Popular Culture in Literature

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

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.

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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, which are sold in large numbers. In another example, sports figures endorse items of clothing, which are in turn used by youth gangs to identify members. An element of popular culture, such as a type of music, may also be considered part of mass culture, since a commercial interest (a record company) is involved in the music’s dissemination.

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Another distinction is often made between popular culture and what is called elite or high culture. Such a distinction often says more about the social identification of the person making the distinction than about popular culture or elite culture. Vague boundaries also exist between elite culture and popular culture. The works of British poet Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, may clearly belong to elite culture, and the songs of the rock group Nirvana may clearly belong to the popular culture, but in the wake of popular film versions of her novels, whether the British author Jane Austen belongs to the elite or to the popular culture is hard to determine definitively. Elite culture tends to be culture that has passed into social canon and that is preferred by the rich and powerful in society.

Another definition of popular culture is that culture created by subcultures in the process of solving a problem. Popular culture materials are often used by subcultures as ways of identifying subculture members. It infers an active participation of subculture members in the appropriation, creation, and use of popular culture materials as audience and as artist. Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) explores this active aspect of cultural product use and production as it affects television fiction. His title is intended to preview the thesis that he presents: that subculturally organized television viewers use television media for their own purposes and are not passive consumers.

Most popular culture theorists have examined television and music more than they have examined cultural products that are based on the written word. Unwritten media, it seems, appeal to the theorists because such media are more ephemeral than the written word. Additionally, literacy is an acquired skill—even people who do not speak Chinese can enjoy a Chinese television program by following the action, and can enjoy Chinese music. Consequently, there is more opportunity to study people interacting with such popular culture media as television and music.


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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 better able to retain that training. An illiterate person works from concrete, limited examples rather than from abstract concepts acquired through the increased examples a literate person is exposed to by reading. Other factors for the promulgation of literacy include the urge to spread the word of God—some religions, for example Christianity, are based on writing rather than on oral tradition—and to make a society learn to accept innovation, since literate people tend to have tolerance and acceptance for innovation.

In order for people to become literate, literacy has to be valuable to the learner. Writing is more difficult to learn than reading, therefore there have always been more readers than writers. The most important factor in promoting a desire to read in the young child is for the child to see parents reading and to be read to. Factors that appear necessary for literacy to spread within a society include enough leisure and wealth for people to have time to learn. This factor alone does not determine literacy. Additionally, the members of a society must perceive that literacy is useful in their daily lives and as a society feel a need for improvement.

In Europe and North America the right to vote was originally tied to property ownership. When the voting franchise was extended to literate non-propertied people, the incentive to become literate increased. Further technological advances in the form of inexpensive paper (invented in China), and the printing press (first used in Germany), created the possibility of universal literacy. In the developed areas of the world in the twentieth century, the need for literacy is compelling and self-evident; it is nearly impossible to earn a living, except through crime, without being literate, and in many places literacy in more than one language is necessary for many forms of gainful employment.

The United States of America was founded by people with religious convictions that fostered literacy. The United States is also a nation of immigrants of diverse linguistic backgrounds, and so the formal teaching of language, which includes written language, has long been practiced in the United States. Additionally, the United States is an industrialized nation, in need of educated workers. With these conditions for literacy, fiction had a market in the United States. With that market came the development of genre fiction to target specific groups in that mass market. Fiction is a learning tool just as are nonfictional works. Fiction is mass marketed, so publishers tend to publish works that will appeal to the largest target audience. In the United States, that target audience has been, primarily, middle-class to upper-class white households, and the majority of fiction published has characters representing that market.

Genre Literature and Elite Literature

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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.


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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 personal dilemmas of advanced industrial life.”

Hoffman, Frank W. American Popular Culture: A Guide to the Reference Literature. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1995. Provides bibliographic references to United States popular culture materials. Topic areas range from fashion and sports to religion and topic sources range from comic books to clothing.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. A media theorist’s examination of the cultural productions of the fans of television shows.

Journal of American Culture, The. Published quarterly by Bowling Green State University Press in cooperation with the Popular Culture Association, Bowling Green, Ohio. Contains articles on all aspects of American popular culture.

Journal of Popular Culture, The. Published quarterly by Bowling Green State University Press in cooperation with the Popular Culture Association, Bowling Green, Ohio. Contains articles on all aspects of popular culture.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Postmodern. New York: Routledge, 1995. Discusses the theory, context, and methodology of cultural studies and attempts to analyze the underlying political and economic motivations for the way the media portrays various cultural icons such as Ronald Reagan, Madonna, and Spike Lee.

Landrum, Larry N. American Popular Culture: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. A resource guide to other publications and information on American popular culture.

Sanders, Clinton R., ed. Marginal Conventions: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Social Deviance. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1990. Examines theories of deviance in relation to popular culture.

Simonson, Rick, and Scott Walker, eds. The Graywolf Annual Five: Multicultural Literacy. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press. 1988. Examines multicultural literacy, arguing that the advocates of cultural literacy are advocates of middle-class, white male values.

Sochen, June. Enduring Values: Women in Popular Culture. New York: Praeger, 1987. Discusses the images of women portrayed in popular culture and mass media in the twentieth century and what social values these images express.

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