Jonathan A. Allan
So many fields of study, and I believe that we hope to make popular romance a field, have lists of required readings. These need not be the “best” texts, but rather texts that were important in the development of that field. As much as scholars may wish to stop reading Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, the text remains important precisely because it is cited and read by many, and it has informed so much of the criticism on popular romance. The point is not to reify texts or authors, but to recognize their influence or importance for the field.
As problematic as any canon surely is, it is also remarkably useful insofar as it allows scholars to have an understanding of the essential texts. Yes, texts will be missing. But I don’t think that is reason enough to discard any discussion of canon. Yes, some authors will be over-represented, while others will be under-represented (what happened to Northrop Frye?). And yes, the canon will be imperfect. But, again, is this reason to avoid the discussion altogether?
However, aren’t most of the reasons for not having a canon already true in popular romance studies? Do we not all agree that The Flame and the Flower was a turning point for American romance? Do we also not all agree that Nora Roberts is essential to the history of the American romance? I think I’ve heard on a couple of occasions someone ask a question about the place of Danielle Steele in popular romance; she is noticeably absent for these questioners. The critiques of canon are important precisely because the politics of canon are already at play in the field.
I cannot pretend to offer a canon here of the central texts of romance fiction that all scholars of popular romance should have read, but I do think it is an important discussion that perhaps we ought to have. The future of the field, if it is to become a field, requires that we establish its parameters, its histories, and its central texts.
I admit that the canon will not be perfect, but let’s take that as a given. Let’s draft a canon (or we can use another word), let’s admit its imperfections, and let’s welcome changes to the canon (we can think about it as a work in progress). But, let’s not give up on this task because it might get messy. In very practical terms, with so few PhD-granting institutions focussing on popular romance (indeed, few have even a single faculty member writing on popular romance), how can PhD students be evaluated in terms of the field? Or, how can graduate students present “popular romance” as a field, if the field has yet to define its key texts? (My field exam on “Genre: Romance” included: Pride and Prejudice, Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, Maurice, Passage to India, Atala, Lord Jim, Adolphe, Daniel Deronda, Sentimental Education, Paul et Virginie, to name but a few “Romances.” I managed to slip Twilight in the reading list. I’m not against what I ultimately studied, I think it was an important education in the genre, but it wasn’t “popular.”)
I’m not certain that I have a solution to any of this, and thus am very open to suggestions on how we might do this. Eric’s courses remind us that a canon is being developed, and moreover that it is a challenge worth considering. Perhaps there is a JPRS issue to be organized around the pedagogical and practical questions of romance. Or perhaps, we can crowd-source a canon, a reading list, a field, and see what happens. Or maybe I'm completely wrong and we don't need any of this. But this discussion has come up often enough at conferences, usually over dinner or drinks, that it seems worth considering.