My daughter is a freshman at a large, internationally-known university in the northeast. Because she’s a smartie (I swear, that’s the end of my maternal bragging), she placed into an honors English seminar in rhetoric and composition. Apparently the focus for each section depends on each professor’s interests and expertise, and my daughter wasn’t sure what the topic or reading list would be until the first day of class.
Of course since English had always been among my own favorite classes in school, I expected a full report. And I got it, too, via the cell phone the minute my daughter left the classroom.
“Mom,” she said gleefully. “You won’t believe this. We’re reading JENNY CRUSIE!!!”
I didn’t believe it. Mothers of teenaged girls have a finally honed skepticism. But she emailed me the syllabus, and it was true. I’ll quote from the professor’s introduction:
“This course examines the rhetoric surrounding romance and how we see it: what is romance? How has love been defined in Western society? How do perceptions of gender, class, and race affect how romance is portrayed, marketed, or used as a marketing tool? In other words, this course uses romance, both as a concept and a genre, as a lens through which we can discuss various approaches to critical analysis. . . .
“Ultimately, this course is designed to make you think critically not only about gender, genre, and emotion, but, more importantly, about how and what you write. Thus, you will examine different kinds of texts and different methods of analyzing those texts in order to foster a more critical approach to not only others’ writing, but your own as well.”
What were the odds that the daughter of a romance writer would end up in the one seminar that was discussing romance seriously? Pride in my much-maligned genre grew as I scanned the reading list. Yes, Jenny Crusie was there, but also Annie Proulx and George Eliot. And Cassie Edwards, ahem. And a couple of names familiar to WordWenches readers –– AGTigress and Laura Vivianco –– as well as one of our fav sister-sites, the Smart Bitches. Major academic R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and about time, too.
And yet, the stuffy-reading-dinosaur-parent side of me was . . . unsettled. Does popular genre fiction really belong in a college English literature class?
Up front: my qualms are not based on quality. There are plenty of first-rate writers writing genre fiction, much of which I’m sure will stand the test of time and still be read and enjoyed a hundred years from now. Besides, people like to read genre fiction more than any other kind of book (even Oprah picks!), which is enough to qualify them as Good Books to me. After all, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were considered writers of low popular fiction in their respective days, and gosh, look at their reputations now.
Nope, my Niggling Doubts are in another corner. My daughter and her classmates would have no trouble at all finding Jenny’s books in just about any place that sells books, from B&N to Walgreen’s and Walmart. They’re waiting there, beguiling in cheery covers, and deeply discounted, too.
But what about all those other long-ago writers who are often no longer even in print, let alone in deep discount?
For most people, college is the last gasp of required reading, the last time you’re expected to read books
and authors you’ll never go near once left to your own devices. It’s only four years, even less for majors outside the humanities. Sometimes required reading provokes nothing but Fear and Loathing, which is why there will always be Cliff Notes.
But what about those hidden treasures? Those authors you discovered and came to love, whose characters seemed to speak to you, or whose language seemed written exactly to your tastes? Books that made you think?
Or was that just me?
I’m a reader. Always have been, likely always will be. For me, back in the dark ages of the 1970s, college reading lists were crammed full of happy surprises. I learned that there were far more voices in the literary world than dead European white males (the dreaded DEWMs!), and that the lives of the 18th century French women in Dangerous Liasons weren’t any less complicated than those of the 18th century Chinese women in Dream of the Red Chamber. I found I often liked the lesser books better than the famous ones, preferring Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders over Tess of the D’Urbervilles. For the first time, I read women writers that still weren’t being taught in my high school: Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Edith Wharton, Anne Hutchinson, Virginia Woolf, Phylis Wheatley. I learned that there was a lot more to English theatre than just Shakespeare, and that the plays of Aphra Behn were still
worth reading, even with three hundred of years of dust on the pages.
I could go on and on, but (mercifully) I won’t. I can’t make up my mind, anyway. I keep flip-flopping over this like the proverbial
flounder on the dock.
So instead I’d rather hear your opinions. Are you delighted/horrified/indifferent that romance is finally considered worthy of academic study? Does modern genre romance deserve a place in a liberal arts education? Should Welcome to Temptation be elbowing out The Rise of Silas Lapham? Could the professor have made the same points about romance using less familiar texts from the past, or will twenty-first-century college students glean more useful insights from contemporary popular fiction than a musty book that’s two hundred years old? And do you remember discovering some unexpectedly special book by way of required reading, or were reading lists no more than the bane of your school exisitence?