Monday, July 15, 2013

Scarcely Disguised Contempt

I am slowly writing, which means I am spending a great deal of time reading (around my research). At any rate, I've come across another interesting discussion of "popular fiction," which I thought might be worth sharing here. In "Myra Breckinridge and Imitative Form," Purvis E. Boyette writes:
I had first thought to entitle this essay "Myra Breckinridge Is Queer; or the Omission of an Article," so that my title would make two points: that the novel is not about a homosexual and that we have to watch carefully Gore Vidal's facetious use of language. In other words, I intend to take Myra Breckinridge seriously as a work of fiction and, in its kind, as a serious work of art. In academic circles, one is inclined to regard "coast-to-coast bestsellers" with scarcely disguised contempt, and my first impulse is to applaud newspaper critics like Josh Greenfield who dismiss popular novels with "serious criticism need not apply." But if Myra Breckinridge is to be salvaged from the pornographer's bin, we shall have to look at the work rather more seriously than the thousands who have read the book for prurient reasons alone. (229)
As I read this, I am reminded of Pamela Regis's important work on what critics owe the popular romance, and how we should study popular romance. I wonder if it is our role, as scholars and critics, to "salvage from the pornographer's bin" a work of fiction. I'm not entirely certain that I am interested in "saving" texts, after all, as Regis writes, "the most modest work of fiction, including romance fiction, is a greater accomplishment than the finest work of literary criticism."

Works Cited

Boyette, Purvis E. "Myra Breckinridge and Imitative Form." Modern Fiction Studies 17.2 (1971): 229-38.

Regis, Pamela. "Ten Years after A Natural History of the Romance Novel: Thinking Back, Looking Forward." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013):


  1. Do you really agree that "the most modest work of fiction, including romance fiction, is a greater accomplishment than the finest work of literary criticism"? I don't. Fiction may serve a different function from the non-fiction which uses it as a primary source, but to my mind that doesn't automatically give the fiction a higher status.

  2. I am certainly inclined to agree with you, Laura. Indeed, I wrote briefly about this in my response to the Regis Roundtable.

  3. Indeed you did. And for the benefit of anyone reading this thread who hasn't read your paper:

    literary theory [...] is often as implicitly plotted and shaped, generically speaking, as any work of fiction. As many theorists have claimed, the act of writing theory brings into action the same set of linguistic devices as those used by any novelist or poet; theory abounds with wordplay, wit, irony, metaphor, metonymy, and even (at least implicitly) plot and character. I recognize that this puts me at odds with Regis’s “First Principle of Literary Critical Ethics”: “The most modest work of fiction, including romance fiction, is a greater accomplishment than the finest work of literary criticism.”

  4. It is true that Regis and I differ here, but I don't want it to seem we are fundamentally opposed to one another. My point is that we must read theory and criticism with as much care as we would a novel. That said, I'm not interested in imposing theory on a text, which is something that many popular romance critics have lamented.

  5. Also, if anyone knows anything about Purvis Boyette, I'd love to hear more. From what I can tell he died quite suddenly. He focused on Milton, but wrote on a range of topics: "While Milton studies continued to predominate among Purvis's more than twenty other essays, note, papers, and reviews, his subjects ranged widely--from Shakespeare's Sonnets and Marlowe Edward II to the works of Pope and Etherege, and even to Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge and the fiction of Paul Bowles" (Claudia M. Champagne, _Studies in Short Fiction_). I'm curious about why the interest in Vidal's Myra Breckinridge.