Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blogging Around: Heyer and Quinn

Sarah and I have a blog post up at Austenprose today as part of their Heyer month. We've focussed on Heyer's heroes:
Heyer’s novels, and her heroes, have been so influential in shaping the modern romance genre that the heroes created by modern romance authors either fit or struggle against the molds that Heyer perfected. So the supercilious man-about-town (Worth from Regency Buck), the wild child (Vidal from Devil’s Cub), the villainous hero (Avon from These Old Shades) may all seem like immutable romance archetypes today, but they are that way because Heyer established types that appealed to the romance-reading audience to such an extent that they have been copied and revised and expanded upon in Regency and historical romances for almost a century.
If you'd like to read a bit more about Heyer's novels, Sherwood Smith has written a long and interesting post which compares their depiction of upper-class Regency life to both the fictional worlds of the earlier "Silver Fork" novels and the contemporary social sphere of some of Heyer's contemporaries (she was born in 1902), which some of them depicted in their own novels:
I was struck by a resemblance between Mitford’s work and Heyer’s, specifically the cadences of language, and the outlook: Mitford wrote about Bright Young Things with the charm one remembers of one’s youth. Heyer wrote about them with the charm of one who admired that life, only she sets them in Regency garb, and gives them Regency era slang instead of the distinctive twenties “too-too sick-making” idiom. But, like twenties Bright Young Women, Heyer’s heroines show a tendency to use male slang, specifically that from Pierce Egan’s popular works, which you don’t actually find much of in Austen or her contemporaries. They also show the twenties freedom from constraint, though they are still ladies of birth and breeding.

Finally, better late than never, here's a link to something Eric wrote in May about Julia Quinn's Ten Things I Love About You. His focus is on the hero as a writer of romantic fiction, and he begins by mentioning that he's
read a lot of novels where the heroine is a novelist, often as a way to let the author explore the history or the aesthetics of romance fiction. Quinn does that through Sebastian, but also something new, by having her novelist character be the hero, not the heroine. Sebastian begins writing because he is suffering from the effects of war, he’s unable to sleep and writing helps—specifically, writing about women. He’s a male character working through trauma by putting himself in a woman’s point of view.
You can read all three posts in full if you click on the links to Austenprose, the Book View Cafe Blog and the Avon blog.

The photo of the cover of Regency Buck came from Georgette-Heyer.com. My thanks to jay Dixon for sending me the link to the post by Sherwood Smith.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Response to Victoria Brownworth: Yes, it's ROMANCE.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the recent internet outbreak of speculation about OMG!why? do “straight” women read and/or write romances about gay men (LINKS: OUT magazine article that started it all, Gawker’s response, Lambda’s original response, Erastes’ response to Gawker, TeddyPig’s response, Gehayi’s response, Victoria Brownworth's Lambda-sponsored response that is the subject of this post), it’s that everyone has their niche to fill and their script to follow and that everyone does an admirable job of doing precisely that.

Cintra Wilson fills her role of (apparently) being snide and supercilious quite well in the original OUT article. I can’t quite make out her stance on the issue, but I do appreciate that she let Beecroft and Erastes mostly talk for themselves, despite how wrong the headline-writer originally was in calling Erastes and Beecroft "straight". Gawker does a great job of being snarky and impenetrable. I’ve read their response four times and canNOT make out which side of the issue the author is arguing from. In the comments to Brownworth's hatchet job (which, OMG, you fall into them and never get out), Paul Bens does a great job of following his self-imposed script AND of cuing the scripts other people follow as if it were somehow their contractual obligation. They, of course, oblige with his cues. The layers of irony are mind-boggling.

And I will now fulfill my role, follow my script, say the predictable thing that I always say because of my own particular obsession and the position from which I’m commenting. At least I know I’m doing it—that should count for something, right? But I’ll say it anyway, because, like the other commenters, I’m convinced that my piece needs to be said and recognized by everyone else, even if no one really listens because they’re caught in their own little circular script.

I'm discussing here the Brownworth article in particular, not only because it's the most desperately defensive but also because she's the new voice in the debate. As I said, Erastes, Beecroft, Bens, Gehayi, even Lambda in their original article (schizophrenic as it is) all fulfill their predetermined script/role. But Brownworth is a new voice, a voice backed by an extensive resume that she doesn't hesitate to wield rather indiscriminately. And it was her arguments that were the most egregiously incorrect, badly written, and offensive, which was disappointing precisely because of her credentials as a writer and a journalist.

In discussing her article, then, I could fulfill my role as a scholar pissed about inaccuracies in reporting and just plain bad writing:
  • It doesn’t help your case by accusing something you don’t like (m/m romance) of all the –isms (sexism, racism, homophobia). It just makes you sound like Chicken Little.
  • Surely there is SOME difference between m/m romances with their prescribed HEAs and the lesbian pulp fiction of your youth which pathologized lesbianism? No? Really? Nothing?
  • Do your (insert swearword) research:
  1. Not ALL m/m authors take male names. Not even when it first started, even though there were certainly more then. Most have rather sheepishly come out of the closet in the past few years.
  2. No, the majority of m/m romances are NOT historicals. People who don’t do their research think this because Erastes, Lee Rowan, and mainly, Running Press, have quite the little publicity machine going (and good for them, I say). But in the comments to Brownworth's article, Elisa Rolle provides some amazing statistics showing that historical are 10% of m/m romances published.
  3. I have NEVER read a rape in a m/m romance. This might (I said MIGHT—I don’t know!) be a feature of some slash writing, but I’d say (educated GUESS here, please advise) early slash and/or very specific niche slash. But NOT m/m romance.
  4. No, there is not a “male” man and a “feminine” man. Or at least, there isn’t in most m/m romances I’ve read. Maybe in yaoi. Maybe, again, in slash. Not in m/m romances. This presents its own problems, in that most of the heroes of m/m romances are constructed as very “straight looking, straight acting” men. In fact, when more stereotypically “feminine” gay men are portrayed (the wonderful Joey in the incomparable K.A. Mitchell’s Collision Course), I usually applaud it. As long as it’s well-done, it speaks to the many variations of the gay experience.
  5. No, most m/m authors are not straight women. Or at least, in my experience, most of the best m/m authors are in some way either gender queer or have some sort of alternate sexuality (and no, GLB just doesn’t cover all “alternate” sexuality, thank you very much). (NOT all m/m authors are not-straight, I hasten to add. I present Heidi Cullinan as Exhibit #1.)
  6. No, there is NOT an inherent disrespect of gay male relationships--although I'm sure Brownworth would argue "Who am I to make that determination?" But from my understanding of her article, the disrespect she's talking about is not how the best of m/m romance treats its subjects. And most of the egregious vocabulary has changed, at least in the best of the fiction. And, personally, I’ve read about men “fisting” their cocks (ie: jacking off) in stories I KNOW are written by men, both gay and straight.
  • I might also say to Brownworth: Get over yourself. “Our relationships and sexuality are sacrosanct in their differentness from heterosexual relationships.” Really? REALLY? My same-sex relationships haven’t been, but maybe I’m not REALLY gay, considering I’m only bisexual? Or maybe it’s a generational thing. Coming out in 2009, versus coming out in the 1970s or 80s is, admittedly, a hugely different thing.
But, that’s not really the niche I want to fill right now. My response, my script, is not generic scholar writ large or the very small subset of m/m romance scholar/reader. Rather, I am writing here as a POPULAR ROMANCE scholar. And in the comments, Ms. Brownworth said something so egregiously rude and dismissive in the comments, that I would argue that the issue is not that (supposedly straight) women are writing about—or even fetishizing—gay men (and I’m not going to deny that particular claim, actually), but that anyone is daring to give anyone else a happy ending.

Brownworth said to Elisa Rolle, who continues to communicate brilliantly in English considering it’s not her first language, that “that she might have less of a language problem if she were reading something less low-brow, but that was probably mean of me.” Yes, indeed it was. But really, Brownworth's fundamental assumption that these m/m ROMANCES are low-brow, are NOT art, are trash, pulp, worthless, worthy of derision, is, I argue, the real issue. I’m not even going to get into the commercial debate (would we be having this discussion if m/m weren’t successful?), because, to my mind, that’s not what you’re talking about here. Brownworth isn't upset that m/m romance is successful; she's upset that it’s low-brow. She's upset, specifically and in my opinion, that m/m romance is ROMANCE.

And really, THAT’S what pisses ME off more than anything else.

CFP: PCA 2011--San Antonio, TX. April 20-23, 2011

It's that time again! We're soliciting proposals for the Popular Culture Association conference. This year it's in San Antonio, TX. As always, it's over Easter weekend!!! April 20-23, 2011. So if it's a problem to be away from your family for Easter/Passover, we'll miss you, but we'll understand.

PCA is an amazing conference to go to to experience the joy and sheer intellectual brilliance of the field of Popular Romance Studies. We are truly a community. We hang around together all weekend, eating most of our meals together, talking between panels. It's a VERY inviting conference for new scholars, and for interested non-scholars. We've had undergraduates and brand new graduate students present their papers at PCA and they loved it. We're welcoming, friendly, fun, a little bawdy, and very very interesting.

With no further ado, here's the full Call For Papers:

PCA/ACA 2010 National Conference
San Antonio, TX, April 20-23, 2011
Call For Papers: Romance Area

(Conference info: http://pcaaca.org/conference/national.php)

Deadline for submission: December 15, 2010.

We are interested in any and all topics about or related to popular romance: all genres, all media, all countries, all kinds, and all eras. All representations of romance in popular culture (fiction, stage, screen—large or small, commercial, advertising, music, song, dance, online, real life, etc.), from anywhere and anywhen, are welcome topics of discussion.

We will consider proposals for individual papers, sessions organized around a theme, and special panels. Sessions are scheduled in one-hour slots, ideally with four papers or speakers per standard session.

If you are involved in the creative industry of popular romance (romance author/editor, film director/producer, singer/songwriter, etc.) and are interested in speaking on your own work or on developments in the representations of popular romance, please contact us!

Some possible topics (although we are by no means limited to these):
  • Popular Romance on the World Stage (texts in translation, Western and non-Western media, local and comparative approaches)
  • Romance Across the Media: crossover texts and the relationships between romance fiction and romantic films, music, art, drama, etc.; also the paratexts and contexts of popular romance
  • Romance High and Low: texts that fall between “high” and “low” culture, or that complicate the distinctions between these critical categories
  • Romance Then and Now: representations of Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Modern, Postmodern love
  • Romancing the Marketplace: romantic love in advertising, marketing, and consumer culture
  • Queering the Romance: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender romance, and representations of same-sex love within predominantly heterosexual texts
  • BDSM Romance and representations of romantic/erotic power exchange
  • Romance communities
  • New Critical Approaches, such as readings informed by critical race theory, queer theory, postcolonial studies, or empirical science (e.g., the neurobiology of love)
  • The Politics of Romance, and romantic love in political discourse (revolutionary, reactionary, colonial / anti-colonial, etc.)
  • Individual Creative Producers or Texts of Popular Romance (novels, authors, film, directors, writers, songwriters, actors, composers, dancers, etc.)
  • Gender-Bending and Gender-Crossing / Genre-Bending and Genre-Crossing / Media-Bending and Media-Crossing Popular Romance
  • African-American, Latina, Asian, and other Multicultural romance
  • Young Adult Romance
  • History of/in Popular Romance
  • Romance and Region: places, histories, mythologies, traditions
  • Definitions and Theoretical Models of Popular Romance: it’s not all just happily ever after
As we have done for the past three years, the Romance area will meet in a special Open Forum to discuss upcoming conferences, work in progress, and the future of the field of Popular Romance Studies. Of particular interest this year: the 2011 New York City conference for the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR), planning for the 2012 IASPR conference, and the first volume of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS).

Presenters are encouraged to make use of the new array of romance scholarship resources online, including the romance bibliography, the RomanceScholar listserv, the open Forums at the webpage of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, and the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

Submit a one-page (200-300 words) proposal or abstract (via regular mail or e-mail) by December 15, 2010, to the Area Chairs in Romance:

Sarah S. G. Frantz
Department of English and Foreign Languages
Fayetteville State University
1200 Murchison Road
Fayetteville, NC 28301
(910) 672-1438
sarahfrantz AT gmail DOT com

Darcy Martin
Adjunct Faculty, Women's Studies
East Tennessee State University
12 Wataugua Court
Bluffton, SC 29909
martindj AT etsu DOT edu

If you have any questions as all, please contact one or both of the area chairs. Please feel free to forward, cross-post, or link to this call for papers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Politics of the Desert Romance

Hsu-Ming Teo notes in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies that
2009 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of The Sheik. As is well-known, the publication of the novel and the release of the film starring Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role unleashed “sheik fever” in the western world. [...] The word “sheik,” originally a term of respect referring to a Muslim religious leader or an elder of a community or family, suddenly took on new connotations of irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over‐sexualized masculinity in the West—before ending up as a brand of condoms in America by 1931.
But as the sheik was transformed into a sexual fantasy for Western women, his female counterpart seemed to have been pushed aside. Sheikh romances generally depict the relationship "between an Arabian sheik or prince and a white Western (usually British or American) woman" (Taylor). Jessica Taylor adds that "the only position for an Arabian woman available in Orientalist discourse seemed to be that of harem occupant, a passive role which is unsuitable for the heroine of the novel, especially since it is a racialized role and the heroines are only ever racialized as ‘white’." Arab women may appear in these novels, but they generally do so as secondary characters. Although they may be given only limited opportunities to speak for themselves, they are not infrequently mentioned by the white heroines, for as Evelyn Bach notes,
In the verbal battles that constitute much of the courtship in this genre, the heroine often makes pointed references to such traditions as white slavery, huge harems, unbridled lust, imprisonment, the inequality of women and the arrogant despotism of Eastern potentates in general and her abductor in particular. (22)
In addition,
In a number of desert romances, usually quite early in the narrative, the heroine makes pointed comparisons between herself and native women. The observations range from the miserable, restricted lives they lead to their constant sexual availability and unquestioning subservience to the men who are their lords and masters. These comparisons serve a number of purposes. First, they add to the litany of Eastern injustice and barbarity. Second, they enable the heroine to maintain her privileged position as a special, exceptional woman. Constant reminders throughout the texts of her fair or auburn hair and pale skin ensure that her difference is more than adequately established. (22-23)
Although some more recent novels do depict more feisty "native women" as secondary characters, Bach's observations probably still hold true about many others, and that's a shame because it obscures the reality of Muslim women's lives and personalities, for example
Young Egyptian women are using blogs and online radio stations to beat the censors and to fight for equality.

Despite making up only 24% of the workforce in Egypt, 30% of women use the internet.

But it is the middle and upper classes that have really taken to the internet as an alternative way to discuss topics and exchange information and air what many conservatives would consider to be radical views.
In Iran
Women have been extremely politically active in the country for quite some time now, and many Iranians are amused, quite frankly, at the West's sudden revelation that neither chadors nor head scarves snuff out the fire in women's bellies. "This isn't new. This is only the first time that you've been aware of it," Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, tells me with a good-natured laugh. Women were essential political organizers as far back as the 1905 Constitutional Revolution; they also fought and died alongside men in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which might not have happened without their help.

Since then, women have rebelled in deceptively superficial ways. Post-revolution, many began pushing the bounds of the new Islamic state's moral fabric, both literally and figuratively. The small silk scarves, bright nail polish and dramatic makeup that have become emblematic of the protests are a direct challenge to the official dress code. "It was the way for women to protest since the '80s," says Marina Nemat, author of "Prisoner of Tehran," a personal memoir about being imprisoned, tortured and nearly executed in Iran.
Last year I came across an article in The Observer which begins with these words: "Habitually dressed in a long black abaya, with a veil placed firmly against her cheek, Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the wife of the king of Bahrain, does not conform to the usual image of a political activist." She doesn't conform to the usual image of the sheikh's wife that's to be found at the end of sheikh romances either: "Mild-mannered, progressive and with an impressive command of English, the 60-year-old royal, [is] the first of King Hamad's four wives."

For her part, Queen Rania of Jordan has taken to YouTube:

In Qatar Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned is the second of the three wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar (Wikipedia) and she
plays a highly visible role in a region where royal wives until recently were rarely seen and certainly never heard.

While it is a deeply conservative society, Qatari women can vote, drive and play a full part in the workplace: headscarves are a frequent sight, but the dress code for women is not as strict as in Saudi. Dr Sheikha Abdulla al-Misnad, president of Qatar University, says about half her staff and 70% of her students are women. (Sutherland)
Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned
currently serves as Chairperson of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a private non-profit organization founded in 1995 on the personal initiative of His Highness the Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. In autumn 2003, Qatar Foundation inaugurated Education City, a prototypical campus of the future, bringing branches of renowned international universities to Qatar to provide top class degree programs and to share research and community-based ventures.

In addition to her work at Qatar Foundation, Her Highness has long served as President of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs which aims to strengthen the role of the family in society and addresses issues of concern to women and children. Her Highness serves as well as Vice Chairperson of both the Supreme Education Council and the Supreme Health Council. In addition, she is Chairperson of the Sidra Medical and Research Center project to build a premier academic medical center in Qatar, Chairperson of the Silatech initiative to address the growing challenge of youth employment in the Middle East and North Africa region, and Chairperson of the Doha-based Arab Democracy Foundation.

Her Highness plays an important role on the international stage as well. In 2003, UNESCO appointed her Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education. In this capacity she actively promotes various international projects to improve the quality and accessibility of education worldwide. In June 2003, she established the International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq which is dedicated to the reconstruction of institutions of advanced learning. In 2005, she was selected by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to be a Member of the High Level Group of the UN Alliance of Civilizations. (from her own website)
In sheikh romances the personal is also quite clearly the political. As Amira Jarmakani has noted,
despite claims from romance readers and writers that these novels bear no relation to the actual Middle East, the threatening specter of the terrorist is very much present in these stories, many of which fixate on the sheikh’s efforts to modernize his country against the wishes of those characters presented as primitive and barbaric. (998)
In addition, the hero often grants some of his immense political power to the heroine:
By and large, most of the Arab countries described in these books are fictional. Sometimes these lands are socially repressive, but their leaders usually strive to change them into more modern societies that treat women equally. In some cases, the skills or talent of the beautiful heroine often may help this effort along, particularly if she entered the country for the purpose of taking a temporary professional position (i.e. hospital administrator, conference planner, headhunter). (Sheiks and Desert Love website)
Or, as Jarmakani puts it,
the iteration of global feminism proffered by the novels defines the white heroine’s freedom in opposition to her Arab female counterpart, thereby using an individualist model that implicitly excludes the racialized other from participating in the same freedoms. (999)
Thus, despite the inevitable exceptions, there would appear to be a pattern, common in this subgenre, of feisty, liberated Western heroines nobly working to emancipate oppressed Arab women.1 This is problematic for reasons outlined by Nouha al-Hegelan in an article written in 1980 and titled "Women in the Arab World":
As a result of Western misinformation and lack of awareness, Arab women are unfortunately, victims of the stereotyping process. There is little understanding of either our status as women or the total context of our lives. Like other maligned groups, we do our best to understand these misperceptions and, in our own way, to confront them. I know of no Arab woman who underestimates the difficulty of changing Western assumptions. The stereotypes of Arab women, "imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness," will not be eradicated in our lifetime. While we are often shocked into numbness by the depth of the misunderstanding, we know that each epoch of awareness is a new beginning and a new opportunity for us and for our daughters.

Just such a shock lies in what I call the "born yesterday assumption". Westerners begin by comparing the Arab/ Moslem woman to her sisters in the West. Using Western women as a standard is only part of the insult. The injury is magnified by the added assumption that the Arab woman began her struggle yesterday-as if she was somehow born whole out of a newly tapped oil well-a veiled, uncivilized non-entity.

Like most stereotypes, this image is not merely wrong or insulting, it is ludicrous. Long before Western women even considered themselves as a group, let alone a group deprived of its rights, the Islamic woman had begun her emancipation. From the beginning of Islam, 1400 years ago, the Moslem woman was born with all the rights -cultural and spiritual - due a human being.
Part of that history includes the fact that "one of the world's first universities was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri." For her part, Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, who"has forged ahead with critical reforms in her position as head of the newly-established Supreme Council for Women" says that "The image of Arab women in the west, that we are just princesses in a golden cage, with no rights, no choice, no brains and no education, is a challenge. It's totally wrong and I really want to correct it."

So have you come across any sheikh romances which correct the misperceptions of Arab women? Do you think this sub-genre has changed in recent years so that, as suggested by Emily Haddad, "where the novels that appeared before 2004 typically wallowed in the exoticism of their orientalized settings, the newer novels often minimize or even eliminate the Arab world as a setting, or diminish cross-cultural conflict by ascribing a Middle Eastern identity to the heroine" (60)?

1 Among the exceptions are the heroine of Susan Mallery's The Sheik and the Runaway Princess, a "half-Bahanian, half-American princess and art specialist [...] Bahania is a fictional country on the Arabian peninsula" (Haddad 47), the heroine of Jane Porter's The Sheikh's Virgin, "Keira Gordon [who] was born Keira al-Issidri, and the narrative returns obsessively to her confusion over her half-English, half Barakan heritage" (Haddad 58), the half American Aliyah in Olivia Gates's The Desert King and the heroines of two novels written by Alexandra Sellers, namely "Jalia, the heroine of The Ice Maiden's Sheikh [who] is a Bagestani princess raised in exile in England" (Haddad 57) and "The heroine of The Fierce and Tender Sheikh [who] is another princess, Shakira, who had been lost following the assassination of her parents, and is at the beginning of the book living as a boy in a refugee camp" (Haddad 57).

The first photo, of Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, came from Women Gateway. If you scroll down this page you should reach a short biography of her in English. I've also included a photo (found via Wikipedia) of Queen Rania of Jordan, speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos in 2007. I have included these photos because they provide evidence of some of the real women whose fictional counterparts are so often relegated to the status of secondary characters in sheikh romances, while their roles are usurped by Western heroines.

Friday, August 20, 2010

CFP: IASPR Conference 2011 and JPRS 1.2

JPRS 1.1 has been out for over two weeks now, the 2nd IASPR Conference is over (though Jonathan A. Allan, a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Comparative Literature, U of Toronto, has just posted a conference summary), and so it's time to think about next year.

A Call For Proposals
The Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance

Can’t Buy Me Love?
Sex, Money, Power, and Romance

New York City June 26-28, 2011

The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) is seeking proposals for innovative panels, papers, roundtables, discussion groups, and multi-media presentations that contribute to a sustained conversation about romantic love and its representations in global popular media. We welcome analyses of individual books, films, television series, websites, songs, etc., as well as broader inquiries into the reception of popular romance and into the creative industries that produce and market it worldwide.

This conference has four main goals:
  1. To explore the relationships between the conference’s key thematic terms (sex, money, power, and romantic love) in the texts and contexts of popular romance, in all forms and media, from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives
  2. To foster comparative and intercultural analyses of these recurring themes, by documenting and/or theorizing the ways that different nations, cultures, and communities think about love and sex, love and money, love and power, and so on, in the various media of popular romance
  3. To explore how ideas and images of romantic love—especially love as shaped by issues of sex, money, or power—circulate between elite and popular culture, between different media (e.g., from novel to film), and between cultural representations and the lived experience of readers, viewers, listeners, and lovers
  4. To explore the popular romance industry–publishing, marketing, film, television, music, gaming, etc.—and the roles played by sex, money, power, and love in the discourse of (and about) the business side of romance

After the conference, proceedings will be subjected to peer-review and published.

Please submit proposals by January 1, 2011 and direct questions to conferences@iaspr.org.

And that's not all!

Journal of Popular Romance Studies: Issue 1.2

For its second issue (Spring, 2011), the Journal of Popular Romance Studies is now considering papers on representations of romantic love in popular media, now or in the past, from anywhere in the world. Topics addressed might include:

* Romance on the World Stage (texts in translation, romantic love in non-Western popular culture, local traditions, comparative approaches)

* Romance Across the Media: crossover texts and the relationships between romance fiction and romantic films, music, art, drama, etc.; also the paratexts and contexts of popular romance

* Romance High and Low: texts that fall between “high” and “low” culture, or that complicate the distinctions between these critical categories

* Romance Then and Now: representations of Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Modern, Postmodern love

* Romancing the Marketplace: romantic love in advertising, marketing, and consumer culture

* Queering the Romance: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender romance, and representations of same-sex love within predominantly heterosexual texts

* Romance communities: authors, readers, Web sites, blogs

The Journal also solicits reviews (individual and combined) of relevant scholarly works, along with interviews, pedagogical discussions, and other material of use to scholars and teachers in the field of Popular Romance Studies.

Please submit scholarly papers of no more than 10,000 words to Kymberly Hinton, Managing Editor; longer manuscripts of particular interest will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Submissions should be Microsoft Word documents, with citations in MLA format.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Laurie Kahn's Popular Romance Project

Sarah Frantz mentioned in March that "Laurie Kahn's Popular Romance Project (on which Eric and I have worked) [...] received $5000" from the Romance Writers of America and she added 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.
The NEH has now announced that it's awarding $48,000 to the Popular Romance Project:
Filmmakers Collaborative, Inc. Outright: $48,000
[America's Media Makers Development]
Project Director: Laurie Kahn
Project Title: Exploring the Romance Novel from Multiple Perspectives Across Time and Culture
Project Description: Final planning and scripting for a film, a symposium, and reading and discussion programs on how romance literature reflects universal themes of courtship, love, and intimacy.
At the moment a few test pages are all of the Project that's available online but they give an indication of the kinds of topics that may be included on the website once it's completed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The "Good Life" in the Romance Genre: A Philosophy or Religion of Love?

Jessica at Read React Review is posing the question "What Does The Romance Genre Say About the Good Life?" She lists the following as aspects of "the view of the good life found in the romance genre":
  • "romantic love"
  • "material welfare"
  • "physical and mental health"
  • "physical beauty"
  • "affiliation"
  • "autonomy"
  • "integrity"
  • "moral virtue"
It's a thought-provoking list and one which will probably have people searching their minds for exceptions (whose very scarcity may end up proving Jessica's point). She also notes a few things which aren't on the list, including "spirituality." Catherine Roach, however, in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, suggests that the genre's view of love shares a template with "the Christian religious tradition":
The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith, western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.
When the reader leaves the romance protagonists at the end of the novel, they have generally achieved what Jessica calls the "good life" or, in the terminology of Roach's argument,
an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed.
Both Jessica and Roach's conclusions are based on generalisations, but it seems to me that those generalisations are nonetheless relatively accurate descriptions of a high proportion of the genre. If any of those conclusions seem at all troubling, perhaps the reasons why can be discussed at Read React Review and JPRS.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Volume 1.1 of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies is Here

Well, not exactly here, but over here. It's so hot off the virtual press that I haven't had a chance to read it all yet, but it does contain one paper with which I'm extremely well acquainted, since I co-wrote it: "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre” by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer". In it we discuss, among other things, Glittery HooHas, Mighty Wangs and Prisms.

The Journal has been designed to be somewhat interactive, as Eric Selinger mentions in his Editor's Note:
the Journal of Popular Romance Studies aims not simply to foster the study of romantic love in global popular media, but also to build a community that includes academics, independent scholars, industry professionals, and serious general readers. To that end, we have made JPRS a free, open-access journal, and we allow moderated comments on all of our articles. We look forward to the discussion that each may prompt, and to the new scholarship that will grow out of these exchanges.
I hope you'll enjoy reading, and perhaps commenting on, issue 1.1 of JPRS!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Are You a Feminist or a Flower?: White Hibiscus by Rosemary Pollock

Since we've been looking at Heather Schell's suggestion that evolutionary psychology may have been used by romance authors in the 1990s to defend the genre against feminist critics, I thought it would be interesting to look at another conjunction of feminism, romance and ideas about evolution, but this time in an older romance. Two significant differences here are that
  • the focus of the discussions about biology/evolution is the heroine, rather than the alpha hero, and
  • ultimately the heroine is considered to better than both feminists and other women because she seems to lack many of the traits they possess.
Ann Rosalind Jones's essay "Mills & Boon Meets Feminism" was published in 1986 and it explores feminism and whether or not it is compatible with romance. This seems to have been an issue which preoccupied many romance authors at the time, as Jones discovered when she began her research:
reading them recently, I have confronted the most recent trends in the genre. I was astonished to find that every novel I read (sixteen, all published in 1983-4) either refers explicitly to feminism or deals implicitly with issues feminism has raised: women's work, their economic and psychic independence from men, their sexuality - or what might better be called the shifts in 'manners' around heterosexual attraction and pursuit. (197)
She also found that a significant proportion of "writers and editors are now willing to experiment in liberal-feminist directions" (211) and that,
Without any direct reference to feminism, the standard romance plot may nevertheless reconstruct relations between the sexes. By page 140 of the required 180, nurturant men and competent women occupy test situations that supersede conventional gender roles.
But overt references to feminism are much more problematic in Mills & Boon. The term itself, like the demands and debates associated with it, produces striking ambivalence in these novels, even when they register changes that are feminist in effect. (201)
and "At one extreme, Mills & Boon uses feminism in mocking or antithetical ways, to initiate a counter-movement" (202). White Hibiscus, by Rosemary Pollock, was published in 1979 and is located at this extreme end of the spectrum:
'Good evening. You're very punctual.' Turning away from her, he opened the door of the car, and while she climbed inside he held it.
'I didn't want to keep you waiting,' she said demurely.
Still frowning, he got in beside her. 'That's rather unusual.'
'Unusual? Why?'
Allowing himself a brief smile, he looked straight at her. 'I don't know many girls who believe in punctuality.'
There was a tiny pause, then she said crisply: 'I don't think women should expect pointless privileges. Keeping people waiting is just bad manners.'
Paul turned his key in the ignition, and the car swung round. 'I take it,' he observed drily, 'you're not a supporter of the Women's Liberation movement?'
'No, I'm not. I don't see why one should deny one's femininity. But being inconsiderate isn't particularly feminine.'
He nodded. That's an interesting point. (114-15)
It's an interesting passage, certainly. Given that there's no refutation of the claim that most women don't "believe in punctuality," the implications seem to be that
  • most women, whether feminist (feminism is referred to in the novel as "Women's Liberation") or not, are "inconsiderate" and
  • feminist women are demanding "pointless privileges" and denying their "femininity."
Feminism is mentioned again later in the novel when Emma is at a press conference and a journalist asks her whether she "was normally in the habit of wearing a bra - afterwards going on to ask how she felt about Women's Lib" (142). A reader is presumably supposed to know that the journalist is referring to feminist bra-burning (although this never actually happened). The overall effect of these questions and of Emma's earlier comments is to imply that feminism is ridiculous and focussed on trivialities.

Referring to other kinds of scenes in Mills & Boon romances, Jones noted that
the imagery that recurs in love scenes [...] belongs to a discourse that links sex to nature: built into the body, eternally the same. [...] But the appeal to primordial drive often has a forced quality, as if the formula is in need of emphatic reassertion. (210)
There are no explicit sex scenes in White Hibiscus, but the "appeal to primordial drive[s]" and the implication that biology is immutable are nevertheless present in the text. Paul, the hero, is Maltese, and on her arrival in Valetta, Emma (who is English) feels that there is "something primitive about the place" (14). Perhaps because of this Paul believes that he understands primitive biological drives. He initially assumes that Emma has "dubious morals" (43) and he later explains his
attitude to women. I believe that a girl like you is entirely vulnerable - morally helpless. Consciously or unconsciously, she believes that she has been put into the world to capture a man, and everything she does is motivated by that belief. She is determined to acquire a mate, and if allowed full control of her own life she will go to any lengths to achieve her ambition. A man has only to say that he loves her, and she will go away with him - because her instinct tells her that this is her destiny. Her instinct, however, is like a badly programmed computer - it doesn't understand that the man she is planning to sleep with has no intention of bringing up her children. (49)
It's almost as though Paul is an early proponent of evolutionary psychology. However, Paul's "attitude to women" presumably allows for the existence of a few women who are somewhat different because it seems that he eventually comes to agree with his sister that Emma is "such a nice girl" (42). He certainly decides that
'You are unusual. For an English girl.'
Her eyes widened. 'English girls don't drink such a lot.'
Paul laughed. 'No, perhaps they don't. But often they are very sophisticated. Very - liberated.'
'And you don't approve of liberated women.'
'Naturally not. They are all fundamentally miserable.'
'Do you really think so? [...] It's something I haven't thought about all that much. But - well, I suppose I'm "liberated". I do more or less as I like. Nobody organises my life. And I say what I think.'
He studied her. There was something in his eyes she didn't quite understand. 'That's different,' he remarked softly. 'That's just - being yourself.' (124)
I wonder if that "something in his eyes" implies that what he's really saying here, in a way which Emma fails to understand, is that he believes most English girls are promiscuous, and that this makes them "fundamentally miserable." Given that Pollock uses the term "Women's Liberation" to refer to feminism, the repeated use of the word "liberated" here perhaps also suggests that Paul's comments identify the miserable, promiscuous "English girls" as feminists.

In reversing his initial opinion that Emma is an "English model with dubious morals" (43) he admits that "when I first met you I formed a certain impression. I was wrong. [...] You are vulnerable" (87). This kind of vulnerability is presumably different from the vulnerability he mentioned earlier and defined as meaning "morally helpless" (49). In requiring Paul's protection from sexual harassment by other men, Emma demonstrates that she is not "morally helpless," just physically helpless, and this is emphasised by the fact that she also needs him to rescue her from a series of physical threats: sunstroke, drowning, and being trapped part way down a cliff.

Yet even "nice girls," with morals, are apparently ruled by some unchanging instincts, for Paul informs her that although some things have changed since "the days of Carthage" (156), "a man is always a man - that doesn't change. [...] Women, too. Even you, a child of modern England - do you believe that you are so very different from the women of the Phoenician age?" (156).

Carried away by love, however, Paul also seems to think that his beautiful, non-feminist English damsel in distress is unique (if not in the whole of history from the Phoenician age onwards, at least in his own experience): "I have never known a girl like you. You are a perfect flower that opens at the touch of the sun - a white hibiscus blossom" (172-73). The implication seems to be that unlike the "morally helpless" women who "will go away with" any man who offers love, Emma will only "open" at Paul's touch.

Emma, then, appears to be a rare women, who despite being "feminine" is not like other woman and so is not wholly at the mercy of all the biological urges which move them. This is reinforced by the fact that Steve (the first man to sexually proposition Emma) claims that "you're not such an iceberg. You can't kid me you are - not with that hair" (23)? Presumably biology is destiny and "masses of chestnut hair" (14) are to be taken as a reliable indication that a woman has strong sexual appetites. The novel does not refute this reading of Emma's hair but retrospectively one can deduce that although passionate, she shrinks from Steve's advances, because a women like a "white hibiscus blossom" will only open "at the touch of the sun" and Emma the iceberg only melts in response to the sexual advances made by Paul.
  • Jones, Ann Rosalind. "Mills & Boon meets feminism." The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. 195-218.
  • Pollock, Rosemary. White Hibiscus. 1979. Toronto: Harlequin, 1980.