Adventures in Reading

Popular Literature Rambling
June 28, 2008, 12:07 pm
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , , ,

Disclaimer: This was meant to be the first post in a series of rambles on popular literature. One bright, sunny morning while walking home from the library these ideas flitted into my head but perversely enough most of them had flitted out before I was anywhere near a pen and paper let alone my laptop. I suppose what follows is more an aftertaste of some of the ideas I had flitting around than anything.

Often (though I admit I can’t recall ever seeing this on the book blogs I’m linked to) I’ve read that people were disappointed with a book because they felt as if they could not identify with the characters. This always was particularly odd for me because I honestly don’t care whether or not I identify with the characters – it’s not really something I’m too concerned with. This was also one of the reasons I didn’t care so much for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because she says in the book (and this could simply have been a paragraph I was irritated enough by that it infiltrated the remainder of the book) that this should be the creative writer’s goal. That the creative writer should write characters the audience can identify with, which I can’t buy even if I only consider one of my favorite books is Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, which has a lot of despicable characters throughout it and it’s pretty damn difficult at parts not to be completely dismissive of one of the main characters.

But I wonder how much of the attraction to popular literature is a result of having characters that are easy for the general reading public (keeping in mind race, color, privilege, etc.) to identify with. So much popular literature, and I’m looking at so called “chick lit” here (a term I am frankly disgusted with because it has become such a label that is stuck to seemingly anything written or read by women), really focuses on socially accepted norms. Falling in love, getting married, having children, acquiring a job you love, of course always with a slight hiccup and many newer books seem to be going after sex and romance a bit more than the child bearing. But they are books that in many ways outline what is often the pre-conceived notion of the reading woman’s life.

Granted, I am making immense generalizations here. I have only just begun dallying in popular literature and I am sure more advanced aficionados can toss out many titles that would point out flaws in my ramblings. Also, as far as I am statistically aware a pretty huge hunk of readers seem to be statistically white, middle class, perhaps college educated but at least high school graduate, women with body issues – or at least this seems to fair relatively true in the United Sates of America.

Popular literature, and whether this is done with or without intent, targets this group. Or at least publishers do. I don’t know if authors sit down and think, “Hmm, what will sell best?” and truly I hope they don’t. But if a writer is writing of their life, and if the above paragraph pretty much describes their life, I suppose it’s somewhat inescapable. But it can be quite difficult to find characters that break out of this mold. I mean, if popular fiction does attempt to largely gratify the previously mentioned reading audience what happens when the above does not describe you?

So then I suppose much of my problem with popular literature – going with the idea that there is a need for identification – is that I don’t identify with it.


Though I agree with much of what you have said, I believe there is a flaw in your argument that lies within your very idea of identification. You approach it from a very negative angle and a really sad view of humanity. To me identifying with a character doesn’t have anything to do with my own personal life. The age, sex, race, location, occupation, personal beliefs etc. etc. of a certain character has nothing to do with one’s ability to identify or should have nothing to do with it. Anne Lamott hits it on the nose by saying that this should be the creative writers goal. It is through the writing and the author’s own imagination and flair that the reader is able to, and almost forced to, identify with the characters. This is what makes writing so powerful and allows people (yes, even the general public) to see beyond their own lives and experience something greater or at least just different. In essence indentification creates identity.

Comment by Eric

Eric: I agree with most everything that you have said, but I’m not positive how it entirely applies to my post. Specifically looking at popular literature and within that branch at popular women’s literature or “chick lit” there are indeed themes that are commonly repeated from Cabot to Lakhani to Bushnell to Vincenzi.

I concur that in the larger world of literature (particularly Literature) that such specific identifying factors ideally are not detrimental to the character and reader relationship. For example, when I mentioned Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning within the post. I truly have little in common with the community of impoverished Polack living in Chicago in the early 20th Century. Algren arguably transcends this through the use of more universal themes.

However, my “negative angle” and “sad view of humanity” I find to be more astute in regards to popular literature targeted at women. What will a migrant farm working Latino identify with in a novel by Bushnell? I concur that your provide an excellent argument for a division between canonical Literature and literature: that ability to transcend. Lamott’s argument to create a likable character doesn’t ring true with an enormous amount of literature.

Personally, I seldom if ever “identify” with a character and on the occasion I have asked someone to expand on what they mean by “identifying” more often than not similar socializations and mores are attributed for this distinct feature. After reading at least one of Cabot’s novel, I can with complete honesty say that I neither “experience[ed] something greater” or saw “beyond [my] own [life].” However, that doesn’t seem put a ceiling on her best selling works.

Comment by bookchronicle

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