Thursday, March 14, 2013

Book News--and Questions

--Eric Selinger

Last December I spent several weeks writing an internal grant proposal, here at DePaul.  I was asking for a quarter's leave from teaching to begin work on my long-overdue monograph about popular romance fiction, whose working title I've already used for an essay in the New Approaches collection:  How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance).  The title is supposed to play off the titles of all those introduction-to-poetry volumes on my office shelves, many of which are called something like "How to Read a Poem," and I do, as a rule, romances the same way one reads, say, love sonnets:  closely and compositionally, in search of what poet Baron Wormser would call their “deep individuality.” I'm not sure the joke comes through, and I'm not wedded to the title, but I'm pretty well committed to taking a text-specific, differential approach to the genre, writing a book that demonstrates the vitality and intellectual excitement of close-reading, not “the romance,” but this romance, then that one, shifting our approach as needed to make each particular text come to life.

I'd like the book to introduce its readers to a bunch of late-20th and early 21st century British and American romance novels that I quite like, from a range of subgenres, from Christian inspirational novels to paranormal, erotic, and LGBTQ romance, with the focus of each chapter being one to three novels that I read in depth, attending both to internal complexity and to a novel’s dialogue with literary or cultural contexts.  Like each unit in my romance courses, each chapter in this book will have two overlapping goals:  to make the novel or novels seem as interesting as possible, and to model a particular reading practice, from allusion sleuthing to biographical criticism to the application of contemporary cultural theory.  The question that's bedeviled me for years, of course, is what novels to choose, and although I had to come up with a proposed table of contents when I applied for the grant, I keep looking at it skeptically, painfully aware of the gaps in it.  (There are two or three authors I hope to glom over the summer, for example.)

Still, one must start somewhere--and I'm the sort of scholar who can't start a big project without a vision of the whole in mind, even if I know that the final version may differ substantially from that initial model.  In the hope that I'll get some useful feedback and suggestions, and maybe even some encouragement, here's the outline I gave the committee.

They seemed to buy it:  they gave me the quarter off.  (Yay!)  What do you think?

How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance)
Annotated Table of Contents

Introduction:  What is a “Romance” and How do You Read One?  (Suzanne Brockmann’s The Unsung Hero).  This is my standard opening gambit in ENG 232 and graduate romance classes, and has been for several years.  The chapter on the history, aesthetics, and reception of “romance,” the “romance novel,” and the “popular romance novel” will be drafted on leave.

Chapter 1:  Sofa Paintings Don’t Make Good Art:  Gender, Art History, and the Defense of Romance in Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Natural Born Charmer.  Based on my Winter Quarter senior seminar on this metatextual novel, which couches its defense of the romance genre in debates over the visual arts (its heroine, Blue Bailey, is a painter, and ends the novel quite successful at selling her work), this chapter will bring in the work of sociologist Eva Illouz (on romance and capitalism) and possibly Lauren Berlant (on sentimentalism and American culture, if I can get a good handle on her work).

Chapter 2:  My Titillations Have No Footnotes:  Love and Allusion in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love and Ann Herendeen’s Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander.  Based on my class notes on each of these novels, which I teach in ENG 232 and other romance courses, this is one of the chapters I hope to draft on leave--maybe.  I say "maybe" because there's a second pairing that really appeals to me:  to consider Redeeming Love and Alex Beecroft's False Colors side by side as Christian novels.  I spent a lot of time with the Beecroft this winter, and find the novel deeply moving and quite fascinating--she's one of the authors I want to read more of this summer.  For now, she's in chapter 4, below.

Chapter 3:  Instruction and Delight:  The Didactic Poetics of Beverly Jenkins and Katie Fforde.
It is widely (if not universally) acknowledged that many romance novels set about teaching their readers something that the author considers worth knowing, whether this is about an occluded historical moment (as in the case of African American romance novelist Beverly Jenkins) or about such qualities as optimism, emotional resilience, and happiness (as in the case of British romance novelist Katie Fforde).  The poetics of this teaching practice, however—how particular novels balance instruction and delight, or turn instruction to delight—have yet to be explored; that will be the subject of this chapter, although I'm not entirely sure that these will be the authors I choose, in the end.  Ideas from Thomas Roberts (Aesthetics of Junk Fiction) will be important here, and possibly the intersection between popular romance and "positive psychology," although I think that's a topic that Jennifer Crusie addresses more directly than either Jenkins or Fforde.

Chapter 4:  Beyond Edutainment: the Romance Novel as Problem Text (Jennifer Crusie’s Fast Women; False Colors, by Alex Beecroft).  These are books I know well, and love; I've proposed a talk that deals with both (among other books) for the "Radicalism of Romantic Love" conference in Canberra next November. The first explores the problem of marriage; the second, in an m/m context, is a profoundly religious novel, as focused on questions about the relationships between love, spirit, and flesh as John Donne's "The Ecstasy" (which I sometimes teach alongside it).  Good stuff, both of them.

Chapter 5:  Isn’t it Just ‘Porn for Women’?  (Victoria Dahl, Start Me Up; Pam Rosenthal, The Slightest Provocation, Cara McKenna, Curio and The Curio Vignettes).  This chapter springs from the final unit in some of my recent romance courses, and centers on two topics:  the issue of Eros in popular romance fiction, which is sometimes handled with remarkable complexity; and the playful, self-conscious way that the texts I have chosen address the critical commonplace that popular romance fiction is, fundamentally, “pornography for women.”  The Dahl will certainly be there; the Rosenthal and McKenna, I'm not so sure.  Need to reread them, and explore some other possibilities, although I didn't specifically ask my (Cathoic) university to fund that part of my research. :)

Chapter 6:  After the Deaths of Love and Poetry:  The Unlikely Art of Eloisa James.  This coming summer, before my leave begins, I have a research grant to write an essay / draft chapter on the deployments of poetry, poems, and poet-characters in the romance novels of Eloisa James.  As most of us probably know, “Eloisa James” is the pen name of Mary Bly, a Fordham professor of Renaissance literature and the daughter of poet Robert Bly; she is a uniquely situated author and theorist of the popular romance genre, and her theoretical discussions of the genre focus, not unsurprisingly, on the need for scholars to attend to authorial “unlikeness.”  Bly begins writing and publishing romance at a time when the “death of poetry” and the “death of eros” were being discussed in mainstream intellectual journals and newspapers, including The Atlantic and the New York Times; this chapter will explores the relationships between my major fields of research, poetry and popular romance, in a textually- and contextually-specific way.

Epilogue:  He Knew a Miracle When He Saw One:  Paradise Lost, Non-Euclidean Geometry, and Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm.  Based on my essay about Flowers from the Storm in the New Approaches volume, this will close the book out with a tribute to what I still consider to be the most moving and most intellectually intriguing American romance novel, but I'd really love to situate the novel this time in something broader about Kinsale as an author.  We'll see.

Would love any thoughts or suggestions!


  1. Eric:

    As a scholar of children's literature, as well as romance, I'm intrigued by your choosing of the terms "instruction and delight" to describe the teaching paradigm you see in Jenkins and Fforde. These two terms are rife in introductions to 18th and early 19th century children's books, with authors claiming that they were not ONLY trying to delight children, but also to instruct them. I see many affinities between children's lit and romance lit, but hadn't thought about the instruction/delight binary as one of them. It makes me wonder how romance authors manage to teach through romance without making their readers feel infantilized...

  2. "They seemed to buy it: they gave me the quarter off."

    That's great!

    Chapter 2: My Titillations Have No Footnotes: Love and Allusion in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love and Ann Herendeen’s Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. Based on my class notes on each of these novels, which I teach in ENG 232 and other romance courses, this is one of the chapters I hope to draft on leave--maybe. I say "maybe" because there's a second pairing that really appeals to me: to consider Redeeming Love and Alex Beecroft's False Colors side by side as Christian novels. I spent a lot of time with the Beecroft this winter, and find the novel deeply moving and quite fascinating--she's one of the authors I want to read more of this summer. For now, she's in chapter 4, below.

    I suppose it depends what your starting point is: do you want a chapter about allusion (and, if you do, would your work on Flowers From the Storm not fall into that category?) or do you want to have a chapter about faith?

    My feeling is that you could have a chapter about faith and it could fit quite nicely alongside the one about didacticism. However, it would probably be best not to focus too heavily on Christianity as then it might feel like a chapter specifically about inspirational romance rather than a chapter about a topic which is more broadly relevant to the genre as a whole. So perhaps it could be a chapter about faith in the religious sense, and in the broader sense that might be applicable to the genre as a whole if one reverses the claim that "God is love." I suspect that the Rivers and the Beecroft would work well together with that focus.

    I wonder if the title "Beyond Edutainment" implies that the texts discussed in the previous chapter are "edutainment"? If so, is that a good idea if "edutainment" has negative connotations? Maybe it doesn't for you, but for me it suggests a sort of watered-down education.

    One last thought, could the Herendeen fit in the chapter on "porn for women" given what the heroine is writing?

  3. Thanks, Jackie and Laura! I'm sorry it's taken me a few days to respond--I posted this, and was immediately buried in a stack of papers to grade. Just digging out now. :)

    Jackie, as far as I know, the binary of instruction and delight is classical in origin. It's most famously formulated in one of Horace's epodes, translated here by J. D. McClatchy:

    To instruct or delight must be the poet's aim,
    Or to sound at once both pleasing and practical.
    But when you teach, be terse: what's quickly said
    The mind grasps readily and faithfully keeps;
    A full mind overflows with excess words.
    The fictions that satisfy are nearest the truth.
    A story can't indulge its every fancy,
    Can't pull a baby from Lamia's glutted belly.
    Older readers scorn the frivolous;
    The gentry don't want poems too severe.
    The poet pleases all who mingles the useful
    And graceful, who both advises and allures.
    His book enriches dealers and crosses seas
    To carry the author's fame to distant days.
    --Horace, Epode II.iii (“Ars Poetica”)

    It's a fascinating passage to keep in mind when talking about popular romance, not least because of the unabashed invocation of market success at the end, no?

    Laura, I quite like the idea of a chapter on faith--and if it could be a chapter that crosses the boundaries between Christian Inspirational romance and romances from other subgenres, so much the better. Another approach might be to fold the Rivers into the chapter on problem texts, as I plan to do (if my talk is accepted, and if I can go) at the Canberra conference. The Herendeen might well fit into a "porn for women" chapter, but that hasn't been my primary focus when teaching the novel...well, we'll see how things develop when I actually start to write!

    You raise a good point about "edutainment." I borrowed the term from Beverly Jenkins (the JPRS interview), but as I look at it now, it does have an unfortunate ring to it. I certainly don't want to suggest that the other novels I'm discussing can be reduced to "edutainment," and whether that's even a fair description of Jenkins's own work, I'm not sure. I'd need to read more of it before I decide--I'm dreadfully behind, alas, with her and with so many authors, these days!