Friday, January 27, 2012

Teaching with "For Love and Money," part 2

I just sent my students in ENG 383 (Women and Literature: Popular Romance Fiction) a list of paper topics, and as you'll see in this post and the ones that follow, these topics draw on our initial experiences with Laura's For Love and Money. The papers will be 6-8 pages long--and once I have them in hand, I'll have more ideas about how the students have responded so far to the secondary text. My sense so far, based on class discussion, is that For Love and Money not only introduces students to some very useful ideas about the genre, but also models the application of those ideas in the form of good, thoughtful close readings. So far, in short, so good!

The first chapter in For Love and Money treats the five "modes" of literature identified back in the 1950s by Northrop Frye, discussing each of them (myth, 'romance,' high mimetic, low mimetic, and irony) with examples of how they show up in and shape one or more HMB romance novels. Since 2006 I've opened almost every one of my romance classes with a discussion of these modes, since they give me the opportunity to nudge students away from thinking of low-mimetic literary realism as the "norm" against which to measure other forms of fiction, usually in order to find them wanting in some way. For Love and Money makes teaching these modes and their relationships to one another very, very easy, and it primes students to look for them in the texts they go on to read.

The book then proceeds to discuss how and why romance novels also use "modal counterpoint," the interplay of contrasting modes in a single novel. This, too, is a topic that I've tried to approach in other classes, with mixed success, mostly when I teach Suzanne Brockmann's novel Unsung Hero. For Love and Money makes the concept very clear, and since modal counterpoint is quite vividly on display throughout The Duke is Mine, this was a godsend. Rather than balk at or get bewildered by the contrasting tones in the novel, students approached them as a deliberate aesthetic feature of the text--which meant that, in discussion, they could discuss the relationship between this feature (multiple modes in one text) and other multiplicities and doublings in the novel.

Here's the paper topic, then, which I hope will provoke some interesting close reading from the students:
1. The first chapter in Laura Vivanco’s For Love and Money sets out the five “modes” of literature identified by Northrop Frye and shows how attending to the “modal counterpoint” in a romance novel can make sense of its shifting tones, metaphors, and rhetoric. These modes (and modal counterpoint) can be understood from a purely aesthetic standpoint, in terms of the structure and individual character of any given novel, but they may also be looked at from other perspectives: for example, Vivanco argues that the use of hyperbolic metaphors and allusions to “romantic” and high mimetic mythoi might aim to capture something of the experience of “romantic illusion,” which demonstrably forms a part of falling in love, at least for some (see pp. 65-69).
Write an essay on the use of modal counterpoint in The Duke is Mine, using ideas from Vivanco, from class discussion, and from your own insight to understand how James deploys a variety of modes in the novel, playing them off against one another. Your essay can be comprehensive, drawing on scenes and passages from various parts of the novel to illustrate James’s use of various modes, or it can focus on the counterpoint between various modes in a single scene, attending closing to a single chapter or passage. In either case, please keep in mind the guiding principle of our class: you want to make the novel seem as interesting as possible, whether by showing that it is more complexly coherent and artfully constructed than it might seem at first glance or by showing that it is more interestingly self-divided, conflicted, and ambivalent.
We also spent some time on Chapter 2, which focuses on what Frye called mythoi. More on that chapter, and the paper topic that came out of it, in my next post!

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