 2) note the pervasiveness of popular culture images of school: ‘Even before children begin school, they have already been exposed to a myriad of images of teachers, classrooms and schools which have made strong and lasting impressions on them’. Once they start school, children’s own experiences of education, along with those encountered through popular culture (Hickey & Austin, 2006) contribute to the public text of ‘teacher’ (Mockler, 2004).” (p.33) [I like this phrase – the public text of teacher!]

“When children are engaged in multiple readings and ongoing conversations with others about schools and teachers, they are likely to build up specific expectations that incorporate some of these readings and conversations. Weber and Mitchell (1995; 1999) refer to this as a process of constructing cumulative cultural texts, where images from the past (such as those of parents, siblings, friends) are combined with those of the present (including those in popular culture) to ‘give members of a society a common frame of reference and a shared pool of expressive images to [-p.34] use’ that ‘blend seamlessly and often undetected into our familiar, unquestioned everyday knowledge’ (Weber & Mitchell, 1999, p. 168). Children starting school encounter and engage with a variety of popular culture images of teachers. These images can help shape how children think about teachers at school and their own identity as school students, influencing ‘relations and representations of self with and within the wider community’ (Beavis, 2000, p. 1).” (pp.33-34)


There were two really interesting points made by the authors of this study. Their interest in diversity as it is represented (and might impact on young readers) and their interest in the fact that fictional teachers generally did not change or learn suggests potential for further study. On the topic of diversity, they write: “As in other analyses of children’s books, there is a general lack of cultural and linguistic diversity represented across these teachers (Gemma, 2001; Smith-D’Arezzo, 2003). Seventy-five per cent (n = 140) of teachers reflected a white, Anglo-Celtic background. The names attributed to teachers confirm this predominance. Of major concern here is the representation of teachers as largely monocultural, where mainstream culture prevails and tensions do not arise. Gemma (2001) reports a similar finding in her analysis of North American books, noting that few ‘address many important linguistic, religious, and cultural issues and questions faced by children and teachers’ (p. 75). The omission of specific groups of people from picture storybooks, particularly in the powerful role of teacher, generates messages about who belongs at school and who is likely to succeed at school (Mendoza & Reese, 2002). One of the books that reflects and celebrates diversity among both teachers and children is Cleversticks (Ashley, 1992).” (p.38)

In their conclusion, Dockett, Perry and Whitton add: “given that many of these books about starting school are featured in transition programs and used with the purpose of familiarising children with school, it is important to consider the nature of the images and the interactions that occur around these. Sandefur and Moore (2004, p. 42) note that these books have ‘power not just in teaching children and their parents about the culture of schooling, but in shaping it as well’. For many children, the monocultural characters in books and the stereotypical representation of teachers and teachers’ work may make identification with either characters or place problematic.” (p.39)

Teachers as learners

Dockett, Perry and Whitton pose a number of questions, but two I particularly like are:

– “Is there evidence of change in the teacher within the book?” (p.35)

– and “Are teachers presented as learners?” (p.35)

In the majority of books, teachers were represented as the keepers of knowledge. This was conveyed through images of teachers leading reading activities, providing [-p.39] directions and assisting children as they undertake tasks. Only on rare occasions was the teacher represented as a learner.” (pp.38-39) Similarly, the authors found that the teachers were not often engaging children in critical thinking, though they suggested that this could be because so many of these books were set on the first day of school when “the sense of comforting and reassuring new children predominates.” (p.39)


Children learn a great deal about school, what happens at school, and the people they will meet at school as they engage with popular culture, such as television, games and books. One of the issues raised by many children as they contemplate starting school concerns what their teacher will be like. Children’s expectations about teachers are important contributors to the relationships that develop between teachers and children. Such relationships are themselves a critical factor in children’s school engagement. Examining some of the information that contributes to children’s expectations about teachers supports a focus on children’s experiences as they start school.

This article reports a study of the images of teachers within children’s picture storybooks—an accessible form of popular culture about school. A collection of 164 English language picture storybooks spanning 1967–2007 was analysed to explore the representations of teachers in schools. Three areas of analysis were undertaken: how teachers are represented; the dominant images of teachers; and the images that are omitted. The analysis demonstrates the generally benign images of teachers and questions the understandings the books promote about teachers and the roles of teachers in schools.” (p.33) …I do like the methodology of this paper – and the questions they looked at…

I disagree, though, with their apparent disapproval of teachers in books not ‘resolving conflicts’. Such an approach presumes children to be incapable of solving their own conflicts – which I see them to be. Of course, I suspect the fictional teachers looked at in this study are equally not supporting children to resolve conflicts by themselves either…

Ref: Sue Dockett, Bob Perry, and Diana Whitton (2010) What will my teacher be like? Picture storybooks about starting school Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 35(3)September: pp.33-41

Reference is made to:

Cullinan, B. E., & Galda, L. (1998). Literature and the child (Fourth edn). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
Greenway, B. (1993). ‘Creeping like a snail unwillingly to school’: Negative images of school in children’s literature. The New Advocate, 6(2), 105–114.
Haas Dyson, A. (1997). Writing superheroes: Contemporarychildhood, popular culture and classroom literacy. Columbia, NY: Teachers College Press.
Radencich, M. C., & Harrison, M. (1997). Images of principals in children’s and young adult literature. The New Advocate, 10(4), 335–348.
Triplett, C. F., & Ash, G. E. (2000). Reflecting on the portrayal of teacher–student relationships in children’s literature. The New Advocate, 13(3), 241–257.
Trousdale, A. M. (1994). Teacher as gatekeeper. In P. B. Joseph & G. E. Burnaford (Eds), Images of schoolteachers in twentieth century America (pp. 195–214). New York: St Martins Press.
Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1995). ‘That’s funny, you don’t look like a teacher’. Interrogating images and identity in popular culture. London: Falmer Press.
Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1999). Reinventing ourselves as teachers: Beyond nostalgia. London: Falmer Press.