The next time you're out on the beach reading the lastest best-seller, according to John Cawelti's study of popular literary formulas, your escape is actually not only a pleasurable experience, but a journey into the concerns and interests capturing you and your generation. Cawelti feels that popular formulas which continually stand the test of time, like the western or the romance, are cultural products, with their own evolution. While some consider it "low brow," formulaic literature, he says, contains a great deal of information about the society that produces it.
While Cawelti admits that drawing strict conclusions from literary texts is a precarious endeavour, he does specify some reasonable inferences the careful reader can gather. In addition to confirming attitudes of the times, formula stories also change with time and incorporate society's changes as well. The formula story, he says, sets the reader up with an expected set of conventions, while at the same time allowing the reader to explore uncharted experiences within that known context.
In particular, Cawelti uses the detective story as a lens through which he applies this method of literary study. First he lays out the patterns of the classical detective story, in which a brilliant but emotionally detatched detective cracks a typically domestic crime that appears unsolveable even though there is a set of clues.
Then he takes it to the next level by presenting his hypthesis about the meaning of the detective story to the culture that produced it. Cawelti thinks the detective story's popularity grew out of the gothic story, which in turn focused on the crumbing power of the church and nobility in nineteenth century Europe. Villains in gothic novels tended to be evil church types, or equally evil lords of the manors. With the rise of the middle class, and a smaller and smaller emphasis on church and noblilty, the detective novel, while still focusing on themes of corruption and "hidden guilt," now looked at hidden layers of the mind. The simultaneous rise of lower class reforms "not only represented the challenge of another social group to middle-class hegemony, but also symbolized a guilty inner tension within the middle class (p. 103)."
Because the very rational solutions to the mysteries generally don't implicate anyone the reader sympathizes with, Cawelti connects the detective story as a way to deny feelings of guilt. "Readers of classical detective stories, we hypothesize, shared a need for a temporary release from doubt and guilt, generated at least in part by the decline of traditional moral and spiritual authorities, and the rise of new social and intellectual movements that emphasized the hypocrisy and guilt of respectable middle class society. (p. 104)"
After setting out his theories and showing their applications, Cawelti wraps up the book, published in 1976, with an eye toward the future-- trying to find cultural significance in mediums like the television program, the movie, or even a news broadcast. Although his conclusions about how formula books can illustrate how people think about their lives may no longer be on the cutting edge, their application continues to broaden ideas about what literature means to society.