Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Something Old, Something New (Romance Teaching 1/2)

--Eric Selinger

The "something old" is, well, me, evidently:  I'm currently marking my 20th anniversary as a professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago, my 10th anniversary as a teacher of courses on popular romance fiction, and my 5th anniversary as Executive Editor of the peer-reviewed, open-access Journal of Popular Romance Studies.  (As Laura posted a few days ago, issue 5.1 of JPRS has just been published; you can read the table of contents in her post and catch up on back issues here.)

The "something new" would be the syllabus for my now-completed summer course on popular romance fiction, which was almost entirely composed of books I was teaching for the first time.  My regular-term syllabus had grown a little stale, and I wanted to shake things up a bit; in fact, I'm teaching yet another round of new novels in the fall term, starting next week.  What I want to do today is briefly recap my thoughts about each of the books I just taught, so that others who have the chance to teach courses on popular romance--either a full term on the genre or just a unit, with one or two books--can see at least a bit of what I did and how it went.

My romance courses are offered through the DePaul English department, and take what I'd call a "literary studies" approach to the novels: a lot of close reading, some literary history, some exposure to the critical debates that surround the genre. For the past few years I've built my courses around a spine of topics provided by Laura Vivanco's For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance.  We read one of her chapters (the Introduction, Modes, Mythoi, Metafiction, Metaphors, the Conclusion), and then a novel that reads well in light of the terms and topics discussed in the chapter.  In the remaining weeks of the quarter I generally assign a bit more secondary reading--some essays from JPRS; some chapters from Thomas J. Roberts's An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction--but the heart of the class is the Vivanco text, which teaches (in my experience) extraordinarily well, both to general-education undergraduates and to more sophisticated and demanding English majors, MA students, and so on.

This summer I tried a different secondary text, which we read all at once at the start of term, and then a bunch of novels that I'd only read once, so that I didn't really know in advance how I'd frame them.  Here's how it all played out:

1) Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls: the Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. Unlike Vivanco's monograph, which is a work of literary scholarship, Rodale's book is a sort of apologia for romance fiction: a defense of the genre which draws on literary and cultural history, on some surveys she conducted, and on her own experiences as a romance reader and author.  It's written in short, lively chapters, and although they laughed at some memorable copyediting goofs--the sisters in Sense and Sensibility face a life of "gentile poverty"--students found the book quite readable.
  • What Went Well: students who had no idea there was any opprobrium attached to the genre got a useful introduction to that disdain and its deep history, which has roots in enduring fears about female authorship and reading; students acquired a useful set of terms and talking points to use when discussing cover art, dominant heroes, and certain types of sex scenes; students found it interesting to test Rodale's claims about the "dangerous" aspects of the genre in general--a genre she frames as written by women, about women, and for women--against the particulars of the novels we read, including our one m/m romance (a subgenre she does not discuss at any length).  
  • What Went Less Well: like Beyond Heaving Bosoms, the apologia by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan from some years ago, Dangerous Books for Girls worked best for students who knew something about the genre already, and who wanted their own fondness for it to be validated. Skeptical students--those with political concerns about the genre and those with aesthetic concerns--mostly remained skeptical as they read the book and in the discussions that followed; students who follow current blog and social media debates about diversity in the genre (sexual and racial / ethnic) thought that the book glossed over problematic issues; students were honestly puzzled, when we got to our m/m novel, as to why that subgenre had been discussed so little in our set-up material.  Starting with Rodale seemed to push the class toward discussions of why women read these books rather than the more literary approaches I prefer; in terms of those why women read discussions, I was personally disappointed with the negative way that Rodale talks about Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, since many of the ideas in Dangerous Books for Girls--ideas from Rodale and from the readers / bloggers / authors she quotes--ultimately have their roots in Radway's analysis.  
  • What I'd Do Differently Next Time:  Because I'm mostly interested in literary approaches to the genre, I find the Vivanco a more amenable frame text for my class.  If I were to teach Rodale again, I'd probably want to teach it as a primary text in its own right, late in a quarter, as part of the romance apologia genre.  I might put it alongside Beyond Heaving Bosoms and Love Between the Covers, the documentary film from the Popular Romance Project, or beside Catherine Roach's forthcoming Happily Ever After: the Romance Study in Popular Culture, which is more critical but related in its "what's the appeal" approach.  In any case, I'd want students to have a few novels under their belts first, so that they'd be reading Rodale's book in light of the fiction, rather than reading the fiction in light of the Rodale.  
2) Laura Florand, The Chocolate Thief.  Laura Florand is one of the professor / authors who taught a course on popular romance fiction at Duke University last spring; The Chocolate Thief is the first of her novels set in and around the world of high-end chocolatiers in Paris.
  • What Went Well:  The novel hinges on a romance between Sylvain, the French hero who makes artisanal luxury chocolates, and Cade, the American billionaire heroine who stands to inherit Corey Chocolates, low-end mass market confections sold at Walmart and drugstores (think Hershey bars). The Parisian setting and the chocolate focus were perfect ways to introduce and talk about issues of conventionality in romance culture (including romance fiction); the contrast between his chocolates and hers proved a lovely way to talk about the distinctions between literary and mass-market fiction, and the ways in which this particular romance novel negotiated between their respective appeals.
  • What Went Less Well:  Not much!  This book taught extremely well.  Some students found the hero and / or the heroine a bit too genre-conventional for their tastes, but that can happen with any romance novel; some were troubled by the contrast between the heroine's topflight professional capacity and her enjoyment of being sexually dominated (in a pretty mild way) by the hero, but this actually fit very nicely with Rodale's chapters on Fifty Shades of Grey and with our class discussion of the romance marketplace, in which tropes that prove popular in one book have a way of showing up in others, deliberately or not. 
  • What I'd Do Differently Next Time:  As I taught this novel, I thought of all sorts of connections between what it does with consumer culture and romance and what Eva Illouz talks about in Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.  I tossed a sheaf of quotes from Illouz at my students, but didn't require them or assign long passages from that book.  Next time I'd want to do more with this.  The novel also would "play well" (as they say) with Vivanco's chapters on Modes (there's a lot of modal counterpoint to talk about) and possibly Metafiction (via the chocolate as romance connection).
3) Sonali Dev, A Bollywood Affair.  This was the second time I've taught A Bollywood Affair, Dev's debut novel. I've been thinking a lot about my need to teach a more diverse array of romance novels, thanks in part to the #weneeddiverseromance hashtag campaign, and Dev's book brought some very interesting new material to my syllabus--a setting split between the US and India; a pervasive intertext of Indian popular film; Hindu characters rather than Christian ones, etc. I found it a charming book, and one which would give me the chance to talk about two sets of genre tropes: some from popular romance, and some from Bollywood film. Since I started watching those movies because of an Indian American student in one of my romance classes--"If you like these novels, you'l love these movies," she said--this seemed like a great way to close that circle.

  • What Went Well:  Great discussion of the trade-paperback marketing of the novel, which contrasted nicely to what Rodale says about romance covers; great discussion of how the heroine, Mili, turns oppressive givens of her life to her advantage, working within those constraints (which we thought about in terms of genre constraints as well); great discussion of how an early reference to the Hindu Trimurti (Creator, Keeper--or "Preserver," as I learned it in the '70s--and Destroyer) informs our sense of the novel's hero; great close reading of the novel's epilogue as a recapitulation of the opening, which let us talk about repetition and variation as a structural principle in romance.  The novel's thematic emphasis on "freedom" made for a fine discussion of ideas from Pam Regis (whose Natural History) makes claims about "pragmatic freedom" and the romance novel in general.
  • What Went Less Well:  I had students read Jayashree Kamble's early piece on romance readers in India--the one published in the Sally Goade anthology Empowerment Vs. Oppression and included as the final chapter of her dissertation, years ago.  Primed by this piece, which talks about arranged marriages, students sometimes failed to see that Dev's novel does not talk about arranged marriages, but about child marriage, which is a very different thing.  Some students did not like how the novel plays up the physical size of its hero and the diminutive body of the heroine, but this is a familiar trope in popular romance fiction (cf. Lord of Scoundrels) and made for a useful discussion.
  • What I'd Do Diffferently Next Time:  As it happens, I'm teaching this novel again in the fall term, where I'm going to put it alongside Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast and Alexis Hall's Glitterland to think more about romance fiction and romantic film.  At some point in the future I'd like to show students--or have students watch--one or two whole Bollywood films to give them that context, rather than just showing them trailers and excerpts. Someday!
I see that this post is getting awfully long, so I'm going to split my account of the class into a pair of posts.  See you soon in post #2!

1 comment:

  1. A great list of books, Eric. Have you read Dev's latest, THE BOLLYWOOD BRIDE? I liked it much better than her first book...