Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Academics and Romance (2): What Is To Be Done?

In the words of one of my favorite romance heroes, Sam Gamgee, "Well, I'm back."

(Lucky Sam gets two romances, by my count: a tragic one with Frodo, and a comic one with Rose. But I digress.)

It's taken me a while to catch up on all of Laura's splendid blogging, and on all of your comments; in fact, I'm not sure I have it all safely in mind, so please forgive me as I offer a few prospective thoughts on the topic of academic approaches to romance. What is (still) to be done?

In last Saturday's post, Laura sorted out most academic scholarship on romance fiction into four categories: analysis of the readers; the historical / social approach; a feminist perspective; and literary criticism. I'd like to dwell on each of these in turn, and suggest some new directions each might take or projects one might undertake in each of them. (I had hoped to write a lengthy post on all four, but there's still a week before my kids go back to school, and that means there is far more pressing work--basement painting, foosball playing, lice checking, supply shopping, and so forth--at hand.)

Let's start with the most common scholarly approach: analysis of the readers.

As Laura observes, this takes both psychological and anthropological form, both of which are at work in Radway's Reading the Romance. Since Radway is neither a psychologist nor an actual anthropologist, of course, there are some limitations to her results, and my sense is that these limitations are growing more and more visible as the years go by. Take, for example, her perfectly reasonable observation that the women in her study use romance reading to carve out time and mental (and physical) space for themselves, and that the books they most enjoy involve someone spending as much time and focus and attention on the heroine as these women spend on others during the rest of their days. Radway reads this data through Nancy Chodorow's Reproduction of Mothering, which leads her to speculations like this
"the heroine's ...terror and feeling of emptiness most likely evokes for the reader distant memories of her own initial separation from her mother and her later ambivalent attempts to establish an individual identity" (138, my emphasis)
and this
"the fantasy that generates the romance originates in the oedipal desire to love and be loved by an individual of the opposite sex and in the continuing pre-oedipal wish that is part of a woman's inter-object configuration, the wish to regain the love of the mother and all that it implies--erotic pleasure, symbiotic completion, and identity confirmation" (146).
I am, I should confess, profoundly skeptical when it comes to psychoanalytic criticism in general. I find it pseudo-scientific, inclined to pretention, and generally a 50 Euro way to express a $5 thought. Does Radway have any evidence that the distress of the romance heroine awakens these distant memories? Has she said anything more substantive, in the latter passage, than "the fantasy that generates the romance originates in the desire to love and by loved by a member of the opposite sex who supplies the female reader with erotic pleasure, symbiotic completion [whatever that means], and identity confirmation"?

I would love to see academics trained in psychology--not literary critics who have read some Freudian and post-Freudian criticism, but actual psychologists, able to do empirical research--look at romance reading. Can anyone verify that reading romances boosts the reader's level of optimism, as we so often hear? If so, why? What about them does so? Is there any chemical or brain-function change related to love (release of oxytocin, for example) that seems to happen when romance readers read their favorite genre? Does it not happen when other readers read these books? These are not questions that literary research can answer, and I'd love to see us generate more and get academics in the relevant fields to work on them, alone or with us!

Radway's work also signals one of the limitations of of the "anthropological" approach, namely the distant, even superior tone that the analyst can adopt when studying such an odd, potentially dangerous, and almost certainly unworthy behavior as reading popular romance. I think here of the conclusion to her book, which imagines a world (after the Revolution, presumably) in which "the vicarious pleasure supplied by [romance] reading would be unneccessary" (222), and of comments such as this, from her introduction to the second edition (1991): "It might also be interesting to study similarly situated women who are non-romance readers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) of certain discursive competencies that renders the romance incomprehensible, uninteresting, or irrelevant" (9).

Does that parenthetical aside sound as smug to all of you as it does to me? Imagine the same sentence in an essay about the readership, or lack thereof, in poetry: "It might be interesting to study similarly situated people who are non-poetry readers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) of certain discursive competencies that renders poetry incomprehensible, uninteresting, or irrelevant." Hmmm.... sounds odd. Does it work with bad TV? "It might be interesting to study similarly situated people who are non-sitcom watchers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) of certain discursive competencies that renders The Dukes of Hazard incomprehensible, uninteresting, or irrelevant." (Feel free to fill in your favorite bad show.) That works better, doesn't it? Now let's try it with a beverage: "It might be interesting to study similiarly situated people who are non-Merlot drinkers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) or certain oenological competencies that renders Merlot unpalatable, uninteresting, or irrelevant..." and so on.

Bingo! Radway suggests--but softly, in parenthesis, so the children won't hear it--that really good readers, readers in the know, surely wouldn't like such books. Maybe I'm just touchy, but this strikes me as an argument from snobbery, finally: the sort that makes me wish that Radway had drawn on Bourdieu's Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979 in French, but published in English in 1984, the same year as Reading the Romance) rather than on Chodorow to analyse not only her data, but her own stance towards it.

I would love for future "anthropological" work on romance readers to be undertaken by academics sympathetic with, or at least neutral toward, romance fiction and the act of romance reading. We've had twenty years of books and essays that begin with the assumption that romance reading ("repetitive romance reading," Radway calls it: the dreaded 3R syndrome!) is essentially pathological, whether as the symptom of some political or psychological disease or even as, itself, the cause of such problems. Lynn S. Neal's Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction seems blessedly free of this bias, at least in the chapters I have read so far. Indeed, her introduction explicitly renounces such biases:
"Rather than lament how these women's lives would be better if only they would read and believe differently, I analyze how my consultants maintain their religious commitments through evangelical romance reading. This does not mean a lapse into recovery history or a celebration of romance reading, but rather a critical yet empathetic exploration of these women's religious lives. This approach...leaves one vulnerable to feminist critics and evangelical opponents; however, it more fully reveals the compicated piety of ordinary people" (10).
I can't tell you how relieved I was when I read those sentences, and how much I hope they presage a new generation of anthropological reader-research free of both political lamentation and sniffy aesthetic disdain. (There's a place for both in academic writing on romance, perhaps, but not in this kind of inquiry.)

So, what sorts of reader-response and sociological / anthropological research would all of you like to see us do? And, which is more, who's willing to step up and do it?

1 comment:

  1. I have to say that I share your wariness when reading Freudian analyses of literature. The main reason for my own skepticism is that I don't believe any actual psychologists still think Freud was right. Now I confess that I am mostly familiar with experimental psych, not clinical, so I could certainly be wrong. But by and large both clinical treatment and psychological theories have moved on in the last 80 years, while many lit theorists seem to still be employing the system. The result is that ideas like an Oedipal complex are at best useful frames to do some exploration of a text, but they aren't really based on the current best understanding of human psychology. If what we want to do is take our best current understanding of the human mind and explore the experience of reading romance through that, then Freud is not the way to go. Now, I have discovered some "cognitive" approaches to reading and writing, and perhaps they are producing insights. I don't know.

    As for research I would like to see done, many of the experimental items you indicate seem certainly possible. The main methodological problems you might encounter are 1) not having the experimental design itself interfere with what you are trying to study (a reader's emotions might be radically different in a lab than they are curled up in the bathtub) and 2) the sheer size of a required reading chunk to create the effect you wish to analyze. Most work on reading and listening that I know (I'm a doctoral student in linguistics) covers relatively small bits to be studied. For instance, a single sentence or word is the most common experimental stimulus. Sometimes this is increased to a paragraph of a few sentences. But to present an entire chapter or novel could be a very difficult proposition. Not insurmountable probably, but difficult.

    I have loose dreams of getting into some of this work myself. I have done some work looking at intonational cues in speeches and discovered rather elaborate hierarchical structures. Certain phrases or sentences are frequently marked to dominate or be more readily accessible in memory than other pieces of a speech. The result is that you can draw some interesting hierarchical trees of the structure of a speech. But again I have only been working with 1-15 sentence groups. I would like to keep rolling this up into larger and larger units, such a work of fiction, but it may not be possible.