Not Just a Popularity Contest: The Role of Popular Fiction in Society

Friday, February 19, 2016

by Rachel Gross

Alex Cross, The Hunger Games, The Notebook. Each of these novels represents a popular work of fiction that topped the charts. Though the characters and plots differ widely, the popularity makes these books instantly recognizable to contemporary readers. The power and scope behind the printed word is ever present in culture, and yet one must ask: what makes these novels in particular popular? What makes them powerful? Simply put, these books and others like them act as the stories that help define a life, a place to measure one’s sense of truth. These stories may represent a time when a lonely high schooler finds friends through participation in fandoms. They may represent a time when a lost soul discovers meaning within the words that soothes. Thus, while the popularity of these novels may lie within the hearts of readers yearning for mystery, excitement, love, and suspense, it also creates a fantasy space that allows readers to work through larger issues, an imaginative practice that can evoke individualism and identity.

Indeed, writing acts as an individualized expression of self that the author portrays with each word that also connects individual readers to society. Authors write stories that can awaken a reader’s identity through devices like character, plot, or setting. For example, one may see oneself in the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen or Effie Trinket presented in The Hunger Games, two very different figures. Katniss is the image of the empowered woman, working for justice and safety for all. Effie is the image of the high-class woman, working to entertain audiences while also harboring a heart for the cause. Yet, these differing identities express how any individual from any class or location can fight against the societal issues that plague a nation. Picking up on singular traits and identifying with these characters acts to affirm a sense of self but also turns flaws into an opportunity to question the societal norms while also inspiring hope. Perhaps this identity work is where the best fiction tends to live on beyond the bestseller list. Perhaps looking more closely at some of these popular works might yield some answers.

Take the author of the top young adult fictional series The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, who writes of a post-apocalyptic world in which the fight for survival is truly for the physically and mentally fittest. The trilogy is one that brings all ages of readers together to discover a harsh land filled with intense moments of battle and loss. Underneath the sheer excitement of its plot and its audience, Collins offers a strong societal message on the power of government and of the female voice. This fictional world is valuable to a modern society in its uplifting ideal of a commoner’s strength in a highly governed land. In reading this novel, audiences may very well gain the feeling of freedom, independence, and importance that they have in society. Katniss Everdeen herself, the female protagonist of the novel, presents the image of a strong female to a world where gender issues still govern social mobility. Collins writes chart-topping works that resonate with readers searching to find a unique strength and thus achieves a depth not usually associated with non-literary works.

But what about potentially shallow work, the stuff of pulp fiction? Take James Patterson. He is a modern American author whose fictional thrillers entertains readers and keeps them returning for more. The Alex Cross series documents the adventures of protagonist Alex Cross as he fights against threats to Washington DC while solving harrowing crimes. Yet looking behind the developed characters and mysterious plot lines, readers may find solace in Patterson’s writing as  the stories provoke the value of questioning or of searching for the truth. Alex Cross never gives up. While such a hero may allow readers to work through anxiety about social unrest and political instability, Patterson also brings audiences a hope that crime can be abolished and that one unique individual can make a change.

Other kinds of best sellers, besides crime thrillers, may also provide readers succor. For example, Nicholas Sparks writes the novels commonly referred to as “beach reads.” His illustrations of intimate relationships in stylized societies allow readers to live out fantasies about romantic relationships. As an author, Sparks can sweep readers off their feet with the love portrayed in the fictional relationships. As a speaker on modern society, Sparks can offer a reader the importance of companionship in the real world. Divorce rates and numbers of single men and women increase year by year within the United States. With individuals fearing the worst in the face of these numbers, Sparks writes to bring the concept of love and working relationships back to society. He depicts his own hopes for successful companionship while inspiring others to see the positives in a future unknown.

There may be other reasons for the popularity of certain books, reasons why readers find comfort or inspiration within the words. However, examining how a novel creates an opportunity for readers to explore identity is a worthy place for the critic to find a voice in the knowledge commons. Societal angst may continue irrevocably into the future. Yet, stories help readers explore potential meanings, often unconsciously, and the critic writes to make these struggles manifest, to demonstrate in writing the art of active reading. With this notion in mind, I will explore these novels in more detail in subsequent articles as a way of using writing and the essay form to formalize the casual pleasure of reading. The goal of such an activity is being to share meaning in order to build social bonds beyond the page .


Happy Reading, everyone!


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