Friday, January 09, 2009

Branching Out?

Eric Selinger

Last Wednesday, Jessica wrote a fascinating post about the moral issues raised by a scene in the romantic comedy Love, Actually. To be honest, this movie made me deeply angry the first time I saw it. Several of its interwoven plots felt thin, manipulative, or simply cruel, and I've never given it another go. But two aspects of Jessica's piece have me thinking.

First off, there's the genre issue, or maybe we should call it the issue of medium. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that Jessica should blog about a movie, since the readership of romance fiction and the viewership of romantic movies clearly overlaps. And, selfishly, the more romance scholars talk about movies the more good tips I'll find for padding my Netflix queue! (Cute Norwegian comedy last night: Buddy, with Nicolai Cleve Broch as a cute Norwegian.)

On the other hand, since getting involved with romance fiction, I've been focused on how much still needs to be done with these novels as novels: how much more attention they deserve as works of literature, rather than as sociological facts or psychological symptoms. (Not that they shouldn't be studied every way imaginable, six ways from Sunday--I'm just saying that the literary side has been particularly neglected.)

So what do y'all think? Do folks who study the Western switch hit from fiction to film? What about mystery, SF, and so on? Leaving aside blogging for a moment, should the calls for papers we write for academic conferences--Popular Culture Association, the Brisbane conference, etc.--be for papers on popular romance fiction, or on popular romance tout court? (Tish! You spoke French! Now that was a couple. "Everything I know About Romance, I Learned from the Addams Family," as a now-vanished on-line essay once put it. BUT they were a couple in a TV show, with no story arc to call their own. Do they belong in the discourse of romance scholarship--and if so, where?)

The second issue of interest in Jessica's post is the question of moral reasoning in romance. There is, of course, a long tradition of thinking about love as--at its most intense, anyway--somehow beyond good and evil. Sadly, I have to run and teach my Love Poetry class, so I'll come back to that topic on another day. Let me know what you think of the Question of Medium. Calls for papers--and my future courses--may depend upon it!


Morticia: So... you still desire me after all these years? The old ball and chain?
Gomez: Forever!
Morticia: I'll get them!

Morticia: Gomez.
Gomez: Querida?
Morticia: Last night you were unhinged. You were like some desperate, howling demon. You frightened me. Do it again!


  1. Eric, I had the exact same reaction to Love, Actually. I have seen it again, however, because they keep showing it on cable. This is the same reason why I have seen Overboard so many times, although that film is great.

    In answer to your question about whether we draw a line between mediums when studying romance, I think it depends on what our goals are. Are we simply trying to invigorate the conversation? Or are we arguing that romance has equal literary merit to any other literature? I agree with you that the romance as a narrative, as a literary entity separate from the sociological and psychological contexts, has been severely neglected and this is why I think that perhaps including papers/studies solely focused on film might not be the best. Romance will always be a ghetto-ized genre until the discussion approaches it not as curiosity or a reflection of cultural mores but as an art in and of itself, as a narrative connected to other narratives. Film may have a place in that discussion but at this juncture only as a means of comparing and contrasting various structural elements of story.

  2. First of all, I have to say I'm astonished that a defender of romance could be so dismayed by Love, Actually. It is one of my very favorite movies, and it is a favorite because it examines romantic love in all its guises. I watch it over and over and over and do not get tired of it.

    That said: Romantic movies get a lot more respect than romance novels do, and it's something I puzzle over. Last week, I saw Slumdog Millionaire, which is a big fave with critics, and it is PURE romance. Pure, sweet, true, honorable romance. Love, Actually gets a lot of good press, too.

    It seems to me this link is an important aspect of the studies of the genre.

  3. For comparison, SF&F awards usually include screen awards. I think including romantic movies and TV series (which are a bit less clear cut that SF&F ones) would help broaden people's image of the fictional exploration of human courtship and sexual relationships.

    It might also highlight the difference between the way the world at large treats romantic movies and romantic fiction.



  4. Barbara, I'd have to see the movie again to know for sure, but if memory serves, two of the plot lines deeply upset me.

    One was the story that Jessica discusses, which (if memory serves!) asked me to sympathize with the ruining of a perfectly happy marriage in the name of love.

    The other, more vividly, was the way the movie refused to give Sarah (?)--the Emma Thompson character--her HEA, because of her brother's mental illness. It seemed mean-spirited to me, as though the script were insisting on one "realistic" story to add some bitter to the sweet, even though there's nothing particularly realistic about her situation. (I know several happily married women with severely disturbed family members--there's no reason her character couldn't have found romantic love as well as familial love.)

    So maybe I didn't like it because I'm TOO romantic, too committed to the HEA?

  5. It seems to me that if one's prepared to broaden out the area of study from romance to romantic movies, why not also include love songs, chick lit, other kinds of romantic fiction, certain musicals, certain forms of dance (e.g. ballets with romantic subjects) etc? After all, they all deal with the subject of romantic love.

    If someone was wanting to study the various depictions of, and attitudes towards, love in contemporary society, I think it would be perfectly valid for them to study some or all of these different forms of expression and compare and contrast them. In addition, Sally Goade, in her essay in the Empowerment versus Oppression volume, demonstrates how classroom use of romantic movies can be helpful to bring non-readers of romances up to speed with certain conventions of romantic story-telling which exist across genres.

    Another possible case where working with both romances and movies or other forms of art would be fruitful would be in the context of the study of a romance novel which refers intertextually to movies. In that case the study of the romance novel would perhaps require the scholar to compare it with the movie to which it alludes.

    However, outwith these cases, I'm not sure how helpful it would really be to leap ahead into making comparisons with other genres. My sense is that the romance genre is so huge, so diverse, and so little studied, that anyone attempting to compare it to movies etc might run the risk of making vast generalisations about both the romance genre and about movies.

    In addition, there are many differences between these different genres, and the techniques one would need to use when analysing film (a visual medium, created by an ensemble of scriptwriter, director, actors etc) are surely different from those required to analyse something which is pure text, usually written by just one person.

    I would therefore prefer to focus "on how much still needs to be done with these novels as novels: how much more attention they deserve as works of literature, rather than as sociological facts or psychological symptoms."

  6. Hey! I'm a tag!

    Eric - this is such an interesting question. Are you saying that the literary genre, Romance, has been studied much more as a cultural artifact because of its lowly literary status?

    That makes sense to me, also because academia is a pretty conservative system overall and it's not always wise or safe or easy or possible for one to write a dissertation on a subject most of one's discipline thinks is trash, nor does it make one marketable, nor does it help one to get tenure, when one cannot publish in one's research area in the requisite journals, or get the 7-10 outside reviewers to recommend one for tenure, etc etc..

    That said, I agree with Laura that much more needs to be done to study Romance as a literary genre.

  7. Gah. That wasn't clear -- I mean that studying romance when you are in a literature dept probably implies a viewpoint few in the discipline hold, a marginal view that romance is literature.

    This will be hard for junior scholars to do, although that group is the most likely, I would think, to want to.

    But if you are in sociology or psychology or history, you can study romance as a social or psychological or historical phenomenon without thereby implying an endorsement of it (indeed, quite the reverse, especially if you are coming from an explicitly feminist perspective).

  8. Jessica, re: your last comment. Exactly! (Profound, I know!) Although it's easier at some colleges/universities than others. Precisely because I'm NOT at a research institution, I get to do pretty much whatever I want, as long as I publish. (I hope.)

  9. This is a really interesting consideration. Part of me feels like a romantic comedy has vastly different goals than a romance, even a humorously written romance novel.

    But then I look at non-comedy romantic film, like North and South as a mini-series (I know it was a book first, but I think it gets treated as a movie by those I know) or Buffy, and I personally treat those more as part of the genre in my little corner of the blog world. In fact, Buffy feels absolutely seamless with paranormal romance/urban fantasy. But I think that's a unique case.

    My own non-academic opinion is that the novels should be treated alone. I think an interesting feature of them is, in fact, their low stature. And that they are consumed in a solitary way by women (mostly).

  10. Thanks for the quotes from the Addams Family. I loved them. They are a romantic long married couple. I think that it is legitimate to consider tv, film, and novels in considering the role of romance in modern culture.

  11. Eric, what a fascinating post!

    I completely agree with the idea that we should continue to study romance novels "as works of literature, rather than as sociological facts or psychological symptoms.Not that they shouldn't be studied every way imaginable, six ways from Sunday--I'm just saying that the literary side has been particularly neglected.)"
    I try to do this in my PhD research, where I confront my analyses of romance texts with literary theory (Barthes, Foucault, genre theory, Postmodernism, etc.) and in that way try to ultimately gain insight into complex literary dynamics (like the one between authorship and genre, on which I focus). Obviously, a basic assumption in my work is that romance novels are works of literature and should be approached as any other work of literature is. I work in a traditional English department where my research stands out precisely because it confronts "serious" theory with "popular" literature.
    Regarding the issue of medium: for me romance novels remain distinct from romantic comedies in many ways. Reading is different from watching film (Wolfgang Iser has written an interesting text on this, but I don't know the precise reference), different institutions play a role, different (though overlapping) audiences are targeted, different conventions occur, the "texts" (both written and visual) come about in extremely different production processes, etc. Obviously, romance novels and romantic films have a lot in common as well, but for me the difference between them remains important - though I love both.

    As a scholar, the difference of medium is important to me as well. I am a LITERARY scholar and I have been trained to study (literary) texts - i.e. the written word. In terms of methodology, I know what I'm doing (or so I hope) when I deal with written texts. I'm not trained to study other media - and although I imagine I could still offer generally interesting insights in e.g. films, I don't know if I understand the complexity of that medium as well as I have come to understand the complexity of the written text. Film is a different medium from langauge, and I imagine someone who is trained in film studies, for example, understands the processes of the that medium better than I do. Obviously, this is related to my educational background as a literary scholar - in my university an M.A. in literary studies focuses almost entirely on literature (and not on e.g. film).

    For the record: I love Love, Actually! It's romantic, but it's not romance as romance novels are romance because some of the couples do not experience a HEA. For me, that is one of the strengths of the film - love is depicted as a complex and not univocally 'fun' emotional process, which is illustrated beautifully by the Sarah character (the woman with brother who is mentally ill) and the couple played by Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. While I appreciate this in the film, I don't think I would enjoy this in a romance novel, from which I expect and demand a univocally happy ending.

  12. I know this is slightly off-topic, but LOVE ACTUALLY is so brilliant (IMO) that I feel compelled to defend it, and for reasons that do loop back to romance novels and films as a genre.

    It seems to me that Americans have a couple of hot buttons in terms of romance, and one of them is infidelity. It is one of the absolute taboos in romance novels, which strikes me as unrealistic and harsh. Obviously, it cuts a hole right through the center of the idea of "soul mates" which we treasure (with good reason).

    And I definitely understand why some viewers were so dismayed by the story line involving the shattered marriage. It is a fine, good marriage, and it is shaken by the infidelity, but in the end, it seems (at least to this viewer) that the unwise philanderer recognizes the error of his ways and returns home. Which is realistic and hopeful and speaks to the survivability of love and marriage even through that challenge. (Emma Thompson is the betrayed wife.)

    The storyline involving the woman so attached to her mentally ill brother spoke more to the challenges we face internally. She couldn't seem to find a way to make room for both her passion for the love she wanted (whom she had loved from afar, thus safely and without commitment) and the brother she loved and needed. She couldn't set boundaries, or she didn't really want to.

    What I loved about the film is the maturity of the love stories, all of them. Love isn't neat or tidy or clean. It's crazy. And glorious. And true.

    Speaking to some of the other discussion: movies are often a private pursuit, just as books are. The narrative threads are not appreciably different, though movies have more tools to evoke emotion (at least in some ways--they are also very limited in terms of visuals). I'd be very interested in seeing the two studied side by side.

  13. I'm not a literary critic and have never wanted to be one. However, if someone asks for information about romances associated with the RCMP (which someone just did on the romance forum), how can one not give them a pointer to Rose Marie?