Popular Culture in Literature Analysis

The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

What constitutes popular culture is debated, and the definition that one chooses influences the interpretations one makes about popular culture. Popular culture may be said to be represented by those objects and icons that are recognizable to a large number of people but that have not yet passed into the social canon. When something becomes part of the social canon, it becomes part of the norms, rules, and expectations of the members of a society. For example, one may argue that a famous basketball player is part of popular culture, because he is widely recognized, but that the player is not part of the social canon, because he is not a model of conduct or historical example, as are such figures as Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., or a living president. The borders between popular culture and canonical culture are clearly quite fluid, and precise definition is impossible. Some art, in fact, has as its theme the ease with which images and cultural references can shuttle between canonical culture and popular culture.

Many critics make a distinction between popular culture and mass culture. When this distinction is made, “mass culture” is used to describe popular culture materials that have been appropriated by commercial interests. This is often a circular process, with commercial interests producing objects and images that are adopted by groups as cultural icons, which in turn are further exploited by commercial interests. An example is the artist Andy Warhol’s using a commercial image, the Campbell’s soup can, in his art, and then the art’s being printed on shirts,...

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Popular Fiction

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Popular culture fiction is marketed as genre literature. Genre literature is accused of being simplistic, sometimes banal, and at its most controversial, of defying social norms. Genre literature is a type of mass and popular culture material. It is studied by popular culture theorists as a branch of literary study. To popular culture theorists, a text is any societal production, therefore any media—books, film, television shows, recordings, radio, and music—are texts. Genre literature consists of written texts.

Genre literature—romance novels, science fiction, fantasy, mystery and detective, horror, pornographic books, and Westerns, for example—creates a system of expectations for the reader. Genre literature consists of texts with recognizable, conventional themes and plots. In order to reduce financial risk, publishers prefer to reproduce fiction similar to what has successfully sold before. Marketing by genre is one way of reducing the financial risk of publishing. Genre fiction announces to the potential purchaser what to expect from the product. Meeting these expectations can often be crucial to the fiction’s success. The set of assumptions of genre fiction also allows the writer to exploit conventions of plot and vocabulary. Readers and writers demand a certain amount of innovation or novelty to be entertained. In genre literature, there can be too much and too little innovation. Genre literature innovation tends to be slow and steady, not taking great leaps, as a result of market forces. The categories of genre fiction can be as fluid as the definition of popular culture; the elements that are...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Published scientific discussion of the psychology of reading and writing—literacy—is abundant but little has been done to examine the uses of texts by the consumer. Notable sociological exceptions include Herbert J. Gans’s discussion of the uses of the action-adventure film by lower-class males in his book The Urban Villagers (1966). Many of the social factors involved in the production of literacy are simple to recognize. An isolated subsistence economy has little need of literate people and, typically, the people in such an economy have little desire for literacy. The more industrialized a country is, however, the more literate people it will have. Worldwide, literate men outnumber literate women nearly four to one. This fact points out the economic and political uses of literacy, which in turn affect the production of commercial fiction.

Urban areas become literate before rural. The economic elites tend to make better use of institutions where literacy is acquired, such as schools. The poorer economic groups make less use of these institutions and this contributes historically to the gap between literates and illiterates becoming wider over time if left uncorrected by other forces. Democracy, as a governmental form, seems to promote literacy better than dictatorships, and literate people who immigrate to industrialized countries do better economically than illiterate or subliterate people. Literacy is an important prerequisite to other forms of education and to the development of reading as a leisure activity.

Commerce was the most likely driving force behind the creation of writing systems and the spread of literacy. Industrial employers, for example, know that literate employees are easier to train and seem...

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Popular Literature and Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The primary market for genre literature being white households, it is not surprising that the majority of fiction that reaches the commercial market has white male and white female characters. For example, the conventional Western features a white cowboy. Native Americans are typically depicted as bad guys. Women in a cowboy novel are usually stereotypes. Traditional spy and detective novels also feature, primarily, white males, although market forces have created a demand, and a supply, of women detectives, black detectives, gay detectives, and so on. An example is the series of detective novels, written by Sara Paretsky, featuring V. I. Warshawski, an athletic, intelligent, and attractive woman who lives in Chicago. Detective novels tend to treat sex as love and romance consists of a quick hop into bed. As a hard-boiled detective, Warshawski seems to follow this tradition.

Horror and occult fiction that has a female main character usually does so in order to terrorize her. Most often, she triumphs over evil, since that is what the genre conventions call for, but most often it is with the help of a male character, and both of them are almost inevitably white. Historical romance novels, in common with horror novels, tend to follow the basic conventions of the genre, in which the heroine is white, beautiful, and in the end submissive to her male romantic lead. Only late in the twentieth century has genre fiction begun to explore positive and nontraditional images of American ethnic...

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Genre Literature and Elite Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

For popular, genre fiction to become literature that is recognized by the elite culture, it must stand the test of time. Writers of popular fiction who aspire to enduring fame and critics who deprecate contemporary popular fiction may recall that William Shakespeare’s plays, at the time of their composition, were not considered great literature. Shakespeare wrote popular literature and measured its success in financial terms. Thus the boundaries between popular culture and elite culture are mutable. Although it is impossible to define with great accuracy what does and what does not belong to popular culture or to define accurately what genre literature is and what elite literature is, such lack of definition does not preclude fruitful critical and scientific study. Popular culture informs elite culture and vice versa; the issue of which cultural artifacts are preserved, and which names are remembered, depends not exclusively upon a committee of experts but also upon popular acceptance and the accidents of history.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Berger, Arthur Asa. Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1992. Volume two in a series on popular culture; other volumes discuss how culture is produced, popular music, and the relationship of journalism to popular culture.

Fowles, Jib. Advertising and Popular Culture. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1996. Volume five in a series on popular culture explores the possibility that consumers are not passive puppets of advertising, but rather that consumers “look to advertising to provide them with images that can assist them in negotiating...

(The entire section is 407 words.)