Thursday, March 27, 2008

PCA 2008: Romance IV

Romance Fiction IV: Friday, 8:00-9:30am
The Romance as Transformation (Special Session/Author Conversation)

"Romance as a Practice of Freedom" Lynn Coddington

This presentation was a chapter of Lynn's dissertation from the late 1990s. It discusses the conservation and transformation of one writer's practice as a writer. Lynn wrote her first romance in her first year of her Ph.D. program and, in doing so, discovered the most exciting community of readers and writers. She was surprised at how strongly writers were committed to improving their craft, and to marketing for and sharing with readers. Academic studies back in the late 90s just didn't "get" romance at all. She asked an RWA group how romances had changed their lives and was stunned at the variety of positive responses: one woman had started a book store that specialized in romances, one had switched gender roles with her husband so that he stayed at home and took care of the kids, and one had left an emotionally abusive relationship because of what romances had taught her. Romances are an amazing explorations of bell hook's claim that love is a practice of freedom. Academics looking at romance completely missed the power and beauty of romance novels. Lynn decided to do a small ethnographic study of a romance writers group between 1993-1997 for her dissertation. The basic theoretical frame of previous romance analysis was the belief that traditional forms of genre fiction don't invite or excite radical transformations of social change and that romances in particular didn't give women a chance to show truly transformative social realities. The theories of literacy that Lynn was working with needed to focus on personal and social transformation, not on a sweeping scale, but on a much smaller scale, and looking at romance in this way revealed many more examples of transformative, although not sweeping, social change, including the garden variety workings of changes of gendered power dynamics. Lynn asked how writing/reading romance was both conservative and transformative. She examined one writer in particular, "Katie," a 34 year old, married, college grad, RWA writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Katie had sold her first three books on one contract, and was in the process of negotiating her second three book contract. She had received lots of support from her editor and publisher but had a mediocre agent, who negotiated standard advances and boilerplate contracts and seemed to be scared to ask for anything more. Katie had just attended a local chapter meeting about negotiating with publishers and was struggling specifically with the patriarchal construction of power relationship with editor and agent, because she felt like the recalcitrant child when she was talking with them, and knew she needed to change that view. The novel "Katie" wrote during negotiations embodies the transformation that Katie was looking for in her contract negotiations. She was focusing on the emotional transformation necessary to gain power in the situation while also trying to protect that spark of validation and affirmation that writing gave her, which was why she wasn't more hard-headed about the contract negotiations. While she didn't seem overtly "feminist" from the outside, she was making choices and engaging articulately with the process, both emotional and business-wise of how to institute change in herself and her life.

"Transformation and Resistance" Kate Moore

Kate is coming at romance analysis from three different practices: teaching, reading romance, and writing romance. She has always seen romance as part of a much larger body and tradition of literature and believes that romance is connected to marriage plot (Chaucer and Homer would recognize this plot) rather than connected to fairy tales. Kate works with adolescents and from the outside one can see the potentiality for change between an 11 year old who enters her school and the 18 year old who leaves it, but the kids themselves are very suspicious of the process of change. Heroic teacher stories depend for their narrative success on the transformation of the resistance of the child who doesn't want to be educated. The narrative usually follows the path of the advantaged teacher delivering to the disadvantaged student access to the power that they hold in trust for the students. Critics say that the romance narrative does this, with the powerful, advantaged hero tutoring the disadvantaged heroine, but it's usually the opposite, with the hero being the resistant individual who doesn't want the power of love and the narrative following the transformation of the resistance to acceptance. Sophie Jordan's One Night With You had a very resistant hero and a heroine who is completely devalued and restricted in every possible way, although she has female friends who give her a ball dress to attend a masked ball, defying convention to seek her own pleasure. The heroine has tried to unite the two selves she is, trying to effect her own transformation, but it puts her back in an abject position of marriage without love. The hero makes very clear his rejection of the heroine's self, the person she is. He says over and over that he'll lose control and identity if he falls in love. When he continues to refuse to change, the heroine leaves him, refusing to be with him without transformation. He tries to fall back on the convention of the marriage of convenience, but finally has to admit, "I will cease to exist without you," claiming that the heroine has saved him. Liberation has to be mutual. In Laura Kinsale's The Dream Hunter, the heroine gains a certain amount of freedom she wouldn't have otherwise because of her disguise. She is more valued as a Bedouin boy than as a virgin aristocrat, but she wants to be Victorian lady. Her outward transformation doesn't effect an inner transformation and the hero ends up searching for her under her Victiorian lady trappings. She thinks he just sees the Bedouin boy and can't see the woman she has become. They connect in dream states. The biggest barrier between them is the contract negotiations over their marriage. The thing that gets them together is her realization that she is the only one who knows what he is and if she abandons him, he'll be lost to humanity.

I completely failed to do justice here to Kate's very nuanced interpretations of these two books, and to her discussion of transformation and resistance in the hero and heroine of romance and the power behind it. So please know that the almost telegraphic nature of this summary is all my fault, and by no means a problem in Kate's original paper.

"Parallel Scenes and Transformation: Scene Structure in Austen and Kinsale" Alicia Rasley

Alicia is very interested in how romance novels are structured and examines here parallel scenes that bracket a situation or issue in a novel; the parallel structure demonstrates the change that the characters have undergone from one scene to the parallel scene later in the book. The parallel scene doubles the issues and themes in the scenes, which is so right for romances as the genre that meshes two people into one. Parallel scenes are very similar to foils as a character device. Again, romance comes out of the same traditions as classical literature, all the way back to the Odyssey. The heroine is hugely important, obviously, but there are two protagonists, and we give the guy his time in the sun, too. Why are all the examples of male transformation? Because we're women and want the guys to change. The first example Alicia chose was the two proposal scenes in Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In the first scene, love has overcome him Darcy, an invasion of who he is. The love is presented as symbolic rape, both of him and his assault on Elizabeth, presented with no foreplay, no preparation. They both think the other is trying to make them something they're not. The letter after proposal is the first time Darcy presents himself as HIM, which starts the transformation that transforms both of them. Her change is dependent on his change. There is a change in how he presents himself, even though it goes deeper than that. Conflict is potential in a novel; the more the conflict, the more the potential for change. Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm deals with issues of identity. Jerveulx's identity is stripped away from him. The parallelism in the first and last scenes are about babies that show the transformation he undergoes because of love. Both times, Jerveulx notices before the women that there's a pregnancy. The first scene is with his mistress, the second scene is with his wife and a ghostly staghound. In the beginning, he's a total rationalist; in the end he can recognize the miracle of love and family. Finally, Alicia used a quick example of Dorothy Dunnet's Lymond Chronicles, which starts with Game of Kings: the first words of the novel are "Lymond is back" in the crowd's point of view. The parallel scene comes at the very end of the six book series, from the heroine's point of view, showing the transformation of Lymond's family's acceptance of the hero. Even in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike is first introduced knocking down the "Welcome to Sunnydale" sign, while at the end, the crater that opens up when he sacrifices himself for Buffy eats the replacement of the same "Sunnydale" sign, indicating his sacrifice for a love he could never have imagined at the beginning of the show.

Overall, it was great to see three such smart women--romance writers, romance readers, and recovering academics or analytically inclined--who loved the genre they were analyzing. And they had such smart, interesting things to say about how romances were constructed.


  1. Thanks, Sarah, for all the detailed summaries. It sounds as if it has been a fantastic conference! (Too bad it was in San Francisco = much too long flight, she grumbles.)

  2. "Romance as a Practice of Freedom" -- I like that concept. :)

    It's encouraging that folks can still be inspired by mere 'entertainments' to take up the reins of their own lives.

    Thanks for sharing these reports!