Thursday, March 31, 2011

Out Now: JPRS 1.2

Issue 1.2 of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS) is now available. JPRS is a peer-reviewed academic journal which is freely accessible online. Eric Selinger, the editor of the journal, writes that
The Journal of Popular Romance Studies is dedicated to publishing scholarship on romantic love in global popular media, now and in the past, along with interviews, pedagogical discussions, and other material of use to both scholars and teachers. With this second issue, we make good on that mission in several new and exciting ways. We expand internationally, and into cyberspace, with essays on web-based Chinese romantic fiction, on single women in British middlebrow novels of the interwar years, and on debates at the popular Smart Bitches, Trashy Books website about “plus-size” heroines in popular romance fiction.

Alongside these, we have our second author interview, this time with groundbreaking science fiction author Joanna Russ, reflecting on her decades-old engagement with slash fiction and fandom. And this issue inaugurates what we hope will be an on-going series of “Pedagogy Reports,” this one focused on the challenges and rewards of “embedding” Georgette Heyer’s romance novel Sylvester in a University of Tasmania course on historical fiction, teaching it alongside canonical literary texts.
Here's a table of contents for issue 1.2:
JPRS welcomes "comments on all of these contributions."

Monday, March 28, 2011

CFP: Popular Romance in the New Millennium

News of this conference and call for papers has just come in from Pamela Regis. Pam is the author of A Popular History of the Romance Novel and is organising the conference:
McDaniel College

is proud to sponsor

Popular Romance in the New Millennium

An International Conference

November 10-11, 2011
Westminster, Maryland*

Deadline for proposals: June 1, 2011

The popular romance has come of age.

Almost four decades ago, with the publication of The Flame and the Flower, the boom in North American romance publication began. Three decades ago major critical work on the popular romance began to appear.

Popular Romance in the New Millennium will gather presenters who can put the romance in fresh perspective, who can point us toward the future of romance and romance criticism, and who can help us understand the place of the popular romance in the 21st century.

Presentations are requested on print, e-published, film, web, and other popular romance—YA or adult—from any culture, and from any period. Critics from across the theoretical spectrum, as well as authors, bloggers, editors, and booksellers are invited.

Presentation topics include but are not limited to: Single-author studies; papers on emerging authors, filmmakers, or other romance creators; on emerging sub-genres; and offering new perspectives on older works. Presenters on romance readers and romance reading, blogs and blogging, online romance culture, and writing romance in the digital age are welcome.

In view of the increasing number of college courses focusing on or including this genre, presentations are encouraged on teaching the popular romance.

Individual papers, panels, interactive presentations, and interviews are welcome.

Proposal guidelines: By June 1, 2011, submit as an email attachment to pregis (at) mcdaniel (dot) edu:

An abstract (100 words)
A bio (no longer than 100 words)
A/V needs

*Complementary hotel accommodation for presenters and free transportation to Westminster for all conferees from the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and the BWI Thurgood Marshall Amtrak station will be provided. McDaniel College’s 160-acre campus overlooks Westminster, a walkable town with a population of about 18,000.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

In 2003 Diana Wynne Jones told the BBC that "there are masses of stories left to tell, I'm just sorry I won't live long enough to write them all." Today HarperCollins are
sad to confirm our wonderful and inspiring author Diana Wynne Jones passed away today. She will be much missed
She "was a writer of fantasy, mostly aimed at older children." However, even before I started reading books labelled "romances," I tended to focus on the love stories included in novels in other genres, and wanted them to end well. So while HarperCollins can describe her The Magicians of Caprona as an adventure which
takes place in the Italian Dukedom of Caprona, where spells are as slippery and as tricksy as spaghetti!

Casa Montana and Casa Petrocchi look after the magical business in the Dukedom of Caprona, watched over by its magnificent guardian statue, the Angel. The families have been feuding for years, so when all the spells start going wrong, each naturally blames the other. Then young Tonino Montana and Angelica Petrocchi disappear. Could the terrible rumours of a White Devil who threatens Caprona be true after all?
to me it will always be a reworking of the story of Romeo and Juliet which concludes the love story in a way which makes it much more satisfying than the original.

Romance is somewhat more to the fore in Howl's Moving Castle and its sequel, Castle in the Air. Fire & Hemlock, which reworks the story of Tam Lin, shows how true love can break a curse.

However, as a romance-reader-to-be, it was perhaps Dogsbody which most intrigued me, because it had a hopeful, rather than a happy, ending. It concludes with Miss Smith's observation that "Where there's need enough, a way can often be found" (202) and Sirius's hope "that what Miss Smith said is true" (202). My hope was that one day Diana Wynne Jones would write a sequel; I can be sure, now, that she never will.

  • Jones, Diana Wynne. Dogsbody. 1975. London: Methuen, 1988.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Advertising Women

Last week I mentioned Susan Stephens's Ruthless Boss, Dream Baby (published by Mills & Boon in the UK in January 2011 and published in the US by Harlequin as Gray Quinn's Baby). Stephens was:
asked to write a book set in the 60's with a modern day heroine for Harlequin Presents [...]. I love that era. The fashions and music were nothing short of revolutionary, while the 'so called' sexual revolution made possible by the pill before the shadow of aids had been identified, was said to liberate women. It was an era of compelling figures who would open our eyes and our hearts, and technical advances that were both fast and thrilling. And, most crucially for my purposes, women were fighting for equal pay and rights with men. [...]

I had my modern woman meet Gray Quinn in the current day. Magenta then falls asleep and dreams that they have both been transported back to the sixties.

The fun and games begin when Magenta starts to assert herself in this sixties dreamworld. ("Time Travel")
In the 21st century Magenta is working on a "fast-moving, retro ad campaign set in Magenta's favourite era, the sixties" (7) for her father's advertising firm but since he has the "outdated belief that men ran businesses while bricks and mortar provided better security for a woman, she owned the building but not a single voting-share" (12) and her job, and that of "Magenta's team" (21), is therefore at risk when her father sells the company to Gray Quinn. She's been working hard and late one night, when
She was halfway through drafting a strap line for a sixties hairpiece [...] she had to stop. She could hardly keep her eyes open and just couldn't get it right: the hair fashion that goes on when you go out ...
And drops off when you least expect it to?
[...] it was a genuine sixties product, Magenta mused [...]. She'd been so enthusiastic up to now, seeing only the good, the fun and the innovation of the sixties. But, realistically, how many other things about that time would have got right up her nose? (35-36)
Once in the "sixties dreamworld," Magenta discovers that she is now only the office manager and
men occupied all the private offices while the women had been relegated to old-fashioned typewriters - either in the typing pool, where they sat in rows behind a partition as if they were at school, or at similar desks to this one outside the office doors. Ready to do their master's bidding, Magenta presumed angrily. She remembered her father telling her how it used to be for the majority of female office workers in the sixties. (39)
When Magenta tries to convince 1960s-Quinn that he should "accept a campaign designed by a woman" (59) he responds that she's "forgotten the natural order of things, Magenta. Men lead at work so that women can enjoy a certain lifestyle" (59).

I have no idea how many women did work in advertising in London in this period but some did. Fay Weldon,
Like Mad Men's formidable Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss), [...] had climbed from the typing pool to become a highly paid advertising copywriter.

While Peggy worked at Sterling Cooper, I was working at the real-life equivalent of the big London agency that was to eventually buy out Sterling Cooper in the show.

I wrote copy for the Egg Marketing Board - 'Go to work on an egg'; for Aero - 'Bubbling with full cream milk'; for Guinness - 'Good for you!'; for Birds Eye - 'Sweet as the moment when the pod went "pop!"'; and for Imperial Tobacco, IBM, Shell and many other accounts that are now long forgotten.

[...] Being a new industry, advertising at least let women in. If you could do the work, they'd hire you; gender was immaterial. (Weldon)
and "Women in Advertising and Communications, London (WACL) has been in existence since 1923" (WACL):
It usually comes as some surprise to people, that WACL was founded as long ago as January 1923. It also says something for that era that the Club was founded by men, for women! Its 'Godfathers', who forever retained the Club's affection were, from the client side, Mr John Cheshire, MD of Lever Brothers, and from advertising Sir William Crawford and Mr CH Vernon of C Vernon & Sons.

The reasons for the founding of the Club were quite simple: firstly, a growing number of women were beginning to find their way into (non-secretarial) roles within the advertising industry, as saleswomen for advertising space, and as managers within advertising agencies. Even more importantly, however, a convention of the International Advertising Association was due to be held at Wembley in 1924. A significant number of the American delegates due to arrive were women, and at that time there was no organisation capable of organising the welcome for such women.

From such a relatively pragmatic beginning, WACL has grown in size, influence and status to the organisation it is today. (WACL)1
It would appear that Magenta's not exactly proposing anything revolutionary when she argues that women should be making their way "into (non-secretarial) roles within the advertising industry" (WACL). Another aspect of her confrontation with Quinn also seems to overlook some of the realities of advertising in the 1960s. Magenta argues that
'[...] we must consider our female audience when we design a campaign.'
'What do women want?' Quinn didn't even pretend to think about it. 'Who cares when men pay the bills? This is business, Magenta, not some feel-good society for you to float around in. Men earn the money women spend - remember that. So men are our target audience.' [...]
'But you've just admitted women do the shopping, so they have control of the finances.'
'Nonsense. Are you the most argumentative woman I've ever met?' he demanded. 'Who tells a woman what to buy, Magenta? Her man.' (59-60)
One does have to make some allowances for the fact that Magenta's 1960s is a "sixties dreamworld" but it would appear that "sixties dreamworld" Quinn is out of touch with real 1960s advertising trends. In the real 1960s one of the books Mills & Boon published was Nan Berger and Joan Maizels's Woman Fancy or Free?, a non-fiction work which includes a chapter which focuses on advertising. They observed that
A vast and complex industry has been built up in order to persuade people to buy. Since women are the largest buyers; the "new rich"; "the biggest consumer field"; the "dominant and supreme economic force"; they occupy a "key role in the economy". To the manufacturers of consumer goods and their collaborators in advertising, women now represent a source of meal tickets on an unprecedented scale of luxury. This is why they are ceaselessly wooed and courted with a ruthless passion which leaves nothing to chance.
In order to attract women to buy one brand of consumer goods rather than another, they are subjected to a campaign of enticement directed as much to their reason as to their emotions. (48)
Rather than lament a lack of advertising aimed at women, Berger and Maizels lament the quantity, and critique the content, of the adverts the industry targeted at women consumers. They conclude that
the appeal which the major consumer industries make to women reveals that it is based on fostering the belief that in spite of all the opportunities which are open to them, none will be as satisfying as the use of their domestic skills and their sexual charms. In an age of specialisation women are being encouraged to specialise in being women. By the persuasive euphemisms of modern advertising, they are encouraged to adjust their lives to accord with the ad-men's conception of what women ought to do and to be. (19)
Here's an example of the sort of advertising they were thinking of:
Gravy is a girl's best friend. Men always seem to go for gravy - and for the girls who know how to make gravy taste rich and meaty ... it gives a meal man appeal.
Based on the old adage that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, this advertisement does more than make extravagant claims for the product it projects. It assumes that woman's interest in the product will be heightened by the spurious addition of sex-appeal. (34)
Magenta's advertising campaign relies on reverse sexism: "The general theme was irony, suggesting men must be catered for and even spoiled a little so that women were free to do their own thing" (115). Given this message, it's possible that the "Vivid, graphic imagery and clever text" (115) includes some "spurious [...] sex-appeal" (Berger and Maizels 34).

We can, however, be certain of the contents of the real adverts for products from the 1960s which are mentioned in the novel. These include the Concentrate girdle and Little Fibber bra (34). Here's the advert for them:
Under the image of a pear and the headline "This is no shape for a girl," the reader is told that
That's why Warner's makes the Concentrate girdle and the Little Fibber bra.
Girls with too much bottom and too little top: Warner's can reshape you.
It's an image, and copy, which quite clearly encourages women "to adjust their lives to accord with the ad-men's conception of what women ought to do and to be."

Another of the authentic 1960s products mentioned in Ruthless Boss, Dream Baby was aimed at men:
Standing up, Quinn propped one hip against the desk, managing to look both formidable and desirable at the same time. [...]
Half-man, half-beast - all male ... The shout line on a sixties massage-cologne rushed into Magenta's mind. The thought of massaging it into Quinn was quickly stifled. (55)
And here's the original advert, apparently from 1967. It reads:
Are you ready for Centaur?

Out of the Wild and Violent days of ancient Greece comes the exciting concept of a Massage-Cologne ... its name is CENTAUR!
CENTAUR adds a delightful new dimension to your body, a low level aroma that hovers close to the skin for hours, transmits its virile message only in moments of close and intimate contact.
CENTAUR makes no coy promises ... finding HER is up to you ... then CENTAUR gives her the message. She won't say "What are you wearing?" She will say "You smell good!"
The advertisers are at least honest when they admit that the nubile female masseuse is not provided with the cologne, but her appearance is a realistic representation of neither ancient Greek nor 1960s women. Given her role and her scanty clothing, it would appear that once again an advert is depicting a masculine fantasy of what "women ought to do and to be."

The 1960s was also the decade when Jean Kilbourne began to take a look at "the ad-men's conception of what women ought to do and to be" (Berger and Maizels 19):
In 1968 she had begun collecting magazine ads that, in one way or another, demeaned women, eventually turning these into slides to illustrate lectures she delivered inside and outside schools on the evils of advertising. [...] In 1979 she turned this show-and-tell exercise into a half-hour documentary entitled Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women. (Rutherford 149)
In Ruthless Boss, Dream Baby, Magenta muses that
It was nothing short of a miracle that women had found the energy to prove themselves in the sixties [...]. And on top of that they were expected to run a home.
So what had changed? Magenta wondered wryly. Things were pretty much the same in the twenty-first century. (70)
In some ways advertising has changed a great deal;'s list of "25 vintage ads that would be banned today" is proof of that despite the fact that it includes some adverts which must have been created some time before the 1960s. However, in other ways it's possible that advertising hasn't changed so much after all. It may be that twenty-first century adverts are as likely to be "heightened by the spurious addition of sex-appeal" (Berger and Maizels 34) as those from the 1960s. In the fourth, updated, edition of Jean Kilbourne's documentary, which was released in 2010, she comments that
Sometimes people say to me, “You’ve been talking about this for 40 years, have things gotten any better?” And actually I have to say really they’ve gotten worse. Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success and perhaps most important – normalcy. To a great extent they tell us who we are and who we should be.

Well what does advertising tell us about women? It tells us, as it always has, that’s what’s most important is how we look. So the first thing the advertisers do is surround us with images of ideal female beauty. Women learn from a very early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy and above all money, striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail. And failure is inevitable because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness. (full transcript of the trailer here)


1 There had been an earlier organisation, based in London, for women in advertising:
Association of Advertising Women
This organisation was set up in 1910 to bring together, for mutual aid and social enjoyment, women workers actively engaged in advertising work. By this time there were many employed as copywriters, artists and designers and 'canvassers' selling advertising space. In 1916 its headquarters were at 154 Clerkenwell Road, London, and its president was Miss Ethel M. Sayer. Subscriptions were two guineas and one guinea according to status. It had disappeared by the end of the First World War. (Gordon and Doughan 17)

Monday, March 14, 2011

CFPs: Speech and Time

Chris Eagle from the University of Western Sydney is
soliciting previously unpublished articles or essays for an edited collection on the topic of representations of speech and language disorders in literature, film, and popular culture. At present, there is a growing interest in the field of Medical Humanities regarding the portrayal of conditions like stuttering, aphasia, mutism, etc. Recent works like The King's Speech, Rocket Science, and Diving Bell and the Butterfly also speak to the growing concern in contemporary popular culture over the status of the Self in relation to language loss and language breakdown. Since speech pathologies are neither illnesses nor outwardly visible disabilties, critical studies of their representation have tended to occupy a liminal position in relation to other discourses in fields like literary theory, medical humanities, disability studies, etc. One of the primary aims of this collection is to address that marginalization, to position a cultural criticism of speech pathology as a subfield in its own right, by combining previous criticism with original work in order to bring this subject into greater prominence.

The working title of the collection is Talking Normal: Speech Disorders in Literature, Film, and Culture. The goal of this collection is to approach the issue of disordered or 'non-standard' speech from as many critical lenses as possible. So cultural studies, historicist, theoretical, sociolinguistic, formalist approaches etc. are all equally welcome. [...] Authors should submit an abstract of 300 - 600 words, along with a CV providing full contact information, by May 1st 2011.
More details can be found here. I immediately thought of Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm:
The odd tidbit of original inspiration for Flowers came from a great-aunt of mine. When I was fairly young—7 or 8?—she suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak. My grandmother, her sister, brought her to live at home for the next ten years. She would come up behind us kids and grab our hair or our arm, pinch so hard that it hurt, and say “No, no, no, no!” I thought she was nuts. Forgive me, I was young and afraid of her. My grandmother always insisted that she could understand what was said to her, and stood by her to the end.

Many years later, many—out of nowhere, the thought came to me that my grandmother had been right. That my great-aunt had been trapped behind a wall. It was a stunning realization.

I spent a fascinating period researching brain damage while writing Flowers from the Storm. Yes, for all those who’ve guessed or wondered, Christian suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. A one-time bleeding in the brain caused by a malformed blood vessel. He never had another one, I promise. I deliberately made him left-handed because left-handers have an atypical layout of speech centers in the brain, and often recover better from aphasic injuries.
I know Barbara Cartland's heroines often pause ... when speaking, but ... I don't think those pauses were intended to be read as representations of a speech disorder. Can you think of any romances other than Flowers from the Storm which depict "disordered or 'non-standard' speech"?

And here's another recent call for papers.This one made me think a bit about time-travel and historical romances:
Philament, the peer-reviewed online journal of the arts and culture affiliated with the University of Sydney, invites postgraduate students and early-careers scholars to submit academic papers and creative works for our next issue upon the theme of Time. [...] Submissions close April 30, 2011, although late submissions may be considered.
More details can be found here and the submissions guidelines are here. Please note that
Our definition of postgraduate extends to include recent graduates who have obtained their doctorate less than five years ago, and who are yet to secure permanent academic employment.
I recently read Susan Stephens' Ruthless Boss, Dream Baby , a contribution to a Harlequin/Mills & Boon mini-series titled
Arrogant and proud, unashamedly male!
Modern Romance with a retro twist ...
Step back in time to when men were men - and women knew just how to tame them!
Apparently the idea for the mini-series was inspired by the television programme Life on Mars:
For those unfamiliar with the show, in a nutshell a 21st century policeman is transported back in time to 1970s Britain, where he meets DCI Gene Hunt – a completely unreconstructed alpha male from days of yore! In the second series, Ashes to Ashes, the action moved to the 1980s, when a 21st century female is thrown back to meet the uncompromising Gene Hunt, and gradually tension of a different kind started to simmer, and this got us thinking…

What would happen if a 21st century Presents heroine came face-to-face with a completely unreconstructed Presents alpha hero from the past?

And that is how Men Without Mercy was conceived! Yes, we would need to include a little, (dare we say) time travel to make it possible, but as long as the story, relationship and passion was pure Presents – why not?
I'm pondering the implications of the phrase "when men were men" and wondering if this combination of a modern heroine and a setting in which men can be men, is one of the appeals of "wallpaper historicals." Vacuous Minx recently described these as
books where the characters are basically modern, but they wear period clothing, live in period houses, and refer to period events.There is no real pretense, by authors or readers who like the books, that these books represent serious attempts to depict a particular historical era. Think of it as going to a historical theme party: everyone dresses up in the theme, but they talk in their normal accents and use contemporary vocabulary and wear Spanx under their costumes.
In wallpaper historicals do the heroes seem as modern as the heroines, or are they the embodiment of what some modern women believe men were like in the days "when men were men"?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Technical Update: Subscribing to Comments

I'd noticed that other blogs give readers an option to subscribe to comments on a post even if the reader hasn't left a comment her or himself. This seems like a very useful function because sometimes one might not have anything to say in response to the original post, but still be interested in learning what other readers have to say about it.

I've now changed the settings at Teach Me Tonight so that when you go to the page for a specific post you should see a "subscribe by email" link at the foot of the page. You can click on this whether or not you leave a comment in the comment box.

Please note: if you do leave a comment and want to be notified of follow-up comments, you'll now have to click on that link, either before or after posting your comment.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Recipients of RWA's 2011 Academic Research Grants

The Romance Writers of America have announced the recipients of the 2011 RWA Academic Research Grants, and I'd like to congratulate them. They are:

Dr. Heather Schell, George Washington University

Harlequins in Translation: the Turkish Experience of the American Romance Novel

Dr. Schell's project will examine the popularity of Harlequin romances in Turkey which, while a country with a secular government, is predominantly an Islamic culture. Schell will survey and interview Turkish women who read the romances in translation to learn how they receive and perceive these novels written by and for North American women. She intends to study this data and seek the answers to questions such as: “What accounts for the appeal of these books? Do relationship-dominated books challenge or reinforce international readers’ expectations of gender norms? Do they shape the readers’ beliefs about U.S. culture? Are these books seen as supporting or challenging Turkish cultural values?”
It's quite possible that Schell is going to focus exclusively on the reception of Harlequin romance "novels written by and for North American women" but that description doesn't apply to all Harlequin Mills & Boon romances.

Harlequin's partner in Turkey is Ekip A.Ş and having taken a look at the website advertising Turkish Harlequins, it seems safe to say that not all of the authors whose works they are publishing are from the US. I can see titles by, among others, Kelly Hunter, Miranda Lee, and Nicola Marsh, all of whom are Australian. In the light of Juliet Flesch's From Australia with Love, which claims that Australian romance authors "speak with a voice that is distinctively Australian" (296), I'd be intrigued to discover whether Turkish women, reading the romances in translation, distinguish between or show a preference for, particular settings, or for authors of a particular nationality.
Drs. Joanna Gregson, Pacific Lutheran University, and Jennifer Lois, Western Washington University Craft and Career: the Gendered Culture of Romance Writers

Employing an ethnographic methodology that involves field work, observation and interviews, Gregson and Lois are amassing data that they will then study to uncover the ways “writers construct romance, gender, and sexuality through their writing as well as how they experience their careers as women in ‘the most popular, least respected literary genre’ (Regis 2003: xi). This topic is one facet of their larger study, which Drs. Gregson and Lois position as the first social-scientific study of romance writers. “The primary objective of our research will be filling this gap in the scholarly literature by giving writers’ experiences the systematic, social-scientific attention they warrant.”
  • Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, Western Australia: Curtin U Books, 2004.
  • Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Novelty or New Packaging?

Over at Dear Author Sunita's got a post up in which she contests the idea that Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower gave "birth to the romance genre." The post is, in a way, a follow-up to a post by Jessica at Read React Review but Sunita takes the novel as a case study in how changes in the publishing industry affect which novels reach the book-buying public, and the formats in which we read them. Sunita mentions (but does not quote) Janice Radway's analysis of the changes in the publishing industry at the time of The Flame and the Flower's publication, so I thought I'd include part of it here:
A paperback original, The Flame and the Flower was given all the publicity, advertising, and promotion usually reserved for proven bestsellers. Such originals had been issued continuously in small quantities throughout the early years of mass-market history, but concentration on them was not widespread for the simple reason that it cost more to pay out an advance to an author and to advertise an unknown book than to buy reprint rights to an already moderately successful hardback. Avon, however, under the direction of Peter Meyer, had begun to experiment with originals and different advertising campaigns in the mid-1960s. When Coffey agreed to publish The Flame and the Flower without previous hardcover exposure, she was simply following a practice that had become fairly common within her firm. The house's extraordinary success with Woodiwiss's novel soon caused industry-wide reconsideration of the possibilities of paperback originals as potential bestsellers. (34)
Sunita concludes that as far as the content of The Flame and the Flower was concerned, it "didn’t really break new ground, but it put together a winning combination of proven ingredients" and that reminded me of a description in Meljean Brook's In Sheep's Clothing of the difference it makes to have been changed from a human into a werewolf:
"I heal faster now [...] it was harder to fight myself when I wanted something. [...] And I didn’t want to accidentally hurt anyone.”

“But now?”

“I learned to control it better. And the more I let it—the wolf—out, the more control I have when I’m human.”
Becoming a werewolf isn't depicted as being an inherently bad thing. Indeed, the truly shocking character in this short story isn't the werewolf; it's a human serial murderer who rapes his victims before strangling them.

The transformation from human to werewolf, however, seems to enhance the powers and impulses the individual already possessed. I think one might perhaps be able to say the same about the paranormal romance genre itself. It builds on existing tendencies and plots which existed in the romance genre but makes them more intense: a vampire hero can be much, much older and richer and stronger than a human heroine, demons can be even more tortured and angst-filled than rakes, happily-ever-afters can be exactly that if the protagonists are immortal. And, of course, the frequent animal metaphors, which express the hero's physical power, his undomesticated nature, and his sexuality, can be given physical form in the werewolf.

  • Brook, Meljean. In Sheep's Clothing. [Available free online from Brook's website.]
  • Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Paper Topics, part 2

Eric again!

A few days ago I posted the first round of paper topics for ENG 386, my current course on popular romance fiction. Those topics focused on our first two novels, Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation and Victoria Dahl's Talk Me Down. The second round of paper topics focused on the next three novels in the mix, each of which dealt in some way with the relationships between romance and religion. (No, we didn't read Frye's The Secular Scripture. One of these days.)

My other concern with these topics, as you'll see, was to make sure that my students did some close textual analysis. A number of the first set of papers found it hard to work closely with the works they chose, as though it were difficult for students to bring their usual novel-reading skills to bear on a popular text. Easier--all too easy--to paint characters or scenes in broad strokes, but in so doing, students often wrote papers without the nuance or insight that they clearly are capable of in other contexts.

Anyway, here are the topics.
1. In class, we spent some time discussing the epigraphs in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love: those brief quotations from Shakespeare, the Bible, various poets, and other sources that open the book and then each chapter in it. Why are these there? What uses do they serve? Choose three of these epigraphs and write an essay about the relevance or importance of that epigraph to the chapter that it opens, or to how we read the book as a whole. Please note that to do this, you may need to look up the original context of the quoted passage, or think about its author and source.

2. One of the most striking passages in Redeeming Love comes at the end of chapter 30, when Sarah has a dream / vision and finally finds faith. Write an essay that gives a “close reading” of this passage, attending both to the details of her dream and to their sequence: what happens first, second, third, and last. What meanings and implications—about her character, about theology, about her relationship with Michael, or about the romance novel itself—can you tease out of those details? How successful is this passage emotionally and / or aesthetically, and why?

3) As we discussed in class, the world of False Colors is filled with violence and dehumanization: bodies and souls that are wounded, tortured, killed, or stunted by lack of love. There are many ways that we can understand all this violence, for example politically, as an expression of what patriarchy does to bodies, both female and male, philosophically, as a denial of victims’ humanity, psychologically, as an expression of repressed sexual desires, or even theologically, as an expression of fallen human cruelty, as opposed to divine grace or love. Write an essay on the novel that explores violence and its opposite—love and tenderness—from at least one of these perspectives. Be sure to focus, at least in part, on the final chapters of the novel, in which we see forgiveness, love, and sexual pleasure in action. Be sure to discuss passages in detail, attending to language and imagery, rather than simply discussing plot twists.

4) In a recent set of comments at the Teach Me Tonight blog (following the post "Are You a Ruthless Woman?"), a commenter named Angel observed that “there's discussion in fandom about how slash fiction written by women often focuses more on penis-in-anus penetrative sex, forgetting that gay men have a variety of sexual practices, and that some men simply don't like anal. I think maybe that's a byproduct of the cultural messages surrounding penis-in-vagina sex.” For this paper, go and read the comment thread (following useful links as necessary), and then bring the ideas from it about the symbolic meanings attached to various sexual practices to bear on ONE of the following topics:
  • the sequencing of sex scenes in False Colors, with particular attention to the final chapter; OR
  • the variety of sex scenes, sexual practices, and sexual orientations on display in Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander; OR
  • a comparison and contrast of the two novels.
Remember, if you choose this topic, that you’re not simply trying to find and list the scenes themselves. Rather, you’re trying to use ideas from the comment thread to interpret the scenes and their importance in the novels, teasing out the symbolic (or other) implications of them. Feel free to disagree with the ideas you find in your on-line reading, and to bring up alternative sources or interpretations as needed.

5) As we saw in class, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander quotes, cites, and echoes a variety of precursors, including material from Shakespeare, the Bible, and Jane Austen (among others). Choose a small number of these earlier texts—a single allusion, the various sonnets, the closing Biblical passage from Proverbs—and write an essay on its importance to the scene in which it appears and / or to the novel as a whole. You may need to think about both the cited / quoted material itself, and about the cultural reputation of the source.

6) One of the structural features we have noticed about popular romance novels—it may show up in other genres as well—is the deployment of repetition and variation. Scenes and motifs, phrases or images recur, and the differences between the first and second (or even third) iterations of the material can be used to mark the evolution of a character, a relationship, or an idea in the text. Choose ONE of our three most recent novels where you notice a repeated / variety scene or motif, and write an essay on how the author uses repetition and variation in this artful way. What does she dramatize or enact for us, as readers, through her use of this device?