Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Evolution of the Alpha Male

In the introduction to How Well Do Facts Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010) Mary Morgan explains that sometimes accepted "facts" are false or unreliable. While the spread of facts is to be welcomed, that of false "facts" is more troubling:
Constraints on the travels of facts may be seriously detrimental to our well-being. Yet the free market may be equally problematic. The internet is such a free market, but one in which - as is well known - it is difficult to recognise trustworthy facts from untrustworthy ones, an age-old problem of open (or free) product markets that has lead to their habitual regulation, for example to prevent the use of poisonous additives to make bread white, or, in the case of travelling facts, to regulate the claims made for the efficacy of medicines.
Chapter 16 of How Well Do Facts Travel?, which focuses on the romance genre's alpha male, is by Heather Schell, and is available online (in a form which does not include the official pagination). That chapter and a recent post by Jessica at Read React Review about evolutionary psychology both emphasise the importance of examining one's evidence carefully.

Jessica's post raises some questions about the methodology used by evolutionary psychologists and was written in response to a recent post about the romance genre by evolutionary psychologist Maryanne Fisher (based on some research I've already analysed). Jessica also adds that "folks might be interested to know that several HQN authors, such as Sharon Kendrick and Penny Jordan, felt very positively about the study" by Fisher. I'm not sure that's an entirely fair assessment of what Kendrick and Jordan reportedly said: Kendrick's comment that "[Their] research into book titles shows that women gravitate towards ones which depict a loyal, fit, rich and sexy bloke. Funny, that! That would be as opposed to a commitment-phobe wastrel who plays around?" certainly isn't devoid of irony, and it isn't an explicit endorsement of the evolutionary psychology underlying the study's conclusions.

Nonetheless, Jordan's mention of
a bedrock instinctive 'feeling' within women that a man who is male and powerful enough to be desired by many women (ie not a stalker type) and who wants to commit himself exclusively, is the gold standard when it comes to the foundations for couple happiness
is not inconsistent with evolutionary psychology, which would explain such a "bedrock instinctive 'feeling'" by reference to the species' evolutionary past.

Schell's analysis of the romance genre's alpha male suggests reasons why some romance authors may find the evolutionary psychologists' approach to the genre attractive. Unfortunately, or perhaps appropriately given that it appears in a book about trustworthy and untrustworthy facts, Schell's account appears to contain some unreliable facts about the genre, including an assertion that "Harlequin [...] owns almost every romance publisher in North America, as well as Mills and Boon." I imagine that "fact" would come as rather a surprise to readers of single-title romances and romances published initially as ebooks.1 Schell states that
Before the early 1980s, there were not many facts about romance novels. [...] Romance novels had not received any of the attention that scholars had begun to direct towards other types of mass culture; there was thus no contention among academics about what these novels meant. Romance writers themselves weren’t engaged in any collective soul-searching about the meaning of their work, either, in part because the conditions of their labour weren’t such as to foster dialogue: Romance novels were written by hundreds of women working in isolation, without agents, connected individually to their publishing houses through correspondence and through the written guidelines to plot and character (i.e., the “formulas”) to which prospective authors had to adhere. The facts about romance novels in the 1970s were limited to industry-generated data about sales and distribution.
That situation changed dramatically in the 1980s, for two reasons: romance writers organised, and scholars began to write about the genre and generate facts about what it meant. First, in 1980, Romance Writers of America (RWA) was founded.
This account appears to overlook Peter Mann's 1969 survey of Mills & Boon readers (unless any information about readers counts as "data about sales and distribution") and any analysis of the genre published during the 1970s, including Germaine Greer's scathing attack on it in The Female Eunuch and a variety of articles about Gothic romances. Schell also leaves unmentioned the rather important fact that
The Romantic Novelists’ Association was set up in 1960 [...].

They wanted respect for their genre. In her inaugural address, Miss Robins said that although romantic novels, according to the libraries, gave the most pleasure to the most people, the writers almost had to apologise for what they did. This had to stop. (Romantic Novelists' Association)
Schell then positions Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (a volume of essays by romance writers which was edited by Jayne Ann Krentz) as "a multifaceted rebuttal of feminist criticism" of the sort to be found in Tania Modleski's Loving with a Vengeance. At the heart of that rebuttal is the
Alpha Hero. In an essay entitled “Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness,” Krentz described alpha males as “the tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes … at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels.… These are the heroes who carry off the heroines in historical romances. These are the heroes feminist critics despise” (Krentz 1992b, 108–9). Note that Krentz defined the Alpha Hero in two contexts: as he related to romance novels and to feminist critics. Insofar as he would come to be used as the fact that definitively rebutted feminist criticism, the Alpha Hero was indeed the feminist critics’ enemy. She did not take credit for naming this hero, but suggested merely that he was “what has come to be known in the trade as the alpha male” (1992b, 107). In another chapter, Laura Kinsale cited Krentz as the source of the term and quoted an earlier definition of the alpha-male hero: the “retrograde, old-fashioned, macho, hard-edged man” (1992, 39). Kathleen Gilles Seidel, in the same volume, offered a slightly different origin story: “The term ‘alpha male’ came into use, I believe, because some authors were engaged in a struggle with editors about a certain type of hero and needed a vocabulary for the discussion” (1992, 178). Seidel liked the term in part because she saw it as “the only piece of jargon that has originated from the authors themselves” (1992, 178). None of these stories acknowledge the alpha male as a construct originating in a scientific community.
I'd like to quote Seidel in full and in context, because I believe she may be transmitting an unreliable fact. She writes that "what makes romance heroes romantic" is that "They surprise you, they unsettle you, they bring drama and excitement, but in the end they make you feel safe" (163). Her comments about the term "alpha male" appear in a footnote to that statement:
Which aspect of the hero is emphasized the most determines whether he is an "alpha male" or a "wimp." What interests me about this distinction is that, so far as I know, this is the only piece of jargon that has originated from the authors themselves, even though we are a close-knit community with astonishing lines of communication.
I view this lack of jargon as evidence of two things. First is the absolute sincerity with which we view our books. Glib, dismissive jargon does not feel appropriate. Second is that we view each book as unique. What matters to us is how each book differs from the others, something that jargon does not account for.
The term "alpha male" came into use, I believe, because some authors were engaged in a struggle with editors about a certain type of hero and needed a vocabulary for the discussion. (178)
There is, however, an alternative story of the romance genre's adoption of the term "alpha" which both challenges the view that it "originated from the authors themselves" and "acknowledge[s] the alpha male as a construct originating in a scientific community":
Although the modern Mills & Boon romance, tied to a specific formula, did not yet exist in the 1930s, it is apparent that Charles Boon did set down a few ground rules for his authors. Some have survived, and were passed down through the years in the firm by two names: 'Lubbock's Law' and 'the Alphaman'. Both still have an impact today. [...] The 'Alphaman' was based on what Alan Boon referred to as a 'law of nature': that the female of any species will be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, or the Alpha. (McAleer 149-150)
In an earlier essay by McAleer we find the alpha male contrasted with the "wimp" (but note the lack of reference to Charles Boon):
The two main company guidelines for writers (still in use today) are called 'Lubbock's Law' and The Alphaman'. Lubbock's Law endorses the views of the literary critic Percy Lubbock, who argued that stories should be written from the heroine's point of view; that would promote reader identification and increase suspense and interest accordingly. The Alphaman', according to the Boon brothers, is based upon a 'law of nature': that is, the female of any species will always be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, the alpha. In other words, the hero must be absolutely top-notch and unique. The wimp type doesn't work. Women don't want an honest Joe,' Alan Boon said. (275)
If McAleer's facts are correct, then it begins to seem unlikely that Krentz was, as Schell suggests, "the author who introduced the term 'alpha male' to the romance community" and Schell would also be incorrect in stating that "Feminist literary criticism was the original goad that prompted romance writers to seek alternative explanations of romance novels’ appeal, and, via a somewhat indirect path, led to their discovery of the Alpha Hero." Of course, it might be that American romance authors adopted the term entirely independently of any input from the Boons and the editors who'd worked for them at Mills & Boon. It's possible, I suppose, since for quite a long time after Harlequin took over Mills & Boon the company didn't have many US authors.

An earlier date for the adoption of the term "alpha" (whether in the form "Alphaman," "alpha male" or "alpha hero") to describe a particular type of romance hero would not invalidate Schell's facts about the spread of the term in the US around the time of the publication of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, nor its definition in that context. The Boons' version(s) of the Alphaman, based on their belief that the "laws of nature" which apply to many species of animals also apply to humans, may have differed from the alpha males created by romance authors who, Schell suggests, were influenced by evolutionary psychology, as evidenced by their references to 'cave days' and 'the ancestral hunter' in descriptions of the alpha hero. On the other hand, even if they weren't aware of Boon's term for him, it seems impossible that US authors could have remained unaware of the Mills & Boon "Alphaman" as a character type, since Harlequin had been publishing romances edited in in the UK by Mills & Boon for some considerable time before the publication of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women.

Schell's focus on evolutionary psychology as the unmentioned source of the "alpha" hero, and her assumption that he emerged in response to feminist criticism of the genre, leads her to conclude that
once the battle with academic feminism was over, there simply was not as much need for the facts about sexual strategies. Even as the animal behaviour model gained ascendancy in American popular culture, the Alpha Hero’s star began to fade within the romance writing community.
No longer a staple in mainstream romance, the Alpha Hero survives primarily in the paranormal subgenre, in which, in his dual role of monster and lover, there is no doubt that he is a fantasy character and not a fact.
I suspect that many romance authors and readers would be rather surprised to learn that alpha heroes survive "primarily in the paranormal subgenre." Of course, it depends on how one defines the "alpha" hero. If one assumes an "alpha" hero must be based on cavemen and male hunter-gatherers, then perhaps that's true. But if the term "alpha" is being used primarily as the opposite of "wimp" (i.e. "beta"), or as a shorthand for a range of qualities which make him "absolutely top-notch and unique" then there is room for the term itself to continue to have relevance, even as the heroes to which it refers change over the decades.

I have the feeling, though, that Schell's real interest is in the "facts" of evolutionary psychology, and all the preceding facts (both reliable and otherwise) about the romance genre are given in order to provide background for her analysis of the ways in which evolutionary psychologists have attempted to use the romance genre as proof that their theories are correct:
the truth status of the Alpha Hero facts for evolutionary psychology is based on the facts’ freedom from the influence of human culture. If instead it was clearly understood that the romance community had adopted and perpetuated the Alpha Hero facts, then the heroes of romance novels might cease to embody the facts. The novels would no longer look like “a window into our natural preferences” (Salmon 245) – that is, a clear, transparent, unmediated view of our true selves, untainted by culture. Even if the Alpha Hero facts could survive, they would be messier, equivocal facts, tainted with human intent.
If it was the Boons, rather than Krentz, who popularised the concept of the "alpha" hero, Schell's case is perhaps even stronger, since McAleer provides clear evidence of the ways in which the Boons provided their authors with considerable editorial direction.

Has anyone else got some reliable facts about when or how the term "alpha" came to be used to describe romance heroes? Has the meaning of the term changed over time? And do you think the alpha hero himself is in decline, or has he just evolved quite quickly since the 1980s?
  • McAleer, Joseph. "Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908-1950." Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264-288.
  • McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
  • Morgan, Mary S. "Travelling Facts." How Well Do "Facts" Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Ed. Peter Howlett and Mary S. Morgan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. [Quotations from unofficial version available here (pdf).]
  • Schell, Heather. "The Love Life of a Fact." How Well Do "Facts" Travel?: The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Ed. Peter Howlett and Mary S. Morgan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. [Quotations from unofficial copy available here (doc).]
  • Seidel, Kathleen Gilles. "Judge Me by the Joy I Bring." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P., 1992. 159-179.

1 I also find the following description of single-title romances rather unsatisfactory: "Single-title novels can be longer, sometimes offering Dickensian casts and plots that span generations." It seems to me that if romantic novels contain plots (not simply "casts") which "span generations" they'd be classified as romantic sagas rather than as romances, since romances focus on a central romantic relationship (although they may also depict secondary romantic relationships between other characters).

The image illustrating human evolution came from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Call for Papers: Romance Novels Through the Internet Age

I've just come across the following call for papers, from Michelle Iwen of Cardiff University and Nicole Pfannenstiel of Arizona State University:

A New Generation of Readers: Romance Novels Through the Internet Age (edited collection)

We are currently soliciting contributions for a peer-reviewed edited collection tentatively titled, A New Generation of Readers: Romance Novels Through the Internet Age. The essays in this collection will focus on the often sophisticated engagement of internet literacy in romance fan communities. Using Janice Radway’s work as an historical baseline, the collection seeks to discuss the ins and outs of communities and their memberships. The collection will examine trends in modern romance consumption as influenced by internet community building featured in sites such as the popular romance blog, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, or the more generalized book community, Goodreads, among others. It will also discuss the function of these communities to the readers and writers.

We encourage interdisciplinary critical contributions which focus on contemporary romance, their readers, and community formation. Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:
• Function of romance blogs and publication trends
• Post-modern narrative and genre trends (paranormal, urban fantasy, geek romance, erotic, etc.)
• Amazon.com Recommends, Borders Recommends, etc. – how readers are instructed to buy books
• Why read - Escapism vs. Identification
• Discourse practices of virtual romance communities
• Romance community scholarship – gender studies, reader response, economic theory

Please send an abstract of 300-500 words and a very brief biography to the editors, Nicole Pfannenstiel and Michelle Iwen, at IwenME@cardiff.ac.uk and niki@asu.edu. Abstracts are due by November 1, 2010 and completed papers will tentatively be due May 2011.

The call for papers was originally posted here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Representing Mothers and Children

I've just finished reading Kate Walker's Kept for Her Baby and one of the key issues is the heroine's status as a mother. In part this is because, as the title suggests, "If she had never become pregnant then he would never have married her at all. It was only because of his determination that his son would be legitimate that he had ever put a ring on her finger" (45) but it is also because of the questions raised by what happened after that son was born: "What loving mother, what good mother, would abandon her baby, walk out on him, leaving him alone with his father?" (17). The baby ended up in the care of
his father and the trained nanny [...]. The nanny that Ricardo had insisted on from the moment she had given birth, making her feel useless and inadequate, in a way that must have contributed to her breakdown. (36)
As the above quotation indicates, Lucy's abandonment of her child is ascribed to a temporary cause, and since "The doctors said that she was well again now" (18) there is no reason for the reader to believe it will affect her ability to be a "loving mother," a "good mother" in the future.

What does one have to do, though, in order to qualify as a "good mother"? Lucy seems to convince her husband that she's a good mother at least in part by how she picks up the baby and changes his nappy:
She almost laughed as she laid Marco on his back on the brightly coloured changing mat. This was something she knew how to do.
'Let's get you cleaned up ...'
Unfastening the sleep suit, removing the dirty nappy, cleaning, was the work of moments. And she enjoyed it - doing this simple task for her baby. Even when Marco waved his arms and legs wildly in the air, wriggling so that it was a struggle to get the nappy on and fastened, she couldn't hold back the soft chuckle of appreciation of his life and energy. Forgetting about the dark, watchful man behind her, she bent her head and blew a loud raspberry on his exposed stomach, revelling in its soft roundness, the uncontrollable giggles that burst from him in response. (115)
and how she feeds him:
She was looking down at Marco, laughing softly as the little boy squished his banana in his hand, obviously revelling in the mess he was making and the feel of it between his fingers. And Marco was watching her, his wide smile a beam of delight as he held up the sticky mess for her to see. (118)
Obviously one has to interpret Lucy's happiness in these scenes in the context of her previous separation from her baby. Having feared she might never see him again, it's entirely understandable that she should feel delighted to have the opportunity to spend time with him. It's also important to remember that the book is about a heroine who had "Post-natal psychosis" (171). Nonetheless, what is depicted for the reader are scenes which present motherhood as a source of joy.

The depiction of motherhood in Angela Thirkell's High Rising (1933) is rather different. In part this is because of the very different circumstances in which the two mothers find themselves, but I think it may also reflect different attitudes towards motherhood. It should also be noted that Thirkell's novel is more "romantic fiction" than "romance" since the central protagonist, Laura, is not involved in a romantic relationship (she does get involved in a bit of matchmaking for others). She's a forty-five year old author and widowed mother-of-four who, at the beginning of the novel, is collecting her youngest from boarding school. I wonder how many modern heroine-mothers would choose this option for their children? Clearly the many billionaire/sheik etc heroes could easily afford to educate their children this way, and some have been to boarding schools themselves. Maybe the ages of the children in romances play a part in how schooling choices are depicted in the genre, but I wonder if nowadays more people feel that children should stay with their parents. The heroine of Janet Evanovich's Smitten in fact broke up with her husband over this issue rather than over his infidelity:
"It turned out we had different expectations about marriage. Paul expected me to close my eyes to constant indiscretions, and I expected him to be faithful to me."
"I'm sorry."
Lizabeth waved it away. "Actually, I could have lived with that. What finally drove me out of the marriage was when he insisted that the boys go to boarding school. Paul had political ambitions. He wanted me to be a perfect hostess. He found the children to be a burden." (24)
For Laura, and other mothers of her class and era, sending children to boarding school would have seemed entirely normal, and although she may wonder, "as she had often wondered with the three older boys, why one's offspring are under some kind of compulsion to alienate one's affections at first sight by their conceit, egotism, and appalling self-satisfaction" (4) she does love her sons. It seems unlikely, however, that she would respond with joy to a sticky mess, no matter how much a child was "revelling" in it. This is a woman who admits to feeling rather "exhausted" after bringing up so many children:
When for about a quarter of a century you have been fighting strong young creatures with a natural bias towards dirt, untidiness, and carelessness, quite unmoved by noise, looking upon loud, unmeaning quarrels and abuse as the essence of polite conversation, oblivious of all convenience and comfort but their own, your resistance weakens. (21-22)
And when she has finally got her son into his bed after his first day home for the holidays, she
shut the door and reeled downstairs. [...] Oh, the exhaustingness of the healthy young! Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate my Children, but though Adrian Coates [her editor] had offered her every encouragement, and every mother of her acquaintance had offered to contribute, it had never taken shape. Perhaps, she thought, as she stood by Tony's bed an hour later, they wouldn't be so nice if they weren't so hateful.
There lay her demon son, in abandoned repose. His cheeks, so cool and firm in the day, had turned to softest rose-petal jelly, and looked as if they might melt upon the pillow. His mouth was fit for poets to sing. His hands - spotlessly clean for a brief space - still had dimples where later bony knuckles would be [...] she tucked the bedclothes in, kissed her adorable hateful child, who never stirred, and turning out the light left the room. (39-40)
The ways in which heroes respond to mothers also vary. Amanda Vickery describes one depiction of motherhood thus:
When Samuel Richardson singled out the breast-feeding mother in Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4), one of the most popular novels of the century, he presented a traditional duty in a haze of beguiling limelight. Witness the scene when the once naughty Lady G. is surprised with her babe at the breast by her estranged husband:
Never was a man in greater rapture. For lady Gertrude had taught him to wish that a mother would be a mother: He Threw himself at my feet, clasping me and the little varlet together in his arms. Brute! said I, will you smother my Harriet - I was half-ashamed of my tenderness - Dear-est, dear-est, dear-est Lady G. - Shaking his head, between every dear and est, every muscle of his face working; how you transport me! - Never, never, never, saw I so delightful a sight! (Vickery 93-94)
Heroes in modern romances may not express themselves in quite these words, or feel "rapture" of exactly the same kind, but they too often react extremely strongly to motherhood:
Her body was preparing itself for the birth of their baby and the thought of that was a massive turn-on. (Williams 107)

'You're very sexy, pregnant,' he whispered.
'No, I'm not.'
'You are to me. [...] We men are simple creatures [...] Evidence of our virility can't help but prove satisfying. Call it a weird macho thing.' (Williams 108)
There are, of course, plenty of romances involving pregnant heroines who become involved with a new man, but occasionally I've come across characters who would rather not begin a relationship with a woman who's a mother. In Janet Evanovich's Smitten, for example, the hero hesitates before kissing the heroine:
He didn't want to come on too strong or too fast and frighten her away. And he didn't want to make working conditions awkward. And besides that, she was a mother. He'd never before been involved with a mother. In his eyes motherhood was in the same category as a PhD in physics. It was outside his sphere of knowledge. It was intimidating. And the thought of bedding someone's mother felt a smidgeon irreverent. Not enough to stop him, he thought ruefully. Just enough to slow him down. (17-18)
The heroine herself seems to have some preconceptions about what is, or isn't, suitable for a mother to do, but by the end of the novel she appears to have revised at least some of them:
She was in a suggestive position on the trunk when he returned. "Do you think this is undignified for a mother?"
He pulled her panties down. "I think this is perfect for a mother." (176)
So, is this novel grappling with the madonna/whore dichotomy? According to Caroline Myra Pascoe:
Images of motherhood in western society have most often ignored maternal sexuality, notwithstanding the sleight of hand that this entails. Anne Summers in Damned Whores and God's Police noted:
It is conveniently forgotten that married women must have sexual intercourse in order to reproduce: a general Australian puritanism has managed to convince itself that mothers are not sexual creatures and female sexuality is either denied or relegated entirely to the Damned Whore stereotype.
The modern romance genre, however, provides a reader with plenty of sexually active mothers and mothers-to-be. I suspect that the portrayal of mothers and children varies not just across time (and cultures, classes and many other social variables), but also across different genres. Jennifer Weiner, who writes women's fiction, thinks that
even though there are blogs and books and first-person essays about the everyday exhaustion and dreariness and frustration of motherhood, the prevailing cultural view is still that motherhood comes with this rose-tinged blissful glow.
You might get rather a different view of children and childrearing from the horror genre, however. John Patterson at the Guardian suggests that
The most interesting evil-kid movies seem to rise up from the subconscious of their creators. Stephen King has said that he wrote The Shining when he was drinking a lot to numb his bleakest feelings about family life, and evil and/or seriously scary kids proliferate across his work in that period: Danny and the chopped-up Grady Twins in The Shining; Drew Barrymore in Firestarter; the dead child in Pet Sematary; Isaac in Children Of The Corn. David Cronenberg had a five-year-old daughter when he made his 1979 gyno-horror movie The Brood, with its murderous mutant children, and David Lynch memorialised his complicated feelings about fatherhood with the monstrously deformed baby in Eraserhead. Whereas most kid-slaying horrors play nakedly to the taboo, these films have a sense of anxiety, dread and profound ambiguity about parenthood that often makes them richer as works of art.
Those examples were all created by fathers, whereas romances are far more likely to be written by women. Is that just a coincidence? And does the romance genre, as a whole, represent motherhood and children in an idealised way or is it relatively realistic?

  • Evanovich, Janet. Smitten. 1990. London: Bantam, 1991.
  • Pascoe, Caroline Myra. Screening Mothers: Representations of motherhood in Australian films from 1900 to 1988. PhD thesis. University of Sydney, 2006.
  • Thirkell, Angela. High Rising. 1933. Osney Mead, Oxford: Isis, 2000.
  • Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.
  • Walker, Kate. Kept for Her Baby. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009.
  • Williams, Cathy. The Italian's One-Night Love-Child. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009.

With thanks to Kate Walker for sending me a copy of Kept for Her Baby, Tumperkin for giving me The Italian's One-Night Love-Child, AgTigress for providing me with a copy of Smitten and Sunita, who recommended Angela Thirkell's novels. The illustration came from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

JPRS and IASPR update

According to the most recent IASPR newsletter, the first issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies is due to appear online in the first week of August:
The first issue of JPRS will contain five essays, an interview with Beverly Jenkins by Rita Dandridge (author of Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances); an essay review of Lisa Fletcher’s Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity by Pamela Regis (author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel); plus some shorter book reviews.

The five main essays are:

* “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre,” by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer

* “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” by Catherine Roach

* “There were three of us in this biography, so it was a bit crowded: The Biographer as Suitor and the Rhetoric of Romance in Diana: Her True Story” by Giselle Bastin

* “Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British novel and the American film,” by Hsu-Ming Teo

* “A Little Extra Bite: Dis/Ability and Romance in Tanya Huff and Charlaine Harris’s Vampire Fiction,” by Kathleen Miller

The shorter reviews are:

* A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, by Cristina Nehring (reviewed by romance author Pam Rosenthal)

* Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France: Love Stories, by Diana Holmes (reviewed by…)

* Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance, by Northrop Frye (reviewed by Jonathan Allan)

* Reading Nora Roberts, by Mary Ellen Snodgrass (reviewed by An Goris)

You will be able to access the Journal at www.jprstudies.org the first week of August, 2010. All articles will be open access. We are also allowing moderated commentary after each article to stimulate conversation about the issues each brings up.
If you'd like to support IASPR and receive the newsletter, you can become a member.

Monday, July 05, 2010

CFP: Fat Studies Edited Anthology

Given some of the recent discussions here about larger heroines (beginning part way through this post, and continuing in the comments here) I thought there would be plenty of material to work with in the romance genre in response to the following call for papers which I came across via The F Word but which originally came from Obesity Timebomb. Interestingly, when I went to look at AAR's special title listings, I noticed that they have a page about "plus-sized heroines" but there isn't an equivalent page for romances with "plus-sized" heroes (although there is one "overweight" hero included on the "Beauty is in the Eye ..." list).

CFP for fat studies edited anthology

Julia McCrossin and I were approached at the PCA/ACA Conference by a publisher and asked to put together a fat studies anthology. The result is the call for papers listed below. Please feel free to distribute far and wide with our thanks.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email either Julia or me. Our addresses are listed below. Huge thanks, and I look forward to hearing from many of you! :)

~Lesleigh Owen

Call for Anthology Submissions

Tentative title: The Unbearable Fatness of Being: Enlarging Theories of Embodiment

Type: Edited anthology

Submission deadline: August 20, 2010

Contacts and editors: Julia McCrossin, jmccross@gwmail.gwu.edu;

Lesleigh Owen, Ph.D., lesleigh.owen@gmail.com

This edited collection seeks to publish recent scholarship that pushes at the boundaries of the existent scholarship on embodiment, from a Fat Studies perspective. As Fat Studies is an emerging field, there are copious amounts of terrain left to map out, and this collection will display the provocatively expansive ways that emergent Fat Studies scholars conceptualize the fat body and the cultural work the fat body does in various times, places, and societies. The purpose of this work includes pushing back at the “obesity epidemic” rhetorics in ways that are at once connected to affiliated work in fields like disability studies, queer studies, gender studies (to name a few), and yet uniquely their own. In conclusion, this edited collection will offer crucial new pathways for the generative field of Fat Studies, as well as offer an exciting look at the developing scholars in this field. Perhaps one might say that Fat Studies seeks to integrate within cultural studies and the academy in general a critical body of work on fatness, layering our current understandings of the material body along with metaphoric and/or immaterial ways that fatness saturates our (post) modern world.

Topics may include but are not limited to:

  • representations of fat people in literature, film, music, nonfiction, and the visual arts
  • cross-cultural or global constructions of fat bodies
  • cultural, historical, or philosophical meanings of fat and fat bodies
  • portrayals of fat individuals and groups in news, media, magazines
  • fatness as a social, political, personal, and/or performed identity
  • phenomenology of fat movement and be-ing in a variety of physical (and physiological) contexts
  • fat as queering sex, beauty, gender, and other embodied performances
  • negotiating fat within locations, space, and time
  • representing weighted embodiments in such creative or abstract forms as, for example, visual art, poetry, personal narratives, and literature
  • fat acceptance, activism, and/or pride movements and tactics
  • approaches to fat and body image in philosophy, psychology, religion, sociology
  • fat children in literature, media, and/or pedagogy
  • fat as it intersects with race, ethnicity, class, religion, ability, gender, nationality, and/or sexuality
  • functions of fatphobia or fat oppression in economic and political systems

Submissions are due August 20, 2010. We welcome traditional and non-traditional formats, including research articles, photographs, poetry, reports of performance art, and others. Articles and papers should range between 15 and 20 double-spaced pages. Please send submissions, along with a brief biographical sketch, directly to jmccross@gwmail.gwu.edu and/or lesleigh.owen@gmail.com.

Lesleigh J. Owen's "Consuming Bodies: Fatness, Sexuality, and the Protestant Ethic" is available online via the University of California's eScholarship site.

Julia McCrossin,
an English professor and doctoral candidate at GW [George Washington University], first came across the idea of fat studies in 2003 during an introductory cultural anthropology course. Six years later, McCrossin is one of the few experts bringing the field into the national limelight.

McCrossin said the field of fat studies encompasses many aspects of society, from film, literature and popular culture, to anthropology and history. Her studies are often focused on literary characters and the impact that the characters' obesity has on the plot of the novel.

"I wanted to think about why some characters 'needed' to be fat and how that fatness affected the works in which they existed in," she said. (
Summaries of some of the papers presented at the 2010 PCA/ACA Conference's fat studies panels have been written by "withoutscene" and are available here.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Contextualising the Modern Native American Romance

Theresa Lynn Gregor's PhD thesis, From Captors to Captives: American Indian Responses to Popular American Narrative Forms (2010) is available online from the University of Southern California's digital library. In the acknowledgements section, Gregor thanks 'Professor Tania Modleski, my dissertation chair, [and author of Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women] for helping me trace the early shoots of my fascination with the Indian captivity narrative into film and then through women’s romance' (iv).

Modern romances are dealt with relatively briefly, being the subject of the second half of Chapter 4, in which Gregor
situate[s] the reception of contemporary productions of popular romances by Native American Studies scholars alongside a critical reading of several examples from the genre written by Cassie Edwards (author of the popular Savage Series who publicly claims her Choctaw heritage) and Janet Wellington a relatively new and a non-Native romance writer who published an American Indian romance that feature the Kumeyaay culture, a large California Indian tribal group indigenous to Southern California, USA and Baja California, Mexico. (131-32)
In the section about modern romances, Gregor notes that
Although Edwards' novels are not reviewed by many scholarly periodicals, they have been the subject of critique in at least two scholarly studies: one by Peter Biedler [Beidler] that appeared in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal and another written by Christopher Castiglia in his book-length study of Captivity, Culture-Crossing and White Womanhood. [see Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst, pages 190-194] Neither critic commented on the fact that Edwards identified herself in her early biographical sketches as a Cheyenne descendent.(176-77)
Gregor's research leads her to conclude that
While Edwards' Savage romances are problematic and far from what I would consider proof that romances provide a “liberatory function” for female readers [...], Edwards' decision to write and publish the narratives are evidence of a Native woman's desire to rewrite Indian love stories from multiple tribal perspectives, which in and of itself politicizes her prolific publishing career. While the effect of her novels on Indian female readers is an area of scholarly critique I will explore for some time, my interviews about Edwards and her work reveal that the titles alone do not entice Indian women to read the books nor do the provocative pictures of the hunky Indian men on the cover. Instead, a picture of a nicely beaded bag or piece of Indian jewelry often catches the eye of the reader. While many of these readers admit that her “savage” titles are “racist” they contend that they simply read through the stereotype to see if the story has anything interesting to say. (180-81)
Moving on to examine Janet Wellington's Dreamquest, Gregor notes that, 'Unlike Edwards, Wellington assiduously lists her historical references, a Kumeyaay dictionary, and websites for further studies of Native American history, literature, and ethnobotany' (182). However, Gregor finds Wellington's work problematic too:
Perhaps the most insidious component of the narrative is the masquerade of the fantasy in the cultural and historical details; the veil of authenticity creates the “savage illusion” of a sympathetic, progressive, and pro-Indian romance. However, the Indian hero's “dream quest” is realized through the white woman's “dreams” or fantasies. Without her the Natives in the story have no agency, no reality, no vision, and no destiny; they are literally unimaginable.
The symbolic implication of the revelation is chilling: the white female author is literally the bearer of Native/American identity. (184-85)
The whole of Gregor's thesis can be found here.