The old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover is proved again here. The would-be reader is tempted by the glossy lettering and intrigued by the suggestiveness of the inset picture; a clock, a wheel, lipstick and a skyscraper. As if that were not enough the back cover promises raunchy excerpts "full of drama, sex and good social comedy". Here is a book about popular fiction that promises to be as titillating as its subject matter. Of course it is not, but that is to Scott McCracken's credit. What he offers instead is a level-headed analysis of popular fiction that contrasts with some of the wackier claims made on its behalf.
McCracken starts by comparing two opposing views of popular culture. The first states that entertainment encourages conformity, the second that it is a critical resource in the construction of identity. For McCracken the pleasure we derive from popular fiction comes from the opportunities it offers us to imagine ourselves and, by extension, the world differently. The rest of the book is an exploration of these and other issues across a range of popular genres, for example detective fiction and gothic horror.
Throughout, the emphasis is on pleasure and if only McCracken was not so earnest about having fun, he might convert me to Jackie Collins. What is missing from this book is any sense of excitement. McCracken is nothing if not methodical. On one page we find "In this chapter I begin my investigation"; "In the first part of this chapter I use"; "In the second part I show how"; "I argue that" - you get the idea. The delivery is monotone. Even a promised "personal appearance" in chapter five, where he tells us that horror stories give him "sleepless nights", fails to liven things up. It comes as no surprise, in fact, to learn that the thing he fears most is "loss of control". Ironically, this is the most intense pleasure, according to McCracken, that popular fiction has to offer.
There are more substantial criticisms. The first is that the only people who are going to read popular fiction in the terms McCracken describes are those who have studied it at university. Unless you have done a module on romantic fiction you are unlikely to know that an "untrimmed hat" signifies "female castration". The radicalism of popular culture comes from reading it in the prescribed manner. Hence I cannot agree with McCracken that popular fiction is essentially transgressive, especially when he says that it "involves the destabilisation of categories such as good and bad". Ok then. Descriptions of rape that are designed to arouse are certainly transgressive but can we be equivocal about them? Since McCracken thinks that the pleasure we get from popular fiction overrides every other consideration, then we probably can.
It is disappointing that McCracken makes little attempt to critique the notion of pleasure which, on the basis of his examples, consists of a voyeuristic fixation on the rich and powerful. This is the academic equivalent of Hello magazine. Adorno believed that manufactured pleasure meant "not having to think about anything", and "to forget suffering". What about a sense of the popular that fulminates against inequalities instead of trying to find "radical" readings of characters who just cannot decide which designer labels to choose and so buy them all?
Despite these drawbacks, this is a book to be recommended, especially to students, who will find it very useful. Its many virtues include being clearly written, well organised and informative. Overall, it provides an excellent introduction to the study of popular fiction at a very reasonable price.
Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University, Bedford.
Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction
Author - Scott McCracken
ISBN - 0 7190 4758 7 and 4759 5
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00 and £9.99
Pages - 209