Thursday, July 23, 2009

Babies in Books

I've touched on the issue of politics (with "politics" broadly defined) in romance before, but I've been reminded of it in the past few days because I've seen a poll at Dear Author about abortion in romance, and a post at AAR about emergency contraception (or rather the absence of it) in the genre. In the Dear Author thread Growly Cub commented that
I was really struck by the ‘I don’t want politics in my fantasy reading’ sentiments expressed.

Because in every romance novel that has a (secret) baby plot in which the formerly-not-at-all-interested-in-becoming-a-mommy heroine suddenly decides that the only possible, the only ‘ethical’ choice is to have that baby is a very loud political statement.

I wonder that people who express their strong aversion to politics in their romance reading aren’t avoiding those books!
Stephanie Laurens believes that romance offers a "reaffirmation of how we think our world should be," yet we don't all agree on how "we think our world should be." For the record, on the specific issue of parenthood, Laurens writes that
The US sales of romance novels directly parallel the US improving birthrate. [...] romance novels [...] respond to women's need to hear the biologically, socially critical lesson that love, marriage and family are worthy and desirable goals. And the US thrives. [...] The conclusion is obvious. It's read romance or perish [...] it will [...] insure that your country continues as a biologically stable nation.
So is it really possible to avoid politics in the romance genre?

The illustration came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Gothic Romance

The appearance of Studies in Gothic Fiction, a new "online refereed academic journal devoted to the study of the Gothic from its beginnings in the eighteenth century to the present," to be launched in November 2009 (and currently "seeking articles and reviews for its premiere on-line issue") has reminded me that I haven't posted much at TMT about twentieth-century gothic romances. As I'm not particularly well-read in the sub-genre, however, I won't attempt to present any analysis of my own. What follows is really a very brief literature review of some of the secondary material about the sub-genre.

The twentieth-century gothic romance has its
roots [...] in the tales of terror and seduction which were the most popular type of fiction in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; it has, however, largely departed from the authentic gothic mould as the status of the heroine has altered and thus affected her responses to the archetypal male character [...]. The more extravagant excesses, both physical and psychological, have been toned down; incarceration in crumbling castles, haunted abbeys, labyrinthine forests or catacombs has been replaced by sojourns in roomy but not necessarily huge houses, and insane, power-crazed baddies have been replaced by calculating seducers and con-men. However, the central element - woman in jeopardy - has remained comparatively unchanged from the mid-eighteenth-century beginnings of the gothic story to the romantic suspense novels of the 1990s. (Cadogan 7)
Carol Thurston described the modern gothic romance like this:
Also called romantic suspense, the modern gothic romance reached its peak of popularity in the United States during the 1960s, after paperback reprints of stories by Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Nora Lofts, and Dorothy Eden became widely available. This twentieth-century version of the gothic gives as much attention to the developing love relationship as to the mystery; more often than not the two are the same, a plot device exemplified in the title of Joanna Russ's 1973 article, "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband: The Modern Gothic." The frequently cited prototype of the modern gothic romance is Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, published in 1938 and essentially a retelling of Jane Eyre; Victoria Holt's Mistress of Mellyn (1960) is an unabashed retelling of Rebecca. (41)
I can't agree that Rebecca is "essentially a retelling of Jane Eyre" since the personalities and plot seem very different to me. However, they are both written in the first person (the narrator is also the heroine of the novel) and in both the hero has had a first wife, details of whose life remain mysterious to the narrator, who will become his second wife, for much of the time-period covered by the novel. Kay Mussell also draws parallels between these three novels:
The novel that sparked the gothic revival of the 1960s, Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt, resembles both these earlier romances. Mistress of Mellyn, like Jane Eyre, uses the "governess" plot. [...] Although the heroine, like the nameless narrator of Rebecca, may not know why her husband proposed to her, she genuinely loves him. (Fantasy 45)
Mussell, in an article published in 1975, had earlier taken a look at the contrast between the figure of the heroine and the threatening "other woman":
According to the traditional "double standard," sexual relationships are permitted for men (accepted somewhat indulgently as "sowing wild oats"), but not for women, upon whom falls the responsibility for controlling the relationship by denying sex to the male until it has been sanctioned by marriage. Such a situation [...] gives rise to two related aspects of the modern gothic novel: the portrayal of female characters who fail to control their sexuality, and the assurance for the reader that such lack of control leads to defeat. [...] In the case of the gothic novel, social beliefs about female sexuality and its inherent dangers are suggested in the contrast between the heroine and the passionate woman. [...] In the gothic novels of four of the most consistently popular authors of the past two decades (Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden, and Phyllis Whitney), such contrasting figures appear in more than half of the books. (84-85)
While Mussell's article looked at the female protagonists and what one might learn from them about social attitudes towards women, Joanna Russ looked at the male characters in gothic romances and found that the novels' "emotional center is that 'handsome, magnetic suitor or husband who may or may not be a lunatic or murderer'" (679-80). In addition, she thought it possible that the novels themselves might "be a way that conventionally feminine readers can see their own situation" (686) and draw the following conclusions:
If my man treats me badly, that's because he's masculine, not because he's bad. There are bad men and good men; the problem is simply telling which is which. There are bad women and good women; I'm not a bad (read: sexual, aggressive) woman.
[...] Conventionally masculine men are good men (even if they treat me badly) and conventionally feminine women are good women. This makes behavior very easy to judge. It also validates conventional sex roles.
[...] Something is trying to hurt me and tear me down - but I don't know what it is. I suspect it's my man, or men in general, but that's an unthinkable thought. (688)
Radway's essay draws slightly more positive conclusions about the sub-genre because of the "unthinkable thought" it provokes:
Careful examination of the works of such authors as Victoria Holt (Eleanor Hibbert), Mary Stewart, Dorothy Eden, and Phyllis Whitney demonstrates convincingly that while the popular gothic is essentially conservative in its recommendation of conventional gender behavior, its conservatism is triumphant because the narrative permits the reader first to give form to unrealized disaffection before it reassures her that such discontent is unwarranted. (141-42)
As for the covers,
Nearly every modern gothic issued before 1974 sported a predominantly green and blue drawing exhibiting a terrified woman, clad in a long, swirling robe, who was fleeing from a darkened mansion lit only by a glow in an upper window. (Radway 144)
You can see images of a number of gothic romance covers at Morticia's Morgue.
  • Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present. London: Macmillan, 1994.
  • Mussell, Kay J. “Beautiful and Damned: The Sexual Woman in Gothic Fiction.” Journal of Popular Culture 9.1 (1975): 84-89.
  • Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women's Romance Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984.
  • Radway, Janice. "The Utopian Impulse in Popular Literature: Gothic Romances and 'Feminist' Protest." American Quarterly 33.2 (1981): 140-162.
  • Russ, Joanna. “Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband: The Modern Gothic.” Journal of Popular Culture 6.4 (1973): 666-91.
  • Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

I found the image of the cover of the 1963 Crest edition of Mistress of Mellyn at

Thursday, July 16, 2009

IASPR Blitz on FRIDAY at RWA (including meet-up announcement)

IASPR will have a table at the Moonlight Madness Bazaar on Thursday, July 16, 8-midnight. We'll be talking about IASPR to anyone interested. We'll also be handing out IASPR swag to members: a tote bag, a membership pin, pens, a lanyard, bookmarks, etc. So come and get come cool IASPR stuff and meet the Officers.

Sarah, Pam Regis, and IASPR member, Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, will be presenting on "The Wit, Wisdom, and Writing Advice of Jennifer Crusie" on Friday, July 17, 3:15-4:15pm, in Washington 3. IASPR Board Member Jenny Crusie herself will be responding to the panel! We'd love to see IASPR members there.

The IASPR meet-up will be after the panel, from 4:30-6:30, in the second floor elevator lobby. There are really nice big elevator lobbies here, and our room is NOT a nice big room, so we'll hang around in the elevator lobby and talk about romance scholarship. We'd love to see you there.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"The Marx and Engels" of Romance Scholarship

On the eve of the RWA conference Joanne Rendell, writing at The Huffington Post, takes a look at "a growing shift in the way the ivory tower sees romance" and the "fascinating relationship which is evolving between professors studying romance novels and the romance world itself."

In the course of this article she describes Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz as "the Marx and Engels" of romance scholarship. It did strike me that that particular description might be more fittingly applied to any two of
  • Bridget Fowler (author of The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century (1991)) who believes that
    we have seen the use [...] of commercialised forms of popular literature and television, which women consume in large numbers, to break down an autonomous anti capitalist high culture.There was an elitist high culture which was very critical of aspects of capitalism, and I think the turn to privileging women's form of expression, like the romance, may have quite often removed that critical edge culturally. Because these were forms that adjusted themselves to the market and didn't question it. Didn't take issue with the commercialisation of life in general. [...] I don't want to say that there are not valuable elements of popular women's' literature. I think they have distinctive, moral and political understanding of how people should live their lives which is important. That is a cultural achievement. We were right to say at a certain stage that it is not just high culture that should be preserved. There are elements from popular culture that are important and need saving. But we are in danger of shifting into a market based aesthetic which is a populist one.
  • Peter Darbyshire, who, in his "Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia" (2000) concludes that
    Harlequin’s success in Europe and Asia is associated not with any particular interest in America itself, but it is instead associated with the ideology of capitalism that America represents and which Harlequin romances embody. For European and Asian readers, these books are capitalist fantasies as much as they are romantic fantasies and, as such, their appeal to the readers of emerging capitalist markets is obvious
  • Jayashree Kamble, who in her doctoral thesis (2008), has suggested that "the very texts that appear to glamorize global capitalism, justify war, and align themselves with heteronormative fantasy contain reservations about these ideologies."
Rendell, though, doesn't seem to have meant the "Marx and Engels" description of Selinger and Frantz to suggest anything about the politics or subject-matter of their work. Rather, she's looking at important personalities in this rapidly growing area of scholarship.

Inevitably there are omissions, and a reader may receive the impression that positive scholarship on the genre emerged rather more recently than it actually did. Without wishing to in any way minimise the huge contributions of Sarah, Eric, Pamela Regis and others mentioned in Rendell's article, or the importance of the RWA's academic grant program, also mentioned there, it should be noted that just as socialism's history began long before the emergence of Marx and Engels so, as Eric observed in a comment attached to a recent post I wrote about the history of romance scholarship, "This is a field that has been going on, in one form or another, for at least forty years; the more we keep that history in mind, the better off our new work will be."

Despite all those caveats, I think we can agree that the Marx and Engels of romance have started an online revolution in romance scholarship, initially via the listserv but more recently via the IASPR website (if you haven't seen them already, please do go and take a look at the new forums) and the forthcoming online Journal of Popular Romance (which is now accepting submissions).

The photo of "Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and his wife Jenny, and their children Laura and Eleanor" came from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 10, 2009

IASPR Announcements

An email that just went out to the IASPR membership:

I am writing today to tell you about all those exciting things that we're doing for, with, and to IASPR:
  • The IASPR website.
  • The IASPR members' forum.
  • The IASPR Cafe Press store.
  • The RWA conference next week, Washington DC.
  • The IASPR conference in Brisbane, Australia next month.
  • The Call For Proposals for 2010 IASPR conference in Belgium.
  • Future conference plans and Call for Conference Organizers for 2011 and 2012.
  • The Call for Submissions for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.
  • Do you know scholars who do popular romance studies? Let me know!
It's a lot to cover, but I hope you'll stick with me! I figured one long email was better than flooding your Inbox with every new announcement.

1. First of all, our beautiful logo and website are up and running. This the portal for most of the rest of the stuff I'll be talking about. Dennis Crothers designed our amazing logo and he and Rob Landrigan designed and built the website. We're very proud of its clean look and (hopefully) the ease of navigation.

Please click through the About tab for our History and the list of our Officers and current (growing) Board of Directors. Check our Conferences tab for news and registration for upcoming conferences. Check back regularly for IASPR updates on the front page. And please direct your friends and colleagues there for information about IASPR.

2. The interactive (and, to me, the most exciting) part of the website is the Members' Forum: a standing messageboard where IASPR members (and non-members) can interact, sharing news of and discussions about popular romance studies. Anyone can register as a member of the board and navigate through "Chatter," "Books," "Articles," "Suggested Reading," and other Topics. Members of IASPR, once they register and are approved by the Board moderator, will have access to a members only section of the forum, in which we discuss Professionalization, Job Opportunities, Publishing Venues, and in which we will create writing critique groups and beta-reading groups for academic writing. Please join us there as soon as you can so we'll have a vibrant, active community of IASPR members!

3. IASPR has a Cafe Press store where you can buy shirts, mugs, and pins with our logo as well as fun slogans like "Romance Readers Make Better Scholars," "Romance: Think About It," "In UR bodice, analyzin UR literachur," and many more. If you have any ideas for more slogans, just email me to let me know and I'll see what I can do to add it to the options. Every purchase supports IASPR, so feel free to splurge! Or tell your friends and family about the Store, so that they can spoil you.

4. A few IASPR Officers and members will be at the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America in Washington D.C. next week at various events:
  • Our President Sarah Frantz, our Vice-President Pamela Regis, and NYT best-selling author Sabrina Jeffries will be presenting "If you like the Classics; Or, How to recommend romance to Literature Snobs in your library" at the Librarians' Day on June 15, 2009.
  • Sarah, Pam, and IASPR member, Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, will be presenting on "The Wit, Wisdom, and Writing Advice of Jennifer Crusie" on Friday, July 17, 3:15-4:15pm, in Washington 3. IASPR Board Member Jenny Crusie herself will be responding to the panel! We'd love to see IASPR members there.
  • After this panel, IASPR will have a get-together from 4:30-6:30 in a room to be announced. Watch the IASPR Twitter page for announcement.
  • IASPR will have a table at the Moonlight Madness Bazaar on Thursday, July 16, 8-midnight. We'll be talking about IASPR to anyone interested. We'll also be handing out IASPR swag to members: a tote bag, a membership pin, pens, a lanyard, bookmarks, etc. So come and get come cool IASPR stuff and meet your Officers.
  • Sarah, our Secretary Melissa Golden, and a few other IASPR officers will be wandering around the conference, trying to sign up members and handing out membership swag. Catch one of us and introduce yourself (and get your stuff)!

5. Our first IASPR conference will take place next month in Brisbane, Australia, 13-14 August, 2009. Our exciting, truly international schedule is up on the website. And registration is open. Registration is AU$120 for IASPR members and AU$150 for non-members (who will then be members). The registration page will collect the money in Australian Dollars through PayPal, whether or not you have a PayPal account and whether or not you live in Australia. All you need is a credit card. If you're in the area, we'd love to see you there!

The conference has been generously sponsored by Samhain Publishing, the Romance Writers of America, DePaul University, the University of Queensland, Queensland Institute of Technology, and the Fryer Library. Eminent Australian scholars of popular romance fiction, Juliet Flesch and Lisa Fletcher, will be presenting, as will 22 other amazing scholars.

6. The IASPR conference next year will be in Belgium, 5-7 August, 2010, on the theme of "Theorizing Romance." Lynne Pearce of the University of Lancaster has already agreed to be a keynote speaker. The Call for Proposals is up at the IASPR website. I've had a lot of feedback from people who are excited about having a popular romance studies conference in Europe and I'm thrilled that I'm going to be able to meet so many of you. We'd love to have you there as a presenter, so please consider submitting a proposal. Of course, you all are welcome as audience members, too. Many more details will go up on the website in the New Year about registration, etc.

7. We plan to have our 2011 conference in New York City, NY on the theme of "The Business of Romance," and our 2012 conference in Los Angeles, CA, on the theme of "The Music and Movies of Romance." I'm excited about these conferences as a chance to bring together the disparate aspects of popular romance studies--remember that popular romance studies are not just the study of literature, but of all aspects of the popular representation of romance.

If you are interested in being involved in the planning and organization of either of these conferences, please email me. I would love for a member to step up for these conferences, as they have done already for Brisbane and Belgium. This is your chance to be deeply involved IASPR. Just let me know!

8. The Journal of Popular Romance Studies has posted its Call for Submissions. Our first volume will be released on February 14, 2010, and the deadline for submission for the first volume is October 1, 2009. But if you do not make that cut-off, please still submit to the journal. We're planning on having at least two issues a year, so the second issue will be released in August, 2010.

If you're interested in writing book reviews of volumes of popular romance studies, please email our Book Review Editor. Or if you're interested in having your volume reviewed, please email her too.

9. Finally, do you know anyone else working on popular romance studies? Don't forget other fields: anthropology, sociology, art, film, business, marketing, computer science, philosophy, psychology, etc., even neurobiology? I'd love to hear about them or have them hear about IASPR. If you feel comfortable with it, send me their email address so I can invite them into IASPR. Or send them the web address of IASPR so that they can discover who we are and what it is that we do.

For example, I just connected with the Society for Philosophy of Sex and Love and made some great popular romance studies connections there. Are there scholars or other academic societies who might be excited by what we're doing here at IASPR? Let me know about them and let them know about us!

And let us know about YOUR publications and successes in the field of popular romance studies! We'll add them to our (proposed) annual bibliography of popular romance studies.

As always, if you have any questions, concerns, or, most importantly, suggestions, please let me know! I'd love to hear from any of our members about anything. I look forward to meeting most of you over the next few years of my tenure as your President.

-Sarah S. G. Frantz, Ph.D., President
The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Announcing More Media Attention for Romance Scholars

Thanks to the Smart Bitches, I've just come across an article in USA Today which mentions the Princeton conference and quotes two Teach Me Tonight contributors:
In April, Princeton University [...] hosted a scholarly conference titled "Love as the Practice of Freedom? Romance Fiction and American Culture." The event brought together romance writers such as James/Bly and Jennifer Crusie, academics including Pamela Regis and Stephanie Coontz, and Smart Bitch blogger Wendell.

"When I saw the invitation to speak at Princeton, I said, 'Holy crap, we have arrived,' " says Regis, 56, an English professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., and author of the seminal text, A Natural History of the Romance Novel.

The conference organizer was DePaul University English professor Eric Selinger, 45. An expert in contemporary American poetry, Selinger's career turned upside down in the late 1990s after he borrowed his wife's copy of Bridget Jones's Diary, the chick-lit classic by Helen Fielding.

"I read it and I loved it," Selinger says. For fun, he started reading the novels on a list compiled by his local library called "If you liked Bridget Jones's Diary, try these ..."

He was amazed. Here he was, an English professor with a Ph.D. from UCLA who had been teaching books for decades and reading even longer. "Yet it never entered my mind to read a romance novel," he says.

Today, in addition to his poetry classes, Selinger teaches courses on the romance genre.

Is it awkward to be a man doing so?

Oh no, Selinger says. His gender makes his life much easier. "Nobody thinks I'm a spinster or trapped in a bad marriage, or I'm betraying feminism," he says. "People don't judge me as much."
The article, by Deirdre Donahue, is available online. It's titled "Scholarly writers empower the romance genre" and focuses on Eloisa James and Julia Quinn. The Smart Bitches have a link to a photo of the article as it appears in a paper copy of USA Today.

The rabbit was originally drawn by John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland, has been modified by GeeAlice, and came from Wikimedia Commons.

Here be Dragons! And Fairytales and Romance Writers

Sandra's still fighting with dragons, almost literally so, since they're the topic of her dissertation, so to encourage her I thought I'd link to an online short story about a dragon. It's not a romantic story, but in "The Last Dragon" by Janet Gover the heroine is also struggling with a manuscript, albeit as an illustrator rather than as an academic, so it seemed appropriate:
There was a manuscript in that folder lying on a chair. An epic tale of heroism.... of knights and dragons and beautiful princesses. It was a story to delight any small child. Clare had one more week to illustrate the tale, or the author and publisher would turn elsewhere. She wouldn’t blame them. The few sketches she’d tried in the past few weeks had been lifeless and dull. Like the endless days she was now living.

She desperately hoped things would be different in this place. Wales was full of dragons. She would find inspiration. Her muse would return. Starting tomorrow!
Since that one's not a romance, I thought I'd better include some that are. Here's another short story by Janet Gover, this time based on a fairytale and titled "Fairy Godmothers Need Not Apply." Fairytales seem to have inspired quite a few romance authors (you can browse SurLaLune's list of just a small selection of some fairytale inspired romances, if you're interested).

To finish off, I'll link to one last short story by Janet Gover. This one is a metaromance, and I haven't mentioned one of those at TMT for quite a while. It's called "The Romance Writer." The metaromance includes excerpts from a novel being written by the eponymous romance writer, and the romance reader in the story describes what she reads as "very good; easily as good as anything on her bookshelves." It's always struck me as a bit risky for a writer to include texts supposedly written by her/his characters and which are accepted, within the work of fiction, as being of high quality. What happens if the real reader assesses them differently? Does that change the whole impact of the piece? And how does it affect the real reader's impression of the real author's own writing?

The Welsh dragon is from Wikipedia.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Summertime and the Reading is Free

Since this is their 60th Anniversary, Harlequin have been giving away free ebooks. When I first saw this offer, there were sixteen books available, in a variety of formats. A seventeenth book (a medical romance) has now been added to the collection of free books and all of them are available for download from I'm not sure how long these books will continue to be available for free. I'd assume it would be till at least the end of the anniversary year.

Avon's also been offering free books via its "Love Gives Back" page, but the books have to be read online and are only available for a month before they're replaced by the next month's offerings. To find the free reads, scroll down to the foot of the page.

Samhain's authors are giving away free short stories in pdf format via the Samhellion Free eBook Library. This seems to be a permanent library.