065. Glitter Pirates in Glitterland by Alexis Hall
Dr. Eric Selinger is back to discuss Glitterland by Alexis Hall and how it's basically a big old allegory for the romance genre. Eric and I speak authoritatively about books we've never read, and how Glitterland addresses mental health stigma. Visit Shelflovepodcast.com for show notes and transcript.
queer romance, contemporary romance, romance novel discussion
Dr. Eric Selinger is back to discuss Glitterland by Alexis Hall and how it's basically a big old allegory for the romance genre. Eric and I speak authoritatively about books we've never read, and how Glitterland addresses mental health stigma.
- 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
- Shelf Love episodes with transcripts
Guest: Eric Selinger
DePaul website | Twitter | Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction
Eric also lent his expertise to the Modern Romance Canon episode and spoke about the three waves of romance research in episode 063.
Books we reference (and either have or have not read):
- Eva Illouz - Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
- "Elizabeth Lane, reading this as a Christian romance novel": Unfortunately the original links are dead but this is Eric's post writing about his reaction.
- How to Talk About Books That You Haven't Read
- Laura Vivanco - For Love and Money - Chapter 3 is about "Metafiction"
- CS Lewis - Surprised By Joy, which is about his becoming a Christian
- JRR Tolkein - On FairyStories.
Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00]Hello. And welcome to episode 65 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 Dr. Eric Selinger, a romance scholar, and president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.
In this conversation, Eric and I talk about Glitterland by Alexis Hall and how it's basically a big old allegory for the romance genre. Also, I need you to know that I know that romance is hackneyed. Okay. Like I know it is, all right? It's the postmodern condition and we all suffer from it. We also talk about how Glitterland addresses, mental health stigma. And then we talk very authoritatively about books we've never read.
Eric previously joined me in episode 63, so go listen to that conversation about the three waves of romance research if you haven't already, if you want more background on Eric, or if you just want to learn more about romance research.
so Eric, why do you think Glitterland by Alexis Hall is a romance worth reading?
Eric Selinger: Glitterland is gorgeously written. I find it incredibly moving. And it's so smart. There's so many interesting things going on in it. Ideas and ideas about love and connections to other books and other texts.
it's a book that I've taught, Oh gosh, at least a half dozen, maybe more, times in my classes. And every time I teach it, I see new things in it. My students are moved by it and, regularly, I have students who feel like it is a book that has either changed their reading lives in terms of opening up whole worlds of novels to them that they didn't know existed, and in many cases, especially with students of mine who deal with depression, they feel like it's a novel, I'll quote one of my students, I'll never forget one of my students saying to me, " after I read this novel, I suddenly had this thought that maybe my life doesn't have to suck."
And, to be able to do that for students on a fairly regular basis is tremendously, moving and rewarding for me. It's a book that I think you can approach from a lot of different directions and find new stuff [00:02:30] in and, yeah. That's why I think it's worth reading.
Andrea Martucci: That's beautiful.
Here's what's on the back cover of this book. And as usual I will do my Mr. Movie Phone voice. So "once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and most of all, himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people's expectations.
Then a chance encounter at a stag party, throws him into the arms of Essex boy, Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission Darian isn't the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it's like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety. But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can't see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn't trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn't believe in happiness, ever fight for his own?
Eric Selinger: Nicely done.
Andrea Martucci: Thank you. Thank you. I failed out of acting school in seventh grade. Um,
Eric Selinger: Lucky for you.
Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. the thing that I wrote down to talk about, and there are lots of things to talk about, was about class. And I'm going to connect this very literally to romance novels, this hierarchy that exists of low brow, high brow literary work, and this idea that, certain literature is worthwhile and important. And how I connect that idea to the book is Darian is very explicitly coded as somebody who is superficial and lower class than Ash. The Essex accent throughout the novel, that is written very phonetically as an Essex accent, is this super pay attention to me, about these markers of who Darian is.
And Ash, as we come to understand Ash, he went to like Cambridge, he went to a fancy British college. His mom wears pearls. He speaks with a posh accent. He went to the best schools. He wears a three piece suit. He represents this idea of [00:05:00] high brow, British culture and Darian really explicitly represents lower class.
Ash has this very explicit conversation in the novel about his own sense of self worth based on meeting these sort of expectations of what he is supposed to be doing with his life, what's worthwhile. His career- he's supposed to be this kind of person based on his class and his wealth and all of these things and Darian is everything he is not and everything he's not supposed to want. so yeah, that was my high level entry point about, not only is it this personal dilemma, a professional dilemma for Ash, but also this meta discussion, perhaps, about romance writing as a genre?
Eric Selinger: Oh, I definitely, yeah. I certainly think so. So this is a book that starts with two epigraphs right? One of which is four lines from Andrea Del Sarto by the poet, Robert Browning. And one of them is from Amy Childs who, was one of the, featured, people from the British TV show, The Only Way is Essex, which is like Jersey Shore to give you a, an American equivalent, and the two epigraphs, they nicely line up with our two characters. The Amy Childs one from Essex says "we dress classy. We got the nice handbags. We like our surgery, hair extensions, big eyelashes. We're very glitzy. It's the most important thing in the world to look glamorous." Which is very much, the world that Darian is from, and that he is immersed in. And the Browning poem, is quite melancholy. It's a speaker saying, the whole seems to fall into a shape as if I saw alike my work and self and all that I was born to be and do. A Twilight peaks." Right? So we've got one speaker who's associated with Twilight and with things coming to a close, not even night, just this kind of slow fade, one that's associated with glitz and glamour and the world that's
but also one is a poet and the other one is from a reality TV show.
And so you've got the split that plays out in terms of class, in terms of education, in terms of range of reference. Ash is incredibly overeducated and he's our narrator. And that means that the narration is riddled with allusions and textual echoes and all kinds of catnip for a reader like me.
And some of them are explicitly flagged and some of [00:07:30] them are just integrated into Ash's thinking or into random things that he says, he compares the blue of Darian's eyes near the end of the novel to the blue of high windows.
The quote is actually "his eyes so steady on mind and as infinitely blue as the promise of high windows." So it's not just the blue it's he actually uses the title phrase of the poem.
And, that's a phrase that I don't know what percentage of the novel's readership is going to perk up in their chair and get really excited and say, Oh my God, that's a Philip Larkin poem! I know that poem. And start thinking through like how that poem might be relevant to the novel.
Andrea Martucci: not this reader, that's for sure.
Eric Selinger: Right. Well, you know, I think Alexis Hall, I think Alexis Hall likes that poem because it has certainly been alluded to or mentioned in at least I think three Alexis Hall novels so far. (we laugh)
And then, the range of reference that Darian has is pop culture and there are moments where Ash's, one of his recent mystery novels. He writes a series of mystery novels about a character named Rick Glass. Rick Glass is the detective. And so the title of each novel has some kind of a reference to glass or a pun on glass.
And the one that he is on a speaking tour about near the beginning or not tour, but is doing a publicity event for, at the beginning of the novel, is called Through A Glass Darkly and Darian says, Hey, I recognize that's from an Annie Lennox song, and Ash says, no, it's from the Bible.
And Darien says, Oh, I've never read the Bible. And Ash says, neither have I, but it's just one of those things that, you know. Right here, Ash isn't just super educated in terms of having read stuff. But he's part of that educated milieu, where even if you haven't read something, you have internalized certain phrases, certain references. and you use them to place yourself socially, right? So Ash professes to be an atheist. He says, he's never read the Bible, but he frequently alludes to scenes from it as do other people in his milieu. You, but nobody's a believer. It's just something they all know. And so that gets material into the novel in that cultural field, that sphere.
And then Darian is talking about reality TV and pop music and Grease and Notting Hill. There's a wonderful bit near the end that calls up Notting Hill, and part of the sort of drama of language or carnival of language in the novel, part of the [00:10:00] happy ending of the novel involves our watching Ash begin - it's not just that he begins to use the range of reference and to speak the language that Darien does because he does that throughout the novel? It's that he does so without the kind of crippling, acerbic, self-consciousness. The kind of despising of himself for knowing certain things, liking certain things.
He even mocks his own productivity as a writer of what he calls genre cat, he dismisses his own work as a detective novelist. He used to write literary fiction. It didn't go anywhere. He had a breakdown. He's now writing detective fiction, but he holds his own genre in contempt.
And I think, again, all of this is meant to at least be an invitation to think about what a romance novel is, how popular romance relates to high art, highbrow culture. This is a novel that clearly includes both, and that is about - if we want to turn it into a kind of allegory of itself - it's a kind of allegory of its own generic status as both a text that you can read as a literary text and the text that you can absolutely lose yourself as a wonderful example of popular romance fiction, without going and looking up Phillip Larkin poems, and, checking where exactly in scripture does the phrase, "through a glass darkly" show up and how might the rest of that passage be relevant and so on and so on.
Andrea Martucci: Darian is romance novels in this book. And -
Eric Selinger: and can I just say one of the things that I love is that it's metafictional, but it's metafictional, tangentially so that it's not, he's not ever associated with romance novels, but he is associated with romcoms and with romantic songs and it's as though partly I think what Hall is getting at is the disparagement of popular romance is at least potentially legible as - I don't know that romance novelists use the phrase potentially legible as,
Andrea Martucci: not often.
Eric Selinger: But it's potentially legible as part of a kind of broader disparagement of romantic love and the culture of romantic love as sentimental and as hyper industrial, that it's a simulacrum of emotion and not the real emotion.
Andrea Martucci: I was hoping we would talk about Baudrillard because -
[00:12:30] Eric Selinger: because he doesn't come up in the novel, but Roland Barthe does, BARF as Darian pronounces it, "Barf." So wait, talk about Baudrillard or are you just joking?
Andrea Martucci: A, I got the reference and, B I actually do think about Baudrillard a lot when I think about romance novels, because you want
Eric Selinger: If you ever want to write an article about that, I know a guy with a journal.
Andrea Martucci: Actually one thing that, did pop up again, chapter 13, literary approaches in the, Routledge, popular romance, literary companion, or whatever it's called, sorry. I'm butchering the name of your book, is, mimesis, which immediately, I was like down the rabbit hole thinking about Baudrillard cause I had to look up my mimesis and, what I was thinking about with it is this is maybe more of a big picture romance thought, but, How like the simulacrum is like a copy of a copy with no original, right?
Like what is the first romance novel? How is every subsequent romance novel both referencing other romance novels, and yet at the same time, different, original in its own way. But kind of that idea that a, where does it start? I haven't read Baudrillard in a long time, you can tell, but this idea of romance novels, like all being the same thing, but also not?
Eric Selinger: Yeah, I'll be honest. You toss that word simulacrum out there and you start something, but
Andrea Martucci: you have to explain it now.
Eric Selinger: the reference point for me, I haven't read Baudrillard. He was after I finished grad school, I was more of a Bakhtin, Barthe era guy just before Foucault.
I just kind missed Foucault. I have literally just done - maybe this is one reason I love this novel so much. I'm significantly happier than Ash is, but the game that he knows to play of making these references and placing yourself in a system, an intellectual system and a class system is what I do.
So the reference point for me for this novel is not Baudrillard, but it's an Israeli sociologist named Eva Illouz who has a book called? I think it's romancing the capitalist utopia. It's a grim sounding title. Absolutely wonderful and readable sociological study about romantic love and the popular culture and the mass culture of romantic love. And one of the things that came out in the late nineties and one of the things that she [00:15:00] says based on her interviews in that book is that the sort of most highly educated slice of interview subjects that she spoke with were the ones who were simultaneously the most likely to invoke highly conventionalized mass media signifiers for when they talked about romantic love. Things like Hallmark movies or Hallmark cards.Imagery that's very familiar from advertising or from romcoms or what have you.
They were the most likely to use those as reference points and they were the most likely to be immediately ironic and disparaging about them. She then quotes, there was a famous bit from the, I think it's the, either the prologue and epilogue to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, where he's defining what is postmodernity, and he says "the postmodern condition is the condition of a highly educated man who wants to say to the woman that he loves, he loves her madly, but he can't say that because he knows that sounds like a Barbara Cartland novel. So what he says is 'I love you madly as a character in a Barbara Cartland novel would say.'" There's a kind of built in irony, structural irony and distance from emotion.
Andrea Martucci: I need you to know that I know this, this is hackneyed
Eric Selinger: And that's exactly the situation that Ash is in. So Ash is dealing both with his own biological, bipolar disorder and he's dealing with a kind of cultural disorder of feeling obliged because of his education or his class to be ironic and disparaging about certain things.
You're supposed to be ironic and disparaging about certain things. And when he hears . saying certain things that are comforting, that are reassuring, that are heartening, that are loving. He'll come back with, Oh God, it's Yoda again. Or, it's more of your Hallmark wisdom, right?
He's got this gut reaction. Instinctive reaction, not instinct that this trained
Andrea Martucci: learned, yeah.
Eric Selinger: learned reaction, that those things are to be disparaged. When it comes time for him to say, I love you, at the end of the novel, there's this wonderful moment. Darian's waiting for him to say that he loves him and
Yeah. Ash says, Oh God, I finally understood what he wanted. He wanted to actually hear the words, and until he did all my apologies and explanations weren't worth a damn to him. It was an absurd situation as usual, but I shouldn't have been surprised to find myself in it. Pirates only really belonged in fairytales anyway. 'Darian,' I said, 'Roland Barthes argued that a phrase as commonly used as the one, I think we're discussing, is [00:17:30] essentially a meaningless signifier.' He blinked 'right?' ' A linguistic feint, a formula, stripped of ritual, neither a thing uttered, nor an utterance itself. In short as a statement it's without value, and as a promise, it's without depth.' 'Babes?'
'Yes?' 'I know you really liked his Barf geezer, but I'm telling you, as like favor from me to you, this really gave the time,'" right? He has to say it and he can't bring himself to say it. It's a great declaration scene. Oh God. It's so good. And, this is precisely that - it's the postmodern situation that Eco talks about, it's this structural irony in regards to love that Eva Illouz talks about, it's probably something that Baudrillard talks about. And if I'd read Baudrillard, I know, which is to say, it's an idea that circulates in the educated world that Ash comes from. And part of what this novel needs to do is to break the spell of that over him so that he can declare his love with the hackneyed phrase. He can declare his love -he can confess his love in language that comes out of him as though it were this unmediated outpouring. And then he realizes in horror that what he's doing is quoting from Notting Hill. That there's that sense that if he wants to look into his heart and say something real, it's not going to be original.
It's going to be a quotation and that's okay. That's the condition we are all in. That's not the problem. The problem lies elsewhere. And that's part of what Darian allows him to experience and allows him to recover. Um, and that's part of the arc of this novel. When I teach this novel, I'm constantly adjusting to what's the context in which I'm teaching it. Am I teaching it in an intro to lit class, then I tend to emphasize some things, if I'm teaching in a pop romance class I'll emphasize other things. The most recent time that I taught it in an intro to lit class, one of the things that we did was try to pick up very quickly, in the first chapter of the novel on all of the allusions and imagery and references to death and life, that he's in hell, that he's like Orpheus, that he is in a kind of world of shadow.
There's an arc of this novel that takes him from darkness to light, from death to life, from hell to, if not to heaven, then at least to earth, to redemption. There's a beautiful. Couple of blog posts by Elizabeth Lane, reading this as a Christian romance novel, [00:20:00] which I think it is, or that's one of the things that it is, but it's not just that.
It's also a novel about different kinds of love. This is a novel, if you know your CS Lewis, The Four Loves, which I also haven't read, but I know enough to fake it, right? That this is a novel that begins with eros. And it does some really interesting things with the idea of eros and as the relationship develops, it moves into filia.
It moves into a kind of friendship bond between Ash and Darian. And that then shatters at the point of ritual death, the moment of rejection, which we can talk about they're in Cambridge, which is utterly heartbreaking. I could barely read it the first time I read the novel. It was just so bad. It goes by quickly, don't worry.
but boy, it's just on the money. And then eventually reaches agape, another kind of love that Lewis talks about. There's a little storge thrown in there, which is the fourth one that nobody ever talks about, sort of familial love, which Darian has. And Ash does not.
Yeah. I don't know one of these days, I want to either do a conference paper or write a whole essay about the last word in the novel, because I literally think you could write an entire essay about the last one word and it's novel.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah,
Eric Selinger: sorry. I get excited.
Andrea Martucci: There's so much, there's so much in this. And what I was, looking for was this quote where, Ash is talking to Chloe, is it? And, I wish I could find this exactly, but to paraphrase, she says something like, just because he's happy all the time or a lot of the time doesn't mean nothing bad has ever happened to him.
Eric Selinger: Yes. So this is this amazing moment near the end of the novel, because the whole thing has been told through Ash's point of view. And one of the things that makes the novel so moving to me is that at the end of the novel, suddenly you start to get this glimpse of, What is this novel look like, what does this story look like from Darian's point of view? You get glimpses of it. Cause Darien talks about it in the final chapters. But you also get glimpses from other people who know Darian and who have known him growing up. Darian is not somebody who has had a particularly lucky, blessed, easy going kind of life. And, he's not a sort of, I don't know, he's not a manic pixie dream boy. He's not a magical character. He really comes, he has a kind of three dimensionality to him even more and more as the book goes on. And [00:22:30] so partly what we're dealing with in the novel is two men's very different responses to loss and to sadness, and to the not rightness of the world. Okay. Um, and Ash has a kind of clenched defensive posture toward all that, and Darian does not. "Sadness is just the thing what happens." He says at one point, "even if it's not all right, it's all right."
And when he says things like that, those are moments where Ash typically responds with, Oh God, there's Yoda again. Or there's more of your Hallmark wisdom, it can be brushed off as that, but it is not reduceable to that.
I know on his website Hall says somewhere that among the things that interest him are different languages or different dialects, different registers, he's interested in language and he's interested in blasphemy. I think he says at one point. And one of the things I think this novel is getting at is that we have in our culture, many different cultural discourses, many different languages and ranges of reference, that we can use to talk about the same thing and they are classed and coded in terms of their value and in their education. And yet the ability to maneuver among these and the ability to draw on whatever one is necessary in a kind of pragmatic way, the ability to be fluent in these and not to be self hating for your fluency in these different registers, is an incredibly valuable thing psychologically. And it's an incredibly powerful thing compositionally for a novelist to be able to do, to be able to weave all this stuff in into one book.
Andrea Martucci: I think, yeah, they've both had bad things happen. A lot of, Ash's bad things are related to his mental health issues as opposed to the situation that he came into upon birth. Whereas Darian's issues, loss in his family and, just not having as much privilege socioeconomically, are just the external situation for him.
The thing I was thinking with that with is like how Ash has so much, and yet is so cynical about the things he has. And again, obviously this is related to his mental health issues with depression and bipolarism where - you don't think so?
Eric Selinger: No, yes, and, right? Yeah. It's not no, but it's.
Yes. And, one of the things that becomes clear late in the novel is the degree to which [00:25:00] Ash has grown up in a household where his value as a person and his sense of self worth have always been tied to certain kinds of markers of success.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Eric Selinger: And it's, that his parents have these certain expectations and either he met them or he did not meet them.
One of the things I think that whole does beautifully well in this book is give us someone who is absolutely not reduceable to his mental health. And he's a bit of a prick for reasons that have nothing to do with his mental health. And some of them are temperamental and some of them have to do with his family.
And part of what he sees when he's finally there in that final scene at Darian's grandmother's house, he's visiting Darian, he lives there and he sees these, he sees these pictures, family pictures, little family moments of love, moments of connection in the world that he did have and Ash thinks to himself, I would never have that. My parents would never have put something like that up because it wasn't appropriate because it wasn't, showing the best face of our family, because it wasn't a, a sort of marker of status or success.
Like many romance novels, it's a novel about different values systems and which one is corrupt and which one is better and this is a novel where the values of the world of Essex that are presented initially as being so superficial and so trivial, and so easily mocked by those with money and a fancy education, turn out to be much more loving and much more affirming and much more healthy, and much more Holy.
And I think there is a whole dimension of the novel that's about, I don't know what you would call it, like the world and the spirit, the values of the world versus some other set of values that happened to be instantiated in this glitter pirate from Essex.
But, as I said once in a conference paper, it's as though one of the things that Hall is letting us do is think about the gospels through the lens of his novel, not just his novel through the lens of the gospels. And so one of the things you've said sense of like how utterly absurd and unlikely that this bunch of people who are crappy writers of Greek, the gospel writers are writing, not beautiful, eloquent, rhetorically, polished language. Paul does, but that's a different issue. Paul's are rhetorician, but Mark, Luke, John, Matthew are not, and they're writing about this guy from Galilee, which is, it's not exactly the Essex of Palestine, cause it's not associated with glitz and glamour, but it's equally unlikely. It's utterly absurd. You've got the wrong guy from the wrong part of the [00:27:30] empire being reported to have said and done the wrong things by the wrong people offering this saving message. You've got the wrong hero from the wrong part of England with the wrong education and the wrong accent saying these things that are recently mappable and yet sort of saving Ash.
And you've got a novel that's in the wrong genre. The genre that is rejected has become the cornerstone here.
What I love about it isn't just the content of that. What I love about it, it's the symmetry. It's the patterning. It's the shapeliness of the world that this book has invited me to inhabit as I think about it.
Andrea Martucci: I love that quote, that you are alluding to, Ash is thinking to himself, "dear God, of all the men in the world, why did I want this one above all others? A glottal stopping glitter pirate who still lived with his grandmother in Essex, a joke. It had to be a cosmic joke, but it didn't feel like a joke. It felt like the realest thing I'd known for a long time, the clearest and the simplest as though everything else was white noise."
Eric Selinger: Yeah
Andrea Martucci: And relating that to the idea - if in our understanding of this novel Darian kind of represents the romance novel and I'm being very reductive there. But one of the things that I really enjoy about that is that for all that he seems superficial he is in fact quite deep and deals with pain and brings so much meaning to our cynical, "I don't believe in romance. I don't believe in, I love you. Or, I'm just a boy standing in front of another boy," and if you think about that as like a statement about romance novels, about how they are derided and really, reduced to honestly, something that they're not, but they are reduced because they are about emotion and, telling these stories that are not considered valuable.
Eric Selinger: and as you said before, because they're conventional because they are not trying to be radically original because they are comfortable being a retelling of, a story, a retelling of a narrative, but I interrupted.
Andrea Martucci: yet at the end of the day, they encapsulate the human condition and these deep-seated human desires and needs, to love and be loved, much better than the, supposedly much more cultured and worthwhile world that Ash has come to understand through his upbringing is important. And thinking about Ash's journey through the novel with coming to terms with [00:30:00] that and legitimately seeing Darian as like a real person, which he, it takes him a while to get there, and to see his individuality, not just as an orange glitter pirate. He's attracted to it, but he doesn't want to be - is that journey, I think you were, speaking to this in with CS Lewis's stages of love, but I, don't not, I'm legitimately not familiar with that, but I can't even pretend.
Eric Selinger: There's a wonderful book called How to Talk About Books That You Haven't Read, which I haven't read, but I think this is what we're doing.
Andrea Martucci: That is meta to the extreme. Ash has to go from this state of even acknowledging that Darian makes him happy and valuing him because he makes him happy, to actually getting to the point of, but wait a second, can I make him happy? And in order to make him happy, do I first have to know him and see beneath the literally superficial exterior, like the varnished sort of facade, how do I see beneath that to the true value of Darian and to understand how he makes me feel the way I feel. When I say all of that, that's like the, romance is my guilty pleasure, romance readers, like, you know you like it, and yet you refuse to value it. Okay, why does it mean so much to you and why can you not acknowledge that it makes you feel good?
Eric Selinger: There is. Yeah, one of the things that I love about the novel, one of the reasons I wanted to talk about the novel and the reasons I teach the novelist, precisely because it works- there are romance novels that work incredibly well as meta fiction, as allegories about the genre and as thinking about the genre, defenses of the genre. Laura Vivanco has a fabulous chapter on this in her book, For Love and Money, the literary art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon romance. There are books that function incredibly well as meta fiction, but are not as moving in terms of characters. There are books that are incredibly moving as characters, but that are not in any way, and they don't need to be, reflecting on and defending and thinking through the genre. This is one of those books that does both and does both in really thoughtful, satisfying ways.
Cause part of the nuance of Ash's journey is he's learned that he can't trust his own happiness, right? He can't believe what he thinks. He's been led down that path before. He's both illegitimately wary because [00:32:30] he's way overeducated and there's a kind of cynicism that he's invived with that, and he is legitimately wary because he knows what he's been through and he knows what he might put someone else through.
So he's got a remarkable journey that he needs to go on. And I think it's no accident that early in the novel where he's calling his friend Niall to come pick him up as he's having an episode, right after he spent the night with Darian and he's running away from that and having a panic attack and he briefly thinks about what his relationship with Niall was, they were lovers. They were companions. They were partners for awhile. What it has become, how bad it's become, how it's gone south. And there's a phrase that pops into his mind. This is what we become, Pilgrim and burden. Again, one of those things that Ash's ridiculous over education tosses up in his mind is that he is fabulously relevant to the novel as itself. That's Pilgrim's Progress where Christian, the Pilgrim, of the title, whose name is just as allegorical as you can name a guy, Ash Winters, you know, it's like, that's like naming your character Christian Ungraced. yeah, it's exactly Christian has this burden on his back, of sin , allegorically and he goes through the whole novel until the point where he can finally lay it at the cross and just three little words, right? Toss it into the novel, pilgrim and burden. We've suddenly got this glimpse. Wait a minute. This is what this narrative is going to be a version of.
Here is a guy with a burden. He's got to find a place where he can lay it down. And what do we call that place? What do we call that person? What do we call that kind of love? It turns out our culture has lots of different ways to talk about it. Again, some of which we value some of which we dismiss and trivialized, but they're all ways of talking about a story that is an incredibly powerful and moving and resonant story for lots of different readers who were coming to the novel from lots of different places.
And then just the one other thing to add is that because it's not just an allegory, because we get so much of Darian as a fleshed out character, we're also getting this sense of this. Isn't just about Ash. Ash thinks that's just about him for a lot of the novel. He has to realize that it's not, but it's also about, why is Darian attracted to him?
How does Darian feel when Ash dismisses him as a, a fuckee, not even a fuck buddy. A fuck buddy without the buddy part. It's the most awful moment, he's doing this to reestablish himself that - he's in [00:35:00] terror because he's being converged on by the antipathy and loathing of his former Cambridge classmates and as a way to protect himself from their scorn and from their disdain, he rejects turns his back on Darian and we get a sense of like, what does that feel like to Darian what's at stake in that for him? We don't see it immediately cause we're in Ash's point of view the whole time, but it haunts the middle of the novel.
And then finally at the end of the novel, we begin to get the kind of reparation for that.
Andrea Martucci: So to speak about the black moment, which is truly heartbreaking. I was reading it yesterday morning and, had to pause to start my workday just after reading that scene.
Eric Selinger: Oh No!
Andrea Martucci: And now here's a fun story. So I do what I do sometimes and I like tweeted, because I was in such pain, I tweeted something like, Oh, I hate when, a character betrays their love interest like this. Like why do people do this? And I was being very dramatic and people start engaging with me and somebody is like, but sometimes it's done so well.
And I was like, I hate it. And, and then somebody's like, but it's done so well in Glitterland. And they tag Alexis Hall.
Eric Selinger: Oh God,
Andrea Martucci: next thing Alexis Hall is like, I don't know it does hurt. And and I'm like, yeah, I was talking about Glitterland and um sorry? And this is all to say that, Alexis Hall and I actually had a little bit of a conversation in DMs, where we were both like mutually embarrassed. And both of us were also like, no, like you're fine.
But this is all a fun anecdote to talk about first of all, how I should be careful about what I tweet. First of all, I should never make pronouncements about what anyone should or should not write because I legitimately don't believe in that.
But. I think I just was hurting so bad in that moment. I wanted to share my hurt vaguely, and then it became very specific. And this is also just a metaconversation about the small world that is romance. But, I think that moment, as I was reading it, even before the references were made to the, the biblical reference.
I was just like, Oh Like the cock crows the third time. It was similar in that way. Like a complete, denial of the value of the other person and what they stand for and just like, they mean [00:37:30] nothing to me. It's terribly heartbreaking and look even in my heartbreak, I trusted that Alexis Hall was going to come through for me in the end.
But, since you have been speaking about a Christian perspective on this with those biblical references in the, remind me, Catholics, don't actually read the Bible and I grew up Catholic, so I've never actually read the bible. The idea of Christ needing to be rejected and betrayed, then there's the payoff of that in the Bible, right?
because then Christ forgave,
Eric Selinger: is a happy ending, I don't want to spoil it.
Andrea Martucci: But it's, it's something about the greatness and forgiveness of the one they love.
Eric Selinger: Yeah. I'm neither Catholic nor Christian. but yeah, so Elizabeth Lane has these blog posts and she says this is a book about grace.
This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. And Darian is a wonderful representation of what that kind of love looks like in action. Right by the end of the novel, I don't, I was searching around for the passage. Ash is like, I'm just, I'm such a horrible person, and Darian, like, I don't think you are.
I know you think you are, I don't know why that is. And you just get that sense of a kind of, this is the sort of agape moment in the novel, that kind of unconditional love moment, in the novel that is redemptive, right? I did a paper at PCA about this novel and a wonderful book by, Alex Beecroft called False Colors, and the title of the paper was Redeeming Love. And I wanted to riff on the title of Francine Rivers' classic inspirational romance novel, redeeming love. And to say here are two male / male novels, that are equally about specifically about this kind of Christian redeeming love. Now that said I had a student once, a wonderful guy named Isaac, who said, I think you're trying to make the Christian discourse too central, the novel isn't about just that one.
It's about all of these different stories, reflecting on one another, informing one another they're all ways of talking about the same thing and the novel doesn't make one of them central and the other one's secondary. And I think that's, I do think that's true.
But yeah, right, you've got that moment of rejection. And yet even at that moment, we find out later, spoiler alert - we find out later, Darian knows what's going on. He's just waiting for Ash to come and find him.
And Ash won't do it. And the reason he doesn't do it, he says, to Niall, this isn't a fucking romcom. I'm not going to go out [00:40:00] there, running in the rain and going to find him and begging his forgiveness. The thing that gets in his way at that moment is his own cultured, educated, class-bound, pride, and his refusal to be enacting a romantic script that he would then be inscribed into. He refuses to do that. All he had to do was ask, all he had to do is go. If I were preaching this novel, This is I don't know - it's like a version of the prodigal son story, right? It's that same notion of like how simple and yet how hard that turn by Ash is. Yet it is the one that leads him to the end of the novel, to joy, which is the - that's the last word of the novel.
I decided to call it joy. which is a word that I have never, I've never DM'd or Twitter tweeted an exchange with Alexis Hall about cause I really want to make it true myself someday, but it's yeah. It's that's a very resonant word, both from the CS Lewis point of view - he's got that book called Surprised By Joy, which is about his becoming a Christian - and also from a Tolkien point of view, I think that joy comes right out of Tolkien's On Fairy Stories. It's the joy poignant as grief that Tolkien talks about there and the eucatastrophe, the good catastrophe in a fairy story. cause this is a fairy story because we know that because Ash says pirates are only in fairytales and that tells us that what we're reading is a fairy tale, cause he's a pirate. I mean, you see how (inaudible)
Andrea Martucci: I think that to conclude the thoughts on what Ash is seeking is, he's living in a state of incongruence, which is, something I've learned about through talking to a counselor on a recent episode about The Rakess and basically he's, over the course of the novel, struggling with what he seems to want with his idea of what he should want.
Eric Selinger: Yep.
Andrea Martucci: And the only point at which he's actually able to kind of change is when he actually deals with that and deals with these thoughts that he's had about, "I can't make anyone happy. I ruin things. I. I, I, I.
I thought it was a beautiful story. And I know we did talk more about like the meta aspects of it, but it's hilarious. I was laughing constantly and, it's a beautiful love story.
Eric Selinger: It's so good. I have yet to read anything by Hall that I didn't love. And I've taught two of his other novels in various classes, Prosperity, which I know, EE Ottoman talked about on your show [00:42:30] and one called Looking For Group, which I've taught in a number of classes.
But this one, boy, it just, it's an astonishing book. So I'm really glad that I had the chance to talk about it. Now you have read it as now, you know what an amazing book at it.
Andrea Martucci: Yes.
Eric Selinger: You can go like knocking on people's doors and say, have you heard the good news?
Andrea Martucci: I truly do feel like in Alexis Hall convert at this point, all it takes is one.
So Eric. Thank you so much for your time today. What is the best way for listeners to connect with you and learn more about your work?
Eric Selinger: So for connecting with me, the best thing to do is to find me on Twitter. I am @JPRStudies, that's my executive editor Twitter. And in terms of finding my stuff, if you go to Research Gate, and look me up, I've got a bunch of things that are up there. And, as I say, I'm the co-editor of several books about popular romance scholarship, and, there's always a piece of mine in there.
So if you want to know what I think about Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale, that's in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. If you want to know what I think about Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Natural Born Charmer, I've got a big piece on that in an anthology called Romance Fiction in American Culture: Love as the practice of freedom.
And, there is, of course, as we've been talking about, chapter 13, Literary Approaches in the Routledge Companion to Popular Romance Fiction. And anybody who wants to learn more about my courses at DePaul, what I've been teaching, how I've been teaching them, if there are questions that you have that you can't answer from the things that I posted online, hit me up on Twitter. I'm always more than happy to talk. I'm glad to get the word out, to people especially about teaching these novels because, I'll just end with this anecdote, right? So I just finished the emergency online version of my introduction to literature class spring quarter at DePaul, which ended with two romance novels, Glitterland and An Extraordinary Union.
And Oh, so many people in the class, They're taking it for a distribution credit. They're not English majors. And so many people said to me, one or other version of "I'm so glad this class introduced me to a whole world of books that I might actually go on and read for pleasure. And, you can't, it doesn't get any better than that.
I remember in 1999, when I first started reading popular romance novels, suddenly realizing, Oh my God, not only is this book that I'm reading so good, there [00:45:00] are shelves and shelves of them. (Eric laughs) There's so many of them, there's a whole world of novels out there that I can get started with. So you know, to have had that moment that happen in your late teens or early twenties, instead of in the middle of your thirties, as it was for me, that's a happy thing to be able to bring to people and, I'm just glad I get the chance to do it.
Andrea Martucci: Thanks for listening to episode 65 and thank you to Dr. Eric Selinger for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on shelflovepodcast.com.
Coming up next week. Dr. Margarita Guillory shares her research on African diaspora conjuring practices in America. AKA witchcraft, but the academics don't like to call it that. And Dr. Maria DeBlassie and I pepper her with questions to prepare for our discussion the following week about Black witches, self-defined, in contemporary romance.
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. This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci, and a big old thanks to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson and Tasha L Harrison, whose gifs I would never steal. Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad, and keep reading romance.
Alyssa Cole, Amanda Diehl, Andrea Martucci, Angela Toscano, Arielle Zibrak, Ash Dylan, Becky, Bree Hill, Carter Sherman, Charish Reid, Christina Fattore, Copper Dog Books, Dani Lacey, Danielle Knafo, Denise Williams, Diana Filar, EE Ottoman, Emma Barry, Eric Selinger, Erin Leafe, Esme Brett, Felicia Grossman, Funmi B., Hannah Hearts Romance, Hsu Ming Teo, Huike Wen, Jack Harbon, Jayashree Kamble, Jennifer Crusie, Jess, Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, Jhen, Jodi McAlister, Jodie Slaughter, Joe Martucci, John Jacobson, Julie Moody-Freeman, Karelia Stetz-Waters, Kate Clayborn, Katee Robert, Katrina Jackson, Kelly Reynolds, Kennedy Ryan, Kianna Alexander, Kini Allen, Kit Rocha, Lucy Score, Lynell, Margarita Guillory, Margo Hendricks, Maria DeBlassie, Megan Erickson, Mia Sosa, Nicole Falls, Norma Perez-Hernandez, Penny Reid, Rebecca Romney, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Rosie Danan, Ruby Lang, Sandra Kitt, Scarlett Peckham, Sionna Fox, Sri Savita, Steve Ammidown, Suzanne Jefferies, Talia Hibbert, Tamara Lush, Tasha L. Harrison, The Swoonies, Tif Marcelo, Tina Benigno, Whoamance, fangirl jeanne