Literary, or just likeable?

I participated in the essay anthology Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series, which was released by Smart Pop on April 6. I was flattered to be asked to participate, and it forced me to dust off critical skills I hadn’t used since university. Not that harkening back to my school days was always a help. The editor of the collection demanded not only an insightful, well-reasoned contribution, but also an entertaining one. In other words, she put me through my paces with just as much discipline (and, I sometimes imagined, unholy glee) as any of my profs. I polished that sucker until I was blue in the face.

Collections like this one are cropping up more and more frequently. I certainly see no reason not to apply the academic toolkit to movies, TV, and books on the mass market list. For one thing, some creators (J. Michael Straczynski comes to mind) write such excellent stuff that it begs for a closer look. The world of Buffy can, and has been, dissected without damaging the original one bit. But sometimes brain candy is just that, with no hidden profundities or depths to plumb. These stories and shows were never meant to be analyzed, and it wouldn’t be fair to do so.

But acknowledging that some popular entertainment is robust enough to support criticism and some is not raises some interesting questions—and I’ll say up front that I don’t pretend to have answers. One essay does not a theorist make.

As I said, this “literary criticism of the non-literary” seems to be increasingly popular. More and more of it is getting published, so someone’s buying it. What appetite is it filling? And what does it say about the shows and books these essays are about? Are popular genres developing their own sub-strata of smarter, meatier works, or is this just a belated recognition of the fact?

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