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An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction

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What is the appeal of westerns, romances, and fantasies to the well-read? If lawyers, teachers, doctors, and other highly educated professionals just as often choose Spillane over Shakespeare, Cartland over Conrad for their leisure reading, then perhaps there is more to be said for popular, or junk, fiction than the usual hasty, high-handed judgments allow. With wit and in What is the appeal of westerns, romances, and fantasies to the well-read? If lawyers, teachers, doctors, and other highly educated professionals just as often choose Spillane over Shakespeare, Cartland over Conrad for their leisure reading, then perhaps there is more to be said for popular, or junk, fiction than the usual hasty, high-handed judgments allow. With wit and insight, Thomas J. Roberts reassesses this much-denigrated writing and the motives and experiences of its learned readership to reveal that there are rewards in junk fiction not found elsewhere in literature. Traditional images of junk fiction and its readers are inadequate, Roberts argues. The writing is too often judged by scholarly literary criteria that ignore the conventions of junk fiction genres and significant aspects of the readers' experiences. Not surprisingly, books by authors such as Louis L'Amour and Ross Thomas are seen as fictions that failed to make the grade as high literature - fare for readers doomed by a limited capacity to respond to good fiction. While Roberts rejects these summary dismissals, he finds that the well-worn defenses of popular fiction's worth are just as invalid. Junk fiction doesn't really provide fun, escape, and raw material for daydreaming, he contends, and readers don't identify with junk fiction heroes and heroines in a Mitty-like fashion. Nor do they read it because the stories end happily or according to their expectations. For a more complete view of writing, reading, and assessing the value of junk fiction, Roberts profiles learned readers of popular fiction and also those who read learned fiction or junk fiction exclusively. He identifies major types of readers and books, shows how these divisions work for learned and junk fiction, and then places these reader and book types in a variety of associations within the realms, or "bookscapes," as he calls them, of learned and junk fiction. A challenging view emerges. Junk fiction is a bookscape that has weak individual texts but is strong and dynamic when viewed as a literary system. By contrast, learned fiction is a bookscape dominated by monumental texts, inexhaustibly rewarding but frozen now in time and incapable of evolving. Learned fiction is studied rather than read. Its readers devote themselves to the richness of each single text and to the critical commentary enfolding it. Junk fiction is read by a process Roberts 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. Backed by examples of and quotations from works in both bookscapes, from Coleridge and Henry James to Ian Fleming and H.P. Lovecraft, Roberts discusses popular fiction's usefulness to learned readers: how it mirrors what is unique about ourselves and our times, provides a range of ego types with which readers' minds play, and defines and dramatizes contemporary problems. He also explains why readers of junk fiction accept the bad writing, formulaic structures, and sometimes absurd devices that readers in the learned bookscape find intolerable. Drawing widely from literary criticism, the sociology and psychology of literature, and popular culture, An Anesthetics of Junk Fiction is an incisive examination of our discretionary reading tastes and pioneering work in establishing new criteria for evaluating vernacular literature.


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What is the appeal of westerns, romances, and fantasies to the well-read? If lawyers, teachers, doctors, and other highly educated professionals just as often choose Spillane over Shakespeare, Cartland over Conrad for their leisure reading, then perhaps there is more to be said for popular, or junk, fiction than the usual hasty, high-handed judgments allow. With wit and in What is the appeal of westerns, romances, and fantasies to the well-read? If lawyers, teachers, doctors, and other highly educated professionals just as often choose Spillane over Shakespeare, Cartland over Conrad for their leisure reading, then perhaps there is more to be said for popular, or junk, fiction than the usual hasty, high-handed judgments allow. With wit and insight, Thomas J. Roberts reassesses this much-denigrated writing and the motives and experiences of its learned readership to reveal that there are rewards in junk fiction not found elsewhere in literature. Traditional images of junk fiction and its readers are inadequate, Roberts argues. The writing is too often judged by scholarly literary criteria that ignore the conventions of junk fiction genres and significant aspects of the readers' experiences. Not surprisingly, books by authors such as Louis L'Amour and Ross Thomas are seen as fictions that failed to make the grade as high literature - fare for readers doomed by a limited capacity to respond to good fiction. While Roberts rejects these summary dismissals, he finds that the well-worn defenses of popular fiction's worth are just as invalid. Junk fiction doesn't really provide fun, escape, and raw material for daydreaming, he contends, and readers don't identify with junk fiction heroes and heroines in a Mitty-like fashion. Nor do they read it because the stories end happily or according to their expectations. For a more complete view of writing, reading, and assessing the value of junk fiction, Roberts profiles learned readers of popular fiction and also those who read learned fiction or junk fiction exclusively. He identifies major types of readers and books, shows how these divisions work for learned and junk fiction, and then places these reader and book types in a variety of associations within the realms, or "bookscapes," as he calls them, of learned and junk fiction. A challenging view emerges. Junk fiction is a bookscape that has weak individual texts but is strong and dynamic when viewed as a literary system. By contrast, learned fiction is a bookscape dominated by monumental texts, inexhaustibly rewarding but frozen now in time and incapable of evolving. Learned fiction is studied rather than read. Its readers devote themselves to the richness of each single text and to the critical commentary enfolding it. Junk fiction is read by a process Roberts 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. Backed by examples of and quotations from works in both bookscapes, from Coleridge and Henry James to Ian Fleming and H.P. Lovecraft, Roberts discusses popular fiction's usefulness to learned readers: how it mirrors what is unique about ourselves and our times, provides a range of ego types with which readers' minds play, and defines and dramatizes contemporary problems. He also explains why readers of junk fiction accept the bad writing, formulaic structures, and sometimes absurd devices that readers in the learned bookscape find intolerable. Drawing widely from literary criticism, the sociology and psychology of literature, and popular culture, An Anesthetics of Junk Fiction is an incisive examination of our discretionary reading tastes and pioneering work in establishing new criteria for evaluating vernacular literature.

41 review for An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Glenn Russell

    Are you a serious reader who takes a break from literary authors like Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce to read a good juicy romance, thriller, mystery or science fiction novel? Or, is your reading a steady diet of paperbacks featuring werewolves, detectives, elves, lawyers, heroines or adventurers? Either way, author Thomas J Roberts argues paperback junk fiction, so called, is anything but junk. Quite to the contrary, there are a good number of very compelling reasons we Are you a serious reader who takes a break from literary authors like Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce to read a good juicy romance, thriller, mystery or science fiction novel? Or, is your reading a steady diet of paperbacks featuring werewolves, detectives, elves, lawyers, heroines or adventurers? Either way, author Thomas J Roberts argues paperback junk fiction, so called, is anything but junk. Quite to the contrary, there are a good number of very compelling reasons we enjoy such fiction that speaks directly and forcefully to our everyday reality with sharply etched characters. What a fascinating read! The author’s careful examination of paperback genre fiction (he uses the term ‘junk fiction') proposes that we look at such writing with fresh eyes for very specific reasons: Such fiction presents the stories of our time that people in the future will not instantly understand (the author says future generations will only be eavesdropping) since these stories come from the kinds of people and events we encounter when we read the newspapers and live our day-to-day lives. By way of example, the author quotes from Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald: “I parked beyond her mailbox and we got out and stood there, stunned by the profusion of junk that filled the yard from fence to fence. Car parts, refrigerators, cargo trailers without wheels, stove-wood, rolls of roofing paper, bed frames, broken rocking chairs, broken desk furniture, piles of cinder block, piles of roof tiles, a stack of full sheets of plywood, moldering away. . . . It made me think of an object I had seen in New York when a woman persuaded me to go with her to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. That object was a realistic-looking plastic hamburger on a bun with an ooze of mustard, pickle, and katchup. It was ten feet in diameter and stood five feet high. This scene had that same total familiarity plus unreality.” Sticking with the above quote, there are a couple of other points the author makes about junk fiction: how it frequently will refer to high culture, in this case comparing a pile of junk in someone’s yard to modern art – a giant Pop Art sculpture – at the Museum of Modern Art. And, of course, many readers of this paperback share the narrator’s judgement of likening modern art to so much junk. On the topic of references to high culture, I myself recall Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe citing Marcel Proust, Emily Brontë, the diary of Samuel Pepys and also Philip K. Dick’s Horselover Fat expatiating on religious texts: The Gospel of Thomas, Old and New Testaments and works of theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Thus our author makes an even stronger claim: In the aftermath of a possible future cataclysm, the edifice of high culture could be reconstructed from direct references made in junk fiction. Now that’s a statement worth chewing on! When speaking of cultivated taste and low taste our author makes some interesting remarks, dividing readers and writers into three categories: serious (Italo Calvino), plain (Sidney Sheldon), paperback (John D. MacDonald). Sometimes, he reflects, some readers will publicly praise one type of book and secretly take great pleasure in reading another. One can imagine a college professor writing scholarly articles on Shakespeare or Edith Wharton but having a stack of Danielle Steel or Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming or Stephen King she or he can never get enough of. Predictably, that most vital subject is also covered: where we draw the line of what we will read and what we will not read, either in terms of the type or quality of story or good or bad writing, I know for myself, on occasion I very much enjoy a Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard novel but there are some other writers or types of genres I simply can’t take, my eyes almost fill with tears as it is too painful to read beyond page one. One of the most intriguing sections of the book is Reading as an Escape, where Roberts writes: (and I paraphrase slightly): “When we use that word escape about the reading of others, then, we always mean “avoidance” and “flight.” But when people read paperbacks, they do not feel as though they were running from something else. The important question is what we escape to. The phrase ‘escape reading’ for readers implies a kind of treasure hunting not running away or avoiding anything.” So, in the sense of our setting aside time to lift ourselves out of our concrete reality and partake of an imaginative world via fiction, there really isn’t any distinction between literary fiction and junk fiction. Sidebar: Many philosophers such as Kant and Schopenhauer speak of our using our imagination and intuition in this way to have an aesthetic experience, an experience very refreshing, intensely pleasurable, highly insightful and sometimes even blissfully liberating – novel reading on any level as our modern counterpart to what the ancients experienced watching tragedies or comedies. It would be grand to witness the worldwide reaction if Jo Nesbo or Danielle Steel or Christopher Priest won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

  2. 4 out of 5

    John

    The author sounds a little too stuffy when discussing popular and genre fiction. It's clear the argument of the book is that there are worthwhile pop and genre fiction pieces that should be considered as a second tier of literature under the classics and literary fictions. I found the argument a little too condescending towards too much literature. There's a clear class structure for reading in the book and Roberts is earnestly trying to make a case for inclusion, but an inclusion with a clear d The author sounds a little too stuffy when discussing popular and genre fiction. It's clear the argument of the book is that there are worthwhile pop and genre fiction pieces that should be considered as a second tier of literature under the classics and literary fictions. I found the argument a little too condescending towards too much literature. There's a clear class structure for reading in the book and Roberts is earnestly trying to make a case for inclusion, but an inclusion with a clear demarcation based on genre.

  3. 4 out of 5

    SSShafiq

    Jan 2021 Coming over from BooksLikeWhoa video on historical accuracy. Bad for my TBR but great video ....

  4. 4 out of 5

    Karl Bunker

    This book is a great companion piece to Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. The two books complement each other, covering the same general topic, but with somewhat different approaches and focus. Roberts' primary focus is understanding people's responses to junk fiction, both positive and negative. (Roberts says that he uses the loaded word "junk" as a way of "squarely facing" the fact that he's talking about types of fiction that many people regard with d This book is a great companion piece to Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. The two books complement each other, covering the same general topic, but with somewhat different approaches and focus. Roberts' primary focus is understanding people's responses to junk fiction, both positive and negative. (Roberts says that he uses the loaded word "junk" as a way of "squarely facing" the fact that he's talking about types of fiction that many people regard with disdain, if not something worse than disdain. In the text of the book he more often uses "paperback fiction" as a catchall.) What is the appeal (or, to put it better, what are the various appeals) of junk fiction? Many "learned" readers condemn this sort of reading matter as formulaic, cliched, and predictable, but even if that characterization is accurate, is it a valid grounds for condemnation? What pleasures do readers (including many of those same "learned" readers) find in junk fiction? Are those pleasures really limited -- as many other scholars have claimed -- to relaxation, escape, and Walter-Mitty-style daydreaming? In addition to investigating questions like those, there are a wealth of other interesting ideas and topics in this book; here are just a few: * Genres of fiction aren't simply types or categories, Roberts points out. They also exist as traditions -- traditions that readers become aware of only after reading many books in that genre; traditions that change over time and that each individual story contributes to and is a part of. * Roberts provides a system of classifying readers into categories: exclusivists (who read only in a given genre), users (who aren't so exclusive), fans (who have some sort of active involvement with a community of genre readers), occasional readers, and "allergics" (who hate and despise some given genre). * Roberts also gives us his classification system for book types, ranging from "sacred" down to "clownish" -- books so bad that many read them for the entertainment value of their badness. This book is an intelligent, insightful, and well-written look at a fascinating topic.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Nathanael Booth

    Roberts seeks to explain how “junk fiction”—paperback fiction, genre fiction—seems to offer its readers pleasures that are independent of the quality of the individual works within that genre. His most interesting contribution is the contrast between “thick” reading—reading by genre—and “study” reading—reading by monument. Roberts argues that readers of junk fiction are interested in broad structures rather than individual experiences—that is, we read detective stories, not Agatha Christie. Of c Roberts seeks to explain how “junk fiction”—paperback fiction, genre fiction—seems to offer its readers pleasures that are independent of the quality of the individual works within that genre. His most interesting contribution is the contrast between “thick” reading—reading by genre—and “study” reading—reading by monument. Roberts argues that readers of junk fiction are interested in broad structures rather than individual experiences—that is, we read detective stories, not Agatha Christie. Of course, there’s some variety in the readers, from exclusivists (people who only read a certain genre) to users, occasional users, and allergics (this last being people who refuse to read certain genres). It’s all very interesting—particularly the last chapter, which makes the perhaps-audacious claim that literary experts also practice “thick” reading when they busy themselves reading the criticism related to their field of study. The book was written in 1990, so much of it is dated; Robert’s discussion of fandom should be modified by an understanding of the ways in which the Internet has transformed the practice of being a fan, for instance. But Robert’s overall argument is intriguing and certainly worth keeping in mind while trying to parse out the difference between “literature” and “junk fiction.”

  6. 5 out of 5

    First Second Books

    I’m finding this book very interesting, but I have to admit that my reading experience is somewhat hampered by the fact that Thomas Roberts’ vocabulary and mine do not sync up at all. That means every time he says something, my instinctive reaction is, ‘that doesn’t work like that at all!’ and then ‘oh, wait – you’re using your crazy terminology again.’ Roberts also wrote this book in 1990, and I’m having a difficult time telling whether the publishing/literary world is just very different today I’m finding this book very interesting, but I have to admit that my reading experience is somewhat hampered by the fact that Thomas Roberts’ vocabulary and mine do not sync up at all. That means every time he says something, my instinctive reaction is, ‘that doesn’t work like that at all!’ and then ‘oh, wait – you’re using your crazy terminology again.’ Roberts also wrote this book in 1990, and I’m having a difficult time telling whether the publishing/literary world is just very different today or if the New York publishing/literary world has a different set of values than the set of people that Roberts is looking at (presumably a very academics-heavy set). On thinking this over a little more, I am tentatively placing blame on the internet.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jean

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mary-Michelle Moore

  10. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  11. 5 out of 5

    Eseuteo

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cordelia

  13. 5 out of 5

    Rowena

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  15. 4 out of 5

    Harry F.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sean Baity

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

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    Alex

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    Denali

  20. 4 out of 5

    Doug

  21. 4 out of 5

    Pat

  22. 5 out of 5

    Velma

  23. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  24. 4 out of 5

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    Gavin

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    Phil

  27. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Skjoldal

  28. 5 out of 5

    Elyza

  29. 5 out of 5

    Erin Shaw

  30. 5 out of 5

    Julie

  31. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  32. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  33. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra

  34. 4 out of 5

    Ziqi Dong

  35. 4 out of 5

    Becky

  36. 5 out of 5

    Carmen Tourney

  37. 4 out of 5

    Andd

  38. 4 out of 5

    Magnifico Giganticus

  39. 4 out of 5

    Souri

  40. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Freed

  41. 5 out of 5

    Victoria

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