Saturday, August 12, 2006

Academics and Romance: Approaches and Challenges

About a month ago Brenda Coulter brought up questions about which romances academics would tend to study, and what sort of things we'd be looking for. In the past few days we've been examining the issues around how readers respond to what they read. I'm very much aware that this latter area isn't my specialism. I'm primarily interested in literary criticism (i.e. close analysis of the words in a text) and trying to understand how texts relate to their cultural context. Given that all academics aren't approaching the texts in the same way, and that some are more focussed on the readers than on the texts, I thought I'd write a quick summary of the different academic approaches to romance that I've noticed, and also discuss a few problems that I think might arise when studying the genre.

A while ago, on the listserv, we were discussing the various items on the Romance Wiki bibliography of scholarship on romance and I divided them up into roughly 4 groups, according to the approach taken towards the books studied (obviously I haven't read more than a small percentage of the items, but I've spotted trends in those I have read). There’s a lot of overlap, of course:
  • analysis of the readers- quite often the focus of studies has been on the readers of romance as academics have attempted to discover why readers read romance, how it fits into their daily lives, whether romance reading boosts self-esteem or promotes particular patterns of behaviour/attitudes towards relationships. Sometimes this sort of study touches on psychology (e.g. Radway’s theory that readers of romance are involved in 'an ongoing search for the mother and her characteristic care' (1991: 13)) and at other times on anthropology (Radway does this too – she carefully describes the group of readers, their income levels, family structures, geographical location etc). Librarians have also been interested in understanding readers, because while librarians want to encourage reading, and facilitate readers finding books they’ll be interested in, librarians also feel a pressure to offer readers ‘good’ literature. [There's an interesting audio discussion among Linda Esser, Charley Seavey, and Denice Adkins, all from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Information Science & Learning, about librarians' attitudes towards romance and romance readers here]
  • the historical/social approach, which attempts to analyse what the romance novel(s) tell us about the society/culture in which they were written and/or in which they're read. Related to this is the study of books as commodities, and how they've been marketed, and in that area there's been quite a lot of focus on Harlequin in particular.
  • a feminist perspective. A fairly large proportion of the existing articles/books on romance touch on feminism. This could really be included under the 'historical/social approach', but I thought it deserved to be mentioned separately, as many scholars have approached romance from a feminist perspective and/or have attempted to discover what romances can tell us about attitudes towards feminism.
  • literary criticism, anything from the extremely critical (which denigrates romances as badly-written) to the respectful and appreciative analysis of the formal structures of romance conducted by Pamela Regis.

I’m interested in literary criticism, because I enjoy looking closely at texts. I also think that detailed literary criticism of individual romance novels will demonstrate that many romances are neither badly written (however one defines ‘badly written’, and I think that’s often going to be a subjective decision) nor lacking in depth and complexity. I’m also interested in what romances have to say about feminism and society (and that includes what light they cast on relationships). I am concerned that even with all the possible academic approaches outlined above we may well still be missing out on the most vital element of all. I’ve written about how emotion is at the core of romance, but academic writing tends to be unemotional, and we strive for objectivity, providing textual ‘evidence’ for our views. Feminist and other recent literary theories have possibly changed things a little, by encouraging the critic to write about him or herself in relation to the text, to admit her/his own prejudices. But I’m still not sure this is enough to enable us to write about the emotions that we feel as we read a romance.

Kathleen Gilles Seidel has suggested that
We may not have a vocabulary with which to evaluate a text for the qualities that make fantasies vivid and immediate. The usual categories about tightly constructed plots and consistent, believable characters may not be relevant. The books have strengths that no one knows how to describe. [...] How can we account for the power of these books? [...] I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. (1992: 169-170)
One consequence of the problems surrounding how to write about how a particular text evokes emotion is that if academics want to write literary criticism, they're going to tend to choose books with the complex themes, imagery etc that are the fodder of literary analysis. That may mean that romance novels which are extremely successful as romances, because they make their readers feel, but which don't have the other characteristics which make them accessible to a literary critic, will be less likely to receive attention.

One solution might be to select a group of texts from a particular sub-genre, or which deal with a particular theme (e.g. Regencies or sheik romances). A danger with this method, however, could be that, as has happened not infrequently in the past, texts may be selected at random. Some studies of this sort do not even list the titles of the romances on which the findings are based. The results often present a homogenous picture of romances, and imply that they are formulaic, and, therefore, that one romance is much the same as another. However, as Radway noted, and as is even more obvious in these days of online review websites, romance readers have strong opinions about which romances are the best, and we certainly do not consider all romances to be equal. It seems to me that it would therefore be important to distinguish between trends in the sub-genre (which might also be apparent in the 'best' examples of that sub-genre) and the outstanding examples of the genre, which, it could be argued, represent the epitome of what that sub-genre is really about. There's a big difference between quantity and quality, though the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Another method of analysing texts which are 'good' but which don't have plentiful metaphors, motifs, etc would be to study a group of texts by the same author, to see if the juxtapositions makes the themes more apparent. In this way, even if the emotional content itself were not studied, these 'good' texts would not be completely neglected.

A significant problem facing academics wanting to study romance is that of locating texts. In a somewhat different context Jennifer Crusie said that:
Until publishers treat category fiction like works of art instead of cans of soup and writers like artists instead of cooks, we're going to be fighting an uphill battle. My fantasy is that a non-category publisher will recognize that short novels are an extremely marketable form, enter the field with respectable contracts and a promise to keep the books on the shelf for longer than thirty days
It's a good idea, and one which might ensure that someone reading an academic essay about a category romance, possibly several years or even decades after that romance was published, would still have a chance to read it. I'm not sure it’s going to happen, but category romance publishers do republish some of the more popular romances, and that, coupled with online availability of second-hand books, searchable by author and title, can make it easier to buy copies of an older, out of print romance. Nonetheless, even getting hold of the backlists of authors who’ve published in single-title can be a struggle sometimes. It's possible that e-publishing may provide a solution since the books can remain for sale for a very long time after they’re first ‘published’. But some ebooks require specific pieces of hardware onto which to download them, and librarians still have a lot of problems working out how to store electronic material. How can it be preserved for future generations when computer software and hardware changes so rapidly? Will some modern romances published in print be recognised as 'classics' and remain in library collections for longer than they currently do? At the moment, unless one pays a visit to a copyright library, it's likely that one won't be able to find many of the older romances, because the copies are usually discarded when they become tattered, and if they're out of print (as is the case with most category romances after only one month) they cannot, or will not, be replaced.

This is only an extremely brief overview, and I'm sure there's plenty I haven't thought of, or have missed out.

Gilles Seidel, Kathleen, 1992. 'Judge Me by the Joy I Bring', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 159-179.

Radway, Janice A. 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, With a New Introduction by the Author (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press). Original edition published in 1984.


  1. So this comment is really applicable to about the last three posts or so, where people have been discussing the role of emotion in reading romance, visualization (and what people might be doing if they aren't visualizing), and the like.

    So I'm actually working on my doctorate in linguistics. Unfortunately for this discussion my focus is phonology - sound structures in language and how they are understood by the brain. However, there has been some work recently on the semantic side of things which could help out here, so I went digging up some info.

    What I have in mind is the sub-field of linguistics called cognitive linguistics. There are two or three themes that recur in this research. One is the idea of the metaphor, also called conceptual blending and more by others. The foundational works that talk about metaphor are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By and Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (great title, huh?). These are popular enough titles they can often be found at B&N.

    The idea of metaphor here is much larger and foundational than the term is typically used. Lakoff and this school argue that human reason is essentially metaphorical. Every more abstract thought is defined in terms of some more concrete thought. This is the metaphor. So the abstract idea of argument is grounded in the more concrete idea of war. War in turn is grounded in more concrete ideas of physical struggle and the like. Ultimately, all thought is grounded in concrete experience.

    The argument then is that all thought, no matter how abstract, is embodied. Even mathematics, the quintessential abstract logical system, is argued to be an extension of our embodied experience. This means that the way we think is completely based upon our physical body and its experiences. Experiences like moving through space, grabbing and releasing, seeing, falling, climbing are the concrete experiences upon which all thought is based. Love for instance is closely tied both to concepts of a journey (moving through space) and war (love conquers all).

    The final term to introduce before I try to tie all this back in is the theory of meaning called "simulation semantics". There have been neurological studies which reveal things like, "when I hear words related to sight, the parts of my brain which control sight become active, even if I am blindfolded and seeing nothing." And the results get far more detailed. It's all based on this idea of embodiment and metaphor. When we hear a sentence about barns, we will activate the parts of our brain which store images of barns, associated colors and smells, knowledge of barns and farms and the purpose of such structures. To know the meaning of the word barn just is to activate the related portions of the brain. Moreover, it isn't just a collection of associations, but is instead highly structured by the metaphors which make up our thinking.

    Here is an example. Some linguists analyzed a large database of English (a corpus) and discovered high correlations between the idea of joy and concrete images of water. We are full of joy, bursting with joy, and the like. Joy is like water in a vessel. This is different than happiness which has its own associations. A project was done recently at my own university where they showed people an image of a smiling man and had them choose the word joy or happiness to describe it. The experimental variable was that they asked people who were somehow physically involved with liquid at that moment - usually drinking, but it could be other things as well, compared to a non-drinking control group. If one of the subjects was around water, they were much more likely to choose the word joy to describe the face than if they were not around water. What this hints at is that the mere physical experience of a liquid has primed the English word "joy" so that it is more likely to be selected.

    So what does all this have to do with romance? Well, it's a long way from linguistic semantics to literary theory, but if the former is on the right track, then the reading experience will involve the activation of all the concrete metaphors stored in the brain tied to the words being read. This will be the essence of the reading experience - opening up stored metaphors, merging them together, grabbing powerful ones that are strongly bound to physical emotions, twisting the metaphors in unexpected ways, etc. One would have to hypothesize that the best authors have an uncanny ability to understand these metaphors that we share as humans and speakers of English and activate them in powerful and complicated ways.

    I tried to dig up some articles that have tried to move from simulation semantics all the way to literature, but there isn't much yet. One item is Vera Tobin's work on mystery, in this case Sherlock Holmes (Tobin, 2006). Here is one about using all this to understand humor (direct link to pdf). And Todd Oakley has applied this to medical discourse (Oakley, 2005).

    Really most of this is pretty tangential to the exact set of questions under discussion, but it does seem promising. If one could successfully build a connection between the idea of the conceptual metaphor and stylistics, it could probably be a nice academic career. It would seem that genre fiction like romance would be particularly fruitful in this sort of analysis, since there are such strong forms and discourse models at play.

    Finally, I am one of these people who cannot truly visualize what I am reading. In fact, I cannot truly get a picture in my head of my wife. To speculate wildly, we might guess that I and the visual reader are accessing different levels of metaphorical structure. Perhaps I stay at a more abstract level than the people who are good at visualizing have access to.

    Partial References:

    Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

    Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

    Oakley, Todd. Implied narratives of medical practice in learning-for-doing texts: a simulation semantics approach to rhetorical analysis. Language and Literature, Aug 2005; 14: 295 - 310.

    Tobin, Vera. Ways of reading Sherlock Holmes: The entrenchment of discourse blends. Language and Literature, 2006, 15, 1, Feb, 73-90

  2. OK, a little more research has found some decent work in this area, but it doesn't seem to quite be what I am talking about. Basically, literary theorist seem to be exploring the idea of Lakoffian metaphor in story telling, but it doesn't seem yet as if the work has yet made the leap to the kind of detail I have in mind. Anyway, for those interested Mark Turner's The Literary Mind seems a good place to start. One can follow links to related work.

  3. Really most of this is pretty tangential to the exact set of questions under discussion

    No it's not! It's fascinating, and opens up another area of academic study that I hadn't thought of. It also reminds me of what's said in Jayne Ann Krentz and Linda Barlow's essay about the type of language used in romance. They say that:

    It is difficult to explain the appeal of romance novels to people who don't read them. Outsiders tend to be unable to interpret the conventional language of the genre or to recognize in that language the symbols, images, and allusions that are the fundamental stuff of romance. Moreover, romance writers are consistently attacked for their use of this language by critics who fail to fathom its complexities. In a sense, romance writers are writing in a code clearly understood by readers but opaque to others (p15)


    Because the language of romance is more lushly symbolic and metaphorical than ordinary discourse, the reader is stimulated not only to feel, but also to analyze, interpret and understand. (page 22, in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women).

    Of course, writing styles do change in romance, and I also think that their assertion that this is tied in with how women communicate (which would exclude male readers, and ignores male readers of love poetry, or who listen to love songs, which often has similar imagery) isn't right. But this was written over a decade ago, when romance (and the demographics of romance readership) was a bit different to what it is today.

    Some linguists analyzed a large database of English (a corpus) and discovered high correlations between the idea of joy and concrete images of water. We are full of joy, bursting with joy, and the like. Joy is like water in a vessel.

    This reminds me very much of Philip Larkin's poem about Water, which begins:

    If I were called in
    To construct a religion
    I should make use of water.

    and ends

    And I should raise in the east
    A glass of water
    Where any-angled light
    Would congregate endlessly.

    Philip Larkin, Water

    Which just goes to show that, as you say, my 'reading experience will involve the activation of all the concrete metaphors stored in the brain tied to the words being read'.

    And I'm glad I'm not the only non-visual reader. I was beginning to feel a bit lonely, like that barn. ;-)