Romance novels need a canon
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
I’m a guy who loves romance novels. Or, rather, I would like to love romance novels. Jane Austen is just about my favorite novelist; I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice” I don’t know how many times. I also adore Trollope and E.M. Forster and George Eliot. Those folks are all dead, obviously, and aren’t writing any more books, because writing books when you’re dead is tricky, even if you’re a genius like Jane Austen. But it always seemed to me that books in the vein of “Pride and Prejudice” had to be out there somewhere, written by somebody less dead than Jane or Anthony. Witty heroines, and dashing heroes circling each other with arch asides and sudden plunges of emotion that would make me cry the way that last paragraph about Dorothea and Will always makes me cry in “Middlemarch.” How hard could that be to find?
The answer is: ridiculously hard. Oh, there are rafts and rafts of romance novels out there; teetering drifts of Harlequins and historicals and contemporaries, filled with plucky heroines and dashing or dastardly young men. I know that. But the question was, where to start? A friend recommended Nora Roberts at one point, and I gave that a try … but I couldn’t hack the dreadful prose — and this is from someone who rather enjoys “Twilight” and can even manage the occasional Robert Ludlum thriller. I’ve poked around online to find “best of” lists or other recommendations, but it soon became clear that there wasn’t even a provisional consensus on which books were the best or essential romance novels. Jane Austen showed up consistently, as did “Gone With the Wind,” but there was nothing that gave me a sense that certain books were clearly central, or respected, or worth reading. The genre is so culturally maligned that there has been no concerted effort to codify it. There is, in short, no romance canon.
I’ve always been a little leery of canons. Listing the “best” books or movies or music is always going to be an arbitrary, not to mention hubristic, endeavor. No one has heard every album recorded in the 2000s; isn’t it, then, a little ridiculous to try to list the best albums of the 2000s, especially if you’re going to put two albums by Bob Dylan in the top 20? Why not just shout to the rooftops, “We are aging, bloated boomers”? At worst, “best of” lists are going to tell you something unpleasant about the compiler’s insularity. At best, they can be the starting point for a fun conversation (which is how I saw the best of comics poll that critic Robert Stanley Martin organized at my own site). But either way, you shouldn’t take them seriously.
Looking around desperately and in vain for some sort of consensus “best of” lists for romance novels, though, I realized that such lists are, or can be, unexpectedly important. Canons are a way to solidify, or demonstrate, critical bona fides. Pop music and comics may not have the same cachet as great novels or gallery art, but institutionally codifying the “greatest” is an important way to assert that there is a “greatest” — that there is some group of experts who considers these works in particular, and the genre or medium in general, to be capable of greatness.
Romance novels don’t have that. Yes, there are the yearly RITA industry awards. And there are certainly lists of best-of romance novels — such as this fascinating one at All About Romance. But such compilations tend to be by individual readers or, as with the All About Romance list, based on reader polls. As Eric Selinger, professor of English at DePaul University and executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, told me in an email, “There are readers’ polls, and there have been discussions on fan sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about what should be in the romance canon — there was a podcast there in 2012 that drew a lot of comments, for example. But no one has had the chutzpah to put one in writing, yet.” So far, then, best of romance lists have been about what one person loves, or about what is popular. There hasn’t been an effort to make some sort of critical claim about greatness, or influence, such as you get in the Comics Journal’s “top 100 comics list.”
So why don’t there seem to be canonical romance novels? Well, the answer is pretty straightforward; romance novels are widely denigrated, if not despised. Just this last week, the critic Laura Vivanco reported on how funding for the scholarly Popular Romance Project has become a flashpoint for congressional Republicans to attack the NEH. Romance is frivolous and stupid, the argument goes, therefore the government is frivolous and stupid for funding the study of it. The fact that romance novels are the single largest section of the book market, with sales of more than $1.4 billion in 2012, doesn’t matter, or is in fact a downside, since such mass popularity itself is a sign of debasement. Similarly, the audience for romance novels dwarfs the audience for, say, high-end television shows like “Mad Men,” but high-end television is worthy of mainstream critical discussion and analysis, while romance novels, for the most part, are not.
So, in the absence of critical consensus, which of the gazillion romance novels with nearly identical covers featuring nearly identical flexing pecs and/or heaving bosoms do you choose? As I say, I was at a loss for years — but, eventually, I ended up doing what I think most romance readers do. I got some recommendations. Janine Ballard, who writes for dearauthor.com, in particular, has led me to Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale and a bunch of other wonderful authors.
The pleasure of reading those authors is in part the same sort of pleasure I get from reading Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope — deft prose, witty observation, carefully drawn characters with whom you get to become slowly and gloriously infatuated (albeit with rather more explicit sex than in Austen et al.). But part of the pleasure, too, is the sense of secrecy, or of discovery. The lack of a canon makes finding the romances difficult, but once you get a good one, you feel you’re the only one who knows — it’s the joy of a secret love. Romance is like punk rock for middle-aged women (and some other folks too, obviously) — a pop culture underground scorned by the mainstream, limned by initiates for initiates through word of mouth. The main difference being, of course, that punk rock at this point is completely critically domesticated, its subversion utterly commodified and canonized. Listening to the Sex Pistols just means that Greil Marcus has always already gushingly explained why you’re taking your rightful place in the dreary system of fighting the system. Despite the best efforts of Pam Regis in “The Natural History of the Romance Novel,” such deadening reverence is still thankfully far off for romance.
Not that reverence is all downside. It’d be nice, at least, to get to a point where romance readers aren’t considered fools or morons. Moreover, the lack of a canon, or any system of critical validation, means that important novels in the genre often simply drift out of print, never to be reissued. If romance novels do ever attain even the precarious critical standing of science fiction or comics or pop music, there will be concrete benefits, for new readers and old ones. But there might be something lost too, I’ll admit. As a romance novel might put it: The sense of possibility; the feeling that, without guidelines or maps, we can actually find love anywhere.
In the absence of a formal romance novel canon, some suggestions of my own:
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
"Welcome to Temptation" by Jennifer Crusie
Another of Crusie's romantic comedies, this one in the shadow of an ostentatiously phallic water tower. Read the whole essay.
"A Gentleman Undone" by Cecilia Grant
A Regency romance with beautifully broken people and some seriously steamy sex. Read the whole essay.
"Black Silk" by Judith Ivory
A beautifully written, exquisitely slow-building Regency; the plot is centered on a box with some very curious images, as Edward Gorey might say. Read the whole essay.
"For My Lady's Heart" by Laura Kinsale
A medieval romance, the period piece functions much like a dystopia, with the courageous lady and noble knight struggling to find happiness despite the authoritarian society. Read the whole essay.
"Sweet Disorder" by Rose Lerner
A Regency that uses the limitations on women of the time to good effect; the main character is poor and needs to sell her vote ... or rather her husband's vote. But to sell it, she needs to get a husband first ... Read the whole essay.
"Frenemy of the People" by Nora Olsen
Clarissa is sitting at an awards banquet when she suddenly realizes she likes pictures of Kimye for both Kim and Kanye and she is totally bi. So she texts to all her friends, "I am totally bi!" Drama and romance ensue ... but not quite with who she expects. I got an advanced copy of this YA lesbian romance, and I’d urge folks to reserve a copy; it’s a delight. Read the whole essay.
"The Slightest Provocation" by Pam Rosenthal
A separated couple works to reconcile against a background of political intrigue; sort of "His Gal Friday" as a spy novel set in the Regency. Read the whole essay.
"Again" by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Set among workers on a period soap opera, it manages to be contemporary and historical both at the same time. Read the whole essay.
Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.
Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.
Here by Richard McGuire
A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.
Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.
The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.
NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.
Over Easy by Mimi Pond
When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.
Shoplifter by Michael Cho
Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.