Tuesday, May 25, 2010

IASPR: Belgium 2010 - Speakers and Registration

Registration is now open for IASPR's

Second Annual International Conference on Popular Romance:
Popular Romance Studies: Theory, Text and Practice
Brussels, Belgium
5-7 August, 2010

The keynote speakers for the conference will be:

Celestino Deleyto, University of Zaragoza, Spain

“The Comic, the Serious and the Middle: Desire in Contemporary Film Romantic Comedy”

The most interesting things in romantic comedies happen in the middle. It is there that the characteristic tensions between melodramatic intensity and comedic cool, between laughter and frustration, between the social and the psychosexual take place. In this talk I want to move away from traditional theories of romcom which privilege the happy ending as the repository of all the meanings and ideology of the genre and theorize the magic space of romantic comedy and its relation with the social world and sexual discourses at the beginning of the 21st century.

Lynne Pearce, Lancaster University, UK

“Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of the Love”

This paper will revisit the “deep structures” of romantic love that I explored in my book Romance Writing (2007), focusing, in particular, on the question of whether the retrospective test of “true love” lies in its non-repeatability (exemplified by the numerous heroes and heroines from folk-tale, myth and Gothic literature who prefer to mourn the lost loved-object rather than seek its replacement). I shall then reflect upon how the high value placed upon non-repeatability in (certain) romantic discourse is at odds with its oedipal origins as accounted for by psychoanalysis (which explains all adult relationships as a repetition of the child’s first ‘romance’ with its parents), as well as noting the extent to which both ‘comic’ and popular romance have depended, crucially, on the possibility of serial monogamy. The second part of the paper will explore the tensions between repeatable / non-repeatable models of romantic love further with reference to Sarah Waters’s The Nightwatch (2006), wherein the compulsion to ‘repeat’ a previous dynamic is seen to define all the key relationships.

Pamela Regis, McDaniel College, USA

“Criticizing Romance: The Last Quarter Century”

Respondent: An Goris.

From its definition to its effects on readers, from condemnation to praise, popular romance has long been a site of widely contrasting critical approaches and judgments. This address offers a meta-critical analysis and appraisal of the last quarter century of romance criticism to illuminate and advance the daunting project of interpretation that we romance critics have set ourselves: an account of the ubiquitous, wildly popular, analytically elusive popular romance. Guided by the question, “What does a critic owe the romance?” Regis and Goris will map the territory and identify the ways forward.

Over at the IASPR website the papers to be presented are listed alphabetically, by the speaker's surname. I thought I'd go for a thematic approach:

Romance in specific geographical contexts

“Romances: Novels Ceaselessly Evolving. What Mechanisms are at Work?” by Magali Bigey. Associated with preconceived images and full of prejudices, romance is a consumption product which embodies a social and cultural mirroring. In France for several decades, romance has gained an heterogeneous but loyal readership. What are the motives of those novels which are said to be all similar? What do they represent for the readership? These are some of the questions we try to answer in this multidisciplinary work. To do it, we chose romances published diachronically in France from 1942 until 2008, between the appearance of small romances named “Les Romans Americans” and the contemporary romances.

“Stereotypes of Muslim’s Women Ambition in Northern Nigerian Popular Romance” by Halima Buhari Sekula. The paper analyzes three texts, Rabiat, When the Wall Cracks, and Silent Tears, in order to explore the ways in which popular romance in Northern Nigeria perpetuates gender discrimination by depicting Muslim female heroines as docile and uneducated women. The female Muslim characters are often on opposing character scales with good and bad women sharply delineated. Often, the good woman is not university educated and is long suffering. This type of fiction often negates the dynamic image of the contemporary Nigerian Muslim woman. The paper is furthermore a discourse on the impact of such stereotypes as fundamentally limiting to the educational and economic horizon of Muslim women

“Love for a Dime: A History and Taxonomy of the German ‘Liebesromanheft’” by Cora Buhlert. This paper will focus on a field of German popular fiction that has received little serious critical attention domestically and is almost entirely unknown abroad, the so-called Romanheft. A distant relative of the American dime novel and the British penny dreadful of the nineteenth century, a Romanheft is a novelette, published as a digest-sized magazine and printed on cheap woodpulp paper with a glossy cover. Although Romanheft covers all genres of popular fiction, romance makes up the majority of market nowadays. This paper will provide a brief overview of the German Romanheft, its history and critical reception as well as genres, authors, major titles and publishers. The main focus will be on the romance genre and its various subgenres. I will also address common accusations levelled against Romanhefte regarding their lack of engagement with political and social issues of the day and alleged promotion of conservative values and gender roles. Finally, I will also draw comparisons between the German Romanheft and the popular romance in the US and UK, particularly with regard the impact of translated category romances on the German market from the 1970s on.

“Francophone Perspectives on Romantic Fiction: From Academic Field to Readers’ Experiences.” by Séverine Olivier and Agnès Caubet. Although Francophone academic criticism has experienced an evolution from condemnation to serious analysis, French readers have rarely been interviewed. Explaining why contempt for romance remains predominant in the Francophone academic field and describing the characteristics of the Francophone romance market, this paper will first and foremost insist on romance readers’ experiences. Focusing on findings linked to a sociological survey led in 2007-2008, it will lead us to a conversational discussion between a scholar (Séverine Olivier) and a reader (Agnès Caubet) who will speak about her own experience. Webmaster of Les Romantiques, a French website dedicated to romance and women’s fiction, Agnès Caubet will show how, far from being passive victims of their reading, romance readers are more than ever active readers.

“The Time-Traveler’s Dilemma: Consuming Chinese-Language Web-based Time-Travel Romances” by Jin Feng. This paper focuses on An Economical and Serviceable Man in the Qing Dynasty, a web-based time-travel romance posted at a Chinese-language discussion forum, in order to discuss writing and reading practices related to web-based popular Chinese romances. It investigates specific literary devices that the author uses, especially the trope of time-travel, and their functions and aesthetics both in the tradition of Chinese popular romances and in the context of Chinese cyber culture. It also performs a “virtual ethnography” by examining reader comments and discussions among themselves.

“Translated romances: the effect of cultural textual norms on the communication of emotions” by Artemis Lamprinou. Romance writers employ a variety of linguistic strategies in order to express the emotions of their characters. Studying translations allows us to examine how emotions are expressed and described in other languages and cultures, based on claims that different cultures favor different ways for conveying emotions. Romances as cultural products offer potentially rich material for this purpose. Employing the concept of Toury’s translation norms, the paper will attempt to show how culture can affect the expression of emotions using the Greek translations of a small corpus of modern English-language romances.

Sexuality and gender

“Theorising Virginity in the Romance” by Jonathan A. Allan. Northrop Frye wrote that prudery about virginity in romance “is structural, not moral.” Taking this claim as our starting point, this study aims to theorize the nature of virginity in romance and teasing out the limits of Frye’s claim: if the question is structural why is the male virgin not considered? If the question is moral why is virginity uniquely concerned with the female? This study focuses its attention on questions of virginity in the Twilight series of novels by Stephenie Meyer. Ultimately, the core concern is the place of heroic virginity in romance.

“Alpha Male: Power, Confession and Masculinity in Popular Romance Fiction” by Sarah S. G. Frantz. This presentation will discuss a unique cluster of romance novels, published between 1994-1995, that consistently rank at the top of lists constructed by romance readers of the best romance novels: Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had to be You, Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You, Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, Linda Howard’s After the Night, and J.D. Robb’s Naked in Death. Written after the publication of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992), an anthology of essays written by romance authors responding to the critics of popular romance fiction, these novels embody the period in which the authors of popular romance are newly conscious of and reflective about the artistry and cultural influence of their books. The presentation will examine the construction of an ideal romantic masculinity as the product of female-constructed masculine emotional confession that includes an exploration and appropriation of sexual and power dynamics.

“Violent Sex or Sexual Violence: Redefining Ravishment in the works of Nora Roberts and Linda Howard” by Ashley Greenwood. The romance novel has consistently been a place where discussions of female sexuality have flourished. If issues of female submission and male domination have come under attack within romance fiction, the debate has gained center stage in the area of the ravishment scene. The most serious charge being levied at this expression of (hetero)sexuality is that these scenes perpetuate the myth that women want to be raped. It is important to remember that romance fiction and therefore sex within the romance genre is working under a patriarchal framework that necessarily limits and marginalizes any expression of gender that does not fit into traditional notions of male and female. Although it is true that romance fiction plays into patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality they also offer subversive interpretations of those same aspects.

“‘Is that another crack about my weight?’: Using Discourse Analysis to Study Romantic Fictional Dialogue” by Stephanie Moody. This paper traces the debate among scholars about the usefulness of discourse analysis in analyzing fictional dialogue, and then defines and examines the interpretive repertoires and ideological dilemmas present in several excerpts from Anne Stuart’s Ice series. These novels depict conversations in which characters debate what it means to be masculine and feminine and what roles these expectations play in gendered relationships. Although scholars have argued that romance novels reinforce heteronormativity and patriarchal ideologies, close examination of romantic fictional dialogue suggests that they also offer moments of resistance, challenge, and transgression. The use of discourse analysis can help to reveal these moments and shed further light on the appeal of romances novels.

“Finding True Love and Finding Her Sexuality in Vampire Romance Novels” by Chiho Nakagawa. Many popular romance novels cherish the convention of the romanticized view of sex in which the first sexual encounter confirms the hero as the heroine’s true love. Vampire novels, on the other hand, have traditionally offered a way to explore transgressive sexuality in the absence of sexual acts. However, the new breed of vampires in contemporary vampire novels, such as The Twilight Saga and The Sookie Stackhouse Novels, abstains from sucking blood from humans, supporting in the end the romanticized view of sex. My paper examines this contradictory new breed of dark heroes and the concept of true love in relation to the significance of sexuality today.

“The Queer Theory of Eve Sedgwick and Homoeroticism at the Edges of the Popular Romance Imagination” by Pam Rosenthal. In Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet, the late theorist and critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick drew a formidable map of the western literary tradition’s anxious readings and misreadings of love, sex, and power. The foundational importance of her career for queer studies has been widely recognized. This presentation asks what Sedgwick’s work tells us about what she called “the whole, astonishing and metamorphic Western romance tradition,” first via a reading of some current male/male and male/female popular romance, and finally by tracing representations of male homosociality through some more typically heterosexual popular romances.

“’When my lust hath dined’: Rape, ravishment, and forced seduction in romance” by Angela Toscano. If rape in romance is no longer a frequently used motif, then it is certainly a defining and a disturbing aspect. The intent of this paper is to examine rape in both contemporary and ancient romances as a trope of the genre rather than as an expression of female sexual fantasy. It asks the questions: what is the narrative motif of rape conveying about the nature of desire and its connection to violence? What is the narrative purpose of rape in romance? And how does it serve the broader thematic and structural elements of both the genre and the individual plot?

“Gender, Romance, and Performance: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga and the Female Knight Errant” by Tom Ue. By reading Bella’s quest in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga in comparison with Mary’s in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and against the theoretical framework of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, this paper will show how Meyer rewrites this tradition for a twenty-first century young-adult audience. As Bella overcomes obstacle after obstacle and as she repeatedly tries to write and rewrite her own story, her episodic romance fosters a different kind of readerly engagement and investment. This paper pays heed to both Meyer’s treatment of gender, and her command of conventions of romance as a genre.

Romance - Other Topics

“‘Weird and kinky and medieval’: The idea of the ‘medieval’ in contemporary popular sheikh romances” by Amy Burge. A distinctive subgenre of Harlequin/Mills & Boon publishing, sheikh romances have become especially popular in recent years. However there has been no examination of a key trope in these texts: their use of the “medieval.” This paper examines a selection of sheikh titles published between 2000 and 2009, alongside theoretical work in medievalism and Orientalism, to consider how (and why) the “medieval” has evolved as a byword for both the “East” and barbarity. What does “medieval” mean in these romances? Why is the “East” synonymous with contemporary understandings of “medieval”? How is the “medieval” relevant to contemporary romance?

“‘Pride in the Ancestors’: Beverly Jenkins and the Historical Romance” by Piper G. Huguley-Riggins. In Chapter 9 of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the figure of the ancestor, Baby Suggs, preaches a clarion call to blacks and commands them to love themselves. Only then, according to Baby Suggs, can they learn to love one another. Morrison’s response to the devastation of slavery in the lives of African-Americans finds an interesting line of literary descent in the work of historical romance author Beverly Jenkins. Jenkins has used her historical romance novels to continue to heed the clarion call of Morrison by showcasing self-love and pride through positive portrayals of the history of African-Americans.

“Nora And J.D.: Identity in Nora Roberts’ Romance Fiction” by Faye O’Leary. My paper will focus on the work of Nora Roberts, particularly some of her romantic suspense novels, and the importance placed on the idea of identity. I will outline the different identities Roberts uses when writing within this genre – Roberts and Robb – and the possible reasons behind her assumption of a pen name. Roberts, her publishers, and editor all claim that the Robb persona allows her to write a “different” type of fiction. However, an examination of the marketing techniques used in the promotion of the work of both Roberts and Robb, and a materialistic study of some of the covers of her novels reveal a connection between author and pseudonym. This link will be further explored in relation to Michel Foucault’s idea of the “author-function” and Anthony Giddens’ theory of the self in modern society. A close examination of two of her RITA award-winning romantic suspense novels, Survivor in Death and Remember When, will show that her work also shows a preoccupation with the theme of identity.

“There Be Dragons: Romance and the History of Stories” by Sandra Martina Schwab. Dragons – mostly as the four-legged, winged and fire-breathing variety, but also as giant worms or winged snakes – have inspired the human imagination for centuries. Tales of dragons and their slayers can be found in myth and legend, in medieval romances, in folktales, in fantasy fiction – and in popular romance. Using the specific example of the dragonslayer story, this paper aims to show in what way narrative elements of romance are connected to other cultural texts, and how romance conventions shape existing narrative patterns.

“Shame, Postmodernity, and the Poetics of Popular Romance Fiction” by Eric Murphy Selinger. When scholars describe popular romance fiction and its readers as divided or conflicted, they reveal their continuing debt to modernist anxieties about an art that is, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “consumer driven and comfortable,” designed to “soothe and lift the thoughts” of its readers. This paper will use the deft, metafictional romances of Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips to propose a new, less fraught theoretical account of the poetics of contemporary American romance fiction: a genre that looks back to the pre-modernist dictum that art should “instruct and delight,” yet often does so in a distinctly and self-consciously postmodern way.


“‘The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal’ or How the American Rom Com Wedding Cycle Found its Way into Greek Cinema” by Despoina-Betty Kaklamanidou. My paper aims at comparing the US “wedding cycle” of the contemporary romantic comedy to three of the most successful Greek romantic comedies (I Just Broke Up, The Kiss of Life, both 2007 and S.E.X., 2009). Based chiefly on Altman’s semantic/syntactic approach to genre theory, I intend to compare the romantic narratives from the two countries, in order to register how the Greek texts have absorbed, shaped and/or rejected the pervasive American influence while also taking into account the extra cinematic parameters which may lead to structural changes in the film narratives.

“The Signs of Romance: Visualizing Love and Romance in German Soap Operas” by Heike Klippel. Popular literature has its special means to create the idea of sensual abundance by using words which accumulate sensual stimuli. The language is mostly imprecise, if not empty, but open for the imagination of the reader. What happens to this characteristic of the popular text in a visual medium? I will take a closer look at the materializations of emotion, using German soap operas as an example: which objects are chosen, which situations are created, and, most of all, which meanings about romance and love are communicated?

“Shakespeare and the modern romance of adolescence: 10 Things I Hate About You” by Claudia Marquis. Inevitably, given the distance it has travelled from its origin in The Taming of the Shrew, the Californian teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You raises many critical questions. Spatial and temporal distances are involved; distinct genres and modes converge; cultural attitudes collide. In this mix, as adolescent romance, the film permits pleasure in the transgressive, but never questions the validity of core American values: the fantasy of the adolescent is central to this ideological complex, but depends on the presence of a larger social frame. In that sense, the shrew tamed by the film is adolescence itself.

“Indian Popular Romance: Devdas in Bollywood and Reading Film in Three Screen Adaptations” by Pradipta Mukherjee. The paper will analyze three Bollywood film appropriations of the iconic Indian love legend, Devdas (1917) by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Roy and Bhansali’s films deify the male hero as the object of desire. The two films project the image of masculine authority through a desiring female look and invite its audience to share the subject position with the women characters in terms of the gendering of spectatorship. The male figure’s authority is positioned in line with a devotional female regard. Kashyap’s version, on the other hand, foregrounds a narrative of feminist resistance to the dominant socio-cultural structures that the film seeks to critique.

“Romancing the Past: Historical Fictions and the Fear of Nostalgia” by Roger Nicholson. This paper offers a reading of four historical romances on film, The Man from Snowy River, Braveheart, Vincent Ward’s medievalist The Navigator and, especially, his River Queen, which treats of the New Zealand Maori Wars. All reveal a primary interest in telling stories for a general audience, fusing adventure to love and passion; all discover in the lives that they glamorize an experience that might be read as exemplary at the national level. Is romance bad faith, in such cases, or, in employing the logic and force of film spectacle, does it construct modern “theatres of memory”?

“A Family Affair: Romance and the single-parent in contemporary Hollywood” by Claire Jenkins. The single-parent is becoming an increasingly visible character in Hollywood’s romantic comedies, ranging from Sleepless in Seattle (1993) to Mamma Mia (2008) or from Jerry Maguire (1996) to Maid in Manhattan (2002). This paper explores the depiction of single-parents in these films, arguing that love plays little part in romantic pairings and that the central concern of these films is the recreation of a pseudo-nuclear, patriarchal family. This is done by placing the films within a wider context of gender and cultural studies and by exploring two central themes: the importance of financial security in romantic matches and the role of the child in orchestrating the parent’s romance.

“‘It’s (Not That) Complicated’: Hollywood’s Construction of Middle-Age Romance in the Films of Nancy Myers” by Margaret Tally. This paper explores the phenomenon of romantic comedies for older women. Specifically, in many recent U.S. films, middle-aged women are constructed as objects of desire by both younger and older men. Drawing on these Hollywood constructions, this paper will focus on the work of one filmmaker in particular, Nancy Myers, and will analyze the ways in which she taps into the desires of her older female audience for representations of them as romantic subjects. I will then ask, more generally, why these films are being made now, and how are female audiences responding to these films? How do these films draw on earlier romantic narratives about heterosexual love, and how do they further incorporate recent postfeminist narratives about women’s desires at mid-life?

Other Romantic Narratives

“From A Royal Love Story to Whatever Love Means: The Charles and Diana Biopics as Soap Opera” by Giselle Bastin. Television biopics about the courtship and marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer appeared in the months immediately after the “wedding of the century.” They continued to appear at intervals throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and drew their material from reportage about the royal marriage, biographies, and official press releases issued by the couple’s press office. This paper shall contend that these biopics are scripted according to the dominant tropes of the soap opera and that the films Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story (1982) through to Whatever Love Means (2005), have played an integral role in the construction and dissemination of the idea that the Windsor marriage was itself a “royal soap opera.”

“Paratextually Yours: Story Papers, Seriality, and the Shape of Late-Nineteenth-Century American Romance Fiction” by William Gleason. Although considerable energy has been expended in examining late-nineteenth-century dime novels for men and boys, relatively little effort has been spent on the contemporaneous serial story paper romance fictions composed primarily for American women readers. In this talk I will develop a “paratextual” reading of story paper romance fiction. Focusing on the textual and visual materials that typically framed periodical romance narratives (including advertisements, illustrations, poetry, anecdotes, and editorials), I will demonstrate the ways in which this important precursor to twentieth-century modes of mass-circulation romance took shape not in isolation but within an array of interrelated and overlapping cultural conversations.

“Indian Chick Lit as Popular Romance” by Prasita Mukherjee. This paper explores the circuit of chick lit in India as a sub-genre of popular romance literature in the twenty-first century, with primary emphasis on the emergent Indian New Woman and how she has “come of age.” It also attempts to trace the shift in chick lit from an essentialist Western literary genre to a more variegated yet culture-specific form in the era of globalization. In this context I shall consider Trust Me, Piece of Cake, The Zoya Factor, and Almost Single, all widely read and critically acclaimed, even though the corpus of chick lit is in infancy in India.

“Romantic Comedy / Chick Lit as a Transmedia, Immersive, and Participatory ‘Experience’ for Women” by Alison Norrington. Staying Single was a cross-media fictional blog, offering participation and engagement options as fragmented emails, SMS, Twitter, video and UGC. Writing and analysis of Staying Single highlighted the escapist nature of romantic comedy. Further research catapults this engaging genre to the forefront of transmedia storytelling, focusing on what women readers want from possibilities and opportunities that “digital” offers – accessibility, value and choice. Loving NY is an immersive, participatory experience as a print novel, but with a web-centric mode of delivering additional, exciting elements. This presentation on contemporary romantic comedy / chick lit as a transmedia, immersive and participatory “experience” for women will highlight behaviours, consumption trends, and potential scope for this genre in exciting digital times.

“Expressions of Romance in Comics: Young Romance and Oniisama e…” by Natalie Pendergast. This paper compares different modes of expression in two graphic novels. The American Young Romance series (1947-1975) by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and shōjo (young girl) manga comic, Oniisama e… (1975) by Riyoko Ikeda develop differently the medium and semiotics of comics in order to either comply with or subvert various censorship constraints. The paper explores how the artists’ different styles of illustrative and textual narration affect the generic space of the romance, while also discussing the commercial demands on the artistry of both a popular culture medium (comics) and a popular culture genre (romance).

Details about each of the speakers are available at IASPR's website.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Betty Neels: Metafiction and Repetition

In their centenary year Mills & Boon brought out a collection of volumes of novels written by the 'Queens of Romance'. One of those queens was Betty Neels, whom they describe as
a very special, warm and charming writer and individual; after retiring from nursing, she became one of Mills & Boon's best-loved authors with a phenomenal publishing record. No collection of romances celebrating our centenary would be complete without Betty [...]. Over her thirty-year publishing career Betty wrote more than one hundred and thirty-four novels [...]. She continued to write into her ninetieth year, still pleasing her readers with her charming characters and heart-warming stories. (3)
Neels' 'first book, Sister Peters in Amsterdam, was published in 1969' (Harlequin) and as Keira at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress has observed,
once she hit her stride most are circumscribed little post cards filled with lame donkeys, Dutch doctors, hospital sluice rooms, English village life, splenectomies, lashings of whipped cream, nursing caps, dauntless heroines, Gucci scarves, and uncrushable jersey dresses.
Uncertain Summer was first published in 1972, relatively early in Neels' writing career, but it already contains a fair number of these ingredients. The reason I wanted to post about it, though, was because in this novel Neels includes a metafictional passage in which the heroine, Serena,
remembered reading once some novel or other in which the dim-witted heroine had declared on the last page that the hero was like a calm harbour after the stormy seas through which she had been struggling. Serena had thought at the time that the metaphor had been a singularly clumsy one - no man would care to be likened to a harbour; now she wasn't so sure, for she herself felt exactly as the tiresome girl in the novel had felt and Gijs, although not in the least like a harbour, had all its qualities. (150-151)
Serena has indeed been a rather tiresome heroine, having fallen in love with Gijs' very unsuitable but charming and handsome younger cousin and then, rather predictably, been jilted by him. Even though she has finally had to acknowledge Gijs' superiority, she agrees to enter into a marriage of convenience with him without realising that he loves her. In this she, too, seems rather 'dim-witted' for his actions make his love rather obvious to the reader. Serena, however, who began by being unsure 'if she liked him' (20), believes that he truly wishes their marriage to be 'a friendly and businesslike arrangement' (113).

I'd like to suggest that in the passage I quoted above, Neels seems to be trying to diffuse any reader dissatisfaction with her heroine by addressing the fact that the heroine is being 'tiresome'. The metafictional moment takes the reader out of the story, and by emphasising the reader's superior knowledge, it perhaps encourages identification with others who also have superior knowledge of the situation, namely Neels herself, and characters such as Serena's mother and Gijs' friend Sarah, all of whom are aware that Serena and Gijs love (or will love) each other. Instead of experiencing the heroine's confusion and distress with her, it seems that the reader is positioned alongside the benevolent matchmakers.

Having firmly placed her own hero and heroine in a particular romantic tradition (that in which a somewhat 'dim-witted' heroine finds happiness with a hero whose personality reminds one of a 'harbour'), Neels includes further evidence that the development of Serena and Gijs' love affair follows a pattern set down by others. Serena tells her mother that
'I didn't like him very much when we met.'
Her mother paused on her way to the door. 'My dear child, I loathed your father for quite some time before I fell in love with him.'
Serena contemplated her parent with open-mouthed astonishment. 'Mother, darling ...'
'Yes, and don't you tell your brothers and sisters. I'm only telling you so that you realize that yours is by no means an isolated case.' (143)
It certainly isn't 'an isolated case' in Neels' oevure.

Serena and Gijs are also shown to be following a pattern set down by an earlier Neels hero and heroine. Hugo and Sarah van Elven are the hero and heroine of the earlier Fate is Remarkable (which Magdalen has summarised and retold from Hugo's perspective). They reappear, very happily married, in Uncertain Summer and before Serena begins what she thinks will be a marriage of convenience, Sarah tells Serena that
'When I married Hugo I was in love with someone else, or at least, I thought I was.' She smiled. 'It didn't take me long to discover that it was Hugo all the time - so silly.' (135)
The use of the word 'silly' seems to suggest that Sarah was yet another 'dim-witted heroine' until she recognised the truth. Since then, she has made the transition to matchmaker status. Towards the end of the novel Serena, like Sarah before her, flees from her husband in the mistaken belief that he loves another. Sarah, knowing the script that Serena is working from, hastens the happy dénouement. As Gijs reveals to Serena:
'When Hugo and Sarah married, she didn't love him - she had been - er - jilted and he caught her on the rebound. She ran away too, it took Hugo more than a week to find her. She is far too fond of you - and me - to let history repeat itself. So she telephoned me.' (211)
By explicitly acknowledging the similarities between Serena and Gijs' story and those of others (particularly a previous Neels hero and heroine), Neels was perhaps preempting criticism of the repetitiveness of her oeuvre. Certainly it serves to normalise a certain courtship pattern within the romantic world she created.

I deliberately refer to it as a 'romantic world' because although Neels' novels were contemporaries, they seem to portray a very particular, and perhaps not very realistic, version of modern life. Magdalen, for example, has stated that
Frankly, even in 1969 when Neels published her first book, her heroines were anachronistic and unrealistic. During the 30 years during in which she wrote 134+ books, her heroines changed little while women everywhere else (fictional and real life) changed a lot.
Neels herself was well aware of this: ' "The stories I write are quite out of date as regards morals and sex but that is something readers find to their liking," Neels said' (McAleer 289). In Small Slice of Summer (1975) Letitia Marsden, the heroine, has been disappointed in love because she too is 'quite out of date as regards morals and sex':
the Medical Registrar [...] had taken her out for a month or two, talking vaguely about a future, which she, in her besotted state, had already imagined into a fact which wasn't a fact at all, only daydreams, and then, when she had refused to go away with him for the weekend, had turned the daydream into a nightmare with a jibing speech about old-fashioned girls who should move with the times [...] how did one begin to explain that being the middle girl in a family of five daughters, strictly but kindly brought up by a mother with decidedly old-fashioned ideas and a father who was rector of a small parish in the depths of rural Devon was hardly conducive to being the life and soul of the swinging set. (8-9)
In Small Slice of Summer Georgina, the heroine of Neels' earlier Damsel in Green, reappears as a happily married secondary character and the repetitiveness of certain elements in Neels' storytelling is normalised partly because the friendships between Georgina and Letitia's sister Margo, and between Georgina's husband and Jason Mourik van Nie, give an explanation for a social circle in which it is likely for an English nurse to come into contact with a Dutch doctor. In addition, Georgina actively seeks to promote the relationship between Letitia and Jason (and is thus another instance of the former-Neels-heroine-turned-matchmaker).

While I can only speculate about why Neels so often wrote romances about a large, inscrutable, rich Dutch doctor who stoically hides his love from the English nurse he adores, she herself was a nurse who married a Dutchman (albeit not a doctor). According to her biography at the Mills & Boon website,
She was always quite firm upon the point that the Dutch doctors who frequently appeared in her stories were not based upon her husband, but rather upon an amalgam of several of the doctors she met while nursing in Holland.
Nonetheless, her heroes do often seem to be of a very similar type, and the fortune-teller who predicts Letitia's future summarises the plot of many a Betty Neels romance: 'A tall, fair man, dearie [...] Trouble and strife, but the life of a princess is waiting for you, for I see wealth and jewels and great happiness' (136). The fortune-teller states that this is 'Just as it should be for a kind young lady' (136) and perhaps Neels herself could think of no better type of husband for a nice girl.

Neels' own preferences certainly did filter through into her fiction. Many of her heroes and heroines, including Serena and Letitia, come from large families. Gijs, in conversation with Serena, says
'[...] I'm sorry for only children, aren't you?
[...] 'Yes, I think I am.'
'Ah, at last I have found something about myself in which you can show some interest - I am an only child.'
She said woodenly, not caring in the least: 'I'm sorry. Did you find it very lonely?'
'When I was a little boy, yes. One learns as one gets older, however.' (92)
Initially Uncertain Summer was going to conclude with a passage in which Gijs would state his preference for 'a "large" family of at least four boys and four girls. The Mills & Boon editor altered the reference to four children to two' (McAleer 265). Neels resisted the change:
In her masterly reply, Neels [...] believed that, provided there was enough money to bring up and educate children, 'a large family is a marvellous thing (You've noted that my heroes are always well-heeled!).' Neels admitted she deplored birth control when used 'for purely selfish reasons ... I find it just as unforgivable for a couple to decide on a second car instead of a baby ... I also feel that if birth control is pushed too far, the coming generations are going to lose their sense of responsibility and family life, as such, will disappear.'
But the passage, as published, was none the less toned down by Neels. (266)
It reads as follows:
Laurens told me once that you were very good at letting girls cry on your shoulder.'
'Not girls, dearest - just you, and later on, our daughters.'
Serena said gently: 'No, little boys, all like you.'
'There is such a thing as compromise, my love,' said Gijs on a laugh. 'How about an equal number of each?' (215)
I'm really curious about the use of the phrase 'There is such a thing as compromise'. Was it there before Neels revised the passage? Or was it the result of Neels' own compromise on the issue of large families?

  • McAleer, Joseph, 1999. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Neels, Betty, 2008. Uncertain Summer, in Summer Engagements (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Neels, Betty, 2008. Small Slice of Summer, in Summer Engagements (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Harlequin and Evolutionary Psychology

Thanks to BevBB, I came across Anthony Cox and Maryanne Fisher's "The Texas Billionaire's Pregnant Bride: An Evolutionary Interpretation of Romance Fiction Titles." Published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, the article can be read online for free. According to the abstract
In this paper, we focus on the titles of popular modern romance novels, published by Harlequin Enterprises, in order to ascertain whether these books pertain to women’s sex-specific mating interests. Presumably, market demands have shaped the titles of Harlequins, such that books with titles that reflect topics of interest to women will sell the best. (387)
That second sentence suggests that the authors (a) have great faith in the working of the market and (b) assume that readers of Harlequin romances are representative of all women. Certainly Cox and Fisher state that
According to a recent press release (Harlequin, 2009), about 17% of mass marketed paperbacks sold in North America are published by Harlequin, and approximately one third of all North American women are thought to have read at least one. These figures clearly suggest that the appeal of Harlequin romance novels is universal, cutting across cultural and political boundaries (Linz, 1992). (387)
I'm not sure how the appeal of Harlequins can be deemed to be "universal" if only one in three women have ever read a Harlequin, and when the number of regular readers of Harlequins is presumably considerably lower than "one third of all North American women."

However, it clearly serves Cox and Fisher's argument well if Harlequins can be taken as indicators of all women's preferences because they
propose that the books appeal to women because they address evolved, sex-specific mating interests. Past analyses of romance novels have extensively relied upon socio-cultural interpretations. [...] One problem with these interpretations is that they do not satisfactorily explain why romance novels, and Harlequins in particular, have remained so incredibly popular across time and cultures. An alternative explanation is that these novels are consistently addressing topics that have universal appeal to women. (387)
This may be an example of the absolutist kind of thinking about culture which I mentioned in an earlier post and which Lonner described as
the belief that laws of human behavior, wherever they may be established, transcend cultures. In its extreme form absolutism would contend that human "cultures" constitute nothing more than a thin veneer that just barely mask a broad spectrum of universal laws governing thought and behavior.
Harlequin Mills & Boon romances are certainly popular across cultures but the markets are very far from identical in their preferences. For example, as I've mentioned before, medical romances are particularly popular in France, and "A substantial percentage of Mills & Boon readership in India is male!" This last fact might also raise some questions about the validity of the hypothesis "that the books appeal to women because they address evolved, sex-specific mating interests." They can hardly be "sex-specific" if they appeal to large numbers of men. Cox and Fisher, though, are depending on information about the North American market:
The assumption that Harlequin romance novels address women’s mating interests is justified, as, according to the press kit offered by Harlequin (2009), the readership of romance novels is primarily women (90.5%). According to the press kit, the majority of readers are between the ages of 31 and 49, and therefore, represent fertile women who are often mothering children. (388)
I've already noted differences in the Indian market. The UK market also differs from the North American one. In a recent interview with the BBC, Mandy Ferguson, Managing Director of Harlequin Mills and Boon in the UK revealed that HM&Bs UK readers
tend to be sort of 40, 50. I mean, they're all women, clearly, and they tend to be sort of middle aged upwards. I mean one of the challenges for the brand is to attract in readers in their thirties and forties. [...] we're actually working on a major sort of relaunch for the autumn and the brand will get a really fresh modern look.
The Harlequin Presents line is edited in the UK, and sold in the UK with identical titles to those used in the North American market yet UK readers apparently tend to be roughly a decade older, and presumably are therefore less likely to "represent fertile women who are often mothering children."1 These significant variations in the global market seem to undermine some of the assumptions on which Cox and Fisher base their hypothesis that "the titles of Harlequin romance novels would address women’s evolved, sex-specific mating interests" (288).

Cox and Fisher extract information about the supposedly "sex-specific" interests of women from the titles of Harlequin romances because
The titles of Harlequin romance novels have been shaped by market demands. Romance fiction publishers perform more market research than any other publishers (Eike, 1986), and presumably, they have selected the titles in response to consumer preferences. Titles must be shaped by consumer demand; readers vote with their money by purchasing the titles that interest them the most. In accordance with Malamuth (1996) and Salmon and Symons (1991), we therefore suggest that analyzing the titles is a valid way to investigate women’s mating interests. [...] An analysis of romance novel titles provides an objective means to ascertain word frequencies and recurring themes, which in turn reveal women’s mating interests and mate preferences. (388)
My first response to this was to muse that if the titles of romance novels reflect women's mating interests and mate preferences, there must be a lot of readers of Silhouette Nocturne romances looking for a wolf or vampire to mate with, whereas readers of historical romances would presumably prefer a Duke. I acknowledged that that was maybe a rather flippant response, so I read on, and I was very interested to see that Cox and Fisher later conclude that
some of the series (such as those that involve the paranormal) have seemingly no evolutionary underpinnings, and the number of titles from these series suggests that they are not as successful as compared with the series that are focused on traditional romance. (399)
Given the huge popularity of single-title paranormal romances in recent years, this statement reveals a striking lack of knowledge about the romance genre as a whole. Furthermore, if paranormal romances have "no evolutionary underpinnings" then their popularity would appear to undermine Cox and Fisher's assumptions about how the genre as a whole reflects women's "evolved, sex-specific mating interests" (387).

Cox and Fisher hypothesised that
  • "Women invest more than men in the production and raising of children, so we predict that one emergent theme will specifically pertain to reproduction. We expect words such as baby, mommy, father and paternity will frequently appear in the titles" (388-89).
  • "Given that women tend to provide the majority of childcare, they may not be able to accrue their own resources and consequently, often must rely on their mates (e.g., Buss, 1989). Thus, we predict that there will be a theme oriented towards wealth, in that the hero is a wealthy man. Hence, words such as wealth, tycoon, and billionaire will often appear in the titles" (389).
  • "women prefer long-term committed relationships. We predict that this preference will be displayed as an emergent theme, with words like marriage, engagement, bride, or fiancé, appearing frequently in the titles" (389).
  • Fourth, since women, as do men, prefer attractive mates (Li & Kenrick, 2006), and attractiveness (including athleticism) might serve as a proxy of genetic quality, we hypothesized that a final theme would revolve around male attractiveness. Thus, words such as handsome, attractive, or athletic will frequently occur. (389)
What they found was that
words linked to long-term committed relationships (i.e., bride, marriage, wife, wedding and husband), and reproductive success (i.e., baby and child), are within the top 20 words, thus providing some support for our hypotheses. However, words related to physical fitness did not appear, nor did words pertaining to resources. In both instances though, occupations that are normally linked with fitness (i.e., cowboy) and prestige and high income (i.e., doctors) were in the list. Thus, we explored the 20 most frequently listed professions, presented in Table 4. Three of these occupations are female dominated (i.e., nurse, secretary, and midwife). Interestingly, the other 17 professions can readily be divided into two primary themes: resource-based (e.g., doctors, surgeons, CEOs, kings) and athletic (e.g., cowboys, cattlemen). Perhaps related to the athletic theme is that of protectors (e.g., sheriffs, soldiers, lawmen) since these professions also require a high level of physical fitness. Therefore, our hypotheses concerning resources and physical fitness gained at least partial support, given the emphasis on these professions. (294)
Cox and Fisher's "data were obtained from the web-site http://www.romancewiki.com" (389) and
The initial analysis covered 16 series of which 10 are currently being published and six are defunct. A total of 15,019 titles were analyzed [...]. The earliest books are published in 1949 (month unavailable) as part of the Harlequin Romance series, and the most recent are from June 2009. (390)
In addition
The Silhouette line contained eight series, of which four are currently published and four are defunct. Together, there was a total of 7,758 titles that we included in our analysis, which encompassed the 18 story titles within an anthology. The earliest books were published in 1980, and the most recent are from August 2009 in currently released series. (392)
What Cox and Fisher seem to have done is to amalgamate all the titles and not differentiated by the years in which they were published. I strongly suspect that this could have affected the outcomes. If one looks at the first 100 titles in the early Harlequin Presents line, for example, (which date from "May 1973 through July 1975") one can find 9 instances of "Love," 2 of "Beloved," 2 of "Bride," 2 of "Marriage," and none at all of "Baby," "Child," "Millionaire," "Billionaire" or "Tycoon." If you look at Harlequin Presents numbers 2801-2900, published in 2009 and 2010, there were no uses of the word "Love" or "Beloved" but you can find 6 instances of "Love-Child" and 1 of "Lover." In addition to the love-children there was 1 Child, 9 instances of the word "Baby", 6 of "Pregnant" and 3 of "Pregnancy". There were 6 instances of "Millionaire," 13 of "Billionaire" and 9 of "Tycoon." There are 11 instances of "Bride," 4 of "Marriage" but also 25 instances of "Mistress."

I don't want to draw sweeping conclusions from what is, after all, a small sample, but I think it's valid to point out that titles have almost certainly changed in response to greater social acceptability of sexual explicitness. Characters in the most recent Harlequin Presents are extremely likely to have sex outside marriage, and to conceive children outside marriage, whereas older Harlequins were, I think, more likely to end before the protagonists had sexually consummated their relationship. I'd suggest that that's one reason why words such as "Baby" "Pregnant" and "Mistress" are more prevalent nowadays.

But if the titles of Harlequin romances reflect "women’s sex-specific, evolved, mating interests" (388) how does one explain the fact that the titles of Harlequin romances have changed over the decades? Evolution presumably doesn't work so fast that women's "sex-specific, evolved, mating interests" would change within the space of a few decades. Could it possibly be that society and cultural preferences have changed and/or that Harlequin's marketing doesn't always respond to consumer preferences? Cox and Fisher suggest that
the company has simply discovered through trial and error that the most successful themes are those informed by evolutionary psychology. Indeed, a cursory scan of all of the titles ever published by Harlequin shows a transformation over time, such that the novels have slowly changed to being more congruent with the findings of evolutionary psychology. (398).
This, of course, would lead one to suppose that had Harlequin titles "more congruent with the findings of evolutionary psychology" been used for earlier romances, they would have been more successful. I'm not so sure, but of course, without the help of a time machine I wouldn't be able to confirm my hypothesis that readers used to titles like Storm in a Rain Barrel and The Kisses And The Wine might well have been a bit shocked to suddenly be offered titles such as Bedded For Passion, Purchased For Pregnancy and Magnate's Mistress...Accidentally Pregnant!

In the absence of a time machine, I shall

(a) content myself with wondering if, according to their methodology, the prevalence of the word "Mistress" in recent Harlequin Presents undermines their prediction that since "women prefer long-term committed relationships [...] this preference will be displayed as an emergent theme, with words like marriage, engagement, bride, or fiancé, appearing frequently in the titles" (389) and

(b) be watching carefully to see if there's a shift away from the titles which are most "congruent with the findings of evolutionary psychology." As Mandy Ferguson stated, Mills & Boon is planning "a major sort of relaunch for the autumn and the brand will get a really fresh modern look" and as part of that Kate Walker has revealed that "the Presents series titles are going through a change this year."

In the meantime, if anyone's interested in downloading some free Harlequin and Mills & Boon romances the company's offering a variety of them (in a range of different formats) at http://www.tryharlequin.com/ and http://www.everyonesreading.com/index.html .

If you're interested in reading more of Fisher's work on evolutionary psychology and the study of literature, then you might like Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne Fisher and Ian Jobling's "Proper and Dark Heroes as Dads and Cads: Alternative Mating Strategies in British Romantic literature." The authors begin with the interesting statement that
It is difficult to make progress in literary studies because, unlike scientists, literary scholars do not base their findings on theories that are subject to empirical tests. The imaginations of literary researchers are allowed to run wild, and theories like deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis are selected not because of their effectiveness in generating empirically valid hypotheses, but because people just happen to like them. Also, many humanists have an anti-scientific mythology that perpetuates this situation. (305-306)
It's probably worth noting in response that
There is a broad consensus among philosophers of science that evolutionary psychology is a deeply flawed enterprise. For philosophers of mind and cognitive science evolutionary psychology has been a source of empirical hypotheses about cognitive architecture and specific components of that architecture. Philosophers of mind are also critical of evolutionary psychology but their criticisms are not as all-encompassing as those presented by philosophers of biology. (Downes)
As a mere "literary scholar," though, I'm clearly not qualified to assess the merits of those differing scientific viewpoints.


1 I do know that changes were made to the titles of at least some Modern Extra/Modern Heat romances when they were sold in the North American market as Harlequin Presents. In general, however, I have the impression that Modern romances are sold as Presents romances with identical titles. Kate Walker, for example, lists her three latest US releases as The Konstantos Marriage Demand (March 16, 2009), Kept For Her Baby (October 13, 2009) and Cordero's Forced Bride (February 2009) and they were released with the same titles in the UK.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Real Change?

Today is election day in the UK so I wanted to commemorate it by posting an appropriately political quote from a romance. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, there aren't a lot of romances which deal with politics and politicians, and the one quote I did find takes a rather cynical view of them:
She'd have two years to get to know everybody in town. That was only about two thousand people; she could do that. And she could make a difference, she was good at making people do what she wanted. She was born to make people do what she wanted.
"My God," she said, as the full meaning of her family's legacy for lying, cheating, and scheming hit her.
She was born to be a politician. (Crusie 380-381)
Personally, I'd rather stay a little bit more idealistic about politics, and if that makes some people think I'm gullible, well, so be it. But for those who're feeling cynical, here's a call for papers for a one-day conference to be held at the Université Rennes 2, France, on 22 October 2010:

The past year and a half has marked an extraordinary period in American history: the failure of several large banks and investment firms, a government buyout of historical proportions of the banking industry, and the implosion of perhaps the largest and costliest pyramid scheme in history. One might easily be led to believe that this period of rampant corruption and scandal marks a dark turning point in America’s history and future. But such a reading of history is too quick and too condemning. Bernard Madoff, Lehman Brothers, and AIG are only the latest manifestations of a long tradition of fakes and frauds in American history. The American colonial adventure itself carried its own history of fakery (or, more precisely, the ceaseless attempt to decipher the Divine from the potentially Satanic) in the religious origins of the colonies and the obsession with seeing the divine hand in one’s fortune or loss. The founding of the young nation, as historian Gordon Wood noted, also has its own history of anxiety rooted in eighteenth century fears of “plot and deceit, contradiction and paradox.” Add to these origins a whole series of monetary crises of confidence in the young republic, the great financial scandals as well as a rising culture of fraud and trickery during the Gilded Age and the quote “There’s a sucker born every minute…and two to take ‘em,” falsely attributed to showman P.T. Barnum but more likely uttered by Joseph ("Paper Collar Joe") Bessimer, a notorious late-nineteenth century confidence man, serves to illustrate the curious confluence of competitive pressure, invention, and the by-product of fraud that marks America from its earliest days. Indeed, the dawn of the twenty-first century could be seen as a rich coming to maturity of at least two centuries of confidence men and hucksters.

Present not only in culture and society but in the nation’s artistic production, the fake or fraud has also haunted the American imaginary from its earliest origins as well: the Puritans sought signs of God’s approval in the territory they colonized but were constantly troubled by the possibility that the signs they sought or deciphered were counterfeits, laid to entrap them. From Cotton Mather through the Salem Witch Trials, from The Scarlet Letter to The Confidence Man, Jay Gatsby, or The Recognitions by William Gaddis, American literature has been obsessed with properly deciphering signs, distinguishing the true from the false. As this short list indicates, the paranoia of American literature is in the possibility of being manipulated, of being taken in by the confidence game of letters and finding oneself holding the literary equivalent of a Bernard Madoff investment share.

Fakery, frauds, and confidence games are perhaps not the sign of an America reaching its end, but rather the confirmation that America continues according to its own peculiar logic. Indeed, could one not see in contemporary or recent manifestations of fakery and fraud confirmation of a particularly American dynamic? Instead of an aberration, could we not consider fakery, frauds, and confidence games to be part of what defines an American social and political territory and literary imagination?

Contributions on this topic in the domains of literature and civilization and culture are invited for a one-day conference. Please send a short one-half to one page proposal in English or French to conference organizers by July 15, 2010. Send to Anthony Larson: anthony.larson@univ-rennes2.fr

The call for papers brought to mind Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart and Jennifer Crusie's Faking It. Those are by American authors. But what about Georgette Heyer's The Masqueraders? Georgette Heyer certainly wasn't American and yet it's fairly clear that the heroine of that novel, and her family, have been accustomed to changing their identities, living on their wits, and duping other people. All About Romance have a few more examples in their list of Cons, Burglars, & Pickpockets but I still think it's a rather small sample on which to base any firm conclusions about whether there's a "particularly American dynamic" about fraudsters and con artists in the romance genre as a whole.

Perhaps it would be easier to argue that the romance genre "has been obsessed with properly deciphering signs, distinguishing the true from the false." Certainly many romance heroines and heroes seem to spend a lot of time trying to work out how they feel, and whether the object of their feelings reciprocates. They may ponder whether apparent contempt masks attraction, attempt to distinguish sincerity from practiced seduction techniques, and seek to determine whether or not they've found true love.

Could one consider the rake, as seducer, to be the conman of the romance genre? And when a heroine is accused of being a "gold-digger" is she being asked if she's the conwoman in the field of love and marriage? What about the many instances of mistaken and assumed identities (often with twins exchanging places, as in Heyer's False Colours)? Could those plots be considered to be about a type of "con"? Could such novels be exploring the extent to which love is elicited not by surface appearance, but by underlying personality?

And now, I'm off to my local polling station, where I may or may not ponder the factors which elicit votes from the general public.

  • Crusie, Jennifer. Welcome to Temptation. New York: St Martin's, 2001.

The herring gull was drawn by John Gould and was made available by Wikimedia Commons.