Saturday, December 10, 2016

A look at S. T. Joshi and "Junk Fiction"

I've been seeing the name "S. T. Joshi" everywhere lately, so after doing some scholar stalking, I was impressed by just how energetic and prolific he's been, not only in speculative fiction scholarship, but in a host of other matters as well. The productivity listed on his bio page is amazing. Then I got hooked on a book of his called Junk Fiction: America's Obsession with Bestsellers.*** Intrigued by that theme, I tried ordering it on Amazon, but it's over $60 bucks. I didn't feel like ordering yet another book of interlibrary loan, so I just looked at Googlebooks. Sure enough, parts of it are there. And I was quickly struck by a lingering oddness in his introduction.

So, first thing. Joshi distinguishes between "good elitism" and "bad elitism" (8)**, by which he means that the former category judges books based on their quality whereas the latter category simply dismisses entire swathes of literature because of their nominal genre-affiliation. For my part, I largely agree with this distinction. I certainly bring some hard standards to bear on books, but I have little patience for those who summarily dismiss books based on pre-conceptions (and I have less patience for those who, when they do read those books, do so in light of those pre-conceptions).

But then things get a little thornier, and that brings me to my major question mark. Joshi, of course, is a huge Lovecraft fan, and he spends some time explaining why "literary" writers like Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and so forth felt compelled to publish in the pulps. (Hint: money.) All well and good. But, Joshi then explains his dislike of the paperweight bestsellers through the following:

  1. "What genre fiction, even more than popular fiction of a more 'mainstream' sort, appears to do is to enhance the reader' wish-fulfillment fantasies. . . . I think those frenzied defenders of popular culture would be better off if they ceased to deny that this effect is widely prevalent in popular writing of all sorts" (25).
Basically, when he's castigating books on the bestseller list as sub-literary, he does so on the grounds that they're wish-fulfillment. And this is what makes me pause. No one, I think, would argue that Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlow are sub-literary. Joshi's right on the mark there. But is their fault "wish fulfilment"? It seems hard for a genre admirer like Joshi (and myself) to come out against wish-fulfillment when that's precisely the claim often made against horror, science fiction, fantasy, or weird fiction. To put the matter somewhat facetiously, he's appropriating the arguments of the enemy and wielding them againt a new enemy.

Now, sadly, much of the rest of his book wasn't available on googlebooks, so I couldn't read his analysis of Stephen King, whom I quite like, and who strikes me as quite as good -- if not better -- than Joshi's own beloved Lovecraft. 

So, alas, I'll have to leave my question to the day when I have a full copy of his book on hand.

***Joshi, S. T. Junk Fiction: America's Obsession with Bestsellers. Bordo P, 2009. Web. Googlebooks.

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