Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cover Art

Here's another call for papers which got me thinking, though possibly at a tangent from what the conference organisers are hoping to discuss at the conference:
Image and the Imagination in the Visual and Verbal Arts

A program of the Society for Critical Exchange in conjunction with the M/MLA conference in Cleveland, OH, November 8-11, 2007

This working conference aims to examine the image—broadly conceived as pictorial, textual, and digital representations—and its relations to the collective imagination. We invite papers that explore how images are adopted, adapted, and translated in a variety of media (textual,visual, or digital), across borders, and among cultures. We invite papers from all disciplines, including but not limited to art history,literature, the history of the book, anthropology, law, library and information sciences, and the cognitive sciences.

Potential rubrics include:

Literature: How can illustrations, cartoons, and photographs affect the way that literature is interpreted?
The full call for papers can be found here, and the deadline for submissions is 15 March 2007.

This reminded me that we haven't had a discussion on this blog about the cover art on romance novels, and I think it's about time for one. Snarky comments on romance covers abound, of course. They've been parodied mercilessly here, and scrutinised in great detail by the inimitable Smart Bitches. They've discussed foreign covers too, including some of the Russian and Czech covers for J. D. Robb's In Death series and it's clear that there are national differences in cover art. There have been some interesting and rather more serious discussions about this topic on the Word Wenches' blog. Mary Jo Putney, for example, linked to a very interesting article by Carol Pinchefsky about the differences between US and UK cover art (though it wasn't specifically about the cover-art for romance novels):
Culture influences design, and as America and the United Kingdom are two vast nations separated by a common language, cover art obviously reflects this.

Because art is so fluid, because the market changes from decade to decade, and because there are no hard and fast rules, it is all but impossible to summarize the difference between the two. Or is it?

Rita Frangie, an assistant art director at Penguin Books, says she does not want to generalize. However, "Here [in the United States] we tend to want to use every inch, to fill [the cover] up with color, and to get it to do as much as it can do. Everything here is bigger, more commercial, more targeted to sell and to advertise. In Europe, the covers are geared to look more like the way they dress: very simple. Their use of negative space goes along with the theory of less is more."
In the comments section of another blog post on the topic of cover art at the Word Wenches site, one UK poster, AgTigress, said that she preferred covers which are:
free of the intense fussiness and busy-ness that tends to characterise American cover-art, which so often falls victim to too many colours, too many motifs, too many fonts, too much everything!
I'm not the most visual of people myself, but when I took a quick look at the examples under discussion I did tend to prefer the British covers. It's a bit difficult to compare UK and US romance cover art because most of the romance sold in the UK comes from Harlequin Mills & Boon, and their various divisions share and reuse cover art. All the same, even when you have the same photos on the covers, there can be interesting differences. Take these covers for Ally Blake's Meant-To-Be Mother, for example. Here are the Australian, the US and then the UK versions: [Apologies for the way the pictures are all over the place. I'm new to posting pictures and I haven't quite got the hang of it yet. The Australian one (with the blue section) is from Ally's website, the American one is from Amazon.com and the UK one (with the intense pink section) is from Amazon.co.uk.]

These covers would seem to back up some of the assertions made in Carol Pinchefsky's article, namely that American's prefer a close connection with the characters. The American version of Meant-To-Be Mother has a close-up of the couple, whereas the UK and Australian versions give more space to details of the location. As for what AgTigress said about fussiness and use of multiple fonts, it's also demonstrated here. The Australian edition has 4 labels, one above the other, telling the reader that (a) this is a Harlequin Mills & Boon novel (b) that it's in the 'Sweet' line (c) that the book is by an Australian author (UK and US editions never mention when the author is a UK or US national) and (b) that this particular book is a 'Heart to Heart' novel, i.e. that it's a more emotional read. That particular piece of information is on the back cover of the UK version. The American version has fewer labels, but it does have that rather large, frilly heart (this was on all the US books in this line issued in February). The difference between the US focus on the central characters and the UK and Australian covers is even more marked in this example from the 'Sexy'/'Presents'/'Modern' line. It's Anne McAllister's The Santorini Bride, again with the Australian version first (red section), followed by the US (pendant design) and UK (blue section) covers: [Those are taken from the Australian Harlequin site, the US Harlequin site and Amazon.co.uk.]

You can compare the covers of some of Jenny Crusie's foreign editions with her US covers. She doesn't have any of the traditional clinch covers on any of her books though. I hadn't seen any romances with that sort of cover until I was introduced to them via reading US single-title historicals and the Smart Bitches' cover snark, and I was somewhat amazed by them. Candice Hern points out that there are now alternative types of design for historical romances:
For the first decade or two of the modern historical romance, covers were primarily what we now call clinch covers: a couple in various stages of disarray or undress with limbs entined and hair flowing in the wind. These are the covers that made Fabio a star. And helped give birth to the term "bodice ripper." Thankfully, not too many books are still being published with that style of cover.
Jennifer McKnight-Trontz has written about romance novel cover art in her 2002 The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), which demonstrates that a variety of other styles existed prior to the explosion of the 'clinch cover':
The romance cover of the 1940s had very glamorous illustrations of couples going out on the town, McKnight-Trontz says. The 1950s covers were more about women and their careers. "You would see the women in a nice suit, looking out a window contemplating, should they have a career or a man?" [...] By the 1960s, nurse romances were in vogue. "The middle class women these books were intended for could relate to a nurse," the author says. [...] The 1970s romance covers reflected the rise of women's liberation, and the bodice ripper: female heroines in period costumes being ravished by tall, tanned, long-haired and often bare-chested men. But McKnight-Trontz says those books couldn't be judged by their covers. The illustrations showed passion -- a tease really -- rather than what the books were really about. (NPR report)
Cover art is often not considered real 'art', though there's a trend for historical romance covers at the moment to use portraits or other artwork from the past. Candice Hern's Just One of Those Flings, for example, features 'a detail from the portrait of Madame Récamier by Francois Gérard, painted in 1805. It is an actual detail of the painting and not a re-painted or re-imagined version' (you can compare the original with the cover on her website). Other covers are original artworks created specifically for a particular novel and the work of cover artist Franco Accornero in particular was described at AAR by an appreciative Carol Irvin (links to other cover-related items on AAR can be found here). James Griffin, another cover artist, explains how he creates some of them in this interview with Michelle Hauf. He posts some of the original pictures on his blog. Here's the artwork for a Harlequin Historical by Gail Ranstrom, The Courtesan's Courtship. The artwork, as published on the cover of the novel, has been cropped considerably, with part of the hero's face, and much of the setting no longer visible. Here's another piece of artwork by James Griffin, which will be the basis for the cover of P. C. Cast's forthcoming Divine by Blood. P.C. Cast herself is delighted with it and with previous covers Griffin created for her and mentions that 'There has been some talk of releasing the art to these three covers as limited edition prints'. Some readers also enjoyed the 'clinch covers' and consider them to be art, as well as something which enhances the reading experience:
you can relive the beauty of a good book with its wonderful characters, through its cover art—again and again. I love reading romance novels, and escaping to a world of fantasy, mystery, and adventure on occasion. I’ve even taken up collecting Romance Cover Art on a large scale (from the Romance Book Covers website)
So, if you were familiar with the 'clinch covers' are you pleased or disappointed that there are now many alternatives? What sort of impression did the clinch covers give of the genre? What do you think about national differences when it comes to preferences in cover art? Would you consider some covers to be art, and if so, which ones? Do you think that cover-art influences your buying choices? And can a good or bad cover affect your reading experience?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bronwyn Clarke's Survey of Online Romance Communities

Bronwyn Clarke, down under at the University of New England in Australia, is doing her Ph.D. research on online romance communities. She has a survey for all of us to take, and has a blog that will discuss her research and (I assume) invite us all to participate those discussions.

As far as I can tell (and I've never been trained in any of this), it's a great survey. Short, sweet, but informative. I'm very much looking forward to her blog as well!

So, if you pop over here and read this, pop over to The Survey and contribute to romance-positive research!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sarah's Blogging at Romancing the Blog

Sarah's a columnist at Romancing the Blog and her first blog post there, on 'Why I Learned to Love Literary Criticism', is now up.

The title reminded me of a passage from Austen's Northanger Abbey in which the heroine, Catherine, declares to Henry, the hero, that:
"[...] I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.”

“And how might you learn? By accident or argument?”

“Your sister taught me [...]”

“But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. [...] I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing"

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Call For Papers: New Approaches to Popular Romance Novels

Eric and I are putting together a volume with the preliminary title, The Mind of Love: New Approaches to Popular Romance. We'd love to receive proposals from our TMT readers (or our TMT writers!). Herewith, the Call For Papers:

As is well-known by now, mass market romance novels constitute at least half of the domestic paperback market and an increasing percentage of the hardcover market. British, Canadian, and American romances are read all over the world, with many best-selling authors making most of their money from international sales; meanwhile, distinct national traditions of romance writing have developed, or continue to flourish, in Australia, India, China, and elsewhere. In all markets, the romance genre is undergoing substantial external and internal expansion: not only are traditional romance authors branching out into mainstream fiction, but the romance genre is also exploding with new sub-genres, each adding a romantic twist to previous niche markets. Online romance reader communities are power-houses of information and networking, and online erotica publishing houses are pushing sexual boundaries and thriving financially.

Sadly, academic criticism and theory of the romance—whether literary criticism, sociological analysis, editorial theory, or feminist scrutiny—has not kept up with the changes in the genre. Janice Radway's sociological evaluation of romance readers and literary analysis of the romance genre is more than twenty years out-of-date, written before any of the changes that define the modern romance had evolved. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, edited by best-selling romance author Jayne Ann Krentz, is an invaluable tool for the romance critic, but is now more than ten years old and never claimed to be academic. It is well past time for a volume of sophisticated, rigorous, and romance-positive academic analyses of romance.

We therefore call for essays for an academic volume of romance-positive criticism and analysis of the romance genre. We welcome essays on romance novels, authors, or the romance genre from any disciplinary or theoretical perspective, to include:

* History of the romance novel
* Heroes and heroines of the romance (construction, history, changes)
* Images of the body, representations of sexuality, and romantic ideals of men and women, masculinity and femininity
* Narrative structures and conventions (i.e., shifts from heroine-centered narrative to narratives shared between hero and heroine to the return of first person)
* Plot structures and conventions (their construction, history, changes, implications)
* Analyses of individual authors or even individual novels
* Non-traditional authors classed as romance (Diana Gabaldon, Laurell K. Hamilton, etc.)
* Romance series (category series like Harlequin Presents, or on-going single or multiple author series)
* Romances in the international market
* Category vs. Mainstream romance
* Sub-genres (history, narrative structure, expectations, formulae, changes): Western, Regency, Medieval, Generic historical, Christian or inspirational, Military, Paranormal (vampire, were, empath, etc.), Futuristic/time travel, Multi-cultural, Erotica, Gay/lesbian, Contemporary, humor, etc.
* Comparison with Chick Lit / Rise of Chick Lit
* A re-evaluation of a canonical text from a romance perspective
* Readings of romance texts as they allude to, incorporate, or ask to be read in light of canonical texts
* Romance using and/or rewriting literary archetypes, mythology, the Bible, fairy tales
* Encounters between romance fiction and philosophy or literary / cultural theory: i.e., queer, new historical, or cultural-studies readings of romance novels or the romance-novel industry; romance fiction and the philosophical study of eros, marriage, and love
* Psychology and romance fiction: are Freudian and post-Freudian models (Chodorow, Lacan, Kristeva) the best for understanding popular romance fiction? What can more recent research into the psychology of optimism, resilience, and happiness (e.g., the work of Martin Seligman) reveal about the genre? What psychological models and theories are visibly deployed by particular novels or novelists, and what do the works do with them?

We also welcome essays on the romance novel industry and the communities of readers that flourish around it, including:
* Professional organizations (Romance Writers of America, Romantic Novelists Association) and Industry conferences (RWA Annual National Conference, Romantic Times Convention)
* Romance reader response, individual reader blogs
* On-line romance communities (AAR, RRA, individual authors' Message Board communities, etc.)
* Romance review sites/blogs (Smart Bitches, Dear Author), romance review communities
* Transformations in romance publishing since the 1980s
* Rise of on-line publishing houses, especially on-line erotica/Romantica

Detailed abstract or draft essay and a short CV are due by June 1, 2007. Final essays will be due December 1, 2007. We are happy to answer any inquiries.

Dr. Sarah S. G. Frantz sfrantz@uncfsu.edu
Dr. Eric Selinger eselinge@depaul.edu

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Male Authors of Romance/Romantic Fiction (2)

I saw an item about Jason Pinter whose novel The Mark will be published by Mira in July 2007. The article points out that
Mira, of course, has been publishing thrillers for years and has a number of male authors on its lists. Still, Harlequin remains overwhelmingly a company by and for women. Its challenge is to reach male readers—but with books that also appeal to its core audience. That’s where Pinter comes in. "The female character (in The Mark) is great," says Marbury. "Most men fall short on female characters."
In my previous post on this topic I didn't list any male romance authors and although I gave some links I thought perhaps I should rectify my omission.

According to Juliet Flesch
The number of men writing romance varies a little from time to time and appears to be generally higher in America than in the United Kingdom or Australia [...]. Publishers interviewed by Rosemary Guiley, the author of Love Lines: a Romance Reader’s Guide to Printed Pleasures, reported that from 5 to 40 per cent of their romance writers were men.
In The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s, jay Dixon identified only two men who achieved success with Mills & Boon in the last years of the twentieth century: Victoria Gordon and Madeleine Ker. In fact, there is at least one more: Roger Sanderson, who writes as Gill Sanderson. (2004: 74)
So that's three:
  • Gordon Aalborg, who writes as Victoria Gordon
  • Roger Sanderson, who writes as Gill Sanderson
  • Marius Gabriel, who writes as Madeleine Ker
There's also
  • Vince Brach, writing as Fran Vincent
  • R. Barri Flowers, who writes as Devon Vaughn Archer
  • Tom E. Huff, who wrote as Edwina Marlow, Jennifer Wilde, Katherine St. Claire and Beatrice Parker
  • Wayne Jordan
  • Harold Lowry, who writes as Leigh Greenwood (and who served as President of the Romance Writers of America for 2 years). In a 2001 interview he said that 'The official number is approximately 1 percent of the RWA membership is male. There may be more published, but I doubt it. Yes, I do expect the number to increase over time. Contrary to popular opinion, men are romantic. We just have more cultural obstacles to overcome'.
  • Peter O'Donnell, whose historical romances were written under the name Madeleine Brent
  • David Wind, writing as Monica Barrie and Jenifer Dalton
Some of these male authors and a few others are listed here. Three male authors of popular romantic novels are:
There have also been a number of collaborations in which a male and a female author have worked together:
  • Frank and Wendy Brennan, who wrote as Emma Darcy until Frank's death, after which Wendy continued writing alone (you can read an interview with them here)
  • Tom and Sharon Curtis, who wrote as Laura London (you can read an interviews with them here)
  • Bob Mayer and Jenny Crusie, whose joint website is here.
I'm sure there are many other male authors of romances, and if you know of any of them please do leave a comment.

  • Flesch, Juliet, 2004. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle: Curtin University Books).

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Romantic or Not Romantic?

Carrying on from my last post about what is, or isn't romantic, here are two short stories which raise similar questions.

In Denise Rossetti's A Creature of Habit the hero, Colin, knows that

The young women in the office regarded him with affectionate contempt. He knew he didn’t enter their calculations - the spectacles, the bald spot - a man who was too fussy, too flabby, too close to fifty.
Denise says that this 'strange little story was born of my belief that there's someone for everyone - and I mean everyone!'. See what you think.

Alison Stuart's Romance and the Single Girl has a meta-romance angle to it. It begins with the heroine, Sarah, reading a romance novel (though she denies her interest when her friend Julie scornfully refers to it as 'this rubbish'). Sarah wants to find romance; Julie thinks men are 'only after one thing'. Researchers for Harlequin's 2007 Romance Report found that 'The vast majority of men (92%) and women (94%) consider themselves at least somewhat romantic' but, all the same,
Sometimes the motivation behind a romantic gesture is less noble than we might hope: those tickets to your favorite ballet or that limited edition baseball card come with an unsaid expectation or a not-so subtle desire for… (surprise, surprise)… SEX. According to our survey results, nearly two out of three men (62%) and more than two in five women (44%) have done something special for someone they were dating because they hoped it would lead to sex.
That's not exactly what happens in this story, but nonetheless, events will perhaps cause both of them to have something of a change of attitude.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

What do you think's romantic?

We're coming up for Valentine's Day, so I thought it might be a good time to think about what we mean by 'romance' and 'romantic' in general, and also on the relationship between these ideas and the modern romance genre.

According to Jackie Stacey and Lynne Pearce
Despite the fact that the late twentieth-century has offered us many new possibilities for how we may conduct our interpersonal relationships, romance itself seems indestructible. While studies like Shere Hite's [...] reveal a dramatic increase in divorce, non-monogamy, couples living together outside of marriage, and other 'non-standard' relationships (including a noticeable increase in the number of gay and lesbian relationships), the trappings of 'classic romance' (love songs, white weddings, Valentine's day and so on) remain as commercially viable as ever. (1995: 11, my emphasis)
I think we'd all acknowledge the truth of the italicised part of that statement. In the US alone,
According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2007 Valentine's Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch for NRF, the average consumer will spend $119.67 on Valentine's Day, up from $100.89 last year. With 63.4 percent of consumers planning to celebrate the holiday, total 2007 Valentine's Day spending is expected to reach $16.90 billion. [...] Popular gifts include cards (62.8%), candy (48.4%) and flowers (36.7%). In addition, close to half of consumers (45.3%) will treat their loved one to a special evening out. (National Retail Federation, 2007)
As Pearce and Stacey noted, the increasing number of people who are 'out' and living openly in gay and lesbian relationships has not diminished the appeal of traditionally romantic gestures. In fact, in the UK where gay and lesbian civil partnerships give legal recognition to such relationships, there are now business targeting 'pink weddings' and 'one survey suggests the pink wedding industry could be worth as much as £600m by 2010' (BBC).

So romance and traditional concepts of the romantic are alive and well, though they may be given a modern twist by some. They can also have a downside:
It has been estimated that for one in ten new spouses, the anticlimax of married life is so severe it develops into what is known as postnuptial depression. This increasingly common condition can continue for months, leaving sufferers feeling disillusioned, confused and even questioning if getting married was a mistake.

But when so much has been invested in the wedding, it's no wonder so many people experience such a comedown. (BBC)
It's possibly worth remembering that some 'romantic' settings and objects have a relatively recent history whereas others are much more traditional. Almost all are also culturally specific. Diamonds, for example, did not always have the prominence they do now:
The diamond engagement ring was one of the greatest triumphs of mass consumer marketing. The "tradition" is said to date back to 1477, when Austria's Archduke Maximillian presented his fiancée, Mary of Burgundy, with a diamond engagement ring, but diamond ownership remained very much an aristocratic frill until the discovery of the South African stones. The South African boom "democratized" diamonds to a certain extent, and by the 1920s you find "Good Manners" manuals recommending diamonds for American brides. The big marketing push did not come until the late 1930s, however, when Harry Oppenheimer of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd., hired the N. W. Ayer advertising agency to boost diamond sales. Plans for the campaign were ambitious. The company arranged for movie stars to flaunt the company's jewels, and Hollywood screenwriters were approached to include "diamond themes" in movie scripts. (Proctor 2001: 390)
Epstein describes how this newly created tradition was introduced to Japanese society through highly successful marketing:
When the campaign began in 1968, less than 5 percent of Japanese women getting married received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972 the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond on their ring finger. And, by 1981, some 6o percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere thirteen years, the fifteen-hundred-year Japanese tradition was radically revised.
So what has this got to do with romance novels? Well, it seems to me that this 'commercially viable', 'classic' model of romance is perhaps one that non-romance readers associate with the romance genre. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, for example, among other definitions of 'romance', states that 'romance' can mean ' a book or film dealing with love in a sentimental or idealized way'. You literally can't get much more sentimental or idealised (or fluffier or pinker) than Barbara Cartland, who 'was known as the Queen of Romance, writing 723 books with estimated worldwide sales of one billion copies in 36 languages'. Here's a sample of her writing-style:
She had not imagined a kiss could make her feel as if a streak of sunlight ran through her body, making her pulsatingly alive.
It was so rapturous, so perfect, that she thought the angels she had heard singing at Letty's wedding were all round them, and the wonder of the Marquis's lips were part of the music, the beauty, and everything she had thought was out of reach (1978 : 138)
You don't tend to find writing like that any more in modern romance novels, but the stereotypes about the genre persist. In 2006, for example, romance author 'Emily Giffin, author of best sellers such as "Something Borrowed" and "Something Blue"' was quoted saying of the genre that "It's not all lace and moonlight and heaving bosoms. That's all nice, but it's about a lot more than that'. But clearly the very fact that she mentioned the 'lace and moonlight and heaving bosoms' is an indication that she believed that this was a perception which exists about the genre, and she was right. Harlequin Mills & Boon in particular have tended to be associated with this type of 'classic' or 'traditional' view of romance. One article written in 2005 about the Bombshell line which was then being launched noted that 'Harlequin Mills & Boon [...] are famous for giving women an easy read, filled with old-fashioned romance' (my emphasis). Another article, this time from 2006 and about a workshop for would-be Mills & Boon authors begins:
In a fairy-tale castle painted pink, romance is in the air. A dark, brooding hero with a cruel smile is toying with the affections of a girl who has a tiny waist and a trembling heart. Fear and desire tussle within her as he touches her blushing cheek with the rough fingers of a huge hand. Then, breaking the spell, the clock strikes 11am and it is time to stop for tea and chocolate biscuits.
Harlequin's 2007 Romance Report has been criticised for what it doesn't do:
Does the report talk about how smart romance readers are? Or how diverse they are? Does the report highlight books, trends in reading, or new authors? Does it uplift the genre and speak to the issue of credibility? No. It panders to every godforsaken stereotype about romance readers out there. [...] The report is about statistics compiled, not of readers and what they want to see in their books or covers that are appealing or topics and so forth. Instead it is a report of what 2,256 US adults think of romance.
The Smart Bitches weren't very impressed either and declared that Harlequin were Doing More to Damage the Cause than Puffypaint Sweaters.

It seems to me, though, that Harlequin's efforts weren't entirely illogical or misdirected. Given the perception that romance (in the sense of romantic gestures and ways of behaving) involves pink cards, lace underwear, chocolates, roses, moonlight and serenades, and the fact that Harlequin Mills & Boon, and by association the whole romance genre, is still very strongly associated with this sort of romance, it made sense for Harlequin to try to highlight changes in people's perceptions of what's romantic that reflect the wide range of situations that are to be found in modern romance novels. According to Harlequin we are now seeing the rise of ' the New Romantics – men and women who are searching for a type of romance that is more accessible and realistic, a type of romance that complements their own personal style and comfort level'. Some of these people would presumably be unlikely to approach the romance genre if they thought it was all about 'classic romance'. And, according to Harlequin, there are a lot of people thinking this way: 'More than four in five men (87%) and nine in ten women (93%) agree that it [romance] can be whatever you want it to be. As the numbers suggest, everyone is looking for a type of romance that is accessible and natural to them'. I suspect that Harlequin, with its wide range of category lines catering to different tastes, doesn't want to alienate any of them, so the report doesn't insult those who still appreciate traditional romantic gestures. Instead it states that:
Flowers and chocolate are still in, considering 72% of all men and 78% of all women disagree with the statement that traditional ideas of romance such as flowers and chocolate are outdated. The new romance is whatever you want it to be, so if the old classics are your style, then by all means keep it up. Just remember, especially this Valentine’s Day, there’s an entire world out there beyond flowers and chocolate.
I wonder whether there's any correlation (either positive or negative) between people's tastes regarding real-life romance and their preferences in romance novels. Are those with a penchant for red roses and candle-lit dinners more likely to look for romance novels with the more conventionally romantic settings and characters? Or could it be that those who in real life take a cynical view of romance prefer these settings precisely because they're different? Do real-life pragmatists prefer a bit of grit and realism with their Happy-Ever-Afters or do they opt for a greater degree of escapism in their fiction? I suspect one can't make generalisations, and although it's probably fairly obvious by now that my personal preference isn't for 'classic romance', I don't in any way wish to deride the tastes of those who prefer different sorts of books or romantic gestures.

In many ways this takes me back to my discussion about 'wallpaper' historical romances. I suspect that the more wallpaper-ish a novel is, the more it can omit the details which would seem less than romantic to some readers. This goes well beyond the way that issues such as those surrounding personal hygiene are often glossed over in historical romances. In a 'wallpaper' historical the characters can behave and think in ways which will seem more 'romantic' to 21st century readers. My reading of medieval chronicles has left me with the impression that most medieval noblemen were the equivalent of modern-day politicians, and there aren't many heroes or heroines who have that profession (All About Romance has a very short list of them), which makes me wonder if it's seen as less 'romantic' or 'heroic' than many others. Juliet Flesch reports that
Market surveys [...] have found that readers do not warm to politicians, athletes or actors as heroes. According to Emma Darcy, Alison Kelly, Joan Kilby and Marion Lennox, they are seen as self-absorbed, unlikely to make the commitment required of the romance hero or heroine to human relationships in general and one relationship in particular. (2004: 227)
I wonder if historical romances tend to feature aristocratic characters at least in part because many of the items which we associate with romance (lace, silks, candles, music, chocolate, expensive jewellery) would previously have only been accessible to the aristocracy in large quantities and high quality. Ironically, the poets, authors and aristocrats of the past often associated romance with the countryside and peasants, though in an extremely 'wallpaper' form. In pastoral literature the bucolic life is presented as the antithesis of the intrigue and political manoeuvring to be found at court:
The pastoral convention is an idealized version of country life that draws on Greek, Roman, and Biblical examples. Pastoral praises the freedom and contemplative life absent of personal ambition, the power struggles of the court, and fortune's vagaries. (William E. Smith, course materials for English 214)
Here's part of the Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd to His Love:
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.
(There's analysis of the poem here and here). Marie Antoinette
directed architect Richard Mique and artist Hubert Robert to conjure up a sylvan fantasy of artificial streams, grottoes and winding paths. (During nighttime galas, a Temple of Love rotunda and a glass music salon were illuminated by wood fires hidden in trenches in the ground.) In 1784, the two designers created what, from the outside, appeared to be a hamlet (the Hameau) of cracked and tumbledown cottages, which, in fact, were appointed with comfortable couches, stoves and billiard tables. (Smithsonian Magazine)
So, what do you think's romantic? And are there some settings or professions which you don't find romantic?
  • Cartland, Barbara, 1978. The Problems of Love (London: Corgi).
  • Flesch, Juliet, 2004. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle, Western Australia: Curtin University Press).
  • Proctor, Robert N., 2001. 'Anti-Agate: The Great Diamond Hoax and the Semiprecious Stone Scam', Configurations, 9.3: 381-412.
  • Stacey, Jackie and Lynne Pearce, 1995. 'The Heart of the Matter: Feminists Revisit Romance', in Romance Revisited, ed. Lynne Pearce & Jackie Stacey (New York: New York University Press), pp. 11-45.
P.S. For those of you who are really, really sick of 'classic romance', here's a link to the Be My Anti-Valentine site: 'The idea of the site is to provide an alternative card-sending service for all the people who think Valentine’s Day is sickly-sweet, exclusively coupley, consumerist nonsense or otherwise a bit naff' (from the FAQs). The creator of the site doesn't reject romance:
I’m not anti-love or anti-romance or anti-relationships. I’m against hollow gestures prescribed by people who are out to make money out of the holiday. [...] I’m against anyone with a vested interest telling us how and when it’s appropriate to be affectionate - say it with roses, a diamond is forever, if you REALLY loved her, you’d take her to Paris. [...] I hate the fact that flowers which are reasonably priced at any other time of the year suddenly rocket in price in February, only to plummet again afterwards.
The site may not stay up for long after 14 February, so here's a link to a blog-post giving the basic details.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Women Writing Men Doing Men

After the reference to Blur in my last post, I couldn't resist that title. Anyway, here's another call for papers and some of my thoughts on the topic:
Writing Across the Gender Boundary: SAMLA Women's Studies Panel

Throughout literary history writers have explored the perspectives of genders other than their own. This panel will explore works by both male and female writers who choose to cross the gender boundary in their writing and the effects of such border crossings. Writers might be viewed as crossing gender boundaries when they construct first person narratives of genders other than their own or when they focus on the experiences or worldview of another gender through third person perspectives or on the stage. Gender crossings can also be diversely defined as shifting from male to female or female to male, as well as explorations of queer, heterosexual, or trans genders from writers who might identify otherwise.
The closing date for proposals is 1 March 2007 and further details are available here.

Sarah posted a while ago about the fact that 'male/male erotica (or m/m/f) is certainly the growth industry in the online erotica publishing houses' and she suggested that the reason why straight women might 'be attracted to gay male romance and/or gay male sex' is
Because, if, as I argue in my article, romances are actually about watching the hero figure out and confess his feelings, if they're about watching him move from the "masculine economy of use" to the "feminine economy of exchange," then watching TWO men have to figure it out for and with each other is more than twice as wonderful as watching one man figure it out for and with a woman
I recently came across some of Jules Jones' work. Jules Jones is a woman, according to the biography at the Romance Wiki, and she writes 'science fiction and erotic romance, mostly with m/m themes. Much of her work is cross-genre, being science fiction or fantasy with a strong romance element'. These particular stories are really erotica rather than erotic romance, because they're too short to show the full development of a relationship, but they hint at further possibilities. They're also very explicit, so anyone likely to be offended or upset by explicit descriptions of gay sex shouldn't click on the links.

Lord and Master is a short story about the boss/secretary relationship, except there's a twist, because usually the secretary isn't male. The differences are stated by the narrator:
Yes, I'm a man, fulfilling the functions normally fulfilled by a woman. I sit here, looking decorative, smiling nicely at people who treat me like dirt because I'm only a secretary. It's worth it, because I fulfill all the traditional functions of that secretary, including that one. And let me tell you, I enjoy working for a man who has the balls to install a pretty little thing as his personal assistant and tell the world to think of it what they may. And I really enjoy working for a man who has the power to get away with it. And I'm better off than my female counterparts down the hall, because I don't harbor dreams of my boss marrying me [...]. He can't, not unless the laws change.
The boss is an alpha male, as is one of the characters discussed in Sarah's post: 'He's alpha male, with an aura of casual, unselfconscious power. He's king of the hill, and he knows it, and he doesn't feel the need to make an issue of it, make everyone else acknowledge it. He just is.' And yet, in line with Sarah's observation, there's a shift from 'the "masculine economy of use"'. The secretary and boss are, despite the poignant reference to the lack of a possibility of the most traditional sort of HEA, not immune from heading towards 'the "feminine economy of exchange"': the secretary can't help but wonder how his boss feels about him: 'But there's one thing I don't know, have never asked. Does he think about me when he's at home, lying in his bed?'. The question isn't answered in this story, but it may well be in Jules Jones' forthcoming novel with the same title.

In One Size Fits All the characters tentatively move towards emotional intimacy. It reminds me of something I said a while ago, having read some short erotic romance stories online: 'In the erotic romances acceptance of, and enthusiastic participation in, the other's fantasies is an indication not just of sexual broadmindedness and physical compatibility, but of emotional connection and trust.' Again, this is a story which contains explicit descriptions of gay sex, but the ending is 'optimistic', so it's closer to romance than the previous short story.

It begins when
Gavin checked the corridor one last time, and, satisfied that it was clear, slipped inside the bedroom. It would never do if Hugh caught him — Hugh had a strong sense of privacy, to the point of preferring to go to Gavin's place rather than his own. But since he'd given Gavin a key, and agreed to meet here tonight . . .
I don't want to spoil the story, but that 'key' isn't just a necessary tool to open a door: it also functions metaphorically as a key to greater emotional intimacy. It raises questions about Hugh's feelings and intentions in giving Gavin the key. Is Gavin looking at things Hugh would rather he didn't see? Or is Hugh hoping that Gavin will explore, so that Hugh doesn't have to put his desires and needs into words?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Makeovers, Disguises and Cross-dressing

Here's notification of a call for papers which might be of interest to some of you, and which got me thinking a bit more about fashion in the romance genre:
The focus of the 2007 RMMLA [Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association] panel on "Literature & Fashion" is open regarding genre and period; however, we are specifically interested in papers that explore the "materiality" of clothing in shaping the context of identity and in shaping the practices that continually [trans]form identity--or, adversely, impede its transformation or essentialize it--for either/both wearer and observer.

* performance (in any of its many [dis]guises)
* the process/act of dressing--or of being dressed
* cross-dressing
* how one 'wears' one's gender, class, age, sexuality, etc. and the prejudices this wearing of identity invites
* the relationship between clothing and 'passing' (racial, class, gender, sexual, age, religious, etc.)
* not having the proper clothes, being stripped of one's clothing or unclothed, undressing as an unmasking of identity/ies; clothing as "trappings," being trapped in/by clothes, etc.
Proposals should be submitted by 1 March 2007. More details about the conference are available here, and the full call for papers is here.

I've already blogged about fashion, so I'll not repeat myself on that topic, but there are a lot of romances which feature cross-dressing and disguises and All About Romance has a list of some of them. Makeovers were recently discussed by Mary Jo Putney:
My Regency era books almost always have a makeover scene because I enjoy them so much. [...] It’s said that clothes make the man. This may be even more true of the woman. Since female power has historically been tied up with being attractive and desirable, it’s not surprising that we enjoy makeovers. There is power in beauty. (The dark side of the princess fantasy is that generally the princess is passive, valued for her looks and title rather than any inherent intelligence or competence. [...])
I'm not nearly so keen on makeovers in novels, perhaps because I'm wary of that 'dark side' of this kind of scene, and often I see them as an unfortunate (but necessary) part of the story if the heroine needs new clothes. But there are times when, as Mary Jo Putney says, they function in a positive way, giving the heroine confidence in her own abilities and changing her previously negative view of her own looks and body. One of my favourite transformations resulting from a makeover can be found in Eloisa James' Your Wicked Ways. Eloisa, like Mary Jo Putney, says that 'I adore Cinderella makeovers and have to stop myself from putting a version in every novel'. This book is the fourth novel in the Duchess Quartet which features heroines with a variety of different body shapes (including one with a disability) and each discovers (or has already learned about) her own sensuality and how to dress to enhance her body's beauty. Helene, Countess Godwin, is one of the less voluptously endowed heroines:
Helene plucked at the front of her gown. "Esme, there's nothing here!" She waved her hand in front of Esme's chest. "Just compare you and me." There was no question that Esme won that sweepstakes. [...]
"But gentlemen are not only attracted to large bosoms, you know."
"They like curves. I don't want to get excited about impossibilities. I don't have curves. I can't flirt in that way you have, as if you were - [...] Promising them things. [...]
Esme bit her lip [...] "You'll have to feign desire," she said bluntly. "Because it matters far more to a man that you desire him, than that you have a large chest." (2004: 27)
As Esme points out, it's not just clothes that make the woman attractive, but they can do a great deal to enhance her appearance and raise her self-esteem. Here's a description of Helene in one of her new dresses:
Everyone looked [...] It had a fairly high neck, trim around the neck of a slightly darker color and short sleeves. In all ... unexceptionable. Appropriate for a debutante, really. Except ... except...
Except it was almost transparent.
Where two layers clung together, one could see nothing other than the outline of Helene's body, which was revealed to be slender but not angular. She had curves: her waist curved in, and her breasts curved out. The thin silk of Madame Rocque's gown hugged each of those curves in a way that revealed them to be delicously rounded. (2004 : 46)
Helene is clearly convinced that she needs 'curves' in order to be attractive. The make-over demonstrates that she does, in fact, have 'curves', even though they're not the same as Esme's. I think I'd call this an ugly duckling makeover rather than a 'Cinderella makeover', because the problem isn't that Helene's has dirty clothes and that all she needs is some nicer ones in order to catch a prince. What she needs is a different set of aesthetic criteria by which to judge her body. The ugly duckling has the same problem - as a duckling, everyone thinks he's ugly, but if you think of him as a cygnet, he's beautiful. If you compare this picture of a duckling with this picture of a cygnet, neither is at all ugly, unless you're of the opinion that only blonde chicks are cute.

Another of my favourite makeovers is in Jenny Crusie's Fast Women and here friends swap outfits. On a practical level this reminds us that clothes are expensive but it also suggests that the women have more in common emotionally than might be apparent at first glance: Margie tells Nell "[...] I like trying on this stuff. In the suits, I'm you, and in the sweaters, I'm Suze" (2002 : 140) and then Suze starts wearing Nell's suits and Nell begins to wear Suze's clothes with their bright colours and 'The blue sweater made her hair seem even brighter, and the short skirt showed a lot of her legs, which were terrific' (2002: 148). Nell is sloughing off the greyness of her depression and coming back into life and colour, as well as opening herself emotionally to new sexual relationships. And Suze starts to wear Nell's clothes: 'the grays and grayed-blues [...] made Suze look like a sophisticated and potentially dangerous woman instead of a college kid' (2002: 172). She was a 'college kid' when she met and married her husband, and this new look is one that 'Suze said Jack hated' (2002: 172), perhaps because he wonders if it means she's growing up and away from him.

Mary Jo Putney said that 'female power has historically been tied up with being attractive and desirable', but it's not just heroines who get makeovers: heroes can have them too. In Georgette Heyer's Powder and Patch Philip Jettan is rejected by Cleone Charteris, his childhood playmate, because
However masterful and handsome he might be - and Philip was both - he was distressingly boorish in many ways. [...] Philip's speech was direct and purposeful, and his compliments were never neat. His clothes also left much to be desired. Cleone had an eye for colour and style; she liked her cavaliers to be à la mode. Sir Matthew Trelawney, for instance, had affected the most wonderful stockings, clocked with butterflies; Frederick King wore so excellently fitting a coat that, it was said, he required three men to ease him into it. Philip's coat was made for comfort; he would have scorned the stockings of Matthew Trelawney. He even refused to buy a wig, but wore his own brown hair brushed back from his face and tied loosely at his neck with a piece of black ribbon. No powder, no curls, unpolished nails, and an unpainted face - guiltless, too, of even the smallest patch - it was, thought Cleone, enough to make one weep. (1965: 17)
Six months later, after his transformation has taken place, 'Scalding tears dropped on to Cleone's pillow [...]. Philip had returned, indifferent, blasé, even scornful! Philip who had once loved her so dearly, Philip who had once been so strong and masterful, was now a dainty, affected Court gallant' (1965: 99). I have the impression that Heyer much preferred Regency fashions for men.

Philip's clothing after his transformation is, in a sense, a disguise, because underneath the paint, powder, satins, silks, lace and jewels, he is much the same man he ever was. Heyer also wrote other novels which feature disguises. One of these is The Masqueraders (synopsis here and extract here) in which Prudence, the heroine, is disguised as a man, while her brother Robin, the secondary hero, is disguised as a woman. It's not a role which is new to her, however:
Ludicrous to think of security with Mr Colney for sire. She reflected ruefully that her father was somewhat of a rogue; disreputable even. A gaming house in Frankfort, forsooth! She had a smile for that memory. Hand to mouth days, those, with herself in boy's clothes, as now. The old gentleman had judged it wisest, and when one remembered some of those who came to the gaming house one had to admit he had reason. A dice box in one pocket, and a pistol in the other, though! Proper training for a girl just coming out of her teens! (1971 : 36)
It is this background of long years spent learning the necessary skills for her to 'pass' as a man which make the disguise credible. Her brother Robin's is even better. His disguise also consists of far more than a change of clothing: 'You're incomparable,' Prudence said frankly. 'You've even more female graces than ever I could lay claim to, even in my rightful petticoats.' (1971: 41), 'She had coached him to the best of her ability [...] His curtsys were masterpieces of grace; the air with which he held out a hand to young gallants so consummate a piece of artistry that Prudence was shaken with silent laughter. He seemed to know by instinct how to flirt his fan, and how to spread his wide skirts for the curtsy (1971: 43).

I'd like to take a very quick look at the convention of the cross-dressing heroine (and the occasional hero) in the romance genre in the light of Sarah's discussion of cross-gender reincarnation in Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou. Sarah commented that 'all romance heroes, are, of course, created by women. They're "reincarnations" of women in the image of what we wish men could be'. So we have women writing men who may represent 'what we wish men could be' and/or, who may, as Laura Kinsale has suggested, represent aspects of the female reader:
What does it mean to a woman to feel - to want keenly to feel - what the male character feels as she reads?
I think that, as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace (adjectives very commonly applied to heroes, including my own), can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (1992: 37)
Linda Barlow similarly argues that
I see them [romance novels] as psychological maps which provide intriguing insights into the emotional landscape of women. The various elements contained in them function as internal archetypes within the feminine psyche. This includes the hero, whom I see not as the masculine object of feminine consciousness but as a significant aspect of feminine consciousness itself. (1992: 46)
I suspect it's more of an 'and' than an 'or' situation, with different readers responding to heroes in different ways. For some readers the hero may be the ideal or fantasy man, for others, the romance may represent a way for her to explore sides of her personality that she normally conceals or suppresses. Either way, there's gender-bending going on, and the whole situation has the chorus of Blur's 'Boys and Girls' playing in my head.

Eric suggested that perhaps 'paranormal romance lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading. That is, [...] the "paranormal" part of the world correspond[s] in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself'. I think the same may be true of romances featuring cross-dressing heroines and heroes. Cross-dressing by romance heroines can perhaps be read metafictonally as a device which corresponds to the reader's experience of 'becoming' a man. If one is reading these romances in a pragmatic, literal frame of mind however then, as Anne Marble observes,
Most cross-dressing pants already have to work hard to convince the reader. First, we're supposed to believe that no one can see through her disguise, or that only the hero can see through it. Then, you have the problems of everything from an unbelievable disguise to practicalities such as "What if she has to pee?!" (At the Back Fence, 1 May 2005)
She also quotes Lynn Spencer's comments on another aspect of romances featuring a cross-dressing heroine: 'in many of them, the heroine is seen as bright and capable while in disguise, but as soon as her gender is revealed, she must become a swooning idiot in need of the hero's protection'. This certainly suggests that the heroine is not simply putting on clothes, but also a whole gender identity, and that gender roles can be assumed and discarded as easily as the clothes. Even on a non-metafictional level, cross-dressing heroines and heroes may challenge the assumption that femininity and femaleness are inextricably linked, just as they sometimes question constructs of masculinity.
  • Barlow, Linda, 1992. 'The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 45-52.
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2002. Fast Women (New York: St. Martin's Press).
  • Heyer, Georgette, 1965. Powder and Patch (London: Pan Books).
  • Heyer, Georgette, 1971. The Masqueraders (London: Pan Books).
  • Kinsale, Laura, 1992. 'The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 31-44.
  • James, Eloisa, 2004. Your Wicked Ways (New York: Avon).