"Re-Reading Authorial Intention and Imagination over Two Centuries

… : the Romantic-Era’s Minerva Press Novels and Today’s Popular Romances.”

Ok, that was not my title. Can you tell the English professor half of our team wrote that presentation title? Here’s how a philosopher would write it:

“What is an author?”

So you can see why I left the title to my partner in crime, Elizabeth.

We gave our talk as part of a campus luncheon series put on by the Women in the Curriculum/Women’s Studies program. We had very good attendance, especially from faculty in the English department.

Elizabeth is working on Minerva Press novels, which were not technically romances, but definitely have elements that make them comparable to romance. We’ve been exploring some of the commonalities between Minerva press novels themselves, their production, their authorship, and their readership, and contemporary romance novels.

Rather than try to summarize the entire 90 minute event, I’ll just bullet point a few things, and then stick a couple of my slides in. If you have never heard of Minerva Press, you might start with this wonderful piece by author Carolyn Jewel.

  • “Minerva Press” serves as a metonym for all of the circulating library novels published during this period, although several were not actually published by Minerva. In much the same way, “Harlequin” serves as a metonym for all of romance.
  • Both Minerva Press novels and romance novels are subject to a bizarre juxtaposition, of being repetitive and boring, yet somehow at the same time, too exciting and salacious.
  • In both cases, thanks to writership and readership comprised mostly of women, the feminization of literature coincides with its commodification.
  • The ethos of authorship generated in the Romantic Era made it difficult to see Minerva Press authors as authors. Their originality was not easily detected, they wrote for money, they were women, etc. I would say the same is true of romance novelists.
  • The usual criticisms of Minerva Press and romance novels short circuit critics’ ability to read them as books (rather than as some other kind of productions).

The hurry to use the condemnations of novel reading as evidence of one thesis or another has prevented them from being read in anything but a roughly descriptive or referential way. Their high rhetoric makes them extremely quotable, yet at the same time, their repetitiveness has encouraged the illusion that that are ‘already read’, self-explanatory. –From E.J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800

  • We must read both texts horizontally, as genre, while keeping and eye open for imaginative and creative reformulations of genre.

Knowing my audience mostly doesn’t read romances and would think many of the common assumptions (namely, that it is one book being written over and over) were true, I spent half the time educating them about the genre.  I also spent some time on feminist critique, and on its similarities to nonfeminist critique. I discussed the import, from a feminist point of view, of not viewing romance novels as books. If they are not books, the 26 million women who read them regularly are not readers. This is not just constructing romance readers as passive. It is effacing them.  Here are a few of my slides:

Owning my fandom -- first slide

Education. Folks loved this cover.

More education.

Discussed diversity in cover styles, looking like other genres

Covers that show strong heroines

Probably my favorite moment was during the Q&A when one of our creative writing professors said that while he was used to SFF and mystery being treated with contempt, he had never even thought about the silence around romance novels. They are beneath notice and beneath contempt.

Well, there was a lot more, but that’s the gist of some of it. Thanks for reading along!

12 responses

  1. I spent half the time educating them about the genre.

    Oh man, this. You take the academics, I’ll take the librarians :) Two popular misconceptions that I constantly run up against: 1) All Romance = Harlequin (liked your other publishers slide by the way!) and 2) The romance genre hasn’t changed since 1978.

    It’s a frustrating slog sometimes, but there is that little zing of triumph when you reach that one person. I’d like to reach out to more of them (and possibly throttle them LOL) – but even small victories are victories nonetheless.


  2. If they are not books, the 26 million women who read them regularly are not readers. This is not just constructing romance readers as passive. It is effacing them.

    I think this is why it’s so important to continue to fight against the dismissive attitude many people have of romance. They will condemn the whole genre without having read a single book.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Wish I’d been there.


  3. @Julia Broadbooks: Agreed. Particularly when it ties into
    a) fear of women’s fantasies
    b) deriding women for having fantasies
    c) assuming all women who fantasize do so to get away from their miserable lives
    d) chastising women for wanting to get away at all (we’re supposed to be nurturers and glad to cook, clean, and care for our SOs and progeny, and if not, we’re irresponsible and selfish)

    It also characterizes the typical romance reader as a generic middle-aged, middle America white woman with a husband and 2.5 children, ignoring that there are wives without children, single women, divorced women, single mothers, military wives, teenager girls, grandmothers, lawyers, homemakers, military officers, urban-based, rural-based, suburb-based, international-based, white women, black women, Asian women, biracial women, immigrant women, second-generation women, etc reading romance novels.


  4. I would have loved to be in the audience for this talk. I regularly have people express surprise that ‘someone like me’ reads romance because I am an educated woman and implying that it is beneath me somehow. I am intrigued by how you had not only to educate them about the genre but take a stand to own your reading, Jessica.


  5. @Evangeline Holland: And men. :D I’m not sure why male readers are consistently left out when discussing the romance genre’s readership all these years. I was reminded this when I spotted a bloke in his 40s reading a M&B last week. Openly in a tube station just after the rush hour.

    I already mentioned this sighting on Twitter, but I didn’t have a chance to mention he was clearly a business man. Suit, briefcase and all. It attracted double takes from people around him, but he clearly didn’t give a fig. Kudos to him and other readers (female or not), bearing in mind that I still don’t have the guts to read a romance in public. I did once years ago and those snickers and the knowing looks put me off so much that I never tried again.

    Awesome response, by the way. This post as well, of course. :D


  6. Dear Jessica and Elizabeth, Your presentation sounds terrific. What strikes a chord with me is the persistent characterization of romance readers through the centuries. I argue in a piece on Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation that genre and gender considerations obscure the reading acts that romance readers do that are the same reading acts that say male readers of Shakespeare’s plays do. I’m glad to hear you had a good audience.


  7. @DH: Luv ya, sweetie.

    @Victoria Janssen: You are welcome. And thanks.


    ou take the academics, I’ll take the librarians

    Well, I knew they wouldn’t get as much out of other points I had to make if they knew nothing about the books. I showed covers as a visual shorthand for aspects of the genre, such as its diversity (in terms of subgenres, and in terms of heat level, in terms of racial diversity, and in terms of diversity in sexual orientation) but people still laughed at the covers, so that had a mixed result.

    I did not know quite how to react when people were laughing. I mean, the firefighter and kittens cover is kind of silly, but what is silly about the Meljean Brook cover?

    @Julia Broadbooks: Thanks Julia.

    @Evangeline Holland: I agree that the fear of women’s sexuality is a huge part of the dismissal – and is part of the reason we get characterized, as readers, as “insatiable”, “addicted” , “carp like” etc. But I did not go into that in the talk. Way too big a subject.

    @Merrian: The “take a stand on my own reading” — well, I thought it important. I know I have mentioned this a few times on the blog, but after attending two PCA conferences in which so many of the women presenters — and they were 98% women — who gave papers on the Twilight Saga distanced themselves from the books in order to gain the audience’s respect, I had to. I felt this was not only dishonest but self-defeating.

    @Pam Regis: You are welcome, Pam. And we are taking our show on the road in November, lol!

    @FiaQ: I had a slide on romance readers and one of the bullet points was that ten percent are men. When you consider how many millions of people read romance, even ten percent men is a LOT of male romance readers.

    @AQ: It was fun. Thank you!

    @Kate Moore:

    the persistent characterization of romance readers through the centuries.

    Kate, this is why we embarked on this joint project. Elizabeth and I are friends, and had never considered working together. But the more we discussed our work with each other, the more we discovered these distressing and interesting parallels.

    I would love to read your Crusie paper. I am working on a Crusie paper myself.


  8. Pingback: thebookishowl.com » Blog Archive » Minerva Press Novels and the Modern Romance Genre

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