Confession: I have a bad habit, or a guilty pleasure, of reading critics from years gone by.
I have spent the past few days reading Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie Fiedler. A dated book, a controversial book. However, I was struck by one passage that seems relevant to popular romance studies:
Mrs. Rowson’s Charlotte Temple is a book scarcely written at all, only in the most perfunctory manner told; yet it is the first book by an American to move American readers, and certain historians of the American novel, not themselves critics or readers of criticism, have praised it absurdly for its “basic sincerity and power,” or its “simple vividness.” To be sure, the popularity of Charlotte poses a real problem. Why a book which barely climbs above the lower limits of literacy, and which handles, without psychological acuteness or dramatic power, a handful of stereotyped characters in a situation already hopelessly banal by 1790, should have had more than two hundred editions and have survived among certain readers for a hundred and fifty years in a question that cannot be ignored. It is tempting to say that popular taste given the choice between a better and a worse book will inevitably choose the worse; but this is an anti-sentimental simplification no more helpful than its sentimental opposite number. Only certain bad books succeed, apparently not by the simple virtue of their badness, but because of the theme they have chosen to handle badly. (94-95)I want to say that I love this passage because one could almost take it verbatim to talk about nearly any popular romance novel that has captured our attention. But, what I really love about this comment is about it being "a question that cannot be ignored." It is not to say that Fiedler will necessarily answer the question, which is fair enough, but at least, unlike so many critics, he recognizes that it is a question we would be wrong to ignore. And it is a question that I think many scholars of popular romance are considering in their own work. Indeed, I imagine for many of us that it is this question that motivated our work when we began to study popular romance.