Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tweeting PCA 2010

If you'd like to follow Sarah Frantz's tweets about the conference, please go to You don't have to have a Twitter account to read the tweets. You can subscribe via RSS to your feed reader or there's the option of doing things the "old-fashioned" way i.e. just keep checking the page to see Sarah's latest tweets. The conference starts today, Wednesday 31 March, but Sarah says she'll start "tweeting on Thursday from the first Romance Area panel." I posted a list of the romance panels here (scroll down the page a little till you reach them).

Friday, March 26, 2010

2010 RWA Academic Research Grant

The Romance Writers of America have awarded this year's academic research grant to both Conseula Francis and Pamela Regis. I asked them if they could share a few details about the projects for which they'd been awarded the grants and they very kindly agreed. Conseula is
working on female pleasure and sexual agency in contemporary African American romance and erotica. In African American literary criticism there's a great deal of attention paid to the ways that black female sexuality has been historically pathologized and commodified. We lament the lack of counternarratives to that image of black womanhood. Lisa Gail Collins praises one contemporary poet for opening a "space for the public celebration of black girlhood and womanhood. By sharing with black girls and women our own beauty, desire, and style, Morris gives pleasure: the uncommon pleasure for black women of knowing that it's all about you." I would argue that this pleasure Collins speaks of is not, in fact, uncommon. Critics regularly bemoan the dearth of cultural spaces where black women are celebrated and lament the paucity of opportunity for black women to speak themselves. In truth, though, contemporary African American romance and erotica regularly and consistently provide such a space, even if it is a largely critically ignored one. Contemporary African American romance and erotica is always all about black women, about their pleasure and beauty and desire. I find that fact fascinating, powerful, and liberating.

I'm working on two specific articles, one on black female pleasure (in all its manifestations) as a means to and marker of freedom in Beverly Jenkins' historicals and the other on Zane's war on black respectability in her Dr. Marcella Spenser novels.
Pam is working on
The American Romance Novel, 1742 to the Present, a book-length history of romance novels written by American authors. In this volume I will approach the romance novel as a literary historian and genre critic, guided by the definition established in my Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), namely, “A romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (14). In my presentation at the Princeton conference, Romance as the Practice of Freedom?, I deleted the too-narrow “heroine” in this definition and inserted in its stead the gender-neutral “protagonist” in recognition of the deployment of the form by authors depicting m/m, f/f, and ménage courtships. This inclusive language does not change the fact that the majority of romance novels, past and present, do indeed have a heroine courted by and eventually betrothed to a hero, and that the relationship between them is the focus of most works in the genre since its beginnings in the eighteenth century.

My approach to the study of romance, which stems from this definition, looks beyond the much-discussed business of publishing and marketing romances and beyond ethnographic considerations of romance readers, to focus on the novels as literature. I deploy traditional tools of literary analysis not only to understand individual romance novels, but also to arrive at generalizations about the genre as a whole. . . .My career-long project, which began with A Natural History of the Romance Novel, is to define, analyze, and write the history of the genre based on as synoptic a knowledge of the entire history of the novel as I can muster. The romance is a world-wide phenomenon, but I would argue that American romance holds a place near the center of the genre’s concerns, and its history deserves a separate treatment. I wish to write that history.

The proposed project will involve first identifying the novels of American authors that contain the eight elements of the romance novel laid out in my earlier book. From this will emerge the first identification of America’s national canon of romance. Analysis of these novels with an eye to identifying the essential components of an American romance, which is to say, those characteristics that the author’s nationality and its attendant culture imbue it with, will define our romance tradition.
I'd like to congratulate Conseula and Pam, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the finished products of their research.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review: Betz and Uszkurat on Lesbian Romance

Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Uszkurat, Carol Ann. "Mid Twentieth Century Lesbian Romance: Reception and Redress." Outwrite: Lesbianism and Popular Culture." Ed. Gabriele Griffin. London: Pluto Press, 1993: 26-47.

In her preface Betz acknowledges that she is "not the first to examine specifically lesbian works" (2). This is true, since lesbian romances have been discussed in earlier articles by Ehnenn (1998), Esquibel (1992), Hermes (1992), Juhasz (1998), Palmer (1998), Uszkurat (1993) and Weir and Wilson (1992) and in a PhD thesis by Pearce (2004).1 I can't guarantee that this is a comprehensive list of work on lesbian romances, but it does rather suggest that serious analysis of these texts really only got under way in the 1990s. The reasons for this are explored by Carol Ann Uszkurat.

Uszkurat has stated that "during the rise of the second women's liberation movement, which took an increasing interest in lesbianism throughout the 1970s, lesbian romance was ignored" and she asked "What was it that prevented lesbians from looking at a crucial part of their own cultural history?" (30). She suggests "that the answer to this question is, at least in part, associated with the rise of lesbian feminism from the late 1960s onwards and the attitudes towards pre-liberation movements' lesbianism promoted by some lesbian feminists" (30). Firstly, "Feminism in general provided a critique of the heterosexual demarcation of gender-assigned roles. This had a direct bearing on the way in which lesbian butch/fem role play was consigned to the dustbin of unsound practices" (31). I wonder if echoes of this critique of "butch/fem role play" can be found in Betz's book, and perhaps explain why she is apparently so keen to accept descriptions of heterosexual romances as texts which promote rigid gender binaries. They can therefore be contrasted with lesbian romances, in which "the main characters do not always embody a rigid set of contrasting qualities" (Betz 177).

Secondly, "the texts under consideration, lesbian romances of the 1950s, were produced at a time that was seen as deserving little or no respect" (Uszkurat 31), "There was, I would suggest, a definite link between the politics of lesbian feminism of the 1970s and the lack of critical regard dished out to pre-Stonewall popular paperbacks" (31). Uszkurat suggests that in the 1970s "the interest was in literally canonising those women whose writing could be re-categorised as some kind of feminist 'classic' belonging to a tradition of great women's writing" (32).

Thirdly, Uszkurat observes that
Both the initial and prevailing radical feminist readings of popular culture during the 1970s were infused with deep suspicion. In a feminist reification of the kind of orthodox Marxist/Frankfurt School that proliferated in the 1960s and popularised concepts such as 'mass/false consciousness', radical feminists rewrote 'dominant order' to mean 'oppressive patriarchy'. (35)
Uszkurat then turns to the psychoanalytic theories used by critics of heterosexual romances:
Time and time again, critics define desire by picking up on the kind of feminist psychoanalysis which mushroomed in the mid 1970s. Theorists like Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow are used as the analytical hook on which to hang readings of popular romance. Not surprisingly, analysis that sought to dissect woman/man relations is both limited and highly problematic when looked at for transferable models that might offer some means of reading lesbian romance. (37)
Uszkurat demonstrates how Janice Radway's conclusions about romance readers, which are based on Chodorow, become problematic when applied to lesbians (and, as Uszkurat notes, Chodorow was also "Seemingly ignorant of the materialist dynamics that take the working-class mother out to work" (38)). Uszkurat also briefly mentions problems with the psychoanalytic underpinnings of Snitow, Modleski and Coward's work on heterosexual romances.

So, "If lesbian feminism is antagonistic towards psychoanalysis, it is hardly likely to take anything from readings of popular heterosexual romance which rely heavily on such perspectives" (42). Nonetheless, "This radical feminist mistrust [...] has been increasingly challenged in the 1990s" (43) and Betz, while noting differences between heterosexual and lesbian women in the context of Chodorow's theories as they appear in Radway, does not utterly reject those theories.

Uszkurat concludes her essay by turning to Diana Hamer and her work on "the lesbian paperbacks produced during the 1950s and 1960s" (43), in particular those of Ann Bannon, which are also discussed in some detail by Betz in her book, in her chapter on "pulps." Uszkurat notes that
'romance' as it is conceptualised in these openly lesbian texts is discounted by Hamer, because she rightly notes the lack of formula which, according to heterosexual feminists, is evident in heterosexual romance. This leads to a dismissal of any comparison with Mills and Boon because 'such a parallel is questionable in terms of generic conventions' (Hamer, p 50). But is there not room to consider how exactly 'romance' was part of the lesbian culture of the 1950s and why? I leave this question open. (44)
Betz does not really explore the issue of genre classification either, but the historical contexts she mentions should, I think, be borne in mind when attempting to classify lesbian romantic fiction. In earlier decades the less-than-optimistic outcomes for lesbian relationships which are portrayed in lesbian texts may well have been shaped not by the authors' preference for this kind of ending, but by the fact that even when, rather daringly, the characters' love dared to speak its name, it was not acceptable for that speech to be rewarded in print. Furthermore, lesbian readers may still have found the endings "Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic" (RWA) because, as Betz suggests, "they allowed the reader to imagine more positive outcomes" (46).

Betz notes that, in general, analysis of lesbian romantic fiction has tended to "concentrate on the pulp novels of the 1950s and early 1960s or is limited to discussions of Jane Rule's Desert of the Heart, Isabelle Miller's Patience and Sarah, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, and a small handful of other texts" (2). There are, however, some gaps in Betz's bibliography: I noticed that she does not include all the previous works on lesbian romance which I listed above.

To my knowledge Betz's study is the first book-length study of lesbian romances to be published by an academic press. She offers the reader "my analysis of one of the most prominent of the popular genres - the romance novel" and discusses "how lesbian authors utilize and adapt the form for their particular audience" (1). Given the diversity and size of the genre, this would seem a daunting undertaking, and Betz's book is only 219 pages long. Perhaps because of this, in her analysis of heterosexual romances she depends rather heavily on conclusions derived from secondary sources, particularly Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, Carol Thurston's The Romance Revolution, the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women volume edited by Jayne Ann Krentz and Pamela Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Unfortunately, many of her statements about heterosexual romances suggested to me that she lacked first-hand knowledge of the primary sources:
The heterosexual hero and heroine usually enter their story as diametric opposites, in class, mobility, and power. Typically, the hero enjoys not only the privileges of his gender, but the constant expression of them; he is, to use Jayne Ann Krentz's term, the "alpha male" who dominates all of the other characters in the book, but most importantly the heroine ("Trying to Tame the Romance" 107). [...] Blond hair, lighter skin tones, and smaller builds are not attributes given to the hero; such figures become false heroes, temporarily misdirecting the heroine's desires in malicious or accidental ways, or they are subordinates to [sic] the hero. (92)
What, then, of "beta" heroes? What of the heroes who are blond, or shorter than the heroine, poorer, or younger? What of inter-racial romances featuring Black women and White men? All of these do exist, but Betz would appear to be entirely unaware of them. As the following quotation demonstrates, Betz's incomplete knowledge of heterosexual romances affects her assessment of lesbian romances:
the configuration of the lesbian couple does not fully replicate the model found in mainstream romance. This is, perhaps, the essential difference between the two genres: without a definite hero and heroine, the traditional romance cannot work: "In a romance novel, the relationship between the hero and the heroine is the plot. It is the primary focus of the story ..." (Krentz "Trying to Tame the Romance," 108, emphasis in text). He must be aloof; she must be able to connect. He must acknowledge his emotional need; she must accept the responsibility of nurturing those feelings. He must take and retain control; she must be willing to cede power. Even if the ending presents some awareness by the couple that both are responsible for maintaining the relationship, the conservative framework within which the romance works requires the recognition that male desire still directs it. This dynamic will be found in the pages of lesbian romance, but with important differences. (93-94)
Betz also makes generalisations about the structure of heterosexual romances. For example, despite frequently quoting from Pamela Regis, who was careful to note that the various elements she had identified "can appear in any order" (30), Betz seems to believe that "the typical romance [...] ends with the declaration of mutual love" (109) and she therefore states that lesbian romances are significantly different inasmuch as they continue
to explore the implications of that assertion beyond this ecstatic moment. Once the couple has accepted their attraction and expressed this acceptance by making love, their story is not complete. Particularly in more recent novels, the women must confront a variety of challenges that must be faced together. (109)
It may well be the case that the case that more lesbian romances than heterosexual ones end in this way, but Betz does not provide much evidence that this is the case. One scene she describes does indeed show the ongoing happiness of the lesbian couple many years after the conclusion of the events in the main body of the romance, but to me it did not seem radically different from many of the epilogues to be found in heterosexual romances.

Sweeping, and therefore somewhat inaccurate, generalisations about heterosexual romances could be of relatively little importance in a book about lesbian romance novels. Indeed, I wish I could focus solely on what Betz has to say about lesbian romances, because they have received far less scholarly attention than heterosexual romances. Unfortunately, I have felt obliged to write at some length about her opinions of heterosexual romances because Betz attempts to describe the defining features of lesbian romances by contrasting them with heterosexual romances. Given the apparently rather incomplete nature of her reading of heterosexual romances, I was less able to feel confident about her conclusions regarding the unique features of lesbian romances.

It is perhaps worth noting that Betz 's
reading of genre romances is a late development, partially coming from my teaching courses in popular/genre literature. My reading of lesbian romances has to be linked to my coming out, when I was looking for images of lesbians and lesbian life as well as models of behavior. (200)
Betz therefore praises the lesbian romance genre because it "positions the lesbian at its center and reframes her marginal status; this allows her to escape the stereotypic and homophobic depictions of the lesbian as deviant, disordered, and demonic" (196-97) and allows her to "momentarily experience the fantasy of complete acceptance" (197). That it is a "fantasy," however, is something on which Betz insists, because she believes that "The pursuit and maintenance of love is more complex than is described in the romance, and social expectations impinge on the couple's attempts to establish a private life more strongly than they do inside these narratives" (196). Indeed, Betz writes that
Perhaps no other genre is said to call for such a complete suspension of disbelief as the romance. Once a reader accepts the premise that life exists on other planets or that time travel is possible, science fiction novels make sense. While coincidence often plays a role in the solution to a crime, as long as the investigation adheres to the particular rubric of its type of mystery, a reader will accept the investigation's outcome.2 Romances, however, are seen as asking their readers to willingly overlook the reliance on extreme yet limited stereotypes, highly stereotyped characters, highly contrived plots, over-wrought themes, and unrealistic outcomes. (169-70)
Since Betz qualifies her initial sentence with "Perhaps," and ascribes the views she describes to some unidentified people ("is said to call," "are seen as asking") it does not seem entirely safe to assume that she shares these views, but her repeated use of the word "fantasy" to describe the genre does tend to make me think that this paragraph reflects her own opinions, as does her description of the characters in lesbian romances:
both main characters are stunningly attractive, although there tends to be a reliance on some variation of the butch/femme dyad common in lesbian literature [...] Like heterosexual romances lesbian romance narratives are situated within an exaggerated environment, where the focus and direction of the plot center on the progress of the romance. (15)
Betz's history of lesbian romance novels begins in Chapter One with a brief mention of "authors and texts that form, what can be called, the 'official canon' of lesbian writing: Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein, among others" (27). As she notes, "Many of the lesbian authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in fact, did not even treat overt romantic relationships between women" (27) and "When two female characters express strong feelings and attachments for each other, they are generally framed within the context of the romantic friendship [...]. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' The Silent Partner and Mary Wilkins Freeman's The Country of the Pointed Firs [Betz seems to have made a mistake here because Sarah Orne Jewett was the author of The Country of the Pointed Firs] typifies this situation" (27).

Turning to "Recognizable popular lesbian romance" (28), Betz begins with early novels in which
In each case, with the exception of Rule's Desert of the Heart and Miller's Patience and Sarah, the demands that the lovers adhere to society's conceptions of proper female looks and behavior destroys or limits not only their relationships but their very lives. [...] Throughout the pulps the recognition that a woman's desires for another woman are called deviant challenges her very sense of self, and the institutionalization, the deaths, and the emotional and social isolation that are offered as the only possible outcome for expressing such desire indicates the terrible price for transgressing social norms. (Betz 105)
The first novel to be described at any length by Betz is Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and "Sally Cline states the [sic] Hall recognized the limitations within which she positioned her narrative and gave them [her characters] the ending that society would accept" (35).

In The Well of Loneliness the main character, Stephen Gordon (who despite her name is female), ends by relinquishing her lover to a man. A similar ending to a lesbian relationship can be found in Mary Renault's The Friendly Young Ladies. Betz then turns to lesbian "pulps", which "Between 1950 and the mid-1960s" were "the dominant format for descriptions of lesbian relationships" (40). This is followed by brief descriptions and analyses of Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah, Jane Rule's Desert of the Heart and Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle.

In Chapter Two Betz moves on to Katherine Forrest's Curious Wine (1983), "considered a classic of modern lesbian romance" (63). Betz writes that,
Unlike Hall, Renault, and others, Forrest's lovers are presented not only as self-identified lesbians, but fully satisfied and confident with that identity. The ambiguity of the texts discussed in Chapter One disappears [...]. Ultimately, in the earlier romantic texts, the weight of the larger society diminished or destroyed any chance of lesbian love succeeding. Stephen Gordon surrenders Mary to a conventional heterosexual marriage; Leo willingly leaves Helen for Joe. The pulps portray lesbian desire and fulfillment as something either to be prevented, through death or institutionalization, or lesbian relationships as being incapable of providing any sense of stability or permanence. To be lesbian is to be tortured with self-doubt and self-loathing. (70-71)
This chapter also looks at the relationships depicted in other recent lesbian romances, including "Janet McClellan's Winter Garden, Claire McNab's Under the Southern Cross, and Shelley Smith's Horizon of the Heart" (73).

Betz's focus is on examining how "social codes are woven into the narrative" (85) and showing that "a lesbian-authored text not only gives the lesbian reader permission to look, but to look as a lesbian looks" (84). This means that she is not analysing the literary aspects of the novels, though she does mention that in Rule's Desert of the Heart the use of "Images of heat, blinding light, dust, all suggest the impossibility of relationships being able to survive" (50) and the way in which "Emily Dickinson's poetry [...] becomes a communicative bridge" (70) for the protagonists in Forrest's Curious Wine.

In Chapter 3 she describes the settings to be found in lesbian romances:
Like their mainstream counterparts, lesbian romances set their narratives within conventional settings. Perhaps the most common backdrop for the love story, especially in novels set in the present, is the city. The prominence of this environment reflects its importance in the history of gays and lesbians: the city has always been seen as providing the gay man or lesbian a surrounding in which the individual is able to express non-traditional sexual desire more openly. The city offers anonymity at the same time it facilitates the creation of a shared community. (86)
The social statuses of the characters is also examined:
the lifestyles enjoyed by the characters in lesbian romances tend to reflect a middle to upper-middle class status. [...] The portrayal of lesbians as economically successful is constantly reinforced in these books and may be seen as contributing to one aspect of the romance novel's creation of fantasy, not of romantic passion but of material comfort. (87)
and, as in many romances featuring heterosexual protagonists,
Many lesbian romances [...] utilize the contrast in the class status of the couple as either a complication that must be resolved if the happy ending is to be achieved or as a marker of suitability. B. L. Miller's Accidental Love constructs the romance around the first plot situation. (88) [Miller has made this novel available on her website, where it can be read for free]
In this, they resemble a great many romances with heterosexual protagonists: the "Cinderella" type romance story, between a poor(er) woman and a rich man is a common one. However, Betz suggests that in lesbian romances wealth can play an additional role: "The association of financial security with a lesbian identity attempts to bridge the gap between perceived deviance (lesbian) and socially approved status (wealth); the one condition assumes acceptance of the other" (87).

Betz also describes how
A particular sub-set of lesbian romance novels began to appear in the mid-1990s that brought together a group of women who work together [...], live in the same neighborhood [...], or enjoy and rely on long-standing friendships [...]. One of the prominent features of these group romances - because while they could be classified as comedies of manners like their mainstream counterparts, finding suitable, long-term partners is the narratives' starting point - is the shared environment in which the characters reside. Not surprisingly, these novels do not replicate the traditional romantic plot; the narrative tends to center on one of the group, tracing the ups and downs of her searches for romantic relationships. The circle of friends provides a full range of support, criticism, and blind dates. [...] The comic tone of these novels represents another distinguishing factor for [sic] more traditional romances. (90-91)
Betz herself raises the question of how to classify these novels, and I wonder if she might have found rather more parallels between them and their "mainstream counterparts" if she had looked for those counterparts among chick lit novels rather than in the romance genre.

The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the impact on lesbian romance of another product of popular culture:
From its first broadcast [in September 1995], Xena, Warrior Princess teased its audience with suggestions of more than just a friendship between its two main characters. [...] While Xena and Gabrielle could play at being more than just friends, the requirements for keeping a mainstream audience prevented the relationship from crossing the boundary from play to actual romantic connection. Yet, it is this consummation that recent lesbian romance novels play out again and again. [...] What is striking in the majority of recent lesbian romances [...] is the authors' insistence on incorporating what can now be seen as iconic images and characterizations, especially since the show went off the air in 2000. In fact, the frequency of Xena- and Gabrielle-based characters is so common that some texts have begun to acknowledge the references. (107)3
In Chapter 4 Betz's "critical analysis" turns to the relationship between sex and love in the romance genre: "To separate sex from romance, in the final analysis, is rather like trying to separate the oxygen and hydrogen while attempting to drink water" (111). She suggests that
In many ways the incorporation of sexual intimacy functions in the same manner within the pages of the lesbian romance as mainstream romance. The couple desires the intensity of physical connection, since it signifies the moment of recognition of a mutual attraction and commitment between the lovers. Sexual passion and expression parallels emotional desire and articulation. [...] Unlike its heterosexual counterpart, however, the lesbian romance must contend with a mainstream essentialist view of the lesbian: the equation of sexual identity with sexual practice. (117)
Again comparisons with heterosexual romances abound. For example: "lesbian texts differ noticeably from heterosexual ones. Although contemporary traditional romances will describe the sex between the hero and heroine in explicit language, these scenes tend to be brief and limited in frequency" (122) and
The type of heterosexual romantic text influences how much explicit sexual content is allowed, but generally the number of sex scenes in mainstream straight novels is limited. The exception would be those novels that advertise themselves as explicitly erotic. However sex appears in these works, a distinct pattern of engagement can be discerned. The heroine's sexual awakening, for example, must come from the hero. (131)
If such statements contain inaccuracies about heterosexual romances, then they will fail to convince the reader that "lesbian texts differ noticeably from heterosexual ones." The quotations from, and descriptions of, lesbian sex scenes did not strike me as particularly different from many of those I've read in heterosexual romances (although, obviously, they describe two women's bodies instead of the bodies of a man and a woman). In addition I could see parallels between some of the novels Betz describes, in which one of the protagonists comes out as a lesbian during the course of a romance and learns eagerly from her more experienced partner, and the rapid learning curve of many romance virgins in heterosexual romance novels. Betz, however, states that "Unlike the romantic hero, who, traditionally, uses his sexual power to overwhelm the heroine's resistance and dominate her will, the more experienced lesbian in her romance will behave more as the teacher" (122).

Chapter 5 focuses on "the work of three well-known lesbian romance writers - Radclyffe, Karin Kallmaker, and Jennifer Fulton" (138). Betz apparently chose them because "While Radway's and Thurston's analyses are built on extensive surveys of romance readers" (3) Betz had no comparable source of information about lesbian romance readers and these three lesbian romance authors all have websites which "allow readers to contact the authors with their reactions, criticisms and questions. The answers open up the authors' writing processes, as well as their comments on issues such as the role of sex and the value of the work to its audience" (3). All three authors "express a strong sense of their awareness of writing for a specifically lesbian readership" (138), feel a "sense of responsibility for providing lesbian readers with recognizable and believable stories and characters" (139), "stress a commitment to representing as wide a range of lesbian experience as possible" (139) and "indicate an awareness that they are part of a particular lesbian literary tradition" (139). In addition to being authors, "Kallmaker is the editorial director for Bella Books; Fulton, the senior editor/acquiring editor for Bold Strokes Books; and Radclyffe [...] is the president and founder of Bold Strokes Books" (140).

In Fulton's True Love "most of the women of the group [including "Rosie, whose quest for true love provides the central narrative focus"] end in the same situation - single - as they began the story" (144) but Betz argues that the novel "must still be read as a romance novel because, even if only temporarily, members of the group [...] do experience the thrill of finding a compatible lover" (144). Apparently "Fulton's later romances adhere more closely to the traditional romantic framework" (144).

Karin Kallmaker
has paid close attention to the importance of community within the pages of her novels. [...] Finding one's heart's desire, as required by the romantic narrative, takes precedence, but Kallmaker emphasizes that the couple belongs to a wider world and has a responsibility to acknowledge that relationship as well as the private. (151)
Betz also notes Kallmaker's "deliberate references to other literature" (158), particularly Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Radclyffe specialises in romances in which
one or both of the main characters enters the story burdened by a past which impacts the present and which must be confronted and addressed if the character(s) will be able to pursue the relationship that has developed over the course of the narrative. (159)
Betz quotes a comment by Radclyffe:
"Some of the most powerful themes in my work, which I revisit frequently, are redemption, healing, and self-acceptance. These are classic themes in romance fiction and the sex of the character has nothing to do with the emotional landscape of the character or the challenges she faces in accepting and giving love." (160)
In Tomorrow's Promise one of the protagonists, Tanner, has sex with Adrienne but "cannot yet separate the two drives [emotional and physical] and returns to her 'normal' sexual behavior, indulging in one-night stands" (165). I found this intriguing, because I think it would be unusual for either of the protagonists in a heterosexual romance novel to find new sexual partners after having had sex with their hero/heroine. Betz does not analyse this, so I have no idea whether this kind of scenario is more common in lesbian romances than in heterosexual ones. There is some description of the metafictional elements in Love's Masquerade, in which Haydon Palmer, writing under the pseudonym of Rune Dyre, "is transcribing her relationship with Auden [who works for her publisher] in the fiction" (166) which Auden reads and "Their courtship for the first part of the novel is carried out through email and the submission Rune/Haydon sends to Auden" (166).

Chapter Six analyses the relationships between the novels and their readers:
The reader's importance to the success of the romance novel cannot be overlooked; every examination of the genre, whether critical or popular, emphasizes the impact readers' expectations of and responses to the texts not only has on their own preference, but on the writers of these works as well. (170)
Betz states that heterosexual romance novels show "the balance of opposites" and "this reconciliation of opposites is the reiteration and normalization of a conservative social construction of heterosexual relationships" (176). However
While lesbian romances retain the basic outlines of the heterosexual romantic plot and characters, they incorporate important variations that represent a specific lesbian sensibility, since these are written for a specifically lesbian audience. For example, the main characters do not always embody a rigid set of contrasting qualities. (177)
It would be surprising if lesbian romances did not "represent a specific lesbian sensibility" but if it is demonstrated by the presence of main characters who "do not [...] embody a rigid set of contrasting qualities" then many heterosexual romances, for example those with "beta" heroes, must also "represent a specific lesbian sensibility." As on earlier occasions, Betz's apparent lack of knowledge about heterosexual romances (or a reading of them which is based on the assumption that they must reproduce a "conservative social construction of heterosexual relationships") undercuts her insights into lesbian romance novels. Where Betz does see similarities with heterosexual romances, these do not seem to meet with great approval:
The impact of the heterosexual paradigm in the definition of a successful romantic outcome can be seen in the novels' maintaining of the notion that each woman has, and can find, her one true soul mate, thus encouraging the lesbian reader to imagine, at least during the reading of the novel, that such an achievement is possible. (179)
While I might not use the term "one true soul mate," the "notion" that women ( heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual etc) can find lifelong romantic partners does not seem to me to be an "achievement" which is only possible within the pages of a romance. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, for example, were together for over fifty years, until the former's death. Betz concedes that "given that even the concept of a successful lesbian relationship is discredited by mainstream society, the serious treatment of the search of one woman for emotional and physical fulfillment with another woman becomes reasonable" (180).


1 Complete details of these texts can be found in the Romance Wiki bibliography. This list is not intended to be taken as a complete list of previous work on lesbian romance novels, but it does include some items not cited by Betz.

2 Elsewhere, in an earlier book, Betz has analysed depictions of sex and love in lesbian detective fiction. On pages 42-44 of her book on lesbian detective fiction Betz actually gives a brief overview of the heterosexual romance genre which gives a taste of her approach to the genre in Lesbian Romance Novels.

3 According to an article by Malinda Lo,
female/female slash, or femslash, has historically been quite rare. It was not until Xena: Warrior Princess, with its often quite overt subtextual homosexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, that the amount of femslash approached male/male slash in volume. Since Xena, other femslash pairings have included Seven of Nine/Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager; Buffy/Faith, Willow/Tara, and numerous other female/female pairings on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer; CJ and a number of female partners on The West Wing, and Olivia Benson/Alex Cabot on Law and Order: SVU, among others. [...]

The mother of all femslash is, without a doubt, Xena: Warrior Princess, which premiered in September 1995. Xena was unique in that it was a television program in which the hero and the hero's sidekick were both women. That relationship, between former warlord-turned-heroine Xena and the initially innocent bard Gabrielle, was one of the most three-dimensional relationships between women seen on television. That relationship also involved them in a number of sexually suggestive situations, as the two famously bathed together, shared mystical kisses, and sang to each other in melodramatic musical episodes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

To Blog, or Not To Blog: That is the Question

Jessica at Read, React, Review will be attending the 2010 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference, and she's been thinking about blogging about the papers. However, last year when she did this she "ran into a few 'issues' so this year she's asking for some advice in advance of the conference.
Could blogging about conference presentations cause harm? [...]

1. Maybe someone reading this blog will scoop the presenter’s WIP, stealing her thesis and getting an article into print first. The presenter loses a publication and time spent on research. This could affect her chances for getting tenure (this would not be an issue for presenters who are presenting published or forthcoming work, of course).

2. Blog commenters are harshly critical of the presenter, in a way no one in an academic audience would be. They write things like, “That is just stupid” or “What a dumbass!”. It is hurtful to the presenter — not a reaction she was prepared for, and she worries it will devalue her work if it is the first thing that shows up in a Google search.

3. It is not the presenter’s best work. In fact, it is really not ready for prime time. She hates the idea that it is online for posterity, when she plans to radically alter or abandon the research post conference.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I blogged about the papers at this year's conference on Georgette Heyer, so Jessica's list of problems made me feel a bit worried. Did I do the wrong thing? Well, as far as 3. is concerned, the presenters may feel that way about their work but if they did, they didn't mention it to me. I contacted all of them either prior to, or just after, I published the posts so that they could offer corrections/objections. Problem 2. wasn't an issue here, and as for Problem 3., I may be wrong about this but I would have thought that blog posts of this kind make stealing less likely, since the author's name is attached to the summary of the work and provides an online record of the date on which she presented it.

My intention was to share some of the enthusiasm of the day, show what a vibrant area of study this is, and whet people's appetites for the full papers when/if they're published (the hope is that at least some of them will appear in a future issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and I've heard that Jennifer Kloester's biography of Heyer will be published sometime next year). Jessica has come up with a few other reasons in favour of blogging about conferences:
Are there any ethical arguments in favor of blogging the conference? I tend to be skeptical about this in terms of my little blog, but here goes. Possibly the goods of disseminating information, and any ancillary goods that come from that, like contacts being made (someone reads this blog, finds out Julie Juniper is working on her topic, they get in touch, they collaborate or develop some other mutually beneficial exchange), or academics who were not able to attend the conference (maybe they were ill or couldn’t afford it) getting to stay updated in their field a bit, or nonacademics, i.e. most readers of RRR, benefiting by getting a glimpse into a different way of approaching their favorite books, and enjoying this or learning from it.
Personally, and perhaps very selfishly, I hope that Jessica does choose to blog about the PCA/ACA conference because I won't be there. Take a look at the following list of the romance-related sessions taken from the Conference program and see if you feel the same way!


Romance I: Romancing Bollywood

Session Chair: Eric Murphy Selinger, DePaul University

"'My Heart It Speaks a Thousand Words': Language, Race, and Romance in
Bollywood Cinema"‖ Pavitra Sundar, Dartmouth University

"Found in Translation: Hindi Cinema‘s Take on Romance in English Language
Film"‖ Jayashree Kamble, University of Minnesota

"Cinematic Time and the Fate of the Family in Classical Hindi Cinema"‖ Anustup Basu, University of Illinois

"Reading Bollywood Reading Romance: Jaane Tu Janne Na"‖ Eric Murphy Selinger

Romance II: The Dark Side of Romance: Rape, Serial Killers, and Power Dynamics
Session Chair: Sarah S. G. Frantz, Fayetteville State University

"Romancing the Rapist: The Myriad Uses of Sexual Force and Violence in Genre Romance"‖ Robin Harders, University of California, Irvine

"Alpha Male: Dominance, Submission, and Masculinity in Popular Romance Fiction"‖ Sarah S. G. Frantz

"Serial Killers Make Great Boyfriends?: Dexter and Dark Heroes"‖ Amber Botts, Neodesha High School

"Reality v. Writing: Walking the Tightrope of Reader Expectations, Personal Knowledge and Romance Tropes"‖ James Buchanan, Romance Author

Romance III: Nora Roberts: Food, Community, and Voice
Session Chair: An Goris, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven/DePaul University

"Recipes and Rituals: Food and Religion in Nora Roberts' Three Sisters Island Trilogy"‖ Tessa Kostelc, The George Washington University

"Lights, Audiobooks, Action!: The Recreation of Narrative Voice in Nora Roberts's The Circle Trilogy"‖ Glinda Hall, University of Arkansas

"Let's Keep It in the Family: Nora Roberts' Connected Books"‖ An Goris

Romance Area Meeting
American Center, Room 242 (2nd Floor)
Thursday, April 1, 5:00 P.M.
Chair: Sarah Frantz, University of North Carolina, Fayetteville, and Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University
Open discussion about the current state of romance studies, including: the progress of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, IASPR's conference in Belgium in August 2010, the planned Popular Romance Studies Special Issue of the Journal of American Culture in 2013, and preliminary planning of IASPR's 2011 conference in New York City before the RWA annual conference. The meeting is open to all presenters and anyone interested in our area. Please join us and then join us for a Romance Area Dinner at a local restaurant afterwards.

Romance IV: Theory, Criticism, and Ethics
Session Chair: Jessica Miller, University of Maine

"Truly Our Contemporary Jane Austen: Popular Historical Romance and the Uses of Author(ity)"‖ Susan Kroeg, Eastern Kentucky University

"Building an Ethical Review Community: Dear Author"‖ Jane Litte, Blogger: Dear Author

"Love as the Practice of Bondage: Popular Romance Narrative and the Conundrum of Erotic Love"‖ Catherine Roach, University of Alabama

"Ethical Criticism of Genre Fiction: The Case of Romance"‖ Jessica Miller

Romance: Romance V: The Safe Spaces of Romance
Session Chair: Pamela Regis, McDaniel College

"Reading the Romance Now: Intersections of Gender, Genre, and Literacy"‖ Stephanie Moody, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

"Growing Intentional Communities: The Popular Romance Project"‖ Laurie Kahn, Brandeis University

"The Romance Community: A Room of One's Own and Écriture Feminine"‖ Pamela Regis

Romance VI: Romance Publishing: Canadian Romance, ePublishing, and Erotica, Oh My!
Session Chair: Crystal Goldman, San Jose State University

"'Can I set it in Canada?': CanLit and Romance Publishing"‖ Jessica Taylor, University of Toronto

"Romance Rebound: Further Comparisons in e-Publishing and Print Publishers by Erotica and Erotic Romance Authors"‖ Crystal Goldman

"Author Discussion: Print and Digital Publishing"‖ Amanda Freeman, Harlequin; Jeannie Lin, Harlequin Historical; Sela Carsen, Samhain Publishing

Romance VII: Romancing Vampires: Toothsome Heroes and Happy Endings
Session Chair: Sarah S. G. Frantz, Fayetteville State University

"Sexual Exchange and Submission in Dracula: A Precursor to Gay Erotica Romance"‖ Haley Stokes

"Taking a Bite Out of Love: Transforming Romance in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga"‖ Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, University of Wisconsin, Manitowoc

"Twilight and Romeo And Juliet: The Portrayal of Love and Narrative Perspective"‖ Brent Gibson, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor

"Sheep in Wolf's Clothing: Christine Feehan's Carpathian Heroes"‖ Kat Schroeder, University of Washington

Romance VIII: Exploring History, Genre, Media
Session Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

"American Roots of the Popular Romance Novel: Sentimental, Domestic, and Dime Novels"‖ Maryan Wherry, Black Hawk College

"Comparison of Romance Videogames to other Romance Media"‖ Jill Astley

"Crikey, It's Romance for Men: Australian Sports Novels and Westerns of the 1950s‖ Toni Johnson-Woods, University of Queensland, Australia

"Discovering Liminal Spaces: Gossip and Self-Exposure in Jennifer Crusie's Romances and Eighteenth-Century Amatory Fiction"‖ Kimberly Baldus, University of Missouri, St. Louis

Romance IX: So Classy!: High/Low/Middle Class/Culture
Session Chair: Sarah S. G. Frantz, Fayetteville State University

"Something New: Resisting the Coupling Convention in Contemporary Black Romantic Film"‖ Consuela Francis, College of Charleston

"Global Popular Culture and Class in Filipino Chick Lit‖ Trina Joyce Sajo, Brock University

"She quoted Shakespeare!: The inclusion of highbrow literature in popular romance novels"‖
Tamara Whyte, University of Alabama

Romance X: The Construction of Gender: (Killer) Heroes and Heroines
Session Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

"From Virgins to Rogues: Iris Johansen's Ten-year Love Affair with Loveswept‖ Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

"Neither True Nor Fair: An Exploration of Female Heroism in Popular Romance"‖
Angela Toscano, University of Utah

"Readers' Perceptions of Realism, Race, and Gender in Brockmann's Contemporary Romance Novels‖ Jim Haefner, University of St. Francis; Margaret Haefner, North Park University

"Wicked Symmetry: The Dangerous Compulsion of Attraction in Twilight and Ziska"‖ Jacob Lusk, University of North Florida; Marnie Jones, University of North Florida

The Vampire in Literature, Culture, & Film: Roundtable—Blood, Sex, and Love: Exploring Vampire Romance Novels and Their Impact on the Image of the Vampire
Moderator: Amanda Hobson, Ohio University
Jessica Miller, University of Maine
Heide Crawford, University of Kansas
Bloodsucking fiends no longer. While there is not a single, monolithic vision of the vampire, the predominant pop culture image of the vampire has morphed from the unapologetic horror figure with gleaming fangs waiting to drain your blood to the sexy sympathetic and tortured soul that would rather sweep you off your feet than hurt you. Vampire myth, folklore, and fiction have integrated romance and sexuality as core elements from the beginning. The sympathetic vampire has existed within the folklore along with the more horrific, but this apologetic vampire has found a massive following in the last decade, especially as romance novelists have begun major incorporation of the vampire into their novels. Authors in other genres have also integrated this more sympathetic and charming vampire. These novels utilize a belief that vampires are neither good nor evil but can be either or both, as they inhabit the grey area. A few series stand out as indicative of this current trend, such as The Black Dagger Brotherhood series, The Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, the Twilight Saga, and the Southern Vampire series (a.k.a. the Sookie Stackhouse series or True Blood). These series have demonstrated the evolution of the vampire's use of sex and romance to lure prey to a desire for companionship. This roundtable will offer a venue to discuss this phenomenon of the vampire romance, including an exploration of the following questions: have these romantic vampires defanged the traditional vampire, are these vampires indicative of the larger vampire narratives particularly beginning in the nineteenth century, and why the romance genre has embraced the vampire lover?

Romance XI: Happily Ever After: Romance Conventions In and Through Film and Fiction
Session Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

"Revisiting Medium and Message in Romantic Fictions: Character-motivated Happily Ever Afters"‖ Danielle Rubin; Sabrina Darby

"Is my Chemise Showing?: Playing with Cross-Dressing Conventions in Celeste Bradley's The Spy"‖ Mallory Jagodzinsky, Bowling Green State University

"Is Happily Ever After a Romance Imperative?"‖ Phil Mathews, Bournemouth University

"Comedy and Tragedy: Redemptive Happy Endings"‖ Barbara Samuel, Romance Author


So, have you got any advice (of a non-selfish variety) to offer Jessica?

Taken on the 28th of July, 1922, the photo is from the National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress) at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. It is available online and there are "No known restrictions on publication." I found it via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

We've Discussed the Book ... Now You Too Can Answer the Questions!

We've read (or at least discussed) Janice A. Radway's Reading the Romance and now you, too, can answer (some of) her questions. Not by going back to "Smithton" in a time machine, but by filling in a questionnaire created by Colleen Corliss, one of Eric's MA students:
Janice Radway is the author of Reading the Romance published in 1984. Radway conducted a survey based on 16 women from Smithton who are comprised mainly of housewives. In my survey I used most of the same questions Radway used in her own research. I added in a couple questions such as age, career, and family in order to support my thesis that romance readers are not uneducated housewives looking for a escape from their unhappy marriages by reading a love story about a heroine whose life they wish they had.

I have quite a bit of research to accomplish for my paper but I would greatly appreciate any feedback you could provide. I know that the questions look as though I am generalizing romance readers but the act was intentional for the survey portion. I will be conducting interviews of romance readers to get a better understand of why we read romance novels that is quite different from Janice Radway's hypothesis.
If you'd like to answer Radway's questions and help Colleen with her research, you can find the questionnaire here. Colleen would also welcome comments about the survey, and you can leave those at the blog she's created for that purpose. Please note that once you've completed the survey you probably won't be able to go back and look at the questions, so please bear that in mind if you want to look at the questions while writing up your comment(s).

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reading Radway Reading the Romance

On page 5 of her new (1992) introduction to Reading the Romance Radway acknowledged that "even what I took to be simple descriptions of my interviewees' self-understandings were mediated if not produced by my own conceptual constructs and ways of seeing the world" (5). Furthermore, she observes that
Whereas he [another scholar] notes his excessive concentration on the single variable of class and the rather simple way in which the concept itself was constructed, so I might point in my own study to the exclusive preoccupation with gender and to the use of a fairly rigid notion of patriarchy. (9)
What Radway notes here is, I think, something that it is important to remember when reading all the existing attempts to understand romance readers. Each author's interpretation is likely to be shaped by her or his "conceptual constructs." Like an invisible set of glasses, these interpretative lenses can colour the author's perception of the situations she or he sees, and may make her or him more likely to focus in on aspects of the problem which are more visible through those interpretative lenses.

Radway was looking at the small group of Smithton readers through a pair of lenses created by "the psychoanalytic theories of Nancy Chodorow" (9): "through its use of psychoanalytic theory, the book attempts to explain how and why such a structured 'story' might be experienced as pleasurable by those women as a consequence of their socialization within a particular family unit" (11). Individuals' identities are a composite of superimposed layers, and one lens alone may not suffice to understand the complexities of an individual's choices. Radway, in her new introduction, states that "I would now want to organize an ethnography of romance reading comparatively, in order to make some effort to ascertain how others social variables like age, class location, education, and race intersect with gender to produce varying, even conflicting, engagements with the romance form" (9). Having brought in those variables, she might have needed to add a few more lenses to her set of glasses: psychoanalytic theories about gender might have relatively little to say about racism or economic inequality, for example.

And, of course, not all readers are identical to the Smithton readers, nor do we all share their reading preferences. As Radway herself acknowledged,
It is clear that the Smithton group cannot be thought of as a scientifically designed random sample. The conclusions drawn from the study, therefore, should be extrapolated only with great caution to apply to other romance readers. (48)
A lens, or set of lenses, which work well with one set of readers may not work so well with other readers, or may even render them invisible. The Smithton readers were all women, for example, but there are male romance readers.

Bearing all this in mind, when Radway writes that she was
struck by the urgency, indeed by the near hysteria, with which romance authors assert that the newly active, more insistent female sexuality displayed in the genre is still most adequately fulfilled in an intimate, monogamous relationship characterized by love and permanence (15)
it seems legitimate to wonder which of Radway's own "conceptual constructs and ways of seeing the world" were shaping this view of romance authors' assertions. It also seems deeply ironic for a feminist scholar to employ the rather loaded term "hysteria," so often used to dismiss women's experiences, to dismiss romance authors' statements about their own work.

Her own statement seems to insist that female sexuality should not be displayed in an intimate, loving and permanent monogamous relationship. I find it difficult to understand what is so wrong about loving and permanent intimate relationships. I suppose it's possible she was objecting to monogamy and she wanted greater recognition for polyamorous relationships. Or perhaps she was not really thinking of the full range of possible "loving and permanent intimate relationships" but was only critiquing the versions of these relationships which exist in "patriarchal marriage" (14). Whatever she meant, her lenses, the romance authors' lenses, and the lenses I'm wearing myself make it rather difficult for me to untangle what Radway and the romance authors really meant when they made their statements about the genre.

Radway's a lot clearer elsewhere. For example, she concluded that there was a
deep irony hidden in the fact that women who are experiencing the consequences of patriarchal marriage's failure to address their needs turn to a story that ritually recites the history of the process by which those needs are constituted. [...] the Smithton women are repetitively asserting to be true what their still-unfulfilled desire demonstrates to be false, that is, that heterosexuality can create a fully coherent, fully satisfied, female subjectivity. (14)
There's certainly a "deep irony" in the fact that, as Radway noted, the Smithton women made a "universal claim to being happily married (a claim I did not doubt)" (13) yet, while claiming not to doubt them, she remained certain that they were "experiencing the consequences of patriarchal marriage's failure to address their needs" and in particular their "desire for the nurturance represented and promised by the preoedipal mother" (14).

Interestingly, when the Smithton readers were asked "whether romance reading ever changes women" (101) they emphatically answered that it did because "their self-perception has been favorably transformed by their reading" (102) and they were "convinced [...] that romance fiction demonstrates that 'intelligence' and 'independence' in a woman make her more attractive to a man" (102). More nurturance from their husbands would not necessarily have achieved these results: it might have made the women feel more cared for, but would it have changed their self-perception and made them willing to show their intelligence and independence?

Just as an experiment, I'd like to take two different sets of interpretative lenses and see how they might shape one's view of the Smithton readers' responses. What happens if one asks whether it is economics which shaped these women's reading choices? It has been argued by feminist economists that
Economics has divided life into two separate categories: the economic realm and the household realm. The economic realm focuses on the market: producers, buyers, and sellers, while the household realm includes all the range of unpaid work that is necessary for the functioning of life. Because economics only counts production that produces items that can be sold in the market, the household is seen as being outside of the economic realm and therefore 'unproductive.' In contrast, the buying and selling and trading that takes place in the economic realm, is 'productive.' This assumption that households are not sites of production has meant that within the traditional household of male breadwinner, female caregiver, and children, only the male breadwinner is seen as being 'productive.' Women's work of bearing and raising children, maintaining a home, providing food, and providing emotional support for everyone, is simply assumed despite the fact that the economy is absolutely dependent on it.
Perhaps the Smithton romance readers, "women who saw themselves first as wives and mothers" (7) were taking a well-deserved break from their work in order to read books in a genre which recognised the value of that work? These were, after all, women who "referred constantly and voluntarily to the connection between their reading and their daily social situation as wives and mothers" (9), who "are angered by men who continue to make light of 'woman's work' as well as by 'women's libbers' whom they accuse of dismissing mothers and housewives as ignorant, inactive, and unimportant" (78) and, as Radway herself has written, "the romance readers of Smithton use their books to erect a barrier between themselves and their families in order to declare themselves temporarily off-limits to those who would mine them for emotional support and material care" (12). Even workers who enjoy their jobs require some leisure time, but because the work in which these women were engaged is often not considered to be "work," and because it is carried out within the home, there may be no provision made for "clocking off" at the end of a long shift. If one looks at the Smithton readers through the lenses of feminist economic theory, one might suggest that they were finding in these books both a physical means of asserting their right to leisure time, and validation that their work as wives and mothers is indeed of crucial importance. This might explain why "their self-perception has been favorably transformed by their reading" (102).

Furthermore, it could be argued that the general lack of respect for women's unpaid work is revealed in the way that the Smithton readers "are often called to task by their husbands for their repetitive consumption. [...] The women wonder [...] why they should have to adhere to standards of thrift and parsimony with respect to books when other family members do not observe the same requirements" (103). Feminist economics might answer this question by pointing out that household work is unpaid. These Smithton readers were, in a sense, attempting to take their wages in the form of books, and their spouses, in querying the expenditure, were demonstrating that women's work in the home is not seen as deserving of pay, either in cash or, indirectly, via the cost of leisure activities.

Or how about another lens, this time that of a different school of psychology, which Eric Selinger described at Romancing the Blog:
There seems to be a whole branch of psychological inquiry out there called Positive Psychology: not some fuzzy set of platitudes and bromides, but (in Seligman’s words) “a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.’” My hunch, which I plan to test across the next few months, is that romance novels are often primers in positive psychology, in ways that measure up quite well against current research.
After all, Radway herself "found it impossible to ignore" the Smithton readers' "fervent insistence that romance reading creates a feeling of hope, provides emotional sustenance, and produces a fully visceral sense of well-being" (12). She also relates one reader's comment:
"Optimistic! That's what I like in a book. An optimistic plot. I get sick of pessimism all the time."
Her distinction between optimistic and pessimistic stories recurred during several of the interviews, especially during discussions of the difference between romances and other books. (99)
Perhaps, then, there is a good reason why Dot, when asked "What do romances do better than other novels today?" (87) answered: "It's an innocuous thing. If it had to be ... pills or drinks, this is harmful" (87). Perhaps these readers were treating their psychological problems with a dose of optimism, rather than resorting to more dangerous substances.

I'm just trying to demonstrate how a different set of interpretative lenses could lead to very different conclusions. I'm not stating here that either feminist economics or positive psychology provide the key to correctly understanding what the Smithton women told Radway. It might be that neither of those lenses are helpful or, and I think this is more likely, it might be that those lenses are helpful but individually cannot explain the Smithton readers' choices and reactions.

In fact, before undertaking a study like Radway's, I think I'd feel the need to kit myself out with a diverse set of lenses, like this


I found Marysuephotoeth's self-portrait of herself wearing many different pairs of glasses at Flickr, where she had made it available for use under a Creative Commons license.


  • Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
  • Monday, March 01, 2010

    Call for Papers--Deadline Extended!

    If you're reading this, you may already have heard about the upcoming 2010 Film & History Conference: Representations of Love in Film and Television, November 11-14, 2010. The deadline for submissions has been extended from 1 March 2010 (i.e., today) to 1 June, 2010, and since I've only gotten a couple of submissions so far, I must admit, I'm very glad to hear it!

    The full list of panels can be found here. My own panel is on Sons of the Sheik: Global Perspectives on the Alpha Male in Love. I'm not a film scholar by training, so if you're interested in slipping out of your usual area of expertise to try something new, your proposal will fall on sympathetic ears. Also, the panel is open to talks about movies that play with or entirely subvert the "alpha male" concept, as you'll see from the trailer above and the description below. (The links that Laura added are still embedded--you can use them to see the range of films I have in mind.)
    Masterful, confident, erotically charged, the “Alpha Male” has been a cinematic icon from Rudolph Valentino’s Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan (The Sheik, 1921) to Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown (1999) and Hritik Roshan’s elusive criminal, “Mr. A” (Dhoom 2, 2006). As the hero in romantic films, this ideal of masculinity has proven enduringly popular with both male and female viewers, even as successive waves of feminism, in the West and around the globe, have challenged the sexual politics he implies.

    How do representations of the Alpha Male in love differ across national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries? How have they changed across the past century, responding to historically- and regionally-specific shifts in gender roles and ideals? What happens to the Alpha Male hero when he stars in a romantic comedy, as opposed to a drama or melodrama? How much can we use this iconic figure to track the power of the female gaze or women’s desires, as has been done with the Alpha Male hero of popular romance fiction, given the fact that men continue to predominate in the writing and direction of the films (as opposed to the overwhelmingly female authorship and audience for romance novels)?

    This area, comprising multiple panels, welcomes papers and panel proposals that examine all forms and genres of films featuring “Alpha” protagonists in love, as well as films which challenge, revise, or subvert the conventions surrounding this character. Possibilities include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

    • Sheiks, Captains, Emperors, (The Sheik, Persuasion, Jodhaa Akbar)

    • Alpha Male meets Alpha Female (The Thomas Crown Affair [1999], Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

    • Austen’s Alpha: Darcy and his Descendants (Pride and Prejudice)

    • Sink Me! He’s an Alpha in Disguise! (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro)

    • Alpha / Beta Reversals and Alter-Egos (Rab Ne Bana di Jodi, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na)

    • Suspicious Minds: the Alpha Criminal and Detective (Devil in a Blue Dress, The Big Sleep, Breathless)

    • Athlete Alphas (Love & Basketball, Bull Durham)

    • Alpha Lovers in Space (Han Solo, James T. Kirk)

    • You’ve Got Male: Alphas in “Chick Flicks”

    Please send your 200-word proposal by e-mail to the area chair:

    Eric Murphy Selinger
    Associate Professor
    Dept. of English
    DePaul University
    802 West Belden Ave.
    Chicago, IL 60614 (email submissions preferred) Panel proposals for up to four presenters are also welcome, but each presenter must submit his or her own paper proposal.