Friday, July 14, 2006

Important Themes

Brenda Coulter's made some interesting comments about this blog which I'd like to comment on (I know, it begins to sound incestuous, with me commenting on her comments on our comments). She writes that:
the unwritten assumption [on Teach Me Tonight] appears to be that the best romance novels contain “important” themes; most often about gender roles.

I chafe at the idea that every romance novel should mean something. Sometimes a good story is simply that. Sure, there must be a point to it, something my publisher calls the “take-away value.” But in general, I don’t expect every romance I read to contain Big Thoughts. In fact, I believe I prefer that they do not.

Obviously I can't speak for any other contributors to the blog, but it seems to me that one of the things that academics do is look for themes, and because we're looking for them, we find them. I don't think we're just forcing books to yield up something they don't contain (though I've seen academics do this on occasion, when they have a particular theory that they're committed to, and the text is shoe-horned into fitting the theory - rather like the Ugly Sisters' feet). All romances deal with love. And that's a Big Theme. Then there's the hero and heroine, who have a relationship. As soon as you start comparing them to other heroes and heroines, and wondering if their relationship bears any relationship to real life, or to the relationships in other romances, you begin to explore Big Themes. As soon as a reader gloms an author's backlist and starts saying things like 'I prefer author X's earlier work, she or he is beginning a process which could lead to Big Thoughts. I can't think of any story that's simply a good story. Zipes says of the fairy-tale, for example, that

any definition of this genre must begin with the premise that the individual tale was indeed a symbolic act intended to transform a specific oral folk tale (and sometimes a well-known literary tale) and designed to rearrange the motifs, characters, themes, functions and configurations in such a way that they would address the concerns of the educated and ruling classes of late feudal and early capitalist societies. (1991: 6)
I wouldn't argue that all romance authors 'intend' to address Big Issues, but the issues will be there nonetheless. Romances deal with sexual mores (virgin widows anyone? disputes about erotic romances?). Does the heroine have/not have a job? Does she want/not want children? Does the hero carry a gun/fight a duel? Do they own property (and if so, how much)? If so, the story can be seen as telling us something - about women's sexuality, about working women, about family life, about the use of violence, about capitalism.

So, if academics can find Big Themes and think Big Thoughts about almost any text, surely this means that we're not making the 'assumption [...] that the best romance novels contain “important” themes; most often about gender roles'? I think, and I'm speaking for myself here, that the 'best romance' novels speak to our emotions. They also have rich characterisation and a skilled use of language. In fact, when lists of 'great literature' are drawn up, I'm sure the 'speaking to the emotions' aspect of the text plays an important factor in that selection too, whether or not this is always admitted.

I've heard it said that authors of fiction can get inspiration for story ideas from all sorts of places including objects and news items. Did the creators of those objects mean them to spark an author's imagination? I doubt it. But they do nonetheless inspire the author. Academics are similar - we read texts and are inspired, and by making comparisons with other texts, the cultural context etc, we end up discussing Big Thoughts.

We can read for fun too, though, sometimes.

---
Zipes, Jack, 1991. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Routledge). First published in 1983 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

9 comments:

  1. I think Julie Cohen's comments (the first on the list) are brilliant. She says exactly what I wanted to say.

    And you say something fascinating: "it seems to me that one of the things that academics do is look for themes, and because we're looking for them, we find them. I don't think we're just forcing books to yield up something they don't contain (though I've seen academics do this on occasion." I think that what we're trying to do, or at least, what I'm trying to do, is precisely avoid this problem. This is what was wrong with the studies we're talking about on the listserv. Critics (non-readers) come to romance with their preconceived notions and force romances to fit them, whether or not they actually do. What we're trying to do is come to romances with an open mind, and analyze them from that perspective, demonstrating that Love IS indeed a Big Theme and rightly deserves to be.

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  2. It seems to me that some (not all) of those who posted this topic on RTB feel threatened somehow by the notion of academics scrutinizing what they see as their own special corner of literature.

    I wonder if this isn't a result of the very type of sloppy research and bad methodology that's been discussed in terms of defining the heroine on the list serve this week. When the academic world seems to sanction poor methodology that is, as you say, like the Ugly Stepsisters cutting their feet to fit the glass slipper, altered to fit a pre-conceived notion about romance fiction, then readers and writers become suspicious of ALL academic study of romance.

    If those readers/writers who felt threatened had been privy to the comments on the listserve yesterday they might breath a little easier knowing that in part our motivation for studying the genre is a great respect for it.

    We are fighting for the same cause, but our volleys seem to be mistaken for friendly fire by some of our fellow soldiers:)

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  3. May I comment on your comments to my comments?

    You wrote, "...it seems to me that one of the things that academics do is look for themes, and because we're looking for them, we find them." Yes, absolutely. But what I hoped to learn from the RTB readers was (1) whether they prefer "richer" stories--that is, stories seasoned with themes (other than those in the love-conquers-all family) that are obvious to even the most casual reader, and (2) whether they view such books as having more literary value than those in which the author's worldview is less noticeable.

    Jennifer Crusie is mentioned often on this blog. I'm a huge fan of her writing (I have all but two of her books) but I emphatically do not share her worldview. I enjoy her writing in spite of certain recurring themes, but I'm sure many other readers enjoy her books because of these themes. Maybe that's why I'm interested in knowing whether books such as hers would be equally popular among you academic types if they didn't provide so much fodder for discussion on feminist issues.

    You answered my question when you wrote:

    ...and I'm speaking for myself here, that the 'best romance' novels speak to our emotions. They also have rich characterisation and a skilled use of language. In fact, when lists of 'great literature' are drawn up, I'm sure the 'speaking to the emotions' aspect of the text plays an important factor in that selection too, whether or not this is always admitted.

    Amen to that.

    You have a great blog here. I hope you're getting lots of traffic today from RTB.

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  4. But what I hoped to learn from the RTB readers was (1) whether they prefer "richer" stories--that is, stories seasoned with themes (other than those in the love-conquers-all family) that are obvious to even the most casual reader, and (2) whether they view such books as having more literary value than those in which the author's worldview is less noticeable.

    Don't you think this has more to do with the type of reader than it does with the type of book, though? I've seen readers hate on a book for a certain 'message' or character type that I didn't identify at all, while I've found certain things in books that have driven me batty that other readers didn't even pick up. Same for books I've loved. I happen to think that the little Laura London Regencies are chock full of fun stuff to analyze, but I've seen other readers view them as nothing more than enjoyable fluff. Now, if what you mean is something along the lines of do you find more satisfaction in a Judith Ivory book or a Julia Quinn book, then maybe I could answer that question in tems of what it is I think you're looking for. But I'm not sure in either case I know what the particular author's own personal worldview is (Crusie has written A LOT of nonfiction essays that really help out there), although in both books I could pick out some definite themes, even though I view Quinn as much much lighter than Ivory.

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  5. Yes, you can comment on my comments on your comments etc. :-)

    what I hoped to learn from the RTB readers was (1) whether they prefer "richer" stories--that is, stories seasoned with themes (other than those in the love-conquers-all family) that are obvious to even the most casual reader, and (2) whether they view such books as having more literary value than those in which the author's worldview is less noticeable.

    We touched on this a little on the list-serv, I think, when Lydia Joyce said she hopes that people will read the story and enjoy it, and maybe later realise there are motifs, themes etc. [Hope she'll correct me if I'm misrepresenting her]. When I read Austen, I'm not thinking 'Oh, Pride and Prejudice is about the role of women' or 'Mansfield Park is, indirectly, commenting on slavery'. I'm thinking that Henry Tilney is funny, and that Captain Wentworth's letter is heart-melting.

    Those themes and Big Ideas are in there, but if they're too obvious then it spoils a reader's enjoyment. I'm not saying that books are bad when the theme is obvious (as in 1984 or Brave New World) because some types of novel are very much about ideas, but I think if the themes were too obvious in a romance it wouldn't work so well as a romance, because romance is a lot about emotion. I'd say the same for Shakespeare - if you go and see Hamlet and leave thinking that it has something interesting to say about suicide then something's gone wrong with the acting. It should have moved you. And then it might make you think.

    Jennifer Crusie is mentioned often on this blog. [...] I'm interested in knowing whether books such as hers would be equally popular among you academic types if they didn't provide so much fodder for discussion on feminist issues.

    You mention Crusie, and funnily enough, the first two of her books I read, I couldn't spot the themes at all. I was reading them because they'd been recommended on a romance message-board and people said they were really funny. It wasn't until I hit Fast Women and the chinaware kept on being mentioned that I started to think about themes.

    Eric's working on Emma Holly and Julia Quinn as well as on Crusie, Sarah's particularly interested in Suzanne Brockmann (no doubt others too, but I remember her mentioning Brockmann), Pam's book has chapters on Janet Dailey, Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts. I'm just working on Crusie at the moment. Anyway, my point is that we all have our preferences as readers and as academics, and different books and authors will speak to us in different ways. Are all these authors 'like Crusie'? I don't think so, apart from in being very popular romance authors. And although feminism and gender roles interest me, I don't feel a romance has to have a lot to say on these issues in order to be enjoyable and interesting. Perhaps one reason that we discuss feminism is because Radway and other earlier scholars of romance were so insistent that romances couldn't be feminist, and then writers responded in Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women and also in the essays edited by Kay Mussell's, saying that they were feminists, and there were feminist themes in romance. As academics we have to engage with that previous scholarship to a certain extent, even if (or perhaps particularly if) we disagree with it (as is often the case with Radway round here).

    One impression I got from reading the comments on your post was that there are readers who don't like to have their romances dissected. And that's fine, and I can understand it too, because sometimes I'm not in the mood for analysis either. I was also struck by Karen Templeton's comment that:

    I do, however, have reservations about picking apart individual books, because the temptation there is to OVERanalyze, looking for deep meanings that may not be there, or were certainly never the author’s intent.

    I think this could be argued about any work of literature. We're in the slightly tricky (but very privileged) position that if we write about current romance authors, the author can turn round and say 'no, there can't have been any intertextual reference to whatever you say there is, because I'd never heard of that book/film before'. Dead authors, such as Shakespeare can't turn round and contradict the academics. That said, I do think it's possible for themes to develop without an author being entirely aware of them, and in fact Karen says that too:

    Sometimes those themes are clear to me from the start, sometimes not until I’m midway through the second draft, and sometimes readers pick up on themes or ideas I didn’t even realize I’d subconsciously explored.

    The way I see it, romances haven't been given enough serious attention. They've tended to be analysed in bulk, as though they were a mass-produced product, and some scholars have seriously thought that it was valid methodology to select, say, 30 romances from 3 different decades (this isn't a hypothetical example - it's one we were discussing on the listserv) and then draw conclusions about the whole genre. Maybe those of us on the blog will end up 'overanalysing', but at least we'll be redressing the balance somewhat, and demonstrating that romance novels can be treated seriously as texts, and that many of them can stand up to academic scrutiny.

    And thanks very, very much for mentioning the blog on Romancing the Blog. Traffic has definitely been up.

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  6. Oh, boo, I tried commenting on Romancing the Blog, but either my 'puter or their programme wouldn't let me. :-/

    and some scholars have seriously thought that it was valid methodology to select, say, 30 romances from 3 different decades . . . and then draw conclusions about the whole genre.

    That's actually better than 10 romances from 1 decade ... *g* Well, it just shows that there are bad scholars and good scholars, just as there are bad authors and good authors.

    That said, I do think it's possible for themes to develop without an author being entirely aware of them . . .

    Yup. Lots of things slip into the story unnoticed by the author. There are some examples for that from "high" literature, too, e.g. the flat Kafka describes in "Das Urteil" apparently very much resembles his parents' flat -- but he didn't want to acknowledge that fact. It was his sister who noticed.

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  7. I am one of those people from RTB, so I hope you don't mind the intrusion. One thing that I think all academic research has trouble with is experience. This is true with literary criticism, music criticism, visual, etc. It is relatively easy to talk about the propositional content of a piece - what people have been calling here the themes. What does this character's action tell us about the role of middle class women? What does this tell us about the desires of 19th century Dutch readers? Etc. We can find information about beliefs, social roles, gender construction, and the like. This can all be very, very cool.

    However, it ignores a vast piece of any art work, and that is, "what's it like to experience this work of art?" In the case here, the question is, "what is it like to read this book?" Writing about the reading experience is very difficult. I am not a literary critic, so I don't know how well this has been handled in the past, but I know it causes huge problems in music analysis. You can give facts about Mozart's life and where the piece came from as biography. You can do a music theoretic treatment. You can even identify some of the music's emotions and the connections between the music and that emotion. You can do all this, but you still have no idea what it is like to listen to that sonata.

    I think some of the divide discussed in the RTB entry comes from this. The reader knows they are after a certain reading experience. They want to feel certain things - love, passion, humor, excitement. That's what they are after when they read. But it's exactly this experience that is really, really hard to capture in a peer-reviewed article, if it can be captured at all. So then the perception comes that academics are dealing with all these things - society, culture, gender, power - but never getting to the very experience that the reader is seeking. The reader seeks experience; the academic seeks themes.

    My own guess is that there is no way to capture an artistic experience in any criticism. That's what makes the art important. It provides experiences that can be gained nowhere else. But I do think that criticism can change the reader so that they are able to experience things they were not able to before.

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  8. I am one of those people from RTB, so I hope you don't mind the intrusion.

    No, of course not. We're delighted to see new people. And I'm a regular reader of RTB myself, so it's not as though there's a strict dividing line to be crossed. I brought up the RTB comments here because they were interesting and worth keeping a permanent link to in our archives.

    The reader knows they are after a certain reading experience. They want to feel certain things - love, passion, humor, excitement. That's what they are after when they read. But it's exactly this experience that is really, really hard to capture in a peer-reviewed article

    I think you're right. Analysis can't capture why a particular work brings tears to your eyes, or makes you laugh out loud. The best it can do is say that it's 'poignant' or that the book is full of 'delicious irony'.

    But, as I said in my post, I do think emotion plays an important part in why texts are selected for analysis. Unless someone is just doing a random sampling of the genre, or unless they're just analysing any book with a particular theme, I suspect they'll have selected particular books because they were moving in some way. I'm fairly sure that most Austen, Shakespeare or Dickens scholars (to pick examples at random) are passionate about the texts they study. It may not come across in their own academic writing, or their lecturing, but it'll be there. There will be some reason why they wanted to spend years studying those texts, and although it may be the case sometimes, I doubt that it often happens that an author is selected just because that's an up-and-coming area of research.

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  9. Well, folks, I'm new to both these blogs. I read comments by Brenda on Faith in Fiction's blog, which sent me to the romance blog and now here. I've thoroughly enjoyed the trip and didn't know whether to comment on this post or on the poetry discussion above.

    As a poet (totally self-indulgent) who writes women's lit (not romance) and who was discussing the idea of theme with my agent just yesterday, I found these musings fascinating. Loved the perusal of Heyer's The Grand Sophie. Heyer, Austen, and a few others delight so much that I must reread them every few years--comedy of manners at its best.

    Again, thank you,

    Normandie Fischer

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