Thursday, April 05, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007

I am currently attending the Annual Conference for the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association in Boston, MA. Eric Selinger and Darcy Martin, Area Co-Chairs for Romance, have put together some fine panels on popular romance novels, and I thought I'd post summaries of the panels and the papers and even the discussions during the Q&A sessions.

I apologize to the presenters for simplifying their arguments. I take notes very well, but they're still notes and obviously can't do justice to the full scope of the presentation, which probably can't do justice to the full scope of what is probably a larger project anyway. But I'll try, and I'll also comment on how the papers talked to and with each other.

In fact, there's only one more Romance panel left. It's a special session tomorrow, Friday, April 5, 2007, 12:30-2:00pm. Authors Jennifer Crusie and Mary Bly/Eloisa James will be presenting, and then Suzanne Brockmann and Anne Stuart will respond and hold a roundtable session that should be a lot of fun and is being much anticipated by those of us here.

Of the five Romance panels that have taken place, I attended four. I missed the first one for embarrassing reasons (I was finishing up my own paper for the second session), so I'll just post names and titles and maybe someone who went can fill in details in the comments:

Romance II: Regional and Global Perspectives
Chair: Emily Haddad, University of South Dakota

Christine Bolus-Reichert, University of Toronto: "The Descent of Romance: Madeleine Brent, Modesty Blaise, and the Imperialist Adventure"
Apparently, if I'd been there, I would have been the only person in the audience to have read Madeleine Brent's novels, for which I can thank my mother! I'm very sorry I wasn't there, because I love Brent's stories. I imagine Christine wishes I'd been there as well. Christine very graciously gave me a copy of the paper, which I will read and comment on later.

Glinda Hall, Arkansas State University: "Inverting the Southern Belle"
ETA: Glinda explained her paper to me over drinks, so let's see if I get it right. She said that she examined three (cut down to one) books that used New Orleans as a setting. And while people in the South say that New Orleans is "different," where everyone gets wild and crazy, Hall's argument is that New Orleans is actually where everyone's motivations and real feelings actually come out instead of being repressed. So it's only different in that people are expressing all that they've repressed, rather than acting completely out of character.

Emily Haddad, University of South Dakota: "Postmodern Victorianism and the Romance of India"

The second session of Thursday was the session I was in (I had finished my paper by then!). Unintuitively, it was called Romance I because our time was switched with Romance II to accomodate travel schedules of presenters.

Romance I: Heroes and Heroines
Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

Julie Taddeo, University of Maryland, College Park: "Searching for Romantic Heroes in Catherine Cookson Country
Taddeo discussed Catherine Cookson, a best-selling English author of over one hundred novels published between 1950-1998. Cookson's historical novels recreates a "lost" British way of life, and her readers insist that the appeal of her novels is not the romance, but the struggles and troubles the characters go through. Taddeo discussed in particular Cookson's construction of her male characters, especially the physically and emotionally crippled men who populate Cookson's novels. Cookson's women usually marry up, but they marry a man who has physical or emotional scars that equalize the relationship. Women also rescue their men from domineering first wives or shrewish mothers. Cookson was apparently troubled by the sexual revolution, but her depictions of troubled masculinity appeals to her readers because of their moments of gender subversiveness in which it is the man who needs to be mothered and saved.

I know I'm not doing justice to Taddeo's consideration of Cookson, but I thought she had some fascinating points about an author with such a long-lived publishing career and how her readers focus is NOT on the romance so much as the barriers to romance.

Kerry Sutherland, Kent State University: "Marital Rape as a Plot Device in Catherine Coulter's Historical Romances: Appropriate or Appalling?"
Sutherland's discussion of Catherine Coulter's historical romances centered around the vexed question of marital rape. Historically, rape in marriage was a legal impossibility and Coulter defends her use of marital rape as necessary to maintain historical accuracy in her novels. Sutherland, however, is deeply troubled by the fact that the rapist husband is redeemed not through a change of heart and much groveling before the heroine, but through the heroine excusing and rationalizing her husband's behavior and accepting all the blame. Sutherland questions whether female readers accept the rape: Are events acceptable because the reader is in control fo the fictional experience? Is it that husband rapists in Coulter's novels do not act as real-life husband rapists do and act on overwhelming passion, rather than through violence? Pamela Regis claims that rape in romances needs to be seen in the context of its setting, but Sutherland questions whether the heroine and/or the reader are empowered by converting the man who rapes her or does it just devalue the heroine and therefore the reader?

This discussion is, of course, very topical at the moment, with discussion at Dear Author and Romance B(u)y the Blog and Smart Bitches about rape and sexuality in general in romances.

Sarah S. G. Frantz, Fayetteville State University: "Sobbing SEALs, Frantic Football Players, and Weeping Vampires: The Rise of the Emotional Masculine Perspective in Romance Novels"
I discussed the spectacle of tears shed by hyper-masculine romance heroes, especially in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Chicago Stars books, Suzanne Brockmann's Navy SEAL Troubleshooter books, and J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood vampire series. I demonstrated how the most important structural change in romance over the last twenty years is the inclusion of the hero's perspective, and how that focus on masculine emotional expression yields an increasing need for greater displays of feeling. Phillips' heroes cry to demonstrate to their heroines that they truly love them and it seems to be the only way in which the heroines can believe the heroes. J.R. Ward takes this a step further and directly ties her heroes' tears to their specific emotional barrier to a relationship with the heroine. The key to the entire character of Brockmann's Navy SEAL Sam Starrett is his relationship to his own tears and how they define what kind of man he is. For these alpha males, then, tears demonstrate the barriers through which they must break to fall in love with and admit their love to their heroines, but the way in which their tears are constructed allows them to enhance rather than threaten their alpha masculinity.

Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University: "Exploding the Stereotype: The Heroine as Portrayed in the Silhouette Bombshell Series
Martin discusses the heroine of the now-defunct Silhouette Bombshell line and how different she is from the "normal" heroine of category romances. The 124 books of the Bombshell line, published between 2004-2007 have heroines who are older, experienced, both professionally and sexually, not virginal, and how engage in high-risk professions. Martin focused specifically on the six original novels of the Athena Force series, in which the heroines emphasize their bonds of sisterhood (of choice, not blood). They are strong, loyal, intelligent characaters who fight and love hard and who never back down. In fact, some of the Bombshell books, with their "happy for now" endings, might not even be considered "true" romance novels. Martin's final point was the the Bombshell authors took risks with both their storylines and their heroines, especially.

The panel really worked well together, analyzing the construction of the heroes and heroines of these very different books in ways that worked together in interesting and exciting forms. The questions focused on ways in which to reconcile the marital rapes to the reader, and Eric Selinger suggested the idea of fantasies of resiliance for female readers, and then brought up Emma Holly's novel Hunting Midnight, in which violence is played out as sexual fantasy, but not as a "reality" that it seems to be in Coulter's novels.


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun. Are you going to post a summary of the other two panels as well? I hope so!!

  2. As soon as I recover from way too much steak for dinner last night and the plane crud! Yes, I promise!