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.


  1. Sounds like two very exciting and interesting projects! I can't wait to read more about this as their findings will get published in the months and years ahead. Congrats to Pam and Consuela!

  2. Congratulations, Conseula and Pamela! Your projects sound fascinating!

  3. congratulations to both of you! by the way, since i live under a rock, how is zane (whom before now i'd never heard of) waging "war on black respectability in her Dr. Marcella Spenser novels"?

  4. Nekobawt, Angela, at Save Black Romance!, posted about this a while ago. Her site seems to be going down intermittently at the moment, so this link may or may not work. I've copied enough below to give you the main points of her argument, and I've put the bit about Zane in bold:

    One of the reasons I feel AA romance is ignored or avoided by not only non-black readers, but some black readers as well, is the negative images we hold about black sexuality and black love. [...]

    On one hand, we have the hypersexualized image of black men and women, historically, and in the hip-hop culture. The black woman is the temptress, the jezebel, with curves out to there and loose ways which show that she’s “asking for it.” The black man is the predator, the panther on the prowl, an insatiable beast who is both good in bed, yet cannot control his sexual impulses. [...]

    Because of this, black women are told their entire lives that they need to be “ladies.” Black women are judged more harshly for their sexuality than white women. Black men are not judged as harshly, but their sexuality is treated more like a novelty [...]. I find this carries over into the romance genre. One of the reasons I enjoy L.A. Banks’s paranormal series, and her romances written under the Leslie Esdaile name, is because she isn’t afraid to let her characters get down and dirty. The prolific erotica author Zane, received a lot of flak from the black community for her fiction, which is extremely adventurous, because blacks have bought into the notion that our sexuality is something “bad” or “sinful.”

    Angela elaborated on these ideas about AA romance in another post. Here's an excerpt:

    something that is looped time and time again throughout black thought [is] that sense of always being on display, of being hyper-aware of one’s behavior and the behavior of other blacks, of second-guessing everything you like, say, or do (such as loving fried chicken but fearing to eat it in public because of the stereotype that black folks loooove them some fried yard bird) in effort to be an individual who happens to be black. [...] I can’t help but feel exasperated when I see entertainment placed in the role of educator. Yes, media/entertainment studies reveal our cultural biases and brainwashing, but in case of say, black romance fiction, it can obscure the basic storytelling intent.

    A brief look at the writing guidelines for Kimani Romance reveal my source of frustration. On one hand, I recognize the guidelines as standard for all H/S lines since the company is the touchstone for delivering particular books for the audience of each line. But 1) Kimani Romance is a category line based strictly on the color of the protagonists’ skin, which is a bit false, since a super sexy plot could fit just as well in Blaze, a glamorous suspense story could fit in Silhouette Romantic Suspense, etc etc. 2) the majority of the guidelines appear to emphasize the “morality” of the characters as opposed to certain standards for the line (i.e. you wouldn’t write a nice Iowan farmer for Harlequin Presents)–and the guidelines are pretty much a given for most romance writers (such as “The hero should exhibit good character and not be abusive or violent toward the heroine, misogynistic, dishonest, amoral or engage in criminal behavior”). The guidelines serve to both block the “unsavory” elements of street lit and provide a place for “good” black people who will placate the assumption that all fiction with black characters are “ghetto” and full of grievances against The Man.

  5. It's worth noting that there's sort of a second Academic Grant. Laurie Kahn's Popular Romance Project (on which Eric and I have worked) also received $5000. We're waiting to hear from the NEH (in July ::sob::) as to whether the PRP will be funded for its preliminary, exploratory stages. We'll let you know, but it's good to see that RWA likes the project enough to fund it too!

  6. I did see a tweet you wrote about that, but I couldn't find any information about it on the RWA website, so I wasn't sure if it was still semi-secret, pending the finding of the extra funds needed. I did take a look at the various test pages for the Popular Romance Project.

    I noticed that on Laurie Kahn's page at the Brandeis website it says that she's

    developing several projects that will begin as innovative websites (taking advantage of the participatory, cyberlearning potential of the internet) -- and then evolve into feature-length documentary films for national broadcast

    That seems to suggest that a film would be the end point of her projects, but the Popular Romance Project looks like it's going to include a blog, so is it going to be an ongoing project?

  7. Well, everything depends on funding from NEH and other sources, of course, but Laurie has a fabulous track record with her films. The project started in Laurie's mind, I think, as a documentary film about romance authors, because, after all, she's a documentary film maker. But it's expanded beyond that. Pending funding, it'll start as a website with interactive portions led by scholars on particular aspects of popular romance (in fiction, film, pop culture, etc.), and then culminate in the film, a traveling exhibit/program with the American Library Association, and a one day symposium at the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. Pending funding. :) I'm really really excited. We'll know about funding hopefully before the IASPR conference in Belgium. Laurie's hoping to make both that and RWA, I think.

  8. It does sound very exciting. I'll keep my fingers crossed about the funding!

  9. Thanks for the congrats everyone. nekobawt--while Angela and I don't agree about how conservative contemporary AA romance is, we do agree that there is a lot of anxiety surrounding depictions of black female sexuality in the popualr culture and that the response to that has often been a strident insistence on display of respectable behavior. The two Zane novels in question (one about a sex addict and one about a woman with split personalities who has a wildly kinky and varied sex life, though she thinks she is a virgin) present themselves as cautionary tales about uncheckec black female sexuality, but are in fact about the constraints of the demands of black respectability.