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“What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by Pamela Regis

Response: “Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’s Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by An Goris

As my contribution to the central concern of this conference—theorizing romance—I will examine not romance novels, the particular form of popular romance that I study, but criticism of popular romance fiction (hereafter designated “romance”). In this examination I wish to answer an important question: have we as critics, in our exploration of these novels, been fair to them? My aim is not to pick a winning theoretical approach from among the ethnographers, psychoanalytic critics, post-modernists, Marxists, and the rest. Instead, I wish to see what values lie behind the assorted, and in many cases competing, theoretical assumptions that structure various critical statements about romance. What assumptions about texts, the role of critics, and the world lie behind influential statements about the romance novel, and can we from these refine an ethics of romance criticism to help us chart the way forward? In short, what, if anything, do we as critics owe the romance?

The most influential critics of the popular romance novel have examined the late twentieth-century popular romance novel written in English and published in America, the UK, and Canada. For this cumbersome phrase, i.e., “the late twentieth-century popular romance novel written in English and published in America, the UK, and Canada,” I will use the term “romance novel.” I realize, of course, that many romance novels are older and others are newer than this body of texts, that many are written in languages other than English, and many are published in places other than the US, the UK, and Canada. However, claims made about this body of texts have been widely applied to romances that are not novels at all, and to romances that originate in various non-Anglo cultures. In other words, the work of these critics lives on in current criticism. Their subject matter might once have had chronological and geographic boundaries, but their pronouncements inform the contemporary, international view of romance writ large. Hence, their relevance to all of us, and my analysis of them here.

From a list of thirty-nine important critical works on this body of romance novels, most of them one-author monographs, I have chosen eight study texts.[1] The four texts in the first group (see Table 1), published in the five-year period from 1979 to 1984, analyze novels written during the beginning of the boom in romance writing and reading that began to make itself felt in response to the publication, and explosive sales, of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972.

Table 1. The First Wave of Romance Criticism: or, the Four Horsewomen of the Romance Apocalypse

Author / year Title Critic begins with /

critic concludes with

Complexity topos: are romances complex? Contemptus mundi and/or social justice topoi: one or both present?
Ann Barr Snitow

1979

“Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” Formula: “the novels have no plot in the usual sense” (309) /

pornography for women

No

“easy to read pablum” (309)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: Harlequins “reveal and pander to [ . . . an] impossible fantasy life” (320)
Tania Modleski

1982

Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women “Mass-produced” texts and psychoanalytical identification of reader’s “repetition compulsion” /

addiction

No

“rigid” (32)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: “Harlequin romances’ [ . . . ] insistent denial of the reality of male hostility toward women point[s] to” profound “ideological conflicts” (111)
Kay Mussell

1984

Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Fantasies of Women’s Romance Fiction Formula /

fantasy

No

“romances are adolescent dramas that mirror the infantilism of women in a patriarchal culture” (184)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: “Romances’ [ . . . ] failure” as narratives “belongs [ . . . ] to [ . . . ] patriarchy’s denial of women’s right to explicate their own lives” (185)
Janice A. Radway

1984

Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature Smithton readers and their romances /

romance as patriarchy’s tool, readers as patriarchy’s dupes

No

“superficial plot development” (133)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: romances “give the reader a strategy for making her present situation more comfortable [ . . . ] rather than a comprehensive program for reorganizing her life” (215)

I chose these four because the conclusions these critics reached about the romance novel have, indeed, entered the public consciousness as descriptors of not just the romance novels that they studied—the ones written in English in the late 1970s and early 1980s—but as characteristics of the romance novel, period. Ann Barr Snitow’s “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” has branded romance with the dismissive label of porn. Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women asserted that reading romance is an addiction. Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Fantasies of Women’s Romance Fiction attached the term “fantasy” to romance—“fantasy,” in her view, is a bad alternative to “reality.” Finally, Janice A. Radway in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature has cemented in the public mind, apparently for all time, the notion that romance is patriarchy’s tool, and its readers patriarchy’s dupes. I must emphasize that the full arguments of these critics provide considerably more nuance and, on close examination, their claims are considerably narrower than these portable labels for the romance would imply.

Snitow, in her article-length study, cites five Harlequin romances published between 1977 and 1978–that is, just five novels published during just two years–and then goes on to describe the “underlying structure of the sexual story” that she identifies as the point of Harlequins (319). Modleski cites just nine Harlequins, all from one year, 1976, in her chapter on Harlequins, and then conjures Roland Barthes, Wolfgang Iser, Karl Marx, Jonathan Culler, and others in her pursuit of a psychoanalytic explanation for the “increase” in “the reader’s . . . psychic conflicts” and “dependency” on these novels, which she likens to a “narcotic” (57). Although Mussell has a wider reading list—more than 80 romances including such “originals” as Pamela, most of her study texts were published from 1955 through 1982. She pursues the insights that these “escape fantasies” provide into women’s lives (4). Radway’s ethnographic study of the “Smithton” readers—40 or so Midwestern U.S. fans of long, sensual historicals—concludes with her now-world famous claims about patriarchy’s power as revealed in these novels.

Outliving both the study texts that their conclusions were based on as well as their specific origins in the 1970s and early 1980s, the shorthand labels furnished by these critics have made them the Four Horsewomen of the Romance Apocalypse—Porn, Addiction, Fantasy, and Patriarchy’s Dupes. Like the original four horsemen—pestilence, war, famine and death—they have assumed a dark immortality.[2]

To understand what has and has not changed about critical practice between then and now, I will contrast the work of the Four Horsewomen with four Millennial critics, all of whom published after the turn of the 21st century (see Table 2).

Table 2. Millennial Romance Criticism

Author /

year

Title Critic begins with /

critic concludes with

Complexity topos: are romances complex? Contemptus mundi and/or social justice topoi:

one or both present?

Pamela Regis

2003

A Natural History of the Romance Novel Texts both canonical and popular as literature, their structure as genre (not formula)

/ joy and freedom

Yes

romances can be “complex, formally accomplished, vital” and “the form is neither moribund nor corrupt” (45)

Social justice advanced: The ending of a romance is “joyful in its celebration of freedom” (207)
Lynne Pearce

2007

Romance Writing Love x+y → x’+y’ and many, many romances of all types /

x+y > x’ (y) in Mills &Boon type romances (141)

No

present “glamour / kudos” of women’s lifestyles “rather than meaningful observation on women’s liberation” (182)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: The very existence of such “degenerate” works—i.e., romances— indicates a less than desirable state of society. (138)

Social justice blocked: A completed love, one that results in x+y → x’+y’, does not result

Lisa Fletcher

2008

Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity Speech act “I love you” as definer of historical romance fiction. Butlerian post-modernism

/ historical romance defined, occupied, and dominated by heteronormativity

No

Historical romance’s “I love you” is an “incessant rendition of heterosexuality’s promised but never fully achieved absolute intelligibility” (34)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: Hegemony of heteronormativity is lamentable

Social justice blocked: Romances preclude the depiction of something better than heteronormativity

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

2009

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels Practical criticism (reviewing) and love for the romance

/ acknowledge the “ludicrous” (1) but assert the overall “good” (128) of romances

Yes

“[R]omance novels . . . share a structure but diverge wildly based on subgenre and the innovation and creativity of each author” (122)

Contemptus mundi rejected: Romances provide a social good: happiness

As these critics are less known, more eclectic, and wider ranging than the Four Horsewomen, a more detailed overview of their work is in order. Regis—I—begins A Natural History of the Romance Novel with the view (which I hope that I demonstrate) that popular romance novels are literature, that they are representatives of a genre that includes canonical works. I offer a definition of “the romance novel,” namely, that it is “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more protagonists” (19)[3] and I identify eight essential elements to use as analytical categories in understanding the romance novel. The earliest of my study texts is William Congreve’s Incognita, published in 1692 before he made his name writing for the stage. I conclude that romance delivers joy and demonstrates the protagonist’s, especially the heroine’s, freedom.

Lynne Pearce begins Romance Writing with an algebraic expression of love’s transformation of lovers: x+y → x’+y’, in which x and y are individuals, transformed by love (+) into new versions of themselves—into x-prime and y-prime.[4] Her chronological sweep is long. She begins as early as Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur (1470). She ranges across media as well, with film in addition to print receiving due attention. Her look at popular romance in this volume concludes with what she herself calls an “ungenerous” typification of texts of the “Ur-Mills & Boon romance” type: x+y > x’ (–y) , where x-prime is the superficially self-fulfilled heroine and minus-y the “disposable” hero (141). For Pearce, the end of love in a mass-market, Mills & Boon romance is the “story-line of personal triumph” that the heroine pursues, which she gains at the hero’s expense (140).

Lisa Fletcher, in pursuit of a definition for the historical romance, identifies in the beginning chapter of Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity the words “I love you” as a speech act, and, via an impressive list of theorists, the most important of whom is Judith Butler, she defines the historical romance by this very phrase, claiming that these three words are repeated in romance novel after romance novel because the statement cannot once and for all manage to do what it always tries to do, which is to install heteronormativity as an unchallenged ideal in our society’s ideology, specifically, our sexual ideology.

In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan begin with their own love for the romance as a genre, and using edgy humor and over-the-top, often profane language, they produce astute descriptions of the plots, the characters, the covers, the conventions, and the stigma attached to reading romance novels, concluding—after having acknowledged the “ludicrous” in romance novels (1)—by asserting the overall “good” (128) of the genre. They claim “anything written for an audience of mostly women by a community of mostly women is subversive, reflective of the[ir] current sexual, emotional, and political status, and actively embraces and undermines that status simultaneously. [ . . . ] Emo may be chic. Angst is undoubtedly chic. Happiness is definitely not chic. But happiness is good” (128). On their website, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, where one of their stated aims is to raise the bar on what qualifies as a romance that deserves high marks, Wendell and Tan have reviewed hundreds of romance novels.

Because studying the ethics of argument is the traditional province of rhetoricians, my approach to these eight works of criticism will be rhetorical. Three rhetoricians have, indeed, studied literary critics as a discourse community. In “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice,” Laura Wilder, extending an earlier study by J. Fahenstock and M. Secor, pinpoints our discipline’s values. Fahenstock and Secor had analyzed criticism published between 1978 and 1982, the era in which the Four Horsewomen researched and published their findings. Laura Wilder extended and enlarged this earlier study when she examined criticism published between 1999 and 2001, the period out of which the Millennials’ criticism grew. All three rhetoricians analyzed articles from the very best, peer-reviewed literary critical journals such as PMLA, diacritics, and The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. They identified and analyzed the “special topoi” that the critics writing in those journals employed. A “topos,” (the plural is “topoi”), is a common theme or topic in argument, and at least since the Greeks topoi have been the subject of rhetorical study. “Special” topoi are those specific to a given group of arguers. Wilder explains that these special topoi “invoke the shared assumptions” of their group (84). In our case, these special topoi both reveal our assumptions as literary scholars, and simultaneously, create our scholarly community. We identify ourselves as members of the literary critical community in part by our use of shared special topoi. Wilder describes these topoi as the “unstated premises that seek to connect [a work of criticism] with an audience’s hierarchy of values” (84). They are, therefore, morally charged; indeed, taken together they constitute a sort of ethics of critical practice, present despite the diverse works, periods, and genres from which the critics draw the literature that they analyze, and despite the diverse theoretical approaches that the critics use in creating their arguments. Thus everyone from unrehabilitated formalists to cutting-edge postmodernists deploys the same special topoi. The presence of a given special topos, then, is a sort of ethical litmus paper. A critic’s participation in the discourse community is signaled by these special topoi, which align the writer with the values of the community while passing judgment on the literature under scrutiny. In a discourse community whose measure of accomplishment is the publication of peer-reviewed written argument, the special topoi signal not only our membership but also our belief in the correctness of the values that each of these topoi embodies.

The first pair of rhetoricians, Fahenstock and Secor, identified five shared special topoi: appearance/reality, paradigm, ubiquity, paradox, and contemptus mundi (see Table 3). Wilder, in updating the Fahenstock and Secor foundational study, added four more topoi to the original five: complexity, mistaken critic, context, and social justice.

Table 3. Special Topoi of Literary Critics

Appearance/reality*

Paradigm*

Ubiquity*

Paradox*

Complexity**

Contemptus Mundi*

Social Justice **

Mistaken Critic**

Context**

*Identified by Fahenstock and Secor, 1991

**Identified by Wilder, 2005

Although analyzing our critics’ deployment of any of these special topoi would reveal the ethical values in their criticism, three topoi—complexity, contemptus mundi, and social justice—provide the most fruitful categories for the examination of the ethical stance we find in the Four Horsewomen and the Millennials.[5]

Complexity and the Romance Critic’s Values

Wilder found that the special topos she calls “complexity” is an overarching value in all critical work from whatever era. Literary critics—we—all believe “that literature is complex and that to understand it requires patient unraveling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” (105). Indeed, for some of the critics she examined, simplicity, the opposite of complexity, was nothing less than a “much-maligned state” (110). So fundamental is the idea of complexity, that either by direct statement or by implication, each of us answers the question, “Are romance novels complex?” I think our answer to this question matters a great deal. Look at Table 1, at the column labeled “Complexity topos: are romances complex?” which summarizes relevant evidence for the Four Horsewomen. Snitow calls romances “easy to read pablum” (309), Modleski calls them “rigid” (32), Mussell labels them “adolescent” (184), and Radway, “superficial” (133). Our most influential early critics, the ones who have proven to have staying power, each viewed the romance novel as simple.

The Millennials offer some contrast, as the complexity column in Table 2 shows. Regis—I—claims complexity for the romance, saying, in as many words, that it is “complex, formally accomplished, vital, neither moribund nor corrupt” (45). Wendell and Tan agree that despite their shared structure, romance novels “diverge wildly based on the creativity of each author” (122), wild divergence being a form of complexity. Two of the Millennials do not agree. Pearce, in her consideration of the romance of the Mills & Boon type, finds superficiality—surely the enemy of complexity—in the Mills & Boon romance’s depiction of “glamourous” lifestyles rather than “liberation” (182), while Fletcher views “I love you,” which is for her the romance’s defining speech act, as a constantly-repeated-because-never-adequate assertion of heterosexuality’s attempt to assert its “absolute intelligibility”; an “intelligibility,” of course, that is not intelligible at all (32). Reducing the romance to a monotonous, repeated, and impotent sentence also tars the genre with the suspect brush of simplicity.

This, then, is the situation: our discipline values complexity in its study texts. This is, Wilder tells us, the “central, highly flexible value of [ . . . our] disciplinary discourse community” (110). But many of us depict the romance, in our criticism, as not complex at all. Yet we study it—and we write about it—anyway. From this conflict between our assessment of the romance as simple and the insistence of our discipline on the value of complexity several answers suggest themselves to the question in my essay’s title: “What do critics owe the romance?”

We owe it to the romance novel to make overt and to defend our conclusion that the romance is simple, if this is, in fact, our assessment. Surely, we owe the romance at least an acknowledgment that many readers, writers, and, yes, even some critics do find the romance novel complex, and we further owe it to the genre to make overt the value judgment that is a part of this topos—that simplicity is a “much-maligned state.” But more than identifying romance as simple, if that is indeed our view, we should defend this claim—ideally in some detail. I also contend that a critic confronted with a text that she considers simple should be careful of the conclusions that she draws in working on that text. I would argue that in assuming that the texts are simple, we flirt with what to me always seems like a dangerous idea—that it is not just the texts that are simple, but that the readers of the texts must, by extension, be simple, as well, or else why would they read these texts? Consumers—the term “reader” almost seems too sophisticated—of pornographic, rigid, infantile, superficial pablum must surely be mindless. Even Radway’s ethnographic analysis of readers—so carefully constructed, so rich in data—comes to very dark conclusions about those readers. We should examine our own conclusions about the romance novel’s simplicity.

A corollary: We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly. A skilled literary critic can see the complexity in any apparently simple text. Another corollary: We owe the romance novel great care in choosing our study texts—more care, not less, than we take in choosing study texts from literary fiction. In writing our criticism, we are creating not only the critical context for the study of the romance novel, we are also creating the romance novel’s canon. Surely identifying and studying the strongest romance novels will benefit the entire critical enterprise and help us avoid making claims about simplicity and other qualities that critics assign to the romance novel based on an unrepresentative set of study texts.

The choice of study texts is vexed, a minefield, but we must accept the difficulty and chart a path. The romance genre is big, and growing all the time. Between publication of the Four Horsewomen’s study texts in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the publication of the Millennials’ study texts, the number of romances published in North America alone rose from just under 2000 new romances per year in 1998, to the 8090 titles published in 2007 (Romance Writers of America). This means that from 1998 to 2008, more than 39,000 romance titles were published. Think of it this way: a reader reading one romance per day, every day, would take 106 years, 10 months, and 5 days to clear this To Be Read stack. Nonetheless, we should seek out and study the strongest ones.

We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that the values of its fans are not identical with the values of our discourse community. If we decide to read and study favorites suggested by romance fans then we may find ourselves confronting prose like this passage: “Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet.” That is the first sentence of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, published in 1972. The possible representativeness of this miserable sentence to the rest of Woodiwiss’s work, I leave to students of Woodiwiss. We, however, should not assume that this miserable sentence is representative of popular romance novels. It is not. Confronted with bad writing in a study text, we have two good choices—we can choose another book to work on, or we can acknowledge the bad writing and figure out a way to say something interesting—which is to say, figure out a way to invoke the complexity topos—despite the lamentable prose. Fans love books for many reasons, but their values and ours will often be at odds.

We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that our study texts are probably not representative of “the romance” and to stop committing the logical fallacy known as hasty generalization.[6] This is not to say that all claims of representativeness are wrong—but they must be proven, they must be substantiated and argued for. It is a failure of critical imagination to assume we have seen it all. A corollary: We owe it to the romance to stay within our evidence when we state conclusions. So, if we have not demonstrated that our study texts are representative, we must qualify our conclusions, and avoid talk about what “the romance novel” writ large is or does.

For too long, we have accepted the conclusions of the Four Horsewomen (see the third column of Table 1), which are based on romance novels written three decades ago. Recent critics  who have also seen simplicity in the romance novel when our discipline values complexity (see the third column of Table 2), have added to the impressive list of negative conclusions about the romance: in addition to their status as mere pornography for women, as an addiction, as fantasy, and as patriarchy’s tool for duping romance readers, romances also extinguish the hero (that’s Pearce’s “minus-y”), and endlessly reinscribe the destructive falsehood that is heteronormativity (that’s Fletcher). Now is the time to stop committing the fallacy of hasty generalization.

Contemptus Mundi, Social Justice, and the Romance Critic’s Values

Contemptus mundi, literally, contempt for the world, is a second very important topos for us as romance critics. Wilder explains that this term refers to the critic’s sense that the world is fallen, in the face of which fact “the critic exhibits an assumption of despair over the condition of society” (85). 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” (85). Finally, “the critic attempts to point out the unresolvable tensions and shadows in literature that at face value seems optimistic” (85). Wilder found that, by the turn of the twenty-first century, contemptus mundi was replaced by the “social justice” topos. This is the assumption that “literature, regardless of when it was written, speaks to our present condition” and critics deploying this topos seek “in that [ . . . ] connection [between literature and life] avenues toward social justice through advocating social change” (98).

The last column of Table 1 records the Four Horsewomen’s deployment of the contemptus mundi topos. For them, romances offer various versions of a fallen world: a world in which the “fantasy life” represented in the romance is “impossible” (Snitow 320), a world in which the reply to “male hostility toward women” is “denial” (Modleski 111), a world in which women are deprived of the power to “explicate their own lives” (Mussell 185), and, finally, a world in which romance fails to offer the reader a “comprehensive program for reorganizing her life” (Radway 215). These conclusions complement the idea that the texts are simple.

The last column of Table 2 catalogs the Millennials’ deployment of these topoi. Regis—I—along with Wendell and Tan, reject contemptus mundi, and I, at least, find social justice advanced: the romance delivers and depicts “joy” and “freedom” (16). Wendell and Tan find a clear social good: “happiness” (128). This failure to deploy the contemptus mundi or social justice topoi brand Regis as well as Wendell and Tan as outliers, Pollyannas, and as critics remiss in our critical duties. By contrast, Pearce and Fletcher reflect the discipline’s usual stance with regard to these topoi in romance. Pearce sees the Mills & Boon type romance as a sign of a degenerate society, and regards as sadly absent the good outcome of a successful romance, one in which the heroine plus the hero yields not only a new improved heroine but also a new, improved hero as well, an outcome often otherwise found in her book-long analysis of a staggeringly impressive range of non-Mills & Boon romance (138, 141). Fletcher has similar observations: heteronormativity as the message of the form itself is certainly a symptom of a fallen world, and the possibility of a better something—social justice—is blocked by the hegemonic, incessant repetition of heteronormativity’s omnipresent, but impotent, “I love you” (132). Once again note that the use of contemptus mundi and social justice aligns with a view of the romance’s lamentable simplicity.

In light of critics’ deployment of the contemptus mundi and social justice special topoi, several more answers to my title’s question suggest themselves. We owe the romance a just consideration of its happily-ever-after or happy-for-now ending. Our views that the world is fallen or that literature should indicate the need for or reveal a path from the current, lamentable state of conditions in the world to a more just world are major impediments to a fair treatment of the romance novel, perhaps even to a complete understanding of it. Think of the sort of romances that we are considering: the late twentieth-century popular romance novel written in English. This body of texts is in some ways misnamed by the term “romance.” True, like all romances, these novels are “situated in and speak [ . . . ] of timeless moments” (Saunders 1). However, these novels combine romance with comedy.[7] The much-derided happily-ever-after (or even the happy-for-now) is an important marker of comedy, which traces a fictional society’s movement from a beginning state of disorder to a final order. This improvement is comparative—society’s state at the conclusion is more orderly, more just, compared to society’s state at the beginning of the narrative. The new order is rarely (I am tempted to say never) a complete solution to society’s ills or a righting of all social injustices. A reader who finds in the text’s final action a society essentially unchanged has missed the import of the ending. A reader who dismisses the happily-ever-after without due consideration of its generic import has treated the romance novel unfairly.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not proposing that we owe the romance novel our approval, or that our reaction to it requires a positive view of any kind. Awareness of our critical assumptions is what I am recommending, and care in stating conclusions. Overstatements and other inaccuracies in criticism written about canonical, much-analyzed texts will be taken care of by the “mistaken critic” topos. Romance criticism is too thin on the ground—the canon not established, the mass of romance texts too unexplored—to provide this corrective. Individual critics need to be extra mindful of their participation in or rejection of the pervasive topoi of the discipline, and the values that they represent.

I close with an observation from one of my critical forebears in my current research project, which is writing a literary history of the romance in America beginning in 1742 when Benjamin Franklin printed the first novel in America, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. In speaking of the traditionally devalued novels of early American writers, a devaluation that she has in large part reversed, literary historian Cathy N. Davidson reminds us, “Artifacts [including novels] are always labeled by virtue of a whole history of past labeling; they carry their archaeology in their name” (69). We owe the popular romance a recognition of the archaeology carried in its name, an archeology written, in large part, by the critical assessments of the Four Horsewomen, and not yet rewritten by the critics who have followed. We cannot escape that archaeology, but we can be aware of it. Awareness is all. The romance calls upon us to be imaginative, careful, considered thinkers and writers, more so than the critics of other, more thoroughly studied, genres. There is so much we do not know, so many texts we have not read, so many approaches we have not considered.

We have to imagine what might be out there—what texts there might be—in that sea of unanalyzed and unread romance novels. Moreover, we have to imagine what may have been overlooked in the romances that have already been used as study texts in earlier criticism. When I return to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, and return to it I must because that novel is a landmark in the history of the American romance, I will not begin with its lamentable prose, but with the heroine’s journey from poverty and servitude in England to freedom in Charleston, South Carolina, in the newly created United States of America. I will find its complexity, and locate this novel in the long line of American romances that stretches from 1742 to yesterday. I will search for what has been overlooked in earlier criticism.

Imagining what might be out there and looking again at what has been dismissed lie at the heart of the ethical issues involved in criticizing romance. We can, thereby, improve the practice of romance criticism. Moreover, this effort of imagination and reexamination, like the undertaking of all good actions, will also improve the human beings who perform these good acts—this effort of imagination will improve us, the critics, ourselves.

Works Cited

Cowan, Tyler. “eBooks Help the Romance Novel.” Marginal Revolution. 9 April, 2009. Web. http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/04/ebooks-help-the-romance-novel.html#comments

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. 1986. Expanded ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. 1957. New York: Atheneum, 1969. 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, CN: Greenwood Press, 1984. Print.

Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Reissued with a new introduction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Romance Writers of America. “About the Romance Genre.” RWA, 2010. Web. 12 Dec 2010.

Saunders, Corinne. Introduction. A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. 1-9. Print.

Smith, Jennifer Crusie. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance to Reinforce and Re-vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93. Print.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: NYU Press, 2001. 307-22. Print.

Wendell, Sarah and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 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.

Woodiwiss, Kathleen. The Flame and the Flower. New York: Avon, 1972. Print.


[1] 1969 Mann. Peter H. The Romantic Novel: A Survey of Reading Habits. London: Mills & Boon.

1970 Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1974 Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart-Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

1974 Mann, Peter H. A New Survey: The Facts About Romantic Fiction. London: Mills & Boon.

1976 Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1976 Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

1979 Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20: 141-61.

1982 Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CN: Archon.

1984 Jensen, Margaret Ann. Love’s $weet Return: The Harlequin Story. Bowling Green OH: Bowling State University Popular Press.

1984 Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

1984 Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Reissued with a new introduction, 1991.

1985 Rabine, Leslie W. Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

1986 Radford, Jean, ed. The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. New York: Routledge.

1987 Thurston, Carol, The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

1988 Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke University Press.

1988 Frenier, Mariam Darce. Good-bye Heathcliff: Changing Heroes, Heroines, Roles, and Values in Women’s Category Romances. New York: Greenwood Press.

1990 Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

1991 Chappel, Deborah K. “American Romances: Narratives of Culture and Identity.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University. Ann Arbor: UMI. 9202485.

1991 Ross, Deborah. The Excellence of Falsehood: Romance, Realism, and Women’s Contribution to the Novel. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

1992 Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers and the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

1994 Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present. London: McMillan.

1994 Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1995 Stacey, Jackie and Lynne Pearce, ed. Romance Revisited. New York: NYU Press.

1996 Grescoe, Paul. The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance. Vancouver: Rainforest.

1997 Mussell, Kay, ed. Paradoxa 3.

1998 Paizis, George. Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

1998 Pearce, Lynne and Gina Wisker, eds. Fatal Attractions: Re-scripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. London: Pluto Press.

1999 Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press. Reprinted London: Routledge, 2003.

1999 Kaler, Anne K. and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek, eds. Romantic Conventions. Bowling Green OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

1999 McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2003 Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

2003 Strehle, Susan and Mary Paniccia Carden, eds. Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

2004 Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: The History of Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, W.A.: Curtin University Books.

2006 Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

2007 Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

2007 Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity.

2008 Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

2009 Wendell, Sarah and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster.

2009 Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

[2] Partial evidence of these texts’ staying power may be found in Corinne Saunders’s recent A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary (2007), where Modleski, Mussell, and Radway all appear in the index and are cited approvingly throughout the various chapters. For Snitow’s “romances are porn” label, one need only look at the comments section of the blog post at Marginal Revolution reporting the strength of romance ebook sales despite the economic downturn. Economics professor and blogger Tyler Cowen speculated about the affinity of romance buying and the ebook format. This elicited the “romance is porn” response over and over again in the comments section. Marginal Revolution’s readers and commenters are ordinarily evidence-loving, balanced thinkers.

[3] “Protagonists” replaces “heroines” in my original definition, to include m/m, f/f, and ménage romance novels.

[4] She explores many permutations of this basic formula of love.

[5] To briefly define the remaining topoi: A critic’s use of the appearance/reality topos is evidence for that critic’s belief in the value of searching below the surface and beyond the obvious; the “paradigm” topos reveals the critic’s desire to discover templates—patterns—to place over the details of a text, or to find within a text templates that apply to ever-larger portions of the text; “ubiquity” bespeaks the critic’s belief that uncovering or identifying patterns of repetition is valuable; the presence of the “paradox” topos demonstrates the critic’s belief in the value of bringing together in “a single startling dualism” apparently irreconcilable opposites (making this, perhaps, the most New Critical of these topoi identified just at the high water mark of this critical school). “Mistaken critic” enters the critical arena when late twentieth-century critics pointed out that “previous critics who treated the literary work under discussion did not see some aspect of the text correctly”; and “context” refers to the process of bringing “historical details to bear on the interpretation of literary texts,” which opens up the hermetically sealed text of the New Critics to a consideration of influences from outside that text (Wilder 101, 103).

[6] This trend has plagued romance criticism since the beginning.  See Jennifer Crusie Smith, who derides critics with a “mindset that refuses to see romance novels not only as a valuable genre but also as a varied one” (82).

[7] See Northrop Frye: “Comedy blends insensibly into romance” (162).



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“Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’ Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by An Goris

See also: “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by Pamela Regis

“What do Critics Owe the Romance?”, one of three keynote lectures at the 2010 IASPR conference, is a strong and much-welcome contribution to the development of a meta-perspective on the practice of popular romance criticism. Such self-reflexive, meta-critical accounts of the scholarly study of popular romance fiction are still rather rare. Indeed, although the field of popular romance studies is currently booming, there are relatively few discussions of the state of the art of popular romance criticism which thoroughly consider the scholarly and conceptual origins and histories of this rapidly developing field.[1] Moreover, the few meta-critical reviews that do exist have such a wide-ranging group of studies to cover that they rarely manage to move beyond an enumerative overview of the different scholarly claims that have been made regarding the popular romance novel. With “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” Pamela Regis does precisely this: she looks beyond the enumerative overview that merely establishes and describes differences between different studies and starts to consider both how and why such differences occur.[2] This brief response to Regis’ endeavour argues that while her meta-critical efforts are overall strongly commendable and insightfully identify and elaborate upon some of the key challenges of romance scholarship, Regis’ overall disregard for the historical and theoretical frameworks in which other scholars work could be considered problematic.

In order to get a grip on some of the dynamics that underlie the diverging interpretations of popular romance novels put forth in different scholarly studies of the genre, Regis adopts as a methodological approach the rhetorical analysis of literary criticism as texts constituting a discourse community. This approach allows her first to establish that the critical community of popular romance scholars shares a set of values, and second to analyse how the critics’ different positioning of the object of study (the contemporary popular romance novel) in relation to these shared values informs the rather different findings, interpretations, claims, and conclusions formulated by each of them. By emphasizing the notion that all romance scholars are essentially answering the same, community-imposed question—namely, are popular romance novels complex?—Regis draws attention to a core issue that all romance critics have in common, regardless of their many different approaches, frameworks, and objectives. Each act of criticism, Regis’ analysis makes irrefutably clear, requires the scholar to take up a position in relation to the object of study—requires, that is, a basic conceptualisation of the romance novel. It is in this process of conceptualising the romance novel, Regis essentially argues, that one of the core explanations can be found for critics’ rather differing takes on the same genre.

One of the most important elements of Regis’ discussion is her eloquent articulation and clarification of one of the basic methodological issues that has haunted the critical community of romance scholars since its inception: the methodologically sound selection of study-texts. As Regis implies, popular romance criticism has a somewhat problematic reputation in this regard: many older studies—like the ones by Ann Snitow, Tania Modleski, and Janice Radway[3]—make quite general claims about the entire genre of “the” popular romance novel despite being based on rather small and/or undiversified corpi. As Regis points out, these methodologically problematic overgeneralisations are often based on a too simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text and reveal that these scholars tend to underestimate or overlook the complexity of the popular romance genre.

However, Regis’ critique of these older critics, correct as it may be, fails to recognise the historicity of these studies—that is, it does not sufficiently take into account the historically and conceptually vastly different context in which these early scholars of the genre were working in comparison to their present day counterparts. Indeed, when these early critics started conducting their at-that-time highly innovative, groundbreaking studies, they were facing somewhat different conditions than we are today. Scholars like Janice Radway, Kay Mussell, and Tania Modleski, who were operating in a context in which hardly any previous scholarship on the genre existed, were taking on a huge and virtually unexplored body of literature that was, nonetheless, surrounded by very strong cultural associations of sameness and simplicity. Negotiating these circumstances, these foundational scholars indeed made too general claims on the basis of too small and undiversified corpi, but the knowledge needed to correct them was simply not accessible to them in the academic context in which they were situated. While Regis then indeed identifies a problematic aspect of these older studies, in now evaluating these methodological errors a consideration of the original historical contexts in which these studies took place—the virtual inexistence of any scholarly knowledge about the popular romance genre and the nearly complete lack of a scholarly tradition or exemplary previous study to guide the way—might further elucidate part of the underlying causes of this methodological problematic.

Whereas the methodological flaws of excessive overgeneralisation can then be, to an extent, if not excused at least explained with regard to the work of the earliest generation of popular romance scholars, this is a different matter today. As the field is moving from the foundational discussion of generalities to a more mature discussion of specifics, the need for a well-considered methodology in the selection of texts as well as in the manner in which the texts are analysed becomes urgent. The field’s genealogical development from studying the popular romance genre’s general properties to focussing on more specific and particular aspects of (subgroups within) the genre is currently ongoing and can be observed in numerous recent works of romance scholarship. It is visible in Regis’ own work, particularly in her much-cited A Natural History of the Popular Romance Novel—perhaps the most influential study of the genre published in the last decade—in which the author devotes two sections to a general discussion of the romance genre and then moves on to a thorough analysis of individual romance authors and novels. Other instances of such recent, more narrowly focussed scholarly discussions of popular romance abound; think for example of recent scholarly work on geographical subgroups of the genre (e.g. Juliet Flesch’s excellent study of Australian romance novels), on particular subgenres (e.g. Lisa Fletcher’s magisterial analysis of historical romance novels), on particular publishers (e.g. Paul Grescoe’s study of Harlequin and Joseph McAleer’s and jay Dixon’s studies of Mills & Boon), on individual authors (e.g. Sarah Frantz’s work on Suzanne Brockman [2008; 2010] and J.R. Ward and my own doctoral dissertation on Nora Roberts) or even individual novels (e.g. Eric Selinger’s sophisticated discussion of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm). While such studies use more self-evident and coherent principles of corpus selection, it remains methodologically crucial to adopt a constant and unwavering vigilance for the actual representativeness of the particular with regard to the whole for which it is envisioned to stand. This methodological concern is all the more important in popular romance studies because both the (early) traditions of this developing field and the cultural stereotypes that stubbornly continue to surround its main object of study tend to obscure the diversity and complexity of the genre’s cultural reality that these studies aim to unlock.

Whereas Regis’ concern for the methodologically sound selection of study texts in the study of popular romance novels is very commendable, there are other aspects of her account that are perhaps more problematic, though not less intriguing. One of these elements is the scholar’s acknowledged attempt to gloss over or look beyond differences in theoretical approach or conceptual framework between the studies she critically discusses. That is, although Regis herself advocates “theoretical self-awareness [ . . . ] in any critical endeavour,” she proceeds to compare these critical endeavours without much consideration for their different theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Although this approach is inspired by the findings of the rhetorical studies that form the methodological basis of Regis’ argument, this does not change the fact that the risk of ignoring theoretical positions is that one remains blind to the impact of one’s own theoretical position. This position is relevant to Regis’ meta-critical discussion because it plays a role in shaping her critique and evaluation of other scholars’ acts of romance criticism.

Regis’ own theoretical position fundamentally influences, for example, her evaluative discussion of Janice Radway’s classic Reading the Romance, which is, apart from Regis’ own work, perhaps the best-known and most influential popular romance study to date. Regis’ approach to the study of popular romance is one which she herself characterises in A Natural History as “a traditional literary historical approach” (112) in which the primary site of interest is the text and the secondary site of interest the broader historical and socio-cultural context in which the text figures. Following this approach, Regis defines the genre and traces its history on the basis of textual and narrative features—an impressive endeavour that includes the identification of the now famous eight essential narrative elements which, according to Regis, define the romance novel. Although Regis convincingly argues that the concrete textual embodiments of these eight narrative elements undergo multiple diachronic and synchronic changes in response to wider historical changes, her core position is nonetheless that the romance novel—as literature—is defined by its narrative (that is textual) properties. Underlying this approach is a conceptualisation of romance novels as literature and of literature as something that is primarily and pervasively textual.

While this is of course a perfectly legitimate, interesting, and insightful approach to the study of the popular romance novel—indeed, Regis’ definition of the romance novel is often cited in scholarly and other discussions of the genre—like any other approach it is one which highlights certain aspects and disregards others. For example, Regis pays little considered critical attention to such elements as the materiality of the text (its peritext, that is its physical properties as not only an aesthetic form but also a material object in the world), the reader (that fascinating figure that seemed to endlessly intrigue but essentially elude a scholar like Radway), and the institutions fundamentally shaping both the production and reception of these novels. It is, however, towards these aspects of the genre, which Regis’ approach conceptually obscures, that many scholars, including Janice Radway, have directed most of their critical effort. Radway, who carries out an ethnographic study of romance readers, is, unlike Regis, not primarily focussed on the romance novel’s textual properties, but in the reader’s use and interpretation of this text. While Radway does indeed, as Regis points out, seem to hold a rather simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text, this conceptualisation might in part stem from the fact that Radways’ main conceptual interest is not in the romance text as such—as is Regis’—but in the popular romance novel as a strongly gendered socio-cultural phenomenon.

Radway herself demonstrates a recognition of the important difference between these two approaches when, in the conclusion to the 1984 edition of Reading the Romance, she notes the importance of “analytically distinguishing between the meaning of the act [of reading romance novels] and the meaning of the text as read” (210). The text as such—Regis’ primary site of interest—is of less importance to Radway than the ways in which the text is used by its readers, which, Radway’s account continuously indicates, are highly complex. The “patient unravelling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” (Wilder 105) that the topos of complexity implies is then performed by Radway not in her discussion of the romance text, but in her discussion of the romance reader, the process of reception and the material production of the text read. If we (re)consider the question of complexity to not pertain solely to textual properties, but to the romance novel as a cultural phenomenon, Radway answers it with a resounding affirmative. The fact that Regis’ overlooks this kind of complexity in her otherwise impressive and articulate discussion stems, it seems to me, from her own conceptual position which obscures or disregards non-textual issues. This brief example then indicates that Regis’ own theoretical position is relevant to her meta-critical discussion and, more generally, that in such meta-critical endeavours an awareness of theoretical positions and conceptual frameworks is important.

On the whole it seems to me Regis’ discussion can be interpreted as an example of a broader developmental dynamic that is currently taking place in the field of popular romance studies. As the field matures the natural tendency arises to look back at its foundations and, in an attempt to distinguish the present from those past origins, to identify, analyse, and even emphasise certain problematic aspects of older popular romance studies. Such endeavours could be considered as figurative instances of ritual matricide in which scholars like Radway, Modleski, and Mussel function as the figurative mothers of the field who, in order to create the possibility for the field to grow up, develop, and mature, have to be figuratively “killed”—taken away, put aside, moved beyond. This process is a natural mechanism of evolution and growth and one which on the whole has positive effects; as is apparent in Regis’ discussion, it enables a much-needed identification and analysis of problems and errors in earlier studies. This is itself a necessary condition for present and future studies and scholars to improve in these regards and avoid making the same mistakes as their predecessors. Although critical accounts such as the one by Pamela Regis can then be placed within a positive broader dynamic that stimulates the further development, maturation, and improvement of the field, prudence is called for in such endeavours because they run the risk of overstating or exaggerating the problematic aspects of older studies. Indeed it seems to me that in particular Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, perhaps because of its fame and enduring identification with popular romance studies (certainly in the eyes of scholars outside the field), is regularly subjected to quite harsh and even unforgiving critiques which seem to create and perpetuate a stereotypical image and too simplistic interpretation of this complex and theoretically sophisticated study. In this regard Regis’ present meta-critical account is mainly to be praised, since it moves beyond the stereotypical interpretations of past studies and presents a thorough and well-considered critical discussion.

This brief response to Pamela Regis’ meta-critical discussion of popular romance scholarship has pointed out some of what I consider to be the account’s strongest and weakest points. While I endorse Regis’ identification of the methodological problem of overgeneralisation as one of the main challenges that the field of popular romance studies faces, I also critique her account for being too ahistorical and undertheorised. I briefly attempt to demonstrate the potential problems of such a disregard for theoretical positions in meta-critical discussions. In this context I must acknowledge that, much as Pamela Regis’ theoretical position influences her meta-critical discussion, my own critique of her paper is shaped by my position as a scholar inspired by post-structuralism. Instead of considering the clashing of such theoretical perspectives as problematic, it is my firm belief that if we manage to continue to achieve meetings of and conversations between these, and many other, critical and theoretical perspectives—as we did at the 2010 IASPR conference—the future of popular romance studies look brighter than ever before.

Works Cited

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon: 1909-1999. London: UCL Press, 1999. Print.

Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, W.A.: Curtin University Books, 2004. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S.G. “Darcy’s Vampiric Descendants: Austen’s Perfect Romance Hero and J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood.” Persuasions Online. 30.1. (2009) Web. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol30no1/frantz.html

—. “‘I’ve tried my entire life to be a good man’: Suzanne Brockmann’s Sam Starrett, Ideal Romance Hero.” Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Eds. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak. MD: Lexington Books, 2010. 227-247. Print.

—. “Suzanne Brockmann.” Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. 2.2/3 (2008) 1-19. Web. http://www.cpcc.edu/taltp/archives/spring-summer-2008-2-2-3/spring_summer_2008_merged.pdf/view

Goade, Sally. “Introduction.” Empowerment versus Oppression. Twenty First Century Views on Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 1-11. Print.

Goris, An. “From Roberts to Romance And Back Again: genre, authorship and textual identity.” Ph.D. diss., Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2011. (in preparation).

Grescoe, Paul. The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance. Vancouver: Raincoast, 1996. Print.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1984. Print.

—. “Where’s Love Gone? Transformations in Romance Fiction and Scholarship.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 3-14. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Selinger, Eric. “Milton, Cavell, Kinsale: Thinking Through Flowers from the Storm.” Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association National Conference. New Orleans, April 2009. Address.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: NYU Press, 2001. 307-22. Print.

Wilder, Laura. “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice.” Written Communication 22.1 (2005): 76-119. Print.


[1] Amongst the most important state of the art accounts of romance criticism are discussions by Juliet Flesch (11-23), Pamela Regis (3-7), Kay Mussell (6-13) and Sally Goade (1-5).

[2] Both Juliet Flesch and Kay Mussell provide somewhat similar meta-critical considerations in their above mentioned overviews of romance criticism, though neither of these accounts is as elaborate as Regis’ present one.

[3] Mussell’s study (1984), which is based on a corpus of over eighty romance novels, is somewhat of an exception in this regard.

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Review: Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, by Lisa Fletcher

Romance criticism often conveys the impression that it was written by a scholar on holiday, as it were, from more important work on worthier fiction. Interesting things may be said about the genre, but the formalities of intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication have often been shrugged off, as though they were not really expected, let alone required, in this more casual context. What happens in romance criticism stays in romance criticism, this attitude suggests. No shoes, no Sedgwick, no problem.

Lisa Fletcher, by contrast, takes her project quite seriously. As she explains near the start of her important new study, Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, “this book charts one of the many ways in which romantic love is persistently and aggressively heterosexualized in Western culture and begins to consider the extent to which this campaign of normalization and exclusion is endlessly covered over” (15). By examining the statement “I love you” as it appears in historical romance fiction, Fletcher arrives at a new definition of this genre; with this definition in hand, she proceeds to analyze a number of historical romances, considering both “popular” and “literary” texts (the distinction is Fletcher’s). The range of novels she addresses is refreshing, although their distribution in the study suggests something about her sense of their interest as individual works of art: the book ends with two chapters on John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman and one to A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, while the “popular” section devotes one chapter to a trio of Georgette Heyer’s novels (These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, and The Corinthian), and one to an assortment of novels by a dozen romance authors who published between 1980 and 2005 (Margaret McPhee, Norah Hess, Mona Gedney, Pam Rosenthal, Patricia Potter, Rita Mae Brown, Jude Deveraux, Kathleen A. Woodiwiss, Virginia Henley, Catherine Coulter, Laura Kinsale, and Johanna Lindsey).

Despite its price, Historical Romance Fiction is essential for anyone working on Heyer, and important for anyone interested in the popular romance more generally. In particular, Fletcher’s efforts to define the genre will be of particular interest to students of popular romance fiction, if only because they offer points of departure or models to dispute. It is these broadly applicable, deliberately provocative aspects of her work that I wish to concentrate on in this review.

Fletcher’s Definition

In order to define the historical romance, Fletcher sets out into the thickets of postmodern theory, employing the ideas of, among others, J.L. Austin, Frederic Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Judith Butler, Andrew Parker, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Diane Elam, Shoshana Felman, Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes, D.A. Miller, and Umberto Eco. She seems at home in this environment: as in so many of these critics and thinkers, the compression of her exposition and professional specialization of her vocabulary make few concessions to the reader’s comfort. The determined reader, however, will be led to reexamine the idea of romance itself, and to consider the genre’s larger meanings. Certainly that was my own experience—although as the author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, I am more than an interested bystander in the effort to define the popular romance. Fletcher’s thinking and mine intersect in our nomination of “I love you” as a key element of that definition.

In my definition of the romance novel, “I love you” is the most common expression of one essential element of the romance novel (I identify eight such elements)—the declaration (A Natural History of the Romance Novel 34-5). For me, the phrase itself is less important than its structural function in the text; another phrase might also be employed for the declaration to occur. For Fletcher, however, this particular sentence is crucial. “I love you” is, for her, “the romantic speech act”: a performative utterance characteristic of the historical romance and revelatory of its function (25). “[R]omance is a fictional mode which depends on the force and familiarity of the speech act ‘I love you,’” she explains (7). To call something a “speech act,” in J.L. Austin’s terms, means that someone’s saying or writing it makes something happen: an event or condition is actually brought about by the utterance, rather than simply described by it. Statements that begin “I promise…,” “I bet…,” and “I apologize…” are all examples of speech acts. Rejecting the idea that “I love you” is simply a reliable report of its speaker’s emotional state, Fletcher focuses instead on what the sentence does—and, by extension, on what the genre defined by “I love you” also does, as though the entire genre were also a speech act, a performative utterance, in its own right.

If Fletcher’s attention to “I love you” as a speech act draws on J. L. Austin and Roland Barthes (notably the latter’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments), she draws on other theorists, notably Judith Butler, to explore the relationships between the performative utterance of “I love you” and the cultural institution of heterosexuality. This brief passage from her second chapter gives a sense of how she adopts and extends Butler’s ideas into the study of historical romance—and not just Butler’s ideas, but also some of her tropes:

[T]his book takes “I love you” as a synecdoche of heterosexuality’s insistent and compulsory repetition. “I love you” is uttered as the clarifying conclusion in the paradigmatic narrative of sexual intelligibility which ties a line of causality through the points of sex, gender, and sexuality (a male who is masculine desires a female who is feminine and vice versa.) To this extent heterosexual romance fictions can be read performatively as an incessant rendition of heterosexuality’s promised but never fully achieved absolute intelligibility. (34)

Note Fletcher’s adoption of Judith Butler’s personification of heterosexuality—the ideology (heterosexuality) “is…in the process of,” it “suspects,” it imitates, and it repeats itself:

As Butler explains, “heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing.” … Because it suspects its tenuous position, heterosexuality—“as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization” … is propelled into an endless repetition of itself. (34)

This personification does not simply make a very strong claim for heterosexuality’s force in the culture, but also allows Fletcher (like Butler before her) to sketch a sort of psychological profile of heterosexuality as a character, wracked by inner conflicts and anxieties. For Fletcher, “heterosexuality” is in a Butlerian state of unintelligibility—which I take to mean that its status as an adequate, complete account of human sexuality is never quite coherent, or “intelligible.” As a result, heterosexuality must endlessly repeat itself to reassert its as-yet unachieved (and never-to-be achieved because unachievable) state of coherence.

To read the utterance “I love you” as a performative, for Fletcher, means to accept the idea that “I love you” is less a report of the utterer’s feelings (indeed, the statement may be so devalued through repetition as to be incapable of making such a report) than it is as an assertion of heterosexuality’s rightness or “intelligibility.” In this performative interpretation, “I love you” recurs in any number of situations, including historical romance fictions, because no previous utterance of the words was—or could be—adequate to the task of making heterosexuality coherent, and thus of clinching heterosexuality’s status as both intelligible and hegemonic: a condition at once dominant, normal, and ideal.

Thus far, Fletcher’s argument might apply as well to a contemporary novel (or, for that matter, a film or popular song) as it does to the narrower case of historical romance fiction. Her turn to this particular genre comes through a discussion of the relationship between “I love you” and “history.” “Broadly speaking,” Fletcher writes, “the performative force of the romantic speech act (and of romance) depends on both a denial of its historicity, of the fact that it has always already been said before,” and on the fact that only this historicity and previous use allows it to possess such deep “familiarity and sense” (15). The phrase “I love you” thus “invokes a kind of continuous present,” but it is a present marked by a denial of any difference between that present and any other time: “’I love you’ is always said anew, but over and over again these texts insist that whenever and wherever it is said it means the same thing” (15). But if the performative effect of this utterance does not change with time, it cannot either reflect or be a distinctive part of the chronological setting of the novel, because its effect is always asserted in the now (“continuous present”). Read performatively, the “I love you” of a historical romance novel in fact belies history as it “interpellates” an ahistorical, hegemonic heterosexuality. The familiar, citational quality of “I love you,” especially in a historical romance, at once masks and (to the critical reader) reveals the anxiety with which this hegemony cites only itself, interrupting or precluding or taking up the space of (choose your metaphor) alternate possibilities in order to assert itself as an ideal. As Fletcher sums up the case, “[h]istorical fictions of heterosexual love are performative to the extent that they participate in the establishment and maintenance of prevailing ideas about the links between sex, gender, and sexuality” (15).

Romance and Claims of Heteronormativity

Fletcher’s claim is a serious one. For her, “fictional texts are intimate participants in the production and reproduction of the logical (and often, illogical) systems and matrices through which we are defined and define ourselves.” Moreover, “the importance and value of generic texts reside not just in their capacity to bear meaning,” but also in the role that entire genres play in the “ongoing construction of the [systems] by which we both make sense of and create ourselves and [our world]” (14). The system that most concerns Fletcher is heteronormativity: that part of our culture’s ideology that assumes that heterosexuality is the default or preferred condition of sexual orientation, and that any other is not just contrary to the reigning ideology, but not even an option: not on the cognitive map, as it were, of members of that culture. Heteronormativity precludes anything other, and historical romance is a vehicle of heteronormativity’s quiet interpellation—its incursion or reinstallation—into the minds of readers, authors, and the broader culture. The opportunity that this genre might provide to imagine another, better situation is precluded by heternormativity’s hegemony—its definition of, occupation of, and dominance over the situation.

This claim about the heteronormativity of romance may sound familiar. It delivers us to a place already mapped by Janice A. Radway more than two decades ago in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984; 2nd ed. 1991). Although the speech-act theory that Fletcher employs is very different from Radway’s ethnographic methodology, both critics arrive at the conclusion that romance as a genre is based on and disseminates an all-but-irresistible ideology. Radway blames patriarchy for the imposition of ideology on the readers she studied:

[W]hile the act of romance reading is used by women as a means of partial protest against the role prescribed for them by the culture [heterosexual union and maintenance of the domestic sphere], the discourse itself [i.e., the romance] actively insists on the desirability, naturalness, and benefits of that role by portraying it not as the imposed necessity that it is, but as a freely designed, personally controlled, individual choice. (208)

Both Radway and Fletcher regard this ideology as problematic, not least because it prevents our even imagining alternatives.

What, though, shall one make of the fact that romance novelists—both historical and contemporary—have also repeatedly imagined alternatives to heterosexuality that carry through to the end of the novel? The world of gay, lesbian, and other non-hetero romance fiction includes texts as generically and tonally diverse as Maurice by E.M. Forster (written 1913-14; published 1971) which depicts the betrothal of two heroes, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952) which depicts the betrothal of two heroines, and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen (2005), a Regency-era historical romance novel which depicts the betrothal of two heroes and a heroine. Each novel includes a declaration—everyone says “I love you.” Indeed, f/f, m/m, ménage, and other non-hetero unions are increasingly widespread in the romance genre. At the very least, the existence of these books points to a serious, unanswered challenge to Fletcher’s claims about the heteronormative significance of the “I love you” speech act and the genre it defines. True, Fletcher briefly warns us about the limitations of her study:

[M]y interest here is to draw attention to “I love you” as a heteronormative call to order; to expose the instability of this call in and of itself. While this approach forecloses the possibility of detailed consideration of gay or lesbian utterances of “I love you” in this book, hopefully my work suggests the need for and importance of such a study. (41-2)

This brief nod to the existence of other utterances of “I love you” hardly seems sufficient, however. Fletcher argues that the heteronormative hegemony of historical romance fiction precludes imagining alternative sexualities and structures of love, but now is it the critic herself who “forecloses the possibility”—and, in the process, sharply limits both the scope of her study and the persuasive force of her argument.

To be fair, I can imagine an argument about non-hetero romance novels that would view the very employment of the romance form, including “I love you”—the element that I call the “declaration” and that Fletcher recognizes as a “speech act”—as a capitulation to the reigning hegemony, and thus an unconscious endorsement of it. What seems at first as a departure from the dominant form would, from this perspective, succeed only in pointing out that form’s enduring power. In effect, simply by being a romance novel the non-hetero-monogamous romance would thus mark the desperate surrender of some always unidentified but never specified “better” version of love and relationship in return for the comfort of returning to the comfortable forms of the hegemonic culture.

On the other hand, the existence of m/m, f/f, and ménage romances—including historical romances—could just as easily be said to weaken any claim about the heteronormative ideology inherent in the form, opening an imaginative space between heterosexuality (which is no longer interpellated as compulsory or inevitable) and romantic love. From this perspective, non-hetero romance would be seen as employing the form to validate and even celebrate alternatives to heterosexual hegemony. Indeed, Suzanne Juhasz has found that lesbian romance leads to a disruption—not a reinscription—of heteronormativity:

The happy ending in lesbian romance fiction is that girl gets girl. For the happy ending to be satisfying, it has to be believable; to be believable, it has to be realistic; to be realistic, there has to be a plot and a concomitant development of character that make possible and probable what, in the world outside the novel, is more usually suppressed and/or repressed. The very literalness of the writing, the very linearity of the narrative support the fantasy or wished-for elements that this plot introduces. Yet in this fashion the romance also disrupts rather than maintains dominant social structures: specifically, heterosexuality and phallocentrism. (289).

This argument may lack the elegant unveilings and reversals of my thought experiment a moment ago, in which resistance turns out to be capitulation, and victory, surrender. It may, however, ring truer to the texts, to the lived experiences of readers, and ultimately to the historicity of romantic culture, which continues to evolve in ways that Fletcher’s study does not acknowledge or address.

I return to Fletcher’s description of her definition of historical romance fiction as “broadly inclusive.” It is significantly less inclusive than she claims. Fletcher’s sophisticated identification of heteronormative ideology in the historical romance novel is weakened by her exclusion from her analysis of the very texts that overtly—and if readers such as Juhasz are to be believed, successfully—employ the romance genre to depict non-hetero relationships. We are left with a much-reduced, albeit still-useful claim about the enforcement of heteronormativity in a narrow range of historical romance novels, if not in the subgenre as a whole.

Fletcher on Heyer and on the Late-Twentieth Century Popular Historical Romance Novel

In her chapter on Georgette Heyer, Fletcher identifies the author’s famous concentration on period dress as a key element of the novels’ way of making meaning. The critic sees “enormous symbolic and narrative importance” in “the dressing, undressing, and redressing of characters as feminine, masculine, or foppish” (58). Far from mere costume dramas, Heyer’s novels “are ambivalent, contradictory, and fascinating stories about the ‘tangle of preconceptions, conventions, and social emphases’ [the phrase is that of Heyer fan A. S. Byatt] which construct the heterosexual romantic subject” (53). Fletcher concentrates on three novels in which the heroine dresses as a boy, and uses close analysis of such passages as the opening description of the hero’s dress in These Old Shades—“He walked mincingly, for the red high heels of his shoes were very high”—to discern possible meanings of the hero’s foppery, the heroine’s masculinity, and the hero’s attraction to the boy that the heroine is pretending to be. Fletcher concludes that, in Heyer “[h]omosexual desire is both abnormal … and always already heterosexual (the boy is really a girl). Indeed … homosexual desire precedes and enables heterosexual desire. Homosexuality is imagined and pictured as a developmental stage towards, or infantile form of, heterosexuality” (67). Fletcher’s reading of the clothing in Heyer pushes beyond the usual critical claim on behalf of her concern for authentic period detail to uncover the gender and sexuality issues encoded by dress. It is a significant contribution to the study of this author.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of Fletcher’s analysis of a shelf-full of cross-dressing romances in “Performativity and Heterosexuality: Judith Butler and the Cross-Dressed Heroine 1980-2005,” a second chapter on the popular historical romance. As its title indicates, the chapter treats historical romances written over a twenty-five-year span, but Fletcher does not take into sufficient account the changes to this subgenre during this period, nor does she seem to have confronted, in any serious way, the methodological issues involved in choosing texts to study. All of Fletcher’s other texts—those by Fowles, Byatt, and Heyer—have attracted, and withstood, the scrutiny of earlier critics. They are on their way to being canonical romances; in fact, I would argue that Heyer is already canonical. When she turns to the “categorically unwieldy” world of less-studied popular romance novels, however—novels which are, as Fletcher explains in a footnote “too numerous and too fast-moving for scholarly researchers who are not themselves fans” to deal with—Fletcher has no canon to work with. How, then, did she choose her corpus? The note explains that she appealed via the web to those “fans” themselves, believing that “fans’ memories might be the best resource” for making the selection of study texts (73, n.1). But fans love novels for a variety of reasons, and are willing to ignore issues that Fletcher cannot set aside, including the quality of the writing, the presence of such moments in the plot as the heroine’s rape, and other material she finds “truly offensive” (90). One feels a bit wary of this chapter’s conclusions about Heyer’s heirs in the cross-dressing historical subgenre, or at least about the critic’s general statements about that subgenre, given the unconscious biases that may be at work in the selection process. Indeed, Fletcher herself seems to feel this unease, noting at the start of the chapter her sense that “projects such as my own are defied by the genre they attempt to classify” (73, n.1).

Conclusion

Fletcher’s difficulty in choosing study texts for this chapter illustrates a widespread and enduring problem in romance criticism. Statements about the historical romance—or any other genre—should be based on a representative sample of the range and quality of the genre. I readily agree with Fletcher, that finding such representative texts, among the “millions” of romances that only “kiss the retail shelf for a brief moment” is one of the difficulties of writing romance criticism (73, n.1). The sheer number of texts may be staggering, but perhaps that simply means that we romance critics have no choice but to set aside the dream of comprehensive, genre-wide analysis, and instead search out and study the most accomplished, most diverse selection of romances we can. The alternative, this study suggests, is to do with romance what Fletcher says that “I love you” does with human sexuality: to reassert, endlessly, a narrow account of what is natural or inevitable for the genre, one based on an incomplete notion of what romance has been in the past, and what it is right now.

Works Cited

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Lesbian Romance Fiction and the Plotting of Desire: Narrative Theory, Lesbian Identity, and Reading Practice.” Tulsa Studies In Women’s Literature 17.1 (1998): 65-82. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: New York U P, 2001. 276-91. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

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

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