Sunday, April 27, 2008

Preferences and Prejudice

I'd like to bring together the two topics we've been discussing most recently here at Teach Me Tonight, namely genre and sexuality. The two seem to be inextricably intertwined for some readers:
We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. [...] Naming a favorite book or author can be fraught. Go too low, and you risk looking dumb. Go too high, and you risk looking like a bore — or a phony. (Rachel Donadio in the New York Times, via a post by Mrs Fairfax at AAR)
John Mullan has observed that
When culture can be bought and sold, taste becomes an increasingly useful social marker. It was commerce that gave 'culture' to the middle classes, but commerce could also sully it. So the Georgians set about building a national culture - from the plays of Shakespeare to the music of Handel - that only the qualified could properly enjoy. As this culture widened, paradoxically the separation of high and low ('polite' and 'vulgar') sharpened.
And yet, between "high" and "low" culture, lies the "middlebrow," which arouses even greater disgust from a "highbrow" such as Virginia Woolf than the pure "lowbrow" ever would:
what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. [...] The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that. (Woolf)
However much her intent may have been to amuse, the fact is that Woolf is classifying people according to the types of cultural products they prefer, in a manner very similar to that of the modern individuals described by Rachel Donadio. They too single out for particular scorn the "would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes."

Could it be that the "middlebrow," attracts such disgust because by upsetting the neat binary opposition of "high" and "low" it perhaps hints that all cultural products might lie on a continuum? Does the existence of the "middlebrow", the offspring of cultural miscegenation between "high" and "low", cause concern because it provides evidence that the two terms seen as opposites are not, in fact, as different as the clear distinction between "high" and "low" would suggest?

Rosina Lippi has observed that,
the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is artificial and has more to do with social and class issues than anything else. [...] to call a novel 'literary' is the end result of a gatekeeping process with very few admissability criteria. [...]

I might call any given novel a mystery because it's got the elements that are commonly held to be part of that genre. Somebody who subscribes to a simplistic definition of 'literature' as serious or superior doesn't approach it that way. In extreme cases the question is more along these lines: do I feel comfortable admitting that I, with my superior taste and understanding, consider this novel worthwhile? If the answer is yes, then the justification given is: character driven [...], serious, insightful. Regardless of what elements of better-defined genres might be in evidence.
Lisa Fletcher, in the Introduction to her soon-to-be published book, Historical Romance Fiction, argues that romance poses a particular challenge to those attempting to maintain the distinction between "high" and "low" culture: "the permeability of the border between “high” and “low” culture is not simply displayed by, but characterizes romance" (4),
Romance, it might be said, plays the division between high and [...] “low” culture. As noted above, in this study I look at texts from both ends of this scale with a view to exposing their common ground. This study reveals that there are underlying similarities between all of the novels I discuss, most particularly in the way they use an idea of “history,” which preclude any easy distinction between them in terms of their literary sophistication or erudition. (7)
If this is the case, and if those people and texts which challenge dichotomies by hinting at a fluidity or continuum between binary opposites are particularly feared and mocked for it, could this help to explain why the romance genre has so often been derided and marginalised?

I am in no way wishing to suggest that discrimination on the grounds of race, sexual orientation or biological sex is identical to the sort of discrimination that has affected the modern romance genre and its readers. Nonetheless, I think some of the insights provided by theory written about these areas may provide a framework in which to think about how romance and romance readers have been viewed. It may also provide some romance readers with a framework for understanding other forms of discrimination. For example, Richard Dyer, writing about race, has noted that
stereotyping - complex and contradictory though it is [...] does characterise the representation of subordinated social groups and is one of the means by which they are categorised and kept in their place, whereas white people in white culture are given the illusion of their own infinite variety. (12)
One can perhaps see a parallel here to the way in which readers of certain genres (e.g. romance readers) have been stereotyped (as bored, stupid housewives, for example), as compared to the diverse body of readers of complex, "high," literary texts.

Smart Bitch Sarah recently raised the topic of feminism and romance:
In my more ambitious moments in writing on this site, I ponder whether romance and the online community of women who read and write it are a microcosm that mimics the larger state of women in the US, one that is representative of the political polarity and diversity of women in this country [...]

Sexism and RomanceLandia have a long dance-card full of history - are romance novels sexist? the opposite? both? neither? a duck with sheep’s clothing? a pocketful of kryptonite? - but conversely, racism and/in RomanceLandia is debated with shouting or whispers. Debates about romance novels written by or perhaps about black women and where they are shelved in comparison to white romance novels usually end up with much hollering online or use of capslock, or devolve into a complete lack of solution and much offense.
As I commented in response,
it’s really discouraging when groups that have known oppression and that recognise how it works when it’s directed at them, don’t recognise the similar processes going on when they turn around and oppress another group in a similar way. [...] even people who might not have privilege in one context [...] might have privilege in another.
Kimberle Crenshaw, examining the workings of racism and sexism, "understood that we can all stand together as long as we think that we are all equally affected by a particular discrimination, but the moment where a different barrier affects a subset of us, our solidarity often falls apart."

Sadly, an example of this sort of situation arose very recently. A feminist author's book contained racist illustrations (there's a follow-up post here). Many of those who commented on the situation, including Holly (who wrote the first of the posts I've linked to) used the words "intersection" and "intersectionality." The theory of intersectionality, "a term invented by Kimberle Crenshaw and utilized during the 1990s by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins" is a way of looking at differences between individuals:
Collins’ entire approach [...] shifts our understanding of social categories from bounded to fluid and highlights the processes of self definition as constructed in conjunction with others. Intersectionality implies that social categories are not bounded or static. Your social nearness or distance to another changes as the matrix of domination shifts, depending on which scheme is salient at any given moment. You and the person next to you may both be women; but that social nearness may be severed as the indices change to include religion, race, ethnicity, sexual practices or identities, class, and so forth. (Allan 10)
Identity, then, is complex and an individual's primary identity may change depending on the context in which they find themselves. Sarah described how this might occur within the context of sexuality:
For every individual, one or more alignments dominate the others, acting as the primary sexual orientation(s), with the others relegated either to secondary or to absent status, a subtle, complicated balance that has a different combination of fulcra for each person. For example, domination could override gender attraction as a sexual orientation: the gender of the partner being dominated is then immaterial to the arousal caused by the act of dominating someone, and the dom is, for all intents and purposes, bisexual.
Without wanting to trivialise the issues with which I'm making comparisons, I think one could use this insight to understand why, for example, one reader might usually enjoy similar books to those given good reviews by one reviewer, but might on occasion feel very differently from them about one particular novel. Perhaps that novel contained a theme or type of plot or character which that reader dislikes, but which is not so central to the reviewer's preferences. It also explains how and why some of us might slip between genres, and between "high" and "low": if a reader's preference is for love stories, for example, they may, as Fletcher has observed, find such stories in books which span what turns out to be not a cultural divide between "high" and "low" but a continuum of novels dealing, in their different ways, with a single topic. For a great many of us, it is probably the case that our identities as readers are not simple ones centered around "high" or "low" culture, but are made up of a variety of different preferences and inclinations, with each individual book able to satisfying only some of our preferences. Not many books, and maybe none at all, will contain our favourite plot or theme, stimulate us intellectually to just the right degree, seem well-written and leave us feeling utterly content with every aspect of the work.

In addition, "Intersectionality motivates us to look at just how our identities are constructed at the expense of others" (Allan 10), and that brings us back to serious issues such as those mentioned by SB Sarah. As readers, reviewers or literary critics who appreciate a genre which is often stereotyped and mocked, it can be easy to feel defensive and want to present an impression of harmony and unity. There's a tendency to want to proclaim, for example, that all romances are feminist and/or empowering to women. Such an approach, however, would mean ignoring the insights that might arise from that very experience of literary oppression and from thinking about intersectionality. Without joining those who dismiss the entire genre, I think we do need to be able to express legitimate concerns about ways in which some romances, or trends within the genre, might contribute to the marginalisation of some romance readers.

I've chosen to illustrate this post by including a Venn diagram (from Wikipedia). This type of diagram is a way of representing sets which overlap, and identities which are created by the intersections of sets.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Brian Alexander's America Unzipped

My husband pointed out this book to me during our most recent visit to Barnes and Noble, and it looked intriguing, so we bought it in hard cover. I'm very glad I read it, but it didn't teach me anything I don't know about the American "underbelly" of sex (except the chapter about the evangelical sex counselor--that was freaky).

Alexander, a columnist for Glamour and writer of's Sexploration column, wanted to know what the questions he received from his readers revealed about America: "I was surprised that so many questions were about sex I always assumed was carried out in real life only be a tiny fringe in swanky apartments conveniently located near the British parliament," because "If my readers were at all representative, I wondered how it could be that so many people existed in the same country that was experiencing a national freak-out over the possible baring of Janet Jackson's nipple" (6). As such, then, "I wanted to know who these sexual explorers were; if the scene had really changed as much as I thought, and if so, why so many people were doing what they were doing; what influences were inspiring them; and most important, if they were finding any happiness by doing it" (13).

Oh, and please be warned that most links from here on out are very much NOT safe for work.

Alexander spends a chapter each on:
1. PHE, the sex-toy and video empire that is built of Adam and Eve stores, and the Sinclair Institute;
2. The evangelical Christian sex preacher, Joe Beam;
3. Fascinations, one of the recent sex box chains (we have Priscilla's in my town);
4. Passion Parties;
5. Web-based virtual sex and meeting people in real life from sex sites;
6. Porn artistes (Madison Young and;
7. A BDSM convention;
8. A well-known fetish club in Seattle, The Wet Spot.

What he has to say is not new or exciting to anyone with a medium level awareness of how much the Internet has changed the sexual culture and with a minimum amount of using that change to explore sex themselves. While often amusing, Alexander is very much an outsider to the culture he observes. He has sex, obviously (happily married, apparently), but he projects himself as vanilla as they come (harhar). He's very much performing like an old-school anthropologist and I was often forcibly reminded of Janice Radway and her discussion, as a non-reader, of romance readers. He is bored and exasperated when people answer "The Internet!" to his question of why sex has changed so much, become so mainstream, in the last 10-15 years. "Yes", he seems to say, "but there has to be more! That can't be the only answer!" He seems unwilling to take people at their word: of the BDSM convention, he says, "there is a determined self-consciousness about it all that feels forced" (261), without saying why it feels forced.

Overall, I found his relentless focus on sin and shame as the main, or indeed, the sole, lens for analysis as forced. As much as he thinks the sexual "outlaws" force their attachment to their outlaw status (201), I think his focus on sin and shame was forced, and, to be honest, completely outdated. Just as Radway came to romances "knowing" that they were all about patriarchal oppression, and couldn't step away from her assumptions to analyze romances with an open mind, Alexander "knows" that the new sex and sexual culture is all about taboos and sin and feeling like outlaws and pioneers. Instead, by insisting on this analysis, he reveals more about himself than he does about the "cultures" he observes and analyzes.

He asks of a femdom:
why she thinks America has become a more wide-open country sexually, which seems to defy the common wisdom that we're becoming more buttoned up, she tells me she agrees that sexual experimentation like hers is becoming much more common. "And that's a shame." Pamela is the first person to say such a thing to me and I think she is the first person who has been completely honest about this. Everyone else has told me how happy they are that experimental sex and porn and toys are gaining acceptance, but I have always doubted them. Pamela derives pleasure from rule breaking, so "it is sad that fetish wear is so mainstream now." (276).
Just like Radway, then, he refuses to take his subjects at face value, refuses to analyze them on their terms. And while it's important to realize that people in a particular culture or society might not be able to be objective about their culture and to try to think about alternate perspectives that are worthy of discussion, one also shouldn't completely discount what they say, either. Alexander not only discounts his subjects, but at times ridicules them in disturbing ways: "I feel such an overwhelming contempt I am alarmed" (262). And while he has learned the bare knowledge of how people all over the country explore sex, he hasn't begun to touch on the why, even though the why is precisely the aim of his journey in the first place.

Alexander's own fetish, his own axis of sexual orientation, is one of taboo and sin:
What if taboo--sin--did not exist? In the absence of sin, in a world devoid of condemnation, what fuel could Pamela use for heat? I have often joked with friends that I owe the Catholic Church a great debt for making sex dirty and therefore much more fun. I'm not sure how I could function, sexually speaking, if I didn't think I was committing a sin, somehow.

...Condemnation may be the biggest favor any religious or political moralist could do for sex, especially now that sex is available anywhere and therefore no long controllable.

But what happens when we kill sin and make sex akin to buying new snow tires?
Alexander needs to see sex as sinful in order to operate, and his entire book is founded on this premise. So when he meets people who just don't see sex this way, who don't have this complication, this fetish, he is bewildered and distrustful.

"Sex, porn, bondage, S&M--none of it is transgressive anymore. There is no danger in it," Alexander claims, and he sees this as problematic. I see this as supporting my argument about polysexuality, which I presented at PCA this year and goes, in part, thusly:
BDSM is a sexual orientation both analogous to and concurrent with Kinsey's continuum of heterosexuality/homosexuality. Being kinky is not just something one does in one's bedroom, not just a classification of sexual actions, but is an identity. In Beneath the Skins, Ivo Dominguez Jr.'s call for a BDSM community identity and activism similar to that of the GLBT community, he argues that while Kinsey's ground-breaking "concept of sexual orientation made it possible to see homosexuality as a deeply rooted part of self-identity rather than as a perverse choice" (15), it inadvertently created a "myth of Monosexuality" which envisions sexuality as a single "continuum with heterosexual and homosexual as its poles" (16). Monosexuality, then, precludes even the possibility of additional sexual orientations that are just as deeply rooted in the psyche as the traditional orientation of gender attraction; instead, other alternate sexualities besides homosexuality are seen as sexual practices. In opposition to the traditional doctrine of monosexuality, Dominguez posits instead a theory of polysexuality: "a complex pattern of many continuums, each describing an important part of the individual’s sexuality" (16). Expanding Dominguez's definition, then, I argue that polysexuality includes at least the axes of heterosexual/homosexual, monogamous/polyamorous, top/bottom, butch/femme for women or masculine/effeminate for men, voyeur/exhibitionist, public/private, sadist/masochist, and dominant/submissive, with the additional complications of alignments for bondage, role play, or many more specific fetishes.

For every individual, one or more alignments dominate the others, acting as the primary sexual orientation(s), with the others relegated either to secondary or to absent status, a subtle, complicated balance that has a different combination of fulcra for each person. For example, domination could override gender attraction as a sexual orientation: the gender of the partner being dominated is then immaterial to the arousal caused by the act of dominating someone, and the dom is, for all intents and purposes, bisexual. Or an extreme fetishist could be sexually aroused only in situations that include the fetish in question, making any other axis immaterial. Most importantly, though, sexual identity can change over time or in different situations or with different partners, and movement through the matrix may be along multiple axes, and may change direction on any axis. A male rather than a female partner may move an individual's location on the domination/submission axis, for example. Or a sadist may prefer to bottom for sex if not being actively sadistic. Rather than a single "choice" between gay, straight, and bi, with some kinky activities thrown in for fun, seen this way, sexual identity is instead a multi-dimensional, inter-woven, ever-changing combination of orientations.
It is this concept of polysexuality that Alexander fails even to conceptualize, let alone understand. He's stuck in his own unconscious axis of shame and taboo as his "hot" button when it comes to sex and completely fails to understand that if sex is no longer exciting because one is breaking a taboo, it is exciting because one is freely able to express one's (poly)sexuality. The complete absence of taboo and/or shame as a concept in the sex lives of the people Alexander was observing means that they are free to follow their desires, rather than struggle against that taboo.

This might be an overly optimistic, even idealistic way of viewing the world, but I think it goes to explain the rise and success of erotic romance, as well. There's lots of other things that explain that success (Alexander's least favorite answer, "The Internet!" being the main one, because erotic romance is by and large based in the e-book industry, which provides instant gratification at any time of the day or night with a mouse click), but I think erotic romance is part of the new sex culture and sexual culture (slightly different phrases, I think) that Alexander failed to understand.

Works Cited
Alexander, Brian. America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction. New York: Harmony Books, 2008.

Dominguez, Ivo. Beneath the Skins. Daedalus Publishing, 1994.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Case Study on Genre: Rosina Lippi's Tied to the Tracks and The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square

Rosina Lippi has decided to label her latest novel, The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square, and a previous contemporary novel, Tied to the Tracks, "romantic comedies."

Over the past few weeks there's been quite a bit of discussion here and elsewhere about genres, how to define them and how to distinguish them from each other. At the 2008 PCA conference An Goris observed that "Genre is [...] inherently dynamic and ever-changing; it may seem stable, but only 'stable for now'." But if they're "stable for now", are there any definitions we can agree on for now? And what purpose(s) do they serve?

At Romancing the Blog Barbara Samuel was wondering why although "Most romance writers who branched into women’s fiction are still delivering a pretty solid romantic story along with the great characters we’ve come to require in romance, [...] romance readers are quite wary" and don't seem to follow the romance authors who decide to write women's fiction.

So what is "women's fiction"? Barbara Samuel added that "women’s fiction is–by its very nature–about women, while romance is about the relationship, and the man, often even more than about the woman." So while romance guarantees "a central love story," women's fiction doesn't. And, as Katie pointed out, "a romance novel promises a happy ending, a women’s fiction novel may, but doesn’t have to provide it. Btw. that’s also one reason for me why I rarely read chick lit, having been burned once too often."

Rosina was asking about the differences between chick lit and romance, because she wanted to "get a sense of [...] how these two novels of mine are perceived. If they fit neatly into one category or another, or not." Beth responded by describing chick lit as books
in which the main protagonist is female, and the plot generally revolves around problems that she is dealing with on a personal level. Usually the heroine in young-ish (20’s or 30’s), has a job in the entertainment/PR/marketing/journalism/media field, and generally she is single. She often has issues with her family. In order to achieve her happy ending, she has to work through her problems and grow into a better person, and she usually finds love in the process.
So, having got a rough idea of how one might define "women's fiction," "chick lit" and "romance," and rather intrigued by the idea of trying to answer Rosina's challenge about how to label her contemporary novels, I set out to read them. (I should probably mention that I bought Tied to the Tracks, but Rosina sent me a copy of The Pajama Girls). The first thing I saw was, of course, the covers.

The cover of the hardback of Tied to the Tracks is on the left, the cover of the paperback's on the right. Neither says "romance" to me, though the one of the right looks to me like it could possibly be non-urban chick lit. They don't say "romantic comedy" either, though the paperback cover is possibly more headed in that direction than the rather dark picture on the hardback's cover. I'm sure this is rather subjective. What do you think? And the cover of The Pajama Girls, with its cushions, didn't say much to me at all about the book's genre, though I did think that I wouldn't want to lean back on them because they look too expensive. In Australia Tied to the Tracks appeared under Lippi's Sara Donati pseudonym and with a different cover. This one seems to me to convey an impression of history (which is appropriate, since the story is about a group of documentary makers) but at first glance it looked as though it might actually be set in the past, at a seaside resort (rather than in present-day, albeit fictional, Ogilvie, Georgia).

Covers do matter because as Sheldrick Ross and Chelton found in their study of readers
Once the reader starts to browse within a range of books, then the cover and the clues provided on the book itself become important. Titles are also important - readers said they were drawn both to an unusual, catchy title (in the case of an unfamiliar book) and to a familiar title that struck a chord. (53)
How do you react to the covers of Rosina's novels? Do you find a title like The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square appealing? Does it sound unusual or familiar to you? And does it have a different feel to Tied to the Tracks? For me, a title which refers to clothing and "girls" is more likely to make me think of women's fiction and/or chick lit.

Having finally dragged myself away from the cover art and titles and back to the contents of the novels, I asked myself how I'd describe Rosina's contempory novels. They don't feel like "romantic comedy" to me because that makes me think I should be laughing out loud. Mind you, I don't laugh at Jenny Crusie's novels either. So perhaps it's that I don't associate "romantic comedy" with occasional glimpses of wry humour. If I had to choose a label for these novels, I'd make up a new one. I think they're contemporary romantic emotional-mystery fiction. You can read an excerpt of The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square for yourself and see what you think.

What reading these novels made me realise was how much I take it for granted when reading romance that I'll have access to what at least one of the main characters (and usually both of them) are thinking. I expect to know what they're feeling and, pretty early on, why they're thinking and feeling that way. It's not that a romance can't keep any secrets in reserve till the end, or that they all break the "rule" about "show don't tell" but generally, while the main characters in a romance may not understand what they're feeling (and they certainly don't know they're heading for a happy ending), the author makes sure that the reader does.

Lippi makes both her characters and the reader do some hard work trying to understand what's going on, and that seems to create a degree of emotional distance between the reader and the characters. I think it's because it's more difficult for me as a reader to get caught up emotionally in a scene if I'm having to work really hard to decipher what the characters are feeling. Candy at the Smart Bitches, in her review of Tied to the Tracks, explained this better than I can:
The best books allow me to lose myself in the characters’ heads and inhabit their skins, and this book came close in a couple of spots, because Lippi is very skilled at building characters who are interesting and real, people you can imagine meeting and liking in real life, but I still felt oddly disengaged emotionally from Angie and John as lovers.
I think Candy's right about this being a feature of the best romances (or, at least, the ones I enjoy the most), but I'm not sure that it's necessarily a feature of "The best books" in all genres. In any case, I wouldn't describe Lippi's novels as romances.

It's because the reader is almost put in the role of a detective, trying to work out the truth from the clues given in the text, that I added the "emotional-mystery" element to my (very cumbersome) label of "contemporary romantic emotional-mystery fiction". That sense of having to do detective work is underlined by both the form of the novels and the occupations of some of the characters. In Tied to the Tracks the heroine is a documentary film-maker, invited to a small town in Georgia to make a documentary about Miss Zula. As Lippi has said,
Miss Zula is a mystery to most people, even those who have known her all their lives. Even to me. There's a very complex backstory about this woman who has forged her way at considerable personal cost, but that information dribbles out because she won't have it any other way.
Through the inclusion of excerpts from websites, books, the town's newspaper, notes that inhabitants of the town leave for the documentary-makers, and other material, the text of the novel also invites the reader to interpret and assess a mass of different texts in a way which parallels the work that the documentary makers must undertake in order to understand the many mysteries to be uncovered in Ogilvie.

The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square is also written using this technique, since parts of the story are told through messages left on John Dodge's answering machine, with the occasional letter or newspaper article included too. The mysteries in this novel are not so difficult to uncover as Miss Zula's, but they're much more obviously emotional mysteries, and that's underlined by the fact that the novel includes a number of characters who are psychotherapists.

Julia Darrow, one of the pajama girls of Lambert Square, and owner of the shop which sells fine linens (and, presumably, the rather fine pillows/cushions depicted on the cover of the novel) might seem to have an occupation which has little or nothing to do with detective work, but it too provides metaphors for the work the reader must do. When we first encounter her she soon turns
her attention to the three large cartons on the worktable. All from her buyer in Italy, six months' worth of her best finds. There was a pleasant shiver of anticipation when a box arrived from Rosa, the thrill that was usually reserved for children on Christmas morning. She adjusted the blade on her penknife and began the delicate business of separating fragile goods from the box they came in. [...] Julia peeled away layers of plastic, linen, and archival tissue paper to reveal a bedsheet with a five-inch border of elaborate silk embroidery, white on white. She reached for a fresh pair of white cotton gloves. (25)
While Julia carefully handles and assesses the fine linens, she herself may perhaps be thought of as "fragile goods" living inside a box: "maybe she was living inside a box, but it was a very large, very nice box" (219).

It's a bit difficult to give more explanation of the kind of detective work the reader has to do without either giving spoilers or quoting vast chunks of text, but there are hints throughout these novels that the characters (and by implication the readers) have to work at understanding what's truly going on. Here's an example from the excerpt of The Pajama Girls:
"When it comes to Exa Stabley," Mayme said, "here's what you've got to do. Listen to her like you would to a radio station. Sometimes you listen real close, and sometimes you let your mind wander off to more important things. The radio won't take offense, and neither will Exa."
Between Exa, Mayme and the rest of her female employees providing insight and direction, Julia had eventually learned how things worked in Lamb's Corner with a minimum of missteps. (23)
As with Exa, there are parts of the book to which you might need to "listen real close," whereas others might be interesting but less important to working out the central mysteries. And the fact that Julia needed to learn "how things worked in Lamb's Corner" is an indication of the complexity of the community in which she, Dodge, and the reader find themselves. Luckily for Dodge, the previous owner of the shop he's just bought sent him a list of descriptions of some of the main personalities, which helps him understand them and he is easily able to observe more for himself since "it was reading people that was his true talent" (7). He spends his first morning in Lambert Square sitting, doing this kind of "reading" while the reader of the novel literally reads along with him:
The plan was to stay right there for as long as he could manage to get away with it. [...] Sunglasses gave him the freedom to watch the crowd without causing alarm. He meant to look like just another stranger in a place where strangers were welcome. (15)
Some aspects of the detective work the reader has to perform are easier than others. Lippi drops some easy to spot clues with some of the names she chooses, for example. John Dodge, known as Dodge, has a habit of fixing up failing businesses and then dodging away, on to the next one. Another character, a child whose parents went through a bitter divorce, is known as Bean Hurt. But at other times the clues are more difficult to spot and interpret. In fact, while reading Tied to the Tracks the only occasion on which I felt I had a good grip on the subtext (see the illustration below) of what was really going on was when John and Angie, who were lovers years ago, meet again at a family party:
Angie saw the youngest of the grandsons, a little boy with a round potbelly, a head of streaky blond curls, and a fat strawberry of a mouth. He stood on a chair aiming an arrow at a bull's-eye set up on an easel at the other end of the veranda, all his concentration on the target. [...] As Angie stood up to get a better look, John Grant came around the corner. [...] John's face, familiar and strange and beautiful. How could she have forgotten that face? The answer was, of course, that she had not. She had forgotten nothing at all. In that split second when he met her eye, Angie saw that same flash of recognition [...].

Somebody screamed. John, who looked down at the blossom of blood on his neatly creased trousers, made no sound that Angie heard. He touched the arrow embedded in his upper left thigh, not quite center, tilted his head as if trying to make out a whispering voice, and then fell over. (57)
I wonder if part of the reason I can't understand the sub-texts in the conversation is that, as is mentioned not infrequently, many of the characters are Southerners, who express themselves via "southern circumlocution" (Tied 52). Mind you, John Grant in Tied to the Tracks doesn't seem to be very quick at working things out either. As he says, "I've never been good at reading the signs" (264) and "I'm missing something obvious. I know I am, for the simple reason that I always do, as you have pointed out to me before" (270) and we're told that "John was clueless" (270). I'm reminded of my reaction to Dorothy Dunnett's novels. While I could just about keep up with what was happening in the Lymond Chronicles and The Pyjama Girls, I felt almost literally clueless when it came to the Dunnett's Niccolo series and Lippi's Tied to the Tracks. As it happens, Lippi's "all time favorite historical novelist is Dorothy Dunnett."

Since I started studying the romance genre, I've read very little fiction outside this genre. Reading these two novels reminded me that, as Angela Toscano wrote in a comment at Romancing the Blog,
Reading is a risky endeavor. It can engage our feelings and our perceptions in ways we’d rather it didn’t; often it does this unexpectedly. There’s no guarantee that you won’t be dissatisfied. But then there’s no guarantee that you will. I think a good story is always worth that particular risk.
Sheldrick Ross and Chelton found that "Readers adopted various strategies to establish the right balance, between safety/certainty and novelty/risk" (52) and "After choosing by author, the second most popular strategy was to use genre" (53). Genre labels, then, can help to lower the risks that a reader takes. I'm beginning to think that the differences between genres don't depend solely on the subject matter of the books; different genres (and this may vary from sub-genre to sub-genre, or from one category romance "line" to another) seem to offer different emotional and/or intellectual rewards to the reader.

I'm fairly certain John Dodge in The Pajama Girls would recognise the importance of genre labels to many book buyers, although at the time of the novel he's "had enough of bookstores for a while" (7) and has turned his attention to pens and paper, the very materials with which books are (or have been) created. He's someone who
had been studying the body language of shoppers for years. It was all about figuring out what people thought they wanted, and if you approached it just right, actually selling them something they wouldn't feel bad about the next day, and at a profit. (7)
  • Lippi, Rosina. The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2008.
  • Lippi, Rosina. Tied to the Tracks. 2006. New York: Berkley, 2007.
  • Sheldrick Ross, Catherine and Mary K. Chelton. "Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material." Library Journal (February 1, 2001): 52-55.
I found the picture of Cupid here but unfortunately there's no indication there of which painting this is taken from. Do any of you recognise it?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A More Gentleman-like Manner

Over at Romancing the Blog Eric is revealing the many life skills he's learned from reading romance novels. From Pride and Prejudice, for example, he's learned the benefits of behaving in a more gentleman-like manner. I imagine that now, as depicted in the picture on the right, "He could even listen to Sir William Lucas [...] with very decent composure. If he did shrug his shoulders, it was not till Sir William was out of sight" (Chapter 60).

If you've learned any life skills from reading romances, you might want to go and join in the conversation over at Romancing the Blog.

Illustration from Wikimedia Commons. It's by C. E. Brock.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Future Directions

Sarah's at Romancing the Blog today, predicting some future directions for romance scholarship:
The best in romance scholarship was on display two weeks ago at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Francisco. [...] Some of the scholarship we saw there was truly astounding, especially by the graduate students in the group. The future of romance scholarship is truly blindingly bright if they are any indication. [...]

We also have in the works a peer-edited, on-line academic journal on popular romance fiction, academic conferences on romance scholarship, and an academic society for the study of popular romance fiction. All will be revealed (and marketed!) when they are more fully developed.

The painting is John William Waterhouse's The Crystal Ball (1902), from Wikimedia Commons.

PCA 2008: All together now!

Just so that they're all in one place, I'm creating this post as a summation of the PCA links:

PCA Introduction

PCA VII (not posted yet)

It's a truly exciting time to be a scholar in this field. I cannot WAIT to see what the next five years holds for us.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

PCA 2008: Romance IX

Romance Fiction IX: Saturday, 10:00-11:30am

ew Critical Approaches
Chair: Eric Selinger

"Reading Romance through a Darwinist Lens: The Sylph and Indecent Proposal" Jonathan Gross, DePaul University
Jonathan’s paper was a consideration of whether Darwinian literary analysis was a fruitful way to look at romance? Darwinian literary analysis argues that the creative process is a result of natural selection. The wife who can be sold as a commodity is a theme that is Darwinian, as is a weaker male selling a woman to a stronger one, or two men fighting over a woman and the strongest one winning. Jonathan examined Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's novel, The Sylph and the novel version of Indecent Proposal as examples of these literary tropes, finally concluding that Darwinian analysis could not hold up to rigorous but more traditional literary as a way to explain the themes of the novels.

"Beyond the Kitsch Mirror: Chick Lit and the Culture Industry" Laura Gronewold, University of Arizona
Laura’s paper was very layered, very interesting, and very heavily theoretical in a theory I have no experience in. While I can transcribe the words and the images I received, I’m having lots of difficulty getting to the heart of what she was saying, so, again, forgive me for the inadequacy of my summary.

Laura’s aim was to establish a framework to examine chick lit through the lens of kitsch. The image of kitsch is one of counterfeit. The term Kitsch about all about taste: clunky, emotionally heavy-handed, laden with sentimentality. There is no "wink" in kitsch taste, like there is in camp. The audience does not have the taste to know better than to like Kitsch. The taste is affected by class, race, gender, etc. There is a complicated interface between aesthetic taste and subjectivity, because taste is a way to understand oneself. Sentimentality is connected culturally to the idea of "average" values. The image in the mirror is connected to everything else that's in the mirror. The heroines of chick lit come off at Kitschy—cloying and sentimental and in opposition to smart post-feminist writing. Chick lit as a whole is a cast-off, unworthy form of literature, seen as unintelligent. Bridget Jones, after all, does not commit to progressive feminism. Sophie Kinsella’s novels are very coy about sex. In The Devil Wears Prada, she never actually shows sexuality at all, except adolescent preference for cuddling, which is very kitsch.

"Romancing the Genre" An Goris, KU, Leuven, Belgium
An is aiming to combine romance and genre theory. Genre theory and study of popular romance novels do not join up, like they should. Why, one might ask, is she interested in the concept of genre? It is omni-present in popular culture. Traditional pre-20thC genre theory argues that there is an intuitive understanding of genre, that genre is located in the text and there is a system of classification that denotes differences and similarities among texts. By this light, genre is seen as stable. Modern genre theory problematizes things more than that. Genre is not located within text, but is found in interactions between text and context, between text and all the institutions that surround the text. Genre, in this light, is connected most to the use and the users of text, but we can't predict how that will work. Genre is therefore inherently dynamic and ever-changing; it may seem stable, but only "stable for now." The importance of genre theory for romance scholarship is that the concept that all genres are dynamic and constantly changing refutes the most ingrained prejudice against romances that they're all the same, all formulaic, repetitive, hence literary worthless. Also, genre theory points out methodological concerns. Genre is used as the only parameter in the studies without being fully substantiated, which is problematic.

The problem in Radway’s study: she was trying to understand how "real" women read romance and why they like it, and uses psychoanalytic theory to do so. She relies on two conflicting genre models, which prevents her from achieving her goal. She asks the Smithton readers how they use romances, which uses the concept of use, which is both constructionist and dynamic, but her formula of romance is a static conceptualization. Additionally, Radway uses structuralist textual analysis, and draws sweeping, unsubstantiated conclusions but undervalues textual variation and dynamic change. She does not "get" the romance, doesn't understand reading experience, because she underestimates the text.

On the other hand, Pamela Regis provides us with a traditional literary history of the popular romance novel. She sees it as old and stable form, with eight required elements, which is also a static conceptualization of genre, a strict definition with eight essential elements. She makes distinction between genre and formula, because the elements can be embodied in a range of ways, which allows for variation, whereas formula is static. She relies on the dynamic nature of the genre, adapted to specific the social and historical context in which the novel appears. However, first, her emphatic claims that romance is "an old and stable form" overshadow the dynamic nature of her analysis. Second, her understanding of genre is overwhelmingly textual and does not pay attention to the use to which a text is put. She imposes her own definition of romance novel on the reader. In fact, the methodological basis of study is somewhat questionable in a post-modernist context, opening her theories up to critique from more theoretical-minded colleagues.

As a whole, then, romance scholarship would methodologically benefit from being analyzed through the lens of genre theory. However, genre theory does not adequately include popular culture and needs to expand. There needs to be a development of a genre model adapted to needs of popular culture, which is what An hopes to do in her dissertation.

An’s paper was incredible. If the promise of this introduction to her dissertation topic is realized in the actual dissertation, the study of popular romance fiction will have a truly great scholar. Watching An’s development as a scholar and the development of her ideas is truly a privilege.

"Nothing but Good Times Ahead? Romance, Optimism, and 'Authentic Happiness'" Eric Selinger
Radway's psychoanalytic analysis of heroine and reader argues that "The goal of all romances is the reestablishment of bond between mother and child." Readers, however, argue that reading the romance has transformed them in important ways, and Radway dismisses them. She cringes most visibly when the Smithton women talks about how reading romance makes them happier and gives them a more positive outlook on life, gives them feelings of hope and encouragement. What if we chose to take seriously the Smithton women’s argument that there is a therapeutic effect to romance reading?

There is empirical research into optimism, happiness, and how these can be created. Scholars like Martin Seligman argue that there are three contributors to how happy we can be: genetics and life circumstances account for no more than 8-15% each of a person’s happiness. Then there's a separate category that can be labeled as satisfaction about the past, happiness in the present, and optimism about the future. In Jennifer Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman, Carpenter performs a marriage ceremony using these phrases and talks about learned optimism. The way the characters act en route to their HEA helps them move toward it. Satisfaction about past means that the interpretation of the past governs the present emotions about a past event. Rescripting thoughts and interpretations towards gratitude or forgiveness helps build present happiness. In Crusie’s Anyone But You, Charity writes a memoir about her romantic relationship past that is very harsh and cruel. A critique groups tells her that she needs to rewrite the same stories to draw out the good stuff about the past, to show that she has learned from her mistakes and that she should imagine purely as fiction a HEA for the heroine of her book. The cognitive therapy she uses to rewrite her past changes her entire world view.

Optimism can be learned, not as positive thinking, but as recognizing and disputing negative thoughts, rationally and actively. Bet Me's Min learns to dispute her negative interpretations of herself, her relationships, and the world around her. Of the three theories of love, only Beth's fairy tale allows women to have feelings of being in control and it’s the theory that comes to be accepted by the novel as the “right” one. Strategies for increasing happiness in the present include pleasure, and entirely sensory process, and gratification, which calls on skills as we live up to a challenge. Pleasure is consciously taking a mental photograph of an experience, focusing on a single sense, telling someone else about it, and self-congratulation. Gratification is putting oneself through painful things, and living up to challenge. Heroine in Welcome to Temptation does the pleasure stuff in the first sex scene, but the second half of the novel shows Sophie learning how to use her signature strengths. She has always used them with deeply mixed emotions, but she eventually finds a way to put her strengths to use in ways that the novel sees as worthy and she is morally and libidinally rewarded for the exercise. The final scene is not comfortable for Sophie, but she's justifiably proud of herself.

It is generally seen as slightly lower class to be taught life lessons by books, but the concept of learned optimism is taught by romances and readers pursue the aesthetics of romance through optimism.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

PCA 2008: Romance VIII

I will come back to Romance VII, I promise, but I've got this one ready, so I thought I'd post it. Just two more to go!

Romance Fiction VIII: Saturday 8:00-9:30am
Filling an Information Gap: Preparation & Development of the Encyclopedia of Romance Fiction – an Interactive Presentation

Doug Highsmith, California State University, East Bay
Kris Ramsdell, California State University, East Bay

This panel provided the audience with results from the Encyclopedia of Romance Fiction Survey. Romance provided over 6400 romance titles in 2006 with $1.37 billion of sales. It’s important that popular romance fiction have an encyclopedia, because Encyclopedias are at the top of the reference book food chain, proving that a topic has become important enough to attract attention of publishers because the demand is there for information about the subject. The more interest a topic generates, the more reference books it produces and the further up the food chain it goes again. Romance has a history of scholarship, and it has some reference sources, but they are mostly biographical, which is obviously different from scholarship. The survey was to figure out what scholars wanted out of an Encyclopedia of romance, to help determine what topics researchers and other users would be most interested in seeing included in the Encyclopedia. Doug comes to the Encyclopedia from comic books. The Encyclopedia is scheduled for publication in 2009.

PCA 2008: Romance VI

Romance Fiction VI: Friday 4:30-6:00pm
Beyond the Straight and Narrow: Power Exchange and Gay/Lesbian Romance

Chair: Sarah Frantz, Fayetteville State University

“BDSM to Erotic Romance: Observations of a Shy Pornographer” Pam Rosenthal

It was wonderful to meet Pam. As Molly Weatherfield, she wrote the BDSM novel Carrie’s Story and its sequel. As Pam Rosenthal, she’s written Almost a Gentleman among others. She also obviously has a long history with the feminist establishment in San Francisco, which added fascinating little tidbits to her presentation. Her presentation discussed how she came to erotica and romance as a writer.

Pam got started in the genre through conversations she overheard in the lesbian communities in San Francisco, including an article by Pat/Patrick Califia satirizing the political correctness of feminist culture. She came to realize that the utopian dream of sexuality which obviated hierarchy and domination/submission play were, in their own way, as repressive as the patriarchal mindset that the lesbian and feminist communities were trying to overcome. She is very thankful, however, for the lesbian and feminist communities for raising these issues in the first place, however subsequently misguided they may have seemed. Pam argues that Ann Snitow shouldn’t get a bad rap in the romance community, because although she was arguing that romances are soft-core porn, she was also arguing that women can and should be able to have access to porn. Porn, after all, isn’t not good for women. When she was writing Carrie’s Story, she was having internal debates with Andrea Dworkin about whether she was a good person or not. She argues that the SM novel has a simplistic episodic structure that follows a simple escalation of sexual experimentation. But in some respects, SM novels are also pedagogy novels, initiation stories, bildungsromans. The interesting thing, though, is that they’re told by the bottom, by the student, which throws into question some of the critiques of SM novels as objectifying the bottom, because how can they be objectified when they’re so damn chatty? Pam relates that the sexual escalation was easy, but the closure for the novel was difficult. In Carrie’s Story, the top finally spoke from his heart, forced to face his own subjectivity and the power balance shifted because it shows the moment when the person holding the power recognizes his own limits.

“Lesbian Romance: Identity, Diversity, and Power” Len Barot
Unfortunately, Len was not able to join us.

“Fetishizing Patriotic Lesbian Masculinity: Valiant Butches, Wanton Terrorism, and the Homonational Imaginary” Shruthi Vissa, Emory University
Combining nervousness about my own paper and the complexity, layers, and theoretical nature of Shruthi's paper, I absorbed very little of what Shruthi was saying. But here goes:

The original title of the paper was “Queering the Marriage Plot? Love and Heteronormativity in the Queer Romance Novel” but it changed as Shruthi’s writing progressed. She is examining the spectacular masculinity of butch lesbians, in which the lovers union makes possible the beginning of nationhood. Lesbian romances have been rarely studied, and they have never been studied in light of female masculinity. Shruthi examines Radclyffe’s Honor series with a patriotic white, uber-butch lesbian hero who is in the Secret Service who guards the President’s daughter, and they end up falling in love….

And that’s all I got. I’m so sorry, Shruthi, but I doubt I could do justice to your ideas anyway, as layered as they were. I know I thoroughly enjoyed the paper, and if you want to add a summary in the comments or email it to me, I'd be more than happy to add it here.

“Polysexuality, Power Exchange, and the Construction of Gender in Popular Romance Fiction” Sarah S. G. Frantz
I presented this paper with severe laryngitis—I figured if Diane Rehm could run a syndicated radio show with her voice, I could talk for twenty minutes. So, I did! I am lucky, however, in that I get to cut-and-paste bits of my paper for your edification, rather than having to remember what my notes mean.

By analyzing popular romance fiction through the lens of BDSM identities and practices, it is possible to interrogate more broadly and more deeply the ways in which popular romance fiction constructs gender and the power dynamics and negotiations between hero and heroine. (BDSM, of course, is a combined acronym that stands for the main components of the sexual practices and orientations more commonly, but wrongly, known as S&M: Bondage/Discipline, Domination/ Submission, and Sadism/Masochism.) I argue with Ivo Dominguez that BDSM is a sexuality and a sexual identity as much as Kinsey’s homosexual/heterosexual continuum indicates a sexuality. So rather than one axis of sexuality, there are multiple axes of polysexuality, all affecting each other differently. In Charlotte Lamb’s otherwise vanilla romance, Vampire Lover, the heroine ties up and rapes the hero; it is only the rather kinky act of nonconsensual bondage that allows the characters to break out of the traditional male dominant/female submissive gender roles that so terrify the heroine, allowing them enough individual control over their fate to strive for their happy ending. I then turn to examining female dominant/male submissive BDSM romances. But while fem-dom romances overturn the traditional gender roles, they reinforce the construction of gender—the heroes are more male and more alpha than other heroes, the heroines more powerfully female and comfortable with being female than other heroines, and the Alpha male submissives thereby serve as an exaggeration of the value of the final submission to love of normal romance heroes. But fem-dom romances also present another problem in that they seem to try to naturalize the concept of a essential, even compulsory connection between the axes of dominance/submission and sadism/masochism where dominance and sadism map together and submission and masochism are inevitably joined. Finally, however, the relationship between the submissive but Alpha male hero and the female dominant heroine is—the best word I can come up with is—consummated in a reversal of the roles, an exception that proves the rule and serves to solidify the female dominant aspect of the relationship. So, while on the one hand fem-dom romances experiment with power structures of gender roles in the sexual relationship by making the heroines the sexual Alpha--and pretty kick-ass the rest of the time too--these novels reinscribe both construction of gender (men as "real" men, women as "real" women) and the connection between Domination and Sadism.

April 1

I couldn't think of anything amusing to post on April Fools' Day, but Dear Author went for a Dr. Seuss discussion. As Teach Me Tonight is a blog dedicated to careful reading of romance novels, this quote from Seuss's I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! seems particularly appropriate:
Young cat! If you keep
Your eyes open enough,
Oh, the stuff you will learn!
The most wonderful stuff!
I'd also like to pay tribute to Marianne McA who, over at Dear Author, posted this variation on Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham:
Would you, could you, kiss with zeal?
Could you, would you, with a SEAL?
If he cries ‘Eternal mate!’,
Would you, could you, copulate?

I would not, could not kiss with zeal,
I could not, would not with a SEAL,
Could not believe I’d met my fate,
Would never, ever copulate,
I do not like all this Wham!Bam!
I do not like it, Sam-I-am.
Of course, Sam-I-am's reply to that, borrowed from Seuss's One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, might well be
If you never did,
you should.
These things are fun
and fun is good.
Cat from