Popular Genres and Their Uses in Fiction

by Jadwiga Węgrodzka (Author)
Monographs 200 Pages


The book focuses on popular genres of romance, fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, thriller, and What-if historical fiction in popular books, in artistic literature and on the borderline between the two. The author analyses the work of writers such as Jennifer Greene, Barbara Delinsky, and Lilian Darcy, Jennifer Lee Carrel, Michael Crichton, Ursula Le Guin, C. S. Lewis, Michel Faber and William Golding. She applies an analytical approach based on semiotics, structuralism and narratology and discusses genre mixture, adaptation and intertextuality, as well as world modelling.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Genre Mixture
  • Chapter 1. “All you need is love”: genre mixture in the formulaic romance
  • Chapter 2. Popular genres in a mainstream text: Michel Faber’s Under the Skin
  • Chapter 3. Generic balance with an ironic twist in Michel Faber’s “The Eyes of the Soul”
  • Part II. Adaptation and Intertextuality
  • Chapter 4. Buliwyf for Beowulf: rewriting the epic in Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead
  • Chapter 5. Macbeth in the thriller mode: Jennifer Lee Carrell’s The Shakespeare Curse
  • Chapter 6. Encounter with the Green Knight in Michael Crichton’s Timeline
  • Part III. World Models in Conflict
  • Chapter 7. Suspense and metaphysics in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle
  • Chapter 8. The clash of good and evil in C.S. Lewis’s metaphysical thriller
  • Chapter 9. Myth and history in William Golding’s “The Scorpion God”
  • Final Remarks
  • Works Cited
  • Index of Authors, Titles, and Genres
  • Series index

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Popular genres

…we’re still judged by the books we read…

Arthur Krystal1

Popular literature is becoming more and more popular – not only with readers in the sense of expanding markets but also with academics for whom it has become a legitimate object of study. This results in an ever increasing number of publications which consider its historical and theoretical aspects, its connections with cultural mechanisms and industries, its philosophical dimensions, its sociological involvements, as well as particular genres, authors and texts from many various perspectives. Such recent publications as The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction (edited by David Glover and Scott McCracken) and The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction (edited by Christina Berberich) amply testify to a growing interest in this field of research. Because a wide choice of scholarly publications makes information on popular literature easily available, my introductory remarks will be limited to what I see as necessary for my further considerations. Thus, for instance, I entirely omit the fascinating issue of the historical development of popular fiction and will only include diachronic aspects while discussing particular genres in the chapters below. Moreover, though my initial comments are applicable to the general phenomenon of popular literature, the main concern of the present book is narrower and involves fiction.

The focus of this book on popular genres makes it necessary to define both words from the title phrase. I will first look at the word “popular” and then address the notion of genre. The most capacious and reliable source – The Encyclopaedia Britannica – gives the following comprehensive definition of the term “popular literature”:

Popular literature includes those writings intended for the masses and those that find favour with large audiences. It can be distinguished from artistic literature in that it is designed primarily to entertain. Popular literature, unlike high literature, generally does not seek a high degree of formal beauty or subtlety and is not intended to endure. […] The boundary between artistic and popular literature is murky, with much traffic between the two categories according to current public preference and later critical ← 7 | 8 → evaluation. While he was alive William Shakespeare could be thought of as popular literature, but he is now regarded as a creator of artistic literature. (Britannica)

The above definition – coming as it does from a compendium of general knowledge – seems particularly useful as a starting point since it probably reflects (and shapes?) a widely acceptable understanding of the term. Already the first sentence of the quoted passage points to a certain duality in the defining process as popular literature appears to embrace two groups of texts: these which are “intended for the masses” and these which achieve a high level of popularity. Obviously, not all texts intended to have a wide readership succeed in attaining a bestseller status, yet this failure in no sense removes them from the category of popular literature. It can be suspected that such less successful specimens share many features with acclaimed bestsellers but for some reason they fail to make the same impact on their intended audience. The second category of popular literature in the Britannica definition involves texts that become popular with “large audiences”, which shifts the focus from literary to cultural or sociological considerations. At least potentially, such a focus seems to point to a rather different group of texts and begs the question: do literary fads belong to popular literature? In some cases it has to be answered in the positive: books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997–2007) were definitely literary fads on the one hand and firmly belong to popular literature on the other. But some fads seem to make doubtful candidates to the latter category. Does the popularity of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) really make it a popular literature text?2 The same doubt can be expressed about James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) whose popularity with numerous readers (or purchasers3) – caused by their aura of scandal – does not seem to make them popular literature in the sense that qualifies Brown’s and Rowling’s books as obvious cases. As David Glover and Scott McCracken observe in the Introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction, “it would be misleading to imply that the ‘popular’ in popular fiction is purely a matter of sales” (3). ← 8 | 9 → This is especially true in view of the fact that some categories of popular fiction (for example, within science fiction or horror) may have a rather limited audience (Gelder, Popular 3) but still obviously belong to popular fiction. While sales figures may be a useful indicator of a given text’s participation in popular literature, there are evidently other essential qualifiers of texts “intended for the masses”. Many scholars place these qualities in distinct features of textual structures, production, distribution and reception (e.g. Żabski 212–219; Martuszewska 7–25).

The distinction between popular and artistic literature present in the Britannica definition is sometimes seen as indispensable and illustrative of mutual dependence (Gelder, Popular 11–13). Since popular literature is “designed primarily to entertain” while artistic literature would “seek a high degree of formal beauty or subtlety” (Britannica), the distinction highlights the ludic dominant of popular fiction and the aesthetic one of artistic literature. Another frequently raised point of divergence involves originality and complexity as essential features of the latter, contrasted with simplicity and reliance on repeated patterns in the former. The reliance on patterns, mostly generic or sub-generic, finds its most radical expression in formulaic fiction, which I will discuss in Chapter 1 on the example of formulaic romance. Originality and complexity of artistic literature makes it more demanding for readers while the simplicity of popular fiction makes it more accessible. The distinction between the popular and the artistic areas of fiction is sometimes made in evaluative or even judgmental terms.4 Though such attitudes are fading into the past now, both readers and researchers may occasionally feel that “there is no prestige” in dealing with popular fiction (Merritt). With the growing numbers of popular literature students and with serious writers venturing into the field, reading it and writing about it may soon cease to be a “guilty pleasure” (Krystal) or a “trivial pursuit”.5

However, alongside with many other sources Britannica indicates a certain fuzziness of the borderlines between the popular and artistic categories. The example of Shakespeare proves that in the diachronic perspective such borderlines are permeable. Other frequently evoked examples involve such authors as Charles Dickens, or cultural phenomena such as jazz, and film noir (Quinn 262–3). Moreover, many contemporary writers employ popular genres within artistically ← 9 | 10 → ambitious texts trying to “bridge the differences between literary and popular fiction” (Gelder, “Fields” 4). It is universally observed that popular patterns increasingly penetrate what used to be seen as an entirely separate realm of artistic literature. The “Great Divide”, established by the modernist “strategy of exclusion” appears more as a theoretical paradigm than an actual practice of contemporary writers (Huyssen vii). In his Bring the Books for Everybody Jim Collins observes that “[w]riters of literary fiction, such as Amy Tan, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy have the brand-name recognition once enjoyed by writers of bestsellers” (3), which he links with completely altered patterns of culture industry relying on electronic reading devices, superstore bookshops, book clubs, and Oscar winning film adaptations. Interestingly, Collins also remarks that by making any book instantly available, devices such as Kindle change readers’ attitudes and make “amateur readers […] perfectly comfortable taking on books that were formerly thought to be fully accessible only to professionalized readers” (6). It seems doubtful that such readers read in scholarly and erudite ways defined as appropriate for artistic texts.

One important way of distinguishing between artistic and popular literature is to observe a connection of the entertaining qualities of the latter with its ability to involve the reader emotionally (Żabski 216) while the complexity and originality of the artistic literature require a more intellectual attitude. For the sake of emotional involvement of the reader popular fiction regularly resorts to extremes of hot passion and abject terror, fear, desire or longing; it often puts characters in situations involving danger, death, madness, or perversion; it tends to use highly expressive styles with hyperbolisation and emphasis, especially in characters’ utterances which often dominate over narrative; its plot constructions favour suspense and surprise, while narrative techniques primarily aim to make a given book exciting and impossible to put down. Obviously, the appeal to emotions and the presence of techniques designed to heighten the emotional impact link popular literature with the whole sphere of popular culture including such emotionally charged phenomena as television, much of the film industry production, role playing games, sports events, and many others. Glover and McCracken observe that without the context of popular culture where “popular narratives circulate[d] from one medium to another” popular literature will be inconceivable at present (6).

One of the claims I intend to advance in the present book is that the textual focus on emotions through plot, characters and narrative techniques does have to entirely exclude the presence of other aspects such as reflection on philosophical, psychological, moral or existential questions. While the so-called ← 10 | 11 → serious literature often puts strong emphasis on such reflection, popular fiction tends to foreground emotional appeal and to encourage escapist and compensatory readings (Żabski 216). However, it is also possible to argue that some apparently escapist fictions may actually engage with vital problems of contemporary reality, such as, for instance, “anxiety about changing social values” (Kakutani), and that by reading such fictions audiences confront serious problems in “transfigured forms” (Grossman). Though in the following chapters I will not specifically link reflective aspects of the considered novels with current challenges we face in the contemporary world, I certainly intend to show that serious reflection may be present in popular fiction. My aim is not to prove that a given reader will certainly employ a reflective reading strategy but to point out that popular texts may provide such a reading option. In other words, without contesting the emotional and escapist dominants as textually encoded reception strategies of popular fiction, I intend to claim that more intellectual and reflective reading is also a part of the semantic potential of many a popular text.

Biographical notes

Jadwiga Węgrodzka (Author)

Jadwiga Węgrodzka is Associate Professor of British Literature at the University of Gdańsk. She publishes on children’s literature, fantasy, science fiction, crime fiction, fairy tale, as well as poetry and British artistic fiction. She also edited volumes on fictional characters and literary canons.


Title: Popular Genres and Their Uses in Fiction