Fiction Critical Essays

This page provides resources for SF literary scholars.

All types of literature have critics, just as all other forms of art. We read reviews of movies, TV shows, books, short-stories, art exhibits, in blogs and sites like IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, or journals and magazines (print or online). Literary reviews can be as formal as what might appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction or Kirkus Reviews, or more popular as you might find in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, or as informal as what you might find on io9. In-depth scholarly work about SF appears in publications like Extrapolation, Femspec, Foundation, and Science Fiction Studies.

Criticism helps us evaluate, understand, and interpret art. Critics help us determine if a movie is worth the ten bucks to see in a theater or if we should wait for it to show up on Netflix, or if a book is worth getting in hardcover or if we can just download it from the author's website to pick at when we get a chance. Criticism also helps us determine whether a piece of art is likely to please us or piss us off - that is, a critic whose work we trust helps us find art suited to our tastes, life experience, emotional triggers, and privilege (or lack thereof).

By learning how to effectively deconstruct literature through discussions or in our reading, we are better able to experience the narratives we engage with. Literary criticism helps us delve into the text and understand it from a variety of measures and viewpoints. Often, these perspectives aren't readily apparent without such a deep, critical look.

SF as a genre has only existed since Hugo Gernsback (honored by the World SF Society with the Hugo Award) coined the term scientifiction for his new Amazing Stories magazine in April, 1926 (see the cover to the right). Before that time, critics and scholars were still capable of deriving meaning from literary works - even things that later were accepted into the science fiction canon, or generally accepted as proto-SF. Similarly, literary criticism as a field of study and its approach as practiced today in academic circles has only existed since the early twentieth century.

Yet, for as long as writers have been writing, critics have been evaluating their work. The earliest literary scholarship arose from philosophy and moralistics. Not until the New Criticism Formalism and Formalism came into vogue in the 1930s did we begin to see the rise of what looks like modern literary criticism. These dominated the study and discussion of literature for decades, emphasizing close textual readings over previous approaches around authorial intention and reader response. The emphasis on form and attention to "the words themselves"  persisted through the 1960s, long after the decline of these critical doctrines themselves. In 1957, Northrop Frye discussed the critical tendency to embrace ideology in his book, Anatomy of Criticism. Around that time, academics began to embrace other forms of philosophical theory in their literary studies, and the field of literary criticism has expanded to embrace not only the older approaches, but also drawing in approaches from other fields, which is where literary criticism stands today: as diverse as the scholars who study it.

Science fiction criticism began to appear almost immediately after the genre was named; in fact, much proto- and early SF had already gotten the lit-crit treatment; critics such as Henry James had long considered H.G. Wells to be the most important author of his time. Because SF has unique qualities, history, authors, and influences, and because its themes, ideas, and purpose often override traditional literary goals and expectations, the astute science-fiction scholar needs to develop a unique set of tools to successfully approach the literature of the human species encountering change, especially if she hopes to publish her scholarship and criticism.

Major Literary-Criticism Movements

This section lists the major forms of criticism practiced by literary scholars, when they entered the critical toolbox, and the kinds of questions they seek to answer. Keep in mind that just about any political or philosophy theory is a valid approach for examining literature, but the more formal and traditional your approach, the more likely traditional editors of scholarly journals will find your work acceptable.

When examining science fiction, you might need to adapt and hybridize some of these approaches in order to ask the most-relevant questions, particularly when studying core-genre works.

  • Traditional Literary Criticism: includes Aesthetic, Biographical, Dramatic Constructionism, Moral, and Philosophical Criticism (ancient through present).
    • Arose from Aristotelian and Platonic criticism.
    • What is the relevant canon, and how does this work compare, fit, reflect, reject, or expand the canon?
    • What and who influenced this work?
    • What is the historical context?
    • What literary allusions appear in the text?
    • How can understanding an author's life help readers more thoroughly appreciate the work? When and where did she live? Where did she go to school? What else did she write?
  • Structuralism and Semiotics (1920s - present)
    • Based mostly on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. Meant to be a meta-language (a language about languages) for decoding languages and systems of signification.
    • How does the signifier (words, marks, symbols) reflect how a particular society uses language and signs?
    • How is meaning represented in a system of "differences" between units of the language?
    • What are the underlying structures of signification that make meaning itself possible?
  • Formalism and the New Criticism (1930s - present)
    • Focuses on the words of the text rather than he author, historical milieu, or other context.
    • How does the work use the form?
    • How does it use irony, style, metaphor, sentence structure, imagery, symbolism, figures of speech, tone, and other literary devices?
  • Archetypal and Mythological (1900 - present)
    • What recurrent or universal patterns appear in the work?
    • How can you use ancient mythical structures to study it?
    • Psychoanalytic: Uses the theories of Freud to analyze the work. (Now considered passé.)
    • Jungian (1930s - present): Especially examines the "collective unconscious."
  • Marxist (1930s-present)
    • How does the work represent conflict between class (lower class vs. working class vs. bourgeoisie vs. the wealthy)?
    • How does it reflect capitalist or socialist values?
  • Ecocriticism (1960s - present)
    • How does the work reflect current understanding about human impact on the environment?
  • Reader-Response (1960s - present)
    • Central tenet is that literature exists not as static artifact but as a transaction between the text or author and the reader's mind.
    • How can you evocatively describe what happens in the reader's mind while interpreting the narrative?
    • How can you express your reading as a creative, collaborative process with the author?
    • What meaning do you derive from your unique act of reading?
  • Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction (1960s - present)
    • Rejects the assumption that language can accurately represent reality; there is no fixed meaning.
    • How is language used in the text?
    • How do the actual signifiers (such as words) create meaning?
    • Here are a few authors whose work responds well to this approach.
  • Feminist (1960s - present)
    • Brings the focus to the woman as reader, author, character, and subject.
    • How does an author's gender influences consciously or unconsciously affect the work?
    • How does sexual identity (of the author, characters, reader, and so forth) affect the narrative or interpretation of it?
    • Can you approach the work "gynocritically" (women-centered; for example, focusing only on women authors)?
  • Queer Theory (1970s - present)
    • Arose from Feminist Theory.
    • How does the work reflect or resist normative definitions of "man," "woman," and sexuality?
    • Does it reflect or resist traditional societal, literary, and historical constructions of male gender identity? Female? Other identities?
    • Does it transgress, reverse, mimic, or critique sexuality or sexual identity?
  • Evolutionary or Darwinist (1980s - present)
    • How can an understanding of evolutionary processes provide insights into the narrative, characters, setting, and so forth?
    • Also the subcategory of Social Darwinism, which suggests the strong are rewarded with greater wealth and power, while the weak are punished with loss.
  • New Historicism and Cultural Studies (1980s - present)
    • How does the work signify or express the historical or sociological context?
  • Post-Colonial and Ethnic (1990s - present)
    • Affected ethnic groups usually include African, African-American, Central and South American, Chinese, Native American, Southeast Asian, Indian, Irish, and Filipino.
    • Early proponent of "Ethnic Studies" is W.E.B. Dubois.
    • An important subgenre is Afrofuturism.
    • How does the work reflect Euro-American colonization during their imperialist periods?
    • How does it reflect the blindness of privilege from the point of view of authors immersed in imperialist cultures?
    • Does the POV reflect external (empire-building) or internal (the enslaved)?
    • Does the work exoticize (especially in travel narratives) or "Orientalize" native peoples?
  • Thing Theory (1990s - present)
    • Foremost theorist is Bill Brown.
    • What meaning do the objects in the work carry?
  • Posthumanism and Transhumanism (2000s - present)
    • Strives to move beyond archaic concepts of "human nature" to develop ones which constantly adapt to contemporary.
    • How does the work define what it means to be human?
    • How does it display nature and the natural world, especially after technology has reshaped what we consider "natural"?
    • How does it examine the human experience for people who are partly or fully biomechanical?
    • What does it say about the human experience for people who are no longer biological, or who no longer possess a physical body?

Important Critical Works

Want to know more? You'll want to know these works:

updated 10/2/2016

Frantz, Sarah S. G. and Eric Murphy Selinger, eds. New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Pp. 275. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2012. US $40 (paper). ISBN: 978-0786441907.
Review by: Mussell, Kay

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This comprehensive collection of original essays on popular romance fiction delivers on the promise of its title. The succinct and insightful introductory essay by co-editors Frantz and Selinger is the best survey and analysis to date of how the study of popular romance has developed and evolved. Keenly aware of the politics of romance criticism, the editors synthesize four decades of romance scholarship in terms of the scholarly contexts from which previous critics wrote while also charting an ambitious course for the future of the field. The seventeen essays in the collection are divided into four thematic sections: “Close Reading the Romance”, “Convention and Originality”, “Love and Strife”, and “Readers, Authors, Communities”. These essential essays demonstrate the rich variety of current approaches from multiple perspectives. Both challenging and building on previous scholarship, the collection posits an expansion of subject matter, promotes innovative modes of analysis, and offers myriad new and updated questions for future scholars to pursue.

Romance criticism has long been problematic, primarily because of pervasive, often simplistic, assumptions about popular romance fiction held by scholars and critics as well as the literary community at large. Some of the common tropes – that romances are all alike, that they are a form of debased literature, that they are bad (or good) for readers, that they border on soft porn, that romance heroines lack agency, that they promote male hegemony – have shaped and limited the kinds of questions scholars pose and the conclusions they draw. These assumptions have often led to studies that portray romances as monolithically formulaic and, ironically, that favor analysis of romances in cultural context rather than as works deserving of aesthetic analysis. Although this collection is not the first scholarly attempt to break through these simplistic assumptions, the richness and variety of its essays moves the argument along with complexity and promise. These authors write with the understanding of the importance and the significance of their subject and they offer no apologies for popular romance or for their interest in it. [End Page 1]

While much romance scholarship in the past has taken multiple authors and novels as its subject, often leading to overgeneralized conclusions about “the romance”, the essays in the collection’s first section treat the works as texts worthy of the same aesthetic and textual consideration that is conventionally given to more “canonical” literature. Part 1, “Close Reading the Romance”, demonstrates the value of single-novel critiques through four case studies of popular romances that are quite different from one another. In “‘Bertrice teaches you about history, and you don’t even mind!’: History and Revisionist Historiography in Bertrice Small’s The Kadin”, Hsu-Ming Teo explores the uses of history in a novel that is partially based on fact yet re-interprets conventional historiographical accounts to privilege a heroine and her romantic relationships over the conventional narrative centered on politics and empire. Eric Murphy Selinger’s essay, “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance)”, is a classic close reading of an individual novel, and the essay richly repays his approach. Examining Laura Kinsale’s 1992 novel Flowers from the Storm, Selinger deftly demonstrates Kinsale’s often playful and self-reflexive “commentary” on romance conventions as well as the “geometric” qualities of the text and the allusions to Milton that define the moral world of the fiction; New Critics should applaud. “‘How we love is our soul’: Joey W. Hill’s BDSM Romance Holding the Cards” by Sarah S. G. Frantz takes on the BDSM erotic romance subgenre in which the sexual and erotic relationship is central to character development as well as to the narrative. Her analysis goes beyond questions about whether romances are soft porn to posit the meaning of portrayals of sexuality in terms of romance conventions. The line of inquiry she is pursuing could well illuminate the astounding “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon. Mary Bly’s “On Popular Romance, J. R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study” argues that “the key to understanding genre novels…is to be found in study of the parts, not the framework” (64). Trying to analyze the popular romance as a whole has led feminist scholars to work through a lens of conflict between feminism and patriarchy which is not in itself irrelevant, but is ultimately limiting in that the significance of authorial creativity is devalued and often missed. This section of the collection offers potential for expansion of close readings of individual novels chosen to cover a broader spectrum of romance.

Part 2, “Convention and Originality”, builds on the aesthetic approach of Selinger and Bly by exploring the links between romance as a genre and romance novels as individual works. These essays work against the common assumption by those outside the field that romances are formulaic and therefore lack originality. They demonstrate the variety of works covered by the romance umbrella and explore their relationships to other literary forms. An Goris’s “Loving by the Book: Voice and Romance Authorship” examines manuals for aspiring romance writers in terms of their presentation of romance conventions and their paradoxical demand that authors find their own Voice. The traditional advice for potential authors helps to delineate the self-perception of the romance as understood by practitioners and also to chart the relationship between convention and innovation. “The ‘Managing Female’ in the Novels of Georgette Heyer” by K. Elizabeth Spillman challenges the notion that romance heroines lack agency through a comparison of three Heyer novels featuring quite different protagonists who define their own ways in the worlds in which they live; indeed, a key feature of Heyer’s popularity is her somewhat ironic view of romance convention. Laura Vivanco’s “One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in Popular Romance Fiction” explores a variety of ways in which rings and the imagery of rings function in romance. “The More the Merrier: [End Page 2] Transformations of the Love Triangle Across the Romance” by Carole Veldman-Genz builds on theoretical constructs from Rene Girard and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to explore the trope of the love triangle in popular romance. Veldman-Genz incorporates fictions of homosociality as well as the more usual female/male/female and male/female/male triangles. Like the previous essays by Frantz and Bly in part 1, Deborah Kaplan’s “‘Why would any woman want to read such stories?’: The Distinction Between Genre Romances and Slash Fiction” draws useful contrasts between the category romance as exemplified by Harlequin Mills & Boon and slash, which is fan fiction featuring same-sex couples. While some critics have seen slash as a sub-genre of romance, Kaplan demonstrates the ways in which romance and slash are more fruitfully seen as distinct genres interacting with one another in creative and productive ways. Kaplan’s essay suggests a potential model for similar studies of interactions between popular romance and other genre fiction.

Part 3, “Love and Strife,” focuses on redefining a set of common tropes and themes regarding war, conflict, captivity, pain, and healing. The opening essay, “Borderlands of Desire: Captivity, Romance, and the Revolutionary Power of Love” by Robin Harders, examines

[the] literary link between the wildly popular genres of Anglo-American Indian captivity narratives and romance, a relationship that tracks into and through sentimental and sensational fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, across the ocean between England and America, and over numerous cultural assumptions about the superiority of Anglo-American patriarchy. (133)

She argues, through close readings, that early captivity narratives and more recent novels featuring heroines and sheiks mirror one another in their focus on mediating encounters with “the other” in the context of romance. Thus, both genres have the potential to subvert conventional patriarchy. Jayashree Kamble, in “Patriotism, Passion, and PTSD: The Critique of War in Popular Romance Fiction”, describes a type of romance in which the “warrior hero” is damaged by the hyper-masculine world of war. These potentially subversive novels suggest that war undermines domestic happiness and asks too much of those who fight them. Kathleen Therrien’s “Straight to the Edges: Gay and Lesbian Characters and Cultural Conflict in Popular Romance Fiction” charts a variety of portrayals of gay and lesbian characters playing both negative and positive roles in the narrative. The increasing number of gay-positive characters is an emerging marker of social change. Finally, “‘You call me a bitch like that’s a bad thing’: Romance Criticism and Redefining the Word ‘Bitch’” by Sarah Wendell, one of the founders of the website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, attempts to re-define and re-claim the word “bitch” as used on the review blog.

Part 4, “Readers, Authors, Communities,” takes as its concern the often erroneous and condescending views of romance readers. The section opens with Miriam Greenfeld-Benovitz’s “The Interactive Romance Community: The Case of ‘Covers Gone Wild’”. This case study of an interactive “conversation” on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books website draws on readers’ comments on outrageous romance cover art and provides a valuable study of how readers interact with one another in discussing the genre. Glen Thomas’s “Happy Returns or Sad Ones? Romance Fiction and the Problem of the Media Effects Model” argues that asking questions about the effect of romances on readers is not as useful as [End Page 3] seeing romances as a creative industry based on acts of consumption. Tamara Whyte, in “‘A consummation devoutly to be wished’: Shakespeare in Popular Historical Romance Fiction”, shows how romance authors use references to Shakespeare to suggest that popular romances partake of “high culture”, offer a game of recognition within the novel, and give readers a sense of superiority and inclusion in literature. Christina A. Valeo, in “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic”, evaluates readers’ pleasure in Roberts’s typical linked romances. Because romances conventionally end with the culmination of one romance after which protagonists are rarely encountered again, readers may want to know more about characters they have enjoyed. Roberts and others provide that extra pleasure by giving secondary characters their own romantic story while bringing back happily married protagonists from previous books.

Because of limits on length for individual contributions, essay collections are frequently more suggestive of academic trends than of fully developed explanatory paradigms. This fact, however, does not diminish their value. Collections might well be evaluated primarily on their range and potential influence. By those criteria, this collection succeeds brilliantly. Not all of the essays in the collection are as well developed and as suggestive of new strategies as those by Selinger, Frantz, Bly, Goris, Kaplan, Harders, Therrien and Thomas, but they all contribute to a broader sense of the vitality and potential of the burgeoning field of popular romance studies. [End Page 4]

Download PDF of this content.

  • info: Frantz, Sarah S. G. and Eric Murphy Selinger, eds. New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Pp. 275. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2012. US $40 (paper). ISBN: 978-0786441907.
  • reviewby: Mussell, Kay
  • pdf:

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