The older I get the more I think Karl Marx may have had it right when he wrote, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” and so on. A jaw-dropper of an article by Mary Carole McCauley in the Baltimore Sun last Sunday about a new program in genre fiction at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, got me to thinking these thoughts. According to the article, a foundation set up by romance novelist Nora Roberts has provided the college with $200,000 to start up a new minor in the genres of pop culture – horror, mystery, fantasy, crime, Westerns, science fiction, romance. And, oh yes, graphic novels.
Here’s an explanatory quote from Pamela Regis, described as “the McDaniel English professor in charge of administering the grants, and a nationally recognized expert on romance literature”:
Popular fiction addresses an enormous amount of issues that are relevant to modern culture. High canonical fiction is a far more acquired taste. None of my students will ever pick up Vanity Fair on their own again. But they’ll read every book by Nora Roberts.
(Note: I’m pretty sure Ms. Regis means William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair here, not the magazine once famous for putting a nude, pregnant Demi Moore on the cover. )
Now I’m in favor anything that may possibly sell more copies of Kaze’s penny-stock Western novel Bowhunter, provide fruitful employment to English professors, and help small liberal-arts colleges survive. But still. Have we arrived at the point where popularity makes right? Like the good reporter she is, Ms. McCauley buttresses the rationale for the college’s move by pointing out that in 2010 “genre fiction…outsold classic literary fiction at a rate of more than 5 to 1.”
“Romance literature,” she adds, “is by far the most popular branch of fiction, with nearly $1.36 billion in sales or 13.4 percent of the total consumer market,… In comparison, classic literary fiction brought in $453 million.”
Hmmm. You have to remember that I went to grad school in English and American literature some years back. When my favorite professor, something of a youthful rebel role model, was asked in seminar why the university offered no graduate course in contemporary fiction, he said, “That’s the kind of stuff you can read at night before you go to sleep.”
Implicit in his point of view, a common one in those days, is that there is such a thing as literary quality and that it is determined by the test of time. It’s also a wise view of human nature: he knew we’d read Kurt Vonnegut on our own time but that it would take a class to get us to ingest “Paradise Lost.”
In the present-day Webverse, I’ve often felt that my professor was right and Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture – “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world” – holds doubly true. Put another way – my time is too precious to waste on schlock.
McDaniel acolytes of the romance genre would no doubt point out that neither Matthew Arnold nor my grad school prof nor I is “disinterested” (objective) in the sense Arnold meant it and something that’s far worse: indisputably, all three of us are white males, reflecting a certain privileged hegemonic point of view that suppresses the valid emotions of women as embodied in the literature womyn create by and for themselves. In fact, we three blind swine are so unaware of our own biases that we universalize our own tastes as the canon.
You think I’m joshing. Here’s another McDaniel English prof, Mary Bendel-Simso, as quoted by the Sun:
I think our program will bring students to literature who might not otherwise be drawn to it.The minor is ideal for people who aren’t anywhere near being an English major, people with their academic sights elsewhere. Now, students in sociology or chemistry can enjoy the liberal arts. They can go beyond reading for pleasure, and learn how it makes life more meaningful.
And here’s one result of this kind of thinking:
“‘Formula’ has become such a bad word in literary circles,” says McDaniel senior D.L. Santos. “People really shy away from it. But, the formula is one of the things I like about romance fiction. It’s what a writer does with the formula that makes it interesting.”
Santos, 22, of Rockville, read her first romance novel when she was 12. Since 2008, she has been writing the blog, The Romance Girl’s Guide to Fiction.
“My view is that the world sort of sucks, and when I pick up a book, I don’t want to be reminded of it,” she says. “I want to be uplifted.”
Finally, in the words of another student, a senior named Sara Krome who’d never read a romance novel before taking Regis’s course in romance fiction:
I liked that these books were by woman and for women, and that the characters were very outspoken and strong. They’re career-oriented and successful.
And why wouldn’t I want to read about a woman who gets to have good sex?
So there you have it. Point taken. Vanquished by the wisdom of coeds, I retreat from the field of combat. Tomorrow’s post will consider whether it’s possible to have what some would call romance within my beloved High Lit Tradition.