This semester, I'm teaching ENGL 370: Junior Seminar on the topic of Popular Romance Fiction.
I've assigned Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me, Beverly Jenkins' Something Like Love (at the urging of the Smart Bitch commentors), Suzanne Brockmann's Over the Edge, and a choice between Emma Holly's Fairyville (erotica) or Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love (inspirational).
We've finished our discussion of P+P, which I used as an opportunity to explore Pamela Regis's eight elements of a romance narrative (corruption in society, meeting between hero and heroine, attraction, barrier, point of ritual death, recognition, admission of love, and betrothal). Then we moved on to Bet Me. I spent the last class analyzing the theories of love presented by the characters (Tony's Chaos theory, Liza as a "love nihilist," Cynthie's four steps to mature love, Bonnie's belief in the fairytale). Next week, we'll be discussing the fairytales mentioned in the story (Cinderella, Snow Queen, Little Red Riding Hood, Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, and on and on...). And I'll try to keep you all updated as to the progress of the class.
That is not what I wish to write about today, however. I also spent the past week dealing with a student's personal concerns about the texts I have chosen. I will not betray her confidence by detailing the discussions she and I have had about the issue. Suffice it to say it was at her urging that I added the inspirational Redeeming Love as a choice instead of the erotic Fairyville. She is uncomfortable with various aspects of at least three of the texts I assigned and was asking if she could read something else instead.
Two important realizations came to me as a result of our interactions over the week:
1. I refused to change my assigned readings. I couldn't figure out why I was quite so uncomfortable with her request until I realized that the very nature of the request perpetuated the perception that all romance novels are interchangeable. No one would think to request that a professor change the assignment of Twelfth Night for The Tempest on the grounds that they're both problematic comedies and both written by Shakespeare, because we all know that they're completely different plays, despite their superficial similarities. No one would think to request that a professor assign Austen's Northanger Abbey instead of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho or Heinlein for Asimov, or Stephen King instead of Dean Koontz, or Tom Clancy for Clive Cussler. The pairs may all reside in the same genre, but even the most cursory of analyses would indicate that the books and authors are completely different.
This does not change for the romance genre. Reading Suzanne Brockmann's Over the Edge is completely different from reading her own Breaking Point (which completes a story arc begun in OTE) or Time Enough for Love (a time travel category), let alone different from reading another author in the same sub-genre (Catherine Mann for the romantic suspense or Diana Gabaldon for the time travel), or another sub-genre altogether.
I chose the books I chose for very specific reasons. I wished to cover a broad range of sub-genres (contemporary romantic comedy, historical, suspense, erotica/inspirational) as well as a wide range of themes (fairy tales, theories of love, humor, critique of romance narrative, violence, memory, narrative juxtapositioning of successful and unsuccessful relationships, character maturation, sexuality, redeeming nature of love, etc.) and those themes could not be covered by blithely assigning an alternate text. No other books does what Bet Me does with fairy tales. No other book does what OTE does with memory, violence, and character maturation. No other book does what Fairyville does with sexuality as a way to explore emotions.
And I would argue that it is only in a class about popular romance fiction that a student would dare to suggest alternate readings because it is only popular romance fiction that has the reputation for being interchangeable--a reputation that I refused to succumb to.
2. This realization is much more general than specific to popular romance fiction, but it was very important to my self-perception and to the reasons I spent so many years of my life training as a literary critic. Because the discussion with my student was one that began because of religious beliefs, my metaphors and imagery here are religious, but I don't think that invalidates them. I imagine novels as the distillation of a collective soul or consciousness, in which we find what the accumulation of thousands of people believe and think and hope for. The very act, therefore, of excavating the layers of a novel through analysis represents a kind of ministering to the soul of society.
I will post more about the progress of the class as warranted.
The picture is titled "Girl Reading," from a fascinating artist, Oliver Ray.