063. The Three Waves of Romance with Eric Selinger
Romance scholar Eric Selinger explores different types questions that have been asked about popular romance (not enough), how romance research has come in waves (three, to be precise), and asks "how can I make this romance more interesting?" (you always can).
Romance scholar Eric Selinger explores different questions that have been asked about popular romance (not enough), how romance research has come in waves (three, to be precise), and asks "how can I make this romance more interesting?" (you always can).
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Guest: Eric Selinger
Eric also lent his expertise to the Modern Romance Canon episode.
- Stephanie Burt Don't Read Poetry
- Michael Moorcock SFF book by Mark Scroggins
- What is it Then Between Us: Traditions of Love in American Poetry by Eric Selinger
- Eric's Researching the Romance 2018 Talk: How can I make this more interesting? Also, My Beautiful Enemy!
- Video with Eric Selinger from the Popular Romance Project
- IASPR Digital Showcase 2020 Conference: View every presentation here!
- Become a member! I became a member as an "independent scholar" for just $25.
Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00]Hello. And welcome to episode 63 of Shelf Love, a podcast where we have thought-provoking, critical discussions about literature's most polarizing genre: romance novels. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci and my guest today is Eric Selinger, a romance scholar and President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. IASPR (pronounced "Yasper")
In this conversation, we talk about the waves of romance research. Do they correspond to movements within the romance genre itself? And the ultimate question: how can we make this romance novel as interesting as possible?
Eric, along with his co editors, Jayashree Kamble, who you heard from in episodes, 60 and 62, and Hsu-Ming Teo who joined me in episode 58, just celebrated the launch of the Routledge Research Companion on Popular Romance Fiction. I promise you that not only was I not paid for talking about this book, I actually had to buy my own copy.
The ebook is about $40 by the way. But I gladly would have paid $40 as a poor college student if I could have had this book available when I was researching romance novels, or at the very least I could have begged my library to purchase it, which is kind of the model that this is priced for: library purchasing.
Although this book is not really priced for casual consumption, it's definitely a good investment if you're someone like me who is interested in the various approaches to studying romance.
And although I tried to squeeze everything out of Eric, Jayashree, and Hsu-Ming in their episodes of Shelf Love, they are just so full of knowledge that I found it barely possible to even scratch the surface.
And of course they are but three of the brilliant scholars who are working today on popular romance. So I guess what that means is I'll just have to keep talking to more people? Shucks.
Anyway, Eric will be back in two weeks to talk about Glitterland by Alexis Hall. Enjoy this episode Marker [00:01:54]
Eric Selinger: I'm Eric Selinger. I'm a professor of English at DePaul University. I've been here for 25 years and for the last 15 years, about half of my teaching at DePaul has been courses specifically focused on popular romance fiction, survey courses, courses on multi-ethnic romance, courses on individual authors, and a couple of times, 10-weeks seminars on single novels. One romance novel for 10 weeks.
In [00:02:30] 2007, between 2007 and nine, I was one of the people involved in founding two organizations or one organization and a journal. So there is the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, which is a scholarly association devoted to fostering scholarship on and the teaching of, the popular culture of romantic love from any time period from everywhere in the world.
We have, a biannual conference, international conference. The one for this summer, unfortunately it was canceled because of COVID, but we had a wonderful online showcase that actually got some of the scholarship out to a whole lot of people who couldn't have made it to the conference itself.
And we publish a peer reviewed interdisciplinary open access journal. So it's open access. It's free online, which is the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. it's JPRstudies.org. and it's "Jeepers" to it's friends. "Yasper" and "Jeepers"
Andrea Martucci: Yasper and Jeepers.
Eric Selinger: Yeah. Yes. I talk a lot about JPRS, you know, with colleagues and with other people who work on it. I feel like I'm on Scooby-Doo. So JPRS has been around since 2010 and we've got regular issues. We've had special issues on particular regions, topics, authors - one on a particular author and, you know, part of our goal there through the essays that we publish through, interviews that we've done and through book reviews that we do, is to make the highest possible quality of scholarship on popular romance as available as possible to general readers, to scholars, and to students from around the world.
So it's been very important to us over the years to make sure that that's, that the journal is free and, you know, people use it in their classes and people use it in moving the field forward.
My training is actually in poetry. So, I have a book out called What is it Then Between Us: Traditions of Love in American Poetry. I have edited a collection on Jewish American poetry or co-edited one. And I'm now wrapping up the co-editing of the Routledge Companion to Popular Romance Fiction, which is the third anthology that I've worked on as an editor of scholarship on popular romance. And in some ways it's a kind of culmination of this [00:05:00] past 10 years of new work, what I think of as a kind of third wave of scholarship on the genre, that's been happening in the 21st century.
Andrea Martucci: So obviously there was no formal, group of romance scholars prior to IASPR forming about, 13 years ago, was it?
Eric Selinger: I guess technically IASPR was rolled out in 2009. So there was a, there were a pair of conferences in 2009. There was a conference at Princeton University, hosted by Bill Gleason.
And then there was the first International Conference in Popular Romance, which was held down in, Queensland Australia, also in 2009. And that was really the rollout for IASPR as an organization.
Andrea Martucci: And so there was scholarship on, popular romance, like what we would consider, like the modern age of popular romance, let's say like, you know, most famously Janice Radway whose book, came out in 1980 - 2, 3-something like that.
Eric Selinger: 84. 1982, I think was Tonya Modleski's Loving With a Vengeance. So there's, there's a first wave that happens sort of in the eighties. and depending on how you want to date it, or in the eighties or nineties, that's sort of the foundational wave of scholarship.
I typically date it to, starting in 79 with, the Snitow article, The Harlequin Romance: Pornography for Women is Different. My friend and colleague Angela Toscano has kind of nudged me to say that there's, there's earlier work on Gothic romances by Joanna Russ, for example, right. Somebody is Trying to Kill me and I Think it's My Husband.
So, it starts fits and starts in the seventies, picks up steam in the eighties, kind of carries through into the nineties.
And then there's a, what I think of is a kind of second wave that happens in the late nineties - mid to late nineties - where romance authors begin writing and publishing essays on the genre very much in dialogue with what it is that the scholars have been saying. And you can document that romance authors were aware of the claims that scholars were making and were talking about them. And certainly were aware of how they were being represented in the scholarship and their readers were being represented in the scholarship. And often people were unhappy with that.
And then, there is, as I say, what I think of as a kind of third wave that begins [00:07:30] in the 21st century, And although it's true that there was no formal organizations specifically for romance scholars, there were some things happening that it's important to note. And we talk about this in the introduction to the Routledge Companion.
There was a romance area at the Popular Cultural Association, where a lot of scholarship had been done. By 2003, it had kind of petered out. Things tend, will have a life cycle, and that one seemed to have kind of gone quiescent at that point.
it was revived in 2006. And that was really the place, that was kind of the incubator for IASPR was the PCA romance area. There were conferences held at BGSU, Bowling Green State University at the start of the new millennium or at the end of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st, they did a couple of conferences where romance scholars and romance authors were sort of together on the platform. And speaking, about the genre.
What was missing was the sort of infrastructure that would enable the kind of sustained conversation in romance that, that has happened and has happened for decades more in other genres. And so that was really what got things started. You know, in 2005, six, seven, a listserv - there hadn't been a listserv for scholarship. There had been listservs where authors were talking and readers were talking, but not something specifically for academics.
We started a Wiki bibliography. I say we, there, there were a couple of people from the listserv, particularly, Cassia Koser and Laura Vivanco, contributed tremendous amounts to that.
And then as I say, in 2007 at the PCA in Boston, there was a big enough group and a diverse enough group, and an international enough group that we were all kind of excited. And we were sitting in the hotel bar and -
Andrea Martucci: that's where it always happens.
Eric Selinger: Yep. And, everybody wanted to keep the conversation going, and I really wanted to go to Australia on my university's dime.
And so when you put together this organization
Andrea Martucci: yeah. I think it's interesting. It does. Yeah. It seemed like a lot of scholarship comes out of Australia and that region of the world, around popular culture and, you know, the popular romance novel. I'm curious - and this is maybe part of a larger question I have.
I'm hypothesizing about the reasons that given the size of the actual reading audience of the romance genre, the popular [00:10:00] romance genre, compared to the relative size of like the literary genre and then you think about how much academic work is done respectively on each. I'm going to hypothesize that the lack of funding for and support for academic work in popular romance scholarship mirrors a lot of the reasons why romance generally is not respected, I don't know, is this a off-base hypothesis?
Eric Selinger: I don't really know. I mean, I would say in my mind the difference between, let's just let's think of it this way, in terms of the difference say between Australia and the U S right.
Because it really was the Australian scholars that were the catalyst for the founding, I think, of IASPR, that sense there was really to- notch, exciting work going on in Australia, that was moving things in different directions than we had seen in the U S and didn't seem to be as fraught, emotionally fraught.
So my sense is that the difference is that in Australia, the study of popular romance has been seen as number one, part of a broader enterprise in the study of popular culture, as you were saying, which is something that Australian universities and even the Australian government have been very comfortably getting behind.
And part of the reason that they comfortably get behind that, number two is that Australian universities and Australian government institutions are quite interested in promoting the study of Australian cultural production and thinking about the Australianess of it, the beetroot is the burger as Juliet Flesh calls that I think.
And so you had a situation where there's scholarship going on in the United States, but mostly it's Americans reading other Americans and it's caught up in a whole set of second and third wave feminist debates about the genre, as you know, as you were saying before, is it a, or is it not feminist?
You have scholarship that's going on in the UK that comes from its own set of intellectual traditions. Many of them, you know, coming from the left, many of them sort of, grounded in an interesting working class culture, popular culture. And the folks in the UK, I feel like they were mostly reading one another. And their sense of the romance genre was the sense that you get from the British publishing [00:12:30] industry, where the default norm for the romance novel is the Mills and Boon novel.
Well we think of the single title romances here in the U S are marketed differently. They're shelved differently. They're thought about, sort of shelved mentally differently, I think in Britain.
And then you had the Australians and the Australians are reading everybody. The're reading British scholars, they're reading the American scholars, they're reading Indian scholars. They are reading British romance writers, they're reading American romance writers, they're reading Australian romance writers. They have a kind of, you know, distanced enough perspective on things.
And as I said, it was a perspective that wasn't caught up in as much, I think professional and sometimes personal anxiety or difficulty. In the United States, I think for a generation of women scholars in the nineties, if you wanted to work on popular romance fiction, number one, there was the sense that that work had already been done by you know, Modleski and Radway and Kay Mussel and a few other people. And number two, you got asked sort of tough, challenging questions about what that said about your bonafides as a feminist scholar. And, you know, people found it difficult to publish their work. Academia was constricting at the time, people found it hard to get jobs.
So I don't, you know, I, I'm not sure that funding and institutional support, you know, pure and simple. I think it's, I think it's part of all of these other, all of these other issues,
Andrea Martucci: Right, the idea that, as you said, a woman scholar choosing to focus on this is akin to saying you're not a serious scholar. Right?
Eric Selinger: Certainly that was, I mean, if you, you know, Tania Modleski has written about this and I believe Radway has also that, you know, they were incredibly brave in doing the work that they did because both of them, particularly, I think Modleski talks about this, just the degree of skepticism, animosity, disparagement, really taking your career in your hands.
You know, rad way's work was a new methodology. She was interested in doing literary ethnography. So you could present that as the primary driving force, right. I'm working in literary ethnography, and this happens to be the kind of readership and the kind of scholarship that I'm doing, or the kind of book that I'm talking about, a reader that I'm talking about.
But yeah, I mean, I don't know, perhaps I have a different sense of this just because of my, my own experience was [00:15:00] so different. Right. I mean, I know plenty of people, female scholars who are in academics, who went to their department chairs or their Dean, and wanted to teach a class on popular romance and were met with tremendous resistance.
And when I asked to do it, everybody was like, Oh, that's cool. You know, that's
Andrea Martucci: Wow, how subversive a man studying romance.
Eric Selinger: oh yeah. I mean, I have benefited tremendously from, from that, not once have I faced the kind of scrutiny or the kinds of questions or the kind of resistance that you know, many, many, many of my friends and colleagues have faced. Like I said, since 2005, half of my courses have been on romance novels. I don't know anybody else. Literally, I don't know anybody else, anyone in the world, who's had that kind of opportunity and, you know, partly it's because it puts butts in the seats. Right. You know, it's always nice to have a sold out class, but it would put butts in the seats at any university, I think.
So that's not what's making it different. Right? I, I fear that. It's just, as you say, the, Hey cool, it's a man doing it?
Andrea Martucci: Right, right. He must be bringing something extra to it, right. Like, yeah. as opposed to a lady studying those lady scribblers
Eric Selinger: well, you know, or gosh, I don't know. I don't want to speculate. All I can say is, you know, from my experience, I feel like I've gotten a lot of breaks that I would not have gotten, starting with my interest in teaching the classes, continuing, maybe with, I was lucky enough to get the second of the RWA's academic research grants, funding. Jayashree got the first, the first year. I got it the second year. I had never published on the genre. I didn't have a track record of teaching the genre. I had a project, I had done my homework. I knew what I wanted to talk about. And I had done work on love before, I had done over her love poetry, but I really thought, yeah, that I was a long shot to get the thing.
And when I did, You know, that grant, that grant changed my life, that grant took me to places that I never would have gone otherwise, both literally around the world and intellectually. And you know, I suspect that I had, I don't want to say [00:17:30] an easier time getting it, but I, I felt very fortunate.
And so part of what I was doing when I was helping to organize IASPR and JPRS and to restart the PCA romance area was just as to kind of pay that forward.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I think the question of privilege in the romance space is one that is being interrogated a lot recently. And, and I think one has to be aware of one's own privileges and think about how you can use it for good, you know, not just to benefit yourself, but to bring others up, give them a platform, bring them up with you, and give them as much of the benefit of your privilege as possible, as much as you can transfer it, which it's not transferable.
I'm curious, going back to this idea of first, second and third wave romance, scholarship it, how much you think this mirrors really the movements in the romance genre itself?
Because obviously, sorry, obviously to me. And as an aside, I think it's hilarious. Every time I ask somebody with an academic background to make a sort of off the cuff opinion about something, because y'all hate doing that. (both laugh) Like I'm like, well, what do you think should happen? And it's like, well, let's interrogate the question of should.
I'm trying to learn how to ask questions - anyways, I digress.
I think that a lot of the questions that are being asked and a lot of the texts that are being studied in the field of popular romance currently, like books, let's say published in the last 10 years, certainly are able to interrogate things that for a variety of reasons, you would not have found those same conversations in books published 40 or 50 years ago, or certainly not in the numbers you can find today. I am kind of having this internal and external conversation about how I feel about Janice Radway's work, which I have not fully read because I got so hung up on the introduction and I did read it like 14 years ago, but I need to, I do need to reread it.
Where I try to force myself to remember the context that she was writing in and like what books were published at the time and popular at the time and what the Smithton readers, what their lives were like at the time, like the context in which they were living and, and all of that.
But, it does strike me to me that the waves of romance scholarship, I mean are also kind of [00:20:00] reflecting how the romance genre itself is evolving over time.
Eric Selinger: Sure. I mean, I think that, so first of all, to do exactly what you were just talking about. The whole notion of these different waves is a, it's a convenient fiction.
Right? So that's the first thing that I have to say, having just articulated this model, I will now tell you -
Andrea Martucci: trash and that you need to work on it for another 10 years.
Eric Selinger: If you look really closely, it doesn't hold up. That's not how scholarship really played out. It's a lot more, the situation's a lot more nuanced than that.
Right. And, and so if you really sit down and say with the romance scholarship Wiki, which, Laura has now put up, I think it's linked through Laura Vivanco through her blog. We're hoping to get it hosted at a university later this year at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
But if you go through that bibliography, looking at things year by year, it's a much smoother curve, right. I mean, it's not really a wave structure. But it is in fact, the case, I think you're absolutely right, that scholarship on popular romance has tended up until fairly recently with some few exceptions, it has tended to be about the kinds of romance fiction that are being published either at the time or within say a decade before. So there's a little bit of a lag time, number one. And then as I said, right, the ideas from the scholarship make their way out into into romancelandia, and authors do a lot of things with them.
Authors read them and say, yeah, that's right. And it helps me, articulate what it is that I'm doing. An author might say, boy, that academic idea is really stupid and goofy and I'm going to parody it in my novel. Right? There were scenes in novels from the late nineties and early two thousands that I think are parodic versions of claims from Radway in particular.
A novelist might say, okay, that's an interesting idea. I'm going to take what the scholar is saying is the subtext, and I'm going to make it text. I'm going to make it really visible, and, you know, try to then do something new with it, give it a fresh twist.
That means that the next generation of scholars that comes along can't [00:22:30] treat the novels as being somehow naive or existing in a vacuum. The novels are part of the ongoing discussion. And I think particularly in the two thousands, in this last 20 years, when you do have more scholars who are coming to the genre, explicitly openly as readers and fans. Because Radway was not but Modleski was, she had grown up reading the books, but she doesn't say anything about that in Loving With A Vengeance. She doesn't articulate that personal relationship to the genre until the nineties, in an essay called My Life as a Romance Reader.
So if you're coming to the genre as both a reader and a scholar, well, what are you reading? You're reading the stuff that's coming out now. And you're thinking about. Who's writing now. And what are they writing about now? And maybe you're talking with them on Twitter and you're reading their blogs. And, you know, you are in conversation with one another. And you as a scholar will be thinking not only about this author's work, but also about their public presence on social media and how your sense of them as a person and as a thinker, is shaped by their social media presence, their social media instantiation, you know, as a character. And that's who you have in mind when you're reading their fiction and that's then going to shape things.
I'll give you give an example, from earlier in the two thousands. Victoria Dahl who made a big splash, when she began writing contemporaries and whose work I've read and taught, many times, her early novels, contemporary novels were not explicitly political, right? You can tease out some interesting political stuff from them, but they're not explicitly political, but her social media posts were often very explicitly political. And so when I would read those novels and when I would teach those novels, my sense of who this character, quote unquote, Victoria Dahl is right, which I had never met her personally. I know her by extrapolation from the novels, and I know her from who she is with Twitter and who she was on her social media.
My sense of her as a figure is shaped by all these things. And that changes the way I read her novels. And it would make sense if that's happening, not just for me, but for every scholar in my generation, not my generation generation cause I'm old, but, but [00:25:00] you know, scholars working right now. It's going to make sense that the scholarly conversation is evolving and trying to keep pace with where the genre is and where it's going.
Andrea Martucci: And it strikes me too. I mean, from what I know of the feminist writing in the eighties, let's say, I mean, that's the age of like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon? Is it, they were very much on a, anti pornography all - I believe Andrea Dworkin's perspective was all sex is rape because women can not consent. And some fairly like anti sex as pleasure, views.
I mean, I think that if you think about the, scholarship of the time, knowing that in the back of their mind, Right. And then, the writers of the time, believing very strongly as they articulate in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, you know, the idea of romance is joy and, and just kind of being like poopoo, that's ridiculous nonsense, for a variety of reasons.
I guess it's just, obviously everything is sort of this interplay of what's happening in the world, the writers living in the world. And reflecting and, or reacting to things, the academic also being in that mix of, you know, knowing what the scholarly writing at the time is, or, the views in their field, which if they're, if they're coming from a sort of like feminist gender viewpoint, they, you know, they're probably going to be aware of those viewpoints.
I read this article, which I found via Laura's Wiki, or, you know, the Wiki that's hosted on her site now, from 1982 by Ann Douglas in The New Republic, I think. And I don't know if you're familiar with this one, but it's like The Soft Porn Culture of Romance or something like that.
And, it does strike me that there was this "romance novels are pornography for women and pornography is inherently bad" viewpoint that was sort of pervasive.
Eric Selinger: I'm going to push back a little bit on that
Andrea Martucci: Please do
Eric Selinger: on a couple of fronts, right? So the, the idea of romance novels as pornography for women is something that's introduced sort of, you mean that idea it's introduced very powerfully by Ann Barr Snitow in her essay from '79 and she's not using pornography in a negative sense. And the books that she's writing about are Harlequin romances that are kiss only on the page, right? Her whole point is that these books need to [00:27:30] be read in terms of, you know, in, in relation to pornography, but they are different. I believe her phrase is something like that they accurately represent that our society's pathological experience of sexual difference. But, I mean, she's trying to make an argument on behalf of romance as art, but she's not condemning in any way, shape or form when she speaks about them as pornography.
What Douglas is reacting to is the extraordinary popularity of the Avon and other blockbuster historical romances, which absolutely dominate American paperback publishing, in the seventies and early eighties. And there's, you know, a huge amount of discussion in journalistic forums about the relationship between those novels and porn, the relationship between those novels and second wave feminism and I don't know that in Dworking and McKinnon's sense of things, which is which I tend to think of as being a little, bit later, I could be wrong about that, but a little bit later in the eighties, maybe 82, 83.
But that doesn't seem to me to be as influential on the scholarship. The main place where I see that influencing the scholarship, is in a book like Carol Thurston's, The Romance Revolution, Erotic Novels for Women, which is a book that's kind of pushing back against that idea.
It's one of the early books to sort of champion romance novels as being feminist and. it's interesting. She ends it by saying that the conclusion of that book, if I remember correctly is a kind of epilogue about the, Ed Meese and the Reagan administration. And it's sort of cracking down on pornography and well, this doesn't bode well for the erotic novel for women as a genre, you know, terrible things were about to happen, which of course turned out to be entirely wrong. Thank goodness.
But I tend to think that there are so many different things that are happening under the umbrella term feminism really at any given time and the ones that romance scholars have drawn on, to my mind, have been, what are the ones that enabled them as scholars to do the work that they want to do.
So Radway draws on Nancy Chodorow's, reproduction of mothering, and the idea of women's acculturation to [00:30:00] be caregivers and caretakers. And, she draws on that, because that is the theory that helps her explain the data that she's getting that she's attributing the Smithton women
Andrea Martucci: can I - Chodorow - Chodorow? Sorry, (mangling the pronounciation)
Eric Selinger: I don't have a good answer on how to pronounce it- Chodorow?
Andrea Martucci: She's heavily influenced by like Freudian theory, right?
Eric Selinger: Yeah. She's a post-Freudian feminist, post-Freudian psychoanalyst. But if you want to talk about what's going on in romance scholarship. I will toss out. I will opine.
Andrea Martucci: Please, Oh yes. How exciting!
Eric Selinger: You know, when I was a boy, I grew up helping my mom make chopped liver. It was one of my favorite childhood memories. And there was this grinder that she had gotten probably from her mother that we would attach to the kitchen table with a clamp and you'd put the bowl underneath it, and then you would put the liver and the onions and so on, up in the top.
Right. So, so if the romance scholarship that we're talking about is chopped liver, it's the stuff that comes out. What's going in? Well, what's going in is the novels that the scholar's reading. Right. Which could be from the time that she's writing, but they could also be older. Modleski is using novels that are, that are a few years before the time that her book comes out. What's going into the hopper? Their own disciplinary training.
The kinds of scholarship that they've been trained to do, and the kinds of scholarship that will get them published and advance their careers. Or get us published advance our careers. I'll say, cause I'm, I include myself in this. And sometimes that's something that you feel very committed to ideologically. Sometimes it's a more practical or tactical decision. I'm going to use this because it's the current discourse and it lets me get the opportunity to talk about what I want to talk about.
What else goes into it? Personal history, you know, Modleski's My Life as a Romance Reader goes into this in some depth. Right ? We come to these novels as who we are as embedded people with our own life history and family history and generational position.
You know, I know you've talked already right to Jayashree about My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas. Jayashree comes at that book totally differently than I do. And it's partly our disciplinary training, but it's also partly who we are as people and our life history that we're coming to that novel with.
She's much more interested in issues having to do with nation and citizenship and race. I'm much more interested in that book in terms that have to [00:32:30] do with Buddhism and, you know, sort of aesthetic construction and, the novel as puzzle and so on.
So that's going in and, you know, there's going to be other stuff as well. So when we're reading the finished product, I'm always just ever so slightly wary of making one-to-one connections between the scholarship and anything, because I know that the process is much messier than that.
So, you know, the foundational scholarship did amazing work. It did what it had to do. It made a lot of stuff possible. And one of the things that it did was, declare itself to be the first word on the subject. And it's not Modleski's, or Radway's fault that other folks then came along and said that it was the last word on the subject.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah,
Eric Selinger: number one, that was laziness. Number two. It was the desire of t not have to, and I'm thinking here of like the desire on the part of say a dissertation director. I don't need to keep up. I know what's been said, you know.
I talk to graduate students. I talked to undergraduates these days from different universities who want to work on popular romance fiction and whose advisers have, the first thing the advisor says to them is, Oh, okay. You know, I know what you need to do. You need to go read this book by Janice radway called Reading the Romance That would be like if I went to my dissertation advisor in a school of communication, and I wanted to write about, you know, the Apple TV show about Dickinson and they said, great, you know, you're studying television, here's a book from 1984 about television.
Which of the three big networks is it on me?
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Right. Well, and that makes me think of, You know, cause like I was writing a paper in like 2005. Right. and you know, I love romance novels. I'm writing a research paper about romance novels. And my advisor in this class knows nothing about romance novels, is not able at all to help me interpret the text or what I'm reading. I mean, this is somebody who literally did equate the romance novel that I was investigating, which was Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas. Um, you know, it's everyone's favorite, I guess I'm, I'm saying that that's not true. That's absolutely not true, but anyways.
She literally was like, well, don't women just read romance novels to get off? And I'm like, I don't think you're the best advisor for me on this. You [00:35:00] know, of course I didn't say that because I was like 18, but, I think, you know, at the time, again, being young in my academic career, not having a great person to advise me and help me really contextualize a 30-plus year old text about something, a topic - it is incredibly hard to get handed Reading the Romance in this day and age or close to this day and age and be like, and that's everything you need to know. It's definitely like a, I don't think I want to know any more about this. If that's all you get.
Eric Selinger: So, so, so this is, you know, what you just articulated both emotionally and sort of in that narrative is the motivation behind the Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance, right? I mean, this is an anthology that was envisioned all the way back, actually in 2013. So seven years ago now, by a wonderful Belgian scholar named An Goris.
And An was one of sort of first young scholars to come up through IASPR and JPRS. So she had been a, I think a Master's student and made contact with the romance scholar listserv, and we encouraged her to give a presentation in might've been in Boston at the PCA. And she got a couple of different grants, including a Fulbright to come to the United States to study popular romance with me and with Bill Gleason at Princeton, she became the managing editor at JPRS. She published her own stuff.
And one of the things that she was very keenly aware of as somebody who was, you know, going through her PhD and then finishing the PhD, was that there was no readily accessible text that you could point to and say, here's everything that's been done, categorized and annotated and discussed, right? Here is an introduction to the scholarship, because if I'm in the position of your undergraduate advisor and I don't know anything about it, it's very helpful to be able to go pull a book from the shelf and not only give it to you, but get myself up to speed. You know, what are some literary approaches to popular romance? What are some, you know, gender and sexuality approaches to popular romance? What's been done? N now it took us a lot of years to get this book written (Eric laughs) - it's a very different book, much longer book, than it would [00:37:30] have been in 2013.
But you know, the goal of it is to have something available, you know, unfortunately it's like many academic books it's expensive. So to get something in university libraries, let's say more than anything else. But to have a book out there that if you are an undergraduate who wants to work on the genre, if you're a graduate student who wants to work on the genre or is you're a faculty member who is thinking about starting this work or is advising somebody who's doing this work, it's kind of one stop shopping where you can go. I mean, obviously it's going to be complete up til the last essay was edited in it and the scholarship will keep moving forward and the conversation will keep moving forward. But with this book in hand, you've got an introduction to what has been done. And the first thing that you learn from it is much more has been done than you realized, than I realized, than any of us realized. There's so much material that's been written about. There's so much stuff that's been written from so many different perspectives. Andthat's, I hope, turning point in the study of the genre and the study of any genre.
You know, at the moment when you can point to - not to point to one book and say, this is the first and last word, but when you can point to a book and say, take a look at that, it'll show you what's been done.
And in it, you've got 24 scholars saying, here's where we think the holes are. Here's where we think you know, the study of African-American romance needs to go next or the study of, romance from around the world, writing back against Harlequin needs to go next. That's, you know, that's a pretty nice set of directions to have, as a young faculty member.
Andrea Martucci: Right, It's kind of like a, a map with the big cities identified and then there's, there's lots of places to go in between, but at least you can orient yourself somewhere in that landscape, which is, I think that is the thing that is very hard as somebody with honestly, no academic training, like I have a master's degree, but in a very practical subject, let's say like, I, I have never been on that sort of path academically where I have people talking to me about like research and PhD track type conversations. Right? So as somebody who has a deep interest in romance and would like to think that I am capable of reading and understanding, academic work, the [00:40:00] hardest part in is just figuring out how to get in and then how to not immediately get overwhelmed by everything and, and really, I mean, just figuring out where to orient myself, like, what am I interested in?
What road do I want to continue farther down without feeling like I just do not know. And I would imagine this is, a blocker to many other people who, you know, are fans, readers, who, who would be interested but, find it hard, you know, again, to just kind of like find that way in.
Eric Selinger: Yeah. I mean, they're two different issues. One is knowing what is out there and being able to access what's out there. And then the second, as you say, is that sense of like, okay, if I know that there's all this scholarship out there, how do I know where to start or what might interest me? And, you know, I don't, I don't know, off the top of my head, what the ebook price is going to be, but I am hoping that the ebook price will be moderate enough that somebody who's in that position, you know, I'm biased as an editor, but I'll say, I think the chapters are pretty well written. They're accessible. They're interesting. They're lively. An d they will give you at least one scholar's opinion of here's stuff that's really worth looking at. Here's something that maybe was of interest in its time, but hasn't really led anywhere. Here's a forgotten piece from, you know, such and such a year that everybody really ought to know about because boy, this person was doing interesting work that was way before its time. And yet because of where it was published, it just kind of vanished.
And I think particularly for those of us who are in the position, we're lucky enough to be teaching courses on romance. You know, this becomes the opportunity to, how should I put this. When I teach a class on popular romance, right? I'll have say 25 students, 30 students in the class. Depending on the course, depending on the role of the dice, I might have one to, let's say six or seven of those students be dedicated romance readers. They come into the class as romance readers. Many of them have read a lot of romance. Many of them have read a lot of books that I haven't. Many of them are really excited to be taking a class on this, but very few of those students [00:42:30] Are up to speed on the scholarship, because there's no reason to be really, unless you're in academia necessarily.
You know, there, these are people who - so I was teaching a 10 week seminar, senior seminar on Ayisha Malik's Sophia Khan is Not Obliged, which is a work of, she calls it hijabi chicklit, by a British Muslim author. And, you know, I had maybe 25 students in the class and I had three of those students who, you know, this class was going on as RWA was imploding. (Andrea laughs because wtf RWA) And I had a few students in that class and they really wanted to talk about what was happening because they were following the journalism and they were following the blogs and they were following the drama. And then I had 22 students for whom. Okay. I got to check this class off. This is just some book.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Eric Selinger: I'll try to make this as interesting as I can. And, I do think that for the sake of the students who are taking their first class on popular romance, which is such an exciting moment for many of my students, or the students who are encountering romance in a class that's about something else.
Because as I've said, there were classes on popular fiction that can now include romance novels with some substance the teaching, even if the person teaching the class is not themselves, a romance scholar or afficionado. You will not have the situation. When I started this getting into this in 2005 first romance class, I went online looking for syllabi, looking for advice on how to teach class on romance.
And at the time, mostly what I found were classes on popular fiction that had a romance unit and the romance unit consisted of reading a couple of chapters from Reading the Romance and then the assignment to go to the bookstore and buy a romance novel and read it and observe how it does what the secondary reading says it's going to do.
Andrea Martucci: Any will do. Right. They're all the same. (dripping with sarcasm)
Eric Selinger: Yup. And, But now there's so much information available and now there's some more scholarship available that if I'm teaching a class on popular fiction, if I'm teaching a women's and gender studies class, if I'm teaching an intro to lit class, right? So last quarter I taught two courses that had romance novels in them.
One of them was English 101 basic introduction to literature class, which ended with Alyssa Cole's An Extraordinary Union and Glitterland by Alexis Hall. [00:45:00] The other one was a Literary Classics class, on the theme of Satan, where we started with readings from the Bible, Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible. We read all of Paradise Lost, every damn word of Paradise Lost. We read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake. We read, two sequences of poems by Lucille Clifton, who an amazing poet who does stuff with the figure of Lucifer. And then we read Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale, whose hero is repeatedly compared to Milton's Satan, whose heroine is sort of a version of Milton's Eve.
So those were students who were reading romance novels in classes, where they were not expecting to be reading romance novels. If you are in the position where you can sneak romance novels into your other courses, as some people are, you now have access to, you know, a quick overview of the scholarship on that novel from pretty much whatever direction, from pretty much whatever approach would be most useful.
If you're doing an intro to lit class, there's my chapter on literary approaches. If it's a class on women's and gender studies, there are multiple chapters that are relevant. If it's a class on Black love, like my colleague, Julie Moody-Freeman teaches at DePaul, she wrote the chapter on African-American romance, and has just begun co-editing a special issue with JPRS, it's going to be about Black-authored romance. So you know, the resources that are available now make it professionally unconscionable, to do what people used to do with a very clear conscience Let's put it that way
Andrea Martucci: I like that. I'm going to put that on like a graphic and put it up on Instagram. Eric Selinger says
yes. Marker [00:46:44]Eric Selinger: So, yeah, that's my, that's my speech. Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: I love that because I think, I think it's great - the idea of getting romance into general literature classes would do, I think, a whole lot to increase students' exposure. I think in particular, if, as you said it was approached in a more thoughtful way where the students are guided through the romance as literature.
Which actually brings me to the question I wanted to ask about, when you do teach romance the classroom - and it sounds like, it runs the gamut from one book out of many or, a class specifically dedicated to one romance novel for 10 weeks.
I was reading, I believe this was a talk that you gave at [00:47:30] BGSU's 2018 Researching the Romance Conference where you said that the question that you ask your students is "how do we make this novel as interesting as possible." So I was wondering if you could say more about that because I assume, there's these two sort of ways you can come at literature as a, was this good or bad? Did I like it? Did I not like it? And then there's this, the approach of more like, it doesn't really matter if you liked it or not. It's more like what's happening. Like, let's talk about what's happening in it. Right. And engaging with it more critically.
And it sounds like the, how do we make this novel as interesting as possible, is trying to push students from the approaching this as a reader reviewer, do I like this or not? And pushing more over into like, what is happening here?
Eric Selinger: That's nicely put, so there are two things that, that question is designed to push back against.
First of all, I should say, I use that question for everything. Right. That's not just a question for my romance novels. That's a question for every poem that I teach, every play that I teach, any work of literary fiction that I teach. That's just the guiding question of all of my classes. And I use that as the question because on the one hand you have students whose impulse is to click like or give it a thumbs down. Their range of reactions is predicated on the idea of of the book review, right? It's an evaluative reaction. And, it's a perfectly worthwhile thing to do, but it's not a college English class thing generally to do. And often it can really end discussion, which is not something I'm interested in doing.
The other impulse that students will have, especially if they're coming into my classes as creative writers, is they want to workshop whatever it is we're reading. And particularly if it's a piece of popular fiction, whether it's romance or science fiction or fantasy, or what have you. They want to talk about how it could have been better.
And again, that's something that they've been trained to do. That's something that they are, you know, when they're writing workshops, that's a question that they're trying to answer for themselves and answer for their peers. So I don't fault them for that, but it's not the question that I want them to answer.
And particularly, I think it's a problematic question when it comes to romance, because often they have this assumption that romance novels, they start with the assumption that romance novels are badly written or they're cheesy, or, you know, they tell and don't show. And I know that's a no, no, because Papa Hemingway told me. So, you know, wait until you read Henry James, right. [00:50:00] But, those are not questions that help things along.
If I say to them, how do we make this book as interesting as possible? What it does is put the onus on them to come up with the questions that will change their response to the book, right?
It's not the book's job to be interesting. It's my job as the reader to find the way to make it interesting. And that's not a question that they learned to ask, say in a Milton seminar. Where you come into a seminar on Paradise Lost and typically the assumption is this is an interesting text. And if you find it boring, that's a problem with you. There's something wrong with you, right?
Andrea Martucci: Your intellectual abilities are somehow lacking if you don't see it.
Eric Selinger: Right. And so what I want them to do is to be more active readers. And, if you start with that question, you're always looking for the way in, right?
I'm going to try this. Is the juice of this novel here? How about if I look at it through I'll sometimes tell my students, right? I've got three lenses I want you to be able to swap into place. The character study lens. Right. Let's think about this novel in terms of characters or let's think about this poem as a character study. Character study is almost always a good approach. It can make a novel really interesting.
Think about it as a contraption. How was it put together? What are the different parts? How did the parts fit with one another? Are there any parts that seem to be sticking out oddly? And if I tug on one of those parts, what other parts of the novel kind of twitch? Are there threads that are leading out of this novel into something else that I need to follow in order to make sense of where they're coming from? Those are what I think of as contraption approaches.
And then there's what I call the, the cultural conversation approach. What are the ideas for novels engaging with? What are other texts that this book is somehow responding to or in dialogue with? How is it in dialogue with the conventions of its genre? You know, are there are allusions in it that I need to track down and think about.
And you want to be able to switch those up so that if one of them isn't working, if the text that you're reading isn't working for you as one thing, look somewhere else. Right? Think about it in a different way. Ask a different question.
And this is a very personal thing. It's not that there is the one right way to look at, let's say a romance novel, for everybody. There's the question of, what's going to make it interesting for me.
And that has something to do with who you are individually, coming from whatever family you're from, background you're coming from, it has something to do with whatever classes you've taken. [00:52:30] What else do you know, what you're interested in? It's going to be individual, but once you've accessed that, you can then talk about the book with other people and maybe make it more interesting to them, or point something out in it to them that they've always overlooked.
I'm always noticing things in romance, novels that other readers of the same novel, either they haven't noticed or they've noticed, but they just didn't think that they were particularly worthwhile or interesting.
And that can lead to weird and puzzling conversations, people talking fast, each other.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Eric Selinger: it can lead to really exciting and interesting conversations. I remember at the Princeton conference back in 2009, I gave a talk on Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm. And, it was all about in sale and Milton. There's a moment in the novel where the hero, who is aphasiac and has had a stroke, is being taken by carriage from the asylum that he's been in to London. And they stop off at a little place by a little cottage. And he keeps trying to say, something - " (inarticulate sounds) Lost" is the one syllable that he can get out, is lost. And the people who are with him in the carriage keep saying, no, no, no, no, we're not lost. We know where we are and we know where you are. Until one of them puts it together, that where they are, is at the cottage where Milton wrote Paradise Lost.
Now, this is what (laughs) I'm not going to get vulgar here, but this is what my students have learned to call a what the fuck moment.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Eric Selinger: And I'm sure there's a much more academic term for this that could come up with, Laura had suggested some other people have suggested some I'm sticking with the WTF moment. Cause that's my - cause that speaks to my experience as a reader.
Right. You hit something like that. You're like what, what,
Andrea Martucci: that's the preferred nomenclature of today's youth also.
Eric Selinger: Yeah. It's I'm hip with the kids. I'm literally old enough to be their parents, but why that's so weirdly specific and weirdly specific things in romance novels are sort of my catnip as a reader, because what I want to know is what's the logic behind that? If I tug on that thread, what else twitches? What's connected with it? What's the pattern that makes sense of it? What else in the novel is part of that system? So in that novel, it had to do with Paradise Lost, it had to do with Milton. I gave the talk, Mary Bly, Eloisa James [00:55:00] came up to me afterwards and she said, you know, I've written love that novel since the day it came out.
I've never noticed that. It's like, how do you not notice that You're an English professor
Andrea Martucci: Right.
Eric Selinger: Alyssa Coles, you've read An Extraordinary Union.
Andrea Martucci: I read An Unconditional Freedom.
Eric Selinger: Right? So, so in An Extraordinary Union, the hero and the heroine, Malcolm and Ellen Have the same names as the hero and heroine of Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake.
They talk about this in the novel, right. It's mentioned in the novel and they quote from the Lady of the Lake in the novel. They quote together, they recite together, a short lyric by Sir Walter Scott in the novel, "one hour with thee, one hour with you." I don't remember the pronoun. Ellen quotes from a Mark Twain essay about the South suffering from the Sir Walter Scott disease, which is an anachronistic reference because the essay wasn't published until after the Civil War. So clearly, Sir Walter Scott is like really important to this novel. I don't think I've seen any of the reviews or discussion of the novels start with the question -
Andrea Martucci: what's going on there?
Eric Selinger: Why is there all this Sir Walter Scott?
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Eric Selinger: this is. You know, when you talked to Jayashree about My Beautiful Enemy.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Eric Selinger: Right. So I'll ask you a question. Did she talk at all about the quotation from the heart Sutra that's on the jade tablet that
Andrea Martucci: I don't know if we talked about it. But having read your paper from Researching the Romance....
Eric Selinger: right if the novel stops - I mean, if it stops once to quote something, if there's just a tossed in it could be a really cool thread to follow that reveals an interesting pattern or a set of ideas or themes in the novel. That's possible.
It could be just a random thing that the author likes, a kind of Easter egg that the author likes, something that they'd like to leave there or something that struck them as being appropriate for the character. Could be either of those.
But if there's a pattern, if there's repetition, if one thing is connecting to another. (sighs) You know, in my classes, that would be - cause I'm an English professor by training, not a historian by training, not a cultural studies scholar by training - as an English professor, that's the kind of thing that I'm going to say is going to make the novel more interesting.
Andrea Martucci: Thanks for listening to episode 63 and thank you to Eric Selinger for joining [00:57:30] me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on shelflovepodcast.com. Coming up next week, John Jacobson joins me to discuss their problematic favorite trope: women in pants in historical romance. After that, Eric will be back to talk about Glitterland by Alexis Hall. And I promise I am not even going to attempt the accent in that book. So if you've read it. Don't worry.
Thanks for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I'd love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci.
Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson and Tasha L. Harrison, whose advice I cherish.
Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad, and keep reading romance.
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