In their textbook, Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell make a comparison between “popular fiction” and “serious fiction,” contending that stories that fall into popular fiction genres (mystery, suspense, romance, horror, science fiction, fantasy, etc.) “serve as an escape from life” and that “serious fiction” challenges “cherished beliefs” and can cause “readers to reexamine long-held assumptions.”
Do you think that popular/genre fiction is worthy of being considered “literature” in the same way that “serious fiction” is? If so, why? If not, why not?
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This is a fairly complex question having to do with what scholars refer to as the literary "canon", or set of standard works read in schools and studied in academic journals.
Western literary canon formation began in Graeco-Roman antiquity, when a small group of works were standardized as part of the primary and secondary academic curricula by scholars in ancient Alexandria and other parts of the Graeco-Roman world. Certain works were considered important for their cultural, historical, and stylistic value. These works, including Plato, Greek tragedy and comedy, Homer, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the ten Attic orators, and similar Latin works were taught to students learning to read and write "letters" (Latin: litera). This canon, or set of standard works taught in schools, was the origin of the literary canon; it gradually became expanded to include more recent works. The list is relatively short for many reasons, including the technological one of printing not having been invented. As a matter of practicality, it was important that the list remain short, as even after the invention of printing, books were quite expensive in relation to salaries.
The first major shift in the western canon occurred with Romanticism and an increase in academic disciplinary specialization in the 19th century, when the term "literature" was narrowed to refer only to imaginative works (poetry and fiction) and exclude works of history and philosophy. A second force at work in this period was the gradual improvement of print technology, allowing cheap reproduction of works for the mass market. At this point, we begin to get a distinction that dominated much of 19th and 20th century literary criticism between "literature" (meaning some sort of good or culturally important books) and popular works.
This distinction was never particularly rigorous. For example, of works we study in literature classes now, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Orwell's 1984, Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, and even Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream contain many fantastic or "science fiction" elements, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex is in many ways a detective story, and Jane Austen's novels are prototypical romances.
It isn't really possible to make a rigorous distinction between "serious literature" and "genre fiction" by any objective criteria such as type of plot or characters. Instead, there are books about every type of character or situation which are well-written and worth rereading and other books which are badly written and superficial, books one might enjoy reading once, but which don't have the sort of profound insights or exquisite use of language which makes them worth studying closely for their literary values.
On the other hand, literary critics involved in the field of "cultural studies" argue that all works can be studied profitably for the way they help us understand the cultures in which they were produced. Most recent scholarship regards the distinction between popular and "literary" works as problematic.
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