Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field

By Ken Gelder | Go to book overview

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Popular fiction

The opposite of Literature?

This chapter argues that popular fiction is best conceived as the opposite of Literature (to which I shall ascribe a capital L, distinguishing it from literature as a general field of writing). The reverse is also true and, in fact, it can often seem as if Literature and popular fiction exist in a constant state of mutual repulsion or repudiation. By Literature, I mean the kind of writing (and let us stay with prose fiction broadly speaking) produced by, for example, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Henry James, James Joyce, William Faulkner - although his novel Sanctuary (1931) has 'many of the ingredients that belong in a thriller' (Glover 2003:143) - Saul Bellow, D.H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis - although he has tried his hand at genre fiction with the police procedural novel, Night Train (1998) - Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen, Arundhati Roy, Don DeLillo, Tobias Wolff and so on. The work of some of these writers (e.g. Austen) has certainly been popular, in which case it could reasonably be identified as Popular Literature. Some of these writers may even have written what could be termed 'best-sellers', although this term is quantitatively open: a bestseller can mean sales of anything from around 20,000 copies to several million (after which, we might use the terms 'superseller' or topseller), and some works of Literature, whether it happens over an extended period of time or immediately after publication, can indeed do well in the marketplace. Nevertheless, aside from one or two exceptions to the rule noted above (and there are others), none of these writers has actually produced popular fiction and nor would they wish anyone to imagine that they had. They identify, and are rightly identified in turn, as authors of Literature. Indeed, as we shall see, many of them spend a great deal of time and effort distinguishing themselves from popular fiction and everything it seems to stand for. This is not a criticism of Literature, of course, and it would be a blinkered reader who assumes that this book - even as it speaks up for the reputation of popular fiction - is somehow therefore taking a kind of 'anti-Literature' position. It is simply one way of noting that

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