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In this first general theory for the analysis of popular literary formulas, John G. Cawelti reveals the artistry that underlies the best in formulaic literature. Cawelti discusses such seemingly diverse works as Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Dorothy Sayers's The Nine Tailors, and Owen Wister's The Virginian in the light of his hypotheses about the cultural function of formula literature. He describes the most important artistic characteristics of popular formula stories and the differences between this literature and that commonly labeled "high" or "serious" literature. He also defines the archetypal patterns of adventure, mystery, romance, melodrama, and fantasy, and offers a tentative account of their basis in human psychology.
The Study of Literary Formulas
Formulas, Genres, and Archetypes
In general, a literary formula is a structure of narrative or dramatic conventions employed in a great number of individual works. There are two common usages of the term formula closely related to the conception I wish to set forth. In fact, if we put these two conceptions together, I think we will have an adequate definition of literary formulas. The first usage simply denotes a conventional way of treating some specific thing or person. Homer's epithets—swift-footed Achilles, cloud-gathering Zeus—are commonly referred to as formulas as are a number of his standard similes and metaphors—"his head fell speaking into the dust"—which are assumed to be conventional bardic formulas for filling a dactylic hexameter line. By extension, any form of cultural stereotype commonly found in literature—red-headed, hot-tempered Irishmen, brilliantly analytical and eccentric detectives, virginal blondes, and sexy brunettes—is frequently referred to as formulaic. The important thing to note about this usage is that it refers to patterns of convention which are usually quite specific to a particular culture and period and do not mean the same outside this specific context. Thus the nineteenth-century formulaic relation between blondness and sexual purity gave way in the twentieth century to a very different formula for blondes. The formula of the Irishman's hot temper was particularly characteristic of English and American culture at periods where the Irish were perceived as lower-class social intruders.
The second common literary usage of the term formula refers to larger plot types. This is the conception of formula commonly found in those manuals for aspiring writers that give the recipes for twenty-one sure-fire plots—boy meets girl, boy and girl have a misunderstanding, boy gets girl. These general plot patterns are not necessarily limited to a specific culture or period. Instead, they seem to represent story types that, if not universal in their appeal, have certainly been popular in many different cultures at many different times. In fact, they are examples of what some scholars have called archetypes or patterns that appeal in many different cultures.
Actually, if we look at a popular story type such as the western, the detective story, or the spy adventure, we find that it combines these two sorts of literary phenomenon. These popular story patterns are embodiments of archetypal story forms in terms of specific cultural materials. To create a western involves not only some understanding of how to construct an exciting adventure story, but also how to use certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century images and symbols such as cowboys, pioneers, outlaws, frontier towns, and saloons along with appropriate cultural themes or myths—such as nature vs. civilization, the code of the West, or law and order vs. outlawry—to support and give significance to the action. Thus formulas are ways in which specific cultural themes and stereotypes become embodied in more universal story archetypes.
The reason why formulas are constructed in this way is, I think, fairly straightforward. Certain story archetypes particularly fulfill man's needs for enjoyment and escape. (I offer some speculations about the psychology of this in chapter 2.) But in order for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them. One cannot write a successful adventure story about a social character type that the culture cannot conceive in heroic terms; this is why we have so few adventure stories about plumbers, janitors, or street sweepers. It is, however, certainly not inconceivable that a culture might emerge which placed a different sort of valuation or interpretation on these tasks, in which case we might expect to see the evolution of adventure story formulas about them. Certainly one can see signs of such developments in the popular literature of Soviet Russia and Maoist China.
A formula is a combination or synthesis of a number of specific cultural conventions with a more universal story form or archetype. It is also similar in many ways to the traditional literary conception of a genre. There is bound to be a good deal of confusion about the terms "formula" and "genre" since they are occasionally used to designate the same thing. For example, many film scholars and critics use the term "popular genre" to denote literary types like the western or the detective story that are clearly the same as what I call formulas. On the other hand, the term is often used to describe the broadest sort of literary type such as drama, prose fiction, lyric poetry. This is clearly a very different sort of classification than that of western, detective story, spy story. Still another usage of genre involves concepts like tragedy, comedy, romance, and satire. Insofar as such concepts of genre imply particular sorts of story patterns and effects, they do bear some resemblance to the kind of classification involved in the definition of popular genres. Since such conceptions clearly imply universal or transcultural conceptions of literary structure, they are examples of what I have called archetypes. I don't think it makes a great deal of difference whether we refer to something as a formula or as a popular genre, if we are clear just what we are talking about and why. In the interests of such clarification let me offer one distinction I have found useful.
In defining literary classes, it seems to me that we commonly have two related but distinguishable purposes. First of all, we may be primarily interested in constructing effective generalizations about large groups of literary works for the purpose of tracing historical trends or relating literary production to other cultural patterns. In such cases we are not primarily interested in the artistic qualities of individual works but in the degree to which particular works share common characteristics that may be indicative of important cultural tendencies. On the other hand, we use literary classes as a means of defining and evaluating the unique qualities of individual works. In such instances we tend to think of genres not simply as generalized descriptions of a number of individual works but as a set of artistic limitations and potentials. With such a conception in mind, we can evaluate individual works in at least two different ways: (a) by the way in which they fulfill or fail to fulfill the ideal potentials inherent in the genre and thereby achieve or fail to achieve the full artistic effect of that particular type of construction. These are the terms in which Aristotle treats tragedy; (b) by the way in which the individual work deviates from the flat standard of the genre to accomplish some unique individual expression or effect. Popular genres are often treated in this fashion, as when a critic shows that a particular western transcends the limitations of the genre or how a film director achieves a distinctive individual statement. This is the approach implicit in much "auteur" criticism of the movies, where the personal qualities of individual directors are measured against some conception of the standard characteristics of popular genres.
The concept of a formula as I have defined it is a means of generalizing the characteristics of large groups of individual works from certain combinations of cultural materials and archetypal story patterns. It is useful primarily as a means of making historical and cultural inferences about the collective fantasies shared by large groups of people and of identifying differences in these fantasies from one culture or period to another. When we turn from the cultural or historical use of the concept of formula to a consideration of the artistic limitations and possibilities of particular formulaic patterns, we are treating these formulas as a basis for aesthetic judgments of various sorts. In these cases, we might say that our generalized definition of a formula has become a conception of a genre. Formula and genre might be best understood not as denoting two different things, but as reflecting two phases or aspects of a complex process of literary analysis. This way of looking at the relation between formula and genre reflects the way in which popular genres develop. In most cases, a formulaic pattern will be in existence for a considerable period of time before it is conceived of by its creators and audience as a genre. For example, the western formula was already clearly defined in the nineteenth century, yet it was not until the twentieth century that the western was consciously conceived of as a distinctive literary and cinematic genre. Similarly, though Poe created the formula for the detective story in the 1840s and many stories and novels made some use of this pattern throughout the later nineteenth century, it was probably not until after Conan Doyle that the detective story became widely understood as a specific genre with its own special limitations and potentialities. If we conceive of a genre as a literary class that views certain typical patterns in relation to their artistic limitations and potentials, it will help us in making a further useful clarification. Because the conception of genre involves an aesthetic approach to literary structures, it can be conceived either in terms of the specific formulas of a particular culture or in relation to larger, more universal literary archetypes: there are times when we might wish to evaluate a particular western in relation to other westerns. In this case we would be using a conception of a formula-genre, or what is sometimes more vaguely called a popular genre. We might also wish to relate this same western to some more universal generic conception such as tragedy or romance. Here we would be employing an archetype-genre.
These, then, are the major terms that I propose to employ in the study of formulaic literature. As I have indicated, I hold no special brief for this particular terminology, but I do believe that the implied distinctions between the descriptive and the aesthetic modes of generalization and between the cultural and universal conceptions of types of stories are crucial and must be understood in the way we use whatever terms we choose for this sort of analysis. In the remainder of this chapter I will deal with what can be said in a general way about the analysis of formulaic structures.
The Artistic Characteristics of Formula Literature
Formula literature is, first of all, a kind of literary art. Therefore, it can be analyzed and evaluated like any other kind of literature. Two central aspects of formulaic structures have been generally condemned in the serious artistic thought of the last hundred years: their essential standardization and their primary relation to the needs of escape and relaxation. In order to consider formula literature in its own terms and not simply to condemn it out of hand, we must explore some of the aesthetic implications of these two basic characteristics.
While standardization is not highly valued in modern artistic ideologies, it is, in important ways, the essence of all literature. Standard conventions establish a common ground between writers and audiences. Without at least some form of standardization, artistic communication would not be possible. But well-established conventional structures are particularly essential to the creation of formula literature and reflect the interests of audiences, creators, and distributors.
Audiences find satisfaction and a basic emotional security in a familiar form; in addition, the audience's past experience with a formula gives it a sense of what to expect in new individual examples, thereby increasing its capacity for understanding and enjoying the details of a work. For creators, the formula provides a means for the rapid and efficient production of new works. Once familiar with the outlines of the formula, the writer who devotes himself to this sort of creation does not have to make as many difficult artistic decisions as a novelist working without a formula. Thus, formulaic creators tend to be extremely prolific. Georges Simenon has turned out an extraordinary number of first-rate detective novels, in addition to his less formulaic fiction. Others have an even more spectacular record of quantity production: Frederick Faust and John Creasey each turned out over five hundred novels under a variety of pseudonyms. For publishers or film studios, the production of formulaic works is a highly rationalized operation with a guaranteed minimal return as well as the possibility of large profits for particularly popular individual versions. I have been told, for instance, that any paperback western novel is almost certain to sell enough copies to cover expenses and make a small profit. Many serious novels, on the other hand, fail to make expenses and some represent substantial losses. There is an inevitable tendency toward standardization implicit in the economy of modern publishing and film-making, if only because one successful work will inspire a number of imitations by producers hoping to share in the profits.
If the production of formulas were only a matter of economics, we might well turn the whole topic over to market researchers. Even if economic considerations were the sole motive behind the production of formulas—and I have already suggested that there are other important motives as well—we would still need to explore the kind and level of artistic creation possible within the boundaries of a formula.
Robert Warshow in his essay on the gangster film effectively defined the special aesthetic imperatives of this sort of literary creation:
For such a type to be successful means that its conventions have imposed themselves upon the general consciousness and become the accepted vehicle of a particular set of attitudes and a particular aesthetic effect. One goes to any individual example of the type with very definite expectations, and originality is to be welcomed only in the degree that it intensifies the expected experience without fundamentally altering it. Moreover, the relationship between the conventions which go to make up such a type and the real experience of its audience or the real facts of whatever situation it pretends to describe is only of secondary importance and does not determine its aesthetic force. It is only in an ultimate sense that the type appeals to its audience's experience of reality; more immediately it appeals to previous experience of the type itself: it creates its own field of reference [italics mine].
Since the pleasure and effectiveness of an individual formulaic work depends on its intensification of a familiar experience, the formula creates its own world with which we become familiar by repetition. We learn in this way how to experience this imaginary world without continually comparing it with our own experience. Thus, as we shall see in a few moments, formulaic literature is a most appropriate vehicle for the experiences of escape and relaxation. Let me first examine some of the artistic problems generated by the fundamental formulaic imperative of intensifying an expected experience. In this type of literature, the relationship between individual work and formula is somewhat analogous to that of a variation to a theme, or of a performance to a text. To be a work of any quality or interest, the individual version of a formula must have some unique or special characteristics of its own, yet these characteristics must ultimately work toward the fulfillment of the conventional form. In somewhat the same way, when we see a new performance of a famous role like Hamlet, we are most impressed by it if it is a new but acceptable interpretation of the part. An actor who overturns all our previous conceptions of his role is usually less enjoyable than one who builds on the interpretations we have become accustomed to. But if he adds no special touches of his own to the part we will experience his performance as flat and uninteresting. The same thing is true of variations on a theme as in, for example, a jazz performance. The soloist who makes us completely lose our sense of the tune may create a new work of considerable interest, but it will lose the special pleasure that comes with our recognition of new emphasis and intensity given to a melody we already know. On the other hand, an improvisation that simply repeats the tune or "noodles" around it arouses very little excitement. This artistic principle of variations on a theme is clearly one of the fundamental modes of expression in popular culture, as can be seen from the tremendous importance of performance in almost all of the popular media. From this point of view a new detective story by, say, Agatha Christie, is comparable in many ways to a successful production of a familiar play by a gifted cast and a talented director.
Excerpted from Adventure, Mystery, and Romance by John G. Cawelti. Copyright © 1976 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Introduction: The Design of This Book
1. The Study of Literary Formulas
Formulas, Genres, and Archetypes
The Artistic Characteristics of Formula Literature
Formulas and Culture
2. Notes toward a Typology of Literary Formulas
Alien Beings or States
3. The Mythology of Crime and Its Formulaic Embodiments
The Godfather and the Literature of Crime
Elements of the New Formula
The Cultural Function of Popular Crime Formulas
4. The Formula of the Classical Detective Story
Patterns of the Formula
Cultural Background of the Formula
5. The Art of the Classical Detective Story
Central Artistic Problems of the Genre
Artistic Failures and Successes: Christie and Sayers
The Art of Simenon
Detective Stories and Detection as an Element in Other Literary Genres
The Future of the Classical Detective Story
6. The Hard-Boiled Detective Story
Hard-boiled and Classical Detective Stories
Patterns of the Formula
Cultural Backgrounds of the Formula
7. Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane
8. The Western: A Look at the Evolution of a Formula
Cooper and the Beginnings of the Western Formula
Nick of the Woods and the Dime Novel
Wister's Virginian and the Modern Western
Zane Grey and W. S. Hart: The Romantic Western of the 1920s
The Classic Western: John Ford and Others
The Jewish Cowboy, the Black Avenger, and the Return of the Vanishing American: Current Trends in the Formula
9. The Best-Selling Social Melodrama
The Social Melodrama
The Aesthetics of Social Melodrama
The Evolution of Social Melodrama