Monday, October 22, 2012

50 Shades of Pedagogy; or, "To Teach, or Not to Teach?"

I'm choosing books for my next course on popular romance--a lower-division undergraduate class, aimed at a "Gen Ed' student population--and a question has begun to bother me.  Should I add Fifty Shades of Grey to my syllabus?

As of the last time I taught the course, it was organized around a series of topics:  "What is a Romance (and a Romance Novel)?"; "Romance and the Problem of Patriarchy"; "Romance and / as Religion"; "Romance as Problem Fiction and 'Edutainment'"; and, everyone's favorite, "Romance Fiction as 'Porn for Women.'"  Each topic got one or two novels and a bit of secondary reading, whether it was an essay or a book chapter or an interview, and for a final project, we looked at Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation through each of the lenses we'd used across the quarter.

Now, I'd already decided to add Laura's For Love and Money to my syllabus, since it does a great job of introducing students to a lot of the ideas about the genre that we use in the opening unit, as well as the close-reading techniques that we continue to deploy all term.  Ordinarily, that would be enough novelty for one quarter--that, and maybe shifting out a novel that I've already taught a lot (like WTT) and replacing it with another one that's on my mind (say, Natural Born Charmer, which I've already taught several times).

The overwhelming media presence of Fifty Shades, though--and its natural fit in the section on "Romance as 'Porn for Women'"--makes me want to add it, too, to the syllabus, even though this violates my usual self-imposed commandment to teach only novels that I really enjoy reading.

And, of course, if I were really ambitious I could swap out J. R. Ward's Dark Lover--which comes up in the 'Patriarchy' section--and put in Twilight somewhere, so that we could talk about that book and the E. L. James together.  Of course, I haven't read Twilight yet, so I don't know if this, too, would violate my usual rules about liking the texts that I teach.

I wouldn't have Fifty Shades be the only novel for that section of the class; in fact, part of the plan would be to play it off against a book that does some different, more self-consciously artful things with romance and the erotic (probably one of Victoria Dahl's books).  Or I could go back to an older, more chronological course model, so that we'd be reading some other scandalous blockbusters for comparison, like The Sheik or The Flame and the Flower.  (What other novels fit into that category, from other decades, I wonder?)

So, folks, what do you think?


  1. Hi Eric!
    My sense is you should include 50 Shades in your class. It's so omnipresent in the media these days that as a scholar of the genre I feel compelled to address it in my classes. In part because, at least here in Belgium but my sense is this is true in the US as well, media coverage of 50 Shades (and the so-called "mommy porn" phenomenon) rehashes and reinvigorates many of the age-old cultural stereotypes about popular romance as a whole (that it's pornographic, that it's bad for women, that it's anti-feminist, that it's always badly written, etc.). I want to discuss those stereotypes with my students and 50 Shades provides an excellent opportunity to do so.
    Now, if you ask me, it's a pretty bad book and the writing is quite awful. But that doesn't stop me from teaching it. To the contrary, it makes it more interesting to me because the question as to why this particular novel has struck such a cord with such a massive audience is pretty compelling to me. There are very many romance authors who write better books and tell better stories, but none of them (not even the incomparible Nora Roberts) have achieved quite the success that EL James' trilogy has. As a scholar and a teacher of the genre I wonder why that is - and it's a question I think we should discuss with our students.
    The downside is, it's a pretty bad book. And I know many of your romance classes have as their global theme the notion that romance is a genre that offers many literary texts that are much better (aesthetically, topically, artistically, narratively, stylistically, ...) than the stereotypes of the genre imply. This thesis might be undermined by 50 Shades. But, it's a commercial truth we can't and shouldn't deny as scholars and teachers of the genre, I think. Also, if you don't teach it, isn't it like ignoring the elephant in the room - everybody knows it's there, but nobody talks about it?
    I taught 50 Shades last week in the section on the bestseller in our course on popular fiction and students responded well (though I have to admit I didn't make them read the book). It's less of phenomenon here in Belgium than it is in the States, but my sense was students were more than willing to talk about it in class. I'll bring it up again in the romance section of the course in a few weeks and see how it fares there.

  2. When you taught it, An, did you talk about the whole trilogy? I've been thinking I'd have to have them read all three volumes, to get the full arc of the story as a romance. Was that your approach as well?

  3. Hi Eric--I have to submit my book order for my spring course on the romance novel, and I'm still trying to decide whether to assign 50 Shades. I couldn't teach the entire trilogy in my course, so it would only be the first book.

    I agree that the success of the novel--the way it's become so controversial--is the main reason I want to teach it. Plus, my course looks at literature in context, so the immense reader reaction to the book is, I feel, important to address.

    Still, I'm on the fence. At this point, I'm thinking of starting the course with Jane Eyre instead of P&P and seeing if I can organize the course around troubled heroes. That would certainly allow me to include Dark Lover, and even The Sheik, two novels I already know work well in the course.

  4. It's a phenomenon, a craze.
    But it has affected the way women buy and choose books, alongside the huge growth of ereaders and tablets. Don't forget that EL James is British, and Britain is currently going through the kind of ereader revolution that happened in the States when the Kindle first came out.
    You could mention Ellora's Cave, and how that came about too, because there was a similar boom then, the first wave, so to speak.
    And it indicates a change in buying habits, of course.
    Maybe mention the serial form, compare it to the 3 volume novel?
    It could be part of a course about literary phenomena (Old Curiosity Shop, Lady Chatterley, Harry Potter)

  5. Yeah, it would be unfair to forget EC, Lynne. Good point. They spearheaded the first erotica ebook boom, and they were successful for some of the same reasons 50 was: women could read them anywhere without embarrassing themselves with a risque cover. You could relate this to a public disapproving of their sexuality, but men picking up Playboy pick up stares too, lol. Btw, I've heard 50 book #3 is very similar to #2, so you may not want to waste time with all three.

    I like "romance as problem fiction and 'edutainment.'" Do you mention the fantasy "alpha-man" lit, where we see "weaker" heroines, versus the empowering "modern woman" lit, where the male actors take a supportive role? Some toe the line -like Ilona Andrews- but in general, they're distinct and one is meant to be read (sort of) critically, the other not. This may also tie into patriarchy- specifically white patriarchy- that romance, despite its domination by women and its sort of renegade, outsider status, still Others some women and fails to represent them, like POC, and maintains a certain view of femininity. (Great post on this:

    You've probably already come across inspirational romances re: romance and religion, but you may also want to check out To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney for a romance where religion plays some role in one of the main characters' lives, outside of those inspirational romances.

  6. It is badly written, and I have read it twice--and did not enjoy a second reading. So I wonder if you should break your self-imposed rule. You might include excerpts rather than the entire book... but it should be discussed, if not read because it is such a phenomenon. I would end with the question: why is it such a big deal? I was so frustrated--not by the attention it got--that was warranted to some degree by the fact that it was a self-published sleeper hit and a popular book that included sex outside the "norm." What got me frustrated was how much ridicule it received and its readers along with it. As I said, when my blog covered the book for a week during the summer, "E.L. James–-in the spirit of all scribbling women everywhere–-self-published her own series. And that series went on to be a sensation. It went on to outsell Harry Potter. It went on to engage, entertain, and educate innumerable women around the world. And James wrote the entire series without an editor. That deserves some damned respect." That said, I don't know if I would put myself through re-re-reading it for a class...

  7. You know, I think I'm in. I still have to decide how much of it to assign, but since the first one ends with Anastasia leaving, it will have to be more than that, to get the HEA in sight. But it's just too big a deal in the culture, and too nice a fit with one of my existing units, to miss.

    (Besides, when I talk about the course these days, people always ask me, jokingly, whether I teach it. I can't resist being able to say 'yes.'"

    I'll certainly set it up via the e-book revolution, Lynne, as I have in the past, taking students to the EC website, which is always fun. The other book in that unit will probably be either "Talk Me Down" or "Start Me Up," since Molly--the heroine of TMD and heroine's friend in SMU--is an e-pubbed erotica author.

    The weakest link in my course is usually paranormal romance, Anonymous. I'm not a big fan of that subgenre myself, so it's harder for me to find the right book, somehow. I usually teach J. R. Ward's "Dark Lover," which teaches very well, but I'm getting a little tired of teaching it over and over. I've done "A Hunger Like No Other," which has some very interesting gender stuff in it, so maybe I'll go back to that.

    The other challenge for me is getting more romance of color in the mix, but I'll post about that in a bit. (Kids clamoring to use the computer and read coverage of last night's debate!)

  8. Hm, I'll point you to my list, since I love PNR and narratives featuring POCs. Unfortunately, the list is short. :( Especially when excluding urban fantasy.

    I would recommend Skin Game (a little grittier) or Nalini Singh -NS books are often racially diverse, and she has a big following. Those two are another example of the modern woman vs Victorian angel lit, respectively. There's also AA romance, of course. Harlequin has a Kimani line.

  9. Thanks! I really appreciate it. I've consistently taught some AA romance (mostly books by Beverly Jenkins), but as with paranormal, I always feel like I haven't done enough sleuthing yet. I'll check the list, and go from there!

  10. No prob! Hope you find something that fits the bill! :)

  11. Say, Anonymous--since I'm not a member of Goodreads, it seems I can't see your review list! Am I doing something wrong? Would you be willing to copy it here, or send it to me?

  12. Oh! Sorry, Eric! I didn't realize it wasn't viewable. I'll copy the list for you, since it's not too long:

    Skin Game by Ava Gray
    Shadowfae by Erica Hayes
    Blaze of Memory by Nalini Singh
    Hostage to Pleasure by NS
    Mine to Possess by NS
    Bonds of Justice by NS
    Once a Wolf by Susan Krinard (histrom)
    Blue Moon by Lori Handeland
    Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs
    The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn
    Street Level: An Urban Fairytale by Karyn Langhorne
    Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu

    I think Octavia Butler's work might also fall under a romance label, but I'm not sure.