Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Musings on Reviews and Establishing a Canon of Romances

I've just been looking at a couple of reviews of a book I wrote. It was a non-fiction, academic book, and the reviewers are academics. Nonetheless I was reminded of the questions Sarah raised in her blog entry about 'the ultimate romance novel' and the various controversies there have been about romance reviews, with some romance authors questioning the abilities and qualifications of readers who write reviews.

What the reviews of my book demonstrated to me was that even if a book is reviewed by the author's peers, all with a similar level of expertise and similar areas of interest, there will nonetheless be widely divergent views. As I read both the positive and the less positive reviews it became clear that each reviewer was looking for something different. Some mentioned critical frameworks I should have used or texts I should have discussed in more detail and each was obviously relating my book to their own particular, very specific areas of interest. For example, despite the fact that these reviewers are all Hispanomedievalists, some are historians while others are more interested in the literature of the period. Whatever their overall opinions, though, because my book was non-fiction, and included plenty of references to other works, and quotations from the relevant literature, even the reviewers who were least positive about it acknowledged that it would be a useful book.

So how does this relate to romance? Well, my experience suggests that everyone comes to a book (whether fiction or non-fiction) with certain expectations they want it to fulfill, or certain topics they would like it to touch on. Some readers and reviewers have a preference for particular sub-genres of romance, some have particular storylines which they love (or loathe). What one reader may find innovative and interesting, another may consider a disgusting breach of the conventions of romance. What one reader thinks is 'hot' or an interesting challenge to convention (e.g. the non-virginal heroine who doesn't need to be sexually 'awakened' by the hero), another may find morally reprehensible. A book considered exquisitely humorous by one reader may well appear mere slapstick to another, and what one person may consider delicious irony or sarcasm may come across as dry or irritating to another. When we pick up a book, we bring with us our own experiences and expectations, as well as our mood at the time of reading, and the mental comparisons we'll make with other romances (which will be dependent on how many other romances we've read, and which ones they are). Each of us, regardless of qualifications, will have a very individual response to each book. That's not to say that all readers and reviewers wouldn't be able to agree on something; they'd probably all be able to establish the basic outline of the story. Good reviews will provide both an objective description (of things such as the characters names, occupations, and how they meet) and a subjective opinion. The reviewer may even state why a particular work did or did not fit with her personal preferences . The reviewer who does this is acknowledging that not all readers of the review will agree with her opinion. She knows that once one goes beyond the basic facts of the story, interpretations and opinions will differ.

To take the example of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, it's fairly easy to establish the basic outline of the story but overall opinion on the book varied widely:

When it was published in Britain in 1960, the trial of the publishers, Penguin Books, under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was a major public event and a test of the new obscenity law. The 1959 Act, introduced by Roy Jenkins, had made it possible for publishers to escape conviction if they could show that a work was of literary merit. [...] Various academic critics, including E. M. Forster, Helen Gardner and Raymond Williams, were called as witnesses, and the verdict, delivered on November 2, 1960, was not guilty. [...] The prosecution was ridiculed for being out of touch with changing social norms when the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, asked if it was the kind of book 'you would wish your wife or servants to read'.
This particular difference opinion concerned the sexual content and similar arguments continue in the romance reading and writing community about what constitutes 'obscenity'. While many authors and readers remain opposed to explict sexual content, there are others who consider the open depiction of sexuality and sexual acts to be a freeing, even a feminist act:
My sex scenes--and my romance novels--are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they're a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That's what I'm doing, that's my mission in life, I'm writing sluts for the revolution. I'm very proud. (Jennifer Crusie)
It's not just this sort of issue which causes controversy - 'literary merit' is also difficult to define. Some people automatically assume that a genre novel cannot have literary merit, but even among readers who do not make this assumption there may be differences of opinion because:
It has long been noted that the concept of "literary merit" is practically impossible to define, and it is hard to see how such an ideas can be used with any precision or consistency by policy makers, magistrates or judges. A common response to this criticism is that, while the process of establishing literary merit is difficult, fraught with dangers, and often subjective, it is the only method currently available to separate work that has significant cultural value from work that is ephemeral and essentially worthless. (Wikipedia)
By engaging with romance from an appreciative academic perspective, we are beginning the process of establishing the literary merit of some modern romances, which may ultimately lead to the creation of a romance canon.


  1. Each of us, regardless of qualifications, will have a very individual response to each book.

    I won't mention the book's title or author unless specifically asked to do so, but since this incident happened just last night, I thought it might be of some interest. Or maybe not. (she said with appalling lack of self confidence.)

    Having just finished reading a (c)1980 historical romance that I thought was pretty poorly done -- shall we say, D+? -- I was interested to see what kind of reviews for it I could find online. Virtually every single one was gushingly positive. "Best romance novel EVER!!!!" "Oh, I just want to find someone just like the hero!"

    Most read like they'd been written by teenagers, so I tried to discount them. And were the "bad" reviews removed? Maybe, maybe not.

    But this was a book that, by so many of my own personal literary standards, fell short. How do I, and by extension we, explain to readers who just love any given book that it's not acceptable in "the canon"?

    To quote from another blog entry, Despite my personal preferences, however, I think it is important to acknowledge that the level of historical accuracy in a romance cannot be used as an indicator of either literary merit or entertainment value. It isn't just historical accuracy that matters -- it's character development, logical behavior under circumstances, even likability, and all these characteristics may be irrelevant to the vast majority of "ordinary" readers.

    This can go right back to the wild popularity of certain authors, likewise unnamed, whose books are utterly unreadable by many reviewers. The books are poorly written, the stories bizarrely constructed, the characters stupid, cruel, inconsistent, whatever. But for some reason, these books and authors "speak" to the hearts of a legion of devoted fans?

    Who's asking "Why?"

  2. Linda, I love these questions! Last night I found myself once again failing to make the case for a novel that I deeply love--and, more than that, a novel I admire, aesthetically. I think it's just a wonderful piece of work. My students were lukewarm, with one or two exceptions.

    Now, I don't want to spend a whole lot of time in arguments over the relative merits of particular authors or books. I'm ready to accept that there will be a lot of novels that are very popular that I think are junk, just as there are a lot of popular poems (and poets) I think are junk. Quite a lot of popular food is junk food; why should books be any different?

    What I'd love to see more of is well-crafted praise for what we think is really good and really interesting.

    Does anyone out there have any recommendations for criticism I should read--not just of romance per se, but of other forms of genre fiction? Who are the best critics writing on fantasy, or on SF, or on mystery and detective fiction? What can I learn from them?

  3. Eric, do you already know Juliet Flesch's study on Australian romance, especially M&B? The title is FROM AUSTRALIA WITH LOVE: A HISTORY OF MODERN AUSTRALIAN POPULAR ROMANCE NOVELS. While the emphasis is, of course, on Australian writers and romances, she also says a lot about romance in general, and her theory chapter is at places hilarious (in a good way), because she tackles all these awful clichés and prejudices about romance.

    Fantasy: There are two very good and relatively recent encyclopedias: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASY, ed. John Clute and John Grant (1997), and THE GREENWOOD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY: THEMES, WORKS, AND WONDERS (3 vol.), ed. Gary Westfahl & foreword by Neil Gaiman (2005). The essays in the last volume are about important works in fantasy fiction (and may I just add that I wrote the entries about dragons and about Peter S. Beagle's LAST UNICORN *smile*). One of the largest association in the field is the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts (with an annual conference in Ft. Lauderdale in spring).

  4. I should perhaps add that the main difference between critics writing on romance and those writing on fantasy is that most of the latter a) are active readers, and b) therefore they know the genre and know what they're talking about. As you all know, the same cannot be always said about critics writing about romance ...