Monday, February 06, 2023

A snippet of romance history

This is probably not very interesting, but since I came across it, I thought I might as well share, since it provides some insight into romance publishing in the 1970s and (possibly, since this is very outdated) some suggestions about how writing romance can help improve other types of writing. It's the opening paragraphs of

Reid, Joy. 1995. "Developing ESL Writing Materials for Publication or Writing as a Learning Experience." Material Writer's Guide. Ed. Patrica Byrd. New York: Heinle & Heinle Publishers. 64-78.
https://archive.org/details/materialwritersg0000unse/page/64/

My initial experience with book publishing came not with my first ESL [English as a Second Language] composition textbook but rather with two “pristine” romances. I was teaching a continuing education literature course when one of the nontraditional students approached me and suggested that we should write a book together. She was interested in the romance genre, which I had never read. So I read a dozen, and I thought, “Shucks. I could write one of these.” The eventual result was Orchids for Hilary, a manuscript we mailed (under our pseudonym, Shannon Sayer), uninvited, to the top publisher, Harlequin Romances. Three months later we received a letter indicating that Harlequin would accept the manuscript. Because we had visions of a long and lucrative career as romance writers, we began to write a second romance. Several months passed and we heard again from Harlequin; this time we were informed that there had been a change of editors and a change of mind — our heroine was too competent, the letter stated. Depressed, my coauthor dropped out. In some desperation, I investigated Literary Marketplace, the reference book that lists and describes publishers alphabetically. I mailed Orchids to Avalon Books (the first potential publisher I encountered), and then completed Summer of Pearls. Both manuscripts were published; I never saw either galleys or page proofs — the little, Nancy Drew-like hardbacks simply arrived. The wealth and fame I had anticipated evaporated, and I discovered that sitting alone in my living room, without the pleasures of collaboration, trying to think about what my characters were eating and wearing, was really boring work.


In retrospect, my coauthor and I should have sought out an agent to market and negotiate for us; unlike authors in the world of textbooks, most first-time fiction authors work through an agent. In addition, we should have fired off an immediate reply to the new editor’s letter, asking for specifics about how to revise our manuscript in order to fulfill her expectations. But we didn’t know enough about publishing to do that, and so the opportunity passed. Occasionally I receive a small check when one or the other book is translated into Swedish or used by a British soap opera; otherwise the books served only as a learning experience, particularly about my own writing and about the teaching of academic discourse. Writing “recipe” romances, for example, forced me to reexamine my own prose: to eliminate semicolons (successful romance writers do not use them), to embed short strings of descriptive adjectives (difficult for an academic writer), to be alert for “the less I know, the more I write” syndrome, and to recognize my tendency to use multisyllabic words when inspiration (and clear, short vocabulary) evade me. As a result of what I learned about my own prose, I found that in my native English speaker (NES) and ESL classes I was better able to analyze discourse, audience, and genres in ways that made my teaching of the processes and products of academic prose clearer. (64-65)

Orchids for Hilary was published in 1978 and can be found online here. I haven't read it to see what the second Harlequin editor considered to be "too competent."

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Romance and Quantitative Literary Studies

Katherine Bode's review article titled "Why You Can’t Model Away Bias" (2020) is about Ted Underwood's Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (2019). Neither are about romance, but I thought some readers might be intrigued by part of Bode's article which uses romance to rebut one of Underwood's claims:

In chapter 4 Underwood employs a data set derived from HathiTrust to identify a decline in the proportion of English-language fiction by women from around 50 percent of titles in the late nineteenth century to roughly 20 percent by 1970 before a reversion to a bit under half of all titles at the end of the twentieth century. Noting that elite university and public library collections may have simply collected more books by men than by women, Underwood seeks to test whether this bias influenced his results by comparing the proportions of male and female authors in HathiTrust to those in manual samples from four years of Publishers Weekly listings. Because the Publishers Weekly samples indicate an even more dramatic fall in women’s writing, Underwood claims that the comparison “addresses . . . doubts” about “how well . . . those collections represent the wider world of fiction” (135). While Publishers Weekly incorporates a great deal of popular fiction that does not figure in academic collections, it indexes almost no titles by even the most prominent and prolific popular romance fiction publisher of the twentieth century, Mills and Boon. Women authors predominate in this genre, and its heyday—the 1950s to the 1970s—corresponds with the most dramatic decline in the proportional representation of women authors and characters in Underwood’s results.

To explore how much the exclusion of romance fiction may have influenced his results, figure 1 amends Underwood’s figure 4.9 (134), using data on Australian women’s novels from 1945 to 2000. If American and British women wrote romance fiction at levels similar to that recorded in the Australian context, then rates of fiction by women would remain relatively flat through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, at levels equivalent to that found at the turn of the twentieth century. There would be a decline in women’s fiction in the 1970s, but a less dramatic one than Underwood reports, and the general trend across the twentieth century would be fairly stable or growing. The Australian data thus undermine Underwood’s conjecture that the decline in female characterization was due to a decline in women authors of fiction, and expose the fragility of inferences based on literary data sets that have not been adequately historicized. I am not saying that my results show what actually happened; I am using them here as another sample. My point is that comparing two—or three or four or five or however many—samples cannot rule out similar biases in them, nor can it define the degree or limits of bias introduced by sampling methods.

I'm not qualified to give any opinion on the methodology used by either Bode or Underwood but I was a little perplexed by Bode's statement that the "heyday" of romance fiction was "the 1950s to the 1970s." Certainly as far as the US market is concerned, The Flame and the Flower (published in 1972) is credited as starting a new era in popular romance.

Also, Bode refers to Mills & Boon, but I think that Publishers Weekly is an American publication, so I would imagine that if Mills & Boon were going to be included there, they'd have been published by Harlequin. Was Bode unaware that Mills & Boon novels were published by Harlequin in the North American market? Or is Bode correct in identifying a lack of romance in the data and PW didn't include Harlequin romances?

Anyway, it's always wise to be aware that there may be problems with data (e.g. as discussed with regards to bestseller lists here).

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Thursday, January 12, 2023

CFP: Revisiting Radway

With thanks to Azteclady, who alerted me to this call for papers/submissions:

Still Reading Romance

deadline for submissions: March 15, 2023
full name / name of organization: Kathleen Kollman

Editors: Josefine Smith, Shippensburg University, jmsmith@ship.edu; and Kathleen Kollman, Miami University, kollmak@miamioh.edu 

Overview: Based on initial research performed by Janice Radway for her groundbreaking work, Reading the Romance (U of NC Press, 1984), this collection’s co-editor Josefine Smith designed an updated version of Radway’s survey, targeting romance novel readers. After two distributions, the result was over 300 responses and a raw data set which is now shareable to interested contributors to this volume. This survey includes questions on the following topics: Romance Reading Habits, the Romance Genre, the New Adult Fiction Subgenre, and Demographics.

Contributors will be free to analyze the data through whatever relevant lenses they choose, with an eye toward exploring how mores, interests, readership, and the romance novel itself has changed and developed over the nearly forty years since Radway conducted her original research. This will be a book-length peer-reviewed volume. Contributors from all disciplines are welcome and encouraged to submit, and the editors are interested in all types of research methods and theoretical perspectives. Both affiliated and independent scholars are encouraged to submit, as are early-career researchers.

Topics of particular interest include:

  • Women and gender studies research

  • Reader response research

  • Mixed methods research that spins off from the original survey

  • Direct comparison with Radway’s original research

  • Shifting cultural norms in popular fiction representation

  • Genre theory research

  • Romance novel readers’ engagement with feminism and gender equity.

This is not an exhaustive list.

For more information see https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/cfp/2022/09/19/still-reading-romance 

The call for papers does say that people thinking of submitting can ask to see the data in advance, which I think is helpful as it may be that potential contributors might have issues with the questions, spot something they wouldn't have expected in the data etc and that would affect their submission.

I don't know the editors, but I did find one paper by Kathleen Kollman in the RSDB (it was a paper presented to a conference at Bowling Green University in 2018).

Friday, January 06, 2023

More recent/forthcoming publications: Goodreads, good reading, governesses and sheikhs

I accidentally missed an item off my previous list of new publications:

Turner, Ellen and Cecilia Wadsö Lecaros, Cecilia (2022). “The desert-governess romance: Regency England meets exotic Arabia.” Lund Journal of English Studies 4:1-24.

And since I've started this post, I thought I might as well add a few snippets from an article which isn't primarily about romance but does include some findings about romance readers. I get the impression that the authors of the article aren't judging readers, they're just pointing out that  few people are really reading as widely as is claimed (but not by them) to be "good" for you.

In the Introduction to Literary Studies and Human Flourishing, the editors, James F. English and Heather Love, describe the article like this:

English, Enderle, and Dhakecha find that ordinary readers are encouraged to take joy and solace from ways of reading that are sharply at odds with what is positively valued - deemed to be "good for you" - in academic literary studies. The team's study of many thousands of ratings and reviews on the Goodreads social reading site suggests that the vast majority of readers turn to literature to enjoy the repeatable satisfactions of a single favored genre such as romance, mystery, or science fiction. Even Goodreads users who describe their attachment to reading in the academically approved terms of an eclectic openness to new kinds of literary encounter appear actually to seek the comforts of belonging to a narrow community of shared tastes. (14)

In the article itself, English, Enderle, and Dhakecha write that:

readers who favor romance novels [...] are the most balkanized, the least omnivorous, and the most distant from readers who favor literary fiction [...]. The readers of literary fiction would themselves be as sharply segregated as romance readers were it not for the blurry borderland they share with readers of historical fiction [...]. The extreme lack of affinity between the romance and literary groups conforms with a classic high/low social division, romance being the least critically respected of all popular genres and literary fiction being in a sense a tautological category consisting of precisely those novels that attract critical regard. The strong affinity [...] between literary fiction and historical fiction conforms with what we know about the increasingly close relationship between critical status and historical setting on the contemporary literary field. And these patterns [...] conform with a conventional gender hierarchy. Women are a clear majority of Goodreads fiction readers in general, but we find them most heavily concentrated, approaching 100%, in romance. (52)

They do raise questions, though, about the "academically approved [...] eclectic openness to new kinds of literary encounter":  "shouldn't we [...] direct some critical vigilance toward the orthodoxy of eclecticism itself? When exactly did the heterogeneity of one's reading become the measure of one's readerly health?" (59). Unfortunately the book's not been published yet, so I wasn't able to read any further to see if they provide any answers to those questions.

What I did find was the authors' website where you can find an interactive graph of their findings.

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English, James F., Scott Enderle, and Rahul Dhakecha. "Bad Habits on Goodreads? Eclecticism vs. Genre-Intolerance among Online Readers." Literary Studies and Human Flourishing, Ed. James F. English and Heather Love. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. 35-62. [Excerpt here.]

Thursday, January 05, 2023

News and New Publications: Publishing Woe, a Forthcoming Book on the Romance Heroine's Journey, etc

I've now left Twitter but I can still be contacted via my website, via responses to posts here, and I'm also on Mastodon as @lauravivanco@romancelandia.club .

I would say "Happy New Year!" but SmartBitchesTrashy Books is reporting that

It’s a bleak time in the professional world of media and book publishing.

The Harper Collins Union remains on strike after more than a month, and HarperCollins is refusing to negotiate. Publishing shuts down at Christmas, so it’s likely they’ll be on strike into next year. [...]

There are layoffs happening at so many publications, too, including in books coverage. BuzzFeed has laid off a portion of their workforce, including their books editor, Farrah Penn.

And Gannett, parent to USA Today, laid off a portion of their workforce, including Mary Cadden, who compiled the USA Today bestseller list

To continue the bleak midwinter theme, Jezebel is reporting that 

In October 2020, a post on indie romance author Susan Meachen’s Facebook page, allegedly written by her daughter, announced that Meachen had tragically died by suicide a month earlier. This news was followed by more posts from Meachen’s “daughter” (on Meachen’s account) in the author’s private writers group, The Ward, suggesting her mother took her own life because her peers in the online indie book community bullied her.

In light of this horrible news, authors and online friends helped fund Meachen’s funeral, created an anti-bullying anthology in her memory, and offered to help her daughter edit her mother’s final book, free of charge. On Monday—over two years later—Meachen’s account posted something new in The Ward. This time, it was Susan saying she’s actually been alive this whole time.

On a happier note than redundancies and possible fraud, romance academic Dr. Amy Burge was quoted on the BBC website recommending romance-themed Christmas movies/books. She ended with a quick summary of what romance scholarship's about:  "While many read [...] romance for comfort and entertainment, readers can also think more critically about the genre, questioning the way these books represent the dreams, desires, and values of a particular society."
https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/articles/zbrmp9q

This is evident in Jayashree Kamblé's Creating Identity: The Popular Romance Heroine's Journey to Selfhood and Self-Presentation forthcoming (due in the summer) new book, which is now available for pre-order. You can read an excerpt here. I've collected some of the key quotes from that excerpt, describing the contents, here.

And now on to a list of recent publications:

Long, Veronica Lee (2022). “Individuation and the Romance Novel.” PhD thesis, Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Pupipat, A., Rungkaew, T., & Meeparp, L. (2022). "Judging a Book by its Back Cover: Spoken/Informal Register as Found in Happily-Ever-After Women’s Novel Blurbs." Journal of Studies in the English Language, 17(2), 1–31.

Sheehan, Sarah E. (2022) "The “Popular Romance Canon”: An Academic Librarian’s Response." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 11. [I would like to note that there are some academic libraries with significant romance collections, as listed at the Romance Wiki (unfortunately I've been unable to log in to it and update it with details about the acquisition made by Indiana University's Lilly Library) and I've also added some to the sidebar here at Teach Me Tonight.]