Tuesday, March 25, 2008

PCA 2008: Romance II

Romance Fiction II: Thursday, 10:00-11:30am
Histories and Rediscoveries

Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

"Australia Doesn't Have to Rhyme with Failure: Australian Romance Pulp Fiction of the 1950s" Toni Johnson-Woods, University of Queensland
Toni was reporting on her new research grant, detailing the information about Australian Popular Fiction to 1959 that will be posted on Austlit.edu.au over the next few months and years. She is focusing solely on Australian authors, because it's a government grant to see how much influence Australia and Australian products (both books and authors) have had on the international market. After 1939, cheap pulp fiction that came from US was taxed by the Australian government as a protectionist measure. As a result, Australian-produced pulp fiction only took off after 1945. Researchers have mostly ignored the US influence on Australian fiction, focusing instead on the British influence, but pulp fiction shows how much the US influenced the Australian market as well. Australian pulp novels are worth hundreds of dollars on eBay nowadays (Toni brought some with her to show us, but made us promise we'd give them back!). The novels had a hybrid format: double-columned with comic book-style pictures. The covers kept changing, from comic book covers in the 1940s, to artistic photos in the 1950s, and paperback-style covers in the late 1950s and the 1960s. One very prolific author was Gordon Clive Bleek: he published 300 books in 20 years, 40 of which were romances. He epitomizes the Australian amateur writer; he was a working class man who looked on writing as a way to supplement his income as a postal worker. He wrote a daily diary with details about his writing, his publisher, and his earnings. In 1951 there was a surge in interest in romance, which resulted, if nothing else, in a disjunction between the covers and the plots due to the factory style production. Interestingly enough, females on the covers can meet the gaze of reader, but men are often not seen from the front but instead in profile or from the back. And men were sometimes much smaller on the cover. In 1959 the tax on imported materials was removed, resulting in a flood of US material into the Australian market, although Australians still wrote a lot of Westerns. The University of Queensland bought Juliet Flesch's romance collection, and Toni is currently scanning all the covers and posting them on the web, although in a password protected format.

"1960's Chick Lit., Female Desire and Empowerment: Rereading Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls" Jennifer Woolston, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Chick lit as seen as emergent or as part of the larger romance genre. Studies either look at older authors like Austen, or at new writers like Helen Fielding. Jennifer looked at Jacqueline Susann as part of the chick lit tradition. Susann's Valley of the Dolls is still in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling title ever. Written in the language of common speech, in modern language, it focuses on the drives and the feelings of its characters, acting as a template for all women to discover and identify with it. The book's expression of women's sexual desire, the fact that it wrote openly about female desire, was enthralling to its reader. The patriarchal view of sex was instilled in the character Ann by her mother and was used as excuse for Ann to seek to leave her small hometown. The novel as a whole seemed to be looking for an outlet for female desire in a male-dominated literary world. The depiction of lesbianism shows female sexuality as fluid in nature. Susann unwittingly depicted a poignant social commentary of the feminist criticism of patriarchal culture and its effects on women in society and condemning Susann for not writing an obviously feminist novel is anachronistic. The fact that she focused on female sexuality and female subjectivity is a feminist act in and of itself, even if was not meant to be. One can easily make a connection between modern chick lit and Susann's huge bestseller, because she questioned the dominant power structure, just as chick lit does today.

"Romance for the Masses: The 'Dime Novels' of Bertha M. Clay" Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University
Darcy discovered Bertha M. Clay in a sale of books (can't remember if it was a library sale or a second-hand bookstore, or what). She decided to do some more research on who this woman was and why her books were so popular. Bertha M. Clay was actually a "stable" of authors with 500 novels to her name. She started as a real person, Charlotte Brame, but she died when she was 49, and her name was continued by her publisher. She was born in 1836, and from 1870 to her death, there's 70 manuscripts that are hers. She wrote the dime novels that had their heyday between 1860-1915 and were the direct ancestor of modern popular genres. Rural women, especially, were the audience and fiction came more and more to focus on women's sphere: home and family. With sensation fiction, they were the prototype for the modern soap opera and were the ultimate example of the trivialities produced for "mindless, passive" consumers. George Eliot particularly condemned the "oracular" novels Bertha M. Clay wrote, novels that she wrote to forward her particular, conservative moral view with simpering, pure heroines. Dora Thorne is the most popular and long-lasting novel under Bertha M. Clay's name. Three silent films were made. The story housed three love stories in one: Dora Thorne and Ronald Earl, an earl's heir. [Bathroom break—sorry! I came back in at the very end.] We should be looking at novels that were popular precisely because they were enjoyable to the readers, no matter how strange they may be to us today.

"Eleanor Sleath: A Writer Rediscovered" Carolyn Jewel
Unfortunately, Carolyn was not able to attend the conference.

This panel shows us some of the exciting new research that is being done around the popular novel for women, if not necessarily around the modern romance novel.

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