There’s been lots of tweeting about this Ravishly interview with Kathleen Gilles Seidel today, and I said it would be a great topic for further discussion on a blog post, so of course I found myself volunteering to write one that could be a place for discussion.
First Things First
I am not interested in discussing the interviewer or the interviewer’s place in romance criticism in this space. I have not named the interviewer because I am hoping to avoid having that take over the conversation. I also find the name tends to act as a bat signal and then that person arrives and shapes the subsequent discussion and no thank you.
If I have any bias here, it’s that I adored Again and plan to read more of Seidel’s work.
The Parts that Interested Me Most
(and I think I’m not alone) were Seidel’s comments on her relationship to her audience.
One of the questions was whether her PhD in English helped her write romance or made it harder. [I dislike the framing of this question. Would a person with a PhD in English who wrote anything else get asked this question, or have their scholarly credentials potentially opposed their writing? Maybe, but I’ve never seen it]. Part of her answer is this:
I really liked my “re-entry housewife” students at the community college. So I wrote my next book to them, and it was a romance. I wasn’t trying to change their lives—their lives were fine, thank you. I was trying to change their afternoons. You know how it is—a day isn’t going well, and then you find the right book . . .
I will just leave that there. Or, I won’t. Some of my best community college students ever have been “re-entry housewives” and they read all kinds of things. Presumably they are going to college to change their lives in some way, not just to cheer up a dull afternoon. I don’t think this is meant to seem condescending (her students’ lives are fine, after all) but it does, to me.
Then there is the question of why she writes romance, when often in her books the romantic relationship is not the central one (I’ll leave it to those who have read more of her work to comment on that claim):
Because my relationship with my reader is a romance writer’s. I am not out to challenge her (or him), threaten her, or even change her. I am very controlling of her (or his) experience. The characters may be complex, and the judgment about them may be nuanced, but ultimately there is almost no ambiguity in the judgments. A reader is going to end up drawing the same conclusions that I have. . . .
The subjects of [my women’s fiction books] made them seem ideal for the book clubs, but in fact the books weren’t very discussable. Everyone who liked the books generally liked them for the same reason and had the same reactions.
My semi-considered take on this:
- Some people saw these comments as anti-intellectual, but I don’t entirely agree. I don’t think she means that there’s nothing in a romance novel that is open to interpretation. She refers specifically to our judgement of the characters, and I think of the hero and heroine above all. (She also seems to me to be assuming that book clubs debate characters and their motivations rather than doing literary analysis. Which is pretty accurate in my experience).
- This is often my experience when reading romance: that I am being directed to value certain things that are expressed in the HEA. As Laura Vivanco said to me on Twitter, this is a genre in which we refer to the protagonists as “hero and heroine,” which suggests to some of us, at least, that we are meant to see them as embodying some kind of virtue, however flawed and nuanced they may be. The HEA also tends to be a particularly tidy and unambiguous ending, closing down many possible paths for the characters. This, of course, is part of why we read romance.
- I experience most romances as relatively “closed” texts in terms of the judgements they invite and the “argument” they are making for the rightness of the HEA. I feel they try to answer the questions they raise about love. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to discuss, though, or that readers who like a book don’t experience elements of it differently.
- Many readers, and I am usually one of them, find that if a romance challenges or threatens us, it does not work for us, at least as a romance. That is, I think that we are not controlled by the author in the way that Seidel describes–we are able to judge differently from her–but if we elude her control the book fails in some way for us. To take a common example, if we interpret the hero as a stalkerish, abusive asshole, not a caretaker alpha, most of us do not like it or find it romantic; we don’t see the HEA as offering “emotional justice.”
- On the other hand, there are definitely readers who do not read romance this way, and who don’t need to be convinced of the “rightness” of the HEA or share a book’s apparent values to enjoy it. These readers find romance much more “open” than I do. (I’m trying to learn to be more like them). Any time a writer is talking about the genre in a forum like this interview, she’s likely to make sweeping and thus faulty generalizations. Romance readers aren’t nearly as homogeneous–or as discrete a category from “people with PhDs”–as Seidel’s comments imply.
More than enough from me. I hope you’ll chime in if you’re interested.