Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1990
The Media of Publishing
Edited by Albert Moran

Kitsch, Romance Fiction And Male Paranoia: Stephen King meets the Frankfurt School

Rita Felski

Some of the most noteworthy intersections between feminist theory and cultural studies in recent years have addressed the question of the gendering of mass culture. 1 These studies have shown how the "high"/"mass" culture divide is symbolically overlaid by conceptions of masculinity and femininity tied to the gender division of labour and the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres. Male artists and intellectuals in Europe and America increasingly sought to distance themselves from an expanding mass reading public that was not only largely identified with women but also symbolically endowed with "feminine" characteristics through its association with the sphere of consumption rather than production and with sensationalism and emotionalism rather than critical thought. Through a familiar logic of exclusion, the self-conscious aesthetic of early modernism defined itself in explicit opposition to the uncritical identification and "naive" reading attributed to this mass culture audience. 2

This "persistent gendering of mass culture as feminine and inferior" 3 has affected representations of both popular texts and of their audiences. In this regard, the notion of "kitsch" is a key term in identifying the ideological assumptions underlying the phenomenon of the "feminisation" of mass culture. The origins of the word are usually traced back to the 1860s, when it was coined by artists in Munich, West Germany as a label for cheap, rapidly produced paintings sold to tourists. 4 "Kitsch" gradually acquired a broader and international currency; in the writings of the Frankfurt School and of the American liberal intelligentsia of the 1940s and 50s, it functions as the direct antithesis of "avant-garde," an over-arching label used to designate the banality and triteness of mass-produced art. 5 As such, it encompasses the taste cultures not only of the working class but also of the non-intellectual middle-classes deficient in the cultural capital of educated elites. At the same time, even a cursory survey of definitions reveals an unambiguous sub-text of gender-specific associations. Kitsch is defined as consisting of "cheap, vulgar, sentimental, tasteless, trashy, pretty, cute objects," 6 is linked to the "pretty" or "decorative" and to "pleasant, sugary feelings," 7 seen to exemplify a "flabby passivity" and "stickiness," 8 or indeed a "muscular slackness." 9 Even more telling is one critic's definition of kitsch as "any over-sentimental, oversweet, luscious, in short chocolate-boxy production in art, music and literature." 10

Thus while "kitsch" is sometimes employed as a general synonym for "popular, commercial art and literature," 11 it simultaneously carries more specific and gender-specific connotations. The term, which can be applied to almost any area of culture subject to judgements of taste - eg., film, architecture, literature, interior decor, art, etc. - refers to a specific dimension of the cultural object or text: its purported adherence to an outmoded aesthetic. Religious art objects or souvenirs - the fluorescent statue of the Virgin Mary or the Mona Lisa ashtray - are cited with reliable frequency in critical discussion as exemplary instances of kitsch. Here the comic effects (at least in the eyes of the critic) arise from the incongruity between the attempted evocation of the sacred "aura" of religion or high art and the modern, functional, mass-produced qualities of the object. The identification of an object as kitsch, in other words, typically assumes an implicit framework of periodisation; kitsch is that product of a contemporary technological society which simultaneously denies its own modernity by adhering to a regressive traditionalism. Thus, according to Hermann Broch, kitsch is nothing other than "an escape into the idyll of history where set conventions are still valid...kitsch is the simplest, most direct way of soothing this nostalgia." 12 The critical analysis of this conceptual framework is, I will suggest, central to any understanding of the persistent identification of kitsch with femininity and of literary kitsch with such "woman-centred" forms as romance fiction.

It may perhaps be objected that such assumptions reflect the elitism of Frankfurt School theorists and their cohorts, bearing little relevance to contemporary views of mass or popular culture. But the symbolic gendering of mass culture is a phenomenon that is not simply reducible to the prejudices of a few mandarin intellectuals. Rather, its roots lie in a history of processes of structural differentiation - between the ideologically constitutive features of "masculine" and "feminine" subjectivity, between the perceived status and functions of "high" and "mass" culture - which continue to have real and multiple effects. Even if sweeping distinctions between "authentic" art and "kitsch" no longer appear quite so unproblematic - one of the markers of what has become known as a postmodern consciousness - a nexus of associations between mass culture and femininity continues to influence the contemporary cultural imaginary, even if at a more subterranean level. I hope to back up this claim by showing that the allegorisation of mass culture as feminine recurs in a fundamentally identical form in a recent bestseller by Stephen King hardly the work of a European high culture intellectual. In this context, Andreas Huyssen's assertion that the negative association between mass culture and women has been definitively superseded in contemporary thought as a result of the influence of feminism reveals a somewhat premature optimism. 13


"Sentimentality" is the key word which recurs in most definitions of kitsch, as that feature which distinguishes it from other facets of mass culture. Focusing on "birth and the family" as representative kitsch themes, for example, Gillo Dorfles notes that "every ambiguous, false, tearful, emotional exaggeration brings about that typically kitsch attitude which could be defined as 'sentimentality'." 14 These pejorative connotations of sentimentality, defined as "emotional weakness, mawkish tenderness ... nursing of the emotions," (Concise Oxford Dictionary) are of course a modern phenomenon. Like "romantic," to which it is closely allied, "sentimental" has come to denote a range of cultural responses considered embarrassing and outmoded, rendered anachronistic by the ironic consciousness characteristic of the modern age. The devaluation of the term has been accompanied by its feminisation - the "man of feeling" was a commonplace figure of the eighteenth-century novel√Ďand the identification of kitsch with sentimentality and associated phenomena such as romance and escapism reveals as its implicit referent those texts consumed primarily by women. In his discussion of literary examples of kitsch, for example, Dorfles singles out "the too obviously kitsch paragraphs taken from the romanticised tales written for Victorian girls or from the reports on the social life of royalty which still pester our magazines." 15 Similarly, in a German volume on literary kitsch published in 1979, the only text analysed in detail is Eric Segal's Love Story, and there are numerous references to "Heftromane" roughly the German equivalent of Mills and Boon - as the highest exemplification of kitsch. The ideology of "true love," Ludwig Giesz notes, is one of the most productive fields for the generation of kitsch. 16 As literary kitsch is identified with such women's genres as romance fiction, so kitsch more generally is often associated with a "feminine" love of ornamentation, exemplified in the various forms of bric-a-brac and "knick-knacks" bought to beautify the interior of the domestic household. 17

This devaluation of a textual object as a result of its association with a "feminine" sentimentality is not of course an unfamiliar phenomenon, bringing to mind similar discussions of the status of melodrama in contemporary film theory. Feminist critics have addressed the critical neglect and dismissal of melodrama as a filmic genre associated with "excessive" emotion and loss of self in the context of an intellectual tradition which has fetishized the distanced and contemplative gaze. The weakness of much of this criticism, however, has been a tendency to accept at face value an Opposition between "masculine" and "feminine" modes of perception and reception grounded in reified and ahistorical notions of sexual difference derived from a Lacanian theoretical framework. 18 As a result, the feminist intervention has been largely restricted to a recuperation of that previously categorised as negative - with melodrama now codified as authentically feminine and even as subversive - rather than a challenging of the terms of the opposition itself.

The concept of "kitsch," by contrast, clearly functions as the ideological product of a set of historically specific anxieties about mass culture and gender rather than an unproblematic basis for an oppositional "feminine" difference. Discussions of kitsch typically invoke two specific clusters of ideas; on the one hand, sentimentality, manifested in kitsch's preoccupation with "feeling" and the realm of the beautiful, on the other, modern processes of rationalisation and mass production. Kitsch is seen to exemplify the standardisation of feeling, its transformation into a mass-produced object, as evidenced by one definition of the term: "feeling as a commodity." 19 According to Broch, kitsch both asserts and negates the Romantic yearning for an authentic sphere of emotion outside of and uncontaminated by the social. 20 This ideal is affirmed in kitsch's nostalgia for the beautiful, its invocation of an aesthetic of harmony which expresses the longing for unity and reconciliation in the realm of the imaginary. It is negated in that these utopian images, which promise an escape from modern experiences of rationalisation and routine, are themselves a function of cultural industrialisation and mass production. The term "kitsch" identifies yet simultaneously dismisses a real sociohistorical phenomenon - the "democratisation of luxury" in a consumer culture, which makes possible general access to forms of aesthetic pleasure and experience previously the privilege of a few.

This cultural pessimism regarding the effects of technology and standardisation is frequently accompanied by a profound anxiety regarding the "inauthentic" yet excessive emotional responses unleashed by mass culture images, narratives and forms of spectacle. Thus mass culture emerges as an engulfing, threatening force in the writings of many nineteenth and twentieth century intellectuals, seen to cater to disturbingly powerful yet regressive fantasies and desires. In this context, such mass media forms as advertising and the cinema become explicitly identified with a female audience seeking pleasure, distraction and loss of self, absorbed by the enchanting illusions and seductive promises of the culture industry. As Patrice Petro argues in her analysis of Kracauer, the untrustworthiness of the mass culture image and the vulnerability of the spectator are linked to a passivity, uniformity and uncritical consumption identified as feminine. 21 Male anxieties and fantasies about women, female sexuality and male gender identity come to intermesh with ambivalent responses to processes of rapid social change. Mass culture is thus seen as simultaneously modern and regressive; the most sophisticated forms of technological development serve to encourage a slide into a "feminine" irrationality. For several generations of intellectuals and cultural critics, progress is revealed as its opposite in a familiar meta-narrative of degeneration and cultural decline.

The left-wing critique of mass culture needs to be differentiated at this point from the conservative variant (Arnold) in its alliance with a modernist aesthetic which can defamiliarize and hence disrupt the reified ideological schemata of modern mass society. Thus the notion of progress does not completely disappear, but is displaced into the sphere of the aesthetic, in the avant-garde emphasis on aesthetic innovation and the rejection of tradition. In the various incarnations of this protomodernist position, from Brecht and Adorno through to Tel Quel and Screen, the experimental, self-conscious, knowing text is seen to offer a mechanism of resistance to the automatized and naturalized ways of seeing exemplified within mass culture. It is against this background that the dismissal of kitsch and associated notions - sentimentality, idealism, escapism, nostalgia - needs to be situated.

Kitsch, in other words, is coded as a regressive form of aesthetic experience in relation to a narrative of progress which operates simultaneously on two levels: the cultural and the psychic. I have indicated that kitsch's appeal to the emotional and the beautiful is read as an index of its inauthenticity, of a failure to engage aesthetically with the problems of the modern age. The kitsch object does not enable an emancipatory de-auraticization of art (Benjamin), precisely because it conceals its own technical reproducibility, cloaking it in a nostalgic and mystificatory appeal to the aesthetic - and by implication, ideological - values of the past. The category of kitsch thus functions as the antithesis of the modernist "shock of the new." It is also, however, to be distinguished from the postmodernist reappropriation of tradition, which takes the form of an ironic and self-conscious quotation of history as style. The notion of kitsch, by contrast, implies a "naive" and uncritical reliance on aesthetic cliches and stereotypical notions of beauty, glossing over contradiction and generating the illusion of harmony in a non-harmonious world. 22 Kitsch is thus identified with an idealist tradition in art, a tradition which, as Naomi Schor notes, became closely identified with the work of women writers in the nineteenth century and which has almost without exception been disparaged or ignored by male critical theorists. 23

Second, kitsch is also linked to an individual past and to regression into childhood. Kitsch is perceived to cater to infantile desires for immediate and unobstructed pleasure, as opposed to the intellectual labour associated with high art and in particular with the difficult modernist text. Thus for Calinescu, the essence of kitsch is summarised in terms of "its vague, 'hallucinatory' powers, its spurious dreaminess, its promise of an easy 'catharsis'." 24 Undermining critical distance and rational thought through its appeal to unconscious processes, kitsch embodies a threat to the stability of ego boundaries. It is not difficult to see a connection here between the intellectual's anxiety about the regressive emotional effects of kitsch and the male fear of the lack of differentiation associated with the feminine, a link apparent in McDonald's revealing references to the "spreading ooze of mass culture" and Adorno and Horkheimer's claim that mass culture exemplifies the threat of castration. 25 As Huyssen points out, "the fear of the masses ... is always also a fear of woman, a fear of nature out of control, a fear of the unconscious, of sexuality, of the loss of identity and stable ego boundaries in the mass." 26 Thus the two narratives of historical and of psychic development come together in the perception of kitsch as a threat to the boundaries of autonomous subjectivity and the concomitant equation of both the mass and mass culture with an irrational and destructive primal femininity. 27

Critical references to the consumption of popular texts are revealing in this regard, indicating an underlying identification of mass culture with the pleasures of eating and more generally with a regressive, infantile, orality. As Janice Radway notes, reader response to the mass culture text is frequently described in terms of biological processes of ingestion, incorporation and absorption, resulting in a methodology which assumes a dubious equation of processes of comprehension with those of digestion. 28 Thus kitsch is often described as easily digestible, or even predigested, like food given to babies; it is easy to swallow, the cultural equivalent of junk food (see, for example, the association of kitsch with sugar and chocolate in the definitions cited earlier). The original meaning of consumption was an essentially negative one; to consume meant to destroy, to use up, to waste, to exhaust. 29 Obviously, texts are not consumed literally in this sense, in the way that food is consumed or that a house is consumed by fire; the text is not "used up" or destroyed. Yet this layer of meaning persists in the modern condemnation of kitsch, which conceives of mass culture as a destructive, devouring force, a "frenzy of consumption." Because "kitsch" embraces not simply an object, but also an attitude to an object - ie., its functional appropriation as a means to direct emotional gratification - any work of art risks being turned into kitsch in the modern age, its aesthetic value destroyed as it is metaphorically devoured, consumed by the greedy and infantile consumer lacking in the critical detachment of the (male) intellectual. As Rosalind Williams has argued in an illuminating historical analysis of the emergence of modern patterns of mass consumption: "To a large extent the pejorative nature of the concept of consumption itself derives from its association with female submission to organic needs." 31


The symbolic logic underpinning these conceptions of mass culture can be further elucidated through a reading of a specific text - Misery, a recent bestseller by Stephen King. 32 The re-emergence of the horror novel as one of the dominant popular literature genres of the last ten years is a phenomenon which has yet to receive sustained critical attention, yet which offers rich analytical material relating to the collective fantasies, desires and anxieties of recent times. 33 One of the characteristic elements of horror fiction, which can be traced back to its roots in the Gothic novel, is paranoia, its cultivation of a hermeneutics of suspicion rooted in fantasies of persecution. Another related feature of the genre is a preoccupation with taboos, with the articulation of repressed desires relating in particular to sexuality and aggression: typical themes of the horror text include incest, necrophilia, bestiality, homosexuality, rape, murder and fantasies of mass destruction. 34 Both of these elements have been mined exhaustively by Stephen King in his numerous works, perhaps most effectively in The Shining, a highly suggestive exploration of the horror at the heart of the nuclear family. Misery is, however, most relevant for my present concerns, because of the way it draws together a number of themes relating to women and mass culture. The text offers the immediately recognisable horror scenario of the woman-as-monster, where the female body is identified with all that is loathsome, disgusting and demonic. But this relatively familiar patriarchal imaging of femininity is mapped onto another set of relations, those between (male) author and (female) reader, between the conflicting demands of art and popular fiction. As such, the text offers an exemplary illustration of the gendering of mass culture.

The hero of King's novel is the writer Paul Sheldon, "who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers" (7) and who has become a minor celebrity as the author of a scries of blockbuster historical romance novels featuring beautiful heroine Misery Chastain, "darling of the dumpbins and sweetheart of the supermarkets"(62). Sheldon has come to detest these "shitty romances," to resent the burden of writing what he regards as corny and melodramatic pulp fiction. He decides to kill off his tiresome heroine in a final epic volume, Misery's Child, leaving him free to concentrate on his "serious writing" - Fast Cars, a gritty, experimental novel about a Harlem car thief, which, he hopes, will be a contender for the American Book Award.

While driving to the West Coast to celebrate the completion of this new novel, Sheldon is involved in a serious road accident in a lonely part of Colorado. On recovering consciousness, he finds himself in the home of the woman who has rescued him from the wreckage of his car. Instead of taking him to hospital, she has somehow managed to set his broken legs herself and has been dosing him with powerful painkillers to which Sheldon discovers, he is now addicted. Reduced to a crippled, bed-ridden junkie, Sheldon finds himself physically helpless and at the mercy of this strange woman, whose name is Annie Wilkes. Almost immediately he realises that she is "dangerously crazy." It takes him a little longer to find out that she is not simply demented, but a pathological killer, an ex-nurse who has previously killed over thirty of her charges in a series of gruesome murders.

This scenario of a male patient subject to the despotic whims of a sinister female nurse is a motif familiar from such works as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and is profoundly revealing of the extent of male anxieties about female power and control. In his description of Sheldon's growing yet helpless fury towards the woman who is both his caretaker and his captor, King evokes the anxiety and rage of the young child dependent upon an omnipotent mother who can bestow affection or punishment seemingly at random. Annie Wilke's expression is described as a "mixture of sternness and maternal love" (27), her status is that of an all-powerful parental figure who knows and sees everything: "Punishment might be deferred. . . but never escaped" (275). Sheldon's perception of Annie Wilkes clearly places her in the role of the phallic mother, a symbol of authority who does not simply possess the phallus, but takes on its very attributes:

She was a big woman who . . . seemed to have no feminine curves at all.. . There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks rather than welcoming orifices . . . Most of all, she gave him a disturbing sense of solidity, as if she might not have any blood vessels or even internal organs . . . Like an idol, she gave only one thing: a feeling of unease deepening steadily towards terror (8-9).

From the opening pages of the novel, when Sheldon, still unconscious, is "raped back into life by the woman's stinking breath," (7) the male subject is repeatedly feminised and infantilised in his role as patient, undergoing increasingly gruesome experiences of humiliation and torture. The novel proceeds inexorably towards the amputation of his foot with an axe and a blowtorch, the symbolism of castration rendered quite explicit to the reader: "It could have been his penis, for instance" (267). In a later, even more macabre episode, Sheldon's nurse slices off his thumb and presents him with a birthday cake:

there were candles all over the cake and sitting in the exact center pushed into the frosting like an extra big candle had been his thumb his gray dead thumb the nail slightly ragged because he sometimes chewed it when he was stuck for a word and she told him If you promise to be good Paul you can have a piece of birthday cake but you won't have to eat any of the special candle so he promised to be good...don't make me eat my thumb Annie the mom Annie the goddess (276-77)

Sheldon's regression into baby talk, the nursery motifs scattered throughout the text and the frequent references to his child-like condition underline this association of Annie Wilkes with "mom," with the castrating mother of fantasy. Misery offers a particularly clear example of the horror text's preoccupation with what Barbara Creed refers to as the "monstrous-feminine," that which is "shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject" 35 about the figure of the mother and female body. Drawing on the work of Kristeva, Creed suggests that the horror text acts as a form of modern defilement rite, which confronts and works through anxieties about a maternal body associated with bodily wastes, pollution and the transgression of boundaries. In Misery, this body is indeed an object of ambiguous fascination, a source of fear and dread which is explicitly identified with darkness, decay and corruption: "Her breath smelled like a corpse decomposing in rotted food" (188).

Of particular significance for the present argument, however, is that monstrous, axe-wielding serial killer Annie Wilkes is also, as she coyly admits, an avid reader of romance fiction and Paul Sheldon's "number one fan." "She had read each of his eight novels at least twice, and had read her very favourites, the Misery novels, four, five, maybe six times" (10).While he is convalescing, she begins to read his latest, Misery's Child, and her reaction when she reaches the end of the book and the untimely death of the heroine causes Sheldon to fear for his life. "'She can't be dead!' Annie Wilkes shrieked at him. Her hands snapped open and hooked closed in a faster and faster rhythm. 'Misery Chastain CANNOT BE DEAD!"' (37). Sheldon's fear at the unpredictable fury of his grotesque warden is mixed with a certain wry amusement at her reaction to his book. Annie Wilkes is revealed as the archetypal naive reader of pulp novels, who remains completely unaware of the aesthetic and conventional nature of the literary text and identifies with fictional characters as if they were real. This representative significance of Annie Wilkes as a female reader of popular fiction is a theme emphasised throughout the novel:

And while she might be crazy, was she so different in her evaluation of his work from the hundreds of thousands of other people across the country - ninety percent of them women - who could barely wait for each new five-hundred page episode in the turbulent life of the foundling who had risen to marry a peer of the realm? No, not at all. They wanted Misery, Misery, Misery. Each time he had taken a year or two off to write one of the other novels - what he thought of as his "serious" work ... he had received a flood of protesting letters from these women, many of whom signed themselves "your number one fan." The tone of these letters varied from bewilderment (that always hurt the most, somehow) to reproach, to outright anger, but the message was always the same. It wasn't what I expected, it wasn't what I wanted. Please go back to Misery. I want to know what Misery is doing. He could write a modern Under the Volcano, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Sound and the Fury; it wouldn't matter. They would still want Misery, Misery, Misery. (30-31).

This metaphorical sense of being captive to the demands of a mass culture audience is realised literally in the further development of King's novel. As an appropriate punishment for having killed off her favourite literary heroine, the monstrous Annie forces Sheldon to burn the only existing manuscript copy of his magnum opus, Fast Cars. In her eyes, inevitably, his "serious" writing is worthless - "hard to follow," cynical and full of bad language. Then she installs a typewriter by his bed and coaxes him, still weak and helpless, into beginning a new novel about her favourite heroine - Misery's Return. Sheldon has no choice but to agree, realising that as long as he is writing for Annie's pleasure he can avoid becoming her next murder victim: "And so began the thousand and one nights of Paul Sheldon, he thought" (162). In what seems to be the ultimate paranoid fantasy of the male author, he has become the helpless prisoner of a voracious female reader, compelled to churn out romance fiction on demand for her pleasure. Inevitably, of course, King's novel ends with the revenge of the author; the monstrous Annie is finally murdered in a gruesome finale which describes Sheldon stuffing the pages of his novel viciously down her throat. "I'm gonna rape you, all right, Annie...So suck my book. Suck my book. Suck on it until you fucking CHOKE" (347). In this final explosion of sadistic sexual violence, the underlying identification of the text with the phallus/penis as symbol of male power is rendered quite explicit in Sheldon's reaction against his literary, and almost literal, castration.

Misery thus explicitly thematizes and pulls together some of the assumptions identified in my earlier discussion of kitsch, revealing a cluster of associations between the writer's paranoia about mass culture and male anxiety about a destructive female sexuality. The audience of popular and specifically romance fiction is identified in King's novel with a female readership which is aesthetically naive and which, like the archetypal reader of romances, Emma Bovary, is unable to distinguish between escapist fantasy and real life. 36 The identical novelistic representation of these two fictional female readers in terms of their functional appropriation of literature as a means to immediate emotional gratification indicates the remarkable stability of the association between women and a kitsch aesthetic across historical and cultural divides. In both nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural criticism, the condemnation of women's reading practices constitutes a constant and unvarying refrain in the work of both radical and conservative male writers. In the words of one writer, the "romantic woman, nourished by frivolous literature, made wholly of sentimentalism and passionate pseudo-psychology" remains oblivious to the reality principle and is affected only by the sorrows of "the fictive heroes of books." 37

The tastes of this woman reader are invariably portrayed as conservative and predictable and her attitude towards more innovative art which blocks her desire for identification and escapism is one of irritation and incomprehension. "It has no nobility!" (24) is Annie Wilkes' response to Sheldon's Fast Cars, for whom the nineteenth century period of the Misery novels "was a better time" (25). Literature functions for her as a means of flight from reality into the idyll of the past. She is the archetypal reader of kitsch in that she prefers "beauty" to "truth"; literary texts, like the ceramic knick-knacks and rococo gilt frames which clutter her living room, are chosen to reflect her sentimentalised view of the world. Annie is scandalised to hear Sheldon speak of his writing as a business (79); in the context of her idealised vision of literature - she has yet to hear of the death of the author - he is a kind of creator-God, the possessor of a sacred gift.

This uncritical absorption in the fictional text by the credulous female reader provides evidence of her lack of detachment and critical distance, a lack which threatens the boundaries between subject and object, between self and text. Annie Wilkes is above all positioned as a consumer of literature, in the sense of the term evoked earlier. The parallel between women's craving for pulp literature and junk food is suggested at several moments in the text: "Annie loved sweet things" (270). This gluttonous craving for the emotional fix of romance appears in a disturbing and sinister light, symptomatic of an insatiable "feminine" desire perceived as threatening to the identity of the male subject. The vehemence with which male critics condemn the "sugary" and "sentimental" qualities of those texts identified as kitsch reveals an acute anxiety at the threat of an unchecked female emotionality, an emotionality which is revealed as literally monstrous in King's text in its entrapment and infantilization of the male subject. What Huyssen refers to as the artist's "nightmare of being devoured by mass culture through co-option, commodification, and the 'wrong' kind of success," 38 is graphically realised in King's demonization of the female reader as the embodiment of the sinister yet seductive power of mass culture. King draws on a trope much favoured by the nineteenth-century male literary intelligentsia in referring to Sheldon's view of himself as a whore, forced to prostitute himself to serve the needs of his demanding and insatiable female public. The emasculating effects of mass culture as perceived by the male writer have rarely been portrayed quite so explicitly.

Of course, that which is negated is also that which is desired; the logic of the horror text is structured around a dialectic of repulsion and fascination, of simultaneous desire and loathing. 39 The text's erotic, masochistic fascination with the figure of the dominating cruel woman is echoed in Sheldon's aesthetic complicity with Annie, his own pleasure in the romance novel which she forces him to write. It is precisely because of the potential seductiveness of popular fiction that its dubious pleasures need to be strenuously resisted and projected onto the female reader. This strategy of projection is again a characteristic feature of the horror genre, which allows for the articulation of inadmissible desires through their externalisation in the figure of the deviant or monstrous Other. At one point in the text Sheldon begins to take on the voice and mannerisms of Annie herself, as King hints at this underlying interdependence of monster and victim, of reader and author. This blurring of boundaries is further echoed in the intertextual structure of King's novel; the actual text of Sheldon's new romance novel, Misery's Return, is reproduced within King's own narrative and the two genres of romance and horror threaten to blur into and contaminate each other. The American paperback edition of King's novel was even published complete with two covers, the second a spoof of the front-cover art of a historical romance,

The irony of one of the bestselling authors of the decade writing a novel about the horrors of mass culture is thus by no means lost on King himself, whose work frequently contains parodistic and self-mocking elements. Indeed King can be perhaps be seen as an exemplary postmodernist writer in blurring certain high/popular culture distinctions, creating skilfully plotted novels with mass appeal yet which are also highly self-conscious, quoting from both high (Nietzsche, Montaigne) and popular culture (Cindy Lauper), as well as from his own previous novels. Yet this element of pastiche and self-reflexivity in King's text should not be read as transcending or otherwise alleviating its misogynistic vision of femininity. Indeed, the wise-cracking irony displayed throughout Misery can be read without difficulty as an integral defence mechanism of the text, a means of simultaneously confronting and warding off the threat posed by the excessive emotionalism of the female reader of popular fiction.


A few concluding comments on some of the broader issues raised by the above discussion. The long-standing condemnation of kitsch by male intellectuals reveals a paranoid association of mass culture with the "monstrous-feminine," a paranoia which, I have suggested, is not essentially dissimilar to the more overt anxieties explored in the fantasy scenario of King's horror novel. Feminist critics can usefully identify such chains of association in the process of reconceptualising issues in cultural analysis from a gender-specific perspective. Such a process of critical revision should not be confused with a simple strategy of reversal, ie., an affirmation of that which has been negated or a wholesale rejection of the insights made possible by political critiques of mass culture. Thus recent analyses of so-called "women's genres" (soap opera, romance fiction, melodrama), offering alternative readings of these texts as a site of feminine pleasure and even empowerment, have tended to lose sight of the basic feminist tenet that "femininity" cannot be thought outside of the structural relations of gender inequality which define it. The shift towards ethnographically based cultural criticism, for example, while offering a corrective to earlier sweeping generalisations about the nature of mass culture reception, has in its turn engendered a somewhat one-sided and uncritical endorsement of the views of female audiences on the part of the feminist researcher. According to Tania Modleski, such criticism

often seems to be based on an unspoken syllogism that goes something like this: "I like Dallas; I am a feminist; Dallas must have progressive potential." It seemed important at one historical moment to emphasise the way "the people" resist mass culture's manipulations. Today, we are in danger of forgetting the crucial fact that, like everyone else, even the cultural analyst may sometimes be a "cultural dupe" - which is, after all, only an ugly way of saying that we exist inside ideology, that we are all victims, down to the very depths of our psyches, of political and cultural domination (even though we are never only victims). 40

Nevertheless, the longstanding repudiation of "kitsch" is obviously problematic for feminism in its repression of a range of aesthetic responses identified with femininity and condemned as historically and psychically regressive. From a feminist standpoint, it is much less easy to claim that we live in a "post-romantic" epoch; on the contrary, women's culture - to use that problematic term for the moment - continues to be heavily saturated with discourses derived from sentimental fiction and from the romantic tradition. This is not of course to deny that women also produce and read modernist and postmodernist texts nor to imply that the paranoid vision examined above is to be taken seriously as the basis for an understanding of female reader response. It is, however, to suggest that a perception of romanticism as a superseded structure of feeling is only possible from a male-centred viewpoint which remains blind to women's particular cultural and discursive positioning, and which imposes a diachronic narrative of aesthetic "progress" on what is in fact a synchronic relationship structured in terms of a gender-based division of forms of cultural expression. Such a model of successive stages of aesthetic development is more usefully replaced by the concept of a heterogeneous field of cultural forms and traditions, none of which can be simply dismissed as regressive in a peremptory and a priori fashion. The distribution of cultural preferences within this field is clearly not arbitrary, but stratified according to education, class and gender, yet diverse and contradictory modes of aesthetic response may also co-exist in the same subject. As Cora Kaplan has argued, the fact that female intellectuals are trained in critical and analytical modes of thought does not necessarily lessen their continuing pleasure in genres such as romance. 41 As a result, the stance of the feminist critic needs to remain a dialectically shifting one; able to draw strategically upon critiques of mass culture for the purposes of analysing ideological constraints upon gender identity, she simultaneously resists and refuses the reification of "kitsch" as emblem of a regressive sentimentality by exposing the paranoid mechanisms of exclusion upon which such a classification rests.


1. For example, Andreas Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other," in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism (London: Macmillan, 1988); Patrice Petro, "Mass Culture and the Feminine: The 'Place' of Television in Film Studies," Cinema Journal 25, no. 3 (1986): 5-21, and Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); Tania Modleski, "Femininity as Mas(s)querade: a Feminist Approach to Mass Culture," in Colin MacCabe, ed., High Theory, Low Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986).

2. See Rita Felski, "The 'Counter-Discourse' of the Feminine in Three Texts by Wilde, Huysmans and Sacher-Masoch," PMLA, forthcoming.

3. Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman," p. 55.

4. Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism ((Durham: Duke University Press, 1987),p.234.

5. Most notoriously in Clement Greenberg's influential essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," reprinted in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965).

6. Jenny Sharp, "It's New, It's Different, It's Been Here All the Time," quoted in Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, p. 248

7. Gillo Dorfles, "Kitsch," in Dorfles, ed., Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste (New York: Universe Books, 1969), pp. 15-16.

8. Ludwig Giesz, "Phanomenologie des Kitsches," in Jochen Schulte-Sasse, ed., Literarischer Kitsch: Texte zu seiner Theorie, Geschichte and Einzelinterpretation (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1979), p. 34

9. Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New, quoted in Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, p. 225.

10. Nikolaus Pevsner, quoted in Diane Barthel, "Modernism and Marketing: the Chocolate Box Revisited," Theory, Culture and Society, 6, no. 3 (1989),p.429.

11. Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," p. 9.

12. Hermann Broch, "Notes on the Problem of Kitsch," in Dorfles, Kitsch, p. 73

13. Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman," p. 62.

14. Dorfles, "Kitsch," p. 129.

15. Ibid, p. 26

16. Giesz, "Phanomenologie des Kitsches," p. 32.

17. For an interesting cultural history of "knick-knacks," and their relationship to bourgeois femininity, see Remy G. Saisselin, Bricabracomania: The Bourgeois and the Bibelot (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985).

18. For a recent historically informed feminist critique of psychoanalytical film theory, see Petro, Joyless Streets.

19. Karl Markus Michel, "Gefuhl als Ware: Zur Phanomenologie des Kitsches," Neue Deutsche Hefte, 57 (1959).

20. Broch, "Notes on the Problem of Kitsch," p. 61.

21. Petro, Joyless Streets, p. 66.

22. Of course "kitsch" can in turn be subject to an ironic reading and be enjoyed as a glorious example of "bad taste," the phenomenon often designated as "camp." Such an appropriation does not however transgress boundaries between taste cultures so much as reaffirm them. Andrew Ross suggests that this kind of cultural "slumming" provides "secure opportunities for intellectuals to sample the emotional charge of popular culture while guaranteeing their immunity from its power to constitute social identities that arc in some way marked as subordinate." See Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp," in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Octagon, 1978) and Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (London: Routledge 1989), p. 5.

23. Naomi Schor, "Idealism in the Novel: Recanonizing Sand," Yale French Studies, no. 75 (1988), pp. 56-73.

24. Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, p. 228.

25. Dwight McDonald, "A Theory of Mass Culture," in P. Davidson and R. Meyersohn (eds.), Culture and Mass Culture (Chadwyck-Healy, 1978), p. 48; Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, quoted in Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman," p. 48.

26. Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman," p. 52.

27. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), p. 6

28. Janice Radway, "Reading is not Eating: Mass-Produced Literature and .he Theoretical, Methodological, and Political Consequences of a Metaphor," Book Research Quarterly, v. 2, n. 3 (Fall 1986):10-11.

29. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1983), pp. 78-79.

30. Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, p. 246.

31. Rosalind Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982),p.308. Stephen King, Misery (London: NEL, 1988). All further page references appear in parentheses in the text. See, however, Noel Carroll's just published The Philosophy of Horror: Paradoxes of the Heart (London: Routledge, 1990). The same neglect is not in evidence in the case of horror films, which have received a significant degree of critical attention. See David Punter, "Towards a Theory of the Gothic," in The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: Longman, 1980). Barbara Creed, "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection," Screen, 27, no. 1(1986), p. 44. See Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman," and Sarah Webster Goodwin, "Libraries, Kitsch and Gender in Madame Bovary," L'Esprit Createur, 28, no. 1(1988): 56-66.

37. Maurice Deslandres, cited in Williams, Dream Worlds, p. 309

38. Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman," p.53

39. Noel Carroll, "Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings," Film Quarterly, 34, no. 3 (1981), pp. 16-25.

40. Tania Modleski, "Some Functions of Feminist Criticism, or The Scandal of the Mute Body," October, no. 49 (1989), p. 12.

41. Cora Kaplan, "The Thorn Birds: Fiction, Fantasy, Femininity," in Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986).

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