Saturday, January 10, 2015

A reading strategy for romance

A couple years ago, I lent a friend Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke (2011) to introduce him to historical romance. This friend is a doctoral candidate in literature, and part of my aim was to demonstrate that popular romance can feature excellent writing.

A few chapters in, he was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of writing and storytelling but reported difficulty getting hooked. I eventually ascertained that he was reading a chapter or two each night before bed. To which I replied with immediate dismay, “No, no, you’re reading it all wrong! You’ve got to plunge in and keep reading!” It was only in saying that that I realized that popular romance lends itself to being read in a way that may be completely unintuitive to readers who have a background in literary studies.

Those who study literature are used to proceeding slowly, pausing frequently to reflect or reread passages, perhaps even taking detailed notes as they go. I do this as well when I’m considering a romance for its literary qualities, but seldom on a first read. When a favorite author releases a new novel, I attempt to clear my schedule to enable me to read the book in a single day or weekend. Here’s why. 

Romance is built on tension, in the same way as a murder mystery or thriller. In romance, that tension is of a romantic or sexual nature. The author’s task is to maintain and build on that tension throughout the novel until it culminates in the love avowal.

Along the way, there is a rhythm of deferral and fulfillment as romantic or intimate milestones are met (or not).

Julie Anne Long is particularly adept at this strategy. In one protracted scene from I Kissed an Earl (2010), the heroine anticipates a kiss with the hero. The surroundings, the hero’s demeanor, the heroine’s perception of the moment, and her feelings as the kiss becomes increasingly likely are all developed in painstaking detail. The reader becomes immersed in the scene, anticipating the kiss along with the heroine. But the kiss doesn’t happen.

Not in that chapter, anyway. Because of the genre’s telos, the reader has an assurance that the kiss should occur and will occur; its deferral creates a sense of frustration. Much like a cliffhanger in television (particularly in this new era of binge-watching), the reader wants to continue to the next installment to discover what happens next and how. So the sexual tension built into the thwarted kiss scene carries over to the next chapter.

The way my friend was reading, however, tension had little opportunity to accrue. Because he was stopping at the end of each chapter, it would dissipate in the hours or days between reading sessions, which prevented him from accessing a critical component of the reading experience and thus of the genre’s appeal. Although he could recall the events from the previous day’s reading, he couldn’t recreate the tension or emotional investment.

Once he understood the rationale for extended reading sessions, he blocked off multiple hours to finish the book and saw what I meant. Although he did not become a zealous romance reader, he has gone on to enjoy a handful of other recommendations, including Eloisa James’s Duchess By Night (2008).

This is not to say that romance cannot be savored slowly or considered carefully, or that it’s only good if you rush. A great book lends itself to scrutiny and multiple readings, and romances are no exception. Indeed, one of my aims is to promote close reading within a marginalized genre.

Such careful reading entails attention not only to the individual elements of a text but to their cumulative effect. To analyze romance, as with any other literature, it is necessary to account for both a given text’s aims and the various strategies it deploys to achieve those aims. The way we read can make us more or less attuned to those strategies.
Sustained reading won’t work for everyone. Indeed, there are plenty of romance enthusiasts who read incrementally, either due to time constraints or to make a pleasurable reading experience last. I suspect that many of them are versed enough in the genre and its codes to hold onto that romantic tension between readings, whereas novices may struggle.

If you have made a stab at reading romance but found yourself wondering what all the fuss was about, there are a couple of plausible explanations. The most likely is that you were reading a dud, of which there is no shortage. But it is worthwhile to ask yourself whether the problem may not lie, at least partially, in a disconnect between your scholarly or professional reading habits and the romance genre’s invitation to devour the book in one gulp.


  1. It's not just a disconnect between scholarly/academic ways of reading and the type of reading romance invites, though, is it? It's the VALUE placed on the two different kinds of reading. I have a strong memory of reading E. M. Forster's ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL, and having him denigrate the kind of reading that focuses primarily on "and then, and then." If we accept the invitation romance offers, the fear that we might be asked to return the cultural capital card we've earned by learning how to close read hovers...

  2. I've been thinking a lot about your comment all week. You're absolutely right to signal the value attributed to different kinds of reading, particularly in some traditional academic circles, and the anxiety that those trained in close reading may feel in embracing the "dive in" approach.

    I suspect that some people who would denigrate reading for plot may not actually be very good at it. I've spoken to a couple of people who struggled to identify the tension in a romance novel. That doesn't mean the tension isn't present; these readers just don't perceive it. It may be a question of being so attuned to the trees that they miss the forest. But derision toward a readerly attitude of "what next, what next?" can make a critic or scholar blind to the literary strategies that are generating the tension. A tremendous amount of craft goes into creating a book that is a real page-turner, but if we tune out that kind of reading it's much harder to give a robust explanation of the literary strategies deployed to achieve this end. In the end I think we are still close readers, we just have an additional approach at our disposal.

  3. Oh, I'm definitely on your side here, Anne. But I think romance scholars have to be aware of the value judgments that the academy itself has bred in its members (in part to justify its own existence) and be prepared to offer arguments, like the one you offer here, to address fears of losing cultural capital by reading in a different way than they've been taught.