A Reading Experiment

Summer is the time for reading novels on the beach and vacation paperbacks. In other words the ‘escape’ kind of reading that is more entertaining than challenging.  A lot of people read mass-market paperbacks.  My community’s small library raised $77,000 last year selling donated mass-market paperbacks in their retail store at a one dollar price point.  By my calculations, they sold just about 2.5 books for every person in the city.  For me this is really fascinating because it touches on a question we engage with at the very beginning of study in English and Comparative Literature.  How do we define literature, what is the criteria for establishing canon, and what is the criteria for deciding the texts it includes.

This question interests me more and more while reading for my degree.  Since I will be reading more contemporary texts this term I wondered how the definition of literature might change, especially with the influence of a dynamic reading public and popular culture.  A friend of mine is the president of a professional romance writers association whose members publish a lot of mass-market paperbacks.  This organization solicits and funds research in the romance novel genre.  They are very serious about scholarship and their work.  I started wondering why mass-market paperbacks and romance novels are so popular and how they fit in to the definition of literature.  During my research for the Shakespeare unit last term I noted some scholarship suggesting Shakespeare’s romances and comedies established the expectations for the contemporary romance novels so popular today.  In my research for the Augustans and Romantics unit it surprised me to learn that prose fiction was the most prolific and popular writing in the period.  That’s a good basis to start comparing texts.

With all this in mind I decided to use the month of June for a kind of reading experiment.  I read 12 texts in June including Byron’s ‘The Giaour’ and 11 prose fiction works.  I read 6 contemporary mass-market paperbacks in 2 genres and 6 texts by authors like Austen, Cather, C. Bronte, Stoker, Byron, and some other less well-known writers.  My idea was to read some mass-market texts along with some texts written by authors of some critical acclaim and evaluate how these texts are similar, how they differ, and how they manipulate literary elements.

You might wonder why anybody would do this.  Intellectual curiosity and interest in genre is a good answer, interest in creative writing is another, and so is interest in my friends and what they find enjoyable and interesting.  When I hear an author of contemporary romance novels say Jane Austen is a big influence on their work I am curious about exactly what that means.  Does reading Austen constitute influence or have they borrowed something substantial from Austen’s literary tool kit.  And exactly when did Jane Austen become categorized as a romance novel writer.  (Let’s not confuse Romantic writer with a writer of romance novels.)

My conclusion from this short experiment is that my friend’s professional organization is quite right to invite critical research and scholarship in the romance novel genre.  There is plenty of opportunity for Feminist and Male Studies readings.  The biggest surprise in the romance novel genre, to me anyway, is female characterization and how men are represented.  Some of the mass-market texts I read were entertaining and readable while some were not.  Some were notable for the handling of structure and characterization if not for plot and use of language and some were not.  Shakespeare’s romance and comedy ‘formula’ is definitely present even in novels not in the ‘romance’ category.  Gothic elements are also surprisingly prominent.  You immediately notice the quality and extent of editorial advice.

For me this little exercise expanded my already rather liberal definition of literature.  It became a little more inclusive and moved a step closer to being synonymous with text.  It also taught me a lot about reading.  I am going to enjoy putting my feet up to enjoy a great summer of reading.

Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes.

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