Friday, June 30, 2006

Solidarity Among Novels

Romance readers and authors frequently comment on how little respect there is for their genre, and one way in which authors sometimes subtly counter this is to feature characters who read and discuss romance books. Sometimes the intertextuality is very clear, as when one novel is named and discussed in another. At other times, there is little more than an allusion to the genre of novel the character prefers. Here's one of my favourite examples of a character in a novel defending the merits of another novel (and women's reading preferences in general):

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France. [...] It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.” [...]

“I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly.”

“It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do — for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never–ceasing inquiry of ‘Have you read this?’ and ‘Have you read that?’ I shall soon leave you as far behind me as — what shall I say? — I want an appropriate simile. — as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!” (from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14, courtesy of the Republic of Pemberley's extremely useful set of searchable editions of Jane Austen's novels and letters)

In turn, modern romance authors sometimes include references to Jane Austen's works in their own novels and thus subtly lay claim to her as the 'mother of the modern romance novel'. Here's an example of an extended discussion of Sense and Sensibility from Claire Thornton's Gifford's Lady:
'I read your book,' he said abruptly. [...] 'The one you were reading in the lending library. Sense and Sensibility. I forgot to give it back to you the other day.'
'Really?' She looked up at him in suprise. 'Whatever for? I mean, why did you read it? I'm sorry.' She lowered her eyes briefly. 'I j-just wouldn't have thought you'd enjoy such a story.'
'It was ... educational,' Gifford replied. [...]
'Educational?' Abigail reminded him. 'The book, sir?' [...]
'It was,' he said, remembering the mixture of claustrophobia and frustration he'd felt when he read it. 'I'd never considered such a mode of living before,' he continued slowly. 'The boredom I spoke of - we have our petty grievances in the navy - but the trivial pointlessness of the lives that book describes! How can such an existence be tolerable?' He couldn't quite keep the horror out of his voice. [...] 'It was a woman's world', he said at last. 'The men had no substance. Two of them were entirely dependent on the whims of their elderly female relatives [...].' 'Even the men we were meant to view favourably were indecisive, ineffective -'
'You think the author was too harsh towards your sex?' Abigail asked.
'No, no.' Gifford started walking again. He was too restless to stand still. 'I said it was a woman's world. What I meant ... was that we were shown the world through a woman's eyes. If that's what it's like to be a female, I can only thank God I was born a man. [...] You have no choice, no genuine freedom of action. You must wait modestly to see if a man favours you. And if his conduct confuses you, you must appear unconscious and pretend indifference. Unendurable!' (pp.48-50)

Much, much later, Gifford remembers this discussion and finds in it the key to understanding Abigail's behaviour. The implication is that women's novels make sense of women's experiences and if, instead of dismissing them out of hand, a man takes time to read them carefully and respectfully, he may gain a greater understanding of women's lives and aspirations.

Eloisa James' latest romances are full to the brim with intertextual references:
the literature professor in me certainly plays into my romances. The Taming of the Duke [...] has obvious Shakespearean resonances, as do many of my novels. I often weave early modern poetry into my work; the same novel might contain bits of Catullus, Shakespeare and anonymous bawdy ballads from the 16th century. (from here)
and the implication is clear: romance readers (and authors) are not stupid and semi-illiterate, and they can and do appreciate the great classical authors. Her quotations from the love poetry and romantic comedies of the past also serve as a call for respect for modern romances which are, in many ways, their prose equivalents in their treatment of the power and pleasures of love.

Finally, and unfortunately I don't have any specific examples here, so I'm hoping I'll get some comments on this, there are instances where romance authors include references to works by other contemporary romance authors. I'm sure I recently read of a historical romance where one character is reading a book written by a novel-writing character created by another author. This sort of intertextuality is both an in-joke for readers of romance and an indication of solidarity among contemporary romance authors.

UPDATE: I finally tracked down the book I mentioned. On her webpage, Julia Quinn says of her novel, Romancing Mr Bridgerton that she includes, via:
Lady W's columns: Michael Anstruther-Wetherby, brother of Honoria, the heroine of DEVIL'S BRIDE by Stephanie Laurens!
In the first chapter, Penelope is reading a book called MATHILDA by S.R. Fielding. This is from DREAMING OF YOU by Lisa Kleypas, one of my all-time favorite romance novels! The heroine is a novelist, and MATHILDA was a huge bestseller.
[In case anyone's wondering why there's a deleted comment in the comments section, it's because I was playing around with blogger. I couldn't get the formatting I wanted when I put the quotes in a comment, and then I realised it would be simpler just to update the original post. But now, of course, it looks a bit odd to have a deleted post. Of course, I realise it also looks pretty odd to footnote my own post in this way. I'll get to grips with blogging soon, I hope.]

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The ultimate romance novel

Eric asked me to post my list of my personal "transcendent" romances, to quote Lydia Joyce. I'm not sure a personal list of one person really counts, and one thing that's becoming obvious from the responses on the listserv is that no one's list is even close to being the same. While I believe that I'm posting romances that anyone could agree are "transcendent," am I choosing SEP's It Had to Be You because it's truly a great romance, with great characters and all the requirements of a "true" romance, whatever that might be (although Pam seems to have a better idea than most of us), or did I choose it because I personally really identify with Phoebe Summerville and her body-image issues?

So, instead, I will ask the question: Do you have ONE ultimate romance? One romance that is the absolute perfect, most transcendent romance?

Mine is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

The perfect heroine who learns and improves, the perfect hero who learns and improves, a little bit of tension over whether they'll get together, perfect relationship foils in Elizabeth's sisters' relationships (Jane and Lydia), both internal and external plot movement, and a truly satisfying ending.

But I know a lot of my own personal love for the novel is because of my own personal feelings, both academic and fangirly, for Mr. Darcy.

So, anyone else willing to commit to just ONE book?

"Honor Killing"

The AP reported on June 28, 2006: "A jury in Copenhagen convicted nine people, all family members or friends, of murder or accessory to murder in the killing of a 19-year-old woman. The woman was gunned down by her older brother last September, two days after her wedding, because her Pakistani family disapproved of her choice of a husband."

I take the long view of romance--looking at the older books, beginning with Richardson's Pamela. There a reader can see the shift in motives for marriage--from dynastic (marrying out of duty, for reasons of family, property, and so forth) to companionate (marrying for love). Most if not all of contemporary romance novels simply assume that companionate union is the only, best reason for pairing off. What would such a romance mean or say to a reader from a culture that believes in dynastic union?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Do we have Gods Among Men in the UK?

The metaphor Eric posted, about football, got me thinking about national differences. I'm from the UK, so when I see the word 'football', I think about the non-contact sport Americans call 'soccer'. American readers, however, will no doubt have had a somewhat different game in mind. And this got me thinking about other national differences, and how they might affect romance writing and romance readership.

The UK association for writers of romance is the Romantic Novelists' Association whereas the US has the huge Romance Writers of America. The RNA is relatively small, a fact which no doubt has something to do with the fact that romance is much less popular in the UK than it is in the US, with 'adult readers [...] turning away from romance to crime and thrillers'. Included among the 'romance' novels are the works of Catherine Cookson which may be better described as family sagas (with romantic elements). The RNA, as its name suggests, is for novelists whose works are 'romantic': there is no requirement for them to write the happy endings which are essential in 'romance novels' as defined by the RWA. We also don't see many books in the UK with the 'clinch' covers which are so often reviled by readers of romance in the US.

So national differences affect the packaging, genre definitions and reception of romance. But do they also affect the tone of even those books which are romances according to the RWA's definition? Juliet Flesch, author of From Australia With Love, certainly believes that 'Australian women's romance is culturally distinctive; in her chapter "The Beetroot in the Burger" she argues that there is an "egalitarianism, independence of spirit, a sense of fair play and a sense of humour" (p. 251) which can be attributed to a uniquely Australian sensibility'.

Getting back to the football, American football players look particularly 'masculine', with their padding exaggerating the size of their shoulders. This is a contact sport where the players literally clash and run into each other. Soccer players, on the other hand, wear clothing which reveals their bodies but does nothing to enhance them, and while players such as David Beckham may be considered extremely attractive to the opposite sex, he's also appeared in a sarong:

Did the different clothes, hairstyles, jewellery, make him less "masculine"? (99.9% of British men live in fear of being less masculine.)

No, it merely meant that the fashion pack began to join forces with the football followers - and worship him. [BBC article]

So what about American v British romance heroes? I tend to read mostly Mills & Boon historical romances, but I venture outside that sub-genre from time to time, and I've noticed a few trends, though I'll not be completely surprised if some more knowledgeable person comes along and disagrees with me in the comments trail. And before I begin, I'll make it clear that, as with all generalisations, I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions.

In the US romances, American heroes are popular, and they're often military or otherwise able to 'protect' a heroine physically/with a weapon. This applies in contemporaries as much or more so than in historicals where the English Regency period still dominates.

In the UK, Mills & Boon sell nothing which is the equivalent of Harlequin's American Romance line. And I'm open to correction, but in the contemporary romances I've read from M&B the tall, dark, powerful hero tends to be Greek, Italian or Spanish. I haven't found one Mills & Boon contemporary where the hero was a UK policeman or soldier, though I have come across one paramedic working with the Fire Service. The most common British hero I've come across is the doctor, usually found in the Mills & Boon Medical Romance. Interestingly, that's a line which is edited in the UK, although Harlequin in the US does sell some of them. It's maybe relevant that the guidelines for the series state that:
Heroes and heroines are equally matched and equally respected professionals. [...] These romances usually involve both hero and heroine working together in a medical environment. The focus should be a developing, emotionally driven romantic relationship pushed forward by the hero and heroine's involvement with patients and their medical treatment, and their medical colleagues.
Although this type of hero's special, he doesn't, I think, attain the status of being 'superior in degree to other men and to his environment, [...] whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being', of the type discussed by Northrop Frye (see Eric's post below). The heroine is usually just as good a doctor as he is. So maybe UK romances tend more towards the 'realistic' end of the spectrum of romance. I certainly haven't noticed an outbreak of vampire/paranormal heroes here, and those are surely heading off the top of the scale when it comes to being 'superior in degree to other men and to his environment'. If UK romance readers want to read a romance, written by a UK author and published in the UK, with a hero who is 'superior in degree to other men', who is a Hero (with a capital H) or what might be termed a 'God among Men' (though not literally a god), then they seem to have to turn to historicals or foreign heroes, and I notice that the heroes of historical romances written by UK authors are very often affected by the more realistic trend too.

Now it could just be that American men are, indeed, Gods among Men, but I find that a little difficult to believe, just as I'm unprepared to believe that of the men of other nationalities. I've yet to meet any sheiks, but the Greek, Spanish and Italian men I've met are certainly not the arrogant, somewhat chauvinist males presented in the Mills & Boon's I've read . I am prepared to accept, though, that the way masculinity is constructed in US society differs from that in the UK. It's not that long since you had a Wild West, and you can still legally own guns (in the UK gun ownership is now extremely restricted). In terms of literary/popular culture influences, in the US there's the cowboy of the Westerns, and maybe patriotic feeling in the US contributes to the popularity of heroes who are in the military, the police and the fire services. Maybe the greater acceptance of capitalism in the US leads to more respect for entrepreneurs, and so there are more American heroes who are business tycoons.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"We all want to be gods"

Pam's paragraph about Sleeping Beauty (scroll down and you'll see it) contains this apercu:
There's an entire act in which Aurora is courted by four suitors, but she spends this act on pointe, balanced, unsupported. This is an exaggeration, but she really does an amazing number of unpartnered balances on pointe. All this in celebration of her 16th birthday, and her entry into womanhood. She's all we care about. She's the only thing worth watching, despite the considerable spectacle of the production.
This reminds me quite poignantly of a comment by Lizzie Potts, the romance writer / fairy godmother of Sarah Bird's The Boyfriend School, one of the novels I teach:
"The idea that romance is the female equivalent of male porn is silly. You know what romances are? They're the female equivalent of the NLF."

"Pardon me?"

"You know, the football federation. Since we don't have a television set, I haven't experienced this personally, but again and again I hear from my readers that their husbands spend all their free time watching football on television. Now the question is, why?"

"Why do men watch so much football?" I hazarded a guess: "Alien mind control?"

"No. To vicariously experience a potency they've either lost or never known. Sports are the essential drama in Everyman's life. His one moment of personal power comes on the playing field. Or, if it doesn't, he dreams of it. Dreams of being the quarterback and making the tackle that wins the game and, by extension, the fair maidens.

"The fair maidens, meanwhile, also dream their dream of power. They dream of love. Their moment comes during those few brief years when nature brings them into full breeding allure. For the first time, they have the power to turn a boy's fancy.

"God's teeth, modern life is queer, isn't it?" she asked. "He's off watching some football tournament dreaming of being seventeen again and she has her nose buried in a romance, chasing the same illusion. It all comes down to this, Gretchen: we all want to be the center of the universe. We all want to be gods."
--chapter 6, p. 73 in the paperback; p. 76 in the hardcover, I believe.

Hard not to read that and think of Frye on romance, too.

Frye on Romance

One advantage of blogging seems to me that I can jump around from topic, and hope somehow that it all coheres in the end. Blogging with others, group blogging (grogging?) multiplies the likelihood that we'll skitter from topic to topic in a sometimes-random, sometimes-provocative way.

Tonight, for example, I'm not going to discuss my first romance course at all, except to say that one of the most useful approaches we took to the genre last fall turned out to be a very old-fashioned one, influenced not at all by feminism or cultural studies. I gave my students a handful of passages from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism--passages on romance, on comedy, and on various literary "modes"--and used them to situate a number of our texts, starting with Sarah Bird's The Boyfriend School. With each version of the class, I've added a few more passages to the mix.

Here's the most recent version--I hope it's useful to someone out there! If anything here strikes a chord, I'd love to hear about it.


Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957

Notes in brackets [like this] are paraphrased; notes in quotation marks are actual quotations.

33: [Fictions may be classified by the hero’s power of action, which may be greater than ours, less than ours, or roughly the same. If “superior in kind” to nature and to us, then “the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth”; “if superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being.”

33: In a romance, “the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, marchen,” etc.

33-4: Other steps down the ladder of genres are: High Mimetic Epic and Tragedy (hero is superior to other men, but not order of nature or social criticism) >> Low Mimetic comedy and realism (hero is one of us, and we demand some everyday probability to the story) >> Irony / lit of the absurd (hero is inferior in power and intelligence to us, so that we look down from above, and “we judge by the norms of a greater freedom”)

37: “Romance…is characterized by the acceptance of pity and fear, which in ordinary life relate to pain, as forms of pleasure.”

44: “New Comedy normally presents an erotic intrigue between a young man and a young woman which is blocked by some kind of opposition, usually paternal, and resolved by a twist in the plot which is the comic form of Aristotle’s “discovery,” and is more manipulated than its tragic counterpart. At the beginning of the play the forces thwarting the hero are in control of the play’s society, but after a discovery in which the hero becomes wealthy or the heroine respectable, a new society crystallizes on the stage around the hero and his bride.” In some comedies, like Shakespeare’s, “the struggle of the repressive and the desirable societies” can play out as “a struggle between two levels of existence, the former like our own world or worse, the latter enchanted and idyllic.”

51: “the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle’s word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story.”

52: “We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back.”

131: In visual art, “’Realism’ connotes an emphasis on what the picture represents; stylization, whether primitive or sophisticated, connotes an emphasis on pictorial structure.” In literature, too, this contrast applies.

134: “The mythical mode, the stories about gods, in which characters have the greatest possible power of action, is the most abstract and conventionalized of all literary modes, just as the corresponding modes in other arts—religious Byzantine painting, for example—show the highest degree of stylization in their structure.”

135: “The occasional hoaxes in which fiction is presented, or even accepted, as fact…correspond to trompe l’oeil illusions in paining. At the other extreme we have myths, or abstract fictional designs in which gods and other such beings do whatever they like, which in practice means whatever the story-teller likes.”

By MYTH we mean stories in which actions occur “near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

“Myth, then, is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other, and in between lies the whole area of romance, using that term to mean…the tendency…to displace myth in a human direction and yet, in contrast to ‘realism,’ to conventionalize content in an idealized direction. The central principle of displacement is that what can be metaphorically identified in a myth can only be linked in a romance by some form of simile: analogy, significant association, incidental accompanying imagery, and the like. In a myth we can have a sun-god or a tree-god; in a romance we may have a person who is significantly associated with the sun or trees.”

138: the interest in this sort of displaced myth “tends toward abstraction in character-drawing, and if we know no other canons than low mimetic ones, we complain of this.”

139: “This affinity between the mythical and the abstractly literary illuminates many aspects of fiction, especially the more popular fiction which is realistic enough to be plausible in its incidents and yet romantic enough to be a ‘good story,’ which means a clearly designed one. The introduction of an omen or portent, or the device of making a whole story the fulfillment of a prophecy given at the beginning, is an example. Such a device suggests, in its existential projection, a conception of ineluctable fate or hidden omnipotent will. Actually, it is a piece of pure literary design, giving the beginning some symmetrical relationship with the end, and the only ineluctable will involved is that of the author.

In romance we see a “tendency to suggest implicit mythic patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience,” while in what we call “realism” the tendency is to “throw the emphasis on content and representation rather than on the shape of the story,” although if we step far enough back from the text, we can often see the “mythopoeic designs” that structure the material (139-40).

162: “Tragedy and comedy contrast rather than blend, and so do romance and irony, the champions respectively of the ideal and the actual. On the other hand, comedy blends insensibly into satire at one extreme and into romance at the other; romance may be comic or tragic; tragic extends from high romance to bitter and ironic realism.”

167: “Comedy usually moves toward a happy ending, and the normal response of the audience to a happy ending is ‘this should be,’ which sounds like a moral judgment. So it is, except that it is not moral in the restricted sense, but social. Its opposite is not the villainous but the absurd, and comedy finds the virtues of Malvolio as absurd as the vices of Angelo.”

169: “The society emerging at the end of comedy represents…a kind of moral norm, or pragmatically free society. […] We are simply given to understand that the newly-married couple will live happily ever after, or that at any rate they will get along in a relatively unhumorous [meaning “not ruled by fixed emotions, or ‘humors’ in the old medical sense] and clear-sighted manner.”

169-70: “the movement from pistis to gnosis, from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom is fundamentally, as the Greek words suggest, a movement from illusion to reality. Illusion is whatever is fixed or definable, and reality is best understood as its negation: whatever reality is, it’s not that. Hence the importance of the theme of creating and dispelling illusion in comedy: the illusions caused by disguise, obsession, hypocrisy, or unknown parentage.”

170: “Comedy regularly illustrates a victory of arbitrary plot over consistency of character.”

170: “Happy endings do not impress us as true, but as desirable, and they are brought about by manipulation. The watcher of death and tragedy has nothing to do but sit and wait for the inevitable end; but something gets born at the end of comedy, and the watcher of birth is a member of a busy society.”

171: a 3-part structure of comedy: “the hero’s society rebels against the society of the senex and triumphs, but the hero’s society is a Saturnalia, a reversal of social standards which recalls a golden age in the past before the main section of the play begins. Thus we have a stable and harmonious order disrupted by folly, obsession, forgetfulness, ‘pride and prejudice,’ or events not understood by the character themselves, and then restored.” […] “of course very often the first phase is not given at all: the audience simply understands an ideal state of affairs which it knows to be better than what is revealed in the play, and which it recognizes as like that to which the action leads. This ternary action is, ritually, like a contest of summer and winter in which winter occupies the middle action….”

179: “An extraordinary number of comic stories, both in drama and fiction, seem to approach a potentially tragic crisis near the end, a feature that I may call the “point of ritual death”—a clumsy expression that I would gladly surrender for a better one.” […] “Sometimes the point of ritual death is vestigal, not an element in the plot but a mere change in tone.”

181: “The presiding genius of comedy is Eros, and Eros has to adapt himself to the moral facts of society. […] Ambivalent attitudes naturally result, and ambivalence is apparently the main reason for the curious feature of doubled characters which runs through all the history of comedy.”

181: “The action of comedy, like the action of the Christian Bible, moves from law to liberty.”

182: “Shakespeare’s type of romantic comedy” may be called “the drama of the green world, its plot being assimilated to the ritual theme of the triumph of life and love over the waste land.” […] “The action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world.”

183: “The green world charges the comedies with the symbolism of the victory of summer over winter.”

183-4: “The green world has analogies not only to the fertile world of ritual, but to the dream world that we create out of our own desires. This dream world collides with the stumbling and blinded follies of the world of experience, of Theseus’s Athens with its idiotic marriage law…” and other examples. “Thus Shakespearean comedy illustrates, as clearly as any mythos we have, the archetypal function of literature in visualizing the world of desire, not as an escape from ‘reality,’ but as the genuine form of the world that human life tries to imitate.”

186: “The romance is the nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream, and for that reason it has socially a curiously paradoxical role. In every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its ideals in some form of romance, where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains the threats to their ascendancy. […] Yet there is a genuinely ‘proletarian’ element in romance too which is never satisfied with its various incarnations and in fact the incarnations themselves indicate that no matter how great a change in society, romance will turn up again, as hungry as ever, looking for new hopes and desires to feed on. The perennially child-like quality of romance is marked by its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space.”

193: “the reward of the quest [in romance] usually is or includes a bride”

193-4: “The quest romance has analogies to both rituals and dreams…. Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality. […] Translated into ritual terms, the quest-romance is the victory of fertility over the waste land. Fertility means food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood, the union of male and female.”

195: “The characterization of romance follows its general dialectic structure, which means that subtlety and complexity are not much favored. Characters tend to be either for or against the quest. […] Every typical character in romance tends to have his moral opposite confronting him, like black and white pieces on a chess game.” We may thus have a contrast “between the lady of duty and the lady of pleasure,” for example, or noble characters paired with rustic clowns, Sancho Panza figures who offer a contrasting note of realism.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Sleeping Beauty

Yesterday at the Royal Ballet's version of Sleeping Beauty, which was attended by a lot of little girls in their very best dresses as well as by regular balletomaines like my husband and me, I was struck by how powerful the lead character is--in this version of the folktale, she's called Aurora. There's an entire act in which Aurora is courted by four suitors, but she spends this act on pointe, balanced, unsupported. This is an exaggeration, but she really does an amazing number of unpartnered balances on pointe. All this in celebration of her 16th birthday, and her entry into womanhood. She's all we care about. She's the only thing worth watching, despite the considerable spectacle of the production. Story ballets of this warhorse variety are often seen as hopelessly bourgeois, locked in tradition. I wonder if that's their only message.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


So, let's see--this is my new blog about romance novels.

Well, not my blog. At least, not mine alone. Pam Regis, author of the indispensible A Natural History of the Romance Novel, will be joining me. So will other members of the RomanceScholar listserv, if they'd like--and so can you, if you're an academic who wants to post about romance fiction, whether as a critic, teacher, or fan.

I'd also love to see here--which means I'll post here--any syllabi, class notes, paper topics, or other ancillary materials you'd like to share. I do have another website under construction, "Resources for Teaching Popular Romance Fiction," where such materials could go, but alas, my webmistress is away for the summer, so that project is on hold. Bring them here, post them up, share the wealth, everyone! Or send them to me, and I'll do it for you.

To begin, then, here's the syllabus I tried for my first class on popular romance fiction, a 200-level undergraduate class that drew 40 students, more or less, from across the university:

English 286: Popular Literature: Romance

Prof. Eric Murphy Selinger
Fall, 2005: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:10-11:40, LEVAN 508

McGaw 217; Office Hours: Tuesday, 3-4, and by appointment

Course Description: English 286 (Romance) will introduce you to the history of the “romance novel,” to some of its major 20th and 21st century subgenres and authors, and to the critical debates that have surrounded this most popular of popular literatures, with particular attention to feminist debates over the worth, appeal, and effects of romance fiction on women readers.

Course Assignments, with Approximate Weights

1. Two short papers (5 pp.), each of which will analyze one of our assigned novels based on critical terms and concepts discussed in class and imported from your other learning. Assignment sheets will be distributed in advance: 20% each

2. One group presentation OR individual “Memo to Selinger” on a genre and / or exemplary text I have not covered this quarter, but should in future classes. Topics might include a particular line of series romance, Christian / inspirational romance, paranormal romance, science fiction romance, erotic romance, gay and lesbian romance, African-American or other “ethnic” romance, Western romance, or Chick-Lit. Assignment sheets will be distributed in advance: 20%

3. A take-home final exam, focused on the final novels in the class: 20%

Schedule Of Classes, Topics, And Readings

Thursday, Sept. 8: Introduction to the Class and to each other. Introduction to the history of “romance.”

Topic 1: What is Romance, and Why Do People Say Such Nasty Things About It?

Tuesday, Sept. 13: Sarah Bird, The Boyfriend School; please also read the essays by Jennifer Crusie which I will link to the class Blackboard site

Thursday, Sept. 15: The Boyfriend School, continued

Topic 2: Of Alpha Males and Bodice Rippers

Tuesday, Sept. 20: E. M. Hull, The Sheik
Thursday, Sept. 22:
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, The Flame and the Flower

Tuesday, Sept. 27: The Flame and the Flower, cont.
Thursday, Sept. 29:
Emma Holly, Hunting Midnight First paper due

Topic 3: Austen and Everything After (Regencies)


Thursday, Oct. 6:
Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades.

Tuesday, Oct. 11: Julia Quinn, The Viscount Who Loved Me;

Tuesday, Oct. 18: Mary Ballogh, Slightly Dangerous

Topic 4: Building a Mystery (Romantic Suspense)

Thursday, Oct. 20: Mary Stewart, Madam, Will You Talk?
Tuesday, Oct. 25:
Linda Howard, Mr. Perfect

Topic 5: Historicals (not “Historical Hystericals”)

Thursday, Oct. 27: Roberta Gellis, Desiree Second paper due
Tuesday, Nov. 1:
Beverly Jenkins, Something like Love;

Topic 6: Contemporaries and Meta-Romance

Thursday, Nov. 3: Jennifer Crusie: Bet Me
Tuesday, Nov. 8:
Bet Me, continued; and / or First Group Presentations

Thursday, Nov. 10: Group Presentations: individual “Memos” due
Nov. 15:
Group Presentations and Wrap-up;

Take-home final due back to me: Weds, November 23.

I should note, before I run, that the class didn't really look like this in practice. I dropped several books and changed the assignments, revising our priorities on the fly. Tomorrow I'll post more about why I chose these books, most of which I'm still teaching, and I'll put up the syllabi of the next two iterations of the course, with thoughts about the changes, term to term.

Right now, though, I'm through with blogging for the day. It's World Cup soccer and Tell Me Lies for the rest of the weekend, for me!