Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. April 2003

Transcultural Modes and Myths of Mass Literature

Elena Apenko (St. Petersburg)


Mass/popular literature is one of the most flourishing parts of contemporary cultural process. In all the countries the better part of fiction belongs to this kind, and there are developed national traditions of different mass fiction genres. In bookstores all over the world we can find heaps of paperbacks arranged according to a standard order: crime, romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc. Works by native authors are on display together with translations, and no reader is afraid of any communicative error. On the contrary, we follow the labels and summaries and, as in a supermarket where we know for sure what we are buying - sugar or washing powder, chose a necessary item.

So, it is obvious that popular literature, as well as mass culture in general, is transcultural at its core. It is due to transculturality that mass fiction remains one of the most popular goods at the global market. That's why it seems rather important to try to understand what mechanisms and structural laws and schemes provide broadest appeal of such writings.

First, let's try and summarize most obvious mass fiction characteristics.

When we are to define a book of the kind, it's enough for us to stick to it one of the labels I have already mentioned above: romance, fantasy, etc. We usually treat these definitions as genre ones, but, in fact, developed genre system of popular fiction deals only with books' subjects, dominating themes, not with structural differences, plots' or even objects' varieties. It serves for readers' convenience. Science fiction, fantasy, or thriller may have, and do have more often than not, an interwoven love story, but genre definition states dominating subject of a book. It not only points to the main subject but also states the way of its presentation. Science fiction and fantasy both deal with fantastic, but we know that while books of the first genre are based on some scientific, or at least pseudo-scientific ideas, the second genre samples manipulate with fairy-tale material. Erotic and sentimental novels tell us about love, and every reader knows the difference, as well as in case of crime stories presented in detective novels and thrillers.

So, subject formulas follow and appeal to readers' diverse interests, but there are some general mechanisms of handling all the subjects.

Some "secret" or "mystery" is always a moving force behind any plot. Mass fiction appeals to our curiosity and pays primary attention to creation of "suspense". Writer's ability to create "suspense", to invent diverse "secrets" for his stories is usually one of the main criteria of estimation of his talent.

It's very important for a book of the kind to have something "new", "unusual" in its plot, or, at least to make it look new. At the same time, the long way of market development of commercial art helped writers (and movie makers) to work out in their production a precise balance of "known" and "unknown", "familiar" and "strange" necessary for arising and maintaining readers' and spectators' interest. For example, in spite of all the possible strangeness of the fictitious reality of different "space voyages" in science fiction, or "parallel world" of fantasy, some of its formative characteristics are quickly identified by a reader as relevant for his own world. On the contrary, so called "everyday life epics" usually and inevitably show their readers that there is always something strange, terrifying or terrific, wonderful that waits just round the corner.

I remember a talk I had many years ago with my American friends. Mark, a university professor of American literature, turned indignant when I confessed that had been reading one of novels by Harold Robbins. I tried to explain that the main attraction of books of this kind for me and other Russians consisted in the fact that we were reading about life "in another land" for a person from socialist Russia, and not only from the point of view of geography. H. Robbins used to write epic novels about Hollywood stars, multi-millionaires, top-level politicians, etc. These were quite strange things for us then. Some minutes later Mark's wife smiled and whispered to me that she also liked to read novels of that kind, and for the same reason: for the majority of Americans this was "another land" too. Fortunes and misfortunes of superstars are, of course, highly unusual, but core of matters, reasons of events that happen, emotions produced, passions aroused are familiar all over the world. Balance of known and unknown works so well that readers from different hemispheres, different national, cultural, and social contexts are equally attracted.

In mass literature production we always find one and the same mimetic narrative mode, the one that can be described as "realistic" in the most general meaning of the word, "life-like". The principle of depicting typical persons in typical situations was developed by the classics of the XIX century. The XX century aesthetic experiments made writers of the so called "serious", or "high" literature to change their attitude towards mimetic principle of writing, to deconstruct it, or, at least, to reform it radically. At the same time it seems to meet perfectly the demands and needs of contemporary mass literature.

What may be the reasons? The easiest explanation for the popularity of realistic convention in mass literature is usually found in the latter's commercial origin. Mass readers obviously seem to prefer a textual construct based upon a mimetic principle as the easiest for perception. So, leaving aside a crucial task of defining what "realism" in fact is, let's say that mass literature uses major structural principles of a classical realistic mode of narration: it "tells a story", presenting a sequence of events, usually within a linear time organization, only sometimes diversified by rather formal retrospect, and events themselves are the major contents of a book. The event's milieu is organized with abundance of details that are borrowed from everyday life in order to create its probability, which is one of the manifestations of the way popular fiction writers understand "realism".

If we "stand back" from the texts of different nations' mass literature production we always find behind diversity of details quite a limited amount of plots, themes, problems as well as imagistic patterns. Characters and characteristics are recognizable literary cliches that once discovered by high literature, or worked out by mass fiction itself migrate from one novel to another following some basic rules. Thus, "suspense" mentioned above, together with "happy end" are absolutely unavoidable, as well as charm, sexuality and noble character is inevitable for a hero and a heroine. In fact, fictitious reality of this kind of literary samples is strictly programmed, and not only with the "genre formula" pattern. Typical situations and characters are absolutely intertextual, and mass fiction as a whole may serve a good example of intertextuality. Hence one of inherent qualities of such texts: ability for endless continuation. Robert Howard is dead but Conan the Barbarian continues his Quest. Mimetic principle seems to work more within the literary field itself, and we can say that popular literature is auto-mimetic and uses what may be defined as "poetics of identity". I think, science fiction of last decades and sentimental "romances" demonstrate this explicitly. "Star Wars" by Lucas opened a new phase of science fiction existence. The genre with a long and good tradition of development now endlessly seems to repeat one and the same story about good "ours" and bad "aliens", building up a story with the help of a set of elements among which we find not only space shuttles and cruisers but a standard interchange of general battles and personal hero's problems. As for "romances" - it is their "duty" to tell us again and again about victory of Love. But it is an author's duty to organize heroine's meeting with a rich and handsome aristocrat or millionaire. Their love-story starts with some misunderstanding that leads to lots of troubles, and only much later heroes understand that they belong to each other.

Strict morality is one more fundamental rule of popular fiction. When we read books of the kind we may be sure not only in victory of good guys over bad ones, we also know that all the characters will be "awarded" according to their feats and vices. Some of them will die but only those that are either pure "victims", or are guilty of something, and pay for that. Good and evil are very important elements of fictitious world order, important but simple. Complexity of these notions, dimensions of their relativity - these are the matters of "high" literature. Inherent balance of ethic and aesthetic that exists in all the works of art is distorted in favor of ethic in popular fiction. Popular culture in general tells us about life how it should be and never about what it is. But as the presented events follow a canon of rules that exists in a society, readers are ready to assimilate with the fictitious reality.

That is a crucial result of one obvious fact: mass culture appeals, and at the same time helps to form mass consciousness which is based upon the feeling of belonging to a certain society, group or tradition with its rules and values. While high culture sees the necessity of investigating, analyzing and interrogating stereotypes and ways of human life, mass culture simply affirms society standards, repeats and supports certain existing moral order and values. The latter are in fact abstract myths mass consciousness produces. They belong and give shape to images of reality mass consciousness identifies with real life itself, and recurrently reveal themselves in all types of mass fiction "formulas" through basic constituents of narrative. So, we may say that we meet in mass literature a situation of pseudo-mimesis. Actually, we may characterize this as a process of mythologizing. That is how mass fiction fulfills its main mission of supporting in its readers their feeling of belonging to a group that perceives reality in a certain, pre-defined by some canon, way. At the same time because these models and rules belong to our idea of reality to a great extend as a certain desirability, they are in opposition to reality. Hence the mentioned above feeling that all the events, even in everyday life epics take place "in another land".

This balance of total assimilation with fictitious reality and constant feeling of an impassable border between two worlds creates the situation when myth-creation starts. Myths arise, first of all, from community's necessity in mentioned above morality. Implanted modality of presenting things creates a strict moral order within fictitious world - love and hatred, goodness and evil, courage and cowardice. Some mythologemes are highest manifestations of transculturality: death and punishment for "bad", and victory for "good" characters. (I deliberately pay no attention to relativity of idea of good and evil itself.) Inevitable victory of that or those declared moral is one of main myths, forming pseudo-mimetic reality of popular culture. Quest is to be a success. Cinderella shall turn into princess. Based on some most fundamental ideas of Christianity, this notion underwent a long process of secularization and was adapted by literature of the XVIII - XIX centuries as one of its main messages. In the XX century the idea of moral order turned to be one of the brightest myths created in New Ages. Popular fiction as all popular culture understands this myth as a fundamental for the sense of belonging to contemporary society.

Some other formative myths of mass fiction are much closer connected with reality of a certain community, and sometimes we can even trace the very process of mythmaking when transition of ideological climate in the real society changes a system of rituals and codes of fictional world.

Let's turn to some examples:

One of the most fundamental changes of the world that saw the XX century was a crucial alteration of the role of women in the society. It immediately reflected in popular literature addressed to female readers. "Domestic novel" - the dominant genre in the XIX century female literature - is now only a subject of scholar analysis. It was substituted by "romances" that pay primary attention not to female duties after marriage but to fortunes and misfortunes of that turbulent period in girl's life that precedes marriage. "Romances" have their system of modes they operate, which is practically the same for all the authors all over the world. A novel by a Western author follows them as obediently as a movie of an Indian director. At the same time we may easily trace a certain evolution of the genre. Till the 60es there was a strict distinction between "erotic" and "sentimental" branches of love-stories. Sexual revolution made authors to become more radical in depicting sexual life. The idea of importance of sexual experience in forming of somebody's identity became especially influential in American consciousness. Mass literary production sticks to the point, and now one may be sure to find in any American book of the kind several sexual episodes. But if a reader prefers something more traditional and modest, she may find it in love-stories by English authors. Traditions of Victorian sentimental novel appeared to be stronger in the cultural context of Great Britain and thus survived there.

Notions of personal freedom, self-sufficiency and unlimited abilities of an individual are among corner stones of American society. They comprise an inseparable part of a famous concept of "American Dream". While a great part of what we call "serious literature" of the USA is involved in analyzing "American Dream" itself, its influence upon personality, its various psychological and social manifestations, and demonstrates its mythological origin and substance, mass fiction takes it for granted. It presents and exploits one and the same type of hero that steadily realizes his or her potential in creating his or her personal life, all kinds of career or simply opposing and struggling with all possible enemies and difficulties. Inevitable "happy end" in this case is a success in achievement of self-sufficiency that is certified by acquisition of some material benefit. That is, so to say, a general model, now let's see what happens to it in certain ideological situations.

Not to go too far back in time, let's start with the 1960es. In that famous turbulent period of American life mass culture reacted to the idea of civil disobedience of all kinds and used to present an individual opposed to others and to the state system, who came to feel himself absolutely free in forming out and demonstrating his/her identity, and only this helped a hero to overcome all the troubles and gain a prize.

The 70es and 80es in the US society saw the establishment of new ideological standards that we now see in full flourishing. New values of American mass consciousness stressed the idea of belonging to a very complicated, multy-ethnic, multy-cultural society, and at the same time to one (and nowadays the only) super-power in the world. If in previous decades Soviet people were taught to be torch - bearers for the rest of humanity, and were to think in global perspective about the shining future of communism, since the 1990es Americans are being taught to be in the XXI century global knights of democracy.

That's why we now read in American mass fiction stories where individual activity is good enough only if it appears to be in concordance with other people interests, when it is "politically correct". In a good part of "action" novels "Knights of Democracy" still continue to fight with "the aliens" from other Galaxies, but in other ones artful and aggressive Russians have been replaced by terrorists of all kinds with vague Eastern descent.

Psychological verisimilitude is also backed up by new demands. That's why American mass fiction authors introduce now, say, family background into crime-stories. We are presented with touching stories about brave detectives suffering when their irresponsible wives do not want to take into consideration their husband's professional and human duty. One may say that collectivist outlook of the hero of American mass culture grows fast, as well as his feeling of responsibility for other people, his own and other countries, mankind in general.

On the contrary, a strong priority of community upon individual was proclaimed in socialist society of the USSR from the very beginning. Life of a human being was estimated from the point of view of his social usefulness, and presentation of a role which an individual played in fulfilling supreme task of creating a new socialist world was declared to be one of the basic missions of literature and other arts. That's why a typical and real hero of major part of Soviet literature was a person that considered his social, ideological and professional functions in life to be the most, or often the only, important. A hero that wanted to devote his or her life to individual demands or simply family life, on the contrary, was declared an egoist and was to be blamed. And again, "serious literature" maid it an object of psychological analysis, tried to create multidimensional characters, while mass fiction quickly developed for its heroes several stereotypes of behavior and standard situations.

Absolute verisimilitude was another demand that to a great extend was preventing mass fiction development in the USSR. Writers didn't have a skill of creating that mentioned above balance of known and unknown. On the contrary, in officially accepted theory of socialist realism "reality" was often understood only as "everyday life". The writers were to diminish the distance between fictitious reality and real life, to imitate the latter in the kind of superficial naturalism. That's why even detective stories were to follow ideological standards, even at the expense of the genre qualities. "Psychological verisimilitude" and "closeness to life" in this case usually meant that the authors were to present their heroes not only as professionals, but also as fathers, husbands, friends and lovers. They also were to demonstrate their "ideological correctness" in some political discussions. Priority of heroes' social and professional functions was usually proved with the help of traditional family problems: long before American mass culture heroines their Russian counterparts couldn't understand the importance of their men's duty and be patient and loving. The whole army of detectives in the Soviet literature were left by their irresponsible wives.

In the 90es Soviet mass culture disappeared together with the society it belonged and helped to mythologize. Transitional reality of post-Soviet Russia gives little place to ideas of brotherhood, collective necessity and responsibility. Immediately, mass culture of the last decade started to create a native variant of a transcultural mode of a lonely strong individual. He, of course, helps and protects others, but only those who belong to his private universe. He is victorious, and gets all his prizes (money, local beauty's love, etc.). He unceasingly demonstrates both to his friends and foes his self-sufficiency, and establishes rules for his "small world" because he and all the others know that there are no rules in a large one.

Mass fiction mythologizes contemporary situation of social instability and makes various use of it. One of the striking results of mythmaking of the kind is a quick development of the genre of fantasy in Russian literature. There were practically no fantasy samples in Russia in previous decades, mainly, I think, because its always individualistic hero seemed to be out of place in a collectivist society. Nowadays a hero of the type answers the demands of people lost in a dangerous obscure reality of transitional society. The same can be said about crime novels hero. Soviet literature was rather rich with detective writings, but they were usually "police novels". Now the greater part of the books tells an endless story about desperate efforts of different men and women to overcome criminals without any police help. One of the typical modes of our crime novels now, as it was in American fiction in the 60es, is a presentation of corrupted and oppressive police itself.

Mass fiction was so successive in using myths of contemporary Russia, that it to a great extend helped to form the country's image in mass consciousness: "criminal Russia" - these are the words frequently used all over the world. They correlate with real Russia in the same way as, for example, a definition "country of cowboys" correlates with the USA. By the way, the ideas of American "wild West", "cowboy country" were the result of the process of mythologizing in a famous genre of "western" of a long process of expansion towards the Pacific. Many American historians now try to deconstruct the myth and present the real history of those years but with little success. "Western", not a work of literature, but its inheritor in cinema industry, has worked out in mass consciousness a firm stereotype, and the society feels no need to demolish it.

So, we may see how myths are constructed and deconstructed in mass fiction. Mass consciousness constant mythologizing of reality gives food and impulses to popular fiction that in turn influences upon creative activity of our minds. The process seems endless.

© Elena Apenko (St. Petersburg)

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Elena Apenko (St. Petersburg): Transcultural Modes and Myths of Mass Literature . In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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