Sunday, April 11, 2010

Danger! Pop Culture

Reading Northanger Abbey recently, I came across a section where Jane Austen comes out firing in defense of popular novels. As one involved in the 'serious' analysis of contemporary texts, I was struck by the continuing relevance of her criticism. Just in case anyone is interested, I'm going to quote the whole portion below. It's more applicable to a study of the contemporary grotesque than you would, at first, assume.

At the end of chapter five, after describing her heroine's love of Gothic horror novels, she begins to set out her argument:

"I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding--joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body."

I like the description of popular novels as "an injured body," and the subsequent assertion that those who form a part of this body should not further harm and demean each other. Austen goes on:

"Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens--there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them."

Popularity tends to render cultural texts intellectually and critically suspect, particularly when created by women, for women. The above quote reminds me of the Twilight novels, and how vitriolic their critics can be. (I'm not suggesting that these novels are the best ever written, just pointing out that the extreme prejudice against them is quite out of proportion and, I believe, can be credited to their immense popularity and female target audience. I have read many worse books. Candy from SBTB made some pertinent comments about this.) Austen follows up on these themes:

""I am no novel-reader--I seldom look into novels--Do not imagine that I often read novels--It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss--?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it."

This whole section of chapter five is really worthy of an 'Oh SNAP' as far as I am concerned. As defenses of popular culture go, this one is still quotable over 200 years later. It is a little sad that popular texts still require a 'defense,' in everyday discourse or academia.

I remember (warning: personal tangent) when I first received my letter of acceptance into the PhD program, one of the first people outside the family I told was a neighbor who had recently completed his own PhD in Education. He asked what topic I was considering. I said something along the lines of "representations of women in popular culture." He looked at me with barely disguised contempt, then said "Hasn't everything already been said about that?" I still consider this an extraordinary comment, especially coming from a university lecturer and student mentor. He later offered to read over my work. I said no thanks.

There should be no shame in analysing those cultural products that produce "extensive and unaffected pleasure." In fact, these texts offer the most powerful and widely disseminated site of representation we have available as cultural theorists. And at no point will everything have "been said." Because each new construction, each new film, novel, comic, game, and reality TV program encodes the ideas and images that structure the now, the present.

You can download the complete Northanger Abbey, and all of Austen's other novels, for free at Project Gutenberg.

1 comment:

  1. "It is a little sad that popular texts still require a 'defense,' in everyday discourse or academia." -- I agree. I am studying a relatively new genre and I do feel that I need to 'defend' its territory when talking to people specialised in more commonly accepted areas....