Between Pop and Literature: Nick Hornby


1 Popular art and the art of consuming

1.1 Popular literature

Nick Hornby’s work is often categorised as "pop literature". Among the contemporary authors whose work has earned itself a similar reputation are the German writers Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, Florian Illies and Christian Kracht. Though different in style the books of all these authors have one important thing in common: they are unusually successful and have helped turn their authors into literary pop stars. These works appeal to contemporary readers because they treat accessible subjects in a contemporary style.

But what exactly is pop literature? Can literature be "pop" at all? Or is there a contradiction in these terms, is there a gap, similar to the one between, say, Beethoven and Madonna? This raises the question of what is pop? Pop may be best described as a triangle of terms: Pop emerges in a fertile social field defined by art, commerce and folk traditions.

1.2 Pop is more than popular art

1.2.1 Folk traditions

As the term "pop" denotes, pop culture is supposed to be "popular". It is often rooted in folk traditions, as can be seen in the influence that folk music elements play in the history of rock music. The music of The Beatles is a case in point. Pop is easily accessible and bypasses excessively demanding intellectual ambiguities that would need a huge amount of interpretation. One does not need to learn understanding pop – you can look at pop art, listen to pop music and read pop literature and just enjoy. To some extent pop is always rooted in everyday life – you basically know the topics of pop lyrics, you know the sound of pop music, you know the images of pop icons.

1.1.2 Consumer culture

This makes each pop culture product an easy prey for commercial exploitation and usually it doesn’t take long for a pop industry to grow around any new popular movement. There’s the record industry, huge publishing house conglomerates and even the works of popular painters such as Van Gogh or Renoir must be a considerable cash generator, if you consider how many people come to see exhibitions or put printed reproductions on the walls of their apartments. Even politicians, buildings or historical event can be included in the economic process of the pop industry: Che Guevara, Mihael Gorbachev (who appeared in the Wim Wenders movie "Far away, so close"), the Berlin Wall and its fall, the Eiffel Tower. Pop needs and generates stars and icons.

Pop would not be possible without modern mass media. Without radio the Beatles probably would not have made it in the US. Without television interviews with pop stars – be they musicians, writers or actors – would only reach a tiny audience. Maybe even Nick Hornby would be a fringe writer without the now indispensable advertising campaigns for books.

1.2.3 Art

Yet there is more to pop than a lot of fans and a lot of business. Great pop is genuinely creative, exciting and inventive. The German idea of Schlagermusik is rooted in the folk tradition of tuneful songs and it has been taken over by the entertainment business, but it is not pop. In contrast, traditional folk music is relatively easy to understand but it is not perceived as pop – it is simply not sufficiently successful and only plays a limited role in the modern world of media and entertainment.

Pop requires a kind of hipness that goes beyond being popular and being successful in commercial terms. It needs to have an avant-garde edge which captures present trends and extends them into the future – at least this is what recipients must feel in order for something to become "pop". Pop needs a certain degree of contemporariness, it evolves in the gap between the folk tradition of the past and the inventive creation of the present.

Thus pop inhabits a strange cultural place in the twilight of the ordinary and the extraordinary.


1.3 Pop versus literature?

This analysis of the pop phenomenon shows that literature can be pop. However, there is a long-lasting debate over the definition of literature – best exemplified in the question of whether so-called trivial literature is literature at all.

One might argue that pop is often too superficial, too popular, not challenging enough. An analysis will prove that Nick Hornby as a writer and his novels as literary works of art have all characteristics of pop but are by no means superficial and simplistic.

Texts can be pop, and the writers themselves can become pop icons, even if they lived long before the idea of pop was invented. Shakespeare has been adopted as a pop icon in the popular and successful movie "Shakespeare in Love".


2 Nick Hornby

2.1 The man himself

Nick Hornby was born in 1957. He studied at Cambridge University and became a teacher. He has also been writing for The Sunday Times and The Independent and respected magazines. His highly successful first novel Fever Pitch allowed him to make writing his main profession in the early 1990s.

2.2 Fever Pitch

Nick Hornby’s first novel Fever Pitch is a book about football, the "best book ever written about football", as some critics claim. It is also a book about growing up, as it tells the story of a football fan who grows from a teenager to a young man without ever really losing his faith in Arsenal, his favourite north London football team. First published in 1992, the story is told by a first-person narrator, who measures out his life by football events. Arsenal’s volatile luck and success reflects the ups and downs of his own life. The narrator has a remarkably detailed knowledge of football history: the names of players, the result of games, even incidents from individual matches are always at hand.

Two innovative means of story-telling make this novel work: First, the narrator explains his life along the lines of British football history. In fact, he structures and interprets his experience and the events in his life in terms of games results, famous players and football events. Each chapter is headed by a title and a historic match, including the exact date it took place (First chapter: Home début – Arsenal against Stoke City 14.09.68). On this day his father took the then eleven-year-old schoolboy to a football match for the first time. The narrator remembers "looking at the crowd more than at the players" and he notices that "nobody seemed to enjoy, in the way that I understood the word, anything that happened during the entire afternoon".

The narrator dives deeply and wittingly into the whirlpool of his football obsession. His whole life revolves around football and the Arsenal team. But being a fan is a hard job – his fandom is obsessive and requires suffering, patience and commitment. To make things worse Arsenal is not the most reliable team and soon after his father has taken him to an Arsenal match the narrator finds out that Arsenal’s reputation ("Boring boring Arsenal") is not at all inadequate.

The narrator also explores other aspects of the life of an adolescent: his parents‘ divorce and his relationship with his father and mother, life at school and college (as Hornby himself the narrator moves to Cambridge for his studies), his love affairs and love relationships, his quest for the right profession.

2.3 High Fidelity

If Fever Pitch is a celebration of football and a detailed and entertaining report of the sufferings of a football fanatic, High Fidelity, published in 1995, explores the soul of a young and die-hard rock music fan. The title of the book is ambiguous: High Fidelity refers to both, faithfulness in a love relationship and good sound quality of records. Like Fever Pitch, the story of High Fidelity is again told by a first-person narrator.

Rob owns a small record store that he runs with limited success. He has been left by his girlfriend Laura and after a short period of halfhearted happiness about his newly won liberty he discovers that he still loves Laura madly. Fever Pitch translates life into a football universe. The narrator of High Fidelity interprets his own life with the help of rock music and records. Whenever he feels that his life is in a crisis he rearranges his record collection, sometimes ordering them alphabetically, sometimes historically and sometimes in the order of the girlfriends he had when he bought them. This is not the only sign that he is obsessed with rock music and popular culture: he makes up top-five hit lists in his mind for virtually everything ("all-time top five favourite books", "my five dream jobs") and whenever he is in love with some woman he records a compilation tape for her – all songs carefully and meaningfully selected. The book starts rather funnily with "my desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups", followed by a list of girls‘ names and the stories about Rob’s relationship with them.

After Laura has left him and his rather ill-considered attempts to get her back have failed he starts to contact the ex-girlfriends from his "top five most memorable split-ups" hit list. In some cases this adds to his self-confidence (as he finds out that the now grown-up girls felt that he had left them, and that they did not really decide to dump him), but he does not find any real distraction from Laura, of whom he keeps thinking all the time.

In the end the two find out that they are not such a bad couple after all and with a realistic view about themselves they decide to give it another try.

2.4 About a Boy

About a Boy, published in 1998, is a story about growing up. Marcus is a twelve-year-old boy who has just moved to London together with his mother Fiona. His parents have split up and he suffers from the fact that his mum does not look after him in the way he deems necessary. She does not, for instance, buy him the right clothes, which makes him look stupid at school. As he is also a rather shy person and sometimes behaves in strange ways he is an easy target for his schoolmates. Things get worse when his mum, who suffers from depression, tries to kill herself. He experiences "the twin disasters of school and home".

Marcus’ and Fiona’s story is complemented by Will’s story. Will is a man in his thirties, who lives on his own and who doesn’t really do very much at all: his father wrote the Christmas super hit "Santa’s Super Sleigh" many years ago, and the annual royalty check for this song pays all bills for Will. Although Will is a complacent, sometimes even arrogant man he feels that he is rather useless. He has the occasional fling with various women but has no intention of entering a long-lasting relationship. When he notices that single women of his age become less easily available as they marry and have children he decides to change his strategy: "he had found the ideal solution to this unexpected dearth of prey. He had invented a two-year-old son called Ned and joined a single parents’ group". The group is called SPAT – Single Parents Alone Together.

Fiona’s best friend Suzie is also a member of this group and in the course of things Will meets Suzie and Fiona and eventually Marcus. And of course his pretentious fake is discovered after a little while. Now he has to face reality: he has become friends with Marcus and Marcus does not worry much about whether or not Will really has a son.

The challenging aspect of this single mother, son-without-dad, man-who-invents-his-own-son story is that Marcus and Will both do not act their age. Will is childishly selfish and refuses to accept any kind of responsibility. Marcus, in turn, has been challenged by his family life more than a twelve-year-old can normally bear and feels responsible for his mum and for himself. Like his mother he is a vegetarian and listens to the music of Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley and he has been taught to reject all things superficial. In the story Will and Marcus slowly start to learn from each other: Will reluctantly accepts a certain kind of responsibility for Marcus, and Marcus learns to dress and behave more like a teenager (Will even buys him clothes that Fiona could not afford to buy).

3 Coming-of-age novels about single parents and pop culture

3.1 Family life

Nick Hornby’s novel have recurrent themes: boys who grow up to become young men, football fans, obsessed rock fans, and last but not least disrupted family life in modern Britain.

In two novels single parents play an important role. In About a Boy single parents finally move from a peripheral role in the plot into the centre of the novel. The routine of family life, the problems between parents who have split up and the childhood memories that Nick Hornby’s characters carry with them into their adulthood are important ingredients to the stories.

However, Hornby is not saying that if there were happy and married couples in all the families everything would be fine. In About a Boy it becomes clear that Marcus‘ inability to behave like a twelve-year-old is a bigger problem than just the lack of a father: "Fiona had given him [Will, S.G.] the idea that Marcus was after a father figure, someone to guide him gently towards male adulthood, but that wasn’t it at all: Marcus needed help to be a kid, not an adult". Hornby uses the discourse of single-parent families as a backdrop for his stories basically because the phenomenon is so widespread in his generation.

3.2 Fandom: The hobbies of men

Nick Hornby’s characters generally reveal themselves as someone "who has yet to come to terms with the demands of adult life". The narrator in Fever Pitch is so obsessed with football that it is more important to him than invitations to friends‘ parties. The narrator in High Fidelity believes that rock music and romantic imaginations about the women he would like to go out with are essential to life. Will in About a Boy is useless in the literal sense of the term – he can only look after the daily routine of his own life, and he even goes about this with as little creativity as possible.

All these characters are to a certain extent obsessed by their hobbies. In the preface to Fever Pitch the narrator explains that the book "is about being a fan" and that it "is an attempt to gain some kind of an angle on my obsession". The source for rock or football fandom is genuine interest – in Fever Pitch the narrator notices that "most of us were defined only by the number and extent of our interests. Some boys had more records than others, and some knew more about football". But if these hobbies take over one’s whole life they tend to become an obstacle that reduces your chances of a meaningful lifestyle. In Fever Pitch the narrator explains his visits to Arsenal matches as an adult: "for the duration of the game I am an eleven-year-old. When I described football as a retardant, I meant it". It is striking but probably adequate that in Hornby’s novels only men suffer from these obsessive hobbies.

However, there is hope for men thus infected: all major male characters in Hornby’s books show signs of gradual improvement. At least, they realise what’s going on with them. The Fever Pitch narrator explains towards the end of the book: "That night, I stopped being an Arsenal lunatic and relearnt how to be a fan, still cranky, and still dangerously obsessive, but only a fan, nonetheless". And in About a Boy Will reluctantly accepts a certain degree of social responsibility for his friends Marcus and Fiona. There is no final solution or settlement or healing in the therapeutic sense of these words, but there is development and gradual change.

3.3 You have to work hard for your wedding bells

The obsessive sides of Hornby’s characters have consequences for their love relationships. All of them fail to maintain long-lasting love relationships (although all except Will basically want a permanent tie with a partner). Will is notorious for avoiding any kind of commitment at all costs. The narrator in High Fidelity prefers romantic daydreams and endless discussions about rock music with his pals to any serious commitment that might involve changing his own life. He is not really happy with his job as a record shop owner but, as his ex-girlfriend Laura points out correctly, he does not make any attempt to change the way he lives. And for the narrator of Fever Pitch his football obsession is definitely a problem when it comes to social ties – he makes it clear that a football match is more important to him than a date with his girlfriend.

But again, there is hope. At the end of the book the narrator in High Fidelity wonders: "when’s it all going to fucking stop? I’m going to jump from rock to rock for the rest of my life until there aren’t any rocks left?". Will in About a Boy starts to go out with a girl he really likes and there is even room for the young Marcus, as Will’s girlfriend is – of course – a single mother. "Will had found himself wanting to talk to Marcus about what it was like to wander about with nothing on, feeling scared of everything and everybody".

All in all there is consolation for us men in our twenties and thirties: you might be going through a hard time but you can change things gradually if you are ready for it. It takes a lot of energy and it can be a painful process at times. This is one of the lessons Hornby’s narrators teach the reader in the books.

The magnificence of Hornby’s novels lies basically in this quality: Hornby’s characters exhibit human weaknesses which many readers will recognise as their own. Each passionate football fan, every serious rock fan, all daydreaming romantics will find bits of their own language in the books. The way Hornby describes the young Marcus and his problems in About a Boy will remind many readers of their own sufferings at school. This is why Hornby’s books are great pop.

Hornby finds original and intelligent voices for the various characters in the books. Sometimes his characters are a bit too quick with rational and self-critical interpretations of their own experience and feelings. If the narrator of Fever Pitch notes that "rites of passage are more commonly found in literary novels, or mainstream Hollywood films with pretensions, than they are in real life, particularly in real suburban life", then he goes beyond what the reader would want to know about the narrator’s reflexions. The book Fever Pitch, after all, is a literary novel. But most events are explained in an adequate and often highly funny language, and this makes Hornby’s books great literature.