Monday, November 29, 2010

CFPs: Key Themes and Kindred Genres

I've seen a number of calls for papers recently which, while not directly about the romance genre, may be of interest to readers of this blog.
2nd Global Conference: Revenge - Probing the Boundaries (July, 2011: Oxford, United Kingdom)

Revenge, so we are told, is a dish best served cold: a ‘sweet’ wreaking of vengeance on those who have – either in reality or in our minds – slighted, wronged or in some way ‘injured’ us and who are now ‘enjoying’ their just deserts by an avenging angel (or angels) on the great day of reckoning.

This inter- and multi-disciplinary research and publications project seeks to explore the multi-layered ideas and actions of vengeance or revenge. The project aims to explore the nature of revenge, its relationship with issues of justice, and its manifestation in the actions of individuals, groups, communities and nations. The project will also consider the history of revenge, its ‘legitimacy’, the ‘scale’ of vengeful actions and whether revenge has (or should have) ‘limits’. Representations of revenge in film, literature, tv, theatre and radio will be analysed; cultural ‘traditions’ of retaliation and revenge will be considered. And the role of mercy, forgiveness and pardon will be assessed.
For more information, click here and here.
"Virgin Envy: Contemporary Approaches to Virginity in Literature and Arts": Canadian Comparative Literature Association Congress 2011 (Fredericton from 28 May to 4 June)

Virginity has long been a trope found in literary and cultural texts, however, how do we understand virginity and why does it matter become two questions worthy of consideration. This joint-panel between the Canadian Comparative Literature Association and the Canadian Association of Hispanists aims to work through the poetics and politics of virginity in narrative, poetry, cinema, graphic novels, and popular culture. In many regards, though virginity has been studied, particularly in Medieval Literature, and aspects of Renaissance and Classical Literature, we have yet to see much consideration of virginity as a theoretical problem in modern texts. As such, we welcome papers that move beyond the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Guadalupe and aim to consider virginity as an interdisciplinary matter that must be considered from the widest-possible range of perspectives. Papers presented in these panels may be considered for inclusion in an upcoming book of essays on the topic of virginity.
More details here.
Frothy, Frivolous, or Feminist?: Expanding the Critical Discourse on Chick Lit and Women's Fiction (2011 American Literature Association Conference, May 26-29 in Boston)

In the introduction to their essay collection Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, Suzanne Ferris and Mallory Young state that, “[o]n one hand chick lit attracts the unquestioning adoration of fans; on the other it attracts the unmitigated disdain of critics” (1). Indeed, chick lit is enormously popular, and its commercial success extends well beyond the literary world—the genre continues to influence the television and film industry. Chick lit is, as Ferris and Young point out, “big business” (2). However, the popularity and commercial success of chick lit all but ensure it is dismissed critically. In fact, respected novelists like Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing have dubbed authors who write chick lit as the “chickerati,” and Bainbridge describes the genre as “froth” and a waste of time (1). The critical discourse on chick lit is largely negative, condemning the genre as “trivial” and dismissing the fans who claim it depicts the realities of contemporary single women’s lives (2). In fact, the critical treatment of chick lit—or, the lack thereof—seemingly dismisses the genre purely because of its popularity, and most critics’ unwillingness to take chick lit seriously is remarkably similar to the critical treatment of women writers of the late-18th and 19th-centuries. Writers such as Susan Warner, Sarah Josepha Hale, and E.D.E.N. Southworth, all of whom were enormously popular when originally published in the 19th century, have been largely ignored by the contemporary academy because their works are seen as didactic, sentimental, and unrealistic—all terms that have been applied to various works of chick lit.
They've been applied to the romance genre too, of course. More details here.
Call for Essay Submissions on Love in Film and Television Westerns

Call for submissions for an edited collection requested by Palgrave Macmillan Submissions for a collection of essays tentatively titled Cowboy Love: Lonely Hearts and Happy Trails in Western Film and Television.

Long before the release of Brokeback Mountain (2005), Cowboy Love was a complicated, and often conflicted, subject in Western film. Cowboys who would never run from a fight often run from love, and for good reason. Transgressive and titillating, love is one of the most hazardous of all frontier activities in the West. Its presence and absence establish and destabilize gender norms, raising social, political, moral and ethical questions. Simultaneously affirming archetypes of manliness and womanhood and challenging notions of American machismo, the narrative of frontier romance has contributed to the lasting popularity of the cowboy and the endurance of the Western as a genre.
More details here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Growth Matters

Jessica at Read, React, Review has been
asking why romance heroes are so well endowed. If some aspect of romance is sexual fantasy, it may seem obvious. But real women don’t seem to care too much about this sort of thing.
so then Jessica asked
But what about the heroine’s reaction to The Big Reveal? It’s often fear, nervousness, shock, or awe. Perhaps a lot of that reaction can be attributed to the fact that so many romance heroines are virgins. But think about it: why does it make sense that a penis — even a big one — should be terrifying to anyone, ever? And, besides, even experienced often heroines have the same reaction.
While I was still pondering those questions, I happened to read a post about:
the relentless pursuit of growth, measured in monetary terms, which takes no account of finite natural capital or people’s well-being. To illustrate the fundamental points: we would need three planets to allow all nations to grow equally, and despite massive GDP growth we appear to be no happier than we were thirty years ago.
I spot a some common themes here: worries about growth in the context of finite natural resources, and a threat to the happily-ever-after of the protagonists.

Before you all decide that this is a case of a poor, innocent metaphor being stretched to breaking point, I'd like to observe that a very high proportion of romance heroes are well endowed both physically and financially. Indeed, Jan Cohn has observed that
It is a commonplace of romance that the heroine will marry well, a given that the hero will be rich. [...] Romance fiction offers a fantasy of female success, specifically economic success, the aggressive nature of which it thoroughly masks under the heroine's extreme economic innocence. [...] This strategy, basic to the romance formula, attempts to disguise both the heroine's real goal and the profound association between sexual and economic power that lies at the heart of romance, as realized in the figure of the romance hero. Economic success becomes a condition of the hero of romance. It is not simply a matter of the hero's wealth as an added-on value; his wealth, his property and economic power, are basic attributes of his masculinity, a principal source of his virile attractiveness. (127)
It is, after all "a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (Austen 51). And if a man's "good fortune" is a "basic attribute of his masculinity," isn't it equally possible that the most obvious "basic attribute of his masculinity" might symbolise his "good fortune"? And, given the ruthless nature of both rakes and unregulated capitalism, is it really surprising that the heroine should have some concerns when she realises just how very large his "good fortune" is?

It seems something worth pondering, although (a) I'm sure there is a strong element of purely sexual fantasy in such scenes and (b) I would be extremely surprised if any of the authors of this type of scene had intended there to be any economic symbolism.

Having now lived up (or down) to the expectations of those who "believe all college professors are radical Marxists," I'll leave you with a video about the value of a PhD in English:

  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Tony Tanner. London: Penguin, 1985.
  • Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Medieval Romances

As reported at Dear Author, a medievalist who has worked on Middle English romances has recently turned her attention to modern romances set in the Middle Ages. On the 20th of October, Nicola McDonald of the University of York gave a lecture at the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham: “What’s Your Pleasure? Mass-Market Medieval Romance.”

McDonald is the editor of Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Medieval Romance (2004). It's a volume of essays about Middle English romances. These are texts which Jonathan A. Glenn has described as follows:
The basic material of medieval romance is knightly activity and adventure; we might best define medieval romance as a story of adventure--fictitious, frequently marvelous or supernatural--in verse or prose. Earlier romances in English are in verse; those in prose (Malory, for example) are generally late.

Perhaps surprisingly, any "love interest" is likely to be incidental to the story of a medieval romance. An exception to this rule may be found in the breton lai: the term refers both to the relatively brief form of medieval French romances, professed to have been sung by Breton minstrels on Celtic themes, and to the English medieval poems written in imitation of such works. These romances often wove their stories around a famous legendary figure (Arthur, for example, or Tristram) and took as their immediate subject matter a love story of some kind.

Structurally, the medieval romance often follows the loose pattern of the quest, tending thus to be merely episodic.
While these texts are, clearly, rather different from modern romance novels there are certainly some similarities between the two genres. Here's some of what McDonald has had to say about medieval romance:
Despite its status as medieval England's most popular secular genre [...], Middle English popular romance remains, with rare exceptions, under read and under studied. Popular romance is the pulp fiction of medieval England, the 'principal secular literature of entertainment' for an enormously diverse audience that endures for over two hundred and fifty years. It is fast-paced and formulaic; it markets itself unabashedly as genre fiction; it is comparatively cheap and, in performance, ephemeral; it has a sensationalist taste for sex and violence; and it seems content to reproduce the easy certainties of sexist, racist and other bigoted ideologies. But this is not a reason to dismiss it. On the contrary, popular romance provides us with a unique opportunity to explore the complex workings of the medieval imaginary and the world outside the text that feeds and supports it. (1)
Given this assessment of medieval romances, it's perhaps not entirely surprising that McDonald should have decided it might be worth examining some modern romances. So far her research in this area appears to have been based on a small sample of texts: "the Medieval Lords and Ladies Collection (Harlequin Mills and Boon, 2007), a set of six, two-volume anthologies." 1

Joseph McLaughlin provides a summary of Nicola McDonald's recent lecture:
Aspects of modern medieval romances uncovered by her inquiry include:

• self-conscious historicizing with a flagrant disregard for historical facts;

• descriptions of time that serve to wrench the reader back into the present; and

• depictions of violent sexual encounters, which are seldom found in non-medieval Harlequin romances.

[...] McDonald admitted that she enjoyed spotting historical blunders in the books’ pages and in the artwork on their covers.

She pointed out references to a two-pronged dinner fork, when that table utensil was invented after the medieval period; Caxton’s printed books classified as “new,” when Caxton had been dead for over a decade; and a cone-shaped hennin, a headpiece that was fashionable in the 15th century, on the cover of a romance set in the 11th century.

“What is especially pleasing to the snobbish scholar about these references is their very purposefulness, the way in which they are so intimately bound up in the self-evidently lowbrow work of historicizing for readers who, it seems, don’t know any better,” McDonald said.

She also noted how the Medieval Lords and Ladies novels portray time as pre-modern—something that is marked by hours of prayer or notches on a candle, despite the fact that clock was invented in the Middle Ages—while medieval sex acts are distinctly outside of time. [...]

As to how modern novels speak to Middle English romances, McDonald said she has no simple answer.

“As I ‘fall through time and space’ into the middle of my own research, I know that I can no longer be secure in the distance between my Middle Ages and the [romanticized] one I once so confidently disparaged.”


1 Since Nicola McDonald is currently supervising a number of PhD students at the University of York, I don't think it's any coincidence that Amy Burge, also from the University of York, has completed a research poster on the same set of HM&B texts, although the paper she presented to this year's IASPR conference "discussed sheikh romances," and mentioned that "the hero and his country are often described as being 'medieval': 'medieval customs,' a 'medieval-style palace,' a 'medieval mindset,' etc." (my translation of an article by Agnès Caubet).

The image is a non-medieval version of the White Rose of York, taken from Wikipedia.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Miscellany

Today I was reading a romance from 1964 in which nothing goes further than kisses between the hero and heroine, but when she's abducted by the hero's brother overnight she discounts the threat of rape on the grounds that "I may be young and inexperienced, but I'm not ignorant. I've always understood that rape is virtually impossible unless the victim is partially willing" (Seale 174). Since nothing is said or done to prove her wrong, this totally incorrect statement about rape goes unchallenged in the novel.

Another rape myth I came across recently was expressed in a comment left in response to a recent review at the Smart Bitches': "what puzzles me, regardless of societal context, is the notion that a woman being forced to have sex would have an orgasm. Orgasms are not just physical" (Laurel). This incorrect statement didn't go unchallenged. However, as Orangehands concluded,
society has so enforced rape culture that rape in its more subtle shades can show up and slip by without any acknowledgment for what it is. Sometimes because the characters themselves don't see it that way, sometimes because we read the scene from the [point of view of the] pursued instead of the pursuer (and so we can read his/her desire while she's saying no), and sometimes because it's just that subtle and we don't know to call it rape, and sometimes because we have been taught not to think about it as rape.
The way that Cooks Source acquired some of its content came in for considerable scrutiny and criticism recently in the romance community. Well, it's a new week, and there are more allegations of plagiarism, this time directed at George Bush:
it appears that Decision Points is not so much the former president's memoirs as other people's cut and pasted memories.

Bush's account is littered with anecdotes seemingly ripped off from other books and articles, even borrowing without attribution – some might say plagiarising – from critical accounts the White House had previously denounced as inaccurate.

The Huffington Post noted a remarkable similarity between previously published writings and Bush's colourful anecdotes from events at which he had not been present. (McGreal)
American politicians expressed their interest in the pursuit of happiness a long time ago, but in the UK the
government is poised to start measuring people's psychological and environmental wellbeing, bidding to be among the first countries to officially monitor happiness.

Despite "nervousness" in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and last week's riot in Westminster, the Office of National Statistics will shortly be asked to produce measures to implement David Cameron's long-stated ambition of gauging "general wellbeing".

Countries such as France and Canada are looking at similar initiatives as governments around the world come under pressure to put less store on conventional economic measures of prosperity such as gross domestic product. (Stratton)
I suppose I can tangentially relate this one to romance too, since according to the Beatles "money can't buy me love" and "all you need is love."

I've come to expect that Harlequin Mills & Boon Greek tycoons, however, will invariably get both money and love. I was rather amused, though, to discover that one of them also ensures there's a lavish supply of suitably symbolic bath toys for his secret baby:
Maribel watched Leonidas roll out a convoy of boats for his son's bath-time entertainment. For a Greek tycoon, whose fortune was based on a vast shipping empire, she supposed an entire fleet was a natural choice. (Graham 117)
With thanks to Tumperkin, who gave me a copy of Lynne Graham's The Greek Tycoon's Defiant Bride.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Romancing Herself?

Here's a definition I found of "women's fiction":
Women’s fiction is a term that refers to stories where the female protagonist deals with situations and relationships that challenge her and affect her emotional growth.

The subjects and themes of these books can cover a wide range of issues that women face. Relationships with other people are important, and are an integral part of the story. Though there is often a love interest, it isn’t the central focus.

What’s most important is the woman’s emotional development as she pursues her dreams, fights her fears, or overcomes obstacles life throws her way. These stories touch the emotions, and don’t necessarily have a happy ending. Like any book, though, women’s fiction does need an ending that satisfies readers. (Benedict)
And here's the Romance Writers of America's definition of a romance: "Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending." I know they also state that "The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work" but there are now romances in which there are more than two individuals in the central relationship.

Today I read a news item which made me wonder if there could also be fewer than two people in the "central love story":
Chen Wei-Yi has had one of the most unusual weddings in history by marrying herself in a ceremony in Taiwan.

Chen - whose English name is Only - carried out the ceremony as a protest against the pressures on women in Taiwanese society to get married.
As she says in the radio interview below:
I feel that marrying myself represents a promise to really love myself. With this wedding I want to have a ceremony to prove that I really love myself [...] in the past many women sacrificed themselves or endured injustice. Now, finally, there are many choices open to women and one of these choices is to love ourselves more. So I feel that this is a really good opportunity for women to change society's expectations of them.

So would it be possible to think of a work of "women's fiction" which ends optimistically and in which the protagonist does not end up in a romantic relationship with another person, but does end up in love with herself, as a sort of romance?

I'm not thinking about the definitions in terms of their function as marketing labels: obviously many readers like to know what they're getting and novels which tell the story of a woman's evolving relationship with herself are bound to be considered significantly different from novels which tell the story of the growth of a romantic relationship between two or more people. Also, not all "women's fiction" ends happily, and it may not end with the female protagonist loving herself. All I'm doing here is looking at the definitions and wondering if there are more structural or thematic similarities between modern romance novels and some "women's fiction" than I'd previously thought there were.

Pamela Regis has stated that "A romance novel - a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines - requires certain narrative events" (27). The eight narrative events are as follows:
Society Defined Near the beginning of the novel, the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed. (31)
The Meeting Usually near the beginning of the novel, but also sometimes presented in flashback, the heroine and hero meet for the first time. (31)
The Barrier A series of scenes often scattered throughout the novel establishes for the reader the reasons that this heroine and hero cannot marry. (32)
The Attraction A scene or series of scenes scattered throughout the novel establishes for the reader the reason that this couple must marry. (33)
The Declaration The scene or scenes in which the hero declares his love for the heroine, and the heroine her love for the hero. (34)
Point of Ritual Death The point of ritual death marks the moment in the narrative when the union between heroine and hero, the hoped-for resolution, seems absolutely impossible, when it seems that the barrier will remain, more substantial than ever. (35)
The Recognition In a scene or scenes the author represents the new information that will overcome the barrier. (36)
The Betrothal In a scene or scenes the hero asks the heroine to marry him and she accepts; or the heroine asks the hero, and he accepts. In romance novels from the last quarter of the twentieth century marriage is not necessary as long as it is clear that heroine and hero will end up together. (38)
I suspect that many, if not all, of these "narrative events" would be present in works of optimistically-ending women's fiction centered around a woman's journey towards loving herself. Obviously one would need to reword some of the descriptions slightly: in most cases, for example, their protagonists, unlike Chen Wei-Yi, do not literally become betrothed to, or marry themselves. What do you think?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Cameras, Action, Romance Novels!

According to Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan,
everyone has a very firm idea of what the average romance reader is like. We bet you already know her. She's rather dim and kind of tubby - undereducated and undersexed - and she displays a distressing affinity for mom jeans and sweaters covered in puffy paint and appliquéd kittens. (4)
If you'd like to see a picture of this typical romance reader, created by Joanne Renaud for the Smart Bitches' book, you can click across here. Wendell and Tan didn't mention the cause of the tubbyness, but it may be due to those bonbons that we romance readers apparently can't resist:
We still persist in the stereotypical belief that women who read romances can't get a date on Friday night. Instead, they lounge around all day eating bon-bons while they read their little books. This is simply untrue. (Bouricius 32)
According to Rachel Anderson, the genre "is usually condescendingly dismissed by those with highbrow pretensions as being harmless wish-fulfilment for ageing spinsters, or relatively harmless escapism for the ill-educated masses" (12-13). I suspect the stereotype varies a bit, perhaps from one country or time-period to another: Anderson was writing in the UK in the 1970s, whereas Wendell, Tan, and Bouricius were published in the US in the 2000s.

I'm not sure where these stereotypes of the romance reader come from, or how they're perpetuated, but since I'm interested in societal perceptions of romances and romance readers I was intrigued by Kirsten Valentine Cadieux's post about the recently released RED. She
was delighted to discover that a central narrative device of the film's setup is a somewhat elaborate, if simple, pattern in which the male romantic lead inquires about the current habits of the female romantic lead [...]; he then proceeds to read along with her trashy romance novels.
In the movie Mary-Louise Parker plays the part of Sarah, "a sweet, mild-mannered government HR rep and lover of romance novels who is inadvertently drawn into the film's dangerous world of intrigue" (CBR):
"She's a small town, Midwestern girl, and I think she's really positive and there's not a whole lot of dark in there," Parker said of Sarah during the press junket for "RED" in New York City. "She's a really bright, positive person, she reads romance novels and she kind of imagines herself "in" one of them. So when all of this happens, I think to her it's a dream come true. Even the horrible parts of it, like getting her mouth duct taped, there's some element to that that's thrilling and wonderful." (CBR)
Unfortunately, since I try to avoid depictions of violence, I won't be able to see for myself how the two romance readers (Sarah and Frank) challenge and/or reinforce particular stereotypes about romance readers.

When I looked to see if there were other movies with characters who read romance, I came across the following description, written by Dyanne, at The Romance Reader:
AMERICAN DREAMER - Stars JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti. Very funny - I love this movie! JoBeth Williams' character is a housewife who loves to read romantic thrillers by Rebecca Ryan and so she enters a Rebecca Ryan writing contest. She wins a trip to Paris and on her way to the awards luncheon gets knocked on the head -- when she awakens, she believes she is Rebecca Ryan.
I haven't seen that one either.

So is there anyone here who has seen either of these movies? If so, what did you think of their depiction of romance readers? And do any of you know of any other movies with romance-reading characters? Finally, is Jayashree Kamble overstating the case when she writes that
stereotypes about romance fiction are so deeply inscribed in popular discourse that they are regularly referenced by the entertainment media, such as television shows and movies, for comic effect. In every case, romance novels are portrayed as titillating fantasies written and read by oversexed or undersexed women. Romance readers often also come across in these electronic media as possessing little intelligence and discernment and as being incapable of separating themselves from the text. In most cases, these media are popular texts themselves and ridicule the romance genre as a way to elevate their own status by contrast and detract from their own formulae. (27-28)

  • Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-Literature of Love. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1974.
  • Bouricius, Ann. The Romance Readers' Advisory: The Librarian's Guide to Love in the Stacks. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000.
  • Kamble, Jayashree. Uncovering and Recovering the Popular Romance Novel. University of Minnesota, Ph.D. dissertation. December 2008. [Details here and available for download as a pdf here.]
  • Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.