--by Eric Selinger
Six years ago I taught DePaul University’s first course exclusively devoted to popular romance fiction: a gen-ed (or “Liberal Studies”) course that ran from E.M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) to Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie (2004). I have since taught about twenty-five courses on the genre, from large undergraduate surveys to senior and graduate seminars. The novels I've taught range from Christian inspirational romance to BDSM and LGBT romances, often accompanied by some range of essays and chapters from popular romance scholarship.
This winter, I'm teaching two romance classes, both of which I'm going to start blogging about here at Teach Me Tonight. One of them is built around fresh scholarly resource: Laura's brand new book, For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. I suspect I'm the first person to teach with this book, and I want to give anyone out there who might be considering it, either for class or for pleasure reading, a sense of how it's working in this context.
Let's start with logistics. When I asked my university bookstore to order hard copies of the book from Lulu, they balked, unused to dealing with an e-published / POD volume. (Our bookstore is a Barnes & Noble, and the fact that For Love and Money was available as a Kindle book, but not a Nook book, may have factored in their decision.) I promptly emailed the students directly, giving them links to download the book or purchase the paperback, and they were utterly unfazed by the prospect. About 2/3, I'd say, bought the paperback; the rest seem to be reading it on netbooks, e-readers, or tablets in class.
Because I wasn't sure whether they'd all have the book by the first full day of class, however--a worry I won't have in the future--I assigned some other reading before it. This is an upper-division undergraduate course, and I wanted to get students up to speed on the history of popular romance scholarship, the various debates that have structured it since the 1970s, and so forth. We started with three things:
- The chapter on "Reading Romantic Fiction" from Joanne Hollows' book Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture (2000), which gives an introductory overview of critical debates from the 70s-90s, grounding them in critiques of mass culture that date back to the 19th century;
- The introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, which covers the same period from a slightly different angle, and which brings things forward to the present, more or less; and
- My own essay in New Approaches, "How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance)," which talks about why it's been so hard for critics to invest in giving "close readings" of romance fiction--and then offers an example of what such reading might look like, working with Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm.
For the second day of class, I'd assigned the Introduction and first chapter ("Mimetic Modes") of Laura's book. Our conversation began, though, with an extended discussion of her dedication: "To every Harlequin Mills & Boon author who has ever been asked, 'When are you going to write a real novel?'" I had students brainstorm lists of the characteristics of the "real novel" and the "Harlequin Mills & Boon novel," drawing on the previous day's reading and on their own gut sense, as English majors, of what these differences might be.
This turned out to be a fabulous way to organize our thoughts, both in terms of the texts themselves and in terms of the ways they're written, published, marketed, and consumed, per student assumptions and as these get discussed in classes at our university. I kicked myself that I hadn't asked these students to read anything from Mark McGurl's The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction After Henry James, which has a wonderful discussion of how the high-art novel emerges (quite anxiously) from the sea of popular fiction during the later 19th century, but their exposure to a bit of that history via the Hollows chapter proved helpful in clarifying just how deeply they've been indoctrinated in some old, quite sketchy ideas about the distinction between "real" art (which is deliberate, and evidently created in pursuit of craft, social commentary, or inward spiritual necessity) as opposed to popular culture (filthy lucre!).
The key terms in Laura's title and subtitle, Love and Money and Literary Art, provided us with a useful frame of reference here, as did her introductory discussion of popular romance being "literature's Other" (thus Curthoys and Docker, qtd. 12) or being seen as the "degenerate" form of an older, more artistic genre. (This as opposed to the evolutionary metaphors commonly used for detective and science fiction, which is said to start as pulp fiction and then rise to the status of literature, at least in the hands of this or that author.) We talked about the denigration of HMB and of popular romance more generally—what had they seen, heard, etc. here at DePaul--and ended with Laura's comparison between HMB fiction and 15th century cancionero love poetry, which really struck a chord with several students.
By the end of class, they were ready to talk about reading romance novels as "real novels," which laid the foundation for our next go-round. I'll blog about that later this week, and then, at the end of the week, about our first attempts to read a particular romance novel, The Duke is Mine by Eloisa James, with Laura's study in mind. I chose the novel because it so prominently features a "mythos," in Northrop Frye's terms--in this case, the story of the Princess and the Pea--and Laura's second chapter is all about the ways that HMB romances deploy and revise and comment on recurring stories, or "mythoi." As it turns out, however, the first chapter of For Love and Money, about various fictional "modes" and the aesthetics of "modal counterpoint," also turned out to be quite helpful. Stay tuned!