Types of novel: Cult, or coterie, novels

Posted by @ 7:30 am on February 27th, 2009

April and Frank's trip to Paris

Kate Winslet won an Oscar for The Reader, but Richard Yates fans everywhere thought to themselves, I’m just going to pretend she won this for her portrayal of an American housewife instead of an illiterate fräulein.

So, the movie wasn’t exactly fantastic. You, and every other literature major undergrad, film critic over the age of 45 (new yorker review cough cough) were willing to forgive the movie for it’s, shall we say, defects. Obviously you could look past the “limitations of the medium” because Yates finally got the recognition he deserved!  This is obviously a year of triumph for underdogs. Obama is president, Kate Winslet WINS an Oscar, Richard Yates’ magnum opus is turned into a film and nominated for three Academy Awards. Woo, hoo!

This recognition is not without its drawbacks, and clearly you wouldn’t be a Yates fan if you didn’t get all hot and bothered by life’s bittersweet moments. In the aftermath of a booze soaked celebration you awake a little less certain about the cultural capital of your precious dog-eared copy of Revolutionary Road.

It’s not long before your shadowy unease grows to proportions of nightmarish beast. Shortly after you mom visits you for the weekend and steals your beloved 12th edition paperback, the horrific truth dawns on you; the cult classic value of your blue chip investment has plummeted, you are now culturally bankrupt.



You may be experiencing cult classic fallout. The following should help guide you through the painful and confusing experience. Feelings of displacement, vertigo, and morning sickness are common but should be cause for serious concern. The conversion of cult classic to contemporary blockbuster is one of the most sacrilegious offenses high art can commit. Seek treatment from a naive publishing house intern, slutty literary agent or favorite college professor if symptoms do not subside within two weeks.

(for distinctions between fanatic and cult classic follower, see note at bottom)

This handy article from Encyclopedia Britannica should assist you locate a new favorite fiction and return your cultural bank statement to a healthy surplus. Before you know it you’ll be cradling your very own malnourished, severely neglected preemie novelist. You’ll be back On the Road in no time…

The novel, unlike the poem, is a commercial commodity, and it lends itself less than the materials of literary magazines to that specialized appeal called coterie, intellectual or elitist.

It sometimes happens that books directed at highly cultivated audiences—like Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936)—achieve a wider response, sometimes because of their daring in the exploitation of sex or obscenity, more often because of a vitality shared with more demotic fiction.

The duplicated typescript or the subsidized periodical, rather than the commercially produced book, is the communication medium for the truly hermetic novel.

The novel that achieves commercial publication but whose limited appeal precludes large financial success can frequently become the object of cult adulation.

In the period since World War II, especially in the United States, such cults can have large memberships.

The cultists are usually students (who, in an era of mass education, form a sizable percentage of the total population of the United States), or fringes of youth sharing the student ethos, and the novels chosen for cult devotion relate to the social or philosophical needs of the readers.

The fairy stories of Tolkien, The Lord of the Flies of Golding, the science fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., have, for a greater or lesser time, satisfied a hunger for myth, symbols, and heterodox ideas, to be replaced with surprising speed by other books.

The George Orwell cult among the young was followed by a bitter reaction against Orwell’s own alleged reactionary tendencies, and such a violent cycle of adoration and detestation is typical of literary cults.

Adult cultists tend, like young ones, to be centred in universities, from which they circulate newsletters on Finnegans Wake, Anthony Powell’s Music of Time sequence, and the works of Evelyn Waugh.

Occasionally new public attention becomes focussed on a neglected author through his being chosen as a cult object. This happened when the novellas of Ronald Firbank, the anonymous comic novel Augustus Carp, Esq., and G.V. Desani’s All About Mr. Hatterr got back into print because of the urging of minority devotees.

Despite attempts to woo a larger public to read it, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano obstinately remained a cult book, while the cultists performed their office of keeping the work alive until such time as popular taste should become sufficiently enlightened to appreciate it.

While the fanatic is someone who slaughters a calf in honor of Harry Potter, the follower of the cult classic can be found memorizing scripture from Donald Barthelme. The fanatic takes their sacrament under the migraine inducing halo of fluorescent lights in the megalith Mall of America adoration temple, while the follower of the cult classics sings devotional hymns in the originally designed by Philip Johnson forest sanctuary of Thy Shall Not Cast Stones.

I’d steer clear of Lowry if this is your first jaunt back in the saddle (have you guys tried to read Under the Volcano? It’s a brick with a heart of stone, totally unforgiving to the modern reader’s twitter/youtube/flashfiction/ addled brain).

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