What the reviews of my book demonstrated to me was that even if a book is reviewed by the author's peers, all with a similar level of expertise and similar areas of interest, there will nonetheless be widely divergent views. As I read both the positive and the less positive reviews it became clear that each reviewer was looking for something different. Some mentioned critical frameworks I should have used or texts I should have discussed in more detail and each was obviously relating my book to their own particular, very specific areas of interest. For example, despite the fact that these reviewers are all Hispanomedievalists, some are historians while others are more interested in the literature of the period. Whatever their overall opinions, though, because my book was non-fiction, and included plenty of references to other works, and quotations from the relevant literature, even the reviewers who were least positive about it acknowledged that it would be a useful book.
So how does this relate to romance? Well, my experience suggests that everyone comes to a book (whether fiction or non-fiction) with certain expectations they want it to fulfill, or certain topics they would like it to touch on. Some readers and reviewers have a preference for particular sub-genres of romance, some have particular storylines which they love (or loathe). What one reader may find innovative and interesting, another may consider a disgusting breach of the conventions of romance. What one reader thinks is 'hot' or an interesting challenge to convention (e.g. the non-virginal heroine who doesn't need to be sexually 'awakened' by the hero), another may find morally reprehensible. A book considered exquisitely humorous by one reader may well appear mere slapstick to another, and what one person may consider delicious irony or sarcasm may come across as dry or irritating to another. When we pick up a book, we bring with us our own experiences and expectations, as well as our mood at the time of reading, and the mental comparisons we'll make with other romances (which will be dependent on how many other romances we've read, and which ones they are). Each of us, regardless of qualifications, will have a very individual response to each book. That's not to say that all readers and reviewers wouldn't be able to agree on something; they'd probably all be able to establish the basic outline of the story. Good reviews will provide both an objective description (of things such as the characters names, occupations, and how they meet) and a subjective opinion. The reviewer may even state why a particular work did or did not fit with her personal preferences . The reviewer who does this is acknowledging that not all readers of the review will agree with her opinion. She knows that once one goes beyond the basic facts of the story, interpretations and opinions will differ.
To take the example of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, it's fairly easy to establish the basic outline of the story but overall opinion on the book varied widely:
When it was published in Britain in 1960, the trial of the publishers, Penguin Books, under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was a major public event and a test of the new obscenity law. The 1959 Act, introduced by Roy Jenkins, had made it possible for publishers to escape conviction if they could show that a work was of literary merit. [...] Various academic critics, including E. M. Forster, Helen Gardner and Raymond Williams, were called as witnesses, and the verdict, delivered on November 2, 1960, was not guilty. [...] The prosecution was ridiculed for being out of touch with changing social norms when the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, asked if it was the kind of book 'you would wish your wife or servants to read'.This particular difference opinion concerned the sexual content and similar arguments continue in the romance reading and writing community about what constitutes 'obscenity'. While many authors and readers remain opposed to explict sexual content, there are others who consider the open depiction of sexuality and sexual acts to be a freeing, even a feminist act:
My sex scenes--and my romance novels--are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they're a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That's what I'm doing, that's my mission in life, I'm writing sluts for the revolution. I'm very proud. (Jennifer Crusie)It's not just this sort of issue which causes controversy - 'literary merit' is also difficult to define. Some people automatically assume that a genre novel cannot have literary merit, but even among readers who do not make this assumption there may be differences of opinion because:
It has long been noted that the concept of "literary merit" is practically impossible to define, and it is hard to see how such an ideas can be used with any precision or consistency by policy makers, magistrates or judges. A common response to this criticism is that, while the process of establishing literary merit is difficult, fraught with dangers, and often subjective, it is the only method currently available to separate work that has significant cultural value from work that is ephemeral and essentially worthless. (Wikipedia)By engaging with romance from an appreciative academic perspective, we are beginning the process of establishing the literary merit of some modern romances, which may ultimately lead to the creation of a romance canon.