MARGINALIZED LITERATURE, a new vision of an everlasting cultural issue

This article was our first project on literary theory (or “poetics”), regarding works produced for popular, mass consumption. It explains how they are characterized by the repetitive and codified use of certain narrative schemas with which the audience is already familiar, and provides examples taken primarily from the telenovela industry. 

It was published long before Hawkin's "memes" (contagious, imitated ideas) became habitual amongst Communications people, and it does not only refer to them, but to the many various elements Literary scholars have analyzed as narrative building blocks in cultures all around the world, for centuries without end.


This article was our first project on literary theory (or “poetics”), regarding works produced for popular, mass consumption. It explains how they are characterized by the repetitive and codified use of certain narrative schemas with which the audience is already familiar, and provides examples taken primarily from the telenovela industry.

It was published long before Hawkin’s “memes” (contagious, imitated ideas) became habitual amongst Communications people, and it does not only refer to them, but to the many various elements Literary scholars have analyzed as narrative building blocks in cultures all around the world, for centuries without end.


This article is devoted to a literary and cultural format that has existed for centuries, not as a particular or singular work, but rather as a constant perpetuation of definable narrative schemas –schemas that always adapted to the latest technology available.


In the realm of “elite” culture, it is considered acceptable to discuss, for example, the timeless nature of art or the validity of the slogan ars pro artis (art for art’s sake), since, as Souto says, there is a certain “timelessness in art, that cleanly demarcates the author’s interests, as they fade away in the light of the poetic reality by which the work transcends.[1]

In the realm of popular culture, however, we do not talk –perhaps– about timeless works, so much as timeless schemas: There is nothing as short-lived as a chapbook, or a telenovela. In spite of this, the structures used in both –five centuries apart– are timeless; structures that guarantee acceptance by the majority of any collective (collectivity).

On the basis of the assertions made above, we must examine the reason why said timeless structures continuously reach the largest possible audience. What exactly is the artist who uses such schemas looking for, consciously or unconsciously?

Words were developed for people to communicate within society. Words, therefore, by their very being carry messages, whatever they may be. It is possible to be objective when reflecting reality, but only insofar as the author’s ideology –conscious or unconscious–, becomes apparent in the selection he makes of reality to validate his own premises. Lukács asserts that “said partisanship in objectivity is facilitated in works of art. Facilitated […] since the material comprising a work of art is deliberately organized with a view to said end ”.[2] If reality in these kinds of works is presented in a predetermined way, always with the objective of praising certain social behaviours instead of others, we may –for the moment– infer a relationship between social models and popular literature. However, we will talk about this in more detail later. For now, this possible relationship is another good reason to study marginalized literature.

That said, were another justification needed for studying marginalized literature, there is none better than that –as stated by Schklovsky, the great Russian formalist: “The new art forms are merely the canonization of [popular or oral literary genres]”. As an example, he cites Pushkin’s lyrical compositions that –he mentions– “come from collections of verse”.[3] And since for Mims and Lerner “elite [“cultured”, “high brow”] literature needs to be constantly renovated through ‘rebarbarization’”,[4] if we wish to study “elite” literature, we must also examine popular literature.


It is apposite for us to demarcate some of the concepts we are discussing:

“Any work especially attractive to people in general, such that it may be frequently repeated, and [that] it remains so for a long time,” is popular.[5] The people (understood as all members of a collective, regardless of their various economic, social, cultural, gender, age and other census measurable scales) enjoy popular works and promote –amongst their members– the continuous contact with them. Therefore, in this article we consider the likening of popular literature to mass literature possible.[6] And of course, popular literature always appears distinguished from “elite” literature. Why have we also included the term marginalized literature? Let us quote García de Enterría: “Not long ago literature studies began to recognize the importance of these literary pieces which had been ignored for centuries, and which –in spite of a growing interest in them– continue to be referred to as infra-literature, sub-literature, para-literature, etc. In all of these classifications, we observe a pejorative overtone, conscious or not, in those who label them this way […].”.[7] Finally the author labels them “marginalized literature”, due to the marginalization they have been subject to on the part of scholars of “elite” literature.

According to Wolf, the “influence [of mass literature] derives from the characteristics of the surrounding social system, rather than their contents. [For this reason, its products] may only be analyzed in the social context in which they exist”.[8] Critics have repeatedly made evident the fact that their influence increases proportionally at times of social crisis,[9] when the values that lend cohesiveness to the collective are weakened, or when it is in danger. One theory on mass communication explains the phenomena reasonably well: Structural Functionalism explains the system of mass communication, as one that carries out a specific and necessary function in society. This function is the regulation and homogenization of the collective’s values, with the goal of ensuring its survival. Thus, mass literature is that which persuades people to accept certain social patterns, commonly shared by a social group.

On this basis, we can understand mass literature’s continued presence, in spite of the huge changes human societies have undergone throughout history[10]: All collectivities, regardless of their ideologies, need to promote certain behaviours over others, amongst their members. All societies need an instrument like that of mass literature to support them; and therefore, it is always provided with the latest means of dissemination.

Mass literature’s dynamics are based on adherence to internalized and institutionalized value models. Therefore, it always caters first to the integration and maintenance of the system. Even the subversive discourse we sometimes find interwoven, provides an escape valve for points of social contention. Likewise, it prepares it for changes in the collective’s structure, and so it prevents its loss of relevance.

Based on the above, the system’s elements of preservation and integration, will always prevail, even when they occasionally come up against accepted political or religious creeds.[11] Let us look at an extreme example, which is fairly frequently repeated in one type of mass literature having a broad reach and impact: The telenovela [the Latin America soap opera format] and its sister formats. Daily, millions of people turn on their televisions to watch one. It does not matter what country or language, each one has a specific name for theirs: soap operas in USA, kitchen-sink dramas in England, tevenovelas in Brazil, etc.[12] None of these countries legally sanctions (that is: officially supports as necessary and desireable), single women getting pregnant. However, on many occasions we have seen telenovelas in which the heroe gets the protagonist pregnant without their first becoming legally or religiously married. The hero’s behaviour is paradigmatic. Before he is “rewarded” –at the end of the story– in some conventional ways (such as wealth or the protagonist’s love), he must show that he has sufficiently struggled to defend the values that allow for the collective’s continued existence.

Let us consider the following: Has a sterile protagonist –male or female– ever “won” in a telenovela? Could we conceive of a sterile hero? No –which does not mean there are no exemplary and wonderful men and women in real life, who suffer from this–. But, why not in telenovelas, except very occasionally…? Because what is the point of the hero fighting to promote a number of social values, when he himself cannot guarantee that what he is fighting for, will live on for even just one more generation? What is the point of the protagonists suffering so much to defend some social institutions, when they cannot even survive them? The fact that he gets the protagonist pregnant without first ensuring her well-being and that of their hypothetical children, can only be excused from the point of view of the collective’s biological survival. And given the frequency and consistency with which the phenomena arises in all types of marginalized literature over the course of many centuries, we can conclude that it is not gratuitous, but rather that there is a real reason behind it. We can mention the following examples: “(Wild Rose), “La gata (The Cat), “Simplemente María(Simply Maria), “Amor en silencio” (Silent Love), and many other stories which can be considered representative due to their popularity. An even better example, is the telenovela “De pura sangre” (Pure Bred), protagonized by Humberto Zurita and , in which the hero not only proves his fertility by getting the protagonist pregnant while she is married to the antagonist, but in addition the antagonist turns out to be, not only sterile, but also sexually impotent and incapable of any type of love.

[Note: Years after this article’s publication, a Colombian telenovela was broadcast –“Café con aroma de mujer” (Coffee with the Scent of a Woman), by Fernando Gaitán–, in which the protagonist was indeed impotent, but stood out due to the nature and expressiveness of his feelings. So succesful it was, that two Mexican TV companies produced their own versions of it soon after: Cuando seas mía (When you’ll be finally mine), y Destilando amor (Brewing love).

The reason is worth studying: A hero capable of love above and beyond mere sexual desire was so well liked, that the work became very successful in a number of countries. It is apposite to keep this in mind when recalling that, beyond the biological and social usefulness of sex and procreation, human beings need and aspire to love, in the sense of rich, noble human relationships that take us above and beyond our own needs.]

As examples of telenovelas that break away from these characteristics, and that –therefore– are rejected by the collective, we can mention “(Seduction) and “El cristal empañado (Misty Glass) which were taken off the air early due to low audience ratings. Neither showed any attachment to any social stereotypes: In “El cristal empañado”, for example, there was not even one single paternal figure, not one family –not only not well constructed, but not even stable; not one mother worthy of being one according to the socially accepted model, since, de facto, all of them were consciously responsible for their children’s problems. The author, not content with that, gave the story –not a hero– a psychopathic protagonist, who attacked the weak, was negatively manipulated by others, and who generally did not fulfill any of his expected roles –not even that of the thug–.

As we can see, marginalized literature always tries to promote a set of values. How does it achieve this? By using the timeless structures we discussed at the beginning. Since they are efficient, the structures have persisted over time, always adapting themselves to the various and evolving collectivities and ideologies. That is why, for example, since the birth of our present society, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, we hear complaints about how “the same things always happen” in commercial literature. Who can deny that, in terms of structure, all telenovelas “are alike” …?

These narrative structures merit, it is true, more in depth study than that contained in this article; as is also the case with marginalized literature, which –in conclusion– is characterized by the fact that it favours the existence of open texts which preserve, renew and reflect a specific collective’s stereotypical social values over the course of each period in its history.



Texts used:

García de Enterría, María Cruz; “Literaturas marginadas” (Marginalized Literature); Playor, Madrid, 1983.

Lukács, György; “Arte y verdad objetiva” (Art and Objective Truth) (1934), in “Materiales sobre el realismo” (Readings on Realism); Grijalbo, Mexico, 1977.

Martín Barbero, Jesús; “Introducción” (Introduction), in “Comunicación y cultura de populares en Latinoamérica” (Communication and Popular Culture in Latin America). Latin American Social Sciences Council Seminar; Gustavo Gili, Mexico, 1987.

Menéndez Pidal, Ramón; “Poesía popular y poesía tradicional” (Popular Poetry and Traditional Poetry); Imprenta Clarendoniana, Oxford, 1922.

Reed, J.D.; “Why all the world loves a soap”, in Times, March 16, 1987.

Souto Alabarce, Arturo; “Literatura y sociedad” (Literature and Society); ANUIES, Mexico, 1973.

Warren, Austin, and René Wellek; “Teoría literaria” (Literary Theory); 2nd. ed.; Gredos [Biblioteca Románica Hispánica], Madrid, 1959.

Wolf, Mauro; “La investigación de la comunicación de masas” (The Study of Mass Communication);Paidós, Instrumentos Paidós # 2, Barcelona and Buenos Aires, 1987.



[1] Vid , “Literatura y sociedad” (Literature and Society), Mexico, ANUIES, 1973; p. 30.

[2] Vid “Arte y verdad objetiva” (Art and Objective Truth) (1934), in “Materiales sobre el realismo” (Readings on Realism); Mexico, Grijalbo, 1977; p. 25.

[3] Apud Austin Warren and ; “Teoría literaria” (Literary Theory); 2ª ed.; Madrid, Gredos [Biblioteca Románica Hispánica], 1959; p. 283.]

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Vid Ramón Menéndez Pidal; “Poesía popular y poesía tradicional” (Popular Poetry and Traditional Poetry); Oxford, Imprenta Clarendoniana, 1922; p. 22.

[6] Confer Jesús Martín Barbero; “Introducción” (Introduction), in “Comunicación y cultura populares en Latinoamérica” (Communication and Popular Culture in Latin America). Seminar at the Latin American Social Sciences Council; Mexico, Gustavo Gili, 1987; pág. 9.

[7] María Cruz García de Enterría; “Literaturas marginadas” (Marginalized Literature); Madrid, Playor, 1983; p. 7.

[8] Mauro Wolf; “La investigación de la comunicación de masas” (The Study of Mass Communication); Barcelona and Buenos Aires, Paidós [Instrumentos Paidós # 2], 1987; p. 55.

[9] Carey, apud Mauro Wolf, idem, p. 67.

[10] Mauro Wolf, idem, p. 69.

[11] Mauro Wolf, idem, p. 70.

[12] Vid J. D. Reed; “Why all the world loves a soap”, in Times; 16 de marzo de 1987; p. 42.



Blanca de Lizaur; “La : Visión de una forma cultural” (Marginalized Literature: Understanding a Cultural Format), in “Oralidad y escritura” (Orality and Writing); Eugenia Revueltas and Herón Pérez Martínez, comps.; Zamora, El Colegio de Michoacán (Michoacán College), 1992; pp. 207 – 212.

Available at (repository):


Cited by Laura Bensasson in “Mito, memoria y utopía en las hazañas de Juan López” (Myth, Memory and Utopia in the Adventures of Juan López) [seminar paper for doctoral studies in Anthropology, directed by Dr. Antonio García de León, Centro de Investigación y Docencia en Humanidades del Estado de Morelos (Center for Research and Teaching in Humanities in the State of Morelos), C.I.D.H.E.M., Cuernavaca, Morelos]; published on internet in the journal “Estudios Mayas” (Mayan Studies): Nikte’t’aan (Blooming Word), Año 2, # 2 [April-May 2003].

Image: (© Prudencio Alvarez)

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About Blanca de Lizaur, PhD, MA, BA