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  Soap (short for ‘soap opera’) is a popular form of radio and television drama, and of literature. It gets its name from 1930s daytime radio shows in the USA, which were ‘soap’ because they were financed by detergent manufacturers, and were ‘opera’ because of the melodramatic acting style and the feverish intensity of characterization and plotting. Soaps are serials, usually about the interlocking lives of a group of people in a single situation. They may live in the same street, work in the same business, or be members of the same extended family. Ambition, apathy, hate, love, treachery, trust—the whole of human life is there, and in some soaps (notably those of India and South America, where radio soaps have their largest following), demons, ghosts, gods and witches also play their parts. In North American soaps, the setting is usually a family (sometimes rich and bitchy, sometimes not rich and stickily ‘together against the world’). European soaps (the UK and Spain are the major consumers) are usually set in a business or a neighbourhood. Australian television gained enormous worldwide success during the 1980s with soaps set in an ordinary, suburban street and a women\'s prison. In the UK the longest-running soaps (both over 40 years old) are The Archers, a radio soap set among farmers, and Coronation Street, a television soap set in a working-class street in a town in northern England.

Soaps are treated with self-conscious enthusiasm or self-righteous contempt by highbrow critics, and with a kind of amused obsession by their devotees. The essence of the form is familiarity, and its success depends on the strength of its characters and, in the plotting, a blend of familiarity and incessant surprise. Soap styles—fluid narrative, relaxed and unpretentious dialogue, unembarrassed use of sentimentality, short scenes and rapid cutting—have influenced much ‘serious’ drama, and in particular have softened the edge of popular films (for example those of Steven Spielberg). Soaps are also a major influence on literary fiction. There are innumerable blockbuster novels in soap style, dealing with the trials and tribulations of ordinary people coping with life or with ruthless waifs making their way in big business. In ‘serious’ literature, soaps are an important influence on the content and style of magic realism, and have also given themes and a manner to novelists as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Heinrich Böll, Colette, Alison Lurie, François Mauriac, Iris Murdoch, Cesare Pavese and John Updike. KMcL



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