Eric, this part of what you said's been intriguing me, because although I think I'd usually be able to detect when a romance was breaking a convention of the genre, I've always steered clear of analysing humour or satire. Humour seems so hard to pin down. Do you have any techniques which academics should bear in mind when studying this aspect of texts?These are hard topics to pursue without sounding like a US commercial for feminine hygiene products ("sometimes a novel doesn't feel so 'fresh'"), but let me see what I can do, especially since the key terms of your questions, Laura, open a whole new set of issues for us as academic readers of romance.
I also wonder about the 'freshness' aspect you mention, because again I think that could be subjective, and it's also quite dependent on what you (generic you) have read in the past. [...] In the past I've studied old texts, and 'freshness' wasn't something I was looking for. How you go about identifying it and demonstrating to a reader of an academic article that it's present in the text you're discussing?
When I read poems, I feel confident--probably too confident--in proclaiming that this or that poem is "fresh" or "witty" (in the sense of "clever" or simply "intelligent," more than "humorous"or "satirical") in its deployment of conventions. These are subjective judgments, however objective my rhetoric may be, but I make the claims based on thirty years of reading poetry, and at least twenty, maybe twenty-five, of studying the history and criticism of the art. During those years, I have internalized a narrative about how the art of poetry has developed, at least in English; I have also seen how critics disagree with one another, so that one critic's major poet is another's minor figure, and one critic's innovation is another's period piece. I've watched literary historians recover largely-forgotten poets (Mina Loy, Edwin Rolfe), and watched critics then wrangle over their value and interest, and slowly but surely I've grown confident enough to pass judgment myself. If I'm wrong, what's the worst that can happen? Someone will disagree with me, maybe disprove me--either with evidence, if I'm making an empirical claim, or with more persuasive rhetoric, if I've made the case for some poem's value--and then the conversation will go on.
When it comes to romance, I'm at a double disadvantage. I haven't read the genre very long, and there isn't much criticism out there for me to draw on as a shortcut. When I tell the story of the genre to my students, I depend on claims I've found in the histories that I have read so far: for example, that The Sheik is a reasonably good place to start the story of modern popular romance fiction, or that The Flame and the Flower changed the shape of romance publishing and inaugurated the age of the "bodice-ripper" or "erotic historical romance." I haven't done the research to test either of these statements myself, nor am I likely to do so. There are huge gaps in my romance reading: gaps I sometimes work to fill, as when I doggedly read Sweet Savage Love this summer (not a book I'd have finished, except for its historical significance as the second of those erotic historicals); gaps I haven't started to address, and may never, as when I tack past the shoals of Nora Roberts books, unsure how to set my course and explore them.
Where does this leave me as a critic? As Laura asks, how do I go about identifying and demonstrating "freshness" to my academic readers?
My hunch is that I'll just make declarations, based on my best sense at the time--my subjective response, in Laura's terms--and make them as ardently and cleverly and confidently as I can, as if I knew exactly what I was talking about. Then I'll hold my breath and wait for someone, probably one of you reading right now, to tell me that I'm wrong--God willing, at the peer review stage rather than when the piece is already in print, but if I make a fool of myself in public, I can live with that.
We are, after all, in the lucky position of creating the field of romance criticism, folks! There's no canon to speak of, and precious little critical orthodoxy to rein us in or weigh us down. If we say that this or that novel is worth reading and teaching, we make it so, at least for a while. If we say that Lydia Joyce's Veil of Night invokes the conventions of Gothic romance and then falters, unable to sustain their haunting and mysterious tone, then so it does, by gum--and, conversely, if we say that it invokes those conventions only to shine a debunking, rationalist light on them to witty and fresh effect, entirely conscious of its every turn, then the novel does just that. We have to decide, and make the case, and see which position wins out. (For my money, by the way, Joyce's Whispers of the Night is a far better book--but what I mean by "better" in this case, I'd need to hash out at length, knowing all the while that there are no set criteria for such evaluations, but that any criteria I use might be the ones to be adopted as this field develops.)
We need so much in this field: terms of art for describing the genre (Pam Regis has given us some, but we need more); a good set of arguments over who are its major figures and which its major texts; some thoughtful, well-researched debunking of what "major" really means, anyway; essays on the pleasures of individual books; Barthesian reflections on "the pleasures of the text" in romance fiction; historicist readings of romance novels in relation to women's history and other contexts; philosophical meditations on love and desire that take works of romance fiction as their instigation, the way that Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness treats Hollywood comedies of the 1930s. And more, I'm sure!
My hunch is that we needn't worry about being "subjective." We need a lot of good, well-written, confidently subjective criticism in the field, criticism of insight and unabashed advocacy, just as we continue to need solid, "objective" research that keeps the rest of us honest. I wish I had specific "techniques" to suggest, but at the moment, I have only hunches and aspirations--and the sense that, in the words of Bram Stoker's Prof. Van Helsing, "There is work, wild work to be done!"