Romance and Re-Reading

love-letteringIt hasn’t been a good stretch for me in my romance reading. I haven’t read anything since Love Lettering that I expect to re-read, which for me is the real sign of success: since I found my groove as a romance reader (nearly a decade ago, now!), romance has filled a nice niche for me as my go-to genre for incidental reading, books that divert, distract, and cheer me when I don’t have the time or am not in the mood for heavier options. I don’t mean to belittle the genre at all with this characterization. I have always read and reread books in that spirit, but they used to be mostly ‘light’ mysteries (Dick Francis, for instance) or relatively undemanding but satisfying general fiction (Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope). I still reread old favorites in those genres too, but now my interstitial reading (as I have come to call it) also includes Georgette Heyer and Loretta Chase, Courtney Milan and Kate Clayborn.

tyler-ladderWhat is it that makes rereading–sometimes frequent rereading–pleasurable? Why do some books invite and reward it and others not? I reread for a living, of course, and for the books I teach the answer usually has to do with complexity: with layers of meaning and intricacies of language or form. Books teach well that don’t reveal themselves completely on a first try–otherwise what is there to talk about, after all? The better you know a book like that, the more you appreciate on each reading: the pleasure itself gets more complicated and multidimensional. That’s not (or not quite, or not usually) the same with the mysteries or romances I reread, though–or with writers like Anne Tyler, whose novels are many good things, including smart, touching, and subtle, but not particularly layered or complicated. You might notice more details on rereading, or see some connections or patterns that you missed the first time through, but for me anyway, rereading these books is about familiarity, not novelty, about confirmation rather than revelation. The pleasure comes from watching things unfold again as you already know they will, and enjoying again what you enjoyed before, whether it’s witty banter, angst-ridden suspense, sparky sexual tension, or whatever genre tropes the novel is built around.

evvie-drakeBut not every romance novel inspires rereading for me, even if I enjoyed it just fine the first time. Sometimes there’s an obvious problem–stilted prose, unconvincing characters, a plot that feels too utterly contrived, leaden dialogue–but others fall flat for no reason I can really put my finger on. The recent string of books that prompts this post included just one of the first kind (Tessa Dare’s The Wallflower Wager, which felt creaky from the get-go and then lumbered predictably along while trying to be spritely and witty, which is the worst effect for me) but mostly books of the second sort, where nothing was overtly wrong but they still didn’t do much for me. Get A Life, Chloe Brown was like that–it was perfectly fine, sometimes even charming, but when I was done, it went straight into the ‘donate’ pile. Ditto Mhairi McFarlane’s Don’t You Forget About Me, and Lucy Parker’s Headliners, and Alyssa Cole’s A Duke by Default. This morning I finished Linda Holmes’s Evvie Blake Starts Over and overall I enjoyed it the most of this recent batch–though I’m not 100% sure it qualifies as romance. (It sits on the fuzzy line between contemporary romance and “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” especially as it doesn’t quite serve up the requisite HEA–its ending is a very nice happy-for-now one.) If I went back a couple of months, I could give a much longer list of titles–very few of them actually bad but also few of them particularly good. (In romance as in all reading, of course, YMMV, and these are all books others have enjoyed a lot. Love works in mysterious ways, I guess! As we say on Twitter, “don’t @ me.” ūüėČ )

crusieWhen I mentioned my discouraging string of “meh” romance reads on Twitter, Liz (who, more than perhaps anyone else, got me into reading romance in the first place!) commented that she “might be off romance for good.” It’s not (I am sure she meant) that she has lost respect for or interest in the genre overall, but that it gets tiring (and boring) having to read through so many to find the ones you like. This is certainly true of my own experience of romance, at any rate. There are lots of contributing factors to the skewed hit-to-miss ratio: the sheer quantity of books, for one thing, and the equally wide-ranging variety of readers and tastes they serve. Marketing–covers, blurbs, hype–makes useful discernment a challenge (this is true of all the genres I read, but the problem feels more pronounced with romance), as does the (perfectly understandable) desire of romance readers and writers to support each other and the genre they love, which is so frequently reviled and misrepresented.

lady-225Although my relationship with romance has come a long way since my first skeptical and ill-informed attempts at reading in the genre, I do sometimes get fed up. As I mentioned in that Twitter conversation, I “DNF” romance novels far more often than books of any other kind, and while it’s possible that this result is mostly about me (as a reader or a person, who knows) it’s hard not to think it also says something about the genre, though what exactly that is, I’m not sure. But it’s also true that most romance novels are relatively fast reads, which is why I can get through so many of them in such a short time. Perhaps, proportionally, the hits and misses are not really that out of line with the rest of my reading–they just stack up more quickly! That also means that each romance novel on its own is a fairly low risk endeavor (certainly compared to, say, Ducks, Newburyport, which so far I dislike much more intensely than any of the romances I have picked up and put down without finishing, and which will require a vastly greater investment of time and effort to get the rest of the way through). Moreover, when I do find a romance novel I really like, the pay-off is disproportionately large because of how often I am likely to end up rereading it. I have now read all three of Kate Clayborn’s ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy three or four times each, for example, and will no doubt reread them again before too long; the same is true of Cecilia Grant’s ‘Blackshear Family’ series, the first one of which, A Lady Awakened, I recently reread with great pleasure. There are even some individual scenes that make the whole exercise worthwhile! Sometimes I pick up Heyer’s Devil’s Cub just to reread the chapter in which Mary, all unwitting, tells the Duke of Avon about her misadventures with his wayward son Vidal: it’s the perfect antidote for a fit of gloom, a reliable dose of “restorative pork jelly” (an allusion other Heyer readers will appreciate!).

devils-cub

Discovering that, if it’s the right one, a romance novel is the best bookish friend imaginable–always there when you need it and sure to cheer you up–is the happiest result of my now decade-long romance reading adventure. In the end, that’s what keeps me trying again and again even when it starts to seem that the ones I really like are few and far between: when I do find them, the rewards outweigh the accumulated tedium of the many others that weren’t for me. If that balance ever tips too far the other way, I too might go off the genre, though I can’t imagine clearing out my collection of favorites, which is a sign of much I have come to value romance as part of my reading life. It feels apt (if a bit trite!) to point out that my optimistic pursuit of just the right book for me is a bit like the stories romance novels themselves tell–which I guess means it’s rereading that turns out to be the real HEA!

Reading in the New Year: Love and Death

love-letteringRing out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

As anticipated, my first two books of 2020 were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s¬†The Witch Elm. They could hardly be more different, but of their kinds, they are both, I think, excellent.

Love Lettering has many of the same qualities that have made Clayborn’s previous books–the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy–my favorite contemporary romance series. Interestingly (to me, anyway!), these are qualities that actually dulled the books’ impact at first. Clayborn gives her characters a lot of specificity, both in their personalities and in their activities. This means a lot of backstory and also a lot of neepery (which, as I’ve figured out, is one of my favorite things). In¬†Beginner’s Luck, for instance, one of the protagonists, Kit, is a lab technician, which I suppose might sound a bit dry, but Clayborn does a good job conveying the interest and satisfaction she finds in her job, as well as explaining the scientific work she is also involved in. In the same novel, the other lead character, Ben, helps out at his father’s salvage business–again, maybe not the first thing you’d think of as a romantic setting, but I really enjoy the details about the bits and pieces of lights and fixtures and furniture and their restoration. All this stuff isn’t just background, though: Clayborn is really deft at assembling elements that both further her story and work symbolically within it. In Beginner’s Luck,¬†Ben is puttering away at re-assembling an elaborate chandelier: by the end of the novel it’s clear that putting things back together is what both he and Kit are struggling to do, in their different ways.

luckThe first time I read¬†Beginner’s Luck I felt that there was so much going on that it got a bit distracting. Maybe this has something to do with my expectations for romance: though there is a lot of emotional intensity in Clayborn’s novels, the central relationship is embedded in a lot of what seemed like padding. It turns out, though, that for me anyway this is exactly what makes her books fun to reread, as more of the novels’ patterns–the connections between their parts–become clearer over time. At the same time, it’s the emotional intensity that means I give a pass to what might otherwise bother me about them, which is that the love story relies (more so in the second and third books in the trilogy than the first) on an initial set-up that seems, if you think about it hard at all, pretty contrived or unlikely. This is especially true of¬†Luck of the Draw, which has nonetheless turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy. luck-of-draw

It is also definitely true of Love Lettering, where the relationship between the main characters, Meg and Reid, depends on his implausibly accepting an invitation that I can’t quite imagine anyone actually extending to a virtual stranger. However! Once they get started, their slow-growing friendship plays out in a beautifully nuanced way, their uneasy unfamiliarity teetering bit by bit into trust, pleasure, and of course, ultimately, love. Here too there’s a lot going on in context and character development, especially around Meg’s work doing hand lettering. Clayborn gives us a¬†lot of detail about that work, but it never feels like she’s doing the dreaded “info-dump”: instead, Meg’s interest, her vocation, permeates her first-person narration. She sees lettering everywhere, both literally and when people talk to her–or when she and Reid kiss for the first time:

He shifts, lets his lips rest softly against my cheekbone, and instead of pressing them there, he rubs them back and forth once, as light as a strand of my own hair in the wind, and I see that word, too, drawn in the same pink that’s the color of my natural blush, the pink I turn when I’m warm or embarrassed or aroused. The¬†t, the¬†w, the¬†o, all of them a heavily sloped italic. All of them on the way to somewhere.

It’s a kind of sensual synesthesia that is also elicited for her in a more aesthetic and intellectual way by her relationship with New York–which the novel is also a love letter to, as Meg and Reid’s romance unfolds as they explore the streets in search of inspiration in its billboards, awnings, and facades. Love Lettering turns out to be a novel all about reading signs, literal but also metaphorical and personal; this concept ties together its various subplots, as does the characters’ related struggle to express themselves clearly–to signal their own meaning. My only complaint about the novel is that the ending, which includes a long-deferred revelation about Reid, seemed both a bit rushed and a bit out of sync with the mood or style of the rest of the book. That revelation is also the reason we don’t get the alternating points of view Clayborn used in all three of her previous books. I liked Meg a lot, but it felt a bit odd for a romance to be so completely one-sided. Now that I know everything, however, I will be able to infer a lot more about what is really going on with Reid when I reread it, which I am bound to do before long.

witch-elm The Witch Elm has¬†been written about a lot elsewhere; of the reviews I’ve read, I think Laura Miller’s in¬†Slate comes closest to what I thought about it. I know some people have found it too long or too purposeless, for its first half at least, and so not particularly gripping. Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post concludes her actually fairly positive review a bit crushingly: “I‚Äôd say that without any ‚Äúbang, bang‚ÄĚ for hundreds of pages, ‚ÄúThe Witch Elm‚ÄĚ becomes ‚Äúboring, boring.‚ÄĚ I definitely did not find it boring! Toby’s voice worked for me from the start, though having read Tana French before I knew better than to take him completely at face value. I liked the patient progress of the story through the initial harrowing attack on Toby to the muted Gothic atmosphere of the Ivy House. Once the skull turned up I had (unusually, for me!) lots of theories about how it got there and who was implicated–and French teased me with plenty of hints and possibilities that fit and then contradicted each of them. Toby’s wavering sense of self brought layers to the novel, both philosophical and psychological. “They’re unsettled and they’re frightened,” Uncle Hugo says about the people who hire him to research their genealogies after unexpected DNA results; “They’re afraid that they’re not who they always thought they were, and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way.” That’s Toby’s situation too, eventually, trying to figure out the truth about himself when other people’s accounts of him don’t square with his own. For him too, the result may not be reassuring–but what French conveys so well is that his very craving for stability, for confirmation, for certainty about his own identity, is itself a potent destructive force.

My only quibble with¬†The Witch Elm is that the story about the skull in the tree eventually comes out in a really dull way (narratively speaking – the facts are plenty shocking): Toby just gets told it all in a long and inadequately motivated ‘reveal’ scene. I expected the case to be ‘solved’ in some more subtle and artful way. I realize that the novel is not, really, centered on that whodunit aspect but is actually about Toby–who he is, what he has done or not done, what has enabled him to live and think and ignore and forget the way he has. Still, that bit fell flat for me. Things took another dramatic turn soon after, though, and the novel’s denouement overall was very satisfactory.

So there we are: two new books for the new year, both good ones. What’s next? Well, for one, Pride and Prejudice, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class on Friday.

 

 

 

Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure.¬†I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the¬†Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute¬†and¬†Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s¬†Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s¬†Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it,¬†submitting it) to the¬†New Yorker, and learning in¬†THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s¬†The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s¬†Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also¬†Obasan¬†is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book.¬†I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that¬†The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and¬†Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off¬†Canada Reads,¬†and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony¬†because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a¬†collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is¬†intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of¬†Rectify¬†before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting.¬†If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading T√©a Obreht’s forthcoming novel¬†Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)

 

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”?

new-austenI 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 Prejudice,¬†Jane Eyre,¬†Framley 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).