Thursday, April 23
Keynote Roundtable: Romance Fiction and American Culture
Tania Modleski, USC
Used Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint as a point from which to analyze the romance genre. Chick lit, in particular, is the latest form of female complaint. Writing for or acting within the “intimate public” means assuming you’re writing for women (in this case) who are just like yourself. The core of complaint rhetoric is a fundamental ambivalence toward love, because it is both the source of most female complaints and also the cure. If it’s truly the cure, though, true social change will never happen. [One has to wonder why. I have a problem with statements like these, because they assume love will continue as it is currently constructed, which is not necessarily true.] Berlant focuses on middle-class, white women’s female complaint, ignoring women of color and privileging the problems and issues of those middle-class white women above those of any other female demographic. What happens, for example, when women of color write romances? Are they then more politically acceptable in their complaining? Male sentimental culture is strong: Clint Eastwood’s movies and male “weepies,” for which the men get awards and rewards, rather than the scorn women get for female-coded sentiment. This privileges male suffering when written, performed, produced by men.
Stephanie Coontz, Evergreen State University
Coontz feels like an outlier at the conference, because she’s never read romances. She can talk, though, about the evolution of marriage, courtship, romance in history. As an historian, she finds literature fascinating because it shows the tensions in people’s lives as they are soothed, resolved, highlighted. She is most interested in the variations between time periods, though, rather in the minute details. Before the eighteenth century, only adulterous relationships could count as love, because marriage was all about the practicalities. During the eighteenth century, though, western society began to imagine the concept of love in marriage and that young people should have the right to choose one’s own partners. The invention of the love match was a very scary thing to defenders of “traditional marriage.” It was seen as both a threat to male power, a threat to female safety, a threat to parental control. It was a far-reaching cultural redefinition in which marriage was no longer overtly a power relationship and men’s and women’s roles and spheres began to separate. Previously, women were seen as hyper-sexual; in 19thC, they were constructed as asexual instead, with their asexuality constructed as natural, rather than a necessity. Women began to turn to other women to talk about feelings, vulnerabilities, and increasingly foreign other gender. In the 20thC, mutual sexual attraction was reintegrated into marriage with the advent of dating, in which sexuality and attractiveness of men became associated with danger (“bad boy”). There was increasing anxiety over men’s intentions and society grappled with very real contradictions, because the dangerous but attractive Other is not a good bet for a stable marriage. Today, there are problems with maintaining sexual tension in a long relationship. Coontz finished her talk by asking how we make confidence in man’s intentions sexy? How to do eroticize equality?
Mary Bly/Eloisa James, Fordham University, speaking today as Eloisa James
Bly/James would like to see a conversation about shame in romance studies. We don’t like to think of shame as attached to reading, writing, or talking about romance, but we need to think about issues of where shame interacts with money in the romance genre. When she was growing up, her reading romance caused a family crisis. For every romance she read, she had to read a classic novel from “acceptable” literature. Her grandmother with no education was undervalued by the family, and that’s mostly where Bly/James got her romance from as a child and teen. Romance were a waste of her time, ruining her brain, like TV. Success hasn’t changed that equation for her. Money doesn’t help; in fact, it exacerbates the problem for her. When she was at Yale, she got “caught” by her friends with romances at the library. Her friends said, “I certainly see why you didn’t want anyone to see that,” and Bly/James felt intense shame. She believes very strongly that it shouldn’t have to be that way. The only way she could give herself permission to write romance was to say it was for money, and even then it became a completely underground career. Her ingrained sense of shame was so huge that she couldn’t reveal herself in the English departments she worked for. Even when she did come out, the shame didn’t go away. Any other popular genre would have been “cool,” but romance was humiliating. Romance scholars simplistically say that the romance genre is an affirmation of female desires, but for women to be reading/writing about sex is a very vexed topic. We have to recognize that and interrogate how shame and feminism and complexity can and do coexist. As scholars, we can’t ignore this. She wants another version of her, in ten years, to be able to use her romance writing as well as her scholarship of whatever kind FOR tenure, rather than having to hide it. She wants to be a part of diminishing the shame.
Jennifer Crusie, Romance Author
Crusie gets up and says, “Hi, I’m Jennifer Crusie, and I have no shame!” Her experience with romance has been very different. She rejects the assumption that people have that writers must agree that they’re writing trash because “everyone knows” that’s what romances are. She argues that romance writers and readers give away too much power because we want to belong. Romance is not merely a US tradition; it’s from all times and all places. It represents the feminizing of a form of fiction—a woman is on the center stage of a romance novel and she struggles and wins, proving that the world is an emotionally just place and that love and women can make a difference. Love is the biggest risk that humans take, but the stories about it are not cool. People turn back to literature of hope. They are not trashy, not stupid, not low class. Crusie ends, “the arc of the universe is long and bends towards justice,” claiming that romance is getting its due.
Someone asked about the proliferation of the marriage plot in Reality TV. Bly said that she’d read that the most successful Reality shows are those that are aspirational (American Idol, for example, where you can see yourself achieving same dream). Coontz talked about the proliferation of niche marketing, but argued that there’s far less “Bachelor” on Reality TV nowadays than in the marriage markets in 18thC London.
Someone asked how the subversiveness of feminism works for or against the acceptance of romance (not sure I got that right). Crusie answered that the goal of a writer has to be to tell a good story, rather than insert a message into a book. The book succeeds with a reader because it resonates with a theme inside her, but you can’t predict that theme. Her literary criticism changed radically when she started writing. She’s trying to tell the truth of the people on the page. The true subversive message is that if you struggle, you will win.
Someone asked panelists to talk about Coontz’s final question of how we eroticize equality. Crusie said that the struggle is the story, the power dynamics are what drive it, and the equality comes at the end. Bly said that desire is very stubborn and may not be PC or cool, no matter how much we might like it to be. Coontz said that romances shouldn’t avoid the very real problems that exist in the world and in relationships. In sexuality, fear struggles with confidence. Modleski finished by saying that she thinks it would be most interesting to look at lesbian romances, where the power dynamics are necessarily different.
Overall, I’d heard or read most of the information from this panel before, except what Modleski discussed. Which is not to say that it wasn’t a perfect way to start the conference, because I absolutely think it was. We got a general historical overview (Coontz), theoretical overview (Modleski), and a clashing of some of the major themes in the study of the genre (shame, confidence, happiness, power dynamics, freedom, equality).
One thing that struck me more than anything else, and I didn’t get an opportunity to ask my question, but I was fascinated with the panel’s elision of the masculine, of the hero. Modleski talked about female complaint, Coontz about the construction of love and of the feminine, Bly and Crusie about the motivations of female writers and readers. But no one mentioned the hero of the romance and considering the thematic focus on masculinity in so many romances and romance series, this seemed an interesting omission. I asked Crusie about it after the panel finished and she said very definitely, “The hero’s the MacGuffin” (referring to the film term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock meaning the quest object that has no inherent value in and of itself except in that it catalyzes quest, which is where the real story lies). I wholeheartedly disagree. The hero might be the McGuffin for female-focused romances and romance series (like those of Crusie and James), but it certainly isn’t for me with my absolute hero-focus, and for readers like me who make Suzanne Brockmann, J.R. Ward, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Stephanie Laurens best-selling authors and m/m romance the fastest growing field in erotic romance.