Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

Richard P. Terra

A General Framework for Familiar Concepts

Thomas J. Roberts. An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction. Athens: Georgia UP, 1990. 284pp. $30.00

This is an interesting and thought-provoking study, in which Roberts presents a theoretical approach to popular literature, SF included, that seems both promising and useful--although to many critics and scholars of SF it will not seem particularly novel or original. What this study does provide is an articulate exploration of some critical and theoretical concepts that have been in general circulation for some years, at least within the SF community, and puts them into a useful general framework of application. While at times a bit diffuse and perhaps inconsistent, it is a stimulating work, engagingly written, and filled with many well-chosen examples from popular literature of all kinds.

Roberts begins with a presentation of the traditional, generally accepted categorization of literature into four classes: canonical fiction ("the classics"), serious fiction that emulates the canonical and seeks admission into the canon; plain fiction ("best sellers" or general works); and junk fiction: popular vernacular genre fiction (mysteries, thrillers, westerns, romances, fantasy, and SF). Despite (or perhaps because of) its general acceptance, this scheme is of dubious utility. The categories are fluid, overlapping, and Roberts goes a long way toward undermining them in this book. As he himself points out, "much of what does indeed deserve to be called junk. This includes much of paperback fiction as well as some canonical fiction, some serious fiction, and much plain fiction" (3-4). But it is a scheme that provides an adequate starting point for the central question of his inquiry: Why, given the popular perceptions that some works are more serious, more valuable, more enlightening and worthwhile, do we all--at least occasionally--choose to read works considered inferior and worthless?

In a series of well-developed arguments, Roberts presents his central thesis: that so-called junk fiction, far from being trash, is in fact as fully rich and rewarding for readers as classic and "serious" literature. But popular works differ in a variety of significant, perhaps fundamental characteristics that defy access via the traditional ("academic") methods of analysis. Junk fiction is read--and experienced--differently from serious fiction, and consequently requires a different theoretical and aesthetic approach.

First of all, Roberts maintains, popular works are uniquely time-bound; they are reflections of the era in which they are produced, re-creations and representations of the events, attitudes, and concerns of the people and the times in which they are written. While some works--serious or popular--may eventually transcend their origins to become classics, junk fiction does not. But popular works do carry on a sort of dialogue, at times an argument or refutation, with the literatures of the past, both canonical and vernacular. While serious works also make such responses, carry on such dialogues, it is often not an essential ingredient to their lasting worth. But for popular works, Roberts asserts, this dialogue is a distinctive characteristic. Popular works "are not self-sufficient, monumental....[No story] is much of anything in itself, but it does not stand by itself. When a group of writers are working successfully against and off one another, the simple stories they write create something larger, something which may be monumental" (18).

Roberts spends considerable time exploring how readers approach fiction, how they categorize it, how they develop their reading habits. The habits, the reading facilities, required for junk fiction, differ significantly from those of literary fiction. That is, "every vernacular genre does produce stories that are slightly or deeply unintelligible to the newcomer,...just as there is a skill and lore required to read literature, there is for each genre a genre competency" (60).

Genre fiction is (deliberately or unconsciously) self-referential and interconnected. Roberts suggests that, unlike serious reading in which well-defined individual works are intently studied, "the reading of genre fiction is...text superior. The reader is reading not the text but the genre by means of the text" (63). Indeed, it is possible to consider genre fiction as a "literature without texts." But to read a genre rather than individual works requires a high tolerance of poor or inept writing--in essence, low taste--in order to be able read through the requisite number of works to acquire competency in that genre.

But given the popular conception of genre fiction as "junk," why work to acquire such a facility? What rewards does anyone find in such reading? Roberts devotes a chapter to a consideration of just who the readers of popular fiction might be, and how they might be classified, before moving on to explore their motivations to such reading.

In one of the book's most valuable chapters, Roberts attempts--fairly successfully--to dispel the popular conceptions that junk fiction is read because it is "fun," or is an "escape," or provides "surrogate daydreams." Although he admits these labels contain a kernel of truth, they do so in a greatly distorted fashion.

Roberts points out the obvious fallacy in the assumption that because the reading of junk fiction is "fun" (pleasurable), reading serious fiction is not fun--an obvious contradiction, given the enormous pleasure readers do derive from serious fiction. And if the meaning of "fun" is restricted to a more dictionary-like denotation of "euphoric happiness," then we find that much of popular fiction is most definitely not fun. What popular works do provide, he maintains, is a sense of tension--a tension most often generated by playing against the readers' expectations and the genre's conventions and forms.

As for the use of the term "escape" when applied in a pejorative sense to imply avoidance or flight, Roberts quotes C.S. Lewis (in his An Experiment in Criticism): "All such escape is from the same thing--immediate, concrete actuality. The important question is what we escape to" (97). Reading, in all categories but most especially in popular genres, provides access to alternative, virtual realities which readers explore for their benefit and pleasure. Similarly, these explorations can be quite serious and profound (although at times perhaps unconscious), and therefore can hardly be qualified as idle daydreams.

Given the inapplicability of the usual throw-away epithets used to describe the rewards of "junk reading," what is it readers find in popular genres? In addition to the intellectual tensions and virtual explorations mentioned above, Roberts also suggests that readers of popular fiction find great satisfaction in its formal qualities, such as verbal texture and narrative design. While such qualities may also intrigue readers of serious literature, he maintains that junk readers are especially appreciative of formal textures:

Paperback fiction is form-intensive. It is as form-intensive as the sonnet, the villanelle, the English ode. So prominent is the interest in verbal textures, in the construction of brightly individual scenes, and in the designs of both the narratives and the stories...[that all are] evidence of a sharing among writers and readers of intensely formal pleasures. (126)

Although his presentation is somewhat diffuse, Roberts here makes a valid distinction: "the structuralist identifies the labyrinth of design for us; the formalist anatomizes the pleasure we are taking in that design as we are led through it" (125). He asserts that there is no body of critical work for exploring the formal pleasures offered by any kind of prose fiction such as exists for painting or sculpture.

Junk fiction also offers rewards for its content that appeal to the intellect. "It is a familiar charge that readers turn to paperbacks as a refuge from thought, and yet it is an odd one" (127). Although readers may not bring their full intellectual powers to bear on popular works, Roberts suggests they still find great pleasure in the information they find there, and particularly in the presentation of such data in dynamic situations, affecting (usually) human lives. Junk fiction offers models of behavior--normal and exemplary as well as exotic and extreme. It presents thought experiments and sets up problems without demanding a fully alert concentration. In short, popular works provide an arena for mental play, of stimulation and experimentation upon a variety of moral, intellectual, and aesthetic themes.

Most if not all of these concepts--even many of the specific arguments-- will be quite familiar to the majority of the readers of SFS. It will come as no great surprise, then, that Roberts sums up his arguments so: "Genre reading is system reading. That is, as we are reading the stories, we are exploring the system that created them" (151).

Strangers to any given genre (i.e., readers lacking competency with the system) often criticize popular works as simple-minded, predictable, and absurd. But the simple stories take on greater depth, interest, and meaning when they are interpreted, consciously or not, as being only a small part of a much larger network of related stories (with all the attendant conventions, clichés, and apparatus) in that genre. It is this interplay that provides complexity and richness, and transcends simplicity.

As for the predictability in the pattern of junk-fiction stories, Roberts suggests that "the pattern seems to play much the same role in vernacular fiction that the metrical scheme plays in a poem. In both cases, readers sense the formal scheme as the norm that permits them to appreciate the figural variations" (165-66), which are often quite intricate and original. The unsophisticated genre reader's impression of absurdity lasts only as long as it takes to become familiar with the genre's conventions and clichés; as one's competency with these conventions grows, so does one's pleasure in seeing how they are employed. "There is a special pleasure that we take in watching a genre's stock of conventions change over time, a pleasure denied people who do not read with a genre focus" (181).

Genres rise and fall in public popularity, and as they recede they leave behind only their best works, their most monumental achievements which, if they are of truly lasting value, eventually become part of canonical literature, standing independent of any genre or system that may have produced them. Roberts compares the two landscapes of literary and popular fiction: "the paperback bookscape is a literature without texts and the literary bookscape is a literature without genres" (186). The literary bookscape is comprised of individual text-objects, isolated monumental works accompanied by a body of critical and scholarly commentary, called "variorum texts." By comparison, individual junk works seem "thin" and insubstantial--but only when read as one reads monumental, serious work in glorious isolation, a methodology Roberts labels study reading.

When read as part of a system, however, as a function rather than an object, junk work becomes equally rewarding. Roberts does not say that individual genre works cannot be read as distinct and special text-objects, but rather that they can also, and much more rewardingly, be read as functions, as part of a dynamic system or network that is a living genre. In the junk-fiction bookscape works are seldom monumental, and variorum texts are rare. The individual texts are simpler; the reader encounters more of them and uses them as means of exploring and then constructing a mental map of the genre system. It is this interplay within a system--the network of texts, writers, readers, as well as fandom and critical responses--that Roberts cites as the essence of genre reading. He labels this approach thick reading.

Study reading and thick reading are not mutually exclusive; it is, rather, a matter of emphasis, of noting the variation in the rewards and satisfaction that can be obtained by applying one method or another in reading any given work. Junk works are most rewardingly and satisfyingly read when read "thickly."

This theoretical apparatus, and the conclusions Roberts draws from it, will seem quite familiar to those who are aware of the extensive critical work of Samuel R. Delany, most notably in the essays collected in Starboard Wine and the book-length study The American Shore, which anticipates much of Roberts' presentation. Roberts' notion of "thick reading" echoes Delany's concept of the development of "reading protocols," in either case referring to the development of a certain competency and sophistication in reading works in a given genre. One learns to read a system that is otherwise inaccessible. Delany's work draws more deeply on linguistic and cognitive responses to the texts--his focus is more fine than Roberts' general study.

Indeed, one of the major flaws of Roberts' book, from the SF critical viewpoint, is that he seems unaware of much of the SF-related critical and scholarly work that relates directly to his thesis. Roberts seems to have relied primarily upon his own reading experience (which, to be fair, is extensive and well-considered) and only a few general critical works by James Gunn and John J. Pierce. No mention is made of Delany's work, save for a brief (and in this context irrelevant) reference to The Einstein Intersection.

Likewise, when he turns to consider the formal pleasures to be found in popular fiction, there is no reference to the numerous studies by SF critics and scholars that bear on this very question, from considerations of such basic matters as the merits and limitations of the novel, novella, and short-story forms to the complexities of cognition and self-awareness in the reading process. Even brief consideration of these materials would perhaps have added greater force to Roberts' arguments, and certainly enhance their utility to SF studies.

Roberts also fails to address the influences of commercial publishing and marketing on popular and literary fiction, considering them of relatively little import. This seems strangely inconsistent with his cogent, thought-provoking discussion of the role of writers and their audiences within both genre and literary systems. As an example, his comments on the use of and reader reaction to pseudonyms, collaborative efforts, ghost writers working under borrowed or house names, and "jam sessions" (i.e., "shared-world" group works) are interesting and useful, and could have been quite productively extended by examining how these works have come to be published and marketed.

This study also suffers somewhat from the broad scope of its subject: at times the generalizations are too sweeping, the attempt to build categories still a bit unrefined to be of real utility. Roberts casts a wide net, and at times the mesh is a bit too wide to land so many slippery ideas. Yet its flaws are far outweighed by its many virtues. His discussions are amiable and engaging, his examples generally well-chosen, and his arguments developed in an articulate, elegantly structured progression. He provides a workable general framework for familiar concepts and demonstrates their applicability, and offers many choice nuggets as food for thought. All told, this is an interesting and valuable book.

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