Wednesday, April 11, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007, Part 5 and hopefully last

We'll make a sprint for the ending here and try to cover the remaining two panels and the extra little nuggets of information in one post.

Romance V: Romance & Its Neighbors (In and Out of the Canon)
Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

Druann Bauer, Ohio Northern University: "From James Fennimore Cooper to Cassie Edwards: The Evolution of Frontier Romance"
Bauer relays that the genre of Frontier Romance was supposed to have disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century. She argues instead that it changed and evolved as it has throughout its existence and can be found in modern popular romances. The Frontier Romance began as seventeenth-century captivity narratives that established themselves as religious autobiographies, detailing the captivity of Europeans by Native Americans as a test from God. The eighteenth century saw narratives created as anti-Indian polemics which added melodrama and sensibility and soon became pure entertainment. James Fennimore Cooper was the undisputed leader in writing Frontier Romances, espousing a racist and nationalistic philosophy. His depiction of Native Americans were three-fold: they were either despicable used to show how far whites had come in choosing civilization, the Noble Savage of pre-contact days, or the Good Indian who started out as a Bad Indian and is changed and educated by whites. Captive women are always rescued by a white man and the Indian prefers white women. In the early 1980s, Janelle Taylor continued the Frontier Romance with her mass-market romances that detail an Indian captivity narrative with a twist: a white woman is captured by or meets and Indian man and they fall in love and must adjust to their cultural differences. The hero is usually the strongest and smartest of his tribe, is a sex symbol, is a peaceful, mystical, spiritual guardian of the land, but the his happiness is finally an important part of the captivity narrative. Of course, he still strangely prefers white women.

Robin Payne, University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill: "Popularizing Feminist Theories of Heterosexual Romance: Romantic Love and Feminist Identity in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying"
Payne examines the Second Wave Movement in feminism of the 1960s and 1970s and their confusion surrounding how to reconcile women's needs for both independence and gender equality, and also heterosexual love. Fear of Flying was among the ten top bestsellers of the entire decade of the 1970s, in which Jong gave readers a character to whom they could relate. Feminism had established heterosexual love as a patriarchal construct used to subjugate women. Simone de Beauvouir especially claimed that love needed to be separated from the social heirarchies that gave women power. In the Second Wave, where the personal became the political, women had to make a choice between cooperation with or separation from men. Criticisms of heterosexual love deemed it the psychological pivot in the persecution of women, an emotional manipulation that wasn't real. Jong's novel, on the other hand, emphasized the complexity of the debates and became a popular feminist narrative that was both adored and reviled by self-proclaimed feminists of the time, demonstrating that sexuality was a site both and liberation for women.

Grace Sikorski, Anne Arundel Community College: "Revising the Family Romance: Toward a Bisexual Perversity in Narratives of Desire"
Sikorski's paper is another one that I will do little justice to, for which I apologize. It was a fascinating paper and part of a larger project detailing bisexuality in literature, but my knowledge of Freudian analysis is minimal at best, so I'm going to miss some references and argument points. She (or it has been) argues that Freud's Dora is the first representation of bisexual development, although Freud argued that bisexuality is unresolved erotic hysteria and a refusal to commit to binary reality of hetero- vs. homosexuality. Both the marriage plot and coming-out stories deny the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality, and bisexual characters in stories by men usually die while those written by women usually come through bisexuality to their "real" lesbianism. This indicates a trajectory in which the desiring subject evolved linearly, eschewing one side of the other, but never picking both, a monosexual epistemology. A bisexual romance, on the other hand, problematizes readers' expectations for the plot and demonstrates that desire is not just about the object of desire and his/her fiddly bits (my phrase), but about moments of desire.

Robert Waxler, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth: "Literary and Popular Erotic Romance"
While only the first paper of this panel was directly related to mass-market romance novels, it was Dr. Waxler who seemed most out of place on the panel. He had suggested to Eric Selinger a paper that discussed the short erotic romance, like those of Joyce Carol Oates, as a literary genre. These are stories about sexual difference that are pessimistic in nature and seem unable to link abstract desire with reality in compatible ways. Eric, apparently, suggested that he examine instead the "short, erotic romances" of Emma Holly, Thea Devine, Robin Schone, and Lori Foster. Which, very much to his credit, Waxler did. And he claims he enjoyed them. For the paper, then, Waxler examined Oates' "Where are you going? Where have you been?" in comparison to Lori Foster's "Luscious" in one of the Bad Boys anthologies. Oates' characters confuse death with erotic romance and desire the fantasy of each other but actual sex provokes violence, not love. Neither of the main characters can become whole because of the inevitable exteriorization of human desire. Foster's story, on the other hand, details a significantly different erotic progress that grants the characters and the readers a fullness without any sense of loss. Both characters already have what it takes to be fully realized as desiring subjects, but then complete each other when they come together.

During the Q&A after the panel, Eric challenged Bob Waxler that examine mass-market romances as using "eros," the desire for what one lacks that, when satisfied, is lost, but twisting it to rewrite the loss and questioned whether the concept of "literary" and "popular" is just a difference in philosophical understanding of love. Jenny Crusie argued that literary romances are haunted by mortality, arguing that misery is the natural human condition, while popular romances argue instead that happiness is the natural human condition. Many suggestions were made to panelists about more books that might be helpful to their subjects and a lively discussion was had by all.

The last official romance panel was:
Romance VI: Romance Authors Special Session
Chairs: Eric Selinger, Depaul University, and Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

This panel apparently began to be formed when Jenny Crusie sent Eric a late email, asking if she could present at the conference with her "academic" hat on. Eric said yes (of course!), but suggested a separate panel that would bring together ideas about popular romance from within the writers' community. As a result, the presenters on the panel were Jenny Crusie, Mary Bly (a Shakespeare scholar from Fordham who moonlights as Eloisa James), with Suzanne Brockmann as respondant.

Jenny Crusie Smith: "A Book Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Community in Contemporary Romance Fiction."
Crusie began by claiming she could analyze popular romance more accurately from the outside than since she became an author because she had an objective distance and a grasp of the overall field, rather than a focus on and understanding of what sold well at Wal*Mart. However, she still wanted to know why readers like community so much in their romance novels, to the extent that they'll go back again and again to books with a strong sense of community. She establishes community in her own novels by building a world for her heroine that seems to organically populate itself with too many people. These books, then, are used by people to establish their own, online communities with very little help or hindrance by Crusie herself. Community on the 'net seems to correlate to the very natural need for community in real life. Crusie mentioned two theorists, both of whose names I didn't catch, so you'll have to wait for her to post the paper to her web page (which she has promised to do) in order to get them--sorry! One of the names was a theorist of social psychology who theorized that a psychological sense of community gives those in the community four things: membership, influence, needs fulfillment, and emotional connection. Membership allows readers to feel like a part of the community with a common emotional language when reading a book. Needs fulfillment gives reader shared values. Influence allows reader to "co-write" the book with the author in the "white spaces" around the edge of the story in which the writer hasn't filled all the details. Emotional connection allows the reader to get along with the hero and heroine, allows the reader to support the h/h beyond the end of the book. In the end, a good love story doesn't have to be only about romantic love--it's about the various communities established in the course of writing and reading a book.

Mary Bly (Eloisa James): "Hostile but Useful: Adorno, Pop Music, and Popular Romance."
Bly uses Theodor Adorno's theories about mass culture to rethink our relation to mass-market popular romance novels. Adorno is well-known for his vehement dislike of pop music, claiming that the fundamental structure of popular music is standardization, the result of the lamentable influence of industrialization. He argued that a "hit song" will always lead back to the same feeling or response each time it's played, with no uniqueness with a veneer of individual effects that confuse the listener/reader into thinking that they're listening/reading individual texts, when in fact all hit songs are really the same and none of them have any layers.

Bly then switched tactics and focused on romance criticism, which has historically denigrated the romance based on the intellect, class, and education level of both readers and writers. In "the best academic smack-down" that Jenny Crusie had ever seen, Bly put to rest that criticism of the romance, arguing that romance readers and writers are, for the most part, smart, college educated, and generally the same class and gender as most romance critics. Commodification of the romance, the continued belief in a standard "formula," is the hinge that inspires the most scorn, just as it did for Adorno and popular music.

Bly then switched hats again and discussed Shakespeare's "uniqueness" as a product of his ability to take someone else's story (all but five of his plays were "plagiarized") and make it uniquely his, uniquely beautiful. Shakespeare uses genre (history, tragedy, this particular story) as the opportunity for inventiveness, not structural stagnation as critics would argue in romances and pop music. Shakespeare's "originality" is always laid on the brilliance of others and always played out in genre. He took the structure of someone else's plays and stories and make them deeply original but stuck to the structure of the original. Critics have to get away from the idea that sticking to structure (genre) is a bad thing. In fact, for popular genres, standardization of the whole is crucial. Moments of wild originality within the generic structure is the definition of a brilliant romance. The romance writer's job is fifty times harder than that of a literary fiction writer precisely because of the need to produce strong emotion in the reader within a preset structure. Literary fiction authors have nothing to fight against, no expectations to break or meet.

A comic that I originally encountered in the comments section of a post on Smart Bitches seems to sum this all up beautifully:

Special Author Discussant: Suzanne Brockman
Brockmann claimed that Adorno would really have hated her because she vividly remembers the first time she heard rock music (The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand") and how much it changed her life. All the epiphanies in her life have come through popular culture.

A point was made during the Q&A series that romance affirms women's desire and that is a frightening thought for modern culture. Eric Selinger asked the panel what romance needs from academic critics. Crusie said anything that's fair, anything that doesn't start with romance as porn or trash and that doesn't look at romance fiction from literary fiction standards. Mary Bly asked us to stop footnoting Radway and to perform narrower studies of individual novels because they can be much more accurate.

There were also some papers about romance, or partly about romance, which were presented at other sessions:

Kristin Ramsdell, California State University, East Bay, and Doug Highsmith, California State University, East Bay: "Putting Romance into the Library: Building a Collection of Genre Romance Literature in an Academic Library"
Doug Highsmith was actually unable to make the conference, but Kristin Ramsdell related the results of a survey sent to the RomanceScholar listserv and around the internet about what romance critics are looking for in a complete romance collection at a library. The results were interesting, but not particularly unexpected: we'd like more secondary criticism, we'd prefer a library to go deep into one sub-genre or area of romance than try to spot-check everything, and libraries shouldn't forget about access to web resources.

Kathryn Swanson, Augsburg College: "Sizzling Romance and Nail-Biting Suspense: Really Not Such Strange Bedfellows!"
Unfortunately, no one I know attended Swanson's paper, which is not to say that it wasn't brilliant, of course, but I can't report on it. If anyone would like to fill in the blanks, I would appreciate it.


  1. I've really appreciated these write-ups, Sarah.

    Did Mary Bly/Eloisa James say where/if she'd be publishing her paper?

  2. Hopefully, in the book Eric and I are putting together. We basically begged her. She's got two EJ books and a MB book on puns to finish so she was really reluctant to promise us the paper, but we really really want it. Hopefully we can convince her.