Monday Morning Stepback: Is There a Paradox of "Junk" Fiction?

1. Links:

a. I can’t do a Links of Interest section since I nuked my Google reader, but I will mention the contest I am running — the winner may choose any two books from those listed.

b. Also, on the subject of book bloggers and conferences, I discovered –or rather, Kristin of Fantasy Cafe discovered and told me about —  a new one, the Book Blogger Convention, May 28 in NYC, which overlaps with the Book Expo America.  The Keynote One featured speaker is Ron Hogan, speaking on Professionalism and Ethics in Blogging (EDITED TO ADD: thanks to Natasha from Maw Books setting me straight on that. Keynote TBA). I confess I don’t know anything about Ron Hogan, but I see that Thea of The Book Smugglers is on a panel about Marketing, and Mandi of Smexy Books is on the list of attendees. Looking around the BEA website, it looks to me like it’s for industry professionals — authors and editors and the like. The Book Blogger Convention has affiliated with BEA, and is offering admission to BEA with your BBC badge. You can enter a contest for free admission to the Book Blogger Con — contest ends Friday. It goes without saying that I am thinking about going.

EDITED TO ADD: Katiebabs had a long, informative post about these events, based on insider knowledge and her attendance in 2009. Sorry I did not see it the first time.

c. I was really shocked to read author Laura Kinsale’s comment on Dear Author’s conversational review of her new book, Lessons in French (which I still haven’t read). In response to a reviewer’s (and some responders’) comment that the book was “melancholy”, Kinsale wrote “Piffle Diffle”  and “Just. No.” and “I draw the line at melancholy”.

I’d like to say something about this, because she made a similar comment here, and I find these sorts of comment potentially chilling of the kind of discussion readers must have if fiction is to flourish in a society (note that “potentially” is a pretty generous way to interpret the intentions of someone who basically tells people to cut it out).  Authors don’t get to tell readers how to experience their books, and that is what one is doing, even when one adds “winks” and jokey asides to one’s comment. An author can say “Huh. I am really surprised you experienced the book as melancholy because that was not my intention while writing it”.  Or — and I know it sounds crazy — but one might even consider saying something like, “Huh. Maybe I didn’t write as clearly as I wanted to, if so many experienced genre readers and thoughtful people failed to hear the tone I was going for.” (I do this if a majority of my students get a quiz question wrong. I assume the fault is mine, in the way I worded it.). But telling a reader “Just. No.” and then pointing out that other (Presumably better? More careful? Smarter?) readers read it the way the author intended in order to buttress one’s view is, as she herself put it, “an author behaving badly”.

Romance readers are not passive automatons, thoughtlessly imbibing authors’ words. Reading is an interaction between reader and text, and it is unique every time. The relationship that is forged between the author and the reader requires respect on both sides.  The reviewers of Lessons in French demonstrated that respect by carefully reading the text and engaging in thoughtful dialogue with others about it. If only the author had done the same.

2. Personal

a. My work situation: Still confusing. No one knows what the hell is going on, although some signs have me thinking positively. But I found out something good:  Tenured faculty get severance pay for 18 months if let go (clearly, I have never read my contract in all these years. What a revelation!). What this means is that I do not have to job hunt right this minute. So that’s something to be not unhappy about.

b. My husband’s promotion to full professor became official this morning. He is such a hot ticket, that guy. He was tenured and promoted to associate prof a mere 24 months before he submitted his documents for full. I love you and am so proud of you! We are having a BIG PARTY!!!

3. Summary and discussion of “The Paradox of Junk fiction” Noel Carroll, Philosophy and Literature, 18(2), 1994 (p. 225-241)

“The Paradox of Junk Fiction” is an essay by Noel Carroll, a very well known philosopher of fiction and film. He defines “junk fiction” as, basically, genre fiction with “extremely limited repertoire of story types”.  Examples include Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, and Agatha Christie. With junk fiction “we read for story.” Junk fictions tell the same story over and over again, says Carroll, with “minor variations”. Junk fiction readers read these variations against a “well-established background of narrative forms.” The reader “knows in some sense how the story is going to go”. He writes, “If you have read one Harlequin romance, it might be argued, you have read them all. You know how it will turn out.”

(By the way, the term “junk fiction” refers to Thomas Roberts’, An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, which I am about to read. According to Carroll, Roberts addresses a slightly different question, namely how genre readers can speak so ill of the books they love.)

So, the paradox is that people read junk fiction for the story, for the “page turning” aspect. But these readers know antecedently how the story will turn out. What to do?

Carroll rejects pretty much outright the first option, which we can call “biting the bullet”. That is, accepting the paradox as it stands and admitting that, yup, we are irrational. For example, you could take a Freudian approach and say junk fiction operates to meet some unconscious need, either wish fulfillment (he cites romance here) or manifesting deep anxieties (horror).  My problems with such Freudian interpetations are their (a) inability to be disproven, and (b) tendency to make readers passive. So I agree with Carroll here.

Another possibility is offered by Roberts, who says that junk fiction is genre reading and genre reading is system reading, it is intertextual. Reading individual stories may be simple, but the system is complex.  What interests genre readers are “convergences, contrasts and extensions” in story type. It;s the fine grained appreciation of difference genre readers seek (that the apparent heroine is killed off early on in Psycho, for example, is even more enjoyably shocking to those versed in horror, because they know it is not supposed to happen).

Carroll admits that most fans read “comparatively” in a genre, but he denies that this is the core element of junk fiction reading. Many junk fiction readers just read for story, and they don’t perform these fine grained comparison. (for example, when I chatted with a bank teller about JR Ward. she doesn’t know JR Ward wrote any other books besides the one she’s now reading, never mind the subgenre paranormal romance. so, while I am very attracted to Roberts’ theory for other reasons, I don’t think he has described all genre readers.)

But Carroll appreciates that Roberts may be on to something: maybe readers of junk fiction get other kinds of enjoyment besides narrative enjoyment out of their stories. For example, the enjoyment of  “readerly activities of interpretation and inference”. And guess what genre he uses as an example here? Romance! I almost passed out when I saw that. Carroll cites Betty Neels’ The Quiet Professor. Click on the passage below to enlarge:

Junk fiction engages the reader in a “transactional process”. As readers, we enjoy “self rewarding cognitive activity”. Readers also derive pleasure or satisfaction from a range of moral and emotional activities and judgments they make as they read.

Carroll pauses for a minute to distinguish his preferred resolution to the cultural studies’ solution of “recoding and rereading” texts. That is, readers of junk fiction don’t really read for the story the author is telling, rather they read for their own recoded version. Romance readers who read JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood as a love story between Butch and Vishous might count as recoders in this sense. But the classic example is the one Carroll uses — native peoples cheering when the white man gets killed in a western. Carroll reject this idea: he thinks lefty cultural studies folks overstate drastically the amount of resistant reading that actually occurs. And he thinks it’s better on philosophical grounds to dissolve the paradox of junk fiction using readers that are not arbitrary, but actually “proposed by the text in a structured way” (he really reveals his hand when he suggests recodings are arbitrary. I doubt they are.).

Next Carroll responds to the objection that ALL reading, even of what he calls “ambitious fiction*” (i.e. literature) is cognitively, emotionally, and morally challenging in the way junk fiction is. Carroll admits it — such fictions may even “stimulate more readerly activities” than junk fiction. “Ambitious fictions” may be more consuming, and there may be a continuum of engagement required (after all, genre fiction is meant to be easily and quickly read. But we are not to confuse this with the claim that junk fiction readers are passive. they aren’t and they can;t be, if Carroll’s proposed solution is to work), but it’s all of a piece. nevertheless, this is not a problem for his argument, he says, because all he is trying to do is dissolve the paradox of junk fiction.

[*Carroll’s term “ambitious fiction” is not a helpful descriptor of non junk-fiction. I’m betting he was looking for a word for literary or modern fiction that doesn’t diminish junk fiction. First of all, the jig was up when he adopted the term “junk fiction”. but second, “ambition” fails utterly to distinguish literature and genre writers, since they are all about the most ambitious people you could hope to meet.  The only way “ambitious” distinguishes the two kinds of writing is if you implicitly smuggle in extra words like “ambitious to write a great novel”, but you’re back where you started. ]

So, to recap, a paradox occurs when two incompatible statements both seem true. In this case, it’s:

1. Junk fiction readers read for story, and if knowing the story they will lose interest in it.

2. Junk fiction readers are genre readers. Genre is formulaic, so junk fiction readers already know the story.

Carroll proposes to reject (1) as false, dissolving the paradox.

Does anyone sle see a problem with defining junk fiction as “fiction you read for story” and then arguing that “junk fiction readers don’t really read for story: they read for cognitive, emotional, and moral engagement”?

Personally, while I agree that genre fiction readers read for both story and for the other readerly activities Carroll lists, as well as for the comparative activities Roberts mentions, I would jettison #2. We don’t know the story.

What do you think?

41 responses

  1. — what do I think? That I can either work or reply … but I WILL reply later but as a small gift to you (OK, a huge gift), Magdalen discovered a blog devoted to all things Betty Neels and it’s pretty irresistible. Check it out :)

    One thing though: altho I do agree once a book is printed, the experience is between the reader and the work, I find that author comments can be chilling and change the discourse, even if they agree with the review/commentary. I just don’t feel as free to discuss a book when they’re “in the house” as it were. I often wish they would reserve the right to enter the discussion a few days after the readers had had a chance to “have at it”.


  2. Well, in the strictest sense we don’t know the story, but it was the number one thing my non-romance reading book club friends said to me when I made them read Julie Anne Long and then asked if they would read another romance….”No. I just couldn’t get past the fact that I knew they would get together in the end.”

    I definitely read romance and fantasy because I don’t know the characters, and secondarily to see if the author will do something interesting or novel with the story, so I don’t necessarily disagree with you about number 2. I just think the draw of not knowing the story is somewhat secondary in genre fiction.

    I would almost say the draw of genre fiction is both to see if the author can evoke certain feelings (infatuation, loss, sexual arousal) despite the formulaic nature, and to find out if these are characters I would like to know more about.


  3. BEA is geared towards industry professionals, but I think readers can find a lot to enjoy. Tons of publishers (TONS!), lots o’ books, and numerous author signings (everyone from debut authors to big name celebrities). Although while there is a nice romance presence at BEA – it’s hardly the only show in town. In other words, romance is just one aspect. They’re sharing space with science fiction, mystery, non-fiction, lit fic, street lit, fantasy, YA, children’s etc. etc. etc.

    If you only really “care” about romance novels, BEA might not be “worth it.” But if you read across genres, or are just fascinated with books in general? Scads of fun. Loads.


  4. According to Carroll, Roberts addresses a slightly different question, namely how genre readers can speak so ill of the books they love.

    Because some of them have been programmed to think that way for seventy years, maybe?

    Seriously, I always shake my head whenever I read something like this because it only points out how much so many of these people are studying the readers instead of the books and their history. Ask most anyone over seventy years old what they call paperback novels and seven out of ten of them will say either junk or trash without even knowing the genre or content. They may or may not use pulp.

    That’s because the original paperback magazines and dime novels were literally considered trash or little more than junk to toss out with the newspaper because they were printed on lower quality recycled (pulp) grade paper and were seen as disposable, unlike their more valuable and treasured hardback cousins.

    As to the question of whether readers read for the story or whether they already know the story, I think it’s more about the storytelling than anything else. Don’t know if that’s 1, 2 or another choice entirely, though. ;-)


  5. I went to BEA last year it was an amazing experience. So many of our fallow blogger, Thea, Ana, Mandi and now Kmont are coming in for it. I’ve hung out with Ron and he is amazing also.

    Unfortunately I will be on a cruise in the Atlantic when BEA and BBC happens. Here’s hoping I can go in 2011!


  6. I think you still have to jettison 1.. It’s not only false when readers know the generalities of the story (the murderer will get caught) but also false when the readers know the particular story, otherwise books would never be reread.
    In fact, I’d be interested to know how he explains rereading in general: if you’re not reading for story (because you know what happens), nor exercising your interpretative powers on a fresh set of details (because you’re familiar with the text) – my children could recite Harry Potter back in the day – where would the motivation for rereading a much-loved book come from?


  7. Fascinating, as usual, Jessica. I have been especially interested in this “paradox” since I started reading a lot more romance in the last year.

    I’d agree with Marianne that 1. is a problem. I think the seeming contradiction between reading for the story and knowing the story dissolves if we don’t assume that “reading for the story” means “reading to find out what happens.” Maybe we get pleasure/comfort from knowing the general outlines of the story, from knowing that certain expectations will be met (something that is much less true of “literary” fiction). That is true for me, and part of why I re-read favorite books. So we read for the story in the sense of reading to get a certain experience. (Like eating a favorite meal–knowing how it will taste does not diminish the pleasure).

    On the other hand (?), we DON’T know the story. I think of genre fiction as like the sonnet–there are certain constraints the writer is working within, but a myriad ways to work. HOW will we get to the HEA? No one would dismiss the value or pleasure of reading a Shakespeare sonnet on the grounds that “I know there will be 14 lines, a ‘turn’ in the middle and a couplet at the end, so why bother.” (Would they?)

    Glad to hear things are brighter on the personal/work front.


  8. Reading is an interaction between reader and text, and it is unique every time.

    That. A long, long time ago I took a creative writing class with an author of literary fiction whose novels and short stories had garnered some big honors. One of the most important lessons I learned in that class came when the author said that different interpretations of the same book are a mark of good writing, because it means that readers’ imaginations are engaging with the material. My sense was that she was pleased when readers saw things in her fiction that she didn’t consciously intend in the process of writing those works. That has stayed with me and I really hope I can have a similar outlook if I get published.


  9. Many congratulations to your husband. I hope your own resolution comes sooner rather than later, whatever the outcome. In my very recent experience, it’s the not knowing that’s the hardest.

    Re: Ms. Kinsale, I’ve read a few snippy-reading comments from her lately. It’s so hard to tell in bits and bytes if the tone inferred was the one intended. I hope she has someone she trusts to maybe whisper in her ear that she’s not coming off well. Seems unlike her, as well, so I wonder what else might be going on.

    As for the junk fiction, I’ve always thought to myself that it’s not the destination, but rather the journey. So I guess I read for the story? Because I *do* know where we’re headed, right to HEA-(or HFN-)ville so the story’s where it’s at. This is true for me to the extent that I very often will read the opening chapter, the final two-ish chapters and then start the book over to read through. Once I establish the particulars and parameters, I want to find out how we’re working within them. I don’t know what this means in the context of the discussion, but there you are.


  10. Congrats to your husband on his full professorship! And so glad you have some breathing space.

    I hadn’t seen Kinsale’s remarks on that review (which explains a reaction I saw from someone) but her disclaiming of all authorial responsibility for the impact of her books was more than enough to put me off her for life. Though how she can make out she has no responsibility for how readers are affected by her books, while at the same time attempt to direct how they fell about them, defeats me. Maybe it’s very special big name author logic that little tiddlers like me can’t understand.

    “Does anyone sle see a problem with defining junk fiction as “fiction you read for story” and then arguing that “junk fiction readers don’t really read for story: they read for cognitive, emotional, and moral engagement”?”

    Not really. The story is the ‘agreed destination’ – the reader knows that in the end, the couple will walk off into the sunset holding hands, the crime will be solved, the villains punished and so on. So they can sit back and enjoy the journey because they know where they’re going – it’s like flying. Being on an airplane is roughly similar wherever you do it or wherever you go, but the individual flights all vary considerably within known limits (being on a plane, going to a pre-planned destination, arrival of food before starvation sets in etc). The quality of the journey, the *experience* of the journey is what the reader is after, but they are also after the end result and the mode of transport.

    uh…did I mangle enough metaphors in that? :)


  11. While BEA is more for industry professionals, the Book Blogger Convention is totally geared to book bloggers! Also, Ron Hogan is not our keynote speaker – we are very excited to have him speak in one of our sessions. We are dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s and we’ll announce our keynote soon!

    BEA was a blast last year and I can’t wait!


  12. What do I think? I think my head hurts, which is why I can only go so far with academic treatments of genre fiction. I hasten to add that I don’t mean to say that academia should stop where I do, just that my brain just doesn’t and can’t work that way.

    As for Kinsale’s comments, it might be rude or un-PC of me to observe, but I have a suspicion that she’s a bit of a n00b at online stuff and may not realize that an author can’t afford to be off-the-cuff and banter-y with bloggers the way she might with fellow authors or a trusted circle of test-readers. Tone is really hard to manage on line– and it’s also not always understood that at least part of this romance community is small and gets around a LOT.

    I want to go to BEA and the BBC so bad, but I don’t think it will happen this year. I’m gonna save some pennies though, and maybe next year.


  13. I tend to think of genre fiction as being more visceral and literary fiction as more cerebral, but that doesn’t necessarily help with the philosophy of “junk fiction.”

    Here’s what Carroll’s and Roberts’ analyses made me think of: food (and beer). Brit Hub 1.0 is all about variety; he has no favorite beer because he’s more interested in trying something new. He’s not looking for some theoretical Shangri-La, some mythical perfect brew that will satisfy him once he finds it — he just likes something new. He’s the same way with food. So “comfort food” is anathema for him.

    But I like comfort food, and it’s not too surprising that I liked all 130+ of Betty Neels’ books — even the bad ones — because they were comforting and comfortable. In theory, I could have read one of hers 130+ times but that would have been tedious (in time; I have re-read several of her books more than once) and therefore unsatisfactory as a source of comfort.

    Hmm… Visceral and comforting. Pick your metaphor: mac and cheese or your Slanket? (I make really good mac and cheese.)


  14. I always enjoy your posts Jessica. I am sorry to hear about the job struggles. I hope they work out for you. At the same time congrats on your husband’s achievements. Isn’t that the way in life? Struggle and success. Sad and happy happening at the same time. Paradox.
    That is the way with reading. You start out reading something for one reason and end up finishing or not for another. A lot of the Junk fiction of today is tomorrows classic so I find it hard to buy into there being a difference in the way I read “literary” fiction versus “Junk”. Is the difference because one is popular and widely read while the other gets dusty on a shelf? Is “Secret Life of Bees” literary while “Katherine” isn’t? Is it the horror and sex that make it junk? Then that would make Charlotte Bonte, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allen Poe junk authors.
    The point is as a reader I want to be entertained. I want to be moved and challenged and educated and engaged. It doesn’t serve me to know how the story ends. Nor do I want to be stuck with the same plot line time and time again. Variety is exciting. So I would kick #2 to the curb.
    Have a great day! :)


  15. At last year’s RWA, a friend said that she loved the fact that the heroine in one of my books pretended to ignore the hero when they were young. I said, “No, she really didn’t know he existed.”

    Then afterward I thought, man, I really shouldn’t have said anything about it. Once an author has sent off the galleys, her job is done. Let the readers interpret the books as they will.

    I think Ms. Kinsale made her comment in much the same spirit as I’d replied to my friend in person, not with any intention to impose her view as the orthodox view, but simply because she felt part of the conversation and wanted to add her voice to it when she felt that the interpretation of the book went completely the opposite as what she intended.

    I guess the problem is that it is in general an uneasy place for authors to insert themselves into a discussion of their books. And each author must make up their own minds about how much they will comment, whether to discuss the review or even just to thank the reviewer.

    Congratulations on your husband’s promotion btw. And hooray for you that your contract thought well ahead!


  16. I think Ms. Kinsale made her comment in much the same spirit as I’d replied to my friend in person, not with any intention to impose her view as the orthodox view, but simply because she felt part of the conversation and wanted to add her voice to it when she felt that the interpretation of the book went completely the opposite as what she intended.

    I guess the problem is that it is in general an uneasy place for authors to insert themselves into a discussion of their books. And each author must make up their own minds about how much they will comment, whether to discuss the review or even just to thank the reviewer.

    This is why I’ve always maintained that the “wall” between authors and readers has to be respected. Yes, authors are readers too — unless we’re talking about one of their books. Then they are not the reader. They are someone who should be interviewed about the product not open themselves up for potential adverse publicity by intruding on reader discussions.

    OTOH, Sherry, I would think that a private discussion with a friend about something you’ve written doesn’t fall within the same construct at all. For one thing, who are you supposed to share those thoughts with but a friend? ;-)


  17. Jessica, it would be lovely to meet you at BEA/BBC in May should you choose to go. :)

    And I’m glad your job situation is showing some signs of good. I’ll keep you in my thoughts for more positives.

    On the Kinsale comment issue: I’m dismayed at her comment. I wasn’t going to run out and by her book or anything, but it’s been surprising how easily bad author behavior stays to the forefront of my mind when I shop for books these days. I guess it’s this whole blogging thing, keeping it current. ;)


  18. Knowing the ending isn’t the same as knowing the story. We know we’re all going to die, but that doesn’t make every life the same. I know a romance will end with a HEA, but I want to see how the characters get there.


  19. @BevBB:

    OTOH, Sherry, I would think that a private discussion with a friend about something you’ve written doesn’t fall within the same construct at all. For one thing, who are you supposed to share those thoughts with but a friend? ;-)

    V. true. But she is a reader who likes layers and complexity. And I’d rather she still felt that the book had as many layers as she once thought it did. :-)

    And personally, I couldn’t agree more about the wall.


  20. My opinion about Kinsale’s commenting (not about her comments, just about her commenting) is the opposite of the opinion on the blog here. I think the idea that Kinsale, because she is an author, shouldn’t comment seems much more chilling to discussion than her commenting. The idea that we would prefer someone not join in the discussion, because we believe it will create a more free discussion seems like an inherent contradiction.


    • Shivaun, I’m glad you’ve shared an opposing view, and Sherry, I appreciate your take on it. Just to clarify to Shivaun: I didn’t claim that any author participation on review threads chills discussion (and above I gave 2 examples of the kind of comment that doesn’t). However, I have wondered aloud about it here. I think it may well depend on the way the author participates. In this case, it didn’t seem like a wise choice to me.


  21. @shivaun … I know it’s late and perhaps I’m misunderstanding … but, Laura Kinsale notwithstanding, authors joining in on threads sometimes/oftentimes/once*in*awhile … imo, stifles conversation. Like maybe that’s not a problem but when it’s a review blog, like Racy Romance Reviews, as much as I A with a capital “A” adore Kinsale, I want to hear how other readers react to Kinsale’s new book: and an author (sorry, I guess I meant Victoria Dahl), sorta shuts down the discourse.


  22. I don’t think an author joining in on the comments for a review of their book is always chilling. It depends on what they say, how they word it. Kinsale definitely appeared to sway the conversation and she did it by totally dismissing a reader’s valid opinion. I’ve seen plenty of authors act with grace when encountering a disappointed reader re their work. This wasn’t one of them.

    As a reviewer I admit I’m a little cautious should an author’s comment pop up in my email, but there is always the chance they’re responding in a good way, even if that’s to disagree a little. It can be done.


  23. This is how the Internet is so very different from the real world in that we wouldn’t expect most authors of the book under discussion to wander into reader’s book groups and sit down smack in the middle of their chats without an invitation. Or some preparation and fanfare.

    Same difference.

    Since I’ve been online I’ve seen authors join in conversations about books all the time, many times. It’s not about whether or not they should join in to talk about books. Generically speaking, anyway. A lot of them do it and do it quite well. I mean books are their business. They know books. Some of the best romance forums out there are the ones heavily populated by authors because one learns so much about storytelling on them. (Notice I didn’t say writing?)

    Then, too, when I go to an author’s website, forum or blog, of course, I expect to be able to talk to them about their books, past, present or future. But that’s their place and they’ve invited us there.

    No, this is about whether or not they should enter into conversations at our places – without express invitations – about their books, particularly when those books are new and just being newly reviewed. Big difference.

    It’s about being able to establish that line that gives them the respect for the product they’ve produced and the reader the respect to be able to enjoy that same product – without feeling like the author is in the “room” so to speak.

    Simple respect.


  24. Since talking to Laura on Twitter, I think she left the comment as a haha you’re all great people, *wink wink* and not meant as being rude or upset.

    But again, if people don’t know this, then I can understand why they may wonder why Laura would leave a comment like that.


  25. Hmmm. Babs, I want to believe you. But Kinsale chose to jump in and comment on a point in the review she clearly disagreed with and disliked being made. I think she may well have tried to phrase it more…jokingly, but it still didn’t read like a joke to me. As Jessica said, some winks and smilies don’t really make it any better.

    I’ve got to stop reading her comment now because the more I do the more it looks like she just can’t take a few readers possibly finding her book anything other than a romp, for example. Umm, well, last time I checked reality, the way an author intends for a reader to perceive something just might not always work. I’m pretty sure the author who wrote the current book I’m reading didn’t intend for me to feel like choking the entire thing.


  26. Actually, I agree that authors shouldn’t argue with reviewers, or even engage with them in general. So you can take me heavily to task about it. It took me awhile to remember the comment here you mentioned that I made, until I realized that it was in response to Robin’s foreshadowing of her review. I think I replied that I was surprised and would be interested to hear her discussion, which I was.

    I generally have a hard and fast rule NOT to say anything about my books unless I’m asked. But the way things played out, I felt I had a good reason to do so.

    I was interested in the DA thread about LESSONS IN FRENCH, and just reading along.

    It was when people who had *not* read the book started using words like “bleak” and “melancholy” in the comments, that I did feel that this was so misleading it was important for me to speak up.

    It was like people getting the idea that a Jennifer Crusie book was a Steven King book. Apples were being innocently commented into oranges.

    Overall in that case, I don’t agree that my input chilled the discussion. It continued between me and the reviewers, and I think even illuminated their points further.

    I’m sure my comment on the other thread on DA was much more controversial. Apparently it pissed off a lot of people. However, since that thread was not about my books, I was commenting as someone who has an interest in the topic, and on an equal standing with other commenters.

    I think if a discussion of a topic about what authors owe readers can’t include an author’s point of view, it can’t really be called an open examination of the issue.

    Everyone is free to agree or disagree, to like me or to hate me because I’m too snippy, or immoral, unethical and not fit to live, and to buy or not buy my books on that basis. But their reaction is not going to cause me to be silent out of fear of that reaction. That was a large part of the point I tried to make in the DA thread.

    There IS an atmosphere of fear among authors online about what we are “allowed” to say. I got several emails and tweets from authors who thanked me for my DA comment, saying that they were afraid to speak up. I also got people asking if I wanted them to go and “defend” me. No, I appreciated their support but I don’t need to be defended. I am in no danger, except of being disliked.

    And I was sorry to hear that some authors were afraid, because those are voices that are lost, and they might be worth hearing.

    I guess I am not a good candidate for a double standard, in which being a reader/blogger makes it ok to openly say what you believe and think about issues, and being an author makes it not ok. I also have a pretty tough hide after all these years.

    My books have been eviscerated in reviews, and praised to the skies. I’ve been published for more than two decades, after all. I’ve been online since 1993. I’ve been flamed and I’ve been adored. That’s just par for the course. I’ve “gotten in trouble” before, and I’m still alive. ;)

    When you put your work out in public, whether it’s in a book, in a blog, in a review or even in a comment, you are subject to “critique” by all and sundry. It’s been going on ever since the printing press.

    I have not held myself up as special or not subject to criticism. I’ve said what I believe it is important to say.

    Let the chips fall where they may. Nothing more sinister than that about it.


  27. @Laura Kinsale: You say “Let the chips fall where they may” and yet you feel it imperative to argue – rather gracelessly, imo (and I speak as [an insignifant] author *and* reviewer) – with critics and readers over simple opinion. You also are not content to simply express your opinions about authorial responsibility in that discussion, but you also have to come over here and restate them, using that old canard of “the lurkers support me in email.”

    Which, in point of fact, they might do. But other lurkers won’t, and many, like me, would have been so repulsed by what you said, that directly contacting you to argue would have felt a waste of time. After all, you obviously aren’t open to other points of view, and are prepared to keep restating the same thing without even admitting the possibility of changing your mind or being erroneous. Why would someone like me write to you to say that?

    “I also have a pretty tough hide after all these years. ”

    I don’t think you have a tough hide at all. Someone with a tough hide wouldn’t be doing any of this. I think you’re mad as hell, and are trying to pretend you’re not. Then again you’re hardly the first author to talk tough and act fragile, so I’m not exactly surprised at your response.

    I find it bemusing how many of these authors bleating about not having any responsibility towards readers, are so touchy about criticism.

    If you won’t take any responsibility for reader’s reactions, stop trying to control them, or the discussion about them. You really can’t have it both ways, Laura.


  28. There IS an atmosphere of fear among authors online about what we are “allowed” to say.

    I agree that such an atmosphere exists; however, I don’t think it’s because readers are censoring authors. It is merely because authors are public figures, and as such their actions and words can affect readers’ purchasing decisions. Therefore they have a public image to think about. It isn’t really all that different from the way athletes with corporate sponsorships or politicians come under greater scrutiny than people who aren’t public figures.

    But this atmosphere existed long before the blogosphere. I remember those days, and it was even more rare then to see an author in this genre negatively review a fellow author’s book (no matter how respectfully), for example, than it is today. So there has always been some form or another of this type of scrutiny and a resultant culture of silence among authors, IMO.


  29. @Laura Kinsale: Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. I think we agree on principle, but not in detail. So, we agree authors shouldn’t engage with reviewers on reviews of their book. You felt that the DA case was an exception, because factual errors were being spread about Lessons in French. My own view is that the experience of the tone of the book is subjective. It’s not like everyone was saying the hero died, a falsity I think any author would be hard pressed not to get in there and resist.

    I also think it helps to look at the romance blogosphere as a whole, A slew of positive reviews for LIF came out at the same time as the (also positive) DA review. To me, it looks like there’s some disagreement overall about the tone. I realize DA reviews are widely read, but I hardly think Robin and Sarah can sway the opinions of the thousands of readers LIK is likely to have. So, if it were me, I would have gritted my teeth and held back.

    You mention the other comment on the DA thread about author responsibilities. I can’t speak for others, but I viewed that post as an open invitation to authors and readers alike to share their views. I can’t imagine why anyone would think authors shouldn’t or couldn’t participate in online discussions about writing, reading, etc. Not being a writer myself, I know I learn a tremendous amount when they do.

    I think there’s a big difference between critiquing reader reviewers about one’s own work and engaging in general discussion about writing.

    I think we are all subject to in different ways to what we consider unfair criticism. In my fall teaching evaluations, a student wrote I was “late to class every day” and SIGNED it, meaning it goes into my file. In fact, the clock was fast in the classroom. I saw that student in the Union yesterday, and had a momentary urge to walk up to him and say “the clocks were fast, you fuckwit.” I resisted, barely.

    Again, I appreciate your feedback.


  30. Okay, with teeth gritted and loins girded…

    FIrst, I just want to say that I really enjoy Ron Hogan; IMO he’s got this literate down to earth quality that reflects a really broad spectrum of interests, from Romance to lit fic and beyond. IIRC he’s host at Lady Jane’s Salon (his own website is, but he’s also written many articles for GalleyCat).

    As for the Carroll article, thanks, Jessica, for posting this, because I don’t know if I would have found it otherwise. And I wanted to read it myself before I commented here. I totally agree with Jessica about the problems with his foundational assumption that “junk fiction” (and oh, how that term is problematic) is read for story. Although I see Romance readers make this same assertion quite readily (i.e. genre fiction is all about story, while lit fic is all about characters and prose). I disagree at a very visceral level but haven’t yet been able to marshal a coherent argument explaining why. I also think it’s problematic to rely on what King says about how own work as “proof” of the position, even if King is completely earnest in the statement.

    Had Carroll let go of this premise, I think the argument might have proceeded differently, even though I don’t disagree with the idea that readers enjoy exercising a certain inferential control over the text.

    Also, Roberts’s point about intertextuality is quite similar to my own understanding of “genre coding” to which I have referred and on which I promised Laura V. a longer piece. I hadn’t read Carroll (and still haven’t read Roberts), so that discussion was a nice find for me.

    As for the overall significance of Carroll’s argument, I found a lot in it to admire and agree with, but don’t think it accounts for the *pleasure* readers get from genre fiction. And I’m not so sure that pleasure is so substantially different for genre fiction reading than, say, lit fic. Or rather that pleasure cannot be divided along those lines, but will differ from genre to genre. Carroll’s construction seems to privilege the intellectual in the reading process, and while I definitely think that’s a factor, I don’t think it’s a comprehensive explanation to the question of why we read and enjoy books that share a similar generic structure.

    Part of the problem may be that he needs a much more complex discussion of the relationship between form and content and a more nuanced approach to his whole concept of “the same story” — is it really the same story or is it that there are only a limited number of story types, regardless of genre? Is it the structure of the story that’s duplicative and how does that structure relate to the story elements, per se? What are the differences between “types” and “forms,” how are they executed by the author, and how does the reader figure these relationships as s/he reads?

    Of course, all that may be the difference between an article and a book, so I just ordered a (used — OMG 55 bucks for new!) copy of Carroll’s “A Philosophy of Mass Art,” which was written a few years after this article.


  31. @Jessica:

    Jessica, I reread what you initially wrote and realized that I had interpreted your comment, “I find these sorts of comment potentially chilling of the kind of discussion readers must have if fiction is to flourish in a society”, to mean that you found authors’ comments chilling, whereas you meant something more specific by it. I’m still not quite sure what you meant by “these sorts of comment”. I could guess that you might mean authoritative, blunt, snippy, but since I have already read it wrong once I am hesitant to do so. By the way, I thought Kinsale’s arguments were meant to be sort of funny, but I can see how other people would have seen them as authoritative, etc. I thought they were written in a purposefully over the top way.

    When you say, “the kind of discussion readers must have if fiction is to flourish in a society”, my first thought is that fiction can flourish in a society without any kind of internet discussion happening at all, let alone a particular kind of discussion occuring. While I enjoy reading discussions about fiction I am surprised at the importance being accorded to these discussions.

    I want to add that while the discussions won’t be the same if authors join in, I am not sure they won’t, generally speaking, be as good and in some cases better.


  32. We might also consider that “reading for plot” is not “reading to be *surprised* by the plot” but rather reading with attention to the ingenuity or subtlety or skill with which the craft is plotted. (This is why his point about genre/junk fiction as intertextual in its pleasures appeals to me: readers of genre fiction/art are experts in form, and gain pleasure both from the skillful evocation of formulaic structures and innovation within the constraints of those formalae. Many other cultural moments don’t consider novelty as the hallmark of creative achievement, but rather intertextual skill or deftness with convention.)

    This makes me think (because I have been teaching it, of course) of the different demands the 5th C Athenians made on their drama, for instance. For Aristotle (a century later), playwrights were “makers of plots,” craftsmen of narrative structure, and the primary way a tragedy functions was through its plot (rather than character, diction, thought, etc.). Nonetheless, the Greek tragedians Aristotle was smitten with were not creators of new plots, any more than Shakespeare was, in general.

    The audience *knew* the stories of the tragedies already: satisfaction wasn’t the result of finding out what happened, but rather in the skill with which the playwright shows us how it happens, and the layers of dramatic irony created by our knowledge, the characters’ ignorance, and the playwright’s skill in arranging events and their revelation. In other words, the ancient tragedies (like modern romance and modern horror) are drenched in suspense, but it is the suspense of knowing whence we head.

    I think also of theatre because it is an art form of inherent repetition. I see productions over and over again both because the reinterpretation of the piece by the performers (as the reinterpretation of virtually archetypal plot lines by different authors) fills me with intertextual glee and the joy of new resonances, but also because I have changed with every viewing, to venture into the territory of reader response theory and Heraclitus. In the Noh theatre, the performances are “scripted” down to the minutest gesture, but still performances manage to be meaningfully different, and devotees cite a sort of palimpsestic effect of seeing the ghosts of old performances and readings of the play through the current one as one of the great joys of an art form that is so rigidly controlled and form-oriented. The tumult of innovation and the shock of the unexpected are not necessarily the markers of a well made plot or a satisfying work of art.

    By the by, *wonderful* (and extremely impressive) news about your husband, and I am glad to here that the horizon is a bit rosier for you as well, although I still feel empathetically grim inside when I contemplate the seismic departmental shifts going on everywhere.

    And a last post-script: I too read a batch of fall evaluations today, so I was struck by your comparison of the author’s right (or not) to respond to reviewers to a teacher’s (non?)right to response to student evaluations. While talking to a colleague about my gratitude for the constructive suggestions my recent evaluations offered, we wandered onto the topic of how frustrating it is when students enshrine factual inaccuracies in your permanent record (a part of your file for tenure and promotion, intimately tied to your livelihood). At the last school I taught, I told her, instructors could respond to student evaluations they felt were unfair or inaccurate. It wouldn’t remove them from the permanent record, but it would contextualize them, making them into a dialogue rather than an authoritative record. I concluded that this was because the course evaluations at my last school are not only a part of your employment file, they are also available online to future students considering taking your course. Because they are in the “public forum,” it somehow seemed more vital to give teachers a chance to respond, just as students can respond to the evaluation you give of their assignment.

    My attitude tends to be that it is interesting when authors engage in discussions of their own work, because it enriches our sense of the process of composition and the relation between the author’s works (or between their works and their biography and philosophy). But it can be a bit chilling, because we as a society cleave to the widespread (and frequently-debunked-in-freshman-lit-classes) idea that the author is the source of all meaning in the text – that whatever s/he says is inarguably true. Rather, the author’s interpretation of his or her own text just enriches the palimpsest of possible readings, all of which work off of each other.

    Yikes. Mammoth comment. But only because your blog is, as always, so fascinating, and the comment discussion so thought-provoking!


  33. @Ariel/Sycorax Pine:

    We might also consider that “reading for plot” is not “reading to be *surprised* by the plot” but rather reading with attention to the ingenuity or subtlety or skill with which the craft is plotted. (This is why his point about genre/junk fiction as intertextual in its pleasures appeals to me: readers of genre fiction/art are experts in form, and gain pleasure both from the skillful evocation of formulaic structures and innovation within the constraints of those formalae. Many other cultural moments don’t consider novelty as the hallmark of creative achievement, but rather intertextual skill or deftness with convention.)

    Yes! Great point. And when you think about how one of the foundations for Romance is Classical Comedy, it becomes even more important, IMO.

    I realize it’s time for me to re-read Auberbach’s Mimesis, because, as you point out, there’s so much to be mined from myriad dramatic and literary traditions (mimetic and diegetic), from myth, from orally related epic poetry, to the innumerable adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, to the jeremiad, etc. etc. etc. And that’s only within the Western traditions.

    In general I think there’s been an institutional reluctance to engage with Romance, especially, using all the intellectual tools our various disciplines have produced and applied to other cultural and artistic forms/expressions/works/traditions. But, thankfully, this is definitely changing.


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