Sunday, August 20, 2006

"Freshness," Subjectivity, and What Is To Be Done

In a comment several days ago, I wrote that "A romance novel's aesthetic interest, at least to me, often lies in how wittily or inventively or simply freshly a novelist selects among and deploys the givens of the genre." Laura posed a couple if searching questions in reply:
Eric, this part of what you said's been intriguing me, because although I think I'd usually be able to detect when a romance was breaking a convention of the genre, I've always steered clear of analysing humour or satire. Humour seems so hard to pin down. Do you have any techniques which academics should bear in mind when studying this aspect of texts?

I also wonder about the 'freshness' aspect you mention, because again I think that could be subjective, and it's also quite dependent on what you (generic you) have read in the past. [...] In the past I've studied old texts, and 'freshness' wasn't something I was looking for. How you go about identifying it and demonstrating to a reader of an academic article that it's present in the text you're discussing?
These are hard topics to pursue without sounding like a US commercial for feminine hygiene products ("sometimes a novel doesn't feel so 'fresh'"), but let me see what I can do, especially since the key terms of your questions, Laura, open a whole new set of issues for us as academic readers of romance.

When I read poems, I feel confident--probably too confident--in proclaiming that this or that poem is "fresh" or "witty" (in the sense of "clever" or simply "intelligent," more than "humorous"or "satirical") in its deployment of conventions. These are subjective judgments, however objective my rhetoric may be, but I make the claims based on thirty years of reading poetry, and at least twenty, maybe twenty-five, of studying the history and criticism of the art. During those years, I have internalized a narrative about how the art of poetry has developed, at least in English; I have also seen how critics disagree with one another, so that one critic's major poet is another's minor figure, and one critic's innovation is another's period piece. I've watched literary historians recover largely-forgotten poets (Mina Loy, Edwin Rolfe), and watched critics then wrangle over their value and interest, and slowly but surely I've grown confident enough to pass judgment myself. If I'm wrong, what's the worst that can happen? Someone will disagree with me, maybe disprove me--either with evidence, if I'm making an empirical claim, or with more persuasive rhetoric, if I've made the case for some poem's value--and then the conversation will go on.

When it comes to romance, I'm at a double disadvantage. I haven't read the genre very long, and there isn't much criticism out there for me to draw on as a shortcut. When I tell the story of the genre to my students, I depend on claims I've found in the histories that I have read so far: for example, that The Sheik is a reasonably good place to start the story of modern popular romance fiction, or that The Flame and the Flower changed the shape of romance publishing and inaugurated the age of the "bodice-ripper" or "erotic historical romance." I haven't done the research to test either of these statements myself, nor am I likely to do so. There are huge gaps in my romance reading: gaps I sometimes work to fill, as when I doggedly read Sweet Savage Love this summer (not a book I'd have finished, except for its historical significance as the second of those erotic historicals); gaps I haven't started to address, and may never, as when I tack past the shoals of Nora Roberts books, unsure how to set my course and explore them.

Where does this leave me as a critic? As Laura asks, how do I go about identifying and demonstrating "freshness" to my academic readers?

My hunch is that I'll just make declarations, based on my best sense at the time--my subjective response, in Laura's terms--and make them as ardently and cleverly and confidently as I can, as if I knew exactly what I was talking about. Then I'll hold my breath and wait for someone, probably one of you reading right now, to tell me that I'm wrong--God willing, at the peer review stage rather than when the piece is already in print, but if I make a fool of myself in public, I can live with that.

We are, after all, in the lucky position of creating the field of romance criticism, folks! There's no canon to speak of, and precious little critical orthodoxy to rein us in or weigh us down. If we say that this or that novel is worth reading and teaching, we make it so, at least for a while. If we say that Lydia Joyce's Veil of Night invokes the conventions of Gothic romance and then falters, unable to sustain their haunting and mysterious tone, then so it does, by gum--and, conversely, if we say that it invokes those conventions only to shine a debunking, rationalist light on them to witty and fresh effect, entirely conscious of its every turn, then the novel does just that. We have to decide, and make the case, and see which position wins out. (For my money, by the way, Joyce's Whispers of the Night is a far better book--but what I mean by "better" in this case, I'd need to hash out at length, knowing all the while that there are no set criteria for such evaluations, but that any criteria I use might be the ones to be adopted as this field develops.)

We need so much in this field: terms of art for describing the genre (Pam Regis has given us some, but we need more); a good set of arguments over who are its major figures and which its major texts; some thoughtful, well-researched debunking of what "major" really means, anyway; essays on the pleasures of individual books; Barthesian reflections on "the pleasures of the text" in romance fiction; historicist readings of romance novels in relation to women's history and other contexts; philosophical meditations on love and desire that take works of romance fiction as their instigation, the way that Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness treats Hollywood comedies of the 1930s. And more, I'm sure!

My hunch is that we needn't worry about being "subjective." We need a lot of good, well-written, confidently subjective criticism in the field, criticism of insight and unabashed advocacy, just as we continue to need solid, "objective" research that keeps the rest of us honest. I wish I had specific "techniques" to suggest, but at the moment, I have only hunches and aspirations--and the sense that, in the words of Bram Stoker's Prof. Van Helsing, "There is work, wild work to be done!"


  1. Then I'll hold my breath and wait for someone, probably one of you reading right now, to tell me that I'm wrong--God willing, at the peer review stage rather than when the piece is already in print, but if I make a fool of myself in public, I can live with that.

    I feel rather humble with regards to my position vis-a-vis romance, so I'm not troubled by the idea that I might make a fool of myself. Yes, that does sound unfortunately like Uriah Heep

    'Me, Master Copperfield?` said Uriah. `Oh, no! I`m a very umble person.` [...] `I am well aware that I am the umblest person going'

    One issue that troubles me, though, is that on the whole, in the minds of the romance reading and writing community, academics who've studied romance haven't got a great track record. Academics are often perceived as being anti-romance. Obviously those of us who're involved with this blog, and on the listserv, are not anti-romance, but given that history, I think we need to be extra careful.

    We are, after all, in the lucky position of creating the field of romance criticism, folks! There's no canon to speak of, and precious little critical orthodoxy to rein us in or weigh us down. If we say that this or that novel is worth reading and teaching, we make it so, at least for a while.

    Ah, to paraphrase Henry V, 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters'. But although there isn't an academic canon, there is some consensus among readers and writers of romance, because there are the 'big name' authors, and I think there is an existing canon, with the 'canonical' romances being those which are to be found on All About Romance's list of 'Desert Island Keepers', the novels which win in the polls held by review websites, and, of course, the Ritas. These give some indication of the romances which authors and readers think are among the best. [They do tend to reflect the tastes of American readers and writers of romance, I think, but then again, there are rather a lot of American romance authors and readers.] Clearly we, as academics, aren't bound to agree with all the opinions expressed in reviews, awards and polls, but I do think it would be wise for us to at least bear them in mind. Actually, I think we all do this already, but I thought I should make the point, so that it didn't appear that we're overlooking these non-academic indicators of popularity/ freshness/ innovation/ texts which embody the core conventions of romance in a way which pleases readers.

  2. j as in jennifer21 August, 2006 06:26

    I am curious to know, will you decide on the definition of a "romance novel" proper? Will they be only the books found on the Romance section bookshelf? Can any love story make the cut? I've heard a lot of talk on AAR about "The Time Traveller's Wife," but it doesn't belong to the "genre" of romance, I don't think. And I've heard much about "The Historian," which is found in the adult fiction section. How much mystery or fantasy can a novel contain before it passes from romance to something else? Barbara Michaels' novels are found in the romance section, but the romance usually only comes in the last 3-5 pages. Do they still count? Are her books any less romantic than those of Nora Roberts, whose protagonists are moony for each other by the first 3-5 pages (based on the one book of hers I'm still trying to slog through)?

    Of course, maybe you don't have to approach the study of romance as a cataloging issue. I was just wondering.

  3. The recent flap over Pluto illustrates how easy it is to get hung up on definitions and naming, and at the same time how important it is to scientific or rational inquiry. It seems to me that because romance novels are a commercial industry (perhaps even more importantly than being a literary endeavor or art form), one needs to take into account the commercial definition of romance, rigid though it may be. Lots of books that aren't commercial romances, like "The Time Traveller's Wife," are romantic in theme. And I've read plenty of novels that are billed as general fiction, that were really straight-up romances (Ken Follett's "A Place Called Freedom" is a prime example).

    So much of the analysis of romance novels seems to hinge on the social or political aspects of their marketing, audience, and low literary status, that you almost can't separate the publisher's definition from the actual definition (whatever that may be). From that point of view, it might be worth looking instead at the question, "why do some kinds of books get labeled 'romance' by publishers, and others not?"

  4. Excellent observations, Kimber! This is something that dawned on me in the course of this past year: whether something is labeled as genre fiction or mainstream fiction is in large parts dependent on marketing and packaging.