Saturday, February 27, 2010

Links: India, Covers and Romance

In my last post I wrote about interpretative lenses, and before I carry on with the follow-up posts I promised, I wanted to share a few recent links which offer some more perspectives on romances in different cultural and racial contexts. Courtesy of BevBB, here's a link to an article about romance novels in India, by Jerry Pinto.

As mentioned in the article, imported Mills & Boon romances have been available in India for many years and
“I think the race of the protagonists certainly played a role in the way these books were read,” says Radhika Parameswaran, a faculty member at Indiana University in the School of Journalism. Her PhD was titled “Public Images; Private Pleasure: An Ethnography Of Romance Reading In India”.

“At the time when I was doing my research in Hyderabad, the exotic pleasures of Mills & Boon included the notion that these characters were exotic people in exotic locales. But more than that, it was about the associated pleasures of the upper-class consumer experiences. It was about racing about in Ferraris and soaking in bathtubs.”
Jayashree Kamble has argued in "Female Enfranchisement and the Popular Romance: Employing an Indian Perspective" that
The progressiveness of romance fiction [...] becomes evident when the very narratives that appear reactionary are read through the perspective of readers whose social environments are markedly different from the post-feminist West. [...] To Indian readers, romance fiction can function as an extended discussion on what might justify the state of matrimony. While the genre offers romantic love as the only reason to marry someone (and is consequently labeled as an ideological construct), the heroine's love for the hero - and the love and respect she commands from him - may act as a means of resistance to the Indian ideology of marriage-as-inevitability. (170)
Support for this vision of romance as a genre which becomes significantly more subversive when transposed into an Indian context can be found in Pinto's article:
“For many young women in small towns, these books provide a way of thinking of themselves,” says Paromita Vohra, a filmmaker and writer, whose latest project with Penguin India is a series of investigations into how love is constructed as a concept in India. “There’s a certain knee-jerk feminist response to the Mills & Boon. It’s patriarchal, it suggests that marriage is the only thing a woman can want. But I think it’s time to look beyond that. If you’re living in a small town in India, the idea of working in a city, of dating a boy because you want to, is not just romantic, it’s adventurous. It means you’re exploring another possible self.”
Despite the fact that M&B recently opened an office in India and held a competition to find Indian authors, it is still focused on selling romances written almost exclusively by authors from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US and only extremely rarely featuring Indian characters. That's not the case with Random House's new romance venture: "Random House India has launched a series of historicals called Kama Kahani (Passion Stories)." I've included some of the covers of these romances in this post. Romances set in India, with Indian characters have been published before: "It’s not as if this hasn’t been tried before in India. One of the earliest attempts at genre romance came from the 72-year-old publishing house, Rupa & Company." That attempt, along with other similar initiatives by other companies, were not very successful so perhaps
The decisive factor will be: how many keepers can Mills & Boon India or the Kama Kahanis produce.

And then there’s Bollywood, India’s dream machine, which has a stranglehold on the idea of love and romance. “I’ll be watching these new titles with a great deal of interest,” says Parameswaran. “Because in India, love and romance seemed tied to particular media technologies. Love’s anarchic power is celebrated visually; its consumption has always been cinematic. I wonder if that will change. The very idea of romance in a Mills & Boon seems tied to a racialised fantasy of upscale whiteness. Hence Indian readers were not inclined to accept romance novels with African-American characters. The hero’s whiteness always plays a role in his fetishisation as love object.”
I wonder how many romances featuring African-American characters were ever offered to Indian romance readers. As Gwyneth Bolton (also known to us at Teach Me Tonight as academic Gwendolyn Pough) recently posted at Harlequin's blog,
Before Kensington published the first Arabesque novels fifteen years ago, there had been a few romance novels published that featured black heroes and heroines. There was Rosiland [Rosalind] Welles’s Entwined Destinies (1980) [published in Dell’s Candlelight Romance series], Jackie Weger’s A Strong and Tender Thread (1983) [published by Harlequin], Sandra Kitt’s Adam and Eva (1985) [also published by Harlequin] and Joyce McGill’s Unforgivable (1992) [published by Silhouette]. There were also attempts made to publish African American romance lines by Holloway House and Odyssey Books. However, romance novels that showcased black love had been sparse to say the least.

That all changed when editor Monica Harris got Kensington to publish those first Arabesque novels. Kensington’s Arabesque line went from two to four books a month before it was sold to BET Books and then Harlequin’s Kimani Press.
When Joyce McGill's Unforgivable was published, it included a letter to the reader from Leslie Wainger, Senior Editor and Editorial Coordinator. In it she stated that
For many years I have been closely involved with Silhouette Intimate Moments, having a strong voice in choosing what books we'll bring to you [...] and also handling the reader mail [...]. Over the years, one question has been asked of me many times. Sometimes the letter writer identifies herself as black, sometimes as a woman of color, sometimes as an African-American. But always the question is the same: Why aren't you publishing books about women like me, black women meeting and falling in love with black men? Always my correspondent tells me that she enjoys our books anyway [...] but that just one book about a black couple would make her happy, make her feel that she belongs fully to the fellowship of readers spanning the globe. This month I am proud to be bringing you - all of you, whatever the color of your skin - Unforgivable by Joyce McGill. (2)
Gwendolyn Pough has written elsewhere that
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.

I believe that contemporary Black romance novels perform a kind of activism. These novels participate in the re-making of African American images and representations. They offer positive representations of relationships between black men and women. And they also work to rescue the images of black men and women from harmful stereotypes, often rewriting and remixing the stereotypes.
It's not just the contents of the novels that matter: the covers do too, because it is via covers that readers can literally see "images of black men and women" in romantic relationships. The Book Smugglers have a post up about the whitewashing of covers, and in it Ari explains why she thinks what's on the cover matters:
The message a whitewashed cover sends is that POC are worthless, that we mean so little that even if a book is written about us, we can’t be on the cover because the image of a POC won’t sell. Even if a book is about a certain topic, the cover can be completely different from the story as long as it sells. Now I want everyone to step back and think about this. Are you back? Is that not completely ridiculous? For all the “color blind “folks, let’s take color out of the equation. It would be like having a vampire on the cover of a book about a witch or a dog on the cover of a book about a horse, etc (except it’s 100x worse to whitewash a cover). Wouldn’t you be mad or at the very least puzzled? POC can read about white people, that’s “normal” and expected. But ask some white people to read about a POC and it’s a problem, “there aren’t many books about POC in my favorite genre” or “I don’t see color so I shouldn’t have to alter my reading habits.” I admit that I always thought it obvious as to why whitewashed covers are wrong, but I received a rude awakening when I started reading comments on other blogs that said things like “so?” or “I don’t really care because I don’t see color. I just read the story if it sounds good.” This is troubling for a few reasons.

First, the idea of “not seeing color” is ridiculous and sad. It’s sad because we live in a colorful world, with people who are all different shades. If you don’t “see color” then to me, you are saying I don’t recognize the beauty of all people who are of different hues. People come in all different colors and we should see this beauty and appreciate, not ignore it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Viewing the World through Interpretative Lenses

How we understand the world is shaped by interpretative lenses which we may or may not be aware that we're wearing. Tumperkin recently observed that
What fascinates about vintage romance is that you read the 'timeless' romance trope through a different lens. [...] Some might say that the lens shouldn't be there because 'good' writing is timeless. I don't buy that. Author world-view/ outlook inevitably creeps in. Whatever the POV situation with the characters, that author lens is there in some form, an almost invisible thing that is nevertheless present, like a ghost.
Xandra Gregory, on the other hand, has stressed the "universal" aspect of "human truths" to be found in romances:
When I write, and when I read, I look for human truths behind the stories. And those human truths can wear skin of all colors, engage in emotional and sexual attachments of widely varied persuasions, and if the author has done his or her job correctly, the human truths will come out and be understood as universal.
So, are there "universal" truths? Or are some lenses so strong they make us see things very, very differently from the way other people see them? Well, as you might expect given the existence of interpretative lenses, there isn't any agreement on that. Lonner, however, outlines three different sets of lenses through which one might look while trying to answer the question:
perniciously ethnocentric, is the absolutistic map of the world--the belief that laws of human behavior, wherever they may be established, transcend cultures. In its extreme form absolutism would contend that human "cultures" constitute nothing more than a thin veneer that just barely mask a broad spectrum of universal laws governing thought and behavior. The obverse of this view is the doctrine of radical relativism. Relativists believe that behavior and thought can only be understood in the intricate context of specific ecocultural systems. Radical relativists hold the view that everything about the human condition is based on the social constructionist argument that mind and culture make each other up, and that the pattern is never repeated. Consequently, they would argue, it is impossible to make comparisons across cultures. [...] Not surprisingly, most cross-cultural psychologists tend to find comfort in the middle or compromise position of universalism--the a priori belief that there is considerable continuity in all human thought and behavior, and also the conviction that culture plays an enormously important moderating or mediating role in most domains of psychology. Indeed, it could be argued that culture is antecedent to all thought and behavior.
What we believe (or don't believe) about "universal laws" and "continuity in all human thought and behavior" is likely to shape our views of human relationships, and the depiction of them, around the world (and throughout the ages). Given the fact that romance scholarship is an international phenomenon which takes as its subject texts and other materials created by individuals from many different cultures, I think it might be worth looking at what conclusions these three different perspectives might reach about love and intimacy. Adamopoulos and Lonner offer a "plausible theoretical analysis of intimacy from each perspective" (132):
An Absolutist Perspective on Intimacy

The basic ingredient of this approach is, of course, reductionism, that is, an emphasis on reducing a natural phenomenon to its most basic, and, ideally, essential components. By observing many people in North America, with different personalities, interests, and value systems, researchers in this area have concluded that a key process in the experience of intimacy is mutually rewarding self-disclosure. That means that intimacy often involves, among other things, the closeness that people feel when they reveal very private thoughts to others, and learn what others feel and think about highly personal issues. [...]

A Relativist Perspective on Intimacy

[...] relativists object to the reductionism that is employed by researchers who believe that it is possible to isolate a psychological process from the particular circumstances that surround its occurrence.
A relativist account of this process might, for example, point to various cultures where intimate relationships (e.g., marriages) are arranged by the families of the people involved, and where the interaction of the two persons is constantly guided by convention and cultural norms that prohibit a great deal of disclosure of deep feelings between mates. In the Western world, such interaction may appear to lack sponteneity, and even intimacy, considering the description provided earlier. Yet, are we prepared to say that people in cultures that restrict self-disclosure are not capable of experiencing intimacy? [...] In fact, there is considerable historical evidence suggesting that feelings toward a member of one's family, in Homer's time, were not as personalized as they are today in the Western world. Instead, people often experienced a more "collective" love, that incorporated feelings toward a particular person, and feelings toward one's whole household (or oikos, in Ancient Greek). [...]

A Universalist Perspective on Intimacy

Many psychologists who are interested in the search for universal processes, yet are sensitive to the importance of cultural context, would begin by noting that the notion of intimacy appears in many cultures in one form or another. For example, most cultures have some concept of friendship, interpersonal closeness, and love. While acknowledging that the context in which these notions appear is crucial, a universalist approach would attempt to identify common elements associated with the experience of intimacy. (132-33)
After the first conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, Sarah Frantz commented on some of the implications of the word "International" in the association's name:
The conference, with presenters from India, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Italy, China, the US, and of course, Australia, taught us that Popular Romance Studies is and should be a truly international pursuit. In learning the universality of popular romance, though, it teaches us to be very specific about the historical, social, and national culture of the text under consideration. [...]

The conference also taught us to be aware of cultural definitions of romance. The American middle-class definition requires a happy ending, but other cultural versions of romance might not. It is important to be conscious of our own historical, social, and national cultures, as well as aware of those in the texts we study.
Amy Lee, for example, suggests that Kong Kong's "cultural identity" can be "traced through the development of its most popular genre of reading - the romance novel" (174) and she writes that
the way Sung characterized Yi Da's writing provides good insight into the psychology of the readers in the 1960s. He summarized Yi Da's works into the following features: stereotypical characters, standard occasions of how boy meets girl, how boy betrays girl, and how the girl's mother is always there to receive the fallen girl with open arms. (183)
Even in a single society there may be more than one "cultural context" and there is evidence which suggests that people's "cultural context" and interpretative lenses shape how they respond to scientific findings: "a growing body of work has suggested that ordinary citizens react to scientific evidence on societal risks" by endorsing "whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments" (Kahan 296). Dan Kahan and his colleagues named the "process that [...] account[s] for this distinctive form of polarization [...] ‘cultural cognition’. Cultural cognition refers to the influence of group values — ones relating to equality and authority, individualism and community — on risk perceptions and related beliefs" (296). They suggest that this
is a major cause of political conflict over the credibility of scientific data on climate change and other environmental risks. People with individualistic values, who prize personal initiative, and those with hierarchical values, who respect authority, tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire. By contrast, people who subscribe to more egalitarian and communitarian values are suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as sources of unjust disparity. They are thus more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted. (296)
The relevance of this to romance is that romance readers, too, differ in terms of the lenses we use when reading. Furthermore, romance readers have been studied by researchers, and both the ways in which those results were obtained, and the ways in which those results have been received and understood by others, are likely to have been shaped by the lenses worn by both the researchers and those reading their findings. Over the next few weeks I hope to post about some of those different perspectives on the genre and its readers in analysis/ reviews of

[Edited to add: Before posting about those, I took the opportunity to post a few recent links to items which shed some light on the way that different cultural or social positions may shape responses to romance.]

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Romance Novels: Literary Texts or Formulaic Stories?

Earlier this week Katherine Orazem from the Yale Herald asked me a few questions about the romance genre. Her article, "In Defense of Romance: Proving the Stereotypes Wrong," went online on Friday and it's well worth a read.1 Orazem's obviously done plenty of background research and she notes that
[Pamela] Regis’ work on the literary history of romance has traced the precursors of the genre back to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela, as well as works by heavyweights like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and E. M. Forster. Such proto-romances stretch back for centuries into the annals of great literature. “The love story with a happy ending is a very, very old type,” said Dr. Laura Vivanco, writer for romance-scholarship blog Teach Me Tonight.
In case anyone's wondering which works I had in mind, the answer is that in my reply to her I'd mentioned many of those included in Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel and listed above, as well as a number of works which are much older:
Many myths and legends are love stories, and many fairy tales end with marriages and happy ever afters. There were ancient Greek romances, including Longus's Daphnis and Chloe, although they, like their modern counterparts, have tended to have "had a bad press" (Williamson 23). Lovers in the literature of courtly love often meet with rather tragic fates, but some examples of medieval literature have more cheerful outcomes, for example the stories of Floire and Blanchefleur, and of Aucassin and Nicolette. Boccaccio included some love stories with happy endings in his Decameron. Shakespeare and others wrote comedies in which lovers overcome the barriers which separate them.
Orazem continues:
Despite this history—and the fact that several books possibly classified as romance are already included in the traditional literary canon—from their earliest days romance novels have drawn criticism. Willig, whose own novels earned her a nomination for the Quill Award in 2006, noted the widespread tendency “to dismiss romance novels as very thin productions.” But much of this criticism lumps romances together without considering the nuances and varieties of the category. As Vivanco said, “It’s a huge genre and if someone picks up a romance at random, it’s not likely that they’ll find one of the very best.”
Having read Orazem's article, I thought a bit more about the implications of some of the questions she asked me:
How do you consider the relationship between art and pleasure? Is the goal of art to bring pleasure and beauty, or to challenge and trouble us? Does art have to be difficult to be rewarding?
It seems to me that if someone picks up a romance at random, to assess whether or not it's art, the book they choose faces two obstacles in its attempt to convince a sceptical reader. The first, as I mentioned, is that the book may not be one of the best in the genre, but the second is that the sceptical reader comes to the book with preconceptions, both about the genre and about what "art" is. In “The Paradox of Junk Fiction” (recently discussed by Jessica at Read React Review - scroll down the page until you reach item 3) Noël Carroll, who includes romances in the group of texts he's labelled "junk fiction" (225) outlines the defining features of "junk fiction":
The junk fictions that I have in mind are all narratives. Indeed, their story dimension is the most important thing about them. [...] Junk fictions aspire to be page-turners [...] and what motivates turning the page so quickly is our interest in what happens next. We do not dawdle over [...] diction as we might over Updike's nor do we savor the complexity of [...] sentence structure, as we do with Virginia Woolf's. Rather we read for story. (225-226)
The trouble with this defining feature is that it depends in part on readers' behaviours. Can a literary text suddenly become junk fiction if I read it "for story"? A long time ago I read Tolstoy's War and Peace this way, and I read it fast. I read it so fast, I can't remember much about it now, I'm sorry to say. Does that mean it was just an engrossing page-turner that's largely forgettable? No, it doesn't. What it does suggest, though, is that the speed at which any particular reader, or group of readers, read a novel, and the extent to which they focus on the novel's "story" or plot, should not be taken as an indication of the novel's literary quality.

Another reader-based criteria on which it might be unwise to base judgements of literary quality is sales: "many novels which we would call high art have over a longer period of years, sold as well as many ephemeral bestsellers" (Cawelti, "Notes" 258) and conversely
The fact that a work is designed to please the audience, clearly does not mean that it will become popular. Otherwise, most Hollywood films and pulp novels would achieve the popularity of Hitchcock at his best, and works created primarily with a view to an artistic expression of the creator's vision would inevitably fail. (Cawelti, "Notes" 258-59)
Returning to Carroll and his definition, we find the following:
junk fictions are the sort of narratives that commentators are wont to call formulaic. That is, junk fictions generally belong to well-entrenched genres, which themselves are typified by their possession of an extremely limited repertoire of story-types. [...] Junk fictions tell these generic stories again and again with minor variations. (225)
I think it's significant that Carroll has been contrasting "junk fiction" with twentieth-century literary fiction. If he'd taken a look at medieval, Renaissance, or early modern literature, I think he'd have found it much, much more difficult to draw distinctions along these lines.2 As Cawelti once stated:
all cultural products contain a mixture of two kinds of elements: conventions and inventions. Conventions are elements which are known to both the creator and his audience beforehand - they consist of things like favorite plots, stereotyped characters, accepted ideas, commonly known metaphors and other linguistic devices, etc. Inventions, on the other hand, are elements which are uniquely imagined by the creator such as new kinds of characters, ideas, or linguistic forms. Of course it is difficult to distinguish in every case between conventions and inventions because many elements lie somewhere along a continuum between the two poles. Nonetheless, familiarity with a group of literary works will usually soon reveal what the major conventions are and therefore, what in the case of an individual work is unique to that creator. ("The Concept" 384-385)
Cawelti goes on to observe that "Most works of art contain a mixture of convention and invention. Both Homer and Shakespeare show a large proportion of conventional elements mixed with inventions of great genius" ("The Concept" 385) and Cawelti later wrote of Shakespeare that he
worked in a popular, commercial medium and accepted the limitations of that medium. He [...] made extensive use of conventional material; as we know from the many studies of his sources, most of Shakespeare's plays were adaptations of existing stories. His work is full of the stage conventions of his time and emphasizes [...] sensational crimes and international intrigues, madness and violence, mystery and romance. ("Notes" 264)
If only works with a high level of innovation and a low level of convention were to be accepted as "art" and "great literature," then a lot of works written prior to the twentieth century would have to be removed from the literary canon.

This leads me on to another set of questions that Orazem sent me:
When you approach literary analysis of a romance novel, do you treat it any differently than a work from other genres? Do romance novels have a different goal than other works, or are their artistic aspirations fundamentally the same?
I replied that "I think it's unwise to generalise: different romance authors will undoubtedly have different artistic aspirations." I've already mentioned that I don't think it's necessarily helpful to assess the literary merit of works on the basis of how fast they can be read or how popular they appear to be, and I think we also need to be careful about using authors' "artistic aspirations" as an indication of the quality of the work in question.3 One author could have lofty aspirations but fail miserably, whereas another author whose primary intention was to entertain by providing an exciting plot might also include complex characterisations, thought-provoking moral dilemmas and exquisite imagery. On the question of how we should study art/literature versus works of popular culture, Cawelti has written that
When we are studying the fine arts, we are essentially interested in the unique achievement of the individual artist, while in the case of popular culture, we are dealing with a product that is in some sense collective. Of course it is possible to study the fine arts as collective products just as it is possible to examine individual works of popular culture as unique artistic creations. ("The Concept" 382)
He suggests that if one wishes to "examine individual works of popular culture as unique artistic creations" then "the traditional methods of humanistic scholarship are the most appropriate, with some allowance for the special aesthetic problems of the popular arts" ("The Concept" 382). With my background, I don't see these as "special [...] problems." As a medievalist, the works of fiction I approached tended to contain high levels of what Cawelti calls "convention," as does the modern romance genre. And so, as Katherine Orazem reported,
Vivanvo [sic], who is planning a close literary analysis of Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, said she “approach[es] romances in the same way that I’d approach any other work of fiction.”
  • Carroll, Noël. "The Paradox of Junk Fiction. Philosophy and Literature 18.2 (1994): 225-241.
  • Cawelti, John G. "Notes toward an Aesthetic of Popular Culture." Journal of Popular Culture 5.2 (1971): 255-
  • Cawelti, John G. "The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature." Journal of Popular Culture 3.3 (1969): 381-390.
  • Orazem, Katherine. "In Defense of Romance: Proving the Stereotypes Wrong. Yale Herald Friday, February 12, 2010.
  • Williamson, Margaret. "The Greek Romance." The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge & Kegan
  • Paul, 1986. 23-45.

1 My opinion of the piece has not, I hope, been influenced by the fact that its author quoted me.

2 Carroll tangentially includes a recognition that this may be the case when he writes that
Detractors of junk fiction or, as it is sometimes called, kitsch, maintain that the audience for junk fiction is passive when compared to the audience for high art. Moreover, they explain this by claiming that junk fiction is "easy" while high art, or at least high art of the twentieth century, is "difficult." (238)
3 In many cases the author's intentions remain unknown to the literary critic. In others, the stated intentions are known, but may not be a reliable indication of the author's true intentions. I am thinking in particular of cases in which the "modesty topos" has been employed:
The "modesty topos" was a well-worn strategy in Renaissance writing for displaying "sprezzatura" -- an apparently unstudied, natural elegance of demeanor. (The contradiction built into this is fascinating.) In a warped way, the modesty topos manifests itself in the American consciousness. The folksy, downhome, southern style is politically popular because it aims to represent a trustworthy "regular guy" character -- as if anyone more articulate than oneself is as dangerous as Milton's silver-tongued Satan. (Nancy Weitz)
Janet Claire has commented that some Renaissance women writers employed
the modesty topos. The apologetic or self-deprecating idiom of several of the texts which will be considered needs to be read at other than face value. Paradoxically, to draw attention to a lack of learning or seemingly to acquiesce in patriarchal notions of female inferiority could disarm the male reader and prove an enabling device for the publication of women's writing.

Since we're discussing how to weigh up the value of different texts, I thought the photo of War and Peace on a set of scales was appropriate. The photo was taken by Jill Clardy, who titled it "War and Peace is 'Heavy Reading'." It's used under the terms of its Creative Commons licence.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Romance and "The Cultural Production of Disability"

present difference: the cultural production of disability
was a conference held in Manchester this year from the 6th to the 8th of January. The full programme can be found here. Included in it was a session on "Genre Fiction" which featured the following papers:
  • Ria Cheyne Liverpool Hope University
    ‘We are both maimed’: Disability and Trauma in Historical Romance

    This paper explores the relationship between disability representation and genre conventions in the historical romance subgenre, focusing on the work of bestselling author Mary Balogh. Balogh’s novels frequently feature disabled characters. I focus on two novels featuring disabled heroes, The Secret Pearl (2005) and Simply Love (2006). In these novels, the war-wounded hero’s physical trauma is equated with psychological trauma suffered by the heroine. ‘We are both maimed’, as the hero of Simply Love puts it. Yet this recognition of kinship is not enough to ensure the successful conclusion of the romance plot; before the hero and heroine can be permanently united, the hero has to confront his own internalisation of what Carol Thomas terms the psycho-emotional aspects of disability, and understand himself as worthy of the heroine’s love.

    Balogh’s use of disability allows her to create a compelling romance narrative, a refreshing antidote to the blandly attractive couples who populate the genre. Equally, though, the conventions of historical romance – particularly its combination of a contemporary sensibility with a setting remote in time – allow her to do particular things with disability representation. Disability is frequently marginalised in romance narratives (rendered invisible by the eyes of love or even cured by love) but in Balogh’s work impairment is accepted as an integral part of the beloved, is a part of everyday life, and disability is located in society as well as in the individual body. Rather than enforcing normalcy, then, Balogh’s novels challenge it.

  • Kathleen A. Miller, University of Delaware
    What’s At Stake?: Dis/Ability in Tanya Huff’s and Charlaine Harris’s Contemporary Vampire Romance Fiction

    With the phenomenal commercial success of Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight series, vampires—and, more specifically, vampire-human romance narratives—have become big business. Reading Tanya Huff’s Blood Price and Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark, as well as their television adaptations (respectively, Blood Ties and True Blood), through the conventions of romance and female gothic genre fiction, I suggest that these texts present readers with messages of female freedom and gender equality. But as scholarship by Rosemarie Garland Thomson and Martha Stoddard Holmes on the literature of disability helps us to see, these feminist statements also come filtered through the texts’ compelling narratives of disability. Each work advances a red-herring theory that vampirism is actually a disability, a form of chronic illness; nonetheless, despite their “disability,” the vampires prove to be “hyper-able” — destined to live eternally, impervious to most bodily threats, and uncannily gifted as lovers. Yet vampires are not the only ones to challenge categories of ability and normalcy in these texts, for the central human characters are disabled heroines, who also prove extraordinarily able. Huff’s female protagonist has a degenerative eye condition, while Harris’s protagonist identifies her telepathy as a “disability.” Through their status as heroines with seemingly disabling “differences,” they display their various abilities, including their strength, insight, and romantic desirability. Furthermore, negotiating and embracing their disabilities leads them to challenge existing notions of gender roles and to construct new alternatives for female accomplishment. Much like that of the supernatural vampire, the disabled female physical body becomes extraordinary, as it helps the protagonists to counter threats of violence and to protect themselves and those around them. In these works, as I will demonstrate in my paper, women authors are using the trope of disability to reclaim the female body in the popular imagination, even as they contribute to the reinvention of the vampire romance genre.

  • Sandra Martina Schwab, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz, Germany
    "It is only with one's heart that one can see clearly": The Loss of Sight in Teresa Medeiros's The Bride and the Beast and Yours Until Dawn

  • The ability to see clearly and the loss of sight play an important role in the historical romances The Bride and the Beast (2001) and Yours Until Dawn (2004) by the American author Teresa Medeiros. While Yours Until Dawn features a blind hero, large parts of The Bride and the Beast are set during the night, and the darkness makes the heroine unable to see the face of the male protagonist. In both books the physical inability to see clearly is not only connected to a lack of recognition, but is also indicative of a lack of psychological insight. In Medeiros's two novels blindness thus functions as a symbol for internal problems the characters have to overcome in the course of the stories, namely their inability and unwillingness to face the truth about oneself and others. This psychological blindness also hinders the development of the love relationships. Therefore in both books the happy ending is dependant on the protagonists learning the same lesson the Fox teaches Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince: "It is only with one's heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
Those links will take you to details about the speakers, and to synopses of their papers, but I've cut and pasted in the synopses here to try to preserve them for posterity, just in case the original webpages about the conference are taken down.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Links: Authors and Alphas

I've been following the discussion at Dear Author which was started by Robin, who posed the question "Do authors have ethical responsibilities beyond beyond the book?" She began by asking
Straight off the top of your head, do you think that authors have any ethical or moral responsibilities beyond the book?

I’m guessing that the vast majority of you answered this question the same way I did for a long time, with a fully articulated, deeply resounding NO.
Janine, one of her co-bloggers at Dear Author, responded
Wow. I have to say these opening paragraphs took me aback, because my answer would have been a deeply resounding YES. Authors have the same ethical and moral responsibilities that all other human beings have, no more, no less, so why on earth would their moral and ethical responsiblities begin and end with their books? I can’t see why they should get a free pass from the responsibility to treat others fairly.
and Laura Kinsale stated that "I do think hard about the things I believe are important, but I don’t owe it to anyone but myself."

By coincidence, Rosy Thornton's just posted about the topic too:
freedom of expression means that an author is free to write about whatever characters she chooses, and to endow them with whatever views and attitudes she wishes. Besides which, we have to be true to our characters, don’t we? We have to reflect the world as it exists. A novel is not a soapbox.

But my personal version of the ‘ethics of care’ tells me that the flipside of freedom of expression is responsibility for what we choose to express; that as writers we have a duty to think about the potential impact of our work on those who read it. Societal attitudes are influenced not only by upbringing, family, friends and workmates, and by the news media, but also by the ambient culture: by film and television, and by the books we read.
That's just an excerpt of her post, and if you're interested in the issue, I'd encourage you to read it in full.

Rosy mentions that "I would not write a moody 'alpha' hero who is mean and even cruel but whose meanness is portrayed in a sexy light," but they're the subject of a panel that Eric will be chairing at the 2010 Film & History Conference: Representations of Love in Film and Television, November 11-14, 2010. The Calls for Papers are out, and the deadline for submissions is 1 March 2010. The full list of panels can be found here. Eric's panel is on Sons of the Sheik: Global Perspectives on the Alpha Male in Love. Here's a bit more about it [I've added the links. Where there was more than one film with the same title, the link is to a list]:
Masterful, confident, erotically charged, the “Alpha Male” has been a cinematic icon from Rudolph Valentino’s Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan (The Sheik, 1921) to Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown (1999) and Hritik Roshan’s elusive criminal, “Mr. A” (Dhoom 2, 2006). As the hero in romantic films, this ideal of masculinity has proven enduringly popular with both male and female viewers, even as successive waves of feminism, in the West and around the globe, have challenged the sexual politics he implies.

How do representations of the Alpha Male in love differ across national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries? How have they changed across the past century, responding to historically- and regionally-specific shifts in gender roles and ideals? What happens to the Alpha Male hero when he stars in a romantic comedy, as opposed to a drama or melodrama? How much can we use this iconic figure to track the power of the female gaze or women’s desires, as has been done with the Alpha Male hero of popular romance fiction, given the fact that men continue to predominate in the writing and direction of the films (as opposed to the overwhelmingly female authorship and audience for romance novels)?

This area, comprising multiple panels, welcomes papers and panel proposals that examine all forms and genres of films featuring “Alpha” protagonists in love, as well as films which challenge, revise, or subvert the conventions surrounding this character. Possibilities include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

• Sheiks, Captains, Emperors, (The Sheik, Persuasion, Jodhaa Akbar)

• Alpha Male meets Alpha Female (The Thomas Crown Affair [1999], Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

• Austen’s Alpha: Darcy and his Descendants (Pride and Prejudice)

• Sink Me! He’s an Alpha in Disguise! (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro)

• Alpha / Beta Reversals and Alter-Egos (Rab Ne Bana di Jodi, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na)

• Suspicious Minds: the Alpha Criminal and Detective (Devil in a Blue Dress, The Big Sleep, Breathless)

• Athlete Alphas (Love & Basketball, Bull Durham)

• Alpha Lovers in Space (Han Solo, James T. Kirk)

• You’ve Got Male: Alphas in “Chick Flicks”

Please send your 200-word proposal by e-mail to the area chair:

Eric Murphy Selinger
Associate Professor
Dept. of English
DePaul University
802 West Belden Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614 (email submissions preferred)

Panel proposals for up to four presenters are also welcome, but each presenter must submit his or her own paper proposal.
The photo of the cover of Marquis W. Child and Douglass Cater's Ethics in a Business Society was taken by cdrummbks and was made available at Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.