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Between Pop and Literature: Nick Hornby

1 Popular art and the art of consuming

1.1 Popular literature
Nick Hornbys work is often categorized as "pop literature". Among the contemporary
authors whose work has earned itself a similar reputation are the German writers
Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, Florian Illies and Christian Kracht. Though different
in style the books of all these authors have one important thing in common: they are
unusually successful and have helped turn their authors into literary pop stars. These
works appeal to contemporary readers because they treat accessible subjects in a
contemporary style
ut what e!actly is pop literature" #an literature be !pop! at all" $r is there a
contradiction in these terms% is there a gap% similar to the one between% say% eethoven
and &adonna" This raises the 'uestion of what is pop" "op may be best described as a
triangle of terms: "op emerges (appears) in a fertile social field defined by art% commerce
and folk traditions.
*op would not be possible without modern mass media. +ithout radio the eatles
probably would not have made it in the ,-. +ithout television interviews with pop stars
. be they musicians% writers or actors . would only reach a tiny audience. &aybe even
/ick 0ornby would be a fringe writer without the now indispensable advertising
campaigns for books.
1.2 Pop is more than popular art
Folk traditions
As the term "pop" denotes (indicates)% pop culture is supposed to be "popular". 1t is often
rooted in folk traditions (tradisi rakyat)% as can be seen in the influence that folk music
(music rakyat) elements play in the history of rock music. The music of The eatles is a
case in point. "op is easily accessible and bypasses e#cessively demandin$ intellectual
ambi$uities that %ould need a hu$e amount o& interpretation 'ne does not need to
learn understandin$ pop ( you can look at pop art, listen to pop music and read pop
literature and just enjoy To some e!tent pop is always rooted in everyday life . you
basically know the topics of pop lyrics% you know the sound of pop music% you know the
images of pop icons.
1.3 Pop versus literature?
This analysis of the pop phenomenon shows that literature can be pop. 0owever% there is
a long2lasting debate over the definition of literature . best e!emplified in the 'uestion of
whether so2called trivial literature is literature at all.
$ne might argue that pop is often too superficial (terlalu dangkal)% too popular% not
challenging enough. An analysis will prove that /ick 0ornby as a writer and his novels
as literary works of art have all characteristics of pop but are by no means superficial
(sama sekali dangkal) and simplistic.
Te!ts can be pop% and the writers themselves can become pop icons% even if they lived
long before the idea of pop was invented. -hakespeare has been adopted as a pop icon in
the popular and successful movie "-hakespeare in 3ove".
2 Nick Hornby
2.1 The man himself
/ick 0ornby was born in 4567. 0e studied at #ambridge ,niversity and became a
teacher. 0e has also been writing for The -unday Times and The 1ndependent and
respected magazines. 0is highly successful first novel Fever Pitch allowed him to make
writing his main profession in the early 4558s.
2.2 Fever Pitch
/ick 0ornbys first novel Fever Pitch is a book about football% the "best book ever
written about football"% as some critics claim. 1t is also a book about growing up% as it
tells the story of a football fan who grows from a teenager to a young man without ever
really losing his faith in Arsenal% his favourite north 3ondon football team. 9irst
published in 455:% the story is told by a first2person narrator% who measures out his life
by football events. Arsenals volatile luck and success reflects the ups and downs of his
own life. The narrator has a remarkably detailed knowledge of football history: the names
of players% the result of games% even incidents from individual matches are always at
Two innovative means of story2telling make this novel work: 9irst% the narrator e!plains
his life along the lines of ritish football history. 1n fact% he structures and interprets his
e!perience and the events in his life in terms of games results% famous players and
football events. ;ach chapter is headed by a title and a historic match% including the e!act
date it took place (9irst chapter: 0ome d<but . Arsenal against -toke #ity 4=.85.>?). $n
this day his father took the eleven2year2old schoolboy to a football match for the first
time. The narrator remembers "looking at the crowd more than at the players" and he
notices that "nobody seemed to en@oy% in the way that 1 understood the word% anything
that happened during the entire afternoon".
The narrator dives deeply and wittingly into the whirlpool of his football obsession. 0is
whole life revolves around football and the Arsenal team. ut being a fan is a hard @ob .
his fandom is obsessive and re'uires suffering% patience and commitment. To make
things worse Arsenal is not the most reliable team and soon after his father has taken him
to an Arsenal match the narrator finds out that Arsenals reputation ("oring boring
Arsenal") is not at all inade'uate.
The narrator also e!plores other aspects of the life of an adolescent: his parentsA divorce
and his relationship with his father and mother% life at school and college (as 0ornby
himself the narrator moves to #ambridge for his studies)% his love affairs and love
relationships% his 'uest for the right profession.
2.3 High Fidelity
1f Fever Pitch is a celebration of football and a detailed and entertaining report of the
sufferings of a football fanatic% High Fidelity% published in 4556% e!plores the soul of a
young and die2hard rock music fan. The title of the book is ambiguous: High Fidelity
refers to both% faithfulness in a love relationship and good sound 'uality of records. 3ike
Fever Pitch% the story of High Fidelity is again told by a first2person narrator.
Bob owns a small record store that he runs with limited success. 0e has been left by his
girlfriend 3aura and after a short period of halfhearted happiness about his newly won
liberty he discovers that he still loves 3aura madly. Fever Pitch translates life into a
football universe. The narrator of High Fidelity interprets his own life with the help of
rock music and records. +henever he feels that his life is in a crisis he rearranges his
record collection% sometimes ordering them alphabetically% sometimes historically and
sometimes in the order of the girlfriends he had when he bought them. This is not the
only sign that he is obsessed with rock music and popular culture: he makes up top2five
hit lists in his mind for virtually everything ("all2time top five favourite books"% "my five
dream @obs") and whenever he is in love with some woman he records a compilation tape
for her . all songs carefully and meaningfully selected. The book starts rather funnily
with "my desert2island% all2time% top five most memorable split2ups"% followed by a list of
girlsA names and the stories about Bobs relationship with them.
After 3aura has left him and his rather ill2considered attempts to get her back have failed
he starts to contact the e!2girlfriends from his "top five most memorable split2ups" hit
list. 1n some cases this adds to his self2confidence (as he finds out that the now grown2up
girls felt that he had left them% and that they did not really decide to dump him)% but he
does not find any real distraction from 3aura% of whom he keeps thinking all the time.
1n the end the two find out that they are not such a bad couple after
all and with a realistic view about themselves they decide to give it
another try.
2.4 Aout a !oy
About a oy% published in 455?% is a story about growing up. &arcus is a twelve2year2old
boy who has @ust moved to 3ondon together with his mother 9iona. 0is parents have split
up and he suffers from the fact that his mum does not look after him in the way he deems
necessary. -he does not% for instance% buy him the right clothes% which makes him look
stupid at school. As he is also a rather shy person and sometimes behaves in strange ways
he is an easy target for his schoolmates. Things get worse when his mum% who suffers
from depression% tries to kill herself. 0e e!periences "the twin disasters of school and
&arcus and 9ionas story is complemented by +ills story. +ill is a man in his thirties%
who lives on his own and who doesnt really do very much at all: his father wrote the
#hristmas super hit "-antas -uper -leigh" many years ago% and the annual royalty check
for this song pays all bills for +ill. Although +ill is a complacent% sometimes even
arrogant man he feels that he is rather useless. 0e has the occasional fling with various
women but has no intention of entering a long2lasting relationship. +hen he notices that
single women of his age become less easily available as they marry and have children he
decides to change his strategy: "he had found the ideal solution to this une!pected dearth
of prey. 0e had invented a two2year2old son called /ed and @oined a single parents
group". The group is called -*AT . -ingle *arents Alone Together.
9ionas best friend -uzie is also a member of this group and in the course of things +ill
meets -uzie and 9iona and eventually &arcus. And of course his pretentious fake is
discovered after a little while. /ow he has to face reality: he has become friends with
&arcus and &arcus does not worry much about whether or not +ill really has a son.
The challenging aspect of this single mother% son2without2dad% man2who2invents2his2
own2son story is that &arcus and +ill both do not act their age. +ill is childishly selfish
and refuses to accept any kind of responsibility. &arcus% in turn% has been challenged by
his family life more than a twelve2year2old can normally bear and feels responsible for
his mum and for himself. 3ike his mother he is a vegetarian and listens to the music of
Coni &itchell and ob &arley and he has been taught to re@ect all things superficial. 1n
the story +ill and &arcus slowly start to learn from each other: +ill reluctantly accepts a
certain kind of responsibility for &arcus% and &arcus learns to dress and behave more
like a teenager (+ill even buys him clothes that 9iona could not afford to buy).
3 oming!of!age no"els about single parents and pop culture
3.1 Family life
/ick 0ornbys novel have recurrent themes: boys who grow up to become young men%
football fans% obsessed rock fans% and last but not least disrupted family life in modern
1n two novels single parents play an important role. 1n About a Boy single parents finally
move from a peripheral role in the plot into the centre of the novel. The routine of family
life% the problems between parents who have split up and the childhood memories that
/ick 0ornbys characters carry with them into their adulthood are important ingredients
to the stories.
0owever% 0ornby is not saying that if there were happy and married couples in all the
families everything would be fine. 1n About a Boy it becomes clear that &arcusA inability
to behave like a twelve2year2old is a bigger problem than @ust the lack of a father: "9iona
had given him D+ill% -.G.E the idea that &arcus was after a father figure% someone to
guide him gently towards male adulthood% but that wasnt it at all: &arcus needed help to
be a kid% not an adult". 0ornby uses the discourse of single2parent families as a backdrop
for his stories basically because the phenomenon is so widespread in his generation.
3.2 Fandom" The hoies of men
/ick 0ornbys characters generally reveal themselves as someone "who has yet to come
to terms with the demands of adult life". The narrator in Fever Pitch is so obsessed with
football that it is more important to him than invitations to friendsA parties. The narrator
in High Fidelity believes that rock music and romantic imaginations about the women he
would like to go out with are essential to life. +ill in About a Boy is useless in the literal
sense of the term . he can only look after the daily routine of his own life% and he even
goes about this with as little creativity as possible.
All these characters are to a certain e!tent obsessed by their hobbies. 1n the preface to
Fever Pitch the narrator e!plains that the book "is about being a fan" and that it "is an
attempt to gain some kind of an angle on my obsession". The source for rock or football
fandom is genuine interest . in Fever Pitch the narrator notices that "most of us were
defined only by the number and e!tent of our interests. -ome boys had more records than
others% and some knew more about football". ut if these hobbies take over ones whole
life they tend to become an obstacle that reduces your chances of a meaningful lifestyle.
1n Fever Pitch the narrator e!plains his visits to Arsenal matches as an adult: "for the
duration of the game 1 am an eleven2year2old. +hen 1 described football as a retardant% 1
meant it". 1t is striking but probably ade'uate that in 0ornbys novels only men suffer
from these obsessive hobbies.
0owever% there is hope for men thus infected: all ma@or male characters in 0ornbys
books show signs of gradual improvement. At least% they realise whats going on with
them. The Fever Pitch narrator e!plains towards the end of the book: "That night% 1
stopped being an Arsenal lunatic and relearnt how to be a fan% still cranky% and still
dangerously obsessive% but only a fan% nonetheless". And in About a Boy +ill reluctantly
accepts a certain degree of social responsibility for his friends &arcus and 9iona. There is
no final solution or settlement or healing in the therapeutic sense of these words% but there
is development and gradual change.
3.3 #ou have to $or% hard for your $edding ells
The obsessive sides of 0ornbys characters have conse'uences for their love
relationships. All of them fail to maintain long2lasting love relationships (although all
e!cept +ill basically want a permanent tie with a partner). +ill is notorious for avoiding
any kind of commitment at all costs. The narrator in High Fidelity prefers romantic
daydreams and endless discussions about rock music with his pals to any serious
commitment that might involve changing his own life. 0e is not really happy with his @ob
as a record shop owner but% as his e!2girlfriend 3aura points out correctly% he does not
make any attempt to change the way he lives. And for the narrator of Fever Pitch his
football obsession is definitely a problem when it comes to social ties . he makes it clear
that a football match is more important to him than a date with his girlfriend.
ut again% there is hope. At the end of the book the narrator in High Fidelity wonders:
"whens it all going to fucking stop" 1m going to @ump from rock to rock for the rest of
my life until there arent any rocks left"". +ill in About a Boy starts to go out with a girl
he really likes and there is even room for the young &arcus% as +ills girlfriend is . of
course . a single mother. "+ill had found himself wanting to talk to &arcus about what it
was like to wander about with nothing on% feeling scared of everything and everybody".
All in all there is consolation for us men in our twenties and thirties: you might be going
through a hard time but you can change things gradually if you are ready for it. 1t takes a
lot of energy and it can be a painful process at times. This is one of the lessons 0ornbys
narrators teach the reader in the books.
The magnificence of 0ornbys novels lies basically in this 'uality: 0ornbys characters
e!hibit human weaknesses which many readers will recognise as their own. ;ach
passionate football fan% every serious rock fan% all daydreaming romantics will find bits
of their own language in the books. The way 0ornby describes the young &arcus and his
problems in About a Boy will remind many readers of their own sufferings at school. This
is why 0ornbys books are great pop.
0ornby finds original and intelligent voices for the various characters in the books.
-ometimes his characters are a bit too 'uick with rational and self2critical interpretations
of their own e!perience and feelings. 1f the narrator of Fever Pitch notes that "rites of
passage are more commonly found in literary novels% or mainstream 0ollywood films
with pretensions% than they are in real life% particularly in real suburban life"% then he goes
beyond what the reader would want to know about the narrators refle!ions. The book
Fever Pitch% after all% is a literary novel. ut most events are e!plained in an ade'uate
and often highly funny language% and this makes 0ornbys books great literature.
1.1.2 Consumer culture
This makes each pop culture product an easy prey for commercial e!ploitation and
usually it doesnt take long for a pop industry to grow around any new popular
movement. Theres the record industry% huge publishing house conglomerates and even
the works of popular painters such as Gan Gogh or Benoir must be a considerable cash
generator% if you consider how many people come to see e!hibitions or put printed
reproductions on the walls of their apartments. ;ven politicians% buildings or historical
event can be included in the economic process of the pop industry: #he Guevara% &ihael
Gorbachev (who appeared in the +im +enders movie "9ar away% so close")% the erlin
+all and its fall% the ;iffel Tower. *op needs and generates stars and icons.
*op would not be possible without modern mass media. +ithout radio the eatles
probably would not have made it in the ,-. +ithout television interviews with pop stars
. be they musicians% writers or actors . would only reach a tiny audience. &aybe even
/ick 0ornby would be a fringe writer without the now indispensable advertising
campaigns for books.
1.2.3 Art
Het there is more to pop than a lot of fans and a lot of business. Great pop is genuinely
creative% e!citing and inventive. The German idea of Schlagermusik is rooted in the folk
tradition of tuneful songs and it has been taken over by the entertainment business% but it
is not pop. 1n contrast% traditional folk music is relatively easy to understand but it is not
perceived as pop . it is simply not sufficiently successful and only plays a limited role in
the modern world of media and entertainment.
*op re'uires a kind of hipness that goes beyond being popular and being successful in
commercial terms. 1t needs to have an avant2garde edge which captures present trends
and e!tends them into the future . at least this is what recipients must feel in order for
something to become "pop". *op needs a certain degree of contemporariness% it evolves
in the gap between the folk tradition of the past and the inventive creation of the present.
Thus pop inhabits a strange cultural place in the twilight of the ordinary and the
"op-)iterature vs Classic Novels, Ho%
*oes 'ne Become the 'ther+
*osted on August 4:% :848 by ;rin 3eighI = #omments
#hristy of A Good Stopping Point wrote an incredibly thought2provoking entry about pop
cultures ability or inability to transcend to future generations of readers. The entry
caused me to have some deep moments of reflection on the topic% but when 1 went to post
a comment to her entry% 1 felt 1 would be spamming her blog with my inane chatter. And
so 1ve written this entry% inspired completely by hers.
1 think 1 have some of the same struggles as #hristy when assessing modern books with
pop2culture references. 9or me its hard to look beyond my impression of the modern2day
novel as a modern2day reader. 1 cant tell if my disgust for some of these reference2laden
books stems from the over2saturation of our media in general.what with easy +i9i2
9acebooked accesss to everything% including and not limited to the last time my brother
had a bowel movement (thanks% btw).or because the book is actually a poor e!ample of
As 1 was reading #hristys entry% : fairly recent books sprang to mind: The Time
Travelers Wie and T!ilight. oth novels were pretty e!plicit% and irritating% in their pop
culture references% but the books are e!traordinarily different in their value as literature.
+hereas T!ilight merely served to coddle my 4=2year2old self% The Time Travelers Wie
had far more merit and worth% and focused on some very thoughtful themes.
1 think that might be the difference% at least from my perspective. 1ts the universality of a
novel that speaks to us. *erhaps if 1 were to read "ranston as the 4?68Js version of
myself% 1 might find the references to be irritating. ut because the book has some truly
universal motifs and was carefully written% 1 probably wouldntKve hated the book.
"ranston has able to transcend the ages. 3ikewise% if 1 were to make a guess% 1 would
argue that The Time Travelers Wie stands a better chance of attaining status as a classic
than T!ilight. The vampire2craze will fade% but loneliness and waiting and yearning will
always be there for everyone. And yes% teenagers will always be angsty and self2
conscious and feel misunderstood% but 1 doubt that 68 years from now T!ilight will be the
topic of an A* ;nglish test essay.
1 guess basically what 1m saying is that first impressions probably are correct. 1f #ou Say
Tomato had merit to #hristy (this is me putting words into her mouth% by the way)
beyond bubbly pop2culture brain2candy% she would still be annoyed by the references% but
would have elt the novel on a deeper level. 1n the end its the e!periences and feelings
that are important and universal. And its these e!periences and feelings that help a book
like "ranston retain its appeal% and not Lane #ooks career and not Bosie vs Lonald%
because those things @ust dont matter in the grander scheme of life.
As 1 was writing this% 1 started thinking about what makes other things classic and
transcendent. Something About $ary and Wedding "rashers% or even Seineld% are
hilarious for awhile% but when 1ve gone back to these shows recently% they arent as
strong or as funny as they used to be. They have faded. ut shows like % &ove &ucy and
'ick van 'yke or even Frasier still make me laugh out loud% even when alone. A @oke is
funny% but it is the overall human e!perience that is hilarious and transcendent. There will
always be that well2meaning person whos pride and self2consciousness gets the better of
them% but a @oke about George -tephanopoulos can only be funny a set number of times
before it become irrelevant or becomes another one of those M$h% yea% 1 heard that one
before% heres the punch2lineN.
/ot many people study the -cience 9iction or the +estern genres academically% let alone
the two together. 9ewer still have an award named in their honor. Cohn G. #awelti is @ust
such a pioneer in the study of *opular and American #ulture. 0e was studying *opular
#ulture before it was popular. Thats why were honored that he consented to an
interview on the sub@ect of -pace +esterns. ( ed) *+,+ &illy
Intervie% %ith ,ohn - Ca%elti
by /.;. 3illy O:88?
,ohn G. #aweltis numerous works established an academic respectability for the field of
popular culture and formed the basis for the study of the literature and film for the
masses. As a *rofessor of ;nglish he taught courses on popular fiction% ranging from
+esterns to -cience 9iction% at the ,niversity of #hicago from 4567245?8% and then%
until retirement% at the ,niversity of Pentucky 45?82:888. Among his most prominent
works are Adventure) $ystery) and -omance. Formula Stories as Art and Popular
"ulture % The Spy Story % and The Si/0gun $ysti1ue . The 2ohn G+ "a!elti Book A!ard is
annually presented in his honor by the /ational *opular #ulture Association and
American #ulture Association(*#AFA#A) to the author of a /oteworthy ook on
American #ulture.
&hy did you ecome a professor?
The truth is that 1 @ust fell into it. &y parents were both teachers% though at the
elementary and @unior high2school level. 1 read a lot as a child and was especially
interested in literature of all sorts. 1 remember the e!citement 1 felt when 1 first
discovered -herlock 0olmes. ut 1 was also interested in poetry and drama and also tried
my own hand at writing. ut 1 soon realized that 1 was better writing about literature than
creating it. 1n college% 1 ma@ored in classics because 1 was interested in the backgrounds
of +estern civilization. 0owever% 1 really didnt know enough 3atin and Greek to make a
career in this area. +hen 1 graduated from college 1 didnt know what 1 was going to do%
but during a three2year stint in the army% 1 became very interested in the literature and
culture of the ,nited -tates. -o% with the assistance of the G1 bill 1 went to graduate
school at the ,niversity of 1owa and got a *hL in American -tudies. 9rom there 1 was
fortunate to get a @ob at the ,niversity of #hicago where 1 taught for :Q years. Then 1 did
another :8 year stint at the ,niversity of Pentucky.
Ho$ did you ecome interested in e'pressions of popular
1 had always en@oyed mystery stories% +estern movies and other sorts of popular culture.
;arly in my teaching career 1 began to wonder why 1 was teaching things about works
that 1 read mainly for the purpose of teaching them. 1nstead 1 thought 1 might try teaching
about things that 1 really loved. 1 soon realized that 1 had amassed a large fund of
knowledge about popular stories from a youth spent in movie matinees and in reading
mystery stories and +esterns. At the same time some of my students at the ,niversity of
#hicago were e!cited about science2fiction and interested in having a course on the
sub@ect% so 1 offered one. $ther students were very interested in film so 1 offered courses
on that and went on to teach about +esterns and other areas of popular literature. The
knowledge of my students in some of these areas was an invaluable resource and 1
e!ploited it mercilessly and learned a great deal from them% especially about popular
&ere there any arriers to teaching popular literature at the
(niversity level?
1 know that many scholars encountered great resistance to teaching and research in
popular culture. -ome of this opposition is recounted in Bay rownes Against
Academia. The History o the Popular "ulture Association (45?5). 1 was fortunate to be
at the ,niversity of #hicago when 1 started getting interested in popular culture% because
#hicago had always fostered educational and scholarly e!perimentation by granting great
freedom to its faculty. 1 had anticipated that my distinguished senior colleagues in the
;nglish department at #hicago would look askance at my growing interest in popular
culture% but 1 was delighted to find that they gave me all the encouragement 1 could have
asked for. 1 remember when a distinguished senior colleague% renowned as an eighteenth
century scholar and neo2Aristotelian critical theorist% invited me to his summer house to
show me his collection of 0oratio Alger% +esterns and mystery stories. 0e and others
were very interested in the work 1 was doing and were generally very supportive of it.
Popular literature includes )etective* &estern* and Horror
stories+ $hat is so special or uni,ue aout &esterns that
they $arrant their o$n genre?
The simple answer to this 'uestion is that the individual popular genres are based on
patterns or formulas of plot% character% theme and setting that have become established
over the years as distinctive and recognizable story traditions. +esterns developed as a
type of adventure story characterized by a distinctive settingRthe American frontierR
and a particular comple! of themes such as pioneering% crossing the frontier% the
confrontation with 1ndians% bringing law and order to the frontier% the gunfighter% etc.
There are also more comple! answers to this 'uestion and 1 have tried to deal with in
books like Adventure) $ystery and -omance and The Si/0Gun $ysti1ue+ These
discussions involve matters of literary archetypes% historical developments and matters of
individual and cultural psychology.
&hat spurred you on to $rite The -i'./un 0ysti,ue in 1123 and
The -i'./un 0ysti,ue -e,uel in 1111?
1n the early 45>8s 1 read an article about +esterns by *eter 0omans% a specialist in
psychology and religion at the ,niversity of #hicago. 0omans% who later became a good
friend% argued that the popularity of +esterns in America was related to revivals of
*uritanism in American religion. 1 thought the method of analysis which combined
looking at story patterns and historical developments was very interesting% but didnt
agree with all of 0omans conclusions. -o 1 wrote a sort of counter2article under the
somewhat pompous title of MA *rolegomena to the +estern.N This generated some
interest so 1 thought of doing an anthology of essays on various critical approaches to the
+estern and 1 began writing an introduction for that anthology e!panding on my original
article. The introduction grew and grew. 9inally 1 abandoned the anthology and at the
suggestion of Bay rowne published the introduction as a small book. Bay had recently
established the *opular *ress and was in the process of creating the *opular #ulture
Association around this time so he published The Si/0Gun $ysti1ue . 1t was all casual
enough that we never put a date on the copyright page and later couldnt remember
whether the book had come out in 4578 or 74. The book remained in print for many years
and was apparently one of the *opular *resss best sellers. As the years went by% 1 read a
lot of the burgeoning commentary on the +estern and watched the genres continued
development. ;ventually% 1 decided to rewrite and e!pand the original work and the
result% nearly Q8 years later was The Si/0Gun $ysti1ue Se1uel .
#ou originally egan $riting aout popular literature y
focusing on &esterns* ho$ did you move from &esterns to
other forms of popular literature?
-ince my first introduction to -herlock 0olmes and ;dgar Allan *oe 1 had actually been
even fonder of mystery and detective stories than of +esterns. -o% as my thoughts about
the +estern as a genre developed 1 was always comparing it in my mind to the patterns
of mystery literature. -o it was almost a foregone conclusion that 1 would e!pand my
research and theorizing about the +estern into a more general theory of popular narrative
and cinematic genres. The result was Adventure) $ystery and -omance which appeared
some five or si! years after The Si/0Gun $ysti1ue . 1ts publication by the highly
respectable ,niversity of #hicago *ress indicated the growing acceptance of studies in
popular culture.
Ho$ $ould you say that the themes e'plored in The -i'./un
0ysti,ue -e,uel e'tend into -cience Fiction?
-cience 9iction is a composite genre and% like the +estern% is defined more by its
futuristic setting than by particular plot patterns. 3ike the +estern it has evolved through
several different phases. There is an earlier period with writers like Cules Gerne and 0. G.
+ells @ust as the +estern has an earlier period with writers like Cames 9enimore #ooper
and $wen +ister. 1n the twentieth century -9 has gone through what could be called a
classic period with writers like Asimov% #larke% and radbury and has evolved from there
in a number of different directions. 1n addition% like the +estern% -9 makes a varied use
of the classic story formulas of mystery% adventure and romance% another theme 1
e!plored in The Si/0Gun $ysti1ue Se1uel .
&hy haven4t you e'plored -cience Fiction as popular literature?
1n all honesty% though 1ve occasionally taught -cience 9iction and did make some
general comments on the genre in Adventure) $ystery and -omance % 1 have never felt
that 1 knew the literature well enough to really criticize it. 1 have a pretty good knowledge
of earlier classics like +ells and Gerne% as well as twentieth century classic -9 writers
like Asimov% Lick% #larke% 0erbert% allard% radbury% etc.% but my reading of -9 pretty
well stopped with this generation of writers and 1 havent kept up enough to feel
comfortable writing about more recent developments.
Ho$ $ould you define 5-pace &estern6?
1 suppose -pace +esterns are works which take place in space in the future% but which
bear some significant resemblance to +esterns. 0owever% the basic patterns -9 shares
with +esterns are the archetypes of Adventure% i.e. heroic 'uests% clashes between races%
death2defying feats% good vs. evil% etc. These elements are also shared by other kinds of
adventure story. 9or e!ample% there is a genre of adventure set in the middle ages.
Another important adventure genre is set on the outposts of the ritish empire% as in the
novels of 0. Bider 0aggard. Are these then &edieval +esterns or 1mperial +esterns" $r
are +esterns e!amples of Pnightly hero tales set in nineteenth century America. 1t all
gets rather muddled after a while. To add to the confusion% -9 stories also fre'uently
relate to the archetypes of encounters with alien creatures that we find in Gothic novels%
or in the modern horror stories of writers like -tephen Ping and Lean Poontz% and% in a
different way% in fantasies like the 3ord of the Bing and the 0arry *otter stories.
-o% to attempt some clarification% 1d say that a -pace +estern is an -9 adventure that
significantly restates or refers to some of the central themes of the +estern. These would
include things like the epic of pioneering% life on the frontier% the saga of the gunfighter%
the @ourney into hostile territory% and the clash between 1ndians and pioneers. +ith this in
mind% we can see that the original Star Trek began its run in 45>> when +esterns were
still enormously popular on television and in the movies. The original series made the
theme of pioneering a central one as the crew of the ;nterprise crossed the MfrontierN of
space to pave the way for the colonizing of new worlds. Cust as +esterns sharply waned
in popularity in the 4578s the successive versions of -tar Trek increasingly departed from
the main themes of the +estern e!cept for particular episodes which nostalgically
recalled some of the +esterns story patterns.
$n the whole% the movie series of Star Trek made less use of obvious +estern themes
than the original TG series% though it is significant that in their titles at least two of the
Star Trek movies did make reference to such important +estern themes as Mthe
undiscovered countryN and Mthe final frontier.N
Star Wars was perhaps less a -pace +estern than the original Star Trek . /onetheless one
of its central themes was that of the heroic gunfighter (in this case 0an -olo) who is won
over to the cause of the good pioneers (in this case the rebels against the evil empire).
The order of the Cedi Pnights% so central to Star Wars % certainly suggests the group of
heroic gunfighters allied to protect the little people as in The $agniicent Seven) The
Wild Bunch and several other late +esterns. 0owever% it should be noted that this idea
came directly from Purosawas The Seven Samurai and before that from such group
sagas as that of Ping Arthur and the knights of the round table. 1ndeed% one of the
fascinations of Star Wars was its relationship to archetypes of the adventure story that go
all the way back to 0omers %liad and 3dyssey . Star Wars is perhaps more significant as
a universal myth of heroic adventure than specifically as a -pace +estern.
Luring the heyday of the +estern% occasional movies like Gene Autrys The Phantom
,mpire used elements of -9 and as the +estern itself gradually declined% movies like
West!orld) Future!orld and 3utland brought +estern characters and episodes directly
into -9. West!orld) for e!ample% e!trapolated the character Hul runner had played in
%nvitation to a Gunighter into a futuristic amusement park% while 3utland was a
futuristic remake of High *oon . 0owever% this kind of composite genre never became
really popular in America. A few writers of -9% like &ike Besnick% have continued to
work with +estern materials in this way (hes also drawn on the traditions of detective%
vampire and African adventure stories). 1ronically% +esterns remained popular in ;urope
after they declined in America. Thus% ;uropeans and Asians have probably created more
+estern -9 than Americans have.
The heyday of the +estern was probably from the late Q8 to the late 4568s when
something like ? of the 48 most popular TG series were +esterns. Luring this time
0ollywood studios produced a great many superb +esterns like those of Cohn 9ord%
0oward 0awks% and other top directors as well as a steady stream of 2+esterns and
serials. ut in the 78s +esterns began to decline. The emergence of -pace +esterns in
the >8s and 78s might be seen in part as an attempt to revitalize +estern formulas by
transplanting them to the future. 0owever% after flourishing in the decades of the 78s and
?8s% -pace +esterns have also become considerable less popular and -9 has moved on to
other things. 1 doubt that we will again see -pace +esterns as popular as Star Trek and
Star Wars . 0owever% the archetype of the heroic adventure is universally popularand
since the future is a landscape of mystery and of increasing concern% we will certainly
continue to have a thriving literature of -9 adventure. 1m not sure how much of this will
take form of -pace +esterns because the whole idea of the +estern has receded into the
nostalgic past for most Americans. $f course% @ust as there is still an audience for
paperback +esterns and the occasional +estern film% one can hope that the -pace
+estern will continue. is certainly helping to inspire further
e!plorations in the genre.
&hat $as your first introduction to -pace &esterns?
This depends on ones definition of -pace +esterns. 1f we mean simply futuristic stories
with a strong component of adventure% then 1 suppose my first encounter was with the
uck Bogers and 9lash Gordon comic strips of the 45Q8s. $n the other hand% if you mean
-9 with themes analogous to those of the +estern% i.e. pioneering and the rise of new
communities% then 1 would say it was probably Asimovs wonderful 9oundation and
;mpire trilogy% or possibly 9rank 0erberts classic 'une since both of these drew
e!tensively on the formulas of the +estern.
&hat do you thin% the attraction is to -pace &esterns?
9irst of all% -pace +esterns appeal to us as adventure stories% a type of story with an age2
old appeal. ut it is also significant that their appeal is connected to the way in which
they make reference to the traditions of the +estern. To understand the sort of appeal
were talking about here we need to look back on the history of the +estern itself. As it
emerged in the nineteenth century the +estern e!pressed in fiction a national myth about
the con'uest of nature and savagery by civilizing middle2class% #hristian and% largely%
white pioneers. This myth shifted significantly at the beginning of the twentieth century
to revitalize the significance of certain values associated with the wilderness% i.e.
manliness% vigor% and individualism. This was e!pressed historically in Turners famous
frontier thesis and fictionally in $wen +isters seminal popular +estern% The 4irginian)
a novel that played an importing part in shaping the +estern for the first half of the
twentieth century. The power of this myth persisted well into the second half of the
twentieth century. $ne can see its influence in politics (Theodore Boosevelt and Bonald
Beagan both very effectively portrayed themselves as +esterners setting out to reform
the corrupt ;astern political establishment) and on the international scene% where
Americans liked to view themselves as heroic +esterners saving the old world from
tyranny and decadence in +orld +ars 1 and 11. 0owever the disillusionments of the
Gietnam +ar and the impact of the #ivil Bights #rusade% to say nothing of the increasing
resentment of /ative Americans at being portrayed as evil savages% has undercut the old
myths. As a result there has been a decline in the production and significance of
traditional +esterns. Today +esterns are probably less significant as e!pressions of an
American myth than as nostalgic evocations of a supposedly simpler and more heroic
The -pace +estern has given the +estern a new lease on life by creating a new setting
for the old myth. 1n some cases this has meant simply a repetition of old +estern
characters and stories in slightly different clothes. 0owever% at its best% the -pace
+estern has also become a vehicle for e!ploring and commenting on the fallacies and
ironies of the traditional +estern. +e can see this well developed in an interesting -pace
+estern series like Firely .
&hy do you thin% people still create -pace &esterns?
asically for the three reasons 1ve suggested in the previous response. 9irst% the
landscape of the future can be a great setting for an adventure story. -econd% because the
use of traditional +estern themes and episodes can e!press nostalgia for the dying myth
of American pioneering. And finally% on the most sophisticated level% the composite
genre of the -pace +estern leads to the creation of stories which satirize and deconstruct
traditional American +estern myths.
#ou $ere recently introduced to the series Firefly * $hat $ere
your first impressions?
$nce 1 got into it% 1 was 'uite delighted by Firely . ,nlike -pace +esterns of the era of
Star Trek and Star Wars % Firely uses traditional +estern episodes% such as the heroic
shoot out% the train robbery% the lawless frontier town% etc.% in a more humorous or ironic
fashion. The cast of characters is often reminiscent of popular TG +esterns of the pastR
&al Beynolds as &arshall Lillon% 1nara -erra is like &iss Pitty and -hepherd somewhat
like Loc. 1n turn the Gunsmoke cast of characters reflected the groups in classic film
+esterns like Stagecoach and -ed -iver . $ther Firely characters reflect other +estern
conventions. Cayne #obb is a powerful lummo! with a big heart who fre'uently gets in
trouble like 0oss in Bonan5a S the partnership between &al and ToU echoes the buddy
relationship in countless +esternsRthey are a unise!ual utch #assiday and -undance
Pid of space. 0owever% in Firely the +estern conventions are not simply imitations% but
commentary. There is usually an ironic @u!taposition between the fantasy of the +ild
+est and the reality of space% a @u!taposition neatly summarized in one of the central
images of the series introductionRa herd of wild horses being driven by a space ship. $n
the whole% Firely is both a celebration and a send2up of +estern myths. 1n this respect it
is like some of the most interesting recent +esterns such as 3arry &c&urtrys &onesome
'ove series and the television series 'ead!ood . All of these are post2+esterns meaning
that they embody some awareness of the obsolescence of many of the most sacred
traditions of the literary and cinematic +estern.
Firely is a wonderful series% perhaps a bit too sophisticated and iconoclastic for very
wide popularity% but clearly destined to become a cult classic.
7n the chapter on Post.&esterns of The -i'.gun 0ysti,ue -e,uel
you devoted a little more than a paragraph to the su8ect of
-pace &esterns* specifically mentioning -tar Tre% and -tar
&ars . Ho$ $ould that section e different if you $rote it
#ertainly that section would be much larger and more complicated in the light of more
recent developments and what 1 have learned about -pace +esterns from in the course of preparing this interview.
9an you let me in on any e'clusive information* un%no$n
insights* or trade secrets?
1f 1 had any% 1d be glad to share them. 9or me% its been most important to have good
editors and good readers. 1n addition% as 1 said in the acknowledgements to The Si/0Gun
$ysti1ue 1 have learned an enormous amount from my students over =Q years of
&hat else can $e e'pect to see from you in the near future?
The flippant answer to this is that as 1 will be ?8 in little over a year its more matter of
hope that of e!pectation. 1 dont e!pect to complete any more big pro@ects% but have been
researching and writing on certain aspects of the literature of mystery that have caught
my interest. Becently% 1ve been e!ploring the relationship between rationality and the
supernatural in the mystery story% a curious conundrum that goes all the way back to the
modern well springs of the literature of mystery in the work of ;dgar Allan *oe% and
before that to original sources of the ideas of mystery and myth. Becently% 1 wrote a small
essay on the relationship between -herlock 0olmes and Lracula in this connection and 1
will probably continue to ponder such 'uestions.
High :iterature vs Popular :iterature
+ritten by son of rambow on &onday% Culy 8>% :885
1n M*opular 3iteratureN classRwhen 1 was a student at American -tudies Gad@ah &ada
,niversity ma@oring AAmerican 3iterature and #ultureRmy classmates and 1 used to
have lively discussion on MdichotomyN of popular literatureRoften considered as low
'uality literatureRversus high2brow literature. +hy should this dichotomy e!ist" +ho
has privilege to decide which kind of literature is considered pop and which is high" And
why should some people feel that they have that privilege"
-ome literary critics said that when a work was produced only to follow what public
wanted to readR@ust for fun or entertainment% no Mdeep meaningN under the surface of
the storyRthen it would be categorized into Mpop literatureN. 1n addition to that% people
also said the work was only for commercials need% because the writer needed money
when writing. $n the contrary% when a work was produced not only to follow publics
needs% it was written more to fulfill the writers ambition to communicate Msomething
importantN to readers% so that the work had Mdeep meaningN% then the work could be
categorized into Mhigh2brow literatureN.
0owever% when talking about Cack 3ondons works% who would say that his works do not
have deep meaning whereas 3ondon himself said that he wrote them only for money"
3iterary critics even classified 3ondons works into high2brow literature.
esides that% critics said that the parameter of high2brow literature was when one work
deserved to be included into canon. The canon here usually refers to Mbig anthologiesN
such as /orton Anthology% 0eath Anthology% etc. Again% 1 want to ask% who has privilege
to select which works to be included into those anthologies"
The publication of T0; /$BT$/ A/T0$3$GH $9 31T;BAT,B; H +$&;/ can
be considered one way of womens struggle to include womens works into high2brow
literature. 1n the Apreface of its first edition published in 45?6% -andra &. Gilbert and
-usan Gubar wrote:
MV no single anthology has represented the e!uberant variety yet strong continuity of the
literature that ;nglish speaking women have produced between the fourteenth century
and the present. 1n the /$BT$/ A/T0$3$GH $9 31T;BAT,B; H +$&;/% we
are attempting to do @ust that.N
M#omplementing and supplementing the standard /orton anthologies of ;nglish and
American literature% /A3+ should help readers for the first time to appreciate fully the
female literary tradition which% for several centuries% has coe!isted with% revised% and
influenced male literary models.N
9urthermore% in the si!th edition of The /orton Anthology of American 3iterature
appearing in the beginning of the twenty first century% /ina aym% the general editor%
stated in the preface:
MThat the MuntraditionalN authors listed above have now become part of the American
literary canon shows that canons are not fi!ed% but emerge and change.N
1t can be included that in the long run dichotomy of pop and high literature will disappear
peacefully. 1t is up to public to value and to choose which works they will read. 1 am of
opinion that in society where people are mature enough to choose which works to read%
bad writings will be left behind. Dsource:
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*id "op Culture *estroy )iterature+
1snt it interesting that in pop culture% we think we know icons like Lracula% 9rankenstein%
Lr Cekyll and &r 0yde. +e know their basic story but until we read the books that made
these characters famous% and then we realise that we have missed so much of the concepts
and story.
9rankenstein is referenced in countless movies but ia most commonly associated with
the monster% not the doctor. 1ts @ust a tale of a monster terrorising the villages and until
you read the book you dont understand it at all. 1 remember reading 9rankenstein for the
first time and discovering this isnt a book about a monster. This is a book about society
and how we @udge and treat people.
+hen it comes to Lracula% we all know the story of the Gampire% #ount Lracula from
Transylvania% but we dont have a clue on @ust how interestingly the book was written. 1
went into the book thinking 1 was going to be reading a novel% but 1 discovered a series of
letters% diary entries and ship logs that told this story in such an unsuspecting way.
/ow unfortunately pop culture has ruined the plot of The -trange #ase of Lr Cekyll and
&r 0yde but it has left out a lot of the interesting concepts. The book e!plores the idea of
separating the Good from the ;vil in the doctor% who was trying to e!plore the evil inside
of himself and still live with his conscience clear. $r maybe its a story about living life
with split personalities. There are so many interpretations% but all in all its a book about
the duality of human nature. *op #ulture @ust tells a story of a doctor discovering this
potion by accident.
The interesting thing is that no one really knows where &r 0yde goes all those nights and
what he does. This has lead to many of conversations through the ages trying to work out
what &r 0yde was up toS -ome say its a metaphor for 0omose!uality but 1 believe its
open for personal interpretation. -o the reader can make his own discovery on their evil