Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Princeton Romance Conference

I'm going to do things backwards and post about the Princeton Conference first, then go back and post about PCA. I want to do Princeton before the 31 pages of Twitter stream for #romcon disappear. I will link to about where the Twitter stream starts for each of the papers. It is listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recent posts (ie: later in paper) at the top of the screen. Go to "newer" posts to progress in the paper.

I'm also going to talk about Friday's papers first, then go back to Thursday evening's panel. I've got to type that one up--I took real, hand-written notes because I didn't have my computer! :)

Romance and Religion: SB Sarah has already blogged this panel in detail.

What fascinated me about this panel was how well it interacted and intersected with my own research into BDSM romance. The catch phrases of BDSM (bondage, discipline, domination, submission) kept coming up again and again through these papers. I'm going to have to hunt down Lynn's book, especially, to see if there's anything I can use.

Lynn S. Neal: What is Inspirational Romance? Twitter starts about here.

Redeeming Love: The love is between man and woman and the couple and God. Conflicts are about God and represent a deeper spiritual malaise. Transformation that seems magical in other books are brought about by the power of God’s love. Neal interviewed 50 female readers of Inspirational romance. It was the readers’ religious choice to read these books. IR represents entertainment and escape and a redemption of popular culture that affirms the values of the readers. IR is an attractive option for both fun and upholding boundaries of faith. It is “wholesome entertainment: pleasing to God because it has scripture and it’s clean. It is a Godly way of self-entertainment, of sacrilizing all of life. They are able to forget about impure books that offer danger rather than safety and instead have an opportunity to combine love of reading and love of God. It’s a “Brain break.” However, the drive may well be escapist, but its fulfillment may not be. Instead, it’s a way through which readers achieve spiritual change. They gained little realizations that helped foster everyday piety. The effectiveness of inspirational romance comes from its utility. How does it establish an emotional connection between the heroine and the reader? It transforms hearing into knowing, doubt into certainty, and a vague sense of God into everyday reality. A Christian romance novel helps readers envision and encounter God’s love and care. Christian romances are a filter for interpreting God and the Bible. The Bible becomes a romance.

Pam Regis: Writing the History of the American Romance Twitter stream starts about here

Regis is trying to put Inspirational romance in larger context of American novel. Inspirational romance is one of the foundations of the American romance writ large. In fact, the form endorses one of the highest forms of freedom: Christian liberty. In romance in general, when characters choose to overcome the barrier, it’s an expression of freedom and the reader feels joy. Regis is writing “The History of the American Romance.” Issues: Have to figure out who is American and who isn’t. Is the form “invented” by M&B and HQN. Is the “form” merely a marketing tool. There are also so many books and such different books—it’s impossible to choose a representative book. There is no bibliography. What was first romance, how far back does it go? Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is first romance novel in America, it was abridged early and often in ways that usually put moralizing at end. Holding an old early-US copy of Pamela feels like holding a HQN romances: that’s how big they are. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s book Vivia: secret of power is faith—definitely inspirational. Regis trying to do books that aren’t covered by everyone else. Highsmith’s The Price of Salt: first popular lesbian romance. Beverly Jenkins: AA romances write very different ending to and are in conversation with previous AA writers or about AA characters (Harriet Jacobs’s Life of a Slave Girl and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Elements of Form: What do barrier and ritual death say about faith in the American romance? Ritual death: mythic moment when union seems least possible between courting protagonists (dark moment). EDEN Southworth’s Vivia: or, the Secret of Power: sentimental romance. Sentimental values: home, affection, connection, family, kinship, sympathy, emotion especially love, Christianity. Part bildungsroman. Barriers (especially between secondary characters) include melodrama, class, disability, separation, deceit. Values of the American romance, both secular and inspirational: Freedom, Individuality, life eternal vs. Death and perversion. Christianity is not on list. Life eternal does mean Christian values in Vivia, but in romance novels it’s the promise of children in epilogues. Inspirational romances are purest form of American romance. Faith—religious, secular, or both—suffuses the American romance (even atheists have faith in love). Freedom and faith are not in conflict in the American romance. Religion is not a tributary of American romance, it’s a source.

R. Marie Griffith (Princeton Religion Dept.) Twitter stream starts about here.

Everything she knows about inspirational romance comes from Lynn Neal. Instead, her research is on evangelical self-help manuals, diet and fitness manuals, and sexuality and marriage guides and she’ll be talking about this today. Evangelical women’s self-help literature: goes back all way into 19thC. Feminism 2nd wave: Friedan’s Feminine Mystique shows us how difficult to it was to be a woman. Friedan’s solution was to stop conforming to the traditional picture of womanhood and to enjoy life. This was seen as women’s rejection of biological roles of wife and mother and destroying all good things about America. Equality between sexes was not a Christian ideal. True liberation is found in submission to husband because of the ideal of a submissive feminine subject and all powerful masculine God. Woman’s relationship with God is shown as father/daughter relationship or marital relationship. God is/as perfect husband, which may compensate for his earthly partner’s imperfections. Can refresh and heal even the most broken marriages. God gets something out of relationship too. Following God’s commands, and flattering him fulfill women’s visions of perfect love relationship. It is a literature of hope and faith and upholds sentimental values. Christian diet and fitness lit: Human body’s fitness affects relationships between god and people—those who are thin and healthy exemplify God’s grace and reward. They caution readers against vanity: not main reason for diets. The main reason to diet has to be keeping bodies under subjection to God’s will. Happiness is found through submission: loving and pleasing God. The image of God as divine lover or husband used as tool to compel Christian women to get thin: “Slim for Him.” “More of Jesus, less of me.” There is an erotic fulfillment through getting thin for god (God as the ultimate HQN billionaire tycoon). One gains one’s happy ending through disciplining the body. There is an eroticization of the power differential. Evangelical sex and marriage guides: Christlike sex and lots of it, selling promises of love and romance. Sexual purity and bodily discipline lead to most sumptuous bodily pleasures and emotional connection.

Beth Patillo (romance author) Twitter stream starts about here.

Beth gets up and says of Griffith's research, "Dude, that's messed up!" Patillo has always kept the romance author part of her life and the minister part of her life separate but her agent said that she could sell a Christian book like that *fingersnap*. Patillo herself has a very low level of interest in personal purity. Heavens to Betsy: 25,000 copies printed in trade paperback, but because Lifeway refused to carry it b/c it was a woman minister, probably about 21,000 were remaindered, because they were trying exclusively for the Christian audience, not the romance audience. Patillo is a non-evangelical Christian writer. The Christian Book Association (CBA) is such a specialized market, but a very vocal market. Miss California: sure, she’s standing for “traditional” marriage, but there’s no comment on Fox about her parading across stage in bikini. Evangelical books: no eroticism. All physicality is about emotions, not eroticism. Christian faith must be depicted as normative but as over and above popular culture. As an author: how do you create journey for two characters who are so squeaky clean to begin with? There is an intense focus on certain pietistic practices designated as “Christian.” Hasn’t had emails about “why didn’t your characters work for justice?” Small Christian book stores are closing at the rate of 100 per year. Only 400 left. What are CBA publishers going to do when they’re dealing with Walmart and not Christian gatekeepers. What’s going to happen to Inspirational fiction when personal piety is not going to be the only definition of Christianity? There might be possibility for happy ending in Inspirational market for romance authors who are not evangelical or pious.

Eric Selinger Twitter stream starts about here. Eric discussed his path to this paper at Romancing the Blog.

Polhemus discusses erotic faith: romance as religion. Eric’s Facebook profile lists “Married” under Religious Preference. In 1990s, literary and cultural commentators announced the death of love. Allan Bloom claimed that one has to have a tin ear to describe one’s greatest love as a “relationship.” Bloom inadvertently points out where erotic faith continued to thrive: “cheap” romantic love. How did we get to be as we are? In Flowers from the Storm, Kinsale plays with long history and conventions of historical romances. Christian, Duke of Jervaulx is a mathematician, so let’s think geometrically: Chiasmus: Maddie is Christian, Christian is mad. Christian is soul trapped in body, Maddie is a body trapped by her soul. Eric is not using Milton just to show off as poetry professor, Kinsale makes the use of Milton as a motif explicit. The novel makes a fetish of Maddie’s long hair, which mirrors the view of Eve in Paradise Lost. Maddie is Eve, Jervaulx is Satan and the means of salvation is mutual human love. How does this novel layer history? Maddie and Jervaulx are 19thC couple with very 20thC conversations about freedom and equality, but those debates range back to 16thC and 17thC views of marriage. Quaker brides explicitly do not say that they will “obey” husbands. “No rule but love between them,” from William Penn. All of these historical contexts have to be kept in mind and this novel is very aware of this. It puts traditions of popular romance fiction right next to 16thC-19thC contexts and conventions.

Mary Bly's question of Pam: Mary’s uncomfortable with faith in romance that’s NOT inspirational being put together with evangelical type of romance. The burst of imagination that makes marriage work in inspirational romance is very very different from the imaginative relationship with another entity. Faith that the relationship will work out is very different from faith that we need another entity to make a relationship work. So conflating the two types of faith is very vexing.

The panel was a great start to the day and an example of all that is good and wonderful about romance scholarship today.


  1. "Have to figure out who is American and who isn’t."

    Juliet Flesch's book about Australian romance focused on romances written by authors who'd been born/lived in Australia, and whose books were mostly set in Australia. That's one possible approach, but Pam's trying to write a history and has a different focus, so her solution to the problem of definitions is probably going to be a bit different. It certainly seems that way if Pamela's going to be included.

    I do think it would be an incomplete history if there was no discussion of the literary context/tradition in which American romance authors were writing, and many of the novels which have had a very strong influence on American authors of romance weren't written by Americans. However, the publishing histories of such novels in the US are American.

    I find it interesting how some trends catch hold more strongly in one country than another. You don't find many inspirational romances in the UK, for instance. And romance itself isn't quite such a best-selling genre in the UK. Is there any correlation between things like this and the importance of religion and the "pursuit of happiness" in American life?

    Is the form “invented” by M&B and HQN"

    I don't think the form (the love story which ends happily for the lovers) was invented by M&B and HQN, but maybe they were one of the first publishers to concentrate on that kind of story, so that readers picking up a M&B knew that a happy ending was guaranteed?

    Thinking a bit more about the "pursuit of happiness" issue, it's interesting that in the UK we have a "Romantic Novelists' Association" writing "Romantic Fiction" but there's no guarantee there of a happy ending. It's guaranteed in Mills & Boons' romantic fiction, but not all romantic fiction.

    That guarantee of a happy ending is (generally) something offered by single-title romances in the US.

  2. Thanks for undertaking this, Sarah! (Undertaking in sense of taking on the challenge, not with, I hope, funereal mortuary overtones.)

    One quick correction: it's ALLAN Bloom, not Harold Bloom, I cite in my piece. The NYT ran an excerpt, in 1993, from Allan Bloom's last book, "Love and Friendship," which begins with a lament over the death of Eros (and that little smirk at popular romantic fiction). Allan was famous in the US back in the 1980s as the author of "The Closing of the American Mind"; "Love and Friendship" brought him back into the public eye, but as it was a posthumous book, the fracas didn't last very long.

    Harold Bloom would also be relevant to a discussion of Laura Kinsale's novel, via his interest in Emerson. But I didn't go there in this talk.

    Word verification: INGLATH. Why yeth, I am an Inglath pfofethor!

  3. Oh, and one quick second comment. At the conference I disputed a bit with Mary over her question. I'd answer differently now, having thought about it more.

    I think what Mary's getting at in her distinction is a very important point. She's very right to point out the difference between Christian love-faith (in evangelical and non-evangelical romance), which is triangulated through God, and the erotic faith that I discussed. They're COMPETING religions, and the latter is a heresy from the former's point of view. Good work on this by Octavio Paz, in "The Double Flame."

    So yes, they are different bursts of imagination--but only as different religions are. They're also quite similar, from another perspective, which is where the scandal lies.