Frye, Orwell, Hoggart: On Popular Culture


The following post is from Brian Russell Graham, author of The Necessary Unity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye (University of Toronto Press, 2010):

Interestingly, Frye, unlike postmodernist critics, thinks in terms of literature which is “beyond the pale.” In his view, it is judicious to distinguish between popular culture proper and the sham article. In relation to a conventional art such as literature, Frye invites us to work with the distinction between the genuinely popular and what he seems to view as the pseudo-popular, which seems to point to the run-of-the-mill “mass” product – the “bestseller” (Frye 2006, 22). Of course, cultural studies makes interesting study objects of all texts. But Frye also demands of us that we consider the aesthetic merits of works of literature. Having invoked the specter of “a packaged commodity which an overproductive economy, whether capitalist or socialist, distributes as it distributes foods and medicines, in varying degree of adulteration” (Frye 2006, 21), he then proceeds to speak even more damningly of pseudo-popular literature:

Much of it, in our society, is quite as prurient and brutal as its worst enemy could assert, not because it has to be, but because those who write and sell it think of their readers as a mob rather than a community. (Frye 2006, 21-2)

Frye provides us with very little in terms of information about the fiction he views as pseudo-popular. It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of material he had in mind, however.  In the 1960s, populist literature had been  represented by, for example, Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers, described in a New York Times review at the time of its release as “an excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex – and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder.” But what precedents are there in literary criticism for Frye’s rather bold judgment? Is he working within a particular tradition of moral criticism?

It seems highly probable that when distinguishing between the genuinely popular and the pseudo-popular, Frye is consciously following the lead of Orwell and Richard Hoggart. Orwell and Hoggart shared something of a common outlook. Both believed that American mass-market fiction was wandering into an ethical gray area. But both were above-all focused on British imitations of that American fiction – No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase, in the case of Orwell, and the British “sex and violence novelettes” published under pen-names such as “Hank Janson” in the fifties, in the case of Hoggart.

In “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” Orwell argues that in Chase’s narrative there is no moral difference between detective and gangster. Chase’s “whole theme is the struggle for power and the triumph of the strong over the weak” (Orwell 1984, 262). Claiming that the idolization of criminals in characteristic of American mass culture, he argues that the appearance of the book in the U.K. is evidence of the Americanization of British reading proclivities: “In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is a success, is very much more marked” (Orwell 1984, 270). Such storytelling may be indicative of an inversion of the underlying myth of Western literature, he goes on to argue: “Perhaps the basic myth of the Western world is Jack the Giant-killer, but to be brought up to date this should be renamed Jack the Dwarf-killer” (Orwell 1984, 272), he concludes. (Interestingly, Orwell uses “brutal” and “brutality” five times in the short piece.)

Similarly, in The Uses of Literary, Hoggart focuses on the mass culture embodiment of literature, considering the categories of “Crime,” “Science” and “Sex novelettes” (Hoggart 1957, 205). It is the third category that Hoggart devotes most time to. These works are variously referred to as “Sex-and-violence novels,” “‘blood-and-guts’ sex novelettes,” “novelettes of sex-adventure”. In the stories all sex is violent, and “there must be violence all the time” (Hoggart 1957, 213); “it is violent and sexual, but all in a claustrophobic and shut-in way” (ibid.). Crucially, “it exists in a world in which moral values have become irrelevant”: “‘forgiveness,’ ‘shame,’ ‘retribution,’ and ‘to be sullied,’ ‘to fall’ or ‘to pay’ are all concepts outside their moral orbit” (ibid.). “Crooks” are defeated in the end, but the texture of the writing is bereft of moral reference. When men and women have sex, they do so as “physical enemies” (Hoggart 1957, 215). The aim of the writing is to make the readers feel “the flesh and bone of violence” (Hoggart 1957, 217). Gangster fiction, Hoggart admits, “moves […] with a crude force as it creates the sadistic situation”; but even here “it has the life of a cruel cartoon” (ibid.). In Faulkner’s Sanctuary (actually something of a pot-boiler, argues Hoggart), a scene of violence (sexual violence in this case) strikes us as “real”: “and the more real”, he continues, “because there is, implicit in the passage, a sense of a saner world outside [which] gives a moral perspective to the whole passage” (Hoggart 1957, 220). But in gangster fiction “we are not aware of a larger pattern”: “We are in and of this world of fierce alleyway-assault, the stale disordered bed, the closed killer-car, the riverside warehouse knifing. We thrill to those in themselves; there is no way out, nothing else; there is no horizon and no sky. The world, consciousness, man’s ends, are this – this constricted and overheated horror” (ibid.).

It’s difficult to avoid the sense that, for better or for worse, this tradition in letters petered out in the twentieth century. It may well be that Frye’s distinction between the genuinely popular and the sham-popular represents a late restatement of the Orwell/Hoggart approach. Perhaps, however, the distinction will be adopted by literary and cultural studies again. The feeling that some mass culture is better than other mass culture seems to be quite widespread in society today. The distinction, indeed, seems to be built into mass culture. When watching Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais’s Extras, we get a clear sense that while Extras represents one type of mass culture, When the Whistle Blows, the low-quality “play-within-the –play,” represents another.

Works Cited

Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory: 1976 – 1991, edited Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2006.

Orwell, George. “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” In The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. London: Penguin Books 1984.

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4 thoughts on “Frye, Orwell, Hoggart: On Popular Culture

  1. Joseph Adamson

    Thanks for this, Brian! I am reminded of a passage from Anatomy of Criticism:

    “In the growing brutality of the crime story (a brutality protected by the convention of the form, as it is conventionally impossible that the man-hunter can be mistaken in believing that one of his suspects is a murderer), detection begins to merge with the thriller as one of the forms of melodrama. In melodrama two themes are important: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. In the melodrama of the brutal thriller we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob.

    We should have to say, then, that all forms of melodrama, the detective story in particular, were advance propaganda for the police state, in so far as that represents the regularizing of mob violence, if it were possible to take them seriously. But it seems not to be possible. The protecting wall of play is still there. Serious melodrama soon gets entangled with its own pity and fear: the more serious it is, the more likely it is to be looked at ironically by the reader, its pity and fear seen as sentimental drivel and owlish solemnity, respectively. One pole of ironic comedy is the recognition of the absurdity of naive melodrama, or, at least, of the absurdity of its attempt to define the enemy of society as a person outside that society. From there it develops toward the opposite pole, which is true comic irony or satire, and which defines the enemy of society as a spirit within that society.”

  2. gene phillips

    I have no working knowledge of NF’s immediate inspirations in the matter of the “genuinely popular,” but as I think about it, Frye might have taken no small influence not from his contemporaries but from the Romantic and Victorian periods. This seems to me the first time when High-Literature practitioners began to formulate any ideas about the nature of the popular. Some of them rejected the popular outright, while others, like Byron, seemed ambivalent, producing the period’s equivalent of “swashbucklers.” The earliest meditation I’ve encounterd is deQuincey’s “Murder as One of the Fine Arts,” which I imagine would have been impossible for anyone to write, before the rise of a distinct readership for popular fictions.

    I notice that in “Archetypes of Literature” Frye shows a certain snobbishness toward the popular:

    “The critic would tend rather to note how popular literature which appeals to the inertia of the untrained mind puts a heavy emphasis on narrative values…”

    Yet within six years, Frye reversed himself on this “inertia,” and in ANATOMY shows full cognizance that the beloved “conventions” of modern pop fiction were no more inherently limited than many of those he found in medieval or Renaissance literature.

    There was in the 1950s a slight loosening-up of the snobberies against science-fiction and mysteries and the like, but I don’t know of any single author who would have been likely to influence Frye in this respect.

  3. Robert Denham

    Wouldn’t Schiller’s “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” be one source of Frye’s attitudes toward popular literature?

  4. Brian Graham

    Thank you very much, to both of you for your thought-provoking contributions.

    That passage from Anatomy is indeed a fascinating one. It seems as though he is suggesting that the fiction in question is “relatively uninteresting but not dangerous,” which is milder in tone if compared to what he says in The Secular Scripture.

    I ask myself which popular authors Frye had reservations about. Presumably, a number of hardboiled detective fiction authors.


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