Sunday, February 1, 2015

Romancing the canon?

A colleague recently brought to my attention a digital humanities pamphlet from Stanford’s Literary Lab on possible methodologies for constructing a canon to represent twentieth-century literature in English.[1]

The pamphlet’s authors, Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl, solicited and compiled lists from a variety of scholarly, popular, and critical sources:
  1. Modern Library Editors list of the best books of the 20th century
  2. Modern Library Readers list of the best books of the 20th century
  3. Radcliffe Publishing Program’s list of the best books of the 20th century
  4. Larry McCaffery’s list of the best experimental fiction of the 20th century
  5.  Publishers Weekly’s bestselling books of the 20th century (by year)
  6. Ranked list of texts complied from responses from members of the Postcolonial Studies Association
Algee-Hewitt and McGurl then mapped out overlap among the lists to create constellations of canonical texts.

While I harbor a healthy amount of skepticism toward canons and their tendency to marginalize certain corpora, projects like this can offer insight into how a given text, author, or genre is valued in literary communities. So I looked to see whether any popular romance had made it onto the various lists. Truth be told, I did not expect to find much.

While science fiction, fantasy, and political dystopia were represented among the various scholarly and critical lists, romances were not. By my reckoning, the closest those lists came were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, all of which foreground love stories but lack the critical HEA.

The list of the best-selling book of each year included a couple of titles that come a bit closer to the popular romance mark: Jean M. Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters and Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett. Both arrive at an end-point, if not of HEA, of the more provisional happy for now (HFN). Auel’s novel in particular bears some other hallmarks of popular romance: the love triangle and the big misunderstanding.

Readers who are familiar with the abovementioned titles: How well do you think they fit the romance label? And are there other works on any of the lists that you consider romance?

[1] Algee-Hewitt, Mark, and McGurl, Mark. “Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th-Century Novels,” Pamphlets of the Stanford Literary Lab, January 2015,  

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