It is becoming increasingly common that a literary work is considered 'literature' based on its literary merits. Works of popular literature are generally regarded as formulaic and commercial, hence their exclusion from being classified as 'literature'. But then, popular literature has seldom been the concern of scholarly critics, being more of a social phenomenon than artistic achievement. (Pearson, 1929) But is it really fair to discount popular literature as 'serious literature', and then blame the masses for preferring the 'bad' popular literature over the much more intellectually stimulating 'canonical literature' and 'serious literature'? Even though 'popular literature' has also played an important role in shaping the literary scene of today? Canonical literature and serious literature are regarded as sophisticate literature. Reading them is a challenge to readers because large amount of vocabulary comprehension and critical thinking are usually needed. On the other hand, works of popular literature are more conventional, its plot and character development less complex, thus making them an easier read for readers.
This does not mean that an ordinary person is incapable of appreciating a work of sophisticate literature, not because it is good or because it is bad, it is only because it is not the thing he or she is asking for. If, for example, a person is craving for a lighthearted read with characters that can be easily emphasized with, and is given the choice between Helen Fielding's 'Bridget Jones' Diary', which is described as 'an urban satire of modern human relations', and James Joyce's 'Ulysses', which is rather chaotic, with a 'stream of consciousness' technique employed for the narrative, there is no doubt that this person will pick 'Bridget Jones' Diary' since it is a lighthearted and humourous read. 'Ulysses' is not chosen not because it is inferior to 'Bridget Jones' Diary', but because it is unlikely to generate as much enjoyment and laughter the reader is originally looking for.
Although popularity does not necessarily equate with quality, it would be an elitist act to condemn all forms of popular literature with a dismissive and condescending attitude and deny the fact that these works also do serve as a mean of expression for a popular author, albeit without the artistic and aesthetic qualities used in sophisticate literature by their authors that are appreciated by scholarly critics. One can criticize Bridget Jones' Diary for its clichés and sentimentality, but 'clichés and sentimentality need not be signals of meretricious prose, and ultimately, it is honest writing for which criticism should be looking' (Robinson, 1983).
Bridget Jones' Diary is honest writing. Chronicling the life of a single woman in her thirties living in London, surrounded by a 'surrogate family' of eccentric friends and even more eccentric family members as she tries to make sense of life and love in the modern society, this social satire by Helen Fielding is originated as a series of columns in the newspapers, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph before it was later published in book form in 1996. A film adaptation of the book was released in 2001 with both critical and commercial success worldwide, earning actress Renee Zellweger a Golden Globes award and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal as the heroine. One of the most glowing praises given to Charles Dickens is that 'Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted'. (Chesterton, 1906) Ms. Fielding's situation is similar in a sense that she wasn't writing what the people understood or wanted, just that what she had wanted to express in Bridget Jones' Diary happened to coincide with what her readers understood or wanted.
In an undated web interview (ivillage.co.uk), Ms. Fielding explained the factors that made her book so successful, which also revealed some of the subjects she was satirizing:
"Women are so naturally funny, ironic, and self-deprecating and I think theyThe character Bridget Jones challenges the common perception of the 'perfect female' in modern society, she overeats and chain-smokes, she has trouble with men, and being single, she harbours resentment for married couples. She is also plagued with self-doubt that both engenders and undermines her desire for self-improvement. For example, she would try to get on a diet to lose a few pounds, only to realize the futility of all these when people comment on the fact that she looked better before she lost weigh, which resulted in her overeating again. Yet despite her flaws, she is a strong character, her failed relationship with Daniel Cleaver immediately motivated her to seek a new occupation. Therefore, she is a realistic character readers could relate to, yet at the same time, she is also a character many would aspire to be. And thus making it easier for readers to sympathize with her whilst she observes the ironies of modern society that occurs around her.
like books with that sort of tone. I think the book touched a nerve which is
something about the gap between how women feel they are expected to be and
how they actually are. We are bombarded by so many media images of female
perfection and conflicting roles - we end up feeling we should be like the
girl in the 24-hour mascara ad, rushing from the gym to the board meeting
and home to a perfect husband and children to cook dinner for twelve whilst
looking like an anorexic teenage model."
Ms. Fielding may have a critical attitude towards certain aspects of modern society, but she communicated her criticism without bitterness but with humour. Humour is utilized so that the effect of the criticism will be slightly dampened, yet simultaneously emanating a feeling of discomfort. Bridget's mother is materialistic, superficial and highly-conscious of her personal social status, constantly calling Bridget on the phone and announcing her intention to buy her something generally useless just because the daughter of an acquaintance has it as well, she was also obsessed with trying to set her up with divorced lawyer Mark Darcy due to his family's immense wealth. Although Bridget's mother was played for comedic effect, there was a tone of melancholy and angst brewing just beneath the surface of the story because Bridget's inability to ever change her mother's mind mirrors how the negative aspects embodied by Bridget's mother in today's society can never actually be remedied, and that what Bridget really thinks and feels were almost never revealed to other characters. (Dunleavy, 1983) Therefore, Ms. Fielding was not trying to sway her readers; but merely to provide an observation of contemporary culture in London, albeit in a humourous and exaggerated manner.
Ultimately, Bridget Jones' Diary concluded with the protagonist discovering true love and managing to get her act together by discovering a new career. Not many of her other problems were solved, but Bridget was happy. This is possibly a positive message from Ms. Fielding that in our cynical society, romance is still something everyone is craving for, that despite no longer being a stabilizing institution, marriage still exerts a considerable hold over the imagination of a 'singleton' like Bridget. And that despite the setbacks we encounter in life, there will always be a way to overcome them as long as one is able to work hard.
Bridget Jones' Diary should not be penalized because of its popularity, and neither should it be discredited as 'bad writing' because of the lack of aesthetic qualities seen in Ms. Fielding's abbreviated style of writing (where 'very good' is usually substituted by 'v. good'), after all, this particular style is obviously used to preserve a feeling of reading a 'diary'. Once again, honest writing is what criticism should be looking in a popular text like this, not its prose, nor its artistic merit. And Bridget Jones' Diary is honest because of its satirizing of modern society. And to claim that all popular literature is not literature because they are formulaic and commercial is generalization.
- Chesterton, G. K. 1906. Charles Dickens Chapter 6: The Great Popularity. The Literature Network. http://www.online-literature.com/chesterton/charlesdickens/5/ (Accessed: 8th of September, 2005)
- Dunleavy, J. E. 1982. The Subtle Satire of Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Lavin. Tulsa Studies in Women Literature. Vol. 2(1): 69-81
- Fielding, H. 1996. Bridget Jones’s Diary. London. Picador.
- Robinson, L. S. 1982. Treason On Our Text: Feminist Challenges On The Literary Canon. Tulsa Studies in Women Literature. Vol. 2(1): 83-99
- Helen Fielding: The Woman Behind Bridget. ivillage.co.uk: Website for Women. (Accessed: 8th of September, 2005)
- Pearson, E. 1929. Dime novels; or, Following an old trail in popular literature. Gaslight Electronic Text And Discussion Site. http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/dimex01.htm (Accessed: 9th of September, 2005)