Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Enjoyment - romances, science fiction, reading

I must ask permission, as I have sometimes done before, to begin apparently a long way from the point. (John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. III, Ch. X)

The problem with invoking Ruskin like this is that he knew the point at which he would end.  I intuit my point.

I have said, here and in comments elsewhere, that I am not so interested in the enjoyment of books, not just your enjoyment, but even my own.  Typical Wuthering Expectations contrarianism, except that I mean it, as I always do.  Pleasure, our reasons for enjoying anything, are so arbitrary.  Anyway, I enjoy literature, reading as an activity.  I even enjoy the books I do not enjoy.  Your enjoyment of a book is likely a much more interesting subject than mine.

The Argumentative Old Git does not enjoy science fiction, as he discusses here – since I am not going to mention it otherwise, his catalogue of the praise of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is hilariously excellent.  Himadri has given the genre the old college try, and then some, and has concluded that whatever the merits of the best books, he is finished for now.  Some well-meaning commenters urge him to keep trying, but they fail to understand the statistics of the problem.  Himadri is engaging in sequential analysis, which was mathematically formalized during World War II as an efficient way to test explosive shells for duds.  Rather than fire off the entire lot of shells, the tester can stop once a statistically significant number of shells have misfired.  Himadri has read enough misfires, given his sample size, to call it quits.

Rohan Maitzen is engaging in the same exercise with romance novels.  So far, the results are more positive, although she understands that she has not yet fired enough shells to make a statistically sound judgment.  The criteria, again, is enjoyment – “amusing and entertaining.”  My own experience with romance novels is similar, although my pool is awfully narrow.

Or is it?  This fascinating post at Something More led me to the results of a methodologically sound romance readers’ poll, a list of the best or favorite or “top” 100 romance novels, as of 2007, as determined by a large and well-read group of voters.  I see that I have read and enjoyed three of them: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Jane Eyre, the only 19th century novels on the list.  Three Georgette Heyer novels (1932-1965) follow, and then seven novels from the 1980s (Judith McNaught is the big name), meaning that 87 of the best 100 novels are from the last 20 years.  I wonder what other genres or audiences would give a similar result.  Romance seems to have an unstable canon.  New novels quickly replace old ones.  Would I enjoy any of those 87 as much as I enjoy Jane Eyre?

I have been thinking about writing up the case against the enjoyment of literature, but I have concluded that the point is too obvious.  To read well, we should cultivate patience, question our preferences, moderate our consumption of junk, and when writing about reading try to imagine ourselves in the place of others.  Consider sacrificing short-term for long-term enjoyment (study, cultivate tastes, read some quantity, however small, of dull but useful books), all within the inevitable constraints of time, energy, and concentration.  Everyone knows this, already, so enough of that.

I am still writing about The Woman in White, if I can figure out how to return to it.  Through Ruskin, somehow.


  1. Gosh looking at that list I come up with much the same results as you - and if you look any of them up on amazon - not one of the ones seem to be more than a collection of romantic tropes bundled together for mass printing. Joyous. On the other hand, you're considering Ruskin and The Woman in White (a tale I confess is still sitting unread next to The Moonstone which we were asked to study in secondary school... probably some correlation there), I'll be interested to see how it eventually turns out ha ha!!

  2. Hahaha, first you say enjoyment doesn't matter, and then you want lit people to understand math? Are you nuts?!?

    (Sorry, sorry, just trying to solidify my mean-girl rep.)

    Romance seems to have an unstable canon.

    This may be a genuinely interesting point, I mean, if we were able to also make comparisons to other genres, e.g., mystery, science fiction. I have a crazy feeling that mysteries would have a more stable canon. It wouldn't be heavily 19th century, it would be, I think, more heavily early-20th, but still. Just a wild guess, I have no data.

  3. Ah, no, Scribbler, if you read the Something More post you will see how this works. First, you read a "conversion novel" and then once you are "converted" to romance novels you will actually want the book you read to be a bundle of clichés. I mean, sorry tropes or cheekily tweaked conventions.

    Parts of what I just wrote I understand; parts I do not.

    Himadri's a data guy! He'll understand the math.

    I found a recent NPR poll for scifi and fantasy that is of some use. Big sample, but not so restricted to serious devotees as the romance poll, and they omit the dates. But I have read 42 of the 100 entries and roughly know the dates, so I know that the scifi list skews much earlier than the romance list. The bulk of the books are recent, as will be the case in any readers poll, but the 1950s and 1960s are the Golden Age - Heinlein, Bradbury, Dune, Asimov, etc. The pulp era does badly - just one winner, Conan.

  4. I thought Rohan might regret that post I wrote, but it turns out I do, because now I feel I have to flit around the internets explaining romance to non-readers. It's not all bad, though, because I've enjoyed finding your blog. I'll definitely come back for more Woman in White.

    I don't like the evangelical "conversion" language (though I used it; it's standard) because I don't really care if people don't like romance. No book or genre is for everyone. I do dislike dismissals that implicitly denigrate readers, many of whom are quite sophisticated thinkers about the genre. Readers of other genres are much less likely to be subjected to such comments than was once the case. I hope romance gets to that point too.

    If you do a poll the way AAR did (ask people for their top 100, which may mean favorite 100, not what they think is best and then tot up the votes) you are going to get a lowest common denominator list: that is, popular and widely-read books will do better. Hence a few classic 19th-century novels, all of which have popular TV and/or film versions, a lot of mainstream romance authors, and more recent books because older ones are often out of print and unfamiliar to newer readers. I don't think that list looks much like any academic canon of romance that might be constructed (or even the canon a lot of readers might construct) and I find the whole enterprise of canon-formation suspect anyway.

    Cliche/convention/tropes/whatever you want to call them are a feature of romance, as of any genre--more so in romance, I'd say. And it can be interesting to think about why and how writers deploy these cliches. One can mindlessly consume yet another marriage-of-convenience story or one can make cross-genre comparisons and think about what a particular author is doing with that convention and how she is in dialogue with other works in the genre.

    Sorry, I realize this comment came out more exasperated and defensive than I meant it to, but would anyone feel free to dismiss another class of books based on reading a handful of blurbs on amazon? (Romance blurbs, like the covers, are generic in both senses and often give very little sense of the differences in tone and style that are between those covers).

  5. Coincidentally, I posted a question in my comments thread before coming on over to see what you'd written--and we are both wondering about canons.

    moderate our consumption of junk

    Ay, there's the rub--because we can't be sure what's junk. Or, we shouldn't assume we know, or can quickly categorize. Or, we have to qualify: junk for what purposes? Perhaps your "imagine ourselves in the place of others" makes something of the same point.

    @Liz_Mc2, I definitely recommend hanging around here, for more on The Woman in White, sure, but just in general.

  6. Liz - regret? Oh please no! I have been recommending that post everywhere. It is content-rich. I haven't even said anything about the implied existence of romances written in the manner of William Gaddis and Arno Schmidt, which I would get in a long line to read. (Note: go to Liz's post & follow the links to find this connection).

    Your response is not defensive, but well-argued. I am happy to hear that you don't like the "conversion" language, which was the only part of the surrounding discussion (comments, twitter) that struck me as a little too weird.

    I'll also note that Wuthering Expectations takes a social scientific view of canon-formation. It is a thing that happens, whether we like it or not, as the result of the actions of millions of independent actors, including ordinary readers, which is why reader polls are useful for getting the lay of the land. The scifi poll is useful because its participants are similarly just readers - probably less dedicated genre readers, actually.

    Plus, you can compare that poll to earlier ones - look at the big drop off of Nora Roberts since 1998, 15 books down to 5!

    I would love to see a poll of writers or academics, too. Even just some knowledgeable critics' "best of" lists. But with data, you use what you got.

    I'll emphasize, like I did on Rohan's blog (perhaps mistakenly - sorry for the distracting side comments) that Liz's description of the appeal of convention, and of minor (often miniscule) but clever variations in conventions, is also a huge part of the appeal of superhero comics, which I know a heck of a lot better than I know romance. But the reader has to know those conventions well for the variations to make any sense, to be visible as anything but clichés. How do you get to know the conventions? Conversion novels do exist!

    Have I confessed - I mean mentioned - that I love superhero comics? And science fiction? And heroic fantasy novels, but somewhat less? All more than I love mysteries, as a genre. You spend enough time with a genre, a lot of the junk identifies itself pretty clearly. Go here and read the review of Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 or Catwoman #1. No, don't, to non-fans it will make no sense. Anyway, shiny junk.

    But, yes, don't assume too much. The bad junk, good junk, and non-junk often look very similar to the untrained eye. I have no doubt that there are novels - maybe not many, but some - in the Romance section of the library that I would enjoy as much as those Paula Marantz Cohen novels. No clue which ones!

    Also, please note that "moderate the consumption of junk" is a long, long ways from "no junk."

  7. Romance seems to have an unstable canon.

    And I would have to agree. Although mainstays like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and most of Austen, their natural progression seemingly Georgette Heyer, the canon itself gets hazy after that. [Everything Heyer and pre-her is a given, even though, strangely enough, the contemporary romances have only the most essential similarities with them.]

    I think it's primarily because, as you've pointed out, a genre that relies largely on enjoyment and [as a devout romance novel reader] intimate affect--toe-curling love, swooning, lots of sighing all-around, perhaps even projection--the judgment on what makes canon will vary from person to person [or clique to clique], and even subgenre to subgenre.

    There are novels readers give a nod to as a classic, because they spurred a movement, or introduced a new trope. Other classics are called so because they set a standard, or because they managed to make thousands of readers swoon. It's a subjective genre, and, predictably, canon is different. Another possible influence is that there are no "gatekeepers," though some have been trying to stand as them of late. There is no set authority, no critics and academics whose study's dedicated to the genre--at least, not until recently.

    Taking a step back, though, I find it interesting how you and Rohan have approached the romance novel genre. Mostly, well, of your involvement. You pooh-pooh enjoyment--though, yes, "Pleasure, our reasons for enjoying anything, are so arbitrary." That, that's an inevitability every reader faces, or, at least, is intuitively aware of. Genre is no different--romance novels, especially, so founded and proliferating on the pleasure we take from them, the pleasure they cause, the pleasure they talk about.

  8. Point well-taken, and I'm glad to see you're continuing with this helpful thread in your post this morning about Ruskin (helpful to me, at least, as one all too guilty of having put enthusiasm above substance - but I imagine you could lead a general revolution in blogging quality if you keep going in this direction).

    As for the sequential analysis as applied to literature - and I'm by no means a statistician - but might you not run into a problem if, for example, you were handed a gun with, say, 100 chambers for use in a game of Russian Roulette? Your sequential analysis might suggest that it's safe to keep pulling the trigger. But then, bam, after x number of the 99 chambers full of tiresome old Olaf Stapleton, you might suddenly get the Strugatski brothers' "Roadside Picnic" fired into your head. Are you happy now? Probability would say no, I'm guessing. In any case, your enjoyment of the work is no longer relevant.

  9. Without enthusiasm we would be nowhere at all.

    You're right about the sequential method. If Stapledon et al is a dud, you never get to the Picnic because you quite long before. But you do expect and specify a certain proportion of duds. You're really testing to see if the actual proportion exceeds the allowable proportion. So I might assume, say, that 10% of the Top 100 scifi novels are "what can people be thinking" disasters.

    I have never heard of Roadside Picnice by the way. No idea at all. So thanks for that.

    Sasha - good paradox! I'm suspicious of the pleasures of a genre about pleasure. But I'm also suspicious of the pleasures of superhero comics, which are about punching robot aliens in the face.

    If you are just asking why am I interested in romance at all, the answer is 1) I've been thinking about genre, 2) and about enjoyment, 3) Himadri and Liz's posts were good, 4) I'm ignorant and therefore curious.

    The lack of academic gatekeepers is interesting, but the most important canon-forming group is in place - the romance writers. What are the books that they keep going back to, or argue with, or parody? Austen, obviously - I can see that on the shelves at the library.

    I want to emphasize that with my understanding of canon, there is no authority - just a "market" of readers, teachers, and writers.

  10. Fascinating.

    I read for enjoyment. Mostly. As I read for enjoyment, I think people can read whatever they want as long as they read and have fun.

    I've come to the same conclusion as Himadri for SF books. Same method: trials, mostly only errors, and I gave up. I'm trying to go against it but my last attempt (War of the Worlds) has been a failure.

    Before looking at the romance list, I expected to know more books in that genre than you. But no, only Jane Austen and Brontë. What are they doing in that Harlequin list? There's a lot more to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre than the romance. And I'm not talking about the style, I'm thinking about the feminist arguments there.


  11. Emma, this post is secretly about writing, not reading. Anyone who writes as well as you do about Proust has made some "investments" in what I am calling long-term enjoyment.

    You know, perhaps my real complaint about many book bloggers - not, generally the ones who wander by here - is that they are not having as much fun as they could. Cast off your anxieties! Goof around, go nuts.

  12. Rohan's post mentions in the closest and out of the closet romance readers. Her post and your post have made me think about why I read romance (and how I need to write about my thoughts from "Austen Light in August" but that will happen someday, maybe), and while we will all agree that we're reading for enjoyment, as you point out, there are many different things that are enjoyable. Sometimes I read romance for the enjoyment of reading a good book, same as anything else I read, sometimes I read it for comfortable escapism (as with Rohan's example of watching romantic comedies) and sometimes for titillation. Talking about "enjoyment" and "in-the-closet" romance readers without acknowledging the pornish aspects seems to be missing one of the points where romance diverges from other genres.

  13. Right, there's a fantasy component to a lot of genre writing. Is there anything to be done with besides more star-aligning? Is it anything but another element in the arbitrary taste matrix?

  14. I must confess I had not considered my rejection of science fiction before in statistical terms! I suppose I should set it up formally, design the sampling model and consider confidence intervals and so on, but given that's the sort of thing I have to do to earn my pennies, I'm damned if I am going to do it also in my spare time!

    I take your point about reading literature dispassionately, without reference to one's personal pleasure. The greatest writers do, after all, have the ability to make an imaginative leap into minds other than their own; so why should we not expect the greatest of readers - to whose ranks I at least aspire - similarly to make an imaginative leap into appreciating or at least acknowledging criteria of excellence, and indeed of pleasure, held in minds other than our own? Had I world enough and time, yes, absolutely! But since both world and time are severely restricted, my own pleasure, or my own anticipated pleasure, becomes, perhaps inevitably, a prominent criterion. I do, however, agree that pleasure or the expectation of pleasure should not be the overriding criterion, and certainly not the sole criterion, either in evaluating books, or in judging what to read next.

  15. Great point - a great book, a great writer can, with a little luck, demolish our enjoyment-based resistance. They teach us to read their book with enjoyment.

    Few people could make it through Mann's Joseph and His Brothers without the help of enjoyment. And if that non-enjoying reader did somehow turn each page, he would likely have read the book badly.

    So maybe that is another thing I want from a critic who reads books I do not enjoy - show me how to enjoy the book, how you enjoyed it. Not why you enjoyed it, but how you read it so as to enjoy it.