Friday, October 24, 2014

Happy Endings: A Children's Literature Perspective

The discussion of happy endings and the romance novel genre continues on the RomanceScholar listserv, and with permission, I'm reposting here something that Amanda Allen, an English professor with a specialty in Children's Literature, contributed to the discussion.  

Amanda writes:
I find this conversation fascinating in terms of the history of YA. I study junior novels, which are predominantly romance novels for young people (1942-1967) that predate canonical young adult literature. The junior novels are heavily dedicated to the HEA, and often end with the exchange of a class ring or pin (suggesting, of course, future marriage). 
What is interesting in terms of this conversation is that the ending of the junior novel genre coincides with the rise of canonical YA (in 1967), and what is known as the "New Realism." Whether or not the New Realism is realistic is... well... debatable, but it is predicated specifically on negating a) romance narratives generally, b) HEAs specifically, and c) the feminized field of early YA. In other words, the New Realism purposely defined itself around anti-romance narratives that focused on gritty (and often depressing) situations that were written predominantly by men (or women whose initials masked their gender--think S.E. Hinton) and aimed at a male audience. 
1967 is thus a key date in the history of young adult literature, but I think it plays a similar role in defining Americans' disdain for the HEA (at least as it relates to YA). 
If people are interested in this version of the history of YA, Michael Cart's From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature may be helpful. It's somewhat outdated now (and a little problematic), but chapter one, "From Sue Barton to the Sixties" and chapter two, "The Sixties and the Rise of Realism" include some great contextual history. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Is "The Fault in Our Stars" a Romance Novel?

Pamela Regis writes with a thought about HEA endings and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. 

Here's another thought regarding definitions.  Green's novel has all of the eight elements that I have identified.  The hero dies.  The heroine has a form of cancer that is very likely to kill her long before she reaches middle age.  
 Yet the story ends with the words of the marriage vow:  "I do" written by the heroine, our first-person narrator, in response to a posthumous question (delivered via a letter) by the hero.  He has said earlier, "I fear oblivion."  But in our hands is the book, in which his beloved immortalizes him.  No oblivion for him.  
 I think this qualifies as an HEA, given the constraints of illness that the hero and heroine operate within.  The usual meaning of happily ever after implies an expanse of time that is unbounded.  Over and over again, The Fault in Our Stars insists on the limited time that we all have, not just those of us with life-threatening illness.  So the "ever after" in this HEA has been achieved, I think. 
 RNA would count it within their definition, I suspect.  RWA's definition would also count it.  The more restrictive "courtship and betrothal of one or more protagonists?"  Yep, I think so.  
 Quite aside from any marketing, branding, or other marketplace issues, it seems to me that, fomally, this is a romance novel. 
What do you think, folks?  At the very least, this would be a wonderful topic for a PCA proposal!  (Tick-tock:  only a dozen days left to submit!)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Romance Events in North Carolina

Just popping in briefly to mention some events planned for North Carolina.

Jackie C. Horne writes that
If you happen to be in the Durham, North Carolina area this coming Monday, October 20, consider stopping by the Duke University campus and joining me and other romance devotees in a conversation about "Women, Fiction, & Popular Perception." I'm honored to have been asked to join historical romance novelist Maya Rodale and professor Rachel Seidman (whose students created the Who Needs Feminism? project) for the inaugural event in Duke's Unsuitable series, a speaker series intended to engage students and members of the wider Durham community in a discussion of women's interests and popular fiction. Duke professors Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois, who both also have flourishing careers as popular romance novelists (DuBois under the pen name Katharine Ashe), will be joining forces to teach a newly developed seminar on the history of the romance novel this coming spring, and hope to open the conversation beyond the classroom through this innovative series.
Then, "Durham County Library will host its second “Fall Into Romance,” a two-day celebration of the romance genre, on Friday, November 7 and Saturday, November 8." On the programme for the Saturday are:

Queer Romance
10:30 a.m., Southwest Regional Library, 3605 Shannon Rd.
Join Sarah Frantz, editor at Riptide Publishing and former President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, for a discussion of the history, conventions and appeal of LGBTQ romances. The only requirement of queer romance is that the main characters be somehow queer: same sex, trans, genderqueer, menage and more. Does this fundamentally affect the story told? Frantz will discuss these issues and hand out free books.

Falling in Love in a Small Town
1 p.m., Southwest Regional Library
Join USA Today bestselling author Farrah Rochon for a discussion of romance, small towns and south Louisiana. Farrah is the author of over twenty romance novels and novellas, including I’ll Catch You, which was nominated for the prestigious RITA Award, and A Forever Kind of Love, a RT Book Review Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee. Her newest book, Forever’s Promise, continues her Bayou Dreams series in small-town Louisiana.

The Suspense of Romance and the Romance of Suspense
2:15 p.m., Southwest Regional Library
Join New York Times bestselling author Carla Neggers for a discussion of mystery, suspense and romance. Carla is the author of more than 60 novels that have sold in over 30 countries. RT Book Reviews called That Night on Thistle Lane “emotionally charged,” and Library Journal called Saint’s Gate, “A fast-paced, action-packed tale.”

Five Things in Life I have Learned Through Writing
3:30 p.m., Southwest Regional Library
Join New York Times bestselling author Cathy Maxwell for a discussion of life, writing, reading and romance. Maxwell is the author of over 30 romance novels and novellas and is known for her sensual love stories, realistic, engaging characters, and rich detail. Library Journal has called her books, “fresh, unique.” Her September release, The Groom Says Yes, is the final book in her Brides of Wishmore series.

More details here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Noted with Interest: "Optimistic Ending"?

--Eric Selinger

A recent post by novelist Edmond Manning at the Queer Romance Month site, "Make Room for Happily Never After," sparked a lot of comments about the genre designation appropriate for love stories without an HEA / HFN ending.  (Addendum: this follow-up post by Alexis Hall at All About Romance is well worth reading, and I'll post about that one later.)

I'm not going to try and summarize the debate that played out in the comments section and on Twitter.  My interest is in the ways that the RWA definition of the romance genre was deployed in the post and what followed.  Specifically, I'm beginning to wonder whether the way that the RWA describes the romance novel's ending isn't, itself, somewhat problematic, although I'm not sure whether that's because it's disingenuous or just plain fuzzy.

As readers of this blog probably know, the RWA definition of the romance genre reads like this:
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.  
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel. 
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. 
The first sentence of this definition does not explicitly state that the ending of the novel will feature the protagonists together and in love with each other.  However, the second, ancillary sentence, which spells out what an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" means, does say that "the lovers" will end the novel in possession of "unconditional love," and we might well assume that this means "love for each other" rather than, say, "love for and being loved by somebody else down the line, with lots of romantic memories of the transformative experience that made it all possible."

I've often thought that the interestingly fuzzy thing about this definition was the notion that a love that comes to you as a "reward" can really be described as "unconditional." In the Queer Romance post, however, it was the bit about an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" that came into play.  One comment agreeing with and defending the post observed that "Not even the modern definition specifies a HEA. An (and I’m quoting the RWA) 'emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending' leaves the door wide open." Another concurred, saying that "you could argue that an ending could be happy even if it involves a couple separating but valuing their time together. This doesn’t actually contravene the standard RWA definition which requires only that a genre romance centralise a love story and that its ending be optimistic."

Needless to say, not all of those who left comments felt this way.  "If *I* read a book that self-identified as genre romance with an ending that had the central 'couple separating but valuing their time together,'" one observed, "I would throw that book at the wall, rant on Twitter, Amazon, Goodreads and any other outlet I could find that this book was NOT a romance novel. I’d never trust that author again."  It's worth noting that this comment went on to insist on the "context" of that phrase about an "optimistic ending" in the RWA's definition.  "I don’t believe that “optimistic” is intended to mean optimistic about the fate of one or more of the characters," the reply continues.  "I’ve always read it to mean that the reader is meant to leave the book feeling optimistic about the fate of the central love story. If that’s not part of the definition, than I give up."

As it happens, there's one more bit of context we can bring to the table here.  In her short essay "I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre," Jennifer Crusie, who was on the definition-writing committee, gives us a sketch of the discussions that went into the final wording. Obviously this is just her account, and it's not coming down from Sinai.  But I do find it helpful.

What the RWA was after, Crusie writes, was "something short and punchy that described the genre in all its glory, something that would be easy to remember, something the press couldn’t make fun of."  Much of the discussion seems to have revolved around how to describe the ending of a romance novel.  Here are the key quotes:
  • There were those who insisted that the definition must stipulate a happy ending, and those who pointed out that a lot of great romances didn’t have happy endings, and that it would be a bad idea to frame a romance definition that excluded the book most people cite as the greatest romance of the twentieth century, Gone With the Wind . Oh, we had a high old time debating this one. 
  • ...we go back to the happy ending definition, right? Well, no, because some of the best romances don’t have happy endings, they’re bittersweet.Those who write romances about protagonists who have experienced tragedy during their struggles shouldn’t have to tack on Disney endings to qualify as serious romance novelists. It was at this point in the discussion that people began saying, “Well, when I say ‘happy ending,’ I mean . . .” and it became clear we were going to have to define “happy ending” in the definition. 
  • The discussions on this one pretty much boiled down to “endings that make the reader feel good at the end of the book.” No endings where the protagonists sacrifice for one another and end up noble and alone, no downers with the hero and the heroine wordlessly staring at a cockroach scuttling across the cracked linoleum of their tenement, and definitely no finales with dead protagonists unless they’re ghosts having a terrific time in the afterlife. 
  • I knew we had it when Gone with the Wind and Pride and Prejudice made the cut, and Madame Bovary and Message in a Bottle didn’t.
The stuff in here about Gone with the Wind is particularly fascinating, since it's clearly not a romance if the protagonists have to be together and committed to each other, even informally, at the end.

I also wonder whether the need to write a definition that "the press couldn't make fun of" also played into avoiding "happy ending" terminology; after all, the truly happy ending is often poignant and tremendously complex, tonally speaking.  I think here of what J. R. R. Tolkien says of the happy turn in Fairy Stories:  "It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."

For my money, it makes a lot of sense to have a separate term to distinguish a love-story-that-ends-happily-for-the-relationship from some other kind of love story, whether that other kind is one that ends optimistically for one or more protagonists, but they're not together (as in the Crusie / Mayer collaboration Wild Ride) or one which ends tragically, or just glumly, or whatever.  I generally go with "romance novel" for the first, the successful courtship narrative, with "romance" or "love story" or "romantic fiction" as the broader, more general term.

If you use other terms, or have suggestions, let me know.  And if you want to know why it's important to have separate terms, take a look at the comments on that post above. Some women there said it better than I ever could.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Noted with Excitement: Glitterland as a Christian Romance?

When I wrote the current sketch of my monograph on popular romance fiction earlier last summer, I included plans for a chapter that I call "Redeeming Love."  Here's the paragraph description:
Chapter 3:  Redeeming Love.  Popular romance novels draw on the long post-Christian tradition of thought about romantic love as a source of transcendent meaning, purpose, and value in life: an “erotic faith,” in Robert Polhemus’s phrase, that true love unites sacred and secular desires, erotic and matrimonial relationships, and, fundamentally, body and soul.  Some novels engage with this faith tradition in particularly self-conscious and artful ways, whether by questioning the psychological risks that we run as “erotic faith” shades into idolatry or by asserting the power of “erotic faith” to trump social prejudice (for example, against same-sex love) and intellectual prejudice (for example, against redemptive love as a banal or déclassé ideal).  This chapter will look closely at the ways three romance novels think through ideas about love and erotic faith:  Francine Rivers’s conservative Christian inspirational romance, Redeeming Love; Alex Beecroft’s progressive Christian m/m romance, False Colors; and Alexis Hall’s ostensibly secular m/m novel Glitterland, which invokes Roland Barthes as it struggles to redeem love itself as an ideal. 
I called Glitterland "ostensibly secular" because of the novel's many religious, and specifically Christian, overtones, not least of which is the title of a novel by the narrator / protagonist, Ash:  Through a Glass Darkly.  (That's borrowed from 1 Corinthians 13:12, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known," a verse from the long disquisition on faith, hope, and love (or charity, depending on the translation) that gets quoted at so many weddings.)  

I note with excitement, then, two recent posts at Cooking Up Romance:  "Religion and Romance: a Non-Theoretical Perspective" and "Glitterland Cottage Pie." They're not explicitly theorizing Glitterland as a Christian romance, but they hint at the connection, and there's a lot of thoughtful commentary on religion and romance in the posts themselves and in the comments.  A key quote from the former: 
I don't read romance as a political or religious statement. I read it because I like stories with happy endings about people falling in love. I also don't belong to my church for political or religious reasons. I do it because life, especially life in America in the early 21st century is isolating and selfish and acquisitive and I'd rather not be like that. And so I'm a member of a community that encourages me to be otherwise. I'll be talking more specifically about Glitterland next Thursday and the following Monday, but for now, just know that in Ash I recognized myself in my brokenness and desperation and in Darian, I recognized Christ as I know Him. If I'm honest, I'm unable to process that story any other way. I can tone it down. I can use non-Christian, non-theological terms to express what I thought about it and how I felt about it. I've been doing it for a week, in fact: talking about mental illness, intellectual snobbery and class differences. But that was the intellectual taking over. The gut-level reaction was a relieved sigh: that love and redemption is offered to everyone, even the most messed up and selfish of us. 
There's a lot to be said about all of this, and I can't tell you the joy I felt when I saw this post and found my classroom discussion of the text confirmed by an outside evaluation.  When I write about the novel, and when I teach it next, I'll certainly draw on these posts, and I hope that others will, too.

One question this conjunction raises for me, however:  am I reading a secular book as a Christian romance?  Or is it more that both the blogger, a Christian, and I--not at all a Christian--are reading Christianity as a romance plot:  a not-inevitable though certainly plausible interpretation of Christianity?  Plenty to think about here, and if you need a topic for your next romance essay, please have at it!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Noted with Interest: The Creed of Romance?

At the 2014 IASPR conference, Catherine Roach proposed that there were nine essential claims being made by popular romance novels--or, since her thinking draws primarily on recent novels by American authors, we might say "being made by recent American popular romance novels," allowing the claims to be historicized and treated comparatively.  Obviously her list plays off of Pamela Regis's list of eight essential elements, but as the shift in nouns suggests, these aren't narrative elements, but rather parts of an implicit creed or belief system that underwrites the genre.

In a guest post for another blog, Roach posted her list for comment--but since they're of such potential use for scholars and teachers of the genre, I thought that it might be useful to repost and archive them right here at Teach Me Tonight. She invited comments at the other blog, and I'm sure she'd welcome them here as well; I plan to blog about them individually as the weeks go by.

Here, then, is Catherine Roach's "provisional list" of the "nine central claims made by the romance narrative":

  1. It is hard to be alone. We are social animals. Most people need and want love, of some kind. Amid all the possibilities for love as philia (friendship) and agape (spiritual or selfless love), the culture often holds up eros or romantic partner love as an apex of all that love can be and do.
  2. It is a man’s world. Women generally have less power, fewer choices, and suffer from vulnerability and double standards. They often get stuck looking after men or being overlooked by men.
  3. Romance is a religion of love. Romance entails belief in the power of love as a positive orienting force. Love functions as religion, as that which has ultimate meaning in people’s lives.
  4. Romance involves risk. Love doesn’t always work out. Desire can be a source of personal knowledge and power but also of deception and danger. Romance fiction is the safe, imaginative play space to explore the meaning and shape of this landscape.
  5. Romance requires hard work. Baring the true self, making oneself vulnerable to another is hard. Giving up individuality for coupledom requires sacrifice.
  6. Romance facilitates healing. Partner love leads to maturity. Love heals all wounds. Love conquers all.
  7. Romance leads to great sex, especially for women. Women in romance novels are always sexually satisfied. Romance reading can connect women to their sexuality in positive way.
  8. Romance makes you happy. The problematic version of this claim is that you need to be in a romantic relationship for full happiness. Here, romance fiction can be oppressive if it mandates coupledom for everyone.
  9. Romance levels the playing field for women. The heroine always wins. By the end, she is happy, secure, well loved, sexually satisfied, and set up for a fulfilling life. The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.

It might be useful to compare these nine elements to the claims about love made by romance author and Episcopal priest Amber Belldene in her recent essay "The Secret Sermon in Every Romance Novel." There are some fascinating passages in it, and I'll come back to them in some later posts here; for now, let this serve as the "money quote," in Andrew Sullivan's phrase:
I’m coming to think of each romance novel as a sort of sermon, shining new light onto a familiar truth, deepening our appreciation of it and our ability to live it out in our own lives. Those faithful readers of the trope-heavy category romances remind me of devoted church goers, longing for the comforting ritual of being told again in fresh words their most dear truth–that love heals, or that mistakes can be redeemed, that an ugly duckling is secretly a lovable swan, just as a seasoned preacher will tell you everyone needs to hear God loves them every Sunday.
In her mind, romance authors are "all preaching. Not the Christian gospel, or the Buddha’s four noble truths, but Romance with a capital R."

More on this, and other thoughts, anon.

Friday, October 10, 2014

New Managing Editor for JPRS

--Eric Murphy Selinger

Although the next issue won't be out for a couple of weeks, the Journal of Popular Romance Studies is pleased to announce that it has a new Managing Editor!

Erin Young is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at SUNY Empire State College, and a familiar name in popular romance scholarship.  Since filing her dissertation, "Corporate Heroines and Utopian Individualism: A Study of the Romance Novel in Global Capitalism," in 2010, she has published on "'Escaping the “Time Bind”: Negotiations of Love and Work in Jayne Ann Krentz's “Corporate Romances”' (Journal of American Culture 33.2, 2010: 92–106) and "Flexible Heroines, Flexible Narratives: The Werewolf Romances of Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn." (Extrapolation: A Journal Of Science Fiction And Fantasy 52.2, 2011: 204-226), and she has spoken at recent PCA Romance Area panels, at ACLA, and at the IASPR conference.

As Executive Editor of JPRS, I want to thank the many scholars who applied for this position.  We were tremendously gratified by the responses our post received, and delighted at how many people we had not met before who were applying.  We hope we'll continue to live up to that interest in the years ahead.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Miss New Orleans? Never! (PCA Call for Papers)

There's just one month left to get your proposals in for the PCA/ACA 2015 National Conference Romance area!  The conference will be held in New Orleans, April 1-4, 2015.  Don't learn what it means to miss New Orleans--put in your proposal and visit, instead!

Here's the official Call for Papers--please feel free to share it and spread the word.

Call For Papers: Romance Area

Deadline for submission:  November 1, 2014

The discourse of romantic love permeates popular culture.  The Romance area includes papers on love, romance, and relationships, in real life and as represented in any medium, now and in the past.  From ad campaigns to Supreme Court decisions, Dan Savage to Sweet Savage Love, K-Pop to qawwali:  if it’s about love, it’s a welcome topic at the PCA Romance area.

We will consider proposals for individual papers, sessions organized around a theme, and special panels. Sessions are scheduled in 90-minute slots, typically with four 15-minute papers or speakers per standard session, with the remaining time available for discussion.

If you are involved in the creative industry of popular romance and are interested in speaking on your own work or on developments in popular romance culture, please contact us!

Some possible topics include:
Love and Romance in New Orleans:  Vampire romances, The Big Easy, Nora Roberts’ Midnight Bayou, etc.
Love, Globally:  local traditions, transnational media, adaptation and translation issues
Romantic love in political discourse (e.g., marriage equality cases and campaigns)
Virginity, Dating, Marriage, Adultery, Divorce, Hooking Up, FWBs: advice texts and media representations
Queering the Romance: LGBT romance, Kink in romance, Polyamory, Asexuality, etc.
Romance High and Low (i.e., texts that remix or blur distinctions between “high” and “low” culture, like the Lizzie Bennet Diaries)
Love Theory / Romance Practice:  theoretical approaches to love and romance, and popular romance as a place where love is theorized
Romancing the Marketplace: romantic love in advertising, marketing, and consumer culture
Romance bloggers and readers:  scholars, critics, and communities IRL and online
Young Adult, Paranormal, and other emerging genres of romance fiction
Individual Creative Producers or Texts of Popular Romance (novels, authors, film, directors, writers, songwriters, actors, composers, dancers, etc.)
As we do every year, the Romance area will meet in a special Open Forum to discuss upcoming conferences, work in progress, and the future of the field of Popular Romance Studies.  All are welcome to attend.

Presenters are encouraged to make use of the array of romance scholarship resources online, including the romance bibliography, the RomanceScholar listserv, and the  peer-reviewed articles and interviews published in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

Submit a one-page (200-300 words) proposal or abstract by November 1, 2014, to the PCA/ACA conference database.  Directions for submission can be found here.

Please feel free to forward, cross-post, or link to this call for papers.

If you have any questions as all, please contact the area chair:

Eric Selinger
Professor of English
DePaul University