Thursday, October 09, 2008
Romance in the Wake of Jane Austen
On Saturday evening, Eric Selinger, Pamela Regis, Mary Bly/Eloisa James, and I presented a panel on popular romance fiction for 2008 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, held in Chicago.
First, I have to say how wonderful the whole conference was. Maggie Sullivan blogs about it on AustenBlog (1, 2, 3, 4). My dear friend, William Phillips, did a fabulous job as Program Chair (and congratulations to him on his marriage last month to his partner of 32 years!). I especially liked the addition of Poster Sessions (of which Sullivan presented one!), but the Breakout Sessions and the Plenary Sessions were wonderful, and the Ball was beautifully organized and pulled off. Kudos to everyone on the organizational committee!
Our panel ran the same time as the Regency Ball. Not everyone goes to the Ball, after all, and previous concurrent sessions have done well. As I basically strong-armed William into letting us have the panel in the first place ("What do you mean you're running an entire conference on Jane Austen's Legacy and you don't have anything on popular romance fiction?!?!?!"), I was very happy with our placement. As such, with 650 conference attendees, I planned for 150 people at our panel (150 handouts, 160 free books), but hoped for about 100.
I tried to count the chairs in the room: probably about 220. It was standing room only. Over the course of the two hours we were there, we must have had 250 there, maybe more. Maybe they were lured by the free books. Maybe they were just curious. But they were there and they learned about popular romance fiction, and that's what's important.
William introduced us and I began the panel discussing why there was a panel about romance novels and about "Myths about Austen" and "Myths about Romance." Yes, Austen wrote romance, and although yes, her books are about so much more, what makes you think that other romances aren't about so much more as well? Romances aren't all bad, they aren't just about sex, they aren't read only by lonely housewives. But yes, sometimes the covers suck.
Then Pam Regis got up to talk about her definition of romance and the eight essential elements of romance. She also did something I didn't have the courage to do: she scolded the audience for laughing at romance. All through the conference, anytime someone mentioned chick lit, or, god forfend, romance novels, the audience tittered and giggled in disgust. And it really bugged me. But Pam said that a genre that goes back to the very beginnings of prose fiction, with such a long and distinguished career, with such a broad and intelligent audience, deserves so much more than automatic dismissal. That got a lot of nods and maybe even applause.
Mary/Eloisa then discussed how she got into writing romance by saying that she grew up in a house surrounded by poetry (her father is Robert Bly) and she used Austen's collected novels as a way to find something she could connect with on a more personal level, something that she could strongly identify with. She also discussed the broad audience and deep regard for romance.
I then discussed how Austen herself contributed to the modern romance by insisting that all her heroes undergo a moral education when they fall in love with the heroine. I argue that Austen was one of the first authors, if not the first, to show her heroes as well as her heroines learning how to be better people because of their love relationship. That the phrase "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" could be extended to add something equally non-Austenian like "to complete him." I was challenged to say what Mr. Knightley from Emma learned and expounded my theory from my article in Talk in Jane Austen that his moral failing is not recognizing his love for Emma, which tricks him into making unfair statements about Frank Churchill.
Eric then discussed the dual literary heritage of romance fiction, specifically as shown in Ann Herendeen's bisexual Regency romance Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, in which the hero thinks that the heroine wrote Sense and Sensibility, rather than the lascivious Gothic novels she did in fact write. Eric talked about the dual heritage, literary and exuberantly vulgar that romance inhabits and discussed how one has to look for the intelligence of the novel, not in the narrator (usually) but in the handling of the eight elements and the play with convention, and that's where the best of romances shine.
We then had a lively and lengthy Q&A session with questions ranging from "How did a man start reading romance" (for Eric, obviously) to "Where do you get your ideas?" "Why don't you market romance like literary fiction?" and "How do you do your research?" (for Mary) to "Where are all the good sweet Regency romances?" (my answer: in ebooks). There were many many more questions that I can't remember and everyone was uniformly polite, open-minded, and interested in the topic. Everyone I talked to afterwards (and people kept coming up to me to say how wonderful the session was) expressed how they were so thrilled to have the session and have a whole long list of books to read now that they're really looking forward to.
So I'd say it was an unqualified success.
One thing I tried but failed to say during the panel was that every romance fan that you can find, reader or writer, will claim Jane Austen as our Ur-Mother. We're all aware, either consciously or otherwise, how important she is to romance fiction today. But if you ask most Janeites, they get all twittery every time romance is brought up, sometimes going so far as to disavow the notion that Austen wrote romance at all.
But then, there was Sunday brunch at JASNA, with the writers, producer, and star of the Broadway-bound Pride and Prejudice: The Musical. Lindsey and Amanda, the writers and composers, were incredible (and I sat next to Mr. Darcy for brunch!), but what their story about the production and the songs they performed showed me was that, fundamentally, Pride and Prejudice IS a romance. Because in order to take the novel down to a two to three hour musical, they have to cut and cut and cut it down, and what that does more than anything else is highlight the romance (listen to the songs on the site to see what I'm talking about--all the emotion, the power ballads, is located squarely in the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy). So for Janeites to disavow the romance label is, I think, at best disingenuous and at worst, willfully rewriting literary history.
This article, for instance, makes me crazy.
Of the new "chick-lit" style covers of Austen, Thompson argues: Of Persuasion: "Pure Mills & Boon, in fact; and sublimely inappropriate to the tone of this sad, shadowy novel." Did she read the same novel I did? Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel because she takes a sad, autumnal tone and turns it into the most stunningly compelling expression of the power and optimism of romance you could ever hope to read: "You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope." Indeed.
Thompson locates the rise of Austen as romance novelist with the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. One might point to the 1940 version by Aldous Huxley with Laurence Olivier. One might point to how contemporary readers gushed over Darcy's character when P+P was published. But no, let's stick to the latest incarnation of Austen-mania. Thompson writes condescendingly: "Jane Austen might not mind about this. She might shrug and write a new book, about people who read novels without understanding a word of them. But she would surely think that her work - so finely wrought, so literary - was drowning in the swamp of so much love." And here we come back to the notion that "finely wrought" and "literary" necessarily means NOT romance, necessarily means idiot readers and misreadings and reading for the wrong reasons. Because "There is, in fact, a kind of epic wrongness about the recasting - reselling - of Jane Austen as a romantic novelist. It might have made her as popular as Helen Fielding, but it has led to a desperately etiolated perception of her books. Instead of reading Austen, we are reading our own reading of her; and, in true modern style, what we see in her is ourselves." Let's ignore the fact that she says that Darcy has 30,000 pounds a year when in fact he has 10K, because it's not about the facts, right? Or, no, let's not, because if it isn't about the facts, it's about what one gets out of a book and that is and should be purely personal and not something for anyone to condemn like this.
I find it fascinating that after raising the specter of Darcy-mania, she then focuses on Elizabeth: "Hence the popularity of Elizabeth Bennet, who resonates particularly because she embodies the contemporary virtue of 'being yourself'." But then, after all, "It is not difficult, after all, to read what one wants to read in a novel. Every reader does it, to an extent. But the landscape of what is seen in books is becoming increasingly impoverished. Indeed, it might be that the reality of literature no longer lies within its words. As Jane Austen flourishes, the literary sense that she possessed in its most refined form is slowly dying: the irony would have amused her."
One might point out that the continued exuberance of JASNA conventions, where we pick apart the very phonemes of Austen's words in ways that inspire new and fascinating readings, can be placed squarely in the laps of the movies. People watch the movies and then read the books, or watch the movies and rediscover the books and then turn to JASNA to help express the joy, the beauty, and the social pertinence of Austen's vision. And yes, that vision is located in the cutting commentaries on a woman's place and the problems of marriage, but it's also located in the happy endings that complete every novel. Austen wouldn't be the comfort read of so many people all over the world if it weren't for the happy endings, the deep commitment that the hero and heroine make to each other at the end of each novel, of the essential optimism of that world vision.
So while on the one hand, "Yes, no doubt about it, that 1995 Andrew Davies adaptation did some dreadful damage. Shamelessly and cleverly alert to the modern sensibility, it let the moral dimension of the book pretty much go hang, simplifying the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy into one of good old sex," on the other hand, the dreadful and shameless one here is Thompson, trying to impose her own elitist vision of Austen's novels on everyone else's reading habits, precisely what she argues that this "new" vision of Austen is doing.
Ahem. So. Anyway. I guess the point of my post and of the panel--that Austen and romance DO mix and mingle--represents my own personal view of Austen, but what Saturday night showed me is that I'm not alone in this vision. Not by a long shot.