Shortly after I posted part 1 of this series, Noah Berlatsky replied on Twitter. He noted that I had liked his piece "until people told me not to," and he observed that breaking off after the first couple of paragraphs was an "ungenerous" move, since the structure of his article depended on a "turn" halfway through.
I'll save my thoughts on the first of those comments for the end of this little series. For now, suffice it to say that yes, I did quite like the piece the first time I read it, and the reasons why I liked it all came after that turn, so here goes the turn of my own.
Here's how the pivot in Berlatsky's piece begins:
I’ve always been a little leery of canons. Listing the “best” books or movies or music is always going to be an arbitrary, not to mention hubristic, endeavor. No one has heard every album recorded in the 2000s; isn’t it, then, a little ridiculous to try to list the best albums of the 2000s, especially if you’re going to put two albums by Bob Dylan in the top 20? Why not just shout to the rooftops, “We are aging, bloated boomers”? At worst, “best of” lists are going to tell you something unpleasant about the compiler’s insularity. At best, they can be the starting point for a fun conversation (which is how I saw the best of comics poll that critic Robert Stanley Martin organized at my own site). But either way, you shouldn’t take them seriously.This is, of course, the crucial paragraph: one that some Twitter responses seem to have overlooked. In terms of the character that Berlatsky has developed, it adds a new twist: he's not the guy who craves a canon; in fact, he's the guy who knows just how silly and self-promoting they can be, and he's not one to be cowed by their pretensions. "You shouldn't take them seriously": you can't get much clearer than that. Perhaps the turn needed to be set up earlier, to bring skeptical readers along, but it's certainly in the piece.
Berlatsky continues to recast himself in a more comical vein. For some time, we read, he went "looking around desperately and in vain for some sort of consensus 'best of' lists for romance novels," which I find a rather endearing image, and one that's much more successful than the tonal gestures in part 1 of the essay. Self-deprecating humor always a plus. As he searched, he had the chance to reflect on what the presence or absence of such lists might mean.
Here's the passage where everything comes together, perhaps a tad too quickly:
institutionally codifying the “greatest” is an important way to assert that there is a “greatest” — that there is some group of experts who considers these works in particular, and the genre or medium in general, to be capable of greatness.Two points are made here, and we have to distinguish between them.
One has to do with the presence or absence of "some group of experts" who pass judgement on a body of work, no matter the medium. The second has to do with the respect afforded to the type of art itself, as being "capable of greatness."
Let me start with the second of these. I'm both wary and weary of the term "greatness." I don't use it often, but I'd certainly say that some of the romance novels I've read are wonderful books, and I'm trying to write about them in a way that says something wonderful about them. I'd say that Flowers from the Storm was a great book; in fact, I wrote an essay about it for the New Approaches volume that says just that, and tries to prove it. But I fear that talking about "greatness" is a way of slighting "goodness" and "interest" and "really sweet or cool or moving-ness" and lots of other kinds of response that are more important to my reading life. For the most part, I think "greatness" is overrated, but I think that Berlatsky here means something less exclusive, more expansive, and more complimentary than the term might suggest.
What, though, of the "group of experts"? That phrase might have set off some alarm bells, especially given what follows--and here's where I enter the piece by name.
Romance novels don’t have that. Yes, there are the yearly RITA industry awards. And there are certainly lists of best-of romance novels — such as this fascinating one at All About Romance. But such compilations tend to be by individual readers or, as with the All About Romance list, based on reader polls. As Eric Selinger, professor of English at DePaul University and executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, told me in an email, “There are readers’ polls, and there have been discussions on fan sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about what should be in the romance canon — there was a podcast there in 2012 that drew a lot of comments, for example. But no one has had the chutzpah to put one in writing, yet.”My original paragraphs about this passage are in italics, below. Here's the revised version, which I've tried to make more accurate and more honest:
This is the moment in the piece that I feel sick about--the part that's prompted me to write so much about it. There are several problematic elements here. The first is that I've put myself forward as an authority, a go-to-guy, when it comes to the romance genre and the critical discussion of it when, in fact, my own knowledge base is far too slim to play that part. For me to call Smart Bitches a fan or Dear Author a "fan site" is to suggest that the knowledge and expertise to be found there is somehow lesser than or other than what I have as a professor and JPRS editor, when in fact the opposite is true. And even my most basic knowledge of the genre, my own first forays into it, depended entirely on the expertise of librarians, reviewers, bloggers, essayists, and previous scholars, all of whom are women, all of whom wrote lists of novels that I drew on, and none of whom I acknowledged here.
Back in 2004 or '05, when I started thinking about working with romance as a teacher and scholar, Pamela Regis's chronology of the genre was one of my first guides. I spent hours on All About Romance, reading reviews and finding suggestions. I depended on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for reviews and recommendations, both in the posts and in the discussion threads. In when Bill Gleason and I invited Sarah Wendell to speak at the Princeton conference, we did so because we knew that we needed someone from the romance reader world to "read the academy," as that panel was called. We put romance bloggers and / or romance authors on every panel, because we wanted not to suggest that the academy knew better.
But even that formulation elides an important truth, which Laura reminds me in her comment (below). There's no easy, clear-cut distinction to be drawn between academic and non-academic commentators on the genre. To quote Laura: "some of the academics working on romance actually blog (or have blogged) at one of the bigger romance blogs. I'm thinking in particular here of Sarah Frantz and Janet/Robin at Dear Author and Gwendolyn E. Osborne at The Romance Reader." And, of course, there's Laura herself.
In my original paragraphs, I made what was meant to seem a gracious and self-abnegating gesture. "Very few academics working on romance have ever had the kind of expertise in the genre that you can find at the best romance blogs," wrote. "Not even close. I know I don't." The truer, more honest version of that passage would read like this: "Reading my own words in Berlatsky's piece brings home to me how meager my own expertise is, and has remained, compared to that of many women both within academia and in the romance romance community--and, worse, how willing I've become to set myself up as an authority about the genre. What people responding to Berlatsky were upset about, the kinds of moves I critiqued in post #1, are exactly what I've been doing, and not just in that email. I'm aghast to see this about myself, and (not to be melodramatic) ashamed of what I've so vividly let myself become. If I'm going to repair this damage, I have some work to do, and it won't get done by critiquing someone else."
[ORIGINAL PARAGRAPHS: Ruh-roh! Looks like Berlatsky's not the only person getting in trouble today. This is the moment in the piece that I feel kind of sick about. Not just because I referred to "fan sites," although that annoyed some readers on Twitter, who don't think of themselves as "fans." (The term is often used dismissively or pejoratively, of course; it also doesn't necessarily signal expertise or sophistication.) Rather, I feel bad because that email was the moment when I as a go-to academic could have read into the record the whole panoply of lists and discussions, essays and debates that goes on in the romance community: material that I learned a lot from when I started out, just like Berlatsky, and which has gone from strength to strength over the past ten years. I missed that chance, and I can't help but wonder how the piece would have been different if I hadn't.
I can't speak to other forms of popular culture, but my gut sense is that very few academics working on romance have ever had the kind of expertise in the genre that you can find at the best romance blogs. Not even close. I know I don't. Hence my final quip about "no one" having the chutzpah to write up a canon. No one here meant "no one like me, no academic," which I still think is more or less true, and more or less a good thing, since none of us is "expert" enough to do the job. Pamela Regis has a list in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, but it's not designed to showcase or make the case for the greatness of particular authors and texts. It's a chronology, not a "canon," at least as I'd use that loaded word. Again, that could have been clearer.]
But enough about me, let's get back to Berlatsky. What follows is unrevised. If I make any changes, I'll let you all know.
So far, then, best of romance lists have been about what one person loves, or about what is popular. There hasn’t been an effort to make some sort of critical claim about greatness, or influence, such as you get in the Comics Journal’s “top 100 comics list.”My sense is that the first sentence here isn't really accurate: that is, the lists that are out there aren't reducible to "what one person loves" and "what is popular." Take, just for one example, Pamela Regis's list in A Natural History of the Romance Novel. I'd call that a chronology, not a "canon," but it's been central to my own reading. And what about the remarkable "Intersectional Feminism in Romance Series" by Olivia Waite. Is it a "canon"? A "best of" list? Not exactly, but it certainly proposes a set of important and influential authors and novels, and brings remarkable expertise (she could be in a "group of experts") to the project. Several other people's posts replying to Berlatsky have linked to other such lists, and others are busy compiling them; more on those in the next piece.
To me, though, the crucial statement here is that "there hasn't been an effort to make some sort of critical claim about greatness." Might this suggest that the reader community knows too much to make such claims? Knows, in fact, precisely the things that Berlatsky said a paragraph or two ago about how "you shouldn't take them seriously"?
Let me be clear: we're in a part of the piece I like. I think it's smart and useful to point out that a certain kind of institutional practice, one that involves a "group of experts" claiming greatness, or the potential for it, for the popular romance genre, doesn't seem to have happened. As I've written elsewhere, other genres have often made bids for literary respectability, with particular authors trying to distinguish themselves and their work from the pulp that's around them: this happened in detective fiction in the late '20s, if memory serves, and to SF / Fantasy in the 1960s, again speaking off the cuff here. If that jockeying for position hasn't played out in the romance genre, or hasn't happened in quite the same way, it's certainly worth discussing.
So why hasn't the "greatness" game been played? There's gender to talk about, perhaps, and the genre's democratic ethos, and the reception of the genre by the world at large. The last of these is what Berlatsky mentions next: "So why don’t there seem to be canonical romance novels? Well, the answer is pretty straightforward; romance novels are widely denigrated, if not despised." The problem here, to me, is the statement "there don't seem to be canonical romance novels" suggests a gap in the genre--a lack of a certain kind of novel--rather than a lacuna in the critical discourse that surrounds the genre. Certainly that's how the passage seems to have been read, or misread, in the article's reception.
In the next post, I'm going to deal in detail with the next few paragraphs of Berlatsky's article, where his character takes yet another turn or two. For now, let me turn my gaze on my own close reading for a second.
Read "ungenerously," you could take this post to be the place where my own agenda for this series grows clear. I'm trying, in part, to salvage my own reputation, or at least repair some damage that might have been done to JPRS and the various academic projects with which I'm associated. I don't think that's all that I'm doing, by any means, but somebody was going to point this out, and it might as well be me. Check out my rhetorical moves: the stern, upbraiding persona in post 1; the kinder, gentler tone of post 2; the grovel (a classic Selinger move!) and then the move past it, as though everything were hunky-dory now.
What will I do in post 3? I'll figure it out while I do the Sunday cleaning, and post more tonight.