073. Structuring Romance: The Secular Scripture pt 1 with Dr. Angela Toscano
Dr. Angela Toscano, a romance scholar, writer, and researcher joins Shelf Love to discuss literary critic Northrop Frye's 1976 book The Secular Scripture: A study of the structure of romance. Although it's 44 years old and isn't only about romance novels, it has a lot to say that's relevant to the popular romance genre in the year 2020 - and Angela and I call on many examples from more recent books you may be familiar with as well as other examples from pop culture. For example, how is the structure of romance fundamentally different from that of literary, epic works? Why is "mere entertainment" so derided by the academy and what's wrong with the phony infinite? What's the difference between a maze with no plan and a maze, not without a plan? How does romance focus on the polarity between the idyllic world we want and the subterranean world we don't want, but not the life we have? And how does the dog always know? This is part 1 of our conversation. Part 2: out 12/26/20.
Dr. Angela Toscano, a romance scholar, writer, and researcher joins Shelf Love to discuss literary critic Northrop Frye's 1976 book The Secular Scripture: A study of the structure of romance. Although it's 44 years old and isn't only about romance novels, it has a lot to say that's relevant to the popular romance genre in the year 2020 - and Angela and I call on many examples from more recent books you may be familiar with as well as other examples from pop culture.
For example, how is the structure of romance fundamentally different from that of literary, epic works? Why is "mere entertainment" so derided by the academy and what's wrong with the phony infinite? What's the difference between a maze with no plan and a maze, not without a plan? How does romance focus on the polarity between the idyllic world we want and the subterranean world we don't want, but not the life we have? And how does the dog always know?
This is part 1 of our conversation. Part 2: out 12/26/20.
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Guest: Dr. Angela Toscano
The Secular Scripture by Northrop Frye
The Hathaways by Lisa Kleypas
073 And Then, The Dog Always Knows
[00:00:00] Andrea Martucci: hello, and welcome to episode 73 of Shelf Love, a podcast where we have thought provoking critical conversations about literature's most polarizing genre, romance novels. . I'm your host, Andrea Martucci, and my guest today is Dr. Angela Toscano, a romance scholar, writer, and researcher.
On today's episode, we'll be discussing literary critic Northrop Frye's 1976 book The Secular Scripture, A Study of the Structure of Romance. Although it's 54 years old and isn't only about romance novels, it has a lot to say that's relevant to the popular romance genre in the year 2020, and Angela and I call on many examples from more recent books you may be familiar, with as well as other examples from popular culture.
For example, how is the structure of romance fundamentally different from that of literary, Epic works? Why is mere entertainment so derided by the academy? And what's wrong with the phony infinite? What's the difference between a maze with no plan and a maze, not without a plan?
How does romance focus on the polarity between the idyllic world we want and the subterranean world we don't want, but never the life we have? And how does the dog always know?
Everything I mentioned is covered in part one of our conversation, which you are about to hear. Stay tuned for part two out next week, where we continue our discussion of The Secular Scripture.
Dr. Angela Toscano: I'm Dr. Angela Toscano. I've been involved in the study of popular romance since about 2008 when I attended my first Popular Cultural Association Conference. So this was even before I was a grad student. I was working as a public librarian. I had gotten a degree in English literature, a BA.
And that's really when I first started reading romance. I graduated from college. I was bored. There was no real reason I hadn't been reading romance before. It was just not something that was like on my parents' bookshelves. I just never thought about it.
And then I did. It was really a serendipitous trip to the library where I pulled The Paid Companion by Jayne Ann Krentz off of like the general fiction's shelf. And it had weirdly been similar to a dream I had. The plot was like very similar to a dream I had recently had, and I was like, Oh, that's so weird. So I checked it out and that just started me off [00:02:30] onto reading romance.
And I was immediately really interested in it. And since I am a dork and an intellectual, I thought to myself, surely people have really written so much about this genre and I started researching it and it was like, there was not a lot on the ground. It was the usual suspects and they were 30 years old, even at that point, which was like 12 years ago. I was like, that is so weird. (laughs)
So I started doing that. I discovered Teach Me Tonight. I started attending these conferences. I was not loving my job as a public librarian. So I decided to go back and get my master's degree and then my PhD.
So what I study or what I became like an expert in is The early history of the novel.
So in English literature, this is like at the end of the 17th century into the beginning of the 18th century. So really the transition between the period of Shakespeare, which is in like the late, early modern period, the period of Cromwell, leading into Alexander Pope.
So that's my area of expertise. I usually say I study early iterations of the romance. I talk about myself as a trans-historicist because I'm not usually interested in one particular historical period. I'm more interested in how these different historical periods and texts talk to each other across time because readers read across time and I think scholars should study across time and not get bogged down in one particular historical period. But you know what, I respect other people's methodological choices, so they don't have to do my thing. yeah.
Andrea Martucci: And so I heard you give a presentation at the IASPR Conference this summer. And so one of your recent projects was actually - was it on fat heroines?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. Yeah. It's been back-burnered for a lot of reasons, but I am currently really interested in the depiction of fatness in romance, and how that's strange, because you're talking about what is essentially a visual understanding of a body through a non-visual medium.
And I think that's just inherently difficult, regardless of how you're trying to represent a body in text, because you're doing it through language. So it becomes a very strange thing. When you [00:05:00] add the biases that people have about fat into that mix, it adds another layer of like odd navigation through adjective use and even transformation.
What is the acceptable level of fatness for us to identify and love, like a heroine, for example. Yeah. And then before that I was working on the Gothic, which I'm still always a little bit always working on.
Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. You had a chapter in the Routledge Companion on Gothic romance, right?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yes, I did. It was a survey of the Gothic romance and I was trying to connect the Gothic, of the 18th century and the 19th century to the popular Gothic romances that really dominated the romance book market between the late 1950s and really the early 1980s. They're not really that much of a thing anymore as a publishing category, like you don't find a lot of Gothics currently being published, as Gothics Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: You're here today to walk me, us through The Secular Scripture by Northrop Frye. And, this started, I asked you what ur romance text you liked to teach or you thought was like a starting- ish place.
There's no true starting place, but like a place to start. And, I was wondering if you could lay the groundwork. What is The Secular Scripture by Northrop Frye? What is it trying to do?
Dr. Angela Toscano: So! The Secular Scripture by Northrop Frye began as a series of lectures he gave in the seventies, I think it was the Charles Elliot Norton Lecture Series.
And in my opinion, or my impression, is that this book is really a companion to his other book of the period, which is The Great Code, which is a literary critical study of the Bible. And if you've just read The Secular Scripture, I think it's clear that he has that in the back of his mind as he's writing this. Right ?
So there is an element here where he is dealing with the myth, religion, the underlying linguistic tropes and conventions that govern storytelling. So his project though, I think partially, is to make this accessible to a lay audience, like people who are not necessarily scholars and academics. The length of the book would [00:07:30] be indicative of this. And also the pro-style I think is far more approachable than a lot of things that were being written contemporaneously. I think it's accessible. Like it's not that it's not difficult or he doesn't have complex ideas, but there's not that gatekeeping quality that you sometimes get with scholarly writing, where, you're almost being tested as to whether or not you belong in this conversation. And I do think that is something that he had like an intention for. Certainly it's less weighty than his other big book, which is Anatomy of Criticism, which is far longer and touches on similar themes that he teases out in The Secular Scripture.
Andrea Martucci: This was published in 1976. And so we're talking about 54 years ago as of the time that we are recording this, and Northrop Frye, as I understand it from Wikipedia, was in his time quite a literary critic.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah, he was one of the bigwigs. So one of his students was Harold Bloom, which I think people would be more familiar with.
And Harold Bloom really wrote the Oedipal complex book that he wrote because his mentor was Northrop Frye. I prefer Frye to Bloom. His anxiety of influence is all about his relationship with Northrop Frye.
Andrea Martucci: I think the reviews I read of The Secular Scripture was by Harold Bloom and he trashed it.
Dr. Angela Toscano: He did. Yeah. And now, you know why. Because Northern Frye was his mentor and advisor at one point. So there is definitely a little bit of a like Oedipal rivalry there. Yeah, it's funny how much scholars' personal lives are revealed in the way that they approach criticism.
That would be one thing that I say writ large about literary criticism. Is that when you read the biography of the author, you usually, some revelation about like, why they're talking about literature the way that they are, becomes wildly apparent. I think it's pretty funny. Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: What Northrop Frye, the case he starts to make at the beginning of this book is defining what romance is.
The whole book is called "a study of the structure of romance." He is not talking about popular romance when he says that. How would you summarize how he is defining romance in the context of his book?
Dr. Angela Toscano: For Frye, romance is the opposite of Epic, right?
So [00:10:00] Epic are poems and stories that are really about the death of heroes, the formation of nations and city states, like Thebes for example. They're about, they cohere a community. They can touch on these more mythological aspects about the creation of the cosmos - why we're here and what our purpose is.
But they're related to, I think, a social intent and Frye says this, that is external, right? So they're meant to reveal or explicate some understanding of the social religious or natural structure of the universe, of the culture.
Whereas romances, are often about the return of heroes. They're digressive.
They often break up a sense of the social structure, if not at the end, then usually in the middle. They are often felt to be more about like entertainment and quest. And one can say in a part of, this is part of why he calls it The Secular Scripture, whereas something like the "regular" Christian scripture is about - I don't want to use the transcendent transcendence because that's not quite accurate - but it is about something external to human society and the human self. Whereas the romance really is about something more mundane, something more the lived and ordinary experience - Well, it's not ordinary, like how many people get kidnapped by pirates, but,
Andrea Martucci: Like a human experience?
Dr. Angela Toscano: It's more humanistic is how I would put it. Yeah. So it's also something that recurs across time. So you have the old romances, like the Odyssey would be maybe the ur text of the romance. Then you've got the early Greek romances that are coming around like 300 AD around like the Byzantine period. You've got the medieval romances, and then you get them reoccurring in like the early modern period and into the 18th century through the novel.
The way that I think about it is that romance is like if romance was like a nation, popular romance would be a territory within that nation. So I think most of our genre literature, which I would argue is more of a result of publishing categories in the 19th and early 20th century, are really all owed their [00:12:30] origins to the big romance that Frye is talking about.
So this could be a book that you could also look at to study the Western. I think it would also be a great book to study fantasy and science fiction. I think it like breaks a little bit down when you're talking about mystery and thriller, but you still have some of those same sorts of structures because they are tied to the idea of like adventure and quest.
Andrea Martucci: So then it's in opposition to things that we might consider literary fiction today?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yes, exactly.
Andrea Martucci: And he uses a lot of examples to talk about romance that are "classics." And I'm admittedly very light on a classical education. I spent a lot of time while reading this trying to extrapolate what he was saying and sort of like project it onto popular romance that had not been written at the time that he was writing this.
So we're going to talk about some of the specific themes, but, how do you think it's useful for using this book to analyze and understand romance novels that are written in the contemporary moment or even 10, 20 years ago or farther back?
Dr. Angela Toscano: So the first thing I want to say is that Frye is a structuralist, in his methodological approach. So structuralists are really interested in how stories are told and what is the function of storytelling across time and across texts. Which is in opposition to something like the methodological approach of new historicism, which is interested in why a particularly literary text, how it reflects or comments on its own historical moment, how it's reflective of that historical moment.
Frye owes a lot to the New Critics who were like the TS Eliot types who were interested in really, not this older sort of Victorian criticism where literature was always about something else. In the sense that like this story is really about how we should all recycle, right? That was more of like the literary critical style and they wanted to talk about, I want to know why this person used the metaphors and like the word choices that they used in this poem.
So it's really about the concentration and focus. How is this text constructed versus what is the purpose, what is the intention this text has for the reader or for the culture? That would be the way that I would divide those questions.
I think that popular romance, [00:15:00] the questions asked about it, historically have always been about how it reflects lived women's experience, how it's a product of patriarchy. It's always about its external effect on the reader or the culture.
Whereas I think Frye opens up a way of thinking about romance, the way you would think about a poem. Why did the author make the choices that they made to construct this story? And how is that similar or different from stories that are like this? And because of that, I think that it makes it possible to look at popular romance, not as a widget or like a product, like a consumer product. But as something that is intentional and creative. And that was really what it did for me when I first read this.
Now, when I first read this, I hadn't read a lot of the books that he's referencing either. I read them after the fact, but I think that I recognized in his explications of certain like conventions and tropes, things I had read in popular romance and I was like, Oh, this is applicable.
You can see similar operations, similar constructions of story, in different popular romance texts, even the ones that are like set like in contemporary America.
Andrea Martucci: And so I'm going to paraphrase what you said and see if I understood it or, add my take on it.
So not just talking about, the secret baby trope hurts women by making them think that if they trap a man into a pregnancy that they'll end up happily ever after, and instead says, what is the desire underneath this trope. And what is it saying maybe about the human condition that we want to see this story told and derive any enjoyment from it?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. It's about why is this trope pleasurable?
Andrea Martucci: Okay.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Not about, like not how does it indoctrinate us into being conservative, patriarchal, which is a little bit like Radway's argument a little bit. I don't want to throw her under the bus, but -
Andrea Martucci: I think it's also fair with Radway to be like what romances had been written at the time she's writing this and like [00:17:30] probably the proportion that really did hue very strongly to internalized misogynistic -
Dr. Angela Toscano: yeah.
Andrea Martucci: - things, was probably much greater than today. I'm not saying it doesn't exist today, but the proportion.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. And certainly also the idea that like the readers, because you enjoy it, you're not critical. I think that is an assumption that a lot of these questions make, that there's two choices. You can either enjoy it or you can be critical of it and you can't have both experiences simultaneously, but that is an underlying assumption. And I think that Frye, not in his argument, but in his clear enjoyment of these texts and yet his deep, critical analysis of them, gives you like a model of being able to do both. That you can love something and enjoy it and take pleasure in it and yet understand its underlying structures because you've been able to analyze them. That they're not distinct functions or experiences.
Andrea Martucci: Yes, and. Both things can be true.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yes. And that was one of the things that he gave to me early on when I began this. And he's so funny, which is what I'd love to - (Andrea breaks in: He really is!) he's really funny. There's this line I always repeat, where he says "Dickens too, was darkly suspected of being a mere entertainer," (Andrea laughs) which I just love. That is when he's talking about realism and his understanding that it's the suspicion of pleasure that often drives the condemnation of the romance, whether you're talking about the medieval romance or like popular romance: that suspicion is really the thing that often is driving these critical engagements with these texts.
Andrea Martucci: I was searching for it: I found two LOL dolls that I marked in here. Okay. on page 115, he's talking about, he's talking about Joseph in Egypt. I don't know, who cares what he's talking about. "It recedes in 20th century romance in response to a convention that a male hero would refuse sexual intercourse would be neither believable nor admirable." (we both laugh)
And, Oh my gosh. Then he's talking about later this story where as some sort of punishment, somebody is - it's so dark - raped by an ass in the square or something.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Oh yeah. That's Apuleius' The Golden Ass.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and it's so dark, but "granted that asses cannot be [00:20:00] trained to do this sort of thing, still, if they could be so trained, that is undoubtedly what the human race would be most interested in training them to do." (chortling)
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. He's like very funny. And he does have a dark sense of humor. Even like the adjectives he sometimes chooses, he'll just drop in. He used like the word interminable at some point to describe a lecture that was, most of the story is just an interminable lecture the monk is giving to the guy he's trying to convert to Christianity.
Andrea Martucci: I recall that. And then he says, and he says something like, "and then something happens, no doubt, because they realized that they needed to wrap it up."
And I think at the time, would it be fair to say - I don't actually understand the context, but you tell me - it seems like at the time, his lack of snobbery in giving this sense of critical engagement to things that would have been considered beneath critical engagement would have set him apart from most other critics.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. There's a few other critics that I think are doing this or did do this, but in the seventies you either had people who were doing work that was like very theoretically and philosophically driven. So this is Derrida. You've got Barthe is like publishing. These guys are philosophers, but they got sucked into sort of literary criticism.
At the same time, like this is like the height of Joseph Campbell's -
Andrea Martucci: Hero's quest, or whatever?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah, and people getting r- obsessed with Hume. So it's not like he's isolated in this. I would say that Joseph Campbell is probably culturally similar to Frye, that there is like this vibe going on in the seventies where people want to talk about archetypes for whatever reason. And it quickly passed out of fashion. Like by the mid-eighties, everybody was really into like Critical Theory. So if you didn't understand, like Lacan and Derrida, you were nobody in the academy, right? Yeah. the real trick of the con is to realize that he's not meant to be understood. And most of it is garbage... (we laugh)
Andrea Martucci: Thinks back on project I did on Lacan when I was 19.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. You're like, yeah, you're like, should I really study this math he made up? And the answer is probably not, you're wasting your time.
Andrea Martucci: So I thought one of the interesting points he made was talking about popular fiction, AKA [00:22:30] romance, AKA fantasy, as this imagined possible future versus quote unquote realistic literature that often talks about the present and the values we understand now, like what tend to be sort of this conservative unimaginative worldview status quo and the language he used, I can't remember if this was paraphrased from somebody else, was the genuine finite AKA literature versus the phony infinite.
I think my question about that is he was talking about how literature can basically only imagine what we know but that idea of creating the phony infinite actually pushes human understanding a little bit farther and is thinking about what could be.
What could be, how could we solve this problem? What could our lives look like if - let's push it, like maybe push it in fiction past the point that we truly want, but at least open the door to considering something else.
I found that really interesting to think about with romance, popular romance, because of how often readers and writers really talk about how, when romance is criticized for not being realistic, first of all, is it unrealistic to desire this? To desire a partner who truly loves and values you and respects you and treats you a particular way? To expect orgasms? To expect, all of the things, not only two of three, is that unrealistic?
And also really a lot of people talk about imagining a better future. What does happily ever after look like? But the argument is often made that that is phony. That cannot be real. There is no answer, but it was just like an interesting thing to think about in the current discourse around romance.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. And I think that this has always been like the sort of underlying critique, and he attaches it to Plato. But I do think it's connected to this idea that somehow desire itself or pleasure itself is always going to be false. That it's always somehow going to lead you astray, away from the revolution, like away from Protestant justification. Like the closer you get to pleasure, like the further away you are from God somehow. So it's like connected to these underlying, I think, theological strains.
But to tie it back to Platonism, I think that pleasure seems like it's getting [00:25:00] you further away from like the ideal form, right? It's like that old movie Multiplicity. Nobody remembers it. It was starring Michael Keaton and he makes like copies of himself and each copy is more and more, (Andrea: Oh, that movie!) yeah. More and more degraded. And the last copy of himself is like a fool, an incompetent, ridiculous fool. Right.
But that's like a platonic idea, right? That's the copy of the copy is somehow going to be bad. And there's something about texts that are for just like mere entertainment, because they're only supposed to incite pleasure, that's somehow pulling you away from virtue or goodness, that it's a distraction.
Whereas I think that his other idea that there's a possibility in romance, and I would connect this to, and I don't know if you've read this, but Tolkien's short essay On Fairy Stories, deals with this and Ursula Le Guin, who of course is a famous science fiction writer and anarchist.
Andrea Martucci: Ooh!
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah, she's amazing. She talks about this too, which is the idea that, this literature is often called "escapist." It's pulling us away from the real, the work of revolution, the work of recognizing how terrible things are and that they are, in some ways they become these unchangeable factors. And I think that Frye is pushing against this, certainly. But I think that he's building on reflections, whether he read them or not, that were expressed by science fiction and fantasy writers. And, I think Tolkein expresses the idea of escape.
His quote is so long. It's amazing though. It's this amazing reflection on the idea that escape is moral and good. And the way that Le Guin puts it with this, "the money lenders, the know-nothings" - this is Le Guin's Authoritarians Have Us All In Prison. "If we value the freedom of the mind and the soul, if we're partisans of Liberty, then it's our plane duty to escape and to take as many people with us as we can." Which I just think is such a beautiful concept.
And I think that when Frye talks about the phony infinite, what he's talking about is that literatures that imagine other ways of being than what we've been given - they're almost magical. Like they literally, that's why they're called magical texts. Fantasy. But they're always some sort of incorporation of magic into romance because it's opening up a door that didn't exist before.
And I think that popular romance does that [00:27:30] because even in its most conservative expressions, it says, no, you can have love even when you're unlovable, which I just think is so meaningful to so many people, because so much of our culture expresses the opposite idea, that you have to be the best version of yourself in order to even get a small inkling of something that looks like love or abundance.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Yeah, the abundance, the infiniteness - I think there is this moralizing like, Oh, I think particularly women - they're gonna forget to feed their children and their husbands if they escape into this fantasy world, but maybe their true fear is, oh, they might not be happy with the crumbs that we throw them anymore. Their heads might get too big, too infinite, to hold the small world that we have handed to them.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. Frye talks about how there's a revolutionary quality to romance. And I think it's precisely this, right? That there's something else, there's something other than the fixed terms that certain kinds of narratives give us. And often I think that these divisions between like realism and romance between, is it accurate? Is it not accurate? Are - I don't think that they're necessarily always like useful questions. Because I think that underscoring that is that the value is that in order for something to be - how do I want to put this without creating some sort of new hierarchical value? That in order for something to be good - I'll just use that - that it must be useful.
And I think that there's a way in which it should conform to how we've collectively defined what is virtuous. And I think that often ends up trapping people in very limited possibilities where only some get to be chosen and special. But I think that's one of the ways that romance's favorite structure, of course, is the Foundling.
The idea that, a hero can come from anywhere, right? Like it could be anybody. And when you get to the end of the story, you will be the hero because that's the trajectory, that's the adventure is you're the hero now.
Andrea Martucci: And as you were saying that I was thinking about, I think there's often in the romance discourse, the [00:30:00] impulse to try to position romance as no, you just don't understand. It is great for these reasons, but a lot of times, those reasons hue to traditional understandings of what makes something good. Usually according to what literature considers be good. "You don't even understand, like the writing of romance is so much better than what you think." And I think that the point I made, and I developed upon hearing other people's thoughts, including Bree from Kit Rocha, is like, it doesn't matter! If people enjoy it. Like who cares if the writing is "good." According to literary standards, right? Like this hierarchy of books can only be good if the writing is literary. What does that mean? Books can only be "good" if they talk about deep themes. Some romances talk about deep themes. Some romances talk about very superficial themes. If somebody enjoys it, who gives a shit? They're all good books.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. And I think that part of the thing about it is that it doesn't actually take into account that - okay. So the example I want to give here is in Frye, he talks a lot about this, which is like, what gives the social capital to a particular piece of literature to make it like part of the great tradition?
He's referring here to F.R. Leavis' book that nobody reads anymore. But if you are interested in why we have canon, you can blame F.R. Leavis. In any case, yeah. So you've got this idea that the problem with romance is that it's mere entertainment, which is where the quote was like, "Dickins too was darkly suspected as mere entertainment, but nobody could possibly believe that Hard Times..." you know, he makes this point.
Canon is created and constructed. It's contextual. And it really is based upon community consensus and like a history of reading and interpretation.
For example, Shakespeare. That guy was a mere entertainer and he was the Steven Spielberg of early modern England. The history of Shakespeare really begins on the 18th century when you start to see him become this cult figure of like great literature. And it solidifies over the course of the 19th century. Nobody in 1690 was like running around, talking about Shakespeare being like the greatest English poet.
They probably would have gotten into literal actual fights in the street, because that was just that time period. But nothing has changed, right? That's the point. And if you perceived Shakespeare as just being like [00:32:30] another of these garbage playwrights, Marlow. Just another Renaissance playwright, right? Just another guy writing violence and sex for the stage. But they're talking about the same plays when they're talking about how like Hamlet enobles the spirit. (Angela laughs) So it's not really about - Hamlet hasn't changed, right?
I'm not going to get into like textual changes - but it's the interpretation that changed, right? Now he's great. Then he's not great. And I think the same holds true for like popular romance.
Andrea Martucci: But how much of the fact that Shakespeare started to become great and change in the public's estimation had to do with the fact that it needed to be understood and translated in a way that it didn't need to be for contemporary audiences at the time? Like, when I think about reading Shakespeare now? Somebody has to explain it to me. I don't know what's going on. And then that lends it some cultural cache that you have to have specialized knowledge to understand this.
This was a point he makes separately. (Angela: Yes) but that a lot of times what we consider "deep and meaningful" is that which people who have the time and money, et cetera, to get a classical education, have been instructed in how to understand it.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah, absolutely. I think historical distance creates like a patina of respectability over a lot of these guys when they were not at the time.
Even think of something like, I don't know, old Seinfeld episodes. So much of that humor is so contextually and culturally specific, that even 30 or 40 years later, I don't know if somebody who was like 13 watching a Seinfeld episode would understand like why it was funny. It's starting to get to the point where you need footnotes to be able to enjoy a certain sitcoms from like earlier periods in American television, because the jokes, they're meaningless without the cultural context, which you don't have.
Andrea Martucci: Exactly. Look 30 years from now, if somebody is like Four Seasons Landscaping?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Why was that funny?! (laughing)
Andrea Martucci: Is it going to be funny? And we're going to be like, ha ha, like rolling on the floor. And a hundred years from now, some historian is going to be giving a lecture on the election of 2020, and there are going to be kids sitting, falling asleep in class and-
Dr. Angela Toscano: like, I don't get it.
Andrea Martucci: "I don't get it." And they're like, no, no, no, no. It's hilarious. And the students are like, no, it really isn't. This is not entertaining. Yeah. That's what happens. And, I was thinking about, romance novels that were written [00:35:00] in the seventies. So, you know, let's talk about Woodiwiss or, people of that era. And
Dr. Angela Toscano: They're a slog. (laughs)
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. and I believe that they were super entertaining at the time and listen, like I read them as a teenager and I obviously found them readable in a way that now with a much deeper knowledge of romance, I find them somewhat less readable. What I think about is this arc of something being entertaining to the people in the moment, and then time passes and because you are no longer the person who existed at that cultural moment, the only way to understand it, is to have that critical take on it and read it with the, Oh, what was the historical context of the time in which this was written? And what is it trying to do? And blah, blah, blah. I don't think you can find it entertaining in the same way.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah, you can't. And it's really interesting though, the texts that are able to be entertaining across time. I think that those ones are fascinating because you're like, wow, this is 3000 years old. It's hilarious. An example is the novel - well, novel is like a rough word here - but the story Leucippe and Clitophon, which is one of the, what they call the ancient Greek novels.
And there's this argument between these two cousins, like three page argument, about who is the better lover to have, a girl or a boy. And then they're like, no, no, no, no, no, you are wrong, sir. They're just getting into this taste argument about who's better to date.
(laughs) Which is totally - this is like 2000 years old, but it's funny still, because the argument somehow managed to capture something ridiculous about human interactions and love and sex that somehow has remained relatively the same, cultural considerations, like not considered, But, it somehow still manages to be somewhat funny.
And if Shakespeare is performed, you don't need footnotes.
Andrea Martucci: Exactly, Right. Right.
Dr. Angela Toscano: So it's still funny. And you're like, Oh, this is hilarious. I didn't understand five words out of 10, but I got the joke, because it's been made clear to me through these other mechanisms
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think what Frye is exploring over the course of this, he's talking about literature or stories that have been written hundreds, thousands of years ago in the course of talking about what romance is, and, one of the distinctions he makes between like romance and [00:37:30] literature or whatever the dichotomy is that he's created is this idea of these human themes that have persisted throughout time and how they're explored.
But one of the ways he explains this is, "a maze without a plan" versus "a maze, not without a plan." And talking about it related to this idea where the human reality is that we're all going to die. Which go back and listen to episode 68 where I talked to a psychoanalyst about this.
Life is random. We all know we're going to die. That's literally the only thing we know. So the human compulsion is to create in the face of this chaos and basically create order out of these anxieties and questions that we have, and that we've had 2000 years ago and we have today. (Angela: Yes)
And I think that that's where he starts getting into the structure. So how does this structurally look different from literature? And one of the ways he explained this, that I thought was really helpful was the difference between "hence" and, "and then."
So "hence" was sort of the literary construct where it was like, "given these characters in this situation, what will realistically happen. And it's meaningless. It's plotless, there's no structure to this story because that's life.
Dr. Angela Toscano: It's Oscar winning.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. So what is a good example of a hence story?
Andrea Martucci: Million Dollar Baby.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Million Dollar Baby, the movie In The Bedroom. If you remember that. These sort of melancholy character studies of people within a particular situation. That movie, The Good Girl starring Jennifer Anniston, like even a little bit like sitcoms, right?
Like Schitt's Creek I think is a hence show. So it veers on this because it's a comedy, not a tragedy, which I think is another sort of underlying structure that he implies, but doesn't necessarily always get deeply into - if you're really interested in that you have to read like The Anatomy of Criticism.
But, my sister and I have just been watching Supernatural again, and let me tell you that is an end then show if there ever was one. It is, and then Castiel swallows all the souls in purgatory and , there's not always a logic to it. And if you start trying to figure [00:40:00] out what the logic is, it stops being enjoyable because you're like, wait a minute. So in season three, they said this thing, but now it's like this thing, right? You're like, no, Nope, that's a hence, you need to just "and then "it. (laughs)
Andrea Martucci: Right. And so the "and then" is this external adventure - things happened to the characters. They have to react to it. And what's interesting about it is how they react to it.
You don't spend your time asking, wait a second. Oh, and then a mysterious inheritance -
Dr. Angela Toscano: Their underlying motivations... yeah, this is like the Wuthering Heights problem. So Wuthering Heights always gets treated as a "hence" because it was written by a Bronte and it's now part of the canon of English literature, but it is an "and then" story if there ever was one.
And the key is this is that Heathcliff disappears for a while (Andrea: conveniently!) and then first of all, his origins are never explained. His race is never explained. Where he got his money is never explained. And the funny thing about it is that critics are always trying to explain the motivation and the meeting, it's like a deep psychological thriller. And I'm like, it is not a psychological thriller. It's not a character study. It is an "and then" story. It is a Gothic. I mean, I think it's a brilliant work of literature for reasons that I will not get into, but it's treated like you would treat an Ibsen play, when it's definitely not an Ibsen play.
Andrea Martucci: I want to say for anybody listening to this later, that I do not get most of Angela's references. (we laugh)
Dr. Angela Toscano: So I'm trying to think about what would be another good example.
Andrea Martucci: I'm like, Oh, an Ibsen play, you say?
Dr. Angela Toscano: All you have to know is that a bunch of like Nordic people go out on stage, don't talk about their feelings for about two hours, and then it ends in like tragedy. That is the structure of an Ibsen play right? (Andrea groans) Yeah. It's exactly - you're like, who wants that? Sorry to Ibsen fans that are probably not listening to this. Maybe you are, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's diehard, Ibsen fans out there still.
Andrea Martucci: I submit that you cannot both enjoy that and enjoy romance novels. I'm sorry - flay me alive.
Dr. Angela Toscano: I think it's like when like a prestige drama jumps the shark, is often when they're moving from a hence situation to an and then situation.
And I think that you see this in TV shows all the time, where they start out as a hence, and then they end up as an and then, because -
Andrea Martucci: what else could happen?
Dr. Angela Toscano: What else could happen? Precisely because the [00:42:30] seasons are in like this phony, infinite, right? You're like, Oh, we're on season 12. So we've run out of these ideas that would logically follow. So now we're just, they're having a baby and the baby is an alien, like that's where we're at and we just accept it. (laughs)
Andrea Martucci: So another structural thing he brings up - structural thing, that's, I'm sure how he would define it - is the polarity of bouncing between this idyllic world that we want and a demonic world that we don't want.
And that one of those things is above ordinary experience. This idyllic world we want, it's like the sky world. And then one of them is the subterranean world that we do not want. But that we do not spend any time in ordinary existence. We're always above, below. And if somebody were a writer, I'm sure that you could look at some beat structure thing, and you could see this happening, like the rollercoaster of bouncing up and down, but these are sort of like the beats that we understand and even if you haven't studied this, a romance reader understands like, Oh, and then we have to have a black moment because then we're going to bounce up at the end up into the ideal world once again.
And also this moral polarizing of characters. So that's the plot, the up and the down. And then there's also the polarizing of characters. There's heroes, there's villains. There's the virtuous us and the vicious them.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah. And I think that you can really see this - I'm trying to think of like a good - it's almost like I've never read any romance novels because of my mind has gone entirely.
Andrea Martucci: Oh let's talk about Kleypas
Dr. Angela Toscano: Kleypas is a perfect one. I was actually just thinking of Kleypas. Thank you. I love Lisa Kleypas and I think she does (Andrea: moi aussi) yeah. I think that she does this exact hitch, like really well.
For example, in the first book of the Hathaway series, which I'm forgetting. It opens with them in a hell, the gaming hell Jenner's, looking for the brother who's gone off on a bender. And then they inherit this house, which is like literally falling down around their ears.
But it's such an extreme situation, the Hathaways right. Like the sister is like ill, all the time. She's never really recovered from scarlet fever. One of the little ones is like a kleptomaniac. Like the brother is a drunk. They have no money. They're orphans. Their parents are dead. They got this inheritance, but it's like a curse. Cause it's no money and now they have to manage land.
This extreme, [00:45:00] demonic version, like that would use Frye's term, of an opening situation where it's just - everything's gone to crap. Like not just one thing, but everything. And then it seems like impossible to be able to get out of it. And that's the plot, right? It's like, how do they get out of it?
Moreover, how does not doing the conventional thing - which I think is like a theme in a lot of Kleypas' books - free you. Right? They have sort of the patina of respectability and like fitting into the aristocratic world. They've got the title, they've got the land, but behind it is nothing.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. and this is the one where, Oh gosh, is it guy who's Jenner's
Dr. Angela Toscano: The Rom. Yeah. Cam
Andrea Martucci: Yes and I know Kleypas has some, problematic representation of the Romany people. However he is coded in this as not a good choice for the aristocracy. Thankfully later we find out that he's like of noble birth. Right?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Right. This is such an old trope, is that finding through totally ridiculous, very convenient and serendipitous like acts of fate, that the history and origins of the foundling child. Man, that's the plot of Tom Jones, in case you were wondering. Oh, this baby we found on the hill actually is a princess. Weird.
Andrea Martucci: Wow. who could have imagined? (Angela laughs) And the virtuous us versus the vicious them is really apparent in a lot of Lisa Kleypas' early historicals. I think that her characterization became a little bit more nuanced as time went on, but there was very frequently a virgin / whore dichotomy going on with female characters, where it was like, well, you know the good people, you know, the good women because they make choices like this. And, the bad women because they make choices like this. And, I'm thinking of, in Dreaming of You, Joyce is it, is like the -
Dr. Angela Toscano: Like vicious is the word that would describe that character.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Virtuous us versus vicious them is very apparent because that is what she is. She's a very vicious character.
Andrea Martucci: And you can identify these characters as being bad or evil, whatever, and being the representation of the demonic world, of belonging to the demonic world you don't want it, for the hero in this [00:47:30] case: no, don't end up with her. That's the wrong choice. You want to end up with the virtuous heroine, the virtuous virgin.
This always makes me think of - he actually spoke of this trope, the dog always knows.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: This comes up in Jennifer Crusie's novels, because the dog always knows who the bad guy is.
Dr. Angela Toscano: Always. The dog and the kids, they always know.
Andrea Martucci: But how does the dog know? It's a total plot contrivance, right?
Dr. Angela Toscano: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: And then meanwhile, in real life, like somebody's breaking into your house and your dog is making friends with them, your golden retriever is making friends with the person entering your house. Because that's how real life works, but that's sad. No, thank you.
Thanks for listening to episode 73 of Shelf Love and thanks to Angela for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on shelflovepodcast.com. Stay tuned for part two of my conversation with Dr. Angela Toscano, out next week.
In the latter part of our conversation, we talk about how identity is lost, changed and reformed in romance, the possibility inherent to the romance, and how we can have more critical conversations about problematic things in romance without demanding its eradication, because let's be honest, everything is problematic.
Coming up, I'll be kicking off the 2021 season with my interview with Jennifer Crusie. I'm really excited for what's in store next year: more academic text deep dives like this one, where scholars break down and contextualize romance scholarship, and explain how it's relevant to today's romance readers. More problematic favorite trope discussions, and of course, lots of sharing and discussing of romance novels worth reading.
There is still time to buy a gift for a romance community member who is in need of some help this holiday season. Check out bit.ly/Romancelandia. That's Bit.ly/Romancelandia for all the information on Romancelandia Holiday Fairies, which I spoke about in more detail in episodes, 71 and 72. I am planning on leaving the wishlists up at least until December 31st, 2020. I'm also planning to do this again next year. So if you happen to be listening to this in 2021 or later, the best place to sign up to stay in the loop is Shelf Love's email newsletter list, because I will be sure to mention it there.
Thank you 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 [00:50:00] episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson, and Tasha L. Harrison. That's all for this week. Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad and keep reading romance.