Popular Fiction / Literary Fiction / Popular Fusions: a review of Ken Gelder’s Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of the Literary Field

Reviewed by Anne Galligan

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In providing a basis for the critical and cultural analysis of popular fiction as a distinct literary field, Ken Gelder has brought forward a broad understanding of literary genres at work, describing the logics, principles and practices that are involved.1 Gelder announces his intention of giving the term ‘culture industry’ a positive spin by emphasizing its relationship with ‘popular fiction’. In signaling popular fiction and its many subgenres as legitimate fields for engagement, Gelder raises the ante with discussion of previously evaded texts, authors, scholars and readers, popular fictions and genres. His writing position throughout this book is stated emphatically: that ‘popular fiction is essentially genre fiction’ (1), that it is structured by the power of generic conceptions (40). He defines popular fiction as a singular and distinct category at the same time acknowledging the diversity of popular fiction within each specific genre (41).

In placing his analysis within the field of cultural production through the highly developed cultural theory of Pierre Bourdieu, Gelder links into a detailed theory of logics and principles in the world of the arts and/or ‘The Arts’. Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production usefully holds Gelder’s own arguments and dialogue, providing a structure of terms, conditions and positionings within the cultural field. Gelder is determined to demonstrate ‘the industrial apparatus’ which can cover up the ways popular fiction is realised, treated, read and evaluated. This ‘processing’ is crucial to developing an understanding of the literary field. The strongest opposition relevant here is that which demonstrates Bourdieu’s distinction between autonomous and heterogeneous texts which I will quickly draw in contrast.


Autonomous (indifferent to public response)
High cultural production
Field of restricted production
Language of art world
Linked to individual work
Complex text
Enmeshed in world of art
Whole unit recognized as inspired
Restrained or discrete
Doesn’t need to have a plot


Heterogenous (mass audience and logic of marketplace)
Low cultural production
Field of unrestricted production
Language of industry
Linked to genre
Simple text
Diffuse reading experiences
Readily serialised
Excessive, exaggerated
Must have a driving plot or story

These opposite characteristics are relational – each position acts as a determining factor on the placement and importance of its opposite. For example, ‘one cannot advocate simplicity without some sense of what one means by complexity’ (19). For Bourdieu, cultural production is a question of positioning and dispositions. This placement also allows Gelder to move beyond the individual novel or individual positioning to look at the wider apparatus of production. While each generic position is presented as quite straightforward – romance, horror, crime, fantasy, western, science fiction, historical or adventure (42) – Gelder is setting up these oppositions as conceptual frameworks.

At the same time, Gelder challenges the more simplistic oppositions (eg writers/authors) while arguing that these oppositions have real effects on and through the publishing industry. Certain characteristics of each text align them with other cultural determinations in the field and there are basic questions that always need answering. Who is the publisher, the printer and designer? What is the page size, quality of paper and colourings? What is the marketing agenda? These concerns serve to place a book, hopefully, in the position of maximum exposure, drawing together that organic mix of publisher, content, style, editor and book design (2).

The writer of popular fiction is not and cannot be, within Gelder’s thesis, an ‘Author’ in the way that writers think of themselves in that full meaning stemming from Romantic and post-Romantic literature. In this regal presentation of texts, the author is the creative genius, attached to the full notion of the inspired creator. This ‘Author’ of Literature is placed firmly outside the realm of the popular market, although individual books may break across established popular fiction barriers. At the same time, the Author and the notion of inspired creativity remain routinely linked to ‘individuality, origin and essence’ (14).

It is noted, however, that the fluidity of the literary field and the autonomy of the author/writer can always allow their work to create crossroads or produce new intergeneric engagements. Boundaries can shift as authors/writers experiment with their own frameworks to reinforce or subvert the ‘generic identity’ that can sustain the writer’s position in the field. For these reasons, Gelder insists that writers of popular fiction cannot afford not to know about the genres they inhabit.

Within the phenomenal expanse of the literary field, however, there is also the huge list of writers who rely completely on a particular genre, its mores and positionings. Barbara Cartland, Sydney Sheldon, Georgette Heyer whose books add a solid measure to the romance market that is worth $1.6 billion globally each year (50). There is a similar exponential sales growth in the adventure/crossovers of Frederick Forsyth, Colin Forbes, Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy. These writers all live within the zone of their choosing and maintain a formulaic style that is splashed across the front covers of each of their books. Each novelist writes to a pre-conditioned readership as the entertainment factor reigns unquestioned.

An industry of texts
There is also a key paradigm operating within these texts for identifying popular fiction, that it is not creativity but industry, where the language of the art world is subordinated to the language of industry. Popular fiction, in its many genres, is promoted as a kind of industrial practice (15). These are central differentiations throughout Gelder’s treatment of popular fiction. These boundaries remind this reader of the ‘lure’ of the bookspine sticker, created by librarians to tag the different genres for their readers, although these are now outdated. The whole game plan is slightly different for Science Fiction (SF), with Gelder commenting that ‘it seems that SF carries its mastery along with it as a kind of ever-present literary heritage’ (98).

While realising the impossibility of accounting for everything produced under the heading of popular fiction, Gelder usefully critiques individual genres in order to display the multitude of intersections, and vested interests at work in popular and literary fiction (4). One excellent example of the crime genre is described in a response to Black Mask by crime fiction novelist Earl Stanley Gardner, famous for his bestselling Perry Mason novels. Gardner is splendidly confident in his letter to one editor: ‘”Three O’Clock in the Morning” is a damned good story. If you have any comments, write them on the back of a cheque.”‘ Gelder comments that these ‘pithy words … return us to the commercial world of crime fiction with a vengeance’ (94). These texts circulate, too, as the publishing houses position themselves in the field of cultural production with strategies to legitimise their own territories of transaction.

Another way of approaching these fields of generic practice is by detailing the similarities and differences at play in the advertising practices (the book blurbs, book covers, size and quality of paper and book design) adopted in the promotion of different genres. Considering the size of the mass market produced under the heading of popular fiction, Gelder focuses on specific writers and texts, including Jackie Collins, Anne Rice, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Grisham and Michael Crichton, making this reading of texts and subtexts an entertaining and absorbing account of the logics of this part of the publishing field.

At the same time Gelder asserts that ‘satisfaction’, the reader’s actual and intuitive absorption of the singular text, tends to elude writers and readers of genre fiction as they give themselves up to the particular traits of their favorite genre’ (p ). There is always the next text in the series to grab from the shelves or a carry-over of character, plot, time period or spatial setting in the next exciting ‘must have’ good read. By contrast, ‘Good Literature’ is portrayed as self-contained, bringing its own individually chartered rewards: a definite ray of satisfaction and inherent virtue.

Of course, Literature operates in the marketplace like any other kind of cultural product. The novelist is implicated in the entertainment industry with ‘the book’ as social artifact and economic unit for sale. Mixtures of generic traits can be exemplified within the ‘precious’ commodity. This can be seen, for example, in The Riders by Tim Winton or Highways to War by Christopher Koch (both winners of the Australian Miles Franklin award), and with other reputable novels such as In the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Margaret Attwood’s or Annie Proulx’s range of novels, for example. These ‘precious’ Authors, who sell very well in the marketplace, increasingly and unapologetically also share the platform with mass market writers of any caste at all types of literary events. Much ‘Literature’ carries strong generic traits such as the historical saga or romantic adventure which tend to be encased within a larger tapestry. These generic stamps tend to be concealed or suppressed, however, behind the book’s own logic of restricted production and presentation.

And this is precisely the point at which I would challenge some of Gelder’s main arguments. Gelder asserts that ‘Literature’ ‘simply cannot afford to be seen as formulaic or conventional’ (43). Certainly it is argued that ‘All genres are relatively autonomous and … have their own histories’ (55). However, I strongly suggest that they do indeed criss-cross and invade different ‘autonomous’ spheres at will. These are not segments of clearly defined sectors. Boundaries are porous and both the ‘literary’ and formulaic writer take liberties with the text. During this process of establishing generic identities, the reader can quickly form an opinion in picking from the eight primary genres (fantasy, horror, spy, western, science fiction, romance, historical or adventure (42). These genres combine and divorce each other as the story weaves towards its own conclusion. This world of circulation of popular ‘Literature’ is multi-positional and contradictory in too many ways to be tied within a particular ‘pure’ domain and its functional realities.

Brand name
The fact is that the popular marketplace constantly creates ‘Popular Fusions’ between the restricted and unrestricted fields of production. Indeed the popular author (sorry, the popular ‘writer’) is promoted as a brand name across multiple targeted audiences and received across multiple boundaries within the literary field of production. He/she is not just a popular writer in terms of style and content of text. There is usually a hybridization of their work which allows the book to attract interest across diverse literary divisions, reaching out to a mixed and multi-disciplined range of bookshops and their readers.

The brand name of the author exists alongside or within the brand name of the associated publishing house and vice versa. For example, Bryce Courtney orchestrated a very public move to Penguin Australia. Newspaper coverage and advertising expertise were fully utilized in marrying Courtney to Penguin and the subsequent promotions of his romantic
adventure sagas formed a new standard in Australian publishing. Penguin Australia spent previously unthinkable amounts on promotions – even the skywriting of Jessica, his first novel under the Penguin brand name, across the skies of each capital city in 2003.

There is an interesting reciprocal relationship here with Courtney actively courting the Penguin staff including the sales reps – sending them birthday cards and small gifts as an expression of personal interest from their author. This strategy obviously encourages ongoing commitment to his success. The professional advertising executive realises the value of nurturing a supportive infrastructure in any creative venture.

Again from another angle it is amusing to catch, as an example, John Grisham’s concern about his own role in this literary chain. Grisham notes the tenuous economic position of small book shops in the distribution circuit. He expresses a type of reciprocal responsibility to maintain his own private regimen becoming a ‘clockwork performer’ (110) so that each small bookshop will profit annually from his efforts (105). His next book will be ready in the right month of the following year to maximize the profile and sales for the store, as he faithfully fulfils the author tour show-case each year. This type of functional reality constantly repositions writers and their work.

Cultural Policy
One important point concerns the further blurring of high and popular culture through the ‘creative industries’ mandate emphasised by government cultural policies through the 1980s and 1990s. This junction is largely sidestepped in Gelder’s analysis. Creative policies, in Australia and overseas, have been characterized by a number of key objectives relegating the processes of this creative field centrally to the heart of a cultural industry zone. The culture/industry opposition becomes an entrenched opposition.

Across all artforms, cultural logics and practices are positioned within a commodity exchange circuit. In the current cultural climate they are charged with the task of creating wealth, feeding off and through the hyper-ventilating functions of an increasingly empowered ‘Information Society’. Responsive re-positionings were necessarily adopted by authors/writers confronted by changing policy initiatives and the different logics and policies of government demands. These altered arts policies served to reposition publishing companies, booksellers, writers of all persuasions and the distribution and marketing zones. This has created fallout at an international level. Similarly the inhouse ethos of individual publishing houses has been challenged, driven and reconfigured by these cultural dictums. Throughout this text though, Gelder focusses on the textual and consumption side of the industry rather than offering descriptions of the actual workings of the publishing house.

The Web
Another argument advanced by Gelder targets websites as the perfect advertising tool for the author/writer to reach their readers. Massive fan clubs in cyberspace have been built around the brandname of the author and marketing plans are increasing their use of this tool exponentially. Harry Potter’s linkage strategy has made his homepage a supersite, fronting a huge tourist promotion for England, with castles, myths and legends standing alongside history, tradition and blatant advertising. Surprisingly, these sites also allow direct linking to numbers of optometrists raising their stature and taking advantage
of the popularity of kids wearing Harry Potter glasses; surely an interesting spin-off from the books/films. The sequel or serialization in popular fiction draws the continued attention of fans, always promising that ‘Yes, there’s more’ factor.

Members of the Robert Jordon Fan club, another frenzied site, were invited to contribute to the actual text, breaking yet another major distinction between author and audience. There is a very savvy marketing experiment with the ebook GLIMMERS, a prologue to Robert Jordan’s, Crossroads of Twilight, Book Ten of the ‘Wheel of Time’ series. Only available in electronic format, this text is a participatory partnership between the author and the hyperactive Fan Website.2

Fans contributed text, ideas and information. Kate Tentler, Vice President of Simon & Schuster Online, described this move as ‘a logical next step in electronic publishing’. It is a determined effort to ‘bring fans into the fold’ by ‘combining the unique community-based characteristics of the web with the capabilities of eBooks’.3 These sites are becoming an intrinsic part of the marketing profile of the writer: the links, colours, tone, gossip and sponsorships all building into a highly effective tool for the promotion of the author, the positioning of the writer and also, the place and plans of the publishing house.

Gelder then moves through a series of case studies of the Popular Fiction variety: the work of Anne Rice, Jackie Collins, Michael Crichton, John Grisham. These studies are based on best-selling novelists/writers whose careers are well established. The sites’s written presentation can be examined closely in an effort to make sense of the culture industry. The Popular texts appear, often garishly, declaring their position and alignments and demonstrating the kinds of contributions developed through the fan-line in this world of the Web.

Of course there are other approaches to this form of promotion, with Isabel Allende or Amy Tan for example, their books marketed in the popular mode, but also portrayed as artistic fiction and good for the soul. The author and creativity remain routinely linked here to ‘individuality, origin and essence’. It is projected ‘as if the author as ‘some thing-in-himself’ subsumes and transcends the very thing he creates’ (14). These characteristics are turning up in that ever-expanding ground of the ‘middle brow’ author, where literary authors start to share some of the main characteristics as popular authors. It should be noted though that these are not the marketing tools immediately whisked out to promote David Malouf or Peter Carey. By juggling the many worthy authors/books and their numerous interconnections and publishing websites, publishers are regularly retooling their products to stand up and be noticed in this ethereal marketplace – if this is not a contradiction in itself.

These debates that recur across the public sphere act as if constantly taking the temperature of the habitations of this cultural industry. By forwarding these debates across this particular field of popular production, Gelder makes this book an informative and enjoyable read. Of course, Gelder acknowledges the impossibility of explaining how all the differentiations across the world of popular fiction works. As a demonstration of its logics and practices, however, this book throws up some great examples and some curious contradictions.

The quite deliberate positioning of the publishing houses with their many-sided strategies in adopting and legitimating their own territories of transaction form a valuable framework for the public promotion of its authors. I would suggest that editors working on both high literary and popular mass market manuscripts are very aware of the different demands posed by these widely differentiated genres. This speaking up on behalf of popular fiction raises new questions and interpretations of the nature of the game. Despite all the doomsday rhetoric of the past thirty years, there is something about this cultural industry that keeps rising up with renewed vitality from the overcrowded marketplace and the smouldering pit of yesterday’s book-burning.



1. Ken Gelder.  Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of the Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004.
(All references quoted are from this text unless marked otherwise.)

2. ‘Simon & Schuster Partners with Robert Jordan Fan Websites for Exclusive Ebook’.
http://www.writenews.com/2002/070502_robertjordan_ebook.htm. Accessed 04/04/03.

3. Ibid.

Ken Gelder  Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of the Literary Field was published by Routledge, London in 2004.

Anne Galligan is a Post-Doctoral Fellow of the Australian Studies Centre, University of Queensland. This work continues her research on the culture and politics of the Australian publishing industry and the effectiveness of the current cultural infrastracture in supporting and promoting the Australian book.

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