John G. Bruce A. In this first general theory for the analysis of popular literary formulas, John G. Cawelti reveals the artistry that underlies the best in formulaic literature.
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By John G. Our earliest experiences of literature involve us in the different pleasures and uses of novelty and familiarity. As children we learn new things about the world and ourselves from stories. By hearing about creatures and events that transcend the limits of space and time allotted to us we widen the range of our imagination and are prepared to deal with new situations and experiences.
But children also clutch at the security of the familiar. How of ten a child rejects a new story, preferring to hear one he has already been told a hundred times. And as he hears again the often-heard, his eyes glaze over with pleasure, his body relaxes, and, the story ends in peaceful slumber. The recurrent outlines of a familiar experience have returned. In that well-known and controlled landscape of the imagination the tensions, ambiguities, and frustrations of ordinary experience are painted over by magic pigments of adventure, romance and mystery.
For many persons such formulaic types make up by far the greater portion of the experience of literature. An enormous percentage of books, magazines, films, and television dramas depend on such formulaic structures. Thus these formulaic stories are artistic and cultural phenomena of tremendous importance.
Because of their association with the times of relaxation, entertainment, and escape, this type of story has been largely ignored by literary scholars and historians or left to the mercy of sociologists, psychologists, and analysts of mass culture.
These disciplines have produced many interesting analyses of various literary formulas, but have largely treated them as ideological rationalization, psychological stratagems, or opiates for the masses.
Such approaches oversimplify the problem by translating or reducing an artistic phenomenon into other terms. To fully understand and interpret the phenomenon of formulaic stories we must treat them as what they are: artistic constructions created for the purpose of enjoyment and pleasure. To come to some insight into their cultural significance we must arrive at some understanding of them as a form of artistic behavior.
Because formula stories involve widely shared conventions, what one could call a form of collective artistic behavior, we must also deal with the phenomenon in relation to the cultural patterns it reveals and is shaped by, and with the impact formula stories have on culture.
This book, then, is a study of popular story formulas, those narrative and dramatic structures that form such a large part of the cultural diet of the majority of readers, television viewers, and film audiences. As my readers will soon discover, I consider these popular formulas to be of more complex artistic and cultural interest than most previous commentators have indicated.
To substantiate this general thesis, I have chosen to deal rather intensively with a few major formulas—various forms of detective and crime stories, the western, and the best-selling social melodrama. I have not attempted to present an overall account of popular formulas or genres—the reader will quickly note such obvious omissions as all types of comedy and romance, the horror story, science-fiction, and many other important areas of popular narrative and drama.
Even in the case of those formulas I do analyze, I have not attempted anything like a complete historical survey. Instead, the organizing principle of this book is theoretical: I have tried to define the major analytical problems that confront us when we seek to inquire more fully into the nature and significance of formulaic literature, and to use a variety of different formulas to illustrate with some specificity how these problems might be explored.
Thus, I hope the book will combine some of the advantages of generality and particularity. It develops a general methodology that can, I believe, be profitably applied to popular formulas other than those treated in this book.
It also presents a number of detailed and specific analyses of certain major formulas and individual writers that I hope will be of interest to those who are as fascinated as I am by such artistic types as the detective story and the western, by such important creators as Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Owen Wister, and John Ford, and by the relation between these types and the cultures that create and enjoy them.
As a hasty road map, let me offer the following guide. The first chapter is definitional and contextual. It sets out to define the notion of literary formulas from various perspectives and to relate formulaic analysis to such other modes of literary and cultural exploration as genre study, myth and symbol analysis, communications research, and social-psychological criticism.
I offer various notes on method as well as a number of speculations about the phenomenon of artistic popularity, the relationship between artistic expression and other forms of behavior, and such other large and difficult questions as the study of formulas inevitably must encounter.
In particular, this chapter introduces the notion of the formula as a synthesis of cultural mythology with archetypal story pattern that will be more fully developed in chapters 2 and 3.
Chapter 2 is a tentative attempt to define the major archetypal patterns that underlie the particular story formulas of many different cultures; in other words, to abstract those patterns that are common to such evidently similar types of story as the American western, the H.
Rider Haggard type of adventure in Darkest Africa, the historical swashbuckler, the knightly romance, and the folkish hero-tale, and to enumerate the other archetypal story patterns that recur in many different cultures.
Chapter 3 begins as an examination of the contemporary popularity of The Godfather , primarily as a springboard for a discussion of the ways in which the same basic cultural mythology—in this case the great modern cluster of myths that focus on crime, criminals, detectives, and the police—can become synthesized with different archetypal patterns.
An attempt is made to illustrate how the changing story patterns through which this mythology is dramatized relate to cultural changes. This chapter also attempts to set the two major detective story formulas that will be the subject of the next four chapters into a broader cultural and historical perspective and to consider the puzzling question of our extraordinary affection for literature about crime.
Chapter 4 is my first full-scale attempt to define a particular formula in depth. For this purpose I have chosen what is perhaps the most highly formalized and ritualistic of all popular formulas, the pattern that underlies the classical detective story genre.
The major elements of this pattern and their relationship to each other are examined at length and an attempt is made to account in psychological and cultural terms for the great appeal of this genre during the period in which it flourished most extensively.
The fifth chapter looks at the classical detective story from another perspective, raising the problem of its distinctive artistic problems and potentialities. While a story formula reflects the psychological needs and cultural attitudes of its period, it also has certain artistic limitations and potentialities that may be handled skillfully or clumsily in particular cases. In this chapter I attempt to define some of these characteristics by comparing successful and unsuccessful Poirot mysteries by Agatha Christie and by considering the different ways in which Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Georges Simenon deal with the possibilities of their genre.
Chapter 6 is intended to parallel chapter 4 by developing a comparative discussion of two closely related popular formulas: the classical and hard-boiled detective stories. As in the case of the classical genre, I also attempt to explore the psychological and cultural significance of the hard-boiled story.
In chapter 7 I am concerned as I was in chapter 5 with the artistic potentialities of popular formulas. In this case, I deal with a different aspect of this problem: the way in which formulas may be used on different artistic levels and for very different and expressive purposes.
The basis of this discussion is a treatment of three major hard-boiled writers, two of whom, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, are considered significant artists by many persons and the third, Mickey Spillane, is usually viewed as the apotheosis of non-art. When literary formulas last for a considerable period of time, they usually undergo considerable change as they adapt to the different needs and interests of changing generations.
Chapter 8 is an analysis of this evolutionary process using the western as a case study. Since most of my examination of the various dimensions of formulaic literature has concerned itself with formulas embodying the archetypes of adventure and mystery, I have had little opportunity to consider with any intensity the great range of formulas that depend primarily on the archetypal patterns of romance, melodrama, and alien beings and states. While a full treatment of these areas would expand this study beyond reasonable limits, I feel that we must examine at least one aspect of this area of popular literature.
Therefore I have chosen, in chapter 9, to explore one melodramatic formula, the best-selling blockbuster or social novel. In this chapter I have tried to indicate, in briefer form, how the various perspectives and methods of analysis developed in the preceding nine chapters might be applied to this complex formula.
I consider the definition of the blockbuster formula, its character as art, its relation to its cultural background and audience, and some suggestions as to how we might begin to trace its evolution. Chapter 9 can serve as a summary of the various problems explored in this book. I try to articulate this sense as clearly as I can in the conclusion, along with some suggestions for further inquiry.
In general, a literary formula is a structure of narrative or dramatic conventions employed in a great number of individual works. There are two common usages of the term formula closely related to the conception I wish to set forth.
In fact, if we put these two conceptions together, I think we will have an adequate definition of literary formulas. The first usage simply denotes a conventional way of treating some specific thing or person. By extension, any form of cultural stereotype commonly found in literature—red-headed, hot-tempered Irishmen, brilliantly analytical and eccentric detectives, virginal blondes, and sexy brunettes—is frequently referred to as formulaic.
The important thing to note about this usage is that it refers to patterns of convention which are usually quite specific to a particular culture and period and do not mean the same outside this specific context. Thus the nineteenth-century formulaic relation between blondness and sexual purity gave way in the twentieth century to a very different formula for blondes. The second common literary usage of the term formula refers to larger plot types.
This is the conception of formula commonly found in those manuals for aspiring writers that give the recipes for twenty-one sure-fire plots—boy meets girl, boy and girl have a misunderstanding, boy gets girl.
These general plot patterns are not necessarily limited to a specific culture or period. Instead, they seem to represent story types that, if not universal in their appeal, have certainly been popular in many different cultures at many different times. In fact, they are examples of what some scholars have called archetypes or patterns that appeal in many different cultures.
Actually, if we look at a popular story type such as the western, the detective story, or the spy adventure, we find that it combines these two sorts of literary phenomenon. These popular story patterns are embodiments of archetypal story forms in terms of specific cultural materials.
To create a western involves not only some understanding of how to construct an exciting adventure story, but also how to use certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century images and symbols such as cowboys, pioneers, outlaws, frontier towns, and saloons along with appropriate cultural themes or myths—such as nature vs.
Thus formulas are ways in which specific cultural themes and stereotypes become embodied in more universal story archetypes. The reason why formulas are constructed in this way is, I think, fairly straightforward. I offer some speculations about the psychology of this in chapter 2. But in order for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them. One cannot write a successful adventure story about a social character type that the culture cannot conceive in heroic terms; this is why we have so few adventure stories about plumbers, janitors, or streetsweepers.
It is, however, certainly not inconceivable that a culture might emerge which placed a different sort of valuation or interpretation on these tasks, in which case we might expect to see the evolution of adventure story formulas about them.
Certainly one can see signs of such developments in the popular literature of Soviet Russia and Maoist China. A formula is a combination or synthesis of a number of specific cultural conventions with a more universal story form or archetype. It is also similar in many ways to the traditional literary conception of a genre. There is bound to be a good deal of confusion about the terms formula and genre since they are occasionally used to designate the same thing.
For example, many film scholars and critics use the term popular genre to denote literary types like the western or the detective story that are clearly the same as what I call formulas.
On the other hand, the term is often used to describe the broadest sort of literary type such as drama, prose fiction, lyric poetry. This is clearly a very different sort of classification than that of western, detective story, spy story. Still another usage of genre involves concepts like tragedy, comedy, romance, and satire. Insofar as such concepts of genre imply particular sorts of story patterns and effects, they do bear some resemblance to the kind of classification involved in the definition of popular genres.
Since such conceptions clearly imply universal or transcultural conceptions of literary structure, they are examples of what I have called archetypes. In the interests of such clarification let me offer one distinction I have found useful. In defining literary classes, it seems to me that we commonly have two related but distinguishable purposes.
First of all, we may be primarily interested in constructing effective generalizations about large groups of literary works for the purpose of tracing historical trends or relating literary production to other cultural patterns. In such cases we are not primarily interested in the artistic qualities of individual works but in the degree to which particular works share common characteristics that may be indicative of important cultural tendencies.
On the other hand, we use literary classes as a means of defining and evaluating the unique qualities of individual works. In such instances we tend to think of genres not simply as generalized descriptions of a number of individual works but as a set of artistic limitations and potentials. With such a conception in mind, we can evaluate individual works in at least two different ways: a by the way in which they fulfill or fail to fulfill the ideal potentials inherent in the genre and thereby achieve or fail to achieve the full artistic effect of that particular type of construction.
These are the terms in which Aristotle treats tragedy; b by the way in which the individual work deviates from the flat standard of the genre to accomplish some unique individual expression or effect. Popular genres are often treated in this fashion, as when a critic shows that a particular western transcends the limitations of the genre or how a film director achieves a distinctive individual statement. This is the approach implicit in much " auteur " criticism of the movies, where the personal qualities of individual directors are measured against some conception of the standard characteristics of popular genres.
The concept of a formula as I have defined it is a means of generalizing the characteristics of large groups of individual works from certain combinations of cultural materials and archetypal story patterns.
Adventure, Mystery, and Romance
By John G. Our earliest experiences of literature involve us in the different pleasures and uses of novelty and familiarity. As children we learn new things about the world and ourselves from stories. By hearing about creatures and events that transcend the limits of space and time allotted to us we widen the range of our imagination and are prepared to deal with new situations and experiences. But children also clutch at the security of the familiar. How of ten a child rejects a new story, preferring to hear one he has already been told a hundred times.
Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture