Romance Fiction IX: Saturday, 10:00-11:30am
New Critical Approaches
Chair: Eric Selinger
"Reading Romance through a Darwinist Lens: The Sylph and Indecent Proposal" Jonathan Gross,
Jonathan’s paper was a consideration of whether Darwinian literary analysis was a fruitful way to look at romance? Darwinian literary analysis argues that the creative process is a result of natural selection. The wife who can be sold as a commodity is a theme that is Darwinian, as is a weaker male selling a woman to a stronger one, or two men fighting over a woman and the strongest one winning. Jonathan examined Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's novel, The Sylph and the novel version of Indecent Proposal as examples of these literary tropes, finally concluding that Darwinian analysis could not hold up to rigorous but more traditional literary as a way to explain the themes of the novels.
"Beyond the Kitsch Mirror: Chick Lit and the Culture Industry" Laura Gronewold,
Laura’s paper was very layered, very interesting, and very heavily theoretical in a theory I have no experience in. While I can transcribe the words and the images I received, I’m having lots of difficulty getting to the heart of what she was saying, so, again, forgive me for the inadequacy of my summary.
Laura’s aim was to establish a framework to examine chick lit through the lens of kitsch. The image of kitsch is one of counterfeit. The term Kitsch about all about taste: clunky, emotionally heavy-handed, laden with sentimentality. There is no "wink" in kitsch taste, like there is in camp. The audience does not have the taste to know better than to like Kitsch. The taste is affected by class, race, gender, etc. There is a complicated interface between aesthetic taste and subjectivity, because taste is a way to understand oneself. Sentimentality is connected culturally to the idea of "average" values. The image in the mirror is connected to everything else that's in the mirror. The heroines of chick lit come off at Kitschy—cloying and sentimental and in opposition to smart post-feminist writing. Chick lit as a whole is a cast-off, unworthy form of literature, seen as unintelligent. Bridget Jones, after all, does not commit to progressive feminism. Sophie Kinsella’s novels are very coy about sex. In The Devil Wears Prada, she never actually shows sexuality at all, except adolescent preference for cuddling, which is very kitsch.
"Romancing the Genre" An Goris, KU, Leuven, Belgium
An is aiming to combine romance and genre theory. Genre theory and study of popular romance novels do not join up, like they should. Why, one might ask, is she interested in the concept of genre? It is omni-present in popular culture. Traditional pre-20thC genre theory argues that there is an intuitive understanding of genre, that genre is located in the text and there is a system of classification that denotes differences and similarities among texts. By this light, genre is seen as stable. Modern genre theory problematizes things more than that. Genre is not located within text, but is found in interactions between text and context, between text and all the institutions that surround the text. Genre, in this light, is connected most to the use and the users of text, but we can't predict how that will work. Genre is therefore inherently dynamic and ever-changing; it may seem stable, but only "stable for now." The importance of genre theory for romance scholarship is that the concept that all genres are dynamic and constantly changing refutes the most ingrained prejudice against romances that they're all the same, all formulaic, repetitive, hence literary worthless. Also, genre theory points out methodological concerns. Genre is used as the only parameter in the studies without being fully substantiated, which is problematic.
The problem in Radway’s study: she was trying to understand how "real" women read romance and why they like it, and uses psychoanalytic theory to do so. She relies on two conflicting genre models, which prevents her from achieving her goal. She asks the Smithton readers how they use romances, which uses the concept of use, which is both constructionist and dynamic, but her formula of romance is a static conceptualization. Additionally, Radway uses structuralist textual analysis, and draws sweeping, unsubstantiated conclusions but undervalues textual variation and dynamic change. She does not "get" the romance, doesn't understand reading experience, because she underestimates the text.
On the other hand, Pamela Regis provides us with a traditional literary history of the popular romance novel. She sees it as old and stable form, with eight required elements, which is also a static conceptualization of genre, a strict definition with eight essential elements. She makes distinction between genre and formula, because the elements can be embodied in a range of ways, which allows for variation, whereas formula is static. She relies on the dynamic nature of the genre, adapted to specific the social and historical context in which the novel appears. However, first, her emphatic claims that romance is "an old and stable form" overshadow the dynamic nature of her analysis. Second, her understanding of genre is overwhelmingly textual and does not pay attention to the use to which a text is put. She imposes her own definition of romance novel on the reader. In fact, the methodological basis of study is somewhat questionable in a post-modernist context, opening her theories up to critique from more theoretical-minded colleagues.
As a whole, then, romance scholarship would methodologically benefit from being analyzed through the lens of genre theory. However, genre theory does not adequately include popular culture and needs to expand. There needs to be a development of a genre model adapted to needs of popular culture, which is what An hopes to do in her dissertation.
An’s paper was incredible. If the promise of this introduction to her dissertation topic is realized in the actual dissertation, the study of popular romance fiction will have a truly great scholar. Watching An’s development as a scholar and the development of her ideas is truly a privilege.
"Nothing but Good Times Ahead? Romance, Optimism, and 'Authentic Happiness'" Eric Selinger
Radway's psychoanalytic analysis of heroine and reader argues that "The goal of all romances is the reestablishment of bond between mother and child." Readers, however, argue that reading the romance has transformed them in important ways, and Radway dismisses them. She cringes most visibly when the Smithton women talks about how reading romance makes them happier and gives them a more positive outlook on life, gives them feelings of hope and encouragement. What if we chose to take seriously the Smithton women’s argument that there is a therapeutic effect to romance reading?
There is empirical research into optimism, happiness, and how these can be created. Scholars like Martin Seligman argue that there are three contributors to how happy we can be: genetics and life circumstances account for no more than 8-15% each of a person’s happiness. Then there's a separate category that can be labeled as satisfaction about the past, happiness in the present, and optimism about the future. In Jennifer Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman, Carpenter performs a marriage ceremony using these phrases and talks about learned optimism. The way the characters act en route to their HEA helps them move toward it. Satisfaction about past means that the interpretation of the past governs the present emotions about a past event. Rescripting thoughts and interpretations towards gratitude or forgiveness helps build present happiness. In Crusie’s Anyone But You, Charity writes a memoir about her romantic relationship past that is very harsh and cruel. A critique groups tells her that she needs to rewrite the same stories to draw out the good stuff about the past, to show that she has learned from her mistakes and that she should imagine purely as fiction a HEA for the heroine of her book. The cognitive therapy she uses to rewrite her past changes her entire world view.
Optimism can be learned, not as positive thinking, but as recognizing and disputing negative thoughts, rationally and actively. Bet Me's Min learns to dispute her negative interpretations of herself, her relationships, and the world around her. Of the three theories of love, only Beth's fairy tale allows women to have feelings of being in control and it’s the theory that comes to be accepted by the novel as the “right” one. Strategies for increasing happiness in the present include pleasure, and entirely sensory process, and gratification, which calls on skills as we live up to a challenge. Pleasure is consciously taking a mental photograph of an experience, focusing on a single sense, telling someone else about it, and self-congratulation. Gratification is putting oneself through painful things, and living up to challenge. Heroine in Welcome to Temptation does the pleasure stuff in the first sex scene, but the second half of the novel shows Sophie learning how to use her signature strengths. She has always used them with deeply mixed emotions, but she eventually finds a way to put her strengths to use in ways that the novel sees as worthy and she is morally and libidinally rewarded for the exercise. The final scene is not comfortable for Sophie, but she's justifiably proud of herself.
It is generally seen as slightly lower class to be taught life lessons by books, but the concept of learned optimism is taught by romances and readers pursue the aesthetics of romance through optimism.