Monday, May 04, 2009

Princeton Romance Conference Opening Roundtable

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.


  1. Thanks so much for all the summaries. You capture a remarkable amount.

    I agree that the hero can't *always* be the MacGuffin, but it's interesting to hear one of these authors use that term about their particular take on romance. Along similar lines though, I have to quibble with this:

    "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"

    because I'm a switch-hitter with central characters. Either hero or heroine, or occasionally both, can capture my imagination. I don't often imagine myself in the action (do I mean self-insert? I'm drawing a blank on the term), but if I do it could be as either or neither character.

    Anyway, I read Laurens and Brockmann, but not Ward or Kenyon, and I wouldn't say I read Laurens or Brockmann for the heroes. If anything, one of my fave Laurens novels is (in my reading) heroine-centric and the other is pretty balanced, and my fave Brockmann couple is more evenly balanced than most. So I don't think those authors are best-sellers because of solely hero-centric readers. Perhaps a one-sided focus is one element of why I can't finish a Ward or a Kenyon (though I actually don't think it has anything to do with it), but I think some of Laurens' and Brockmann's books can be read from either perspective.

  2. Thanks so much, Sarah, for doing this work. I was there, and took notes, but your account raised a question that hadn't even crossed my mind.

    It seemed perfectly logical at the time that we talked about heroines, and about female readers and writers. It's only recently that we've seen substantial numbers of male readers or writers--and now the two organizers of this conference are men!

    It never occurred to me as a reader that the hero was just a MacGuffin. But looking back over the novels I've read, I remember both heroines and heroes in the books that worked for me. I rarely enjoyed a story in which only one of the characters in a romance was memorable. In a way, what I (and I suspect many readers) read for is the relationship.

    I think the "elision" of the hero in the roundtable made sense in context, because this conference was examining how readers and writers tell stories and perceive stories about ourselves. And in talking about a primarily female-oriented genre, with mostly women readers and writers (and yes, that's all changing now) we want to know what the writers are saying about love, and what readers enjoy reading.

    The authors you mention, and the new subgenre of m/m are simply telling about slightly different relationships--but they're still love stories. I may not be a typical reader--I do like to have a heroine most of the time--but what I most look for in a good romance novel is a love relationship between two (or more) well-matched people.

  3. I wonder if Crusie's saying the hero's the McGuffin because she's interested in how romance can be about the heroine's quest, so it reverses the pattern in fairytales and stories by/for men in which the heroine is the McGuffin. I'm thinking about her essay “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women”:

    "The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys' stories were about doing and winning but that girls' stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories [...] This then is what romance did for me: it rewrote the fairy tale and recast the canon so that I was at the center of the story. It told me that what I did made a difference, that the things I understood and had experience with were important, that "women's stuff" mattered. It gave me female protagonists in stories that promised that if a woman fought for what she believed in and searched for the truth, she could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that's the prize at the end of any quest."

    I don't think she actually makes her heroes McGuffins. They have quite complex personalities.

    Even in older romances which didn't let the reader know what the hero was thinking, he was a powerful mysterious "Other" who very often had a huge amount of influence over the heroine's actions and emotions. That's not very McGuffin-ish either.

    The true subversive message is that if you struggle, you will win.

    Again, I think this statement needs to be read in a particular context. In terms of how women have traditionally been portrayed in other genres, it's perhaps subversive to tell women that if they're active then they can succeed. Going back to the same essay by Crusie:

    I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she'd ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she'd ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she'd ever wanted because she had really small feet.

    But in itself, isn't the idea that "if you struggle, you will win" the basis of the American Dream? That would make it pretty mainstream and therefore not particularly subversive at all.

    Before the eighteenth century, only adulterous relationships could count as love, because marriage was all about the practicalities.It partly depends how you define "love." Eros within marriage might not have been seen as very acceptable, but I think philia and agape would have been. It's also probably worth noting that passionate love which ended happily in marriage can be found in chivalric romances such as Montalvo's Amadís de Gaula and the lovers also marry in the earlier Aucassin et Nicolette. Obviously that's not an indication of how people behaved in real life, but it does indicate that passionate/romantic love within marriage did exist in literature prior to the eighteenth-century. Furthermore, in the context of fifteenth-century cancionero poetry

    An important article by Ana Orozco (1995) challenges the widespread assumption that love between husband and wife has little place in the poetry of the cancioneros. She discusses eighteen poems (three anonymous and the others by eleven named poets), five of which deal with the pains of absence and four with the defence of conjugal love; the other nine are addressed by husband to wife in praise, in consolation, or to mark a specific event (1995: 516-17). Two of these poems are by Gómez Manrique. (Deyermond 72)

    Gómez Manrique's poems were written to his wife, so they aren't just expressions of fictional marital love. He does say that he loves her because of her virtue, but that's still love. The marriage between Margery Paston and Richard Calle seems to have been entered into because they loved each other, even though the marriage certainly didn't meet with the approval of her family. As McCarthy writes, "Marriage for love might run against family interests, and it might have family consequences, but it was entirely possible" (93).

    Deyermond, Alan, ‘Women and Gómez Manrique’, in Cancionero Studies in Honour of Ian Macpherson, ed. Alan Deyermond, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar, 11 (London: Department of Hispanic Studies Queen Mary and Westfield College, 1998), pp. 69 – 87.

  4. Coontz is way oversimplifying marital relationships before the 18th century. For instance, in his discussion of the 4th Commandment (honor your father and mother), Martin Luther included comments about the limits of obedience. One of them was that if there were a half-dozen girls in the village, any of whom would make a fine wife for your son, and he's strongly inclined in favor of Margareta, then a father should not insist that he marry Anna just as a demonstration of how obedient his son is, because it's pretty much a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

    In the 60-odd volumes of Luther's works, there are a large number of letters written in his capacity as, essentially, Dean of Students at the University of Wittenberg, saying to parents somewhere in Saxony, the remainder of the Germanies, or farther out in newly Lutheran Scandinavia, "Your son, my student, has fallen in love with Miss X, the daughter of fine people here in town. I strongly recommend that you consent to their marriage."

  5. I suppose, as a counterpoint, I should admit that in France in the 16th century, contemporary with Luther, in the upper bourgeoisie and provincial nobility, marriages were often negotiated entirely by the families, occasionally without the bride and groom even meeting before the wedding celebrations.

    For perspective on pre-18th century England, I recommend Chapter 10, Courtship and the Making of Marriage, in David Cressy, Birth, Marriage & Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford University Press 1997, pb. 1999).

    For Germanym Steven Ozment, Magdalena and Balthasar: An intimate portrait of life in 16th-Century Europe Revealed in the Letters of a Nuremberg Husband & Wife (Yale University Press, 1986).

  6. Well, I've learned a new term today: MacGuffin. Hm.

    I suppose that in some romance the hero could be the MacGuffin (classic HQN Presents come to mind, at least from the 80s which is the last time I recall reading one).

    If I were to choose a MacGuffin of romance in general, I'd say it was the declaration of 'love' between the h/h. Not the love itself, but the acknowledgement and exchange of affection and commitment.

    Cause, heavens knows, too many plots rely heavily on the Big Mis of the other's affections until they're declared aloud.

    MacGuffin. Hah. Now I want to see if I can use it in another sentence today....

  7. Sarah, you were not only tweeting, you were also taking extensive notes, and retaining this stuff in your brain. Wow.

    Regarding more discussions of the masculine influence within romance (stories) and on romance (writers), it would help to have male writers who write romance and female writers who write gay romance be present on such a panel help, in addition to, folks who research m/m romance.

    While Cruise writes complex male characters, I do believe she writes those in service of the story; however, her focus is purely on the female. So even the complexity of the male's character is in service to the female quest. So in a sense, the MacGuffin is corect.

    Virginia, part of the skewed view of marriage in historicals comes from historicals mainly being written about the British Isles and France. There, marriages were definitely more contractual than anything else, no matter how much romance writers would like them to be otherwise.

  8. Virginia, part of the skewed view of marriage in historicals comes from historicals mainly being written about the British Isles and France.Virginia (who is a historian) and I (who was trained as a medievalist, though more on the literary side of things) were responding to Coontz's assessment of marriage prior to the eighteenth century. Coontz is a historian, and "she’s never read romances" so her assessment of marriage is highly unlikely to have been influenced by the way in which it's depicted in historical romances.

    In any case most historical romances nowadays seem to be set in or, even more commonly, after the eighteenth century. In other words they're mostly set in the period in which, according to Coontz, love matches were becoming more acceptable/common.

    What I think Virginia's examples from Luther's writings suggest is that one has to be careful when making statements about love and marriage to acknowledge differences between different geographical locations and also between social classes. My point was that although the ideal of courtly love was generally adulterous, there are medieval and early modern works of fiction in which the lovers end up happily married. Furthermore, it's perhaps helpful to distinguish between different kinds of love, particularly as love (as affection and possibly also attraction) can develop between a couple after their arranged marriage. It's not exactly the same kind of love as the romantic and madly passionate love that motivated the actions of the adulterous courtly lovers and which is now seen by many as essential prior to marriage, but that doesn't mean it's not love.

  9. Just to echo and elaborate what you've said, Laura, there's a fine study by cultural historian Jean Hagstrum called "Esteem Enlivened by Desire: the Couple from Homer to Shakespeare" that makes a very similar point.

    More on it anon!

  10. I think we also have to accept that Coontz was squishing what is a fantastically detailed book ("Marriage: A History") into a ten-fifteen minute talk. I've read MAH from cover to cover and she does a much better job in the book of detailing marriages pre-18thC.

  11. I wonder if peasant/working class marraiges aren't rather overlooked in most of these discussions?

  12. Emily Veinglory, for most of the past, we have very little documentation on peasant and working class marriages. Depending on location, in some parts of Europe one does find marriage property settlements for the marriages of even peasants and artisans. The 17th century notarial records from French Canada are unusually rich in this respect (they list what property each spouse brought into the marriage, even when it consisted of pots and pans on the one hand and carpenter's tools on the other) and how it was to be distributed. When prior marriages with surviving children were involved, these are sometimes very detailed.

    From the 16th century onwards, with the introduction of baptismal, marriage, and burial registers (both Catholic and Protestant) we can, for most of Europe, at least derive some statistics for average age at marriage, average duration of marriage, average fecundity, average childhood morbidity, etc. for people who did not leave correspondence and memoirs. Basically, though, that does not give much insight into the interpersonal dynamics of the relationships.

    Sometimes we can speculate -- for instance, what was the internal impact on a marriage and parent-child dynamics of the 18th century custom in French cities of putting almost all children out to nurse in the country because the wife's work was needed in the shop? What was the impact on the parent-child dynamics in the host families?

    That being said, it really isn't until the 19th century that we get much internal documentation in regard to peasant or working class marriages.

  13. As an addendum, one can get some insights into peasant and working class marital breakdowns prior to the 19th century, but only as filtered through court documents. See, for example

    Martin ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

    G. R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives (Rutgers University Press, 1979).

    Also Roger Thompson, Sex in Middlesex [Massachusetts].

    Overall, there's more been done, I think, on the 13 colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries than for England.

  14. Second addendum. Since romance genre novels rarely deal with peasant or working class couples (although one does find them in women's fiction, and even in 19th century historicals such as Catherine Cookson in England), the question of how they contracted and conducted their marriages in real life is probably moot in its impact on the Princeton Conference discussions.

    Even the regencies that deal with non-ton couples (Carla Kelley, for example) are mostly dealing with people who were in the upper 10% of English society at the time, if not the 10,000 or so who were "tonnish." A governess or a rural vicar's daughter was not an equal match for a nobleman, but she was certainly in a more elevated social status than the daughter of a farm laborer (for one thing, she was literate). A solicitor, a cit, an army officer living on his pay, or a ship's captain, were not on the highest levels of society, but they were certainly far from "working class" in the overall circumstances of English population at the time.