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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Junk Aesthetics . . .

Posted by Sean McCann on 08/04/05 at 08:26 AM

Reading John’s posts about Vernor Vinge, John Crowley, and some of the problems of genre reminded me of a work of criticism I . . .  well, cherish would be too strong a word.  Thomas Robert’s study An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction is a book for which I feel a deep affection, one only strengthened by what seems sadly to be Roberts’s unfair, but entirely predictable neglect.

It would be wrong to overpraise Roberts’s Junk Fiction because, as its slightly misleading title suggests, the book’s ambitions are deliberately limited.  Apparently a long time sci-fi fan himself, Roberts set out to explain what seemed to him the distinctive aesthetic and sociological principles on which it and genre fiction in general depend.  Not that the goal hadn’t been attempted before.  John G. Cawelti’s excellent Adventure, Mystery, Romance, which brought Northrop Frye to pop lit, was already a fading classic when Roberts published his study in 1990, and cultural studies and ideology critique were romping through their salad days, demonstrating the deadly complicity, and sometimes the sly subversion, of various kinds of pop entertainment. 

But, of course, most of that stuff, is plain no fun.  I remember reading one quite brilliant analysis of crime fiction whose countless fascinating ideas were all marshaled toward the deadly conclusion that popular fiction amounts to a form of mind control.  Why?  Because it refuses to embrace Barthes’s scriptable style.  (There was a moment when this stuff actually seemed plausible.  You had to be there.) The Hebdige-inspired celebrations of popular creativity, the manic Greil Marcus mode of rapturizing didn’t seem much better to me.  Not only did their interpretive flights strain credulity.  In their enthusiasm for pop culture as political subversion, they often relied on embarrassingly simplistic political and sociological models.  Worse, they just seemed to live in a different world from the art they described.  Cawelti’s book was neither so censoriousness nor so exuberant—one reason its sober judiciousness could seem a little, well, stodgy.  But even Cawelti tied himself into knots trying to come up with a theoretical account of the difference between high and low art.  His answer—that literary fiction is mimetic and pop culture isn’t—wasn’t just implausible on its face, it had a tough time eschewing the moralism that taints so much discussion of pop culture.  In fact, differences in tone aside, there isn’t a heck of a big difference between Cawelti’s ultimate view of pulp fiction as consensus management and, say, Jameson’s.

Roberts proposed a good reason for that: the methods academics typically used to study popular culture had been imported from canonical literary scholarship, with severely distorting effects.  The tendency to concentrate on big names and big titles, the habit of reading off the ideological meaning of a whole body of literature from a single artifact, above all, the inclination to view what appears to be stylistic or formal crudity as simplemindeness or moral limitation—by Roberts’ lights, these are all basically category errors.  They come from the inappropriate application of criteria to material that simply wasn’t written, and usually isn’t read, with such standards in mind.  (He has a nicely nasty put-down for the worst of high-minded critics: “the one-book expert.”)

In short, Roberts began from the assumption that popular fiction and literary fiction are distinct forms of literature, with differing assumptions about appropriate conceptions of authorship, readership, and form.  In fact, he divided contemporary literary activity into four overlapping, yet distinguishable “bookscapes,” but suffice it to say for now that at the top and bottom of his heap stand two, quite different fields of artistic communication: the “literary” bookscape and “the paperback” bookscape.  Entry to the former comes via the classroom and emphasizes certain attitudes: the value of distinctiveness, the importance of structure, the preeminence of the author.  Entry to the latter comes from the magazine rack and the drugstore shelf.  (It is a dated book in some respects).  And, rather than simply lacking in the qualities evident in high culture, it teaches its readers to understand its products in specific ways. 

The most fundamental of these is simply the importance of genre.  All of us who read, or write, genre fiction understand that the literature is “form intensive.” It accepts the primacy of shared conventions of storytelling, treating them as “systems of changing rules” understood by the larger community of authors and readers.  “To the experienced reader,” Roberts explains, “there is not a page in a new paperback that does not echo, answer, vary (or, sometimes, fatally ignore) pages written earlier.” When we read individual works, our attention is devoted not just to the book before us, then, but to the larger conversation in which it’s implicitly taking part—the examples it echoes, or alters, or refuses; the predecessors it mocks or idolizes; the ideological enemies to which it shows its disdain.  What we care about in this context is not, say, what literary modernism taught us to value: the intricacies of structure shaped by original authors, but “texture”—the minor variations in tone and style that individual works bring to the larger set of shared conventions.

Those conversations are interesting because, for their astute readers, they bring pleasure and delight and because, though they often “proceed by simplicities,” in a larger sense they are not simplistic at all.  At the core of popular genres, in other words, are quite frequently the same big and important questions that serious literature contends with, but they handle those matters through diverse statements in conventional form.  In the jargon of the blogosphere, genres are systems of distributed intelligence and in this respect quite the opposite of what we expect from serious art—i.e., concentrated intelligence.

Roberts follows out a number of corollaries to these views, which range from the fairly obvious to the charmingly unexpected.  The prototypical pulp writer, for example?  The craftsman, the professional prepared to do a good job of work.  The prototypical pulp audience?  The reader with a “tired brain.” Not rubes or cretins or automatons, in other words.  (As Roberts notes, one of the worst habits of pop culture criticism is the inclination to draw simple conclusions about readers from limited evidence about their reading.) But people who, having devoted the better part of their energy to other tasks, are looking for meaningful diversion.  The best way to describe the pulp reader’s engagement with the text?  “Body English”—i.e., something like the visceral sense of participation with which sports fans follow athletes.

Much of what Roberts has to say amounts to things you probably know already, but maybe haven’t thought to articulate formally.  It’s that kind of book.  Since it aims to account for the unstated assumption by which fans and writers operate, if it doesn’t seem intuitively right, it’s probably failed.  Among other things, of course, Roberts’s emphasis on the prominent role of genre helps to address John’s question: just why the characters of popular fiction so frequently refer directly, or almost so, to the conventions of their stories—and why that feels so different from the frame breaking devices of, say, postmod metafiction.  After all, writers and readers are pondering these things constantly, and often signaling each other about the process.  Why shouldn’t the characters too? 

But even beyond its plausible and lucid theoretical claims (note, small “t”), Roberts’s book is a pleasure because he’s a good critic, with a nice eye for the virtues of tone and texture and for the implicit big questions that make pulp fiction a form of meaningful diversion.  Without a hint of irony or hipsterism, the book is jammed with keen notes of appreciation for the pleasures of pop culture.  It’s an easy and pleasurable book to read, and an enlightening one.  I hesitate to use the word, but I almost want to call it humane.


Thanks, Sean. I haven’t read Roberts but I am definitely going to track it down. From your description I’m reminded at bit of Henry Jenkins’ excellent work on popular culture, especially sci-fi fandom.

When reading most examples of academic writing on popular fiction, film, or TV, it’s quite obvious that the author her/himself has no clue whatsoever of how actual fans of genre and popular culture interact with the works but of course they make all kinds of assumptions....

Jenkins likes to consider himself a “scholar-fan.” I love this idea and I certainly want to pursue both those sides of myself in my work.

By on 08/04/05 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m going to butt in again with my historical take on this, although it hasn’t been terribly well received here so far.

One way to put it is, to begin with, that there has always been a pulp level of written culture, which shows a world different than the officially-sanctioned ideological or theological world portrayed in formal writings: usually a messier, crueller, lewder, more unjust, and more ridiculous world.

While the audience for the pulp is usually-regarded as lower-class and less virtuous, in fact aspiring (or failed) members of the elite normally have a high degree of familiarity with (and attachment to) the supposedly low-class stuff, which they read on the sly. There never is a real separation.

At some point high art begins to be written which is modeled on the old pulp. This can be thought of as the replacement of the old by the new, or the fulfillment and/or domestication of the crude attempts of the earlier pulp, the correction of the old pieties by reality, the emergence of new realities into art, a shift of taste, etc.

When this happens, the old pulp is often a character in the new high art: Don Quixote, Rabelais, Dante, Mark Twain, Flaubert were examples I gave earlier.  (This was actually true from the beginning—characters in romances talk about other romances, characters in epics talk about other epics).

Something like this seems to be happening today (or to have happened) with noir literature, SF and fantasy, comics, and anime.

On the other hand, something different has happened with the “romance novel”, which is being cranked out by industrial methods using stereotyped formats, and which soon may be computer-generated entirely.

According to this theory, which is not original I’m sure, the high/pulp division is between older, fulfilled art and new art which is trying to do something new but which has only partly succeeded. Once the new stuff is successful, it’s high art.

This may seem demeaning to pulp, but along with it goes the artist’s awareness that at a certain point of fulfillment you can’t keep on doing the same thing any more. “It’s been done”. So working to write better pulp would be a much wiser strategy than to try to become the next Updike.

And yopu end up with the odd outcome that something which had formerly been subversive and trashy is required reading in the high schools, often with the subversive or problematic aspects occluded.

By John Emerson on 08/04/05 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that take is inconsistent with Roberts’s view, John--except that I’ll be he’d doubt, as I do, that romance novels really could be computer-generated.  There’s an interesting apparent, but not real tension between his view that genres are systems to which authors are almost incidental and his sense that readers look for the small varieties of texture that make apparently stereotyped formats breathe and develop--and the kind of thing about which you could actually make distinctions of taste.  My guess is, that means, if you want to write romance novels, you have to know and appreciate them, and you probably can’t be a machine.

By on 08/04/05 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I were going to computer-generate a novel, I’d start with romance.

Already they are written to formula—the publisher provides a summary, and the author writes to the specs. It seems to me that if you scanned in about 100 characteristic romance novels, put some good AI to work, had someone input standard formulae, and then had a reader send drafts back to the AI for rewrites of marked passages, eventually you would have a computer which could write them with little supervision.

I don’t think this about any other area of genre fiction, so perhaps I’m displaying misogyny etc., but I also do not see anyone else claiming literary merit for, e.g., doctor-nurse romances. Westerns, mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, porn, yes. Romances, no.

By John Emerson on 08/04/05 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I liked the Hebdige book mainly because the things he discussed were not described in any other books I knew about. Greil Marcus just makes shit up.

By on 08/04/05 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A very nice post, Sean.

While reading it, I was planning to raise some of the issues that John E. has just broached.  But instead, I would like support your and Roberts’s contention that genre literature is, almost by definition, more self-referential than other fields of literary art—continually celebrating and denigrating, exposing and embracing its own formal presuppositions.  Indeed, I would even say that the more strict and reductive the genre is, the more it embraces and constitutes itself through self-referentiality. 

To support this point, let me briefly adduce one of my own areas of affection: comics. 

Few media have rivaled comics as a platform for genre fiction.  Whether we are considering daily comic strips, superhero stories, tales of love and romance (or even underground “comix”), comics have found a way to reduce these tales to their simplest and more basic forms and formulae.  When judged on the “generic” scale, comics have tended to out-pulp the pulps, to out-program the most programmatic of romance.  And daily comics (my passion) out do them all: comic strips have made poetry out of predictability, art out of nothingness.

I would go even farther and say that this historical fact about the content of comics is directly connected to its structure as an art form.  Comics, as a medium, as built upon reduction, abstraction, simplification.  Comic narrative and art emerges not out of building up – but out of taking away, boiling down.  Comics are not just a place to tell diagrammatic stories; comics are diagrams.

So if both the form and content on comics lean toward hyper-simplicity, the hyper-programmed, and the hyper-generic, then one would expect (if my extrapolation of Roberts is right) to find even more self-referenitality, even more openness about the comics’ own generic ground rules, and even more attention to detail on the part of comic fans.

And I think this is just what you find.  Since their earliest days in American tabloids, newspaper comics have been filled with explicit self-examination and self-exposure.  The Yellow Kid talked directly to his reader, through the ink on his nightshirt.  Krazy Kat read about himself in the paper and jumped into his own inkwell.  Bud Fisher conversed with Mutt and Jeff—and was even “shot” in the head by and enraged “reader.” Comics strips didn’t simply not hide the tools of their trade; they reveled in the fakery (and material reality) of it all.

And these tendencies are redoubled with comic books—especially super-hero comics.  In that type of pulp fiction, the “rules” of the genre feed back into themselves through “continuity”—the accreted storyline that connects issues and titles.  (Like sports fans with their stats, a comic book fan is often defined by his knowledge of this continuity.  And the quality of a comic book by its relation to that continuity.) And comics are quite open about this generic indebtedness.  DC Comics developed its “make believe” stories, which self-consciously flouted and reinforced these rules of character and continuity.  And Marvel Comics were built on the illusion that the writers/artists/editors were constantly talking to you, participating in the mutual creation of these storylines.  All with a knowing wink.

Of course, this makes comics (as a form, a genre, and a knowledge-community) a rather conservative affair.  To be sure, this range of the literary landscape teaches you to attend to small changes and alterations, to “texture.” But that’s, in part, because larger alterations are often forbidden or rejected out of hand.  (Watch the fannish firestorm over any movie adaptation and the changes it makes to the accepted storyline.) These days, all new superhero comics are “about” superhero comics.

But in this same way and at their best, comics have achieved a beautiful anti-modern modernism.  With so few tools at their disposal, they have staged intricately mechanical ballets both with and about those tools.  They have embraced an almost unrivaled simplicity, turned towards complex ends.  No wonder that 20th-century artists often turned to comics over the years.  It’s because—when it comes to self-reflexivity, the focus on abstract materiality, the unity of form and function—comics were there first.

And they beat the shit out of the place.


By on 08/04/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lovely post, Sean.  Although I don’t think the “distributed intelligence"/"concentrated intelligence” dichotomy maps well onto the literary fiction/genre fiction divide (I think it applies best to romance and detective stories, and the superhero stories Peter cites, but rather less consistently to fantasy and sf, within which the “literary” vs. “formulaic” issue is hotly contested --no doubt many Valveteers can comment on that), Roberts’ claims work often enough as tools with which to approach certain kinds of fiction that his model really illuminates the likes of Frank Gruber, Phil Dick, “Richard Stark”, et al. 

John Emerson, I spent years in school studying and advocating the model you so succinctly present, and it still informs my scholarship.  I commend to you a book by Brian McHale --I think it’s Postmodern Fiction-- that develops some of the points you make.

“I remember reading one quite brilliant analysis of crime fiction whose countless fascinating ideas were all marshaled toward the deadly conclusion that popular fiction amounts to a form of mind control.” Oooh, I love David Miller!

By on 08/04/05 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I use this paradigm backwards, and think of authors like Marie de France as skilled pulp authors.

I do sometimes wonder why people read derivative stuff like Tolkein when they could be reading the actual stuff like Beowulf, Chretien, Marie, etc. Partly it’s because of translation problems.

As far as subverting the genre goes, in Marie de France there’s a nice werewolf who does no apparent harm but is wronged by his evil wife and her lover. He wins and is restored to human form in the end, and the evil couple disappears and is never seen again.

By John Emerson on 08/05/05 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Josh, I wasn’t thinking of Miller.  But you’re right, the description could fit him well.

By on 08/08/05 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just finished reading An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, and I can’t share Sean’s enthusiasm. Certainly it’s much better written than the average Theory-laden article or monograph, but it shares many of the sins of such works: sweeping generalizations based upon very little evidence, categorical statements that taken at face value are simply false (e. g. “There is no ‘literature about paperbacks’” (193)), and Making Shit Up (the portrait of the “more characteristic romance reader” on pp. 74-75, which is based upon no evidence whatsoever).

Other flaws are more specific to Roberts’ work. He classifies all “genre fiction” as “junk fiction,” even when it evidently aspires to being literature, as with Brian Aldiss’s Malacia Tapestry. This enables him to vaunt the complexity found in “junk fiction,” while simultaneously generalizing about its simplicity. And some of his characterizations of “junk fiction” in general seem to apply primarily to science fiction, and much less to other genres. Conversely, he says virtually nothing about romances. And more broadly, his claims about “experienced readers” in general are based largely upon his own experience (and not at all upon any empirical study of all experienced readers).

I may eventually post a more detailed critique on my weblog, if I can ever manage to overcome my inertia sufficiently.

By Adam Stephanides on 08/13/05 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, maybe I have him wrong, Adam.  I did read the book some years ago and perhaps I failed to notice the flaws you point to or erased them in memory.  But I think some of your charges here are a little ungenerous. 

For example, the line about there being no literature about paperbacks is perhaps too strongly put, but in a milder form it’s not really objectionable.  There’s a vast critical apparatus built up around every major, and many minor, artists of the literary tradition--a lot of which even predates the 20th century academy.  Even if there is a literature of the paperback, there’s no established discipline of committed study in this manner.  There are, predicatbly in terms of Roberts’s scheme, more general histories than single author studies.  And even the greats generate fairly paltry critical traditions.  More tellingly, I think it would be fair to say that, while committed popular readers sometimes demand more institional recognition for their preferences, they also quite frequently object to academic or even amateur critical study per se, in a way that’s more rare for non-genre writers. 

It’s true that there’s little empirical evidence of Roberts’s claims, but that doesn’t mean his account of experienced readers is doubtful.  I’m hazy on the details, but my guess is that Roberts’s account is informed by the sources of popular activity that are available: fan groups, letters columns, etc. , etc.  That evidence, at least to my knowledge, seems pretty consistent with Roberts’s account.  To hear the way customers and clerks talk in a mystery bookshop, or the way romance readers respond to interviewers, is to find at least some evidence consistent with his view.  Likewise, there is in fact lots of evidence in favor of his account of ideals of authorship from genre writers themselves. 

It’s defniitely true that marginal cases (like Aldiss perhaps) will be problems for his theory and perhaps he misuses them in service to his agenda.  (I don’t know anything about Aldiss, so couldn’t say.) But from what I know of comparable figures in other genres, the framework seems fair and helpful--suggesting, e.g., that there’s a distinctive context for writers who seek to elevate popular genres, and a distinctive way they’ll be understood by their readers, not just in relation to other genre writers, but to authors who cast themselves as doing serious fiction.  That is, they’ll be read for the way they make use of and exploit the resources of genre convention (and they’ll be evaluated in the context of other genre writers) in a way that say wouldn’t be applied to the latest Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo novel.  (Ray is right, of course, that in the long view, the history of the novel may make everyone look like Aldiss, but in the immediate context of production and authorship, that’s not the way matters are perceived.) I could certainly misremember, too, but I thought the point of appreciations fo rhte like of Aldiss was part of a perhaps defensive effort to show what generic conventions are capable of that would also include a claim that such writers are not categorically different from their genre colleagues.  I think I remember many references to less ambitious works (e.g. Mickey Spillane or Jim Thompson) that also take note of the way much simpler works could still, when seen in the right manner, generate considerable interest.

By on 08/14/05 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Was I being ungenerous? Perhaps. I admit that when I wrote the above I was influenced by my irritation at Roberts’ method of argument-by-assertion and at various stylistic quirks of his. But on reflection, I still think that by and large “there is much in this book that is true, and much that is new. Unfortunately what is true is not new, and what is new is not true.”

Roberts makes a lot of claims, but perhaps his major, and most interesting, claim is that junk fiction is “a literature without texts” (108); that is, individual texts, considered as “self-sufficient objects” (ibid.)—that is, standing on their own as stories—are not very interesting or satisfying. Rather, experienced readers of a genre gain pleasure primarily from considering how the text compares to, and responds to, all the other texts in that genre. To be sure, Roberts acknowledges that there are exceptions, that some genre texts are satisfying in themselves. But even as a generalization, I think Roberts is wrong. “Reading the genre” does occur, but I suspect it’s more common in science fiction, where stories do often “reply” to earlier stories, than in other genres. And even there, I suspect that most of the time it’s not as important as Roberts suggests. And the other part of Roberts’ claim seems to me simply false. When I was avidly reading science fiction and mysteries (and I’d say I read enough at least of the former to be considered an “experienced reader"), I certainly found the stories satisfying as stories. If I hadn’t, I would have stopped reading them. (When I stopped, by and large, finding them satisfying, I did stop reading them.) And it’s my impression, based upon reviews and on what’s on Usenet and on the Web, that many if not most readers feel the same way: they expect texts to be satisfying as “self-sufficient objects,” and when they feel they’re not, they complain.

“The line about there being no literature about paperbacks is perhaps too strongly put.” Well, no: it’s simply false, as you go on to acknowledge. To be sure, there’s a lot more literature about canonical “literary” fiction than there is about paperbacks, but there’s nothing particularly insightful in pointing this out. (There would be less of a disproportion if fanzines were included; Roberts is certainly aware of their existence, and even devotes several pages to them, but if he had a reason for excluding them from the category of “literature about paperbacks” I missed it.)

By Adam Stephanides on 08/17/05 at 09:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

that is, standing on their own as stories—are not very interesting or satisfying.

did he say that?  My memory was that he acknowledged all sorts of ways that stories on their own could be interesting or satisfying, but that their interest is deepened, in a way that is not true of literary fiction, when you read for the way they engage the conventions of their genre.  I think this is definitely true for mystery fiction, even if stories that refer to other stories are rare.  (They certainly exist, though.  Lots of reinventions of Sherlock Holmes, etc. and, of course, plenty of writers writing consciously in the style of writer x, or even sometimes continuing the unfinished work of writer x, in a way that would be not quite kosher for literary fiction.) It’s not at all uncommon for readers to have carefully considered thoughts about the styles, rather than the writers or works, they especially like and to take a special interest in the way they’re toyed with or recombined. This is surely reading for genre. There’s a vocabulary for it in pop fiction and pop music and movies that I think is not commonly used for high art--e.g., fans saying things like: “You know, it’s just like Britney Spears, with a touch of Metallica.” That’s the common discourse of fan talk, isn’t it, and seems completely appropriate but is irreverant when applied to stuff that aims to be art. 

Do you really think that fanzines are themselves the same genre as literary criticism?  I’ll admit that hadn’t occured to me, but if there are continuities, there do seem to be obvious differences.  Literary criticism of the sort Roberts means by “literature” is oriented by the assumption that a work rewards or even demands rereading and studious attention.  Isn’t the style of the fanzine closer to: “this rocks!”?  Even when fan talk runs deeper, isn’t it typically concerned with the writer’s execution of a reconizable task?  (Good characters, effective narration, etc.) That’s different than plumbing a text for its meaning or giving extended consideration to its formal achievements, isn’t it?

To be sure, there’s a lot more literature about canonical “literary” fiction than there is about paperbacks, but there’s nothing particularly insightful in pointing this out.

My view differs.  Having read almost all the literature about detective fiction that exists, I’d say it’s not just different in extent but in quality from other kinds of literary criticism and that it’s paltriness reflects the fact that critics recognize that it doesn’t reward attention in precisely the same fashion that other forms of literature do.

By on 08/17/05 at 09:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m curious as to how Spillaine and Thompson might be considered interchangeable, but that aside....

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been (not always happy) homes to artistically ambitious writers since their inceptions as genres. Aldiss might not even make my top fifty list, if I made top fifty lists—he’s not on my bookshelves, anyway. Of course the proportions vary by venue. Restrict your reading to Analog and you’ll get a different picture than I got from F&SF, Lady Churchill’s, Crank, Interzone, and Grue. Back when mundane fiction was popular enough to merit the name of mainstream, Ladies Home Journal might not have been the place to meet your literary needs either.

Contemporary mystery criticism I can’t speak for, but, thanks to its communal history, science fiction has produced quite a few self-aware critics, although again it varies by venue, even by issue—Locus is about on the same level as Publishers Weekly or Variety. But Damon Knight, Dave Langford, Samuel R. Delany, Gwyneth Jones, Brian Stableford, and John Clute are nobody’s “If you like hobbits, you’ll love...” fools, and the average issue of NYRSF, Foundation, SF Eye, or Necrofile has compared well to the average NYTBR fiction review, even if not reaching TLS heights.

Intragenre conversation may be less noticeable in high mundane fiction than in contemporary poetry, which, like sf, is community focused. But the books you read weren’t emitted by noble savages in a plastic bubble. Consider the effects of Joyce and Hemingway on their contemporaries; more recently and locally, consider how many responses to (or echoes of) Cheever, DeLillo, Carver, Amis, Eggers, or Updike’s sex scenes you’ve encountered. Even at the level of pastiche, given generic expectations I’d say that novels about Henry James play a role similar to stories about Sherlock Holmes.

Mostly, it seems absurd to me to claim that all “popular fiction” is more alike than any is like “literary fiction”. It seems much more probable that Roberts has paid less focused attention to the former and less broad attention to the latter. People do talk about “the MFA short story”, “postmodernist fabulism”, “academic satire”, and so on, and it’s not clear to this reader that what associates them is literary interest. (Unless you consider Henry Fielding less interesting than Carol Shields—I know some people do.)

By Ray Davis on 08/19/05 at 09:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, I think this misconstrues the argument, which is an effort to avoid fruitless comparison of the qualities of popular vs. art fiction, say, in favor of an effort to get at the practices and assumptions that people operate under in arguably distinct fields of activity.  The claim is that genre fiction and twentieth century literary fiction are different fields of activity.  The boundaries between them need not be hard and fast and the definitions need not be simplistic for this to be the case.  Although Roberts doesn’t take this line, and I don’t know enough to consider it fairly, I think it’s plausible to think that what he’s proposing isn’t far different from what Martin Stone proposes--i.e., that it makes sense to see this kind of thing in Wittgenstein’s terms and to consider that there are relatively autonomous communal activities which are better defined by their practices and family resemblances than by concepts or inherent qualities. 

The point about Spillane and Thompson in this light isn’t at all that they’re the same (I don’t think I said they were), but that they’re comparable and that contemporary readers familiar with generic convention would be aware of that comparability and take it into account. More specifically, Thompson wrote a lot of stuff that is brilliant but that had no high ambitions of Aldiss’s sort, and Roberts discusses some of it (Pop 1080, for example) quite well.

Likewise, the point plainly wouldn’t be that there isn’t literary influence and even slavish imitation among people who consider themselves to be writing literary art as well as in pop fiction.  It’s that this is the kind of thing that can be avowed plainly in one area (genre fiction) and emphasized by readers and that must be disavowed or handled with extraordinary care in another.  It’s perfectly commonplace for a reader to walk into a mystery bookshop and say something like: “I’ve read every Sue Grafton book; I’m looking for something in that style” and to have a clerk say: oh, yes, you’ll like x.  And it’s common for people to know and describe their tastes by style. E.g., I like the English kind of murder mystery.  Even if people do have such tastes about art fiction, they don’t avow them in the same way.  Nobody goes to a bookstore and says, I’ve read all Hemingway and I want something just like him. Have you got it?  People do indeed talk about “the MFA short story,” but that’s either an insult or an academic category.  No writer says: my style is the MFA short story. It would be an embarrassment to acknowledge in that case that conventions outweigh originality. And few readers say, I believe, my taste is for the MFA short story (even if it is!) because the premise is that as a reader of literary art you read for the artist rather than for the style.  It’s no embarrassment in discussing pop fiction to say you like what you like because you like it and are looking for more in the vein.  But it would be a mark of culpable limitation to say as much about high literature.

Similarly, the point wouldn’t be that genre fiction can’t support people who have high artistic ambitions--and I’ll bet this is more true of sci-fi than anything else--only that they coexist with lots of other writers who don’t and are understood to share sets of conventions that make them directly comparable.  I read John Quiggin’s recent posts about the sci-fi awards and they seem consistent with that understanding.  That is, it’s not hard to say in a phrase what style in sci-fi or fantasy a book is operating in and to note the relevant comparisons and to recognize that they share a set of conventions which are exploited without embarrassment.  You couldn’t do that for, say, the nominees for the Booker prize.

The Henry James and avant-garde poetry examples are interesting ones.  About the latter, I’d say simply yes: there is a way in which what Roberts says about pop fiction makes it comparable to avant-garde practices that emphasize the communal over the individual.  That’s an old and intriguing parallel between pulp and avant-garde that a lot of people have taken advantage of.  But it doesn’t obviate the other practices that exist.  Making James a subject for a novel is a harder question, but I think there’s a clear difference between that and resurrecting Sherlock Holmes for the 7 Percent Solution say.  In the latter case you’ve got a vivid character who seems independent of the stories he’s depicted in and who therefore can be brought into new ones.  In the other case, you’ve got a historical individual who’s of interest precisely because he represents a devotion to fiction as art.  That’s not only different; it points to the different orientations of pop entertainment and art fiction.

By on 08/19/05 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Should’ve used more punctuation.  The “Have you got it?” line above was supposed to be the voice of a bookstore customer and not a question to you, Ray.

By on 08/19/05 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I have heard writers talk about their “DeLillo book” or even their “Dickens book” (another habit that cuts across genres), and I do think that mainstream readers (and publishers) seek out “something edgy and hip” or “something like Alice Walker” when they go browsing. But an extended debate about whose self-apparent differences are bigger or more arbitrary than whose seems fruitless. Having raised the issues and received such a thoughtful response (for which I thank you), I’m content to let them hover there, suspended between us.

By Ray Davis on 08/19/05 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Me: “Roberts makes a lot of claims, but perhaps his major, and most interesting, claim is that junk fiction is ‘a literature without texts’ (108); that is, individual texts, considered as ‘self-sufficient objects’ (ibid.)—that is, standing on their own as stories—are not very interesting or satisfying.”

Sean: “did he say that?”

Yes, he did:
“A story has value as an object when it is satisfying even when readers do not know the systems in which it participates....
One major difference between the novels taught in the schools and the novels purchased in drugstores is that the former give satisfaction as objects while the latter give their satisfaction chiefly as functions inside traditions. We understand the logic of pulp fiction better when we have come to understand that it is offering us a literature without texts--which is to say, a literature whose texts are not valuable as objects.” (107-8)

Sean: “My memory was that he acknowledged all sorts of ways that stories on their own could be interesting or satisfying.”

True. That’s one of the traits of the book that I found annoying: Roberts will make broad statements, and elsewhere present evidence that seems to contradict these assertions, with no explanation of how these two things can be reconciled.

On fanzines vs. academic scholarship: I don’t have wide experience with fanzines, but I’ve seen some which contain articles which I would consider comparable in aim and quality to many academic articles: The New York Review of Science Fiction is a good example. But granting that the average fanzine article has different aims than an academic paper, this wouldn’t change my original point: that Roberts’ assertion that there is “no literature about paperbacks” is, taken at face value, simply false. (Not that this point is particularly important in itself; I had just brought it up as an example.)

By Adam Stephanides on 08/23/05 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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