The illustration is a detail from Domenico di Michelino's painting of Dante and the Three Kingdoms, from Wikipedia. Like Dante observing the souls trudging round and round the terraces of Purgatory, Scott McCracken, author of Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction, finds some redeeming value in the various types of pulp fiction, even if, like the souls, the readers must endure repetition as "one [novel] is consumed after another" (98). When pulp is described in these terms, I can't help but wonder if the critics hope that one day the readers will finally ascend to a better class of literature or at very least, like Dante, only visit it occasionally. The idea that "popular fiction" is something to be read while one is in a state of transition (like the souls in Purgatory, but, given the admitted pleasures of reading popular fiction, in considerably less pain) is suggested in McCracken's introduction, in which he reveals that
Some of my happiest experiences reading popular fiction have been on trains. There is something about the combination of being trapped yet going somewhere that is particularly conducive to the pleasures of pulp. While the popular narrative also traps in its predictability, despite, or maybe because of, that predictability, there is more scope for an escape into fantasy. (1)However, Bridget Fowler, author of The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century, were she not writing from a decidedly secular perspective, would almost certainly condemn romance readers to one of the lower circles of Hell. Here's her categorisation of the women readers she interviewed (the numbering is not in order of her personal preference, since she has high regard for the "radical canon of popular literature", yet it is clear that "formulaic romantic fiction" is bottom of her list literally and in terms of her judgement of its merits):
1.Legitimate taste.We learn from Fowler that "Pleasure in legitimate works is most often linked to disdain for romantic fiction and the expression of a sense of pollution by it" (123). There were exceptions, however, for
3.Radical canon of popular literature.
4.Non-formulaic, or less formulaic, uncanonised women’s fiction: the ‘Cookson’ group.
5.Formulaic romantic fiction (120)
legitimate culture does not automatically bestow a visceral intolerance towards contemporary romantic fiction. A minority who had acquired a disposition favourable to ‘serious fiction’ occasionally read a Mills and Boon novel. They confessed these private, behind-the-scenes departures from legitimate taste as I imagine Kinsey’s respondents must have yielded up their perversions for scientific scrutiny, fully aware of the pejorative connotations of such consumption in the perspective of the intelligentsia. (124)It seems that such lapses of taste can be forgiven, but only if the reader is penitent enough. And yet, neither McCracken nor Fowler have managed to explain to my satisfaction what it is that distinguishes the perversions of pulp, particularly romance, from the legitimate pleasures of "good" literature. Fowler's main objection to romance would appear to be ideological since she argues that "in the arena of romantic fiction, literature may anaesthetise its readers’ perceptions by dependence on stereotypes, dominant ideas and regressive myths" (158) and her "conclusion is that the formulaic fiction partly locks these women into collusion with dominant ideas – economic, patriarchal and racist – or, less strongly, it increases their lack of systematised resistance to them" (173). According to McCracken
all theorists of mass culture agree that popular culture cannot be understood in terms of individual texts. Instead those texts must be read and interpreted in relation to the totality of production, distribution and consumption that organises the conditions of their reception. (24-25)And yet if popular fiction must be read and interpreted in relation to the system of publishing which produces them since "Contemporary popular fiction is the product of a huge entertainment industry" (1), and if it is also the case that "the small-scale production of 'literary' novels is subsidised by popular fiction" (22), must not all novels be seen as products of the same "industry"? Is it really possible to read the "literary" novels without taking into account their place within "that totality of production, distribution and consumption that organises the conditions of their reception"?1
McCracken also suggests that popular fiction, and specifically the romance genre, is different because of the way it is read:
The serial reading of formula romances, where one is consumed after another, means that it is unrealistic to treat each as separate. Rather, they should be read as one long saga, where the happy ending is constantly rejected for a new, unhappy beginning. Each new beginning then reactivates the search for an explanation of the marginalised feminine position in contemporary society. (98)But why is romance being singled out as being particularly repetitive, as being a genre in which the works are pretty much identical? Could someone not attempt the "serial reading" of "literary" novels? We, as romance readers, know that all romances are not the same, and I'd argue that surveys such as AAR's latest "Top 100 Romances" poll prove it. Romance readers don't simply "consume" one novel after another as though they were all part of "one long saga". We can pick out favourites (and many of us keep and re-read them). Romance readers also go through reading slumps, times when we can't find enough romances which meet our current reading needs. Furthermore, all romance readers don't simply "consume" one romance after another, since many readers of romance also read widely in other genres.
- Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
- McCracken, Scott. Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.
1 According to recent figures from "the Business of Consumer Publishing 2006, the net revenue from retail sources in the U.S. accounted for $6.31 billion in 2006. Romance sales accounted for $1.37 billion or 21% of the overall sales."