Monday, April 09, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007, Part4

Forging ever onward...

Romance IV: New Approaches, Enduring Debates
Chair: Eric Selinger, DePaul University

An Goris, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium): "And They Wrote Happily Ever After . . . Normative Narratology"
Goris (my roommate at the conference, and a lovely roommate, too!) related the results of her undergraduate thesis. She examined six "How to Write a Romance" handbooks, all published between 1997-2004. Most of the handbooks talked about writing category romances, rather than mainstream single titles. There were superficial differences in scope and presentation of the handbooks, but overall similarities in discussions of the romance narrative. They examined the strong generic narrative frame that fulfills the functions of escape and relaxation that so many readers say are why they read romances. Goris discovered, however, that each handbook revealed that a strong generic framework is not enough (apparently the handbooks explicitly refuse the word "formula" and prefer the word "recipe"). Each handbook discussed the need for originality, creativity, novelty, and idiosyncracy in writing romances. The handbooks name this the author's "voice" that turns the "recipe" of the romance into a unique product.

Voice is important yet elusive to define. Some handbooks define it as the handling of the story idea, some define it as style, some as the connection between the reader and the writer. But all agree that it's what makes the writing unique and personal. The emphasis on voice is part of the generic discourse of the handbooks and Goris argues that voice is most important for genres with a strong generic framework like romance. Goris argues that the high cultural "artistic" values that society valorizes (originality, creativity, novelty, etc.) are important to the aesthetic framework of romance novels and that traditional analysis of the genre underestimates the complexity of the genre.

Linda Lee, University of Pennsylvania: "Alternate Genealogy: Reconsidering Romance Novels as Postmodern Fairy Tales"
Lee is a folklorist, and while Eric Selinger had to give a presentation about Crusie's novel with Crusie in the audience, Lee disagreed with one of Crusie's articles that discusses the genres' use of fairy tales. That took guts and she did a good job! Jenny agrees.

Lee discussed how romances utilize fairy tale conventions and explained how fairy tales and romances are similar to each other in that they target adult audiences and address adult concerns, much as critics might think differently about both. Lee argues that romance scholars, so far, haven't had enough training as folklorists to analyze the fairy tale/romance combination. In fact, as long as you look past Grimms', fairy tales have always had strong female protagonists and that romances reflect this as female quest books. Lee especially examined Beauty and the Beast tales, in which the change in the "beast" figure of the hero is usually metaphorical. Paranormal novels, especially, usually have a Beauty and the Beast structure, in which the hero is changed by love and can take his rightful place in society after being accepted by the heroine.

I know I'm doing the least justice to Lee's paper because, as she rightly says, I'm not a trained folklorist, so I know very little of the theory she's discussing and found it difficult to take notes as a result. I apologize and maybe she can correct me.

Glen Thomas, Queensland University of Technology: "Romance: The Perfect Creative Industry"
Thomas is also not a literary critic. I'm not quite sure what exactly he is and/or does, except that it sounded very Australian and that he was incredibly cool and fun to be around. He's also the designated Organizer for the First Annual International Conference on Popular Romance, which will take place in Australia in August 2009. You go, Glen!

Thomas discussed romance as an industry, rather than as literary practice. He examines the way in which romances are produced, published, marketed, and consumed. First, he discussed the stereotypes of the industry of romance: romance writing is easy work, romance publishers will publish almost anything, and romance readers are idiots. To counter these stereotypes, he employed a theory about the "citizen reader," in which consumers are empowered and make their own decisions in which consumption is action rather than behavior. Thomas spent some time discussing previous romance criticism as behavioralist approaches to romances. Radway argues that reading is a psychological process that leads to addiction that readers can't kick, whereas Modleski argued that reading is a revenge fantasy for women, establishing a practice of pretense and hypocrisy in readers in ways I don't remember. Both of these arguments establish reading romance as a manifestation of internal psychological conflict where female readers are imprisoned in a false consciousness. Thomas then demonstrated how most defense of the romance performs a similar function by analyzing romance reading from a behavioralist approach where tired, worn, frazzled readers come to romance for release and escape. Both approaches argue that there's something wrong with romance readers. However, Thomas argues that production and consumption of romance is a bottom-up model where publishers and writers respond to the wants and desires of readers with a speed not replicated in other publishing fields. Rather than having something wrong with them, romance readers produce exactly the romances they want to read and reading and writing are inter-related products. Thomas argues that critics need to analyze romances from an action-oriented, consumer-driven perspective, rather than from a behavioralist perspective.

Glen's paper was incredibly powerful, in my opinion, and demonstrated to me the reason I'm always vaguely uncomfortable with much of the pro-romance criticism that claims that romances help rather than hurt the poor, down-trodden readers that come to it. Glen showed me more strongly than anything else that romance criticism needs to get away from that form of analysis (good vs. bad; empowerment vs. oppression) and analyze romances using completely different theories, whatever that theory might turn out to be.

Unfortunately, Michelle Buonfiglio, columnist and owner of "Read Romance: B(u)y the Book" could not make it to the conference as originally planned. But that gave us the opportunity to add a panelist who had had travel difficulties (getting stuck in Kansas because of weather in Chicago--go figure) and hadn't been able to make an earlier panel:

Amber Botts: Neodesha High School: "Love’s Bitch: Paranormal Romance Writers’ Love Affair with Joss Whedon"
Botts argues that those of us with gaping voids in our lives left by the end of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer can fill our sad, empty lives with paranormal romances that utilize many of Whedon's tropes. Primarily, Whedon mainstreamed a cool new job market in Slayage, demonstrating that a female character can be a superhero all on her own. Whedon also mainstreamed the use of a hero (Angel) with a history of being cruel and committing atrocities, but who is now actively trying to seek redemption for his literal crimes, showing that audiences will embrace truly dark heroes. Botts discovered two types of use of Whedon's show: the first amounts to shout-outs in the paranormal novels that demonstrate to the readers of the particular paranormal that she and the reader "share" a show that they both love. The second type wants to play with Whedon's toys and "fix" problems from the show. Spike is the toy most authors wanted to play with the most, with his smart mouth and romantic vulnerability. Unlike Angel, he is not tortured, but rather embraces his vampirism and sees no need to be human again. Paranormal authors seem to have an impulse to want to give Spike his happy ending. The show was entertaining and well-written with a strong romance strain from the beginning. The depth of the show is encouraging to other authors, showing that audience look for thought-provoking, philosophical debates with their vampires, as well as pure entertainment.

Altogether, this was a wonderful panel. So many amazing ideas, with such detailed, layered analyses. It's so inspiring to see this level of analysis happening for romances.


  1. romance readers produce exactly the romances they want to read and reading and writing are inter-related products. Thomas argues that critics need to analyze romances from an action-oriented, consumer-driven perspective, rather than from a behavioralist perspective.

    I can see plenty of romance authors having some concerns about this approach. Not that I can speak for them, but quite a lot of them seem to talk about 'writing the book of your heart' and not writing to the market.

    Thomas discussed romance as an industry, rather than as literary practice.

    Obviously the two aren't incompatible (Virgil had a patron, for example) but I wonder how romance authors feel about their works being considered primarily as consumer products rather than as works of literature.

    Thomas argues that production and consumption of romance is a bottom-up model where publishers and writers respond to the wants and desires of readers with a speed not replicated in other publishing fields

    Thinking of romance publishing as an industry isn't new, at least with regard to Harlequin/Mills & Boon. There have always been the comparisons with how soap-powder is marketed. But it seems to me that what is new in what Glen's saying is the idea that the consumers are in control of the process, rather than the marketers.

    That's interesting. It doesn't reflect the frustration expressed online by many readers who dislike what they perceive as a homogenising process that occurs and, in their opinion, makes many romances bland and boring (these readers have concerns about 'Avonisation' for example). But maybe they're in the minority of romance readers overall?

    Oh, and is Glen looking primarily at Harlequin or at a mixture of different publishers? I wonder if that might affect the analysis too, since perhaps different publishers have different approaches to ascertaining what readers want/trying to predict in advance which books will sell.

  2. I think Glen's point is that if the author writes the book of her heart, the reader has no obligation to pick it up and read it, and in fact will only pick it up and read it if it speaks to her heart, rather than because she's a poor down-trodden reader who needs to be uplifted by the godly author.

    And I don't think Glen is trying to disempower the author so much as empower the consumer in the eyes of the critic. And talking with Mary and Jenny and Suz--they're all about seeing their books as commodities. Get authors together and they talk about covers and publishers and editors and marketing--not the stuff we talk about!

    As for the Avonization of romance, I have very little understanding of this part of the publication process (it was fascinating talking with Mary who always wanted to know what publisher an author was with. *I* don't know!), and I know books are getting shorter at least, but how much of this particular complaint has to do with a reading public who is more widely read than they were when they were younger. That is, twenty years ago things looked more diverse because the readers had read less. Now readers look back on the Good Old Days that didn't really exist? I'd want to know if a 20yo thinks that there's too much homogenization of the genre, because I see an explosion of sub-genres unprecendented in my fifteen years of reading.

    And I don't know if Glen's discussing Harlequins or single-titles. Hrm, isn't that interesting.

  3. I think part of the problem here is that academics are taking this romance industry for something that it is not. The romance writers know better apparently. This is the same kind of fantasy that we get from the advertising industry, isn't it? It makes people feel good until it wears off--and thenw we go shopping again. As for the books getting shorter--I doubt it has a lot to do with the well-read experience of the consumer--my guess is that it has to do with short attention spans and little desire to think deeply or be self-reflective. No?

  4. Anonymous, if you think about it, anything that feels good wears off until you go back and do it again: chocolate, sex, food, exercise, reading, shopping, art. Anything, really, high culture or low culture. And while the shorter novels might be shorter attention spans, I don't think it can easily be said that readers have little desire to think deeply or be self-reflective if you go out there and read any of the readers blogs. While those blogs *might* not reflect the larger reading public, there's also the possibility that they do.

    As for taking the industry for something it's not, writer know what they see because that's what they experience and they experience romances as marketable objects. Academics take romances as the cultural objects they are and evaluate them from that perspective. Neither of them are wrong. And maybe neither of them are right, but it's still what we do.

  5. Sarah: I am not trying to make any moral judgments here, but I do think some sense of difference is helpful. If we flatten out everything, then I suppose I would have to agree that sex, food, shopping, etc. create the same kind of addiction as art and reading, for example. But I don't agree with that --anymore than I would agree that shoppping has the same long term value as reading (for example). There are people who have argued that reading is an addiction, granted. But it is like love in that regard--that is, there is a difference between shopping and reading just as there is a difference between sex and love. And that is all the diffeence in the world.