Monday, March 4, 2013
March 4, 2013: Popular Fiction: Cultural Work
[In this week’s series, I’ll be considering some authors, texts, and contexts related to a much-maligned (in certain circles at least) but vital part of American literature: popular fiction. Your responses, favorites, critiques, and other takes will be welcome for what’s sure to be a popular crowd-sourced weekend post.]
On the classic scholarly concept that can still help us think about what popular fiction does and means.
On the short list of game-changing AmericanStudying scholarly texts has to be Jane Tompkins’ Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (1986). One of a group of 1980s critics, along with Nina Baym, Cathy Davidson, and others, who helped challenge, redefine, and significantly expand the canon of early American literature, Tompkins did so by rethinking what makes a literary work “great.” In her argument, such greatness, both in a work’s own moment and in helping it endure across generations, comes less from intrinsic or aesthetic qualities and more from how the work and its author engage with and impact their society. Tompkins called that social impact “cultural work,” and the phrase and concept have contributed to numerous other scholarly perspectives and analyses since she coined them.
I think the concept can still do a lot of, well, work for our AmericanStudies analyses, but would also extend it in two ways that Tompkins’ original book didn’t (at least not as focal points). Tompkins focuses on authors and works that she sees as doing their cultural work purposefully, as seeking overtly to impact their societies (with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as exhibit A); but to my mind it’s just as interesting to think about the less purposeful work that other texts, and perhaps especially popular fictions, do. To cite a recent, hugely successful example: I don’t know that anybody would argue that Stephanie Meyer intended for her Twilight books to impact their society, so much as she hoped (correctly) that they would impact her pocketbook; but it’s difficult to overstate the work that the series, and the subsequent film adaptations, have done in our 21st century moment. In fact, it’d be fair to say that you couldn’t AmericanStudy early 21st century America without at least an awareness of Twilight.
Besides extending “cultural work” to include such less deliberate versions, I also believe there’s value in applying the concept to the work done around and with, as well as by, popular fictions. For example, no figure or institution has done more cultural work with popular literature in the last few decades than Oprah Winfrey and her Oprah’s Book Club. Whether you applaud her work in bringing authors like Toni Morrison to a wider audience, join Jonathan Franzen in (at least initially) bemoaning her influence, or fall anywhere else on the spectrum of responses, it’s impossible to deny that the landscape of late 20th and early 21st century American literature was potently and irrevocably impacted by Oprah’s choices and conversations. I don’t think cultural work gets any clearer, or more worth studying, than that.
Next popular fiction post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these themes? Suggestions, favorites, or other responses?