Theses on commercial fiction

by Rob Horning

6 September 2005


Since I had aired some contrarian and rashly unqualified thoughts about the whole fictional enterprise recently in this blog, I thought I’d follow that with a reprise of a few propositions I formulated in my graduate student days:

1. Commercial fiction exists to justify the status quo and allow such justifications be experienced as pleasure, either through flattering the reader for his ability to predict what will happen or dignifying his typical circumstances or positing fantasies that dovetail with what commercial markets profess to offer.

2. Commercial fiction thrives on the reader’s isolation, which allows one’s fantasies to develop unchecked in the channels provided by the fiction and provides for a more absorbing suspension of disbelief (which is in itself one of the chief pleasures the form can afford). This corresponds well with how the consumer society relies on isolated and uninformed consumers who prefer to pretend rather than comprehend—this permits a wider array of unnecessary purchases and to allow unsubstantiated claims about products and the lifestyles they purport to provide go unchecked. Resistance, even to the flimsy premises of genre fiction and advertisements, requires social organization—you need a network of communication outside of mass media to set up a discourse counter to it. Isolation, on the other hand, streamlines acquiescence.

3. Vicarious participation is a prerequisite of both commercial fiction and commercial societies. In both instances we must be prepared to enjoy our emotions more thoroughly through proxies than through direct experience of nature or society. We must be prepared to choosed mediated forms of experience, because of the illusion of control it affords us, over direct, spontaneous, unpredictable “natural” experiences.

4. Plausibility may be redefined within the realm of commercial fiction to suit the consumer society’s requirements. Reading commercial fiction reconfigures the plausibility threshold so that only matters inconsequential to commerce and consumerist fantasy are rejected as “unrealistic.”

5. The question of the commercial novel’s form may best be seen as a problem of industrial design.

6. The commercial novel, one of the first commodities, popularized the notion that acquiring goods constitutes a story itself. The dream world we enter in fiction is akin to the dream lifestyle a branded commodity hopes to posit for us via its ads. A story unfolds, closure is obtained (the good is purchased) and a new story must begin. Commercial novels, in being worthless after they are consumed once, are emblematic of ideal consumer goods generally, which become beside the point of pleasure once acquired. Acquisition trumps even ownership itself as a species of pleasure.

7. Our facility for enjoying commercial fiction, adopting to its conventions and enjoying its foreshortenings and its illusions, makes us able to enjoy shopping more—its necessary pre-purchase fantasizing, its metonymic ads, etc. Familiarity with commercial fiction allows us to perceive the dramatic arc in our shopping experience. It dignifies shopping as a kind of personal mythmaking.

8. Connoisseurship in the market—the quest for distinctive goods—has roots in the connoisseurship of feeling, experienced vicariously through the earliest commercial novels and the taste in reading it allowed to be expressed.

9. Pleasure does not preexist systems of distribution and consumption. It manifests itself through those systems; the shape pleasure can take is defined by those systems. The 18th century commercial novel is an artifact of first forms of pleasure enabled by capitalism. (Needs are “set free” by economic growth.)

10. For commercial novels as well as consumer societies, anticipation is far more important than satisfaction.

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