Wednesday, May 03, 2006

On Popular Fiction

I think Elizabeth Lowell has written some of the best romances out there. On her website, she has a great article, "Popular Fiction: Why We Read It, Why We Write It" that talks about the difference between "popular" and "literary fiction."

The underlying philosophy of much popular fiction is more optimistic: the human condition might indeed be deplorable, but individuals can make a positive difference in their own and others' lives. The Muses of popular fiction are Zoroaster and Jung, the philosphy more classical than to modern. Popular fiction is a continuation of and an embroidery upon ancient myths and archetypes; popular fiction is good against evil, Prometheus against the uncaring gods, Persephone emerging from hell with the seeds of spring in her hands, Adam discovering Eve.

In a word, popular fiction is heroic and transcendent at a time when heroism and transcendence are out of intellectual favor. Publishers, whose job is to make money by predicting the size of the market for a piece of fiction, are constantly trying guess where a manuscript falls on the scale of white to gray to black. Publishers to understand why readers read the books they do. Marketers give tests, conduct surveys, consult oracles, etc., and constantly rediscover a simple fact: people read fiction that reinforces their often inarticulate beliefs about society, life, and fate....

That is what critics disdain. Heroism. Transcendence.

Romances were once scorned as badly written, formulaic, lurid escapist fare best read in closets. They still are. I suspect they always will be. Their appeal is to the transcendent, not to the political. Their characters, through love, transcend the ordinary and partake of the extraordinary.

That, not bulging muscles or magic weapons, is the essence of heroic myth: humans touching transcendence. It is an important point that is often misunderstood. The essence of myth is that it is a bridge from the ordinary to the extraordinary. As Joseph Campbell said many times, through myth we all touch, if only for a few moments, something larger than ourselves, something transcendent.

Unfortunately, transcendence has been out of intellectual favor for several generations. Thus the war between optimism and pessimism rages on, and popular culture is its battlefield. Universities and newspapers are heavily stocked with people who believe that pessimism is the only intelligent philosophy of life; therefore, optimists are dumb as rocks.

How many times have you read a review that disdains a book because it has a constructive resolution of the central conflict—also known as a happy ending? The same reviewer will then praise another book for its relentless portrayal of the bleakness of everyday life.

This is propaganda, not criticism. What the critics are actually talking about is their own intellectual bias, their own chosen myth: pessimism. They aren't offering an intelligent analysis of an author's ability to construct and execute a novel.

Contrary to what the critics tell us, popular fiction is not a swamp of barely literate escapism; popular fiction is composed of ancient myths newly reborn, telling and retelling a simple truth: ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Jack can plant a beanstalk that will provide endless food; a Tom Clancy character can successfully unravel a conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions. A knight can slay a dragon; a Stephen King character can defeat the massed forces of evil. Cinderella can attract the prince through her own innate decency rather than through family connections; a Nora Roberts heroine can, through her own strength, rise above a savagely unhappy past and bring happiness to herself and others.

I like science fiction, fantasy and romance for the qualities she states here. I like good stories, stories that speak to the essence of life, that transcend boundaries and cultures. If you write something so dense and abstruse (like that word) that few people will be able to understand it, then what's the point of trying to get published?

I told my hubby recently that I was afraid I was becoming a snob. I certainly have the academic credentials to out-snob many snobs. But now that I consider the "popular fiction" that I like to read and write, I suppose that will keep me from being a snob.

I suspect that is probably why I will never enter an MFA program. No weird post modernist stuff for me!


At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James Joyces Ulysses is listed as the best book of the 20th century in English. Too bad no one really reads it.


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