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Noël Carroll THE PARADOX OFJUNK FICTION Perhaps on your way to some academic conference, if you had no papers to grade, you stopped in die airport gift shop for something to read on the plane. You saw racks of novels authored by die likes of Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Tom Clancy, and so on. These are the kinds of novels that, when you lend them to friends, you don't care, unless you live in Bowling Green, Ohio, whether you ever get them back. They are mass, popular fictions. In another era, they would have been called pulp fictions. Following Thomas Roberts,1 I will call diem junk fictions, under which rubric I will also include things like Harlequin romances; sci-fi, horror, and mystery magazines; comic books; and broadcast narratives on either the radio or TV, as well as commercial movies. There are a number of interesting philosophical questions diat we may ask aboutjunk fiction. We could, for example, attempt to characterize its essential features. However, for the present, I will assume that the preceding examples are enough to provide you with a rough-andready notion of what I am calling junk fiction, and I will attempt to explore anotiier feature of the phenomenon, viz., what I call the paradox ofjunk fiction. Thejunk fictions that I have in mind are all narratives. Indeed, dieir story dimension is die most important thing about diem. Stephen King, for instance, makes diis point by saying that he is primarily a story teller rather than a writer. Junk fictions aspire to be page-turners—the blurb on the cover of Stillwatch by Mary Higgins Clark says that it is "designed to be read at breatiitaking speed"—and what motivates turning die page so quickly is our interest in what happens next. We do not dawdle Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 225-241 226Philosophy and Literature over Clark's diction as we might over Updike's nor do we savor die complexity of her sentence structure, as we do widi Virginia Woolfs. Radier, we read for story. Moreover, junk fictions are die sort of narratives that commentators are wont to call formulaic. That is, junk fictions generally belong to well-entrenched genres, which diemselves are typified by tiieir possession of an extremely limited repertoire of story-types. For example, as John Cawelti has pointed out, one such recurring Western narrative is diat of the recendy pacifist gunfighter, like Shane, who is forced by circumstances to take up his pistols again, widi altogedier devastating effect.2 Junk fictions tell diese generic stories again and again with minor variations. Sometimes diese variations may be quite clever and unexpected . Agatiia Christie was the master of this; she was able to use the conventions of the mystery genre in order to "hide" her murderers. In TheMurderofRogerAckroyd, she "secrets" the murderer in the personage of the narrator; in Ten Little Indians, die murderer is a "dead man"; while in Murder on the Orient Express, all the suspects did it. In each of these cases, Christie's brilliance hinges upon her playing (and preying) upon conventional expectations. Neverdieless, even diese surprising variations require a well-established background of narrative forms. That is, in order to appreciate diese variations, die reader must in some sense know die standard story already. And with junk fiction, it is generally fair to say that in some sense, the reader—or, at least, the reader who has read around in die genre before—knows in rough oudine how die story is likely to go. Readers and/or viewers of Jurassic Park surmised, once die dinosaur enclosures were described, diat in fairly short order die dinosaurs would trample them down and go on the rampage—after all we had already seen or read The Lost World, King Kong, and their progeny. So, junk fictions are formulaic. They rehearse certain narrative formats again and again. And, furthermore, in some very general sense, the audience already knows die story in question. But this knowledge on die part of die audience provokes a question, specifically, why if the reader, viewer or listener already...


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