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An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction by T. J.…
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An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction

by T. J. Roberts

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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 type of book. 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.


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  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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