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Reviewed by:
  • "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature, and: Popular Fiction and Social Change, and: Society in the Novel, and: The Role of Place in Literature
  • J. Michael Lennon
Louis A. Renza. "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984. 244 pp. $19.95.
Christopher Pawling, ed. Popular Fiction and Social Change. New York: St. Martin's, 1984. 246 pp. $25.00.
Elizabeth Langland. Society in the Novel. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984. 267 pp. $24.00.
Leonard Lutwack. The Role of Place in Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1984. 282 pp. $24.95.

As their titles indicate, these four books are about literature and something else. The only other important characteristic they share is that none of them contains an extended examination of a major work or author. Indeed, one of them, Louis A. Renza's study, takes as its subject the question of minor literature's relationship to major literature, using Sarah Orne Jewett's short story, "A White Heron," as exemplum. In a long introduction Renza examines the positions of major critics such as Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton, and Roland Barthes on minor literature's ambivalent aspirations and marginal credentials for canonical status.

Although Renza's exasperatingly overwrought prose and labored argumentation often make it difficult to know exactly what he is driving at, it seems as if he is attempting to demonstrate that the study of minor literature, if not a major enterprise, is more than "a random and peripheral form of critical experience," as Frye calls it. Renza's protestations against this position are great but unconvincing, and when he concludes that "what we need to imagine is a minor criticism of minor literature," we can only agree that he has realized his goal.

His reading of "A White Heron," although less convoluted and more persuasive than his introduction, is also unnecessarily protracted and overwritten (136 pages on an eleven-page story) and apparently constitutes an attempt to surpass the extended deconstruction of Balzac's "Sarrasine" by Barthes in S/Z. But in his four chapters on Jewett's story he does use fewer italicized and apostrophized terms than in his introduction and provides some deft delineations of the rural-urban conflict that is the tale's subtext. He sees the reversible nature of the dualisms manifested in this conflict and links them to the federalist-regionalist tensions of the period. Renza opens up Jewett's evocative tale of the Maine woods, but with the help of a good editor he could have drastically reduced his study and perhaps included examinations of other regionalists of Jewett's time—Hamlin Garland, for instance. [End Page 855]

The fictional works discussed in the eight essays in the collection edited by Christopher Pawling could also be called minor, but their noncanonical status is of less interest to his essayists, including Pawling, than their tremendous popularity and how they "intervene in the life of society." The popular subgenres examined are science fiction (two essays), thrillers, women's magazine fiction (British magazines of the Twenties and Thirties), romances, and utopian-fantasy narratives. Pawling's essay deals with Richard Adams' Watership Down; Stuart Laing looks at John Braine's Room at the Top; and David Glover writes on the utopian fantasies of William Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, and J. R. R. Tolkien. American popular fiction, with the exception of Burroughs' work, is not considered, which is fair enough, although the link between the American Beats and the Angry Young Men deserves more comment. Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro" and Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" (1956) were certainly as influential as the counterculture writings of the Scottish poet and novelist Alexander Trocchi, who is presented by Glover as a central figure in the Beat Movement.

The essays of Laing and Pawling are the most ambitious in the collection. Their readings demonstrate Pawling's contention that key works of popular fiction are "sites of ideological struggle and therefore not just a reflection of external social processess." In his arresting introduction Pawling qualifies this contention by noting that some of his contributors stress the reflective rather than the...


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