Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Command Performance: Lessons Learned

This is a Tribute to An Goris and, since I'm not on Twitter, my attempt to retweet this, from Sarah Frantz: Huge congratulations to now Dr. for her successful defense of her dissertation on Nora Roberts' books!!!!! Woohoo!!!

Having gained the Key of Knowledge, I hope you'll Savor the Moment, An!

Disclaimer: the misuse of the NR seal should not be taken as an indication that Nora Roberts has begun awarding doctorates.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Romance, Readers, Affect

During my lecture at McDaniel, I returned to Susan Quilliam’s polemic and asked about the place of romance in therapy, therapy in romance. As a literary theorist, there are aspects of Quilliam’s work that I want to agree with, namely that romance – like any literary text – has an affective power. We are moved to laughter, to tears, to joy, to sadness, to pleasure by the texts we read. Dina Georgis, though not writing about romance novels, writes: "By awakening us to loss, literature incites our weeping" ("Hearing the better Story" 171). But, to recognise this affective power and possibility is to also recognise that Quilliam asserts, romances teach readers to have sex without condoms. Where Quilliam and I depart is about the role romance can and does have in the lives of readers and writers.
We are reminded often enough about the dangers of romance fiction. Jean Lush and Pam Vredevelt’s Women and Stress: Practical Ways to Manage Tension provides a telling example:
When I was writing my first book, Emotional Phases of a Woman's Life, I decided to investigate the reading material women were buying. I called bookstores and secondhand shops that handled thousands of paperbacks. One morning, in a used-book store, I witnessed a woman bringing in a huge sack of romantic novels to exchange for dozens more. I asked her why she read so many of these books, and she said, "I love romance. It's my escape from a humdrum life, I guess." [...]
Why is there such a colossal market for romantic paperbacks? Some would say this is one positive way women can stimulate their love life. However, many romance novel readers admit to being addicted to these books. They express a desire to break the habit because it robs them of time for other healthy involvements.
I think these books serve as a substitute for reality for some women who do not feel romantically fulfilled, but I question the benefits of getting lost in fiction. If anything, this habit may stir up unrealistic expectations and make them feel less satisfied with life as it is. (81)
I am willing to recognize, as I did in my lecture, that there are probably "extreme readers" for whom the romance novel is genuinely an addiction, but these readers are "extreme." As for "escap[ing] from a humdrum life," I'd imagine that many of us read fiction to "escape" our daily lives. Orhan Pamuk opens The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist with these words:
Novels are second lives. Like the dreams that the French poet Gérard de Nerval speaks of, novels reveal the colors and complexities of our lives and are full of people, faces, and objects we feel we recognize. Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing. At such times, we feel that the fictional world we encounter and enjoy is more real that the real world itself. (3)
Of course this could become a problem, a problem that leads Don Quixote to fight windmills in search of Dulcinea, a problem that leads Madame Bovary to be lost in romantic fantasy. But is this genuinely the "norm" and if it is the "norm" is it so extreme that it requires an intervention? For Donna Patrow, this is a reason for concern:
her inclination toward soap opera addiction will undoubtedly compromise her mental purity. [...] With that type of lifestyle, she's inclined to attract the wrong sort of friends - friends who drag her down rather than challenge her to grow mentally and spiritually. Maybe her soap opera buddies will introduce her to racy romance novels, and she'll become addicted to those, as well (see 2 Cor. 12:20; 2 Thess. 3:11). This can lead to a type of emotional adultery that is extremely destructive to your love life. (105-106)
Romance fiction, like soap operas, may very well be dangerous but this presumes that all readers of romance fiction will become "addicted" to a point where the addiction is debilitating and interferes with daily life to such a degree that some radical change is needed. Such a perspective is, to my mind, the most dystopian reading of romantic fiction (at least on the critic’s part). Surely, there is a way in which the critic can imagine a more utopian outcome for romantic fiction.
In my paper, I argued that indeed romantic fiction could serve more utopian ends. The argument that I am interested in is about what romantic fiction can teach its readers. If romantic fiction is powerful enough to teach readers not to use condoms, it surely too must be endowed with a similar power to teach readers about what an ideal relation might look like. I am not arguing that all relations will be ideal and everything will work out perfectly, indeed, I don't think many romance novels advocate this either. Pamela Regis’s eight components of a romance novel don't begin with perfection and then outline another seven perfect steps. The romance novel includes: conflict, points of ritual death, barriers. What romance does differently than lived romances is that it guarantees a happily ever after, but that happily ever after is only possible because the relation is itself a journey in which the reader and the heroine encounter barriers to the relationship, conflicts intrinsic to the relationship (which often enough reflect very real conflicts that can translate to the reader’s own life), and points of ritual death. The point of romance fiction, I argued, is less the happily ever after (though we demand this) and more the journey towards the happily ever after.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Modernism and the Women's Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925

Dr. Martin Hipsky's Modernism and the Women's Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925, recently published by Ohio University Press, has been described as "a must-read rethink of modernism itself." I asked Marty if he'd like to visit Teach Me Tonight to tell us a bit more about his new book, and he agreed. I should note that although he describes it as a "study of the history of the modern romance novel," his focus on such an early period in the history of "the modern romance novel" does mean that some of the popular romances he studies (including Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan and Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks) would not be classified as romances according to the RWA definition, although many others would.

Martin Hipsky
Ohio Wesleyan University

As a scholar of British and Irish literary modernism, I first became interested in the romance novel of the fin de siècle and early twentieth century when I was writing about the London avant-garde and Wyndham Lewis's journal Blast (1914-15). Lewis's fiery cultural manifestos (co-signed by Ezra Pound) featured the name of celebrity romance-writer Marie Corelli, whom they took to be a totem of Edwardian popular culture, and a sort of demotic figure for cultural tendencies that they, as a self-proclaimed vanguard, were rebelling against. I discovered that (as readers of this blog may know) Corelli had been publishing best-selling mystical romances since the mid-1880s, and in 1895, with her blockbuster romance The Sorrows of Satan, had sold the most copies of any novel in the history of Britain to that point.

So I read some of Corelli's romances, and she became the inspiration of a research project: to investigate the most successful romance novels written by women in the same years that witnessed the emergence of what we now call high modernist culture, and to consider the relationship -- as perceived then, but more importantly as legible now, with the benefit of historical hindsight -- between this ultra-popular mode and the experimental narratives of such canonical figures as Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.

My study offers interpretations of eleven top-selling books, all women-authored romances, in the years around the turn of the British twentieth century. This set of romances includes works by Mary Ward ("Mrs. Humphry Ward"), Marie Corelli, Emma Orczy, Elinor Glyn, Florence Barclay, Victoria Cross, Ethel Dell, and E. M. Hull. For a list of the eleven romances I have chosen as my primary interpretive focus (a limited selection, as most of these eight writers published a number of romances), you can look at the Works Cited list below.

Although I note the occasional condescension that the modernist writers, predictably enough, expressed toward these women romance-writers, that is not the cultural dynamic of interest here. Rather, I argue that certain "high" modernist works, for all their intellectual challenges, nonetheless evinced a powerful force of affect in parallel with the affective appeal popular romances by women. While the parallel was not conscious on either side of the romance/modernism divide, what was conscious on the part of the two sets of writers, in different ways, was the project of creative reaction against the literary realism that was so esteemed by the (mostly male) cultural arbiters of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. This parallel, I argue, has powerful implications about the unfulfilling experience of living amid an often alienating and isolating modernity.

Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, then, is not primarily a celebration of either select high modernist works, or select romance novels of the late-Victorian-to-modernist period. It is instead an attempt to explain the unprecedented (and often forgotten) appeal of that era’s secular, women-authored romance. As I say in the preface to the study, between 1885 and 1925 these romances loomed as a series of pinnacles along the highest plateau of popular British (in most cases, also North American, and indeed global anglophone) reading. For this socio-historical reason and many others (including the pleasures of discovery that these romances can still bring to their readers), I believe that this group of romances constitutes a very important part of recent anglophone literary-cultural history. I hope that the book makes some contribution to our understanding of the vast phenomenon of the woman-authored romance reading of our not-too-distant past.

Works Cited

Barclay, Florence. The Rosary. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1909.

Corelli, Marie. Innocent: Her Fancy and His Fact. New York: A. L. Burton Company, 1914.

_____. The Sorrows of Satan [1895]. Ed. by Peter Keating. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

_____. The Treasure of Heaven.. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1906.

Cross, Victoria [Vivian Cory]. Anna Lombard. New York: Kensington Press, 1901.

Dell, Ethel. The Way of an Eagle [1912]. London: Virago, 1996.

Glyn, Elinor. Three Weeks. London: Duckworth, 1907.

Hull, E. M. The Sheik [1919]. Philadelphia: Pine Street Press, 2001.

Orczy, Baroness [Emmuska]. The Scarlet Pimpernel [1905] “Popular Edition.” London: Greening and Co., 1909.

Ward, Mary Augusta. Lady Rose’s Daughter. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1903.

_____. Robert Elsmere [1888]. Edited by Clyde de L. Ryals. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Approaching Deadline: RWA Academic Research Grant

As Eric Selinger recently reminded members of the RomanceScholar listserv,
The deadline is approaching (Dec. 1, 2011) for you to apply for the Romance Writers of America’s research grant program, which is designed to “support theoretical and substantive academic research about genre romance texts and literacy practices” and to “encourage a well-informed public discourse about genre romance texts and literacy practices.”  You can apply for up to $5000 USD. [...] You’ve probably met or heard of a few of the recent grant recipients, including:
Dr. Heather Schell (2011)—currently in Turkey, studying romance readers
Dr. Joanna Gregson and Dr. Jennifer Lois (2011)—studying the culture of romance writers
Consuela Francis (2010)—studying “Textual Pleasure and Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary African American Romance and Erotica”
Pamela Regis (2010)—working on her history of American romance fiction, 1742-present.

Previous recipients include Catherine Roach (2009), Sarah S. G. Frantz (2008), Stephanie Harzewski (2007), whose book on chick lit came out last year, Jayashree Kamble (2005), and me (2006). [...] The program is open to faculty, independent scholars with established publication records, and dissertation candidates who have completed all course work and qualifying exams.  If you’ve applied in the past, unsuccessfully, I hope you’ll consider taking another shot—and if you’ve already won funding, and brought that work to publication, you can apply again, as long as four years have passed.
The RWA state that
Appropriate fields of specialization include but are not limited to: anthropology, communications, cultural studies, education, English language and literature, gender studies, linguistics, literacy studies, psychology, rhetoric, and sociology. Proposals in interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary studies are welcome. The ultimate goal of proposals should be significant publication in major journals or as a monograph from an academic press. 
The image of Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "The Young Scholar" came from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Barbara Grier 1933-2011

Barbara Grier,
a founder of what once was the world's largest publishing house of literature about gays and lesbians, has died. She was 78. Her partner in life and business, Donna McBride, said [...] "It was her belief that through literature she could make lesbians feel good about themselves and find a happy life" [...]. Most of their titles were romances and mysteries, McBride said. (Kaczor)
As June Thomas writes in Slate's culture blog,
in 1973 she and her partner, Donna McBride, founded Naiad Press, which was one of the first and most successful lesbian publishing houses of the 20th century. Although mostly known for light fiction—there was a template for Naiad books: conflict, romance, and a happy ending—the press also published works by Gertrude Stein and Renee Vivien, as well as occasional nonfiction, notably its most high-profile and successful book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence.
Victoria Brownworth recalls that
There were many complaints about Naiad over the years–that it was just a lesbian version of Harlequin (to which I always responded, “So?”), that the books were always romances with happy endings or mysteries with cozy Agatha Christie endings. But Grier said repeatedly that what she wanted was to reach the lesbians in Middle America who were in the closet and who deserved to have books about their lives, too.
Karin Kallmaker, a romance author who was published by Naiad and who is now Editorial Director of Bella Books, the successor to Naiad, explains the press's importance:
To understand the contribution that Barbara and Donna made to lesbian books one has to be capable of imagining a world that had none. Rather, what lesbian books there were had been hidden, disguised and coded. A lesbian lucky enough to find pulp paperbacks at the bus station featuring a brooding brunette and the sunny blonde on the cover had found lesbians in books, but not lesbian books. With very few, notable exceptions such as Ann Bannon's Beebo Brinker titles, they founds stories about despair and ruin. Those books were read and left behind, because it wasn't safe for most women to be discovered reading them. The reader was left more certain than ever that her life was doomed.
There were no mysteries with lesbian detectives. No romances with happy women choosing lives together. No warriors, no princesses, no heroes (only villains). No literature that could be discussed in polite society. Then, out of a hotbed birthed by the early feminist and gay liberation movements, the Stonewall riots, and the meetings of notable minds who networked by letter because no one could afford phone calls, there was an explosion of lesbian books. In the middle of that explosion, and going on to survive the rigors of publishing the longest, was Naiad. Naiad published poetry, literary works and, thank goodness, popular fiction. Finally, lesbians could see themselves in the books. They saw themselves deserving happiness. Deserving respect. Deserving futures. Deserving to live.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tweets from the New Millennium

Yesterday's "Keynote Address by Professor Mary Bly/NYT Bestselling Author Eloisa James" was live-tweeted from the Popular Romance in the New Millennium conference being held at McDaniel College. There will be more tweets today. If you'd like to follow them, the hashtag being used is , or if you aren't on twitter, you can read them online here.

I thought I'd copy out the relevant bits of yesterday's tweets (authored by Sarah Frantz), to keep them for posterity and in case anyone would like to discuss the keynote address:
Introducing : "Sex acts, social identity, and the state of the field in romance scholarship."

Romance scholarship is in a good state, according to .
"ebook sales make up for lost paper sales" That's ' experience. Describing how the publishing industry (and, obviously, romance publishing industry) is in flux and extreme change.

Squabbling over boundaries of romance is a waste of time. Romance is about the hidden order of the world. Love at heart of maze. Genre is undefinable. Mutable is difficult to write about for romance scholarship.

Quoting romance scholarship article about vampires and how the article doesn't specify pub dates of books = bad scholarship. Paranormal rules about "fated mates" has changed. Scholarship has to be specific to pub dates and not make sweeping statements.

Pet peeve of is scholarship that throws around word "patriarchy." Patriarchy is mutable. Scholarship needs to address specific discourses about "patriarchy."

Romance novels' engagement w/ history particularly fraught in relation to historical romance. "My heroes generally have equipment the size of the Hubble telescope." "Bodice rippers" specific term for historical romance novels from 1980s, says . (I'd say 1970s, early 1980s, actually.) "Eroticism is culturally specific and we write sex from our own attitudes and mores. Can't be 'historically accurate.'" Keep two viewpoints: 1. author and voice, and 2. specific cultural moment in which book was written.

. is stunned when romance scholars make arguments about an author w/o looking at website/shooting them email. Bestsellers built from strong emotions. wrote 5th Desperate Duchess book from "bedrock of truth" of worry over husband. "Romances live or die on strong emotions." You're going to find author utterly exposed behind book. That's not "cultural."

Rules dictating genre are not necessarily stronger than the specific author's oeuvre. Critics: "Iron-clad grip of genre" trivializes individualism of texts. Standardization does not sacrifice individualism.

compared w/ Gabriel Garcia Marquez by reader, as an insult. also been compared w/ Nicholas Sparks as an insult. But they're both selling really well, so...

Readers create their own novel in the intersection of readers' experience and the novel itself. What author is + does is changing, so it's important for scholars to be in touch w/ authors. [FASCINATING: been slammed for this.] Social media is commodifying the charisma of the author. Before: author's job ended w/ final draft. Not now. On social platforms. Books change according to reader feedback. Characters change over a series b/c of feedback.

Greatest shadow that clings to romance: cultural capital. "Capital enables one to maintain status in heirarchy."  Romance doesn't seem to have very much cultural capital, certainly doesn't have much cultural cache. But it has money. No romance reader will rise in her cultural heirarchy based on what is termed her "addiction."

' Beast based on House from TV show, but Beauty was based on J. Alfred Prufrock. Heroine dying in "chambers of sea." Cultural capital of DUKE OF MINE: based on Princess and Pea fairytale (mattresses and pea). Hero on Asperger's scale.

Teach a vampire book from each of 1988, 1995, 2003 and talk about how the mating rituals change.

Nobody can steal or plagiarize a voice and that's what doesn't change. Wld be interesting to teach students to look for voice.

Question: putting too much weight on romance to focus on cultural capital? : Don't talk about "genre," focus on author.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Teaching Romance

The Popular Romance in the New Millennium conference is taking place at McDaniel College from November 10-11 as a direct result of the Nora Roberts Foundation's decision to give
McDaniel College a $100,000 grant to help advance research and study of romance literature, establish an academic minor in the genre fiction and launch an online creative writing course in romance fiction.
It had been stated that "Pedagogy, the teaching of romance, will be an important focus of the conference" but all the same, when reading the abstracts of the papers to be presented, I was struck by how many are about the teaching of romance fiction and left feeling very hopeful about the future of popular romance studies.

Jung Choi - “‘The Romance’ at Harvard”

Jung Choi "is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and a teaching fellow in the Department of Women’s Studies at Harvard University":
As a graduate teaching fellow at Harvard, I have taught sections of a course called “The Romance,” which examines women’s genre fiction such as the Harlequin and “chick lit,” along with works by Austen, the Brontë sisters, and DuMaurier. Based on my teaching experiences, I would like to explore why teaching romance fiction matters; what we can learn from students’ responses; and how we can address the issues of women, gender, and sexuality while studying the romance.
William Gleason - “Teaching Romance in the Popular American Literature Survey”

Bill Gleason "is Professor of English and Acting Director of American Studies at Princeton University [...], he was also co–convener, with Eric Murphy Selinger, of Love as the Practice of Freedom? Romance Fiction and American Culture, a two–day interdisciplinary conference on romance fiction held at Princeton in April 2009":
I have been teaching “American Best Sellers,” an upper–level undergraduate survey course on American popular writing, since the mid–1990s. Moving from the colonial period to the present, the course examines roughly one text and historical period per week while simultaneously introducing students to a broad range of genres, including the tale of seduction, the sentimental novel, children’s fiction, the western, the detective novel, the adventure series, and (with increasing emphasis in recent syllabi) contemporary romance fiction. In this talk I will discuss the challenges of (and opportunities for) teaching romance as one among many genres in the popular lit survey.
Glinda F. Hall - “Teaching Romance/Teaching Sex: Classroom Challenges and Pedagogical Pursuits”

Glinda Hall "has returned to Arkansas State University as an Instructor in First Year Studies after holding an assistant professor position at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith":
In spring 2010, I taught a senior–level English course titled “Beyond Heaving Bosoms: Women’s Popular Romance Fiction.” My plan was to focus on the history and heritage of popular romance fiction, with particular attention paid to gender dynamics and power structures at work in both the content and the reception of this genre of popular fiction. However, I soon learned that another topic was inescapable, and apparently more relevant to my students: sex. It then became clear that a significant portion of the course needed to address issues of sexuality, especially our culture’s view of women’s sexuality and how these are related to other issues: gender representation, power dynamics, political contexts, and economic realities for our contemporary society. In this presentation, I will discuss the practical exigencies of “teaching sex” in the context of popular romance fiction, as well as the intellectual questions that such pedagogy raises about how we teach and study literature.
Jayashree Kamble - “Romancing the Canon: Teaching ‘Literary’ Texts with Romance”

Jayashree Kamble "earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota’s English department":
Classic literature and genre fiction intersect more often than literary critics and students might realize. Therefore, even though popular romance is unarguably a distinct genre with its own parameters, it can also be taught alongside canonical texts. While courses that focus exclusively on romance fiction can subject the genre to a scrutiny that it both merits and can withstand, courses that combine romance and high literature make a different case for including the genre in the field of literary studies. For instance, pairing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Linda Howard’s Heart of Fire creates room to discuss issues of exoticism in both, while also affording a chance to examine the aesthetics of the Victorian novella and popular romance. Similarly, a course that contains Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Jennifer Crusie’s adaptation of it in Maybe This Time, allows for a discussion on authorial style as well as the signifiers of the horror and romance genres.
Antonia Losano - “Sneaking it in at the end: Introducing Popular Romance into the Small College Classroom”

Antonio Losano "teaches literature and gender studies at Middlebury College in Vermont":
Mounting innovative new courses on popular culture is always challenging, but the endeavor has particular tensions in a small English department at a small Liberal Arts college. If I were to offer a course solely on popular romance, either one of the gateway courses, or a seminal survey, or the Victorian literature course wouldn’t get taught that year (and if English majors can’t get the courses they need to graduate, parents who are spending over $50,000 a year on this education start complaining). My contention, however, is that this constraint can be intensely productive for the study and teaching of popular romance, which need not be lost–it must simply be incorporated.

Instead of being taught in a stand–alone course, romances can and should, I argue, be folded into the fabric of the academic canon. A course just on popular romance runs the risk of isolating and marginalizing the popular romance–as if we were trying to keep it from infecting the Beowulf to Virginia Woolf survey, for example. It has been my strategy to include at least one popular romance novel into the syllabus of each course I teach, encouraging students to realize that the boundaries between romance fiction and “canonical” fiction are more permeable than critics of the former would like. In this conference paper I hope to offer suggestions on ways to engage with the popular romance in academic courses within the context of literary history.
Eric Selinger - “You Teach a Whole Course on Popular Romance? Who? How? Why? Now What?”

Eric Murphy Selinger "is Associate Professor of English at DePaul University":
In the fall of 2005 I taught DePaul University’s first course exclusively devoted to popular romance fiction: a gen–ed survey that ran from E.M. Hull’s The Sheik to the then–new Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. I have since taught over 25 popular romance courses, from undergraduate surveys to graduate seminars, including a 10–week class on Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm; the novels range from inspirational to LGBTQ and erotic romances, and include both category and single–title texts. My talk will discuss the practicalities of classes devoted exclusively to popular romance fiction (course design, assignments and helpful secondary readings, issues in classroom dynamics), as well as the aesthetic and literary–historical questions raised by introducing such courses into a fairly conservative English department, one in which popular romance remains the abjected Other of “literature.”

More details about the presenters, and abstracts of the other papers being presented at the conference, can be found here.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Insights Into the Taste and Manners of a Nation

John Ryley, writing about early nineteenth-century Leeds, commented that
Public amusements, especially those of the Drama are calculated to give us an insight into the taste and manners of a nation; in popular Tragedies, we trace the refinement of the passions; Comedies are often satires on existing follies and fashions of the times; and even Pantomimes generally exhibit caricatures of the frivolities of the day. (61)
Although Ryley focuses on drama, the idea that cultural works in some way respond to, or give insight into, the "taste and manners of a nation" is one that has been widely accepted. Here's what John G. Cawelti had to say about the issue in his Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (1976):
Certain story archetypes particularly fufill man’s needs for enjoyment and escape. [...] But in order for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them. One cannot write a successful adventure story about a social character type that the culture cannot conceive in heroic terms; this is why we have so few adventure stories about plumbers, janitors, or streetsweepers. It is, however, certainly not inconceivable that a culture might emerge which placed a different sort of valuation or interpretation on these tasks, in which case we might expect to see the evolution of adventure story formulas about them. (6)
Now maybe I'm going to be guilty of making some generalisations to go along with the assumptions, but it seems to me that although I have come across some romance heroes who are carpenters and builders, they're usually depicted as small business owners (even if these are one-person businesses). I don't recall having read a romance which featured a hero who worked in a foundry, down a mine, or on an assembly-line. The only janitor hero I've encountered is to be found in LaVyrle Spencer's Then Came Heaven (here's an AAR review which gives an overview of the characters and setting). I suspect this novel is one of the exceptions which proves the rule that romance heroes are generally not employed in the kinds of proletarian jobs which would be celebrated in socialist realist statues of the kind pictured above.1 I'm fairly sure that socialist realist art also has professions that the artists "cannot conceive in heroic terms."

Just out of interest, and because I want an excuse to include the following portrait, has anyone written a novel about a hero who's a tailor? I don't count The Tailor of Gloucester, as the tailor requires the assistance of some very compassionate and hardworking mice, and I'd consider them, rather than the tailor, to be the heroes of that story.

Romance heroines, in contrast to romance heroes, are not infrequently lowly members of the working classes (they may work as waitresses, secretaries, low-paid providers of care to infants and the elderly etc), but rather than setting up a workers' co-operative or joining a union, a downtrodden heroine will generally be freed from exploitation in the labour market by marrying her boss or some other male who will be able to support her and their children in relative comfort. Of course, many heroines do have professional jobs, enjoy their work and continue working after marriage, but they couldn't be romance heroines if they didn't give a higher priority to their romantic relationships and, often, children. In part that's due to the demands of the plot. After all, a romance wouldn't be a romance if the protagonists decided that their idea of "happily ever after" consisted of walking off into the sunset in opposite directions in pursuit of their careers. That applies to both heroes and heroines. However, I suspect the characterisation of heroines also owes quite a bit to social expectations of women, and character traits and behaviours which may be permissible, or even deemed admirable and/or sexy in a hero, may not be seen the same way if demonstrated by a heroine. Abby Green, in a description of her The Spaniard’s Marriage Bargain, writes that she
can’t remember exactly where the idea sprang from originally, but I know that I was thinking something along the lines of: what would be one of the most unforgivable things a woman/mother could do? For me, it would definitely be to walk away from her baby, or child.
Men seem to get away with doing that a lot easier than women in many cases, but for a woman to turn her back on her baby? It’s extremely hard to forgive, after all, women are all hardwired to be the nurturers aren’t they?
Well, of course we all know it’s never as black and white as that.
We may know it's "never as black and white as that" but judging by the characterisations of romance heroes and heroines a double standard does seem to exist around the issue.

It's not just characters who are affected by underlying social assumptions. As Cawelti observed, "for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them." This passage from The Seduction Business (1999) by Charlotte Lamb seems to me to reveal some of the settings "that have appropriate meanings" in romance:
The sound of his voice made her heart sing, but she was still afraid. When he'd begun making love to her in her bedroom the other night she had lost control within seconds; had been going crazy, burning up with desire as he touched her.
She wanted him now, in the cold light of day, in her office, sitting at her desk. It wasn't necessary to have moonlight, or music, or for her to have been drinking wine ... The desire she felt was constant, instinctive, deep. (157, emphasis added)
I think it would be safe to assume that the heroine is listing here some typical components of what might be considered the kind of truly "romantic" setting that is deemed particularly conducive getting a woman in a receptive mood for sexual activity. Phillip Vannini has observed that
Romantic love is one of the defining sentiments of our culture. [...] As production and consumption have expanded, mass communication has been transmitting to the public a visual idea of love as a spectacle. The romanticization of commodities occurs when media portray certain products and services as romantic. A cheap fast-food meal is not romantic, but the consumption of a candle-lit three-course meal at a French restaurant is. [...] Beside self-expression, romance allowed those who had learned to consume it properly to feel liberated from the drudgery of work. This is the image of the "date" as an outing to a restaurant, a movie theater, or a romantic getaway at the seaside or at a luxurious (and romantic) hotel. (171)
Again, I think there tend to be gender-related assumptions about the efficacy of romantic gestures and settings. The romance genre, and ideas about women's sexuality, have moved on since Germaine Greer wrote that "Flowers, little gifts, love-letters, maybe poems to her eyes and hair, candlelit meals on moonlit terraces and muted strings. Nothing hasty, physical [...] Mystery, magic, champagne, ceremony, tenderness, excitement, adoration, reverence – women never have enough of it" (173) but there is perhaps still a lingering impression that women need to be coaxed and wooed into having sexual feelings, or may be very occasionally overwhelmed by immense passion if they meet The One, whereas the common misperception, debunked by Snopes, is that "men think about sex every seven seconds" and, presumably, have no need of romantic music, wine, moonlight etc in order to get in the mood.

The range of personality traits embodied in heroes and heroines, and the aspirational aspect of romance reading, shape the types of settings, characters, and outcomes we tend to find in the genre. Some jobs, some social groups, some settings, are not ones that are seen as socially desirable. They're not aspirational. Ancestral mansions and white picket fences are aspirational, ballgowns and candle-lit dinners are romantic, strong rich men are desirable, virginal-yet-sexy-and-beautiful-yet-not-vain women are aspirational, but men who stack shelves in supermarkets and non-white women are generally not considered aspirational. At least, having read quite a lot of romances, that's the impression I'm left with.

Black heroines can, of course, be found in the African-American romance sub-genre, but they're not at all common in romances aimed at non-African-American readers. I wonder if this is because while black women are expected to be able to identify with a black heroine, and it's thought understandable that a black heroine can represent an ideal for a black woman, it's somehow not expected that a white women would find it easy to think of a black woman as the embodiment of an ideal she should aspire to. I could be wrong about that, but I'm offering it up as a hypothesis. It was certainly the case that in the nineteenth century
people sometimes spoke of civilization as if it were itself a racial trait, inherited by all Anglo-Saxons and other "advanced" white races.
Gender, too, was an essential component of civilization. Indeed, one could identify advanced civilizations by the degree of their sexual differentiation. [...] Civilized women were womanly - delicate, spiritual, dedicated to the home. And civilized white men were the most manly ever evolved - firm of character; self-controlled; protectors of women and children. In contrast, gender differences among savages seemed to be blurred. Savage women were aggressive, carried heavy burdens, and did all sorts of "masculine" hard labor. (Bederman 25)
This stereotype does not seem to have entirely disappeared:
According to essayists in “Critical Studies in Media Communication,” one of the things that reality television producers tend to do is to choose contestants, manipulate situations and use editing to reinforce racial stereotypes.
In an October 2008 issue devoted to the subject, theorist Robin Boylorn argued that black women are recruited and their content edited to conform to images through the history of movies and television. One predominant stereotype is the black woman as “aggressive, loud, rude and pushy. Other negative images include divas, hoochies, weepers, waifs, antagonizers, shrills, welfare queens and freaks.” (Cummings)
1 I haven't done a comprehensive search for art and literature celebrating "plumbers, janitors, or streetsweepers" but I have come across a reference to a work in the American social realist style, which perhaps challenges a few preconceptions about which jobs are heroic:
Cesare Stea's 1939 relief Assembling for a sewage-disposal plant in Queens [...]. It shows four men working together on a length of sewage pipe. Their shirtsleeves are rolled up and their pants are tight, so that their muscular frames are accentuated. [...] Such an image is clearly meant to celebrate the New Deal's emphasis on putting Americans back to work, and its egalitarian rhetoric. (Anreus, Linden & Weinberg 121)
The first image is a cropped version of William Bell Scott's painting, Iron and Coal, which can be seen in its entirety at The Victorian Web. The photo of the "construction and industry statue on the Green Bridge, Vilnius [...] Lithuania" is from Wikimedia Commons, though again, I've done a bit of cropping. The third image is Giovanni Battista Moroni's The Tailor,
The portrait is a late work, probably around 1570, and the most famous of Moroni's portraits [...].
The colourful costume of the tailor is contrasted with the black material marked with chalk lines that he prepares to cut. Most of the sitters in Moroni's later portraits are dressed in black in the Spanish fashion that persisted into the following century. The tailor's head, lit from above to the left, dominates the painting, the eyes, as in the majority of Moroni's portraits, looking directly at the spectator with shrewd appraisal. (National Gallery)
I found this particular photo of the painting at Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Bust Culture: Notes from the Great Recession

But not at Occupy London?
There's no mention at all of romance in this call for papers, but that very absence got me thinking:
In the throes of a double-dip recession and the wake of the Dot-Com crash, we seek proposals for an edited collection tentatively titled Bust Culture: Notes from the Great Recession, with completed essays due in Winter 2012. We are soliciting articles on cultural artifacts from all forms of media (televisual, cinematic, literary, musical, as well as videogames, websites, fine art) that reflect, refract, and/or respond to the recessionary times of the 21st century. Considering that the current economic downturn is ongoing, we hope this collection offers a timely foray into comprehending contemporary “bust culture.” Possible topics include but are not limited to:

* Television (Critical-Realist, Reactionary, Reality: Breaking Bad, Pawn Stars, etc.)
* Films (Up in the Air, Wall St. 2, Larry Crowne, Horrible Bosses, etc.)
* Documentary Responses (Capitalism: A Love Story, Inside Job, etc.)
* Satirical News Sources (The Onion, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, etc.)
* CEO Portraits, Corporate Personhood, and White-Collar Crime
* Informal Economies, Black Markets, Prison Culture, Narcocultura
* Migrant Workers, Immigration, and Outsourcing
* Unions, Union-Busting, and the Legacy of Ronald Reagan
* Neoliberalism (Harvey), “Disaster Capitalism” (Klein), and Tea Party Politics
* “House Hunters” and Other Forms of Wealth Voyeurism
* “Mancession” and Blue-Collar Nostalgia
* Women in the New Economy
* Race and Racism in the Great Recession
* End of the “American Century”
* Bubbles (housing,, gold, energy)
* Financialization, Derivatives, and Computerized Stock Trading
* Cognitive Mappings of Bust Geography and Architecture
* Consumption: Advertising, Shopping, Fashion, and Marketing Trends
* DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Culture
* Religion and Apocalyptic Discourse
* Sports as Big Business

We aim to assemble a diverse collection of academically rigorous pieces accessible to the general public (non-academics are encouraged to submit). For further information, visit and!/BustCulture. Please direct all queries, questions, and submissions to
I doubt we'll be seeing romances titled The Greek Tycoon's Bankrupt Economy, The Billionaire's Tax Avoidance Scheme or The Sheikh's Arab Spring but taking some inspiration from an older Mills & Boon title, I went off to see if there might be some stories or images related to "Bust Culture" which could inspire romance authors.

Have you read any romances recently which "reflect, refract, and/or respond to the recessionary times of the 21st century"? I thought I hadn't, but then I remembered Sarah Mallory's To Catch a Husband ... In this novel the escapist allure of wealth is frankly acknowledged since
Impoverished husband-hunter Kitty Wythenshawe knows what she must achieve by the end of her London season - marriage to a wealthy gentleman will save her mother from a life of drudgery. After all, love doesn't pay the bills. (Back Cover)
This being a historical romance published by Mills & Boon, Kitty ends up with both love and "marriage to a wealthy gentleman" but there is also some exploration of the fact that some accumulate wealth by exploiting others. As Sarah Mallory explains in an author's note:
Kitty and Daniel's story led me to some of the darker aspects of late-eighteenth-century society. The Abolition movement was gaining pace, with Anti-Slavery Societies being set up around the United Kingdom. [...] This was also an age when children were often exploited, but some mill owners were against this - for example Robert Owen, who built the New Lanark Mills in Scotland, introduced the revolutionary idea that children should not be allowed to work in the mills before the age of ten. For the sake of historical accuracy I could not remove children altogether from Daniel's mills, but as a forward-thinking employer he does have schools and nursery buildings for the children of his workers and apprentices.

Kitty and Daniel are a forward-thinking couple, and have very liberal views, but they are based on real characters - people who really did strive to improve the lot of the factory workers, and who fought for the abolition of the slave trade even though it was a risk to their own livelihood. The real heroes of the time.
I wonder if there's any chance we'll see more romances based on these "real heroes of the time" and if, in contemporaries, there might even be some changes among the ranks of those who, in fictional form, are deemed to represent the "real heroes" of our own time.

  • Mallory, Sarah. To Catch a Husband ... Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2011.
The photo of the man holding a banner reading
You can chain me
You can torture me
You can even destroy
This body
But you will never
Imprison my mind - Gandhi
I am the 99%
was taken by David Shankbone at "Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, October 25, Day 40 of Occupy Wall Street" and was downloaded from Flikr under a Creative Commons licence. The photo of the man holding a banner saying "Economic injustice is not beautiful #OccupyWallStreet" was also taken by David Shankbone and was also downloaded from Flikr under a Creative Commons licence.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

CFP: Representing the Body in Culture and Society

In the photo above, a dancer balances en pointe, also supported by crutches (it may be relevant that "The use of pointe shoes and standing on tip-toes regularly cause problems like callosities, soft corns, hallux valgus, metatarsophalangeal degeneration and hammer toes" (Maffulli 163)). Apparently "The use of different devices – crutches, rope, horizontal bars, and harnesses – [...] characterizes Chinouard’s work" (Giuseppe Alizzi). They're certainly in evidence in Compagnie Marie Chouinard's bODY_rEMIX/gOLDBERG_ vARIATIONS. Maili comments on the dancers' use of the "devices" that:
Half of me admires the dance (apart from the skateboard guy), but the other half of me thinks: “Awkward.”
I don’t know how to articulate how I feel about this piece fetishising objects that are usually associated with hospitals or people with disabilities. I think my stance is mostly negative, because it indirectly objectifies people with disabilities. I know the public tends to view people with disabilities as asexual (which annoys me), but for something like this when choreographer Marie Chouinard says she wants to express and sexualise the beauty of objects used by people with disablities? It doesn’t work for me, I think.
Similar issues are raised in Jane's post at Dear Author today about the representations in romance novels of the bodies of characters who depart "from the established Caucasian able-bodied norm." She begins by recounting a discussion with Smart Bitch Sarah about a novel in which Jane felt that the heroine's
disfigurement is largely an accessory and not well integrated into the heroine’s character arc.  I felt that the inclusion of disfigured heroines, even when poorly done, was a step forward.  Sarah disagreed.
The ensuing discussion provides plenty of food for thought and demonstrates that there are romances which could be analysed in response to the following call for papers:
Proteus: A Journal of Ideas seeks submissions for our upcoming issue, “Representing the Body in Culture and Society.” We are soliciting articles and creative works from a wide range of disciplines that reflect upon the issue’s theme. We are particularly interested in work that focuses on the body from a Disability Studies perspective, though submissions from all disciplines are welcome. We are looking for broad theoretical inquiries, individual case studies, and traditional scholarly articles on the subject of the body, as well as theme-related photographs, poetry, and creative writing. Full Essays Due by January 15, 2012.
The image came from the cover of a book.