Recent Reading: Mostly Romance

I had been feeling unnecessarily guilty (because after all, it’s not as if I’m answerable to anybody about this!) that I haven’t done much reading–and thus much book blogging–for some time. But then it occurred to me that in fact I have been reading pretty steadily; it’s just that it has mostly been what I think of as “interstitial” reading–reading that fills in the time between other more demanding tasks, reading that distracts and amuses rather than demands much in its turn, either because it’s already familiar or because its prose is light rather than dense.

I don’t in any way mean to belittle the books I read in this way: they are a vital part of my reading ecosystem! They used to be mostly mysteries, and Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker still make regular appearances in this role–for instance, not long ago I finished a reread of Francis’s 10-Lb. Penalty, which I decided in retrospect got short shrift in my round-up of Francis’s “Top Ten.” Since I belatedly learned to stop worrying and love romance too, now I also have a pool of reliable favorites in that genre that I reread, and I’m also alert to suggestions for new ones to try. In fact, these days I’m more likely to search up new romances than new mysteries: for whatever reason, right now I find it harder to accept the necessary machinery of detective novels unless I’m already friends with the protagonists – and even then it doesn’t necessarily go well for us.

So while I have been starting and then putting aside other books that demand more concentration than I seem able to apply right now outside of work and deadlines (including Elizabeth Taylor’s A View from the Harbour and Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Fatigue Artist, both of which I fully intend to finish eventually), I have read and reread a bunch of other titles. Some quick comments on the new ones (or the ones that were new to me):

I really enjoyed Kate Clayborn’s Beginner’s Luck. Right away I liked that its leads had unusual jobs, meaning there was a fair amount of “neepery”: the heroine is a lab technician with the potential to be a research scientist of a different kind if she saw her life a bit differently, and the hero is a corporate recruiter but also hangs out in his family’s salvage yard, so on top of the science stuff there are also lots of details about things like old light fixtures. The title refers in part to the premise of what is presumably going to be a trilogy about three best friends who have won the lottery, but while Kit’s financial fortune is certainly part of the context for the story, I appreciated that it is a fraught part–it has not by any means solved all of her problems. The story is well told and the relationship (including its “big mis”) is believable.

I’ve also enjoyed the two I’ve read so far from Ruby Lang’s Practice Perfect series. I liked Hard Knocks better than Acute Reactions, and neither of them really delighted me; I think both of those reactions are about my own preferred angst-to-wit ratio–which is probably why I liked Jennifer Crusie’s Manhunting, which somehow I had missed before in my Crusie reading, better than either of them.

Not all of my romance reading has been very successful. I’ve DNF’ed three historicals in the past couple of weeks: two by Eloisa James, including Wilde in Love, and Loretta Chase’s newest, A Duke in Shining Armor. They all felt perfunctory to me, from their starting premises to their characters, and I just didn’t care enough about how we were going to get to the inevitable HEA to keep going. I was trying to put my finger on why Chase’s Carsington novels interest me so much more (they are among my most frequent rereads).  Part of it is because so much more is at stake in them than the feelings of the leads (the dispute over the planned canal in Miss Wonderful, for example), but there’s also something different in the quality of the characterization, and in the pace and wit of the dialogue–something that just seems to be missing in the new ones. As I set these three books aside (and remembered, too, how uninspired I was by recent books by Tessa Dare and Sarah MacLean, who have written other books that are among my favorites), I  found myself thinking with renewed appreciation also of Cecilia Grant‘s excellent historical romances, not one of which has given me that sense of just going through the motions.

At least I know better now than to assume that a bad run (for me, of course – YMMV etc.) is not a reflection on the genre, which like all kinds of books will have hits and misses for any individual reader. I think I am a bit quicker to abandon genre fiction (including mysteries) if I’m not really enjoying it, whereas I tend to persist to the end of “literary” novels in case the payoff there just takes longer to emerge. Is that snobbery, or a reflection of the different reasons I read, and the different expectations I bring to, different kinds of books? I also read mysteries and romances quite differently when I’m reading them for other purposes, such as teaching. But sometimes I want to read without thinking all that hard–maybe the way to put it is that sometimes I want the book to do all the work, and to carry me along. I’m pretty sure some people do all their reading that way! At any rate, for me the books that serve this purpose for me when I need it are among those I treasure the most.

Recent Reading: the Good, the Bad, and the OK

Image result for the walworth beautyOver the past week I read three novels. Only one, Michele Roberts’s The Walworth Beauty, was for a review! The short version: it’s fine. Some things about it are very good, but overall I wasn’t that excited about it. I’m starting to feel I’ve read enough neo-Victorian novels. This has never been my favorite genre in any case, but it is (for obvious reasons) a reasonable one for me to pitch or be assigned for reviewing. As a result, over the past year or so, I’ve read (and reviewed) Steven Price’s By Gaslight, Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Graeme Macrea Burnet’s His Bloody Project, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and now The Walworth Beauty. I’m never 100% sure what makes a novel ‘ne0-Victorian’ instead of just ‘set in the 19th century’; if I use the broader category, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder would also count, as would Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon and Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen. Some of these have been really good, but there’s a certain sameness to a lot of them–a palpable restraint in the prose, for instance, a lot of short sentences, an artful absence of sentimentality, or indeed any extremes of overt emotion. Sometimes this style works beautifully, but often it leaves me hungry for the qualities I love in novels from, rather than about, the Victorian period. I think this feeling that modern incarnations of the period are somewhat stifled artistically is starting to affect my judgment of individual examples–which is one reason I’m happy that my next couple of writing projects take me in completely different directions.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleFor my book club, I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What a treat that was. It’s like a perverse inside-out fairy tale. In our discussion of it, we got particularly interested in the way it destabilizes our sympathies. There’s the initial instinct to side with the narrator, which of course quickly turns out to be a mistake, except that she is being persecuted–though not unfairly, since after all, she is a murderer.  Jackson evokes the horror of mob violence as well here as she does in “The Lottery”: the scene that begins with the fire chief throwing the first stone unfolds in an equally horrifying way–except that at least one of the targets is in no way an innocent victim, and later on, some of the villagers seem to be horrified, in their turn, at what they’ve done. We puzzled over Merricat’s motivation, or rather, over whether she has one, for killing her family. The suggestion seems to be that she didn’t much like being sent to her room without dinner, or in any way being thwarted or crossed. So the murders may be the act of a vengeful narcissist, a spoiled brat gone rogue. On the other hand, maybe there is no reason, which in its own way is even scarier. It’s a brilliantly written little book. I was hooked from the first paragraph, which is a perfect combination of whimsy and menace:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

There’s so much else going on, from the intimations of magic to Constance’s cloistered virtue to the predatory character of Cousin Charles — it’s a lot of twisted fun, and followed even better than expected on our last book, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, especially the story “Torching the Dusties.” Our next pick is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, which carries on the theme of women acting in uncanny ways.

I expected Sarah MacLean’s The Day of the Duchess to be a lot of fun too, but I really didn’t enjoy it and ended up skimming the last third or so of it just to get to the end. I have liked some of MacLean’s romances a lot, including The Rogue Not Taken, the first one in this series, but this book tilted too far towards the “feels” for me: it’s all angst and yearning, without any frolicking. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t well done. It’s just that my own taste in romance tilts instead towards comedy. Also, more than I remember noticing in MacLean’s books before, The Day of the Duchess is full of the kind of writing that seems meant to force feelings on you, rather than allow you to arrive at your own reactions–lots of fragments, and lots of single line paragraphs, devices which to me almost always backfire: rather than increasing the impact of the line, they make it seem artificial, especially if the trick is used over and over again. I’ve been trying to think if there are any consistently serious romances that I really like. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is the only one I can come up with. Blame my inner cynic, which, as I’ve said before, makes me accept an HEA only if it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I’ve picked Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill to read next. It suits the weather we’ve had this holiday weekend: two days of dark clouds and heavy rain, and cold and damp enough that I’m in slippers with the heat on, down in my basement office.

This Week In My Classes: A Study in Contrasts

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that teaching Lord of Scoundrels at the end of a term that has also included Bleak HouseAdam Bede, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a good way to bring home the truth of  Jennifer Crusie’s remark that a lot of great literature is really toxic to women. In romance fiction, as she points out, “you can have sex without dying horribly,” which is indeed, as she says, “a plus.”

Crusie isn’t the only person to emphasize this contrast between romance fiction and the parade of great novels in which women’s sexuality brings them shame, isolation, desperation, and even death, of course. In fact, the sex-positivity of romance is a recurrent theme in most of the books I’ve read about the genre, or at least in those that are as much (or more) about advocacy as about analysis. Here’s Sarah Wendell, for instance, in Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels:

One of the more empowering and, in my never-humble opinion, awesomely excellent things about sex in romance is that the woman is not punished or ultimately harmed for being curious or even assertive about her sexual needs. Even in the Old Skool days of forced seductions and other questionable scenes, the wages of sex were not death, ostracism, misery, poverty, and complete moral turpitude. Getting some didn’t mean giving yourself away — and it didn’t mean you were done for once you did the deed.

And here’s Maya Rodale in her Dangerous Books for Girls:

Romance novels came to provide a safe place for women to explore their desires, free from the risk of rape, guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, unplanned pregnancy, or regret. In contrast to so many other depictions of sex, from literature to porn to movies, romance novels are completely and unabashedly focused on the woman’s feelings and pleasure. And, most revolutionarily of all, romance heroines can enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.

These generalizations certainly wouldn’t hold up for all examples of a genre that goes back as far and ranges as widely as romance, and I think there are also some problems with arguments about romance that focus too much on sex — as if there’s no HEA for people who are asexual, for instance, or no such thing as sexual trauma that might complicate that “unabashed” focus on pleasure. Still, after following the tribulations of yet another tragic woman who learns that “the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings” — after Lady Dedlock’s forlorn fate, and Hetty’s wanderings, and now Tess’s catastrophes, it is a breath of fresh air to turn to Jessica and Dain. As Jess tells her appreciative grandmother after their first reckless, swoon-worthy kiss,

“If we had not been struck by lightning — or very nearly — I should be utterly ruined. Against a lamppost. On the Rue de Provence. And the horrible part is . . . I wish I had been.”

After Jessica and Dain are caught passionately embracing in the garden during Lady Wallingdon’s party, “though her face heated at the recollection, she refused to feel ashamed at what she’d done.” It’s not that Chase ignores the potential for scandal and worse from such a compromising event, but she writes her heroine out of the trap her desire has landed her in, and Jessica’s HEA builds on, rather than overcomes, her “unabashed” hunger for and pleasure in Dain’s “big and dark and beautiful body.”

And yet, while the overt and (ultimately) happy sexiness of Lord of Scoundrels is indeed “awesomely excellent,” it’s not entirely fair to set up modern romance fiction as the positive alternative to punishing Victorian fiction, which I think can actually be quite “sex positive,” albeit usually in a much more subtle, and sometimes perverse, way. For one thing, the women who pay such a high price for breaking society’s rules are very often portrayed as victims: the novelists direct our disapprobation not against them but against the world that treats them so cruelly for something so understandable or natural. Lady Dedlock should not have died cold and alone reaching for her lover’s grave: all the moral and emotional force of Bleak House is directed against that outcome. It’s true that the implication may still be that she has sinned, but she deserves to be forgiven and brought back into the loving embrace of her long-lost daughter, our moral exemplar. Eliot and Hardy make it particularly clear that their “erring” heroines are participating (more or less willingly, of course) in a natural process made shameful and dangerous by social codes, not because it is intrinsically wrong. If only some reconciliation could be made between flesh and spirit, between nature and law — so much shame and fear and violence could be avoided!

Still, these ruined women provide vivid and memorable (and sometimes uncomfortably aestheticized) spectacles of the price of unauthorized sexuality, so my case for the defense rests more on the importance placed on sexual attraction for the happy endings 19th-century novels do themselves provide. Over and over, after all, the unsexy match is rejected in favor of the one that promises that the heroine will “enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.” Think of Mr. Collins, Mr. Boarham, Mr. Casaubon, St. John Rivers, Seth Bede, Philip Wakem, Mr. Phillotson … there’s a long parade of obviously unsuitable suitors. Think, too, of the blushing (Dinah with Adam), the racing pulses (Anne Elliot with Captain Wentworth), the sweating horses (Stephen Guest visiting Maggie), the fixated gaze (Mr. Thornton and Margaret), the nearby lightning strike (Will and Dorothea) … so many signs in so many cases that the right match is the exciting one, that the happy ending (if it can be achieved) brings the promise of sexual satisfaction, if safely within the (constantly tested and expanded) boundaries of social acceptability.

I realize that these examples of HEAs based on sex that is socially safe could be seen as missing the point — outside that boundary, after all, is still all that same old “guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, … [and] regret.” I guess I just want to complicate the implication of the romance advocates that we had to wait for romance fiction to open up a space for acknowledging, imagining, depicting, or even celebrating women’s sexuality. It’s not as if there aren’t bad examples in romance fiction too, after all, and even more to the point, it’s not as if it only counts as positive if the sexual aspect is made explicit. Romance heroines also still have to find a way, a place, to live in their world: it’s not as if the space they create for all that sexual assertion and exploration is outside society.

That doesn’t mean Lord of Scoundrels isn’t still refreshing, though, in both its frankness and its fun. “If you think I could not . . . make you eat out of my hand, if that’s what I wanted,” says Jessica to her obstreperous new husband, who so far has shied away from actually making love to her, “I recommend you think again, Beelzebub.” “I should like to see you try,” he responds — and by that point, so would we all.

Recent Reading Roundup: Reviews and Romances

You’d think from my recent blog posts that I wasn’t doing anything but teaching these days! That’s not quite true, but like a lot of people I know, I’m finding myself too distracted to get a lot of “quality” reading done in my leisure time – what ability I have to concentrate hard I’m expending on work, and on books I am reading for off-blog reviews that have deadlines. The rest of the time my reading alternates between anxiety-inducing news stories and pleasantly diverting romance novels.

The most recent book I finished for a review is Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land: my review will be up in the March issue of Open Letters. It has actually been a difficult review to write because I neither loved nor hated the book: I’m afraid that even with whatever revisions I come up with after my colleagues’ useful input, the piece is going to sound fairly perfunctory. Now I’m reading Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, which I’m reviewing for Canadian Notes & Queries. So far, it seems pretty interesting, so I’m hopeful that it will be more fun to write about. And next up after that will be Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light, which is backround reading for the review of Signs for Lost Children I’ve promised to Numero Cinq. Moss looks like a writer I should have been reading already, which is one reason I proposed this particular title — my ideal reviewing “assignment” converges with my existing reading intentions!

I have some completed reviews that should see the light of day in the near future. One of those is my TLS review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (which I loved); another is my Quill & Quire review of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House (which is strange and uncomfortable and gripping); and the last is my review of Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which I wrote last summer and is expected to show up, at long last, in The Kenyon Review Online in early March. Though there are some down sides to all this reviewing, one definite up side is that it has made me a bit more sure-footed as a critic, including with books that are not obvious “fits.” I can’t really say if I am developing my critical voice or style: I’m not deliberately trying to do anything other than what I’ve always done here and at OLM, which is find the best way to express whatever I think about the book. I don’t focus on answering “should I buy this book or not?” — because that’s the kind of review I find the least interesting to read — but instead I try to figure out what kind of book it is and what’s the most interesting conversation for me to have with it or about it. Academics (myself included) often hesitate to get into conversations outside their official area of expertise: this is an anxiety I have largely overcome when it comes to fiction, partly because blogging loosened me up so much as a reader and a writer, and partly because the more I teach, the more I’m aware that my expertise is as a reader — it’s my skill and experience at reading, as much as or more than my body of scholarly knowledge, that equips me to do this kind of criticism.

As for my romance reading, I’ve been rereading some favorites, just for the good cheer (Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, for instance, and Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do), but I’ve also read a scattering of new ones. I have all of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister novels but hadn’t gotten to Talk Sweetly To Me before: it’s charming. (The Countess Conspiracy is still my favorite in this series, though.) I read Alyssa Cole’s Let It Shine and found the love story well done, but while I appreciated her evocation of the historical context, I thought the novella (sexy bits aside) read too much like YA fiction for me to find it really engaging: it seemed to assume readers who had very little idea about either the civil rights movement or the Holocaust. Everything about it was very pat and predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t about important things, or that it didn’t include details that make very clear, how devastatingly this history affected people’s lives.

I read Eloisa James’s Seven Minutes in Heaven and thought it was fine — as I mentioned on Twitter, I especially appreciated the heroine’s competence, which is a quality not often portrayed as attractive, and I enjoyed following the character through to their HEA. I also read Fool for Love, which I chose somewhat at random from the ebooks the library had available: I liked the set up but was a bit let down by the conclusion, for reasons I won’t give in case they are spoilers! I have yet to really fall in love with one of James’s novels. They seem very competent and usually keep me interested to the end, but they don’t make me laugh the way Loretta Chase’s do, and I don’t find them as entertaining as Tessa Dare’s (which seem more sprightly, somehow) or as touching as my favorite among Mary Balogh’s. Maybe I haven’t found the right one for me (not all of Dare’s work well for me either, after all).

Now I’m rereading Ruthie Knox’s Truly: I liked it the first time, partly for the beekeeping ‘neepery,’ and it’s holding up well on a reread. I am starting to feel a bit restless, though, as if it’s almost time for me to read something  else again. I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on a recent trip to the bookstore: it looks like it might be a good intermediate step between light and really serious reading.

A Romantic Interlude – with Ruminations

dare-scotI’ve just finished two Scottish-themed romance novels — Sarah MacLean’s A Scot in the Dark and Tessa Dare’s When a Scot Ties the Knot — and they have enough similarities that the juxtaposition has provoked me to figure out why I enjoyed one so much more than the other, a question that quickly expanded, in my mind, to the more general question of why some romance novels work for me and others just don’t, including novels by the same authors. Of these two, for instance, I much preferred Dare’s, though I really enjoyed The Rogue Not Taken, the previous novel in MacLean’s “Scandal & Scoundrel” series, and I liked but didn’t love Dare’s most recent novel, Do You Want to Start a Scandal.

As so often when I ruminate on romance fiction, I ended up thinking that somehow things get more personal more quickly in this genre than in others, meaning not just that my romance preferences are about my personal taste but that my taste in romance writing is hard to separate from my feelings and beliefs about relationships — which in turn are likely to be influenced not just by principle but also by my personal experience. For me, these factors affect my reading habits as well as my evaluative judgments for romances in ways they don’t for, say, mysteries.

maclean-scotFor instance, I have mentioned before that I don’t always read right to the end of the HEA. This is partly because while I can enjoy the development of a romantic relationship, especially when it involves witty sparring and plenty of sexual tension, I don’t find unmitigated happiness (which is where, of course, romance novels always end up, sooner or later) that dramatically interesting. But it’s also because I don’t really believe marriage itself is necessarily a particularly blissful state. For both of these reasons, the rosier things get for the protagonists, the more disengaged I become from their novel. Thus I usually prefer romances that defer the protagonists’ happiness until the end of the novel, or very nearly. In a lot of Georgette Heyer’s novels, for example, hero and heroine don’t come joyfully together until pretty much the last page. That keeps things interesting! Our attention then is also less on how delightful they find each other and more on their learning about each other, and / or on wondering how they will ever discover how delightful they are to each other, or on how they will overcome the personal or social obstacles keeping them apart.

baloghI also often find with more recent romances that the protagonists get intimately sexy too soon and too often for my taste. I don’t think this means I’m prudish! No doubt it’s partly the result of many years spent reading Victorian novels, which are full of erotic undercurrents but have vanishingly few explicitly sexual moments. When feelings (and body parts) are usually kept covered, it’s that much more exciting when you finally get a glimpse! As well, I don’t think lust and love are the same thing, and sometimes — including in A Scot in the Dark — they get too quickly conflated. I suppose this is a variation on my preference for deferring their happiness, and it’s also about the sacrifice of tension involved. (I think there may also be some problems with realism — but I’m really not an expert on sexual mores during the Regency, so I may be quite wrong about what well bred men and young, “respectable,” unmarried women would get up to in their carriages without anxiety, shame, or repercussions.)

milan-countessA specific romance-reading preference of mine that I know is about me more than about the novels is that I have a fondness for bluestocking heroines, or at least ones with an intellectual passion, who have a lot more on their minds than romance. I love Dare’s A Week to be Wicked and Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy for this reason, and of course my favorite romance of all — so far — is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. Madeline in When a Scot Ties the Knot, with her passion for illustrating natural history, is a good addition to this collection. I also prefer more mature heroines, and I have a fondness for prickly ones, like Claudia Martin in Mary Balogh’s Simply Perfect. I find ingenues annoying and get bored easily by heroines who are too nice. It’s not hard to see that I appreciate romance novels that show women at least somewhat like me as lovable!

I find it interesting that I consciously reject such personal standards for most other kinds of books. For example, I have very little in common (I think!) with Dorothea Brooke, or with Becky Sharp or Esther Summerson (I hope!), though I love and admire their novels greatly, and I am quick to caution students against valuing literary characters more highly because they are more “relatable.” Am I being implicitly condescending towards romance fiction when I pick and choose favorites on these grounds? Or is it in the nature of a genre based on fantasies of intimate feelings (rather than, say, lessons in otherness and alienation) to offer more satisfaction when you can imagine yourself in it a bit more easily? There are good reasons to diversify one’s romance reading — but should “heroine type” one of the ways? It matters, I suppose, whether you are reading something “just for fun” or for other reasons, but I read plenty of fiction for no reason except my own interest and amusement, and romance is the only kind that affects me (or that I approach) in quite this way.

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!

Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

oxford-pride-and-prejudiceI feel as if I should begin with a disclaimer: this post is just a preliminary attempt to sort something out for myself that I am sure has been discussed a lot already! I know it’s not a new question, but it is a new one for me to be thinking carefully about — and that’s what my blog is for, not for presenting absolutely finished position papers but for exploration. So don’t jump on me if, for you, this is old news or already a settled question! Instead, tell me what you think, since one thing I’m hoping will come from writing a little about this question here is that I’ll get some leads and ideas for how to think about it better, or where to read more about it.

I’m puzzling over whether Austen is a “romance novelist” (and I’m going to keep the scare quotes, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit) because I’ve begun doing research in preparation for the romance unit in next year’s Pulp Fiction class (another disclaimer: it’s just a first-year writing class organized around a fairly imprecise definition of “pulp,” so I’m not going to get very ambitious about the theoretical or critical grounding — I just need to sort out some terms and frameworks for talking about our one or two readings in the genre).*

One much-cited scholarly work in this field is Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), so that’s one of the first ones I took out of the library to read. It’s generally very helpful, and it’s also thought-provoking, for its tone as much as its argument. It is certainly less rah-rah than some of the more fannish books I’ve peered at about the genre (such as Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (very ably reviewed at Open Letters by Jessica Miller). It still differs from most academic criticism I’ve read, though, in being very openly a work of advocacy: it includes a chapter called “In Defense of the Romance Novel,” for instance; it declares that its purpose is not just to historicize or analyze the genre but to “refute” negative critical perspectives on it; and it includes many celebratory claims on behalf of romance fiction — just for example, “the romance novel is … about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

RegisNot that there’s anything wrong with that! Lots of (maybe even most) critical work is at least implicitly advocating on behalf of its specific topic — whether for its underestimated importance to literary history or for its political efficacy or for a right understanding of its aesthetic properties. Romance is a special case, too: as pretty much everyone I’ve read who writes about romance says at some point, it seems to call for overt special pleading simply because it is so routinely dismissed and its readers and writers so routinely shamed. If Regis seems at times to protest too much, it’s probably just that she knew her choice of subject would be met with skepticism, if not derision, and not just by her academic colleagues. (I expect that more recent scholarship is less defensive, as genre fiction and popular culture more generally have become increasingly familiar parts of the academic landscape. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz’s collection New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, which came out in 2012, is also on my reading list; I’ll be curious to see if I’m right that the tone has changed.)

Regis’s book is built on a particular (but also very general) definition of romance novels: “a romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” She expands on that definition by offering a specific list of structural features — “the eight essential elements of the romance novel” — including “the meeting between heroine and hero,” “the barrier to the union of heroine and hero,” and “the betrothal.” Then, using this definition, she tells a history of the romance novel (as she has defined it) through exemplary texts, starting with Pamela then going through Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreFramley Parsonage, and A Room with a View. It’s not until Chapter 12 that she turns to what she calls “the popular romance novel” — to, that is, all of the books I think most people actually mean when they use the term “romance novel.”

At the end of her discussion of A Room with a View, Regis comments that “it would be [Forster’s] only romance novel.” In a way, then, I could just well have called this post “Is E. M. Forster a ‘Romance Novelist?'” (or Bronte or Trollope or Richardson). As far as I’ve seen, though, it’s really just Austen among these canonical authors who comes up repeatedly in the romance context, and it’s Pride and Prejudice that Regis uses to illustrate her outline of the “eight essential elements.” So I’ll stick with her as a test case for how or whether we want to define “romance novel” as broadly as Regis does.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinRegis is completely right that by her definition, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel. But here’s the thing: to me, that suggests she’s using the wrong definition. First of all, it’s too broad to be interesting (even her list of canonical “romances” hardly seems to hang together in a meaningful way, outside a very bare skeletal similarity). It also seems anachronistic, in the same way that calling The Moonstone a “mystery” does: there wasn’t really such a category at the time (that’s not really the kind of book Collins himself thought he was writing), and applying our current terms so absolutely means losing sight of the genealogy of our modern genres. Books can be closely related in kind (or, as Regis sets it up, in structure) with being the same kind exactly.

These are already debatable objections, of course: labels are always more or less arbitrary, and we redefine and recategorize things all the time based on new theories and approaches. So here’s another reason I don’t think I like Regis’s approach: I think that insisting that Austen writes “romance novels” indistinguishable in kind from today’s “popular” examples has inapt and potentially unwelcome consequences. For one thing, if this means that Austen and, say, Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase are doing the same thing, it seems to me to follow that Austen is doing it better (because much as I like Lord of Scoundrels, if it’s really an apples to apples comparison, I’d certainly consider Pride and Prejudice the better novel). Georgette Heyer? Fun, but not as artful or incisive or thematically rich as Austen. Balogh? Don’t even try. Lump them all in together, that is, and a hierarchy emerges that’s almost inevitably to the disadvantage of all the not-Austens.

Regis herself would disagree, I think — and others no doubt would too — that we can or should differentiate on the basis of literary merit in quite this way. Some would disavow the whole notion of literary merit, in fact, but Regis seems happy enough making evaluative claims. In her chapter on defining the romance novel, she uses Katherine Gilles Seidel’s Again as an exemplary case alongside Pride and Prejudice, claiming that it is a “complex, formally accomplished, vital romance novel” that makes nonsense of the idea that popular romances are just “hack work”:

Seidel incorporates the eight essential elements of romance, and two of the three incidental ones, in a manner so masterful that it leaves no doubt as to the vitality of the form in contemporary hands.

“Masterful,” no less! I’m only a couple of chapters into Again (which I dutifully rushed out to get), so I can’t be sure, but if it’s anywhere near as good a novel (qua novel) as Pride and Prejudice, I haven’t seen the signs, even though I’m enjoying it fine so far — which is exactly why my intuition is that Regis is coming at this question in the wrong way. We have to be able to acknowledge the differences on terms that don’t set contemporary romance novels up for failure.

scoundrelsAlternatively, you could argue (as I have seen done) that romance, like all genres, comes in both “high” and “low” — or literary and popular — versions.** There’s still a kind of hierarchy, but now you’re separating out those who “transcend the genre” (to use the phrase Ian Rankin hates when applied to crime fiction) from those who happily take their place within it. No direct comparisons are called for, then, and Heyer or Chase (or choose your preferred exemplars) get considered more or less on their own terms. I still think the larger category (the one being subdivided into high and low forms) conflates too many different kinds of things, and the end result can be condescending — it implies, or could, that the serious stuff is going on in some sense over the heads of both readers and writers of the popular incarnations of the genre, or that those who really take themselves and their work seriously will aim at that transcendent kind. But at least this approach doesn’t pretend all novels organized around love and marriage are the same kind of books.

I can see that, strategically, it serves Regis well to define the “romance novel” so that she can include Austen. That way the aura of Austen’s literary prestige can be shared with the popular writers who are the ones who actually need defending. (There may be some circles in which Austen is still shrugged off as a trivial miniaturist, but her iconic cultural status is surely beyond doubt.) But it could just as well backfire if it sets up the wrong expectations: yes, the plot structure of a contemporary popular romance is likely to resemble that of Pride and Prejudice, but if you expect to be reading the next Jane Austen, aren’t you almost certain to be disappointed? Maybe another way to think about it is that Austen is not celebrated because of how she incorporates the eight essential elements of romance (never mind the many “incidental” ones) but for other reasons, and so what Regis is doing is not thoroughly defining a category but encouraging a vast category error. Instead, wouldn’t her defense be more convincing if her definition were narrower — if it were based, not on 18th- or 19th-century marriage plot novels but on, well, actual “romance novels”?

Ay, there’s the rub, though, right? Because how do you define them? Where do you draw the lines? I sometimes say to students in my mystery class that genres and subgenres are themselves fictions, but useful ones, and that while it’s true you can’t perfectly define them, often enough you know them when you’re reading them. I think, too, that with the popular genres we’re familiar with today, while it may be difficult to pinpoint their exact beginnings, eventually the time comes when it is possible for someone to say “I’m going to write a detective novel” (or, even more specifically, a police procedural, or a feminist revision of hard-boiled detective fiction) because that is now a recognizable literary form, with a tradition and conventions of its own. Similarly, just because the margins around a genre are fuzzy doesn’t mean there’s no center. As Regis points out, “formulaic” is usually a pejorative term but all fiction is in fact driven to some extent by formulas; works that clearly belong to a particular genre just embrace and employ them in a more conspicuous way. Though intention is a tricky business, I might go so far as to say that what we now call “genre fiction” is defined by precisely that kind of knowingness on the author’s part (which is also an invitation to the knowing reader): this is the game I’m playing, I know the rules, I use or subvert them at my will, this game board is where I feel at home, my teachers and role models are the ones who showed me how it’s done so that now I can do it my way.

So by my definition, Jane Austen is not a “romance novelist.” Pride and Prejudice definitely has a crucial place in the history of the romance novel (as The Moonstone does in the history of the detective novel), but it’s part of the genre’s origin story, and that’s not what we’re talking about today when we talk about “romance novels.”

Or at least, that’s what I think so far! Now I feel that I may have taken a long time to say something nobody else will find surprising or controversial at all — but we all have to work through things on our own when we’re learning, right?

*Can you tell from these disclaimers that I have learned just how engaged, informed, and opinionated many romance readers and writers are?

**A belated additional point: Also, one era’s “popular” version may well become a later era’s “classic” or literary version (cue obligatory Shakespeare reference).