New Maps of Hell

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What makes cult fiction cultish? Can you recognize it by its "loyal, slightly flaky following"? Is it fiction that should "have been out of print for ten years"? Is it just a marketing label affixed by desperate publishers? Or is it fiction that has developed a readership outside the old network of powerhouse cultural organs; fiction that people read because they actually enjoy reading it?

The appearance in the UK of The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction (available in the US in a couple of weeks) has some critics—and writers, too—scratching their heads. Jonathan Franzen's in the Guide; is he really a cult writer? Boris (I Spit on Your Grave) Vian is not in the Guide; doesn't he have a cult following? Will Self made it into the Guide, and he's glad: "I' m happy to be included in anything," he told the London Times, adding that "'cult' is a genre like any other: 'a kind of sanitised avant-garde.'" A.S. Byatt is probably nobody's idea of a cult figure (she's not in the Guide), but it turns out that there are people who make furniture and tapestries based on her stuff. Yes, Possession furniture.

Given the decline of literary gatekeeping, reading isn't what it used to be, so maybe the idea of cult-fiction subcultures isn't what it used to be, either. Author A.L. Kennedy approaches the territory when she suggests that "the idea of reading non-bestselling fiction . . . is becoming a kind of cult in itself." That thought invites cultural power-shifts into the discussion: Critics and other gatekeepers have been undone by a variety of factors, including the Internet and monster bookstores. Kennedy herself notes that, in the Times' paraphrase, "the advent of the internet has made seeking out 'cult authors' much easier than it used to be."

Sour gatekeepers have welcomed the new Guide, too, though for sour-gatekeeper reasons. As a critic in The Independent put it, "publishers have to think harder about how to reach the hordes of critical consumers of film, TV, internet and pop culture who should be reading books as sharp and savvy as all the shows, sites and bands they adore." (Link via ArtsJournal.) The Times' Erica Wagner has a better sense of cultishness: that it is less about hordes than it is about individual readers. "[E]ach book that speaks strongly to an individual reader creates its own cult," she writes, "there can be many subcults along the way."

Nick Gillespie wrote here about Don DeLillo and "the bum luck of being a great novelist when such a figure doesn't command the attention, respect, and awe it once did." I wrote here about Jonathan Franzen and literary-taste hypocrisy. And here are some old ruminations about technology, the diffusion of cultural power, and the decline of the middlebrow.

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  1. I’m not clear on what, exactly constitutes cult fiction. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels have a cultish following(and deservedly so), but were bestsellers in their time.

    Andrew Vachss’ work would qualify, I suppose. In the end, though, that label, like most others applying to art, can never really describe what it tries to define.

  2. Wait…Isn’t Jonathan Franzen the guy who played Will Riker?

  3. In an age when so many people have so much access to nearly every bit and byte of information they like, and can find out so instantaneously about what in the past would have been considered “cult,” does that word even mean anything? When there’s no real mainstream, what is the meaning of the word “alternative?”

  4. DavePotts: Although our access to esoteric literature may have expanded,our tastes have not. When I was a teen, I read H. P. Lovecraft and I had a hard time finding anthologies of his books. Now you can find his on this Inter-Web thingie as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

    However, ask 100 people on the Street who Lovecraft was and what he wrote, and you’d be extremely lucky to find 1 who knew. Yeah, you can find more copies of “Call Of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror”, but the arbeiter of pop culture have not deemed it worthy of mass comsumption unlike football, pro-wrestling, cop shows, and Paris Hilton.

    The “mainstream” is very much alive when it ignores the “alternative.” That isn’t likely to change soon, if ever.

  5. Cult fiction?
    Isn’t that anything written by L. Ron Hubbard?

    or perhaps a Quentin Tarantino movie?

  6. The term “cult” as applied to cultural artifacts (books, films, television) in the UK has a rather different meaning than in the US. Anything with a devoted fanbase is categorized as “cult” in the UK, thus leading to such seeming absurdities as referring to the “Star Wars” movies as being “cult films”.

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