Thursday, November 08, 2007

Eric Rereads the Romance

Eric's had a review article on romance criticism published, so I thought I'd discuss its contents here. The full reference is Selinger, Eric Murphy. “Rereading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48.2 (2007): 307-24 and if you have an Athens password you can read it online here.

Eric defends the genre, observing that the fact "That romance novels can, themselves, display intelligence, worthy politics, and aesthetic accomplishment remains one of the best-kept secrets in literary study, however easy to find and read the books themselves may be" (308-09) and noting that "Romance novels have rarely, if ever, been treated by scholars as aesthetic objects, but rather as fungible, even standardized products" (313).1 The article is, however, primarily a review of the following recent works on the romance genre:
  • Juliet Flesch, From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, Australia: Curtin University Books, 2004.
  • Sally Goade, ed., Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Scholars, 2007.
  • Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Ohio State UP, 2006.
  • Lynn S. Neal, Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006.
  • Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
Eric begins by putting this new romance criticism in its historical context, and very kindly mentions me and a comparison I've made in the past between medieval Castilian cancionero love poetry (which was, for a time, the butt of many an insult from the academic community) and the modern romance genre (312-13). As this is my blog post, I'm going to expand on this extremely minor point from Eric's essay, which I am sure he only made because he's kind and wanted to refer to as many of the new wave of romance scholars as possible.

The typical criticisms of cancionero love poetry were summarised by Keith Whinnom, who quoted some of the insults that dripped from the pen of Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, who attacked both poets and poetry:
"versificadores débiles y amanerados", [...] "la mente de sus autores, extraviada por el mal gusto" [...] "de más interés histórico que poético" [...] "el convencionalismo a que todos rendían parias" [...] "ausencia de verdadero pensamiento." (Whinnom 9)

"weak and mannered writers of verse" [...] "the mind of their authors, gone astray down the path of bad taste" [...] "of more historical than poetic interest" [...] "the conventionality to which they all rendered tribute" [...] "lack of any real thought"
Whinnom argued that the criticism was wrong, because "ha sido equivocado el modo de aproximarse a la cuestión" ("it has approached the question in the wrong way"; 11) and he suggested that cancionero love poetry should instead be judged in terms of its own style and aims, not by comparison with other forms of poetry which are more varied in their vocabulary, or appear to the critics to be more realistic and sincere in their expression of emotion.

Eric observes that early critics of the romance genre similarly conducted their work while under the influence of certain prejudices about what literature ought to be about, what made it good and what its purpose was: "the first twenty years of serious analysis of romance fiction treated it and its readers with ambivalence at best, and often with undisguised contempt" (309-310). Janice Radway, for example, critiqued the genre because it "fails to supply the reader with 'a comprehensive program for reorganizing her life in such a way that all needs might be met'" (Selinger 310), yet, as Eric points out, "As a rule, comprehensive programs for reorganizing life are the stuff of self-help books, theology, and political manifestos, rather than literature" (310).

Eric then contrasts the newer works he reviews with the older works of romance criticism. He finds that Pamela Regis's book "answers the need for an expansive, theoretically grounded account of the genre and bids fair to be the standard introductory text for romance-fiction study in the coming decade" (311) and "Even those primarily or exclusively interested in ideological, psychological, and philosophical approaches to romance fiction will want to have Regis’s precision tools in their kit" (313).

In Lynne S. Neal's book about inspirational romance "the appeal, aesthetics, and cultural work of such romances receive her attention, since Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction attends primarily to readers and reading practices rather than to texts" (314-15), bringing "a new, dispassionate aplomb to the ethnographic analysis of readers" (316).

Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels is a collection of essays edited by Sally Goade. These include an essay by Guy Mark Foster in which he "takes up 'black women romance novelists and the taboo of interracial desire,' arguing that 'no other literary form has thus far attempted to take up the vexed question of interracial sex as it relates to black women' with 'the commitment and purpose' of popular romance" (317).2 Emily Haddad's essay "looks at how the enduring subgenre of 'Arab abduction romances' changed in the years just before and after 9/11" (317). Jayashree Kamble's "Female Enfranchisement and the Popular Romance: Employing an Indian Perspective" "reports on the ways the Indian readers whom Kamble surveyed in 2005 both perceive and use the genre" (317).

Eric describes Juliet Flesch's From Australia with Love as "The most fully developed exploration of romance from a comparative perspective, at least so far, [...] a crisp historical inquiry into “whether there is such a thing as ‘Australian romance’” (318).

Deborah Lutz is a contributor to Sally Goade's volume and the author of a book that's been discussed on this blog previously and which Eric refers to as "a radically new way to attend to the genre, and one as needed as the aesthetic turn we find in Regis" (324).

Some other newer works of romance scholarship are also mentioned in passing:
  • “What ‘Race’ Is the Sheik? Rereading a Desert Romance,” Susan L. Blake’s "superb new historical reading of the E. M. Hull best seller in light of the debates over race and divorce in the 1910s and 1920s" (316) in Doubled Plots [2003], edited by Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden.
  • The "groundbreaking [...] economically focused" (316) “Desire and the Marketplace: A Reading of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower” by Charles H. Hinnant, also in Doubled Plots.
  • The "delightful" (316) “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Book Like This?” by Stephanie Burley, "an exploration of 'homoerotic reading and popular romance'" (316), again from Doubled Plots.
  • Sarah S. G. Frantz's "'Expressing' Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power" in Scorned Literature (2002) in which she "draws on Michel Foucault and Hélène Cixous for an inquiry into romance and the 'feminine will to power.' Her analysis of romance novel scenes in which the hero breast-feeds from a nursing heroine is as vivid and counterintuitive as the scenes themselves, and through old-fashioned close reading of such scenes, she demonstrates the subtlety with which authors have invited readers to identify across boundaries of both gender and power" (317).
  • Selinger, Eric Murphy. “Rereading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48.2 (2007): 307-24.
  • Whinnom, Keith. La poesía amatoria de la época de los Reyes Católicos. Durham Modern Languages Series, Hispanic Monographs, 2. Durham: UP, 1981.

1 To go off-topic, the word "fungible" is one of those which comes up at FreeRice.Com. FreeRice "has a custom database containing thousands of words at varying degrees of difficulty. There are words appropriate for people just learning English and words that will challenge the most scholarly professors". To play the game, an individual has to "click on the answer that best defines the word. [....] If you get it right, you get a harder word. If wrong, you get an easier word. [...] For each word you get right, we donate 10 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program."

2 There may be "commitment and purpose", but, as noted in a recent newspaper article on race and the romance genre by Brian Miller, "A Billion-Dollar Romance Novel Industry, And Its Lonely Black Author: The Fabio business finds itself short on diversity", published in the Seattle Weekly yesterday, romances by black authors are usually segregated, shelved in African American sections. This tends to leave the romance sections of bookshops filled with books among whose "covers, where yearning maidens cling to strapping lads with gilded locks, it's nearly impossible to find an African-American face. Nor any Latina features, nor any Asian figures, nor any sign that love exists for nonwhite women."


  1. It strikes me that romance is a bit like fairytales in that part of the stigma of reading romance is that it is seen as childish and predictable. Fairytales too have been the subject of a lot academic analysis in recent years. And both romance and fairytales plug into something very basic in the human psyche. For some reason we do like to revisit the same stories over and over again. One of the topics that often comes up on romance reader blogs is whether or not a romance novel needs an HEA. The outrage some readers express when deprived of an HEA is similar to the unrest we feel when a fairytale does not have the 'correct' ending.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Laura! I wasn't just being kind--as a scholar of poetry (albeit modern poetry) I find your comparison to the cancionero quite useful. To complain that a work doesn't do something the author (and audience) never wanted it to do seems pointless to me, and unlikely to produce any real insight or enjoyment!

  3. I read Eric's review before it was actually published and found it a very useful and articulate discussion not only of the books mentioned but also about the romance genre itself. I receommend that everyone take a look at this essay. It is valuable, insightful and offers an important service to the writers and readers of romance. Wonderful work Eric.

  4. Eric's article and some of the books he discusses just went on my airplane reading list.

    The outrage some readers express when deprived of an HEA is similar to the unrest we feel when a fairytale does not have the 'correct' ending.

    I think you may be onto a genuine connection there, though I must say I like the variety of twists on fairytales. Like the Puss in Boots discussion here. Sometimes Puss was a woman who walked off with her "master" at the end. Sometimes Puss was punished for being tricksy, or abandoned once its master got what he wanted. Sometimes Puss was rewarded for its service.

    To complain that a work doesn't do something the author (and audience) never wanted it to do seems pointless to me, and unlikely to produce any real insight or enjoyment!

    I mostly agree that romance novels should be evaluated for what they are, but there's a tension in attempting that. It's equally possible to down-grade a book based on elements it's unreasonable to expect, or to lower one's expectations condescendingly to praise it "for what it is".

    Your phrasing reminds me of Updike's first rule of reviewing:
    "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt"

    and his conclusion, with a nice focus on the joy of reading:
    "Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

  5. Thanks for all the comments. I've had a bit of a cold this week and couldn't think of anything particularly intelligent to add to the conversation, but it was interesting to read.