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What you call Cult Fiction, I call …

March 17, 2011

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:

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?

Janet Todd, ed, Jane Austen in context

Courtesy: Cambridge University Press

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?

53 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011 1:10 am

    I think it all depends on how you define cult fiction, and I don’t think there’s one clear-cut definition. I think one important characteristic is that the book or film will cross genre boundaries in its lasting, growing appeal.

    Cult film, for example, often appeals to people who are not necessarily fans of the particular genre. I dislike Horror, but I love Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Cult film can be a big box office success or it can be obscure. The same with books.

    RE: Jane Austen being a cult author… I think that’s an interesting question. I would say yes, but that’s a recent phenomenon, I think. People who would never dream of reading a 19th C novel will read hers, and then there are all those dreadful spin-offs. I’ll add that each cult following had its own characteristics.

    One of my favs: Charles Willeford.

    • March 17, 2011 8:41 am

      I like the way you think Guy redefinition. Perhaps one definition is that there is no definition, or, that one definition of “cult” is that it defies definition, that it expands beyond whatever definition the work might originally have had. Which could include, as you suggest, that its appeal crossed or transcends genre boundaries. I

      As for Jane Austen. Another characteristic of cult may be that people believe they “know” it even if they haven’t read it. You know, the statement that “I love Jane Austen” followed up with “Oh no, I haven’t read any of her novels but I love the films”.

      On this basis – ie that people feel they “know” it without having read it – is “Ulysses” a cult novel?

      • March 17, 2011 10:36 am

        Yeah, I can remember someone lecturing me, gushingly, ALL about JA after seeing S&S (the Emma Thompson version), and no she hadn’t read the friggin’ book.

        I’ve never thought of Ulysses as a cult novel, but that’s probably because I’d rather ignore it.

        • March 17, 2011 11:33 am

          Yep, that’s exactly the experience I’ve had.

          And, LOL re Ulysses. Still, it’s hard to ignore when there’s a June 16 every year! That must qualify it as cult!

  2. March 17, 2011 1:24 am

    Hmm, taking a swing, I’d say cult fiction does have to have a certain zeitgeist, tends to be popular through word of mouth more often than through the usual literary channels, has a rabidly devoted following. I don’t think being well-written is a requirement. I’d call “On the Road” a cult book but I’ve read it and found rather dull. But then doing drugs and traveling across the U.S. isn’t my thing so maybe I just was not the right audience. I’d say Austen definitely has a cult following in spite of her being sanctioned by academia. I love Austen but I don’t count myself as part of the cult. One of my favorite books that has a cult following, or at least used to, is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

    • March 17, 2011 1:37 am

      I agree. I am an Austen fan, but I don’t consider myself a cult fan either. I think the advent of the film versions really fueled the cult status.

      I think a cult book can be fairly obscure or even a best seller. I don’t get the On The Road thing either….

    • March 17, 2011 8:47 am

      Ah, yes, Stefanie. “Word of mouth” seems to be another good characteristic. And “despite” academia is another good point. Perhaps we can expand Guy’s crossing “genre” to be expanding beyond its “normal” slot?

      I have tried On the road, and Fear and loathing, but didn’t finish either. One book I did read that was cult in its time is “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. It had a certain zeitgeist didn’t it? Has it lasted? Did it last long enough to be truly cult?

      • March 18, 2011 1:41 am

        Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is definitely a cult book and has not been completely forgotten. There was a sort of sequel a few years ago that made a bit of a splash.

        • March 18, 2011 8:36 am

          So, I guess “cult” has a time-limit – perhaps when it no longer reflects some “zeitgeist”? Interesting to ponder, why some last. The writing? The ability to capture something universal – as well as be edgy?

  3. March 17, 2011 4:33 am

    Hmm! I’m going to need to give that some thought, but immediately what comes to mind having read your post is the cult of the Brontes. Believe me, if there are readers who have turned Austen into a cult writer, as someone who lived for years in the shadow of Haworth Parsonage, the Bronte worshippers have them beaten hollow. Even daring to suggest that you perhaps were not quite so enamoured (I love “Jane Eyre’ but have major problems with ‘Wuthering Heights’) was tantamount to laying yourself open to being tarred and feathered and the stoned afterwards!

    • March 17, 2011 8:51 am

      Ah the Brontes. Yes, given the whole tragedy/mystique (not in the sense of “mystery”) surrounding their joint lives and deaths buys right into cult followings doesn’t it. The program touched briefly on the idea of cult authors – and they I guess can be marked by something exotic/unusual/tragic about their lives?

  4. March 17, 2011 10:46 am

    What an interesting question!

    I think Catcher in the Rye qualifies as a cult novel. Definitely Infinite Jest.

    And the works of Henry Miller — as the sort of thing you “discover” in college (I mean, not in courses, but in college as an experience) and is considered the height of cool or deep.

    I was in a 2nd-hand bookstore a little while ago just off campus, and I overheard the proprietor telling someone the highest demand was for Paul Auster, Italo Calvino, Thomas Pynchon. Which struck me, for being what we all thought was the epitome of cool when I was in college 20 years ago.

    “Cult” to me implies a little bit not mainstream, and in that sense I don’t think Jane Austen qualifies.

    • March 17, 2011 11:30 am

      Thanks for engaging Isabella. Yes you’re point re “a little bit not mainstream” is a good way of putting it, and is why I feel a little unsure about the Jane Austen thing too. “Cult” seems to me to be a little bit “naughty”. On the other hand, if we talk about cultish behaviour – adoration, re-reading, dressing up, speaking the language (did you know there was a “speak Jane Austen day?”) then JA and Tolkien would seem to fit.

      Talking about college discoveries, there is Mary McCarthy’s The group.

      And, do you think Catcher in the rye is not mainstream? Or, is is mostly mainstream but a little bit not!!

      • March 17, 2011 3:33 pm

        What gets me is the way Jane Austen has been subverted by a few strains of fans. I’m taking about the bodice ripper off shoots and then those zombie books.

        • March 17, 2011 10:29 pm

          Oh yes … terrible stuff. This whole JA issue is a hot topic in my (serious) JA group. Some get hot under the collar about it BUT I’ve decided we should just be happy that so many people like her. YOu never know, they may eventually see the light but if they don’t who cares if they get off on their zombies and sequels, as long as they leave the rest of us in peace.

      • March 18, 2011 3:45 am

        Hmm. Catcher in the Rye IS pretty mainstream. But it has subversive, antiestablishment intent.

        Which is another criteria that a lot of the books noted here rub up against, whether it’s in the plot/characters/content or in the structure/form.

        And then there’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Along with a lot of other SF-ish stuff, when fans recognize each either and make references, it’s like it marks them as belonging to a special group, being in the know.

        I suppose it’s true of a lot of different genres, but it seems more marked with SF (maybe because SF fans are more noticeably nerdy?).

        • March 18, 2011 8:42 am

          Ah yes, Hitchhiker’s Guide … another one.

          And yes, I like the idea of structure/form being part of the defining options.

  5. George permalink
    March 17, 2011 11:58 am

    When considering Kipling’s story “The Janeites”, I can see how one can speak of a cult of Jane Austen. But a novelist with a cult does not necessarily produce cult fiction. There is a cult of Trollope also, and I don’t see his novels as having the qualities that make for that.

    What you need is a certain barrier to entry, references, inside jokes, knowledge that the general public won’t have. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is a good example, with its parodies of TV and Jacobean drama, riffs on calculus, California jokes, etc. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds is another good example. In general, if anyone but a literature major misses most of the references, there’s a good chance you have a cult novel.

    • March 17, 2011 12:23 pm

      Thanks George. I like the way you tease out Cult author from Cult fiction. I agree that there is a difference. The program – always too short – touched on it but could have explored it more.

      I also like the idea of “a barrier to entry…”. I haven’t yet read The crying of lot 49, but I have read At Swim-Two Birds. Do these books have enough of a following to be “cult”. How much of a following does a work need to have to be “cult” or is it good enough that there is a recognition by others that such a following exists? Chicken and egg?

  6. March 17, 2011 2:19 pm

    William Gibson definitely fits into this category. Dubbed the godfather of cyberpunk, he has a dedicated following among the nerds of the world and readers who appreciate stylish prose.

    He has written three trilogies and all are super stylish and written in Gibson’s distinctive prose style, which is somewhat dry and punkish. Speaking of Zeitgeist, Gibson’s most recent trilogy comprising Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History and is set in the present time, but written from a viewpoint that sees the world from a different angle, investing it with a kind of skewed glamour. He is one of my all time favourite writers.

    • March 17, 2011 2:34 pm

      Thanks Anne. I haven’t read Gibson yet, but my son who has moved out of home recently identified books for passing on. Before doing that I picked a couple to stay, and one is Neuromancer. I still have to find time to read it but it’s a start.

      Anyhow, it does sound as though these meet “cult” requirements. Do you think a criterion should be “followers must be nerds”?!

  7. March 17, 2011 3:00 pm

    “Do you think a criterion should be “followers must be nerds”?!”

    Not necessarily, but if you read the forum on his website he has a very dedicated following of die hard fans, who follow everything he does and speculate endlessly on the tidbits Gibson occasionally lets slip when he is writing a new novel.

    Probably the writer who has the most nerdish followers is Neal Stephenson, also a cultish author.

    • March 17, 2011 3:28 pm

      Ah yes, I believe my son read him too. And, what about Neil Gaiman and some of his books?

  8. March 17, 2011 3:52 pm

    Ah yes Neil Gaiman. I must admit I’ve gone off his books, though originally I thought they were ace. He does have a large admiring following though.

  9. March 17, 2011 7:06 pm

    Hmm, I’ve never thought of myself as being into cult fiction, but if reading Ulysses makes it so, I guess I am *gulp*.
    I have to admit that I find the current hoop-la about JA very offputting, but I don’t think it’s a cult. IMO There ought to be an element of nerdiness or geekiness in a cult, and its devotees ought to wear black and look soulful and misunderstood.

    • March 17, 2011 10:31 pm

      LOL, I like the idea of looking soulful and misunderstood, though perhaps it looks better on the young than a middle-aged grey haired person? I might try it at my next JA conference and see how far it gets me!

  10. March 18, 2011 9:21 am

    Gummie: on the subject of cult fiction or film, I’m holding an Ed Wood film festival for myself over the next month.

    • March 18, 2011 8:56 pm

      Now, that is serious cult! I do hope you are going to write it up.

      • March 19, 2011 7:06 am

        I might be rendered speechless.

        I listened to a line last night (paraphrasing here)that went something like this: what would happen if every man in America who liked to wear women’s clothing decided to have a sex change??????

  11. George permalink
    March 18, 2011 10:05 am

    The remark about Ed Wood does suggest another criterion: let y be one’s admiration for the work, x be one’s self-appreciation for understanding it. As x/y approaches and exceeds 1, so the work approaches cult status. So it is relatively harder to classify Shakespeare or Austen as cult work, easier as the scale of achievement dimishes.

    • March 18, 2011 8:58 pm

      Now you’re bamboozling me with maths, but that’s just the sort of thing a cult nerd would do, n’est-ce pas?

      • George permalink
        March 19, 2011 11:02 am

        Precisely, the sort of nerd who got it, and thought the better of himself for doing so, when Pynchon had a bit relating DT as in delirium tremens to the mathematical notation dt, the delta of time.

        • March 19, 2011 4:06 pm

          Now that sounds worthy of cult status! Are we going around in circles?

  12. March 18, 2011 1:56 pm

    At first I wondered whether Twilight could count as cult fiction, but then I read the part about it needing to be well-written 😉

    • March 18, 2011 8:54 pm

      Cheeky BUT you could decide that that was not a criterion. Still, another suggested criterion is longevity, and surely Twilight won’t have longevity either?

  13. March 19, 2011 7:13 am

    I’m a closet Saul Bellow fan. He certainly qualifies as cult fiction (with nobel prize attached) on the grounds that his work is well-written. Well, more than well-written, impeccably written in fact.

    • March 19, 2011 3:58 pm

      Welcome CityOfLu. Now, why closet!! I’ve only read one Bellow – The adventures of Augie March – and enjoyed it a lot. I’d like to read more. I’m not sure though that I’d call him “cult” … I don’t see being “well-written” as the defining characteristic of “cult fiction”. I see things like edginess/subversiveness and/or passionate/intense fandom as perhaps being primary criteria. What do you think?

      • March 19, 2011 7:29 pm

        Yes, indeed, why did I say “closet”? I should examine that…perhaps because I’m supposed to be reading text books and fiction – cult or otherwise – seems like a very indulgent luxury that I can’t afford time-wise at the moment.

        I agree with your criteria about passionate/intense fandom though. For me there has to be some kind of guilty pleasure involved too. I think most of that pleasure is in the selfish act of reading and blocking out the rest of the world and forgetting all your responsibilities.

        Now I’m thinking Murakami might be my cult fiction fave.

        Great topic! Now back to my studies!

        • March 19, 2011 8:06 pm

          Guilty pleasures – oh, yes I know all about that! I often feel guilty about reading when I should be doing other “stuff”. Oh, and I love Murakami too.

  14. March 20, 2011 9:56 pm

    When something inspires fans to go all our and to even dress up, then I think that has reach cult status. Jane Austen has definitely reached that! I believe there’s a festival in Canberra each year where Janeites dress up in their regency finery and dance about in balls ala Lizzie and Darcy.

    I’ll add my 2 cents for Catcher in the Rye and also The Little Prince and Slaughterhouse-Five. I lurk about on literary tattoo sites and both of those books have had so many tattoos dedicated to them!

    I love TFTBC! I have a slight crush on Jason Steger…

    • March 20, 2011 10:12 pm

      There is in fact … the dressing up is something that puts me off because they are pretty serious about it. And good for them – the coordinator is seriously interested in historic clothing – but it’s not me. At the Jane Austen Society of Australia conference some members dress up for the conference dinner, but the conference itself is reasonably scholarly with papers on the books, and the history of the times. The Jane Austen Festival is really more of a Regency Festival inspired by Jane Austen.

  15. March 23, 2011 8:15 pm

    I think the ‘cult’ books and authors that will be remembered the longest are those that have a sense of humour: capturing the ‘zeitgeist’ and possessing plenty of serendipity can surely only go so far. And would you say that one vital element of the ‘cult’ definition is the idea of compromise vs peril re: the central character?

    • March 23, 2011 9:17 pm

      Wow, Lee, this is an interesting comment, and a fascinating question. I’m not sure that humour is essential, but would be interested to hear what others say. As for “compromise vs peril”. Would you like to explain a little more exactly what you mean?

  16. March 23, 2011 11:01 pm

    I’ll try to do that…forgive any meandering here….

    Most cult novels seem to involve a level of rejection – of constricting norms – and the resultant risk that rejection poses. To take a couple of examples, I’ll start with Fear and Loathing. Here Thompson is ostensibly talking about the American Dream as problematically manifest as Las Vegas. How flight towards that place is a shedding of workaday skin towards a temporary delusion, which is no different to being constantly mashed on numerous drugs and accepting the payoff: grim hangover. Thompson heads to Las Vegas, then, totally off his face throughout the trip, and demolishes it as a symbol of crashed ambition, fakery, wrong-headedness and doom. He feels an inexorable pull towards somewhere he is pretty sure he is going to loathe, finds ‘the death of the American dream’ to be as horrific as he expected, feels justified and, amidst variations on the same ‘Las Vegas as American metaphor for self-willed exile in hell’ theme, during which he takes all the remaining drugs he hadn’t already consumed in a frenzy of insanity, muses on what’s been lost. But the stasis of small town America, Thompson ends up emphasising, is much, much worse….

    Jane Austen, with Emma, uses a central character that rebels against the expectations of her re: marriage and security (and indeed against herself) and who hides behind a veil of cynical self-assurance. It’s a ‘cult’ novel (the only ‘cult’ Austen novel?), perhaps in part, due to the ‘daring’ nature of this central conceit and the humorous disregard for convention.

    Needless to say, the main protagonist in both of the above is far from likeable in a straightforward sense: each is far from a normal hero. So maybe: unconventional hero/commentary on compromise/rebellion and discord/might cover it?! And both are funny and that surely helps…

    • March 23, 2011 11:17 pm

      Ah thanks, that explains what you mean. It makes great sense … and, I think, feeds into that idea of “subversiveness”. And the humour tends to be a little wicked doesn’t it?

  17. March 23, 2011 11:45 pm

    Indeed! Subversion and wicked-humour: the cult novels I consider the best, which are amongst the masterpieces of fiction (At Swim, Two Birds, A Confederacy Of Dunces, Incandescence, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Infinite Jest and so on) all fit that bill.

    • March 24, 2011 8:38 am

      Great, we are on the same wavelength. I’ve only read one of those (At Swim) and dipped into one (Fear and loathing), but am keen to read A confederacy of dunces and probably Infinite jest. Am not so aware of Incandescence but will look into it.

  18. March 24, 2011 10:49 pm

    Incandescence is one of the lost classics out there that I’m aware of, do give it a go – hope you like it!

    • March 25, 2011 5:23 pm

      Actually, I don’t even know who wrote this one. My search brings up a Sci Fi novel of that title but who wrote the one you are talking about? It’s clearly lost (to me, anyhow!)

  19. March 25, 2011 11:11 am

    Wow – that question got everyone going! I don’t have anything to offer on the issue of cult fiction – which is not very useful for this discussion I know. it’s just something I have never given thought to and even now when I am trying to – I am coming up with… nothing!

    I do love the first Tuesday Book Club though.

    I have been in the audience a couple of times which was a nice experience – although I didn’t once spot a person there that wasn’t white – and 98% of the white people were middle aged women (the other 2 % comprsing some younger women like myself and some quite old people 75+, and of course a couple of token male husbands). It scared me both times I attended.

    • March 25, 2011 5:26 pm

      There you’ve added something … the cult of the middle-aged white female reader! How nice though to have been in the audience. One good reason for living in Sydney 😉

      BTW Now I’m 50 something, I think quite old might be 85+ ….

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