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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Popular Literature: Will it die?

It's interesting what you find on the Interwebs these days. Not too long ago Stephen King went on record saying some rather entertaining things about Stephanie Meyers and J. K. Rowling:
King compared the Mormon author to JK Rowling, saying that both authors were "speaking directly to young people". "The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can't write worth a darn. She's not very good," he told an interviewer from USA Weekend.
This is being likened to a virtual bitchslap and it created quite a response both in the news and in the blogosphere, including some interesting points about who has authority in determining what is good literature. Julia Weston says that all of us have authority in that (readers, writers, academics, etc.). But what's more interesting about Weston's blog post is this:
I agree that as a population we're too heavy on the "pop culture" right now, but I believe that - just like the economy - this type of thing runs in cycles. Eventually the majority of us will get tired of easy-reading pop fiction and long again for literary substance.
The reality is that this will never happen. I know, I'm saying "never," and you should never say never, right? But that's just it, popular literature isn't a form that arose because it was a get-rich-quick scheme. Popular literature arose because it had something to offer to a public that wasn't necessarily educated, or perhaps didn't enjoy reading because much of the "good" literature was too complicated or dull. These were folks that, while not simple, were looking for more simplistic prose styles to make the process of reading faster, smoother, and simply more entertaining. It's not that folks who read popular literature don't know what a good book is, it's that they see literature for what it really is (entertainment) and have very specific opinions on what constitutes entertainment.

There will always be a massive readership for popular literature (whether it be romance or mystery or science fiction or fantasy--in their "popular" formats, I mean). It's not going to go away as Weston suggests. I think she places too much importance on "literary substance," something nebulous and rather pointless as a descriptive term, and not enough importance on the power of a good read. Literary folks don't have to like popular literary forms, but they do have to acknowledge that more people read it because it is less convoluted and more direct. It gets the job done without dragging the reader around on a leash. Because of that, it's a form that will be with us for a while. There will always be people who read popular literary forms (and it will always be a large group).

If it were just a fad, you would think that it would have died out a long time ago, but it has been going strong for almost a hundred years now and has only grown. It will continue to grow, too. Some readers may find their tastes changing, becoming more in tune with this "literary substance" thing; but they'll be replaced by floods of other readers who are only interested in a fast, enjoyable read. We may not find the works they read of quality, but that's based on our individual perspectives. Individuals only decide quality for themselves (and, in all honesty, there is no real way of determining quality beyond that). At most, we can expect certain factions of it to shrink. The Twilight and Harry Potter fans may find themselves unable to fill the void properly, resulting in some dropping off or being consumed by other popular novels. The only things that truly die in literature are isolated fads: urban fantasy will hit a ceiling and taper off (it will never go away); YA fantasy will likely remain a large entity, but will probably splinter into subgroups, some larger than others, some shifting in and out of the popular sphere; science fiction will shrink and expand as old genres are revitalized or lost.

But popular literature isn't going anywhere. We're stuck with it, for better or for worse.

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