This is a follow-up to the earlier discussion about Sarah's syllabus choices. Seressia Glass has posted at Blogging in Black about how "Black romances are hardly mentioned in the mainstream." I'm not sure exactly how "mainstream" is being defined there, but I can say that in all my time online, with a few exceptions, unless I've specifically visited sites by African-American (AA) authors/for AA romance readers I haven't noticed much discussion or reviewing of AA romances.
I also have the impression that due to Monica Jackson raising the issue over the course of so many years, and since it was discussed at AAR in 2005, with a follow-up in 2006, there has been a bit of movement on this, and, to take Seressia Glass herself as an example, I've seen a review of one of her novels at Dear Author and another at AAR. Nevertheless, the mere fact that such discussions and reviews of AA romances on "mainstream" romance sites seem unusual is an indication of how far we still have to go before AA romances are fully integrated into the "mainstream."
As far as analysing literature is concerned, I find it problematic that any work should be placed in a romance sub-genre due to the ethnic origins (or sexual orientation) of either the author or the characters, rather than the subject-matter (e.g. paranormal, romantic suspense) and/or setting of the novel (e.g. historical, contemporary). In practice such classifications probably have a lot more to do with marketing than with theoretical considerations, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't think about their wider implications.
Moving on to Seressia Glass's specific comments about Sarah's syllabus choices, I had planned to comment at Blogging in Black, but as usual my comment grew so long it's now blog-post length, so I thought I'd bring it across here. Here's what she had to say about the syllabus:
Black romances are hardly mentioned in the mainstream. One college professor is teaching a group of students about romantic fiction. She mentioned a range of writers and genres, including a final class choice between an erotic romance (with a gay romance subplot) and an inspirational. Though the class began with Monica Jackson’s novella, “The Choice,” as a discussion on the definition of romance and the eight elements of romance, a full-length novel by a black author was woefully missing from the list.I think that she does have a good point about the "mainstream" (as I've discussed above), but I'm not so sure that university-level courses on romance fiction are yet part of the mainstream, and they may never be (there's a reason academics are sometimes described as inhabiting "ivory towers"). Romance scholars are, however, affected by "mainstream" opinions within the romance community, at least to a certain extent, and I'd like to take a closer look at how that influence might make itself felt.
Not really a problem or surprising, you think. Except the class is majority African-American females and is being taught at a Historically Black College. Yet the idea of including a full-length romance by a black author did not occur to this professor. To be fair, once it was pointed out to her, she did add a Beverly Jenkins title to her list. (Sorry, Loretta Chase.) Still, it’s disheartening that the need to add a multicultural book had to be pointed out at all.
The idea of teaching romance fiction at universities is really, really new (Eric's been teaching them since 2005, and yes, he did have a Beverly Jenkins romance, Something like Love, on the syllabus), and so there isn’t a pre-existing literary “canon” of modern romance novels which many academics have agreed on will (a) provide good food for discussion/debate and (b) will also reward someone who carries out a detailed literary analysis of them. It’s not as though all romances are interchangeable: they deal with different themes, some of them have more layers (imagery, metaphor, symbolism, social analysis etc.) than others. Sarah made that point very strongly in her last post:
I chose the books I chose for very specific reasons. I wished to cover a broad range of sub-genres (contemporary romantic comedy, historical, suspense, erotica/inspirational) as well as a wide range of themes (fairy tales, theories of love, humor, critique of romance narrative, violence, memory, narrative juxtapositioning of successful and unsuccessful relationships, character maturation, sexuality, redeeming nature of love, etc.) and those themes could not be covered by blithely assigning an alternate text. No other books does what Bet Me does with fairy tales. No other book does what OTE does with memory, violence, and character maturation. No other book does what Fairyville does with sexuality as a way to explore emotions.Just because a novel is popular with lots of readers (i.e. has "mainstream" appeal) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a text that stands up well to academic analysis. So choosing which novels to include on a syllabus is difficult, and the professor/lecturer giving the course has to think up her/his own criteria for selection. And the professor/lecturer won’t have had time to read even a tiny fraction of all the romance novels published in the past 30 or so years (longer, really, since Sarah went back to Austen, and Eric included novels by Heyer and E. M. Hull on his syllabus). So what’s he/she to do? Well, she or he might try to pick out a romance from each of the major sub-genres, but the choice can’t just be random. The professor has to teach this text, so she/he has to be sure there’s something in there to be taught which will complement the other texts chosen. And the professor probably wants to choose a novel which represents the “best” in its sub-genre. Given the size of the genre and the number of sub-genres, the professor may not be well-read in a particular sub-genre, so he or she may fall back on what “mainstream” opinion is. And that, I think, is where the problem identified by Seressia plays a part, because the “mainstream” doesn’t tend to pick up on black romance authors and their books. So the hurried professor, trying to put together his or her syllabus in sub-genres which include ones which he/she doesn’t tend to read in, if she’s relying on “mainstream” opinion to help her/him, is less likely to end up including an AA romance.
But in this case the professor clearly had thought about AA romance since she included Monica Jackson's novella, and she was open to including still more AA romance when reminded that there was a “mainstream” consensus of opinion about Beverly Jenkins’s historicals. And so Jenkins's Something Like Love (which was also on Eric's syllabus) was substituted for Chase's Lord of Scoundrels.
Glass framed the issue in terms of it being "disheartening that the need to add a multicultural book had to be pointed out at all," and that made me think a bit more about what's actually meant by "multicultural." Loretta Chase’s maternal grandmother (and probably her maternal grandfather too, though she didn't specifically mention him) was Albanian, and the hero of Lord of Scoundrels is half Italian, so couldn't one describe the novel as “multicultural”? Certainly the fact that the hero is of a different ethnic background from his peers (in both senses of the word) is important to the novel, because according to the beauty standards of the time and place in which he lives, he’s considered ugly, and he’s internalised that judgement of himself and sees himself as a dark-skinned, over-sexual beast-like individual. Which, of course, could lead on to discussions about the depiction of darker-skinned “others” in the romance genre in general, right back to E. M. Hull’s The Sheik and beyond. Hull's sheik in fact turns out to be not of Arab but of European origin (though half Spanish), and when the movie of the book appeared, he was played by an Italian, Rudolph Valentino. You can still find rather a lot of Greek, Italian, Spanish and sheik heroes in the Harlequin Presents line, but I can’t recall reading about any Asian or black heroes in that line (there are so many novels in that line, though, that it wouldn’t at all surprise me if there were one or two exceptions which proved the rule), but in the past a truly Arab hero (unlike Hull's sheik) would still have been taboo. One could, based on Lord of Scoundrels, have a discussion about the extent to which things have or haven’t changed with regards to racism and mixed marriages, and the extent to which “othering” continues to exist. Certainly a discussion about ethnicity/race and prejudice could easily have arisen from the study of this book.1
Another issue raised by Seressia Glass's post is that of the status of shorter fictional forms. The work by Monica Jackson which was included on the syllabus was a novella, but I think preconceptions about shortness and quality also affect perceptions of category romances.
My impression is that the reaction to the original syllabus possibly indicates that many people would not consider a novella to be equal to a full-length novel, and perhaps some people considered the fact that the AA romance was a short story to be a slight to AA romances as a whole. From the point of view of teaching time, including a shorter text means that more of that short text will get analysed in the time available, whereas when one’s studying a longer text, one tends to focus on only a small part of it, simply because of the time constraints that exist when teaching a short course. So just because the text chosen is shorter doesn’t mean that it’s being given less time than any other text.
As for the quality of the text, Monica’s short story is one that I found really rewarding to read, and it raises a number of very complex issues, as well as having a paranormal element which allows one to read certain parts of the novel symbolically as well as literally. No-one should assume that because it’s short, or because Monica is letting people read it for free on her website, that it’s of lesser quality than the longer novels on the syllabus.
1 Particular cultural beauty ideals, and the associations between animality and certain types of appearances, would appear to persist even "Despite widespread opposition to racism" (Eberhardt, qtd. in Science Daily). For example, a recent study by Goff, Eberhardt, Williams and Jackson, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that "Historical representations explicitly depicting Blacks as apelike have largely disappeared in the United States, yet a mental association between Blacks and apes remains. [...] this Black-ape association alters visual perception and attention":
Eberhardt noted that science education could be partly responsible for reinforcing the view that blacks are less evolved than whites. An iconic 1970 illustration, "March of Progress," published in the Time-Life book Early Man, depicts evolution beginning with a chimpanzee and ending with a white man. "It's a legacy of our past that the endpoint of evolution is a white man," Eberhardt said. "I don't think it's intentional, but when people learn about human evolution, they walk away with a notion that people of African descent are closer to apes than people of European descent. (Science Daily)
The image of the poster of The Sheik is from Wikimedia Commons.