Sunday, April 08, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007, Part 3

Romance III: Genres & Forms
Chair: Eric Selinger, DePaul University

Lesa Smith, Wilfrid Laurier University: "Emailing Romance: Epistolary Form in the Modern Romance Novel"
Smith examined the conventions used in Meg Cabot's The Boy Next Door, a novel told entirely in emails and attachments, against the epistolary conventions used in Fanny Burney's Evelina. It has been theorized that in the eighteenth century, women used letter writing not only to express themselves, but to rewrite themselves. While the letters in Evelina were a physical connection between sender and addressee, emails in The Boy Next Door has no corporeality. An email exchange also has an illusion of "real-time" communication with rapid-fire response and were sometimes very short. Unlike Evelina, there is very little dialogue in Cabot's book and very little narrative mood-setting. Instead, Cabot's book uses emoticons, caps, and the subject line to indicate the characters' moods. Even the email addresses forward plot and character in ways that the stylized greetings and sign-offs in Evelina can. In Evelina, direct male speech is given at least one remove and the female voice is dominant over the male. This is repeated in Cabot's novel to some extent in interesting ways. While Cabot's novel is only one in a sea of published novels, it might indicate a new wave of the epistolary form, or at least of the applicability of the epistolary form in this electronic age.

Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, Michigan State University: "A Marriage Made in the Kitchen: Amanda Hesser’s Blend of Chick Lit and Food Memoir in Cooking for Mr. Latte"
Van Slooten details Hesser's creation of a "foodie romance" that in the combination of two separate genres (foodie memoirs and chick lit), questions the idea of pleasure and consumption and broadens the definition of both genres. The book itself becomes a hybrid object of consumption. Like Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary, Hessen's Cooking for Mr. Latte started as a newspaper column, although it is, apparently, mostly a non-fictional memoir. The novel appeals to chick lit readers and has a typical romance-plot happy ending, but it also organizes each chapter around a recipe that has connection to the plot, as in a food memoir. Many readers and reviewers were frustrated by the hybrid genre of the book. It was dismissed as superficial by food critics because of the chick lit quality, and confused the chick lit reviewers with the inclusion of recipes. A reviewer from Gastronimica said that the book puts the focus back on the intimacy and relationships that come from sharing food. In marrying the genres, Hessen brings up a whole new range of questions to apply to each genre, most particularly that food is not the enemy in the foodie genre, unlike in chick lit, and food represention becomes a form of escapism for the reader.

Eric Selinger, Depaul University: "Brace Yourself, Brigid O'Shaughnessy: Jennifer Crusie Romances The Maltese Falcon"
When Eric's panel started, I remembered that he didn't know if Jenny Crusie would be there for his paper. So I looked around the room and there she was, at the back! I have to say that I'm glad Suz Brockmann or J.R. Ward weren't there for MY paper!

Twenty-five years ago, detective fiction, even of the hard-boiled variety, was the subject of respectful, theoretical literary criticism. Romance criticism, on the other hand, examined by Radway and Modleski, examined the "formula" and the readers and didn't attend to the artistry of the genre. Recently critics have begun to examine romance novels individually, and we're beginning to examine them as romances consciously constructed as meta-romances or meta-narratives. Eric examined Crusie's category romance What the Lady Wants and her single-title Fast Women as conscious rewrites of Dashiel Hammett's The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon.

Hammett apparently thought that someday someone would make "literature" out of pulp detective fiction, and indeed critics did, demonstrating what modernism looked like to mass culture.

In Crusie's novels, the male private investigators are in the business of "relationship investigation" and "play the sap" for the heroines, unlike Hammett's male characters who are kept away from emotional interaction with the female characters and from readers with a strictly controlled third person narrator perspective. In fact, Crusie shows that "playing the sap" for a woman is a positive good because you're leaving yourself open to emotional involvement. Crusie's novels rewrite the morally just universe of detective fiction as the ethically just universe of romance and demonstrates how that's better for the characters. She brings the relationship that are ignored by Hammett to the front and center of the novels and demonstrates that the big mystery of her novels IS all about relationships. Finally, Hammett achieves ambiguity through reticence, while Crusie achieves it through multiplicity and hetero-dialogics (not sure how that last point connects to the rest of the argument, but it's in my notes and sounds good!).

As soon as he was done, Eric looked back and asked Jenny how he'd done. She said that she loves discovering stuff that she didn't know was in her own fiction and that she had learned a lot. A questioner asked about category romances, asking whether a truly emotionally just universe would really have the heroine giving up something, usually a career, paying a price to achieve her happy ending. I pointed out that the heroines of most of the romances I read don't pay a price, that they demonstrate instead that relationships require sacrifice for both characters. Jenny reiterated that emotional justice can only come through sacrifice.

The papers worked brilliantly together, I thought, demonstrating that when genres are melded, rather than closing off questions and making the novels smaller and less interesting, the questions about both genres explode. It was a fascinating panel and a lot of fun having an author as well as critics in the room.


  1. Very interesting analysis of Fast Women, one of my favorite Crusies. I thought the quote about turning detective pulp fiction into literature was Chandler, not Hammet.

  2. Just home, and off to bed--but for the record, it was Hammett, in a 1928 letter to Blanche Knopf: he calls himself “one of the few … people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. I don’t mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else’s seriously, but the detective story as a form. Some day some body’s going to make ‘literature’ of it…, and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes, however slight the evident justification may be.” Cite, etc., if you want it--but not until tomorrow, at least!

  3. Hope you plan to post your reviews of Panels 4-6 soon too.