Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Simple Proposal

She was beginning to feel horribly embarrassed. People were beginning to look. A number of the girls were beginning to nudge one another and titter. [...] Frances looked at him in mute appeal.
And then her daring, impulsive, annoying, wonderful Lucius did surely the most reckless thing he had ever done in his life. He risked everything.
"Frances," he said without even trying to lower his voice or make the moment in any way private, "my dearest love, will you do me the great honor of marrying me?"
There were gasps and squeals and shushing noises and sighs. [...]
It was the sort of marriage proposal, a distant part of Frances's brain thought, that no woman would ever dream of receiving. It was the sort of marriage proposal every woman deserved.
She bit her lip.
And then smiled radiantly.
"Oh, yes, Lucius," she said. "Yes, of course I will."
[...] everyone within hearing distance clapped. (Balogh 336-37)

That's an excerpt from Mary Balogh's Simply Unforgettable. It raised a few questions for me. In making a public proposal how has a man "risked everything"? And supposing you were a single women receiving this proposal, and you were in love with the person making it, would you

(a) feel this was "the sort of marriage proposal every woman deserved"?
(b) "feel horribly embarrassed"?
(c) feel some other emotion/have an alternative opinion?

  • Balogh, Mary. Simply Unforgettable. New York: Delacorte, 2005.
The very public proposal in the photo took place on "(March 10, 2007) - Lt. Ryan Hinz proposes to Nora Awad aboard the newly commissioned ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18). Awad said yes and both were congratulated by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), the Honorable Dr. Donald C. Winter." The photo came from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 25, 2009

History of Reading

Since we've been having discussions about the experience of reading, I thought it might be interesting to post a couple of quotes concerning some of the ideas about reading that existed in the ancient world. In Plato's Phaedrus,
Lysias is Phaedrus’ lover. In their homoerotic relationship, Lysias is the active partner (the lover), Phaedrus the passive partner (the beloved). But here the lover is also the writer: Lysias wrote the discourse. Phaedrus will read this discourse out loud: the beloved here is thus also the reader. Now, within the Greek context, such a doubling of roles (the lover who doubles as a writer, the beloved who doubles as a reader) cannot be innocent: one of the first Greek models of written communication, in fact, defines the writer as a metaphorical lover, leaving the role of the beloved to the reader. This “pederastic” metaphor stems in part from the fact that the Greeks of the first literate centuries read exclusively out loud: through his writing, the writer is supposed to use the reader, the indispensable instrument for the full realization of his written word. The writer uses the reader, just as the lover uses the beloved to satisfy his desire. (Scheid and Svenbro 124-25)
What then happened when in certain circles the practice of reading silently began to take hold at the end of the sixth century B. C.? […] in the silent reading of the Greeks, the voice of the reader is in some sense transferred into the graphic sphere, which in turn raises its voice: the Greek who reads silently hears the “voice” of the writing in front of him in his head, as if the letters had a voice, as if the book were a talking object. In Euripides’ Hippolytus, the writing is supposed to be capable of “speaking” to the reader who reads in silence, of “shouting” to him, even of “singing” him a melos. It is as if the voice were inside the writing, present inside.

In other words, from now on writing and the voice seem to be lodged in the same place, and the “text” - created by the reader each time his voice unites with the writing – therefore becomes quasi-obsolete, replaced by a text that is closer to our own, which tends to erase the interpretative, or at least vocal, contribution of the reader (to such an extent that a considerable theoretical effort became necessary in the twentieth century to accord the reader an active role in reading). An unsuspecting ventriloquist, the reader now listens, in his head, to a text that seems to be addressing him autonomously. (Scheid and Svenbro 127)
As for the history of reading romances, McDaniel College have a new article up on their website about Pamela Regis:
In the early years of Regis’ scholarly attention to romance fiction as a form worth studying, she was criticized and all but ostracized from the academic community when she presented a paper noting Jane Austen as a romance writer. [...] Although nearly 20 years have passed, Regis will always remember it as her Davy Crockett moment since the paper was delivered in San Antonio, home of The Alamo, where the famed frontiersman and statesman perished.

“Oh, it was ugly. I was under siege,” said Regis last week. “They attacked. They handed me my head.”

In those days, Regis stood essentially alone among academics in believing that romance fiction is indeed worthy of study and recognition as a legitimate, centuries-old form. The harsh criticism rattled the young professor, but she remained undaunted.

[...] the romance criticism that was around when I began my thinking about the form in the early ’80s was so negative, so condemnatory of the form, that I thought, ‘Really!? Can all these women really be choosing to read such toxic literature, and is it really harming them in the ways that these critics claim?’” Regis says.
Edited to add: I've only just seen another post that's relevant to this discussion, so I'm adding some quotes from it. Over at Romance: B(u)y the Book, Gwendolyn Pough is discussing her experiences as a reader, and this too has a historical aspect to it since
Fifteen years ago, Kensington published the first Arabesque novels. To be sure, there had been a few romance novels published prior to 1994 that featured black heroes and heroines. Before that time, we had Rosalind Welles’s "Entwined Destinies" (1980), Jackie Weger’s "A Strong and Tender Thread" (1983), Sandra Kitt’s "Adam and Eva" (1985) and Joyce McGill’s "Unforgivable" (1992). Traditional paperback romance novels that showcased black love had been sparse to say the least. However, from the time editor Monica Harris got Kensington to publish those first Arabesque novels all of that changed.

[...] Many black women romance readers, like myself, read romance novels long before the first African American imprints appeared in the early 90s. Many still read a wide variety of romance and don’t limit their reading based on the race of the author or the race of the characters in the book. Some only started reading romance novels when the black romances were published and never will read a romance with white leads. Some have read white authors in the past when they couldn’t find black authors and will never read another white romance again now that they can find black romances. However, most black readers will tell you that they read black romances because they want to be able to relate to the book. They want heroines that look like them.

At first glance, that desire may seem superficial. But imagine growing up never seeing popular images of healthy loving relationships. Imagine hearing nothing but distortions about your sexuality, having your desire demonized, and hearing nothing but myths about your so-called pathology. Could you hold on to the dream that you would one day find love? African American romance novels also offer readers and writers a way to rewrite images of black masculinity. For the most part the stereotyped images of black masculinity that populate the larger public sphere are missing for romance novels.
That's just an (admittedly fairly substantial) excerpt of the blog post [the embedded links were added by me], so if you want to read the rest, you'll need to head over to Romance: B(u)y the Book.

Unfortunately I couldn't find a photo of a depiction of Phaedrus reading. Instead I've included a photo of a vase painting of a Muse "reading a volumen (scroll), at the left a klismos. Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. From Boeotia." This and other details about the work can be found at the same Wikimedia Commons page where I found the photo.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

CFP IASPR 2010 - Belgium

Please circulate this CFP far and wide!!

A Call For Proposals
The Second Annual International Conference on Popular Romance:

Popular Romance Studies: Theory, Text and Practice
Brussels, Belgium
5-7 August, 2010

The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) is seeking proposals for innovative panels, papers, roundtables, discussion groups, and multi-media presentations that contribute to a sustained conversation about romantic love and its representations in popular media throughout the world, from antiquity to the present. We welcome analyses of individual texts—books, films, websites, songs, performances—as well as broader inquiries into the creative industries that produce and market popular romance and into the emerging critical practice of popular romance studies.

This conference has three main goals:
  • To bring to bear contemporary critical theory on the texts and contexts of popular romance, in all forms and media, from all national and cultural traditions
  • To foster comparative and intercultural analyses of popular romance, by documenting and/or theorizing what happens to tropes and texts as they move across national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries
  • To explore the relationships between popular romance tropes and texts as they circulate between elite and popular culture, between different media (e.g., from novel to film, or from song to music video), between cultural representations and the lived experience of readers, viewers, listeners, and lovers

After the conference, proceedings will be subjected to peer-review and published.

IASPR is pleased and proud to announce that the Keynote Speakers for the conference will be Celestino Deleyto, University of Zaragoza, Spain, Lynne Pearce, Lancaster University, UK, and Pamela Regis, McDaniel College, USA.

Please submit proposals by January 1, 2010 and direct questions to:

We are currently pursuing funds to help defray the cost of travel to Belgium for the conference. If these funds become available, we will notify those accepted how to apply for support from IASPR.
IASPR Webpage:
Conference page:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Call for Papers: The Cultural Production of Disability (Manchester, UK, Jan 2010)

Dr Ria Cheyne of Liverpool Hope University's
work examines the representation of disability in literature, particularly contemporary and popular fiction. She is working on a monograph on disability in genre fiction, including science fiction, romance, crime, and horror.
She has been asked by the organisers of Present Difference: The Cultural Production of Disability (Manchester, UK, Jan 2010)
to see if I can put together a panel on disability and genre fiction - I'm presenting on disability and trauma in Balogh. It looks like it's going to be a really interesting event (there are some great speakers), and I'd certainly be open to having an all-romance panel if we could get the papers!
Papers could examine:
  • Individual romance texts featuring disabled characters
  • The intersection of disability with race/gender/sexuality/class etc in romance
  • The relationship between disability representation and the conventions of romance subgenres (medical, historical, etc...)
  • and much more!
Those interested in presenting a paper should contact Ria informally "in the first instance; the next step would be an abstract (max 250 words) and bio (max 150 words). For access purposes, papers need to be submitted to the conference organisers by 30 November," so you would need to contact Ria well before then.

Present Difference: The Cultural Production of Disability is a conference being organised by Manchester Metropolitan University in conjunction with BBC North West and the Cultural Disability Studies Research Network and will take place from Wednesday 6th to Friday 8th January 2010.
This conference seeks to address the contemporary cultural production of disability within and across local and global contexts. Its focus is upon representation both in the sense of the production and circulation of particular narratives, ideas and images of disability and non-disability, and in the sense of the participation of disabled cultural practitioners in the production of culture.

We invite further proposals from all stakeholders in the mass mediated production of disability across a variety of themes and from a diversity of perspectives within this disparate field of enquiry.

Keynote speakers:

Lennard Davis (Illinois) author of Enforcing Normalcy: Disability Deafness and the Body (2001) and Bending Over Backwards: Essays on Disability and the Body (2002)

David T. Mitchell (Temple) and Sharon L. Snyder (Illinois) authors of Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2001) and Cultural Locations of Disability (2006)

Robert McRuer
(George Washington) author of CripTheory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (2006)

Artists, performers and film-makers include: Shira Avni, Ali Briggs, Liz Crow, Paul Darke Outside Centre, Jim Ferris, Ju Gosling, Peter Street, and Tanya Raabe.

Confirmed Events:

Wednesday 6th January: Conference Dinner

Thursday 7th January: Justin Edgar director of Special People gives a director's talk followed by a screening of the film at Cornerhouse Manchester

Friday 8th January: Presentations, discussion and networking event at BBC North West, Manchester.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Readerly Desires and Aspirations

In the responses to my most recent post we've been exploring how different readers relate in different ways to their reading material. GrowlyCub, for example, commented that
I get intensely involved with the story lines and characters. And I've literally thrown books against the wall and been horribly upset, even though I know very well the story and characters are fictional
whereas AgTigress revealed that
I enjoy reading fiction, regarding it as a pleasant leisure activity, but it is clear that I simply do not become emotionally engaged with it to anything like the same degree as other readers. I actually find it quite hard to imagine being caught up in a fictional tale in the same way as the rest of you. I am always removed, standing back, from what I am reading, in the sense that I am an onlooker, never a would-be participant, and therefore never become deeply emotionally involved.
This has brought to mind a discussion Tumperkin and I had not so long ago about heroes, heroines, and how readers relate to them. First of all, Tumperkin pondered
whether [the] heroine represents for the reader what she wants to be while the hero represents what she desires. For both, it's aspirational but a different type of aspiration.
and she later observed that
one of the things that I love about romance [is] that the things readers like are so very often not the thing itself but what it represents
I think her second point may be very important in untangling the ways in which some readers respond to romances. If we accept that some things and people in romance may have meanings on more than one level, we need to provide more layers of explanations. Some readers may find that romances evoke responses on two or more levels simultaneously, while at other times, or for other readers, responses may only be evoked on only one of the possible levels.

Thus, in addition to recognising that some readers have much more profound emotional responses than others, we need to bear in mind different ways of relating to the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Readers who relate to the characters and their situations in a more literal way, for example, may have very different responses to a scene of forced seduction than will readers who respond to the same scenario as though it was a sexual fantasy.

It may also be that different readers seek out different books, with different types of characters, in order to get the kind of experience they prefer. Tanya Gold suggested that
Mills & Boon heroines are like madams in brothels. They essentially have to facilitate a sexual encounter between two other people – the reader, and the hero. They are the third person in the romance.
Michelle Styles, who had been giving Tanya advice on how to write a Mills & Boon, later said on her blog that
the heroine as a conduit is something I learnt from the editors years ago. With Modern/MH [Harlequin Presents in the US], the heroine is the conduit. With Romance [the M&B and Harlequin Romance line], the reader walks in the heroine's shoes.
On the most obvious level of sexual attraction, a heterosexual female reader might be expected to want to be the heroine i.e. she wants to take the place of the heroine, and experience much of what the heroine experiences, but there's obviously a difference in the level of identification with a "conduit" and with someone in whose shoes one walks. In the guidelines to authors who wish to write for the Romance line, the editors ask
Do you want to walk in your heroine’s shoes?
We celebrate women: their lives, triumphs, families, hopes, dreams…and most importantly their journey to falling in love. These are heroines every woman can relate to, root for, a friend you can laugh with and cry with. There should be a sense that the story really could happen to you!
Readers of this line seem to be expected to identify with the heroine. In the guidelines for the Modern line, however, the editors state that
Modern Romance is the last word in sensual and emotional excitement. Readers are whisked away to exclusive jet-set locations to experience smouldering intensity and red-hot desire. [...] A Modern Romance is more than just a book; it’s an experience, an everyday luxury. Let the pleasure and passion envelop you as you take a ride in the fast lane of romance!
This is the heroine as conduit, as a "placeholder" who permits the reader herself to be "whisked away" to experience "desire", "pleasure and passion."

Whether the heroine is identified with, or is a purer form of placeholder/conduit, there seems to be some consensus that
the reader [...] does not identify with, admire, or internalize the characteristics of either a stupidly submissive or an irksomely independent heroine. The reader thinks about what she would have done in the heroine's place. The reader measures the heroine by a tough yardstick, asking the character to live up to the reader's standards, not vice versa. (Kinsale 32)
I'm not sure that placeholding and identification can be entirely separated out, because readers perhaps would prefer not to be put in the place of a heroine who acts in ways they dislike.
Lisa Kleypas [...] firmly believes, based on her own experience, that the heroine is indeed a placeholder for the reader:
I believe the heroine is the placeholder [...]. I've gotten so many comments throughout my career from readers who complain about the heroine's actions in terms of "I wouldn't have made the choice she did ... she didn't react like I think she should have ... why didn't she just ..." and all of these comments are evidence to me that the reader generally experiences the story from the heroine's POV even when the hero's POV is strongly represented.

And it's the trickiest part as an author to create a heroine that most readers will like, and it's not always possible. (Wendell and Tan 60-61)
It's tricky in part because some readers want to identify with the heroine, but at the same time the characterisation mustn't be too obtrusive, lest it prevent some readers from slipping easily into her place. These readers want the novel to read as though it were their own story, enabling them to fall in love with the object of the own (as well as the heroine's) desires: the hero. To quote Tanya Gold again,
I can have virtual sex with a non-existent man who is made of paper. So I retreat to my bed with The Venetian's Moonlight Mistress and live in a perfectly etched fantasy world where I get everything I want.
If, however, we look at the hero, not as himself (i.e. as a sexually attractive male) but in terms of what he represents, the relationship between the reader and the characters looks rather different. According to Cohn,
Romance fiction tells the story of the heroine and to that extent romance is about the heroine. But the dominant character in contemporary romance is always the hero. In the character of the hero inhere the excitement, the glamour, and the power of the desired. [...] The contemporary hero is a fantasy construct [...]. For romance readers he represents the satisfaction of all those desires that our culture both fosters and disappoints for women. Our culture values individualism, success, money, power, but has traditionally granted only to men the right to pursue them. (Cohn 41)
Readers, then, might still desire the hero but, as Laura Kinsale has suggested, they may also desire to be him in order to experience the "satisfaction of all those desire" that he, as a romance hero, can experience:
I think that, as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace [...], can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (37)
But if the hero represents all the power and emotions denied to women and which women readers desire to incorporate into their own lives, what does that mean for the heroine? What does she represent? Kleypas notes that "a heroine cannot be a bitch and be afforded the same forgiveness [as would be afforded a hero who was "a complete jerk"]. I still haven't decided why - it's possible that most readers like the heroine to be an idealized version of themselves?" (Wendell and Tan 61). Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie have written that
Women in day-to-day life face a lot of pressure to be the “right kind of women” (i.e., the ones men want). For celebrity women, the heat is turned up a lot … because, of course, celebrity women are the yardstick with which people measure the women they know, the yardstick by which the rules of sexiness, attractiveness, and appropriateness are determined.
Perhaps the romance heroine often resembles the "right kind" of celebrity women in that she may not be exactly who we as readers want to be (because at least some readers would like to have more freedom to experience the hero's "masculine" emotions), but she's who we as readers feel culturally pressured to be. She's the ideal to which we can never match up but against which we judge ourselves and other women. Sometimes she's a more accessible, relatable, ideal than others: some heroines are less than perfectly beautiful, for example, and some have minor character flaws (she's adorably clumsy! she's a little bit forgetful!) but taken as a whole, heroines aren't generally permitted to have the kind of serious flaws that heroes have.

So at this level, if the heroes represent what we want to be, and the heroines represent what we (the mostly female readers) feel we ought to be (in order to be "good", socially acceptable women), we're offered freedom during the course of reading the novels to experience "masculine" emotions, but we're also being reminded of those outside pressures to conform to feminine ideals.

I should perhaps conclude by admitting that, when I read, I'm neither the hero nor the heroine. I don't enter into the hero and heroine's sensual experiences, even though I may sympathise with them in their pain, or rejoice with them in their happiness. I'm an emotionally-involved fly on the wall, albeit one who (a) has the power to mind-read and (b) feels she might be more socially acceptable if she looked or behaved more like the heroine (people can have such negative responses to flies!). Looking back at a post I wrote several years ago, about voyeurism as part of romance reading, I wonder if my preference for romances in which the bedroom door is kept shut is due at least in part to being a fly who conforms to certain social norms; I feel as though I ought to give the protagonists some privacy. I was also intrigued by a possible conclusion that could be drawn from Laura Kinsale's statement that "When placeholder and reader identification merge, the experience of the story is utterly absorbing and vital; analytical distance recedes" (35). Could it be that flies find it easier to be literary critics?

Edited to add: Had I not been so busy thinking about the implications of being a fly, I would have asked a few more questions, so here they are:

Do you read in the same way across different genres? Or does placeholding only work for you in romance?

The theories about readers' responses to romances tend to assume that most readers are heterosexual women but of course this excludes other possibilities. How do different variations in reader and protagonist gender and sexual orientation affect the reading experience? Tania Modleski, for example, has written that after an "encounter" (26) with a
woman from my past I found myself as I read the lovemaking scenes identifying with the lover of woman as well as the woman herself and found myself vicariously experiencing the touch, taste, and smell of a woman's body. (26-27)
There are also plenty of female readers and authors of romances about two male protagonists.

If you're male, how does that affect your reading of romances with regard to identification and placeholding? What if there are two male protagonists in a romance? And do you read romances differently from other genres?

The image was created by Egon B and I downloaded it from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Tale of Two (or more) Tanyas

The front cover and five pages of today's G2 section of the Guardian have been given over to Tanya Gold's "Confessions of a secret Mills & Boon junkie" and "The Magnate's Mistress – Tanya Gold's debut Mills & Boon novel: An exclusive extract."

The latter, which "swim[s] into pastiche," reminds me of Tumperkin et al's The Unfeasibly Tall Greek Billionaire’s Blackmailed Martyr-Complex Secretary Mistress Bride [Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6] and All About Romance's Purple Prose Parody contests, which were designed to "celebrate the excesses of our beloved genre. But whereas Tumperkin, her collaborators, and the PPP contestants revel in their parodies, Tanya Gold's seems a bit strained, perhaps reflecting her conflicted feelings about the genre. In an earlier essay, about the Glastonbury festival, Gold wrote that
my name is Happy Fairy Tanya. I used to be Bitter Journalist Tanya, but then I went to Glastonbury. If you do not address me by my new title, I will rip your eyeballs out with my shimmering fairy wings.
In The Magnate's Mistress Gold writes like someone who wants to believe in fairies, who perhaps even wants to be a fairy, but who can't suspend disbelief long enough to bring Tinkerbell back to life.

The pages in the Guardian reveal as much, if not more, about Tanya Gold than they do about M&Bs, and they do so in a way which reminded me of an article written by Tania Modleski.

It would be naive to assume that either of the Tany/ia's is exactly as she portrays herself in her articles. Both are skilled writers, who shape their material into a particular form, in Tania's case with a didactic, and in Tanya's a humorous, intent. Nonetheless, both seem to make themselves vulnerable to the reader by exposing both their desires and their ambivalence about them.

Gold confesses that
when I am loveless or annoyed, I think – yes, I can have a Mills & Boon. I can have virtual sex with a non-existent man who is made of paper. So I retreat to my bed with The Venetian's Moonlight Mistress and live in a perfectly etched fantasy world where I get everything I want.
She keeps "waiting to be told the secret Mills & Boon formula," "I still keep expecting to be given the formula. Where is it?" One begins to wonder, however, if the formula Gold is seeking is not the formula for writing the perfect Mills & Boon romance, but the formula for making herself loveable enough to resemble a M&B heroine. She admits that
I can't even begin to write a woman I like enough to give a lover to. Begin with myself, you say? How? There is nothing heroic about me. I am bilious and I smoke. I suddenly become convinced that I am too cynical to write this proposal properly and, in the pantheon of Mills & Boon readers, I am not quite sure where this leaves me. Ready to become a 60-book-a-month girl? Or does this self-loathing in itself make me a Mills & Boon heroine? A woman who does not believe herself loveable enough to write a hero for? Nah. Pass the axe.
Tanya attempts to write in the Mills & Boon style but her heroine "is partly the opposite of me and partly the woman I wish I were. Either way, I hate her."

Tania Modleski has a similarly love-hate relationship with the genre and her own desires. She too has found herself "trying to understand my [...] addition to romances" (15), to understand (in Gold's words) "Why do I feel shame?" about reading romances. In "My Life as a Romance Reader" Modleski focuses on the personal nature of her relationship to romances, a genre which has "been central to my fantasy life since I was a preteen" (15). Her intellect and her desires are in conflict:
all those years of higher education and all those years of dedicated feminism hadn't lessened the attraction of the romances for me. I became consumed with the desire to figure out why I, a fervent feminist, had not shed these fantasies with all the rest of the false consciousness I had let go. (21)
Gold is informed that the genre has changed, become more feminist:
Clare Somerville, the marketing director [...] says "[...] I get very cross when people say we denigrate women. I think we are one of the most feminist publishers in existence."
Somerville smashes my preconceptions. Preconception One – in a Mills & Boon novel you get an overpowering hero riding up on a white horse and saving the heroine. This, Somerville explains, is not true. They used to publish books like that, but no more. They've moved on. "The Mills & Boon heroine," she says, "has changed from a cipher that is in every way inferior to the man to being the dominant force in the relationship." Nowadays, she explains, the woman is in control. The heroines used to have terrible jobs but today you find them running companies. The woman doesn't leave her job to marry the man. She keeps her job and marries.
Modleski, coming back to the genre after some time away from it, had her preconceptions about the modern genre challenged in a similarly brisk fashion:
"Rape is out," a romance writer told me [...]. She said it as if she were announcing a style trend. Apparently in some of the "bodice rippers," as the longer racier historical romances were called then, the heroine was sometimes subjected to rape. (21)
It seems undeniable, however, and both Tany/ia's are aware of this, that "Some things in Mills & Boon land are eternal" (Gold), and despite changes in the genre, it is still possible to find heroes who
are appalling. They are always saying things like, "You are a stupid little fool!" And I end up thinking women who read these books – including me – are incredibly stupid. (Gold)1
Certainly, readers like the Tany/ia's seem to be incredibly conflicted. In Modleski's case, "Eventually it dawned on me that the elements of the formula that most disturbed me were the very same ones I desired for my reading pleasure" (24). Tanya Gold (at least in the persona she reveals in her article) sometimes seems to want to know the formula to turn herself into a fairy, but most of the time she doesn't really believe they exist.

1 Smart Bitch Sarah seems to have found a recent novel in this mould in Sharon Kendrick's The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable Girl.

The photo is from the Guardian website, and was taken by Alicia Canter. I hope it's permissible to use it, but if either Canter or someone from the Guardian asks me to remove it I will.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Michele Hauf: The Highwayman

Paranormal romances often feature heroes who are bigger and more dangerous than mere mortals. The lovers can literally be soul-mates, and if they are (or become) immortal, their happy-ever-after may be precisely that. Jane has observed that "The paranormal allows for an amplification of loss and sorrow which makes the emotional conflict more compelling." Paranormals, by their very nature, seem to intensify or magnify many of the characteristic elements of the genre and Michele Hauf's The Highwayman contains many examples of this process.

An excerpt of the novel is available here and here and there are reviews here, here, and here (some of them contain spoilers). Carolyn Crane has made some observations about the way Hauf depicts the catlike aspects of the heroine's nature. There will be spoilers in what follows.

The heroine, Aby, is a "familiar." When "sexually sated" (22) familiars can "bridge a demon" (22) into the world in which the romance is set. For Aby,"Summoning demons was her job. Sex was a job" (23) and "her profession involved having sex - a lot of sex" (109). However, because sex is her job, "Aby wasn't sure what real sex was" (91) and it is Max, the demon-killing hero, who gives her her "first kiss" (96). This makes him feel "as if he'd done something wrong, like steal a neighbor's mail, or a woman's virginity?" (98). Nor has she ever had a "sexual daydream about a man" (117) or "had opportunity to really look at a man before" (218). As he realises, this heroine with the "wicked innocent sensuality" (219) who "come[s] off as very [...] Sensual and attractive and confident about yourself and your body" (108) but who is also so full of "bright-eyed innocence" (97), "so innocent" (110), is the incarnation of both sides of the "Madonna and the whore" (174) dichotomy.

She thus presents a solution to the problem of how to resolve the two directions in which the romance genre is tugged on the question of female sexuality. Candy Tan described them thus:
while I think romance novels are subversive and reinforce the whole notion that women CAN have premarital sex and NOT die horribly by the end of the book, in a lot of ways, the message isn’t subversive at all. In fact, the message is oftentimes quite distressingly sexist.

Look at the obsession with virgins, for example. In no other genre are there so many women over the age of 20 and widows running around with their hymens firmly intact. [...] The heroines who aren’t virgins generally aren’t allowed to have orgasms or fulfilling sex lives before the hero comes along [...] Women are also rarely allowed to be promiscuous the way men are in romance. [...] Erotica and erotic romance have done a better job of blasting through a lot of these walls, in my opinion, and portraying more sexually empowered women.
Thanks to the possibilities opened up by the opportunity to construct a paranormal world, Hauf's heroine can have have her sexual cake of innocence, but also have already eaten it very pleasurably.

Hauf also provides the reader with a very clear example of a Glittery HooHa (GHH). This special organ enables a heroine to "snare him [the hero] forever, for yea, no matter how many HooHas he might see, never will there be one as Glittery as hers…" (Lani Diane Rich qtd. by Jennifer Crusie). All romance heroines have a GHH, but the fact is made more explicit in some romances than others.

Max, as he explains, literally gets "distracted by sparkly things like a damned magpie. I think it's part of the demon curse" (164) but his supernatural attraction to sparkly, glittery objects, which he is compelled to steal and make his own, parallels his attraction to Aby and her extremely glittery HH: "she looked better than any sparkly gemstone Max had ever tucked into his pocket" (81). He wants "to possess her. To steal her. To tuck her away like those jewels you take" (113) and just before they have penetrative sex for the first time he imagines how she must look in the shower, "All those water droplets glistening on her skin like liquid diamonds. An easy nab for a thief who couldn't stop himself from stealing" (217). Inevitably, close contact with the heroine and her GHH starts "changing him. Making him tolerant. [...] Max was happy to please his sparkly thing" (200).

The specialness of the sexual relationship between heroes and heroines in romances is not only emphasised by the fact that it is often the heroine's very first sexual relationship. In some ways it is usually suggested that it is a "first" for the hero too. With a hero who has been very promiscuous there is often a moment when he learns sex with the heroine is special. In The Highwayman it is Aby who learns this lesson:
Max put his cheek to her belly and hugged her. "Is it good for you? I mean, better than ..."
He was wondering about Jeremy. But that had been business sex. Unfeeling, unemotional. "Twenty times better, Max. I love you." (240)
The paranormal element of the romance presents Hauf with the ability to create an ingenious method whereby sex with Aby is made extra-special for Max, who already believes that "Love is better than sex" (236). When he became immortal, around 250 years ago, "the third blow he'd been served by the demon shadow" was "inability to climax [...] Over the centuries he'd tried to climax with many women. If there was a trick to setting him off, he'd yet to find it" (101). In his shadow form "he could watch lovers and feel the moment of pleasure in the dream. But he could never recall that pleasure or retain the feeling after dropping the shadow [...] he couldn't climax. Hadn't since 1758" (144). However when he enters Aby's dream about the two of them having sex, it results in "a sticky wetness" (144) in his jeans. Clearly Aby's GHH works in the dream world, and there's a long-anticipated waking repetition of it towards the end of the novel, "And with his surrender, came salvation. He came hard" (272).

Interestingly, Aby's ability to make Max "surrender" and acknowledge her specialness with his "wetness" is paralleled by her ability to make him cry:
He'd watched Aby come close to being hurt today. [...] He turned his face and sniffed back the tears. [...] He hadn't cried after Rebecca's death. He hadn't cried after Emiline's death. He never shed a tear for any who had fallen at his whip. (234)
Aby recognises the significance of the moment: Max has "opened up to her" (234) and just as it is with Aby that he ends two and a half centuries of sexual frustration, it is with Aby that he is able "to trust and release" (235) all the "pain inside" (235) him.

Another instance of the paranormal setting allowing for the intensification of themes or elements present in other romances can be found in the heroine's response to the hero's body odor. As Jessica has noted,
Apparently, every lover has a bouquet, and our h/hs are always — always – connoisseurs. Like a Master of Wine, they can pick out different aromas and notes, hints of this or that. Over time, I have come to bracket my disbelief, understanding the important role of a unique set of smells to the development of the sexual relationship, and indeed to the full sensory experience romance novels provide.
Aby is a familiar, which means that she shapeshifts into cat form from time to time, and even when she looks human, she retains her catlike sense of smell:
Her world was navigated by scent. She never made a move without first assessing the atmosphere. It usually took her but moments to acclimate to new smells, else she'd be dizzy from the melee of odors.
A new smell, beyond the alcohol-laced colognes and grooming products and cigarette smoke, tickled her nose. [...] Running her tongue along her lower lip, she took in the tall man who also scanned the room. [...] He smelled different. But what about him was unique?
Drawing a soft breath through her nose, Aby discerned the faint masculine odor wafting from his direction. That was it. One simple scent. He was clean. No tobacco, alcohol or chemicals that tainted every living being in the world. Not a definitive food odor that usually lingered even on the most fastidious. (16-17)
Another example of the kind of intensification which can occur in a paranormal romance is provided by the heroine's need for protection. According to the statements collected at Bookbug on the Web, various authors, when asked "what qualities should a hero always have" mentioned protectiveness:
Lori Foster: [...] They have to be protective toward all things smaller or weaker than themselves.

Barbara Dawson Smith: A romance hero [...] is willing to take risks to protect his property, his loved ones, and his beliefs

Linda Cajio: [...] protective

Geralyn Dawson: [...] protective

Leigh Greenwood: The most essential quality? I can't decide between "the ability to protect his wife and all that belongs to him" or "a willingness to risk all to protect his wife and all that belongs to him." Maybe this is a particularly male point of view; women may think some quality of sensitivity or understanding are most important. I agree that they're essential in a hero, but without the ability to protect, he won't get a chance to use the rest. That's a role men have had for a long time and I guess it's still necessary. I should add that I'm thinking about historical heroes. When you get into contemporary situations, then understanding and sensitivity would have to take first place.
In paranormal romances, as in historicals, there's often a lot of opportunity for a hero to be protective. Even if Hauf's characters weren't under frequent attack from demons, Aby's very nature requires that she be protected:
"[...] I have this great dream of being independent, but I'm fooling myself. Familiars do best when they have someone close to protect and care for them. I'm not like those wild cats that roam the plains. I've been domesticated."
That realization, always at the back of her mind, now blossomed, and she couldn't deny it. She'd never be truly independent, able to survive without the help of others. Could she accept it?
"Aby, I love you. And if you want it, I will protect and care for you."
She did want his protection. (237-38)
Finally, there's a dream-state paranormal version of forced seduction/rape. Rather than being an intensification like the previous two examples, it's more of a paranormal variation on a theme. Max enters Aby's dream without her consent and discovers that she's dreaming about having sex with him. Max isn't exactly himself at the time, because he is in the control of his demon shadow and
The pull to shadow always manifested as a dark desire he would not resist [...] he hovered in solid form at the end of Aby's bed. Adorned in darkness and raiments of night, the shadow devoured the peaceful quiet. [...]
Before it lay a sleeping being. It did not discern age or sex. The energy was strong. So strong, it drew the shadow forward." (141)
Once within Aby's sexual dream, "He, the shadow as human shape, entered the dreamer, hilting himself inside her" (142). When she wakes up, Aby knows she has had a dream, but doesn't realise the full extent of Max's participation in it. He delays telling her the truth because he "thought you'd feel ... violated" (196). Max thus recognises that the event was a kind of rape/forced seduction, but the paranormal circumstances in which it took place exonerate him and render it far from traumatising for the heroine. All that is left of the forced seduction/romance rape scenario is a mildly illicit frisson.

  • Hauf, Michele. The Highwayman. New York: Silhouette, 2009.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Reviewing the (Academic) Literature of Love

Eric Selinger's opening up discussion about the works that people would like to review and see reviewed in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS):
In the current Call for Submissions to JPRS we say that "The Journal also solicits reviews (individual and combined) of relevant scholarly works."

To my mind, this doesn’t simply mean works on popular romance fiction, but rather on anything that might be "relevant" to our work as Romance Scholars, broadly construed. This would include books on love per se, as well as books on representations of love in various instances of popular culture (TV shows, movies, music, websites, etc.). Scholarly work on sexuality, gender, race, and other fields might be "relevant," depending on the book, and thus in need of our attention.

If you are interested in reviewing scholarly books for JPRS, please email me and let me know your areas of interest and something about your relevant background or work in progress. I’ll pass that on to Nicki Salcedo, our Book Review editor.

If you can think of recent or forthcoming books that would be relevant, and that ought to be reviewed, please let me know that as well! I’m painfully aware of the gaps in my own knowledge at the moment: What are the books out there on romance in film, on representations of love & romance in pop music or advertising? Are there new books on love or sex that romance scholars really ought to know?

I’ve opened a discussion about this over at the IASPR Forum, so you can post responses there. Please feel free to pass this message along to potential reviewers and to anyone you know at a publishing house who might have books that need attention!
As he says, there's a discussion thread at the IASPR Forum and over there he brings up
other question we might talk about in this topic: how new do the works have to be? JPRS is a brand new journal, and IASPR is a brand new association, but the study of love and its representation in culture goes back a very long way. Would it be useful to have reviews, or quasi-reviews, of books from several years ago? What about decades ago?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Writing as Therapy for the Author

While researching the MA thesis which eventually became "Healing Writes: Restorying the Authorial Self through Creative Practice," romance author Valerie Parv started
to question a disclaimer, routinely included in the front matter of every edition of my novels, which states:
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all the incidents are pure invention.
Reflecting on my creative practice [...] caused me to consider whether, rather than being 'pure invention,' the ideas most likely to inspire me to develop them into stories were those resonating with my lived experience. (314)
I've had my doubts about the truthfulness of that kind of legal disclaimer for some time, because authors frequently blog about their sources of inspiration. Trish Wylie, for example, acknowledges that "Justin Hartley inspired me to create Alex from [...] His Mistress: His Terms" and "the man who inspired Gabe in my linked book Claimed By The Billionaire Bad Boy [...] is Tom Welling." Kate Hardy has also mentioned a few of her sources of inspiration, and although she states that "Most of the time the inspirations [...] don’t remotely resemble the originals by the time I’ve finished with them," the sources of inspiration are still "distantly inspired" by real people, places, events etc.

Parv, though, wants to explore a different sort of inspiration, and the need it fulfills:

[Edited to add - I should have started by giving Parv's definition of a central term in her work, "restorying," so here it is:
I began to consider how writers including myself might frequently revisit themes and ideas which resonate with our lived experiences. I call this restorying, an unconscious process whereby aspects of one's life history are rewritten through one's creative work to achieve a more satisfactory result.
That should make the following quotes from her thesis rather more easy to understand. I apologise for not having included the definition when I first put up the post.]

catharsis in the form of restorying takes place within the creator of the work [...]. The research adds to our understanding of the therapeutic benefits of writing to the writer, while analysing an area not previously explored: the nexus between the writer's work and narrative therapy. (317)
Having accepted that writing is therapeutic, we can then look at how creative choices may be unconsciously cathartic, and how writers may be drawn to pursue themes and issues leading to this catharsis, rather than to themes which lack restorying potential. (322)
Parv's MA thesis contained a novel as well as this analysis, but only the analysis is included in the free pdf provided by the Queensland University of Technology. Since it's relatively short (around 40 pages) and readily available, it seems simpler just to direct potential readers to it. I'd rather not attempt to summarise it because it's not at all in my area of expertise and I wouldn't want to misrepresent the ideas it contains. That said, I think most of the ideas Parv explores are summarised in this quote from Christine Wells:
What we do when we write romance is bleed onto the page. A romance writer doesn’t open a vein, she opens her heart, and while our characters are not ourselves, never us, they do show truth as we know it. I never realize what truth I’m telling until I read the finished novel.
Parv's thesis perhaps also perhaps explains why many authors have what Jennifer Crusie termed a "core story":
look at everything you’ve written down and try to find the patterns. If all the stories are about small towns, your pattern is easy. But what if some of them are about small towns, but one is about a detective agency in a big city and another one is about making a movie set in the middle of nowhere? Then look closer for the pattern: They’re all about small communities, relationships defined by environments. One of your books is about stray cats, another about drug addicts, another about people lost at sea: You write about saving the lost. Find out not what you think you should write or what the market says you should write but what you actually do write when you sit down at the keyboard. That’s your core story, the thing you return to obsessively even though you write it differently each time. That’s who you are as a writer.

The illustration is of the birth of Athena (the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom) from the head of Zeus. I found it at Wikimedia Commons. You could say that she was born in this rather unusual manner as a result of Zeus's attempt to repress some rather traumatic news.