Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Something Old, Something New (Romance Teaching 2/2)

--Eric Selinger

Quick Recap: the "old" is me, the "new" is the set of texts I just finished teaching in a summer romance class.  I blogged about three of those in part 1--Maya Rodale's Dangerous Books for Girls, Laura Florand's The Chocolate Thief, and A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev--and now I'll post about the rest, in the order I taught them.

Book #4: Sherry Thomas, My Beautiful Enemy.  I had heard great things about this novel for months, but hadn't read it, so I put it on my summer syllabus.  It's a historical novel set partly in China and partly in England, and it moves around chronologically between the 1881 and the early 1890s; it's also, as Thomas has said, an homage to the wuxia martial arts fiction and film that the author grew up on, which I take to be an instance of "Romance" (in Northrop Frye's sense) from a non-Western tradition.
  • What Went Well:  I find this a beautiful, haunting novel: one of those romances I keep thinking about long after I've finished it.  We had a great discussion of the heroine, and of what Thomas does (and does not do) with her biracial heritage; we had a great time discussing the hero and contrasting him with those of our first two novels, using and then complicating the "alpha" and "beta" terminology that you find in romance reviews.  The tone and structure of the novel were sharp contrasts as well, so students began to glimpse the variety available within the genre. Wonderful discussion of the novel's allusions to other narratives and texts, especially to the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, which comes up a few times, and to The Heart Sutra, an engraving of which turns out to be central to the plot.  (I'm a sucker for allusions.) One Chinese student offered some great observations about how the novel deals with its paired generic inheritance (wuxia and Western romance fiction); unfortunately, due to medical issues, she was only there for a portion of the discussion, and we didn't really finish it.
  • What Went Less Well:  I'd originally had students order both My Beautiful Enemy and its non-romance prequel, The Hidden Blade. When it became clear that students were falling behind in the reading, I dropped the prequel, but simply knowing there was one threw some students off, and they struggled to see My Beautiful Enemy as a stand-alone text. Others found the novel's structure, which loops around between two time-frames, difficult to follow when reading quickly for class.  None was prepared for our allusion discussion, but that didn't really surprise me.  It's not as though the Heart Sutra is an easy text to think through, no matter the context!
  • What I'd Do Differently Next Time:  I'd really like to teach the pair of novels, as originally planned, and I want to find some way to think through and set up the Buddhist side of the novel more effectively, the way I do with Christian / Biblical contexts for other novels.
5) Alex Beecroft, Blue-Eyed Stranger.  I've been teaching British novelist Alex Beecroft more or less continuously since 2009, when her first novel, the historical m/m romance False Colors, was published.  Blue-Eyed Stranger is one of her new trilogy of contemporary novels, also m/m romances, and like the other two, it deals a lot with issues of difference: in this case, racial difference (one of the heroes is of Sudanese descent; the other is white) and disability (one of the heroes is bipolar). One hero does historical re-enactments of Vikings, the other is a Morris dancer, so the novel offers not only some interesting meditations on history and diversity, but also the chance to learn something about Morris dancing and folk music, as the books before it in the syllabus offered us the chance to learn about wuxia and Bollywood film.
  • What Went Well:  Great discussion of the novel's problematic packaging, which does not offer any image of the black hero, Martin; great discussion of the novel's themes and politics, which students thought stood in sharp contrast with that packaging.  Several students in the class deal with depression or bipolar disorder, and they were fascinated by the text, although one was quite wary until she read that the author was fictionalizing her own experience; several students were fascinated by the differences between how this British novel dealt with race and homosexuality vs. what they'd have expected from an American interracial m/m romance.  Beecroft's blog posts about folk culture were helpful in giving context to the novel and in thinking about the ways the novel might be framing popular romance writing as similar to folk culture practices (rather than commercial / luxury culture practices, as in the Florand novel). We had fun watching YouTube clips of Morris dancing, too.
  • What Went Less Well:  Blue-Eyed Stranger works well both as a love story and as a novel of ideas, a book about historical romance as a genre (albeit refracted through discussions of historical re-enactment, Morris dancing, and folk music sessions).  I put it on the syllabus before Beverly Jenkins's historical novel Captured to set up and give us terms to talk about the Jenkins, but in retrospect, it might have worked better afterwards, since it ended up preempting some of the things students might have said about that book.  
  • What I'd Do Differently Next Time:  In the fall I'm going to teach the first book from Beecroft's new trilogy, Trowchester Blues, and in the winter I'll probably try the third one.  Nothing jumps out at me as a different approach to try for this one, other than perhaps to assemble a better set of audio-visual supplements (dancing and music and Vikings) to show my students.  It might also be interesting to teach all three books together at some point--I've thought about doing that with Victoria Dahl's Talk Me Down, Start Me Up, and Lead Me On, which work well together and would teach well together, too.
6) Beverly Jenkins, Captured.  In the ten years I've been teaching romance, almost every survey class I've done has featured a novel by Beverly Jenkins.  Usually it's been Something Like Love, which was the first novel I read by her, and which teaches beautifully, because a version of what the novel is doing with history (filling us in, revising our sense of the past) takes place within the text itself, as characters use stray bits of knowledge to make things happen in their fictional world.  I tried Captured when it first came out, but then went back to Somethig Like Love; this year I decided to try Captured again, because I was trying to play up the armchair travel settings of my course, and it's a pirate romance set in the Caribbean during the American revolution.
  • What Went Well:  a great discussion of the novel's cover and back-cover copy, which use genre tropes in ways that the novel itself often avoids or varies; good comparison / contrast work in terms of the hero, the heroine, the barriers, and other elements; a very interesting discussion of the romance novel (this particular one and the genre more generally) as alternative historiography. 
  • What Went Less Well:  the cover discussion was fascinating, but when it started again the second day, things began to drag; several extravagant moments in the novel's plot drew skepticism from students, and here (as elsewhere) I found myself wondering whether this novel wouldn't teach better if I had it paired with another pirate romance, so that the particular tropes of that subgenre were more visible as conventions which Jenkins then plays with.
  • What I'd Do Differently Next Time:  Captured is the third Jenkins novel I've taught, and for my students I'd have to say that it taught almost as well as Something Like Love, and better than Topaz.  There are several others I'd like to try--Indigo, which has been re-released as an e-book, and The Taming of Jessie Rose, which has also come back out now--and I'd also like to begin pairing Jenkins's African American historical romances with some of the new voices in that subgenre.  (I'm thinking here especially of Piper Huguley's Migrations of the Heart series, and of the Brightest Day anthology.)  Since the discussion of romance as historiography went so well, I'd like to try assigning my students Hsu-Ming Teo's essay on that topic, from the New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction anthology, even though it focuses on a novel from a different author and time-period, Bertrice Small's The Kadin.  
  • Note to Self:  Try teaching The Kadin sometime alongside Magnificent Century, the Turkish soap opera.  
7) Meljean Brook, Riveted.  Although my students split on many of our novels--some liking the book, some wary or resistant or simply disengaged--there was unanimous enthusiasm for our last novel, the steampunk romance Riveted.  Students loved the world-building, the characters, and the politics of the novel; they were both fascinated by it and emotionally caught up in it.  
  • What Went Well:  great discussion of gender in the novel, especially its construction of masculinity; interesting discussion of disability and sexual politics; the genre-hybridity of the book, which nods to the history and conventions of "scientific romance" (as science fiction used to be called) as well as to the popular romance novel.  
  • What Went Less Well:  nothing, really.  A win all around.
  • What I'd Do Differently Next Time:  I'm teaching this novel in the fall, actually, in a unit on romance and SF/Fantasy.  I'll be teaching it between Alexis Hall's Prosperity , a "queer steampunk western set in a city in the sky," and The Midnight Hunt, a lesbian werewolf romance by L. A. Raand (AKA Len Barot / Radclyffe).  My only concern is that one week might not be enough time to do the book justice, but we'll see how it goes!
That's the lot of them, folks!  Six novels and one work of criticism; of the new books in the group, I'd say two (My Beautiful Enemy and Riveted) are on my list of novels to teach again as soon as I get the chance, and others will likely come round again once I've had the opportunity to test drive some other recent romances, too.  My syllabus had grown a little stagnant since 2009-10, which worked for me as a teacher but not so well for me as a scholar, trying to keep up with the current state of the genre, and my students were beginning to wonder why I would talk about a book from six or seven years ago as a "new" book.  As I try new texts, I'll try to note them here.

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