Friday, February 25, 2011

Paper Topics, part 1

Eric here!

I'm currently teaching an upper-division (advanced undergraduate) course on popular romance fiction at DePaul: my 20th course on the genre, or something like that. We're reading a half-dozen novels over the quarter, loosely grouped under three broad topics: "Romance and Patriarchy," "Romance and Religion," and "Romance and Aesthetics." The novels, in order, are:
Jennifer Crusie, Welcome to Temptation
Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down
Francine Rivers, Redeeming Love
Alex Beecroft, False Colors
Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer
I've taught all of these before, except for the Rivers--which was, I should say, a huge hit in the classroom, teaching extremely well in conjunction with Lynn Neal's book Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction and with Catherine Roach's essay, "Getting a Good Man to Love," published in the first issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

I thought it might be interesting for those of you not taking the class to see the sorts of paper topics my students have to grapple with.

In my next post, I'll give you the topics for paper #2, which focused on Rivers, Beecroft, or Herendeen. The first set of paper topics were focused on our first pair of novels--the Crusie and the Dahl. The paper was to be 6-8 pages long, double-spaced, in 11 or 12 point type, "with a clear line of argument throughout" (heh). Here are the options I offered:
1. As we discussed in class, Jennifer Crusie’s novel Welcome to Temptation can be read as a response to claims by first-generation romance scholars about the romance genre. Ideas from Janice Radway, in particular, seem to appear in the narrative; it may be that ideas from other early critics, like Tania Modleski and Ann Barr Snitow, can be seen there as well. Write an essay on Welcome to Temptation as a response to one or more of these critics. Does it offer a counter-theory of its own, perhaps connected to Crusie’s own ideas about the genre? Be sure to draw on specific passages from both the primary and secondary texts to make your case.

2. Starting in the the late 1990s, Jennifer Crusie set about defending the romance genre in a variety of academic and popular venues. Read the essays on the genre gathered on her website, and write an essay on Welcome to Temptation that shows how this novel illustrates (or does not illustrate, in some interesting way) this romance author’s theory of her genre, both as art and as feminist practice.

3. As we noticed in class discussion, Welcome to Temptation is a pervasively allusive and citational text. Crusie’s characters (and perhaps her narrator as well) quote from, mention, or echo movies, Dusty Springfield songs, and other material from popular culture; the novel also echoes or invokes canonical texts, including the Bible and, arguably, such 19th-century authors of American “romance” as Hawthorne and Poe. For your paper, please choose one of these sets of allusions and explore its importance to and implications for our reading the novel. OR, if you prefer, write an essay on what this pervasive citational quality suggests about the ideas that this novel embodies about romance fiction, romance reading, and / or romantic love.

4. In her essay, “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” Catherine Roach discusses popular romance novels as, among other things, the promulgators of “erotic faith.” With her essay in mind, consider the dialogue with Christianity that we found in Welcome to Temptation, particularly the novel’s revisions of such topoi as temptation, the fall, the devil, knowledge (of good and evil, or of something else). Don’t forget the characters’ names! What exactly is the theology of this novel of “erotic faith”? How does it compare to or contrast with the ideas articulated by Roach?

5. In our early discussions of Wendell and Tan's Beyond Heaving Bosoms, many of you were interested in the recurring hero and heroine character types to be found in popular romance fiction. Choosing either Welcome to Temptation or Talk Me Down—or, if you prefer, working by comparison and contrast—discuss how Crusie and / or Dahl work with these conventions to construct either the romance hero or the romance heroine. Feel free to think about how the male or female lead of the novel is set off by contrasting characters; for example, how might Molly and Brenda compare to the heroine / villainess pairs found in “old-school” romance novels, in the BHB description?

6. As we discussed in class, both Welcome to Temptation and Talk Me Down can be read as metafiction: romance novels about popular romance fiction, its readers, its effects on readers, and its reputation. What, though, does this reading illuminate in each novel, either as idea or as artistry? How can we use this approach to make each novel as interesting as possible? Choose one novel and read it through this lens; or, if you prefer, compare and contrast the novels as metafiction, with an eye to their differences at the levels of idea and / or artistry.

7. As we discussed in class, both Welcome to Temptation and Talk Me Down are concerned with the shifting, complex relationships between the world of our desires—fantasy, fiction, hope, romance—and the world of “reality,” which is often (though perhaps not always) a grimmer, more frightening, more frustrating, more disappointing place. Several scholars and defenders of the genre, including Tania Modleski, Janice Radway, and Catherine Roach, have discussed it in terms of “wish-fulfillment,” a “reparation fantasy,” a “safe space” in which anxieties and ambivalent feelings can be assuaged or healed; others, including Jennifer Crusie, have insisted that “romance fiction is reality fiction.” Choose one of the two novels and trace the evolving relationships between fantasy and reality in the book, with an eye to how these may shift from the start of the novel to the end. If you wish, you may try to extrapolate a theory about the genre more generally from your text; however, you do not need to do so.

8. Some of our most interesting discussions so far have circled back to the enduring debate over what it might mean to talk about romance fiction as “porn for women”: a debate that is re-opened rather explicitly (no pun intended) by each of our first two novels. Drawing on Snitow’s original essay, on Berlant and Warner’s essay “Sex in Public,” on contemporary debates about porn culture, “sex-positive feminism,” and feminist porn (did you know there are “Feminist Porn Awards”), write an essay on one or both of our first two novels. What do Crusie and / or Dahl suggest about the status of popular romance fiction as “porn for women,” or about what is at stake in the debate itself? How might ideas from outside the romance / romance scholarship community (i.e., the discussions of heteronormativity in Berlant or others) illuminate the explorations and the “policing” of female desire and sexuality in one or both of these novels?

9. E-Curious variation: using the same texts and topics, compare and contrast Dahl’s Talk Me Down, published in print by HQN, with The Wicked West, published only in ebook form and written at a double remove (by Dahl as Molly as Holly). How do the explorations and limitations differ when Dahl steps into the (perhaps) more open genre of “erotic romance” and into the (perhaps) more open arena of electronic publishing? How do the texts differ in their negotiations with heteronormativity?

10. Having read two romance novels, several of you wanted to discuss the differences that you saw between Crusie and Dahl in terms of literary complexity, writing style, “fun,” and other aesthetic categories. For this essay, use your subjective response to these contrasting authors to explore their contrasting aesthetics. Rather than rank the novels against some ostensibly neutral or objective rubric—good writing does X; good books do Y; good authors don’t (but I do)—try to identify the contrasting goals or projects of the two texts, and describe the way each author’s style and / or structure helps her achieve that goal. (For example, if you notice one or both of these authors using stock language or trying to provoke stock responses in the reader, don’t assume that these are always bad things, as creative writing workshop leaders often suggest. Rather, think about how and why each author might deploy them, in the particular context, and what that might tell us about the text.)

11. One of the topics that quite interested a few of you in the first few days of class was the Smart Bitches’ account of the sexual education—and miseducation—provided by popular romance novels. Each of the novels we have read so far might be read as a didactic text, one that aims to correct earlier romance pedagogy and teach its own sexual curriculum. Looking closely at one or both of our novels, what exactly does this didactic project look like in practice? What corrections to previous romance tropes do we find? What lessons are taught, either explicitly or implicitly? Given the themes of the novel, why might we see precisely these scenes of instruction, in this order? Feel free to move from this specifically sexual topic into a broader consideration of the novel (or novels) as didactic art. What else does the text seem bent on teaching its readers, and how is that lesson conveyed?


  1. I am... er... interested in hearing how the idea of an "interesting" argument or claim gets conveyed in this class. I'll be teaching Popular Romance Fiction this fall, but it's a general education course (no prerequisites), offering credit in three general education categories in our curriculum: textual analysis, multicultural US, and social, cultural, and historical understanding. The idea of "interesting" will be key.

  2. What an [interesting] question!

    I don't define the term, now that you ask.

    I do give a little speech at the start of class about the fact that other English courses tend to treat books or poems which generations of critics have declared to be "interesting," so that students are expected to find a complex coherence in their patterns of action and imagery, or their structural logic, or a surprising incoherence in these, or an engagement with ideas, or an engagement with history, or psychological perspicacity, etc.

    In a course on popular romance, they might be tempted to swing the other way, and dismiss the texts as simplistic or banal, in order to prove their own intellectual or aesthetic or political superiority to them.

    (They've often been coached to despise the genre, I remind them, either implicitly or explicitly. I have a colleague who asks his students how many have read a Harlequin romance. When some raise their hands--including all of my own students--he tells them they "should be ashamed of themselves.")

    I do try to model for them what "making a book interesting" looks like, from some mix of aesthetic, psychological, socio-political, historical, and philosophical perspectives. Often this is a matter of making connections: connections within a book, scene to scene and passage to passage, so that patterns emerge; connections between the book and some other set of ideas or body of knowledge.

    I'm still working on my first cup of coffee this morning, so I'm not sure that clarified much. If I think of other things I say or do, I'll post them!

  3. I want to read all of these. Eric, you're the best.

  4. Thanks, Jenny! That class was a blast to teach--for the first time, a critical mass of Women's / Gender Studies students, who took the discussions to a whole new level.