Friday, February 25, 2011

Paper Topics, part 1

Eric here!

I'm currently teaching an upper-division (advanced undergraduate) course on popular romance fiction at DePaul: my 20th course on the genre, or something like that. We're reading a half-dozen novels over the quarter, loosely grouped under three broad topics: "Romance and Patriarchy," "Romance and Religion," and "Romance and Aesthetics." The novels, in order, are:
Jennifer Crusie, Welcome to Temptation
Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down
Francine Rivers, Redeeming Love
Alex Beecroft, False Colors
Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer
I've taught all of these before, except for the Rivers--which was, I should say, a huge hit in the classroom, teaching extremely well in conjunction with Lynn Neal's book Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction and with Catherine Roach's essay, "Getting a Good Man to Love," published in the first issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

I thought it might be interesting for those of you not taking the class to see the sorts of paper topics my students have to grapple with.

In my next post, I'll give you the topics for paper #2, which focused on Rivers, Beecroft, or Herendeen. The first set of paper topics were focused on our first pair of novels--the Crusie and the Dahl. The paper was to be 6-8 pages long, double-spaced, in 11 or 12 point type, "with a clear line of argument throughout" (heh). Here are the options I offered:
1. As we discussed in class, Jennifer Crusie’s novel Welcome to Temptation can be read as a response to claims by first-generation romance scholars about the romance genre. Ideas from Janice Radway, in particular, seem to appear in the narrative; it may be that ideas from other early critics, like Tania Modleski and Ann Barr Snitow, can be seen there as well. Write an essay on Welcome to Temptation as a response to one or more of these critics. Does it offer a counter-theory of its own, perhaps connected to Crusie’s own ideas about the genre? Be sure to draw on specific passages from both the primary and secondary texts to make your case.

2. Starting in the the late 1990s, Jennifer Crusie set about defending the romance genre in a variety of academic and popular venues. Read the essays on the genre gathered on her website, and write an essay on Welcome to Temptation that shows how this novel illustrates (or does not illustrate, in some interesting way) this romance author’s theory of her genre, both as art and as feminist practice.

3. As we noticed in class discussion, Welcome to Temptation is a pervasively allusive and citational text. Crusie’s characters (and perhaps her narrator as well) quote from, mention, or echo movies, Dusty Springfield songs, and other material from popular culture; the novel also echoes or invokes canonical texts, including the Bible and, arguably, such 19th-century authors of American “romance” as Hawthorne and Poe. For your paper, please choose one of these sets of allusions and explore its importance to and implications for our reading the novel. OR, if you prefer, write an essay on what this pervasive citational quality suggests about the ideas that this novel embodies about romance fiction, romance reading, and / or romantic love.

4. In her essay, “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” Catherine Roach discusses popular romance novels as, among other things, the promulgators of “erotic faith.” With her essay in mind, consider the dialogue with Christianity that we found in Welcome to Temptation, particularly the novel’s revisions of such topoi as temptation, the fall, the devil, knowledge (of good and evil, or of something else). Don’t forget the characters’ names! What exactly is the theology of this novel of “erotic faith”? How does it compare to or contrast with the ideas articulated by Roach?

5. In our early discussions of Wendell and Tan's Beyond Heaving Bosoms, many of you were interested in the recurring hero and heroine character types to be found in popular romance fiction. Choosing either Welcome to Temptation or Talk Me Down—or, if you prefer, working by comparison and contrast—discuss how Crusie and / or Dahl work with these conventions to construct either the romance hero or the romance heroine. Feel free to think about how the male or female lead of the novel is set off by contrasting characters; for example, how might Molly and Brenda compare to the heroine / villainess pairs found in “old-school” romance novels, in the BHB description?

6. As we discussed in class, both Welcome to Temptation and Talk Me Down can be read as metafiction: romance novels about popular romance fiction, its readers, its effects on readers, and its reputation. What, though, does this reading illuminate in each novel, either as idea or as artistry? How can we use this approach to make each novel as interesting as possible? Choose one novel and read it through this lens; or, if you prefer, compare and contrast the novels as metafiction, with an eye to their differences at the levels of idea and / or artistry.

7. As we discussed in class, both Welcome to Temptation and Talk Me Down are concerned with the shifting, complex relationships between the world of our desires—fantasy, fiction, hope, romance—and the world of “reality,” which is often (though perhaps not always) a grimmer, more frightening, more frustrating, more disappointing place. Several scholars and defenders of the genre, including Tania Modleski, Janice Radway, and Catherine Roach, have discussed it in terms of “wish-fulfillment,” a “reparation fantasy,” a “safe space” in which anxieties and ambivalent feelings can be assuaged or healed; others, including Jennifer Crusie, have insisted that “romance fiction is reality fiction.” Choose one of the two novels and trace the evolving relationships between fantasy and reality in the book, with an eye to how these may shift from the start of the novel to the end. If you wish, you may try to extrapolate a theory about the genre more generally from your text; however, you do not need to do so.

8. Some of our most interesting discussions so far have circled back to the enduring debate over what it might mean to talk about romance fiction as “porn for women”: a debate that is re-opened rather explicitly (no pun intended) by each of our first two novels. Drawing on Snitow’s original essay, on Berlant and Warner’s essay “Sex in Public,” on contemporary debates about porn culture, “sex-positive feminism,” and feminist porn (did you know there are “Feminist Porn Awards”), write an essay on one or both of our first two novels. What do Crusie and / or Dahl suggest about the status of popular romance fiction as “porn for women,” or about what is at stake in the debate itself? How might ideas from outside the romance / romance scholarship community (i.e., the discussions of heteronormativity in Berlant or others) illuminate the explorations and the “policing” of female desire and sexuality in one or both of these novels?

9. E-Curious variation: using the same texts and topics, compare and contrast Dahl’s Talk Me Down, published in print by HQN, with The Wicked West, published only in ebook form and written at a double remove (by Dahl as Molly as Holly). How do the explorations and limitations differ when Dahl steps into the (perhaps) more open genre of “erotic romance” and into the (perhaps) more open arena of electronic publishing? How do the texts differ in their negotiations with heteronormativity?

10. Having read two romance novels, several of you wanted to discuss the differences that you saw between Crusie and Dahl in terms of literary complexity, writing style, “fun,” and other aesthetic categories. For this essay, use your subjective response to these contrasting authors to explore their contrasting aesthetics. Rather than rank the novels against some ostensibly neutral or objective rubric—good writing does X; good books do Y; good authors don’t (but I do)—try to identify the contrasting goals or projects of the two texts, and describe the way each author’s style and / or structure helps her achieve that goal. (For example, if you notice one or both of these authors using stock language or trying to provoke stock responses in the reader, don’t assume that these are always bad things, as creative writing workshop leaders often suggest. Rather, think about how and why each author might deploy them, in the particular context, and what that might tell us about the text.)

11. One of the topics that quite interested a few of you in the first few days of class was the Smart Bitches’ account of the sexual education—and miseducation—provided by popular romance novels. Each of the novels we have read so far might be read as a didactic text, one that aims to correct earlier romance pedagogy and teach its own sexual curriculum. Looking closely at one or both of our novels, what exactly does this didactic project look like in practice? What corrections to previous romance tropes do we find? What lessons are taught, either explicitly or implicitly? Given the themes of the novel, why might we see precisely these scenes of instruction, in this order? Feel free to move from this specifically sexual topic into a broader consideration of the novel (or novels) as didactic art. What else does the text seem bent on teaching its readers, and how is that lesson conveyed?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

High and Low

I was reminded of Mills & Boon's current "The Powerful and The Pure" mini-series when I saw the following call for papers, for a conference to be held in Dundee on the 8th and 9th of June:
Call for Papers: Ninth Annual English Postgraduate Conference
High and Low: Cultural Levels in Word and Image

High and Low is the ninth annual Postgraduate Conference held by the English Programme, University of Dundee, and runs in conjunction with the Scottish Word and Image Group annual conference. It will address configurations of high and low in literature and visual media and is particularly interested in the perceived distinction between highbrow art and lowbrow entertainment, and the ways in which middlebrow texts, and other amalgamations of these two categories, are able to negotiate the apparent gulf between them. Of particular relevance to this dichotomy are texts that have been subject to critical re-evaluations over time, works that mix the sacred and the profane, and artistically sophisticated products of trash culture.
Full details are available here. So, back to "The Powerful and The Pure." Kate Walker has written a novel for this mini-series which contains
reworkings of classic romantic stories from literature. The other books in the series are by Sharon Kendrick - The Forbidden Innocent (Jane Eyre), Cathy Williams - In Want of A Wife? (Pride and Prejudice) and Kate Hewitt — Mr & Mischief (Emma) My own story is a reworking of one of my favourite novels of all time - Wuthering Heights — and it will be called The Return of The Stranger.
Here's the cover of the first in the series (and hopefully I've copied the html properly, so that if you click on the cover, it'll take you to an excerpt):

Since the conference is interested in images as well as texts, here are some covers for Jane Eyre itself. All three come from Penguin's website: the first seems to me to position the novel as a "high" novel, the second looks as though it's trying to appeal to a different market segment (maybe Young Adult?), and the third cover is from a Signet edition.

Here's the cover of the Mills & Boon reworking of Pride and Prejudice alongside two covers for the original novel (the first is from Penguin, the second from Headline). The layout of the M&B cover and the Penguin one are rather similar, while the Headline version looks as though it's hoping to convince readers that Austen is chick lit.

Stirling University's The Gothic Imagination blog gives another example of interesting relationships between "high" and "low":
The Twilight books are vaguely inspired by 3 novels: Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Romeo and Juliet. You’ll no doubt have seen the Harper Collins reissue of Wuthering Heights in 2009.

As well as being branded with the Twilight colours, Wuthering Heights is given its celebrity endorsement; it is, we are assured, ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’. There’s a quite fascinating process of framing going on here as a result of branding. Wuthering Heights, appropriated by Meyers in her series, is retrospectively reframed by that to which it gave issue, and constituted in a different way, for a different (and particular) readership.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Registration for IASPR's NYC Conference now open

The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) is proud to announce its Third Annual International Conference, hosted by the Fales Library and Special Collection of New York University, New York City, 26-28 June, 2011.

Keynote Speaker: Laura Kipnis (Northwestern University), author of Against Love: A Polemic.

Registration is now open.
The full schedule is now available.
Lodging and travel information is now available.

Special student rates are available, as are rates for just one or two days of conference attendance, rather than the full conference fee.

Please come and join us in New York, 26-28 June, 2011.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

IASPR 2011: Sex, Money, Power, and Romance

This year's IASPR conference takes as its theme "Can’t Buy Me Love?
Sex, Money, Power, and Romance." The schedule has now been finalised and the papers being given are as follows:

Catherine Roach (University of Alabama, USA): “I Love You,” He Said: The Money Shot in Romance Fiction as Feminist Porn

Ashley Greenwood (San Diego State University, USA): Nora Roberts and Archetypes

Jonathan A. Allan (University of Toronto, Canada): Fetish Commodity of Virginity in Popular Romance Novels

An Goris (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium): Rape as a Trope in the Work of Nora Roberts

Sarah S. G. Frantz (Fayetteville State University, USA): The Rapist Hero and the Female Imagination

Linda Lee (University of Pennsylvania, USA): The Illusion of Choice: Problematizing Predestined Love in Paranormal Romance

Jessica Miller (University of Maine, USA): Emotional Justice in the Novels of Jennifer Crusie

Margaret Toscano (University of Utah, USA): Love’s Balance Sheet: Accounting for the Bondage of Desire and the Freedom of Choice in Historical Romance

Hannah Priest (University of Manchester, UK): ‘Hit Cost a Thousand Pound and Mar’: Love, Sex and Wealth in the Fourteenth-Century Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle

Amanda Allen (Eastern Michigan University, USA): Charm the Boys, Win the Girls: Power Struggles in Mary Stolz’s Cold War Adolescent Girl Romance Novels

Su-hsen Liu (National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan): Modern Gothic Romance and its Translation in Taiwan: A Case Study of the Chinese Translation of Mistress of Mellyn

Pamela Regis (McDaniel College, USA): The First Silhouette: Following the Money

Eric Selinger (DePaul University, USA): Owning the Romance: Crusie, Phillips, and the “Erotics of Property”

Ann Herendeen (Romance Author, USA): The Upper-Class Bisexual Man as Romantic Hero: The “Top” in the Social Structure and in the Bedroom

Angela Toscano (University of Utah, USA): The Limits of Virtue, the Limits of Merit: Power, Privilege & Property in Historical Romance Fiction

Jennifer Kloester (University of Melbourne, Australia): Creating a Genre: The Power of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Novels

Susan M. Kroeg (Eastern Kentucky University, USA): Regency World-Building, History, and the End(s) of Romance

Betty Kaklamanidou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece): The Absence of Sex and Money in the Contemporary Rom Com. Fact or Fiction?

Jayashree Kamble (University of Minnesota): Temptation and the Big Apple: Bollywood romance goes West in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

Federica Balducci (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand): Love on a Shoestring: Romance, Recession and Consumer Culture in Italian Chick Lit

Elena Oliete Aldea
(University of Zaragoza, Spain): Greed is Good, but Love is Better: the Influence of Economy on Romance in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street Films

Beatriz Oria (University of Zaragoza, Spain): Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend: The Representation of Romantic Love In Sex and the City

Antonia Losano (Middlebury College, USA): Value for Virtue in Multiple-Romance Narrative Romance

Katherine E. Lynch (SUNY Rockland): One Small Step for Romance: The Evolution of the Queer Female Hero

Ruth Sternglantz (Editor, Bold Strokes Books): Where the Wild Things Are: Contemporary Lesbian Romance and the Undomesticated Queer Hero

Lynda Sandoval (Author): The Queer Heroine as a Re-imagined Reflection

Len Barot/Radclyffe (Romance Author, Editor, and Publisher, Bold Strokes Books): Queering the Alpha

There will also be a keynote speech by Laura Kipnis (Northwestern University) and discussions of "Boundaries and Intersections: Romance, Erotica, and Pornography" and "Popular Romance Collection Development in University Libraries."

Sunday, February 06, 2011


Kelly McWilliam defines genre as:
a consensual system of categorisation that privileges particular textual, intertextual, and extratextual conventions—such as plot, setting, style, author, series, brand, etc—over others [...]. In a literary context, genre is discursively constituted in the tripartite negotiations between the publishing industry, its readers, and the cultural mores of a given time and place, and, as it does in other media industries, usually functions first and foremost as an industrial marketing device (McWilliam 237-9). By emphasising conventions over originality, genres provide both an “horizon d’attente (horizon of expectation) for readers and a modèle d’écriture (model of writing) for authors” within which “broad patterns” are repeated across texts and nuances negotiated within texts in an ongoing constitution of genre categories (Holmes 6). [...] Where repetition produces familiarity and interest in a genre, differences between texts, or specific variations of genre conventions, create interest in individual texts, thereby perpetuating the genre. (2)
I haven't thought a great deal about how genres come into existence, but it makes sense to me that nowadays they would be shaped by the needs of publishers, the preferences of readers, and also the culture(s) in which publishers, readers (and, I assume, authors) find themselves.

If this is the case, then it's perhaps not surprising that genre conventions would tend to remain stable or evolve very slowly: I imagine that if a product is selling well, publishers will be disinclined to change it and risk losing sales. It also seems that many readers, having discovered a type of book which guarantees a particular experience which they find pleasurable and/or interesting, will return to it. On the other hand, people do tend to like some variety, authors are individuals, and cultures change, so there will be differences between the books and, over the longer term, trends may come and go.

It was at this point that I realised that maybe I was missing some of the nuances of the term "genre" as it is often used nowadays. I would tend to think that all literature can be divided into genres and sub-genres; I think of it as the literary equivalent of the way biologists classify organisms by kingdom, phylum, class etc. B. R. Myers, however, suggests that nowadays the term "genre" is attached to one particular type of literature:
Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"—at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most "genre" novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. [...]

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow
Rather than focussing on prose style as the criteria which determines whether a work is "genre fiction" or "literary fiction" I'd just like to suggest that the use of the term "genre fiction" to describe works of popular culture seems to imply that these are texts which are bound by genre conventions and emphasise "conventions over originality." The use of the term "literary fiction" by contrast, thus seems to claim that the works so designated prioritise originality and are unbound by conventions. Presumably it's because of this that they are granted the right to be considered "literary." And if "genre fiction" isn't "literary" then presumably one is supposed to consider it little more than mass-produced, formulaic, derivative prose, quickly churned out, consumed and forgotten.

So I'm happy to see that McWilliam acknowledges the variety and originality which exists in the romance genre:
the romance genre’s immense international popularity suggests that it has, perhaps more than most genres, continued to find ways to vary its conventions—by adapting and reworking its standards, or its model of writing—to meet the ongoing expectations of its tens of millions of readers worldwide. In other words, while the sites of repetition—the genre’s conventions—do stay largely in place in most romance fiction, as in most popular genres, there are nevertheless important sites of variation in each text. (6)
Jonathan Allan has also addressed the way in which the genre combines predictability with variety:
romances are of course “formulaic.” That is, all romances follow a narrative and must have so many key characters, episodes and so on. Indeed, many critics of romance note this. Pamela Regis, for instance, argues that there are eight key requirements [...] Even with these eight elements, however, romance is remarkably varied. Harlequin Publications, for example, produces romances that have varying levels of eroticism and sexuality — and even a NASCAR setting, for those looking for one. But all romances evidently possess Regis’s eight requirements. So the question becomes: why do literary critics in general look down upon formulaic fiction? In many regards, it seems that sticking to and following the formula presents its own challenges, including, how does any writer make a formula new? [...] Why shouldn’t eight elements of an expansive literary formula produce any number of romances?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Are You A Ruthless Woman?

The hero of Michelle Reid's The Italian's Future Bride (2007) makes his views clear. Tumperkin and Jessica make clear their views of him.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Iconoclasm and Reality, Romance and Chick Lit

The program for "Iconoclasm: The Breaking and Making of Images," a conference taking place from the 17th to the 19th of March at the University of Toronto includes a paper by Angela Toscano (English, University of Utah): “Form and the Formulaic: The Iconoclasm of Happily Ever After in Popular Romance.”

Readers who prefer chick lit to romance might well argue that it is chick lit which is iconoclastic in its breaking of the conventions of the romance genre. According to Ferriss and Young
Supporters claim that, unlike traditional, convention-bound romance, chick lit jettisons the heterosexual hero to offer a more realistic portrait of single life, dating, and the dissolution of romantic ideals.
Both fans and authors of chick lit contend that the difference lies in the genre’s realism. explains that it reflects “the lives of everyday working young women and men” and appeals to readers who “want to see their own lives in all the messy detail, reflected in fiction today.” (3)
Stephanie Harzewski, who received the Romance Writers of America’s 2006-2007 Academic Research Grant to assist her in completing her recently published Chick Lit and Postfeminism (2011) is apparently one of those who think that “Chick lit is [...] a more realistic version of the popular romance" (Newswise).

I wonder how much people's evaluations of what constitutes "realism" are shaped by their own experiences and beliefs. What little chick lit I've read has not depicted anything like my life, but then, by the time I finished my undergraduate degree I was already engaged to be married, so I've never experienced life as a young, working, single person.

I'll readily admit that many things in the romance genre are unrealistic; how many vampires do you know? All the same, I find romance's central belief in the possibility of "happily ever afters" quite realistic, and perhaps that's because my "romantic ideals" remain undissolved after more than a decade of marriage.

So what do you think? Are happy endings iconoclastic, realistic, or both?