Earlier this week Katherine Orazem from the Yale Herald asked me a few questions about the romance genre. Her article, "In Defense of Romance: Proving the Stereotypes Wrong," went online on Friday and it's well worth a read.1 Orazem's obviously done plenty of background research and she notes that
[Pamela] Regis’ work on the literary history of romance has traced the precursors of the genre back to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela, as well as works by heavyweights like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and E. M. Forster. Such proto-romances stretch back for centuries into the annals of great literature. “The love story with a happy ending is a very, very old type,” said Dr. Laura Vivanco, writer for romance-scholarship blog Teach Me Tonight.In case anyone's wondering which works I had in mind, the answer is that in my reply to her I'd mentioned many of those included in Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel and listed above, as well as a number of works which are much older:
Many myths and legends are love stories, and many fairy tales end with marriages and happy ever afters. There were ancient Greek romances, including Longus's Daphnis and Chloe, although they, like their modern counterparts, have tended to have "had a bad press" (Williamson 23). Lovers in the literature of courtly love often meet with rather tragic fates, but some examples of medieval literature have more cheerful outcomes, for example the stories of Floire and Blanchefleur, and of Aucassin and Nicolette. Boccaccio included some love stories with happy endings in his Decameron. Shakespeare and others wrote comedies in which lovers overcome the barriers which separate them.Orazem continues:
Despite this history—and the fact that several books possibly classified as romance are already included in the traditional literary canon—from their earliest days romance novels have drawn criticism. Willig, whose own novels earned her a nomination for the Quill Award in 2006, noted the widespread tendency “to dismiss romance novels as very thin productions.” But much of this criticism lumps romances together without considering the nuances and varieties of the category. As Vivanco said, “It’s a huge genre and if someone picks up a romance at random, it’s not likely that they’ll find one of the very best.”Having read Orazem's article, I thought a bit more about the implications of some of the questions she asked me:
How do you consider the relationship between art and pleasure? Is the goal of art to bring pleasure and beauty, or to challenge and trouble us? Does art have to be difficult to be rewarding?It seems to me that if someone picks up a romance at random, to assess whether or not it's art, the book they choose faces two obstacles in its attempt to convince a sceptical reader. The first, as I mentioned, is that the book may not be one of the best in the genre, but the second is that the sceptical reader comes to the book with preconceptions, both about the genre and about what "art" is. In “The Paradox of Junk Fiction” (recently discussed by Jessica at Read React Review - scroll down the page until you reach item 3) Noël Carroll, who includes romances in the group of texts he's labelled "junk fiction" (225) outlines the defining features of "junk fiction":
The junk fictions that I have in mind are all narratives. Indeed, their story dimension is the most important thing about them. [...] Junk fictions aspire to be page-turners [...] and what motivates turning the page so quickly is our interest in what happens next. We do not dawdle over [...] diction as we might over Updike's nor do we savor the complexity of [...] sentence structure, as we do with Virginia Woolf's. Rather we read for story. (225-226)The trouble with this defining feature is that it depends in part on readers' behaviours. Can a literary text suddenly become junk fiction if I read it "for story"? A long time ago I read Tolstoy's War and Peace this way, and I read it fast. I read it so fast, I can't remember much about it now, I'm sorry to say. Does that mean it was just an engrossing page-turner that's largely forgettable? No, it doesn't. What it does suggest, though, is that the speed at which any particular reader, or group of readers, read a novel, and the extent to which they focus on the novel's "story" or plot, should not be taken as an indication of the novel's literary quality.
Another reader-based criteria on which it might be unwise to base judgements of literary quality is sales: "many novels which we would call high art have over a longer period of years, sold as well as many ephemeral bestsellers" (Cawelti, "Notes" 258) and conversely
The fact that a work is designed to please the audience, clearly does not mean that it will become popular. Otherwise, most Hollywood films and pulp novels would achieve the popularity of Hitchcock at his best, and works created primarily with a view to an artistic expression of the creator's vision would inevitably fail. (Cawelti, "Notes" 258-59)Returning to Carroll and his definition, we find the following:
junk fictions are the sort of narratives that commentators are wont to call formulaic. That is, junk fictions generally belong to well-entrenched genres, which themselves are typified by their possession of an extremely limited repertoire of story-types. [...] Junk fictions tell these generic stories again and again with minor variations. (225)I think it's significant that Carroll has been contrasting "junk fiction" with twentieth-century literary fiction. If he'd taken a look at medieval, Renaissance, or early modern literature, I think he'd have found it much, much more difficult to draw distinctions along these lines.2 As Cawelti once stated:
all cultural products contain a mixture of two kinds of elements: conventions and inventions. Conventions are elements which are known to both the creator and his audience beforehand - they consist of things like favorite plots, stereotyped characters, accepted ideas, commonly known metaphors and other linguistic devices, etc. Inventions, on the other hand, are elements which are uniquely imagined by the creator such as new kinds of characters, ideas, or linguistic forms. Of course it is difficult to distinguish in every case between conventions and inventions because many elements lie somewhere along a continuum between the two poles. Nonetheless, familiarity with a group of literary works will usually soon reveal what the major conventions are and therefore, what in the case of an individual work is unique to that creator. ("The Concept" 384-385)Cawelti goes on to observe that "Most works of art contain a mixture of convention and invention. Both Homer and Shakespeare show a large proportion of conventional elements mixed with inventions of great genius" ("The Concept" 385) and Cawelti later wrote of Shakespeare that he
worked in a popular, commercial medium and accepted the limitations of that medium. He [...] made extensive use of conventional material; as we know from the many studies of his sources, most of Shakespeare's plays were adaptations of existing stories. His work is full of the stage conventions of his time and emphasizes [...] sensational crimes and international intrigues, madness and violence, mystery and romance. ("Notes" 264)If only works with a high level of innovation and a low level of convention were to be accepted as "art" and "great literature," then a lot of works written prior to the twentieth century would have to be removed from the literary canon.
This leads me on to another set of questions that Orazem sent me:
When you approach literary analysis of a romance novel, do you treat it any differently than a work from other genres? Do romance novels have a different goal than other works, or are their artistic aspirations fundamentally the same?I replied that "I think it's unwise to generalise: different romance authors will undoubtedly have different artistic aspirations." I've already mentioned that I don't think it's necessarily helpful to assess the literary merit of works on the basis of how fast they can be read or how popular they appear to be, and I think we also need to be careful about using authors' "artistic aspirations" as an indication of the quality of the work in question.3 One author could have lofty aspirations but fail miserably, whereas another author whose primary intention was to entertain by providing an exciting plot might also include complex characterisations, thought-provoking moral dilemmas and exquisite imagery. On the question of how we should study art/literature versus works of popular culture, Cawelti has written that
When we are studying the fine arts, we are essentially interested in the unique achievement of the individual artist, while in the case of popular culture, we are dealing with a product that is in some sense collective. Of course it is possible to study the fine arts as collective products just as it is possible to examine individual works of popular culture as unique artistic creations. ("The Concept" 382)He suggests that if one wishes to "examine individual works of popular culture as unique artistic creations" then "the traditional methods of humanistic scholarship are the most appropriate, with some allowance for the special aesthetic problems of the popular arts" ("The Concept" 382). With my background, I don't see these as "special [...] problems." As a medievalist, the works of fiction I approached tended to contain high levels of what Cawelti calls "convention," as does the modern romance genre. And so, as Katherine Orazem reported,
Vivanvo [sic], who is planning a close literary analysis of Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, said she “approach[es] romances in the same way that I’d approach any other work of fiction.”----
- Carroll, Noël. "The Paradox of Junk Fiction. Philosophy and Literature 18.2 (1994): 225-241.
- Cawelti, John G. "Notes toward an Aesthetic of Popular Culture." Journal of Popular Culture 5.2 (1971): 255-
- Cawelti, John G. "The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature." Journal of Popular Culture 3.3 (1969): 381-390.
- Orazem, Katherine. "In Defense of Romance: Proving the Stereotypes Wrong. Yale Herald Friday, February 12, 2010.
- Williamson, Margaret. "The Greek Romance." The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge & Kegan
- Paul, 1986. 23-45.
1 My opinion of the piece has not, I hope, been influenced by the fact that its author quoted me.
2 Carroll tangentially includes a recognition that this may be the case when he writes that
Detractors of junk fiction or, as it is sometimes called, kitsch, maintain that the audience for junk fiction is passive when compared to the audience for high art. Moreover, they explain this by claiming that junk fiction is "easy" while high art, or at least high art of the twentieth century, is "difficult." (238)3 In many cases the author's intentions remain unknown to the literary critic. In others, the stated intentions are known, but may not be a reliable indication of the author's true intentions. I am thinking in particular of cases in which the "modesty topos" has been employed:
The "modesty topos" was a well-worn strategy in Renaissance writing for displaying "sprezzatura" -- an apparently unstudied, natural elegance of demeanor. (The contradiction built into this is fascinating.) In a warped way, the modesty topos manifests itself in the American consciousness. The folksy, downhome, southern style is politically popular because it aims to represent a trustworthy "regular guy" character -- as if anyone more articulate than oneself is as dangerous as Milton's silver-tongued Satan. (Nancy Weitz)Janet Claire has commented that some Renaissance women writers employed
the modesty topos. The apologetic or self-deprecating idiom of several of the texts which will be considered needs to be read at other than face value. Paradoxically, to draw attention to a lack of learning or seemingly to acquiesce in patriarchal notions of female inferiority could disarm the male reader and prove an enabling device for the publication of women's writing.
Since we're discussing how to weigh up the value of different texts, I thought the photo of War and Peace on a set of scales was appropriate. The photo was taken by Jill Clardy, who titled it "War and Peace is 'Heavy Reading'." It's used under the terms of its Creative Commons licence.
You make such great points about Carroll's argument, Laura. Thank you!ReplyDelete
And the the interview is wonderful. We are lucky to have so many able representatives among the ranks of popular romance studies.
"the interview is wonderful"ReplyDelete
Yes, I thought Katherine Orazem did a good job of asking interesting questions, selecting among the replies she got, and then weaving them together with the other background research she'd done.
Re Carroll, thank you, Jessica, for bringing his article to my attention!
Heh, I just commented over at Jessica's that I feel one of the problems with the history of Romance criticism is that the genre has not been treated with the same tools of literary/cultural/philosophical/historical, etc. theory/criticism that other literary/artistic (aka more "legitimate"?) forms have been.ReplyDelete
It reminds me of when I was entering grad school and Norman O. Brown was trying to talk me out of studying American lit. He assured me that was fine as a "hobby," but not for a serious scholar.
So now I see the same shift beginning with Romance -- and in ten years, the academic landscape will look very different, I expect.
It seems to me that a lot of the existing scholarship on romance has been focused on readers - how we read, why we read, whether it's good for us, what it means about our attitudes towards relationships/capitalism/sexuality. There isn't anything inherently wrong with that kind of approach, and I've also sometimes looked at themes/attitudes which seem to run through a lot of the genre. But it does mean we haven't seen much close reading of the texts as texts, we haven't, as you say, applied all "the same tools of literary/cultural/philosophical/historical, etc. theory/criticism" to them as we do to other literary texts. I very much agree that it's time for that to change.ReplyDelete
I thought it was interesting to see how Ariel/Sycorax Pine's comment and your comment seemed to be converging towards the kind of thing I'd been saying here. The fact that more of us feel comfortable about pointing out similarities between the romance genre and many other forms of literature makes me hopeful that, as you say, there's a "shift beginning with Romance," with increasing numbers of us wanting to treat romances as literary texts.
I think, though, because the 'conventions' of romance fiction are so much more stringent than the 'conventions' found in other literature, standard kinds of critical attention provide little reward. Those conventions harness authors to a specific goal, which, while it may not affect any of the other elements of good writing, nonetheless limits what can be included and leaves very little room for invention.ReplyDelete
Laura, your timing couldn't be better! I've been working on a piece about treating romances as literary texts, and I'm very grateful to you for pointing me not only toward Carroll's piece, but also toward the Cawelti essays. I've thought for a while now that Cawelti's work was a "road not taken" in romance scholarship; it sounds to me like many of us are doubling back to the general tenor of his approach, if not to its specific terms and topics, and I may try to do that more self-consciously in my next set of romance classes, to see what results!ReplyDelete
have you read Ariel/Sycorax Pine's comment to which Laura linked? I think she brings up some really good reasons standard critical approaches are applicable and even essential to Romance scholarship.
In fact, Romance has consistently and stubbornly forced me to remember and be mindful of the piles and piles of critical theory I had to study in grad school. In fact, I was just thinking this morning that it's time to revisit Auberbach's Mimesis.
Laura, Since I've not worked extensively on reader response theories, I'm not qualified to judge the overall relevance of its application to Romance.ReplyDelete
But I will say that I think it's too often been used as a way to confirm some negative stereotypes about both Romance and Romance readers, and so I've grown wary of its application to the genre.
"the 'conventions' of romance fiction are so much more stringent than the 'conventions' found in other literature"ReplyDelete
I'll have to beg to differ, Dick. I really don't see how the romance genre's requirement of:
(a) a central love story and
(b) a happy ending
are any more stringent than, say, the requirements of neoclassical drama:
Neoclassicists recognized only two legitimate forms of drama, that they felt should not be mixed
1. Tragedy - about kings and nobles, and comedy - about the middle and lower classes
2. Plays should have 5 acts and follow standard rules and purposes:
1. Unity of time – action takes place in 24 hours
2. Unity of place – all action in the same location
3. Unity of action – only one plot
4. The ending should uphold “poetic justice”
5. The purpose of drama is to teach and please
All this, and serious drama was also expected to be written in alexandrine verse,
twelve-syllable lines that were first used in the late twelfth-century epic Le Roman d’Alexandre, and that later became the standard metrical form for French neo-classical tragedy. In addition to end-rhymes, the alexandrine also contains a caesura, normally corresponding with some measure of phrasal pause, and generally occurring in mid-line after the sixth syllable. There is consequently a sense of balance between the two halves of the line (hemistiches)
Glad to have been of help, Eric! I also liked the "the general tenor of his [Cawelti's] approach." It's a pity that he himself wrote so little about romance (only two pages, I think) in his Adventure, Mystery, and Romance.ReplyDelete
I think it's too often been used as a way to confirm some negative stereotypes about both Romance and Romance readers, and so I've grown wary of its application to the genre.
That's definitely the impression and response I've had too, though I've not worked on reader response theories at all, so I'm even less "qualified to judge the overall relevance of its application to Romance."
Yes, the conventions of neoclassical drama were strict, but those conventions did not determine the ending, the goal, as romance fictions do. When an author is required to head for a specific kind of ending, everything that precedes the ending has to fall in line or the ending either can't be reached or doesn't 'fit' what precedes.
I can't find that link to Ariel/Sycorax Pine.
those conventions did not determine the ending, the goal, as romance fictions do. When an author is required to head for a specific kind of ending, everything that precedes the ending has to fall in line or the ending either can't be reached or doesn't 'fit' what precedes.ReplyDelete
It seems to me that tragedies end in tragedy. Doesn't that shape whatever came before the ending?
I think we're going to have to agree to differ about this, Dick.
You can find Ariel/Sycorax Pine's comment here. It's comment 38 on that thread.
I confess, even with a English major in my arts degree, to still be completely unclear on what makes something 'literature'. Dickens wrote genre literature for his time, and Hardy's work isn't, apart from the obsession with dead women, particuarly deeper than a well written modern romance. Since the only rigid requirement of Romance is the HEA - something which found in other genres, along with a strong relationship anchoring the story - I wonder if the real criterion for literature is that it's written by a dead white (pref European) man, and even better if everyone ends up dead or thoroughly miserable.ReplyDelete
That may sound flippant but labels shape how we see things. I was talking to a reader of mine tonight, who said how much he'd enjoyed the latest thing I'd published because it was a strong plot with romance as a subplot. I said the same was true of the very first book I'd written - but he pointed out the way I'd described the first book, which contained as much world-building and plot as any science fiction novel you could wish, emphasised the romance aspect.
In other words, people expected a romance, and saw it as such. If I'd labelled it as science fiction, even with the romance, it would be considered SF and nothing else. And SF is, I believed, treated much more seriously by scholars than Romance is.
"When an author is required to head for a specific kind of ending, everything that precedes the ending has to fall in line or the ending either can't be reached or doesn't 'fit' what precedes."
Nope. Sorry. If all you have to do is bring two people together for a hopefully ever after, the ways you can do that are legion. So are the plots, themes, settings, and characters.
The really limiting factor is the demand of major publishers, but so much Romance is published outside New York these days (particularly in my genre, of course) and even within it, authors manage a huge diversity.
I would love to see Romances treated as serious texts, especially m/m romances, rather than the readers treated as freaks for enjoying it. The genre is capable of encompassing all of the human experience, and if it doesn't, then that's a limitation of the authors, not the genre.
Thanks for the link.
But the ending in a tragedy is compelled by the events preceding it. The very definition of romance fiction requires the events preceding to be compelled by the ending.
Dick, in my opinion a good romance writer will ensure that all the characters' actions are properly motivated. If an ending feels tacked on, or if it feels to the reader that the characters behave in certain ways solely because that's the way the plot needs to go, then I think the author has failed.ReplyDelete
I certainly agree with Pines' suggestions that readers are aware of and readily note plays upon formulae in genre fiction. But I think that's still evaluation by reader response rather than criticism of the fiction itself.
That there is a relationship to that reader response and the audience response to Greek tragedies can't be denied, but it doesn't tell us much about either of the genres except that they have a response in common.
@ Laura V:ReplyDelete
I agree. However, a specific kind of ending must be reached in romance fiction or the fiction becomes something other.
@dick Actually, I think the more relevant comparison is between Romance and Classical Comedy. And as you know, Comedy in that form was expected to end in a marriage. The protags were expected to struggle against an antagonist that most often represented an older social value or structure, and the romantic attachment of the main protag couple was often intended to demonstrate the emergence of a new social reality, order, value, etc.ReplyDelete
I don't think it takes a great deal of prodding to show that Romance owes a great deal formally and formalistically to Comedy, and in the same way we apply standard critical tools to the study of Comedic forms, why not to Romance, as well? Honestly, it seems illogical to me to do otherwise.
Don't be silly, Robin. There's a huge difference between Classical Comedy and ROmance.ReplyDelete
One's written in Classical Greek, which makes it important. The other one is written by women, which means it must be junk.
I have to critique Nancy Weitz' suggestion that to speak in a Southern way is to prevent oneself from speaking articulately. A Southern (American) accent is simply speaking the language with (in English) the vowels they heard as a child. Using a diphthong for the vowel in the word "fork" as some Southern accents do is no less articulate than using a monophthong as other accents do. Might as well claim that the people in Edinburgh are inarticulate because they use different vowels than those in Birmingham. Or vice versa.ReplyDelete
That aside, I've always thought that artistry is best determined by the experiences it is capable of generating in a reader/viewer/listener, etc. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, we have little understanding of that currently. I've also never thought there was a single dimension to artistic experience. Art doesn't go from good to bad. There are many types of artistic experience, and it is the depth of those experiences that is the best measure of artistic merit.
I would argue for a long time that Beethoven's 9th is a richer work than AC/DC's Back in Black, but the 9th is also completely incapable of generating certain types of emotions that Back in Black can. Similarly, if one reduces literary art merely to the rewards of contemplating diction, well, that is indeed worthy, but you aren't really explaining literary merit. You're just declaring one experience the only one worth consideration. I could equally well declare danceability the most important aesthetic quality for music and conclude that the Black Eyed Peas are art, while Mozart's Don Giovanni is junk.
Good to see you again, Pacatrue! I got the impression that Weitz wasn't so much referring to the accent as to a style of political speech. Haven't George Bush and Sarah Palin both been described as having a "folksy, downhome" sort of approach? For example, here's a quote about Palin: "Tea Party folks adore her. [...] They love her folksy, down-home, Southern Bellelike attitude (Even though she’s from Alaska)."ReplyDelete
I agree that, if one is going to make comparisons between romance fiction and other forms, classical comedy is a better fit, but not a complete one, for there are numbers of contrasts too. For example, even though, like romance fiction, classical comedy usually includes a relationship struggle, the pair and their struggle involved is secondary to the central plot. Further, classical comedy nearly always has a purpose beyond delineating the relationship and achieving the happy ending for the couple, usually a purpose with more far-reaching aims than most romance fictions have. The purpose, the intent of romance fiction, as the definition of it makes clear, is complete within the bounds of the book itself.
"classical comedy nearly always has a purpose beyond delineating the relationship and achieving the happy ending for the couple, usually a purpose with more far-reaching aims than most romance fictions have"ReplyDelete
And dead greek men wrote them.
Dick, you seem to have read very narrowly, considering the comments you make about the genre. At least you have a very narrow interpretation of a vast and varied genre. It's rather depressing to see the writing I and other create dismissed in the way that you do.
"Dismissing" is not my intent at all. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for authors of romance fiction, who can invent myriad variations on a stringent formula. Romance fiction appeals to me as it does to anyone who likes well written stories one knows will leave only enjoyment behind. I just don't believe that looking closely at romance fiction will add much to one's understanding of the genre. For one thing, it's so vast it's almost impossible to say "these are the definitive" texts, a base from which to start.
Would you do away with "Lysistrata," with its quintessentially feminist point of view, even though it's written by a dead Greek? I've never thought the gender or nationality of an author had much to do with how good his work was, myself.
I've read very widely in the genre, everything from Harlequins to Heyer (although I can't abide her style), but I will admit to not liking some of the sub-genres--such as paranormal--very much, and have thus a more limited acquaintance with those.
"I just don't believe that looking closely at romance fiction will add much to one's understanding of the genre."ReplyDelete
Hmmm... Certainly looking closely at individual romance novels has added a lot, in my own experience, to my understanding of those individual novels. As a result, I have a richer sense of what has been done, and can be done, in the genre, which has added to my enjoyment of and respect for it. (I should note that as a critic, I'm not that interested in "the genre" as a whole, but I'm fascinated by individual texts--the same is true for my primary field of poetry.)
"it's so vast it's almost impossible to say "these are the definitive" texts, a base from which to start"--
You're quite right about this--but from my perspective, this is a good problem to have. And I wouldn't be surprised if a canon emerged in the next five or ten years, only to be defiantly overturned shortly thereafter.
I think some of the issues that you raise are issues that come up in any new field, since there isn't a rich compost of criticism from which new arguments can bloom. In another few years, students may speak quite glibly about this or that broader purpose in a romance novel from (let's say) the 1990s, as though they'd been clear to readers all along.
"I just don't believe that looking closely at romance fiction will add much to one's understanding of the genre. "ReplyDelete
How else is one to gain an understanding of anything, let alone a genre, unless by closely looking at it? What a peculiar statement to make when academic analysis of Romance is what this blog is all about?
"I've never thought the gender or nationality of an author had much to do with how good his work was, myself. "
Hmm, strange, then, that the kind of literature which you consider more prone to 'greatness' just happens to be dominated by people who lack ovaries, and who are not in fact still upright and breathing.
Or put it another way - you've just airily dismissed as unworthy of close study, a genre uniquely dominated by female writers and authors. Your reasons for doing so smack of special pleading, and indeed sound awfully like the reasons men put down a lot of female activity as unimportant or lacking intellectual weight. The real reason women's activities are ignored - not 'closely studied' - is that women, not men, are doing them, and for no other reason. Nothing in your remarks convinces me that you are able to shed the blinkers of your genre. Not all men dismiss Romance as not worth closer study - look at Eric Selinger - but he's sadly rare.
I'm sure you're familiar with the complaints about the disproportionate interest academically in 'dead white males':
It's that I was referencing with my 'dead greek men' remark. I'll try to be less subtle next time.
Eric, I swear I was composing my reply as you were, and my name-checking you was pure coincidence!ReplyDelete
Dick, are you arguing that romance is not literary or not art because it does not have "a purpose beyond delineating the relationship and achieving the happy ending for the couple," because it lacks "more far-reaching aims"? (In other words, I think, that plot is most important to it?).ReplyDelete
I'd grant that the standard definition Laura cites is a plot-based one, but I don't know that we can jump from there to the assertion that filling out the plot structure is the only aim a romance writer/text has. At the very least, that definition raises questions of what a "happy ending" means/looks like, what love, happiness, a good life is. And to dismiss an exploration of those themes as "not far-reaching" does strike me as possibly sexist, as Ann points out.
Perhaps because I'm a Victorianist, I find 19th-century novels a helpful comparison here. For one thing, they cared more about plot than Modernist/post-modernist writers (I think there's a reason arguments like Carroll's cite people like Updike and Woolf as their examples of "art"--it's harder to make their arguments on the back of Chaucer or Shakespeare of Dickens, as Laura pointed out).
Lots of 19th century novels explore significant themes and resolve conflicts through their romance plots: e.g. Pride and Prejudice: the central romance plot is a major way Austen explores questions of gentility; the marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth is a symbolic marriage between the values of the gentry and the aristocracy. Gaskell's North and South: the marriage between the daughter of a southern (England) clergyman and northern mill owner "resolves" their conflict over how to view the working class and is meant to promote a new way forward in class relations.
Arguably, this approach is unsatisfying: social problems can't really be resolved by two people falling in love. But it's long been a literary approach to addressing serious themes, which for me makes it harder to view genre romance as inherently unsuited to "far-reaching aims."
Contemporary romances can do the same thing. Two I've read recently: the central conflict between the characters in Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect is that they're competing for one spot as partner in a law firm, and the novel discusses questions of gender discrimination and preferences in some depth. Is the main purpose of the novel to explore gender discrimination? Perhaps not, but it is a serious theme inseparable from the love story in that novel. Erin McCarthy's Mouth to Mouth has a Deaf heroine, and the conflict between the lovers involves her struggle for independence and to find her place in the world, caught between Deaf and hearing communities.
Would I call either of these novels great art? No (but I don't care much about such value judgments). I think you may be right that a LOT of genre romance aims simply to tell a particular kind of story. But that doesn't mean it can't do more. I don't think it is constrained not to.
Also, I don't really get your distinction between incidents determining an end and the end determining the incidents. Are you suggesting Shakespeare dreamed up Othello, Iago and Desdemona and THEN thought, "OMG, the only ending for these people is tragedy!" Because you seem to be.
I'm not as certain that definitive texts will ever be determined, myself. Books as disparate as "The Billionaire's Marriage Contract" and say, Putney's "Dearly Beloved" and/or Linda Howard's "Death Angel," and/or Karen Templeton's "Saving Dr. Alan," all fall into the class romance fiction. The only common thread amongst them is that each describes a relationship which ends happily.
I don't think I've said what literature I think is prone to greatness, have I? I think some romance fictions are exceptional examples of the genre and very enjoyable reads. Do I think that those texts will become a part of the canon? I'll have to wait a hundred years as everybody must.
I'm not sure how you're using the term "literary." I think the romances I've read are "literature," but I've read none that I think equivalent to say, Pride and Prejudice--which I have great difficulty classifying as a romance.
Romance authors do consider/ explore significant problems through the relationships they describe, but that problem is rarely the central feature of the novel. And it makes no difference whether the significant problem is in any way rectified. Almost any problem will do as long as the central feature of the plot--the relationship achieving a happy ending--occurs.
If, to belong to a class, something must have a particular kind of ending, that ending influences everything that precedes it. In other words, in order to write a romance fiction, an author must include an HEA; she has no choice in the matter.
In other genres, an author isn't tied to that restriction, so whatever "happens" in the novel may as readily lead to a tragedy as a happy ending.
I'm puzzled why or how what I wrote is sexist.
"Do I think that those texts will become a part of the canon?"ReplyDelete
dick, *all* works in a genre under study - which of course, you disdain to do for Romance - are part of the canon, good, bad or ordinary.
And yes, you have indicated "what literature I think is prone to greatness" by the careful - too careful - way you distinguish Classical Tragedy and Classical Comedy from Romance, and claiming that Romance's HEA requirement somehow sets it apart and limits it. You also said Romance wasn't worth close study.
"In other genres, an author isn't tied to that restriction, so whatever "happens" in the novel may as readily lead to a tragedy as a happy ending."
The 'happiness' of the ending isn't a measure of its worth. In a mystery genre, the mystery must be solved and the justice served in some way. In a action adventure, the hero/ine must triumph, however implausibly. Genre fictions impose endings all the time - just as Tragedy and Comedy do. These are not restrictions. They are conventions.
"Pride and Prejudice--which I have great difficulty classifying as a romance. "
Why? Because it's brilliant? P&P, S&S, and my favourite Austen, "Persuasion", are indivisible in theme and plot convention from any modern romance. Are you seriously going to argue that because we know from the moment Captain Wentworth re-enters Anne Elliot's life, that by the end of the book, they will be reunited, that this somehow invalidates or diminishes the power of the story or the value and beauty of Austen's writing? How, pray, is P&P *not* Romance?
"I'm puzzled why or how what I wrote is sexist."
Sadly, I believe you really are puzzled. I imagine many, many people - almost all female - have tried over your lifetime to explain why you sound sexist, and I equally imagine that you just won't ever get it.
But here's my last attempt.
Women write almost all Romance.
Women are almost all the readers of Romance.
You state "I just don't believe that looking closely at romance fiction will add much to one's understanding of the genre." So, uniquely among all academic disciplines, according to you, Romance can be understood without examining the source material.
You also state that, uniquely among literary genres with defined conventions, Romance's convention "leaves very little room for invention."
So you are saying explicitly that Romance texts are not worth paying close academic attention to, and you believe they are not inventive because of the HEA requirement.
You also said "The purpose, the intent of romance fiction, as the definition of it makes clear, is complete within the bounds of the book itself." So Romance serves no higher purpose, explores no greater theme, than the internal romance itself.
So basically, dick, you have repeatedly said an entire genre for and by women, is crap. Entertaining crap, but crap.
More than that, when people give you examples of multiple exceptions, you either dismiss them as not truly representative or you claim they are outliers and so not representative. In other words, you disregard any evidence which would interfere with your rigid insistence that Romance is nothing by entertaining crap.
That's not only sexist, it's stupid. Your unsupported assertions offend me not only as a woman but as a scientist, author, reader, and Literature student.
If you are going to push this nonsensical theory, be so kind as to back it up with proper examples, as those arguing with you have done. Otherwise, you're wasting our time throwing out points which aren't worth disputing.
You said: If, to belong to a class, something must have a particular kind of ending, that ending influences everything that precedes it.
But your counter-example to romance, earlier, was tragic drama, was it not? And to belong to THAT class, something must have a particular kind of ending. (The hero's fall--dead, self-blinded, not much difference). So I fail to see your logic IN THAT CASE. (I do understand that there are texts where the ending is not obvious from the start.)
If we accept Laura's/the RWA def. of romance as requiring a) a central love story, and b) a happy ending, why are reluctant to classify *Pride and Prejudice* as one? I'd really like to know. Look, I haven't read a modern genre romance that is its equal, either. My point is simply that the conventions of the genre do not, on the face of it, exclude/preclude greatness. (Byatt's Possession, which the author sub-titled "A Romance", would be another example).
I'd say ANY work of art is "complete in itself." And a romance, as much as any other artwork or cultural product, allows us to ask interesting questions or to reflect on its meaning after we've read it. I think some specific examples would help me understand what you mean here better. RRRJessica is a perfect example of what *I* mean about romance allowing these discussions in her post on moral repair today.
Finally, my point about POSSIBLE sexism is a bit different from Ann's. But I wonder if you are suggesting that romance doesn't have "larger aims" in part because you do not see the issues it considers (e.g. love) as "serious" ones. And because love, marriage, and domestic life have tended to be seen as feminine concerns, to dismiss them as not serious/important aims could be seen as sexist. Whether you intend it to be or not.
"RRRJessica is a perfect example of what *I* mean about romance allowing these discussions in her post on moral repair today."ReplyDelete
For anyone who doesn't know where to find the post referred to by Elizabeth, here's a direct link to Jessica's post on "Moral Repair and Ritual Death in the Romance Novel".
Thanks Laura. I couldn't figure out how to do that!ReplyDelete
"And because love, marriage, and domestic life have tended to be seen as feminine concerns, to dismiss them as not serious/important aims could be seen as sexist."ReplyDelete
That's a good point, Elizabeth, though it's really the 'emotional' side of Romance which is most associated with feminine interests. Modern romances aren't so intimately bound up with the traditional female role as say, those by Austen (or even Gaskill) - and if you consider m/m a subgenre of Romance, it can't be dismissed as being only about *women's* concerns. But what modern romances do share with Austen and the m/m genre is the emphasis on intimacy, emotional openness, the importance of 'small' things like gestures and affection and tenderness - none of which are typically emphasised in any other modern genre of writing. Men's supposed and traditional lack of interest in such matters is one important reason why Romance is too 'girly' for them, and by extension, of no value to the male readership.
Well, I think you're mis-reading what I wrote. By the "canon," I meant those works which the vast majority of scholars and readers agree are works which should be read, which range from Homer through T.S. Eliot and beyond.
I have never stated that romance fiction is crap. You have inferred that, unjustly I believe.
One of the things I find most appealing about romance fiction is that it does not require anything but the ability to read reasonably well and be interested in the interactions of humans to understand it. That alone makes it a valuable kind of fiction.
Yes, I do see distinctions between other genres and romance fiction, because those distinctions exist.
Most, I think, would agree that romance fiction is unusually formulistic. None of the other genre fictions insist upon a specific kind of ending. In the mystery genre, a solution to the problem is not required, as the mysteries of Minotte Walters, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and others suggest. I don't think sci-fi does either, although I'm less well acquainted with that genre. Paranormals may end without ever determining whether what appeared to be beyond the norm in the story actually was beyond the norm. In fact, the answer is often deliberately left up in the air.
Only romance fiction demands a specific kind of ending. Isn't that why it's read and enjoyed by so many? Because each reader knows that, regardless of what events occur, no matter what trials and tribulations the major protagonists undergo, they will nevertheless have a happy ending?
When and who decreed that men could not understand nor like romance fiction? What is more sexist than the oft-repeated dictum that romance is by, for, and about women?
I don't think it was I who brought up tragic drama as counter to what I state about romance fiction requiring a specific kind of ending. It's difficult to compare tragedies and romance fiction, though, because most tragedies that I can think of are re-tellings, the intent of the author was, it seems to me, to examine the events rather than create them. Perhaps "Romeo and Juliet" is an exception, but Shakespeare could have, if he wished give the those two a happy ending. But surely the intent of the authors of romance is to invent a relationship with trials but one which will nevertheless lead to a happy ending. And once that intention is set, don't you agree that the HEA, the convention which defines romance fiction, determines, in some way, everything that precedes it?
No, I categorically deny that I think issues of love, marriage, and domestic life are issues unworthy of attention. And, although those issues are oft considered women's issues, I've never understood why that view is so widely held. Men love and marry and many of us are thoroughly domesticated.
About P&P: On the surface, if one follows only the relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth, yes, it fits the definition of romance. But the rest of the text points to a different intention entirely, as the relationships of Mr & Mrs. Bennett, Lydia/Wickham, Charlotte/Mr Collins, even the Cheapside aunt and uncle imply-- as indeed the casualness of the happy ending implies.
"But the rest of the text points to a different intention entirely, as the relationships of Mr & Mrs. Bennett, Lydia/Wickham, Charlotte/Mr Collins, even the Cheapside aunt and uncle imply-- as indeed the casualness of the happy ending implies."ReplyDelete
So by your interpretation, if an author doesn't *intend* to write a Romance, then it's not a romance.
The fact that Austen's novels *all* deal with romantic relationships and end with a HEA, say nothing about her intent, and are purely accidental, according to you? The fact that the novels deal with other matters other than the core relationship, means the book is ipso facto not a Romance, according to you?
You know that you're doing, don't you? Discarding evidence which doesn't fit your theory, instead of accepting the existence of this evidence invalidates your theory?
Lazy, erroneous thinking, dick. I have a theory as to why you're so wedded to yours, and so far nothing I've seen of you causes me to adjust it.
"it does not require anything but the ability to read reasonably well and be interested in the interactions of humans to understand it."
While you needs a Masters degree at minimum to read science fiction, mysteries, horror and even Dickens.
What a *patronising* thing to say.
"Shakespeare could have, if he wished give the those two a happy ending."
Yes, he could and then he'd be telling an entirely different story, one which did not demonstrate the evil of unfettered, unreasoning emotion as the engine of a relationship.
"Only romance fiction demands a specific kind of ending. "
You've been offered specific examples to show romance is *not* unique in this, and yet you discard it. Tsk, tsk, dick.
More than that, you don't even distinguish between different types of HEAs. You won't even admit that even this limitation inspires a good deal of inventiveness.
You read Romance for entertainment. Fine. That doesn't mean Romance is only capable of entertainment. It doesn't mean that when an author explores themes beyond that of the relationship, that the book is no longer Romance. In every genre, there will be books which are superior in writing, execution and breadth of ambition. That doesn't mean that they are then elevated to the extent they are no longer part of that genre. You don't get to exclude Austen just because she's a good writer exploring social themes and that would interfere with your belief that Romance is only fluffy entertainment.
"What is more sexist than the oft-repeated dictum that romance is by, for, and about women? "
A good many things, including almost everything you've said on this post. A minority of male readers does not invalidate the very easily demonstrated claim that Romance is aimed at a female audience, and dominated by women authors. Men reading/writing it are a side-effect. You could remove every man reading or writing it and the genre would not be changed in the slightest. The same is not true for women.
"About P&P: On the surface, if one follows only the relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth, yes, it fits the definition of romance. But the rest of the text points to a different intention entirely, as the relationships of Mr & Mrs. Bennett, Lydia/Wickham, Charlotte/Mr Collins, even the Cheapside aunt and uncle imply-- as indeed the casualness of the happy ending implies."ReplyDelete
I think Austen herself would have argued that, "under the surface" a lot of other novels, including modern romances, deal with much more:
"Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers [...] there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. [...] “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. (Northanger Abbey Chapter 5)
I'm going to post a few very short thoughts, in response to the flurry of comments, but not all at once. (Such is my schedule these days.)ReplyDelete
The first is about "the canon."
When I talk about "the canon" in this context, I mean the canon of romance novels that someone studying or teaching the genre would feel compelled to include or address. The broader "literary canon" doesn't interest me very much, except when I'm arguing with colleagues about course requirements.
I've been in this business long enough to see authors enter and leave "the canon," especially when it comes to modern poetry. It's a convenient pedagogical and ideological fiction, constructed (as Hugh Kenner says somewhere) partly from the facts of literary history and partly from our desire to tell a shapely story.
As a way to determine the worth of novels? Well, I don't find it an issue worth thinking about, except when I'm trying to decide what to require my students to read in a given context--and even then I'm as likely to go outside "the canon" as I am to re-inscribe it. So much of the interesting work in a given period (to me) is non-canonical, and often the ostensibly canonical works have been dulled by over-teaching & over-reading, and could use a rest. Often they're much more enjoyable, too. I used to teach "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" rather than anything by Frank Norris in my course on American literature from 1865-1910, and when I get the course next, I'll do it again.
It's also hard to over-state just how deeply gendered the criteria for admission into the category of "literature" have been at various times--and perhaps especially at the start of the 20th century, when what we now think of as "the canon" gets formulated. The presence of a few women authors in that mix doesn't negate the fact that a host of authors, critics, philosophers, and the like, did their best to define "literature" specifically against the kinds of reading material that were popular with, and often written by, women--especially middle-class women.
More on that later--must run now.
Well, Eric just expressed my view of the canon far more eloquently than I was about to. That's one reason Dick and I will never agree. I am pretty sure you could get a lot out of the Iliad if you could read and cared about human interaction. Sure, you'd get more if you had other knowledge. But that's true of romance, too. Since I've discovered internet Romancelandia, I've gotten much more out of my romance reading and become a far more educated and attentive (less furtive and shamed) reader of the genre.ReplyDelete
Another reasons I won't ever agree with Dick is that I firmly believe the author is dead (only theoretically, Ann!) and don't care what s/he intended. The fact that there's more to P and P than a central relationship and HEA doesn't mean those things don't exist in it, or that attention to them is "superficial." And that definition of romance is a minimum, not a maximum one--it doesn't say romance can't have anything else.
My flurry of posts is due to the fact that I live in Vancouver and am on semester break during the Olympics. I should, of course, be grading papers instead of engaging in pointless arguments with Dick. But what I'm going to do is watch hockey.
So, again quickly, some additional thoughts:ReplyDelete
"One of the things I find most appealing about romance fiction is that it does not require anything but the ability to read reasonably well and be interested in the interactions of humans to understand it."
--Like Elizabeth, I think this is probably true of much more literature, especially before the late 19th century, than we now realize. Or, to argue from the other side of the issue, you probably underestimate the amount of knowledge and experience needed to read many romance novels. Certainly in my years of teaching them, I've been amazed by how "difficult" some romance novels are for my students. (George Steiner's list of various sorts of difficulty may be on point here.)
"None of the other genre fictions insist upon a specific kind of ending. In the mystery genre, a solution to the problem is not required, as the mysteries of Minotte Walters, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and others suggest."
--I wonder whether those would be later developments, however, in the development of the genre, in which an author deliberately flouts a convention or a reader's expectation, thus making the novel more "literary." Certainly mystery / detective fiction authors aspired, early on, to make literature of the genre, as Dashiell Hammett said back in 1928. The same was true of SF writers starting in the 1960s, at the latest.
I'm happy to concede the point, however, that readers expect a romance novel to have an "emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending," as the RWA says, while readers in SF, let's say, don't have any particular expectation about the ending. When a love story doesn't end that way, we call it something else, which also doesn't happen in other genres. But again, this suggests that what we call "romance fiction" is a subset of comedy, but I'm not sure what else it tells us.
I'll admit that when I look at the shelves of SF books in the library, I have a greater sense that ANYTHING could happen in one of those books (including a romance) than I do when looking at the shelves of romance, or of mystery, or of literary fiction for that matter. But this openness has a downside as well. In romance fiction, I have a much more vivid sense of how the conventions are being negotiated and played with by an author, which I quite enjoy, and when there's no strong set of generic expectations, that kind of play is no longer possible. (Other kinds are, but not THAT kind.)
Analogy: romance fiction is like iambic pentameter? Feels limited / limiting from some outside perspectives, but is astonishingly variable and fascinating to those at home in it. And it's a form that can contain everything from the most sublime writing to utter banality; the form doesn't predetermine the quality, just the parameters within which that quality must be achieved.
"I firmly believe the author is dead"ReplyDelete
So do I :) I believe discussing of authorial intent has a role in the historical assessment of literature, but very little in assessing the value of a work of fiction. (I can't say it's of no value because obviously knowing that Animal Farm is an allegory for the Russian Revolution is important, but it's not obvious from the text itself what Orwell intended.)
Regardless I would dispute the bizarre assertion that P&P wasn't intended as a romance just because it covers other themes as well. There's not a jot of evidence for this statement, other than dick's obvious prejudice against the genre having an potential as a vehicle for social comment or any other purpose bar entertaining him. It's really not worth wasting your valuable hockey-watching time on trying to refute an unsupported statement.
Enjoy the hockey:)
If anyone's interested, I've posted a list of m/m romances which deal with issues outside that of the relationship itself, and do so with no detriment to the story or romantic development at all:ReplyDelete
dick, if you don't know what "m/m" romances are, that's same sex romances, specifically between gay or bisexual men. It's a fast growing, popular subgenre of Romance
I think part of the issue here is that you are approaching these genre questions from a primarily New Critical perspective -- form determines and defines and delineates content.
Within that context, it seems as if you see Romance as defined, delineated, and determined by its formal generic limitations as manifested (as Eric IMO correctly suggested) by current genre Romance iterations.
What I think that critical paradigm lacks, though, is the ability to acknowledge the incredibly long and rich generic pedigree of the Romance novel, as well as the possibility that form, even the delineation of an "emotionally satisfying ending" can itself be an open and dynamic formal element, similar to line numbers in a sonnet, for example.
The form/content issue in Romance is, IMO, and in my experience studying the genre, not so straightforward as saying that because there are certain formalistic rules to Romance that are not the same as say, SF (but are more in alignment with, say, Mystery/Suspense), there is nothing of value beyond the enjoyment of the form. Which is what I think you're basically arguing.
If you flip the equation, so to speak, so that content is the primary focus, though, the whole significance of form and formalistic rules shift. If we see, for example, the form of Romance to operate in service to the thematic, ideological, character/plot aspects of the novels themselves, the genre opens up, rather than closes down, to a variety of critical approaches.
Actually, I agree more than disagree with most of what you've written, particularly in the second post. Still, I think the necessity for dual protagonists and their HEA limits what can be included in a romance, just as iambic pentameter limits the stresses in a line, or requirements of a sonnet limit the number of lines...that is, of course, if everything is going to fit and work toward the HEA without leaving the reader in doubts about it.
I also think that those works of literature often referred to as the canon, even though the inclusions may change from time to time, represent works that most people would agree have intrinsic value/worth.
You're correct in thinking I'm a formalist. Thus, you'll probably not be surprised that I disagree with the idea that form can be separated from content or content from form. Until given form, language has no meaning; it's merely sound. Yes, one can study the thematic, ideological, and character aspects of a romance separate from the form, but doing so, it seems to me, would be like separating bread from its leavening agent--the relationship and the HEA, the things that make it a romance.
I think we've reached an impasse, so I shall take Ms. Somerville's suggestion and withdraw from this discussion. I've enjoyed it.
Sorry about the brevity of my absence.
Yes, I think Austen would agree that many novels do have depths. I still think, though, that the "romance" of P&P is secondary to other purposes. In romance fiction, the "romance" is primary.
You may have forgotten issuing the invitation to visit your site. I hope you don't regret extending it.
Thanks, Dick. I'm glad you've enjoyed the discussion. As you say, "we've reached an impasse" now but your comments have prompted some very interesting responses, and while I've found your perspective extremely puzzling, I think it's due to the fact that you're wearing very different interpretative lenses from the rest of us. I'll have to read up on formalism.ReplyDelete