Friday, May 17, 2013

Romancing Northrup Frye: Laura Vivanco's FOR LOVE AND MONEY

In the literary world, Mills and Boon has long been the black sheep. Its books—to call them novels would be to raise them far above their station—are lightweight, the plots recycled and the endings predictable and to read them is a waste of precious life. — Sarah Freeman, "100 Years of Romancing the Readers." Yorkshire Post, 2008

Having spent a great deal of time reading [Harlequin/Mills & Boon] romances, I would argue that many are well-written, skilfully crafted works which can and do engage the minds as well as the emotions of their readers, and a few are small masterpieces—as I shall show. —Laura Vivanco, For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance, 2011

For an academic scholar, admitting that one reads and studies romance novels is a particularly risky move. Though literature scholars pride themselves on uncovering the hidden oppressions in the texts they analyze, they rarely talk about the strict hierarchies within their own field, hierarchies often based upon the cultural capital of the texts one analyzes, more than the skill with which one analyzes them. When I met Mary Bly, a scholar of Renaissance literature, at a romance writers conference and asked how her colleagues at Fordham University felt about her other identity, award-winning historical romance writer Eloisa James, her answer was disappointing if unsurprising: she'd kept her alter ego a secret until one of her books made the New York Times bestseller list.

To proclaim that the mass-produced romances of Harlequin (or of Mills & Boon, the company's name in the UK) are not only worthy of analysis in a cultural studies context, but that they embody "literary art," then, is to open oneself up for knee-jerk ridicule from academe. Which is why I so admire Laura Vivanco's courage in writing and publishing her monograph, For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Bucking the cultural studies trend of previous literature, sociology, and psychology scholars who have written about category romance, Vivanco instead meets literary scholars on the field of literary value.

What evidence does Vivanco muster to support what to most readers might seem a dubious claim? Rather than argue for her claim directly, she justifies it by disproving specific criticisms previous writers have aimed at the genre. In her opening chapter, to counter the claim that romances are unrealistic works of wish-fulfillment fantasy, she calls upon an unlikely ally: mid-twentieth century literary scholar Northrop Frye. Frye's 1957 Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays argued that literary scholarship should move beyond value judgments of individual texts, and instead take a more scientific approach to the field as a whole. Frye seems an odd choice to help make a case for a value-based argument, but applying his ideas to category romance does lead to some helpful insights.

Like Carolus Linneaus's taxonomic system of classifying life forms based on their shared physical characteristics, Frye sorted the fictions he studied into different groups, or what he termed "modes." Frye's modes—Mythic, Romantic, High Mimetic, Low Mimetic, and Ironic—are differentiated by whether their heroes (the term used by Frye) are superior or inferior in kind or degree to your average human being, and to their environments. Vivanco argues that HM&B books can fall into any mode but the Mythic, although most tend to be either in the High Mimetic (with heroes who are superior to other humans, but not to their environments) or Low Mimetic (with heroes who are equal to other humans). Placing the category romance within the context of these modes helped me to understand why so many of its protagonists are larger than life figures; many of the HM&B guidelines call for stories written in the High Mimetic mode. Vivanco's discussion of two romances written in the ironic mode, a mode very few romance writers choose for their novels, proves especially interesting, allowing me to see why I enjoyed Jennifer Crusie's Strange Bedpersons (1994) and Kristin Higgins' Catch of the Day (1996) even while feeling that neither was really quite a romance in the conventional sense.

The second part of the chapter rebuts other, more specific criticisms aimed at the unrealistic nature of category romance—that they all must have happy endings and that they never include social problems or issues—before taking an abrupt turn back to Frye's modes to counter the argument that HM&B books are all the same. Not only are there HM&B books written in different modes, but even books within the same mode can vary, as there are gradients within each mode. Also, as Frye argues that while one mode "constitutes the underlying tonality of a work of fiction...any or all of the other four may be present," HM&B authors may include hints of myth or romance within their primarily high or low mimetic works. Frye suggests that "much of our sense of the subtlety of great literature comes from this modal counterpoint" (50-51), a suggestion that Vivanco quotes but does not directly apply to the books she analyzes. Instead, she explores how such modal counterpoint can be used to increase reader identification (with the "average" heroine in counterpoint to the larger-than-life hero), or to convey the impact of love (its ability to make a heroine feel as if she is in a completely different, and higher, mode). Analysis such as this, when Vivanco uses Frye as a jumping-off point for her own theoretical work, are the spots in the text that I found the most valuable.

Chapter 2 identifies HM&B books which retell or re-envision myths, fairy tales, or chivalric romances. Vivanco doesn't explain how identifying the stories that undergird HM&B romances supports her claim that some are "small masterpieces," or that others are "well-written" or "skilfully crafted," however, leaving the reader to assume that her exploration of how retellings can be cast in different modes, from high to low mimetic to ironic, was undertaken to disprove detractors' claims that category romances are all the same.

A HM&B "masterpiece"?
I found Chapter 3, "Metafiction," the most interesting. One section focuses on the self-reflexivity of romance (a topic about which I blogged about in this post), discussing books in which stereotypes about romance authors, and/or romance readers, are rebutted by featuring romance-writing or -reading heroines. Another discusses romances that make links between their genre and other popular culture genres typically denigrated by the "high brow," such as television, film and comics, or other low-status literary genres, such as the Gothic. The brief middle section touches upon books which reference classic works of literature (Austen; Shakespeare). Though Vivanco argues that some HM&B books can, like the best metafiction, lead readers to productively question the relationship between fiction and reality, the books she discusses seem to fall more in the category of books that simply use references to other fictions in order to participate in a "shared stock of common allusions, words, and metaphors" (149) than ones that actively work to disrupt the taken-for-grantedness of fiction's conventions.

The last chapter identifies common metaphors in HM&B romances, suggesting both that the use of extended metaphor demonstrates the talent of HM&B writers, and that particular metaphors can help the literary critic better understand individual texts. Vivanco describes books in which extended metaphors are used to symbolize love: buildings and interiors; bridges; gardens and flowers; hunting; and journeying.

Vivanco's chapters demonstrate both her skill in close reading individual texts and her wide knowledge of the HM&B field. They also provide clear evidence that many of the criticisms leveled against category romances are clearly overgeneralizations. It would have been interesting to hear more about why Vivanco chose these particular 147 books to discuss, though. Are these outliers that prove the rule that in general, HM&B books lack literary merit? Or do they provide a broad enough sample to suggest that most HM&B romances contain literary merit? What percentage of HM&B romances demonstrate "literary art," in Vivanco's view? If the percentage is small, are the books she discusses ultimately relevant, or simply mere curiosities, easily overlooked amidst a welter of far less accomplished writing?

Do these chapters ultimately support Vivanco's overall claim that some, if not all, HM&B romances, demonstrate "literary art"? In her conclusion, Vivanco suggests that genre constraints such as those placed on HM&B writers do not always have to be negative; like the formal constraints of a sonnet, or Jane Austen's "little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work," such constraints can provide fertile ground for literary artistry. But as Vivanco never gives her readers a definition of just what constitutes "literary art," readers are ultimately left unable to judge whether or not any of the 147 books she discusses embody it, or which among those 147 are "small masterpieces." Literary merit has become a vastly contested concept in the sixty+ years since Northrop Frye wrote Anatomy of Criticism; my idea of what constitutes it may be quite different from yours, or from Vivanco's.

Whether or not HM&B books contain literary artistry or not, they are certainly worthy of study by both cultural studies and literature scholars, particularly those of a feminist bent. The metaphors they deploy, the literary and cultural references they evoke, have much to tell us not only about gender assumptions, but also about female readerly desire. I applaud critics such Vivanco, Eric Selinger, Sarah Frantz, Pamela Regis and others, scholars brave enough to study popular romance in spite of the often denigrating attitude of many of their colleagues.

Next time on RNFF:
The allure of the male harem


  1. Thanks very much for the very detailed review. What you wrote about the "knee-jerk ridicule from academe" had particular resonance for me in the light of the statement, included in the last review For Love and Money received, that HM&Bs are "clones of the same hive mind: a single story in multiple, infinite iterations, written by uncounted authors and their pseudonyms".

    Re "Vivanco never gives her readers a definition of just what constitutes "literary art," I was using fairly basic definitions of "literary" and "art", such as one would find in the OED. I'm a bit medievalist in my thinking about "masterpieces." The explanation's quite long, so I've written it up as a blog post.

    1. Thanks, Laura, for the pointer to your blog, where you discuss "literary art" in more detail. But I'm still left wondering two things: first, is "literary art" in any way connected to "literary merit," and the myriad debates about what constitutes it, in the academic world? And which HM&B do you think constitutes "masterpieces," in terms of the skills required to produce a top-notch HM&B book? Oh, and I guess a third question: does your choice of "masterpieces" take into account ideology, or is your judgment based solely on literary skill?

    2. is "literary art" in any way connected to "literary merit"

      Well, yes, inasmuch as something written without "art" is unlikely to be deemed to have "literary merit." However, many things take skill to write but are not deemed to have literary merit because, as you say, ideas about what constitutes "literary merit" are so varied and subjective.

      What I tried to do was show was that there is skill involved in writing category romances and that they can be quite complex. That latter point's important because, as Pamela Regis noted in a keynote speech at one of the IASPR conferences:

      “complexity” is an overarching value in all critical work from whatever era. Literary critics—we—all believe “that literature is complex and that to understand it requires patient unraveling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” (105). Indeed, for some of the critics she examined, simplicity, the opposite of complexity, was nothing less than a “much-maligned state” (110). So fundamental is the idea of complexity, that either by direct statement or by implication, each of us answers the question, “Are romance novels complex?” I think our answer to this question matters a great deal. (Regis)

      which HM&B do you think constitutes "masterpieces," in terms of the skills required to produce a top-notch HM&B book

      Again, I think opinions vary, in part because there are a number of different skills required, and some authors may be very skilled in some areas and less so in others. Also, preferences re mimetic modes, favourite types of characters and plot situations etc have changed over the decades, so someone who was a "top notch" author in the 1930s, say, probably wouldn't be a great success with today's readers.

      does your choice of "masterpieces" take into account ideology, or is your judgment based solely on literary skill?

      My own judgements take into account ideology and also my personal preferences re literary modes etc and since that means so many subjective factors are involved, I'd rather not single out the titles I prefer. I'm wary of imposing my preferences and implying that they're a good basis on which to start building some sort of "canon."

    3. Thanks, Laura, for clarifying your positions here. I appreciate it!

      Are you against canon formation at all? Or just your own opinion being the guide for constructing it?

    4. In theory, the formation of a canon seems a good idea. After all, one can't read everything, so it can be useful to know which are the most representative/most influential texts and be able to focus on those. In practice, however, ideas about "great literature" were shaped by sexual, class and racial prejudices, though obviously in more recent decades there's been a push to broaden the canon.

      That's why, while I'm not totally opposed to canon formation, I'm very wary of it, particularly when the criteria by which the texts are chosen is unclear and/or the selection is shaped by unacknowledged preferences and prejudices.

  2. Sarah Freeman's article in the Yorkshire post is "predictable" and
    reading it is "a precious waste of life". Sarah should really come up with a fresh opinion. Dumping on the romance genre has been done before. I daresay, it's been done from here to eternity.

    Her attitude reminds me of a speaker at NEC this year. NEC has many NYT bestselling authors who write romance. I can't imagine where she got the guts to show up (for payment) and lecture to writers with more experience the she. This woman took 7 years to write a novel which (her words) is unpublishable. Then she stood there and told successful writers that she always considered romance characters as "flat". Gee, I wonder if she ever read a romance. I doubt it.

    Finally, do people denigrate romance because women are the authors? I bet lots of opinions are based on a sexist (conscious or not) world view.

    1. Yes, I do think the long tradition of denigrating romance stems in part from the fact that most of its authors and readers are women. But there are many other reasons, too, including class (category romance is often considered fiction for the working classes, not worthy of the attention of more educated readers and scholars) and feminism (many early students of the genre were feminists who identified troubling, oppressive aspects in Harlequin romances of the 1960s and 70s). Romance has changed significantly, but the conventional wisdom about romance and its lack of value hasn't.

  3. I join the applause because I´m an academic scholar too (Latin American historian)and I have always had a difficult time explaining a) why I like this particular kind of literature and b)its cultural/sociological importance. My peers don´t consider it as literature at all, and tend to look at me as if I were some kind of fantastic creature. They would say: How can the latest Eric Hobsbawm book can coexist with Jill Shalvis "It had to be you" in your bedside table? Well, stereotypes are the worst that can happen to anybody, specially a highly educated Latin American woman. I daresay that if more scholars join Vivanco´s club (and this one), they will be able build a new teorethical field, reinforce categories and earn more and more visibility in the academic world for this literature. As in any other discipline, the more people joins the conversation the more interesting it gets, more sophisticated and thus academically acceptable. We don´t need it, but I think we deserve it.

    1. As a scholar of children's literature, I would often get the same kind of reaction from my fellow graduate students -- children's books are easy, by definition, so why would a scholar need to study them? The serious scholarly study of children's literature began in the 1980s, and early scholars spent a lot of time trying to justify their work. Children's lit critics have moved beyond apologetics, and the field is currently flourishing, even despite some academics' continued condescension. I think romance studies is at an earlier stage in its development than children's lit studies is, more in the "we have to explain and justify what we do" stage. But shifts in children's lit studies give me hope that romance studies, too, will one day be more widely accepted in the scholarly community.