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identify with the hero and the writing answers to our infantile fantasies of invul-
nerability.The hero™s strength would supposedly correspond to our infantile fan-
tasies of omnipotence. The irresistible attraction that the hero exerts on the
opposite sex bespeaks our sexual wishes; while the shape of the moral landscape
reflects our unflinching egotistical desire to be always right. Through identifica-
tion with the hero in junk fiction, the psychoanalyst argues, the reader or viewer
secures vicarious gratification for his/her infantile and egotistical wishes. Junk fic-
tion is analogous to the daydream insofar as it is an avenue for wish-fulfillment.
It is irrational for us to consume the recurring stories of junk fiction. Our
behavior is obsessional. Nevertheless, it can be explained in terms of the way in
which the recurring stories of junk fiction vicariously satisfy some of our deepest
instinctual desires.Those distant, standoffish men in romance novels all finally suc-
cumb to true love, thereby responding to the reader™s desire, while it is said that
the readers and writers of certain slash lit “ concerning homosexual erotica, writ-
ten and primarily consumed by women, about the crew of the Star Ship Enter-
prise “ are in search of idealized relationships.6 Thus, on the psychoanalytic
account, people read stories they already know and this is irrational, but it can be
explained in terms of the compelling, wish-fulfilling capacity of these types of sto-
ries. We are driven to reread them, even though it makes little sense, because in
rereading them infantile, egotistical, and sexual wishes are addressed.
I have several misgivings about the psychoanalytic solution to the paradox of
junk fiction. First, I am not convinced that we should be so quick to concede the
irrationality of consuming the recurring stories of junk fiction.We should at least
canvass some rational explanations of the phenomenon before consigning it to the
realm of the irrational. Indeed, I suspect that the behavior in question can be not
merely explained, but even justified rationally.
Furthermore, the psychoanalytic account seems inadequate. It maintains that
junk fictions function as wish-fulfillments.Though this may be initially plausible for
some types of junk fiction, it hardly applies across the board. For in a substantial num-
ber of junk fictions the states of affairs realized in the story fail to correspond to what
it is reasonable to presume are the wishes of readers. In Ira Levin™s novel Rosemary™s
Baby the heroine is subjugated and the Anti-Christ is born. Do average readers wish
for the reign of Satan? Of the film My Girl, should we really suppose that typical
viewers wish for the death of the small boy? And in the movies Bonnie and Clyde and
The Wild Bunch all the characters with whom the audience might be said to identify
are blown apart, while the very notion of identification on which the psychoanalytic
theory seems to ride is at least questionable.
Of course, the psychoanalyst may try to negotiate these counterexamples by
saying that junk fictions not only compel attention through promising wish-ful-
fillment but also by manifesting anxieties, perhaps even deep anxieties. However,
this move involves several problems. For if junk fictions traffic in anxieties, it is not
clear how this helps explain why we would be attracted to them. Here the psy-
choanalyst may claim that these anxieties themselves merely mask deeper wishes.
THE PARADOX JUNK FICTION 339
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But, needless to say, supporting this claim will involve the postulation of a great
many theoretically suspicious, ad hoc processes in order to account for the trans-
formation of apparent wishes into effective icons of anxiety that are still simulta-
neously wish-fulfilling.
Perhaps our horror at the triumph of the Anti-Christ masks our deeper desire
for a reign of chaos and unbridled sexuality. But this seems somewhat arbitrary.
For, then, how are we to speak of our wishes being fulfilled in all those junk fic-
tions where the birth of the Anti-Christ is aborted? Turning all the apparent
counterevidence into subterranean wish-fulfillment involves too much theoretical
“improvisation.” But, at the same time, saying that junk fiction commands atten-
tion by virtue of manifesting wishes and/or anxieties robs the theory of its speci-
ficity. Hypothesizing that junk fictions are wish-fulfillments is an informative
conjecture. Saying that junk fictions either involve wishes or they do not isn™t
merely unfalsifiable, it is also uninformative.
Thomas J. Roberts has recently advanced an alternative account of reading
junk fiction that would explain the way in which consuming generic stories is no
affront to rationality. According to Thomas, reading junk fictions is always a mat-
ter of reading in a system. He says,“In reading any single story, then, we are read-
ing the system that lies behind it, that realizes itself through the mind of that
story™s writer. And here lies the fundamental distinction between reading one
book after another and reading in a genre, between reading with that story focus
and reading with the genre focus. Genre reading is system reading.That is, as we
are reading the stories, we are exploring the system that created them.”7
Thus, for Roberts junk fiction reading is genre reading and genre reading is
always intertextual. It is reading with some awareness of a background of norms
against which the variations in the story before us are to be appreciated. For
example, Roberts maintains that Nora™s line in Dashiel Hammett™s Thin Man “
“Tell me something Nick.Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi,
didn™t you have an erection?” “ stood out, so to speak, because it was unprece-
dented in comparable detective stories. Likewise, the murder in Psycho takes on
further significance because of the way in which it subverts a certain genre norm
by killing off the putatively main character in the first act.
Moreover, if I understand Roberts correctly, reading in a system is not primar-
ily subliminal. It is not simply that we possess these genre norms tacitly and that
we register their disturbance as we might the grammaticality of a sentence. Rather
it seems that for Roberts reading in the system is done with self-awareness that
includes comparing and contrasting devices across stories.
Given the notion of reading in a system, the fact that the stories in question are
simple and broadly repetitive is not problematic. Indeed, these very design-features
facilitate what Roberts calls reading in the system. Furthermore, even if the individ-
ual stories appear simplistic and routine, the system is complex.Thus, though in read-
ing junk fiction, we read for the story in some sense, the actual focus of our attention
is the system in which we track the place of the story and its elements as variations,
subversions, echoes, expansions, and so on.That we know the story-type is no imped-
340 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

iment to our interest because what concerns us are convergences, contrasts, and
extensions within the story type.The roughly repetitive aspect of these stories makes
our fine-grained appreciation of their differences possible.
Perhaps there is an element of reading in a system in much genre consump-
tion. One sword-and-sorcery saga may recall to mind another, just as conversa-
tions about a TV program often involve tracing recurring or opposing incidents
and episodes in the series before moving on to a discussion of analogous shows.
That is, there is no denying that a comparative sense is relevant to the consump-
tion of junk fiction. And, of course, fans elevate that comparative sense into a
baroque art.Yet, it seems to me that, though what Roberts calls reading in a sys-
tem (which I prefer to call comparative reading “ and/or viewing) is not infre-
quent, it is not a necessary component of consuming junk fiction.That is, there is
a core phenomenon of reading junk fiction where the consumer knows the story-
type and derives justifiable satisfaction from the fiction, but not because he or she
is reading in a system.
Admittedly, most fans and connoisseurs read comparatively in a genre, as do
both academic and journalistic critics. And where someone reads in this way, we
have an answer, for the group in question, to the paradox of junk fiction. But this
is a somewhat specialized, though not arcane, mode of consumption. And, of
course, many readers and viewers are neither fans nor connoisseurs nor critics. A
more basic mode of reading junk fiction, I submit, is to focus on the story, not on
the genre of which it is a part. Quite often we become absorbed in a mystery
story of the locked-room variety without that experience bringing to mind par-
ticular stories of the same sort that we have already encountered (such as Poe™s
Murders in the Rue Morgue), though, at the same time, we recognize that this is a
sort of setup we have been confronted with before.
One cannot rule out the possibility of this kind of reading by claiming that all
junk fiction reading is, by definition, reading in a system. There is also reading
junk fiction noncomparatively, though with a sense of familiarity with the story-
type. And for this type of reading, which I suspect is quite pervasive, the paradox
of junk fiction still threatens.
The notion that reading junk fiction is reading in a system does not provide a
comprehensive solution to the paradox of junk fiction. For though this kind of
reading is not uncommon, it is special, and not all, nor perhaps even most, junk
fiction reading is of this sort. However, despite its failure in terms of comprehen-
siveness, the reading-in-a-system approach does suggest a fruitful way in which to
solve the paradox of junk fiction. For the reading-in-a-system approach involves
the explicit recognition that our interest in a story may not be exhausted by
knowledge of how it turns out.We may be interested in a story because of what
we can do with it, that is, by virtue of the kind of activities it can support.
The reading-in-a-system hypothesis locates our interest in a particular junk
narrative in terms of the way in which junk fiction invites our contemplation of
themes and variations within a genre.This phenomenon does not seem compre-
hensive enough to solve the paradox of junk fiction in general. But it does suggest
THE PARADOX JUNK FICTION 341
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that we may answer the paradox by identifying some activity or range of activities
that junk fiction affords, the pursuit of which motivates our consumption of junk
fiction despite our knowledge of the story.
What sorts of activities might these be? Perhaps the easiest way to begin to char-
acterize them is to start with an obvious example, mystery stories.We open the book.
We recognize familiar surroundings “ say a house in the country.The master of the
house is a real bastard “ he manages to do something churlish to every other charac-
ter he meets.We realize that he is not long for this world; for the author is setting
things out in such a way that virtually everyone in the fictional world will have a
motive to kill him.We have been here before; we know what kind of story we are in;
we have met the characters already. And yet we read on.We play the game of who-
dunit, which, of course, involves our doing something: to wit, performing a range of
activities that could be roughly labeled interpreting and inferring.
Clearly the paradox of fiction disappears when we are thinking of what is
called classical detective fiction.Whether we are reading stories by Arthur Conan
Doyle or more sundry items like McNally™s Luck by Lawrence Sanders or Murder at
the MLA by D. J. H. Jones, we have no difficulty in explaining why, even though
we know the story-type, we continue reading.The reading enables us to exercise
our interpretive and inferential powers. Perhaps it is even the case that the repeti-
tiveness of the story-types aids us in entering the game, since experience with
very similar stories may make certain elements in the relevant stories salient for
interpretive and inferential processing.
Nevertheless, be that as it may, it is clear that when it comes to mysteries, the fact
that we already know the story-type and, in many cases, even the kind of solution
eventually used to ascertain whodunit does not preclude our interest in the fiction,
nor indeed our interest in the story aspect of the fiction. For the familiar story serves
as a vehicle for such readerly activities as interpretation and inference.
Though this sort of readerly activity is very evident with respect to mystery
fiction, it should be noted that it is also available in every other sort of junk fic-
tion. Let a few examples from different genres illustrate this point.When reading
Isaac Asimov™s science fiction novel Foundation, the reader infers that the Empire
has settled into a kind of medieval stagnation “ where the capacity for original
research and invention has been lost and, in fact, is repressed in favor of reliance on
the authority of the past “ before this social malaise is explicitly diagnosed in the
book; just as the attentive reader has surmised the identity of the Mule in Asimov™s
sequel, Foundation and Empire, way in advance of its explicit revelation in the text.
Or, for a more localized example, in the concluding pages of The Rustlers of
West Fork, by Louis L™Amour, the reader knows that Hopalong Cassidy is about to
be set upon in the wintery street by Johnny Rebb. Johnny Rebb is hiding out in
a house that Hopalong has been told is empty. When Hopalong steps into the
street, we learn that he is looking intently at something. L™Amour writes: “No
snow on the roof. He smiled.” And, then, we infer that Hopalong knows Johnny
Rebb is in the house, because the house is obviously heated, and that inference, in
turn, is confirmed on the very next page.
342 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

Harlequin romances are often held up as the epitome of the formulaic. So
many of these novels mobilize the same scenario: girl meets boy; girl misunder-
stands boy, or vice versa; the misunderstanding is cleared up; girl gets boy. But
despite the formulaic structure of these stories, each novel affords the reader the
opportunity to exercise her interpretive powers.
In The Lake Effect by Leigh Michaels, Alex Jacobi, a high-powered woman
lawyer, dressed to the nines for success, has been told to lure Kane Forrestal back
to Pence Whitfield, the largest law firm in the Twin Cities. Kane says that he
prefers beachcombing to big-time law. Alex assumes that this is a bargaining ploy
and that her job is essentially to renegotiate Kane™s contract. But the reader grad-
ually hypothesizes that Kane is sincere in his distaste for Pence Whitfield, that he
is attracted to Alex, and that she is attracted to him. Alex “ one might say of course
“ is the last to know. She consistently misinterprets Kane™s avowals and advances as
negotiating gambits.Thus, the reader is constantly reinterpreting Alex™s interpreta-
tions of what is going on.
Or, for a more compact example of the kind of interpretation that I have in
mind, consider the Harlequin romance The Quiet Professor by Betty Neels. Nurse
Megan Rodner is convinced that Doctor Jake van Belfeld is married.The reader
realizes that despite his gruffness, he is attracted to Megan, and it also slowly but
surely dawns on us that we have no real evidence that van Belfeld is married. In a
conversation with Megan, he says his house is too large, but that that can be reme-
died. She says, “Oh, of course, when your wife and children live here.”We know
that by this she means van Belfeld™s supposed present wife and children. He
answers, “As you say, when my wife and children live here,” which the reader
understands is likely to mean van Belfeld™s future wife (whom Megan might
become) and their children.
Reading such sentences and situations for their ambiguities is an essential
ingredient in appreciating Harlequin romances. Even if one grasps the Harlequin
formula, one still derives value “ call it transactional value “ from reading the story
by means of exercising and applying one™s interpretive powers.There is no para-
dox in reading Harlequin romances, even though you already know the story-
type inside and out, for each different novel provides you with the opportunity to
exercise your interpretive powers on a different set of details and misunderstand-
ings, and, most importantly, on different kinds of misunderstandings.
Junk fiction, then, can serve as an occasion for transactional value.This is the
value that we derive by, among other things, exercising our powers of inference
and interpretation in the course of reading. Here reading is construed as a transac-
tion.The transactional value in consuming junk fiction does not come from sim-
ply learning or knowing the details of the story but from the pleasure we derive
from the activity of reading or viewing the story. For example, at one point in the
movie Jurassic Park, the hunter Muldoon explains how packs of velociraptors
destroy their prey by outflanking them. Later in the film, when Muldoon is track-
ing one raptor, we anticipate that flanking maneuver by another raptor, even
though, for some reason, Muldoon does not. When the second raptor finally
THE PARADOX JUNK FICTION 343
OF


appears, we feel gratified because our conjecture has been borne out and here, just
as in the other cases that I have cited, a sense of satisfaction obtains when our
inferences and interpretations are correct.
Where junk fictions encourage or invite us to make conjectures about what is
going to happen, they keep us riveted to, or at least engaged with, the fiction inso-
far as we want to see whether our conjectures will be confirmed; and, moreover,
when they are confirmed, we derive the kind of pleasure that comes with any suc-
cessful prediction. In Danielle Steel™s Mixed Blessings, Barbie™s behavior leads the
reader to suspect that she™s cheating on Charlie Winwood.We read on to ascertain
whether or not this is so; we feel excitement as we sense that what we have
inferred is about to be revealed; and then once the secret is out of the bag, we feel
a flush of self-satisfaction. Junk fiction can sustain interest, in part, because it
affords the opportunity for self-rewarding cognitive activity, which, if it is not as
arduous as higher mathematics, is not negligible either.
Reading or viewing junk fiction involves the consumer in various activities.
At the very least, the reader is involved in following the story, which is not simply
a matter of absorbing the narrative but involves a continual process of construct-
ing a sense of where the story is headed.This may include predicting exactly what
will happen next. But it need not.
Generally, however, following the story does engage us, at the very least, in
envisioning or anticipating the range of things “ will she get the job or not “ that
are apt to happen next. In the movie Sleepless in Seattle, once the heroine finds the
boy™s backpack, the viewer tracks the action in terms of the question of whether
our heroine and our heroes will meet or pass each other on the elevators. Earlier
scenes in popular narratives are most frequently necessary conditions for later
scenes. For this reason, earlier scenes implicate a range of options concerning what
will happen next, and a crucial aspect of what it is to follow a story is to evolve
and to project a reasonable horizon or set of expectations about the direction of
the events the story has put in motion. Indeed, it is only within the context of
such a horizon of expectations that the reader or viewer can be said to know what
is at stake in the action.
Furthermore, following the story also requires filling in the presuppositions
and implications of the fictional world of the narrative, an activity that can
become challenging with cyberpunk fiction such as William Gibson™s Virtual
Reality. Undoubtedly, the implied background of much popular fiction is not as

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