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Big Books Feature

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Mass-Market Paperbacks Lull Our Reviewer Into Submission

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Big Books Issue 2002

The Mobtown Connection Was H.L. Mencken the Godfather of Hard-Boiled Fiction? | By Tom Chalkley

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Confessions of a Sweet Valley Scribe | By Lizzie Skurnick

No More Heroes Comics: The Latest Medium to Test Fine-Arts Waters | By Christopher Skokna

Everybody Must Get Stoned Mass-Market Paperbacks Lull Our Reviewer Into Submission | By Wendy Ward

Dazzlement, Enchantment, and Trash Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, and the Apotheosis of Pulp Science Fiction | By Mahinder Kingra

Pulp Revisited Hardly anyone starts his or her reading life with Remembrance of Things Past, To the Lighthouse, and...

By Wendy Ward | Posted 9/25/2002

In airport terminals, on buses, in waiting rooms, and in parks, heads are buried deep between their covers, spread wide open and creased down their two-inch-thick spines. Brand new, their covers--sporting shiny silver, neon yellow, dried-blood red and black, or the occasional American flag--line bookstore shelves and supermarket displays. They are best-selling mass-market fiction paperbacks, and their easily digestible charms can be had for less than a 10-spot. Transportable, disposable, and easy to swallow, they offer a huge reading population a sitcom, a made-for-TV-movie, a nighttime soap on the page.

I can't pretend to know why readers would rather plow through books that offer little challenge when the world's great literature itself exists for the taking. But I admit to being curious. So I went to the Safeway on 25th Street and bought the top five mass-market fiction paperbacks for the first week of September--Purity in Death by J.D.Robb, Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub, Last Man Standing by David Baldacci, Reap the Wind by Iris Johansen, and Full House by Janet Evanovich--and read them one by one, back to back, in about a week's time. It proved a brain-lulling, almost narcotic experience. But even as I felt numbed, I felt a hunger to continue reading and see what would happen next. Great literature demands careful, intellectual reading; mass markets require only curiosity and a little spare time, and you're hooked.

Each genre, such as science fiction, romance, and the thriller, has its own discernible themes and clichés, and, although it isn't a genre per se, mass-market paperback fiction reads like one. The five books I read were all heavily plot-driven, were mysteries of one stripe or another, and had a million clues to be unraveled and tight sexual tension to keep you turning pages. Thinking is not required, and you certainly don't have to read carefully; it will just slow you down for no good reason--except when Stephen King is involved.

King's Black House, co-written with Peter Straub, stood out from the other books thanks to well-chosen, poetic words, perfect pacing, and the right amount of necessary information at the right time to lead the reader through the story. Black House's atmosphere is undeniably spooky as the omniscient narrator freely meanders through the story, with the reader seemingly on its back, while dropping metafictional asides. The feet of the plot, involving a monster that murders children, are grounded in recognizable middle-American reality, while its head is literally in some other world. The ingenious use of humor contrasts neatly with the copious blood, and loosens you up for the next clenching wave of fear. The narrator's numerous witty, conversational quips make it feel like King and Straub know you are out there, holding the book, scared to turn out the light.

But the other four novels worked in a different way. The authors seem determined to use stereotypical characters, plot lines, and devices to accommodate an audience familiar with the formula. It's as if these books are bestsellers because the authors--each one of them prolific (the titles on King's "Also by" page are arranged in columns)--tell the same stories of thrills, mystery, and romance with tidy endings over and over again.

For example, the main characters are uncannily similar. Most of the male protagonists (and quite a few of the female ones) have money to play around with--a lot of money--and it doesn't matter how they came by it. They fly to Europe at a moment's notice, buy expensive art, own 007-worthy gadgets and technology, live in mansions, and do it all while unrestrained by 9-to-5 jobs. They have enough lucre to buy whatever is required to woo the woman, dress the part, solve the mystery, and live out the seven-digit-salary fantasies of loyal readers. These characters have the freedom money buys.

Baldacci's Last Man Standing is a standard FBI thriller complete with shiny black toys, elite fighting teams, conspiracy theories, betrayal, a female psychiatrist, and flashbacks to the strong but sensitive main character's murky, violent childhood. Robb's futuristic Purity in Death features a female lead whose multimillionaire husband helps her investigate a band of vigilante cyberspace killers. Johansen's Reap the Wind involves a rich, vengeful genius who spends his time in Switzerland, France, and Turkey (all without a day job since he quit the FBI and the KGB) with his French-estate-owning lover. Black House's protagonist inherited his money from his old-Hollywood parents. The eligible bachelor in Evanovich's Full House also inherited the money he needs to own both a local newspaper and a horse farm.

Drawn out by evidence concealment, miscommunication (people never relate the findings of their latest discoveries to the right people soon enough), and unfulfilled romance, these books are much longer than they need to be--the shortest, Full House, clocks in at 352 pages. In Reap the Wind a coveted Pegasus statue dating back to the Trojan War can't be found, a new brand of perfume is developed, a French estate burns to the ground, a politician planning to run for president proposes to a world-famous actress, the actress' daughter gets shot in the arm, an ancient language is deciphered, the bad guy at the beginning is not the only bad guy by the end, and so on. The plots are easy to keep straight even weeks later, but I can't recall the name of a single character--though I remember that there were quite a few Jacks.

Romance plays a minor role in the bestsellers written by men, often taking the form of forced interaction between two parties pondering the same mystery. But the female writers get down and dirty with their randy descriptions of animal attraction and sex denied, satisfied, denied, satisfied, etc. Of the five books I read, Full House is the only adventure/romance novel (which means the love story involves a couple of dead people) and seems blatantly aimed at thirtysomething moms and housewives. The main character is a divorced mother of two whose priorities contrast her favorably to skinny rich bitches without children: She has sex, but only with the rich bachelor who eventually proposes.

But in the end, each paperback adheres to a rigid moral code. Sex is coupled with love, everyone drinks alcohol moderately, home and family are sacred, cops are either saviors or absolutely corrupt, vigilantes are punished in the end, heroes murder but only for the good of the world, and mysteries are always solved.

This isn't literature. Literature, as I understand it, is ripe with ambiguities, unanswered questions, people who are neither wholly bad nor good, and wavering morality and gray areas. In short, literature more closely resembles real life. Each of the mass-market paperbacks I read told the same story: background, mystery, sex, investigation, action, resolution, redemption. The authors take a long time to mess everything up, only to bring it all together by the end.

Obviously, there is a market for these shiny-covered escape capsules--a millions-strong mass market, in fact--which is why they're at Safeway. Sure, you can while away hours following their authors' polished machinations. But after a week or so of feeling stoned by their plot-driven predictability and my own passive participation, I'm jonesing for a shot of Milan Kundera or Paul Auster.

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