Friday, November 7, 2014

Critiquing from Pleasure: Julie M. Dugger's " 'I'm a Feminist, But... Popular Romance in the Women's Literature Classroom"

I've been dipping with pleasure into the latest issue of Journal of Popular Romance Studies (4.2), with its dual themes of popular romance in Australia and a 30th-anniversary consideration of Janice Radway's groundbreaking study of romance readers, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. But it was an article in the "Teaching and Learning" section of the issue that particular caught my eye, an article about the difficulties students may encounter when reading genre romance in a broader course on Women and Literature. Professor Julie M. Dugger teaches a unit on popular romance in such a class, and writes about both the difficulties and the opportunities presented by such teaching in her article "'I'm a Feminist, But...': Popular Romance in the Women's Literature Classroom" (1).

As I often found when teaching college classes in children's literature, when students who have been trained in literary methods of analyzing a text are asked to analyze something other than canonical literature, they often have one of two reactions, neither conducive to productive learning. Some, committed to the critical literary reading practices they've learned and internalized during their college studies, assert that popular literature, unlike the literature commonly studied in the college classroom, is lesser, and thus unworthy of rigorous critical analysis. Others, more comfortable with popular reading practices than with literary analysis, practices focused more on the pleasure one takes in reading than in analyzing how texts work, object to applying the techniques of literary analysis to their favorite books. "You're overanalyzing this!" and "Don't ruin it for me!" were two common refrains in my children's literature classrooms, as I'm sure they are in any literature course that includes popular romance on its syllabus.

The situation becomes even more complicated when you add feminist literary theory to the mix. Many students are aware of the negative views many feminists have about popular genre romance, yet at the same time, those same students often take real pleasure in reading romance. As Dugger asks, "What is the women's studies critic to do when a genre dominated by women writers and readers appears to conflict with feminist ideals?" (1) Rather than attempt to ignore the discomfort that a student who is a fan of romance may experience when asked to analyze individual romances, or the genre as a whole, Dugger suggests, teachers should take advantage of this discomfort, for it "provides key opportunities for reflecting not only on romance, but on the assumptions in literary and feminist studies that might otherwise go unexamined" (1).

It's important to lay the groundwork for such an examination, though, to help students move beyond both discomfort and their refusal to engage. First, Dugger suggests, it is vital to explain that feminism has both criticized and praised romance as a genre.

The feminist case against romance:

• Romance endorses women's relational roles at the expense of their individual development
• Romance plots and characters validate abusive relationship patterns
• Romance novels are commercial, formulaic productions of very little literary value that perpetuate harmful media stereotypes (in particular, gender stereotypes) (6-8)

The feminist case for romance:

• Romances offer women a way to acknowledge their oppression and imagine a better future
• Romances challenge a male-modeled individualism
• Romance provides women with an alternative to a sexist high-culture literary canon (9-11)

Additionally, Dugger argues that it is vital to approach romance texts not just with suspicion—they are all sexist, and it's our job to point out their sexism—but also with an eye toward the pleasures they offer readers:  "If we really want students to analyze the narratives of romance—utopian as well as dystopia—especially when we teach in a culture that is so caught up in these narratives, we must enable them to work critically from their pleasure as well as their discomfort" (14).

Dugger offers the following suggestions as ways to critique from pleasure, ways that I think general readers of romance might appreciate, even outside of a college classroom:

• First, acknowledge that "all interpretive practices have strengths and weaknesses, and academic reading is no exception. Literary critical reading has its own limits, its own professional turf to defend, and its own forms of sexism.... Correspondingly, just as scholarly reading has its strengths, so too does pleasurable reading. We can encourage multiple modes of approaching a text."
• Use and integrate multiple venues of discussion (full class, small groups, online posts, etc.)
• Juxtapose high- and low-culture romances (to unpack why some texts are valued while others are not, and how a text or entire genre's association with women affects readers' perception of literary quality)
• Analyze pleasure: Why does a text give you as a reader pleasure? How do other readers of the same text talk about the pleasure it gives them? How does the text work to create such pleasure?
• Give air-time to both sides of the debate
• Don't be shy about announcing that you (in Dugger's case, the teacher) like romances (or admire people who do). Knowing that other smart women like romance can help readers confront the stigma often associated with reading such a devalued genre (14-16)

These practices both resonated with me, as things I attempt to do via this blog, and gave me food for thought about potential future RNFF posts. I especially appreciated Dugger's generous conclusion: "It cannot hurt to remember how often love is a positive force in human endeavor, whether it be romantic love for other people, or readerly love for the stories they tell" (17).

As a romance reader, do you find yourself conflicted over your reading? Are you able to read for pleasure and read analytically? If so, can you do so both at the same time? Or can you read in only one mode at a time?

Illustration credits:
Keep calm: Keepcalm-o-matic
Love 2 read: Read 2012


  1. Great review, Jackie! I read this article, too (and know Julie personally), and I loved it as well. My favorite contribution she makes is in the feminist case FOR romance: MEN CHOOSE RELATIONSHIPS. I think that's a unique way of looking at romance that is not often part of the discussion. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term "stalled revolution" to describe how the feminist movement has stopped gaining ground like it did in the beginning, and she attributes this stall to men's failure to move into traditionally feminine domains (women have moved into men's but the "revolution" has stalled in the reverse process). Until men (and the culture) start to value domains that are traditionally feminine, like home, relationships, love, and family, we're going to keep spinning our wheels. The case for romance as feminist project and potential source of cultural change is most convincing for me on this point! Thanks for highlighting Julie's excellent article!

  2. What about sex? What about imagining sexual pleasure from a woman's pov, for a woman's pleasure? They seemed to have missed the boat on that one. I see erotic romance as a new territory claimed by women for sexual equality and fulfillment. And this overlaps with age and feminism too, as more second wave feminists who are growing older refuse to cede their sexual identity and look for erotic romance/relationships etc as a way of meeting their sexual needs. This is exciting stuff! Academic literary feminists seem to have entirely missed a revolution happening under their noses.

    1. Madeline:
      Yes, what about sex? When I first started this blog, I wrote about sex as being one of the aspects of romance that could be considered feminist (see here: The burgeoning of erotic romance is definitely an exciting development, and one worthy of more academic study...

  3. Oh wow, I wasn't even aware that there was an academic journal about studying romance!

    While I mostly have my pleasure reading cap on when I read romance, I find the analytical part of it comes on when I read something triggering -- I recently tried to read a romance novel where in the first few paragraphs the heroine is excusing her great grandmother's history of owning slaves as a thing done by women of those times. I mean, yes it was, but that doesn't mean you have to accept it and passively say "oh it was wrong but whatever." This is for a different discussion, obviously, but it's things like that that make my pleasure cap morph into an analytical cap. Other things that trigger this sort of reaction from me is the romanticization of a lot of problematic things like prostitution or the fetishization of other non-white cultures like with the proliferation of shieks or the stereotypical non-white side character in a stereotypical role.

    So I tend to avoid those like the plague. But I'm coming to realize that I want romance books to really stop doing those things. Is it too much to ask for socially aware characters looking for their happily ever afters? It doesn't even have to be blunt and some authors have succeeded in it. I try to hide my analytical cap because I feel like I'm overanalyzing romance novels. I've recently also just realized that since romance novels are widely read by a lot of people, it certainly wouldn't hurt for more socially aware books, right? At least that's what I keep telling myself.

    Great article though! Thanks for sharing that link to the popular romance studies journal! I now have things to think about on how I read romance novels.

    1. Eirene:

      Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts. Hope you find the JPRS of interest!

      When I taught children's lit classes to college students, they'd often accuse me of "overanalyzing." I'd always reply, "there's no such thing as overanalyzing; there's only good analysis and bad analysis. Which one do you think this is?" Analysis is all about engaging with ideas; "overanalyzing" is used, I think, to try and shut down conversations, to NOT engage with ideas, to NOT think.

      I want romance books to stop doing those things, too, and I don't think it's too much to ask. If we keep asking, we're more likely to receive...

  4. I learn a lot from your blog, and I also get a great reading list. Thor is reading about the Sentimental Bloke. Because Thor has feelings.

  5. I often need to reread books that have really captured my imagination if I intend to write about them. KJ Charles' book Think of England was a good recent example. I read it in a day. I'll need to reread it if I want to say anything more profound about it than, "OMG SQUEE BEST BOOK EVER." A slight exaggeration of course, but the plot and the love story did nearly completely override my analytical side. The best I could do was highlight spots to come back to. It's a generalization, but this problem rarely occurs with categories. The length keeps most of them from having the same density. It's not as difficult to consider both the broader context for the work and keep track of the plot at the same time. Of course, this is at the reviewer level. For an academic, I'd think nearly every text would require some sort of second reading, but I guess what I'm saying is that I do see some value in appreciating the work for the inherent pleasure in it. It's how the romance functions within the culture after all and to dismiss that as unimportant would seem to...miss the point?

    1. Yes, ditto on the rereading, Elisabeth. One of the things I really like about e-readers is the way I can highlight significant passages, and then can know where to focus attention when I go back and do that rereading.

      The way I know I want to write about a book, though, is usually from the pleasure I take from it, before the analytical brain starts to kick in. Then I have to ask myself--why is this book giving me pleasure? That's when the analytical brain goes to work...

  6. Yes, it's possible to do both in one sitting, although some books lend themselves more to one way of reading than the other. I find myself reading a lot of romance critically because their handling of the genre elements hits my "no" button for one reason or another. It's hard to read for pure pleasure when what you're reading isn't pleasurable. By the same token, I can read a literary masterpiece mostly for pleasure because reading it is pleasurable. (I'm the kind of weirdo for whom The Brothers Karamazov is a comfort read.)

    Another factor driving increased critical engagement with a text is my greater awareness of POV and other literary techniques as a result of having started to write fiction of my own (fanfic, not profic, in this case). It makes realizing that Dostoevsky wrote first person omniscient, which I wouldn't normally have noticed, doubly exciting.

    1. It does depend a lot on what a specific reader finds pleasurable, no? We all take pleasure in different things (I took pleasure in reading CLARISSA, myself), and our "no" buttons are often quite different, too.

      Can't quite imagine a first person omniscient in a romance novel, though...

  7. No, I don't find myself conflicted over my reading.
    Yes, I'm able to read for pleasure and read analytically, but it's a little bit more complex than that. I can enjoy or dislike a book. And I can analyze it and realize the good and the bad things in that book. But I'm never sure if I disliked a book b/c of those things that I analyze or if it's only that I 'think' I dislike it b/c of that but that, as a matter of fact, my personal enjoyment of a book does not depend on that but on things from my subscontious mind.
    Perhaps I think I dislike a book for instance for the trite secret baby trope but then as a matter of fact I did not like it b/c the main character reminds my unconscious mind of a jerk I knew years ago.
    I can read & analyze when I'm reading a book I don't like. But if I'm enjoying a book I'm just centered on that. It's when the book is over when I try to think why did I like it.