A romance novel as art?

Gelatin silver print, Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, c. 1920-21, Man Ray, In collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Man Ray, "Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy," Philadelphia Museum of Art, c. 1921.

Can a romance novel be a work of art? Baldly put, the question seems a little out of date. After all, it’s been almost a hundred years since Marcel Duchamp bought a snow shovel and inscribed it In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), the first of his famous “Readymades.” (His next big number is even more famous: in 1917, he flipped a urinal 90 degrees and submitted to an art exhibition under the title Fountain.) More recently, there’s “Flarf”: a poetry movement in which, the magazine Poets & Writers explains, “poets prowl the Internet using random word searches, e-mail the bizarre results to one another, then distill the newly found phrases into poems that are often as disturbing as they are hilarious.”

If Flarf, if “Fountain,” why not The Flame and the Flower? Maybe the interesting question isn’t “can a romance novel be a work of art?” but “how do we read one that way?”

When I sat down to study popular romance as an English professor, I looked for critics who would open up the books for me, and really make them sing. After all, that’s what the critics and scholars I most admired—Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler—did with poetry.

I soon found out, though, that the folks who worked on popular romance back in the 1970s and ’80s weren’t really interested in the books as art. “They are not art,” Ann Barr Snitow explains of “Harlequin romances” (all of them, every last one), and she reassures the readers of her groundbreaking essay “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” that despite her effort at taking romance novels seriously, even doing a “literary analysis” of them, she’s not out to make them look good. “I am not concerned here with developing an admiration for their buried poetics,” Snitow writes. For decades, nobody was.

That line from Snitow shows up near the end of a wonderful new book about the genre: Laura Vivanco’s For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. For the past six years, Vivanco has been the main contributor to the romance blog Teach Me Tonight, where she pioneered the scholarly art of reading Harlequin Mills & Boon romance novels—the same ones Snitow discusses, but many more of them, published from the 1930s to the present—in ways that make them come to life as individually interesting books. If anyone knows how to reveal their “buried poetics,” it’s Vivanco.

As you’ll see from the chapter outline, some of the topics this book covers are the kinds of things that romance authors talk about amongst themselves. There’s a chapter on the playful art of rewriting “mythoi” like the Pygmalion story or fairy tales, for example, and another on how romance authors use metaphors, not just locally, sentence by sentence, but as central organizing devices that hold a novel together. (“The building of a relationship, the flowering of romance and the hunt of love” are three of her examples.)

Other chapters, though, offer approaches to romance novels that I hadn’t heard before, either from authors or scholars. My favorite is “Modal Counterpoint,” a term for the way that romance novels play off different sorts of language and imagery and plot points against one another, shifting between “high” modes like myth and “lower,” grittier modes like realism or irony, not just chapter by chapter, but sometimes scene by scene, or even within a scene, in a sudden leap of emotion or deflationary wink.

In my poetry classes, I teach students to spot how a poem’s changes in mood or idea play out as changes in style. Thanks to For Love and Money, I can show students that romance novels do very similar things, albeit on a larger scale.

If you’re a teacher—not just at a university, like me, but a community college or high school—this book lets you teach some first-class close-reading skills in a fun, accessible context. (It also won’t break student budgets, which they increasingly appreciate.) And if you’re a romance reader, this book can help you notice things in books you already love, and maybe get more pleasure from some whose metaphors and modal shifts were a little bit puzzling.

Now, who’s out there to help me read Flarf?

Eric Selinger

Eric Selinger is a professor of English at DePaul University, co-editor of New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, and executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. Find out more about Eric Selinger.

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