Saturday, December 31, 2011

A different take

Sarah's take on Laura Struves' article published by JPC is slightly different from Laura's and a lot more ranty:

I can't figure out if I'm more upset at the author or at the Journal of Popular Culture about this article. I think it's a tie, with a side-order of despair about academic publishing in the Humanities.

The author has produced yet another article about romance fiction that considers the entire romance genre to be the same -- to have the same purpose, the same outcome, the same focus, and the same manner of expression. This is yet another article astonished that romance readers aren't pathetic women who must be humored in their addiction. It hashes over the same ground in completely unoriginal ways. It's, basically, Radway updated for the internet, so the only new thing it's saying is that readers are doing exactly the same thing that Radway discovered they were doing (creating communities around their romance reading, being proactive and kickass), but now they're doing it on the internet too.

But the article doesn't consider current romance internet interactions. It does not mention Smart Bitches (started in January 2005) or Dear Author (started in April 2006). Twitter is conspicuous in its absence. As Laura says, the article talks about AAR's At the Back Fence as a current blog. It doesn't even mention RRA-L (the first romance listserv).

For example, the article claims, "Approximately fifty specific Web sites are dedicated to romantic fiction and eleven chat groups allow readers to talk to each other directly. Over 273 romance authors have sites on the Web, and more Web sites pop up daily." This sounds like something from the late 1990s. It continues, "The genre of romantic fiction is marked by a strong connection between writing and reading. Writers remain in close touch with their readers through conferences, fan mail, and the ever-expanding Internet." One thing about the connection between authors and readers that CHANGED on the internet is that it became much more direct. RRA-L was, in fact, the first place to change that, as it was a listserv to which authors and readers both posted with the same amount of authority. I was personally involved in Suzanne Brockmann's message board in 2000-2005, on which Brockmann frequently interacted with her readers. This is, in fact, where I met her and began to establish my professional relationship with her. The important thing to know is that Brockmann's message board was not unusual.

Honestly, this article feels like it was written as a seminar paper in 1997 or 1998 that applied Henry Jenkins's theories to the romance community and was then never updated for submission, but was submitted anyway. All quotes from authors in the articles, for example, were from Krentz's Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women or from AAR's ATBF in 1996 or 1997. This is unconscionable on the author's part. Giving her every benefit of the doubt, HOW could she submit, in, say, 2005 at the very very earliest an article that was written at least five years previously, without updating it? Because that's what it looks like she did. If *nothing* else, Pamela Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel was published in 2003 and would have bolstered part of the article's argument significantly.

Which brings us to the journal. JPC has, apparently, overwhelmed itself with accepted submissions, meaning there's at least a three year backlog on publishing articles after acceptance. That's their issue. They either need to raise their standards, expand their issues, or start publishing on the web like JASNA did with Persuasions. And certainly if this article is an example of the scholarship that they're putting in the very very long line for publication, then they need to raise their standards. If this was accepted in, say, 2008, that's still a full (generously) six years out of date *in 2008* (let alone how out-of-date it would be when finally published!). Peer reviewers should have caught this. Assuming a two year peer review process, there was still recent scholarship in 2006 that should have been part of the article (Regis), and there were CERTAINLY online communities that should have been discussed in an article *about* online communities that seems to have stopped its consideration of said communities in 1997 (ten years out of date for 2008 acceptance -- HOW did no one catch this?!).

But really, this says more than anything about the state of Humanities scholarship than it does about JPC (although it sure says enough there, too). JPC feels (and is not alone) that a two year peer-review process is just fine. It also feels that a three year wait between acceptance and publication is just fine, too. And then it publishes without indicating that there was, at least, a FIVE year wait between submission and publication. This is just...short-sighted, if nothing else.

The entire field of popular romance studies has changed in the last five year. IASPR was started in 2009. JPRS's first issue was in 2010.

But forget the academic field, the romance genre itself has changed in the last five years (downfall of erotic romance, switches in paranormal, rise of e- and self-publishing, demise of group author blogs). And certainly reader/author interaction has changed with the advent of Twitter and the dominance of Facebook. And while neither the author nor JPC could have anticipated *quite* how outdated the article would appear when published in 2011, talking as it is about online culture circa 1997 (almost 15 years!), the fact that academic publishing in general doesn't seem to realize that things change, dammit -- they grow and adapt and CHANGE -- is just...depressing. Is five years to publication REALLY the way to stay relevant? Do we really wonder why the Humanities are being left behind in academia by fields that can stay more relevant to modern changes?

Additional, though smaller, issues with the article that are just symptoms, I think, of the larger problem:
  • The article misspells Kathleen Woodiwiss (as Woodiweiss) and Jennifer Crusie (Cruise). The latter may be a legitimate typographical error, because I know I do it all the time when I try to type Jenny's name, but the former is not.
  • The section about covers is utterly out of date, almost a decade behind the times.
  • As is the section about the "midlist" issue -- something that's still an issue, to be sure, but has been fundamentally changed by digital publishing (started in 2000 with Ellora's Cave).
  • The section about sexuality in romances ignores the rise of the erotic romance, something that started in the late 1990s and fundamentally changed romance in the 2000s (again, also ignoring digital publishing).

Struve, Laura. “Sisters of Sorts: Reading Romantic Fiction and the Bonds Among Female Readers.” Journal of Popular Culture 44.6 (2011): 1289-1306.


  1. Great post. My tongue bled like mad when I read Laura's report yesterday so I'm happy you said all I'd say and more. Much more coherent, too! (We all know I'm the queen on incoherent rants.) Thank you.

    A gentle correction: Romance Readers Anonymous isn't the first romance listserv (certainly the longest-running and most influential romance listserv, though).

    The first would probably be RomEx-Genie (Romance & Women's Fiction Exchange on Genie Electronic Network, which became Romance Writer's Exchange on Genie Electronic Network), which was launched in either 1987 or 1988, about four years before RRA-L (approx. 1992).

    Having said all that, there were apparently two active romance BBSs (early 1980s) before RomEx-Genie. The nearest I could find is 'RomB}Imagi*Nation' (1986), but I can't tell if it was a virtual sim-universe for love-oriented players or a place for romance authors, but I do know that it folded in 1990 after it was heavily attacked by trolls and flame throwers, who apparently decided to make RomB}Imagi*Nation their pet of the month. The other one is RomNotes - basically a ChatLine in 1984 - and again, I can't tell if it was a dating chatline or a line for authors/readers.

    If I were to be a nerdy genealogist, I'd organise it like so:

    RomNotes? (1984)
    RomB}Imagi*Nation? (1986)
    RomEx Genie (1987 or 1988)
    unknown-to-me-name AOL message board (later Inkspot) (1990)
    RRA-L (1992)
    Painted Rock Community* (1995)
    Prodigy Romance listserv (later AARList) (1997)

    There are definitely some gaps as I haven't really researched that far back, but I think all this supports your point.

    I also agree with your take that "RRA-L was, in fact, the first place to change that, as it was a listserv to which authors and readers both posted with the same amount of authority."

    *I think it has 'blue' in its name, but I can't remember the full correct name. I do know that many Painted Rock members were former RomEx Genie members.

    (Sorry for writing so messily.)

  2. Maili, thank you SO much for this in formation. :) You're wonderful.

  3. And...I have no idea why there's a space in "information." Sorry about that. O.o

  4. The RomEx list is fascinating. I have a friend who was active up until the day that Genie died. They transferred the RomEx membership over to Yahoo, but decided to keep it closed and not to admit new members except under extraordinary circumstances.

    As I'm not a member of the RomEx community, I can't speak to what it's like, but I do know a couple things: the current membership contains some bestselling authors, some past and present officers of RWA, and some ardent fans of the genre. They keep in touch through-out the year and socialize at RWA National, including a post-awards dinner party on the final night of the conference to which non-RomEx friends may be invited. (I got to go in 2010. The feeling at the party was convivial and connected; I would say these are very old and deeply established friendships.)

  5. Completely agree: the slowness of publication is ridiculous, the tons of poorly researched papers that appear every year at conferences is bad enough, but the lethal weight of them in print is horrendous. E-journals are the way to go OBVIOUSLY but do you think academia will move that way at anything but a glacial pace? No. One of the reasons I find it too frustrating to stay in academia much longer.

  6. the tons of poorly researched papers that appear every year at conferences is bad enough, but the lethal weight of them in print is horrendous

    Would I be right in thinking that this must be related to the idea that, as an academic, you "publish or perish"? Given the state of the academic job market in the humanities, I can see how that would lead to increasing numbers of articles.

    E-journals are the way to go OBVIOUSLY but do you think academia will move that way at anything but a glacial pace? No.

    E-journals wouldn't necessarily increase the quality of publications, though. I wonder, too, if e-journals are hampered by a perception that they're less rigorous. If they are, and if they're less prestigious as a result, presumably that will impede the move towards them.

    As an independent scholar, I don't really need to worry much about the state of my publications record, what JPRS's "impact" level is, or the prestige (or lack of it) which might be accorded to Humanities E-books (who published my book on Harlequin Mills & Boon romances). Others, though, don't have the luxury of being able to ignore that kind of consideration.

    Another possibility for publishing academic writing (and, of course, it's one of particular relevance to this site) is blogging. However, as Rohan Maitzen (an academic who blogs) points out:

    The task of deciding whether I’m doing good work or not has been outsourced to the readers of academic journals. I’m sure I don’t have to tell an audience of bloggers that there are serious flaws with peer review [...]. There’s no good reason (except efficiency and habit–and I don’t underestimate the weight of these) to assume that the little asterisk means “job well done” while its absence means “not a real contribution to the academic enterprise.” Or, we shouldn’t assume that if we understand “the academic enterprise” a little more broadly than perhaps many people do. [...]

    Who says that the only important thing is getting the word out to other academics? (Indeed, who says that other academics get their information exclusively from academic sources?) In fact, though probably the humanities were not at the forefront of anybody’s mind when worrying about this, there’s been a national discussion in recent years about the importance of communicating scholarly research beyond the traditional frameworks (for example). My review of Brenda Maddox’s book has been viewed 561 times since it went live. [...] I can’t know what the results were of those 561 “hits,” but it seems fair to say I disseminated something there.

  7. I have been thinking about this article and discussion for a few days. I wrote a blog post, but I think it might best serve as a commentary here. I read the article in a different fashion than Laura and Sarah, and interestingly, Laura brings it up here. Laura is an independent scholar, Sarah is a professor, I'm a graduate student. We all have different but similar goals, priorities, etc.

    I found out about Laura Struve’s “Sisters of Sorts: Reading Romantic Fiction and the Bonds Among Female Readers” from another graduate student. We are both graduate students, and we are both writing about romance. We are at different points in our graduate career. We met as graduate students at a conference on romance. But, the point is that we are both graduate students and we are both writing about romance novels, and often enough, we are trying to “sneak it in” through our other interests. So, when an article on romance is published in a journal of some repute, we, as graduate students, are excited. I think the question that lurks in the back of my mind, before reading any article on romance, is: has the field reached the mainstream?

    I want to avoid all the critiques here of the article -- and there are many interesting critiques to be offered. My worry is more pragmatic.

    The article is, of course, a welcome addition to romance scholarship, but at the same time, it is dated, it reads as though it were written ten years ago, it seems “unaware of the history” of romance scholarship. Even Radway’s Reading the Romance is not quoted, which is surprising. The problem, however, is that when graduate students try to publish on romance scholarship, we are taking, I think, a bigger risk than tenured faculty. The tenured professor has a job and likely is not on the job market. For romance scholarship to thrive, we need that publications in the field – especially when outside of the field – demonstrate an awareness of the history of romance novels, a recognition of the theory that informs these studies, and a context that accurately represents the genre. Romance scholarship is exciting precisely because it is new, it is caught up in paradoxes and contradictions, and, especially, because romance readers (and scholars) have formed communities, sisterhoods with the odd man tagging along.

    So, while I appreciate any article on romance scholarship, I must also admit that this is not the article that brings romance to the mainstream, out of our community. I don't think that Struve set out to introduce romance to the literary and cultural academy, but she did -- as we all do -- contribute to that discussion. Unfortunately, even though we have an association, a journal, blogs, a community, and we have managed to gain recognition at other conferences (PCA and ACLA), we are still not yet at the point of other genre fictions -- but, and most importantly, we (I still feel strange including myself in this category) are making remarkable progress. We are able to engage with Struve's article from a position of knowing, a position in which we can think about her concerns from positions informed by texts, theory, contexts, history.

  8. I'm a member of the simply named WRITERS list, which was there pre-Internet, at MIT. It's not purely a romance list, so it might not count. But there have been Internet communities for writers and for romance writers since the Internet really got going, I think.