Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Popular Romance Studies and the Politics of Canon

Jonathan A. Allan

I have been following Eric’s posts on syllabi and his emails to the listserv, and this has me wondering about the politics of canon, or less canon and more literary history. One of the central challenges that popular romance studies must attend to – I think – is a lack of canon.

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.


  1. At the end of Crystal Goldman's recent essay, “Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries” she makes a number of

    recommendations for popular romance scholars [...] based on the information presented in this article. The first is that, if popular romance scholars want libraries to collect their core list of titles, especially with the vast amount of primary source material produced each year, they need to have a list of core titles. Librarians rely on review sources to help them choose which titles to select, and the review sources neglect popular romance materials. To fill this gap, it is recommended that IASPR put together a committee to compile a true core list of primary and secondary titles for popular romance studies. This list would need to be updated annually to include new titles.

    I'd want to see novels by Harlequin Mills & Boon authors on the list. I'm not sure how many of them could be classified as "turning points" in the history of popular romance, but a canon which excluded HM&B authors such as Mary Burchell, Charlotte Lamb, Betty Neels, Essie Summers and Violet Winspear would definitely be incomplete.

    E. M. Hull's The Sheik is a must. I'd include Florence Barclay's The Rosary (though I admit that, to my shame, I haven't read it all yet. I know it's a romance because I skimmed the end). Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart have to have at least some of their novels represented on the list.

    It's more difficult to think of recent "romance" authors because the single-title format in the UK has tended to be classified as "romantic fiction" so it includes "aga sagas," chick lit, bonkbusters, "clogs and shawl" novels and right at the moment I can't think of contemporary big-name UK authors who write pure "romance" according to the RWA definition.

  2. Thanks for posting, Jonathan! I have to confess, I'm wary of premature canon-formation here, partly because (as Laura points out) the romance genre is constructed differently in different countries, and partly because it's still very early in the game, from a scholarly and pedagogical standpoint.

    I don't think I've read a single novel by any of the HMB novelists Laura mentions, yet--no, wait, maybe one Betty Neels, but none of the rest.

    I've read a couple of Mary Stewarts, and used to teach one ("Madam, Will You Walk"), but I chose it for very contingent reasons: it was brief, and from the right decade, and in print.

    "The Flame and the Flower"--sure--but why not "Sweet Savage Love"? Why not "The Kadin" or "Skye O'Malley"?

    On the one hand, I'd love to see a big, broad-based, and systematic effort to thrash out the "core list" that Crys talks about in her piece, or maybe a few different "core lists." There have been interesting para-academic discussions of such canons at the Dear Bitches Smart Authors podcast and at the All About Romance site; someone should swing by and assemble those lists and bring them to academic attention, adding them to the lists that we assemble ourselves.

    At the same time, though, I'm worried that the idiosyncratic or contingent preferences of a few of us, at this early stage in the scholarship, might end up ratifying a list that's terribly partial, in every sense of the word.

    Not saying it shouldn't be done--just saying I'm nervous about it.

  3. I think being "nervous" about it might very well be a good thing, we might be more aware of the task ahead of us, looking out for slips, misses, absences. I think we need something of a core list, even if that list divides itself into various categories (for instance, recognizing the complexity of nation).

  4. I think being "nervous" about it might very well be a good thing, we might be more aware of the task ahead of us, looking out for slips, misses, absences. I think we need something of a core list, even if that list divides itself into various categories (for instance, recognizing the complexity of nation).

  5. There is a lot to consider, isn't there? History of romance, history of Harlequin/M&B, evolution of sex in romance titles, subgenres, historical vs. modern approaches to romance, etc. The material explored has exploded, and so has the caliber of writing, arguably. How much should you focus on the earlier titles, which some might argue are sub-par and less approachable? Just a thought.

  6. As said, leaving out Nora Roberts is ridiculous.

    I think the problem is that the canon wants individual titles, but many of the best romance writers are prolific -- not necessarily on Nora's scale, but with a body of work of 30 or more novels, none of which completely stands out, so which to pick? Then it becomes easier to choose a single title from a much more limited body of work.

    Also, the romance genre is huge and over the past 30 years or so has produced a vast quantity of books. A quick run of common numbers would suggest something like half a million titles at least, and that's before the current e-publishing revolution.

    Therefore, the canon must be large. It might seem more elegant to have a short list, but it would be more honest to have a long one from which scholars can choose.

  7. I agree with you, Jo, about the need for a "long canon"--and even then I worry about how easily one teacher's or scholar's choice of a particular author, or one novel out of an author's body of work, then gets picked up by other people, to the point where these become the default authors and novels to teach.

    (Hides head in shame, re: Nora Roberts.)

  8. But, we have canons of English Literature, Spanish Literature, French Literature. We have courses on "World Literature." These canons exist.

    And, surely we know of examples of authors who wrote large quantities of books.The English Reading List at the University of Toronto, for instance, assigns "Great Expectations" for Dickens, "Mrs Dalloway" for Woolf to take but two examples (the reading list is far from perfect, one notices immediately the absence of the brilliant D. H. Lawrence).

    I think the ideal would be a list that we recognize is imperfect, and a list that we recognize that is constantly growing, changing, etc., surely some works will fall off the list over time (maybe like D. H. Lawrence), and others will be added. I'm not envisioning a Bible of Romance Writers.

    I'm not opposed to a "long canon," actually, I think the "long canon" is probably what a nascent field needs. But for young scholars a list might well be one way of showing that a field does exist, not just because people are talking about it. But we are now at a point, where we have enough secondary scholarship, that it is possible, I think (perhaps quixotically) we can now think of popular romance as more than just a niche area, and really as a growing field of scholarship.

  9. Another thought on the shorter canon, which would be part of a longer. I think it's important to include works that don't have clear academic credentials but huge reader appreciation. The intellectual demand there is to discover the hidden magic.

    I do find that academic attention to romance, and all popular fiction, resembles having a hammer and looking for a nail. There are academic skills and protocols, and also the actions that get peer approval, so people look for books that fit all that rather than stepping back, assessing the reality and if necessary choosing new tools.

  10. That's a good point, and I'd certainly plead guilty on all charges. (Not to switch metaphors mid-stream--oops! I did it again.)

    I'm going to try teaching "50 Shades" next quarter, as I've mentioned here; that's certainly a book with "huge reader appreciation"!

    Practically speaking--a question to all of you--where and how could we start assembling some of these canons (long, short, national, international, author-focused, reader-based, etc.)? Surely there's some useful way to do it, but I'm darned if I know what that would be. Suggestions, anyone?

  11. Eric, I wonder if the solution to this conundrum, perhaps, is not simply to solicit lists. We could look for commonalities in each of these lists, and begin the work of starting to construct a canon (and I don't think we reduce it down to a "top 10").

    Also, I agree that we should pay attention to what readers are reading. I've told this story before, but the only reason I read Twilight was because of seeing people reading that book. I walked on the subway and it seemed as if everyone was reading it. As a literary scholar I thought I had an obligation to read what readers were reading. I think 50 Shades -- whatever its "aesthetic value" (that phrase makes me cringe) -- has been an important moment in culture.

  12. Step one might actually be to assemble the lists already out there. I know there have been discussions at All About Romance and the Smart Bitches; it's just a matter of someone putting them here. If I have the chance this winter, I'll do that.

  13. Layperson speaking, but I think academic and popular value can cross paths- but probably not in the ultra popular products like Twilight, 50, etc. (Although it makes sense to teach 50 as a cultural phenomenon.) Some romance authors are famous for their prose or style -e.g. Sherry Thomas- some for addressing historical or current social issues, such as early feminism in the Victorian period when marriage laws were being changed and the spheres of women were broadening. You might miss some gems looking for the bestsellers, and a lot of those bestselling authors are similar enough it's redundant to teach more than one. "Popular romance" is not meant to be taken literally, is it? Lol.

    On the other hand, if you look at the authors with the biggest sales or distribution, I suppose that would be less subjective, lol.


  14. "if you look at the authors with the biggest sales or distribution, I suppose that would be less subjective, lol."

    Harlequin romances regularly hit the USA Today lists and "Harlequin books are sold in 107 international markets, in 29 languages around the world" so many of their books get some pretty impressive distribution.

    Looking primarily at sales figures would probably tend to favour more recent authors over ones who were published in the past, when print runs were smaller. For example, re Fifty Shades and the rest of the trilogy:

    The books have been a global phenomenon and have been translated into 45 languages worldwide, selling more than 32 million copies in e-book and print in the US. (BBC)


    Mrs. Augusta Evans Wilson['s] (1835-1909) [...] St. Elmo was among the most popular works of American fiction published between Reconstruction and World War II. The highly romantic tale of devout heroine Edna Earl, her unending struggles to establish a writing career, her tiresome crusade to maintain a rigid code of Christian conduct, and her tedious refusal to marry any man not equal to her Christian standards sold one million copies in the first four months after its publication in 1866. Income from the sale of Wilson’s novels made her the first female author to earn $100,000 from royalties. This record was not matched until Edith Wharton in the 1920s. The influence of Wilson’s novel cannot be underestimated: whole towns were named or re-named “St. Elmo,” as were steamboats, cigars, hotels, dogs, flowers, and (unfortunately) newborn boys. (Zietz")

    What were outstanding sales figures in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem small compared to the records set by more recent bestsellers. To gauge popularity accurately, one would probably have to adjust the sales figures to take into account the size of the market(s).

  15. Such a fascinating idea. I would love to see this as a continued thread...

  16. I meant mostly that I would probably avoid bestsellers altogether even if they would provide the most objective list, but St. Elmo definitely sounds different enough to intrigue. It hasn't made it to lists, it's not as well-known to modern readers, and it's got a strong female protagonist. I'd put that on a reading list for sure.