Confessions of a (Former) Non-Romance Reader; or, Everything I Know About Romance Novels I Learned on Twitter

Life is short, I’m busy, my TBR list is long and endlessly proliferating — so why would I waste my time on books that are shallow, badly written, and pander to silly, juvenile fantasies of finding Mr. Right? They’re so formulaic as to be essentially interchangeable and so numerous they are clearly also disposable. And their covers are so embarrassingly lurid!

Yes, I admit, these are things I have always (casually, without much reflection) thought about romance novels. Though I am not particularly interested in several other kinds of “genre” fiction (science fiction or fantasy, for instance), I have never dismissed these categories as, well, categorically beyond the pale, the way I have romance novels. I figured there were good or bad, trivial and significant, examples of science fiction and fantasy, and over the years I’ve tried some samples, but there is so much else to read that is more to my taste that I never felt motivated, much less obligated, to pursue them. Still, I always knew that was about me, not them. I’m not a voracious reader of mystery fiction either, but I know my way around the field and need  no persuasion to agree with Raymond Chandler’s famous proclamation that “an art which is capable of [The Maltese Falcon] is not ‘by hypothesis’ incapable of anything”–indeed, I’m on record making my best case for the arbitrariness of the genre fiction / literary fiction distinction in general and the literary potential of the police procedural in particular.

But romance? Not only have I always assumed that there’s nothing in it for me, but I’ve assumed too that there’s not much in it for anybody. Chick-lit is bad enough. I have hung out with lots of readers my entire life, and nobody I know reads romance novels! Enough said!

Well, maybe not.

I’m not about to make a big pronouncement in defense of romance novels. I’m hardly qualified to, having read approximately five from cover to cover. But I will say that I have recently been through a process of re-education about them that has been very interesting to me as a reader and a thinker, and also, not incidentally, rather revealing to me personally. If I were going to pronounce on anything at this point, it would be on the value of keeping an open mind, and on the value of Twitter and blogging for enabling unexpected conversations. It has been frequently remarked that the internet makes it too easy for us to seek out and corral knowledge that suits our existing ideas and preferences, ignoring or filtering out disagreement and contradiction. That’s true. You can friend and follow and subscribe to and like as select a group as you choose, eventually operating in a self-perpetuating bubble of the like-minded. But the internet in general, and social media in particular, can also bring you into contact with a much wider range of people and ideas than you ordinarily would, and even if you make those contacts initially because of some common interest, that one point of intersection may be the beginning of a more dynamic relationship in which both similarities and differences are important and valuable.

I have found this to be especially true of Twitter, perhaps because of the very large and constantly shifting network of connections every tweeter is part of. Through the mechanisms of linking and retweeting, for instance, I see not only the tweets directly from those I follow (a wide assortment of academics, journalists, critics, writers, quilters, publicists, bloggers…) but RTs from those they follow, which are sometimes themselves RTs from those they follow. Looking to see where a tweet or link originated, I often find myself following someone new, either on Twitter or through my Google Reader subscription. Connections proliferate! It’s overwhelming at times, not because of the triviality often ascribed to Twitter by those who haven’t used it or haven’t found a way to use it that serves their interests–but because far too much of interest and substance goes by than I can ever realistically hold on to.

Anyway, back to romance novels. Through the various intricacies of Twitter relationships, I have ended up with some wonderful “tweeps” who, among other things, are happy un-closeted romance readers. (One thing I’m now  aware of is that many romance readers are, in fact, in the closet about this particular reading taste–hence, as often reported, their rapid and enthusiastic embrace of e-reading.) My Twitter friends write and talk about romance novels in ways that made me first realize and then reflect on my careless assumptions about both the books and their readers. My curiosity piqued, I started peering at the romance titles available electronically from my public library–and though by and large what I saw of them seemed to confirm my prejudices (tawdry covers! cheesy-sounding plot lines with 2-dimensional characters!), I kept in mind and puzzled over the satisfaction books of this kind gave these strong, intelligent women who know perfectly well the challenges and rewards of other kinds of reading.

On Twitter, in the meantime, my tweeps joked, good-naturedly, about actually persuading me to read a romance novel someday, and they batted around titles they thought might be my “conversion” novel–so finally I took the bait and borrowed Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, apparently known to some as one of the best romance novels of all time, from the library. Well, that was a setback. I thought the novel was ridiculous! In fact, it was so much like what I had always snidely imagined romance novels to be that I wondered if it was a parody! Egad. Then I tried Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester–not a genre “romance,” exactly, but in the romance tradition. That wasn’t much more successful.

We went back and forth and gradually clarified that historical romance was not the right direction for me (I don’t much like generic historical fiction either, after all): I should try “contemporary” romance. This development was very educational for me. For some reason I hadn’t thought of romance as a genre that (like mystery fiction) comes in well-defined subgenres among which readers make informed choices. Because I didn’t really know how else to search the library’s online catalogue for samples, for instance, the romances I’d scanned were all Harlequin titles, of the ‘Billionaire’s Virgin Bride’ type, while the ones being recommended to me were “historicals” (including one about the Crystal Palace that I haven’t been able to find so far–I expect I’ll hate it, but I’m curious to see it anyway! Victorians and hot sex, always a good combination, right?). They seemed more alike than different, and not in good ways. (I realize some of this is the effect of marketing, not content.) If I’d been taking the whole genre more seriously from the start, of course, it would not have come as such a revelation to me that it is not one more or less silly thing but simply a form that (again, like msytery fiction) can contain multitudes. At this point one of my Twitter tutors suggested I look up Jennifer Crusie, and so I read Anyone But You next–and quite enjoyed it! And now I’ve also read Getting Rid of Bradley and am about half way through What the Lady Wants, and they’ve been amusing and entertaining as well.

Thinking about why I liked Anyone But You (not loved, mind you, but liked–to the tune of 2 stars on Goodreads), I realized that it is really a prose version of a romantic comedy, a movie genre I enjoy.  I actually have a collection of favorite romantic comedies I own on DVD, including Moonstruck (the best!), When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill, You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. These are not high art films–but then, almost none of the films I watch are! I don’t reject these films for being “only” what they are. I appreciate how well I think they do what they set out to do, which is tell a romantic story about people I can be brought to care about, with humour and a touch of grace. They indulge happily-ever-after fantasies, yes, but with just enough realism to be engaging and just enough tongue-in-cheek self-consciousness about their own love stories (sometimes, with overt meta-commentary on it, as with the invocation of Pride and Prejudice in You’ve Got Mail or of An Affair to Remember in Sleepless in Seattle) to give a little tartness to their sweetness. As mystery novelists work within but manipulate conventions, these films follow formulas but succeed insofar as they tweak them to make them new. There’s comfort in knowing how things will turn out (again, as in mystery novels, with the reassurance of order restored). They are feel-good movies. What’s wrong with a feel-good book? Anyone But You is exactly that. In fact, it would make a nice little rom com. I can totally see Meg Ryan in it! It even has the quirky secondary characters. If it’s perfectly OK with me to enjoy Sleepless in Seattle even though I know it is not a great, profound, or innovative film–just a charming one–then why shouldn’t there be a place for charming, light-hearted romance in my reading life?

Yet something still strikes me as particularly slight or insubstantial about my small sample of romance novels, and I’ll keep on thinking about this as I read more. I’ve been thinking, for instance, that one of the reasons it’s easier to take mystery novels seriously is that they trade in “important” things like law, justice, and, of course, death. Romance novels seem more trivial because they are “just” about falling in love. But then, the same is true of many literary novels, and falling in love–not to mention deciding to marry someone–can reflect as many complex and important aspects of character and society as crime. The romance novels I’ve read so far don’t really do this–but just as there’s no reason in principle why detective fiction can’t be as literary as The Maltese Falcon or the Martin Beck books, there’s no reason in principle why romance novels can’t be great literature too. In fact, many novels we already acknowledge as great literature follow that same basic plot. Is there a continuum, then, from (say) Jane Austen or George Eliot to Jennifer Crusie? Maybe, though the differences in both style and substance seem conspicuous and significant!

As for the personal revelations hinted at above, all I’ll say is that thinking through my assumptions about and reactions to romance novels has involved thinking about my own experience of and thoughts about romance, love, and marriage. Few of us (happily) have personal experience of murder, but most of us (happily or not) have been through our own experiences of relationships. It’s a commonplace in fiction that we get ideas about life from books. We also bring our life to our reading, and the things we find unrealistic, sentimental, naive, or foolish are as potentially revealing as the things we find admirable, desirable, dreamy, or delightful. Detection is something we are distanced from, and its various literary forms also typically emphasize and reward detachment. Romance, on the other hand, is a very intimate genre–and I don’t mean just the sex scenes!

My education is ongoing. I’m sure there will be some follow-up discussion on Twitter and elsewhere.

And yes, if you were wondering, I am ‘X.’

21 Comments to Confessions of a (Former) Non-Romance Reader; or, Everything I Know About Romance Novels I Learned on Twitter

  1. October 10, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    What a fun post – I love it when the internet changes my ideas about reading. That’s so liberating. And I’m also a fan of doing literary criticism on genre fiction – it’s so full of cultural ideology it’s like picking cherries from a very fruitful and low-branched cherry tree. One of my first papers ever was on Mills & Boon, although I confess that reading those books made me feel a bit nauseous, like I’d eaten too much sweet stuff.

    I like books that consider relationships against the background of the cultural gaze and its regulations, though – after all, what else did writers like George Eliot and Jane Austen do? I’m not sure about a romance continuum exactly, although there are a lot of intersecting sets. In Jane Austen’s day there were undoubtedly the equivalent of genre fiction writers, and Austen is and always was, literary. Nowadays there are plenty of good writers writing intelligently and well about relationships, and I am happy to seek those out. Although in all honesty, I remember with horror the day I realised that my own personal romatic vision had been completely coloured by watching The Thorn Birds as a teenager. That was not a good moment.

    What I think genre’s fascinating for is reader response criticism, because the whole point of the books is to give readers a very particular experience. So, for instance, I love the stuff about rereading that’s been done in relation to crime fiction. The line here is that rereading happens in the last few pages of the book, when the killer is unmasked and finally the whole story must be ‘reread’ in view of the last revelation, recasting protagonists in a different light. Romance novels don’t ask for a rereading, they assert a certain kind of reading that can be transferred into life, despite the opacities and recalcitrancies of reality, reassuring women and calming their fears about abandonment, loneliness and their own personal attractiveness. The good ones question gender regulations. But yeah, some is just unalloyed trash!

  2. October 10, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    “My curiosity piqued, I started peering at the romance titles available electronically from my public library–and though by and large what I saw of them seemed to confirm my prejudices (tawdry covers! cheesy-sounding plot lines with 2-dimensional characters!), I kept in mind and puzzled over the satisfaction books of this kind gave these strong, intelligent women who know perfectly well the challenges and rewards of other kinds of reading.”

    The disconnect between the routine, unthinking dismissal of the books and readers, and what I know of actual books and actual readers is one of the things that keeps me coming back for more.

    I also believe genre reading is horizontal, so the more you read, the more you will see the ways really good writers like Crusie actually play with and tweak romance conventions, adding a potential new layer of enjoyment.

    Also, I have to disagree (if I understand it correctly) with Litlove’s comment that, “Romance novels don’t ask for a rereading”. Although I am not a rereader, I am in what feels like a tiny minority among my romance reading peers. Rereading is the norm in the genre, as far as I can tell.

  3. October 11, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Oh I’m sorry, I was misleading in my comment. I was talking about rereading in the crime fiction sense as I’d just discussed it – that’s to say the end of the romance novel does not bring about a radical reappraisal of everything that’s happened until that point. Sorry – very unclear of me. I guess that in the sense you mean, rereading would be very common in the romance genre. The plots are often very similar, and given the conventions that publishers frequently demand, a lot of romance tells the same story over and over again. Which would mean readers keen on romance probably would be very happy to reread stories they’ve loved.

  4. October 11, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    This, “Yet something still strikes me as particularly slight or insubstantial about my small sample of romance novels, and I’ll keep on thinking about this as I read more. I’ve been thinking, for instance, that one of the reasons it’s easier to take mystery novels seriously is that they trade in “important” things like law, justice, and, of course, death. Romance novels seem more trivial because they are “just” about falling in love.” seems like a very important point.

    I was suddenly transported back to teaching a course on gender to cultural studies students and that observation would have fueled an entire class discussion for me then :-) I think there may indeed be a gendered component to that in the general cultural dismissal of the domestic as less important.

    I agree with you that love (and the domestic) is not inherently less complex or important but in our cultural context that is how we think of them. I also wonder if romantic fantasies are considered (culturally) more trivial than the kinds of fantasies men immerse themselves in more frequently. Very interesting possibilities there for thinking about all sorts of genre fiction. But those would take you away from your other questions of reading.

    I too enjoy romantic comedy in film (and since we are about the same age, Meg Ryan is somewhat iconic for me, too) but don’t read romance though I think I do read books with romantic themes. I wonder where the line is? I do know a few out romance readers. And at least one published romance novelist (though she now writes urban fantasy). Also, I could introduce you (on Twitter) to a police officer who writes crime fiction.

  5. October 11, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I was talking about rereading in the crime fiction sense as I’d just discussed it – that’s to say the end of the romance novel does not bring about a radical reappraisal of everything that’s happened until that point.

    It depends on the romance, but particularly in older romances when neither the reader nor the heroine knew for sure what the hero was thinking, there was often a scene at the end in which the meaning of certain clues is revealed i.e. the hero might reveal when he fell in love, why he said what he did at a certain point in the narrative, how he felt during certain scenes etc. That kind of scene certainly involves a ‘radical reappraisal’ for a heroine who’s had no idea of how the hero felt and it also involves a certain degree of reappraisal for the reader. That would be even more true of Gothic romances in which even the reader wasn’t always sure who the hero was.

    a lot of romance tells the same story over and over again. Which would mean readers keen on romance probably would be very happy to reread stories they’ve loved.

    Romance only “tells the same story over and over again” in the same way that murder mysteries tell the same story over and over again. When a romance reader puts a romance on their ‘keeper’ shelf it’s likely they’ll remember lots of very individual details about the characters and their interactions. I’m sure Heyer readers, for example, would know exactly which book I’m thinking of if I mentioned the Baluchistan Hound and the Restorative Pork Jelly, for example. And there would be plenty of romance readers who’d know exactly which book I was talking about if I mentioned Fred and the Incredibra.

  6. October 11, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Superhero comics are about law, justice, and death, are masculine fantasies, and are considered, culturally, to be extremely trivial. So something is missing from the above hypothesis.

  7. October 11, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this post, as I’ve enjoyed our Twitter conversations and the ways they provoke me to think about what I get out of reading romance and what expectations I’m bringing to that reading.

    Despite my enjoyment of the genre, I still share a lot of the feelings you mention here. Increasingly, though, I’m asking myself what’s behind the “guilt” in my guilty pleasure. What harm am I doing in reading romance? Why is it something I should feel bad about? What’s the source of the voice telling me these pleasures are “less” than other pleasures I get from other kinds of reading I do?

    Amateur Reader/Tom’s point about comics is well taken (though comics, too, are getting more critical and respectful attention these days), but there is something particularly gendered in a lot of critiques of romance. I am increasingly wary of criticizing a genre in ways that could be seen as denigrating the (almost exclusively) women who read, write and publish it, and I think a lot of dismissal of romance does that. I’ve been struck by some of the criticisms of romance that uncannily echo 18th- and 19th-century critiques of the novel, particularly its dangers for those silly female readers who may mistake fantasy for reality and become dissatisfied with their real lives because they don’t measure up to novels.

    I’ve got some tl;dr-for-blog-comments thoughts on why romance, unlike mystery and speculative fiction, is not openly embraced as an influence by literary writers (with a few exceptions, like Byatt) and why it isn’t seen as having–and maybe doesn’t have–exemplars that “transcend” the genre and are widely read by non-genre readers.

    One last thing about “slightness”: the Crusie books you’re reading are her early “category” romances (i.e. they were written for a line that puts out several short romances a month–Harlequin/Mills & Boon, the now defunct Silhouette, the recently revived Loveswept). They are their own peculiar art form–they use a lot of “short-cuts” because of the space restrictions (Crusie has compared them to sonnets)–and I’d say her longer single-title works are more thematically complex, though I suspect you’ll still find them slight in some ways.

    And that’s fine, because not everyone will enjoy romance, and why should she? I appreciate your open mind. Some romance readers I’ve run into online don’t return the favor.

  8. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    October 11, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    What a lot of great and thought-provoking comments! I’ll get a start, at least, on some replies.

    @litlove, that’s a good point about there being a longstanding divide between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction — something Austen herself has fun with in Northanger Abbey, after all. Your observations about reader-response criticism strike a chord: I had always figured that if romance fiction was interesting, it was in bulk, as a sociological phenomenon as much as (or even more than) a literary one. The only criticism I (vaguely) know about romances is Janice Radway’s book, which I think takes something of that approach.

    @Jessica, I like the idea of ‘horizontal’ reading. Again, my experience in detective fiction already provides me with a model, if I’d only thought to apply it before.

    @Jo, I agree with you (and Liz) that pejorative assumptions about romance novels (including my own) are gendered–that’s one of the things that, once I started thinking about it, really provoked me to try to move beyond them. Though Tom has a point that there are genres or forms that include “important” stuff like law and justice and indulge male fantasies but yet are often derided, I think it is for somewhat different reasons. Aren’t comics and graphic novels looked down on (when they are) for being (that is, being assumed to be) childish? Given the overtly adult content of romance novels, that, at least, can’t be the objection.

    @Laura, your point about individual details and characters is well taken, and the comparison to the strong structural similarities in mystery fiction seems perfectly apt. I’m certainly curious now about the Restorative Pork Jelly…

    @Liz, I too have been puzzlinng over that “guilty pleasure” issue, especially since our Twitter exchange about romance fiction as a (rare) sexualized space by women for women. I think that may have something to do with it! Do you think being an academic has something to do with it for us too? I know plenty of academics who describe reading mysteries as a guilty pleasure, and I have a good friend who said once that she feels a bit sheepish reading David Lodge novels–which are hardly frivolous! From her perspective, my reading must look positively promiscuous…. We move in a world that takes literature very (perhaps, too) seriously. Mostly, I like that, but it has consequences, not all of them benign. Then there’s the complicated influence of feminism (maybe especially for women academics): all that thought and effort that goes into trying to define an identity in opposition to sexist stereotypes and restrictive models of gender identity, much of which has to do with rethinking romance (not the genre but the activity!) and marriage in political terms, but also to do with looking at literature through a critical / suspicious lens.

    Also, Liz, you’ve remarked a couple of times that maybe romance will never really be to my taste–but you know, I think in some ways it is already more to my taste than a lot of mysteries. I actively dislike the creaking machinery of yet another murder plot getting underway and read by choice / for pleasure only a very few mystery authors.

  9. October 11, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Not childish, the superhero comics, so much as adolescent, which means sex is involved in all its squirming incomprehension and awkwardness. I suspect that the word is also useful for a certain category of romance fiction – novels that present an adolescent fantasy of sex, travel, marriage, etc.

    I fear that the word is applicable to all superhero comics, not just a category, but that’s another topic. I refer, in defense of romances and Spider-Man, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s aptly titled “A Gossip on Romance,” where he, as you know, urges us not to put away childish things: “Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child” – woman, too.

  10. October 11, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    The only romances I read are Heyer’s. Restorative Pork Jelly and the Baluchistan Hound appear in *Frederica*, my second-favourite of Heyer’s. My favourite has always been *Venetia.* Others of Heyer’s that I can highly recommend are *Lady of Quality*, *The Convenient Marriage*, *The Grand Sophy* and *A Civil Contract*. Heyer wrote a lot of forgettable romances, but these six novels are out of the common way. And most of *Convenient* and *Civil* take place after the wedding, not before!

  11. October 12, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    @Rohan Maybe, then, genre fiction is just not much to your taste? Some readers like “creaking machinery” (convention, formula) and watching the writer play with it, and some find it repetitive and unoriginal.

    I think the academic thing is important. Years of training in a certain way of valuing literature/reading (no matter how much we’ve challenged the canon) and an unwillingness to look stupid or be unfeminist. Lots of people now make feminist cases for romance. I have mixed feelings about these (and the books are a mixed bag on that issue).

    @Tom There are fantasy elements in romance, certainly. I’m not sure I’d characterize them as adolescent, though. I’ve read some dreadful sex writing in romance (as elsewhere) but also some very grown-up, honest and realistic sex writing. Some, at least, has come pretty far from the squirmy/flowery/throbbing days of yore.

    I think that a reader’s discomfort with this sexual frankness can be a barrier to enjoyment. It’s OK for great books to make us angry, to make us laugh, to make us cry, but if it makes us hot, it’s not art. Why is that? It’s just another feeling, another part of human life.

  12. October 12, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    @ Laura – yes, I see what you mean. But I think the rereading that occurs at the end of crime fiction is far more radical. In romance, the characters reassess their earlier impressions of each other, but most clued-up readers go into the story well aware who will end up with whom, or else they will be involved in the process the heroine undergoes of seeing one man as suddenly more desirable and attractive than the others (and possibly undoing earlier mistakes of judgement). In crime fiction, the reader has to reassess his or her own impressions of the characters and much of the information that’s been given, and if the reader guesses the criminal before the end there’s a sense of the story having failed, which doesn’t happen in romance. I confess I’ve not read much gothic fiction, but isn’t it the case that it’s a genre that mixes romance and crime? I also agree that crime and romance are both variations on the same theme – that’s why they’re genre fiction. I think that’s also the reason why boy’s comics fall into the same trap of being considered slight. The reader’s expectations are reliably met, as opposed to more ‘literary’ works where those expectations are challengd and undermined.

  13. October 12, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I wonder if part of the reason why comics have often been treated less seriously is that they contain pictures. Didn’t the term “graphic novel” come into existence to encourage people to accept that a story can be told in pictures yet be rather more complex than a baby’s picture book? I could well be wrong since I know next to nothing about either comics or graphic novels, but that’s the impression I have.

  14. October 12, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Comics not being taken seriously is more of an American phenomenon; European comics, particularly Franco-Belgian BD’s, have long been accepted as serious. I would guess it mostly had to do with subject matter — superhero comics began gaining critical attention when Alan Moore deconstructed them in Watchmen.

  15. October 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    I think there may indeed be a gendered component to that in the general cultural dismissal of the domestic as less important.

    I think this is very often true, but it put me in mind of something else that I think is also very relevant here. Emily at Evening All Afternoon did a post recently on squeamishness around sex scenes in literature, and one of the big points there was how dang easy it is to screw it all up by simply using a word that one reader will find silly–because the words you use around sex and sexytime type stuff are just super personal, in the sense that each of us kind of has our own language we use about it, and it’s so easy for what seems normal, cute, or hot to someone else to sound ridiculous to us.

    I think to some extent larger domestic issues suffer the same problem. With these “serious” topics about law, justice, crime, etc., the vast majority of us are operating under the same framework. Obviously we have moral and ethical differences with each other, but on a person-to-person basis, you’re probably not going to read a mystery novel and find that it just totally does not accord with your own personal experience of the world and your own idea of normal things to think and do.

    On the other hand, when it comes to intimate interpersonal relationships, like marriages, your emotional reactions might be so personal it becomes very difficult for any given writer to satisfactorily represent characters that act and think and feel in ways that make sense to you. I don’t know, maybe this only happens to me! But I think one of the tough things for romance novels–and I really haven’t read any except the 19th century examples noted above, and a childhood foray into VC Andrews–is that they have to convincingly portray falling in love. I just think that’s a lot harder for a writer to show than it is to show that a murderer is a bad guy who deserves to be caught. Believable character development is tough; believable relationship development is at least twice as hard. Of course, as a nonreader of romance novels, I could be wildly off-base here!

  16. October 12, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Nicole, I think that is a great point about the language of sex scenes–and even of love (what’s sweet to one person is too gooey for another). My rule has been that I want the characters to use language and do sexythings that make sense for them, whether or not that’s what I’d say/do myself. (A romance isn’t my fantasy, it’s a story about two other people–I think that’s something non-readers don’t always get). But there’s not doubt that writing these things well is hard.

  17. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    October 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    My experience with graphic novels is even more limited than with romances, though I too thought of Watchmen–which I actually have read, though without much understanding–as an example that ‘transcends’ that form or helped change perceptions of it. But I’m struggling enough to articulate ideas about romances without speculating further about yet another unfamiliar genre!

    It’s really interesting to think about the idiosyncrasies of our responses to stories of relationships and particularly to the language of intimacy. On this topic, Sam Sacks’s recent review of House of Holes is worth a look (and I’m proud to say that I take partial credit for prompting him to include some discussion of romance novels in it).

    Thinking more about the crime fiction parallels, I’ve been wondering if there are ‘classic’ romances that are taken to ‘transcend the genre’ or show its literary potential and yet are still, clearly, romances and not ‘literary’ novels. Where is the Maltese Falcon of romance? Or, dodging the literary/genre divide, what are the classics within the romance canon itself? Or, because courtship and marriage are already stock elements of the novel tradition, when you look for literary or exemplary cases, do you end up back in the regular canon?

  18. October 12, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think I’ve been reading romance long enough to have a good grasp of the canon question (and I think that work’s just getting underway–romance scholarship is pretty new) but the comments on this post, particularly by and in response to Linda Hilton, and this post by Jessica and comments are good places to get a feel for the discussion.

    Whether there’s a romance genre “transcender” I’m not sure. Not in the Chandler/Hammett sense yet, I think. One reason may be a more constrained definition of the genre. “Transcenders” are often genre bending. RWA has a definition of romance on its site; if MWA has a definition of mystery, I couldn’t find it. Disdain may be another reason. Or disdain for the marketing. US romances often come out with VERY different covers in the UK, covers that would say historical/women’s fiction here, and I wonder if there is a correspondingly greater crossover readership.

    Use of romance conventions in literary fiction is, as you say, more “invisible” than use of other genre conventions, because romantic/courtship plotlines are so common in classic fiction. Who would notice that a writer was playing with romance genre conventions (if s/he was even consciously doing so) unless s/he called attention to it, as Byatt did with her subtitle to Possession?

  19. October 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Great discussion. I’d like to point commenters to an article in latest issue of the open access peer reviewed Journal of Popular Romance Studies: “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” By Pam Regis. (visit http://jprstudies.org/ for Pam’s essay and the other articles)

    Abstract: A rhetorical analysis of criticism of popular romance fiction chosen from both the early, influential instances of such criticism as well as from more recent critical work reveals patterns of ethical lapses therein. The special topoi of the literary critical discourse community identified by Laura Wilder provide the coordinates by which to map a better way forward for future romance criticism. An Goris’s response to this argument supplies an alternate, less partisan view.

  20. October 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I apologize for being redundant, seeing as how this discussion has extended, but I offer the comment I left at Wuthering Expectations: http://bit.ly/optmKo — Wherein I take a stab at answering why “romance seems to have an unstable canon.”

    About the genre transcenders, I can’t confidently say that there are books that have come to that, given the points I raised in the above comment. It’s so subjective, the critical approach is very young compared to other genres and movements, etc. There’s no discipline as we know it yet–me attesting that Flowers from the Storm‘s handling of religion, class divide, illness, and all-around angst will definitely be contested. What most deem as a fun romance might grate on my nerves, as with some Julia Quinns. [Politics too are involved, I hazard saying, in the inability of the genre to offer definitive canon and transcenders--the gates to Literary are difficult to pry open when you've got debutantes swooning all over your pages, eh?] [As it is, when talking about romance novels, I'm glad I've pretty much banished the qualifying "for its genre" when I say, "this is a very good book." Why patronize what I love?]

    There are, however, trope-busters within the subgenres. A twist on the marriage of convenience. A twist on the reunited-lovers trope. A twist on the hate-you-at-first-but-I-will-love-you-soon trope. That’s what shakes things up in the genre–and it’s not just attributed to how the author writes, or how vivid the characters are or how unconventional their choices–it’s how the author dares to challenge long-standing elements of the formula, making it work for her, making it new. Literature within given confines.

    That said, I do hope you read more romance novels. Not just for the discussion–although, yes, discourse over the genre will always be welcome, especially in places you’d be surprised to find them. But, well, I love my romance novels, and it’s as simple as me wanting to share something so important to me to people whose views I greatly respect.

  21. October 14, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Jessica’s link is definitely worth following. I read the piece and the response with great interest (and, completely unexpected bonus, found on the same site what looks like a really interesting piece on Rosamond Lehmann–and one on teaching Sylvester). I thought the emphasis on critical topoi was very helpful, especially the discussion of complexity–something addressed in a very different way in the book Addison and Steele are Dead. How do we teach something that’s not “complex” enough to need our intervention and explanation? And what is the relationship between those teaching “needs” and canon formation and literary prestige? This is something I’d like to try to write more about in a separate post–when I’ve thought it through more.

    Sasha’s point about “trope-busters within the genre” resonated with me because (again!) of my work with detective fiction. This week, for instance, we have been doing Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the interest of which is precisely that it busts important tropes–indeed, breaks explicit rules laid down by the Detective Club. More than complexity, that element of twist-on-the-existing-conventions is what has driven my own canon formation for that class. And yet I wonder if there isn’t something already inherently more complex about mysteries precisely because of the amount that has to be kept hidden throughout (something that leads to the kind of re-reading litlove talks about in her comments).

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
In progress: Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
In progress: Dessen, Dreamland

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