Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"The Marx and Engels" of Romance Scholarship

On the eve of the RWA conference Joanne Rendell, writing at The Huffington Post, takes a look at "a growing shift in the way the ivory tower sees romance" and the "fascinating relationship which is evolving between professors studying romance novels and the romance world itself."

In the course of this article she describes Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz as "the Marx and Engels" of romance scholarship. It did strike me that that particular description might be more fittingly applied to any two of
  • Bridget Fowler (author of The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century (1991)) who believes that
    we have seen the use [...] of commercialised forms of popular literature and television, which women consume in large numbers, to break down an autonomous anti capitalist high culture.There was an elitist high culture which was very critical of aspects of capitalism, and I think the turn to privileging women's form of expression, like the romance, may have quite often removed that critical edge culturally. Because these were forms that adjusted themselves to the market and didn't question it. Didn't take issue with the commercialisation of life in general. [...] I don't want to say that there are not valuable elements of popular women's' literature. I think they have distinctive, moral and political understanding of how people should live their lives which is important. That is a cultural achievement. We were right to say at a certain stage that it is not just high culture that should be preserved. There are elements from popular culture that are important and need saving. But we are in danger of shifting into a market based aesthetic which is a populist one.
  • Peter Darbyshire, who, in his "Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia" (2000) concludes that
    Harlequin’s success in Europe and Asia is associated not with any particular interest in America itself, but it is instead associated with the ideology of capitalism that America represents and which Harlequin romances embody. For European and Asian readers, these books are capitalist fantasies as much as they are romantic fantasies and, as such, their appeal to the readers of emerging capitalist markets is obvious
  • Jayashree Kamble, who in her doctoral thesis (2008), has suggested that "the very texts that appear to glamorize global capitalism, justify war, and align themselves with heteronormative fantasy contain reservations about these ideologies."
Rendell, though, doesn't seem to have meant the "Marx and Engels" description of Selinger and Frantz to suggest anything about the politics or subject-matter of their work. Rather, she's looking at important personalities in this rapidly growing area of scholarship.

Inevitably there are omissions, and a reader may receive the impression that positive scholarship on the genre emerged rather more recently than it actually did. Without wishing to in any way minimise the huge contributions of Sarah, Eric, Pamela Regis and others mentioned in Rendell's article, or the importance of the RWA's academic grant program, also mentioned there, it should be noted that just as socialism's history began long before the emergence of Marx and Engels so, as Eric observed in a comment attached to a recent post I wrote about the history of romance scholarship, "This is a field that has been going on, in one form or another, for at least forty years; the more we keep that history in mind, the better off our new work will be."

Despite all those caveats, I think we can agree that the Marx and Engels of romance have started an online revolution in romance scholarship, initially via the listserv but more recently via the IASPR website (if you haven't seen them already, please do go and take a look at the new forums) and the forthcoming online Journal of Popular Romance (which is now accepting submissions).

The photo of "Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and his wife Jenny, and their children Laura and Eleanor" came from Wikimedia Commons.

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