The romance website Les romantiques produces a webzine, and in this month's issue (September 2010 - N°34) there's a writeup of the 2010 IASPR conference written by Agnès Caubet. You can read it in Flash or as a pdf. Since it's in French, I thought a translation might be appreciated by some readers of Teach Me Tonight.
I'm appreciating the irony of all this translation (of papers presented in English, written up in French, and then translated back into English) which parallels the way that English-language romances are translated for global consumption. Although I couldn't compete with Harlequin's translators, I think I can do a slightly better job than Google Translate.
What follows is a slightly truncated version of Agnès Caubet's article: I have only translated the summaries of the various sessions.
The first session on the 5th August took "international romance" as its theme. Natalie Pendergast of the University of Toronto (Canada) talked to us about comics and manga. The period 1945-54 was the golden age of US comics, but in 1955 a censorship committee was created which effectively killed off romance in comics, since all references to sexual activity were forbidden. By contrast, the genre has flourished in Asia, as demonstrated by the current boom in manga. Natalie spoke to us about a manga called Oniisama e (Very dear brother) and about the representation of love between two girls, which is perceived as a sort of danger-free trial run before launching into heterosexual relationships. Someone recommended Sequential Crush.
Eric Selinger, one of the founders of IASPR and a literature professor at DePaul University specialising in poetry, has taught a course on American romance authors, particularly Jennifer Crusie. He spoke about criticism of the genre and suggested that critics who believe women should feel ashamed of reading romances may do so because they believe that the purpose of art is to destabilise the reader and question certainties, not to provide optimism and happy endings. For such critics of the genre, romance is not literature but rather an easy pleasure which encourages intellectual laziness. Eric himself, it should be noted, is an ardent defender of the genre.
In the course of her research Magali Bigey of the Université de Franche Comté (France), had previously been in contact with the readers of La romantique. In her research for this paper she read an impressive number of books in order to study their word choices and discover which are most common. The results were amusing. For example, words used to describe heroes include "beard," "muscles," "jaw," "chest" and ... wrinkles ... but when heroines are described the words which are most often used are "bosom," "ankles" and "wrists." It would seem that in romances, men don't have joints! The words used to describe a heroine's reaction to her first encounter with her hero are often negative ones, such as "betray," "sadden," "irritate" and "hate." Clearly things don't begin well for the two of them!
The second session, on romance and history, began with a paper by Amy Burge from the University of York (UK), who discussed sheikh romances, a sub-genre that she placed in the tense political context of contemporary East-West international relations. She noted that the authors often create imaginary states, situated somewhere in the United Arab Emirates, that in contrast to other contemporary romances the heroines' virginity remains of great importance, and that the hero and his country are often described as being "medieval": "medieval customs," a "medieval-style palace," a "medieval mindset," etc.
Piper Huguley-Riggins of Spelman College, Atlanta (USA) discussed Beverly Jenkins, an author who has written about slavery while seeking to show her African-American characters in a positive light and give her readers a sense of pride in their ancestors. Although some nineteenth and early twentieth-century African-American authors had similar intentions, contemporary culture is dominated by Hip Hop literature which foregrounds Black criminals and creates a negative image of the African-American community.
Sandra Schwab of Johannes Gutenberg University (Germany) teaches English Literature but has also had three romances published in the US. She spoke about the role of dragons in the romance genre, and the ways in which that role has evolved. In the classic version of the story, the dragon threatens a damsel, and the hero kills the dragon and saves the damsel. There is, however, always the risk that the dragon will kill the hero. Nowadays the dragon may be the hero, as in Teresa Medeiros's The Bride and the Beast, and the heroine must transform him in order for there to be a happy ending.
The third session took as its theme paratextuality (a word used to describe all aspects of a book other than the text itself). Faye O’Leary of Trinity College Dublin (Ireland) discussed Nora Roberts, J.D. Robb and the fact that this authorial double identity finds a parallel in the problematic identities of two of her characters: Eve Dallas and Roarke. Eve has no memories which date from before her eighth birthday and doesn't even know her original name, while Roarke has no known surname.
William Gleason of Princeton University (USA) discussed magazines published at the end of the nineteenth century, and in particular Belles and Beaux (1874), which was specifically targeted at women and offered news and romance serials. Gleason has a particular interest in the items surrounding the romantic fictions, including advice columns, musical scores, and games to be played by groups of men and women on winter evenings to help them get to know each other better. He observed that if the articles were written by women, then the editors must have been men who didn't know much about the contents of the magazine, since one issue contains both an advert for hair-colouring shampoo and an article strongly advising readers against dying their hair.
Cora Buhlert of the University of Vechta (Germany) discussed Libesromanheft, the German format of romance which is flourishing, albeit the readership is ageing. The romances are published as little magazines or booklets. There are star authors and a number of sub-genres and series, including a Bavarian series which features covers illustrated with young people in regional costume. [Séverine Olivier informed Agnès Caubet that some of these romances are translated into French and sold in the same format, particularly to retirement homes, which may explain why Agnès has never come across them.] In order to get a foothold in the German market, Harlequin has joined forces with Cora, one of the publishers of Libesromanheft. In France, by contrast, local publishers of French romances (Max du Veuzit, Delly, Magali) completely disappeared after the arrival of the Canadian romance giant.
The day ended with a keynote speech by Lynne Pearce of Lancaster University (UK), author of Romance Writing. Pearce is not very positive about the romance genre, since she believes that both heroes and heroines should be changed by their experiences, and she thinks that in Harlequins heroines have evolved but there's a sort of annihilation of the heroes. [At this point Agnès Caubet admits that she may not have fully understood Pearce's argument.] According to her the romance genre doesn't insist strongly enough on women's liberation and the very existence of such a degenerate genre [LV - I'm not sure in what sense the word "degenerate" was being used; it could be being used literally, since the romance "genre" used to refer to chivalric romances] indicates that social conditions are unfulfilling. Her talk centered on the impossibility of repeating love, that is, the question of whether or not one can fall in love more than once. She also focused on whether the readers' need to read declarations of love over and over again suggests that ultimately such fictions are unsatisfying.
Friday the 6th of August began with a session on language in the romance genre. Stephanie Moody from the University of Michigan (USA) discussed her analysis of dialogue in Anne Stuart's Cold as Ice. In romance dialogue is very important because it has to be both spiritual and amusing, and seem natural even though, of course, it isn't. Having studied references to the heroines' weight and that of women in general, Moody concluded that female readers probably don't limit themselves solely to identifying with the heroine's point of view but instead take turns in identifying with both the hero and the heroine over the course of the novel.
Artemis Lamprinou, from the University of Surrey (UK) spoke about Greek translations of English-language romances. Romances must evoke the correct emotional reactions in the reader in order to be pleasurable, so translators must ensure that cultural norms are also translated correctly in order to create the same emotions in readers. She noted that translations into Greek tend to increase the emotional intensity of the texts: "anger" may be translated as "fury," for example.
Heike Klippel of the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig (Germany) analysed visual codes in German soap operas. Scenes in which the characters declare their love must included draperies and lighted candles, food or a champagne-like drink, and suitable background music. In scenes in which a character thinks about his or her beloved, that character must hold an object belonging to the beloved and look at their image, or their name on the screen of a mobile phone. Warmer lighting will be used when filming heroines, whereas heroes are apparently deemed more manly under bluish light.
The fifth session focused on male/female relationships. Pradipta Mukherjee from the University of Calcutta (India) discussed Devdas. It is a story which was first published in 1917 but more than ten Indian film versions have subsequently been produced. Mukherjee chose three of these films, including the 2002 version which is particularly well known by fans, in order to speak about the significance and depiction of the characters' gaze: lowering the eyes indicates submissiveness, whereas a direct look signals assertiveness. She also speculated about the basis of the continuing appeal of a story which is almost a hundred years old and whose plot depends on social constraints which are more and more distant from the daily lives of the audience. She suspects that the hero's self-hatred may seem attractive to teenagers.
Sarah Frantz, the IASPR president, gave a very interesting talk about the evolution of the alpha male in the romance genre. In the 1970s, the alpha male is a rapist, as in Kathleen Woodiwiss's novels, and this can be read as a critique of patriarchal society which can produce violence towards women. In the 1980s he becomes a tortured hero, as in Laura Kinsale's novels, and then in the 1990s the alpha male is transformed into a man who defies the conventions of his era. Finally, in the 2000s, he has become highly eroticised, as in Ellora's Cave's romantica and erotica. In taking as examples six romances whose popularity has been maintained since their publication in the 1990s, Sarah sought to show that in this decade some authors reacted to feminist criticism of the genre by seeking to describe an alpha male who would break the mold. In Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas, it's the heroine who kills to save the hero, who is a self-made man. In It Had to be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Dan is the opposite of a rapist while still being an alpha male. There is one love scene in which he stops repeatedly, because the heroine asks him to. In Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, the plot resembles that of Beauty and the Beast, but it's really more like Cinderella, with the hero as the damsel in distress. He wants to protect his reputation as a scoundrel and it is the heroine who seduces him, feels jealousy and desire, and ends up ripping his shirt. In Dream Man by Linda Howard, the heroine can read the mind of everyone in the world, except the hero, which makes him mysterious but also restful. In Nora Roberts' [LV - sic] Naked in Death, the first in this series which was a novelty in the genre, Roarke is both dangerous and mysterious, but perfect for Eve. Finally, in the highly controversial To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney, the hero rapes the heroine but in a new way: the forced seduction (to which we shall return later).
Finally Pam Rosenthal, an author of erotic romances, spoke to us about the troubled relationships between heroes and their male friends. In a genre which is evolving at high speed, she predicts that the next development will be the affirmation of many heroes' bisexuality. Thanks to this talk I [LV - i.e. Agnès Caubet] discovered a book published at the beginning of this year: Pride/Prejudice by Ann Herendeen, which imagines that Mr Darcy's wish to distance his friend Bingley from Miss Bennet might have been the consequence of a romantic relationship between Bingley and Darcy. Playing on the fact that Jane Austen didn't describe what happens between the heroines [LV - sic] of her novel, Ann Herendeen fills in the gap (if I can put it that way while writing on this topic) and creates a parallel romance which fills in all the scenes between the men. Pam finished by emphasising that the current proliferation of societies and brotherhoods isn't a coincidence and that the "brothers" aren't just there as sequel bait but also because of the relationships they have with each other.
The second keynote speaker, Celestino Deleyto, teaches English at the University of Zaragoza (Spain) and specialises in romantic comedies, which were the subject of his speech. In this genre sexual acts are more often implied than shown; quarrels take their place and, in a sense, represent them. Arguments are therefore happy moments for the heroes. The majority of critics of romantic comedy comment negatively on the inevitability of the happy ending, but this in fact makes them more lifelike, putting love and desire at the centre of the plot, and their humour often hides deep explorations of various problems. According to him the failure of many romantic relationships has led to the genre moving towards friendships, which seem more credible, in the "man com," as in I Love You, Man in which the plot isn't centred on the romantic relationship but on the friendship between the hero and his best man.
Session 6 also dealt with films. Giselle Bastin of Flinders University (Australia) spoke about a number of TV biopics produced in the UK about Charles and Diana, and about the changes in them over the course of the couple's troubled marriage. At the end, the life of the royal couple had become a sort of real-life soap opera, with a new episode at every turn.
Roger Nicholson from the University of Auckland (New Zealand) discussed films about the relationship between Maoris and white colonists from a historical perspective.
Claudia Marquis (also from the University of Auckland) examined 10 Things I Hate About You which uses Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew to examine adolescence, an age which one has to survive and which can be considered the famous shew which has to be tamed.
The last session of the day about romantic comedies opened with a paper by Margaret Tally from the University of New York, who stressed that women go to the cinema a lot and that she's seen a new tendency for romantic comedies by Nancy Meyers to give important roles to actresses of Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton's generation and to explicitly appeal to a female public of over-45s who are becoming increasingly influential. In these films the heroine has a satisfactory professional and personal life, but she realises that she needs a man to feel complete. For his part the hero often needs to grow up; he's been stuck in a sort of extended adolescence and gains maturity thanks to the heroine.
Betty Kaklamanidou of Aristotle University (Thessaloniki) then spoke about how Greek cinema has assimilated the American romantic comedy to make a distinctive genre which includes local problems such as those caused by arranged marriages or the importance of family. Like Bollywood films, Greek romantic comedies underscore the importance of certain scenes by having the actors sing and dance.
Claire Jenkins of the University of Warwick (UK) then spoke about the role of single parents in Hollywood films, stating that their situation is perceived as one which must be corrected, as in Sleepless in Seattle. Families with two adults continue to be considered the norm. Since the objective of these films is to recreate a happy family, the closing image of the film shows the new couple with their children.
Saturday the 6th of August got off to a flying start thanks to the third keynote speaker, Pamela Regis, from McDaniel College (USA), who was the first literary critic to write a positive book about the romance genre: A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003). She began by painting a picture of the state of romance criticism in the US which was, frankly, rather discouraging, starting with what she called the four horsewomen of the apocalypse: Ann Barr Snitow, who in 1979 wrote that romance is pornography for women; Tania Modleski who in 1982 compared romance readers to drug addicts; Kay Mussell (1984), for whom romances reflected the way in which women are infantilised in patriarchal culture; and finally Janice A. Radway (1984), who deemed romance to be a tool of patriarchy, and its readers dupes who put up with their situation rather than change their lives. The situation hasn't improved much since, with Lynne Pearce whom I mentioned above, and Lisa Fletcher who, in 2008, accused romance of reinforcing heterosexuality as a social norm and preventing the description of more satisfactory relations. Yeah ... Pam Regis then made a list of what critics owed the romance. To summarise: a more impartial approach, based on a reading of a fair number of novels (bearing in mind that there are 8000 new titles a year, and one can't seriously claim to have studied the genre when one's only read ten books). The participants then debated the possibility of creating a "romance canon" or list of books which would be selected to represent the genre in all its diversity. There were said to be pros and cons to this, given that a canon can quickly become a prison which prevents change.
An Goris of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) responded to Pamela Regis, saying that it was important to situate the works cited in their historical context and that, even if their conclusions are displeasing, they are often all we have on which to base new research on romance.
Session 8 took as its theme sex in the romance genre. Ashley Greenwood of the University of San Diego (USA) said that she herself is a feminist and a lesbian, and also a fan of romances, particularly Nora Roberts'. According to her, virginity in the romance is never the result of submission to a patriarchal order but is rather a state chosen by each heroine. Furthermore, sexual experiences are explored from the point of view of the woman, who has an active role in sex scenes. Emotions are as important as the act itself and the heroine must give very explicit consent. To summarise: this is not patriarchal logic at all. QED!
Angela Toscano from the University of Utah (USA) spoke about rape in the romance and highlighted 3 broad categories:
- mistaken identity - the hero mistakes the heroine for someone else and rapes her
- possession - the hero is overwhelmed by desire of jealousy. He thinks all women are the same. The rape can therefore be seen as a way of exerting power.
- the forced seduction - the hero wants to provoke a reaction from the heroine. He tries to break down her willpower, and often makes her feel desire against her will. His aim is not to hurt the heroine, but to give her a way out of a dead end situation. He wants her to acknowledge or confess something. She must in a sense die in order to be reborn into freedom. The hero, in this scenario, knows the heroine better than anyone else does and sees beyond the barriers that she keeps up between herself and the world.
The last member of this panel was Jin Feng from Grinnell College (USA). She spoke about a blog created by Chinese people working in the US. They created a section on literature, initially in order to talk about the books they had read but they then began to use it to put online some novels which could be read on the site in installments or downloaded onto a mobile. In order to get the passwords to access these texts, one has to post some fiction of one's own. She spoke about one novel in particular to which the readers responded as it was posted. There were two possible heroes, one of whom would make a perfect father while the other was a mysterious mafia boss; some readers preferred one and some preferred the other. She stressed that the pleasure derived from reading was increased tenfold through discussions with other readers and with the author, and that the internet has changed the relationship between authors and readers.
Then it was time for our panel. Séverine and I spoke for about 45 minutes about romances in French. The responses were very positive and there wasn't enough time to respond to all the questions. There were readers in the room from Germany and the Netherlands and they could wholly identify with the difficulties which we encounter: a lack of translations, missing passages, series which remain unfinished, etc.
The last session was about vampires in romance and Jonathan Allan from the University of Toronto spoke about virginal heroes. Very few heroes in literature boast about being virgins, even if there are a few examples. In general, it's heroines who are virgins and virginity is to women what honour is to men (I'm quoting that, but I don't know who the author of that edifying phrase is!) He also emphasised that virgins often have magical powers. Of course, at the moment the best-known virginal hero is Edward Cullen, over 100 years old and still sexually innocent; it seems he even forbids himself masturbation.
Chiho Nakagawa of the University of Nara (Japan) then spoke about the evolution of vampire sexuality. The act of sucking blood has been compared to a sexual act. John William Polidori's vampire had homosexual tendencies while Bram Stoker brought the vampire back to heterosexuality with Dracula. In recent romances vampires are not treated as sexual deviants but rather as immigrants and they are losing their darkness. Edward, for example, is not a dark hero. He's a respectable kind of vampire. The presentation ended by suggesting that some of the appeal that vampires have for romance fans may dissipate if they lose their dangerous edge.
The final round table of the conference emphasised the differences between North American universities and European ones, with the latter feeling the need to have a more well-defined methodology which will give more credibility to their research, while the former have a tendency to study what interests them and disregard other issues a little. Others also noted the need not to be limited to a literary approach to the topic, but rather to invite researchers from other disciplines, such as sociology or psychology, to this sort of conference, and study not only the literary works themselves, but also the industry which produces them: authors, editors, readers, etc.
More details about the speakers, and abstracts of their papers, can be found here. Pam Rosenthal's summary of her speech to the conference can be found here.