Learning to Read (Romance)

kinsaleThe other day while idly browsing the ever-changing array of titles on ‘special’ at Kobo, I happened across Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm for only $1.99. Not long ago, the same thing happened with Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. What serendipity — two of my favorite romances! The alacrity with which I snapped up both titles (hooray – no more waiting for library copies) was a reminder of how much has changed for me since my first forays into reading romance.

I’ve written here before about my early adventures in reading romance novels. One thing I’ve learned since that first post is how annoying such pieces about “discovering” that romance fiction is not trash are to long-time romance readers, and fair enough: what other genre, after all, prompts confessional conversion narratives of this kind, as if elaborate excuses and self-justifications are needed for enjoying them? Of course, there is something unique about the disdain in which romance fiction is held, as my own experience since then has frequently reminded me, but I get, now, why this oft-told tale gets old — and it’s not (or not exactly) what I wanted to write about this time. Instead, I want to have a go at answering the more specific question Jackie Horne (of the blog Romance Novels for Feminists) asked in a comment on my review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved. “I remember reading your initial rather negative thoughts on LORD OF SCOUNDRELS,” she wrote; “what made you change your mind about it?”

I suppose the answer is a subset of the larger “learning to love romance” narrative, but I’ve been thinking that it’s also about reading more generally. I often remark in my classes that we need to learn how to read particular kinds of texts well, whether they are Shakespearean sonnets or Victorian multiplot novels. Whether we manage to do so depends on both our willingness (something the coercive aspects of literature classes takes care of, more or less, but which outside of that context is usually up to us) and on our ability — on our access to information about and models of better reading, including the conventions and tropes and forms that provide the internal logic and the governing standards for the genre. Our success also depends on the expectations we bring with us, and whether we can revise or even discard them if we realize they don’t fit the reading at hand. And it also depends on our motivation: sometimes it just won’t seem worth it, and really, most of the time there’s nothing wrong with that.

lighthouseoupI have read some things badly that I know I could learn to read better — Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, for instance, or more recently, To the Lighthouse. One of these I don’t expect to try again, though I might surprise myself; the other I hope to grow into. There are some books I haven’t even tried because I imagine (wrongly, perhaps) that I would be unable to read them well without a lot of support — Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance. There are whole genres I haven’t learned to read yet: science fiction, for example, which I would like to read some day, and horror, which I am entirely unmotivated to explore. These are just personal decisions, not absolute judgments of any kind; they are based on my own inclinations, taste, and priorities. It’s not always up to me, and when I have to figure out how to read something well, for professional or reviewing purposes, I pretty much buckle down and get it done — or at least I figure out a way to read it that makes sense to me.

crusieFor me, romance is an interesting in-between case. I had no external obligation to get anywhere with it. But my curiosity was roused by following discussions about it among other readers who clearly enjoyed it and found interesting things to say about it. I think what stood out the most is how often they talked about reading romance in terms of pleasure — which is not to say the conversations didn’t get critical, or didn’t address complicated topics. But it seemed like for a lot of people reading romance (and talking about it together) was really fun, and that was enticing. Given that my early experiments in the genre were not very successful, I might not have tried again, FOMO notwithstanding, if it weren’t for those other readers both challenging and encouraging me — and finding, before I’d soured on the project, some romances that were easy for me to like. That line crossed, I pretty rapidly got better at reading in the genre. This is not to say I have any special insights about it: just that I have acquired a reasonable working awareness of important conventions and styles. Because I’ve also now done some reading about romance, and have followed and even contributed to a lot of informal and formal discussions about it, I also have a decent, if still somewhat superficial, understanding of the history of and cross-currents within the genre. I don’t like every romance novel I try any more than I like every mystery novel I pick up, but in both cases I feel equipped to read them, if that makes sense.

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsGetting back to Lord of Scoundrels, the problem I had with it at first is that I thought it was ridiculous: melodramatic, overwritten, heavy-handed. I still think it is some of these things, some of the time — but I experience them quite differently: as playful, as tongue-in-cheek, as intertextual, as sexy. Now I enjoy the novel’s wit in a way I couldn’t before, because then I was too distracted by my initial negative reactions; now I appreciate its strong-minded heroine, not just on her own merits but because I have met more of her literary sisters. I can’t remember exactly the sequence that brought me back to Lord of Scoundrels in a more receptive frame of mind: my 2012 progress report notes that “I have yet to read a ‘historical’ that I really like” and mentions Heyer’s Sylvester in particular as a failure — and Sylvester, too, is now a favorite, though not nearly as much as Venetia or Devil’s Cub. (Jessica and Mary Challoner would get along just fine: they could compare notes on the beneficial effects of shooting alpha males in the shoulder — a link between the novels that I’m sure Chase makes quite deliberately.)

It turns out that my answer to Jackie’s question can’t be very specific after all. All I know for sure is that once I mocked Lord of Scoundrels, while now I thoroughly enjoy it. Somehow, in the intervening years, I learned how to read it…and next term I hope to teach 90 first-year students how to read it (and enjoy it) too!

10 thoughts on “Learning to Read (Romance)

  1. JC Sutcliffe October 3, 2016 / 11:13 pm

    The idea that we need to learn to read different genres is so true. The covers are dreadful but maybe I’ll take your recommendations one day.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 4, 2016 / 9:04 am

      The covers are still a problem for me too, though to some extent I have learned to cope with them as systems of signification that work reasonably well for their audience — the nature of a cover often does give quite a bit of information about the kind of book you’re looking at. And yet, having said that, this cover for LoS does not reflect the tone or even, really, the content of the novel at all. (Neither does the current cover for my favorite Chase novel, Mr. Impossible.) I have been trying to focus on why I feel as awkward as I do about a lot of romance covers: what signals are they sending that I (for whatever reasons) don’t want to be sending myself? Why are pretty or sexy covers “embarrassing” when violent ones aren’t? That’s something I plan to bring up with my class, since that’s the LoS cover we’ll have on our edition and I’m betting it will make some possibly large fraction of the class a bit squeamish.

      This is a fun and informative report on changing fashions in romance covers:



  2. Jackie October 4, 2016 / 10:45 am

    Thanks, Rohan, for attempting to appease my curiosity. I really appreciate the idea that you have to be both willing (want/desire) and able (education/knowledge) to read a text well. As you probably know from reading my own blog, my return to romance reading as an older adult was inspired by LORD OF SCOUNDRELS, which compared favorably to my previous teen Harlequin romance reading. Which was why I was so curious to know more about your differing reactions. So interesting to hear that while some of your initial judgments of the book are the same, those judgments MEAN something quite different to you now.

    In what class will you be teaching LofS?


    • Rohan Maitzen October 4, 2016 / 7:49 pm

      It’s a first year class called “Pulp Fiction” – primarily a writing class but also an introduction to genre and basic critical tools. So we won’t be going very deep: the mission is mostly “make them read something and learn to write critically about it.”


  3. Bill from PA October 4, 2016 / 5:47 pm

    It’s difficult for a reader with established tastes to become acquainted with an unfamiliar genre. I’m not a mystery reader, but after recently re-reading Shakespeare’s Richard III, I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, because I knew it dealt with Richard and had received a lot of praise. I was not very impressed with it. I found it pretty dull as a work of fiction, all “tell” and little “show” as far as the central mystery story. Nor could I conscionably read it as a work of revisionist history since Tey provided no notes or bibliography to indicate her sources; as far as the history she presents, it could all as easily be total fiction as the result of extensive research.
    I was surprised to find it was the #1 choice in a list of 100 best mysteries chosen by British mystery writers in 1990, and #4 in a similar American list a few years later. Obviously people with a deep knowledge of the genre think highly of this novel, but as a novice reader I found it disappointing.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 4, 2016 / 7:54 pm

      The Daughter of Time is really anomalous — it is barely a “mystery” at all, as the genre goes. And you are right that you can’t really read it as a work of history. I have a long history with it (I wrote about it once for OLM) but I would never recommend it to someone wanting to explore the genre of mystery fiction — or even to someone just curious to try Tey. For my money, Brat Farrar is a much better book — though it too, now that I think about it, is not so much a mystery.

      As you know, I read quite a lot of mysteries and even so, I can be brought up short by requests for recommendations, partly because I feel so conscious that taste in these matters is so subjective! But if you could narrow down what kind of mystery you expect you’d find interesting (police procedural with lots of social context? hard-boiled thriller with lots of action? cerebral and character driven?) I’d be happy to venture some suggestions…


      • Bill from PA October 4, 2016 / 10:08 pm

        That’s very kind of you. I wasn’t necessarily looking for suggestions – I posted my comment because your discussion of reading a genre as a novice reminded me of that recent experience. I thought you might have written about The Daughter of Time. I looked through your blog archive, but didn’t think to check Open Letters. I’ll head over there now to read All the World to Nothing.

        I felt that those “100 best” lists I linked to conflate what I consider several genres: mystery (whodunit or variations), espionage, and crime. I read a lot of what I consider “crime” novels and have a pretty good sense of how to find rewarding books in that genre. Examples of what I classify as “crime” from the lists are: The Asphalt Jungle, Red Harvest, The Killer Inside Me, Strangers on a Train. As much a surprise to me as the high rating of The Daughter of Time was the absence of two of my all-time favorite crime novels from both lists, Nightmare Alley and In a Lonely Place.

        I read much less in the genres (sub-genres?) of espionage and whodunit. What I’m calling “whodunits” are books with a mystery about which clues are given in the course of the text and a solution offered at the end. I suppose The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are technically “whodunits”, though the detailed portrayal of the criminal milieu in both allowed me to read them as “crime” without really caring much about the mystery’s solution. All genres have disputed borders.

        Based on an earlier reading of A Shilling for Candles, I’d classified Tey as a whodunit author and I suppose Daughter was in part an attempt at pouring a historic case of murder into the whodunit format. Other than a few isolated books like A Shilling for Candles, my whodunit reading pretty much stopped with Sherlock Holmes. When I consider picking up with the genre, I thought the best approach for me might be to go back to its post-Holmes origins: Trent’s Last Case, The Red House Mystery, or some the Poirot books from the 1920s.

        I write as a dabbler in all these areas, so I don’t know if my Caesar-like division of the realm of mystery into three parts makes any sense at all to you as a more experienced reader in the genre.


        • Rohan Maitzen October 5, 2016 / 8:02 pm

          Taxonomies are fun – and also useful (for sorting) and useless, because, in your words, “disputed borders.” Because I have to have some boundaries in the detective fiction class, I start with “books in which the main point is the investigation of a particular crime (or crimes).” That helpfully rules out thrillers, spy novels, and books that happen to include crimes but aren’t organized around solving them. I think of “whodunits” as mysteries in which solving the crime is more of a puzzle (Agatha Christie-style). Other varieties of book that come under my very large (but still exclusive) umbrella are hard-boiled mysteries and police procedurals, which have their own conventions.


  4. DRR October 4, 2016 / 9:54 pm

    Ulysses was a book I just couldn’t read until, after several attempts, a kind professor who I shared my difficulty with said “don’t try to understand each word, image or idea; just read it quickly, for fun.” I did, and it was. I don’t know if this would work for you, but you might try rereading it with this attitude


    • Rohan Maitzen October 5, 2016 / 7:58 pm

      I really like that suggestion, actually. It’s what worked for me with Moby-Dick, and also, in a different way, with Mrs Dalloway. But the intimidation factor is higher for me with Ulysses since after all, MD is “just” another fat 19thC novel.


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