052. The Modern Romance Canon
Who among us hasn't started a project and then realized that you've inadvertently wandered into a longstanding and contentious debate? I enlist the help of two experts to unravel why I started the Shelf Love Modern Romance Canon project. First, Katrina Jackson helps me unravel some of the ways my professional and educational background made me think this was a logical thing to do. Then, Eric Selinger gives some backstory into the academic and institutional reasons canons exist, and why those who study, read, and write the popular romance genre have been circling this question for decades and will continue into the future. It's a story of nostalgia, red tape, gatekeeping, search engine optimization, and my unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Who among us hasn't started a project and then realized that you've inadvertently wandered into a longstanding and contentious debate? I enlist the help of two experts to unravel why I started the Shelf Love Modern Romance Canon project. First, Katrina Jackson helps me unravel some of the ways my professional and educational background made me think this was a logical thing to do. Then, Eric Selinger gives some backstory into the academic and institutional reasons canons exist, and why those who study, read, and write the popular romance genre have been circling this question for decades and will continue into the future.
It's a story of nostalgia, red tape, gatekeeping, search engine optimization, and my unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
- Sign up for the email newsletter list | Website | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads | Email: Andrea@shelflovepodcast.com
- 58 Romance Novellas For A Quick Hit of Hope
- Check out Shelf Love’s updated website including the transcript for this episode
- Low-Cost Mental Health Resources & Alternatives recommended by Hannah Hearts Romance - link to blog post
Guest: Katrina Jackson
Guest: Eric Selinger
The Current (and growing) Shelf Love Modern Romance Canon Nomination List (Whoa, watch out controversy)
Notes from Katrina's section
- Beverly Jenkins on The Turn On Pod
- EH Carr's What is History - a commonly-used text to introduce students to history
- Alisha Rai's Serving Pleasure
- Kit Rocha's Beyond Series
- Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart
- Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina
Notes from Eric's Section:
- EM Hull's The Sheik
- The Rosary by Florence L. Barclay
- affective reasoning - I looked it up
- "How can you talk about contemporary fantasy if you don't know The Silmarillion?
- Noah Berlatsky - There is no Romance Canon (Well that's just your opinion, man.)
- Jodi McAlister - down (under) in Australia (it's a tired joke, but sorry, I'm tired.)
- Len Barot, the publisher of Bold Strokes Books, who publishes lesbian romance as Radclyffe.
052 Modern Romance Canon
Katrina Jackson: How often do people recommend Lolita?
Andrea Martucci: Ugh. (sound of disgust)
Katrina Jackson: Right? I think people potentially mistake what, Nabokov is doing with Lolita. Right? It's not a romance.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I was just going to say, Lolita, the greatest romance novel of the canon. Right?
Andrea Martucci: Hello and welcome to episode 52 of Shelf Love. Every week I come up with a new way to explain what this podcast is about, because I'm still figuring it out. It's definitely about romance novels though. I'm Andrea Martucci host of the Shelf Love podcast and today, I am sharing conversations with two guests about one of the greatest literary debates of our time.
Specifically the romance canon, and even more specifically Shelf Love's modern romance canon. I mostly explain this in the context of the conversation, but just to be totally clear, the modern romance canon is a project that I started in December 2019 when I began asking my guests what they would nominate for the modern romance canon.
Now, to be fair, when I started asking this question, I didn't actually explain how I was defining modern romance canon, so the first guests who answered it didn't have the same guardrails that later guests had.
So it's now July, 2020. And my current count is 11 guests nominating a total of 15 romances. I'm going to keep exploring this question, but it seemed like it was time to pause and work through some of the valid questions that I and others might have about what the heck I was or am trying to accomplish.
So in this episode, you will hear first from Katrina Jackson who shares her thoughts through the lens of a historiographer so from a bit of an outsider viewpoint. Then I share a very recent conversation with Eric Selinger a popular romance academic. Who brings a literary perspective to this question.
(Musical break wraps up)
Katrina, what is your modern romance canon nomination or nominations?
Katrina Jackson: So I'm going to echo a recommendation from a previous episode and Beverly Jenkins' Forbidden, which I adore and I'm thinking about as an academic as well, but I just sort of love the way that, on the one hand, Beverly Jenkins, as I said on another episode, actually.
What I love about that book is the way that she turns a sort of convention in romance that whiteness or proximity to whiteness as valuable on its head. For the male main character, Rhine, whiteness is valuable and he has used, you know, his ability to pass, to better himself financially and to help his community.
But it is not the most valuable thing to him, and it never requires that he sever his connection to his own Black heritage or the Black community around him, which is why at the end when he essentially shirks all of that off, it is almost as if it means nothing to him because the thing that is most valuable to him is love.
So I love that book. The other book is Rebekah Weatherspoon's Sanctuary, which you talked about on a previous episode. I adore Rebekah. But that is actually, I think, my favorite book by her for so many reasons. But the thing, that I sort of deeply connect to is that she manages to always write these male main characters who are so in need of and searching for love, even if they don't quite ever sort of say that, that's, or understand that that's what they're doing. And then she gives them, in her het romances, or her, male/ female romances she gives them a female partner who is standoffish because of their own, like in that case, their own literal like hurts and, and recent trauma, until she's safe.
And then you realize that these are two people who can give each other literally all the things they want. So like safety and protection, or as the book title suggests, sanctuary, but also love and acceptance that has been denied in other ways. And it is, it is like watching. I love that book and it's like watching two people who are sort of really wary of other people and really sort of hurt by life, kind of circle one another, right from the moment they meet.
And then kind of almost offhandedly sort of give each other what they need, without quite realizing that the other person needs it, but also that are giving it, like it is just this sort of beautiful exploration of two people learning that they can trust one another and then, being able to give each other that in the end.
I mean, it's, it's beautiful. I think that is one of those moments where we see people building the tools, to love one another as the book sort of progresses.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And, do you happen to know when Forbidden came out?
Katrina Jackson: Is it really that late?
Andrea Martucci: I mean, maybe. Maybe that's a reissue, but no,
Katrina Jackson: no. You know, that actually does make sense because when Beverly Jenkins talked to the hosts of The Turn-On pod, she says that people were asking for that book for like years.
So I guess it really could be more recent. Oh, I didn't realize that.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Okay. Well, so this was the question I was going to ask, and it kind of, the linchpin of the question depended on Forbidden being slightly older. Oh, well. Okay, so you and I have been talking sort of offline a bit well online, but privately about the idea of what the modern romance canon is or should be or can be. And you helped me work through some stuff, some questions I had because like I started this project without an actual end goal in mind. And I was just like, I'm just gonna like ask people and then like, I'll figure it out along the way. And I think that one thing I will say I think is important to asking this question is, I'm defining- and I haven't actually said this - but I'm defining the modern romance cannon as exemplars of the genre that are relevant and important and not dated right now at this point in time.
Katrina Jackson: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: Which means, and this is kind of what I want to talk to you about, is stripping away the nostalgia of, I started reading romance 20 plus years ago.
A lot of romance readers started reading a while ago, and the books that were available at the time, if you reread them now, are, can be quite problematic.
Katrina Jackson: Right.
Andrea Martucci: And while they resonated with us or me at the time I read them, 20 years ago, I am a different person now. I live in a different world now. Thank goodness, I think the romance genre has evolved in a positive direction, generally. I think the modern romance canon books that are nominated for it are books that speak to the individual creating the nomination at this point in time.
Katrina Jackson: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: And also acknowledge that there can be no absolute canon list. It is basically just a growing list of nominations of books that are subjectively important to somebody.
Katrina Jackson: Right. So one of our online but offline conversations, I sort of said, and I, I stand by this, that, historians don't believe in a canon, like historians absolutely believe in foundational texts.
But depending on what you're studying and when you're studying, those foundational texts can change, right? So, when I was an undergrad, we had to read about sort of methodology. Which a lot of undergrads get some exposure to and sort of the kind of foundational texts we read was EH Carr's What is History?
It's actually a series of lectures that this British historian gave in like the term, like the 1960s or 70, or something like that, which is quite late if you consider it. But, it's considered like a foundational text and essentially when he's arguing as, as the title suggests, like what is history in terms of what is history scholarship, right.
But in that same class, I read this book that I still cannot remember the name of it, but it was about sort of the, the impact of Walt Disney on depicting American history through his films and theme parks and all of that stuff. Right. And part of the reason, that was a book that we read alongside Carr is because the historian who was teaching it was a historian of film.
But if I had taken that class with, say, my advisor at that time, I would have read a different text because she was a more traditional historian in terms of her subject area, which is like, deep archival work. But I probably would have read something on oral history because that is also her - because you can learn the foundational skills in almost any text. Right. And so we don't believe in a canon because we understand there is a multiplicity of, of texts that can teach you the things you need to know about how history functions.
So the idea of the canon is so foreign to me. It's almost, I mean, I feel like an outsider looking in with like a tub of popcorn. It's like, Ooh, that's fascinating. Who cares? But I, I, so as you were talking, I did look up. When another book, cause I think one of the things that Beverly Jenkins does really well is, she, she sort of comes back to themes.
And the other book I would have suggested for the canon would have been Indigo. And Indigo was written in 1996 and I mention that only because that hero is not white passing, but he is light-skinned. And she does a similar thing in that when we're, you see this hero who has more social privilege, he's also rich , there's this explicit point in that book where he's, his family members who are light skin and he's also from a Freeborn family and the woman who's fallen in love with was formerly enslaved and has an enslaved mother, or actually both of her parents are enslaved. And so their objection to her is one that she has dark skinned and that she has a history of bondage. And so you see him. He is able to protect his privilege with Rhine is in Forbidden as well.
But you see in that book, Beverly Jenkins making a sort of similar assertion that these privileges which come with a proximity to whiteness are not the things that matter to these heroes. Right. And I think she's done that in other books, but that is the other point where I see her doing that.
And so it's a little bit older. And so, But yeah, it is this sort of idea. Those things stick out to me because of who I am and what I study. But, you're right. It's who I am and what I studying.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And you were saying, like I was trying to think, like, why does it make sense to me to even ask the question of like, well, what are you concerned canon and I, and I wonder if part of it is, you know, my academic history, I studied writing, literature, and publishing as an undergrad. And you know, certainly had the books that I read in high school, it was the canon of literature. And I reject that canon because I believe that it is very much rooted in a particular point of view that does not resonate with me.
And, and I've talked about that before on the podcast, so it's like, I definitely know that that canon is not my canon.
Katrina Jackson: Right.
Andrea Martucci: And so then, you know, thinking about like the romance genre, I think that there are a lot of books that, you know, people who've been reading romance for awhile kind of identify as like oh, these are books that were like maybe like milestone type books or like really popular at the time and can speak to the zeitgeist of the moment,
Katrina Jackson: Right. Or that I, I'd imagine that there are those books they read right as they were starting to understand their own sexuality or something.
Andrea Martucci: Exactly right. And I mean like, like this is why people talk about The Flame and The Flower. Not because necessarily it was the first to do something, but it was maybe like the first to be extremely popular for doing something and it had such a widespread awareness.
Katrina Jackson: Right.
Andrea Martucci: And you know, people have continued to read it over time that like it becomes a touchpoint that people can kind of speak to and have, there's like a common language around it.
I mean, I feel like romance is so vast and so personal. And now I'm like sitting here, I'm like, I don't know. Does that apply to like, just literary novels as well? I don't know. I don't have the answers,
But, but then layer on top of this, my master's degree is in marketing. My history of working in publishing is I worked at a literary magazine.
So like, you know, I was working with, you know, people who get like big prizes for literature - that's who I was coming in contact with. Those people respected the canon. Okay. The quote unquote literary canon. Then shifting over to dealing with content and publishing from a marketing side where a lot of times my approach to thinking about content in that world is much more like, how do I make this manageable and bite sized so that people can wrap their minds around it and, and communicate something. And, and so I think that then that, that's like my impulse to like, let me make a list.
Katrina Jackson: Yeah. I mean, I definitely, there's part of me that deeply. I feel very similar in the sense that, so I don't know if I've talked about this, but part of my training is in intellectual history, which is why I have too many thoughts about various things, and also why I dissect what feels like the most minor detail into like, you know, whatever paragraphs. Because I fundamentally believe in that as an exercise. Right. But part of that training also is actually sort of accidental because I'm a first generation college student, so obviously the first person in my family to get a an MA or a PhD.
And so part of how I coped with feeling out of my depth at every level is to read and acquire information about all of the books or articles that exist in that way. So I believe in a bibliography, like I am the person, I teach a class on reconstruction - it's a graduate course - and last time I taught it, like half of the students transferred out when I sent the syllabus because it's a historiography class as well. And so the actual syllabus is like 15 pages long because under each topic with our readings, I then have further, it's not even suggested readings, it's just like further information on the topic.
And it's all articles cause we mostly read books and each section has like 30 articles underneath it. So students thought they would have to read all of those 30 articles as well as their like 200-300 pages for the week.
And I was like, well, it's not, it's not possible. But they didn't know that. So they like, they jumped ship. They were like, I'm not doing that. But that's because I deeply believe in that. You need to understand that the book I chose for you to read on this topic is part of a larger historiography of, you know, 300 other texts probably that deal with this in part or in full that you would also have to consider to make a sound argument.
So I believe in this project if for no other reason than this is how I cope.
Andrea Martucci: Thank you. And it's interesting when you said that because I'm actually the only person in my immediate family with a master's degree. Neither of my parents have a bachelor's degree. My sister has a bachelor's degree, but like higher ed is not something that like my family is comfortable with. Like,
Katrina Jackson: right.
Andrea Martucci: Both of my parents grew up like very poor and I doubt both of their parents even graduated high school. Like,
Katrina Jackson: Right.
Andrea Martucci: You know, so getting an advanced degree in anything and exploring work -like work in my family is very tangible.
Katrina Jackson: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: You know? And, as you were saying that, I was like, Oh my God.
Is that also why like I have this, what feels like an unquenchable thirst for knowledge? Because I feel like I never know enough.
Katrina Jackson: Yeah, I definitely, I mean, I, I still feel to this day, like I don't know enough because I don't know enough because there's still like new books being written, there are archives I've never been to, obviously.
And I, I think earlier in my life, I processed that as a lack, which is why I sort of believed in the building of knowledge, or the knowing, reading about and knowing about as many texts as I could, but I've tried in the past few years, especially now that I'm a professor, and I'm supposed to be quote unquote, the expert in the room. I one, make sure I tell my students that on many of the things I teach them, I'm not the expert, right? I've read many of the things I'm recommending to them, or I'm assigning to them, but it also process the - which I think is maybe what you're trying to do with the creation of this canon as a communal thing.
I also sort of, at this point, I, I process the accumulation of knowledge about, you know, research, knowledge about historical texts as a means to make them accessible. So when someone asks me, you know, for a book on a particular topic, I'm happy if I can, you know, if I know of a text, I'm happy to give it to them.
But one of the things I enjoy doing is giving them a text that is written to be accessible to non-experts. Because historians, like other scholars, tend to write to other historians, right? And so we use jargon. We use, we use sort of heavy, historiographical conversations to make what sometimes can feel like really sort of, Boring,
Andrea Martucci: like you use the term diaspora,
Katrina Jackson: Which is hilariously the most accessible term.
Andrea Martucci: It really is. It really, and it means, and it means something. But like I sat down to read Reading the Romance by Janice Radway and Iiterally started writing words that I was like. In in the front of the book where I was like, Oh shit, I don't know what this means.
And then I looked up and I was like, Oh, okay. Well that's obviously the right word to use there, like, it's very precise, but it doesn't, it doesn't really mean anything to me. Like just in conversation and like you were talking about the, kind of for each topic on your syllabus, like, and then here's like some other books. I'm thinking about that like, I think so many times myself and other people, when you're like, I, okay, I want to explore like this new topic, it can be extremely overwhelming to even know where to start.
Katrina Jackson: right,
Andrea Martucci: like how do I start to learn about this thing? And like what are some good sources? If you're doing that yourself, what you end up doing is you either get so overwhelmed that you shut down or you end up on this quest where you have to almost discover for yourself what are good and bad sources, which
Katrina Jackson: right
Andrea Martucci: you know is, is fine. But sometimes it's like, can somebody please just give me a curated list of like a place to start. And if I'm truly interested, I will continue to explore, but please make it bite-size.
And I think that that actually connects to maybe part of what was in my head with the canon I was like, okay, these are books that are meaningful to this person at least, and it's maybe not going to be as resonant for you as it was for that person or some other people, but it's at the very least, not a bad place to start.
Katrina Jackson: Right. Yeah. I would agree with that because part of, so no, you're exactly right. The part of what I try and do with that syllabus, I give them that list. And I tell them that the first day, if anyone would have stayed, they would have gotten this part of the lecture, is that at the end of the semester, they have to write a historiographical essay on something relative to reconstruction.
That list of articles has at least five articles that will come up no matter what their topic. So when they are stressing out by the midterm, or by mid semester about what they will do for their final research project, I tell them, go through the list of articles I gave you and find five on the topic you want to study.
And then you don't have to do that work on finding your first texts, right? Like, that is the, that is the whole goal. And I think, when I stumbled into romance explicitly, I did a couple of things. So the first thing I did is I saw there was a lot of chatter about Alisha Rai's Serving Pleasure because it had made The New York Times Bestseller's list, I think, something like that.
And it was the first self published romance to do that or there it was the first in some way. And because it was everywhere, I was like, okay, I'll give it a try. And it was a fabulous book. Right. So then I literally have tracked this in my good reads. From then on, I started reading almost entirely romance for like a solid year or something like that.
But what I found in looking at what I read is I read a lot of stuff I didn't like because I was like, Oh, I can read other self published stuff or I can read, you know, other things by, you know, these authors that Amazon is recommending as similar. And you know, once you are looking for information or looking for books, but you don't know where to go, you are dependent on other people's recommendations, which are often flawed, or you're dependent on, you know, whatever, database you're using on its flawed algorithm. Right. And it wasn't until a friend who, one, I know. Two who knows me, and we know each other's reading habits recommended an Alyssa Cole novella .
And then so look, I definitely recommend people sort of go through their own reading histories to see how they have shifted and changed because it's been really useful for me. So the point at which that friend recommended, actually it wasn't an Alyssa Cole novella. It was the first book in her Civil War series.
It was, An Extraordinary Union. From there, I started reading one, everything Alyssa had written, but I also explicitly moved into Black historical romance, which I had said earlier in my career, I would never want to read because I imagine it would be like, trauma porn. So I moved directly from Alyssa to Beverly Jenkins.
And once you can get, and I mean, that's sort of the thing you want, right? When you can find amongst the sea of texts the thing that works for you, based on the recommendation or who recommended it, you then can make a more targeted move into whatever the next the thing is. And so instead of saying you have to read this romance novel from 1954 which was really significant at the time, being able to find a book that speaks to you as you are now and then moving. Cause I've also from Beverly Jenkins moved to Tessa Dare, right? Like you, it isn't as if that is a circumscribed path, but you can figure out the things you do like and then make your way there. So I do, I actually do believe, that a conversation about the canon that feels very present is, can actually be really useful and it makes sense to my own training.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think there's like an element of, like nobody can read everything,
Katrina Jackson: Right. Oh my God,
Andrea Martucci: Oh my God. No. And there is no person that has had a broad enough experience with everything to be like, okay, well, I looked at everything and here are the best.
I mean, even if you take apart the fact that there's bias in that, right,
Katrina Jackson: right.
Andrea Martucci: But also, so much has happened and I don't think that to appreciate romance now you have to have had that survey
Katrina Jackson: Right.
Andrea Martucci: You, like, I mean, I'm obviously interested in sort of like the evolution of the romance genre,
Katrina Jackson: right.
Andrea Martucci: But you don't have to know all of that. I just found out that like Gothic romances were kind of like a foundation for the romance genre. I'm like, Oh my God, wow. Like, cool.
I'm still, I'm not going to go read a bunch of Gothic romances. Cause like I kind of don't care.
Katrina Jackson: Meanwhile I love Gothic romance, but I never jumped from Gothic romance into like whatever romance looked like when I was a kid.
It didn't make sense to me.
Andrea Martucci: Right. So I mean, so part of it is like, I am a long time romance reader. You probably have enough experience at this point in romance reading to have, you do have like, you know, opinions and like books you could recommend whatever. But like if somebody tomorrow is like, I want to try romance and they don't have a good romance friend, it's super hard to like get in and,
Katrina Jackson: yeah.
Andrea Martucci: And really like figure out where to start. That
Katrina Jackson: right.
Andrea Martucci: I mean, you don't want people to pick up one random book. Like this is, this calls to mind my conversations with my friend Becky, where she is randomly picking up a romance novel basically.
And then I'm like, have thoughts about this and talk to me and tell me, tell me all the things you think you're reading in this book mean all romance novels are like this. And then I'll tell you you're wrong,
Katrina Jackson: right. I'm a mood reader. So, I have a friend, so that same friend who recommended Alyssa Cole's books, her name's Nicole.
We literally, sometimes our DMS are just me sending her links to books to buy, and she just buys them, it's very useful. She's a great friend. But part of why, and she is not someone who, reads explicitly reads only romance. But we do tend to trade lots of kinds of books. But part of why she's so useful for me is, even though she'll read almost anything I recommend to her, we then have a great conversation afterwards whether or not she likes it.
And I can't always tell what she will like. So I recommended the Kit Rocha Beyond books, kind of on a whim, cause I didn't think that they were her thing. And then she was like two weeks later, like I spent all this money on these books and I was like, okay. So anyway, now you can read the Rider's book.
She's lovely, but she did. But, she's really useful because, both of our introductions were accidental, and then we kind of stumbled on the things we like together. And there's always a different mood for us to, I don't know how I got on this from what you were saying, but I definitely related in my head, but I think that, there's this way, which romance is also communal. So if you stumble onto whatever's on, you know, the bookshelves at your local bookstore, you almost miss the communal aspect of someone being able to say, well, what are you interested in in like other genres? Or what are you interested in in life?
Like if you're interested in like, I love mysteries. And I love true crime, but interestingly enough, I never read anything that kind of correlates to that in romance. I have no idea why. I'd love to, but I don't know what I'm looking for yet. or that's not true. I read one person, Nicole Rise, who writes really short, murder, mystery, romance, novellas. They're hilarious. But it's random, right? So you can't, you can't always say. That idea of a canon, a book that everyone has to read, almost misses the fact that the whole point of reading is also supposed to be individual and or communal. Right.
Andrea Martucci: And also that the point of reading books isn't to like, just read the ones you have to and like, like, okay, I read all five books and now I'm done.
Katrina Jackson: Right. I've read and like how many, which I find so interesting because, I remember I tell the story to my students a lot. Not at all relevant, but I remember hating high school English. I love to read as a kid, but I hated high school English.
Andrea Martucci: Same.
Katrina Jackson: And junior high English, to be honest with you. But I remember I had this really old stodgy, teacher who clearly hated that he was still teaching, because every generation of kids, he hated them a little bit more. He was so great. And he was the kind of person who pronounced harassment, like he was British because he didn't want us to say ass. So he was a Harrison, Harrison. Which was hilarious. And I, I hated it, and I loved him at the same time. So I remember dreading taking, this was ninth grade English, and I remember dreading taking it because the sort of the narrative we got about high school English is that you started reading the canon like junior high, they sort of kind of don't care. You read whatever. But in high school there seems to be this idea that you have to start reading the great books.
And I was so annoyed that
Andrea Martucci: Like Heart of Darkness,
Katrina Jackson: right? And I was like, I was dreading it because, I had up until that point, been really privileged to have teachers who encouraged me to read whatever I liked. Right. we had reading for class, but in terms of like. Building a love of reading. They were like, well, read whatever sort of connects to you.
And that could be literally anything. And so I was dreading that class. And then I remember early on, you know, he was sort of giving his little lectures about how we all need to read great literature and blah, blah, blah. And then we got the reading list. And there are two books that I read in that class that stuck with me still.
And one was Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. And the other was Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. And I remember thinking. Well, this isn't the canon I had been told I was going to read and I realized that, and really all the books on his syllabus were because he wanted us to read books that spoke to the fact that most of his students were poor and a lot of his students were not white.
And so we read books and short stories by Mexican-American authors. I'm from California, so a lot of us, a lot of my friends and classmates were Mexican American, we read books by African and African American authors, you read a whole bunch of female writers. And I realized. In that moment that, I mean I did have different classes where we were at the canon and I hated it, but here was this old man who hated all of his students who was very specific that there is no singular canon.
There doesn't have to be a singular canon. What matters here is that you create your own personal canon, and I still adore Dorothy Allison, partially because of him.
Andrea Martucci: That's a sweet story.
Katrina Jackson: Who was also the first lesbian author I ever read. So even just that, he was like, we're going to read a book by a poor white lesbian woman writing about abuse. I mean, he gave all the trigger warnings and it was still the best book I ever read.
Andrea Martucci: And now Eric Selinger shares his take on this project. Dr. Eric Selinger is the executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, also known as "jeepers" and is a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, which is referred to by the cool kids as "Yasper."
The romance canon part of it, I might be really bastardizing what canon means.
Because as I started thinking about it more, and this is, this is what I was alluding to talking about with, Katrina Jackson was, was working through this idea. Like, I don't think you can ever create a discrete list or even a sort of amorphous discrete list, like where people say, well, I would take that one out and put this one in.
I just don't think that's possible for a lot of reasons. So, I'm at a very weird place with this project where I'm really glad I started asking the question and I'm building this list of romances that individuals subjectively think are exemplars of the genre that would be really relevant to a reader today, which if you kind of think what's the point of asking this question at all is to give people a starting point of where to begin with the genre. Maybe it functions as that, and it just kind of keeps growing. But my understanding is that JPRS is working on asking this question currently for a forthcoming issue. Maybe? I heard tell
Eric Selinger: Oh rumors have reached you. So yeah. I'll well, I'll tell you what's going on.
So we got a submission, coauthored by a scholar and a, a university librarian, that's kind of a proposal, a thought experiment about what is a romance canon and how could it be determined and. What are the issues involved in a university library acquiring the volumes that could then be part of the collection, which a professor could then be assigning and students could be reading and so on and so forth.
Right. So it's, yeah, it sounds like
Andrea Martucci: And so that's a very practical application.
Eric Selinger: It's very specifically about the institutional side of canons, but as we all know, right, the institutional side of canons is how canons get
Andrea Martucci: like integrated into curriculum.
Eric Selinger: Well, they get integrated into curriculum. I can say they get militarized.
Right? That they get, you know, what's the, there's the joke about, what's the difference between a language and a dialect. And the answer is the language has the bigger Army and Navy, right? It's about power. And so the institutional power of a romance canon, could have all kinds of ripple effects, right?
Once some university or groups of universities have decided that such and such group of novels is in the romance canon, the next thing you know, the library of America is calling up somebody and saying, how would you like to edit the library of America and anthology of American popular romance?
Right. Cause we have one on hardboiled detective fiction and we have one, you know, you know, horror and so on and so forth. And then that becomes the volume that everybody orders for their classes and the canon becomes more and more restricted to the set of texts that are being taught in academia.
So it's it's a fraught issue, both in terms of the decision making that goes into what is, or is not canonical and into the, what are the ramifications of having made those announcements? So we got the submission and the submission was very specifically designed to be a conversation starter. So it's not, you know, here's my peer reviewed essay about this, which is right or wrong, but rather here's a proposal. What do people think?
And so one of the things that we then did was approach, might've been about a dozen people all told. I'm not sure how many will actually write their responses. But I solicited responses from scholars, I have solicited responses from librarians. I solicited responses from romance reviewers and bloggers and authors, and some people who wear multiple hats, particularly with an eye to people who can speak to the race and gendered and sexuality impacted politics of canon formation.
So, in August I'm, if you're listening and you haven't given me your paper response yet please get it to me. Right. But in August we'll be, we'll be receiving the responses and we'll be editing you know, a special forum of the journal that will have the original essay and then it will have the responses by various people.
So I'm old enough to remember the canon Wars of the 1980s. That was when I was, I suppose, undergraduate and graduate students starting my graduate studies. I do "remember the old days," I remember those debates and I came up through that moment in academic history.
And so to me, I'm always very, very hesitant when somebody wants to talk about the romance canon. I tend to think that canons happen. I tend to think that they happen through a mix of sort of organic processes and institutional processes and that the institutional ones, at least, can be really problematic.
And I tend to think that they don't need any encouragement. You that there is something good and freeing about the fact that there is no established academic canon, there's no authority that is, you know, trying to say the certain things - well, I shouldn't say there's none because there are hints of it, right.
A lot of us. When we teach surveys of romance genre, a lot of us start with EM Hull's, The Sheik, which ought to be (pronounced) The "Shake," but they pronounced it, the "Sheek" back in the twenties and that's because a couple of pieces of scholarship talk about that, use that as a starting point. And so, academics start where somebody else has started.
Oh, that's been now we know that's where it begins, so I'll start there. It's not at all an inevitable place to start. If you start with that, you end up going in certain directions that you wouldn't be going in if you started with, (Florence) Barclay's The Rosary or, you know, another work of sort of what we would now call Christian inspirational romance, or start even a little bit older in the early 1900s.
I mean, there are lots of places you could start. So I understand the practical reasoning that drives academics to want to have a canon. And I understand the practical reasoning and the affective reasoning that makes people outside academia want to have a canon cause you want to have, as you say, something that you can point to for new readers and something you can point to with pride and something you can point to and say, this is really good. And there's the possibility then of the kind of shared conversation, which is fun. And we'd like to be able to talk about certain books.
But, you know, after 15 years, which is not a long time, you know, critical history, but, but there were books 15 years ago that everybody assumed were sort of canonical. And as you say, that hold up as well, or that seemed very problematic or just they haven't aged well. There are authors that used to be, you know, frequent reference points in romance conferences. Everybody was talking about this author. Everybody's talking about that author, and they've now drifted to the periphery of the conversation.
I don't know that we need to stop that flow from happening. And I think what you were after is what you were trying to do is something that's much less - because it's on a podcast and because you're grounding it an individual opinions, you know, you're calling it a romance canon, but it's not going to function the way that canons, when we really talk about a canon. They were talking really about an activity, in certain circles, you know, I've, I've looked through the list. I look, you know, there are books that are on there. I'm like, yes, there are books that are on there. I say, Ooh, I haven't read that. That sounds good. Somebody really likes that and I've liked other things that they've liked. But that's different from - it's different from two things. It's different from the: "You really can't understand contemporary popular romance, unless you've read..." move. Right. "How can you talk about contemporary fantasy if you don't know The Silmarillion? Right.
You know, there's a particular kind of move that, you know, throwing down my, my authority as you know, cause I've read
Andrea Martucci: gate keeping?
Eric Selinger: Gatekeeping. Ensuring that the authors that were important to me when I was a young man - and it's often men that do this, you know - remain centrally important. HP Lovecraft, Robert Heinlein, and, you know, Isaac Asimov, in science fiction, this is a big discussion I think that's, that's been going on.
And then there's also the move. Of people sort of, who's liked to argue about, you know, as you say, like what should be on that list? It always makes me think of, remember the movie, I guess it was a novel first, but the movie is what I know - High Fidelity with John Cusack and Jack Black and other folks. And the Jack Black character - they're working in the record store - and Jack Black character is always confronting John Cusack or somebody else coming into the record store and saying something like: top five, Double albums from the 1970s, best opening song side three reverse ordered go.
Somebody will start, you know, saying the name of a song and he'll be like "wrong!"
Andrea Martucci: Right, right.
Eric Selinger: That's kind of a canon discussion, but. I don't know, it's not the game that I like. That's not the game I like to break.
Andrea Martucci: It's funny. Cause it's not the game I like to play either, but let's remember that basically my professional history is working in like commercial publishing and content marketing.
And I think that this is where I'm realizing. It seems obvious to me that if I want to do a project, I need to like brand it somehow in a, in a way that's like interesting. So I fully acknowledge that I'm, I'm actually upon a lot more reflection, not actually trying to create a canon, because a lot of the points that you've made there is this association with canon, with like foundational texts, right?
Like in order to understand everything that comes after this, you have to have like, read this one because it's like, you know, the touchpoint that then everything is reflecting on. Yeah, so I'm not actually interested in doing that. So, so you know, this, this is me just being like, I totally see, like I'm looking back on it.
I'm like, Oh yeah, that's okay. Not actually what I was trying to do, but I used a word that means something.
Eric Selinger: It's not like, I don't think they're doing any harm. You know, it's not like somebody is gonna. I mean, I suppose it's possible, if I think back to myself in 2005, just getting started, you know, like, Oh my gosh, I get to teach my first popular romance class.
What should I teach? I wonder if anybody has a romance canon, and then I could like Google it and then I pull up your list. But honestly, like what's the harm? This is however many novels that somebody has recommended and it's, I'm sure it would place to begin.
Andrea Martucci: It was search engine optimization, really. That that's what was happening.
I do think it's very important though, this question of whose voice matters in this question and who the curator of this list is. And I will say one of the things that was very intentional about my project was that you will never see me countibute - well, Oh, I won't say never. The list- if, if at any point I contribute anything to the canon, it will be a very small percentage.
It's not my list of what Andrea Martucci thinks is canon. I did think it was very important that it be a variety of voices from hopefully as much as I am able to, sort of, have on my show, people of a wide range of viewpoints and, you know, coming from sort of like different pockets of the genre with different perspectives and therefore different ideas about what's important and meaningful to them.
But even with those like good intentions, I recognize that there are limitations there in representing everybody. I do not think that there is possibly a list that you are guaranteed somebody will find at least one book that really resonates with them to the point where it could be one of their favorite books.
Like, is that possible? I don't know if it is, just because does, as I think you've written about and you know, we're speaking to it, like there's there, it's so huge. The variation within the genre is almost incomprehensible. Particularly now with, you know, self pub where the gatekeepers of, you know, traditional publishing aren't even creating some boundaries around that anymore.
Eric Selinger: Right. Like I said, it's not, not a bad question, nothing bad's going to come of it. It's- but as I say, I think, and this isn't my idea. And I try to give credit to people. You know, this was must've been, I don't know, four or five years ago, maybe more.
There was a piece by Noah Berlatsky about romance and canon that got - it got a lot of flack. A lot of people were annoyed by it, and were offended by it because they took him to be saying, when he said that there was no canon in romance, they took him to be saying there were no really good iconic books.
And what he was saying was there's nothing that functions as a list that has the imprimatur of people who consider themselves to be authorized to declare this book is canon, this book is not. You know, there's no Harold Bloom announcing the romance canon. There's no body that seems to be declaring that and arguments about what should be on that list don't seem to preoccupy people. And a lot of the. Authors and bloggers and scholars who responded to his article and you know, mostly you were critiquing the article for various reasons, but a lot of them ended up saying something similar.
I think Jodi McAlister, down in Australia said, well, you know, there's not a canon, but there are iconic works. There are reference point works, right? There are touchstone novels, she might've said, there were a bunch of other sort of terms that were thrown around. Len Barot, the publisher of Bold Strokes Books, who publishes lesbian romance as Radclyffe, I remember in a panel about popular romance at the Library of Congress that I was on with her, she said, well, there's an academic canon, there's a reader's canon, and there's an author's canon.
And then each of those would break down somewhat because there were sort of different academic canons and there were different reader canons, depending on who the readers are and their different author canons, depending who the authors are that you're talking about. I remember joking when the mic came to me, that canons aren't, like it's not like Highlander.
Right. You know, it's not that there has to be just one. There can only be one. There they're going to be lots of them. So having yours out there is like, here's one
Andrea Martucci: There's one. Yep.
Eric Selinger: Here's how it was produced, you know, kind of crowd-sourced by these authors and they're an interesting and diverse bunch of people.
And the books that they're recommending are interesting and diverse, frankly, I'd much rather have a canon out there like that. Then for me as the editor of JPRS to have like, something on the JPRS page or something on the IASPR web page that says the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance
Andrea Martucci: has determined
Eric Selinger: Says here is the canon.
Andrea Martucci: Right.
Eric Selinger: And I have a beard. So listen to me.
Andrea Martucci: Exactly. Right, right.
Eric Selinger: Yeah, no, no, nobody needs that. Nobody needs that. And even if they want that, they wouldn't need that.
Andrea Martucci: As someone who is highly self-critical, I think a lot of this like sort of transparent discussion of like, what the heck was I doing is a little bit of that, child wandering into the room of a war that has been going on, a conversation that has been going on, and me just like sitting down one day and being like, I don't know this sounds good. And, and then here we are, but then there's going to be a podcast episode where everybody can see my thought process.
Eric Selinger: Well, I'm really looking forward to it. I mean, I'm, I'm very curious to hear what people have to say. I wouldn't have agreed to do this special forum at JPRS if I didn't think this was a conversation worth having. Cause the reason, you know, there are practical exigencies involved, as librarians, you know, anybody who's a librarian, especially at the university will tell you, you know, the issue of which are the books that we're going to have in the collection and thereby continue to make available as books, you know, especially if they're eBooks. They appear, they disappear. The publisher might go under. You know, there are books that I love to teach. I remember when Riptide, imploded and a lot of authors pulled their work from Riptide, or were given the opportunity to take back their copyright, there were some books that I love to teach in my, in my classes that I couldn't assign for awhile because Riptide was no longer publishing them.
These are real hurdles in the way of scholars who want to do certain kinds of research on the romance genre. So, so it's, yeah, you know, it's a serious question. It's a worthwhile topic.
Andrea Martucci: Thanks for listening to episode 52 and thank you to Katrina and Eric for sharing their expertise today. Eric will be back in a forthcoming episode in which we discuss Glitterland by Alexis Hall. And, you know, Katrina will be back, but you can also check out any of her previous seven episodes. That number is not a joke.
Check the show notes for links, plus all of the details for this episode can be found on shelflovepodcast.com, including a transcript for this episode. Look for episode 52. I have also collected the full list of modern romance canon nominations on a page on my website.
Thank you for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to Andrea@shelflovepodcast.com.
Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad and keep reading romance.