Sunday, February 15, 2015

Eric's Symposium Remarks

--Eric Selinger

Last week the Library of Congress hosted a day-long conference on romance fiction (and related topics) in the digital age.  Along with Len Barot, Beverly Jenkins, Nicole Peeler, and Susan Ostrov Weisser--see above, in the photo by Margaret Locke--I was was on the first panel, which was supposed to focus on the question "What Belongs in the Romance Canon?"  A number of other ancillary questions were posed by the moderator, Pamela Regis, including how broadly defined "romance" and its canon should be.

Each of us on the panel got to make a three-minute opening statement, and I spent a sleepless night trying to decide what I ought to say in my slot, what I should save for the Q and A to follow, and so on.  In the end, here's what I wrote out and said:
The last thing that popular romance needs is a man in a suit explaining--mansplaining--what belongs in the romance canon.
I can tell you who's been on my romance syllabi.  As your program notes, I've taught upwards of thirty courses exclusively devoted to the genre at DePaul, from historical surveys to thematic courses to ten-week seminars on individual romance novels.  But every book and author I've taught is there because of the expertise and enthusiasm of some blogger, reviewer, scholars, reader, librarian, or author who loved that book, put that book on a list, or put that book in my hand, saying "this is awesome, this was influential, this would teach really well; I don't get to teach this class, and you do, so put this in it."
It's worth nothing, I think, that so far every one of those bloggers, reviewers, scholars, readers, authors, and librarians has been a woman.
Now, I don't always end up teaching the particular novel they suggest.  Sarah Frantz Lyons has been after me for years to teach It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and my wife loves Match Me if you Can, but Natural Born Charmer is my jam:  it teaches perfectly, for me.  
This leads me to a second point about the romance canon, one made last spring by a young Australian scholar, Jodi McAlister.  In the romance world, Jodi wrote in a blog post called "Boom Goes the Canon," there are certainly iconic books, authors, publishing lines, but they don't function the way a traditional literary canon does--to establish authority, to separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, the gospel of the lord from Bible fan-fic.  Romance readers, she writes, are quite comfortable with the ideas of subjective pleasure and continent value.  What works for me won't work for you; what works for me might work for some reason other than "objective artistic merit" or some other demonstrable reason for canonicity.
There are, we might say, many fish in the sea, or a lid for every pot:  a lesson from within the novels that romance readers seem able to map onto the literary field of the novels themselves.
The romance community is quite comfortable with what Barbara Herrnstein Smith once called "Contingencies of Value."  And  as a scholar, my inclination is less to weigh in on what belongs in the romance canon, or what the boundaries of that canon should be, then to try to learn what the romance world can teach me about why we ask those questions, and about what's at stake in how we answer them.
In the Q & A that followed, I mentioned Noah Berlatsky's canon piece in Salon and Wendy the SuperLibrarian's response (and the comments from her readers that followed).  But I wanted to take the opportunity of the 3-minute formal address to do something Sunita mentioned in a comment last spring when that whole canon business was getting talked about:  that is, to draw my audience's attention to the women whose expertise I've relied on all these years, rather than pretending to an expertise of my own.  (I do have some expertise of my own, I hope, but it's not about what's in or should be in the romance canon!)  Jodi's piece has been on my mind for nearly a year, and that seemed like the one to flag most immediately--and I figured I would have plenty of chances to plump for particular novels, etc., as soon as the discussion started.


  1. Non-academic lay person here :) Thinking about the call for a defined canon I was wondering about it being about the valorisation of expertise? Expertly written books, discussed and expertly understood by expert cultural practitioners? So is this a contrast between a valued mode of individual endeavour with a community developed knowledge and understanding that arises from a shared experience of reading and talking about books? Almost like the contrast between medieval Guilds and the factories of the industrial revolution with both reflecting and changing the world around them. Also I sometimes think of calls for a defined canon as a desire for safety and respectability - you can't be called out for reading literary canon.

  2. A "valorisation of expertise"? That's very well put, and I think you're spot on, at least in terms of how the canon discussion plays out here at the borders of academia. When Noah Berlatsky emailed me last spring he was curious whether there was "some sort of official list of canonical romance novels anywhere," and I think the word "official" there is as significant as the word "canonical."

    Sometimes questions about the romance canon are practical and pedagogical: what should I teach, and what selection of books accurately represents the history and development and diversity of the genre. Sometimes they're aesthetic: which are the "best" novels, or the "most interesting" ones (which always means, to me, "best for X" or "most interesting to Y")? Sometimes they're about claiming some kind of authority to speak: "What are the books I need to have read so that I can opine, review, critique, etc., in a reasonably-informed way?" Sometimes they're about claiming a kind of dignity and heritage for the genre itself. A lot of different questions wrapped up in one!

    I don't know the history of manufacture enough to comment on Guilds and factories, but the idea of "expertly written books, discussed and expertly understood by expert cultural practitioners" sounds a lot like what happened with the emergence of English literature studies as a discipline after the rise of modernism! I wonder whether one thing that happens as English professors begin to look at some genre of popular fiction is a repetition-in-miniature of that earlier process. Certainly one of the most useful moments for me in studying romance came when Catherine Roach--trained in Religious Studies rather than English, I believe--called me out at a PCA panel for implying that "expertly written" romance novels that reward discussion and expert understanding by folks like me are somehow necessarily the "best" or "most interesting" books in the genre. A very useful challenge, that was, and one that's on my mind once again as I consider what should be on my next romance syllabus!

  3. I understand the reluctance to define a canon, but I also can see the advantages of doing so. Many times scholars criticize Radway and others for drawing conclusions on the romance as a whole based on a small number of novels of a specific sub-genre written in a span of only a few years. A more or less defined canon could help prevent this kind of approach and, as mentioned above, would give more credibility to romance studies as an academic discipline (think about it as good PR). I don't believe you can define a canon by choosing one unique criterion, but a number of factors should taken into account. The ones that come to mind are:
    1. Historical significance: Texts or authors that are essential to understand the evolution of the genre. I'm not expert in this area, but I don't think anyone could claim even a basic knowledge of the evolution of the genre without having read texts such as Pamela, some Austen (Pride and Prejudice?), and The Sheik, for example.
    2. Big best-sellers. Whether the texts themselves are good or not, if the hit a nerve at a point in time, they deserve some attention. You cannot explain the genre ignoring them, especially a mass-market genre as romance. This applies both to specific book and to specific authors. When it applies to prolific authors, such as Nora Roberts, for example (and I think everyone would agree that she has to be included in this hypothetical canon), the choice of which novels are must reads cold be decided following the next criterium:
    3. The "ideal" novels. The best examples of their period and/or sub/genre. Here the expertise of the scholars is essential, and quality no doubt must play a role.
    Of course, there are other factors that should be kept in mind, and "teachability" can well be one of them. A canon also can be "advisory" instead of prescriptive, and may provide options (you should read at least one--or two--of the following novels by this author, for example).
    The truth of the matter is that a certain unintended canon is being created with each article and book published on romance, maybe being intentional about its creation, and opening the floor for debate, would lead to a much more polished and consensual outcome. Of course, there are big dangers in the creation of a canon, and intentional or unintentional exclusions that will also in themselves reveal the biases and ideologies of the creators of such a canon (which as Eric said has happened in the the creation of the English literary canon, as well as with the literary canon of any other language--I can vouch that this is the case in Spanish literature). Canons are to be contested and revised and are fluid and changing, but still they define a center that then we can question and revise.

    Maria Ramos-Garcia
    (sorry for the anonymous above, blame my lack of computer literacy)