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Tendency toward Popular Novels in Iran

Javadi Yeganeh, Mohammad Reza (2010 (Tendency toward Popular Novels in Iran. Eighth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities. UCLA, 29 June-2 July 2010.

Paper presented at

Eighth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

UCLA, 29 June-2 July 2010

Tendency toward Popular Novels in Iran

Abstract: The data on published books in the filed of novels within the past decade in Iran, reveal the fact that the dominant genre in this filed has been popular novel, with the highest rate of production and reprint. There have been contradicting debates on the issue of popular literature, the Frankfurt School and the critical theory consider it as part of culture industry, false consciousness, and a fake ideology prepared and used by the ruling class to present a factitious and beautiful picture of the ruled society, hence it has a stupefaction application. Cultural studies theories, however, argue that popular literature and the tendency towards it are a kind of soft resistance against the dominant cultural norms which attempt to provide its audience with an opportunity to push everyday life away and therefore has a positive function. Given the fact that according to the available data, readers and authors of these kinds of literary works are mostly women. However, considering the extent of women's activities, mainly advocacy for their specific rights (within the framework of Islamic teachings) and from a feministic point of view, spread of popular literature is somewhat worrying. The present paper intends to study the social reasons of the above-mentioned phenomenon on the basis of critical theory. Stringent governmental policies, in this regard, intensifying economic problems, weakness in the filed of novels and story writing in Iran, as well as higher tendency among women toward reading theses books, are nearly the most important reasons.

Keyword: Popular literature, novel, critical theory, cultural studies, cultural polices, Iran


On the Definition of Popular Novel

There can be a distinction among a range of novels, from popular to elite and technical as well as serious novels. Yet the major distinction lies in something between the popular and the high (the latter including serious and elite). On the other hand, there is a variety of definitions on the notion of the popular. But I would like to take into account the characteristics of the popular as a more practical way to define it, and that since in Iran popular, romantic novels compose the majority, my characterization will be set accordingly. Iranian Popular, romantic novels depict:

· internal, emotional, and family contents enveloping the individualYs, especially womenYs private lives and their familyYs

· simplistic world view: absolute good and absolute bad, not the real world gray character

· an individual rather than the society as the pivot

· adventures which are frequent, based on chance, and at times unnatural controlled by the metaphysics, that is the fate

· often simple characterization comprising the two fully developed who lack profound emotions

· simple words, sentences, and implications with common language for all the characters

· constant use of clichés in all the elements, namely stories, characters, and happy endings

On the Theories of Popular Literature

In the area of popular literature there are contradicting views; Frankfort School considers that as a part of book industry, false consciousness, and fake ideology made by the ruling class who aims to present a beautiful but unreal picture of the society, thus it has a narcotic function. In their point of view, popular literature is extended by the ruling system which depicts a false vision of an ambitious life, a vision in which men are brave, wealthy, and altruist while women look beautiful, have high self-esteem, and are involved in family life. Popular literature leaves an impression on the readers without nurturing high attitudes. There, the audience is passive and easily influenced by the media.

Reception Studies concentrate on the extraction of meaning on the part of the audience. On the basis of this theory, texts are devoid of fixed, precise, and essential meanings but meaning is produced through the process of reading itself. Reading popular novels, women could identify with the characters and live in another world for a while, finally coming to the conclusion that man and marriage were two good things. Radway is on the belief that reading such books is a type of objection through daydreaming and an enthusiasm for a better world. He points to the problem of female escaping among the audience of these novels and states that escaping helps women tolerate the reality of social life, that is to say playing the role of a homemaker in a patriarchy.

However, Cultural Studies subscribe to the view that popular literature and the inclination to that can be a type of soft resistance against the dominant culture which aims to provide its readers with a space to run away from everyday life. Cultural Studies, on the other hand, believe that such novels, in one way or another, can contribute to an understanding of the society, have an educational function, be good pastimes, reconstruct the dreamy world of the readersY mind, and be taken as a sweet start to create interest in reading novels.

On the Situation of Reading Popular Novels in Iran

On the basis of the statistics announced by the Iranian Book House on the literary novels over tenth printing after 1992, nine out of ten best-selling were popular novels, and in 449 best-selling printings just 118 were high novels. The top best-selling novel, which was also popular, had 38 printings, while the second ranking was 22 for another two popular novels; however, the highest printing for a high novel was just 16.

There is an average circulation of 1300 copies for serious novels, while that of popular novels amounts to 2500 volumes. Moreover the works of prominent authors exceed 5000, and even 18000 for some.

Of course, popular books in Iran are not limited to novels. Religious and psychological popular books, self-help books and educational aid books besides popular novels capture the majority of Iranian publishing market.

On the Explanation of Popularity in Popular Books

It is a fact that popular works are favorable all around the world and Iran seems no exception. However, there are various reasons why they have gained such an acceptance in our country: leisure accompanied by literacy among women, the overall development in convenience and well-being, and the higher rate of TV viewing could be the causes of the increased popularity. On the other hand, as women more and more demand better situations in life, this soft resistance (containing love not sex) can obtain wider and wider acceptance.

I. Ang on the popular literature of the Third World states that the domestic popular literature is attacked from three angles: the intellectual literature, the formal literature of the government, and the Western popular literature. In the following, I am about to analyze the effects of the conflict between the intellectual literature and the formal literature on the growing popular literature.

Since the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, traditionally, there have been two major fractions governing our cultural policies, namely the Fundamentalists and the Reformists. Broadly speaking, the Fundamentalists support Islamic ethos to extend the principles of the Islamic Revolution, based on which they oppose music, dance, uncovered woman body or hair, and male and female expression of feelings and emotions in the cinema, theater, and novel. In contrast, the Reformists, maintain tolerance with artists and authors and attempt to attract them and accept them as they are. This group has acknowledged polyphonic patterns in the society especially in literary and artistic arenas.

The gap between the two parties in the area of literature and art goes back to their level of tolerance against the XoppositionY groupYs thinking, literature, and art. The opposition party is said to be composed of those Iranian literati and artists who resist against the Islamic RepublicYs criteria: observing Sharia in contacting the opposite sex, clothing, drinking, and the dominance of religious rules on the society. This group has continued to be tough against the Islamic rules and religious government in the years after the Revolution. They gained some benefits and facilities to express their ideas due to the tolerance of the Reformists at the time of their control. Yet they were dramatically confined by the Fundamentalists.

However, in each group (intellectual and formal) those who do not tolerate the opposite party compose the majority, something which feeds bipolarization in literature.

The circumstances, however, have been more severe owing to the cyber space. Because of limited dialogs and censorships, there seems to be another way available to publish; low circulations of high literary works, weak relationship between high literature and the society, and financial loss in the publication of high literature have forced the literature to turn away from the public to specific.

The literati of the opposition high literature, disregarding material benefits and fame or perhaps other literary profits, have now entered other spaces such as private tutoring classes for story writing, numerous sites for introducing and criticizing literary works (even one showing unauthorized novels), and increasingly growing weblogs.

As the opposition literature in Iran is now considered as a means of changing the government, it is getting more non-material benefits; things like a chance to immigrate abroad, attain scholarships, and show on famous satellite channels and sites are only some of them. The situation has made the opposition serious literature sound hazardous in the eye of the government on one hand and on the other it has brought about a rapid fame and an unclear vision of self-assessment and popularity to the authors. Both sides will harm gravely the Iranian high literature.

The Iranian literary space has been devoid of the opposition high literary works and also the formal successful literary works are neglected from the opposition. The tendency of the Ministry of Culture to increase publications and spread story literature, lack of regular literary criticism tends to elevate readers to high novels, and lack of publicizing for high novels on TV and in the radio have given the popular novels a high social status. Also, Iranian publication industry to survive has found interest in popular novels. On the other hand, the religious societiesY harsh reactions against literary works have provoked the officials to spend more on control, but popular works are more conservative, can avoid expressing sex, and do not endanger the existing social security and order.

In conclusion, the conflicts between intellectual and formal literature nourish the popular literary works. Last but not least, the negative outlook on the popular literary works has brought negligence to them, that is no policies are made on the content, circulation, and size of such works but handed over to the market taste.

The Weakness of Serious Literary Works

The basic issue of literature in Iran is the content weakness of serious literary works. Today in the world, new domains and fresh views have been put forth in literature, ranging from the magical atmosphere of the Latin America and South Africa to those of Turkey. These new atmospheres open new windows to literary fantasy to identify the human nature. So, literature welcomes the peripheral and unknown domains much more rather than repetitive domains.

But in the serious literature in Iran, with the exception of some rare areas, ideas and style of writing is more or less the repetition of prevailing literature of the world. Today, the post-modern literature exists in Iran which is taking model after post-modern novels and short stories. There is also feminine literature under the influence of various trends of feminism. The novels presented in recent years have been repeated with similar motifs. It is such that the organizers of non-governmental prizes mainly complain about that. They put forth that the low level of literature in Iran is one of the causes of holding prize awarding ceremonies in some cases biannually, beside annually.

The statement of the juries of the 8th term of Golshiri Literary Prize (2009) reads: fThe following causes made the juries come to this conclusion that they should avoid announcing a winner (s):

· Intensified censorship or self-censorship

· Spread of mechanisms which have filled market with low or medium level works which are useful to fill the formal statistics of publication rate in the area of literature

· Lack of bed grounds for the publication of serious literary critiques

· Prevention of re-printing the works which has got publication license at the same year or earlier.

Of course, researches on the subjects of selected novels in recent years show that there is not a serious difference between the serious and popular novels. Further, their main difference is in the style and plot of story and the label which is attached to a work as a serious work or its publication by a creditable publisher and with an appropriate cover.

Some experts terms the recent works (in particular those of female writers) in the serious literature of Iran as "leisure literature": In this kind of literature, there is no room left for a bitter, enhancing and quarrelsome attitude and there is a confirmative interpretation of the world, continuation and repetition of daily life. The characters of leisure literature are the same regular and conservative people of daily life. In these novels, main events are the same repetitive events of daily life. In this life, there happens death and birth, love and separation, release and submission, but does not give them a philosophical dimension or feature. No question is taking form in the whole novel or in the charactersY minds of the novel. Events remain at the same level of their daily level and sometimes uselessness and are not moving up to the level of destiny creating level.

This literature is the literature of leisure from three viewpoints: They have been written to fill the leisure time; They do not study the serious and important events of the life and deal only with the regular details of normative life of modern societies; The writer of these works deals with writhing within the format of prevailing styles and avoids new experiences.

New Domains in Iranian Literature

However, far from conflicts and differences, Iranian literature is flourishing in another domain. In the Iranian contemporary literature, the "war literature" (Iraqi war against Iran) has a great number of audiences. This domain which has passed various periods and styles, now with a balance among narration, audiences and suppliers of works has shifted to the detailed expression of edited memories. Of course, those types of memories have found a great number of audiences in Iran, which are out of the formal and governmental domain (a formal narration of war), though they are not in conflict with formal narration and they are only different from that. One of the bestsellers of this type is the memories of a combatant who had been tortured in the pre-revolution era and after the victory of revolution, he has left official positions and is working in the market. The other is the memories of a colonel, being forgotten for many years and this year his memories have been published. Also a martyred commander whose memories have been published by an ordinary person (not a official institution) and sold out 237000 copies. However, the bestseller book in the area of narrative literature in Iran is the memories of a 17-year old girl who buries the female dead bodies in a semi-ruined city when Khoramshahr city was surrounded in the beginning of Iraq attack on Iran. This book has sold out 300000 copies after one and half year of the date of publication.

The readers of these books usually have no relation with serious and elite novels and deal only with the professional or religious studies. The new trend has created a new genre and following those new readers in the Iranian literature which are placed in the middle point of popular and serious novels, i.e. they are similar more too ordinary people.

The area of war literature (especially war memories) is that part of Iranian literature which has a potential to be worldly presented. The Iranian war against the aggression of Iraq is neither like the war literature of America for the 2nd World War (which went outside America with the help of other countries) nor like the European countries (who were observing the enemy throughout their lands). This experience which has been tied with the Shiite mysticism and Iranian spirit is unprecedented in the world war literature and can present a new experience to the world literature about the human nature and the broadness of his soul.

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