What you call Cult Fiction, I call …
Recently I wrote a post on why I love ABC’s Radio National, giving The Book Show as one of the reasons. Now, I will talk about why I love ABC TV. Or, at least, about The First Tuesday Bookclub and its spin-off Jennifer Byrne Presents. Both programs involve a panel discussing books. The First Tuesday Bookclub is a monthly program (on the first Tuesday of each month, no less) in which Byrne, two regular panel members and two guests discuss, usually, a current book and an older one. Jennifer Byrne Presents is an occasional program in which Byrne and four guest panel members discuss a particular bookish topic such as bestsellers, crime fiction, travel writing.
One of these occasional programs was broadcast this week, and the topic was cult fiction. The guests were asked to name their favourite cult fiction book, and their choices were:
- Dave Graney: Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow by M. Barnard Eldershaw
- Marieke Hardy: The bell jar, by Sylvia Plath
- Bob Sessions: Fear and loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S Thompson
- Markus Zusak: Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
Fascinating, eh? After each panel member spoke a little to their choice, Byrne asked them …
What makes a cult book?
They tossed around a number of ideas, including that cult fiction should:
- have some level of zeitgeist
- have some sense of danger, of being a little off the beaten track, of being daring
- be loved intensely (to the extent that people might dress up, talk the language such as Elvish, meet to discuss it, and so on)
- have longevity
- not be a bestseller
Not all the books nominated by the panel meet all these criteria, particularly the “bestseller” one.
Other questions Byrne asked were:
- Does cult fiction have to be well-written? (Most panel members said yes)
- Can you call a cult novel one you only read once? (The panel varied a little on this, though most believed it’s a book you read and read again)
- Is your relationship with someone affected if you discover they don’t share your particular “cult fiction” love? (Again the panel varied but veered towards “yes”, though perhaps with a little bit of the tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek)
Is Jane Austen a cult author?
All this (of course) made me think of Jane Austen, and an essay by Deidre Shauna Lynch on the “Cult of Jane Austen” in Cambridge University Press’s book, Jane Austen in context (edited by Janet Todd). Lynch analyses the range of Jane Austen followers, from the fans to the scholars, and explores some of the implications behind Jane Austen ‘worship’ and the tensions that exist between those who wish to focus on her work and those who seek a more personal relationship with the author. She discusses how the latter group, in particular, have spawned a particular type of Jane Austen tourism that can be likened somewhat to that of pilgrims visiting their saint.
Coincidentally, around the time I read this essay, the Jane Austen House Museum wrote an open letter to the Jane Austen Society banning people from scattering ashes in Chawton‘s grounds. A manager said that while the Museum understood people’s desire to have their ashes scattered at Chawton:
we don’t really feel it’s appropriate. If it enriched the soil we wouldn’t mind so much but the ashes have no nutrients at all.
Oh dear! She does go on to say, however, that Jane Austen had a good sense of humour and that:
she would think it’s hilarious and be thrilled she inspired such devotion.
But, that’s enough of that … otherwise you will start to suspect me of Austen fandom.
Besides, what I really want to know is: How do you define cult fiction? And, do you love any books that you would put in this group?