Bernice M. Murphy. Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
Students and academics always need keywords and concise definitions for the everyday concepts they refer to, but most scholars won’t admit it. Writing reference tools such as Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction can be enlightening and uncontestably valuable for undergraduates, but such exercises are usually not valued or appreciated by most colleagues, who are more impressed by someone’s “new theory about something.” But Bernice Murphy (from the School of English at Trinity College Dublin) should be acknowledged for her very useful guide into basic and emerging concepts in literary studies and mass culture.
The Introduction to Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction successfully delimits what popular fiction is—and what it is not. Among the eight key points which characterise it, the most encapsulating might be the fact that “popular fiction is plot driven” (6) and its appreciation is usually not a matter of style; in my view, that is what fundamentally separates contemporary popular fiction from, say, literary fiction in general or classic works by authors such as Flaubert, Proust, Gide, or Nobel Prize winner Camilo José Cela, who were all praised for the way they wrote each and every sentence. In classic novels, long descriptions abounded and were praised; Balzac championed this distinctive descriptive style. But classic novels must be seen as the opposite of popular fiction, at least stylistically. Usually in popular fiction, the action, the dénouement, and the ending matter, not the way it is written. In most cases, stylisation does not add substantially to popular fiction: “plot is always more important than language, style or tone,” Murphy argues in her Introduction (6). Incidentally, there is a subsequent entry about “plot” in which these dimensions are reexplained, along with other considerations related to the reader’s expectations with respect to a specific subgenre (66).
Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction comes in four sections plus two appendices (including a chronology and a selected bibliography). Following the Introduction, the main section is composed alphabetically with one-paragraph definitions for dozens of key terms from “Acafan” (contraction for an “academic fan,” that is, an academic who is fan of an object of study) to “zombie lit subgenre” (82). However, there is no specific entry for individual thinkers, single authors, or isolated works; concepts and keywords are the essence in this section. The following part broadly presents (nonalphabetically) nine core theoretical approaches (the frequently overlooked Cambridge English School but also the Frankfurt School, gender, ecocriticism, and others) (83-114). Going from analysis to the creative process, another section presents “the major popular genres” (such as “crime,” “romance,” “thriller”), and these expanded entries discuss some of their main representatives and iconic works: for example, Harry Potter fits in the “Fantasy” genre while Daphné Du Maurier’s Rebecca is considered as “gothic” rather than “horror fiction” (115-30). The fourth section proposes an uneven selection of famous, representative novels within the popular fiction subgenres; these “Fifteen key works of Contemporary Popular Fiction” include the usual suspects, such as the unavoidable Da Vinci Code, Twilight, the Millennium Trilogy, and Harry Potter, but also a few debatable choices, such as Fifty Shades of Grey (137). Each selected work is abstracted and contextualised; many of these works are parts of sagas.
Definitions are concise and sometimes might seem too short, being between one paragraph and one full page. Among many entries, we find many subgenres like “Airport novel,” the “Medical Thriller” (59), or even the “Police procedural sub-genre,” which is a part of crime fiction (66). The most useful entries not only define one concept but situate its origins and distinguish each one from other, similar conceptions, for example, the excellent entry on “Textual Poaching,” which
originates with Michel de Certeau. In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) he argues that rather than just being passive consumers of mass culture, people are in fact actively engaging the text in question, and even appropriate the material for their own use and interpretation. (77)
We then see how Theodor Adorno was opposed to this practice (in fact, well before de Certeau) and how a contemporary scholar such as Henry Jenkins has expanded the idea of reappropriation by audiences of popular culture, which is now common in the studying of fandom and more broadly in Cultural Studies. These notions and discussions—condensed in just one entry on “Textual Poaching”—are significant because the reader learns how a concept has evolved according to a variety of thinkers.
Perhaps the most important entry is the one dedicated to “Mass Culture,” a basic concept that brings the reader to the core of the understanding of popular fiction’s omnipresence and influence. As we know, “popular fiction” is not “popular” because this kind of fiction emerges from the people but because it is mass-produced, mass-marketed, and mass-distributed; furthermore, in certain cases and in some places, it is the only type of literature available. So how does this book address this fundamental dimension? Quite well, in fact. In the half-page entry on “Mass Culture,” we read that it is
unlike ‘folk culture’, which is said to arise organically from the people themselves. Adorno and Horkheimer’s term the ‘culture industry’ is closely related, as is the term ‘masscult’. The products of ‘mass culture’ are generally perceived to be mass-produced, standardised and essentially inauthentic. (58)
And this is just an excerpt from an instructive overview of “Mass Culture,” with more references to Richard Hoggart’s works and cross-references to three specific entries on “highbrow,” “culture industry,” and “masscult.” Therefore, we can say undergraduates are in good hands with Murphy’s book.
There are quite a few unexpected entries that are nevertheless pertinent: for example, the one on “Amazon.com,” which because of its online platforms (like the CreateSpace system for self-publishing and its Kindle Direct), allows self-published authors to (potentially) reach a wide audience. A similar entry on a related subtheme is dedicated to “Google Books” (47). Also, new concepts and realities are cleverly introduced, such as “Disintermediation,” which is the result of “the reduction of importance now granted to the traditional gatekeepers between the consumer and the product he or she wishes to buy” (38) in the age of the Internet, e-publishing, e-readers, and iPads. The inclusion of emerging concepts is one of this book’s major strengths.
May we ask for more? Reference books always seem to be too short; it is because we deeply appreciate them. The cross-reference system endlessly sends the reader from one entry to another. Perhaps one would have wished to find an entry on “culture,” even though we already get elsewhere an entry on “culture industries” and another entry on “culture wars,” plus an entry on “mass culture” (58). But a basic definition of “culture” is always useful and should not be taken for granted; many disciplines reconceptualise culture according to its current schemes and preoccupations. An elusive concept used by countless thinkers, “culture” is often at the center of the understanding of modern literary criticism and literary theory. The same goes for “narratives” and “storytelling,” two basic concepts which should have been defined and discussed here. Among other “missing” entries, one would point out elusive terms like “ideologies” and “mainstream,” although these two fundamental terms frequently (re)appear elsewhere in various entries, without being properly defined (see the different uses of “mainstream” on pages 57, 74, 128, and 137). In fact, Murphy even uses the expression “the mainstreaming of the zombie” in her final entry about the “zombie lit subgenre” (82). Undoubtedly, this last one really deserves a proper entry. Maybe for the next edition?
Another dimension that one seeks to be analysed here is violence, which is sadly so typical of US culture. An entry on violence would have been welcome in this book because it is widespread and has become almost “ordinary,” undiscussed and uncontested in so many mass-produced works, just like any dimension of any drama or story. Nevertheless, the way violence is brought in, legitimated, and dealt with in American fictions and/or Hollywood films is always significant and revealing, especially for non-US observers. Elsewhere, the individual entries on “Drugstore Paperbacks” and “True Crime” partly explore these issues of marketed violence (39 and 77; see also 80). An entry on kitsch would have been welcome as well, although the term appears here and there.
Obviously, and although its title does not clearly suggest this, Murphy’s approach and corpus are embedded in American Studies and British Studies; therefore, we get various entries on typical US literary genres such as graphic novels and comic books. As a contrast, we don’t get much about the non-Anglo-Saxon world of popular culture, which would include famous French and Francophone heroes in the bande dessinée—a major genre in popular fiction, different from comics or comic strips—such as Tintin by Hergé (in Belgium) and Astérix by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (in France). Only a few lines briefly mention the French bandes dessinées and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991) in an entry about Comic Books (129). Including these non-Anglophone dimensions, specific subgenres, and works would necessitate many more pages and possibly another tome, but it would have been clever to at least indicate somewhere in one single entry that there exist different literary worlds and alternative conceptions but also prominent, lesser-known authors who write popular fiction in languages other than English and that consequently other works are available apart from the familiar US mass culture or, say, the typically Japanese Manga, which is given an entry (57). Consequently, perhaps this book could have been titled (or should be retitled) something like Key Concepts in Contemporary English Popular Fiction or Key Concepts in Anglophone Contemporary Popular Fiction, because its limited spectrum within the English-speaking world does not aim or pretend to be universal in its representation.
A rewarding book suitable for many fields from the Sociology of Literature to Cultural Studies, Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction should be recommended reading for undergraduates in English, Literary Criticism, Social Theory, and American Studies. On its back cover, Edinburgh University Press presents this Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction as “a jargon-free guide”; one possible reformulation (and compliment) would be to consider this book rather as “a guide to literary critical jargon.” It is a clear, useful, and rather inexpensive resource, and even public libraries would benefit from owning it. Only a few typos remain in the bibliography, and the publisher should have double-checked these: Professor Marc Angenot’s salient book on “paralittérature” was in fact published in Québec and not Montréal, and its publisher’s name should be spelled accurately, with accents, as “Les Presses de l’Université du Québec” (146). But this is just a minor quibble about an otherwise irreplaceable book for today.
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