• Morag Schiach, Discourse on Popular Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), 238 pp., £29.50 • Tony Bennett (ed.), Popular Fiction: Technology, Ideology, Production, Reading (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 486 pp., £10.99 • John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 206 pp., £8.95 • John Fiske, Reading the Popular (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 228 pp., £8.95
The study of popular culture continues to grow apace. In the early 1960s it barely had a foothold in the curriculum of English Departments but now it is respectably installed in most tertiary institutions. This situation has arisen mainly due to the constant questioning by cultural theorists of the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. One of the most celebrated forms of this distinction was expressed by Leavis when he opposed literature to mass culture. The former was an embodiment of a unique sensibility, a work of imagination reproducing the texture of real life. The latter, by contrast, was formulaic and sensational. Few would now accept Leavis’s rigid division, not just because it offends the democratic sensibility but because it is theoretically untenable. Leavis saw literature as an incarnation of permanent truths about human nature but critical theory has undermined his position by showing how the same text is read in different ways in different periods. Once literature was relativized in these and other ways its position vis-à-vis ‘low’ culture could no longer be maintained. Moreover, if literature was not what it had formerly been claimed to be, then neither, perhaps, was its other, and so it became necessary and even desirable to study what is now known as popular culture, a term which avoids the negative evaluation implicit in ‘low’ culture and the sense of imposition suggested by mass culture, while itself connotating notions of choice and democracy.