Thursday, July 26, 2012

Counting Orgasms

In a followup to an earlier article on "sex scripts in romance novels" (Ménard and Cabrera 2011, discussed here), Christine Cabrera and Amy Dana Ménard have now produced some research on orgasms in romance novels.

It should be noted that, once again, they base their conclusions about romance-novel-sex on "books that had won the Romance Writers of America award for
best contemporary single title romance from 1989 to 2009." They acknowledge that as a result "This study was subject to a few limitations, the most obvious being sample size (i.e., 16 books and 91 depictions of orgasm)" and potentially significant differences between contemporary single title romances and
novels from other romantic subgenres (i.e., historical, paranormal, romance/erotica); it is possible that novels from other genres might show greater deviation from the traditional sexual script. This sample included multiple novels from the same authors [...]; therefore, it is possible that results may have been influenced by the biases or preferences of said authors.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the article is the section in which romance-novel-sex is contrasted with real-world-sex:
Studies of the real-world sexual script tend to show that male orgasm is privileged over female orgasm. [...] Sexual behaviour surveys have shown that men are significantly more likely to have experienced an orgasm during their last sexual encounter than women (Richters et al. 2006). These results are contradicted in the present investigation, where the orgasm of female characters was prioritized and female characters experienced significantly more orgasms than male characters. The contrast between the central role of female orgasm in romance novels compared to their more marginalized role in real-world sexual experiences may have several explanations. For instance, romance writers might be creating an idealized, feminist re-imagining of the script to privilege womens’ orgasms over mens’. Or, authors may be producing material designed to give readers an enjoyable vicarious experience (similar to camera angle selection in pornography).
Whatever the reason, the prioritising of female orgasms in these novels would seem to contribute to a positive experience for female readers. However, there are aspects of romance-novel-sex which Cabrera and Ménard suggest may be less positive for certain readers: "Readers are likely to be impacted differently but it is possible that a portion of readers may derive unrealistic expectations or beliefs about their own sexual experiences from these novels."
Analyses of romance novel descriptions show that the orgasms of female characters were likely to be triggered by penile-vaginal intercourse or manual stimulation whereas the orgasms of male characters were almost always the result of penile-vaginal intercourse. This finding reflects the frequency of this behaviour in the general public, where penile-vaginal intercourse is the most commonly-endorsed behaviour in sex surveys (Herbenick et al. 2010; Richters et al. 2006). However, real-world women are unlikely to orgasm from penile-vaginal intercourse alone but also require oral and/or manual stimulation (Richters et al. 2006); this experience is not reflected in romance novels and may lead to false expectations and frustration, if these expectations are applied to real life sexual scenarios.
Another possible source of disappointment for anyone believing that real-world sex should always resemble that depicted in romance novels is the nature of the orgasms:
A large proportion of all orgasms occurred simultaneously for both sexes (45 %). While simultaneous orgasms are idealized in Western culture (Colson et al. 2006; Ellison 2001), many couples may experience difficulty with creating this scenario (Greenberg et al. 2011). Again, this may lead to false expectations and
and although
many women report feeling shame or a sense of inadequacy due to their difficulties with orgasm (Lavie-Ajayi and Joffe 2009) and difficulties with orgasm are the second most-commonly reported problem by American women (Laumann et al. 1999) [...] rapid and frequent orgasms for female characters in romance novels are considered the norm. However, rapid orgasms were never connected with male characters, most of who had significant control of their orgasm and could withhold orgasm for a significant period of time (during which the female character would experience multiple orgasms). Again, this stands in stark contrast to survey data indicating that rapid ejaculation may be a problem for some men.
The lack of variety in method of achieving orgasm and type of orgasm amongst male characters limited our analyses but was also an interesting finding. This result is inconsistent with findings within the sexual behaviours literature, which show that many men experience orgasm from receiving oral and/or manual stimulation from their partners (Herbenick et al. 2010; Richters et al. 2006). The absence of manual and/or oral stimulation of male characters in romance novels exemplifies female sexual passivity and traditional gender roles, suggesting that women may not experience pleasure from stimulating their partner and that the ideal male orgasm occurs though penile-vaginal intercourse.
As a result of this and the finding that
Male characters were frequently described as being responsible for bringing about their partner’s orgasm. This theme was present in 29 % of orgasm descriptions. [...] Far fewer descriptions reflected agentic behaviour on the part of the female character with respect to bringing about her own or her partner’s orgasm; only 3 % of extracts included this theme.
the authors suggest that
Traditional gender roles, i.e., male agency and female passivity, are reinforced within the sexual scripts for orgasm in romance novels. This may lead some readers to experience conflict between their own authentic sexual desires and those mandated by romance novels.
They are aware that they only studied romance novels and not their readers. Their hypotheses regarding the potential impacts of romance novels on certain readers are therefore unsubstantiated and they conclude by observing that areas for future
study might include readers’ introduction to romance novels, novel preferences, and the impact and influence of these novels on their sexual attitudes and behaviours. This would inform the ongoing debate regarding the influence of romance novels, i.e., whether they function to entertain readers, educate them or both.

  • Cabrera, Christine and Amy Dana Ménard. “'She Exploded into a Million Pieces': A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of Orgasms in Contemporary Romance Novels.” Sexuality & Culture, Online First™, 10 July 2012.
  • Ménard, A. Dana and Christine Cabrera. "‘Whatever the Approach, Tab B Still Fits into Slot A’: Twenty Years of Sex Scripts in Romance Novels." Sexuality & Culture, Online First™, 3 April 2011.

The "O" images were all taken by chrisinplymouth and were found at Flickr. They are all used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. The images, from the top row to the bottom (starting at the left and ending at the right of each row) are:
1a 2a 3a 4a 5a 6a 7a 8a 9a
1b 2b 3b 4b 5b 6b 7b 8b 9b
1c 2c 3c 4c 5c 6c 7c 8c 9c
1d 2d 3d 4d 5d 6d 7d 8d 9d
1e 2e 3e 4e 5e 6e 7e 8e 9e
1f 2f 3f 4f 5f 6f 7f 8f 9f
1g 2g 3g 4g 5g 6g 7g 8g 9g
1h 2h 3h 4h 5h 6h 7h 8h 9h

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Links: Librarians, Zombies, Sheihks, and Fifty Shades of Sin

Recently Vassiliki Veros was a member of a reader’s panel at the Australian Library and Information Association's 2012 conference and she's posted her paper at her blog. She's a librarian, but
As a reader, I gave up on accessing my books from my library early on. I bought all my romances from newsagencies, supermarkets, second hand bookstores, bookshops, markets, online and swapping books with friends. As a romance reader I am not unique in this behaviour.
This is because
Libraries have treated romance readers as “the devil” for they maintain a distance from them. We see this in librarians trying to improve the readers choice, cataloguers not valuing the books the readers choose. All this is reflected in the romance readers survey responses that the library is not a provider for their reading needs.

There are a few posts about zombie romance, or "zomrom" over at Undead Studies, including one which asks
Why can’t we love the undead? So many friends push aside the idea of a zombie lover completely (you guys can’t judge me! You read about vampire sex!) [...]
As discussed before [see this post], zombie romance is more romance. Sex never enters the equation. It’s about a relationship of souls (personalities), a coming together of two people.
But still zombies aren’t good enough! The rotting is either done away with completely or can be avoided with medication. The eating of people or brains is the same. So where is the problem? They are undead humans, as are vampires. With rational thought, being capable of emotions, moral agency and free will, why are the undead any less suitable as mates?
Jessica Taylor, author of "And You Can Be My Sheikh: Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels" evidently prefers sheikhs. This summer
The top shelf of my largest bookshelf is stacked two rows deep with romances with titles like One Night with the Sheikh by Penny Jordan and Desert Barbarian by Charlotte Lamb. These books (and a corresponding set of binders full of photocopies from 1920s movie magazines) are the remnants of a research project on romantic Orientalism in the United States in the 1920s and 2000s which is currently on hiatus. [...] But now the blogosphere is in luck. This summer I’ve decided to set myself a lofty task:
Read and review all of my sheikh romances and post the reviews on this very blog twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays. On Wednesdays I’ll post a scan from one of the many articles about how hot Rudolph Valentino is. Is this an overly optimistic schedule for someone who’s also finishing her thesis? I guess we’ll see…
And you can read all about it here. She begins with an extended synopsis of/commentary on E. M. Hull's The Sheik (1), (2), (3) and (4).

With regards to a very much more recent phenomenon in sexually titillating fiction, Remittance Girl suggests that
Fifty Shades of Grey does an interesting dance with the explicit. It revels in the details of the taboo of BDSM while seeming to condemn it. [...] And many, many readers love this. They can masturbate furiously to the scenes played out in the Red Room of Pain, while waiting for the heroine to cure Mr. Grey of his perversions.

 I am reminded of the masses who enjoyed the spectacle of the Salem Witch Trials or denunciations of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. 

"She consorted lewdly with the Devil!" the inquisitor proclaims, partly for the judges but loudly enough to entertain the masses. He lovingly details the proof of her perfidy. The women gasp and feel a quiver between their thighs right before they all scream, "Burn the witch!" [...]

I don't think a large portion of mainstream society has evolved much since then. And for erotica writers, who usually situate themselves firmly in the sex-positive camp, this is very hard to comprehend. We write novels about how erotic experience and the exploration of new sexual territories helps us grow as individuals. For us, sex in a doorway. Very often our themes are about revelation, completion, redemption through experience. Not through shame or rejection or closing down our sexual options.

The photo of "Zombie and Bride of the Zombie" came from Wikimedia Commons and was taken by Sam Pullara, who has made it available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The poster of the film of The Sheik also came from Wikimedia Commons, as did Martin van Maële's "Illustration de La sorcière, de Jules Michelet. 1911" which depicts witches dancing naked.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Love and Religion (John Lennon Edition)

Last week the Popular Romance Project posted a little piece by me about love and religion--or, to be more specific, about love as religion, the religion of romantic love.

We have a Call for Papers on this topic over at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and I hope that you (whoever you are) will spread the word or submit something.  As you'll see from the CFP, "texts from all traditions, media, and periods are welcome," and we have a particular interest in pieces about
  • Sacred love stories retold in popular culture
  • Hymns, love songs, and the porous boundary between them
  • Romantic love as a surrogate or secular religion, and debates over this
  • Crossover texts and figures:  Rumi, the Song of Songs, etc.
  • Representations of interfaith romance
  • Love and religion in popular culture from before the 20th century, and from indigenous and other non-hegemonic religious traditions (Candomblé, Wicca, etc.)
That covers a lot of ground, and if you have a topic in mind, feel free to shoot me a message and ask.

Sometimes the intersection of love and religion involves seeing the beloved as a divine (or quasi-divine) figure--love as worship, or love as idolatry, I suppose--and sometimes it involves seeing something "of God" in the person you love, as Laura mentioned in a comment to one of my earlier posts.

Another way to think about romantic love and religion, though, is less theological than functionalist.  That is, love or marriage could function in someone's life the way religion does:  as a source of meaning and purpose and value; as a structure in which other parts of a life must take their place; as a priority that determines other actions and beliefs, etc.  I think this is part of what Robert Polhemus is getting at in his idea of "erotic faith":  an idea that comes from his book of that title, and one that's been put to good use in the context of popular romance fiction by Catherine Roach, in her essay "Getting a Good Man to Love."

There's no need to invoke divinity at all in this functionalist context, I suspect.  Love (or marriage, or the relationship) could be what you "believe in," even if you're an unshakable atheist in any other context, just as you might "believe in" your country or The Revolution or some other cause.

In the classroom, the functionalist idea of religion is often hard for my students to take in, probably because their sense of what religion is (or isn't) has been so profoundly shaped by conservative evangelical discourse here in the US.  There's a haunting British text, though, that seems to clarify the concept for them in a quick and memorable way:  John Lennon's song "God," from his first solo album, John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band (1970).

The crucial turn in the song comes in the penultimate verse, when Lennon pivots from what sounds like a purely existentialist or individualist credo ("I just believe in me") to something else, which I take as a revision, a clarification, of what he just said--and not, as the folks at Wikipedia have it, a second, separate article of faith.  Take a listen, and you'll see what I mean.  I don't want to give too many spoilers.

It's quite a song.  Maybe we'll publish an essay on it, in that "Love and Religion" issue?  (Hint, hint.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sarah Frantz Reviews and Edits

Sarah Frantz has reviewed Julie Moggan's documentary, Guilty Pleasures, about romance readers, a romance writer and a cover model and she's "angry about this movie [...]. Every time I think about it, I growl. I think Moggan was unforgivably cruel to all of her subjects but especially to the cover model." The complete review is up at Dear Author.

Sarah's now only a guest reviewer at Dear Author because she
left recently [...] to start a new venture: freelance editing. She opened Alphabet Editing, and is also thrilled to be working with Riptide Publishing. She’s already worked with the amazing Rachel Haimowitz on Power Play: Awakening, and is editing O Come, All Ye Kinky, which is exactly what it sounds like: an anthology of short, kinky romances, with 20% of proceedings going to the National Leather Association’s domestic violence initiative (the call for submissions closes August 1). A unique service she offers is BDSM manuscript consultation: if you write BDSM or poly, she can read your manuscript with an eye for physical and psychological realism in your characters and their activities. (from Keziah Hill's introduction to an interview with Sarah)
Alphabet Editing

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is Northrop Frye a Smart Bitch?

July 14, 2012 marks the Centenary of Northrop Frye’s birth. Frye remains, without doubt, one of Canada’s most important literary and cultural critics, standing alongside Linda Hutcheon, J. Edward Chamberlin, Marshall McLuhan, and undoubtedly others. The Centre for Comparative Literature and the Department of English at the University of Toronto will host an international conference in honour of the Centenary (Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth). Originally, I had intended to participate in the conference and present a paper called “Is Northrop Frye a Smart Bitch? Northrop Frye and the Development of Popular Romance Criticism.” Unfortunately, things have changed and I am unable to participate. Thus, I provide here some initial thoughts on Frye and popular romance criticism.

Most students of literature will read aspects of Northrop Frye’s theory of literature, likely taken from Anatomy of Criticism, and almost certainly about “archetypes.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, for instance, offers “The Archetypes of Literature.” Frye, of course, wrote about much more than archetypes. His writings on genre, and romance in particular, remain essential reading.

It could be argued that the most concise and enduring definition of romance comes from Northrop Frye. Frye’s theory of romance is convincing, I believe, because of its malleability and its translation across literary traditions, national traditions, and the erroneous concepts of “high” and “low” literature. Frye’s structuralism and archetypes are useful because they so often lend themselves to literary examples beyond the scope of Frye’s own writing. These, however, are just my opinions; what do other critics think?

In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Fredric Jameson writes, “Frye’s theory of romance […] is the fullest account of the genre.” In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis, “the conventions of romance are very stable; the basic story, as Frye notes, has not changed in the centuries that followed its advent in ancient times.” Corinne Saunders, in her introduction to an anthology on romance, writes, “most influential in developing a grammar of romance has been Northrop Frye.” David Fuller, echoing Saunders, refers to Frye as “one of the most influential critics of the mode.” Likewise, Raymond H. Thompson writes that Frye is “the most influential among theoreticians.” Even in disagreement, critics like Doris Sommer have to admit that “Frye’s observations about masculine and feminine ideals are to the point; they point backward to medieval quest-romance where victory meant fertility, the union of male and female heroes.” Finally, Frye’s observations cut across traditions as Lois Parkinson Zamora recognizes “twentieth-century magical realism is a recent flowering of the more venerable romance tradition that Frye describes.” Indeed, though this is just a brief survey of Frye in criticism, it does seem certain that Frye is essential to romance scholarship.

But what can be said of Northrop Frye and popular romance criticism? Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel is, as we likely know, very much engaging with Frygian thought. Regis takes Frygian ideas about romance and applies them to the popular romance novel. Laura Vivanco’s For Love and Money: The Literary Art of Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance draws heavily on Frye’s early statements on romance.

To provide just one more, and final, example – Northrop Frye and the Smart Bitches. Wendell and Tan have summarized the romance novel as: “boy meets girl. Holy crap, shit happens. Eventually, the boy gets the girl. They live happily ever after.” Though the definition may lack a certain ‘academic prose,’ the definition itself flirts with Frye. Frye writes, “there is a social as well as an individual theme which must be sought in the general atmosphere of reconciliation that makes the final marriage possible.” Wendell and Tan, like Frye, recognize the importance of the concluding moments, the moments when the narrative comes together. Indeed, Pamela Regis notes this as well, “a novel that ends with the hero and heroine not in love, not betrothed, is simply not a romance novel.”

Frye, unfortunately, has fallen out of fashion in the literary academy. Perhaps many have not yet read through Frye’s theory of romance. There is, however, hope. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz remind us in their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction that Northrop Frye was “the great early theorist of ‘Romance’ in the broadest sense.”

From my perspective, the importance of Northrop Frye in popular romance criticism cannot be denied, and perhaps like Fredric Jameson, we must recognize that “any reflection on genre today owes a debt – sometimes an unwilling one – to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism” (and I would add The Secular Scripture).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Quotes About Eros (Things Called Love, 3)

So:  the Eros tradition.  (I'd call it the "erotic" tradition, but that word has more purely sexual overtones now, and there's no reason to assume that there's any more sex involved in this tradition of love than in the companionate tradition.  In fact, arguably there's much less.  But I digress.)

Rather than try to compose my own longish, thoughtful post on the Eros tradition, I thought I'd assemble a bunch of quotes about it from various authors, limiting myself to a few at a time and posting several times on the topic.  That's an easier sort of blogpost to write, since I can steal a few minutes here and there to type things in when I'm too tired to think.  I hope it will be a useful sort of post for readers as well, since it will leave you with some handy passages to use and sources to follow up.

The locus classicus of thought about the Eros tradition, at least for me, is Anne Carson's aphoristic study of eros in love, in writing, and simply in thinking:  Eros the Bittersweet.  I encountered this book late in my dissertation writing, so there's not much in my own book from hers, but it's been very useful for me over the years in the classroom and in some work on popular romance fiction.  (My first PCA talk on romance, for example, was a piece on Emma Holly called "Holly the Bittersweet.")

"It was Sappho who first called eros 'bittersweet,'" Carson's book begins.  "No one who has been in love disputes her.  What does the word mean?" (3).

Now, the "word in question here is "bittersweet," not Eros--she's trying to get at why "a simultaneity of pleasure and pain is at issue" in the experience of Eros, which strikes Sappho in many poems as "an enemy" (4), since "love and hate converge within erotic desire" (9).  Still, a few pages into the book, as she moves into her explanation of this convergence, Carson does give us a handy definition:
The Greek word eros denotes 'want,' 'lack,' 'desire for that which is missing.'  The lover wants what he does not have.  It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is n longer wanting.  This is more than wordplay.  [...]  Plato turns and returns to it.  Four of his dialogues explore what it means to say that desire can only be for what is lacking, not at hand, not at present, not in one's possession nor in one's being.... (10) 
As Carson goes on to point out, the Greek idea of eros doesn't simply apply to interhuman desires; rather, it also applies to the desire to learn, to know, to understand.  "There would seem to be some resemblance," she writes, "between the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing acts in the mind of a thinker" (70).

The American poet and polymath Guy Davenport, in a review of Carson's book, glosses these ideas very nicely.
What's bittersweet is Eros, the god of falling in love (being in love is another matter, involving other, wiser gods).  Gods and states of mind are contiguous in Greek thought; eros is the Greek for that giddy, happy, all too often frustrated conviction that another human being's returned affection and equal longing for you are all that's lacking to make life a perfect happiness. ("Eros, His Intelligence," in The Hunter Gracchus, 137)
It is the kinetics of desire that creates the euphoria of loving and of learning, of being alive.  We are largely ignorant of satisfied desire as the ancient Greeks understood it.  [...]  Satisfied desire is a fulfillment of some kind and as a subject belongs to housekeeping, child rearing, reverie; that is, to the world of order.  Desire and learning are by their nature disorderly, disruptive, agonizing:  bittersweet. (140)
You can probably already see why these ideas were useful to me in thinking about the many forms of "eros" in Holly's erotic romance.  The ideas of lack, of falling in love, of coming to know, and of the deferral of satisfaction (since that would mean the end of eros) all have implications at once for characters in a story and for the experience of reading one.  (Did I mention that we have a Call for Papers on Erotic Romance over at JPRS?  Would love to see some philosophical approaches in the mix.) 

OK, that's all I have time for now.  The last word goes to William Blake, who probably knew a thing or two about Eros and love.

A Question Answered
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

Nice little commentary on the quatrain, by Robert Pinsky, here.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Traditions, Traditions (Things Called Love, 2)

So...traditions of love.

There are several, even within what we lump together as "Western culture," and that multiplicity is a good first thing to recognize, not least so that we can see when authors are talking past each other, or counterpointing one tradition with another.  What are some of these various traditions?  

In the introduction to my first book, What Is It Then Between Us? Traditions of Love in American Poetry, I wrote the following:
Poets such as Sappho and Archilochos first defined the three-part structure of eros:  "lover, beloved, and that which comes between them" (Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, 16).  Such love is essentially a mode of desire, in which the actual beloved is the occasion for and object of the lover's imagination.  For all that it may dream of perfect union--a thought we find in Plato, though not in the poets before him--this version of love demands a certain distance, dodging reciprocity.  It flowers in the fine, frustrated romances of Petrarchism, where the Lady and her poet never squander their attraction in the duties of domestic life or the brief commotion of actual sex.  And, as Freud understood, such love lives under the "law of ambivalence," in which "loved ones are on the one hand an inner possession, an ingredient of our personal ego, but on the other hand are partly strangers, even enemies," simply because of their continued exteriority.   
The poets I have chosen for this book are, by and large, uneasy with this first tradition of love.  They may still invoke it.  (Few traditions have a finer pedigree.)  But they are often drawn to a contrasting, companionate ideal.  This second ideal may date back to ancient times as well, as Jean Hagstrum argues in Esteem Enlivened by Desire: the Couple from Homer to Shakespeare.  It has flourished, however, both as theory and as art, mostly since the English Renaissance.  English Protestant preachers mocked the Petrarchan structure of idealizing, ever-unacted desire.  In its place they offered the delights and cares of marriage, where the lover joins "in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul."  So did English poets such as Spenser, Jonson, Shakespeare, and above all Milton, whose "Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce" I quoted a moment ago.  According to Anthony Low, Milton's hymns to wedded love in Paradise Lost have shaped "a substitute Petrarchism for our time"; and, indeed, modern writers on love often insist that it is, properly speaking, a mode of relationship between two people, married or otherwise, rather than a state of the lover's or poet's mind.  In this tradition of love, the free play of the erotic imagination must answer to the actual beloved in his or her fullest particularity.  The "Other than self / O inconceivable" must become an "O believeable" at last, and the lovers respond to each other with what Ortega y Gasset calls "warm corroboration." 
The split between these two traditions runs deep, and may be irreconcilable.  Proponents of the second form of love, from Milton to Simone de Beauvoir, see the first as idolatrous and inauthentic, a mask for narcissism.   The partisans of Eros, for their part, often see companionate love as a muted, mundane thing, hardly worthy of love's name.  "I'm talking about love, and you're talking about marriage," a colleague once sniffed.  And they say courtly love is dead.  
There's a lot that I've read and learned since then about traditions of love--erotic, companionate, and otherwise--and I'll post about it here.  There's also a whole second set of terms in the book that talks about "idealist" and "realist" traditions, which is actually a rather awkward structure, looking back.  I'll post about those, too.  But this distinction between Eros and Companionate traditions is useful, I think, especially since popular romance fiction tends to draw on both of them.  It will serve to start things off.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Pleasure Reading and Cognitive Work

We’ve had emo-alphas forever. But what we haven’t had is the totally-spelled-out-and-explained-in-words-of-one-syllable emo-alpha, the emo-alpha male who is no longer a mystery. How can he be, when he’s telling you about himself all the time? [...]

Clearly the in-your-face, obvious, wordy explanations of the hero and his angst/pain/redemption work for a lot of readers. They don’t work for me.
And that’s why, henceforth, I’ll nod my head when people rave about the next book with the emo-alpha hero. I know what they’re talking about now, and I know why they like it. But I’ll pass, thanks. I like my authors to leave me some of the emotional and cognitive work. (Sunita at Vacuous Minx)
When I read Jennifer L. Barnes's recent article about "Fiction, Imagination, and Social Cognition" I was reminded of Sunita's insight into the differences between romances which demand a fair amount of "cognitive work" and others in which the characters' emotions are spelled out. Barnes observes that
Zunshine (2006) put forth the theory that fiction is pervasive and appealing because fictional stories feed a ‘‘hungry’’ or ‘‘greedy’’ mechanism for getting inside the minds of others, often referred to as ‘‘Theory of Mind.’’ We watch films and read books, she would contend, because we have a need to process mental states: we want to hear stories about people, imaginary or not, so that we can imagine, think about, and dissect their mental states and relationships. (300)
Barnes suggests that "autism spectrum conditions (ASC),particularly high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome, should be of great interest to researchers exploring the cognitive science of fiction" (301) because they "may provide an ideal test case for many theories of fiction" (301).

It would seem that individuals with ASC are less able to do the kind of "emotional and cognitive work" which Sunita enjoys:
Individuals with ASC were less successful than controls at providing context-specific explanations for characters’ behavior, while they had no such difficulty providing explanations for the events in purely physical stories. (305) 
Individuals with ASC may pay attention to what people say, but sometimes fail to grasp what they mean, and it is unclear whether or not they actually find fictional stories– rife with non-literal utterances and complicated social relationships – to be enjoyable or appealing at all. (307)
Barnes asks:
How many stories in our popular culture hinge on a lie? How many minutes of Grey’s Anatomy or House could a person possibly watch without running into a sarcastic utterance? What would modern fiction look like if every word of dialogue was literally true, if no-one had ulterior motives, if people never attempted to mask what they were feeling, if there were no subtle or complicated social mores? These results seem to support Zunshine (2011)’s claim that consuming fiction not only requires complex theory of mind skills, but that fiction itself bears the indelible stamp of an audience hungry for embedded mental states: he thinks that she thinks that he doesn’t love her, he’s lying to mislead her about his true motivations, and so on. (306)
Perhaps, though, some fiction is particularly successful because it does lay open the truth of the characters' emotions and so the reader does not have to do so much "emotional and cognitive work"? Perhaps it appeals both to those who find such work difficult, and to those who prefer, at least on occasion, to avoid this kind of work and instead find pleasure in other aspects of the text? Perhaps they allow readers, once again, to enjoy the kinds of insights that were previously achieved through the use of a reliable, omniscient narrator?

  • Barnes, Jennifer L. "Fiction, Imagination, and Social Cognition: Insights from Autism." Poetics 40.4 (2012): 299-316.
The images are from Wikimedia Commons. The first is a photo of "Le Penseur at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor" taken by Yair Haklai and the second is a photograph of Erzsébet Korb's Girl's Portrait (Thinker, Contemplation).

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

These Things Called Love (1)

When I was a boy, I was awfully fond of a couple of bits I still quote from the British comedy series Benny Hill.  There's the poetry recitation, where Benny gives a perfect, parodic twist to the end of Edgar A. Guest's folksy poem "It Couldn't Be Done," turning this--

But just buckle in with a bit of a grin
Just take off your coat and go to it.
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That "cannot be done," and you'll do it.

--into this rather more memorable quatrain:
They thought that it could not be done,
Some even said they knew it,
But he faced up to what could not be done...
And he couldn't bloody do it!
A stanza which my children have now heard enough times to say it right with me, though they've never seen the show.

The bit that's on my mind today, though, involves the ditsy actress who mis-emphasizes her lines, turning "What's that in the road ahead?" into "What's that in the road? A head?"  and asking (her eyes on the leading man's trousers), "What is this thing called, love?"

I've been thinking a lot about "this thing called love" recently, in large part thanks to TMT contributor Jonathan Allan.  He sent me an email musing about how the nature of "this thing called love," or at least the thing called "romantic love," seemed  curiously under-explored by popular romance scholarship.  "The popular romance novel, we are told, consists of a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending," he wrote me then (well, in an attachment):
Developed further, the RWA explains that “the main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” and that “the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.” Popular romance scholars often accept this definition of romance. What “unconditional love” and “falling in love” are, however, seems unclear.  [...]  Maybe the challenge that popular romance scholars must confront is the nature of love itself rather than its representation in fiction or film. 
Now, I'm not sure that we "must" do this, any more than science fiction scholars must necessarily confront the nature of science itself, or even of the particular science at play in any given novel.  There's a lot of good scholarship out there now, and still to be done, about any number of topics.  Still, since I came to the study of popular romance from the study of love poetry, I've always thought of it primarily as a subset of the culture of love, rather than as, say, a subset of popular culture or popular fiction.

What I want to do, then, in some upcoming blog posts here, is to post about and / or link to some ideas about "love itself" that currently interest me, and ones that I've found useful over the (many) years I've been thinking about the topic.  No doubt these will end up including posts about some of love's representations outside of popular fiction, since I'm not sure that love exists, really, except as mediated by cultural representations, a topic I'll return to.  Some will be long posts, some just little quotes and ideas to throw into the intellectual rucksack.  We'll see how it goes.

In any case, I hope you'll forgive any wandering off the popular romance path this may entail in the months ahead.  Consider it a summer vacation, of sorts:  one that will return me to our original topic, tanned, fit, and rested, at some point in the future.

More soon, then!

Update: Non-Credit Option for McDaniel Romance Writing Courses

This additional path to these courses was created, in part, in answer to a number of inquires from international students who were finding the credentials authentication process lengthy and cumbersome, and who did not really care if they got credit.  They just wanted to take the courses. 

Here's the update:


We've added a non-credit option for the McDaniel College romance writing courses which begin on August 27. 

From the McDaniel website:

Not interested in receiving graduate credit?
A noncredit version of the program is available for those not wishing to pursue graduate credit.  The noncredit version of the program offers students the exact same program, experience and interaction as the credit version of the program.  Download the noncredit registration form.  Please carefully follow the instructions on the form regarding registration and payment for the noncredit option. Noncredit registration forms can be e-mailed to Ms. Penny Pfeiffer at or faxed to 410-857-2515 (attn:  Penny Pfeiffer).

To enroll as a non-credit student you do not need a bachelor's degree, and international students interested in the program do not need to undertake the authentication of their credentials required of degree-seeking, for-credit students.  

The courses are online and asynchronous--you can attend class at any time, 24/7, from anyplace in the world that has an internet connection. New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Crusie will be teaching the writing courses. She and I will co-teach the first course, Reading the Romance, a craft-driven analysis of the writing technique in ten novels, designed to sharpen your tools for the work in the writing courses that follow.  

Full information here.

I welcome questions about the registration process or about the courses themselves.

Quotes from CFPs: Reading, Pop Culture, Medievalism, Gay Marriage

Reading has had numerous meanings for different people at different times and places. From reading an animal’s tracks, or a street sign, to reading Derrida, the act of reading has referred to a wide range of activities. People have read for practical purposes (for information, for knowledge, or for material gain), for holy ends (the Quran said “Read in the name of your Lord”), for political and social reasons (“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” said Frederick Douglass), for entertainment, etc. In the age of computers, cell phones, and the Internet, traditional notions about the significance of reading, its function, and value seem to be challenged in various ways. (From Cover to Cover: Reading Readers, Ankara, Turkey, November 7 – 9, 2012)

In recent years, popular culture has come to be considered a valid and fruitful point of academic inquiry, helping to infuse more established disciplines, including English studies, with fresh life. Scholars have become increasingly aware of the broader implications of popular culture, which encompasses such diverse media as magazines, books, film, television, comic books/graphic novels, and internet content, for discourses mis/unrepresented or marginalized within the mainstream. (Motley, An English Studies Journal for Diversity)

At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, popular culture finds itself at a crossroads: has the concept been drained of its meaning because of its overwhelming popularity? After the euphoria around the popular, what afterlife can be expected from it? Should we still be discussing the popular as opposed to high and folk culture? (International Conference "Report from the Pop Line: On the Life and Afterlife of Popular": 3-4 December 2012, Lisbon)

Medievalism – the reception and adaptation of the politics, history, art and literature of the Middle Ages – has burgeoned over the past decade, and is now coming of age as a subject of serious academic enquiry. (The Middle Ages in the Modern World, University of St Andrews, UK, 25-28 June, 2013)

the recent debate regarding the defense of marriage and the realities of queer, bisexual, transgender, asexual, same-sex, and nonmonogamous identities and experiences, have sometimes forced a reconceptualization of marriage and at other times uncritically perpetuated a heteronormative model linked to ideals and compulsions toward consumerism, entitlement, and conformity. (Panel titled Critical Representations of Marriage 44th Annual Convention, Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) March 21-24, 2013)