Sunday, October 31, 2010

RWA Research Grant Opportunity!

The Romance Writers of America have announced their seventh annual Research Grant competition, with a December 1, 2010 deadline for proposals. You can apply for up to $5,000 USD in support--that's a major grant, in my book: more than equal to what I'd make in a summer of teaching at DePaul.

This grant had a transformational effect on my own work, and on the current wave of contemporary romance scholarship. Sarah S. G. Frantz, founder of IASPR, was a previous recipient; Catherine Roach and Pam Regis, both of whom appear in the first issue of JPRS, have also received support. So did Jayashree Kamble, whose dissertation on popular romance is a tremendously useful resource--when my students ask about romance covers, I send them to her chapter!

You can find a full list of previous recipients on the RWA site, if you want a sense of just how varied the projects have been. If you're reading this, your work would probably fit. If you've applied in the past, and haven't received the award, go for it again. The mix of applicants is different every year, and there's no way to know how your project will look a second time around.

Here's an excerpt of the description at the RWA site:
Romance Writers of America announces the seventh annual Research Grant competition. The grant program seeks to develop and support academic research devoted to genre romance novels, writers, and readers. Appropriate fields of specialization include but are not limited to: anthropology, communications, cultural studies, education, English language and literature, gender studies, linguistics, literacy studies, psychology, rhetoric, and sociology. Proposals in interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary studies are welcome. The ultimate goal of proposals should be significant publication in major journals or as a monograph from an academic press. RWA does not fund creative work (such as novels or films).

RWA's review committee, which includes academics with doctorates, makes grant recipient recommendations to the RWA Board of Directors. RWA will fund one or more grants up to a total amount of $5,000. Funds will be calculated/awarded in U.S. dollars. Individual applicants may request up to the total amount. The research grant(s) are intended to support direct research costs associated with the project, including travel, but not equipment.

RWA retains the right to award less than a proposal’s budget, or less than the total amount designated for the competition, should the review committee so recommend.


The objectives of the program are:
  1. To support theoretical and substantive academic research about genre romance texts and literacy practices.
  2. To encourage a well-informed public discourse about genre romance texts and literacy practices.

The RWA Research Grant Program is open to faculty at accredited colleges and universities, independent scholars with significant publication records, and dissertation candidates who have completed all course work and qualifying exams. No candidate need be a member of the RWA.

Criteria for Selection:

Preference will be given to scholars with a distinguished record of research and publication. In addition, criteria for evaluation are:
  1. The significance of the proposed research
  2. The definition, organization, clarity, and scope of the research proposal.
  3. The quality or promise of the candidate.
  4. Likelihood of timely completion of the proposed research
If you have any questions, you can ask the RWA or get in touch with us previous winners. We're a friendly bunch, as a rule.

Good luck!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Teaching the Romance Genre: Eric Selinger

Issue 35 of the French-language romance webzine Les Romantiques is now out (in a Flip/Flash version and as a pdf) and it includes an article on various men who read romance novels. One of them is Teach Me Tonight's Eric Selinger. If you want to find out more about how Eric became a romance reader, or the various categories into which he places critics of the genre, you'll have to read the original article. But for those who prefer to read in English, here's an English version of what Eric told them about the courses on the romance genre which he's taught at DePaul University.

As of this fall, I’ve taught about twenty courses on the genre, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels—everything from historical surveys (usually starting with E. M. Hull’s The Sheik) to courses on romance since the 1990s to single-author seminars. (I’m teaching a 10-week interdisciplinary seminar right now on Laura Kinsale’s brilliant novel Flowers from the Storm.) Every one of these courses has gotten a wonderful reception both from students (who fill them up whenever they’re offered) and from my colleagues, who seem interested and spread the word to their own students as well. I’m sure there are schools out there where a course like mine would be resisted by faculty or by the administration, but DePaul has been very supportive.

Now, it may well be that I get this response because I’m a man teaching the course, or because I already had a good track record teaching more traditional courses (modern poetry, etc.). But I don’t think so. I know that romance novelist Lauren Willig recently taught an undergraduate seminar on historical romance at Yale, and it was very well received. My hunch is that the times have changed, and the impact of cultural studies on the American academy has opened this door quite wide—it’s just a matter now of having faculty walk through it.

Most of the students in my courses have been women. At first I’d have no men at all, or only one or two. Slowly, though, that’s begun to change. Last spring I had eleven men in my senior seminar on romance, which was almost 1/3 of the class. None of them had read romance before, but a few really came to enjoy it, and would shoot me emails during the term to ask for recommendations. (I had one gay student who wanted me to suggest some m/m paranormal romances, which I found very amusing—he was delighted to discover how many subgenres there were, and to realize that if he wanted to read something, it was probably out there!)

As a rule, my students love the course, and have very positive reactions to it. Many go on to be regular romance readers, and many find this course an opportunity to connect with female relatives—mothers, aunts, grandmothers—who are already readers. Even the ones who don’t go on to be readers have a newfound respect for the genre, and they begin to notice how often it’s made fun of in the media or by other professors. (I have one colleague who’s had to change his usual pitch about how much better literary fiction is than genre fiction, because my students started objecting and telling him, “That’s not what Prof. Selinger says.”)

The authors I teach will vary from course to course, and a lot of authors I’ve only taught one or two times, but the most frequent ones recently would be:

E. M. Hull (The Sheik)
Georgette Heyer
Victoria Holt
Kathleen Woodiwiss
Nora Roberts
Laura Kinsale
Loretta Chase
Jennifer Crusie
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Beverly Jenkins
Suzanne Brockmann
J. R. Ward
Alex Beecroft (author of the wonderful m/m romance False Colors)
Ann Herendeen (Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander)
Victoria Dahl

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jessica's Undying Success

This Friday Jessica, of Read React Review, gave a paper on "The Undead in Bioethics and Vampire Fiction" to "an annual conference put on by the largest bioethics organization in the US." In her paper Jessica suggested that popular fiction is "fertile ground" for bioethicists. Indeed, popular fiction about vampires may be
the one place in our culture where people are reading and talking and thinking about death. About what it takes to be dead. About how we figure out who is dead. About whether there are nearly dead states that are enough like true death to count. About organ and tissue donation. Etc. [...] I used the image of Bella’s dream about being an old lover to an eternally 17 year old Edward to suggest that questions about what happily ever after means in the context of immortal love might be one way that women think about death.
I was delighted to learn that her paper was received extremely favourably:
The response from the audience was really terrific, and also from the editors of two journals in this subfield of bioethics, who approached me afterwards. I was especially gratified that one of them told me he agrees completely that we need to be working on popular fiction across the genres. A medical anthropologist asked me be an outside reader for one of her PhD students who is writing on vampire folklore and medicine, and a med school professor told me he now plans to begin his unit on death by discussing vampires. I couldn’t be more pleased with that response.
Jessica's post about her paper can be found at her blog.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Goodbye, Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson, who died on Wednesday,
followed two separate paths: as a writer of romance fiction and as a writer of witty and imaginative ghost stories for young adults. Her romance novels include A Countess Below Stairs (1981) and Magic Flutes (1982), which was chosen as the best romance novel in Britain for the year 1983 by the Romance Novelists Association [sic]. [...] She says: "After years of writing magazine stories and books for children, I am trying hard to break down the barrier between 'romantic novels' and 'serious novels' which are respectfully reviewed. My aim is to produce books that are light, humorous, even a little erudite but secure in their happy endings. One could call it an attempt to write, in words, a good Viennese waltz!" (Writer's Almanack)
As far as I can recall, the first novel I read by Ibbotson was one of her children's novels: Which Witch? (1979). It contains a number of elements which would later appear, in more muted form, in many of her works for adults: there's a good and resourceful but poor heroine who helps almost everyone with whom she comes into contact, her beautiful but bad female rival for the hero, and the rich hero himself. Belladonna is a white witch, while Arriman is a wizard specialising in black magic who works hard at "blighting and smiting, blasting and wuthering and doing everything he could to keep darkness and sorcery alive in the land" (9). The scene in which Arriman first sees her reads to me like an affectionate parody of romantic fiction:
Belladonna was sitting up in bed. The sun, streaming through the East Window, had turned her hair into a shower of gold; her eyes were bright with happiness and blue as a summer sky and she was singing a sweet and foolish little song: the kind with roses in it and springtime and love. Rather a lot of love.
Arriman stood stock-still in the doorway, unable to move.
"Who ... is this?" he stammered.
"That is Belladonna, sir. [...]"
Belladonna, meanwhile, was gazing rapturously at Arriman, her heart in her eyes. This was the closest she had ever been to him and she was drinking in the flaring nostrils, the tufty ears, the curve of his noble nose.
"Belladonna!" said the magician, stepping forward. His voice throbbed, his eyes burnt and his chest heaved like a pair of bellows. (142-143)
Arriman's servant Lester is reminded "how absolutely ridiculous people sounded when they were in love" (144) and Ibbotson was clearly well aware of how easily romance itself could slip over into the ridiculous. Her own romance novels, however, did not, and Anne Gracie, who interviewed her in 2009 for the Word Wenches site, has described Ibbotson's "adult romances" as
superb — and not "teenage novels" at all (which is how the publishers are now marketing them— I presume because there are no sex scenes.) Her stories are wonderfully textured, heartwarming and, to quote another Word Wench, "they have a magical blend of wit, sweetness, and emotion."
Ibbotson was
Born in 1925, she came to Britain from Vienna in 1933 with her father Berthold Wiesner, a brilliant physiologist who had a job in Edinburgh University. [...]

In 1934, Eva's adored mother arrived in Britain: Anna Gmeyner, a charismatic and beautiful Jewish writer who had worked with Brecht and written film scripts for Pabst. Already separated from her husband and now living with an aristocratic Russian philosopher, Anna set up house in Belsize Park, North London. "After that, I used to travel between the two households, both occupied by glamorous and worldly parents who were each lousy about not criticising the other in my presence. My response was to try to ingratiate myself with both." (Tucker)
She spent some time at
the progressive boarding school, Dartington, to which she was sent after a period being shuttled between her separated parents.

Ibbotson described this period of her childhood as "cosmopolitan but unhappy" and she attributed to it her desire for happy endings in which her characters always find a home. She explained in a recent interview, "my mother wrote film scripts and worked in Berlin and my father was a scientist and worked in Edinburgh and my grandparents lived in Vienna and I was always on some large train going about and wishing I had a home. So when I came to write, consciously or unconsciously I always had to make things right for the hero or the heroine". (Pauli, "Children's")
Ibbotson's happy endings weren't just wish fulfillment, though, and her
fictional happy endings came relatively late in life: she was busy with real-life ones for the first part of her adulthood. A degree and postgraduate study in physiology at Cambridge University, inspired by a mistaken desire to follow in her father's footsteps, proved to be a "complete disaster" – except for a meeting with the man she would spend the next 49 years of her life with, an ecologist called Alan Ibbotson. [...] A post for her husband at Newcastle University took Ibbotson to the city [...], and she was kept occupied providing her four children with the settled childhood she never had. (Pauli, "Eva")
When interviewed in 2001, she stated that
I wrote my last book for adults, Song for Summer, four years ago. Before that, I used to write books for adults and children alternately, and I found that this worked well. But after my husband died, I found myself turning more to children's books (Grant).
Some of her books for adults fit the strict definition of a "romance" more closely than others. I have listed them below, with links to reviews:

A Countess Below Stairs (1981, reissued as The Secret Countess in 2007) [reviews: AAR, Dear Author, The Book Smugglers]

Magic Flutes (1982, reissued as The Reluctant Heiress in May 2009) [reviews: AAR, I Read Romance, The Cultural Gutter]

A Company of Swans (1985) [reviews: AAR, Jennie's B(ook)log]

Madensky Square (1988) [reviews: AAR, Jennie's B(ook)log]

The Morning Gift (1993) [reviews: Avid Book Reader, The Compulsive Reader]

A Song for Summer (1997) [reviews: The Bookworm Chronicles, The Compulsive Reader, TRR]


Monday, October 18, 2010

Fan Fiction and Romance

Earlier this year, K. A. Laity wrote a guest post for Teach Me Tonight about Joanna Russ and slash fiction and since I recently came across Katherine Morrissey's 2008 MA dissertation, "Fanning the Flames of Romance: An Exploration of Fan Fiction and the Romance Novel," I thought I'd return to the topic. Morrissey found that
The majority of popular stories, the pieces of fan fiction which participants identified as their favorites, were nearly all focused on romantic stories. More significantly, most of these stories featured slash pairings. This differed from the broader reading practices reported by fans. When asked about their overall preferences, participants said that they read similar amounts of the major story types (specifically het, slash, and gen) and a smaller group of readers read femslash or lesbian focused stories. [...] While fans may be open to reading across categories, favorite stories, the ones readers return to and remember, were nearly all focused on male homosexual romance. This contrasts significantly with the focus on heterosexual pairings and female protagonists found in romance novels. (62)
This is something of a generalisation, given the long history of lesbian romance novels and the recent flourishing of m/m romance. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that heterosexual pairings do continue to dominate the romance genre. Morrissey also found that despite the fact that "Romantic themes nearly always had a presence" in fan fiction, "most fans did not read romance novels. If they did, fan fiction stories were read more. For this population, fan fiction's approach to romance has significantly greater appeal" (78). Morrissey therefore compares and contrasts fan fiction with romance novels in order to answer the question "When fan fiction is examined side-by-side with romance novels, what are the textual similarities and differences that emerge in these romantic stories?" (2).

While it may be entirely correct to state that "Fan fiction and romance novels constitute two bodies of romantic literature being produced for and by women within dramatically different environments" (ii), direct comparisons between the two are somewhat problematic inasmuch as romance novels are not representative of all "romantic literature being produced for and by women" in the commercial fiction environment. If one were to seek out an area of commercial fiction which is comparable to romantic fan fiction, one should perhaps include all the commercial genres "produced for and by women," including "family sagas" of the kind written by Catherine Cookson, women's fiction, chick lit, the "bonkbuster," and "‘erotic fiction for women by women’ as exemplified by Virgin Publishing’s Black Lace imprint" (Sonnet)1 or Harlequin's Spice imprint:
engrossing stories about women's lives, experiences and relationships, woven through with several explicit sex scenes that have context within the plot. We expect writers to be graphic—using the kind of frank language typical of the genre—as well as daring, exploring any and all sexual situations, even ones considered "taboo." [...] Spice Books are not traditional romances, nor do they require a happily-ever-after ending.
Despite the fact that Morrissey mentions Harlequin's Spice imprint, she nonetheless draws a distinction between romances and fan fiction based on
the fan's traditional comfort with the sexual content of their romance narratives. While romance novels have historically been careful to place sexual encounters within marriage (or the promise of an inevitable marriage), fan fiction textors [i.e. the creators of fan fiction] and readers happily produce stories in which sex may be enjoyed in a variety of circumstances and often write about sexual encounters without a larger courtship narrative accompanying them. (18)
By contrast, she suggests that romances,
By encoding sexuality and desire within marriage, motherhood, and heterosexuality, [...] adhere to dominant social norms and constrain the diversity of sexualities and practices represented. Readers seeking more explicit and open sexual texts may go directly to the erotica genre of literature instead. However, as erotic texts for women establish themselves and loosen social stigmas, romance publishers also adapt, as is indicated by their increased focus on erotic romance. (51)
However, not all romances encode "sexuality and desire within marriage, motherhood, and heterosexuality" and some people may choose to read erotica not "instead" of romance, but in addition to it.

Morrissey seems to hold certain basic assumptions which I think require a little bit more nuance. For example, Morrissey concludes that
Romance novels provide readers with fantasy experiences and an escape to happier or more exciting realities. The goal of these fantasy experiences is immersion. [...] While placing stories in historic settings or fantasy worlds far removed from a reader's daily life is an important method for initiating immersion into romantic fantasies, two additional storytelling techniques, focusing on food and costuming, cement this process and connect the reader's body to the heroine's. (48-49)
This seems to assume that female readers closely identify with the heroine and/or she becomes in a sense a "placeholder" into which they can insert themselves in order to share her experiences. This may be true for many readers but as I've mentioned before, it isn't true for me and I suspect I can't be the only one who adopts a more "fly on the wall" perspective. Indeed, Morrissey herself later writes that "The heroine may traditionally be offered as an identification point in romance novels but readers can choose to identify with the hero, both characters, or do something entirely different" (98-99).

The existence of romances about friends who become lovers and marriages in trouble seems to call into question Morrissey's assertion that
In romance novels, protagonists begin as strangers to each other. They may have been acquainted in the past, or in passing, but there is always sense of two individuals seeing and approaching each other for the first time. Contrasting this, in Stealing Harry, the two leads are life-long friends. (90)
It may well be true, as Morrissey states, that the most popular fan fictions
are significantly longer than most romance novels. They are also ongoing, updated over the course of years, another noticeable difference from romance novels, which typically focus on a romantic couple once and then move on. These contrasts with romance novels suggest that fan fiction readers may be looking for alternatives to romantic conventions, as well as more variety in the types of romance they consume. (64)
This does, however, seem to ignore the many romance series that exist, in which protagonists from previous novels in a series reappear as secondary characters in another, or secondary characters from one book are transformed into the protagonists of later ones. In addition, there are also series in which a single romance arc extends over various novels: J. D. Robb's In Death books, for example, are very popular with many romance readers, as are Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels, and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.

Morrisey goes on to state that
Romance novels end with established, monogamous relationships. Partners marry, build homes together and create families, moving onto another stage in their lives. At the end of most romance novels, a relationship is permanent. (81)
whereas fan fictions
balance happiness and progress with a sense of realism. The message is that relationships are hard, they require work, but the characters are probably still up to the task. These less utopian endings present relationships a little bit closer to those in the real world. (84-85)
However, given that many people in the "real world" do form permanent romantic relationships, "marry, build homes together and create families," is the fact that romance protagonists also do these things really an indication of a lack of realism?

Morrissey also contrasts romances with fan fictions on the basis of statements made by
Commercial romance authors and defenders Ann Maxwell and Jayne Ann Krentz [who] discuss several traditional romance novel story types in their article, "The Wellsprings of Romance," and critique what they identify as two emerging modern hero archetypes or myths, the "househusband" and the "Alan Alda clone." One is a homemaker, the other a supportive partner and listener. Maxwell and Krentz acknowledge that these characters may have some attraction to readers, but issue a caution, "[...] these myths lack an ingredient that is vital to popular fiction: conflict." (85)
Morrissey therefore concludes that
The presence and popularity of fan fiction stories incorporating [...] more balanced, less aggressive and dominant characters challenge Maxwell and Krentz's assertion that these protagonists do not provide the right dynamics to entertain their readers. It is not that they stories lack conflict, as they suggest, the textors have just found different character journey's to build stories and relationships around. In many of the slash stories dramatic tension is connected to sexuality and societal expectations, in others the story setting and plot provide the characters with their challenge. [...]
The popularity of these different stories is an important reminder that the heroic alpha-male character does not hold romantic appeal to all readers. Instead, readers are interested [in] various depictions of masculinity. Stories can be written about partnership, family building, and a couple's growing understanding and connection through communication as well as conflict and power struggles. This does not mean that fan fiction stories cannot also play with power and control. Neither does it mean that conflict will not exist between two protagonists. It simply means that romance is not being limited to one particular relationship type. Again, within fan fiction stories, the romance formula is being broadened and diversified. (88-89)
I would suggest alpha male heroes don't appeal to all romance readers either, and that the reason Maxwell and Krentz were so trenchant in their statements was due to the fact that, at the time they were writing, there had been an increase in the genre of "hero archetypes" other than the alpha male which these authors preferred. Their statements, then, can perhaps be read as evidence that the romance genre itself is "diversified." I would go further, and claim that it has never been "limited to one particular relationship type": the beta hero
is not a recent invention. Edward Ferrars in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is
too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart […]. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (Vivanco and Kramer)
It should be acknowledged that Morrissey is aware both of some of the limitations of her source material, and of the dangers of generalising about genres which include vast numbers of texts:
The difficulty in writing about entire categories of literature is that there are always so many more topics to be discussed. For every generalizing statement, there are further contradictions to be accounted for or explained. Thousands of romance novels are published each year and a seemingly infinite amount of fan fiction stories are available online and off. Only a small sample of romance novels and fan fiction could be examined for this project. (105)
I suspect that Morrissey's conclusions are far stronger when they focus solely or primarily on fan fiction: they are based not only on a reading of a selection of primary and secondary sources but also on her survey of fan fiction readers which "received nearly 1000 responses in the first twenty-four hours alone and this pace remained steady throughout the two-week process. At close, the survey had 7,748 participants" (58). As mentioned, she discovered that "The majority of popular stories, the pieces of fan fiction which participants identified as their favorites, were nearly all focused on romantic stories. More significantly, most of these stories featured slash pairings" (62). She also discovered that "Most of [the] survey population was younger that that of romance novel readers. The majority of survey participants were eighteen, but the dominant age group ranged between eighteen and twenty-eight years of age" (65). It is probable that there are younger readers and writers of fan fiction who were excluded from the survey, since it stated that "You may NOT participate in this survey if you are under 18 years of age. By completing this survey you acknowledge that you are OVER 18 years of age" (109). She also found that there was a "near complete absence of men within the survey population" (66) and that while "The majority of the survey population was [...] heterosexual (68%), [...] over a quarter of the group identified as bisexual or homosexual (23% bisexual, 4% homosexual)" (66).

With regards to the content of the fan fictions, Morrissey claims that "without the publishing industry as a dominant gatekeeper, textors are able to engage in greater experimentation with story structure" (76). She gives as an example "the most popular [of the fan fictions mentioned in her survey,] Speranza's Written by the Victors (Stargate Atlantis) uses an innovative story structure. This story is presented in two formats. Half of it is told through excerpts from fictitious articles, book reviews, and academic debates, the other half is traditional fiction" (80). She also mentions that
As a form of literature now produced primarily online, fan fiction textors are taking greater advantage of the opportunities digital creation provides. There is a long history or fan art and video creation within fan communities. Now, these objects can be combined with stories to enhance the reading experience. Images and artifacts are created in photoshop to develop stories further. Textors do not need to limit themselves to describing a character's apartment, they may now link to pictures of it, and to the coffee shop down the street. Stories constructed in smaller sections can be linked together into a larger story in whatever order the reader wishes to place them in. (104)
Morrissey herself suggests that "recent changes in the romance publishing industry suggest that the opportunities found online may be influencing traditional publishers as well" (104) and this does indeed seem to be the case. Publishers have begun experimenting with incorporating a variety of features into books originally written for publication in paper:
E-books of the latest generation are so brand new that publishers can’t agree on what to call them.
In the spring Hachette Book Group called its version, by David Baldacci, an “enriched” book. Penguin Group released an “amplified” version of a novel by Ken Follett last week. And on Thursday Simon & Schuster will come out with one of its own, an “enhanced” e-book version of “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein.

All of them go beyond the simple black-and-white e-book that digitally mirrors its ink-and-paper predecessor. The new multimedia books use video that is integrated with text, and they are best read — and watched — on an iPad, the tablet device that has created vast possibilities for book publishers. (Bosman)
Harlequin, too, has been experimenting with enriching ebooks:
Have you ever read something in a novel and wished you could see a picture, find a definition, or learn more about it without having to look it up? Now you can with Harlequin’s Enriched eBooks. This special electronic book is enhanced with web links to information about the setting, ceremonies, and other unique elements in Hotly Bedded, Conveniently Wedded, along with an author note, recipe, and photos from author Kate Hardy!
Morrissey also suggests that unlike romances, in which the protagonists' appearances are often described at length,
within the works of fan fiction [...] descriptive moments were primarily limited to character makeovers. [...] The absence of these scenes within fan fiction stories may be explained by fan cultures' general familiarity with the appearance of the original characters. [...] No matter what the origin, however, the importance of awe inspiring, dramatic physical beauty is diminished within many of these stories. This leads to depictions of attraction in which physical appearance has a presence, but its role is not as strong, or as consistent, as it is in romance novels. (92-93)
This seems an interesting hypothesis, and I would have been fascinated to read more about it. If any of you are fans who also read romances, I'd love to know your opinion of this point. Many fandoms are wholly or partially based on TV shows and movies, and many actors are more attractive than average so I wonder if fans may already have formed their own assessment of the actors'/characters' physical attractions. On the other hand, jennygadget has commented that slash fictions are more likely to
describe men's bodies in a more submissive and wanton way, rather than as pervasively dominating. [...] The way men's bodies are objectified in romance seems to more mirror how they are idealized in comic books.
Morrissey also speculates that fan fictions with heterosexual pairings reveal an
ongoing confusion over women's power and agency within relationships and suggest similar confusion for women in the real world.
One way of circumventing these issues is to eliminate the male/female dynamic and replace the woman with another male. Suddenly moments of aggression, parenting, empathy, action etc. do not carry with them the attachments and ramifications they have within the male/female dynamic. (87)
This is a hypothesis which might also be relevant to the study of m/m romances.

Finally, since this has been a post about slash fiction, romance and an MA thesis, I thought I would take the opportunity to mention another, but much more recent MA thesis: Meredith S. Faust's ""Love of the purest kind": Heteronormative Rigidity in the Homoerotic Fiction of Ann Herendeen" (2010), which is available online from here. To date Herendeen has had two novels published. She has stated that the first, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (2008), "was inspired both by my reading of historical romance and by [...] “slash fiction.”" However, as far as slash is concerned, Herendeen finds that
there's one aspect of them that doesn’t appeal to me: it’s all “look but don’t touch.” Here are women writing about men having sex with each other, for the delectation of women readers, but all the main characters are men and the women never get any of that action.
In her first novel, therefore, she
slashed a genre, not a specific story or set of characters. And then, I slashed the slash. I introduced the hero as gay from the beginning, and showed him in love with a man and attracted to men—that's the first slash. But then I slashed again, writing a heroine back into this all-male paradise.
Her second novel also includes both heroes and heroines, but this time she isn't slashing "a genre": her Pride / Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Forbidden Lovers (2010) is quite explicitly based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

1 Interestingly, slash fiction is known to have influenced at least one of the books published by Black Lace. In 1999 Black Lace's editor, Kerri "Sharp edited Wicked Words, a collection of erotic short stories that became the first British book to introduce slash lit to mainstream publishing" (Berens). It includes work by
Kitty Fisher. Her short story 'Shadowlight' was modified for Black Lace, but reflects the traits of slash in that it is a sci-fi narrative about an affair between two men.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gay Writes: Sarah Frantz and GLBT Romance

What does seem clear [...] is that the struggle over the romance is itself part of the larger struggle for the right to define and to control female sexuality. (Radway 17)
That was the assessment made by Janice Radway, writing in 1991 about "writers who are trying to incorporate feminist demands into the genre" (17), but it seems no less applicable to the genre today, except that nowadays the struggles related to sexuality are not solely about "female sexuality" but about a much wider range of sexualities. For example,
In what appears to be yet another line drawn in the sand between conservatives and liberals in the broader cultural debate on LGBT rights, a letter from Romance Writers of America member Janet Butler, published in the July 2006 issue of the Romance Writers Report, asks that the RWA redefine the romance genre to include only love stories between one man and one woman. [...]

In her letter, Butler responded to a letter printed in the May 2006 issue of RWR on redefining romance. She argued: “Romance isn't about just any ‘two people' celebrating ‘love in all its forms.' [...] What brought romance fiction to its present level of success is a collection of decades' worth of one-man, one-woman relationship stories, in all their richness, variety, and power. RWA should be the first to endorse that, rather than attempting to placate fringe groups trying to impose their standards upon the rest of us. If anyone's in danger of being ‘censored' here, it's believers in ‘what comes naturally': one-man, one-woman romance.” (Lo)
Dear Author isn't censoring anyone; this week it's giving away "more than 125" books with LGBT protagonists as part of its “Gay Writes” campaign. Here's Sarah Frantz, explaining why, in a video posted as part of the It Gets Better project, begun
by Dan Savage in September 2010, in response to the suicide of Billy Lucas and a number of other teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or their peers suspected that they were gay. Its goal is to prevent suicide among LGBT youth by having gay adults convey the message that these teens' lives will improve. (Wikipedia)

I was interested to find out more about Sarah's view of her role as a literary critic of the genre, and she's agreed to be interviewed for Teach Me Tonight.

Laura: In the video you say that
One of the reasons that I’ve always had faith that it would get better is because I read romance novels. Yes, romance novels, like these... with the mantitty [...] … but increasingly romance novels like these … about two women, and romance novels like these … about two guys. In fact, I love these books so much, and I’ve learned so much from them about how everyone deserves their happy ending that I’ve made a career out of them.
A lot of people would scoff at the idea that one could learn anything useful from a romance novel. Could you mention just a few of the things that readers can learn from romances?

Sarah: I have always claimed that I learned everything I know about communication in a relationship from romance novels. I learned to make sure both partners get heard, that we keep talking until no one feels resentful anymore, to make sure that both partners figure out how to talk to each other. And it's served me well for 20 years. But I have also learned that everyone deserves love, no matter their past traumas, past relationships, or how they're viewed by society. And of course, reading romance is a way to gain sexual knowledge in a way that demystifies a sexual practice. These, of course, combine to demystify all sexual identities, GLBT and BDSM.

One of the reasons for National Coming Out Day, among all the other fabulous reasons, is that the most important thing a GLBT person can do to help gay rights is to come out, because the thing that changes people's minds about gay rights more than anything else is knowing someone who is GLBT. So when the homophobes scream about how gay people in the media are normalizing the homosexual "lifestyle" and making it more acceptable to the general populace...they're absolutely right. So, GLBT romances, or GLBT characters in heterosexual romances, can expose readers to the fact that GLBT people are just people. And that's a wonderful thing to learn too.

Laura: Would you agree that "the struggle over the romance is itself part of the larger struggle for the right to define and to control sexuality"?

Sarah: Yes, but I think the opposite way Radway means it. I'm not clear whether Radway's talking about the struggle during the romance narrative, or the struggle over the romance genre itself. I'm talking about the romance genre: I think, fundamentally, romances are about female pleasure. And part of that pleasure is sexual pleasure, but it's also the pleasure of reading and the pleasure of choice. People don't tend to engage in activities they don't enjoy, that don't bring them pleasure. So romance's ability to bring pleasure to its readers is very important and, I think, utterly untheorized.

I recently had a frustrating discussion with a colleague who seems stuck in the reductive Second Wave feminist belief that all heterosexual romance must diminish female power (however that power is defined) because heterosexual romance is so deeply implicated in patriarchy. So any discussion of romance is a discussion about patriarchal power and any romance is by definition destructive. I once saw Naomi Wolf speak and as much as I might take issue with what she writes in some of her books, she had a really important thing to say. To paraphrase: "women are told that the penis is their enemy, that the penis is out to control them, but lots of women go home at night after a hard day's work thinking of the penis as their friend." Romance, in all its many forms, can be problematic, but it's something most of us in the Western world want, whether we're gay, straight, kinky, or otherwise identified. And the fight over the romance genre is one about power and choice and sexuality.

Laura: Do you see some of your literary criticism as activism?

Sarah: I absolutely do. This became very clear to me during #amazonfail. My championing of romance is a championing of the normativity of sexuality and women's pleasure. And my championing of GLBT and BDSM romance is the championing of the normativity of alternate sexual identities, and I think all that's pretty important.

Laura: You mention in the video that you started writing reviews for Dear Author "specifically to review romances about characters with alternate sexualities because [...] everyone deserves their happy ending and because there are some brilliant GLBT romance novels out there." Are you currently writing any literary criticism of some of these novels?

Sarah: Heh. Short answer: yes. I'm deep in an article on the construction of the submissive male in Joey Hill's Nature of Desire series. One of those books is a m/m romance, all of them are BDSM books. I have a not-so-secret desire to write an analysis of Anah Crow's Uneven, which is the very book for which I started writing at Dear Author, and that's a m/m book. My book project, Alpha Male: Power and Masculinity in American Popular Romance Fiction, will have a chapter on m/m romance (perhaps combined with a discussion of BDSM romance, perhaps separate from it). I feel my post on historical accuracy in m/m romance counted as a form of literary criticism, or at least literary commentary.

But yes, I plan to write about these books as often as I can, because I think it's important to the literary world to know that romances are deserving of study; I think it's important to the romance world to acknowledge that GLBT romances are a thriving, vital sub-genre, and I think it's important to let GLBT people know that there are romances out there for them, too.

Laura: Thanks very much for answering my questions, Sarah.

If you head over to Dear Author you can read more about their Gay Writes week, organised by Sarah.

  • Lo, Malinda. "A Romantic Brouhaha." AfterEllen.Com. August 16, 2006.
  • Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Soft Men? Hard Women?

In an essay I co-wrote with Kyra Kramer for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies we explored how social values are expressed through descriptions of protagonists' bodies and we noted that when the hero's penis is being described
in romances there is frequent “use of the personal pronouns — me, he, him, himself — to signify this body part […]. The seemingly unavoidable use of these pronouns is a […] curious euphemistic practice because it equates the man’s penis with the man himself” (Johnson-Kurek 119). The sentence “She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm” (Castle 172) is an example of this kind of writing: the part seems to become the whole. Conversely, when the reader is told that a hero’s body has “Long, long legs, […] a broad back that went on forever, all golden-skinned and rock-hard” (Lindsey 47), the allusion to another part of the hero that might be long, broad, and hard is not subtle.
As Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan have observed, "Heroes are never soft. They are hard. Everywhere" (94). The hardness of a hero's physique isn't just a metaphor for his sexual "hardness": it also implies that he is socially, politically, and/or physically strong. Indeed, the word "hardman" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning "a tough, aggressive, or ruthless man." Hardness, in other words, is used metaphorically to imply power of various kinds.

In her guide to romance writing, Kate Walker states that
the alpha male is strong, powerful, forceful, dynamic and successful ... add in all the rest of it - the cars, the money and the looks - and you have a romance hero. But at heart he's just a human being. [...]
If the hero is totally untouchable, how is he ever going to fall in love? What is it about the heroine that touches something in him in a way that no one has ever done before? [...] There must be a chink in his armour - the reason why he's doing something or the soft inner heart that he's trying to protect - through which your heroine can reach him. (109-110)
Softness, then, as in the phrase "soft inner heart," suggests emotional openness, and even if alpha heroes are allowed some emotional softness, softness is generally symbolically associated with heroines' bodies and their warm, nurturing personalities. The description of the soft and hard bodies is, then, often not simply a description of bodies, but also hints at the gender roles of the people whose bodies are being described.

Contrasts between a hard man and a soft women often serve to emphasise difference between the genders:
His body was rock solid against hers, complementing her softness, accentuating the fact that she was a woman and he was a man. (Carroll 43)
But are women's bodies really always softer than men's bodies? And what are the implications of a masculinity which requires constant "hardness" from someone who is "just a human being"?

The poet Richard Jeffrey Newman has been writing a series of posts titled "Fragments of Evolving Manhood" and one of them is a "slightly edited version" of "the conclusion to an essay about pornography called 'Inside The Men Inside "Inside Christy Canyon,"' that I published in 1994 in the now-defunct literary journal called 'The American Voice.'" In it he quotes a poem by Sharon Olds:
The Connoisseuse of Slugs

When I was a connoisseuse of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those gold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along the
stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out the
ends, delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery reenacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.
Olds' poem presents men, and male sexuality, as soft and easily damaged. I found it interesting how the power dynamics shift when the male, instead of having a hard shaft which he will thrust into a soft body, seems soft and vulnerable, even as he grows hard: "the sensitive knobs" never threaten the "connoisseuse of slugs," and it is she who could represents a potential threat since she knows that "they would shrivel to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt."

I don't think slug metaphors will ever become popular in the romance genre, at least not unless readers decide that slimy invertebrates which damage garden plants are romantic (and even then there might be some prejudice against them because they're hermaphrodites), but heroes are sometimes shown to be physically vulnerable, and not just because they've been temporarily injured, but because that vulnerability, that softness, is an intrinsic part of their nature as men:
His skin was surprisingly soft. She was careful to avoid the wound. Men. They thought themselves invincible with their strong bodies. They armed themselves to the teeth and clattered about in their armour, banging their shields together, riding their great horses. None of them facing the fact that underneath it all there was this, warm, soft flesh. Beautiful flesh and muscle which, while it was wholly male, remained vulnerable - male flesh could be hurt as much as it could do hurt. Men. (Townend 2009, 212)
It's also possible for a heroine to be physically hard, like her hero:
"When I first met you, I wanted to do this. I told myself that someday I would, and that when I felt your flesh for the first time, it would be as hard and firm as mine is." He allowed her breasts to fall free [...] Then both hands were spanning her ribs, sliding down into the hollow above her navel as he dipped his head low and kissed her naked shoulder. "Your skin is perfect, not soft like most women's. Whoever said soft skin was sexy? (Spencer 173)
It's probably not a coincidence that when they play racket-ball, they do so as equals: "There were men who extended the courtesy of always letting ladies serve first. It had always peeved Winn. She'd win on her own merits or not at all" (135).

  • Carroll, Marisa, 1995. Marry Me Tonight (Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin).
  • Spencer, LaVyrle, 1985. Spring Fancy (London: Mills & Boon).
  • Townend, Carol, 2009. Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Vivanco, Laura, and Kyra Kramer, 2010. “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre”, Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1.
  • Walker, Kate, 2008. Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance (Abergele: Studymates).
  • Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan, 2009. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels (New York: Fireside).

The photo came from Wikimedia Commons. Dating from 1857, it was taken by Andreas Groll and shows a suit of armour.