Pamela Regis, in one of the keynote speeches at the 2010 conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, while "not proposing that we owe the romance novel our approval, or that our reaction to it requires a positive view of any kind," seemed to set out a manifesto for romance scholars:
- We owe it to the romance novel to make overt and to defend our conclusion that the romance is simple, if this is, in fact, our assessment.
- We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly.
- We owe the romance novel great care in choosing our study texts—more care, not less, than we take in choosing study texts from literary fiction.
- We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that the values of its fans are not identical with the values of our discourse community.
- We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that our study texts are probably not representative of “the romance” and to stop committing the logical fallacy known as hasty generalization.
- We owe it to the romance to stay within our evidence when we state conclusions.
- We owe the romance a just consideration of its happily-ever-after or happy-for-now ending.
- We owe the popular romance a recognition of the archaeology carried in its name
Some of these points seem uncontroversial; few, I imagine, would argue in favour of hasty generalisations. Others are less so.
What really made Regis's romance manifesto inflammatory, though, was the fact that she referred to Ann Barr Snitow, Tania Modleski, Kay Mussell and Janice A. Radway as "the Four Horsewomen of the Romance Apocalypse." So what had they written which prompted this response from Regis?
The short answer is that they apparently rode into romance scholarship on horses named "porn," "addiction," "fantasy," and "patriarchy's dupes":
Ann Barr Snitow’s “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” has branded romance with the dismissive label of porn. Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women asserted that reading romance is an addiction. Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Fantasies of Women’s Romance Fiction attached the term “fantasy” to romance—“fantasy,” in her view, is a bad alternative to “reality.” Finally, Janice A. Radway in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature has cemented in the public mind, apparently for all time, the notion that romance is patriarchy’s tool, and its readers patriarchy’s dupes.In addition, they characterised romance novels as lacking in complexity (an attribute which is valued highly by literary critics:
Literary critics—we—all believe “that literature is complex and that to understand it requires patient unraveling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” ([Wilder] 105). [...] Snitow calls romances “easy to read pablum” (309), Modleski calls them “rigid” (32), Mussell labels them “adolescent” (184), and Radway, “superficial” (133). Our most influential early critics, the ones who have proven to have staying power, each viewed the romance novel as simple.Regis therefore urges current scholars to make
a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly. A skilled literary critic can see the complexity in any apparently simple text. [...] We owe the romance novel great care in choosing our study texts—more care, not less, than we take in choosing study texts from literary fiction. In writing our criticism, we are creating not only the critical context for the study of the romance novel, we are also creating the romance novel’s canon. Surely identifying and studying the strongest romance novels will benefit the entire critical enterprise and help us avoid making claims about simplicity and other qualities that critics assign to the romance novel based on an unrepresentative set of study texts.If it's really the case that "A skilled literary critic can see the complexity in any apparently simple text," why (if we are skilled literary critics) do we need to choose our study texts carefully? Can't we just select them at random and then use our critical talents to see their complexity?
This passage also makes me wonder whether any objective criteria exist (or could exist) which one could use to select "the strongest romance novels." One recent incident which demonstrates the difficulties inherent in making such selections arose when some romance readers tried to change Rohan Maitzen's negative opinion of romances. They presented her with some of the titles which might well be considered part of "the romance novel's canon." Her assessment of them did not, however, match those of the romance-readers:
I took the bait and borrowed Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, apparently known to some as one of the best romance novels of all time, from the library. Well, that was a setback. I thought the novel was ridiculous! In fact, it was so much like what I had always snidely imagined romance novels to be that I wondered if it was a parody! Egad. Then I tried Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester–not a genre “romance,” exactly, but in the romance tradition. That wasn’t much more successful.Maitzen's response to these novels caused Liz McC, one of the romance readers, to ponder the nature of the writing in many romances:
Literary fiction today, I think, still tends to the minimalist, and sometimes loses something as a result [...]. Romance readers are sensitive about purple prose, because our genre is often attacked as a leading perpetrator of it [...]. Purple prose is usually defined as too something (too flowery, too descriptive, too melodramatic). But where’s the line between enough and too much? It varies from reader to reader, and from era to era.Regis's response to the problem of selecting the "strongest" texts is that
We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that the values of its fans are not identical with the values of our discourse community. If we decide to read and study favorites suggested by romance fans then we may find ourselves confronting prose like this passage: “Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet.” That is the first sentence of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, published in 1972. The possible representativeness of this miserable sentence to the rest of Woodiwiss’s work, I leave to students of Woodiwiss. We, however, should not assume that this miserable sentence is representative of popular romance novels. It is not. Confronted with bad writing in a study text, we have two good choices—we can choose another book to work on, or we can acknowledge the bad writing and figure out a way to say something interesting—which is to say, figure out a way to invoke the complexity topos—despite the lamentable prose. Fans love books for many reasons, but their values and ours will often be at odds.This seems to suggest that literary critics are different from "fans" and it therefore reminds me, somewhat uncomfortably, of Janice Radway's statement about how the academics' "segregation by class, occupation, and race [...] works against us" (18) in providing support for, or learning from, romance readers. There are, though, a fair number of "acafans" in the romance-reading community.
Regis's response to Woodiwiss's metaphor brings us back to Liz McC's discussion of "purple prose." Would the following qualify as purple and "miserable":
Fame, a monster surpassed in speed by none; her nimbleness lends her life, and she gains strength as she goes. At first fear keeps her low; soon she rears herself skyward, and treads on the ground, while her head is hidden among the clouds. Earth, her parent, provoked to anger against the gods, brought her forth, they say, the youngest of the family of Coeus and Enceladus-- swift of foot and untiring of wing, a portent terrible and vast--who, for every feather on her body has an ever-wakeful eye beneath, marvelous to tell, for every eye a loud tongue and mouth, and a pricked-up ear. At night she flies midway between heaven and earth, hissing through the darkness, nor ever yields her eyes to the sweets of sleep. In the daylight she sits sentinel on a high house-top, or on a lofty turret, and makes great cities afraid; as apt to cling to falsehood and wrong as to proclaim the truth.Trying to translate it from the original Latin may have made me miserable at school but the extended metaphor itself generally wouldn't be described that way; it's a quotation from John Conington's translation of Virgil's Aeneid. Woodiwiss isn't Virgil, but is her Time, with its wings and blistered feet, really much more miserable than his Fame, with its profusion of feathers, eyes, tongues, mouths and preference for nocturnal flight?
Finally, the suggestion that we need to identify "the strongest romance novels" in order to avoid working with an "unrepresentative set of study texts" seems to me to presuppose that "the strongest romance novels" are the most representative. What if they aren't? Theodore Sturgeon's
Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, [...] was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms. (Wikipedia)If the same is true of romances, should we ensure that our sample texts are representative by only including 10% which are "strong"?
Regis's response is that:
We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that our study texts are probably not representative of “the romance” and to stop committing the logical fallacy known as hasty generalization. This is not to say that all claims of representativeness are wrong—but they must be proven, they must be substantiated and argued for. It is a failure of critical imagination to assume we have seen it all. A corollary: We owe it to the romance to stay within our evidence when we state conclusions. So, if we have not demonstrated that our study texts are representative, we must qualify our conclusions, and avoid talk about what “the romance novel” writ large is or does.Also in JPRS, An Goris praises Regis's "strong and much-welcome contribution to the development of a meta-perspective on the practice of popular romance criticism" but nonetheless argues that it could be considered one of a number of instances in romance scholarship of
ritual matricide in which scholars like Radway, Modleski, and Mussel function as the figurative mothers of the field who, in order to create the possibility for the field to grow up, develop, and mature, have to be figuratively “killed”—taken away, put aside, moved beyond. This process is a natural mechanism of evolution and growth and one which on the whole has positive effects.She seems to suggest that before committing "matricide," Regis should have stopped to recognise that not all romance scholars are literary critics. While
Regis’ approach to the study of popular romance is one which she herself characterises in A Natural History as “a traditional literary historical approach” (112) in which the primary site of interest is the text and the secondary site of interest the broader historical and socio-cultural context in which the text figures [...] Radway, who carries out an ethnographic study of romance readers, is, unlike Regis, not primarily focussed on the romance novel’s textual properties, but in the reader’s use and interpretation of this text.Goris also criticises Regis's account for "being too ahistorical and undertheorised" before adding that "In this context I must acknowledge that, much as Pamela Regis’ theoretical position influences her meta-critical discussion, my own critique of her paper is shaped by my position as a scholar inspired by post-structuralism."
I'll finish with a link to a post by Jessica at RRR, who is not a literary critic. Did Jessica take "great care in choosing [...] study texts"? Probably not, by Regis's standards: "it took about .0008 seconds to find several Harlequin Presents that fit the bill. I chose The Italian’s Mistress, a 2005 Harlequin Presents by Melanie Milburn[e]." And what were those purposes?: " to Use a Harlequin Presents to Teach Sexual Ethics."
- Goris, An. "Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’ Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).
- Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
- Regis, Pamela. "What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).