A few days ago I posted the first round of paper topics for ENG 386, my current course on popular romance fiction. Those topics focused on our first two novels, Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation and Victoria Dahl's Talk Me Down. The second round of paper topics focused on the next three novels in the mix, each of which dealt in some way with the relationships between romance and religion. (No, we didn't read Frye's The Secular Scripture. One of these days.)
My other concern with these topics, as you'll see, was to make sure that my students did some close textual analysis. A number of the first set of papers found it hard to work closely with the works they chose, as though it were difficult for students to bring their usual novel-reading skills to bear on a popular text. Easier--all too easy--to paint characters or scenes in broad strokes, but in so doing, students often wrote papers without the nuance or insight that they clearly are capable of in other contexts.
Anyway, here are the topics.
1. In class, we spent some time discussing the epigraphs in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love: those brief quotations from Shakespeare, the Bible, various poets, and other sources that open the book and then each chapter in it. Why are these there? What uses do they serve? Choose three of these epigraphs and write an essay about the relevance or importance of that epigraph to the chapter that it opens, or to how we read the book as a whole. Please note that to do this, you may need to look up the original context of the quoted passage, or think about its author and source.
2. One of the most striking passages in Redeeming Love comes at the end of chapter 30, when Sarah has a dream / vision and finally finds faith. Write an essay that gives a “close reading” of this passage, attending both to the details of her dream and to their sequence: what happens first, second, third, and last. What meanings and implications—about her character, about theology, about her relationship with Michael, or about the romance novel itself—can you tease out of those details? How successful is this passage emotionally and / or aesthetically, and why?
3) As we discussed in class, the world of False Colors is filled with violence and dehumanization: bodies and souls that are wounded, tortured, killed, or stunted by lack of love. There are many ways that we can understand all this violence, for example politically, as an expression of what patriarchy does to bodies, both female and male, philosophically, as a denial of victims’ humanity, psychologically, as an expression of repressed sexual desires, or even theologically, as an expression of fallen human cruelty, as opposed to divine grace or love. Write an essay on the novel that explores violence and its opposite—love and tenderness—from at least one of these perspectives. Be sure to focus, at least in part, on the final chapters of the novel, in which we see forgiveness, love, and sexual pleasure in action. Be sure to discuss passages in detail, attending to language and imagery, rather than simply discussing plot twists.
4) In a recent set of comments at the Teach Me Tonight blog (following the post "Are You a Ruthless Woman?"), a commenter named Angel observed that “there's discussion in fandom about how slash fiction written by women often focuses more on penis-in-anus penetrative sex, forgetting that gay men have a variety of sexual practices, and that some men simply don't like anal. I think maybe that's a byproduct of the cultural messages surrounding penis-in-vagina sex.” For this paper, go and read the comment thread (following useful links as necessary), and then bring the ideas from it about the symbolic meanings attached to various sexual practices to bear on ONE of the following topics:
Remember, if you choose this topic, that you’re not simply trying to find and list the scenes themselves. Rather, you’re trying to use ideas from the comment thread to interpret the scenes and their importance in the novels, teasing out the symbolic (or other) implications of them. Feel free to disagree with the ideas you find in your on-line reading, and to bring up alternative sources or interpretations as needed.
- the sequencing of sex scenes in False Colors, with particular attention to the final chapter; OR
- the variety of sex scenes, sexual practices, and sexual orientations on display in Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander; OR
- a comparison and contrast of the two novels.
5) As we saw in class, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander quotes, cites, and echoes a variety of precursors, including material from Shakespeare, the Bible, and Jane Austen (among others). Choose a small number of these earlier texts—a single allusion, the various sonnets, the closing Biblical passage from Proverbs—and write an essay on its importance to the scene in which it appears and / or to the novel as a whole. You may need to think about both the cited / quoted material itself, and about the cultural reputation of the source.
6) One of the structural features we have noticed about popular romance novels—it may show up in other genres as well—is the deployment of repetition and variation. Scenes and motifs, phrases or images recur, and the differences between the first and second (or even third) iterations of the material can be used to mark the evolution of a character, a relationship, or an idea in the text. Choose ONE of our three most recent novels where you notice a repeated / variety scene or motif, and write an essay on how the author uses repetition and variation in this artful way. What does she dramatize or enact for us, as readers, through her use of this device?