So, here we go. Prepare for the invasion!
TMT Sarah: I will be assigning this book if/when I ever teach romance again. You've got the history, the criticism, the analysis, all in a neat, screamingly-funny package. Were you trying to write an academically valuable book with BHB, or a "textbook" of romance analysis, or were you just writing to entertain? Is there a difference? ;)
SB Sarah: We were definitely not aiming for academic analysis or a textbook on romance. But since both of us were English majors with an unhealthy interest in critical analysis, our examination of romances as valid and worthy narratives demanded we whip out the Jung (no pun intended) (no, I lie, totally intended) and subject the romance to the same level of attention as other narrative fiction.
Candy: One of my aims while writing this book was to write a funny, entertaining dissection of the modern romance novel, and to have fun while taking a hard look at the issues that many critics either (to my mind) mischaracterized or have mostly skirted around. I don't know that I was consciously thinking "This sure will be useful for professors who are all into women's literature and pop culture studies," and to be honest, I think in some ways it's a pretty poor resource for serious academics--it is, at best, a very quick and (very, very) dirty introduction to the genre and the issues it presents. It is, however, a fast and readable intro for students, so it has that much going for it.
As for writing to entertain: while I can write in a dry, academic tone, I'm also the kind of geek who thinks it's much more awesome to write about serious academic matters while using generous amounts of parody and cussin', so yeah, I write to entertain AND to inform. (Relatedly: I also think it's easier to get my message across to the widest cross-section of interested people when I'm funny. Which term is the average person going to remember more easily: man-titty and Heroic Wang, or metonymical hypertrophied masculinity?)
TMT Sarah: Why do you feel romances are viable subjects of academic analysis? What about why they are valuable subjects? What can we learn, as academics, from studying popular romance?
SB Sarah: How could they not be? A genre devoted to women's self-actualization and sexual agency, produced during and after the feminist movement, read by women and created by women? Gee, nothing at all to see here. Please move along.
The romance genre is an anthropological history of women's sexuality in North America over the past 60+ years. If you want to study a culture, study it's popular culture - and romance novels are a crucial element to our popular culture.
Candy: I said in a recent entry for the Powell's Books blog that romance novels are the subduction zones of literature, and that sums up, in one over-stretched nerd simile, why I think they're worth academic analysis and why they're valuable subjects. There are all sorts of interesting conflicts and assumptions and subversions going on in romance novels about gender roles, courtship rituals, the constitution of families, sexual norms, etc. And they're valuable, not only for the overt conflicts they present, but for all the subtextual stuff that's assumed and unsaid, like how sexually deviant behaviors in villains (oh my god they're GAY, or holy crap they like TYING PEOPLE UP AND THEN WHIPPING THEM) serve as a symbol for a villainous rejection of other societal values.
TMT Sarah: If you were writing a dissertation about popular romance, what would the thematic focus of your analysis be and why? (Mine, for example, would be the construction of the hero.) What books would you analyze and why?
SB Sarah: If I were writing a dissertation (and concurrent with that premise is the outright fucking miracle that I'd be allowed to in a graduate program. No, not bitter, not at all) on romance, I'd probably focus on acts of violence on the part of heroines, particularly in paranormals, and likely contrast that with violence from heroes. I'd analyze the Cole series, Showalter's books, Kelley Armstrong's series, and a lot of the urban fantasy genre. I am fascinated by how adding the whizzy fizz of paranormality suddenly makes room for women to literally rip someone a new one.
Candy: I think it would have to be the evolution of sex in romance novels. God, that'd be a huge, unwieldy (and throbbing--at least, it'd make my head throb) dissertation, wouldn't it? I think I'd focus on non-consensual sex in romances--whether it's possible to create a principled distinction between forced seduction and rape in the fictional world, why rape by the hero is OK, why rape by the villain isn't, when romance hero rape stopped being the norm, and how that rape has been channeled into other avenues, like the unwilling turning of the heroine in paranormals. I started naming names of books at first, and it rapidly got out of control, especially once I realized that I'd listed mostly historicals without even thinking of all the contemporaries and category romances I'd want to cover as well, so let's just acknowledge that if I did, in fact, write this dissertation, it'd probably take me eight full years and lot of tears, cussing and bloodshed.
TMT Sarah: The one small issue people have been having with BHB is that it's very historical romance centric. Do you agree and if so, why do you think this is?
SB Sarah: Yes, it is historical-romance centric, and part of that was constraints of total word count and part of that was our desire to really portray the full history of what most people think of when they think "romance novel" - e.g. the historical bodice ripper. And in discussing it, we had to reveal it, unpack it a bit, and defend it because that's the source of the most damaging of the stereotypes hurled at the genre: ye olde "bodice ripper."
Candy: It's a fair cop; the only thing I can say in reply is that we were trying to represent the history of the genre, and historicals dominated for decades--I mean, they've only ceded ground in the last seven or eight years to paranormals. And it's also what I'm most familiar with, and what I've read the most, so when I have to trot out an example that I can examine intelligently, it's probably going to be a historical.
TMT Eric: Near the start of the book you call yourselves "lit nerds." When did you start thinking like "lit nerds" about romance fiction? Was there a particular book that got you started?
SB Sarah: I probably started thinking like a lit nerd when I had a really demanding professor in college, and when, in the course of writing papers for that course, found a literary journal called "The Explicator" which had the wonderful combination of being (a) full of concise, short, but delightfully sharp pieces of criticism of random things and (b) somewhat friendly to elements of popular culture in its subject matter. It became my go-to journal for critical backup when writing a paper. That was the type of criticism I wanted to write.
As for harnessing the lit crit thunderstick and waving it at romance (oh noes!) I am honestly not sure which one it was that started the whole mess. It might have been Kelley Armstrong's "Bitten" which really got me thinking about the subtext of otherworldly villainy in a terrorism-conscious society.
Candy: I think I first started analyzing romances after I read Loretta Chase's The Lion's Daughter when I was seventeen years old or so, because the hero and heroine were so unusual. The hero is a wastrel in a distinctly un-romantic way, because you see in a very concrete way what happens when a rich kid fritters away his fortune, whereas a lot of historicals at the time tended to present these rakish wastrels in a much more dashing light. And that got me thinking about how characters were portrayed in romance, and how the characters were made to fit into boxes, but the authors didn't seem especially aware of the boxes--or, if they were aware, they didn't really care to take the characters out of those boxes and sort of extending them to their logical conclusions. Once I went to college and learned some actual analytical tools, forget about it--I did (and to this day) still do it to just about anything I read, from magazine articles to Supreme Court opinions to romance novels. I'm fucknoxious that way.
TMT Eric: In your book and on your blog you don't just celebrate the best romance novels; you have a lot of fun with some of the worst of them. What makes a really good (or really fun) bad book? Why is it important to celebrate (as well as mock) the stuff that "makes the baby Ganesh weep with the badness"?
SB Sarah: Well, if you can't laugh at the stuff that really does suck with the badness, how would anyone take you seriously when you try to tell them how good the other stuff is?
Candy: I love lots of bad romances, and I think what tends to make then really fun for me are the ones that hit my taboo hot buttons (like Morning Song by Karen Robards, which features a truly squicky but compelling romance between a stepfather and stepdaughter), or ones that showcase a certain kind of good-natured energy, like a lot of Dara Joy's work. The bad books that are the most fun to write about, however, tend to be the ones that make me mad, because then I'm writing with passion, and sweet creamy Christ it's so cathartic to strike back at a book that's injured my aesthetic and grammatical sensibilties.
And it's important to acknowledge the bad stuff unflinchingly (well, OK, we flinch for the Indian and sheik romances) because--well, it's the same thing for any argument, isn't it? Find your weak spots and cover them before your opponents can. Like Sarah said, if we insist that everything is sparkly ponies and magical liopleurodons, when it's patently not, then it's going to be hard for people to take us seriously when we point out the awesome bits that deserve celebration. Standards require a baseline and differentiation; ignoring the bad stuff just turns us into mindless cheerleaders.
TMT Eric: What are your favorite Old Skool romances? Is there an Old Skool romance you wish that we Professors Brilliant would take a look at?
Sarah: My favorite Old Skool will always be "Midsummer Magic" by Catherine Coulter. Dowdy disguises! Forced marriages! Surly but noble hero with moral compass. AND USE OF CREAM OMG TO SMOOTH THE TENDER PASSAGE. It's full of win and omg. Plus, the original printing has a swan freaking the fuck out behind the hero, and that always makes my year.
Candy: I can't think of a genuinely Old Skool romance that I love; I read them mostly because I want to see how romances have evolved with time. And if you Professors Brilliant would look at Catherine Coulter's Devil's Embrace, which made me go OH JESUS WHAT IN THE SWEET MOTHER OF FUCK more often than any other book I've read, ever, that'd be great, because I'd love to read an academic dissection of that book.
TMT Eric: If you could magically replace The Scarlet Letter with a romance novel in every high school in America, what romance novel would it be?
SB Sarah: "The Windflower" by Laura London or "Dream Man" by Linda Howard. The former b/c it is awesome. The latter because I don't like The Scarlet Letter and would replace it with something that bothered me equally on multiple levels.
Candy: Y'know, Hawthorne was a misogynist dipshit, but I like his writing style, and he had important things to say about the human condition. If I had to replace the Scarlet Letter with a romance, I think I'd go with a one-two punch of To Love and to Cherish and To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney, largely because I think they're both really, really well-written, and they present very different facets of sexuality, sex roles and sexual control.
TMT Eric In many of the interviews with you have asked about the Magic Hoo-Hoo. Why do > you think that none of the interviewers have asked about the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin'?
SB Sarah: I was asked by a butterscotch-voiced radio host named Dr. Alvin Jones about the Wang of Mighty Lovin' and he sounded so incredible talking about it I wanted him to say it over and over again. Heroic Wang never sounded so good.
I think otherwise "Hoo Hoo" is part of the cultural consciousness, what with Grey's Anatomy talking about the 'va-jay-jay' and the presence of other socially acceptable somewhat funny euphemisms for vagina. So Hoo Hoo is yet another.
Candy: Have you seen Sarah Haskins' absolutely hilarious video on popular discourse on the vagina called Your Garden? [ETA: TMT Sarah's response: Bwahaha! OMG!] That video, right there, expresses my answer in pretty compact form. I'll have to try answering this question more fully some time in the future, though; I think I could easily write about 1,500 words on this issue.
TMT Eric: What (if anything) have you learned from the academics who study romance fiction? What could we academics learn from you?
SB Sarah: it makes me so happy to know there are academics who take it seriously, considering a ran screaming out of grad school in part because I couldn't study romances as a contextual field in which to locate any type of critical examination. I have learned that just about any specialty within the humanities (and probably the sciences as well) can be applied to romances, and because the genre is so neglected, there's an incredible amount of room to discover what lurks beneath the texts and across the various narrative trends. A minefield of heaving bosoms, if you will.
I don't know that you can learn much from me, really, except perhaps creative cussing. And how much I really hate the word "emails."
Candy: I've learned that the breadth and scope of romance is much bigger than what I could've imagined, thanks to you guys. As for what academics can learn from us: funny, foul-mouthed ways to refer to metonymical hypertrophied masculinity? All kinds of squirrelly stuff that fall under reader response theory?