… : 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:
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!