Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thoughts Inspired by the Conference: Race, Money and Medievalism

I was pleased to see that romance author Diane Gaston felt that Laurie Kahn's documentary is "the most respectful depiction of the romance genre that I’ve ever seen." The conference at the Library of Congress was clearly a very positive and thought-provoking experience for many attendees. Eric posted the following note to the Romance Scholar listserve:
At the recent Library of Congress symposium some questions came up about the history of African American popular romance fiction, and after the conference, Kathleen Gilles Seidel passed along a memory that Pam Regis thought worth getting out into the record:  a “footnote,” as she called it, to the history that’s been discussed elsewhere.
In 1982 when Vivian Stephens, an African-American, was the editor in charge of putting together the new Harlequin American line, she really wanted to feature an book with African-American characters.  She didn’t get an appropriate submission.  So she asked Jackie Weger, a Southern white writer, to take the characters in her book A Strong and Tender Thread and make them black.  Jackie did so, and Vivien intended to make it one of the four launch titles.

During test marketing, the book tested horribly so Harlequin assumed that readers didn’t want books with black characters . . . as opposed to assuming that readers don’t want fake books with  black characters.  So the book was taken out of the first month (and my book was put in – which is why I remember this story so well as it worked out beautifully for me).  It was published in 1983 as Harlequin American Romance #7 during the second month of the series.  It did have very light-skinned African Americans on the cover, and it was the first series romance featuring African Americans released by Harlequin (and possibly any series publisher).  But they didn’t put their best foot forward. 

Personally, I suspect there was indeed a big problem with White "readers [who] didn’t want books with black characters" because, not much later, Harlequin published a romance by a Black author, with Black characters:
Sandra Kitt of New York had written her first Harlequin with black characters in 1984, but after Adam and Eva, "I couldn't get them to accept the other black novels. They said they didn't know anything about the market," she told the Boston Globe. In fact, Harlequin got scads of letters complaining about the book, including one from a Philadelphia woman who said, "Those people should have their own series." (Grescoe 279)
Harlequin was a business and it sounds to me as though their market-research and consumer feedback was telling them loudly, and often in an explicitly racist manner, that romances featuring Black characters didn't appeal to their existing readers and therefore wouldn't sell well.

On the topic of romance as a business, Bobbi Dumas mentions at Kirkus that "Laurie Kahn [...] refers to it as 'a female-powered engine of commerce, a multi-billion dollar business and tech-savvy global sisterhood'" and Elisabeth Lane writes that
a common thread that struck me after watching the documentary film and after attending the conference the next day: the huge economic impact of the romance genre. As a romance reviewer, I typically think of romance in terms of its content: stories, characters, plots, themes. And sometimes in terms of sociological analyses of what we as a society say about the romance genre and what the romance genre says about us. But while I have always known intellectually that romance is a huge business (it’s a fact that gets repeated frequently by romance apologists), I hadn’t really considered its impact on individual women’s finances. During the film and the conference, the theme that romance is a genre “for women, by women, and about women” was repeated at least a half dozen times by various speakers. While in the spirit of inclusiveness, we know that’s not always the case, it is still very much true of the bulk of the romance industry. Not only is the romance industry in general for women, by women, and about women, it is also a business that accrues major economic benefit to women.
You can read more of Lane's thoughts about "Financial Empowerment from Romance" here.

Anne Bornschein, meanwhile, spent some time mulling over comments made by "William Reddy, Professor of History and Cultural Anthropology at Duke, who asserted that contrary to popular belief, modern romance novels do not represent archetypal models of love." She concludes that
although the definition of romantic love that guides popular romance fiction today is not transhistorical, the premodern Western literary tradition has a lot to offer scholars and readers of popular romance in terms of productive lenses through which to view current literary trends.
Here are some areas of correspondence between the premodern and the (post)modern that readily come to mind:
  • alternative models of love, in particular possible slippage from the homosocial bond (i.e., bromance) to the homosexual, including iconic male couples such as Roland and Olivier, or Lancelot and Galehaut, as antecedents to today’s m/m romance
  •  narratives foregrounding cross-dressing, role reversal, and gender performativity in texts such as Aucassin et Nicolette and  Le Roman de Silence
  • Marie de France’s Lais such as Yonec and Bisclavret as medieval forebears to the were- and shapeshifter trends in romance, and more broadly, the medieval Otherworld’s link to fantasy-inflected love stories
  • authorship and readerly community in the Middle Ages: Arthuriana as a medieval form of fanfic in which vast networks of writers contributed translations, reworkings, alternate continuities, continuations, prequels, and paratexts
  • hagiography (saints lives) as a parallel genre associated with discourses of passion (both physical and spiritual), sacrifice, and bodily suffering, with particular emphasis on metaphor
 And the rest of her thoughts on the topic can be found here.

Grescoe, Paul. The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance. Vancouver: Raincoast, 1996.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Eric's Symposium Remarks

--Eric Selinger

Last week the Library of Congress hosted a day-long conference on romance fiction (and related topics) in the digital age.  Along with Len Barot, Beverly Jenkins, Nicole Peeler, and Susan Ostrov Weisser--see above, in the photo by Margaret Locke--I was was on the first panel, which was supposed to focus on the question "What Belongs in the Romance Canon?"  A number of other ancillary questions were posed by the moderator, Pamela Regis, including how broadly defined "romance" and its canon should be.

Each of us on the panel got to make a three-minute opening statement, and I spent a sleepless night trying to decide what I ought to say in my slot, what I should save for the Q and A to follow, and so on.  In the end, here's what I wrote out and said:
The last thing that popular romance needs is a man in a suit explaining--mansplaining--what belongs in the romance canon.
I can tell you who's been on my romance syllabi.  As your program notes, I've taught upwards of thirty courses exclusively devoted to the genre at DePaul, from historical surveys to thematic courses to ten-week seminars on individual romance novels.  But every book and author I've taught is there because of the expertise and enthusiasm of some blogger, reviewer, scholars, reader, librarian, or author who loved that book, put that book on a list, or put that book in my hand, saying "this is awesome, this was influential, this would teach really well; I don't get to teach this class, and you do, so put this in it."
It's worth nothing, I think, that so far every one of those bloggers, reviewers, scholars, readers, authors, and librarians has been a woman.
Now, I don't always end up teaching the particular novel they suggest.  Sarah Frantz Lyons has been after me for years to teach It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and my wife loves Match Me if you Can, but Natural Born Charmer is my jam:  it teaches perfectly, for me.  
This leads me to a second point about the romance canon, one made last spring by a young Australian scholar, Jodi McAlister.  In the romance world, Jodi wrote in a blog post called "Boom Goes the Canon," there are certainly iconic books, authors, publishing lines, but they don't function the way a traditional literary canon does--to establish authority, to separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, the gospel of the lord from Bible fan-fic.  Romance readers, she writes, are quite comfortable with the ideas of subjective pleasure and continent value.  What works for me won't work for you; what works for me might work for some reason other than "objective artistic merit" or some other demonstrable reason for canonicity.
There are, we might say, many fish in the sea, or a lid for every pot:  a lesson from within the novels that romance readers seem able to map onto the literary field of the novels themselves.
The romance community is quite comfortable with what Barbara Herrnstein Smith once called "Contingencies of Value."  And  as a scholar, my inclination is less to weigh in on what belongs in the romance canon, or what the boundaries of that canon should be, then to try to learn what the romance world can teach me about why we ask those questions, and about what's at stake in how we answer them.
In the Q & A that followed, I mentioned Noah Berlatsky's canon piece in Salon and Wendy the SuperLibrarian's response (and the comments from her readers that followed).  But I wanted to take the opportunity of the 3-minute formal address to do something Sunita mentioned in a comment last spring when that whole canon business was getting talked about:  that is, to draw my audience's attention to the women whose expertise I've relied on all these years, rather than pretending to an expertise of my own.  (I do have some expertise of my own, I hope, but it's not about what's in or should be in the romance canon!)  Jodi's piece has been on my mind for nearly a year, and that seemed like the one to flag most immediately--and I figured I would have plenty of chances to plump for particular novels, etc., as soon as the discussion started.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Romance in Influential Places

Eric's promised to post some comments/reflections on the recent conference held at the Library of Congress but in the meantime Margaret Locke's report can be found here and Kiersten Hallie Krum's collection of [all the?] tweets sent from the conference is here. [Edited to add: Jessica Matthews has just tweeted a link to an article about the conference, in the Washington Post. A shorter collection of tweets, featuring pretty much only those sent by Smart Bitch Sarah can be found here.]

Jayashree Kamble has an article in Oklahoma Humanities (the magazine of the Oklahoma Humanities Council): "What's Love Got to Do with It? - In Romance Novels, Everything!" Other articles in the same issue which may be of interest are:

Fount of the Heart -- The Edna Crockett Valentines
The art and heart of exchanging valentines.

     By Nancy Rosin

Matchmaking: The Second-Oldest Profession
A centuries-old tradition.

     By Meghan Laslocky

The Movie Lover's Guide to Kissing
Tips and clips for reel romance.

     By Mary Brodnax

"Pointed Boots Are Just Bad News"
Love lessons from contemporary female poets.

     By Jessica Glover

Last, but not least, at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies Lisa Fletcher is
seeking new submissions for the section focused on any aspect of the teaching and learning of popular romance studies. My editorial in issue 3.2 of the journal, “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Popular Romance Studies: What is it, and why does it matter,” introduces the section as a “trading zone” for the open exchange of ideas, research findings, and tools for enriching the experience of teachers and, most importantly, students in courses which examine the meaning and significance of romantic love in global popular culture. JPRS offers the only peer-reviewed forum devoted to the teaching and learning of popular culture: please feel welcome to email me with suggestions for, or questions about, the section [...]. 

I am interested in theoretical and empirical contributions from all relevant disciplines, as well as interdisciplinary approaches. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:
• Key issues in the teaching and learning of popular romance studies
• The research / teaching nexus and popular romance
• Curriculum design for teaching popular romance
• Practical case studies of teaching key texts and/or topics
• Assessment models for teaching popular romance
• Teaching and learning popular romance in the digital age
• Student responses to studying representations of romantic love
• Popular romance fans as teachers and students
• Postgraduate students and popular romance studies

Articles submitted should be no longer than 10,000 words. Submissions should be Microsoft Word documents, with citations in MLA format. Do not include your name or the name of any co-authors in the submitted manuscript, since the piece will be sent out for blind peer review. In your cover-letter email, please provide your complete contact information (address, phone number, e-mail address) and a 150-200-word abstract of the submission. You are welcome to suggest appropriate peer reviewers. For further information about the submission process consult the journal (http://jprstudies.org/submissions/).

Saturday, February 07, 2015

CFPs: Romance after 9/11, A zine for lovers of romance fiction, Pop Culture in Asia/Australia/Oceania,

Call for Papers--Special Session Proposal for the MLA Convention in Austin, Texas 

Warrior and Lover: The New Face of Romance After 9/11
Nearly fourteen years after 9/11, there is little doubt that the significance of this event goes well beyond its impact on global politics and has influenced cultural production across genres and in a range of contexts. The romance novel is no exception. From the rise of the paranormal, to the new proliferation of sheik novels, to the resurgence of the warrior hero and heroine, the ever-changing landscape of the romance novel reveals a mostly feminine space in which the challenges of the post-9/11 era manifest themselves in both predictable and surprising ways.  

This panel seeks papers that explore the production of romance novels after 9/11 and the resulting variations in the genre brought about by this event. 

To be considered, please send an abstract of 250-300 words (a detailed summary of all papers selected must be included in the final proposal), as well as your name, title, and institutional affiliation to Jessica Matthews at jmatthe2@gmu.edu and Maria Ramos-Garcia at Maria.Ramos@sdstate.edu NO LATER THAN February 15th for full consideration.

Call for submissions: A zine for lovers of romance fiction 

We’re calling for submissions for the first issue of an annual romance fanzine with an as yet undetermined title. [...] People who love romance fiction are invited to submit stuff for inclusion in the zine. We’ll consider any creative work, including: essays (min 250 words); academic findings (written in plain speak); illustrations; personal reflections; photographs; poetry; scanned artwork; original short stories; excerpts of books in progress; and fun, provocative or satirical remixes. [...]

Our aim is to have the zine ready in time for the Australian Romance Readers Conference in March. This is a super tight deadline, so we need your submissions by Saturday, February 7.

More details here.

Call for Contributors: Encyclopedia of Pop Culture in Asia and Australia/Oceania

Entry essays can vary in length, approximately 1000-2000 words and should include a short list of recommended further reading. Entries should be clear, concise, objective, informative, and not heavily footnoted.

The editors welcome and invite contributors to suggest topics that they would like to write on, for consideration and possible inclusion in this volume. We are not limiting our reach and are interested in generating country-specific ideas. [...] We cordially invite interested contributors to help us build the best possible topic list by making suggestions. A list of chosen topics in need of contributors is available on request. All contributors automatically get contributing author credit and free digital access to this encyclopedia. Editors can provide individual invitation letters to contributors upon request. If you are interested in contributing, please email the following information: full name, title, institutional affiliation, best mailing address, email, CV, and suggested entry or entries to both: kmnadeau@me.com and jmurray@csusb.edu

More details here.