Sunday, January 30, 2011

Romance in South Africa

As a follow-up to my post about developments in romance publishing in India, in which I also mentioned African-American romances, I thought it would be interesting to look at the situation in South Africa. According to the South African Romance Writers' Community,
While South Africa has a substantial number of romance writers, the majority are published in Afrikaans and are therefore only sold in South Africa. Over the years there have been a few South Africans who have published romance novels through international publishers (just don't ask us for names and details!) but not yet in sufficient numbers to make an impact on the global market.
African settings are rare in romances published elsewhere in the world, but those of us who've read older Mills & Boon romances may recall Rosalind Brett who
not only set sales records but would establish a new style for the Mills & Boon novel in the 1950s. Her name was Lilian Warren.
Warren wrote under three pen-names - Rosalind Brett, Kathryn Blair, and Celine Conway - and contributed 59 novels to Mills & Boon. Born in London, Warren [...] married and moved to South Africa, and travelled widely throughout the African continent. [...] The foreign settings appealed to readers weary of wartime deprivation. (McAleer 97)
and "Warren's sexy style as Brett, with its hint of violence, often had to be watered down by the firm" (210). Although Arlene Moore, author of the entry on "Kathryn Blair" in Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers states that "A timeless quality in her writings makes her one of those rare writers who has something to say to any generation reading her" (79), there is a pervasive racism in Rosalind Brett's depiction of the secondary, black African characters. Of course, they always were secondary characters in those days.

Things are rather different now:
Moky Makura, a Nigerian-born author and publisher [...] set up Nollybooks in 2009 after picking up on Mills & Boon's huge global figures [...]. Nollybooks is inspired by Nigeria's thriving movie industry, Nollywood.
"Nollywood proved that Africans want to see themselves reflected in what they consume, and that is exactly what Nollybooks represents," says Makura. [...]
She is not the only one who has discovered this market. South African publisher Kwela Books has created Sapphire Press in response to a need for "black romance" in the country."Mills & Boon sell more than 20,000 units per month here," explains Lindsay van Rensburg, a junior editor at Sapphire.
"We thought it would be quite appealing for those readers to have access to books set in South Africa." (Boswell)
Like Makura, Sapphire Press have also learned from Mills & Boon: in their extremely detailed guidelines to authors they describe the "Typical style of a Kwela romance":
• Think Mills & Boon
• The story must be set in South Africa, preferably a big city like Johannesburg
• The story is told from the main female character’s perspective
• The story is told in the third person
• Both hero and heroine should be black South Africans.
While Sapphire Books require "One or two intimate scenes [...] (though only between the heroine and the hero – no other boyfriends/lovers)," Boswell reports that there is no sex in Nolly Books romances:
"I don't believe that you need sex to have story-telling," Makura argues.
"I am trying to show young girls that you can have a heroine who is educated and doing well, but who doesn't sleep around or have to have sex, and still ends up with a good guy."
Another difference between the two publishers is that Nolly Books are "looking for authors who can create escapist fiction – a hybrid genre combining stiletto-sharp Chic Lit with to-die-for Romance."
  • Boswell, Frederica. "South Africa discovers the joy of romantic novels." Focus On Africa. BBC. 30 January 2011.
  • McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
  • Moore, Arlene. "Blair, Kathryn." Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers. Ed. James Vinson and D. L. Kirkpatrick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale, 1982. 77-79.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Open Source Academic Publishing

There are plenty of open source academic journals (including JPRS, of course), and I've seen free repositories for dissertations etc, but I hadn't previously seen an open source academic publisher like ETC press. This may just be an indication of my ignorance, of course. Here's part of what ETC has to say about itself:
ETC Press is a publishing imprint with a twist. We publish books, but we’re also interested in the participatory future of content creation across multiple media. We are an academic, open source, multimedia, publishing imprint affiliated with the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
This year they've published a book written by the bloggers at the popular culture blog The Cultural Gutter. The book can be read in a variety of formats, most of which are free, and contains
10 articles each from science fiction/fantasy editor James Schellenberg, comics editor and publisher Carol Borden, romance editor Chris Szego, screen editor Ian Driscoll and founding editor and former games editor Jim Munroe.
Chris Szego's short articles on romance cover a variety of topics including Georgette Heyer, fairy tales, Mary Stewart, Nora Roberts, and the Smart Bitches' Beyond Heaving Bosoms.

The graphic is the Open Access logo, designed by the Public Library of Science, and downloaded from Wikipedia.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Popular Culture - Australasia

The Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (PopCAANZ) will be launching its own journal this year:
The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture is a double-blind refereed journal. It has three issues per volume. The first issue will be released at the association’s conference in Auckland.
They're looking for "articles of between 4,000 and 6,000 words." More details about the journal can be found here.

The 2011 PopCAANZ conference is taking place from the 29th June to the 1st of July in Auckland, New Zealand. There's a call for papers:
The Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (Popcaanz) is devoted to the scholarly understanding of everyday cultures. It is concerned with the study of the social practices and the cultural meanings that are produced and are circulated through the processes and practices of everyday life.
We invite academics, professionals, cultural practitioners and those with a scholarly interest in popular culture to send a 150-word abstract (with bio and email address) to the area chairs
The areas and their chairs are:
  • Anime and Manga (
  • Business and Popular Culture (
  • Disabilities and Popular Culture (
  • Fashion (
  • Film and TV (
  • Food Studies (
  • Graphic Novels and Comics (
  • Music (
  • Biography and Life Writing (
  • Design (;
  • Popular Fiction (
  • Popular History (
  • Science (
  • Sports (
  • Toys and Games (
  • Visual Arts (
More details can be found here. The deadline for submitting an abstract "has been extended to end of February."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Characters Who Reflect Our Values?

Kate Hewitt left an interesting comment in response to my last post:
the bottom line seems, to me, to be that we want the characters in our fiction to reflect our own values and when they don't we find it frustrating or disappointing [...] every author is going to bring his or her own value system to his/her books, whether intentional or not. It's up to the reader to decide if he/she can accept the morals/values of the book he/she is reading and then enjoy it as fiction.
Her comment raises so many questions about the values of romance readers, romance authors and of the genre itself, that I decided it was time to create a new space in which to discuss them.

The Romance Genre

According to Pamela Regis, every romance includes some degree of judgement about the society which forms the background to the lovers' struggle:
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; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt. It always oppresses the hero and heroine. (31)
Although the societies depicted in romances vary, one thing which does not is the high value placed on romantic love. According to the Romance Writers of America, it is essential for a romance to have
An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
What, though, does "emotional justice" mean? Some romance protagonists are "rewarded with [...] unconditional love" even though they have behaved towards other people in ways that they themselves later acknowledge to have been unjust.

Romance Authors

Kate, in her initial comment, states that "every author is going to bring his or her own value system to his/her books, whether intentional or not" and Jo Beverley has written that "An honest writer must include her own philosophies in her work" (33). Readers should, however, be careful before making assumptions about authors' values. After all, characters may express opinions which are not shared by the author. In addition, Leslie Wainger's advice to romance authors raises the possibility that some romance authors are writing with their readers' (real or imagined) values in mind:
basic expectations that every romance reader shares and that you, as an author, implicitly promise to fulfill are simple and leave you a lot of room for creativity:
A sympathetic heroine: The heroine is the key to every romance. The reader’s sense of identification with the heroine draws the reader into the book and keeps her reading. Your heroine needs to be sympathetic – strong without being hard, vulnerable without being weak, intelligent, ethical, interesting, capable (but not perfect), beautiful (but not unreal) – in short, a surrogate for your reader as she wants to see herself. [...]
A strong, irresistible hero: Both your heroine and your reader need to fall in love with the hero. He has to be strong without being overbearing (or borderline abusive), yet vulnerable enough to need the heroine; as intelligent, ethical, and capable as she is; fascinating; and, of course, good-looking (and good in bed, even if the reader never sees his skills). (19, emphasis added)
Wainger's advice does seem somewhat problematic. Readers' relationship with heroines may be rather more varied than Wainger seems to be suggesting here and she doesn't define what "ethical" behaviour actually is. I wonder if she realised that there isn't a single standard of "ethical" behaviour and decided it would be far too difficult to try to define a single standard which would be acceptable to all readers.

Romance Readers

Bridget Fowler has observed that
most readers do not confuse the genre with realism. Moreover, the development of the romance suggests its readers are not passive. Its paradises change, along with women's new material experiences and their greater exposure to the arenas of modernity. Such readers are still active and critical thinkers who repudiate writers too removed from their own image of society. [...] I have shown that in Scotland certain writers are repudiated. For example, the link between Barbara Cartland's world-view and that of Thatcherism is both transparent to popular readers and the cause of Cartland's low reputation. The world of the dominant class she depicts is either seen as too alien to their experience or as the source of the poverty and social problems that harass them. (174)
Readers, then, distinguish between fiction and reality. We know that the societies depicted in romances are not real and it seems to me that many romance readers tolerate a great deal which does not "reflect our own values." One reason for this may be the distance between fiction and reality. Another may be that romances tend to be written in a way which "draws the reader into the book" and encourages the reader to sympathise with the characters. Readers may also feel that the emotional benefits they derive from elements such as a high level of conflict, sexual tension and an "Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending" are sufficient to outweigh the discomfort felt when characters don't "reflect our own values." Or we may in fact read partly in order to encounter new perspectives, and different values.

Robin, responding to Kate, says that while she
cannot speak for other readers, [...] I definitely am not looking for characters to reflect my own values. In fact, I often love most those characters whose values are very different from my own. Discussing SEP's Ain't She Sweet with people this past week always brings this up for me, because Sugar Beth is a character I could not relate to *personally* but loved and rooted for and wanted to see her happy. In fact, SEP is one of those authors whose books alternately delight and horrify me, but whose skills as a storyteller and writer can take me places I might not otherwise want to go. And what a delightful experience it is to be taken to those new places, even when they're not places I'd ever want to go in real life.
Clearly, though, some readers do have "hot buttons" which will stop them reading a book, and some of those "hot button" issues may relate to "values."

So, do you want the characters in romance novels to reflect your values? How often do they reflect your values? How much deviation from your values are you willing to tolerate? And what aspects of a novel are likely to increase your tolerance for characters who don't share your values?

  • Beverley, Jo. "An Honorable Profession: The Romance Writer and Her Characters." North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow P., 1999. 32-36.
  • Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
  • Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P., 2003.
  • Wainger, Leslie. Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004.

Friday, January 07, 2011

"A whole load of sass"

In the UK Mills & Boon has created a new line: "Launching in January 2011, Riva is a vibrant, exciting new stream of editorial" which promises "sparky, sassy stories." I'd like to share my thoughts about the line after having read 25% of the first month's output. Admittedly that's only one book, and "Our top editor tip" is that "there is no better way to fully understand the Riva experience than to read as many of them as possible!" but at the moment there have only been 4 novels published in the line, and I have to assume that the editors were very careful when choosing them. After all, these four novels introduce the line to Mills & Boon's readership. One would hope, therefore, that for this launch month the editors selected novels which were representative of the line. There are apparently two main types of Riva novel, but both share a focus on "today's young woman":
If you like your stories hot & steamy...
Then you’ll love the Rivas written by original, fresh authors such as Heidi Rice, Natalie Anderson, Kelly Hunter, Kimberly Lang, Anne Oliver, Anna Cleary and Lucy King, formerly published in Mills & Boon Modern Heat. These entertaining romances reflect the life experiences of today’s young women, within a chic, glamorous, and usually urban setting. The[y] offer international glamour, passion and alpha male heroes you expect from Modern, with a flirty young voice and a whole load of sass. The heroines are often your twenty-something girls-about-town but there's no compromising on the hero: he must be very alpha and absolutely to die for. There’ll be sparks flying when these two meet – and nothing short of fireworks once they get to the bedroom!

If you like your stories flirty & sweet...
Then you’ll love the Rivas written by flirty, young voices such as Liz Fielding, Nina Harrington, Fiona Harper and Jackie Braun, formerly published in Mills & Boon Romance. These stories should reflect the experiences of today’s young women – whether it be dating disasters, juggling a work/life balance or overcoming a broken heart. Each story should have an emotional core with believable emotional conflicts but told in an up-beat, fun, contemporary way. The hero should be sexy, aspirational and the romantic tension should sizzle, but when it comes to the bedroom – the door should be firmly closed. We are open to romantic comedies, first person narratives and interesting twists on classic romantic themes.
Kelly Hunter is an author in the "hot & steamy" group, so With This Fling ... should provide some indication of what the editors mean when they write that these novels "reflect the life experiences of today’s young women, within a chic, glamorous, and usually urban setting."

Charlotte Greenstone is an exceptional archaeologist: "when it came to worldly possessions Charlotte had more than enough for any one person" (7-8) and she has "more publications than most archaeologists three times your age" (14). Not only is she young, wealthy and a big name in her academic field, but she also has "The kind of voice that slid down a man's spine and reminded him that he hadn't had a woman in a while" (35-36) and looks like Lara Croft:
Slender, she was that, but she had some generous curves and an abundance of wavy black hair currently tied back in a messy ponytail. She also possessed a heart-shaped face and a creamy complexion that would put Snow White to shame. A wanton's mouth. One that turned a man's mind towards feasting on it. Big doe eyes, with dark curling lashes. 'Are you really an archaeologist?'
'Yes,' she said grimly. 'And before you start making comparisons between me and a certain tomb-raiding gun-toting female gaming character, I've heard them all before.' (47)
I have serious doubts that Charlotte really "reflect[s] the life experiences of today’s young women"; it would seem that, rather than providing a realistic portrayal of young women's lives, the emphasis in this half of the line falls rather more heavily on the side of depicting "glamour" (i.e. wealth, power, beauty).

According to Fiona Harper, who writes for Riva and has blogged about the first four novels in the line,
While the sensuality levels vary between the two lines, the types of stories and the 'voices' of the authors are very similar. Riva is the home of sparky, sassy stories of life and love - from first flicker to burning flame.
This presumably means that readers can expect all the novels in the line to deliver "a whole load of sass," which can be defined as "impudence; cheek" (OED). Here's an example of some of Charlotte's:
He brought the car to a standstill. [...] Charlotte [...] bent down and smiled at him through the window, showing even white teeth and an abundance of free-spirited cleavage.
She made no move to get in the car.
Gritting his own teeth, Grey slid from the car, strode around it and hauled the door open for her. 'Why couldn't you have been a feminist?' he said.
'Why on earth would I want to be a feminist?' she muttered as she slid into the seat and waited for him to close the door. 'Where's the power in that?'
He shut the door. Gently. He got back in the car.
'You'll notice I'm not currently wearing a bra,' she said briskly.
Oh, he'd noticed.
'That's because the bodice of this dress fulfils that function, not because it's a feminist convention of the late last century'.
'Noted,' he said.
'I would, however, have made a wonderful suffragette,' she told him. 'There are many principles of equality that I adhere to.'
'Wonderful,' he said dryly. 'Power-based selective feminism. Can't wait to experience that.' (66-67)
It seems a pity Charlotte's understanding of feminism is so flawed. On the topic of bras, for example, she'd have benefited from reading this post at "Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog."1

It transpires that Charlotte might also have benefited from doing just a little bit of research into safe sex. Her views of sex are presumably "sassy": "I'm reasonably in favour of flings as a legitimate means of providing temporary companionship and sexual satisfaction" (90) but there is no mention of condom-use when she and Grey begin their sexual relationship. Since they had previously engaged in a discussion about the ground-rules for the relationship which left Grey pondering Charlotte's need for psychological "protective barriers" (92) and complaining that "What with all this arranging of events, we seem to have lost a bit of spontaneity" (96), it seems ironic that she does not negotiate the use of physical "protective barriers." Certainly when Charlotte discovers she's pregnant she doesn't mention a split condom, so presumably she was relying on the fact that "I'm on the pill [...] because of irregular periods" (149) to ensure that she didn't conceive. Maybe it's supposed to seem sassy of her to have unprotected sex with "a man she barely knew" (95)?

As I mentioned earlier, this is only one book and one has to be careful about extrapolating from a small sample, but I'm nonetheless left wondering how often "sassy" in the Riva line will mean "prone to exhibiting 'Power-based selective feminism' and ending up accidentally pregnant."

  • Hunter, Kelly. With This Fling ... Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2011.
1 And while we're on the subject of feminism, you may be interested in this little example of Charlotte's sassy approach to monitoring gender norms:
He'd dressed casually in old jeans and a white linen shirt with a round neck. The shirt could have looked effeminate, but not on those shoulders, and not with that face.
No, with those shoulders and that face and that lean and tight rear end of his, the metro shirt served only to emphasise the blatant masculinity of the body beneath. (70-71)

The image of Lara Croft came from Wikipedia.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Northrop Frye on Romance

Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye (1912-1991) remains a preeminent voice in literary criticism and has found – or, is finding – a renewed interest because of the publication of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Eric Selinger has previously posted on Frye here at Teach Me Tonight. In his post, Eric writes: “Here’s the most recent version [of a handful of passages from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism] – I hope it’s useful to someone out there! If anything here strikes a chord, I’d love to hear about it.”

In Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, readers find Frye defining an entire system of literature one that is understood in terms of modes, genres, symbols, and myths. In his later book, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, readers encounter Frye trying to understand one specific genre: romance. Though Frye is concerned with the history of romance from its late classical origins through to its contemporary manifestations, his work continues to provide, to my mind, some of the most potent defences of the romance. He writes:

Popular literature has been the object of a constant bombardment of social anxieties for over two thousand years, and nearly the whole of the established critical tradition has stood out against it. The greater part of the reading and listening public has ignored the critics and censors for exactly the same length of time. This is an issue which we shall have a look into, because the bulk of popular literature consists of what I have been calling sentimental romance. (23, CW XVIII:19)

For Frye, the sentimental romance is “a more extended and literary development of formulas of naïve romance” (3, CW XVIII:5) – the naïve romance being “the kind of story that I found in collections of folk tales and märchen, like Grimms’ Fairy Tales” (3, CW XVIII:5). Thus, for Frye, there is – it would seem – a distinction to be found between the fairy tale and the romance, despite the fact that “romance is the structural core of all fiction” (15, CW XVIII:14).

But throughout the opening chapter of The Secular Scripture, readers find various defences of the romance:

Any serious discussion of romance has to take into account its curiously proletarian status as a form generally disapproved of, in most ages, by the guardians of taste and learning, except when they use it for their own purposes. The close connection of the romantic and the popular runs all through literature. The formulas of New Comedy and Greek romance were demotic and popular formulas, like their counterparts now, treated with condescension by the highbrows, one form of condescension being the writing of such tales themselves, as academic write detective stories. (23, CW XVIII:19-20)

Frye, though talking about romance in general – thus including the detective story, mystery novel, science fiction – offers some remarkable thoughts with regard to the popular romance novel of the amorous tradition:

The central element of romance is a love story, and the exciting adventures are normally foreplay leading up to sexual union. Hence romance appears to be designed mainly to encourage irregular or excessive sexual activity. This may be masturbation, which is the usual model in the minds of those who speak with contempt of ‘escape’ reading, or it may be a form of voyeurism. Most denunciations of popular romance on such grounds, we notice, assume that the pornographic and the erotic are the same thing: this overlooks the important principle that it is the function of pornography to stun and numb the reader, and the function of erotic writing to wake him up. (24, CW XVIII:20)

Clearly there is much to be said about such a paragraph and perhaps readers of Teach Me Tonight can begin to consider Frye’s observations. What is clear is that in 1976, as Frye gave this series of lectures, the same criticisms of popular romance existed that continue to dominate over studies of romance. To these ends, Frye remains an important critic of the popular romance novel, and perhaps, no where is this more clear than in Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel which often engages with Frye’s theories of romance.

Frye’s goal in The Secular Scripture: “I am trying to suggest a literary perspective on [romance] which may help to bring it into the area of literary criticism instead of confining it to linguistics or to the less fashionable suburbs of sociology” (26, CW XVIII:21).

He concludes his first lecture from The Secular Scripture observing that,

Literature is the human compulsion to create in the face of chaos. Romance, I think, is not only central to literature as a whole, but the area where we can see most clearly that the maze without a plan and the maze not without a plan are two aspects of the same thing. (31, CW XVIII:25)
Having been introduced to romance through Frye, it seems to me that he remains an influential voice (especially if we hope to develop a greater acceptance of popular romance in the academy).