In a curiously appropriate twist, my course competes for students this quarter with another Senior Seminar for majors: a course on James Joyce's Ulysses. It's as though my colleague Jim and I had agreed to divide the literary world between us, with one course focused on what is perhaps the most highly-regarded novel of the 20th century (indeed, the book voted "best novel of the century" a few years back) and the other devoted to the most popular genre of the 20th century. By some odd coincidence, the students in my course are all women. I guess the boys have better things to do.
But I digress.
After worrying for weeks about what novels to teach in the class, I decided to keep things tightly focused, not least to make the course as helpful as possible for my own research. The first half of the class, therefore, is a "case study" in the work of a novelist you all know that I love: Jennifer Crusie. We start this week with Bet Me, along with secondary readings from Pamela Regis (on romance fiction), Northrop Frye (on romance more generally), and Bruno Bettelheim (on fairy tales, natch). So far, however, on the class website, the most provocative posts have been from students who have not even tried to use the secondary texts; instead, they've jumped right in to criticize the novel, in a variety of ways.
For some, it's "predictable." As one student put it, "The minute bets are made you can sort of guess at the plot. Girl or guy finds out about said bet, fights ensue, they realize they love each other despite of how it started and they end up together. " Echoing this, another weighed in: "The story was entirely predictable, and if you're reading romance just for the story, then why bother?"
For others, the book seemed littered with extraneous material. "I could have done without the references to shoes, food, and Elvis," one woman wrote. "They all seemed like oddly placed references that did nothing to advance the story, they were just fluff. I figured it would end up connecting someway but I never got the connection or point to those references." (Hmmm... do you think, in that class on Ulysses, students are posting lists of all the "fluffy" references that do nothing to advance the story?)
One student objected to the novel on a variety of grounds, in an anxious post that rambles a bit, but is still worth quoting at length:
Crusie says in "Romancing Reality" that outside of academia, most people read for the story alone, that language doesn't factor in. That may be true, but that also doesn't mean that's right, i.e. acceptable. In a world full of pop culture escapism, I don't think it should be encouraged more than it already is. [...] Not to mention, the story was entirely predictable, and if you're reading romance just for the story, then why bother? Yes, Min is not passive, she is in control of her life and she is true to herself...but all that is obsolete when in the end it's just about winning the prince. She's very angry at life before Cal, and only after she gets him does she become satisfied. It makes me wary that a man is her catalyst for self-realization. Women already grow up with that idea (which can be valid, mind you) but I just don't feel it can be used to write off romance as "reality." A woman's desire for love is realistic, but implying it ultimately happens only with a man is scary. Self-love must come first. In Min's case, she needs Cal. He's the one who makes her realize she dresses like she hates her body, for instance.The range of issues here, tumbling one after another, is really quite remarkable: internalized anxieties about literary authority (what teacher or professor drilled into her that reading for the story wasn't "acceptable"?), about "escapism," about reading "predictable" plots, and finally about love and female self-realization. I find the annoucement that "self-love must come first" utterly fascinating, and asked a number of follow-up questions on it. What psychological theory does that derive from? (Of course, we are in the USA, a country whose epic poem is "Song of Myself"!)
I'll post more on Wednesday, after our first real seminar discussion--or perhaps a bit today or tomorrow, as I gather my thoughts on the novel. I'll also keep track of the Christian romance subplot that has already begun to emerge. You see, as I introduced the students to the various subgenres of romance fiction, a good half-dozen perked up and looked particularly interested as I described Christian / Inspirational romance. When it came time to tell the class which topics and genres most interested them, however, these students hung back, some of them visibly. It's far less embarassing, evidently, to confess your love for erotic romance than for the Christian sort!
And, indeed, one of the first posts to the class website was a request for more information about inspirational romance. Any suggestions I should pass along, about inspirationals or about ways to address the obvious anxieties that this course seems to be triggering in students, will be greatly appreciated!