Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Romance and Race (Syllabus Addendum)

Two quick thoughts about Romance and Race, neither substantive.

First, does anyone know what happened to Stephanie Burley? She wrote a Ph.D. dissertation in 2003 on "Hearts of Darkness: The Racial Politics of Popular Romance"; her degree is from the University of Maryland at College Park. I haven't read the thesis, but I know her essay "What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Book Like This? Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance," from the Doubled Plots: Romance and History collection, and it's a real treat. My usual Googling hasn't turned her up anywhere, alas.

If you see her, say hello--and then send her our way!

Second, I just ran across the syllabus for an American Studies course called "The Racial Politics of 'Escapist Rot': Women's Popular Fiction and Representations of Race, 1946-2003." The woman who taught it was kind enough to post the full text for download (you can find the link here); briefly, here's the course description and set of primary readings:

“Too often,” Edward Said has admonished, “literature and culture are presumed to be politically and historically innocent.” This is especially evident in common conceptions of popular fiction written by, about, and for women, which is variously dismissed as escapist, essentially unrealistic, silly, and thereby meaningless. This course is designed to contest these constructions by examining the racial ideologies perpetuated by popular genres between 1946 and 2003. The texts we will focus on exemplify various generic forms: the gothic novel, popular melodrama, historical romance or “bodice-rippers,” science fiction, suspense, contemporary romance fiction, comedy, and drama. These readings will be supplemented by theoretical works on race and genre that will allow us to read the race as integral to these texts, which often obliquely represent race. We will move chronologically, locating each text in the specific historical context in which it was produced and consumed, enabling us to understand how and why representations of race have or have not changed over the past sixty years. As we move between genres, we will discuss how generic conventions and the requirements of publishers affect how texts articulate ideas around race. Because these texts were written by women, and many were directed towards a predominantly female audience, we will also consider the relationship between race and gender as understood in these novels and films.

Required Materials:

Suzanne Brockmann, The Unsung Hero (New York: Ivy Books, 2000).

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (New York: Random House, 1992).

Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997).

Katherine Greyle, Karen Harbaugh, Sabeeha Johnson, and Cathy Yardley, Playing with Matches: Four Tales of Modern Matchmaking (New York: Signet, 1993).

Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999).

Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).

Kathleen Woodiwiss, The Flame and the Flower (New York: Avon, 1995).

An interesting collection, no? The Morrison would be particularly useful in getting students to think about African American characters on the margins of white texts, like the ones that show up in the Woodiwiss.

I'm also struck by some of the secondary readings she included in her course packet:

All About Romance, “At the Back Fence,” Issues #97, # 150, and #158 and “Is This Censorship at Wal-Mart?”

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Stephanie Burley, “Shadows and Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance.” Paradoxa 5 (2000): 324-341.

Ruth Frankenberg, “Whiteness and Americanness: Examining Constructions of Race, Culture, and Nation in White Women’s Life Narratives.” Race. Eds. Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

George Lipsitz, “History, Myth, and Counter-Memory: Narrative and Desire in Popular Novels.” Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Pamela Perry, “White Means Never Having to Say You’re Ethnic: White Youth and the Construction of ‘Cultureless’ Identities.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 30 (2001): 56-91.

This must have been a wonderful course--one I hope to learn from vicariously as I prepare my own next romance offering.

(In which, I've just learned, a third of the students are male! "Where the boys are...")


  1. How do you think the Brockmann fits in? Via David's racial identity, or via Jazz Jacquette as Tom's XO (stereotype of underdeveloped second-in-command to alpha white male character)?

    Sounds like an interesting course.

  2. The Brockmann does seem a very strange choice, considering how many others she could have chosen: any of the ones with Sam and Alyssa actually IN a relationship, which they aren't in TUH; Harvard's Education; a couple of her other categories. Hrm. I'd love to know her reasons for choosing that one.

  3. For an examination of "otherness" with more depth in time, a course could add Velna Goldsworthy's "Inventing Ruritania," which examines English and American views of the Balkans in popular fiction of the pre-World War I and interwar eras. It's been criticized for being rather selective -- omitting, for example, Andre Norton's "The Prince Commands," since the characters in that don't match the author's hypotheses.

    There are also a few analyses of "sheik" themes floating around, an attitudes of English popular romances toward India.

    If I think of anything else, I'll add a note.


  4. I went to the link (doh! should've thought of that first) and saw that the Brockmann is in a section talking about "Suspense Novels, Multiculturalism, and Muslim Others," so I guess it's about how the Tangos in the Troubleshooters books are usually Muslim. But I think the book where Sam's wife begins a relationship with her Arab neighbor might be a more interesting choice. Ah, Gone Too Far, aka Sam and Alyssa's book.

  5. Yeah, Wendy, I'm with you. I think there are way more Brockmann books that bring up that issue in more interesting ways than TUH. Mary-Lou actually fell in love with Ibraham in the book BEFORE S&A's book--in Mike and Joan's book. That would be a great one to do. There's Ibraham, there's the white terrorist mastermind, there's ML's feelings about Alyssa. Oh well. We all run our classes the way we feel is best!

  6. Oops! And LOL, because it's not like I don't have every single book of Brockmann's in a room not 20 feet away from me right now. I was too lazy to get up.

    I can see wanting to teach TUH because it's still one of my favorites in the series and the first one in a series doesn't suffer from the awkwardness of figuring out how much backstory to reveal for new readers. But Into the Night (no, I still didn't get up to check; I looked it up on Amazon) would be so very good.

    And now I want to re-read it. :)

  7. Here's the one that brings the Balkans theme down to the present: Andrew Hammond, The Balkans and the West: Constructing the European Other, 1945-2003 (Ashgate Press, 2004).

    It's an ILL type of book to take a look at, given the cost of $110.

    It should be noted that American romance novels prior to World War II frequently had at least subordinate "yellow peril" themes. In Peter B. Kyne's The Pride of Palomar, it was a major one; also in at least one of Gene Stratton Porter's later novels.


  8. As for Stephanie Burley, you could email her advisor who might know what happened to her.

  9. Here's the Gene Stratton Porter book, #8 US best seller for 1921:

    8. Gene Stratton Porter, Her Father’s Daughter (Doubleday, Page) (contemporary, set just outside Los Angeles, California) (available on Gutenberg Project) [contains a lot of anti-Japanese propaganda; not much romance] See:


  10. One more -- by no means limited to the romance genre, but providing perspective on the extensiveness of the "other" is:

    Jopi Nyman, Under English Eyes: Constructions of Europe in Early Twentieth-Century British Fiction. Costerus New Series 129. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000.


  11. I remember reading HER FATHER'S DAUGHTER when I was about 11; my grandparents had a copy. I've read a bunch of her other books--the Limberlost ones--and I still enjoy them. This one I am NOT going to revisit.

    It was based on a true story, except that it was entirely different.

    This website has an account of the actual Japanese-American boy whose success caught her eye, and of his remarkably successful father:

    Incidentally, he was not only American-born but a Methodist.

  12. Don't know if you will find it useful, but this article on AA romance authors ran in a Seattle weekly a couple months ago. I was annoyed by the snarky intro, but it is topical.