Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Hey, Pointers--it's an All '80s Weekend!"

More syllabus musings....

After much fretting, I've settled on an opening sequence that runs from The Sheik to The Flame and the Flower. I'll add Mistress of Mellyn, and possibly swap in Regency Buck for Devil's Cub, but am now thinking to stick with the latter, and hand out a sort of "reader's guide" before we begin. (My students had some trouble keeping track of the characters, or at least those with titles, as they're named various ways at various times. Dominic, Marquis of Vidal, is sometimes Dominic and sometimes Vidal; his father is sometimes "Monseigneur," sometimes "Avon," etc. Easy, once you understand the conventions, but baffling for some, initially.)

I'm now stuck on what I should teach right after The Flame and the Flower (1972). Last time I leaped ahead to the present, or close enough, turning from the first Woodiwiss to a mid-career Crusie, Welcome to Temptation, in the context of Crusie's defenses of the genre and arguments with critics from the 1980s. This time, I'd like to forge ahead chronologically, moving from '72 into the early or mid-1980s with a book that does a few things all at once:
  • Represents one or more "characteristic" features of romance from the period, either in terms of characterization or sexual politics or evolution of the genre.
  • Remains in print.
  • Makes for an interesting dialogue with mid-'80s romance criticism (esp. Modleski & Radway & Thurston)
  • Reads so well that it will, like the books before and after it, command the respect or affection of some of my students. (You can't please them all every time, but I don't want to teach something that won't please anyone, after all!)
A tall order, and maybe the job for more than one book? I should say that I'm thinking of following this with Bird's The Boyfriend School, which looks back from 1989, but I'm not wedded to that.

This decade's too big a gap in my course and my sense of the genre, and it's time to fill it! Help a romprof out, anyone?

(This seemed the appropriate soundtrack, somehow. Enjoy, as you reflect!)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sociologist Seeks Romance Readers

Laura Vivanco, relaying information obtained via Smart Bitches Trashy Books

Andrea Barra is
a PhD student in Sociology at Rutgers University [...] writing my dissertation on the romance novel industry. While I’m thrilled at the increase in academic work on romance that exists, a good amount of it is focused in English lit and Communications, and tends to focus on the books themselves. Not as much is analyzing from a social perspective. Hopefully that’s where I will help fill a gap.
Of course, from my perspective as someone who thinks there's been hardly any proper literary criticism done on romance novels, I'd suggest that there's really not been very much "academic work on romance that [...] is focused in English lit" but I think it's typical of academics that we all think our own area is (a) the most interesting and (b) the one that needs the most work done on it. I suspect we have to think that, or we'd start to feel our work was relatively uninteresting and added nothing much that was new to the sum of human knowledge. However, I'm willing to admit that, although I think there's been quite a lot written about romance readers, much of the work with this focus concludes that we read because we're looking for "nurturance" or "porn for women," that romance-reading is addictive (like a drug) and/or damages our ability to form healthy relationships and/or makes us "cultural dupes." Some of the academics who reached these conclusions did actually interview romance readers first. I should add that of course there have also been some academics who interviewed romance readers and reached rather more positive assessments of our psychological states and mental abilities.

Barra is wanting to interview romance readers in the "NJ, metro NYC, and Philly area" and at "this year’s RT Convention."

Smart Bitch Sarah "asked for more information about her project, and here are the details":
I am analyzing the relationships between four key sectors of the romance novel industry: 1. Readers (Consumers) 2. Authors (Producers) 3. Books (literally the novels themselves) 4. Social World (US society and its culture)

The dissertation will look at the interactions between all of these different segments and how they create an entire picture of an industry. To get a better idea of what that means, I’ll give you a main theme in some key relationships:

Relationship between Reader and Book: What are the major emotions/reactions elicited from reading a romance novel? What of themselves do readers bring to the act of interpreting and accepting (or rejecting) a book?
Relationship between Book and Social World: How do prevailing ideas of gender and relationship equality come to bear on the content of novels?
Relationship between Author and Reader: How has the increase in technology altered the way authors understand and respond to their readers?
Relationship between Social World and Author: How does an author’s particular demographic situation (age, race, geography, gender, etc) affect what they produce?
For more details, see the post at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reading the Romance: The Mainz Syllabus

As I've already announced in an earlier post, next winter I will give a course on British romance fiction at Mainz University. It will be one of our (brandnew) undergrad seminars 1, which are intended to give students a historical overview of one particular genre.

I've chosen a mixture of a chronological and thematic approach for the course, and these are the thematic blocks I've come up with so far:

1 Reading the Romance
This block will probably include a mini-history of the genre, and we will read excerpts from theoretical works on romance fiction (probably Radway, Flesch, Regis).

2 Austen Ever After
Austen's lasting influence on the genre.

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice (I've taught P&P once before, and it was great fun for me to incorporate the research I had done for my novels in the course)
Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck (aka the book I'm currently reading; at the moment I'm thinking about what would be the best way to give the students access to the wealth of historical background in the novel - more presentations, perhaps?)

Presentations on:
Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary
Alexandra Potter, Me and Mr Darcy

3 Gothic Delights
Victoria Holt, Mistress of Mellyn (that will be a nice trip back into my own past: in my teens I read umpteen of Holt's novels)

Presentations on:
the gothic novel as a genre
Jane Eyre
Rebecca (probably)

4 101 Years of Mills & Boon
probably Lucy Gordon, The Italian's Wife by Sunset

Presentation on:
the history of M&B


I'm not yet quite sure what to do with Barbara Cartland. I'll definitely have to mention her somewhere, somehow, especially as her heroines are so very different from Heyer's. I'm also thinking about including Hull's The Sheik on the reading list, but I still have to read it myself before I decide where and how to place it. Of course, I also have to consider the time frame of the course: I've already got four novels I want to discuss, and I need two lessons for each at the very least.

So what do you think?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Covers in Motion

Thanks to the Smartbitches I came across a short clip of a video by Robert Arnold, who
explores the concept of "continuous loop" video in works such as The Morphology of Desire (1999), which explores romantic love in popular culture illustrated on the covers of dime-store, romance novels. This work has won numerous awards, including the Best Animated/Experiment Film, Boston Underground Film Festival (2002); Grand Prix, Videoformes International Video & Multimedia Festival, France (2000); Best Experimental Film, Uppsala International Short Film Festival, Sweden (1999). (University of Wyoming)
often found myself in the aisle of a grocery store where there would be rows of books. I noticed that in the romance section, the images on the covers of these books were always nearly identical. And that’s one of the aspects of the illusions of motion in film — that the successive frames are nearly identical, but there’s some small degree of difference between them. I imagined that if you pushed your shopping cart down the aisle that had the romance novels, and you blinked in time with the passage of each one of those books, instead of a bunch of books going by, you would see, like a zoetrope, one couple in motion.

I decided to test that hypothesis. I actually had to collect romance novels — I started going to thrift stores where you could buy them for $.25 apiece or $1 for a box of them. I ended up building a collection of about 1,000 of them, so that I could start to look for the relationships between these different covers, and likewise organize them as a massive flipbook. I wanted simultaneously to assert that these were separate individual covers of separate individual books, but at the same time allow them to blend together, so it appears that it becomes one couple that’s moving in space, but is also shifting from a brunette to a blond, to one with green eyes, then blue eyes, in this constant transformation of all those identities merging together.
The result was Morphology of Desire, and you can see a clip of it here. That's only a small part of the whole, unfortunately, but here's a description of it:
The video is split up into various episodes, each introduced by a statement. In beautiful flourishing letters, texts such as 'She hovered between mistrust and the urgent will to believe…', and 'His gaze swept over her, hot and victorious…' set the tone for the images that follow. [...] Gradually, the thread of this video becomes clear, with the actions of the main characters growing more explicit. You can see their desire conflicting with any rational reticence, but inevitably, they are heading for the moment of surrender. The physical distance between the characters becomes smaller and smaller, and their glances less and less ambiguous. Eventually, all doubt disappears from their eyes, and it is clear that they only want one thing. Then, in the final episode, you can hear the sonorous sound of a church clock striking, and the rumble of thunder in the distance. The thought that something ominous is about to happen springs to mind, but the lovers are untroubled by this. The final image fades away with a shot of a knowing wink from a supremely happy blonde. (Netherlands Media Art Institute)
The clip from Morphology of Desire reminds me of Philip Scott Johnson's 500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art:

A full list of the music and paintings used in the making of that video can be found here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Syllabus Suggestions (part 1)

Spring quarter is fast approaching, and that means it's time for me to choose the books for my new crop of romance classes! I get to teach a pair of them next term: a "liberal studies" survey (i.e., it's not primarily for English majors) and an Honors senior seminar, which is supposed to be "interdisciplinary" in its approach, as there are Honors students coming from a variety of majors.

So--what should I teach?

1. Where to start?

I like to structure the survey historically, and students seem to like that, too. As a rule, I've started with The Sheik, and that's always gone well, but I've often thought about starting things much, much earlier (say, with Daphnis and Chloe) or back in the 19th century (say, with Pride and Prejudice), or a little earlier in the 20th century (with A Room With a View, for example, or with Grace Livingston Hill's The Finding of Jasper Holt).

The appeal of starting with a Greek romance or the Austen is that it would let me establish the deep roots of the genre. The Hill appeals to be as a way to place evangelical romance at the start of the tradition, in a way that would certainly make the scandalous nature of The Sheik particularly vivid to my students.

I've also gotten much more self-conscious about presenting The Sheik as the start of things when j. dixon's The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990 does such a fine job of introducing one to what was going on before it in the world of popular romance.

So, that's dilemma #1: where to start the class?

2. Early Texts, or Recent Ones?

Since I'm not going to drop The Sheik, although I may put something before it, the next question I face is how much weight to give earlier romance novels--which are historically significant, but often less engaging for my students--and how much to skew the class toward more recent authors and texts. My own experience as a reader was not at all chronological, since I started with recent work and went backwards, but that's not the most effective way to structure a class, I suspect. (Maybe someday I'll try that, but not this year.)

Here's how the dilemma plays out in practice. After The Sheik we'll turn to Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub, which was hard for some of my students, but is a perfect complement to the E. M. Hull novel before it. I also see now that Regency Buck is back in print here in the US. Should I teach that one instead? It would introduce my students to the Regency genre, while DC is set in an earlier period, but it lacks the delightful element of a heroine who shoots the hero, which is always so popular. The Grand Sophy is another option, although it's from considerably later in the century, 1950 as opposed to 1932 for Devil's Cub and 1935 for Regency Buck. Hmmm... Advice?

In any case, having taught Hull and Heyer, the next likely text would be Mistress of Mellyn, by Victoria Holt, back in print for the first time since I started teaching this class. I don't love it, as a novel, but historically it's certainly significant, a way to talk about Gothic romance and its centrality in the 1960s. (I've tried using Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? to teach the roots of romantic suspense, but it doesn't have the whole house element that's so crucial to romantic suspense, somehow.) Mistress of Mellyn will also make a fine set up for Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, which I always teach, and always teaches well.

That's four, maybe five novels, and brings us halfway into the quarter. Historically, though, we're only at 1972, and we only have five weeks left to cover romance since the 1980s. Hardly enough time to cover the major trends, authors, subgenres, etc., of the past three decades, even if I positively shoehorn books into the syllabus, as I did last fall. (13 novels in 10 weeks. The students were not amused.) On the other hand, if I want to slant the class towards more recent novels, which of these do you think I should cut?

Must run to a dentist's appointment--fun, fun!--but I'll post more about the classes when I can. All help, as always, appreciated!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day!

more animals

Yes, I know they're not black-footed ferrets, but it still seemed appropriate.

Original photo from and with thanks to Talpianna for making me aware that there's a LOLcat photo for (almost) every occasion.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reading the Romance

Would you like to take a course on the history of British romance fiction? Then come to Mainz this autumn!

In the next winter semester I will teach a course called "Reading the Romance," in which we will trace the development of British romance from Austen to Heyer to Bridget Jones, from the gothic novels of the eighteenth century to Jane Eyre to The Mistress of Mellyn. And, of course, we will also discuss Mills & Boon and their role in the evolution of romance in Britain.

Needless to say that I'm thrilled to pieces!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Telling Stories about Australia

I've been reading reports about the bushfires in Victoria (Australia) and, among the many other thoughts I had in response to them, I wondered to what extent Australia is, in my mind, populated by the characters from the romances I've read. Juliet Flesch, in her From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels, wrote that
The global reach of Australia's romance novels means that [...] what they tell readers about Australian life and customs, and the ethical positions they express, are as important as how well they describe the physical environment. (294)
They [...] speak with a voice that is distinctively Australian. [...] Some are both subtle and humorous; in general they endorse qualities of openness, inclusion, egalitarianism, community spirit and self-reliance. These qualities are not gendered and women as well as men in these novels possess them. The picture of Australian society which emerges is idealised - though in fairness it is perhaps unrealistic to expect greater complexity of viewpoint in work the length of a novella. (296)
Idealised or not, I can't help but think of heroes and heroines such as those created by Marion Lennox and Ann Charlton, who have faced drought and bushfires in the outback. And one thing is certain: there definitely has been a demonstration of "community spirit" in Australia's response to this tragedy:
The Red Cross and Salvation Army have both launched public appeal, and say they have been overwhelmed by the response from around the country.

Salvation Army spokeswoman Pat Daley says would-be donors need to be patient, as phone lines have been jammed with offers of help.

"We're being inundated and we're just asking people to be patient," she said.

"We are very, very gratified and pleased at the response - not only us, but the other agencies and the government response to the special appeal that's been set up," she said. (Radio Australia News)
There are still more stories to be told and read. Kat at the (mainly) Australian romance blog Book Thingo has a poignant post up about the bushfires. She discusses the importance of storytelling:
Just this morning, I was listening to news reports of the devastation that has occurred and may possibly continue. One of the segments was an interview with a psychologist on how to help survivors cope with their loss. One of the suggestions was to just let people tell their stories, because that the act of articulating their experiences helps in some way to make sense of and deal with it. And it was obvious from seeing news footage that in fact many people are just looking for some human contact and to be able to express to another person what they went through.

As a reader and a lover of stories, this really resonated with me. Even though I read mostly fiction, to me the act of storytelling is, at its core, a way for the author to express and explore and expose to me essential truths about human existence and human life. Storytelling is an essential part of how I make sense of my world (as you’d know if you’ve ever had to endure a dinner conversation with me), but receiving stories is how I connect with other people and make sense of things beyond myself.
Edited to add:

A recent news item from Australia seems to prove the point about the power of storytelling and also demonstrates people's need for happy stories, including romances. Media sites from around the world (including some in Spain, the US, Canada and the UK) have been reporting on a "love story" between two koalas:

A love story between two badly burned koalas rescued from Australia's deadliest bushfires has provided some heart-warming relief after days of devastation and the loss of over 180 lives.

The story of Sam and her new boyfriend Bob emerged after volunteer firefighter Dave Tree used a mobile phone to film the rescue of the bewildered female.

She was found cowering in a burned out forest at Mirboo North, 90 miles southeast of Melbourne. [...] it was after reaching a wildlife shelter that Sam met and befriended Bob, who was saved by wildlife workers on Friday, two days before Sam. [...]

Tree, a volunteer with the Country Fire Authority Victoria, has visited Sam since her rescue and was delighted to see she had found a boyfriend in Bob.

'They've really taken a shine to each other as they are both burnt and share the same burnt smell,' he said.

'My heart goes out to the people in these fires and this was so innocent so people have used this to distract them from all the sad stuff that has gone on.

'It gives people a bit of hope.' (from the report on the Daily Mail's website)

  • Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, Western Australia: Curtin University Books, 2004.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Guest blogging by Smart Bitch Sarah!

Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books is very sadly under maintenance today, so Smart Bitch Sarah is going a leetle crazy being unable to spew post her words of wisdom to the adoring multitudes. So, she's whoring herself out kindly offering to guest blog on any willing or available blogs. She's already invaded Dear Author. I told her she had to pretend to be academic, just like we do, so here we go!

The Academia I Almost Wrote:

Way back in the day, I was in grad school. Then I ran screaming out of the ivory tower for a host of reasons, not the least of which was I was (a) not brain-old enough to get a handle on what needed to be done in grad school and (b) I wanted to study contemporary literature (read: romances) and went to a school that had a marked specialty in dead white Victorian men (I know, what university doesn't?).

I passed my language comps and was AB-T. All But Thesis. Lame, I know. I'm like an Almost-MA. AMA.

But there are a few unfinished academic projects I wish I had the time and the letters after my name to properly complete.

First: my thesis. I was way into composition (until I saw the stacks of essays to grade stretching way into my future like an unending road paved with 8.5 by 11 paper) and was happily immersed in rhetoric and comp studies. My thesis would have been a lot of fun. Drawing from my experience teaching students with varying types of learning disabilities, I posited that instant messenger and email, and now Twitter, txt msgs, and the like, allow students with severe writing blocks the ability to transcribe their thoughts into fluid text because typing != writing, and screen text, since it is dynamic and fluid, did not equal writing to their eyes, and their brains. Part study, part explanation of teaching techniques, and part "OMG did you read that book by Ong - that man would have had the BEST Twitters," I planned to keep up with the topic through my MA thesis and into my PhD work. I was and am convinced that the way technology redefines and shakes up concepts of gender, society, and literacy forces those of us who type faster than we hand write, and possibly faster than we speak, to examine how technology changes what and how we write - and how new technology can be used to teach writing and formal essay structure (the foundation of college composition, hey hey hey) to students for whom writing is a complete and nearly impossible challenge.

Did I mention I think Ong rocked like a vandal in a rocking chair? Dude. Love Ong. And this graphic novel I have of Derrida's "Of Grammatology."

Second: Application of major feminist theories and concepts on romance novels: a romance novel guide to fem lit crit (and queer lit crit, and lit crit, and lit crit II: Electric Bugaloo). I had this vision of taking major concepts in feminist literary criticism (the Sedgwick triangle, etc) and finding examples within romance novels as illustrative and subversive manifestations of the examined theory, or in some cases, examples that provide the undermining of that theory.

Then I ran screaming out of academia and started working for The Man, founded a blog, and the rest is recent history. Maybe someday I'll get an honorary PhD. In Awesomeness.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

RWA Conference 2009

I just got notification that two of my panel proposals (of three) were accepted for the Romance Writers of America 2009 conference, one during the RWA conference itself and one during the pre-conference Librarians' Day conference. Yay!

The panels as I proposed them:

The Wit, Wisdom, and Writing Advice of Jennifer Crusie
(In which Pamela Regis and Jessica Lyn Van Slooten examine the humor and writing advice in the novels of best-selling author Jennifer Crusie, who will herself respond to the literary criticism perpetrated upon her novels.)

Pamela Regis:“The Power of Wit: How Jennifer Crusie Harnesses the Power of the Romance Form and How You Can, Too.”
Jennifer Crusie manages to get her unique humor onto the pages of her novels and those novels onto best sellers lists. This presentation will take a hard look at Bet Me to get beyond the Krispy Kremes and chicken marsala to figure out how Crusie builds her humor and to recommend strategies for building humor into your own work. The eight elements of the romance novel, as I define them in A Natural History of the Romance Novel (U Penn Press, 2003), will be identified in Bet Me to uncover their contribution to the humor in the book. We'll characterize Crusie's humor, and look for ways to apply her techniques. Assuming, of course, that Crusie lets me get a word in edgewise.

Jessica Lyn Van Slooten: “Metanarrative and Writing Advice in Jennifer Crusie’s Novels.
The romantic and writing success of script writer Sophie in Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation and cookbook author Agnes in Agnes and the Hitman (co-authored with Bob Mayer) emanates from their willingness to blur the line between reality and fantasy, to constantly revise, to know their audience, and to write out of their full sensory experiences. Despite their initial skepticism, both heroines successfully navigate the obstacles in their paths to write their own happily-ever-afters. Through her heroines’ narratives, Crusie counters skepticism of the romance genre, while also embedding writing advice for her careful readers—many of whom want to author their own romantic tales. I blend examples from the novels with a post-modern theoretical approach, and incorporate writing advice from writing experts to suggest practical ways to improve our own romance narratives, and to find effective ways of writing our lives following a model of writing as seduction that overcomes skepticism.

Jennifer Crusie: Respondent

"If you like the classics; or, how to recommend romance to literature snobs in your library."
10:30-11:30am, Wednesday, July 15

During this interactive presentation, Sarah Frantz and Pamela Regis, both English professors and scholars of popular romance, will discuss the history of popular romance as found in canonical literature. BUT! they will be joined by best-selling historical author and recovering academic, Sabrina Jeffries!

Topics of discussion will include:
  • A structural definition of romance.
  • The history of the conventions of the genre through the rise of the novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • The evolution of the romantic heroine through canonical domestic fiction to popular romance.
  • The evolution of the romantic hero through canonical literature writ large to popular romance.
We will use Jane Austen as the primary canonical author who embodies all that is perfect about popular romance, examining the innovations she made in genre conventions and in her construction of her heroes and heroines. We will then trace her innovations through twentieth-century and modern popular romance, making suggestions along the way of specific romance authors to recommend to library patrons.

We will hand out an annotated list of recommendations of classic literature and their popular romance descendants.

We all hope you can join us there! Can't wait to go to my first RWA.