Archive for the ‘Issue 3.2’ Category
I was not at the PCA this year (truthfully, I’ve never been). I write this brief commentary as an outsider, insofar as I’ve never been “inside” PCA, and as someone, who came to popular romance almost by accident. Still, I applied to the 2010 International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) conference in Brussels because of Pamela Regis—she was giving a keynote address—and that gives me a particular investment in this discussion.
At the time, I was writing a dissertation—one that was ultimately discarded, its pages yellowing in a box—on what Doris Sommer had called “foundational fictions,” which is to say, nineteenth-century Latin American romance novels: Jorge Isaacs’s María and its epileptic aesthetic; a rebellious romance like Adolfo Caminha’s Bom Crioulo; and the rich queerness of homosocial desire that was found in many of these romances. But it was at IASPR that I realized how much could be said about popular romance, about how much we were missing when we, in the academy, ignored it. And it was because of IASPR and subsequent discussions with colleagues that I have spent some time thinking about how we go about teaching and researching popular romance. Afforded this opportunity, I wish to offer some thoughts, however tentative, about some of the issues that have arisen throughout these wonderful papers.
It seems that we all agree that Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel was and continues to be an important book, comparable in significance to Janice Radway’s foundational study, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Upon [End Page 1] thinking about these papers, however, I am struck by the fact that Regis speaks of “the Romance Novel” with no qualifying adjective, and that Radway’s subtitle is even more inclusive, using the word “literature” rather than “romance” or “fiction,” as we, in popular romance studies, are accustomed to doing.
What is lost or gained when we do not think of romance as “literature”?
Call Me Frygian, Maybe
Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel is profoundly and explicitly in dialogue with one of romance’s most important theorists: Northrop Frye. Indeed, one of the first things I said to Regis when I met her was, “Have you read Frye’s notebooks on romance?” For a few years (my years before Regis, maybe?), I was a very keen reader of Northrop Frye. I went to the University of Toronto because Frye had taught at Toronto, he had founded the Centre for Comparative Literature, and his archives were located in the E. J. Pratt Library. Today, I must admit, my devotion to Frye has waned, but my understanding of genre is entirely indebted to Frye, and Regis strikes me as one of his most faithful readers. So many of Regis’s key terms are inspired by Frygian thought (I think here, for instance, of her discussions of the “point of ritual death”) and even the way Regis sees the “structure” of romance ultimately derives from Frye.
This leaves me with two suggestions about popular romance scholarship, both of which oscillate around theory. The first suggestion is this: we must go back and read a range of voices who theorize romance and genre, and not just those who wrote on popular romance. Northrop Frye, as just about every major critic of romance has noted, was essential in developing a “grammar of romance” (Saunders 2), but what of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious? Like Regis’s A Natural History, Jameson’s work owes a debt to Northrop Frye, a debt that Jameson himself has noted, and it offers a searching account of “romance,” broadly construed, which might well be of use to us in the field. We owe it to ourselves to read psychoanalysis in relation to the romance, and vice versa, even though we know that these two have had a complicated relationship. Particular scholars may have used psychoanalysis to pathologize the romance reader, but that past need not be prologue. We can draw on the teachings of psychoanalysis in new and innovative ways, ways that account for the complexity of women’s experiences, reader’s experience’s, and author’s experiences. Indeed, is not the experience of love profoundly informed by the psyche, and is the not the formation of the psyche shaped by the traumas and the solaces of love?
My argument here is not simply that we need to know where other scholars are coming from, what is informing their work, and how we might return to their work, reading it now to illuminate the texts we study rather than to dismiss them. Rather, what I am asking for here is something more: close readings of literary theory, which itself is often as implicitly plotted and shaped, generically speaking, as any work of fiction. As many theorists have claimed, the act of writing theory brings into action the same set of linguistic devices as those used by any novelist or poet; theory abounds with wordplay, wit, irony, metaphor, metonymy, and even (at least implicitly) plot and character. I recognize that this puts me at odds with Regis’s “First Principle of Literary Critical Ethics”: “The most modest [End Page 2] work of fiction, including romance fiction, is a greater accomplishment than the finest work of literary criticism.” But one of my questions for Regis after reading her paper was, “Are you writing a romance?”—by which I meant that the argument being explored was, at heart, a quest romance, turned here into a field romance, with Regis herself as our heroine. (Selinger, I note, refers to himself as “wearing the genre’s guerdon”: perhaps he’d like to cast himself as its knight errant.)
As romance scholars, then, we should not only read more widely and deeply in theory, but we should read those theoretical texts as closely, as critically, as carefully, as creatively as the literary texts we choose to engage.
Not so Happily Ever After
My second suggestion—one comes out of my current research as well as the Roundtable responses—has to do with the sorts of theory we ought to engage.
As of 2013, it’s safe to say that there are theoretical voices that dominate our field, while other voices are almost entirely silent or pushed to the periphery. We see ourselves as fascinated, for example, by questions of gender and sexuality, but, by and large, our approach is informed by a very small swath of feminist theory. With a few exceptions (the Australian scholar Lisa Fletcher comes to mind), the current wave of popular romance scholars have yet to engage with recent scholarship on sexuality and gender, particularly by way of queer theory, which has the potential to call into question many of our assumptions about both gender and genre. In a sense, I think that Kamble’s suggestion that we look behind our comfort zone is particularly important, especially if we desire a happily ever after for our field.
In responding to Regis’s paper, I asked myself (and Regis) why we insist upon the “happily ever after.” In her monumental work, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis writes that many critics “attack the romance novel for its happy ending in marriage” (7). Arguably, Regis’s A Natural History works to resolve, or even repair, this “attack” by illustrating that the happily ever after is really about “freedom,” which is “the reason that readers react to the happy ending with enthusiasm—with joy” (16). Indeed, in summarizing the happily ever after, Regis explains: “[w]hen the heroine achieves freedom, she chooses the hero. The happy ending celebrates this” (16). Critics and advocates for the genre focus on the happily ever after, as either a sign of the genre’s success or a sign of the genre’s failure. There is, in a sense, no middle ground. In closing, I want to provide another, slightly different reading of the happily ever after.
While I agree with Regis that much of the “values [of romance] are profoundly bourgeois” (207)—and they may indeed be read this way—I want to suggest that attached to these values is an insistence upon heteronormativity: specifically, to the heteronormative ideal that Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism” (Edelman 3). In his History of Sexuality, Foucault spoke eloquently about the central place of the “utilitarian and fertile” place of the parents’ bedroom (3) in our theorizations of sexuality—a place which is also, as Edelman’s phrase suggests, linked to questions of time. While it is certainly true that literal fertility and reproduction are not “essential,” to borrow Regis’s language, to the romance, it must be equally recognized that a genre that requires betrothal is linked to [End Page 3] a sense of continuity and futurity. What readers love about the happily ever after is that it promises a tomorrow.
As a paranoid critic, I am imagining that a reader is already saying, “ah, but this author is unaware of male/male romance.” Not so. I would contend that the male/male romance novel—the kind which, like the male/female romance, requires a happily ever after—is also complicit in this normative project. Indeed, Lisa Duggan has coined the word “homonormative,” which “is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (50). Is this not precisely what so-called queer romances do, precisely inasmuch as they “uphold and sustain” the importance of the happily ever after?
I am not arguing here that queers and queer allies should be against happiness, but I am urging us to be wary of any homogenous, homogenizing belief in and understanding of the happily ever after as a telos for the genre: iconic, untouchable, cherished, revered. Taking our cue from the “fierce and powerful argument against gay marriage” that J. Jack Halberstam has noted “from within queer activist groups” (97-98; emphasis in original)—an argument that resists the recuperation of queerness by normative domesticity—we might go beyond simply reading romances that are “male/male” or “female/female” and read both romance, the genre (as a totalizing structure) and individual romance novels (same-sex or heterosexual), queerly. What might this mean?
Well, for one thing, queer theory has demonstrated the importance of affective thinking, and the challenge with romance is that while it is ostensibly committed to affect, the lesson of romance is generally that all negative affect is (or at least ought to be) cured, at once through and by the romance. Our happily ever after will bring an end to our sad stories, restoring what was lost. Our sadness, melancholy, distress will be cured—miraculously—by the power of love. But must the romance novel’s happily ever after function like a cure? I think that work being done by An Goris is particularly relevant and important here, because she is extending the argument of romance beyond stand-alone titles. The serial romance challenges our notions of happily ever after, and this is important, both to our sense of the genre and, perhaps, to our evolving culture of love.
To speak about affect is, of course, to engage with the most famous affective quality of the happily ever after ending: its optimism. Regis does not use the word, but the Romance Writers of America certainly do, defining the romance novel as a “central love story” with an “emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending (“About the Romance Genre”). I am not about to argue against “optimism,” mostly because I think a great deal of generative work is being done around optimism in queer theory (see, for example, Snediker’s Queer Optimism, and Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia). But even we lovers of happily-ever-aftering need, I think, to entertain the notion that a certain “cruel optimism,” in Lauren Berlant’s terms, also inflects the genre. “Cruel optimism,” she explains in the book of that name, is “the condition of maintaining attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24)—problematic because we must therefore engage with “the compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic” (Berlant 24). Sometimes, after all—too often—we are not able to live in the glory of the happily ever after, but instead, are stuck in the tremendously depressing “not again,” or “never again.” [End Page 4]
We know how we deal with this knowledge ourselves, or at least we come to know it, year by year. How, though, does romance deal with it, at the levels of plot and character and trope? Does the treatment of such matters in the “romance” differ from its treatment in the “romance novel” and the “popular romance novel,” and how might any or all of these differ from their representation in other media?
To answer such questions we will need to read more, and better, and—if not cruelly—as honestly and queerly as we can. [End Page 5]
“About the Romance Genre.” Romance Writers of America. http://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=578. Web.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.
Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack of Democracy. Boston: Beacon P, 2003.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.
Halberstam, J. Jack. Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. Boston: Beacon P, 2012.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009.
Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
Saunders, Corinne. “Introduction” to A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. London: Blackwell, 2007. 1-9.
Snediker, Michael. Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009.
Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991. [End Page 6]
On the Tenth Anniversary of Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel
by Sarah S. G. Frantz
In Los Angeles in 2004, I sat down next to Pam Regis at the annual conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America—in fact, I sought her out in order to sit down next to her—and told her how much I loved her book. I had finished my dissertation the previous year and was in my first semester of a tenure-track position. I had three published articles, two on Jane Austen’s construction of her heroes, and one on popular romance fiction. Pam’s book, which came out after my own article, “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power,” told me that there were more scholars out there interested in popular romance fiction. While not a community, not in 2004, what Pam and I discovered then is that we were not alone, as we had each once thought. Finding Pam in Los Angeles was what spurred me to help build a community of scholars of popular romance, so that others could have that same feeling of sitting down with a friend, with another scholar interested in the same concerns.
Now, in 2013, in Washington D.C., I sit down next to Pam Regis at the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association, and say to her, “I love your book.” I am tenured. I have ten published articles and two published edited collections: one on female novelists’ constructions of masculinity, one on popular romance fiction. I have cited Pam and A Natural History of the Romance Novel in every article I’ve published since 2003, proving its invaluable contribution (to my scholarship, at least). In 2009, I helped found and since then have been the president of the International Association for the Study of [End Page 1] Popular Romance, an important step toward establishing the community Pam and I found together.
Fundamentally, as a scholar, I’m a feminist narratologist. I look at the way in which novels are constructed—sentence by sentence, scene by scene, trope by trope, convention by convention—and attempt to examine the ways in which these constructions—particularly of romance heroes written by female novelists—reveal cultural and social negotiations around gender and sexuality. Pam’s Eight Essential Elements have given me the foundations from which to begin that analysis in popular romance fiction. Using her Essential Elements, I am able to compare, for example, the emotional development of Austen’s Darcy and J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood. The Essential Elements allow me to discuss the ground-breaking, multi-book emotional arc of Suzanne Brockmann’s Sam Starrett, and give me solid basis from which to speculate about the construction of multiple axes of sexuality in BDSM romance. Without A Natural History of the Romance Novel, my scholarship would have been much more difficult.
Beginning in May, 2013, I’ll be stepping outside academia, starting a job as a full-time, salaried acquisitions editor at Riptide Publishing, a small LGBT romance press. And I would argue that A Natural History of the Romance Novel is more important for my editing work than my academic work. I proselytize Pam’s Eight Elements to my authors when I edit. While the romance writing community has its own terminology for some of Pam’s Elements—all romance authors know what “The Dark Moment” is, and understand it better than “Point of Ritual Death”—I’ll hammer home “Attraction” and especially “Barrier” to the authors I work with. Sometimes I’ll receive a submission about two characters falling in love that might be sweet and wonderful, but isn’t a good romance narrative, because there’s no narrative tension, nothing to keep the reader moving forward. When I talk with the author, I’ll pull out Pam’s Essential Elements list and it helps authors understand that I’m not just being mean, that “essential” means precisely that, and that understanding these elements can help them formulate ways in which to build a better romance narrative for publication.
So if, as Pam claims, “any given romance text is more important and more valuable than any work of criticism, period,” then A Natural History of the Romance Novel is now doing even more important and valuable work than she might have anticipated when she wrote it: helping novelists construct romance novels as well as giving scholars the tools to analyze them. For which all we can do is thank Pam again. [End Page 2]
I started graduate school in 2000 with the intent of studying Shakespeare and film. In 2002, when I expressed some uncertainty about my doctoral focus, I was advised by a professor to write my dissertation on the works I like to read even when I don’t have to read them. Since I read romance fiction, I started emailing the department faculty to see who would work with me on popular romance novels. It may shock you to know that there was no stampede. The few who responded told me to read Janice Radway. It was a bit frustrating, not because I don’t appreciate the contribution made by Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, but because the book was written in 1984. Did no one know or care about romance fiction scholarship (or even related scholarship) that had occurred in the intervening eighteen years?
Luckily, there were a few professors who did stop me from sliding into despair, the first being a wonderful nineteenth-century Americanist with whom I started studying popular romances, as well as novels like Charlotte Temple and The Wide, Wide World. She was also the one I ran to with the news that someone named Pamela Regis had written A Natural History of the Romance Novel. I think I said something to the effect of “This woman wrote my dissertation! What the hell am I going to do now?” (I confess I hadn’t read the book at that point, but the notion that someone had traced the history of current mass-market romance fiction to works like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre seemed alarmingly close to what I had hoped to do.) My reaction betrayed my belief that there was only one [End Page 1] study to be done on the genre—and someone else had beaten me to the punch. Oh, woe is me! Fortunately, my professor talked me off the ledge, explaining that this book was a good thing because someone had built a foundation on which I could now rely. I think this roundtable and the growth of the field testifies to the truth of her statement for many of us who began this endeavor with little in terms of accessible or useful scholarly models in relation to romance fiction.
In re-reading the book for this roundtable, I was struck by how carefully it marks its territory. I have yet to master this skill of fighting literary battles on my own terms and turf. In my early scholarship, for instance, I often faced questions about my seemingly scatter-shot selection of romance novels (when my intent had been to adopt a deductive model rather than the inductive one that has so plagued the genre’s scholarship, much to its detriment). In the past, I have also struggled with using a plethora of literary and cultural theories that are vital to analyses of the genre but which I deployed in ways that left my work open to strong challenges on an overwhelming number of fronts. I think A Natural History finds a fine balance between such extremes. It takes great care to outline its textual concerns and theoretical lens, forestalling the otherwise inevitable arguments that greet works that seek to define a large corpus: “But why did you include X?” or “Why didn’t you include Y?” or “Isn’t Z just an exception to the rule?” etc. Its statement of what it is creating (a genealogy for the mass-market romance based on a Frygian conception of comedy) and what it intends to offer the reader (close readings of selected novels going back to Pamela) is impeccable and explicit. It thus offers an excellent model for scholars (including graduate students) who work with similar concerns (of genre or textual selection from a large pool).
In the last ten years, scholars on the genre have branched out in various directions. I do not fear, as I once momentarily did, that there is no more left to be said After Regis. As her own talk has shown, there is work to be done in looking at the past with a sharper lens. I myself hope to dive back into my notes (written one summer on site at the British Library in London) on pre-1960s Mills and Boon romances, because that is a chapter in the genre’s history that needs greater attention. I also hope to visit the firm’s archives, which were once off-limits but are now accessible through the University of Reading.
Apart from these diachronic readings, more synchronic ones are needed in order to capture the stable yet flexible workings of the genre, since it changes dramatically and yet not traumatically within a small period of time. To illustrate, the genre has grown in just a century from British novels about working class characters or colonial bureaucrats to the more dramatic military and medical romances and then to glamorous short travelogues starring billionaires, and from the Gothics and long historical novels written in the U.S. to the paranormal and urban fantasy sub-genre that is now in its heyday; yet new forms do not abandon previous ones but, rather, exist alongside them in a rhizomatic structure, with each node signaling new thematic and ideological confluences that feed into the others. My fellow panelists are exploring these issues at the micro and macro level in the genre’s [End Page 2] Anglo-American as well as non-Anglo-American forms and I hope others will step up to do so as well.
I want to end with the exhortation that popular romance studies must strive to be in conversation with scholarship in related areas in literary studies. In just the last two months, I happened to be at two talks that struck a chord in me as a romance scholar, although they were not about romance fiction per se. One was by the Americanist Christopher Looby, who is in the exploratory stages of a project that he has provisionally titled, “The Literariness of Sexuality: or, How to Do the (Literary) History of (American) Sexuality”; the other, by David Earle, was called, “The Popular Front: Pulp Magazines as Anti-Fascist Propaganda.” Both talks examined narrative forms whose content, reception, publication, or legacies intersect in some way with the work that is underway (or should be) in romance fiction scholarship. It is vital to keep abreast of such endeavors in order to create new opportunities that will help our field expand and mature. At the talk by Dr. Earle, I also made the acquaintance of a collector of pulp who is digitizing hundreds of these texts and is happy to share them with scholars for a small fee. I myself intend to get in touch with him for a potential project on this oft-overlooked step-sibling of the romance fiction genre. Both talks and the chance meeting reminded me that the streams of romance fiction flow from different springs to many oceans; it will profit us to try and navigate as many as we can so there will no longer be a map of literature, as Regis has said, that stops at romance with the legend: “Here there be dragons.” [End Page 3]
A Natural History of the Romance Novel is one of the most pivotal works on popular romance that has ever been published. In terms of influence it is right up there with Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (1984). In fact, although the academic community at large seems mostly to associate the study of the popular romance novel with Radway’s work, I think many of you will agree with me when I say that in the last ten years Pamela Regis’s work has matched if not surpassed Radway’s in terms of importance to the emerging field of Popular Romance Studies. This rise to prominence has a lot to do with the by now famous definition of the romance novel that Regis coins in this study. This definition— both its short version as “the romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (19), as well as the more elaborate version with the essential eight elements of the romance novel (27-46)—is used, quoted, or in some other way referred to in most of the romance scholarship that has been published in the last decade. These citations say something about the central position A Natural History occupies in the field. It also says something about our collective need to be able to define the object that we are studying. It is very difficult (not to say impossible) to study something that you cannot at least begin to define. Regis’s book, perhaps better than any other that I have come across, enables the process of formulating a definition of the romance novel. [End Page 1]
I choose my words carefully here. I deliberately use the terms “enable” and “process” because I do not necessarily agree with Regis’s definition. Or, to be more precise, I take issue with the essentialist paradigm in which it is formulated. Indeed, I am one of those scholars who, as Regis puts it, is scared by the use of words like “essential” and “must” when it comes to definitions and categorizations of literature. As a scholar reared in a much more constructionist paradigm, I am fundamentally uncomfortable with the exclusive focus on textual (that is, narrative) elements in this definition and have long argued for the inclusion of other, specifically paratextual parameters in definitions of the romance novel. I, then, certainly welcome a reframing of this definition as practical or pragmatic, and have long thought of it myself as “prototypical”—that is, in my view it describes the prototype of the romance novel. Individual instances of the genre may be more or less prototypical.
The main value of this definition, however, lies perhaps not so much in whether we agree with it or not, but in the fact that it has given us something tangible to agree or disagree about. Indeed, the eight elements in particular have quickly become a central point of reference in any academic discussion about what the romance novel is (and is not). We might choose to adapt, replace, re-label, reframe, re-conceptualize or rearrange them, but we cannot deny they provide a point of departure and a kind of baseline for any such further definitional endeavors on the romance novel. As anybody who has ever tried to define something as unwieldy as a genre knows, this is no small feat.
Another significant feat of this study is the way in which it embodies one of the most important ongoing evolutions in Popular Romance Studies. This is the shift from studies that seek to focus on similarity to those that aim to study differentiation within the genre. Many early studies of the romance genre—such as Modleski (1982), Radway (1984), Jensen (1984) and Mussell (1984)—sought to describe the general characteristics of the romance novel, often in an attempt to determine how romances are different from other kinds of literature. Such studies are frequently based on a conceptualization of the romance genre as internally homogenous. In their ardor to describe the specificity of romance in comparison to other genres, they tend to overlook the many kinds of variation and stratification that exist within romance itself. Although this genre-wide approach has by no means completely disappeared from the field, there is certainly an evolution towards romance scholarship that has a much more narrow and specific focus. Many recent romance studies take on specific subgenres, series of novels, or even individual texts. These studies often aim to highlight how particular romance texts differ from others within the genre. These works adopt, in other words, a fundamentally heterogeneous conceptualization of the romance genre that aims to recognize instead of obscure the diversity within its fluid borders.
This shift is in an almost iconic way embodied within the covers of A Natural History. The first two parts of this study (“Critics and the Romance Novel” and “The Romance Novel Defined”) are clearly situated in the genre-wide tradition. Here Regis seeks to describe general characteristics of the romance in order to point out how it is different from other kinds of literature. She coins her famous definition of the romance novel in these pages. The third and the fourth part of the study (which take up about 150 of its 200 pages) describe and discuss a number of individual romance novels (Pamela, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre all come up) and (even more importantly in my eyes) a number of individual romance authors—including contemporary ones. [End Page 2]
Indeed, part four is entirely dedicated to a discussion of the twentieth-century romance novel and is organized on the basis of authorship. It contains, amongst others, chapters on Janet Dailey, Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts that—ten years after the book’s publication— continue to be amongst the primary academic resources on these novelists (which, honesty compels me to add, says perhaps as much about the innovative turn in Regis’s work as it does about the rather lackluster state of authorial studies in romance criticism). In all of these discussions Regis consistently seeks to place the novel or author in the traditions of the genre as she has outlined them in the first two parts of her study even as she articulates how these works/authors are idiosyncratic and have, each in their own specific way, made unique contributions to the long history and enduring traditions of the romance novel that the study as a whole uncovers.
If one of the challenges our field as a whole faces in the next decade is the study of the individual romance author, as I have argued in my own paper at this conference, then I think A Natural History provides a good place to begin. One of the unsung qualities of this work is the way in which it begins to formulate a romance canon—a canon of the most important novels and authors in this truly massive genre. It is a task that is in no way complete and that I think might provide one of the focus points for our field in the next decade. If in this endeavor we manage to follow in the impressive footsteps of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, then the future of Popular Romance Studies looks bright indeed.
De Geest, Dirk and Hendrik Van Gorp. “Literary Genres from a Systemic-Functionalist Perspective.” European Journal of English Studies 3.1 (1999): 33-50. Print.
Goris, An. “The Author in Popular Romance (Studies).” National Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference. Marriott Hotel, Washington D.C. 28 March 2013. Conference Presentation.
Jensen, Margaret. Love’s $weet Return: The Harlequin Story. Bowling Green: Bowling State U Popular P, 1984. Print.
Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CN: Archon, 1982. Print.
Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction. Westport: Greenwood P, 1984. Print.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984. Print.
Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003. Print. [End Page 4]
In the summer or fall of 2005, I went to my local public library to pick up some books on “romance.” I was new to the field, if there was a field, of popular romance studies, and back then there was no RomanceScholar listserv to join, no Teach Me Tonight (the academic romance blog) to visit, no wiki bibliography of scholarship to consult. Instead, I browsed the shelves—first the lit-crit stacks, where I found Loving with a Vengeance by Tania Modleski, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, and Carole Thurston’s somewhat less famous book The Romance Revolution, and then, on a whim, the New Books section, where, as a pleasant surprise, I stumbled upon a two-year-old book by Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel. I checked it out, I brought it home, and by the end of the day, I knew what I wanted to do with the next few years of my scholarly life: not just to study and teach the romance novels I was already reading for pleasure, but to be an advocate for those novels, as Regis was, so memorably, in her study’s opening chapters.
Over the years I’ve made good use of those opening chapters, especially in the classroom. (I am currently teaching my twenty-fifth DePaul University course devoted exclusively to popular romance fiction.) In my remarks today, then, I’d like to begin by addressing Regis’s contribution to romance pedagogy, and then open things out to some thoughts on her contributions to more recent scholarship on the genre. Finally, prospectively, I will speak to the way that the political claims that Regis makes on behalf of the romance novel—claims about which I find myself somewhat ambivalent, as the years go by—might point out some useful future directions for romance novel studies.
In my 2007 review of Regis’s book (among others) for Contemporary Literature, I praised the book for offering a ready-made canon of romance authors and texts one might [End Page 1] draw on in constructing a syllabus, and also a set of “precision tools” one might use to spark focused, productive discussion in the classroom (“Rereading the Romance” 313). Six years later, I am happy to stand by both claims. Other efforts to articulate the nature and boundaries of the genre are either sweepingly general, like the two-part structure from the Romance Writers of America (“a central love story and an optimistic, emotionally-satisfying ending,” as the RWA website has it [“About the Romance Genre”]) or overly specific, like the thirteen plot functions in the “ideal romance” outlined by Radway’s study (134). Like some other famous eight-fold paths, Regis’s list of eight “elements” offers us a Middle Way between these two extremes: one that enables us and our students to talk about both thematic and formal elements in any romance novel in a specific, robust way.
Regis’s first element, for example—the “definition of society, always corrupt” (14)—marks an ideal point of entry for discussions of the socio-political material that shapes a particular romance novel, not just in terms of the particular corruption on display (misogyny, cruelty, homophobia, economic inequality, coarseness in love), but in terms of the solution to that problem embodied by the novel’s final, betrothed couple. Much of Lisa Fletcher’s theoretically-sophisticated discussion of the performative statement “I love you” can be brought into the general-education classroom via attention to Regis’s “declaration” element. And, as I said in the 2007 review, to have your students compare and contrast the “betrothal” elements in a range of disparate novels is to teach them to recognize, in a vivid, memorable way, the dialectics of convention and originality that shape not only the romance novel, but also any kind of genre writing. Wary of marriage, some contemporary romance novels deflect the “betrothal,” or deflate it through humor; in some LGBT romances, this element can be the site of a poignant, energizing re-engagement with the social corruption that historically has forbidden an actual marriage to occur.
Regis’s impact in my romance classes was profound and immediate. Her impact on other scholars is also worth noting—and by this, I don’t simply mean the use, by others, of her definition of the genre (later revised to replace the term “heroines” with “protagonists”) or even of that elements list.
We can measure this broader impact in two ways. First, A Natural History explicitly sets aside the psychoanalytic and post-psychoanalytic theoretical models that profoundly shaped popular romance criticism in the 1980s. As Regis’s opening chapters note, these models tended to pathologize romance reading, using an effortless move of psychological jujitsu to flip affirmations of the genre and its pleasures into evidence of its enervating, even debilitating effect. In casting Northrop Frye as the central theorist of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Regis not only set aside the vexed, unhelpful metaphor of “addiction” to romance; she gave herself license to shrug off the hierarchy that segregates high-art and popular versions of the courtship-and-betrothal narrative. Frye himself was blessedly uninterested in such hierarchies, and the distinction-defying model that Regis derives from him has since proven helpful to scholars such as Hsu-Ming Teo (Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels) and Martin Hipsky (Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925). The opening chapters of Laura Vivanco’s For Love and Money: the Literary Art of Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance, which builds on her work at the Teach Me Tonight blog, uses Frygian terminology to delineate the uses of “modal counterpoint” and the deployment of “mythoi” that characterize popular romance aesthetics. (Like A Natural History, For Love and Money lends itself to classroom use, and [End Page 2] my current courses on the genre assign the full book to my undergraduates, who read a chapter of it to frame each novel we discuss.)
The impact of A Natural History’s theoretical model is not limited, however, to those of us who’ve revisited Frye. Rather, by doubling back to pre-feminist, non-Freudian approaches to the romance novel, Regis essentially hit the reset button on the whole enterprise of popular romance studies. If her talk today is any indication, she herself seems to be loading an entirely new program for her current project, borrowing from Lisa Zunshine, cognitive science, and the psychological study of what is called “Theory of Mind.” Whatever our method, all of us who study the romance novel in a non-pathologizing way are in her debt.
At the start of these remarks I said that A Natural History of the Romance Novel made me want to be an advocate for romance fiction—and, indeed, I’ve been proud to wear the genre’s guerdon for some time. I don’t, however, want to suggest that her influence is or should be limited to those who espouse the values of the genre. Consider, for example, the way that Regis describes the trajectory of the romance novel’s plot as one from bondage to freedom: a freedom that is then put into action, always, every time, through one protagonist’s betrothal to another. A “freedom” that so smoothly and inevitably leads to the same genre-defining choice strikes me as a freedom worth asking some tough and pointed questions about: questions which Regis herself hints at when she notes, in a qualification, that “this freedom is limited—‘pragmatic’ as Frye would have it. For a heroine, especially, it is not absolute. It is freedom, nonetheless” (30).
We need, as a field, to investigate the nature and limits of this “pragmatic” freedom. How does it reflect the models of freedom that get proposed in American discourse more generally: the sort which likes to frame Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic American culture as a universal norm? When and how do romance novels themselves raise questions about the inevitability of betrothal and the relationships between “freedom” and romantic love? In our research, we may need to draw once more on the work of more skeptical and resistant critical theorists, including those whose rhetoric falls into the category that Regis (following Laura Wilder) dubs contemptus mundi. For example, at the 2009 Princeton conference on Romance Fiction and American Culture, which I helped organize (and at which Regis spoke), Tania Modleski called on the next wave of popular romance scholars to engage with Lauren Berlant’s then-recent book The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Few of us have responded to that call—yet look at what Berlant says near the start of the volume about the work she’s about to do. “To love conventionality,” she writes,
is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world. To love a thing is not only to embrace its most banal iconic forms, but to work those forms so that individuals and populations can breathe and thrive in them or in proximity to them. (3)
All of us who love the romance novel—as readers, scholars, editors, and authors—know that we love a profoundly conventional form, a form that relies on, revises, and investigates conventions of gender, narrative, and emotion. We also know that the readers, scholars, [End Page 3] editors, and authors of romance don’t just blindly embrace the genre’s “most banal iconic forms.” We work them.
Ten years on, A Natural History of the Romance Novel still gives us the precision tools to do that work, and to articulate what is to be done. [End Page 4]
“About the Romance Genre.” Romance Writers of America. http://www.rwanational.org/cs/the_romance_genre. Web.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2008. Print.
Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. Print.
Hipsky, Martin. Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2011. Print.
Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. Reprint, New York: Routledge, 1988. Print.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Reprint with a new Introduction, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.
Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U Penn P, 2003. Print.
—. What Do Critics Owe the Romance Novel?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011): n.p. Web.
Selinger, Eric Murphy. “Re-Reading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48.2 (Summer, 2007): 307-24. Print.
Teo, Hsu Ming. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. Austin: U of Texas P, 2012. Print.
Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1987. Print.
Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Tirril, Penrith: Humanities Ebooks, 2012. PDF file.
Wilder, Laura. “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice.” Written Communication 22.1 (2005): 76-119. Print.
Zunshine, Lisa. Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us About Popular Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. Print. [End Page 5]
Ten Years After A Natural History of the Romance Novel: Thinking Back, Looking Forward
by Pamela Regis
Address given at the 2013 Popular Culture Association Annual Conference, Washington, D.C. March 2013.
A Natural History of the Romance Novel was published ten years ago. At the kind invitation of the PCA Romance Area co-chairs, Drs. Eric Selinger and An Goris, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit a bit of the history of that text, which I do in Part I, and to explain the goals and ideas concerning romance criticism that guide my current project: a history of the American romance novel from 1803 to the present. This I do in Part II.
Part I. Thinking Back, A Tale of Three Conferences
At the March 1991 PCA Annual Conference in San Antonio, where I presented a paper titled “Jane Austen as a Romance Writer,” there were perhaps a dozen people in attendance at the romance session, if you include the presenters. My piece, an extremely early version of the analysis of Pride and Prejudice in A Natural History, was not very well argued and even less well received. Some feminists handed me my head. One stayed after the session ended to speak to me, making sure that my head was well and truly severed. [End Page 1] “Everything is political,” she informed me. A Marxist accused me of false consciousness. Others nodded.
I left the session and visited the Alamo to commune with the ghost of Davy Crockett. No worries, though. This being literary criticism and not an actual battle for political and national causes, unlike Davy I left the Alamo—quite alive—and visited the Riverwalk, where there were margaritas to be had.
Enter my Fairy Godmother, in the person of Patricia Smith, who, by the time I met her, had left her editing job with Silhouette Books to become a humanities editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press. Having read the program for the romance section of that same PCA, she emailed me and asked me to write a book on the romance novel. I said yes. Her request exactly echoed the advice that LeRoy Panek, one of the members of the committee that hired me at McDaniel College, had given me. LeRoy taught Shakespeare and Renaissance lit at McDaniel. Now retired, he is working on his twelfth or thirteenth monograph on detective and mystery fiction.
So, what I had, I now realize, was a remarkable institutional context: a major university press and an English department both being willing to sponsor and support the writing of the book that became A Natural History. The University of Pennsylvania Press printed it. McDaniel would switch my term appointment to tenure track and count this book as worthy scholarship.
A dozen years later, just after the book was published, at the SW/TX PCA/ACA Conference in February 2003, I gave two 40-minute presentations: “An Overview of the Heroine in Romance” and “A Natural History of the Romance Novel: A Discussion with Pamela Regis.” Nobody handed me my head, perhaps because there were so few people there. If you added the two audiences together, perhaps a dozen people were in attendance. “So, that’s that,” I thought. I walked away from popular romance to return to the study of Jane Austen, presenting at the Annual General Meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America, of which I am a life member. I published articles on the point of ritual death in Persuasion and Mansfield Park.
Not long after, in 2004, I began to realize that the study of popular romance was not really dead when I met Sarah Frantz at the annual Austen confab. Sarah would go on to found the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and to serve as that organization’s first president. At the speakers’ breakfast she sat down next to me, introduced herself, and said something like, “I like your book.” I imagine I looked at her with wild surmise. I know I thought, “Holy cow, somebody read my book!”
Which brings us to now, the PCA Annual Convention, March 2013, at which more than fifty scholars of romance are presenting their work at fourteen sessions over three days. This growth is gratifying, to say the least. Others can comment on the contribution my book may have made to the field of popular romance studies. I’ll simply say that I am still surprised, and delighted, when I hear myself cited.
Part II. Looking Forward
I would like to spend the rest of my time talking a bit about the issues that I currently grapple with when I think about writing romance scholarship. My current project [End Page 2] is a history of the American romance from 1803 to the present. As context, my departmental bailiwick is early American literature, where I am engaged in something of an argument with the canon of the American novel. (For example, I ask of Moby-Dick, “Really, Herman?”)
I think a fair amount about the ethics of literary criticism, and I actually believe what might be called “Regis’s First Principle of Literary Critical Ethics”: The most modest work of fiction, including romance fiction, is a greater accomplishment than the finest work of literary criticism.
From this principle I derive a strong suspicion of the ideas of contemptus mundi identified by Laura Wilder as one of the topoi that literary critics employ to signal their membership in the discourse community of literary critics (Regis, “What Do Critics”). Contemptus mundi (literally, contempt for the world), refers to the literary critics’ shared sense that the world is fallen, in the face of which fact, Wilder tells us, the critic “exhibits an assumption of despair over the condition of society.” Moreover “the critic tends to value works that describe despair, alienation, seediness, anxiety, decay, declining values, and difficulty in living and loving in our society.” Finally, “the critic attempts to point out the unresolvable tensions and shadows in literature that at face value seem optimistic” (85).
If a critic guided by this principle chooses not to study popular romance—that is a win for both the critic and romance. But if a critic guided by this principle chooses to study romance, the critic risks, I believe, overlooking the most important things about romance, and risks demonstrating, once again, that the world is fallen. My response to most arguments that conclude, yet once more, with a finding that the world is fallen: “Well, we knew that. What else ya got?” I would like to illustrate this less enlightening approach to romance criticism with what I hope are more enlightening ones by using Emily Hamilton by Sukey Vickery, the first work of early American romance fiction that I will be talking about in my current study.
Consider this passage, which we find late in this epistolary novel, from a letter sent to Mary, one of the courting young people who by this time has reached her happily ever after (her HEA), written by Emily, who is struggling to get over her love for Edward Belmont, our hero, who is already married. His marriage to someone other than the heroine is, as you might imagine, in my terms, a huge part of the barrier.
Emily Hamilton was written 210 years ago, yet this passage is instantly recognizable to any contemporary romance reader:
I [Emily] expressed my surprise to Miranda [Edward’s sister], while we were walking, that Mrs. Belmont [i.e., Clara, Edward’s wife] should wish to be in Boston at this season of the year. “It is natural to us,” she replied, “to wish for the company of those to whom we are most attached.”—“It is indeed,” I replied, “but is Mrs. Belmont more attached to her parents, than to her husband and child?” “No.—But to tell you a little secret, Emily, between ourselves, there is one whom Clara prefers to the whole world, and was forced to surrender by the command of her father, to marry my brother [Edward]. Of this circumstance, Edward was ignorant till nearly a year after his marriage, and even then he came accidentally by his information, but in what manner he would never explain to me.” “You surprise me, Miranda, is it from this, then, that her dejection arises?” “It is, and from the consciousness [End Page 3] that she can only esteem my brother, while his tenderness to her demands a grateful return. Edward is unhappy; the match was made by my father and old Mr. Belknap, the father of Clara. She was commanded by her father to receive and encourage the addresses of Edward—Edward on the other hand was told, that Clara Belknap was the most desirable person in point of fortune, that he could ever have pretensions to, and was desired by my father to consider her as his future bride. In obedience to a parent’s wishes, he made her several visits, and as she appeared very amiable, and quite willing to be his, they were hastily married. To common observers, they appear to be a happy couple, but to me, as I am well acquainted with their minds, the appearance is vastly different.” (93-94)
Contemptus mundi is easy. It is 1803, and couverture exerts its full power over the Massachusetts society in which this contemporary romance is set. Clara Belmont has been a feme covert—literally, a covered woman—since her marriage to the hero, Edward. Mary, the recipient of this letter, has with her recent marriage just become a feme covert. Emily will become one in her turn. To twenty-first-century Western thinking this is lamentable; it is wrong, in our view, to efface a woman’s legal status—including her ability to own property, to keep her earnings should she manage to earn any money, and to make contracts. The little we know about Sukey Vickery includes the fact that she disappeared as poet and novelist very soon after publishing Emily Hamilton, presumably as a consequence of her becoming a feme covert at the time of her marriage. She gave birth to and oversaw the care and education of nine children. She died at the age of 41. So, there is plenty to be contemptuous of in the world in which Vickery and her characters lived.
But how useful is it to point this out yet once more? Why bother?
I will try to answer the question I posed earlier: “What else ya got?” I do not have the time to talk about three of the approaches to Emily Hamilton that I will use in the full-length version of my analysis of this novel. There, I will revisit my use of the term “genre,” guided by the work of John Frow—a sort of apology for making everyone’s hair stand on end in A Natural History by talking about “essential” elements, which I will likely re-label “pragmatic” or “practical.” I still think they are essential, and I am still pretty much an essentialist, but I am aware that this is something that puts off people who posit a more constructivist view of genre.
More importantly, I will apply to the study texts the insights of “Theory of Mind” and its illumination of what a reader does when she reads a romance novel. I am surprised to find myself talking about readers, although my approach will not be ethnographic, which I believe to be fraught with difficulties. The initial readers of Emily Hamilton are, after all, dead. You have no idea what a relief this is to a literary historian who did not a read a single living author during her entire undergraduate degree. Theory of Mind, also called mind reading, is the ability of a person to be able to attribute to another person the attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, and so forth held by the second person. It turns out that it does not matter if the second person is real or not—he or she can be a character in a novel.
Another goal will be to approach Emily Hamilton in such a way that the analysis joins the larger conversation about the American novel, a conversation that gathered momentum about a century ago. I will look at the place of Emily Hamilton in American literary history, taking special notice of the novel’s vigorous challenge to the “seduction [End Page 4] narrative” genre on which American literary historians hang a political interpretation of the nation’s early novels and around which they array the early American novel, marginalizing the romances.
Today I would like to look a bit harder at a fourth approach—taking Vickery at her word when she claims that her novel is “founded on interesting scenes in real life” (4). I want to recover some of the nitty-gritty detail of that “real life.” What was it like in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts to be in a relationship, and in a marriage, and what might those realities suggest about courtship? How do those realities illuminate barrier and ritual death in Vickery’s novel, two of the greatest repositories of meaning in the romance? How might the lived experiences of actual early Americans have yielded this and other romances that have come down to us from early America?
I wish to look at Vickery’s reference to “real life” in the context of one of the broadest claims I have made about the romance novel: that the removal of the barrier and the subsequent betrothal between the courting young people is a joyful expression of freedom (A Natural History 206). And writing in a more specifically American context, I have made the stronger claim that American romance protagonists, including the women, “pursue companionate union that permits them to retain their freedom” (“Female Genre Fiction” 858). I wish to look at Vickery’s heroines in light of this stronger statement as well.
Historians of the law and the family have provided us with accounts of the “real life” in early America that Vickery cared enough about to depict in her first and only novel. Scholars examining the legal record of past centuries accomplish something remarkable: they look at individual cases, preserved in minute detail, of what it was like to be married, what it was like to be in a relationship, what it was like to divorce.
Divisions within the ranks of the historians of the law parallel those within the criticism of the romance. Hendrick Hartog, a legal historian writing in Man and Wife in America: A History, has described the two camps that legal scholars fall into, paralleling our familiar romance-is-bad-for-you vs. romance-is-good-for-you dichotomy. Hartog explains that legal scholarship, like romance scholarship, is “shaped by explicit political and normative concerns. One side begins with a demonstration that traditional legal rules, identified with the term ‘couverture,’ were bad, like slavery. . . . The other side glorifies the nineteenth-century ideology of permanent and highly structured marriage for the ethos of care, mutuality, continuity, and support that it produced” (3-4). He sidesteps this dichotomy to look at individual cases, to get at the ways in which couples, but especially women, navigate within couverture. Clearly, any happily married early nineteenth-century American woman—or man for that matter—had to navigate his or her way to that happiness within that legal framework.
It seems to me that this is partly what Emily Hamilton and other early American romance novels have to be about: a nineteenth-century reader’s interest in watching someone else navigate couverture—and the other legal and social conditions surrounding marriage. Close reading via Theory of Mind will back this idea up, by the way. Certainly, all of us live our lives—we navigate—within various laws, and some of these laws are ill advised and in need of repeal or revision. Yet we can still arrive at happiness.
So, how was this navigation accomplished, and how do I relate this accomplishment to the narrative elements of Emily Hamilton, which I repeat, is a novel “founded on interesting scenes of real life,” and which is set in eastern Massachusetts just after the turn of the nineteenth century? [End Page 5]
Historian Nancy F. Cott has found details that illuminate this navigation in her reading of 229 petitions for divorce brought before Massachusetts courts from 1692-1786. Accounts of happy marriages do not reach the courts, but unhappy marriages must be detailed in order for a divorce to be granted. Vickery was seven years old in 1786, Cott’s terminus ad quem. Cott explores the society into which Vickery was born. Here is real life without the scare quotes, and without the danger of anachronism, of reading back onto Vickery’s society the traditions of our own.
Recall that in the passage from Emily Hamilton you have seen, in a letter to Mary from Emily, Emily recounts a conversation she has had with Miranda, the hero’s sister. The novel is filled with passages of this sort—friends and acquaintances explaining the private lives of one or more of no fewer than a dozen courting young people—and there is a huge cast of characters. In this particular novel it is mostly the women—all of the letter writers are female—who recount the situations and actions, with a focus on the men.
How is this realistic? Is it not just a fictional convention that we have all of this incessant reporting of other young people’s situations, actions, and reputations in order to have a novel at all?
It turns out that the community was instrumental in the conduct of marriage in Vickery’s time. Cott tells us, “Members of the local community functioned as overseers, guardians, and conciliators: in their minds the rights of husbands and wives were clearly defined and ready to be imposed on any nonconforming couple for their own and the common benefit. Sometimes a dozen or more persons involved themselves in sorting out a couple’s allegations against one another and advising them what to do” (“Eighteenth-Century” 24).
The community even participated in the definition of marriage. Religious solemnization of marriage was far from universal, and civil recognition of marriage could involve no ceremony or written contract at all. Cott notes, “courts were generally satisfied when a couple’s cohabitation looked like and was reputed in the community to be marriage.” In some cases “pregnancy or childbirth was the signal for a couple to consider themselves married” (Public Vows 39, 31).
We see that definition of marriage depended on the community. Community members policed couples, and their statements constituted the finding that a marriage had, indeed, occurred. The nineteenth-century American definition of marriage was far more fluid than our own, in which a public record of a given marriage is how we know that a marriage has, indeed, come into existence.
What Vickery’s novel recreates is precisely this oversight community. Vickery’s letter writers write primarily to comment on—to oversee—others’ courtships, and to monitor their own as well. Thus, the novel realistically reconstructs early nineteenth-century Massachusetts (and, Hartog would add, American) society, providing a detailed account of this oversight.
We find real life in the barriers to marriage depicted in the novel as well. The hero’s marriage was made for dynastic purposes, as Miranda explains to Emily, who reports this fact to Mary. Parents arranged it. We contrast this with the barriers to union between Emily and two other young men: one ends up facing a death sentence, and another, a worthy suitor, dies at sea. Emily sidesteps union with both a rake and worthy man she respects but does not love. [End Page 6]
We learn the fate of a number of other young women. Three die—one of consumption, Clara of postpartum illness (which clears the barrier preventing Edward’s marriage to Emily), and one of suicide. Two navigate to the safety of a companionate marriage.
The suicide realizes that the man whose baby she carries is already married.
Surely this rake—also recognizable to any twentieth-first century romance reader, is a literary convention, right?
Returning to Cott’s account of late eighteenth-century divorce petitions, we read, “Caleb Morey acted upon his belief that ‘a Man had a right to be concerned with as many Women as he pleased whenever he could have a chance.’ Bostonian Adam Air defiantly maintained that ‘one Woman was as good to him as another.’ Sutton trader Steven Holman acknowledged ‘that He Had Rogred [sic] other Woman [sic] [besides his wife] and ment [sic] to Roger Every Likely Woman He Could and as many as would Let Him,’ and that ‘he had deceaved [sic] Many Woman [sic] in Order to get his will of them’” (“Eighteenth-Century” 34).
Here we have actual, real-life rakes who circulated in a culture where transportation was difficult; where news traveled, when it traveled at all, at the speed of a letter; and where a marriage could be initiated and conducted without civil or religious intervention. Men could walk away from a marriage without divorcing—and they did. Bigamy was a widely recognized outcome of this practice (Hartog 19-20). Pregnancy was a dangerous way for a woman to demonstrate that she was, in fact, married—recall that it could be taken as the visual sign that a marriage had taken place—and was sometimes the only such sign. There are two rakes in Emily Hamilton. Neither gets a happily ever after. Emily herself identifies and distances herself from one of them, warned by his manner and by news of his perfidy. Mary sidesteps the other one. Had they succumbed, we might have had a Charlotte Temple-like narrative, in which a heroine is seduced, abandoned, and dies.
With this in mind, consider ritual death in Emily Hamilton. It is foreshadowed in the meeting scene between Emily and her hero, Edward. Recall that the eight elements of the romance novel as set out in A Natural History can occur in any order, be doubled or tripled, and more than one element can be manifested in a given scene or bit of action (27-39).
Emily provides an account of the meeting in her courtship in a letter to Mary, thus creating another scene instantly recognizable to a contemporary romance reader: “I tremble even at the thought of past danger, for the moment we reached the bridge, the horse by some means extricated himself from the tackling, and as I still kept the reins [Emily is driving, not being driven] . . . was thrown into the river. . . . I should soon have expired, [this first point of ritual death is visited upon the heroine in this narrative] had not Heaven sent a deliverer.” People from a nearby tavern, “ran to our assistance; a gentleman who was with them plunged into the stream, and brought me out. I fainted in the arms of my deliverer” (38-39). Later, Emily and her female traveling companion drink tea with this “new friend,” but he “did not express a wish to be acquainted with [their] names” and the women do not ask his name, either (39). In fact, Emily does not learn that this is Edward Belmont, the hero, until he moves into her neighborhood—until, that is, the community around them can confirm his identity, including his marital status, his religious and economic situation, and the propriety of his behavior. [End Page 7]
Why is ritual death present in the river scene, which is also the “meeting” element of this particular romance novel courtship? In a well-constructed romance novel, ritual death typically occurs when the barrier is as high as it will ever be. And, indeed, at this point Edward and Emily’s union already is impossible—his marriage is the barrier. In pointedly not trying to learn Emily’s identity, Edward separates himself from the men who move into a new area after having walked away from their marriages, intending to court again. By this point in the novel, Emily has recounted the story of Matilda Capon, who meets a man touring her neighborhood for the salutary country air, who seduces her, and then leaves her with a $50 bill enclosed in a Dear Jane letter that also contains the news that he is already married. Matilda—pregnant and abandoned—hangs herself (29-30).
So, what we have in Emily Hamilton is, indeed, a story founded on “interesting scenes of real life.” Yet it is not a novel that focuses on Matilda. Both Emily and Mary reject the suits of rakes in order to navigate to the safe harbor of marriage to an honorable man, known to them and their community.
I will simply note that the other six elements are as revelatory as barrier and ritual death.
A number of observations follow from this brief glimpse into Emily Hamilton. The novel is a contemporary—set in the author’s own time and place. The contemporary romance novel of any given era, it seems to me, offers a very valuable baseline for the study of the various subgenres whose authors build worlds far different from those of the society of their day.
Emily Hamilton is a modest book. At the same time that Vickery was working on Emily Hamilton, Jane Austen was working on First Impressions, the epistolary first draft of Pride and Prejudice. Each of these authors, both Richardsonians—Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison are the immediate progenitors of their novels—produces a romance novel, but only one is a work of genius. I will state what seems to me to be obvious: It is harder to write something interesting about a modest work than a more accomplished work. It is well to remember, however, that the location of this difficulty is in the critic, not in the work to be analyzed.
Although getting beyond our own assumptions about the past, particularly about romantic partnerships in the past, makes writing about older texts a challenge, I would argue that the same difficulties attend writing about recent texts, those written in the critic’s own era. Assumptions about romantic partnerships can be very difficult to identify. At least with an early nineteenth-century text the critic has a built-in perspective—the two centuries separating her from the text itself.
Despite the gratifying growth of romance criticism over the last few decades, we still know very little about the oceans of romances. As always, our comparative ignorance serves a dual purpose: it is both a caution—and a call to action.
I offer a brief conclusion—addressing the question where does romance criticism, as a field, go from here?
We now have a number of resources and institutional structures in place that we did not have ten years ago when A Natural History was published; where will they take us? Examples from my own institution, thanks to the generosity of the Nora Roberts Foundation, include The Nora Roberts Center for the Study of American Romance and The Nora Roberts Collection at McDaniel College’s Hoover Library. Another example is this PCA [End Page 8] area, which has been rejuvenated and repopulated. Still another example is the founding of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.
I ask you and our panelists: What are the challenges the field faces? What are its tasks? Where do we go from here?
Thank you for studying the romance, and thank you for your attention this morning. [End Page 9]
Cott, Nancy F. “Eighteenth-Century Family And Social Life Revealed In Massachusetts Divorce Records.” Journal of Social History 10.1 (1976): 20-43. Print.
—. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.
Frow, John. Genre. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
—.“‘Reproducibles, Rubrics, and Everything You Need’: Genre Theory Today.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1626-1633. Print.
Hartog, Hendrick. Man and Wife in America: A History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.
Regis, Pamela. “Female Genre Fiction in the Twentieth Century.” Cambridge History of the American Novel. Ed. Leonard Cassuto, Clare Virginia Eby, and Benjamin Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 847-60. Print.
—. “‘Her happiness was from within’: Courtship and the Interior World in Persuasion.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 26 (2004): 62-71. Print.
—. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U Penn P, 2003. Print.
—.“Vows in Mansfield Park: The Promises of Courtship.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 28 (2006): 166-175. Print.
—. What Do Critics Owe the Romance Novel?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011): n.p. Web.
Vickery, Sukey. Emily Hamilton and Other Writings. Ed. Scott Slawinski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009. Print.
Wilder, Laura. “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice.” Written Communication 22.1 (2005): 76-119. Print. [End Page 10]
At the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (March 27-30, 2013, Washington D.C.), scholars gathered to mark the tenth anniversary of Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel. The approach to the genre this book takes has profoundly shaped much of the scholarship on popular romance fiction since the mid-2000s, particularly in the United States.
Each of the four panelists came to Regis’s work at a different stage in her or his academic career—and, as you will see, each has a different sense of the book’s importance, both in the academy and outside it, in the editing and production of new romance fiction. Each panelist also asks a follow-up question: “What does the future of popular romance fiction scholarship look like?”
The papers are presented here in the order in which they were presented at the PCA, beginning with Pamela Regis’s reflections on her book, how she came to write it, and where her current research is taking her, and by extension, us. Following Regis, we have responses from Eric Murphy Selinger, An Goris, Jayashree Kamble, and Sarah S. G. Frantz. In my dual capacities as Book Review editor and reader of Regis, I have added a final, overarching response to the symposium as a whole. Questions are raised, noble suggestions are offered, and we hope that both will spark the interest of our readers, provoking new work and (who knows?) new submissions to JPRS as well. [End Page 1]
In the introduction to Women and Romance: A Reader, Susan Ostrov Weisser inquires whether romantic love weakens or empowers women. “Is it a debilitating illusion, a form of false consciousness,” she asks, “or the understandable expression of a universal human need?” (1). These questions will sound familiar to scholars of popular romance fiction and film, and a dozen years after its original publication in 2001, Weisser’s reader remains an invaluable resource for framing and exploring such debates. Offering a well-organized, clearly-introduced selection of essays and excerpted works by sixty-five different writers, the reader spans more than nine centuries of Western thinkers and theories; its goal, Weisser explains, is to “demonstrate[e] the historical development of [love and romance] as an idea specifically relating to women in Western society” (1).
Weisser organizes this vast array of material into an accessible structure. The essays are divided into eight parts, each of which begins with an introduction; in addition, for each essay, a short summary is provided, making it very easy for the reader to assess whether or not a section might offer what he or she is looking for. A quick list of the sections will give you some sense of the volume’s range, variety, and historical scope: Historical Views of Women and Romantic Love; Letters and Personal Writing; Second-Wave Feminist Theory; Contemporary Feminist Theory; Explaining Romance: Feminist History, Sociology, and Psychology, Literary Criticism; The Popular Romance: Readers, Writers, Critics; and The Experience of Love.
The first section, “Historical Views of Women and Romantic Love,” offers the reader a variety of opinions from the twelfth century (selections from Andreas Capellanus on “The Art of Courtly Love”) to the 1970s, with passages included from such diverse authors and contrasting thinkers as Rousseau and Emma Goldman. The subsequent section, “Letters and Personal Writing,” includes both love letters and personal correspondence from important figures in literary and cultural history, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë, and Simone de Beauvoir. The attitudes towards love that are described in these opening sections are as different as the individuals who composed them. Whereas the nun Heloise (twelfth century) wrote passionately to her lover that she would prefer to be his [End Page 1] paramour instead of his spouse, George Eliot (nineteenth century) frees herself from the conventions of her time by reclaiming her self-respect from the man who rejected her.
Although the section concerned with “Second-Wave Feminist Theory” is not as thorough as one would wish, the selections it offers are useful and provocative. Here we find Simone de Beauvoir casting her gaze on the love-theories of Nietzsche and Byron, both of whom famously asserted that men are not as involved in love as women, who make love their whole world; here, too, are the contrasting voices of Cecile Sauvage (who claims that women need a master more than anything else) and Rita Mae Brown (who insists that women need to become women-identified in order to discover their true selves, freed of male supremacy). It would have been helpful, perhaps, to have selections from Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, whose The Feminine Mystique just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, but readers who have just started getting acquainted with second-wave feminist arguments about romance will be confronted with many challenging ideas about what it means to be in love and a woman.
“Contemporary Feminist Theory” discusses various texts written between 1978 and 1998–not exactly “contemporary” anymore, but still a handy introduction to some of the discussions that arose in the wake of second-wave feminism. Among the selections of enduring interest are the ones from Lynne Harne, who asks whether heterosexual relationships have become outdated in light of more progressive homosexual relationships, and Patricia Hill Collins, who remarks upon the “love and trouble tradition” between African-American men and women, claiming that this can only be understood in its complex relationship with to “Eurocentric gender ideology” (174). Each might well be of use to scholars of late-twentieth and early twenty-first century LGBT and African-American romance, genres that remain in need of scholarly exploration.
The segment labeled “Explaining Romance: Feminist History, Sociology, and Psychology” shows how diverse these explanations have been, and again we find sharply contrasting arguments for readers to weigh. Francesca M. Cancian, for example, contends that women often appear more loving than men because they are more articulate about this topic, when men prefer a more physical approach; for relationships to work, she proposes, men and women need to reject stereotypical gender roles and attempt to incorporate more aspects of the other gender in their own behavior. Cancian’s account finds an ironic counterpoint in a study by Elaine Hatfield, which shows that there are hardly any differences between the desires and hopes men and women have for romantic love. Stevi Jackson’s account of “Love and Romance as Objects of Feminist Knowledge” describes love as emotional labor performed by women in order to please men, but Jackson disputes the first- and second-wave feminist belief that romantic love would somehow lose its hold on women once they were able to see through it. Romance scholars might find two other pieces here particularly useful: Jessica Benjamin’s post-psychoanalytic description of “The Alienation of Desire: Women’s Masochism and Ideal Love,” and a selection from Lillian Faderman’s famous historical study Surpassing the Love of Men. The latter traces the idea of romantic friendship between women: a concept that, she argues, could be regarded as a substitute to heterosexual love and matrimony, and one that may have some continuing bearing on the predominantly female community that surrounds popular romance fiction.
Although it is only four essays, the Literary Criticism section of Women and Romance offers some interesting starting points for further research. The first piece here, on Jane Austen’s Persuasion, offers insights into the “promises of love” as a transformative force in [End Page 2] this canonical author; the second, Gloria Naylor’s 1989 account of “Love and Sex in the Afro-American Novel,” would make an interesting point of departure for discussions of the African-American romance in the 1990s and after. Susanne Juhasz’s “Lesbian Romance Fiction and the Plotting of Desire” is still less well known than it should be among popular romance scholars, and would make a good point of departure for studies of how the genre of lesbian romance has evolved. Romance fiction scholars might also take note of Vivian Gornick’s “The End of the Novel of Love,” which claims that late twentieth-century American novelists—or, at least, serious novelists—can no longer take love seriously as an allegory for self-discovery or a means to achieve a happy life.
If the section on Literary Criticism seems quite short, Weisser more than makes up for it in the section that follows, “The Popular Romance: Readers, Writers, Critics.” At a dozen pieces, this is one of the longest sections in this collection, although it is often anything but celebratory. In it, for example, we find George Eliot’s “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856), an essay that pleads for serious writing by women to be clearly differentiated from the frivolity of romantic writing, and “Hooked on a Feeling” (1990), by Elayne Rapping, in which the media critic compares the notions of romantic addiction to other addictions, such as gambling or drug abuse. In “What Does a Kiss Mean? The Love Comic Formula and the Creation of the Ideal teen-Age Girl,” Philippe Perebinossoff describes which behavioral patterns were expected from adolescent girls by discussing love comic conventions. Other pieces discuss love as depicted in women’s magazines, romantic films, and song lyrics. Including both first-generation popular romance scholarship by Tania Modleski and Janice Radway and a selection of the responses from the romance fiction community (Ann Maxwell, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Diane Palmer) which followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this section allows readers to situate that conversation in a broader cultural dialogue about romantic love among the producers, critics, and audiences of late-century popular culture.
The collection’s last topic, “The Experience of Love,” covers texts from the last two decades of the twentieth century. The range of topics here is quite broad, from marriage to homophobia to the emotional lives of older women (in their sixties and beyond). Some of the voices in this section are resolute and upbeat: Barbara Ryan, for example, declares that “facing up to our loves and lovers can only make feminism stronger” (471). Others, by contrast, address the toll that love can take on lovers, and not only in heterosexual relationships. (Jane Rule’s discussions of self-loathing and dependency on partners in lesbian relationships, in “Homophobia and Romantic Love,” is quite moving and memorable.)
The interplay of voices in this collection makes it an extraordinarily valuable introduction to the conflicting notions that swirl around the topic of love: love is liberating, love is slavery, love does not matter anymore, and so on. No collection on the market covers as much ground and as many topics as this collection, with selections from as many types of writing (theoretical essays, research studies, literary criticism, personal letters, and more). Still, it should acknowledged that the book’s focus on “women and romance” does make it seem as though men somehow do not suffer from the ups and downs of romantic love, and the few essays in this collection that focus on men do little to dispel this impression. As the fields of Love Studies and Popular Romance Studies expand, there is plenty of room for a new collection on these topics: one that would not only bring readers up to speed on twenty-first century developments in the topics this anthology addresses, [End Page 3] but that also would push back against what Francesca M. Cancian, in this volume, calls “the feminization of love” as a topic. The poet Byron may once have declared in Don Juan that “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart / ‘Tis woman’s whole existence” (Canto I, stanza 194), but if we no longer believe the second part of that couplet, should we really concede the first?
It was, after all, an all-male rock band that told us “Love is all you need.” [End Page 4]
Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. “All You Need Is Love.” Rec. 30 June 1967. The Beatles. 1967. Web.
Weisser, Susan Ostrov. Women and Romance: a Reader. New York, NY: New York UP, 2001. Print. [End Page 5]
As Barbara Fuchs acknowledges in the first line of Romance, “romance is a notoriously slippery category” (1). This compact book, part of Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series, proposes to outline the development of romance across European literature from classical antiquity to contemporary articulations. Fuchs seeks particularly to challenge the critical distinction between novel and romance—the so-called “progress narrative”—whereby the fantastic romance stands as inferior precursor to the realist novel.
The unique approach of Fuchs is to treat romance as a “a more general type of literary production” (5): a “strategy” (9), rather than a genre. Drawing on Northrop Frye’s conception of romance as a “mode” and Patricia Parker’s poststructuralist interest in the “dilation and error” of narration in the romance, Fuchs neatly sidesteps the slippery problems of generic categorisation. As a strategy, explains Fuchs, romance can be defined as “a concatenation of both narratological elements and literary topoi”: a definition she finds particularly useful, she adds, “because it accounts for the greatest number of instances, allowing us to address the occurrence of romance within texts that are clearly classified as some other genre and incorporating the hybridization and malleability that, as we shall see, are such key elements of romance” (9).
Following a short introduction outlining the definition of romance as strategy, Romance begins with a chapter on classical romance that is deeply rooted in strategies of form and anchored in close readings of the Odyssey, the Aeneid and Greek romances. The chapter draws heavily on Parker’s reading of romance “as an undoing or complication of narrative progression” (8), marked by “the tension between . . . the quest, and the constant delays or detours from that quest.” (19). Thus, the narrative interest of the Odyssey is in what delays Odysseus’ return home: there is a pleasure in this narrative delay or stasis, from which readers must be dragged back into the progress of the story. The overriding idea of romance as strategy informs Fuchs’s reading of these Greek romances; suspending generic categories in favour of smaller-scale strategies can expose continuities between divergent texts in the “hodgepodge” (31) genre of Greek romance. In so doing, hierarchical debates about the classification of these Greek texts as “romances” or “ancient novels” can [End Page 1] be sidestepped, as approaching these works from the perspective of romance-as-strategy allows for a recognition of romance as active in a variety of genres.
A chapter on medieval romance follows, in which it is noted with interest how medieval romance as a genre has avoided the critical scorn that marks romance in other periods. Fuchs finds, in these medieval romances, the motivating tension between eros and adventure that she argues drives Greek romance. For Fuchs, medieval iterations of romance privilege eros in a way that earlier Greek romances do not, re-animating the strategy of erotic postponement and offering more complicated narrative delays and an interlace form, where different strands of the narrative are woven together, resulting in a text that places the tension between the pursuit of love and the quest for arms or adventure at its core. Fuchs argues forcefully that these medieval strategies are not simply evident in texts defined as romance, but are present more widely, in chronicles, hagiography (saints’ lives), lays, and—more tenuously—in lyric poetry, thus making visible the dialogues between textual genres. She also notes the serialisation of medieval chivalric romance, with its continual returns to and development of popular characters (such as Arthur and his knights): a process that continues into the Renaissance, where prose romances were regularly reprinted and provided with sequels, and which forms the origin of modern associations of romance with prolific and popular genre literature.
The third chapter, “Romance in the Renaissance,” begins by challenging the opposition between the “pleasurable multiplicity” of romance as a literary strategy, and the “single-mindedness and political instrumentality of epic” (66). Fuchs reiterates that romance “infects other genres” (72), acknowledging its “often unwelcome . . . strategy of errancy and multiplicity” (72), arguing that it “has a particularly productive role within epic” (67). Prominent texts of the Renaissance, including Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Ariosto’s Furioso, combine epic and romance and are motivated by the tension between martial quest and erotic detour (68). Spenser’s text, in particular, is characterised by displacement and delay.
The Renaissance is also the origin of romance criticism. The wide readership of chivalric and Greek romance following the invention of the printing press led to a documented conflict between pleasure and moral value. Fuchs posits: “the attempt to reconcile . . . what we might call reception, with prescriptive categories for literary creation was one of the central strands in sixteenth-century theoretical debates” (81). We are offered an expanded discussion of Don Quixote and its parallel celebration and defamation of romance themes of reality and fantasy, the ideal and the mundane, in terms that are not altogether different from those used to refer critically to today’s genre romances (85-93). It is precisely the expansion of romance reading in this period that, Fuchs argues, gives rise to the critical marginalisation of popular texts, particularly those marked by their gender and class.
The final chapter, expansively titled “Post-Renaissance Transformations,” examines the development of the novel as a genre and argues that rather than being separated from romance in a narrative of progression, romance as strategy is implicated within the novel. Drawing on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century critics, this chapter draws out the ways in which the two genres were conflated and confused, and how romance appears in texts that no longer fit a generic definition of romance: what Fuchs terms the romance as strategy. An emotional intensity, produced by narrative deferral, functions as romance strategy in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. While Fuchs acknowledges Pamela’s debt [End Page 2] to romance, she stops short of claiming the text, as Pamela Regis does, as a “romance novel.” Indeed, later in the chapter, Fuchs critiques Regis’s effort to “redefine the [romance novel] genre . . . by invoking illustrious predecessors” (127). Citing evidence from Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Fuchs asserts that the romance novel in its contemporary form is an essentially formulaic genre, and that the term “romance novel” should be more narrowly defined in order to mark that formulism.
The chapter also briefly addresses Gothic romance and Romanticism, arguing that while early novels such as Pamela are unwittingly indebted to romance, the Gothic draws self-consciously on romance, although Fuchs also contends that Gothic deployment of fantastic romance motifs is part of the modern trajectory of romance from “high” to “low” literature. On the other hand, Fuchs argues that romance has little to do with Romanticism, the nineteenth-century movement in art, literature and music, analogising the relationship between Romantics and romance to that of medievalism and the Middle Ages: “while interesting cultural phenomena in their own right, they have relatively little to do with any precise meaning the latter might have had in their original contexts” (123). Finally, the chapter moves to consider the modern popular romance, and the way its strategies of nostalgia, idealism, stress on the feminine and narrative delay connect it both with previous examples of romance, and with other contemporary genres, such as film, soap opera and non-romance fiction.
If there is any weakness in this study, it is perhaps that, while the author’s non-Anglocentric position is admirable, the way the book jumps from one country’s literature to another’s is occasionally disorientating, and general claims made for romances in different language traditions perhaps obfuscate some national and cultural differences, although Fuchs is careful to acknowledge historical contexts where apparent. Equally, certain literary traditions are privileged over others; the chapter on medieval romance focuses almost exclusively on French romance, and the chapter on romance in the Renaissance focuses mainly on Italian and Spanish texts. The book is also much stronger on pre-Renaissance strategies of romance, the discussion of which takes up most of the book. Fuchs is weakest when discussing contemporary formula romance, which she takes as representative of the “modern romance”: she does not mention non-Harlequin Mills & Boon romances or other forms of romantic literature, such as chick-lit. Furthermore, the analysis privileges Radway’s 1984 study to argue for the formulism of mass-market romance over engaging with more recent studies (by Regis, among others) that have called for nuanced interpretations. As this is a book intended for student readers, a glossary of key terms might also have been useful.
This book treats romance “in its broadest, most abstract form” as “a cluster of narrative strategies that can be employed with greater or lesser degrees of self-consciousness” (130). The expansiveness of its definition of romance as strategy is a real strength of this study, opening up a broad exploration of romance and its textual presence without being limited to issues of genre. The diachronic approach of this study is also welcome; its historically-inflected view of romance joins other such studies taking a longue durée approach to romance, namely Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) and Hsu-Ming Teo’s Desert Passions (2012), which traces the evolution of the sheikh romance. I would recommend this book as a concise, easily digestible overview of romance in different periods, which successfully traces continuities and developments while challenging historic issues of genre and the value of romance. [End Page 3]
It’s been almost a century since E. M. Hull’s Sheikh Ahmed ben Hassan made the brooding, hypersexual sheikh a central figure in Anglophone romance, first in the pages of The Sheik, a scandalous international bestseller in 1919, and then on screen, as played by Rudolph Valentino in 1921. In contemporary romance novels, this character does not simply survive; he thrives. In the last ten years, Harlequin and Silhouette have published more than 120 mass market paperbacks focused on desert sheikhs who rule over fantastical—and highly fictionalized—desert kingdoms. Often boasting titillating titles like The Sheik and the Virgin Secretary (Silhouette, December 2005) and Sold to the Sheik (Harlequin, February 2004), these novels ring changes on Hull’s narrative model, in which an independent and feisty Western woman is sexually awakened by an imperious Arab sheikh, who, in turn, sets aside his arrogant self-centeredness in favor of a partnership of equals.
Hsu-Ming Teo’s Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels rightly identifies such fantastical fare as fair game for both literary and historical analysis. Indeed, her exhaustive scholarly monograph situates the contemporary sheikh romance in a corpus of work dating back to the Crusades: a full six centuries of Orientalist discourse. Why, she asks, has the desert sheikh been such a popular romantic hero, not just over the span of centuries, but particularly in the past two decades, a period during which the relations of the West with the Arab-Islamic world have been so troubled? What narrative and cultural traditions lead up to Ahmed ben Hassan and his heroine, Diana Mayo, and to what extent do the present-day sheikh hero and his lady love share the characteristics of their infamous predecessors? If we read contemporary romance novels (say, those published since 9/11) through a critical, post-colonial lens, must we see them as denigrating their non-Western characters by turning them into stereotypes and placing them in seemingly predetermined plotlines? Or will they—at least some of them, anyway—come into focus instead as subversive tracts that undermine Orientalism by making the reader feel compassion toward Arabs and the world that they inhabit? [End Page 1]
There is much to recommend this book, for Teo, a dedicated cultural historian, turns over many stones to understand the popularity of the contemporary sheikh romance. The author is thorough in her historical examination of the Western literature that fostered and advanced the Orientalist stereotypes of today. As early as the twelfth century C.E., she argues, the Arabs had already invented “the culture of romantic love” and passed it to Europeans, perhaps grounding French, Italian, and other European conceptualizations of the Arab world as peculiarly sensual (30-31). After two centuries of Crusading and “stories of cross-cultural, interreligious love” (34) framed by war and battle in the south came an even longer period of literary engagement with the Ottomans, whose empire lasted from the fourteenth century until World War I. Teo distinguishes Western writings on the Orient during the rise of Ottoman power (prior to 1699) from that composed during its slow decline, but even in the early period, Teo finds that certain Orientalist preconceived notions, ones familiar to present-day readers—captivity, violence, mystery, exoticism, the harem, and despotism—had already become dominant (38). “Whether or not modern romance writers are aware of it,” she insists, “the Orientalist motifs that abound in contemporary sheik romance novels derive from a long European literary tradition of imagining and interpreting the Orient” (28).
The historical breadth of Teo’s literary analysis, however, is not the book’s only strength, for the author also provides great depth in examining twentieth-century sheikh romances, as written and read (and sometimes filmed) in England, Australia and the United States. Although trends in the rise and fall in the popularity of this genre are similar in each of these countries, Teo demonstrates that the authors and readers of each nation differ in their expectations and so in their understanding of these novels, anchoring her readings in local historical contexts, social movements, and economic conditions. Consider her analysis of the troubling rape of Diana Mayo, followed by Mayo’s love for Sheik Ahmed. In the postwar British context of 1919, she argues, the novel’s “confused attempt to reconcile romantic, companionate love with sexual passion and violence within the home must have resonated with readers whose male family members had returned from the frontlines traumatized” (100). Teo then shows how the Hollywood version of the book eliminated the rape scene and made other changes, in both plot and characterization (especially racial characterization) in deference to the desires and expectations of the American audience. As for the many retellings of Hull’s tale in the 1970s and the 1980s, Teo convincingly demonstrates that beneath their superficial similarities, significant national differences can be seen. British authors created heroines who wanted to escape the economic and social crisis of their time, while the heroines invented by Australian and American authors, by contrast, advanced “an unabashed sense of jingoistic nationalism” (247) quite foreign to their late-century British counterparts.
Although interest in the orientalist romance waned during the 1980s, Teo argues, authors and readers renewed their interest in this genre with the Gulf War of 1991. Unlike their predecessors, most of these late-20th century novels are set in highly exoticized fictional kingdoms of the Middle East and North Africa, a trend which has continued in the post-9/11 period. Where earlier iterations of the sheikh romance often had to find some way to avoid the scandal of an “interracial” coupling, such plots are now readily accepted, and there is no longer any need for authors (like Hull, most famously) to throw in a coup de theatre and make the hero European. And yet the sheikh is not completely off the hook, for he must be an Arab man who is “de-Orientalized and made to look so much like a [End Page 2] reconstituted Western man” (234). First, he must engage in what Teo deems a “cultural conversion,” thereby wholly embracing women’s independence and the rest of the liberal feminist agenda (229). Second, he must also buy into the Western schemes of modernization and development in his fictional kingdom, even though his subjects so often seek to stick to ‘the old ways,’ a justification for his benevolent dictatorial rule (258). Democracy, it seems, need not be a value held dear by our beloved sheik.
This scholarly monograph is chock full of such trenchant observations, and I strongly recommend it not only to scholars of the romance novel, but also to those teaching the literature or history of the Western world and its relationships with—and imaginings of—the Arab-Islamic “east.” Teo gives a fair, nuanced account of these popular mass market romances, indicating the significance—for bad and sometimes for good—of the desert sheik in popular culture. It is true that these novels present inaccurate information about the history, culture and politics of the Arab-Islamic world, while also perpetuating some of the Orientalist stereotypes that have been clouding Western understandings of the East for the past seven centuries. Yet in this era in which the Arab terrorist stands as the mass-media norm, as Teo underscores, that inaccuracy sometimes served as a crucial counter-discourse. “Whatever the representational failings of sheik romance novels,” Teo writes, “no other genre of American popular culture had determinedly and repeatedly attempted to humanize the Arab or Muslim other—even if, out of ignorance or incomprehension, imaginary Orients had to be created in order to do so” (216). [End Page 3]