Sunday, April 27, 2014

Whose Affair Is It, Anyway? (Part 3 in an increasingly painful series)

So who is this set of posts about, anyway?

I've gotten some comments on post #2 and on Twitter that suggest it's pretty much all about me, here.  So let's put Berlatsky aside for a while, and think about that.

I haven't blogged here much in quite some time.  In that time, let's be honest, I haven't kept up with the romance blogosphere.  So maybe what's going on here is that Berlatsky's piece, or at least my email in it, made public my own diminishing engagement with the field--not in academic circles, but where it lives most lively, in posts and discussions on line?

Read most critically, those email exchanges (and maybe these posts as well) reveal that I've lost sight of two goals I had when I got into this business:  to give credit where credit was due, and to resist the temptation (and outside pressure) to set myself up as an expert, when I wasn't.

Has the JPRS editorship, and the PRP work, and the teaching, made me forget those goals?

I'm going to shut up for a while, and think about all this.

The Berlatsky Affair, Part 2

[Note: in light of the comments by Sunita and Laura, below, I've revised some of the central paragraphs below.  The originals are preserved in italics, just to keep the record clear.]

Shortly after I posted part 1 of this series, Noah Berlatsky replied on Twitter.  He noted that I had liked his piece "until people told me not to," and he observed that breaking off after the first couple of paragraphs was an "ungenerous" move, since the structure of his article depended on a "turn" halfway through.

I'll save my thoughts on the first of those comments for the end of this little series.  For now, suffice it to say that yes, I did quite like the piece the first time I read it, and the reasons why I liked it all came after that turn, so here goes the turn of my own.

Here's how the pivot in Berlatsky's piece begins:
I’ve always been a little leery of canons. Listing the “best” books or movies or music is always going to be an arbitrary, not to mention hubristic, endeavor. No one has heard every album recorded in the 2000s; isn’t it, then, a little ridiculous to try to list the best albums of the 2000s, especially if you’re going to put two albums by Bob Dylan in the top 20? Why not just shout to the rooftops, “We are aging, bloated boomers”? At worst, “best of” lists are going to tell you something unpleasant about the compiler’s insularity. At best, they can be the starting point for a fun conversation (which is how I saw the best of comics poll that critic Robert Stanley Martin organized at my own site). But either way, you shouldn’t take them seriously.
This is, of course, the crucial paragraph:  one that some Twitter responses seem to have overlooked.  In terms of the character that Berlatsky has developed, it adds a new twist: he's not the guy who craves a canon; in fact, he's the guy who knows just how silly and self-promoting they can be, and he's not one to be cowed by their pretensions.  "You shouldn't take them seriously":  you can't get much clearer than that.  Perhaps the turn needed to be set up earlier, to bring skeptical readers along, but it's certainly in the piece.

Berlatsky continues to recast himself in a more comical vein.  For some time, we read, he went "looking around desperately and in vain for some sort of consensus 'best of' lists for romance novels," which I find a rather endearing image, and one that's much more successful than the tonal gestures in part 1 of the essay. Self-deprecating humor always a plus.  As he searched, he had the chance to reflect on what the presence or absence of such lists might mean.

Here's the passage where everything comes together, perhaps a tad too quickly:
institutionally codifying the “greatest” is an important way to assert that there is a “greatest” — that there is some group of experts who considers these works in particular, and the genre or medium in general, to be capable of greatness.
Two points are made here, and we have to distinguish between them.

One has to do with the presence or absence of "some group of experts" who pass judgement on a body of work, no matter the medium.  The second has to do with the respect afforded to the type of art itself, as being "capable of greatness."

Let me start with the second of these. I'm both wary and weary of the term "greatness."  I don't use it often, but I'd certainly say that some of the romance novels I've read are wonderful books, and I'm trying to write about them in a way that says something wonderful about them.  I'd say that Flowers from the Storm was a great book; in fact, I wrote an essay about it for the New Approaches volume that says just that, and tries to prove it. But I fear that talking about "greatness" is a way of slighting "goodness" and "interest" and "really sweet or cool or moving-ness" and lots of other kinds of response that are more important to my reading life. For the most part, I think "greatness" is overrated, but I think that Berlatsky here means something less exclusive, more expansive, and more complimentary than the term might suggest.

What, though, of the "group of experts"?  That phrase might have set off some alarm bells, especially given what follows--and here's where I enter the piece by name.
Romance novels don’t have that. Yes, there are the yearly RITA industry awards. And there are certainly lists of best-of romance novels — such as this fascinating one at All About Romance.  But such compilations tend to be by individual readers or, as with the All About Romance list, based on reader polls. As Eric Selinger, professor of English at DePaul University and executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, told me in an email, “There are readers’ polls, and there have been discussions on fan sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about what should be in the romance canon — there was a podcast there in 2012 that drew a lot of comments, for example.  But no one has had the chutzpah to put one in writing, yet.” 
My original paragraphs about this passage are in italics, below.  Here's the revised version, which I've tried to make more accurate and more honest:

This is the moment in the piece that I feel sick about--the part that's prompted me to write so much about it.  There are several problematic elements here.  The first is that I've put myself forward as an authority, a go-to-guy, when it comes to the romance genre and the critical discussion of it when, in fact, my own knowledge base is far too slim to play that part.  For me to call Smart Bitches a fan or Dear Author a "fan site"  is to suggest that the knowledge and expertise to be found there is somehow lesser than or other than what I have as a professor and JPRS editor, when in fact the opposite is true.  And even my most basic knowledge of the genre, my own first forays into it, depended entirely on the expertise of librarians, reviewers, bloggers, essayists, and previous scholars, all of whom are women, all of whom wrote lists of novels that I drew on, and none of whom I acknowledged here.

Back in 2004 or '05, when I started thinking about working with romance as a teacher and scholar, Pamela Regis's chronology of the genre was one of my first guides.  I spent hours on All About Romance, reading reviews and finding suggestions.  I depended on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for reviews and recommendations, both in the posts and in the discussion threads.  In when Bill Gleason and I invited Sarah Wendell to speak at the Princeton conference, we did so because we knew that we needed someone from the romance reader world to "read the academy," as that panel was called.  We put romance bloggers and / or romance authors on every panel, because we wanted not to suggest that the academy knew better.

But even that formulation elides an important truth, which Laura reminds me in her comment (below).  There's no easy, clear-cut distinction to be drawn between academic and non-academic commentators on the genre. To quote Laura:  "some of the academics working on romance actually blog (or have blogged) at one of the bigger romance blogs. I'm thinking in particular here of Sarah Frantz and Janet/Robin at Dear Author and Gwendolyn E. Osborne at The Romance Reader." And, of course, there's Laura herself.  

In my original paragraphs, I made what was meant to seem a gracious and self-abnegating gesture.  "Very few academics working on romance have ever had the kind of expertise in the genre that you can find at the best romance blogs," wrote.  "Not even close.  I know I don't."  The truer, more honest version of that passage would read like this:  "Reading my own words in Berlatsky's piece brings home to me how meager my own expertise is, and has remained, compared to that of many women both within academia and in the romance romance community--and, worse, how willing I've become to set myself up as an authority about the genre.  What people responding to Berlatsky were upset about, the kinds of moves I critiqued in post #1, are exactly what I've been doing, and not just in that email.  I'm aghast to see this about myself, and (not to be melodramatic) ashamed of what I've so vividly let myself become. If I'm going to repair this damage, I have some work to do, and it won't get done by critiquing someone else."

[ORIGINAL PARAGRAPHS:  Ruh-roh!  Looks like Berlatsky's not the only person getting in trouble today. This is the moment in the piece that I feel kind of sick about.  Not just because I referred to "fan sites," although that annoyed some readers on Twitter, who don't think of themselves as "fans." (The term is often used dismissively or pejoratively, of course; it also doesn't necessarily signal expertise or sophistication.)  Rather, I feel bad because that email was the moment when I as a go-to academic could have read into the record the whole panoply of lists and discussions, essays and debates that goes on in the romance community: material that I learned a lot from when I started out, just like Berlatsky, and which has gone from strength to strength over the past ten years. I missed that chance, and I can't help but wonder how the piece would have been different if I hadn't.

I can't speak to other forms of popular culture, but my gut sense is that very few academics working on romance have ever had the kind of expertise in the genre that you can find at the best romance blogs.  Not even close.  I know I don't.  Hence my final quip about "no one" having the chutzpah to write up a canon.  No one here meant "no one like me, no academic," which I still think is more or less true, and more or less a good thing, since none of us is "expert" enough to do the job.  Pamela Regis has a list in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, but it's not designed to showcase or make the case for the greatness of particular authors and texts.  It's a chronology, not a "canon," at least as I'd use that loaded word.  Again, that could have been clearer.]

But enough about me, let's get back to Berlatsky. What follows is unrevised.  If I make any changes, I'll let you all know.
So far, then, best of romance lists have been about what one person loves, or about what is popular. There hasn’t been an effort to make some sort of critical claim about greatness, or influence, such as you get in the Comics Journal’s “top 100 comics list.”
My sense is that the first sentence here isn't really accurate:  that is, the lists that are out there aren't reducible to "what one person loves" and "what is popular."  Take, just for one example, Pamela Regis's list in A Natural History of the Romance Novel.  I'd call that a chronology, not a "canon," but it's been central to my own reading. And what about the remarkable "Intersectional Feminism in Romance Series" by Olivia Waite.  Is it a "canon"?  A "best of" list?  Not exactly, but it certainly proposes a set of important and influential authors and novels, and brings remarkable expertise (she could be in a "group of experts") to the project. Several other people's posts replying to Berlatsky have linked to other such lists, and others are busy compiling them; more on those in the next piece.

To me, though, the crucial statement here is that "there hasn't been an effort to make some sort of critical claim about greatness."  Might this suggest that the reader community knows too much to make such claims?  Knows, in fact, precisely the things that Berlatsky said a paragraph or two ago about how "you shouldn't take them seriously"?

Let me be clear:  we're in a part of the piece I like.  I think it's smart and useful to point out that a certain kind of institutional practice, one that involves a "group of experts" claiming greatness, or the potential for it, for the popular romance genre, doesn't seem to have happened.  As I've written elsewhere, other genres have often made bids for literary respectability, with particular authors trying to distinguish themselves and their work from the pulp that's around them:  this happened in detective fiction in the late '20s, if memory serves, and to SF / Fantasy in the 1960s, again speaking off the cuff here.  If that jockeying for position hasn't played out in the romance genre, or hasn't happened in quite the same way, it's certainly worth discussing.

So why hasn't the "greatness" game been played?  There's gender to talk about, perhaps, and the genre's democratic ethos, and the reception of the genre by the world at large.  The last of these is what Berlatsky mentions next:  "So why don’t there seem to be canonical romance novels? Well, the answer is pretty straightforward; romance novels are widely denigrated, if not despised."   The problem here, to me, is the statement "there don't seem to be canonical romance novels" suggests a gap in the genre--a lack of a certain kind of novel--rather than a lacuna in the critical discourse that surrounds the genre.  Certainly that's how the passage seems to have been read, or misread, in the article's reception.

In the next post, I'm going to deal in detail with the next few paragraphs of Berlatsky's article, where his character takes yet another turn or two.  For now, let me turn my gaze on my own close reading for a second.

Read "ungenerously," you could take this post to be the place where my own agenda for this series grows clear. I'm trying, in part, to salvage my own reputation, or at least repair some damage that might have been done to JPRS and the various academic projects with which I'm associated.  I don't think that's all that I'm doing, by any means, but somebody was going to point this out, and it might as well be me.  Check out my rhetorical moves: the stern, upbraiding persona in post 1; the kinder, gentler tone of post 2; the grovel (a classic Selinger move!) and then the move past it, as though everything were hunky-dory now.

What will I do in post 3?  I'll figure it out while I do the Sunday cleaning, and post more tonight.

The Berlatsky Affair: a Close Reading (1/?)

--Eric Selinger

[Added note:  In a Tweet, Noah Berlatsky pointed out that "You might have mentioned that you liked the piece until people told you not to."  Fair enough!  For the record, I liked the piece, and said so on Facebook:  "Noah Berlatsky nails it!"  I was very surprised to see the response that it got.  I still think that the essay made an interesting point, which I'll get to in post #2; what follows is my attempt to show how that point got partly lost in the shuffle, and partly left unsaid.  

For the record, I've been very happy to see Berlatsky's articles on romance, and have promoted them, cross-posted them, congratulated him on them, and so forth, both in public and in private emails.  If what follows looks like I'm saying he himself is a sexist jerk, let me be clear: I don't think that he is, but rather that the persona he constructs in the first few paragraphs in his piece could be read that way.  I want to show why and how.

The structure of his article depends on some rhetorical turns, and my posts follow that structure, more or less.  Part 1, this post, accentuates the negative.  Part 2 begins the pivot into what I liked about the essay, and my own role in it.  Part 3 isn't written yet, so I don't know what it will do.]

Last week, an article by "comics-and-culture" writer Noah Berlatsky at Salon drew a lot of attention in the online romance world, or at least the parts of it that I encounter through Twitter.  In it, Berlatsky seemed to say that romance lacked a "canon," and that this had proved a challenge for him--albeit a productive one--as he set about introducing himself to the genre.

I feel a personal stake in the piece and its reception.  I've been swapping messages with Berlatsky on Twitter and Facebook and email for several weeks now, on and off, responding to his forays into the genre.  One of those messages concerned what I thought was a question about whether there was an academic canon out there somewhere: a list of professorially-endorsed Romance Novels One Should Read (tm).  I said that there wasn't, but didn't go into why I would be wary of any one of us putting together such a list.  It was a casual email, which got quoted (with permission) in the piece, so my name is in the mix.

More broadly, though, I feel a stake because Berlatsky and I have a certain amount in common.  We're roughly the same age--I'm a few years older, I gather--; we both live near Chicago; we both started reading romance in middle age, discovering in the genre a number of novels that we really like and admire.  We seem to have similar taste, and we're interested in some similar questions as readers.

And, of course, we're both men.

On Twitter, after the piece went live, I mentioned to Berlatsky that we men writing about romance have to consciously try, at all times, not to be That Guy in our writing, because our training, our habits, and our editors will all encourage us to condescend to the genre, playing up stereotypes.  I've been asked a dozen times to have my picture taken holding up a book with Fabio on the cover, and I've done it, because the book in question (Flowers from the Storm) is one that I've also written about and extol at every opportunity. That was my excuse, at least, but in retrospect, I wish that I'd said "no."

In any case, Berlatsky answered that he'd tried very hard not to be That Guy, and seemed honestly surprised by some of the anger towards his piece.  I figured I should take a second look to see where he went wrong.

Let's start with the title and subtitle, which I'm going to assume were given the piece by Salon, rather than by Berlatsky:
I’m a guy who loves romance novels — and Jennifer Weiner is right about reviews 
Romance is the hardest genre to read, and not because of the stigma. It's because critics don't take it seriously
Right from the get-go, this "guy" has set himself up for a fall.  Announce that "I'm a guy who loves romance novels" and you're calling attention to the immediate salient fact about this essay's appearance in Salon: as men, he and I have immediate access to attention, to a hearing, as romance readers, no matter what we want to say or the knowledge we bring to the table.  To add that "Jennifer Weiner is right about reviews" right in your headline--and again, I'm assuming that he's NOT responsible for this--is to suggest that now that a "guy" has tromped on-stage to weigh in, that question has now been settled. (Were you wondering whether she was right?  Well, now you know!)  Add in the subhead that romance is  "the hardest genre to read" because "critics don't take it seriously"?  What does that say about the people--mostly women--who read it just fine without that critical guidance?  Either they don't exist, or their experience of the genre doesn't exist, or if they and their experiences exist, neither of those matters to the "I" who's speaking and the audience who's been implied.  Strike one, strike two, strike three, and Berlatsky hasn't even stepped up to the plate.

OK, now we're into the article proper.  Here's how it begins.
I’m a guy who loves romance novels. Or, rather, I would like to love romance novels. Jane Austen is just about my favorite novelist; I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice” I don’t know how many times. I also adore Trollope and E.M. Forster and George Eliot. Those folks are all dead, obviously, and aren’t writing any more books, because writing books when you’re dead is tricky, even if you’re a genius like Jane Austen. But it always seemed to me that books in the vein of “Pride and Prejudice” had to be out there somewhere, written by somebody less dead than Jane or Anthony. Witty heroines, and dashing heroes circling each other with arch asides and sudden plunges of emotion that would make me cry the way that last paragraph about Dorothea and Will always makes me cry in “Middlemarch.” How hard could that be to find?
This paragraph is, like many first paragraphs, at once an introduction to the author's public persona and a signal flare that illuminates the kind of person that the reader of the piece is presumed to be.  It introduces Berlatsky as a "guy who likes romance novels," but then immediately qualifies the statement, taking it back. He'd like to love them, as a class, which means that he doesn't, quite.  Why not?

Before answering that question, we get some roadwork:  good intentions laid down like so much pavement, leading just about where you'd expect.  Saying that you don't love romance yet, although you'd like to, and then invoking Austen, Trollope, Forster, and Eliot?  That's a way to say, more or less, "I like love stories when they're by canonical authors, which shows that I'm educated and have good taste, and in fact I'm pretty sophisticated, because I love one author (Trollope) who's not as well known as the others.  Come to think of it, I'm also a really sensitive guy, because I keep rereading "Pride and Prejudice," and I even cry at that one George Eliot paragraph that we all know about, we sensitive and educated types.  But enough about me.  Now, let's talk romance."

I don't mean to be harsh.  But even if every word of this is gospel truth--and why wouldn't it be?--as a rhetorical strategy, it's aimed mostly at establishing camaraderie with a reader who also likes those dead, respected authors, or at least knows that you're supposed to like them, and call Austen a "genius," yet who somehow doesn't like or love or admire or respect them enough to know that calling Austen "Jane" is falsely chummy and insufferably condescending.  (That "Anthony" is just a stalking horse.)  Berlatsky wouldn't be caught dead writing about how he loves "Allen" and "Jack" like a gushing beat wannabe, or announcing his love for feminist poetry by "Adrienne" and "Audre."  Jane me no Janes.

The first paragraph, then, sets up Berlatsky's character as a soi-disant "guy" who's about to judge modern popular romance against some kind of highbrow standard, and who's already implied that--alas!--it really doesn't measure up. We're in this muddle together, the paragraph also insinuates:  you and me, reader, and people like us, who'd really like to love romance, if we could find the right novels.  Texts that are, how shall we say? Truly accomplished. Books handsome enough to tempt us.

Why, then, does that quest turn out to be "ridiculously hard"?  Here's the paragraph that answers:
Oh, there are rafts and rafts of romance novels out there; teetering drifts of Harlequins and historicals and contemporaries, filled with plucky heroines and dashing or dastardly young men. I know that. But the question was, where to start? A friend recommended Nora Roberts at one point, and I gave that a try … but I couldn’t hack the dreadful prose — and this is from someone who rather enjoys “Twilight” and can even manage the occasional Robert Ludlum thriller. I’ve poked around online to find “best of” lists or other recommendations, but it soon became clear that there wasn’t even a provisional consensus on which books were the best or essential romance novels. Jane Austen showed up consistently, as did “Gone With the Wind,” but there was nothing that gave me a sense that certain books were clearly central, or respected, or worth reading. The genre is so culturally maligned that there has been no concerted effort to codify it. There is, in short, no romance canon.
Shall we take this piece by piece again?  Hoo-boy.  Sentences one and two are a shorthand overview of the genre designed to appeal to the common sense of anyone who doesn't read it.  They don't inform that non-reader of anything he or she doesn't already think that he or she knows:  the name of the famous publisher, three character types (one heroine, two men), two genres (historical and contemporary), and of course the scary fact that there's just so much of it!  Even this early in his reading career, Berlatsky knows full well that there's more to the genre than these handy, prefab talking points, but he doesn't mention what he knows, in order to paint himself as a naif, a boy who needs guidance.  "Where to start?" That's the question.

And you know what?  It's a fair question. And I know from Twitter that Berlatsky has gotten solid recommendations--many for books he really likes, which he recommends later in the piece--from romance authors and bloggers and reviewers.  Because the romance community does that kind of suggesting all the time.  Smart, sophisticated, incredibly well-informed readers, women who know the genre far, far better than I do, went out of their way to suggest books that he might like, based on his tastes and interests.  But he doesn't mention them until the end of the piece, waiting several paragraphs to tell his reader that these networks and conversations exist.  To an already skeptical or resistant reader of the piece--specifically, to some of the readers it found on Twitter--that seemed profoundly disrespectful, a missed opportunity for Salon readers to learn where they can go, other than to future pieces by Noah Berlatsky."][Note: my original sentence read: "But he doesn't mention them, or tell his reader that these networks and conversations exist.  That's profoundly disrespectful, and it's bad journalism, too:  a missed opportunity for Salon readers to learn where they can go, other than to future pieces by Noah Berlatsky."  In his comment, Noah replied that this was demonstrably false, since the end of the piece is quite specific about where else readers should go.  Here's the relevant passage:  "I was at a loss for years — but, eventually, I ended up doing what I think most romance readers do. I got some recommendations. Janine Ballard, who writes for, in particular, has led me to Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale and a bunch of other wonderful authors." I apologize for insinuating that Berlatsky had not gone on to give those names, and for misrepresenting the piece as a whole.]

The only trace of that guidance by romance readers that shows up in the piece is the bit about one anonymous "friend" who suggests Nora Roberts, "and I gave that a try."


Where to begin?
  1. She's a "her," not a "that," bro.  Save "that" for important critical pronouncements, like "I'd hit that."
  2. She's published, what? 210 novels? So trying one is reading .5% of her work. I've taught four of her novels, over the years, roughly 2% of her oeuvre.  On the basis of that, I am officially incompetent to say anything about the quality of her novels, and if I am, so are you.  
  3. I'm sorry, but "dreadful prose" is just one of those vague, important-sounding things that people say about books they don't like, as a way to pat themselves on the back for their own taste. All you've really said here is, "I tried one book by Nora Roberts, and I didn't like it."  As critical discourse, it's about as savvy as "Disco Sucks."
Now, let me be clear.  Have I put down novels for "dreadful prose"? Sure, in every genre.  I've put down books of poetry for bad verse, too.  But that tells me exactly one thing about the book I've shut:  I didn't like it enough for other reasons to read past the language.  Because I can tell you, as God is my witness, if I like something else about the book enough, the language takes care of itself.

Of course, dropping lines like "dreadful prose" is part of a well-established paracritical discourse.  It's the kind of thing that you say when you're arguing over lists of what are, as Berlatsky says, the "best or essential" works of some kind:  the best and essential films of the '60s; the best and essential TV shows of the '70s; the best and essential punk records, and so on.  This is clearly the sort of argument that Berlatsky enjoys:  after all, he's written and linked to many a piece debating which are the most over- and under-rated this that and the other thing, at The Hooded Utilitarian.  Seriously--take a sec and Google "Noah Berlatsky Overrated."  It's a go-to form for him.

To me, such arguments always seem both pointless and terminally boyish, like those scenes in High Fidelity where the record-shop crew one-up one another with their lists of, say, the five best opening tracks for side three of a double album released from 1966-86, in reverse order, go!  And their academic equivalents, which codify which novels or poems are "central, or respected, or worth reading," strike me as equally bogus.  I'm old enough to have watched texts cycle on and off of those lists, to have listened to the critical debates that undermined them, and to have seen my students come to life when given texts--especially poems--that seem to be found on nobody's lists but mine.

There are, of course, plenty of lists out there in the romance world.  I'll talk about them, and about the rest of Berlatsky's article, anon.  For now let me just say that Berlatsky tells me, via Facebook, that ages ago he read and loathed High Fidelity, because he "felt like the criticism of insular white dude music obsession seemed more like a intensification of the insularity rather than a critique of it [...] especially because the female characters are so much of an afterthought."

Yet the pose Berlatsky strikes in the first few paragraphs of his Salon piece make this dislike pretty ironic. To paraphrase Oscar--see how that grates?--this loathing of High Fidelity is the rage of Rob Fleming (John Cusack) seeing his face in the glass.

I asked Laura for help in tracking down the responses of romance readers, and before I turn to the next few paragraphs in Berlatsky's piece--I'll do that in the next post--let me step back and let her prose and links take over.  Take it away, Laura!

"Berlatsky's comments on the lack of a romance canon came under particularly intense scrutiny from romance readers. Meoskop swiftly retorted that Berlatsky's argument seemed to be a complaint that
The patriarchy has failed to elevate romance as a genre, therefore the patriarchy has not prepared a Recommended Romance Diet for him to follow and yet he’s never been the sort of dude who believes in such a thing anyway? Pick a chair, son! (Then sit down.) If you can’t write a piece on the genre without taking a swipe at Harlequin and spitting on Nora then a Recommended Romance Diet would give you exactly the indigestion you’re fearing. Canons are not simply best of lists, they are reached by consensus over large periods of time and include major works. Roberts is going to figure heavily on this magic list you claim you want but also don’t want. 
In her response to Berlatsky, Sunita stated that
“influential” and “good” are different categories, and while you find people regularly putting certain books in both, there are many more that qualify only for one or the other. And even with supposedly consensual choices there will always be dissenters.
As Wendy, the 2011 winner of the RWA's librarian of the year award, observed:
Berlatsky bemoans the lack of a romance genre "canon."  A definitive list of books within the genre.  But digging deeper into his article what he is really bemoaning is A Lack Of Canon Featuring Books That I Deem As "Good." [...] Bemoaning that it's hard to find shit you personally like isn't enough.  It's understanding the history of the genre.  And lucky you - here I am to give you Wendy's Starter Guide To The Romance Canon That You Think Doesn't Exist.  It does exist - it's just not required by law to be validated by your personal tastes and preferences.
Close quotes--back to Eric.  See you in the next post, folks!

Noah Berlatsky Loves Romance but Can't Find Romances He Loves
Wendy the Super Librarian Fires the Canon
Meoskop on Dudesplaining
Sunita on The Uses and Misuses of Canon  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Links: Medical Romance, Fifty Shades, Viking Bondage and L. M. Montgomery

Jessica, of Read React Review, presented a paper about medical romance novels at the PCA/ACA conference and she's summarised it on her blog. She argues that
it’s possible to view commercial fiction as actually participating, however indirectly, in bioethical conversation. [...]
The Penhally Bay series was written in the first decade of the 21st century, a time when organized medicine was having a lot of internal debates about what “professionalism” means. [...] The professionalism project emphasizes old fashioned values of altruism, compassion, and integrity. It focuses on individuals, and on maintaining continuity with a perceived tradition of medical professionalism dating back 200 years. Medical sociologists, identifying a number of competing accounts of medical professionalism, identify this as “nostalgic professionalism”. [...] I think that the Penhally Bay series presents a version of medical professionalism closely aligned with nostalgic professionalism in several ways.
The full post can be found here.

Eva Illouz has a new book out soon: Hard-Core Romance: "Fifty Shades of Grey," Best-Sellers, and Society will be published in May by the University of Chicago Press. In it, Illouz
delves into its remarkable appeal, seeking to understand the intense reading pleasure it provides and how that resonates with the structure of relationships between men and women today. Fifty Shades, Illouz argues, is a gothic romance adapted to modern times in which sexuality is both a source of division between men and women and a site to orchestrate their reconciliation. As for the novels’ notorious depictions of bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism, Illouz shows that these are as much a cultural fantasy as a sexual one, serving as a guide to a happier romantic life. The Fifty Shades trilogy merges romantic fantasy with self-help guide—two of the most popular genres for female readers.
Madison Prall, a student at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne has created a conference poster which
compares a contemporary historical romance novel series published between 2001 and 2004 by Karen Marie Moning with an older historical romance novel series published between 1980 and 1994 by Joanna Lindsey, in order to assess changing values regarding idealized romantic relationships between men and women.
Madison notes that "All three female protagonists in the Lindsey novels are enslaved by their future husbands, and Kristen and Erika are even forced to wear chains by their romantic partners." Madison finds "disturbing [...] the implication that rape and domination are elements of romantic relationships that romance novel readers think are acceptable or even desirable."

Given the recent success of Fifty Shades I can't help but wonder, though, if "Johanna Lindsey's portrayal of the bondage and domination of her female protagonists by the male protagonists" was an earlier way of writing "hard-core romance" at a time when explicit BDSM would not have been so acceptable. In other words, was it intended to be read more as a "Viking rape scene" than as a suggestion that rape could be romantic or acceptable in real life?

There's been a lot of discussion of the "romance canon" recently. It looks as though some people might be lobbying for the inclusion of L. M. Montgomery (or maybe they'd rather she stayed out of the romance canon and was accepted into the literary canon). The reissue of a book about her works may be of particular interest to romance scholars working on romances for younger audiences given that Montgomery's best known for her series about Anne of Green Gables but she did write some works for adults, including The Blue Castle:
When it originally appeared, Elizabeth Rollins Epperly’s The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass was one of the first challenges to the idea that L.M. Montgomery’s books were unworthy of serious study. Examining all of Montgomery’s fiction, Epperly argues that Montgomery was much more than a master of the romance genre and that, through her use of literary allusions, repetitions, irony, and comic inversions, she deftly manipulated the normal conventions of romance novels. Focusing on Montgomery’s memorable heroines, from Anne Shirley to Emily Byrd Starr, Valancy Stirling, and Pat Gardiner, Epperly demonstrates that Montgomery deserves a place in the literary canon.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Funding for Studying Romance: "Unwarranted"

Pamela Regis has described romance as "The Most Popular, Least Respected Literary Genre" (xi) and for years romance readers and authors have been mocked. Now, though, our genre is being used to attack Government spending.

I've been watching the story unfold over the past few months. On the 17th of December, under the headline "Federal government has spent nearly $1 million on romance," Yahoo News reported that funding for the Popular Romance Project had been
highlighted in the 2013 “Wastebook,” an annual report released by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn that highlights taxpayer-subsidized programs that he argues are questionable or unnecessary, especially during a time when lawmakers are viciously debating spending levels and how to trim the nation’s $17 trillion debt.

The Romance Project is just one of nearly 100 programs targeted by Coburn’s report, which also includes a documentary on superheroes, promotion of a Green Ninja character to educate children about climate change, and a zombie-themed video game for math education.
Someone obviously has their doubts about the seriousness of popular culture (and possibly doesn't believe that climate change is happening). But what strikes me is that out of "nearly 100 programs," the one which gets the most attention involves romance. Presumably that's because romance is seen as a particularly frivolous subject.

Details of the "Wastebook" report were also published at The Blaze under the headline "Here Are the Top Six Most Ridiculous Things the Gov’t Spends Tax Dollars On." Their selection of programs was different but yet again, romance was on the list and Breitbart's Frances Martel decided to focus almost entirely on romance.

Romantic Times immediately attempted to stage a fight-back, with Elisa Verna arguing that
romance is important. It's important to readers, to the publishing industry and to how we connect with and make sense of our culture. It's important because it promotes female sexual agency in a positive way.
Specifically addressing the funding for the Popular Romance Project, Eloisa James was quoted as saying that
The National Endowment for the Humanities recognized the importance of documenting women’s lives [and] women’s industry. Documentaries are expensive … especially if you’re following people for three years. It’s a huge, huge project capturing an industry. The website is merely the vocal piece for what will be the film. It’s a very intellectual pursuit and study of a huge business.
On the 19th of December, however, Fox News was reporting "'50 shades of no': Critics slam taxpayer-funded romance novel website." While it included a rebuttal from the NEH, it also quoted Matt Philbin, managing editor at Culture and Media Institute's Media Research Center, who felt that "This is a perfect example of an unaccountable government arbitrarily wasting our money. A $1.4 billion private leisure industry obviously doesn't need federal assistance." Of course, it wasn't the whole of the romance publishing getting a subsidy, but I suppose that's just an inconvenient detail.

Debates about government funding will probably continue indefinitely but I had hoped that this would be the end of the story as regards the funding of the Popular Romance Project. No such luck.

At the end of January USA Today published an article by Windsor Mann: "Romancing Uncle Sam: Nothing is Too Stupid for Washington to Subsidize" and that article was quoted on 10 April 2014 when:
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee, [...] released a letter sent to National Endowment for the Humanities acting chairman Carol Watson regarding certain projects her agency has funded, including an expansive “Popular Romance Project.”
Sessions asked the NEH to
identify any additional romance projects and the amount of funding for each project NEH has funded the last five years. In addition, please explain how these films or projects have deepened the understanding of the humanities or contributed to public support and confidence in the use of taxpayer funds.
I can't help but wonder if romance being used as a weapon to humiliate the NEH has potentially serious implications for popular romance scholarship.

Adams, Becket. "Here Are the Top Six Most Ridiculous Things the Gov’t Spends Tax Dollars On." 17 December 2013. The Blaze.

Mann, Windsor. "Romancing Uncle Sam: Nothing is Too Stupid for Washington to Subsidize." 30 January 2014. USA Today.

Martel, Frances. "Feds Spent Almost $1 million on Romance Novel Website." 17 December 2013. Breitbart.

McKay, Hollie. "'50 shades of no': Critics slam taxpayer-funded romance novel website." 19 December 2013. Fox News.

Moody, Chris. "Federal government has spent nearly $1 million on romance." 17 December 2013. Yahoo News.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

United States Senate Committee on the Budget Republicans. "Sessions Questions National Endowment For The Humanities Over Dubious Expenditures." 10 April 2014.

Verna, Elisa. "In Defence of the Popular Romance Project." 17 December 2013. RT Book Reviews.

Friday, April 11, 2014

So You Want to Write a Ph.D. Thesis on Romance...

--Eric Selinger

A few days ago I woke up to an email inquiry about how to turn a research interest in popular romance fiction into a dissertation.  The inquiry came from a Turkish graduate student, but the set of problems that she faces--wondering where to start; a supervisor who doesn't know the genre or the field, etc.--seems pretty common all around the world.  
If you're in her shoes, what should you do?
The first thing I'd suggest is to keep reaching out to others in the field.  In the "Academic Links" column on this page, for example, you'll find a set of organizations you can join, starting with the RomanceScholar listserv, which will put you directly in touch with a range of professors, independent scholars, graduate students, librarians, romance authors, and others, all around the world.  Queries get answered, and offers to help are common. You can also find leads to other scholars, established and emerging, by looking at the romance blogs listed on this page, and by reading through the interviews and blog posts at the Popular Romance Project, which I help to edit.  If you're a social media person, you can follow me on Twitter (@JPRStudies), and join the Facebook group of IASPR, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.

No matter the mode of contact, we're a pretty friendly community, and it's not uncommon for us to get messages out of the blue.  Go ahead and reach out--what can you lose?

There are also a number of online scholarly materials that both you and your supervisor can peruse, to get your bearings.  I'd encourage both of you to take a look at the Romance Scholarship Bibliography, which will let you see what has already been published on any number of topics in popular romance fiction studies, with links to all of those that you can jump to and read online.  (Many dissertations are linked here--take a look, especially at the recent ones!)  Spend some time reading over at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, the free, peer-reviewed journal of cutting-edge scholarship on love in global popular media.  And look through Teach Me Tonight for notices about and links to new or freshly available journal articles.  A lot of good work has come out in the last five to ten years, and that should be the context for your research.
In that column you'll also see three books by contributors to Teach Me Tonight:  Pamela Regis's Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), Laura Vivanco's For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance (2011) and New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays (2012).  These are not the only useful books on romance fiction, by any means, but if you're interested in the ways that the genre can be read from a literary studies perspective, as opposed to sociologically or historically or politically, they will be helpful to you.

  • I got my own start as a romance scholar by reading Pam's book, and others have found it equally useful, especially the first couple of chapters, which set forth her basic conceptual model of the genre. 
  • My courses on popular romance fiction are currently built around Laura's book, which provides an expert guide to finding the literary artistry in popular romance novels--it does a fine job tracing the history of their reputation as formulaic or thoughtless fiction, too.
  • As for the third book, which I co-edited, it contains over a dozen very helpful essays, but the most important material for you as a new scholar might be the Introduction, which traces the history of popular romance studies as an academic field from the 1970s through about 2010, with some attention to how that study has developed differently in the US, UK, and Australia.  (For non-Anglophone romance scholarship, you'll probably need to consult the online Bibliography.) 

The next step I'd suggest is for you to think long and hard about what subset of romance fiction you want to study.  There was a time when you could aim to write about "the genre" overall, but that time has probably passed, and your supervisor is unlikely to give the thumbs up to a project that's too general.

Is there a particular trope or convention that you want to look at, the way that historian Hsu-Ming Teo looks at Orientalism and popular romance in her fine book Desert Passions?  Do you want to focus on a particular romance subgenre, like the Regency romance, or paranormal romance, or Amish romance?  Do you want to look at a particular publishing house--Avon, or Harlequin Mills & Boon, or Bold Strokes Books--or a particular author?

Several romance scholars, including Lisa Fletcher and An Goris, have written about issues of corpus selection:  how to choose the books that you plan to address.  Get to know what they say, ask questions of those already in the field, and be prepared to face tough questions from your supervisor about why you've chosen these books out of the thousands which are published every year.

I'm sure there's more to be said, and I hope to rustle up some voices in the comments to add to this post, or to reply with posts of their own.  Watch for those, good luck, and welcome to the field!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Free Access to Articles on Disability in Romance

For a limited period only, access to the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies is free. It's a great opportunity to get hold of:

Baldys, Emily M. “Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance”. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 6.2 (2012): 125-141.

Cheyne, Ria. “Disability Studies Reads the Romance.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 7.1 (2013): 37-52.

Schwab, Sandra. “‘It Is Only with One’s Heart That One Can See Clearly’: The Loss of Sight in Teresa Medeiros’s The Bride and the Beast and Yours until Dawn.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 6.3 (2012): 275–289.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

PCA/ACA 2014 - The romance menu

Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference: 16-19 April

Where available I've included links to the abstracts of the papers, a brief quote from each, and links to further details about each of the presenters.

Romance I: Sex, Death and Reading Minds
Romance II: Love and God; Life and Art
Romance III: A Conversation with Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Romance IV: Modern Love/Love and Modernism
Romance V: From Print to Digital
Romance VI: The Reader and Her Romance
Romance VII: Reading the Romance Turns Thirty (1): a Roundtable Discussion with Janice Radway

Romance VIII: Reading the Romance Turns Thirty (2): a Roundtable Discussion with Janice Radway

Romance IX: Histories, Geographies
Romance Session X: Romancing the Other
Romance XI: Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy
Romance XII: Lesbian and M/M Romance
Romance XIII: Reading the Romance Turns Thirty (3): the Impact of RTR on Popular Romance Novels, Novelists, and Scholarship and Open Forum

A roundtable on the influence on Janice Radway’s Reading The Romance on the romance genre, its novels, novelists and scholars. Also the Romance Area’s annual Open Forum in which we discuss the on-going development of the field of Popular Romance Studies.

Romance XIV: Mid-Century Romance: Teens, Gothic and Adventure
Romance XV: New Romantic Configurations

Other papers of interest include:

Sex, Love, Romance and... Academic Writing?: Relationships in Popular Culture as a Springboard for an Extended Academic Research Project ["This presentation will describe a classroom-tested sequence of writing assignments that leads undergraduates (sophomores-seniors) to compose 15-25 page academic papers on sex, love, and romance in the mass media"] - by Gwen Hart, Buena Vista University

Passionate Virtue: conceptions of professionalism in the medical romance ["these texts, which strive for 'realism' on their own terms, negotiate contemporary threats to nostalgic professionalism, such as commercialism, consumerism, and third party usurpation of physician autonomy"] - by Jessica Miller, University of Maine

Relearning Modern Day Vampire Mythology through Popular Paranormal Romance Novels ["discussing some of the current adult vampire paranormal romance series that modify our traditional notions about vampires"] - by Jessica Haggerty, Western Governors University

Reading Our Lives: the Cultural Work of Contemporary Women's Book Clubs ["Using the survey Janice Radway developed for the study which culminated in her groundbreaking work Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, I designed a lengthy reader survey that I distributed to [...] eleven women's book clubs"] - by Liana Odrcic, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The Princess Bride: A Myth for Modern Times ["True love is transformational.  True love kills us and resurrects us.  The lovers in this film individually and together must go through their own symbolic deaths and resurrections"] - by Jan Peppler, Pacifica Graduate Institute

Fifty Shades of Hope: Finding Healing Erotic Power in a Cultural Phenomenon ["The cultural phenomenon created by the Fifty Shades books as well as the books’ narrative will be explored as evidence of a cultural move towards embracing erotic power as well an illustration of how relationships can be transformed by erotic mutuality"] - by Julie Clawson, independent scholar

Sunday, April 06, 2014

CFP: "Trash", Representing the Middle East and North Africa

American Representations of the Middle East and North Africa

The 2014 Midwest Popular Culture Association Conference is currently organizing a panel on American Representations of the Middle East and North Africa. This conference will be held at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, IN on 3-5 October 2014. Topics can include--but are certainly not limited to--any historical or contemporary representation of the Middle East in American popular culture, including sermons, songs, plays, paintings, travel accounts, memoirs, novels, movies, and the media. Please upload a 250 word abstract on any aspect of culture treating American Representations of the Middle East and North Africa to the Middle Eastern Culture area at The deadline for the submission of an abstract is 30 April 2014. You can find more information about the conference can be found at

Please note the availability of graduate student travel grants: Please email Stacy Holden at with any questions that you may have.

Picking Through the Trash: PIVOT: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies and Thought

Even when claiming a love of trash culture, many of us take care to emphasize that this admiration happens at a distance. Phrases like “guilty pleasure” often accompany the admission, for we are aware we might be saying too much about ourselves, or aligning ourselves too closely with something whose main attraction might be its ability to be consumed easily, rapidly, and in large quantities. Yet designating someone or something as being trash or trashy reflects as much on the cultural commentators as on the given object. In this sense, “trash” is a political term, premised on notions of hierarchy and exclusion, even when we try to collapse these through kitsch or camp reclamations. [...]

Authors are requested to submit full articles of 6,000-8,000 words by Friday July 18, 2014 to

More details here.