Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz have been called “the Marx and Engels” of romance scholarship. If this is the case, perhaps it is time to turn attention to the ways in which our very own Marx and Engels theorize and write about romance. In this regard, I offer a “playful” engagement with Eric Selinger’s essay in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (now available for $9.99 on Kindle).
Selinger’s wonderful essay – an essay that is not anxious, not attempting to slay various precursors, not defensive of the genre, and makes no apology for studying romance – provides a challenge to scholars (and common readers) of the romance novel. Throughout his chapter, Selinger speaks of the possibility of “close reading” the romance novel, even if only to see “what would happen.”
Anecdotally, I must reluctantly admit that I have recently heard “close reading” used as a dismissive judgment on scholarship. To say that a critic hasn’t engaged in a “close reading” is to suggest, at least so it seems, that the critic has been overly theoretical. Theory becomes a symptom for a reading that isn’t close enough, theory is an illness that the reader needs to be cured of because the critic is missing the forest for the trees, the text for the words.
Indeed, I often find myself asking questions about theory, criticism, and popular romance fiction: What is the place of theory and criticism? Can we “close read” literary criticism and theory? Can we “close read” theory the same way we “close read” fiction? What would happen if we did “close read” theory and criticism?
To these ends, I turn my attention to Selinger's essay in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. In his essay, “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance),” Selinger offers a close reading of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm (1992) and draws on ideas of intertextuality, particularly with respect to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The governing question of Selinger’s essay is: “What would “close-reading a romance” (as opposed to “reading the romance”) look like in practice?” And this is precisely what Selinger does throughout the essay.
Flowers from the Storm invokes [Milton] by name, stops by his house, and vividly associates Paradise Lost with Maddy’s parents and with Jevaulx’s hidden intelligence. If we want to know “precisely where we are” as we read the novel, we will need to think about Milton – so, at least, I teach my students to read the scene.
I am struck by how closely Selinger reads Flowers from the Storm. Indeed, I am taken aback—almost surprised—by the closeness of the reading. Selinger provides a series of intertextual relations between Flowers from the Storm and Paradise Lost, which consistently (and without fail) demonstrate the relation between these two texts. There is, of course, an academic (and political) game taking place: if the popular romance novel is able to “play” with Paradise Lost, then surely there must be some intelligence in these novels, something that makes them worthy of scrutiny and scholarship. But, there is something more catching, at least for me, about Selinger’s piece. Selinger “plays,” and “plays” quite a bit.
- Speaking about Dixon’s discussion of romance, Selinger writes, “this ‘way’ bears little resemblance to the subtle, playful strategies that we may have acquired in order to understand poetry or literary fiction, postmodern or otherwise.”
- Selinger later writes, “to read such a romance closely would not be to resist or dismiss it, but rather to let the mind of love we see at play in the text spark an interesting excitement, an ‘erotic curiosity’ of our own.”
- About Kinsale’s novel: “You don’t have to read very far into Flowers from the Storm to note Kinsale’s play with romance conventions made famous by The Flame and the Flower.”
- Kinsale’s novel, but now in discussion with Dixon: “But the minute we accept Kinsale’s exegetical challenge, playing along with what we might either call (with Dixon) the novel’s ‘postmodern game-playing’ or (with Roberts) its ‘interplay with the art of the past,’ we realize the Miltonic echoes are everywhere in the text."
- Once more, Selinger invokes play: “To praise Kinsale’s novel, I may well want to play the ‘games’ I find in it, to use Dixon’s term, just as I play the postmodern mind games of A. S. Byatt’s bestselling Possession: A Romance, published just two years before Flowers from the Storm.
- Incidentally, in his “Rereading the Romance,” (2007) Selinger writes, “But the fundamental questions of pleasure at play in romance novels strikes me as yet to be posed in a way that is both robustly theorized and practically applicable, able to account for the novels or the experience of reading them in their range, variety, and charm.”
I admit that what struck me about this “playfulness” was a passing moment in Selinger’s paper, “a good enough author can use ‘nostalgia’ precisely in order to raise the sort of ‘large’ questions that Gornick wants novels to explore: “how we got to be as we are, or how the time in which we live to be as it is.” “Good enough author” recalls, alludes to, and perhaps is consciously aware of, D. W. Winnicott’s formulation of the “good enough mother,” which is so carefully considered in his book Playing and Reality (1971).
I want to suggest that Selinger’s use of “play” is important, not because of the way he critiques notions of “play," but because Selinger is carefully and playfully playing with play. Selinger might very well be attempting to recuperate the “playful” quality of literary analysis. I think this “recuperative” practice is important for Selinger. At one point in a very playful spirit, Selinger writes:
Kinsale’s phrase “pirate mouth” may be inscrutable on its own (a mouth with an eye-patch? a mouth that says “arrrr”?), but it makes sense as stock-response shorthand, a way to trigger the sort of associations spelled out at greater length by Woodiwiss and intensify them through brevity and juxtaposition.
What could be more “playful” than the brief meditation on the “pirate mouth”? (As a reader, I am imagining Captain Hook, and I think there are some invocations of Neverland – “the opportunity to return, night after night, to some duty-free zone of the imagination” – to be found in the essay as well.) Selinger challenges his readers learning “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance),” to think “playfully” and to think about what that might mean. But, isn’t “play” childish?
Play may very well be childish, but as Winnicott notes, “play is immensely exciting.” This is precisely what readers of “How to Read a Romance Novel” will find: play and excitement. For Selinger, the romance is “immensely exciting” because of the ways the romance can “interplay” with other texts, other forms of nostalgia, love, and longing. As Winnicott notes, “playing is an experience, always a creative experience, and it is an experience in the space-time continuum, a basic form of living.” Indeed, I wonder if it is not possible to misread Winnicott; could not “play” also be a “basic form of reading and criticism”? Literary critics are certainly engaged in a “creative experience” of reading the text, and Selinger’s turn to “play” is important to the way in which he believes we might “fall in love with popular romance” just like “[his] adolescent self, first falling in love with poetry.”
“Play isn’t simply fun, and neither are the intenser reaches of pleasure” as Michael Moon has recently written. Indeed, I am tempted to suggest that Selinger not only teaches his readers “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance),” he also teaches them (and us) “how to play with a romance novel.” Selinger carefully puts “play” back into literary criticism and theory precisely because play, like studying the popular romance novel, “is immensely exciting.”