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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, May 9, 2008


I recently read Bob Ashley's THE STUDY OF POPULAR FICTION. This book was designed purely as an overview of the prevalent theories regarding the criticism of popular fiction, and presents an assortment of essays and extracts organized into chapters under those theory-headings. Ashley writes intros to all of these to explain their advantages and disadvantages but as it is an overview he rightly does not try to attempt a synthesis of the various theories (though in one place his personal preferences does come out). The main theories analyzed are "mass society theory" criticism, structuralism and post-structuralism, with his preference for the latter of the three showing itself in his intro to that chapter.

I have been called (and am, in some respects) a formalist. Webster's online defines formalism as "marked attention to arrangement, style, and artistic means (as in art and literature), usually with corresponding de-emphasis of content." I don't think that in *practice* those who tend toward formalism are bereft of interpretation, but I understand why a simple dictionary-definition would see that as the centerpiece of the *theory.* Ashley makes it himself in the chapter on post-structuralism/deconstruction, which quite inevitably follows the chapter on structuralism per se:

"Many readers have emerged from a first encounter with structuralism in a confused frame of mind. Much of the analysis seems helpful-- 'correct' even-- and yet there remains a problem: somehow the experience of reading doesn't feel like this."

So far as it goes, this statement is true. Whenever one devotes most of one's attention to the formal structure of the story, it's a given that one is not capturing the experience of reading, wherein the reader feels sympathy or antipathy for characters or gets caught up in the author's appeals to the senses. But I doubt that any structuralist critic ever considered his discipline as a means of capturing the way reading "feels:" clearly, structuralist analysis is a post-mortem on a story that, having been read, is now a little bit "dead." I would argue that post-structuralism is no less a post-mortem than its predecessor. Given that post-structuralism concerns itself with multiple interpreted meanings, it may even be "post-ier."

Ashley goes on:

"The misgivings commonly focus two problems: firstly, structuralism is felt to conceptualize the reader as an overly passive recipient of narrative meanings; secondly, in its emphasis on the formal qualities of narrative, structuralism ignores the cultural context within which reading takes place. Post-structuralism deals far more adequately with the process of reading."

On the first part, I might have some limited agreement with Ashley. Even Northrop Frye occasionally cited this or that archetype in his myth-critical studies with the suggestion that its meaning might be static for all societies. This is obviously a potential problem with both structuralism and formalism, as evinced by Webster's definition above. However, I don't see any reason that a skillful structural reading HAS to ignore cultural context, even if it's asserted that some of the fathers of the movement (Claude Levi-Strauss, for one) may have been guilty of such a sin. And when one looks at some of the examples of post-structuralism supplied by Ashley-- Barthes in particular-- one may conclude that the post-structuralists may be guilty of OVER-interpretation; of seeking to fit all works into a common theme, usually one with a heavy ideological base. (Ashley does treat the deconstructionists as having some strong tendencies that run counter to the post-structuralists, but here I'll treat them as essentially drawing from the same well because Ashley himself does so.)

The problem with most ideological analyses is that they draw upon but one of Joseph Campbell's knowledge-organizing functions: the sociological (hence my title), and ignore the influence of the other matrices. For instance, here's a sentence where Ashley summarizes one of the reprinted essays by one Tom Moylan:

"Moylan reads utopian narrative as a process which opens up the imagination to the existence of the space which may be subsequently be occupied by oppositional social critiques."

Most of the essays/excerpts reprinted in STUDY take much the same approach to popular fiction, be it science-fiction utopias, romance fiction or girls' magazines: defining the works in terms of what sociological patterns they display, often as a strategy to show how such patterns show the works' power to suppress or foment "oppositional social critiques." Without descending into the maelstrom that is Marx, I will just say that whatever patterns these writers find may have some objective (Husserl might say "intrasubjective") validity. But they are far from being the only patterns worth dealing with, and it is here that the formalist/structuralist approach may proven superior.

For instance, it's true that "utopian narratives" by their nature are going to possess a great deal of sociological content, given that utopias are all about the evolution of ideal societies. But it would be a mistake to think that there are no other patterns in them but the sociological. For instance, BRAVE NEW WORLD concerns itself with the effect of psychotropic drugs upon the human animal, not only in the societal sense (though that is there), but also in terms of the physiological and psychological. Following Campbell, I would consider all physiological effects to come under the heading of "cosmological myths," at least insofar as a given author tries to depict their real-world patterns as a source of symbolic complexity. Later, Huxley will change his "cosmological myth" regarding the effects of psychotropics following his real-world experiences with them, as seen in his final work ISLAND. But in both works Huxley is not purely dealing with sociological patterns in his attempt to suss out the nature of psychotropics-- and so, a purely sociological analysis is misleading.

For these and other reasons, then, I would reject Ashley's championing of the post-structuralists, though as with most disciplines one can sometimes reap benefits from even a narrow but concentrated field of study.

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