Monday, July 27, 2015

Romance: Reflecting, and Reflecting on, Society

Scott McCracken has observed that
To study popular fiction [...] is to study only a small part of popular culture. Nonetheless, written popular narratives can tell us much about who we are and about the society in which we live. [...] Popular fiction is both created by and a participant in social conflict. (1-2)
Support for his view can be found in a variety of reports from the 2015 Romance Writers of America conference. Suleikha Snyder, for instance, found the conference a source of enjoyment and comradeship but also felt there was what could almost be considered a parallel RWA conference,
The one where publishers still don't quite know what to do with multicultural and queer romance. [...]
The one where you feel as though your presence is just barely being tolerated, and these other women are indulging you as long as you stay quiet and don't draw too much attention.
This other conference was a convergence of microaggressions. From being side-eyed in elevators to having us confused for each other — Falguni Kothari and Alisha Rai are not the same person, FYI — to being told that diverse books were not a priority for Pocket/Gallery...there was a thread of something that was almost like resentment. “Why do we have to talk about diversity?” “Why are there so many of you here?” “My God, can't you all be quiet and go away, so we can go back to the way it was before?”
Here are a few of Rebekah Weatherspoon's comments in a similar vein:

A collection of tweets from the RWA panel on "Diversity in Romance: Why it Matters", at which Weatherspoon was one of the panellists, has been compiled by Alisha Rai and the handout from Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart, K. M. Jackson and Falguni Kothari's workshop on "Multicultural Romance: When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong - and How to Make it Right" is now online too.

From an academic point of view, all of this reinforced for me a number of points most/all romance scholars are aware of:

* Romance, like all popular culture, reflects (and sometimes explicitly reflects on) the social/cultural/economic context from which it emerges and that context is not solely the context of white, middle-aged, cis-sexual, heterosexual women of the kind studied by Janice Radway. It never was, of course, and it certainly isn't now.

* This means that while it may be tempting to claim romance as a bastion of one particular point of view and/or make generalisations about romance (e.g. "romance is feminist!", "romance authors are supportive of one another!") such claims need to be qualified.

* If our collective body of work (both written and pedagogical) is not to present a misleading and/or incomplete picture of popular romance fiction we must make romance fiction's diversity apparent to our readers/students.

Any other conclusions romance scholars could benefit from bearing in mind?

[Edited to add: Jessica Miller's reflections on the conference focus on
socioeconomic class issues. Here are a few random examples:

1. Meetings at the Broadway Lounge in the conference hotel. So many meetings happened there, both scheduled and informal. A drink at the lounge will set you back $10-15 plus tip.

2. Dressing for the conference and the RITAs. There’s a lot we can say about the gendered nature of the term “business casual”, (does it ever apply to men?), the beauty norms, etc. But I’m thinking about the cost of showing up for the meetings, the cocktail parties, and the RITAs. And the issue isn’t even just having to dress up. I think a middle class woman can show up in casual clothes and not feel bad about it. Someone in a different situation might find it important to dress to hide her economic status (“Dress for success!” “Dress for the position you want, not the one you have!” etc.).
It barely needs saying given the number of romance protagonists who are billionaires/tycoons/rich aristocrats, but issues of socioeconomic class are also present in romance fiction itself.]

McCracken, Scott. Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.

1 comment:

  1. On the issue of socioeconomic class and romance fiction, Maisey Yates has written a very relevant post over at the Pink Heart Society blog in which she observes that:

    I remember being told — more than once — that I had to watch for burnout. That I needed to treasure time with my children. I remember people marveling that I had left my eight month old baby at home with my husband while I went to my first ever RWA conference.

    All of these people were well-meaning, but from my position in life, they were speaking a foreign language. My concerns were not the same concerns.

    You see, I was working my butt off. I wasn’t sleeping much. I was writing whenever my husband was home, and sometimes during the day with kids climbing on me. And I had never felt more in control of my future.

    Before I was published we were playing that complicated game of dodging phone calls for bill collectors. Putting off the landlord to pay the power bill, putting off the credit card company to buy gas so my husband could go to work.

    I was on the verge of an entirely different kind of burnout. And it wasn’t from writing. Burnout brought about by work was a concern far above my economic position in life.

    Writing was the thing that was empowering me to change our position. Those very small advances I was getting for my category romances were huge to us.

    (More at the original location)