‘It actually painted a picture of the village and the sea and the bottom of the sea’: Reading groups, cultural legitimacy, and description in narrative (with particular reference to John Steinbeck’s The Pearl)

Allington, Daniel (2011). ‘It actually painted a picture of the village and the sea and the bottom of the sea’: Reading groups, cultural legitimacy, and description in narrative (with particular reference to John Steinbeck’s The Pearl). Language and Literature, 20(4) pp. 317–332.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963947011398558

Abstract

This article proposes a form of research that integrates reader study with textual analysis. Its purpose is to investigate the social production of literary value, potentially providing cultural sociology with a systematic means by which to study the formal features of texts in relation to their social significance: a means arguably required by (but not necessarily supplied in) the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of reading group (or ‘book club’) discussions reveals an association between descriptive writing, cultural legitimacy, and a focus on the form, rather than the content, of fictional texts. In order to understand this association, the analysis then turns to two paragraphs from John Steinbeck’s The Pearl (2000 [1946]), which had been read by most of the groups involved and which many group members had referred to as involving ‘description’. It is argued that a long-standing tradition of association between descriptive writing and visual art has served as a resource both for consumers and for producers in distinguishing literature from popular fiction.

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