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 daysIt'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.