And thus we come to Jessica Miller’s review of Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels (henceforth: EIKAL). EIKAL, according to Miller, is “boosterism” at its worst – incoherent, badly formatted, lacking distance from its subject, unhip, uncool, fawning even. What the romance genre needs, Miller argues, is sustained academic analysis about its literary merit, not heartwarming (even cloying) stories about what readers have learned from it.
I disagree and do so on a number of levels. Although I (obviously, I hope) believe that romance needs sustained academic exploration, I think that what EIKAL does is a necessary good. I also think Miller is expecting EIKAL to be what it never had any intention of being, what it doesn’t want to be, what – in fact – it has no business being (something, in my opinion, that Wendell understands, although that’s not really relevant to a review of the book itself). And in failing to meet and critique the book on its own terms, the review came across as ironically and unintentionally derisive toward the genre and its readers.
Four paragraphs in, Miller provides three paragraphs of background about SBTB and Wendell’s career as a romance-positive media pundit. Miller strongly implies that Wendell and Tan “scored” a book contract for their first book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms (henceforth BHB), because they destroyed the career of (plagiarizing) romance author Cassie Edwards. As I said in my comments at the review site, the facts are wrong: although BHB was published in April 2009, almost 18 months after the posts in January 2008 about Edwards’ plagiarism, the publishing world being as slow as it is, Wendell and Tan “scored” their book contract in 2007 and were deep in the process of writing BHB when they broke the Edwards story. And while Miller responded to me at the site that “Luckily, nothing hangs on the timeline, as far as I can see. I was trying to give the OLM reader a general sense of the Wendell’s history, not making a judgment in any way about that history,” I think, in fact, that the judgmental – even personally pointed – tone (Tan departs for “greener pastures,” implying, for instance, that Wendell’s career as a “man titty media pundit” is something she has to settle for, is the best she can get) colors the rest of the review. The tone of these paragraphs cradles and contextualizes the rest of the review, almost implying that the review hinges on an incorrect view about Wendell’s history and success more than it rests on the merits of the book itself.
However, Miller follows this highly questionable history with a fairly brilliant summary of the goals and aims of EIKAL:
The premise of Everything I Know is clear from its title: romance novels offer life lessons, especially about love and relationships. The critics who assume romance novels feature gorgeous, perfect people “meeting cute” and slipping effortlessly into a happily ever after are wrong: romance novels tell the stories of flawed people who struggle and face the same challenges as any average reader. Reading romance novels has a positive impact on readers’ lives, teaching them about everything from effective communication and mutual respect to being happy with themselves and enjoying sex. And to the extent that romance novels do contain fantasy sex, perfect love, and the kind of triumphant overcoming of impossible odds that makes for a compelling narrative, romance readers, aware that it’s fantasy, can still be inspired, comforted, or moved in ways that make them better, wiser people. Everything I Know takes the romance genre and its readers seriously, insisting that the genre’s central concerns—especially romantic love, sex, and relationships—are vital human interests that are often unfairly trivialized owing to their association with femininity. Wendell’s claims are substantiated by an abundance of reader testimony, author interviews, and some industry-sponsored research. While Wendell undoubtedly chose the responses that best supported her own hypothesis, Everything I Know offers romance readers a unique platform for sharing the impact these novels have had on their lives.
Yes, this is exactly what EIKAL is, which is why what comes before and after in Miller’s review is so problematic.
I will not comment here on Miller’s claims about EIKAL’s size, formatting, repetitiveness, or audience confusion. I don’t disagree with a lot of what Miller says in this section – EIKAL is not, in fact, even close to perfect – and I appreciate the frankness of her critique here.
I do, however, disagree with Miller’s turn to scrutinize Wendell’s “specific claims” about “reader engagement” and with her subsequent critiques of the book on those grounds.
First of all, Miller seems to imply that Wendell’s contributing readers/authors must be uncritical readers, because how they “manage to glean the good stuff from the bad” amounts to an utter mystery. But then, in the next paragraph, Miller claims that readers have a “diversity of . . . engagement with the genre” that Wendell ignores. It seems contradictory to claim, on the one hand, that readers are so uncritical and morally naive that they’ll be led astray by immoral representations in the novels they read, and then, on the other, condemn Wendell for not recognizing or for deliberately ignoring the nuances of her contributors’ experiences. And this contradiction goes to what I think is the fundamental problem in Miller’s review, which is that the book is being judged against Miller’s personal standards of feminism and literary value, rather than whatever standards the book establishes for itself (and if these are contradictory, then that is another, more pertinent, level of critique to be pursued).
In an apparent attempt to question Wendell’s over-generalizations and simplifications of her contributors’ experiences, Miller next turns to discuss her experience of reading Wendell’s book “as a feminist.” (My reference to Wendell and not EIKAL is intentional here, since Miller often refers to Wendell when critiquing the book, another aspect of the review I find troubling.) In the process, though, she (re)creates a fairly standard Second Wave feminist critique of the romance genre. More often than not, the review comes across to me as a debate between Miller’s feminism and what Miller (sometimes rather condescendingly) perceives Wendell’s feminism to be. This is particularly apparent, for example, at the point where Miller feels “dismay” at the anecdote by the reader who comes home from work and reads 30 minutes of Harlequin before preparing dinner. While Miller notes (echoing Radway almost perfectly) that such an anecdote begs the question of the second shift, she does not consider the possibility that the woman is a single mother, or that for any number of reasons there is no partner with whom the second shift labor can be shared. Moreover, the shifts in the review back and forth between a critique of the reader anecdotes and a critique of Wendell as author further confuse Miller’s analysis and forefront the judgments she is making as personal rather than critically embedded in the terms of the text itself.
Miller then calls for an entirely different evaluation of the romance genre: “It’s time to stop evaluating romance novels in terms of their putative effects on (women) readers, and to pay more attention to their literary merit and ability to provide pure pleasure.” I’m very unclear what Miller means by “pure pleasure.” Why is “pure pleasure” (whatever it is) better (as it obviously must be) than the pleasure that Wendell’s contributors say time and again that they received from romance novels?
More pertinent, however, to my own work and to most valid literary criticism of the romance genre is the combative dichotomy Miller constructs between reader response and literary merit as valid ways to examine the genre. Modern literary criticism is not, in fact, in the business of determining literary merit. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another question with much spilled ink to its name, but that’s just not what we as literary critics do anymore. I can say just as much about a novel that I think is truly bad from the standpoint of literary merit and “pure pleasure” as I can say about one that I think is brilliant (in fact, I spent a whole chapter of my dissertation doing precisely that). Literary criticism is not about picking the good novels from the bad. It’s about analyzing cultural phenomena. From that perspective, EIKAL is more valuable precisely as evidence of reader response to the genre than any list of the 100 Best Romances. Which is not necessarily to say that EIKAL is successful in what it sets out to do; the problem is discerning that initial aim (or aims) and evaluating the book on those terms, something that lies at the heart of both literary criticism and reviewing from an academic perspective.
Academically, for instance, I use BHB as evidence of the “received wisdom” of the deeply-knowledgeable romance reader, the “superfan,” if you will. Which is to say, when Wendell and Tan conflate Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love as pretty much the same book, I use that as evidence in my own discussion of these blockbuster historical romances that this is how twenty-first century romance readers in general see these two books and the disparate genres they spawned, despite their significant differences from each other. I do not expect BHB or EIKAL to be anything other than what they claim to be, what they try to be, and what, I argue, they succeed in being. I do not expect BHB to be a vigorously researched academic critique of the romance genre. Nor do I expect EIKAL to be a rigorous scientific survey of a representative sample of readers. I expect them both to be what they claim they are: BHB is an exploration of the genre that defends the genre for what it does right and lovingly brings it to task for what it screws up, while EIKAL is a loving exploration of reader interaction with the genre that provides readers with both a voice and the arguments to defend their reading habits. Miller may disagree with my assessment of EIKAL’s success in achieving its aims, but I wish she had done it on the book’s own terms, so that any debate about the review could be based on the book itself and not an external standard of academic worthiness.
The difference between applying literary criticism to the genre or to EIKAL is important and generally ignored in Miller’s review. That Miller is writing the review from an academic perspective might account for some of this disconnect, although I don’t think it accounts for all of it. Some is, I think, a product of a conflation of literary critique of the genre from within the genre, and critique of a work that is more about readers than the genre itself.
I think, in fact, that there’s a disconnect between EIKAL’s aims as a proudly fond exploration of reader response, and Miller’s entirely laudable desire to have genuine deep critique of the genre. Wendell is not attempting in EIKAL to analyze the genre, nor does she have any pretentions to being able to perform literary criticism. Wendell is focused on demonstrating that her contributors (romance readers and authors) are intelligent, conscious consumers of the genre they (we) all love so much. She is also attempting to provide readers with a validation of their own reading choices and to provide non-readers with something to think about (hence, as Miller rightly points out, its confusing tone shifts at times). EIKAL might not, as Miller points out, change any minds, but it gives readers a voice to relate the (pure?) pleasure they find in the romance genre. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Miller’s review, on the contrary, suggests that there is, indeed, something wrong with that. This is not only a provocative implication, but also a different question from what the book is and whether or not it succeeds in being what it claims to be.
ETA Full Disclosure: I'm quoted two or three times in EIKAL. I responded to Wendell's SBTB posts asking for input and she quoted me from there, not from a personal interview. I am, however, also friendly with Wendell and occasionally share meals with her. But then I've also shared meals with Miller.