Serious v. Plain v. Paperback Readers: The Dumbest Table I Have Ever Seen

From Thomas J. Roberts’ An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction:

(Apologies for lack of formatting. More on this book to come)

Read down according to color…

Kind of reader: Serious Reader Plain Reader Paperback Reader

Example: Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather Genre fiction (romance, SFF, thriller)

Orientation: Reads by author Reads by book Reads by genre

Socializing: Writes about books Chats about books Reads alone

Expectations: Originality Information Gratification

Stimulus to read:  A good review Book club Titles, covers

Writers’ rewards: Fame Money Love

28 responses

  1. “The Dumbest Table I Have Ever Seen”

    Oy bloody vey.

    I read Mrs Dalloway and a good many books when I was in my teens and twenties, either because I wanted to explore or because my degree insisted. I was glad I did, even though Mrs Dalloway kinda makes you feel like you’ve drunk laudanum, because it’s so bloody lifeless.

    And then life started to hit me in the proverbial lady nuts. Family deaths, friends death, personal disasters, serious illness, employment crises, the lot. Suddenly fictional misery and the existential angst of privileged English women like Mrs Dalloway stopped being entertainment, and started being Shit I Could Live Without. And now I’m 47, and probably not likely to live as many more years as I have already, I’ve decided that Questions of Worthiness aren’t going to rule my reading habits or my choices of entertainment any more. Because I’ve been there, done that, and now I want to read what I enjoy, and what doesn’t add to my life burdens.

    So in short, to the creator of that table: You’re an ignorant, pretentious nimrod. The fact that you see these categories as exclusive of each other, tells me you know *nothing* about real readers at all.

    Ahem. I’ll just away and shower myself off.

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  2. May read alone… but has access to an extremely verbal and like-minded online community to come stomp on people who make stupid tables that seem supported more by personal prejudice than by fact.

    *ahem*

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  3. That is moronic. Hasn’t he met any genre readers who have “auto-buy” authors? I’m also wondering what “information” readers get from Gone With the Wind and whether, say, Nora Roberts is lacking in money and fame.

    I think MOST of these things describe me as reader.

    OT–doesn’t the number of comments on your Monday post make you part of some “in crowd”?

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  4. Jessica–the undeniable dumbness of this table jolted me out of my lurker status and straight into commenting on your excellent blog for the very first time. Like many people, I read everything, and I’m another romance reader with a Ph.D.–in literature. The genre of romance captures my attention because it seems to be a direct challenge to just this kind of elitist classification.

    I haven’t read Robert’s book, but after looking at its blurb on Amazon, I wonder if this table is just an argumentative strategy, where he sets up a set of straw readers just to knock them down later? Here’s a quotation from that description–

    Learned fiction is studied rather than read. Junk fiction is read by a process Robert calls thick-reading. Its readers are always aware of the changing patterns and rules governing a book’s genre, and see that, however slightly, each new story changes its own genre. In a sense junk fiction readers are not reading books, they are reading whole genres and listening to the stories talking to one another inside those genres.

    That seems pretty on the mark to me as a description of how I read romances (it also sounds like a different form of “studying,” but that’s another issue!). I would hope that Robert acknowledges somewhere that he is really talking about the different ways in which we can choose to read and that he makes it clear that he is not trying to describing distinct classes of actual readers. What do you think? Does he get that?

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  5. Well, I mean you know what happens when you read alone for gratification–you end up with hairy palms! True fact! Sometimes if you read alone for gratification for too long, your hands will actually become paralyzed! You’ll have to walk around holding that paperback romance for the rest of your life! And then you’ll become blind and you won’t even be able to read it!

    This chart is almost as awesome as the one that Robin Williams makes ‘em rip out of their poetry book at the beginning of Dead Poets Society.

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  6. Odd. Does the writer have to decide then, at the beginning? I want to be famous, therefore I shall write a serious novel, and become as well known as the literary writers Meyer & Rowling… Wait a moment…

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  7. In a sense junk fiction readers are not reading books, they are reading whole genres and listening to the stories talking to one another inside those genres.

    How odd. I would’ve never realized I was “listening to the stories talking to one another” unless someone pointed out it was happening. o.O

    To be perfectly honest, Jessica, I’m more fascinated by the separation of plain reader in that chart from paperback readers…

    Does this individual not realize that a heck of a lot of bestsellers eventually end up in the paperback format at some point or another?

    Seriously, I feel like I’m being redundant all the time and beating a dead horse, but it continually amazes me how little so many academics who are so hell-bent on analyzing “readers” seem to know about the way publishers market the genres in the first place. Which is what makes them end up sounding like idiots most of the time, not their observations about reader’s motivations or lack thereof. If they don’t even understand the basics of where the divisions of the popular genres are – up to and including things like Gone With the Wind and The Godfather, which in their times were bestsellers – how in the world can they speak knowledgeably about the readers of the same?

    All the readers.

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  8. If you’re reading “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” as a source of information, you’ve got bigger problems than whether or not you’re incapable of reading on your own. Dude.

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  9. you guys are cracking me the hell up!!!

    @Maria: Thanks for delurking! I just got the book in the mail today and am making my way through it. I think he does stick to this table (it is featured on the back cover), actually, but as you point out, his attitude to “junk fiction” is more complex than this post makes it sound. It is a really interesting book, actually, which I am enjoying reading.

    But he does focus very much on the “paradox” of a “serious reader” — like you — who reads and appreciates literature, who also enjoys “junk fiction”, which is inferior. He thinks the traditional methods of literary analysis fail in this case, because what the “serious reader” gets out of junk fiction is not the same thing she gets out of Joyce.

    I’m not going to say more on it until I’ve finished the book, though. It woudn’t be the first time I had smoothed out a subtle position into something unrecognizable

    I plan to do a couple of posts on it, that will be fairer to the text than this one!

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  10. I…er…huh??

    Interesting. O_o

    I want a T-shirt that says: “Does not read well with others” or “Romance readers do it alone”

    I’m thinking this book sounds kind of awesome in a weird way.

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  11. @kaigou:

    If you’re reading “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” as a source of information, you’ve got bigger problems than whether or not you’re incapable of reading on your own. Dude

    Ooo, good point. Missed that completely. ;-)

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  12. Dude, if Romance Writers get Love, sign me up!

    And those poor serious readers who can’t ever talk about the books they’ve read, only write about them. Bummer.

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  13. So all genre fiction is inferior to all “great literature”? I think someone needs to read some good genre fiction.

    Also can’t help giggling over the term plain reader. I wonder what happens if a real hottie decides to read The Godfather?

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  14. I’m all around on this one. Why is it bad to read alone? Doesn’t that make it more of an elevated internal endeavour? Why are people reading any kind on fiction for “informational” purposes? And if you can learn from fiction, why can’t you learn from genre fiction? How does he figure Serious Readers read by author? What, do Serious Readers go dig up the backlist of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, or do they just look at the required reading list of their local college?

    This is a little disingenous to me. Too much simplification of ideas does no one any good.

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  15. @RStewie: “Why is it bad to read alone? ”

    That got me too. I always thought reading was, ya know, the ultimate solitary activity.

    I mean, the other ultimate solitary activity.

    What are we supposed to do, gather around Papa in the evenings and listen to him intone from Dickens and Shakespeare? I guess that *would* be one way of making sure we never read anything with sex in it…I mean, unworthy and unliterary sex in it. Because enthusiastic and explicit consensual sex isn’t the hallmark of Sirious Litrachur.

    “do Serious Readers go dig up the backlist of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, or do they just look at the required reading list of their local college”

    Dunno about the rest of them but the Joyce and Woolf I read at Uni was more than enough to last me the rest of my life without seeking more of it – or anything that remotely resembled them.

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  16. Ungh. On one hand, there seems to be something there, on the other, a lot of it sounds just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. I’ve seen this concept of “reading the genre” instead of reading individual books before, but in the context of mystery readers, and I remember thinking how it was both right and wrong.

    Genres have tropes, elements that all genre readers are familiar with, and it’s true that, to a certain extent, that makes all genre fiction communicate with each other: when readers come across a faster-than-light ship in an SF novel, they will not stop and wonder how exactly that ship works. That’s the in-genre chat. In romance, I’d say that the same thing happens when hero and heroine meet each other for the first time and instantly find each other attractive: it’s an assumption that genre readers will not question, because it’s part of a “collective agreement” made beforehand between the genre and consumers.

    However, that does not mean that genre readers read indiscriminately within the genre; while perhaps there are people who will read anything within a given genre, most genre readers have their own preferences and tastes, and are perfectly capable of distinguishing between what they like and do not like, even if it does have all the trappings of the genre. (That’s leaving the question of any kind of quality completely aside, merely talking about readers’ preferences.)

    The other thing that bothers me about the table — and which I think is completely and utterly wrong — is the fact that genre readers not only chat about books, but also write about them, exactly because they like their genre(s). Most genres have well-organised, wide fandoms that communicate and discuss discrete works as well as genre tropes. Not to mention that, in SF, for example, in-genre theory has started developing some fifty years ago — mostly because mainstream theoreticians just didn’t get it. Nowadays, the situation is somewhat different, but still far from perfect, and there is still a lot of belief that, if something is good, is simply can’t be genre.

    And now I’ll sink back to lurkdom again… apologies for such a long-winded reply.

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  17. I, too, am peeping out from lurkdom for this post. (Loved, loved, loved Ann S. comments.)

    I have one teeny, tiny, completely self-centered concern about this table.

    Here’s the backstory: I am a voracious reader – I typically have several books going at once – depending on where I am in the house and my mood. This week, for example, I am reading Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Concrete Blond by Michael Connelly, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley and If His Kiss is Wicked by Jo Goodman. I just finished an urban fantasy a couple of days ago.

    I chose all of them based on reviews or word of mouth and so far, they are all really good. I believe they are or were popular novels (after all, most books are popular before they become literary masterpieces, aren’t they?)

    Here’s the problem: Not to sound like a whiny teenager (oh all right, I do sound like a whiny teenager – I just don’t care), but based on this table, where, exactly, do I fit in?

    For that matter, if you write about/discuss/choose books based on reviews and not title/cover, where do you fit in?

    (And here I was, sure we’d left cliques behind in high school. Dang)

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  18. @Shawn: Thanks for delurking! Honestly, I don’t think this table describes any reader I know. It’s bizarre.

    The author actually focuses on readers like you: those who read and appreciate better fiction, but are still drawn to “junk fiction”. He argues that the appeal of junk fiction is different for readers like you than the appeal of literature. you can see it in the table” he thinks you read a classic for the book, but a romance novel for the genre. I think he’s mostly wrong, but more on that in a later post.

    But the book is fascinating, and I found myself nodding along at many points. I hope to write a couple of posts summarizing it this week.

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  19. Pingback: Category-ized Fiction « Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes

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