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Popular Fiction: Rethinking Canon,

Popular Fiction and Structural

Hierarchy of Literature

-Aanya Sharma
B.A(Honours) English
Roll no.- 144
Table of Content

i. Abstract

ii. Introduction: Popular Fiction and Literature

iii. Criticism of Popular Fiction

iv. Readership: A Heirarchy?

v. Indulgences and preferences: Theory of ‘Higher Pleasures’

vi. Conclusion

vii. Bibliography

In a world exploited by the capitalistic ruin of homogeneous

products, there was something rather displeasing about the neatly arranged
books on library’s shelves that ran for at least two levels and had a perfectly
standardized name tag on each one. The titles seemed secondary. It appeared
as a vulgar attempt to capitalise on the readership that had previously belonged
to “Literature”. The criticism regarding popular fiction seems obvious at a first
glance. However, a necessary discourse is curbed by disregarding the nuances
of popular fiction since its importance in history of readership is also neglected
in the process. The structural hierarchy of literature and the attempts to break
or revise it have become an important discourse in itself. Through the course of
this paper, the questions regarding the place of popular fiction within the fields
of literature as well as the product market, the legitimacy of the structural
hierarchy and the implications of classifying it as such are explored. The
indulgences in the “higher pleasures” along with the criticism of Popular fiction
being a “lower pleasure” is analysed and whether the values of such an art
should be explored and imposed or not.
Introduction: Popular Fiction and Literature

The popular belief among the masses hold Literature1 and Popular fiction as
diametrically opposing fields with an equilibrium of criticism balanced on either
side. The Literature, in a restrictive sense, refers to all the body of works with an
artistic or intellectual merit and possesses a distinct characteristic to explore the
intricacies of the human mind, life and death, family and relationships etc. In
popular opinion, Literature would include the works of Henry James, James
Joyce, Virginia Woolf etc. The contemplative nature of these works instigates
the masses to make sense of the world around them. This emotional catharsis,
a feature of both Popular Fiction and Literature, is a major reason for the people
to access them in the first place. The presented authors are notorious for their
“stream of consciousness” writings which presented the world of psychology
with the functions of the human mind existing in layers. The embedded
psychological understanding, one could say, is a prominent feature of Literature.
While it is true that many of the writers of Literature have found wide
acceptance within the marketplace and hence would be classified as Popular
Literature but certainly would not lie within the ambit of Popular Fiction given
the difference in the logistics and practices of both.
Popular Fiction, however, are plot driven novels which are notorious for their
entertaining feature. It is an ‘opium for the masses’ and a means to escape
reality. It exists in the ambit of a structured reassurance where it caters to the
public taste and builds its own existence up to their imagination. Popular writers
of detective fiction include Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Anne Rice etc.
Other categories of genre fiction include children’s fiction, graphic novel,
romance novels etc. The works of Popular Fiction often reflect an informed
perspective of the writer on the needs of their readership and their willingness
to manipulate and mould their work of art into a product that is appreciated by
the masses. The mass market production of such genre fictions materialised
certain conventions to be fit within the framework of the same. These
conventions, one could say, provided the readers “satisfaction and emotional
security” (Cawelti, 1976 P.9). However, popular fiction has overused such
conventions and standardizations which has often limited the artistic creativity.
Nonetheless, the emotional security talked about by Cawelti often results in the
creation of a common experience or catharsis for the readers. The exposure of
violence, sex and murder forces the reader to experience the realities of life in
an exaggerated manner which provides for a “confident and a well ordered
existence”(Cawelti, 1976 P.16).
The line between Popular Fiction and Literature, however, is not as apparent as
it might seem at the first glance. For instance, the most renowned Canon writer
Shakespeare fashioned his plays to appease the Elizabethan audience.
Shakespeare, like Popular Fiction writers, had worked out the logistics and
methods of his plays in order to market them effortlessly. In addition to this, the
literary merit of all novels cannot be ascribed to a given standard and often
depends on the context of the culture and time in which they are produced. The
decision of a reader to prefer either one over the other purely depends on the
culture, circumstances and lifestyle they have been brought up in. However, this
should not disregard certain universal truths of complexities, equality and
The world is better understood by the Literature of the ‘defining’ writers.
However, the people and their attempt to survive in the world through the
means of the written word can be better appreciated and recognised through
their subjective lens to view Popular Fiction as an immediate means of

Criticism of Popular Fiction

Popular Fiction has borne the brunt of heavy criticism by several scholars
including Henry James, Edmund Wilson. The criticism hugely stems from two
roots. Firstly, the sheer volume of writers enticed by the market of genre
fiction who, without much effort, adopt the formulas and techniques of the
said genre and guise themselves under its shadow. Secondly, the literary merit,
or the lack thereof, of the novels under genre fiction.
“Literature is said to play under complexities and in a state independent of the
present ideology. Literature (so the argument goes) is more complicated,
resisting ideological reduction, disavowing its commercial identity, able to
criticize rather than capitulate to capitalism, enmeshed in nothing less than life
itself”(Gelder, 2004 P35).
This grander-than-life proclamation of Literature seems to have an elitist
perspective which touches the lines of being condescending. Nevertheless, it
does have a point to it. Artists for the longest time have been looked down by
the society. This isolation resulted in an anti-State and anti-Ideological stance
amongst them; the art existed for the art’s sake and not for the sake of the
market or any other such entity. Literature was resistant. In his theory of the
Ideal State, Plato argued that the poets would be banned in order to maintain
peace; he maintained that Literature was dangerous to the stability of this city
state.(Sachs 2007, P 176) In addition to this, the value of artists severely declined
in the age of industrialisation and materialism. Art could not be attributed with
“materialistic” traits and hence the artists suffered.
On the other side, Popular Fiction had found the perfect solution to survive and
be accepted within the bounds of this capitalistic structure. It was not Literature
in the conventional sense that they were selling, it was a product for the mass
production. It was seen as an attempt to vulgarise the concept of Literature by
entering it into a structure that it opposed. However, it is not justified to criticize
the writers of genre fiction for tapping into the capitalistic structure and creating
another literary field for themselves since their efforts were not to “vulgarise”
literature but rather extend it into another genre. Even if one was to buy into
the argument that genre fiction writers knowingly and willingly sacrificed
Literature to profit off of the masses, there still wouldn’t be enough justification
to criticize their existence. Literature, like any other artform, has an intended
meaning and this intended meaning topples down to a negotiated meaning
when it reaches the masses. This negotiated meaning becomes important due
to the fact that people access literature in order to provide some catharsis to
their own situation. For example, detective fiction is said to celebrate the spirit
of detachment(Chandler 1994 P.2). This genre of Popular Fiction became highly
popularised for the people living in the years that followed the First World War.
The cold objectivity and detachment of the books were less influential than the
larger collective public emotion of vulnerability that there was no objective
truth; and always a possibility of considering the other side. The detective fiction
novels provided a purgation for the masses to project their guilt and anxiety on.
According to Freud, detective fiction was an attempt to solve the unexpected
through logic and reasoning. Detective fiction helped in the screening of the
projection of inner guilt and anxiety of people.
However, the question remains whether certain indulgences and desires of
people should be entertained through any means or not. Should the psychology
and circumstances of people be considered when deciding the merit of
Literature? Or is meritocracy devised from certain objective values? These
questions will be explored in the later half of these paper.
Another major criticism of the Popular Fiction lies in the lack of “literary” merit
possessed by it. As a society, we have attributed the literary merit of any work
to the introspective value it espouses and the extent to which it is able to reveal
the minutiae of the significant questions of life. In this regard, Popular Fiction
fails significantly. Popular Fiction has a certain characteristic to ignore such
intricacies and rather focus on the plot of the novel. The plot has been
formulated in convention and revolutionised in inventions of different kinds of
narratives. The introspective nature of Literature seems to be missing in Popular
Fiction since the readers do not look for answers from such novels but rather
read it for the purpose of swift entertainment. The character development is
negligible and the characters are used as a means to an end rather than as ends
in themselves. This characteristic of Popular Fiction is what allowed Agatha
Christie to swiftly pin the narrator as the murderer of the novel in The Murder
of Roger Ackroyd. The readers did not anticipate it earlier on despite the clues
due to the fact that they are themselves conditioned to focus on the plot rather
than the character-
“More and more people in more and more contexts unthinkingly read
the Harry Potter books, absorb their film versions and advertisement
images and computer and video games and other consumer products
that derive from them, because they are inclined by our world to do so.
The question is: are the Harry Potter books really read in the sense that
some people speak of ‘reading a face’ or ‘reading a situation’ – read,
that is, as being thinkingly understood?” (Gupta 2003 P.164)
There is no contemplation on the part of the reader, either about the grander
scheme of things or the novel itself. But it is not to say that Popular Fiction is
devoid of any intellectual or creative merit. Since the author is limited in the
capacity of the formulations and logics of the genre fiction, he/she has to come
up with creative ways to produce the same product in a hundred different ways.
This creativity should not be discounted since the market of genre fiction is huge
and being limited in a framework tests the limit of the same. In addition to this,
however, it should be questioned as to why the appreciation of both kinds of
the literary fields is mutually exclusive to each other? The appreciation in
distinction can occur simultaneously. Any piece of literature should get value on
the basis of its content or how it is written without comparing it to each other.

Readership and Book Sales: A Hierarchy?

Being an avid reader of genre fiction as an adult means being at the receiving
end of disdained and judgemental looks from people who classify it as “lower
art”. It is seen as a passive joy being communicated from the book to the reader,
subconsciously revealing their true desires. Readers of popular fiction are seen
as uncritical, unthinking minds who give in to the uncouth desires for quick
pleasure. The consumers of the fiction, in fact, do consume large amounts of
books in a short span. The intention of the author is not to be critical but to be
entertaining which leaves the Popular Fiction readers no option but to consume
it in a form of entertainment. And since this genre fiction accrues a huge
audience, it may seem obvious as to why it is an elitist privilege to take a hard
stance against the same.
In the recent times, we have witnessed a paradigm shift. Readers of Popular
Fiction have become more exclusive and particular with their choices. With a
plethora of theories, conspiracies and analysis regarding the books within the
genre fiction, the emotional investment and contemplative nature of the
readers cannot be discounted any further. Even if it is done through the tool of
capitalistic means, one cannot deny the readership that has been inspired by the
industry of genre fiction. One such example is the Harry Potter series by JK
Rowling, the most economically successful writer in history. Rowling’s
readership has proven to be one of the most invested set of people ever. The
philosophies, theories and values of Harry Potter are discussed enthusiastically
even after years of the end of the series. Furthermore, Rowling has inspired a
new age of writers tapping into the same genre and revived its readership.
Due to Rowling’s popularity, it becomes necessary to ask the question: Where is
it arising from? The literature created by Rowling is set in a fantasy land of
wizardry and witches. It is not merely an escapist mean for people but also an
“easy” escapist mean. The work is brilliant in sheer terms of its accessibility. It
has been democratised by the masses not only because it is a pure work of
creative genius and but also due to its approachability.
During the late 18th century, it is believed that Pulp Fiction helped in saving
literature and retaining readership. Their covers were often trashy, the contents
were often high art, but the low cost of the ubiquitous paperback created
millions of new readers in America. In her novel, American Pulp Paula
Rabinowitz analyses of the impact of cheap paperback books on American
culture. Rabinowitz calls the consumption fostered by this boundary-blurring
“demotic reading, an experience of literature that traverses many social
distinctions.” sleaze was, somewhat paradoxically, a force for literacy and
empowerment.(Rabinowitz, 2014, P.36) However, the same case cannot be
made for penny dreadfuls. The readership of penny dreadfuls escalated with a
negative force. A lot of the people were inspired, or rather instigated, by such
novels which resulted in an increase in crime rate.
However, the readership of Literature is, in most cases, restricted to a number
fewer than that of Popular Fiction. This is because of the sheer inaccessibility of
Literature and its complexity which is not easily ‘comprehended’ by masses. The
popular opinion being that one has to be “cultured” in order to understand the
higher arts. For a complex novel like Ulysses by James Joyce, one needs to be
familiarised with the literary techniques and modernised patterns of the same.
Other examples include The Trial by Franz Kafka; one needs to have a mind that
is critical of the authority or in the least, opinionated on the same. To
understand Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, readers need to
understand and be critical of the racial discrimination and segregation in
America in the late 1800s. ‘Cultured’ might seem an privileged perspective but
in the context of this paper, cultured means a questioning and inquisitive mind,
a mind who wishes to create a discourse on essential human topics that concern
humans. This is where the essential dichotomy is created between the escapism
and the introspective nature of Popular Fiction and Literature, respectively.
While Popular Fiction provides an avenue for its democratization, Literature
remains exclusive up to a certain level. This dichotomy becomes problematic
because the art is supposed to belong to the community and not to an individual
few. In order to break it, it becomes essential to acknowledge it.
In addition to the above, it should also be noted that such literary works have
stood the test of time and have proven to created a wide readership for the
audience. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was undisputedly reflective
of the time period it was published in i.e. the era Post- Cold War of 1850s, an
era where the first step to end racial discrimination was taken. Meanwhile,
Shakespeare enjoys the popularity equal to that of Agatha Christie in terms of
book sales. However, it should be noted that writers who enjoy economic
successes in their career majorly belong to the genre fiction category.
Another wide readership is the audience of children fiction. Writers like Lewis
Carrol, or Hans Christian Andersen are renowned in this category. The purpose
of children’s fiction is often said to be didactic. John Locke developed the theory
of tabula rasa in An Essay Concerning Human Mind. According to the Lockean
theory, children’s minds are blank slates which exist without any processing data
and hence it is essential to imbue good values in them through pleasant means
such as books. Hence, it could be established that certain categories of genre
fiction have been accepted by the masses as “good literature”. Their place in the
academia is, however, still questioned.
A hierarchy is created on the basis of distinctive readership. In terms of sheer
number of readers, Popular Fiction would be placed higher than Literature.
However, it becomes an important question whether such a democratization or
accessibility renders any literary or creative merit to be prioritised in terms of
Popular Fiction.
Indulgences and preferences: Theory of
‘Higher Pleasures’

In her novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand prompts the reader to face the harsh
reality of societal constructs and its pressures. One of the main characters
named Ellsworth Toohey works for a major newspaper, The Banner. Toohey
enjoys success in terms of readership and social capital. He uses his influence to
manipulate his readers into reading the plays of Lois Cook, a writer without any
literary or creative merit whatsoever. Lois Cook, an experimental writer,
disguises her art under the category “highbrow” literature. Toohey convinces his
readers that only the ‘smart’ people would be able to comprehend her work of
genius. This not only initiates his readers to read Cook’s “highbrow art” but also
pressurises them to enjoy it.
This raises question on the imposition of any type of literature onto the society
where people are raised to believe with notions that one literature is good and
the other one- bad. The Canon is presumably good and the Canonical writers are
put beyond questionability. This kind of imposition and categorization takes
away the agency of the individual to question whether the work is devoid of any
form of pleasure or not and pressurises them into enjoying it. While it is true
that there exists empirical evidence as to why the Canonical writers possess
literary merit in terms of the expressions, literary techniques and grand
metaphors, they should still not be put above any doubtfulness and the idea of
the Canon should be revised pertaining to the culture around which it revolves.
In his book Utilitarianism, while John Stuart Mill agrees to utilitarian approach
of maximum pleasure, he also takes the responsibility to explain the indulgences
in the higher pleasure and the lower pleasure of life. He begins by noting, with
fairly obvious reference to Bentham, that the hedonist can defend higher
pursuits as extrinsically superior on the ground that they produce more
pleasure. While Mill thinks that the Benthamite can defend the extrinsic
superiority of higher pleasure, he is not content with this defence of their
superiority. Mill insists that the greater value of intellectual pleasures can and
should be put on a more secure footing. He explains these higher pleasures and
links them with the preferences of a competent judge, in the following manner-
“If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes
one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being
greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. If one of the two is, by those
who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that
they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of
discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which
their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred
enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in
comparison, of small account.”(Mill, 1863, P.257)
By Mill’s account, we can conclude that he would place Shakespeare in a
hierarchy placed far above any of the genre fiction writers even if it significantly
reduces his total happiness due to the emotional labour that Shakespeare
requires. His idea is to maximize the utility within the bounds of the pleasures
that he would classify as “higher”.
Mill is not the only one to comment upon the “higher pleasures”. In context of
Literature, Plato offers a rather pointed and stark critique of literature’s role and
purpose in society. He argued that the arts served to shape character and that
an ideal society must itself train and educate its citizens, hence the arts must be
strictly censored. The censorship of art, he believes, will refine the citizens. It
seems obvious that Plato was against such democratization and privatisation of
art. However, if one was to analyse on a deeply presumptive basis, we could say
that Plato would have appreciated Shakespeare. For example, Hamlet does not
respond, directly, to Plato’s notions or theories of literature. Plato would
certainly have viewed Hamlet as a fairly dangerous work of literature, especially
given that its protagonist so flagrantly challenges state authority. A theorist
operating within Plato’s notions of artistic power might also point to the
character of Hamlet as being a perfected, artistic copy of a real human being.
Critics have long celebrated Hamlet for being, in essence, among the most
complex and realistic characters in all of Western literature. While Hamlet is
certainly not an ideal human being—he is, after all, confused, doubtful, angry,
and irrational throughout the play—he is as close to a perfect copy of a real,
thinking human being as literature has ever seen. Thus, in Plato’s terms, Hamlet
is a superior work of art. Furthermore, a Plato-minded theorist would see
Hamlet as providing an accurate imitation of various human psychologies.
It is clear in terms of Plato and Mill that some works of art certainly accrue higher
forms of pleasure and thus should be aspired towards. The hierarchy within the
bounds of literature exists.
Under the section, Criticism of Popular Fiction, an important question that was
raised was whether people’s psychology or circumstances be given any sort of
value when deciding the literary worth of a novel. In an ideal state, like that of
Plato, where the people are tended to equally and the mind of the masses are
nourished through the means of proper education, the answer is no. The
worthiness of art, in such a State where people can approach art from an
objective standpoint-having no apprehension or anxiety over their present or
future- will purely be dependent on its merit and not on the masses. However,
since we do not live in such an ideal state and people live in constant uneasiness
over their lives, it becomes important for us to acknowledge the literary
preference of people as a bond over emotional stress. The subjective
interpretations will seep in and the preferences will change depending on the
context of the culture. However, this does not mean that the choices of people
should be readily accepted as a better decision. At times, these choices might
be violent like in cases of penny dreadfuls or they might be sexist such as The
Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The priorities of people to place Popular
Fiction over Literature or the other way round should be understood through
the moral and relativist lens through which they view the world. It should be
understood but not readily accepted, questioned but not at the cost of
imposition of any literature.
Through the course of this paper, we have explored the criticism as well as a
well-considered defence of Popular Fiction. In addition to this, we have explored
the structural hierarchy and the importance of the discourse provided by
Popular Fiction in the world. It should not be necessary for us to view Popular
Fiction and Literature under the same light because we need to acknowledge
the importance of both in terms of evolution and development of humans
throughout the ages. The problem is not hierarchy through which we have
established the different literary genres, but the idea that there is an
establishment of a comparative. Every piece of literature deserves its own
appreciation without pitting it against one another. On the same note, as we
have established this hierarchy exists but is not within absolute bounds or
beyond questionability by the masses.
Works cited-
1) Gelder, Ken, Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Fields,
Routledge, 2005.
2) Cawleti, John, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art
and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
3) Sachs, Joe. Plato: Republic. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2007
4) Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder, The Atlantic Monthly,
5) Gupta, Suman, Re-Reading Harry Potter, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
6) Rabinowitz, Paula, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism
to Main Street, Princeton University Press, 2014
7) Mill, John, Utilitarianism, London: Parker, Son & Bourn, West Strand.1863