Last December, the Melbourne Age asked some prominent literary folk to name the best novel of the twentieth century. Readers would have found few surprises in the choices. Most of the punter – some novelist and a few literary critics – went for Proust’s Remembrance and Joyce’s Ulysses. Little argument there. But Ian Rankin, a Scottish crime fiction writer, chose something altogether different: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (which, incidentally, is also Jackie Collins’ favourite novel of all time).
For someone investing in the literary field – in literature and the things it seems to stand for – this kind of choice would no doubt seem both gratuitous and indefensible. But the field of popular fiction is something else – and somewhere else – altogether, barely registering the nature of the complaint. Popular fiction is literature’s ‘Other’, the thing literature despises even though it needs it to be, well, literary.
Yet popular fiction in its turn often hardly notices literature at all. Go to the Amazon.com website and look at what popular fiction writers are recommending: it is almost always other popular fiction writers. They carry on blissfully in their own way, no doubt respectful of literature but leaving it pretty much to its reified devices (and limited circulation).