Notes on An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction (part 1 of 3)

Thomas J. Roberts’ An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction was published in 1990 by the University of Georgia Press. It was cited in Noel Carroll’s “Is there a Paradox of Junk Fiction?, which I blogged a bit about here.

In this post, I’m going to summarize the first 3 chapters of the book. (see this post for chs 4-8)

In the Introduction, Roberts explains what he means by the phrase “junk fiction” :

1. Canonical fiction — that part of the fiction of the past that still interests us) Ex. Dickens. Fielding, Eliot
2. Serious fiction — one segment of contemporary fiction written for a small highly educated readership. Ex. Woolf, Joyce
3. Plain fiction (best seller fiction) –most widely read kind of contemp fiction, the middle class of fiction. (Contains one genre: “social melodrama” — see John G. Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery and Romance for that — but otherwise cross-genre). Meant to be read once, and not meant to be studied. Ex. Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
4. Junk fiction (also called genre fiction, vernacular fiction, category fiction, paperback fiction, etc.). Junk fiction is like plain fiction in that its readers don’t study it, but it is like serious fiction in that it requires its own learnedness

Roberts’ purpose in the book is to explain what readers get out of junk fiction, not just when it’s good, but when it’s poor. The “readers” Roberts has in mind are those who “have good taste”, i.e. enjoy and appreciate serious fiction as well as junk fiction. It is those readers who present the “paradox”.

In Roberts’ view, it is a mistake to attempt to import the methods of the study of literary fiction to the study of junk fiction. Classic criticism, includes the study of an author’s body of work, of themes, and a focus on big names and big titles. While we can study genre fiction with these methods, Roberts’ contends that other methods suit the medium better. In this book, he proposes different methods more appropriate to the material.

Chapter 1: The Stories of Our Times

In this chapter, Roberts makes the case that junk fiction mirrors our contemporary lives back to us. He uses the term “newspaper reality” for the continuously changing image of reality we put together from all the sources reporting on events we do not actually see for ourselves (p. 13). While this isn’t unique to junk fiction, Roberts thinks junk fiction is more closely tied to newspaper reality than other literary forms.

When we romance readers pick up an old category at a UBS and notice that the heroine smokes cigarettes at work or wears pantyhose, or says “golly”, we are reminded of the point Roberts is making.

A second piece of the puzzle is “literary reality”, the genre itself as refracted through junk fiction. As Roberts puts it (p. 17),

to the experienced reader, there is not a page in a new paperback that does not echo, answer, vary (or, sometimes, fatally ignore) pages written earlier. Everything that occurs within an intense, self-conscious, self-referential, and aggressively literary subculture has its exact parallel in paperback fiction.

Roberts’ emphasis is on the ways that stories in a genre talk to one another. He quotes James Gunn’s notion that to understand science fiction, you have to read about 100 books. While anyone can enjoy their first taste of a genre work, the real pleasure comes in learning the language the books speak to each other — part of that “unique learnedness” referenced above.

We also see literary fiction 00 because that is part of our reality, too — reflected in junk fiction. I’ve posted on this quality of romance fiction in Are You Smarter Than a Romance Reader?, a post on literary allusions in Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold.

Roberts writes that all good novels help us see ourselves and our times more clearly, and junk fiction is no exception. It’s one of the chief sources of the pleasure we derive in reading them, something traditional literary critics miss when they try to analyze junk fiction.

Obviously, this process is complicated. To use romance examples, it’s not just about verisimilitude in the contemporary romance (as when we wonder whether a poor heroine be wearing those expensive shoes, etc.), but the ways we reaffirm our own understanding, for example, of femininity today when we read and react to sex outside of marriage in a historical romance or the way we think about what free will means to us when we read a paranormal or a cyborg romance romance.

Possibly one of the most interesting points in the whole book for me is Roberts’ discussion of the way junk fiction creates characters. While nongenre readers think junk fiction is “unrealistic”, Roberts denies this, pointing to the way junk fiction embraces role identities as shorthand. He argues that the way we relate to one another today is largely through our roles (think about Twitter profiles: “wife, mother, friend, teacher, lawyer, reader, writer”, etc.) and genre writers build on these roles to create characters. It’s yet another way junk fiction reflects our reality.

Chapter 2 Of Low Taste

In this chapter, Roberts introduced the Table, which I have posted on, as The Dumbest Table I Have ever Seen. Roberts doesn’t argue for his table. He just tells us that divisions between kinds of readers are “generally accepted”. In my opinion, the divisions represented by the table are not just counterintuitive, but so contrary to my reading experience, that I have to wonder whom Roberts has been talking to. I also have no idea what work this table is doing for Roberts.

I’m honestly not sure what Roberts is up to in this chapter. It seems to be a mashup of observations about readers of junk fiction. On the plus side, throughout the book, Roberts makes points that no one but a real fan of genre fiction could make, and this chapter is no exception. For example, he refers to the guardians of disapproval every genre has:

The distress that some enthusiasts for paperback fiction feel when academics begin to move into their territory: pulp fiction has its gate guardians, too. This disapproval is worth special notice, for the serious readers who also read paperbacks must in some genres read against a sort of outward pressure that tells them they are not welcome. (p. 39)

He considers the theory that there is no paradox at all presented by serious readers reading junk fiction, because all fiction has the same preoccupations with basic themes of human existence: death (detective story), nature (the western), religion (fantasy), love (the romance), time (sci fi).

While this may be true, Roberts admits, it doesn’t help explain why serious readers read junk fiction, instead of sticking with serious fiction.

A second explanation — the dominant one, I would say, in Romanceland, and among academics working in popular romance fiction — is that junk fiction is actually very good fiction, and that the best of the genre fiction is as good as the best literary fiction. Roberts rejects it, though, because is assumes something false about genre readers, namely that they read for the same things serious readers read for. He’ll explain what those things are in a later chapter.

Again, he makes a point that only an academic who is a real fan of junk fiction would know:

most paperback fiction mistrusts [academics] and anyone else who reads serious fiction. For serious readers, to read in these traditions is rather like maintaining a cordial relationship with people who are always making it plain that they dislike you.

I see a bit of that online, and a bit of it in romance fiction (for example, the nerdy asexual useless male professor) but my experience has not been that this is the uniform attitude at all.

Another explanation Roberts rejects is that readers of junk fiction are ignorant, neurotic, or young. But ex hypothesi, some readers of junk fiction are just like Roberts himself: highly educated, normal and able to appreciate better books.

In the final paragraph, Roberts seems to put forward one last theory, to which he seems to assent: that human social contact today requires acquaintance with junk fiction, even if it is outside of books (TV, etc.). “If only in self defense”, he writes, “our psyches find ways of turning what seems dross into gold.”

Chapter 3 Book Types and Antitypes

Roberts introduces another table. 5 classes of serious books, 5 thresholds, 5 antitypes.

The antitypes are what junk fiction looks like to those with familiarity with literary fiction: the chthonic, the pretentious/manipulative, the inexcusably unintelligible, the illiterate, and the clownish.

Here are the types:

A. The excellent:
1. The Sacred — We worship this book. Beyond fault, beyond human rejection. If someone doesn’t like it, that person is in error. Ex. Shakespeare

2. The Classic — Demands rereading. Can be studied, Ex. James Joyce’s Ulysees, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Of note: Roberts contends that readers who come to genre fiction from the classics mistakenly think it is not good fiction because it doesn’t repay study.

3. The Readable — Again, showing his understanding of genre reading, Roberts notes that in the past, critics contended that paperbacks were easy, transient pleasures (think of the infamous “they are not books but more like Hustler or chocolate” comments by Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings a few years ago) but today it is acknowledged that junk fiction is often reread by its fans, and that fanship often involves “a simulated form of study.”

But he insists it is different from classics reading:

We do not take notes, we do not review earlier evidence, we do not talk the problem over with friends. We read alertly, we even reread alertly, but we do not study. I suppose that when we do begin to study a paperback, we have already unconsciously accepted it as a classic.

Again Roberts insist that there is a skill and competency involved in genre reading, including “familiarity with genre specific vocabularies”, and recognition of the ways genre books refer to each other, such that “Most of what seems inexcusably unintelligible in popular fiction is crystal clear to those who have learned how to read it.” (p. 60)

4. The Unreadable — Roberts notes that when we can’t finish a serious book, we say is is “unsuccessful”, but when we can’t finish a paperback book, we say it is “illiterate”.

As often happens in this book, I can’t figure out what his main point is in this section. He notes both that some books stink, and that that we all have our own private aversions — things we won;t read or can’t finish. All I will say about it is that I see bloggers in Romanceland talking about these “aversion thresholds” all the time. We are very interested, as a group, in DNFs, in what doesn’t work, in what we cannot tolerate (Incest? Historical inaccuracy The Too Stupid To Live heroine?) and we lump in personal, subjective aversions with objective judgments about the quality of the book just as Roberts is doing in this section.

Again extrapolating from his own experience and common sense, Roberts makes another point:

The reading of paperbacks is bulk reading. We read them buy the half dozen, by the dozen, by the score. We read them almost without noticing who wrote them or caring what else the writer might have published. Sometimes we continue reading, after discovering, a few pages into the first chapter, that we have already read the story … (p. 63)

For me. this is both true and false, both from romance reader to romance reader, and even in my own case, depending on my mood, the day, etc.

And just a bit later Roberts explains why this is:

The [genre] reader is reading not the text but the genre by means of the text. The reader is following the interplay among the texts, the changes is what is newly permitted, what is worth exploring, what can be abandoned. We can follow this byplay only if we are able to read a very large number of stories, which means that we must have a very high tolerance for inept writing. A high tolerance is possible only when we have low standards, that is, a low aversion threshold. (p. 63)

Roberts mentions science fiction’s Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap!” … But then, ninety percent of everything is crap!”

His interpretation of this law, which he thinks applies to junk fiction per se, is really interesting, but also not totally clear to me. What the law is really saying, opines Roberts, is not that 90% of a genre is crap, but that 90% of a genre will not be recommendable to people outside the genre — it’s not bad, but it will be unintelligible to them. Non-genre readers “won’t get it”.

But how to square that point with his companion point, that genre readers have “low aversion thresholds”? I took a low aversion threshold to refer to both a high tolerance for trying new things in the genre and a high tolerance for weak stories in the genre. So I am not sure how to interpret this point, and will have to think some more.

5. The Clownish — books that are so bad they are good. Roberts’ notes that it can be hard to distinguish between a clowning (a parody of clownishness) and clownishness itself. He uses Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle as an example of a clowning parody of modern romance, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as an example of a parody of sci fi.

Roberts goes so far as to say that “a genre cannot exist until someone has parodied the patterns to which other writers are beginning to adhere.” (p. 67) And the best parodies are by the folks who love the genre the best, as we of course already know from our Purple Prose Parody contests and other clowning.

Roberts says a lot of interesting things about clownishness and why we ought to appreciate it. He says clownish writers appeal because they are always trying and failing to be writers, just as all of us, in some ways, at some points in our lives, are trying and failing to be human. His examples of subwriting, especially “subpoetry” had me on the floor laughing.

More here.

15 responses

  1. I think I might have to read this book.

    Roberts’ emphasis is on the ways that stories in a genre talk to one another. He quotes James Gunn’s notion that to understand science fiction, you have to read about 100 books. While anyone can enjoy their first taste of a genre work, the real pleasure comes in learning the language the books speak to each other — part of that “unique learnedness” referenced above.

    This is something I love to think about and work with.

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  2. Junk fiction is like plain fiction in that its readers don’t study it

    Except, of course, when they do study it.

    The “readers” Roberts has in mind are those who “have good taste”, i.e. enjoy and appreciate serious fiction as well as junk fiction. It is those readers who present the “paradox”.

    I read “canonical fiction” and “junk fiction” but not “serious fiction” or “plain fiction.” Do I present a different kind of paradox? ;-)

    In Roberts’ view, it is a mistake to attempt to import the methods of the study of literary fiction to the study of junk fiction. Classic criticism, includes the study of an author’s body of work, of themes, and a focus on big names and big titles. While we can study genre fiction with these methods, Roberts’ contends that other methods suit the medium better.

    I wonder if part of the reason that Roberts thinks it’s a “mistake” to focus on “an author’s body of work” when that “body of work” is “junk fiction” is because he also thinks that

    The reading of paperbacks is bulk reading. We read them buy the half dozen, by the dozen, by the score. We read them almost without noticing who wrote them or caring what else the writer might have published. Sometimes we continue reading, after discovering, a few pages into the first chapter, that we have already read the story … (p. 63)

    I suspect that there’s a correlation between the fact that he doesn’t notice who the authors of “junk fiction” are, and his sense that it’s not really worthwhile examining an individual author’s oeuvre. I also suspect that those of us who are very much aware of the differences between individual authors of “junk fiction” might be more inclined to disagree with him on this point.

    Roberts makes the case that junk fiction mirrors our contemporary lives back to us. [...] While this isn’t unique to junk fiction, Roberts thinks junk fiction is more closely tied to newspaper reality than other literary forms.

    What about 19th-century realist novels which are “canonical fiction”? Would Roberts think that they reflected reality less well than, say, paranormal romances or the novels of Betty Neels? As Magdalen has pointed out, “even in 1969 when Neels published her first book, her heroines were anachronistic and unrealistic. During the 30 years during in which she wrote 134+ books, her heroines changed little while women everywhere else (fictional and real life) changed a lot.”

    when we can’t finish a paperback book, we say it is “illiterate”.

    Do we? I thought “we” often called it a “wallbanger.” But then, according to one of Roberts’ tables, he wouldn’t classify me as a serious reader, so he’s probably not writing about what people like me might say.

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  3. Roberts’ emphasis is on the ways that stories in a genre talk to one another. He quotes James Gunn’s notion that to understand science fiction, you have to read about 100 books. While anyone can enjoy their first taste of a genre work, the real pleasure comes in learning the language the books speak to each other — part of that “unique learnedness” referenced above.

    @Victoria Janssen:

    I didn’t used to think this, but reading a review of your book gave me a good understanding of the reviewer’s basic misunderstanding of erotica, its tells, and its expectations.

    Likewise, one reviewer of my book was scathing of every element that a romance reader would recognize, and another reviewer loved that I took all the romance elements in existence and turned them on their heads, creating, in effect, an homage to genre romance.

    I notice the disparity acutely when I see wonderful reviews of books with storylines that I thought were fairly pedestrian and/or worn out long ago because I’m a long-time romance reader. I know that *I*, having NO familiarity with science fiction/fantasy, would probably be totally giddy about storylines other long-time SF/F readers would roll their eyes over.

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  4. I actually take issue with the phrase “junk fiction” and would have deemed the book unworth of my time based on its intellectual laziness. After reading the review, I can further assume I would’ve been right. (My foregoing statement of agreement with one assertion notwithstanding.)

    The phrase “junk fiction” is a thesis statement, and a disingenuous one at that. It’s like a science experiment that’s rigged to give you the result you want–and the “cool” scientists are completely approving because it’s the result they want, too.

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  5. There’s a lot to chew on here. The almost instinctive thing to do is to start to pull out the bits I disagree with, but actually there is a great deal I agree with too. In particular, this key notion of learning the language of the genre, a point I’ve been pondering quite a lot lately (my positive reaction to books I suspect I would not have enjoyed a few years ago, for example). I think too, we romance readers do forget how impenetrable – and actually bewildering – that language can be to a new reader (as you discovered with your Gaffney experiment). The 100 estimate strikes me as about right.

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  6. There’s so much in this I want to discuss but I’m feeling dull-brained because of the wet weather. However this:
    “2. The Classic — Demands rereading. Can be studied”

    Reminds me of that recent discussion with dick. It’s such a circular argument. If something is studied, then it becomes a Classic, and then is studied because it’s a classic. Dickens didn’t start out writing classics. He started out writing serial fiction for a mass market. So did Austen, in a slightly different way. We can’t *know* in advance what’s going to be a classic (and writing which aims to become a classic from the start is inevitably pretentious garbage), so how can that be a proper descriptor of any contemporary writing? And does that mean any writing which is studied – like fanfiction – is Classic?

    My head hurts. This kind of literary elitism makes my blood boil, and yet I have no coherent arguments against it. I just know this doesn’t represent what I read, how I read, what I consider important to read.

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  7. I wonder if any attempt at a Grand Unified Theory of anything is going to end up as this combination of insight and wrong-headedness. I wouldn’t want to undertake a project like this. I’m grateful to those who do and give the rest of us a starting point for discussion (it’s like those “100 best albums of all time” or “100 best romance books of all time” lists).

    That said, I think there is a big swath of fiction missing from his categorization, and that skews his argument. Joyce and Woolf are NOT contemporary! They are Modernists, and now Classics (taking Ann’s point about a classic being one only in retrospect). Also–Classics still interest “us”? “Us” as a culture, perhaps, in the sense that “we” still assign them in school or put on Shakespeare plays or mine Austen for film scripts, but the “us” who CHOOSES to read them is a pretty small group. What’s missing, then, is a wide range of contemporary literary fiction, much of which is far less “difficult” than Modernist “serious” fiction, and some of which draws on popular genres (A. S. Byatt’s Possession, Michael Chabon’s interest in comic books or detective fiction, there’s tons of examples). I just think he’s missing something here between Ulysses and Gone With the Wind.

    Also, I find the idea that there is ANY text doesn’t “repay study” ludicrous. I am reading a bunch of essays right now in which my students have found that car ads repay their study. @Ann Somerville: I found that last point totally dick-ish too. I kept wondering if “dick” were Roberts, reading, enjoying, but also dismissing genre fiction. There is clearly a pattern of thought here. Personally I wonder how much of it has to do with shame (“I couldn’t possibly be reading this junk I read for fun IN THE SAME WAY I read the sacred texts valued by the academy where I work”).

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

  9. @Victoria Janssen: the idea that genre readers read the genre first and the particular book second is one of the newsworthy things in the book.

    My own view is that this IS an important aspect of genre fiction, but it supplements rather than supplants the other normal type of criticism we do of it.

    @Laura Vivanco: It is funny, isn’t it, that he’s doing the very thing he claims isn’t done with genre fiction? Maybe the REAL paradox is the self-referential one this poses for the author!

    As for examining the genre as opposed to single books or oeuvres, I think this may be a sense in which this book is dated. In romance studies, I am seeing much less about the genre and much more about specific texts or authors.

    and the thing about the unfinishable book — that’s another moment in his text where I cannot tell is Roberts’ is pointing to a mistaken idea that readers of canonical fiction have about paperbacks, or whether he is reporting on the habits of the tribe as an insider.

    His positioning is wafty throughout the text.

    @Moriah Jovan: It’s just hard for me to tell why he uses that term, when much of the book seems to deny any invidious distinction on the basis of worth.

    @Tumperkin: I’m with you. He says a lot of interesting and true things, as only a reader of genre could do, but they are mixed up with some counterintuitive and obviously false claims.

    @Ann Somerville: I totally agree. This is one of the reasons I called that table “dumb”. It’s ahistorical, and you can;t understand literature that way.

    @Liz:

    I wonder if any attempt at a Grand Unified Theory of anything is going to end up as this combination of insight and wrong-headedness. I wouldn’t want to undertake a project like this.

    I have a special fondness for unifying theories, but I agree with you.

    I just think he’s missing something here between Ulysses and Gone With the Wind.

    Yes, exactly, as you point out, a big swath of something.

    Also, I find the idea that there is ANY text doesn’t “repay study” ludicrous. I am reading a bunch of essays right now in which my students have found that car ads repay their study.

    I agree completely, which is why I have this blog, and why I published an article on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But a lot of people still think is is just narcissistic slumming, i.e. smart people enjoying mentally unchallenging crap and trying to justify it by intellectualizing it.

    Thanks for that link. I hear the echoes of dick’s voice in this book for sure!

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  10. I’m late to this discussion, but one issue jumped out at me.

    Roberts says that when reading books that are not “classics,” “We do not take notes, we do not review earlier evidence, we do not talk the problem over with friends. We read alertly, we even reread alertly, but we do not study.”

    Does he really think that outside of the academy, readers take notes and review evidence? That they “study”?

    Yes, serious religious readers will do that to the Bible (and comparable texts in other traditions). And writers may “study” other writers to steal tricks of the trade. But otherwise?

    I know plenty of folks outside academia who read “classics,” for one reason or another, but they don’t study them. Does that mean that they’re reading the books in the wrong way? Or simply that his definition of a “classic” assumes that such books are only read in a pedagogical / scholarly context?

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  11. his definition of a “classic” assumes that such books are only read in a pedagogical / scholarly context?

    He seems to presume that the intention for a book to be a Classic has to be part of the creation too. Which is crap! Lots of books are studied, not primarily because they are sublime works of art, but because they are important to the history or development of culture in a particular country or period – like ‘Pamela’ as the protonovel, ‘The Song of Roland’ and the work of Chrétien de Troyes as important for the development of literature not just in France but all through out Europe and so on. (Not saying these aren’t worth reading in their own right but their historic importance now far outweighs the intention in writing now.)

    Roberts and his ilk are full of it :)

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  12. Non-genre readers “won’t get it”

    I find this idea really interesting. Because for a while now I have been a non-genre reader of romance, I think. (Or of any genre, probably.) I don’t want to read those books that a non-genre reader wouldn’t get. I don’t want the cliches and the shorthands and the whatnot–at least I don’t want them obvious and glaring.

    My taste for prose is essentially literary. But most of literary fiction do not give me the stories I want, i.e., fairly straightforward, archetypal hero’s journeys, or the characters I want, people capable of dealing with life’s crap–and their own flaws–and rising above it.

    I want what should be, rather than what is–all of genre fiction is what should be–and I want my what should be delivered by a poet who builds Taj Mahals with her words.

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  13. @Eric Selinger: You are late to the party, and and I am late to responding!

    Roberts notes that the classics are mostly read in school and college. So yes, I think he is focusing on the academic environment. I found so many of his assertions not just false, but obviously false to anyone who hs given them a second thought. What makes that so odd is that the book also has a lot of really insightful stuff about genre.

    @Ann Somerville: And you are pointing our another assertion that is very problematic. I agree.

    @Sherry Thomas: That’s really interesting, about your reading habits. I am in the honeymoon period with the genre, and my delight in learning the cliches and tropes etc.is almost equal to my delight in reading the stories.

    I think of you, now that I know this, as someone who is trying to write the books she would want to read! I think Pam Rosenthal and Lauren Willig give a similar attention to language.

    I don’t know if I agree with the old saw that genre gives stories and literary fiction gives language, because of books lie yours and Pam;s and Lauren’s, and also because when I think of great story I think of Dickens and Tolstoy and Hardin, too.

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  14. @Jessica:

    I’m actually surprised at the kind of books I write–sometimes more surprised than other, but always surprised.

    Yet that said, they are what I’d like to read. Although I’d argue that every writer is writing books she’d like to read. Or at least I hope so.

    I am definitely not saying that nobody in genre does prose (Ivory and Kinsale and Duran immediately come to mind) or that nobody in Lit Fic does great story (Shakespeare and Dumas Pere come to mind though I’m more a Jules Verne girl).

    But eh, I just judged my batch of books for the Ritas recently–the one time of the year when I have to read random books and can’t set one aside as soon as I lose all interest–and consequently am not exactly brimming with confidence for the literary merits of the genre.

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