Monday, February 27, 2012

CFP: Midwest PCA

Call for Papers: ROMANCE

2012 Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference

Friday-Sunday, October 12-14, 2012

Columbus, OH

The most prevalent narrative structure of popular romance is an integral element of any story, regardless of forum: film, television, fiction, manga, advertising. Not only is romance exceptionally popular, it is so pervasive as to become ordinary and overlooked. As the popularity of romance increases, so too does the need for serious scholarship of the genre in all its incarnations. We are interested in any and all topics about or related to popular romance and its representations in popular culture (fiction, stage, screen-large or small, commercial, advertising, music, song, dance, online, real life, etc.)

Proposals may be for individual papers or 3-person panels.

Topics can include, but are not limited to:

*       critical approaches, such as readings informed by critical race theory, queer theory, postcolonial studies, or empirical science
*       depictions in the media and popular culture (e.g., film, television, literature, comics)
*       literature and fiction (genre romance, poetry, animé)
*       types of relationships (marriage, gay and lesbian)
*       historical practices and traditions of and in romance
*       regional and geographic pressures and influences (southern, Caribbean)
*       material culture (valentines, foods, fashions)
*       folklore and mythologies
*       jokes and humor
*       romantic love in political discourse (capitalism)
*       psychological approaches toward romantic attraction
*       emotional and sexual desire
*       subcultures: age (seniors, adolescents), multi-ethnic, inter-racial
*       individual creative producers or texts of popular romance
*       gender-bending and gender-crossing

Submit a one-page (200-250 words) proposal or abstract by April 30, 2012, to Maryan Wherry, Popular Romance, . Please include name, affiliation, and e-mail address with your abstract. Also, please indicate in your submission whether your presentation will require a TV and DVD player. Note that LCD projectors will not be provided by MPCA/ACA.

More conference information can be found at .

For further inquiries or concerns, please contact Romance Area Chair, Maryan Wherry, Black Hawk College,

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Colleagues at Work

Over at the Popular Romance Project, Pamela Regis reveals what she's been working on recently:
I love the history of literature—watching the growth and branching of genres across the centuries. Lately I’ve been researching the history of the American romance novel, which, I quickly realized, involved pretty much starting from scratch. There was no list of American romance novels that I could peruse for suggestions for study texts, no “romance novel” subject heading in databases.
Amy Burge recently "gave a paper to the Centre for Modern Studies Postgraduate Forum at the University of York in a panel entitled 'Feminist Narratives'." The paper, titled "‘Weird and kinky and medieval’: Gender, Sexuality and the Idea of the ‘Medieval’ in Modern Popular Sheikh Romance," is up in full at Amy's blog. Amy observes that
The model used for Mills & Boon’s fictional east appears to be the hypermodern and western-friendly nations of the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, thus providing the requisite exoticism, with none of the restrictions frequently outlined in the contemporary media. Moreover, most Westerners cannot name all of the United Arab Emirates, indicating the ease with which even the real Middle East can become fictionalised. The geographical shift from old colonial obsessions to a new political geography centred around the United Arab Emirates indicates a particular shift in the political tensions of sheikh novels: a liberal ally in the Middle East, but with the medieval (represented in the media by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia) always pushing at the edges.
The novels also
reveal how deeply rooted ideas about the medieval are in issues relating to gender and sexuality. While you might not necessarily want to call Mills & Boon romances feminist narratives, although some have argued for the feminist credentials of romance novels, the vast majority of Mills & Boon readers and authors are women and romance novels frequently deal with issues commonly affecting women which are often excluded from public discourse, for example, marriage, relationships, children. Furthermore, these are precisely the aspects of sheikh romances which are described as medieval –female sexuality and the treatment of women. But, then, how ‘feminist’ is it to construct ‘medieval’ sexuality as desirable?
In the wake of an article in The Awl in which Maria Bustillos described romances as "feminist documents," Liz Mc2 explained why she doesn't think that's an accurate description:
“by, for and about women” is not the definition of feminist. Not any definition of feminist. Yes, there are lots of debates within feminism, but the definition isn’t content-free, just decide for yourself. Just because a woman chooses something does not make it a feminist choice or exempt from critique from a feminist perspective. Women’s choices can be constrained by society and sometimes by their own conventional views of gender. All-female enterprises can be both empowering in some ways and sexist in others, because they are not separate from the larger, still in some ways sexist culture. College sororities would be one example of this, I think. And I’m pretty sure Romance–individual books, the genre as a whole, and the industry itself–is another. How could it not be?

The image is an illustration from Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which Pamela Regis mentions in her post. It came from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Australian Romance

Last week I made an appearance at the Australian Women Writers blog, talking about Australian romance (you'll have to scroll down the page a little to get to my guest-post). More expert opinions on the topic are to be found in

Sold by the Millions: Australia’s Bestsellers
Editor: Toni Johnson-Woods and Amit Sarwal
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Date Of Publication: March 2012

The book contains a chapter by Hsu-Ming Teo on "Britishness and Australian Popular Fiction: From the Mid-nineteenth to the Mid-twentieth Centuries":
She concludes that while children’s and men’s popular fiction “successfully indigenised or even Americanised after the Second World War, the same was not necessarily true of the bulk women’s romance novels, even at century’s end.” The reason for this, according to Teo, were the “conditions of national and international Anglophone publishing in the twentieth century” that to a large extent “shaped Australian popular fiction in such a way that women’s romance novels remained tied to the apron strings of empire, attentive to the demands of British editors and an overseas market even as a distinctive postcolonial ‘Australianness’ was
asserted.” (xi)
and a chapter by Juliet Flesch, "The Wide Brown Land and the Big Smoke: The Setting of Australian Popular Romance":
Juliet Flesch in her chapter, focusing on the mass appeal of Australian popular romances, examines how far the Australia’s romance novelist’s “portrayal of the natural or built environment” and Australian society “reflects Australian reality”? She concludes that “the impressions overseas readers will gain from some Australian romance novels at least is reasonably accurate,” as “the society described in modern Australian romances reflects the way Australians like to see themselves––egalitarian, optimistic, resilient, welcoming, etc.” (xii)
I haven't read the book (it's not out till March) but more details and a link to an excerpt (which includes the foreword) can be found here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

CFPs: Recycling, Whiteness, Paper and Asperger's Syndrome

These calls for papers aren't specifically about romance: they're about "cultural recycling," whiteness, "the materiality of literary texts" and Asperger's Syndrome. One could, though, discuss romances in conjunction with all of these issues.

Since fairy tales and references to Shakespeare, occur fairly frequently in romance, and since in For Love and Money I took a quick look at some romances which were reworkings of the Pygmalion myth, and others which reworked the tale of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, it seemed to me that romance fiction is full of "allusions and echoes."
Allusions and echoes – cultural recycling and recirculation
An international colloquium at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
June 16-17, 2012

Deadline for paper/panel submissions is March 30, 2012.

The many ways in which stories are recirculated is astounding – from relatively straightforward retellings of fairy tales and classical myths, to feminist, queer, postcolonial or ecocritical subversions of central themes, to fan fiction’s adaptations of beloved characters and story worlds.

The international colloquium "Allusions and echoes – cultural recycling and recirculation" is an opportunity to explore the various ways in which texts communicate over borders of space, time, genre and medium. What themes, motifs, backgrounds and details capture the imagination of authors, readers and viewers? How are they recycled and recirculated from one period, or one audience, to another? How and why do they gain currency again and again? Contributors are invited to cast their net widely and consider not only contemporary works, such as The Canongate Myth Series (2005-2011) and Cinderfella (1960, 2013) but also older texts, such as Chaucer’s The Physician’s Tale and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
More information here.

Apparently "Interracial and interethnic marriages are at an all-time high in the US" (BBC) but I've not seen a lot of work on race in romances (other than The Sheik and romances specifically marketed as being about characters of a particular racial group) since Stephanie Burley's "Shadows & Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance" was published in 2000 (in Paradoxa 5.13-14). Abstracts for the following conference are due by today, but maybe it'll still be of interest:

2nd Global Conference
Images of Whiteness
Saturday 7th July 2012 – Monday 9th July 2012
Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom

Since the publication of Richard Dyer’s seminal study 'White' in 1997, academics have increasingly turned critical attention to the subject of racial whiteness. Publications include historical accounts detailing the emergence of whiteness as a racial category, cultural studies exploring the representation and construction of white identities in popular culture, film and television scholars examining narratives about white people, reflecting white themes, white obsessions, and white anxieties. Consistent with the shift in critical studies from minority identity formations to consider ‘central’ identities – masculinity, heterosexuality – the study of whiteness is increasingly understood as central to understanding the operation of ‘race’ as a form of social categorisation. Inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary perspectives are sought from those engaged in any field relevant to the study of whiteness including media and film studies, performance and creative writing, cultural theory, sociology, psychology and medical approaches including cosmetic surgery, and other cognate areas
More information here.

Has publication in the mass-market format affected perceptions of romance novels?
Distinctions that Matter: Popular Literature and Material Culture

Essays are invited for a special issue of Belphégor that seeks to explore the relationship between distinctions of taste and textual production by examining how the materiality of literary texts influences and perhaps even determines their cultural status. In the nineteenth century, for example, printing and binding became cheaper, faster, and more easily accessible than ever before, which resulted in an explosion of print material. As printing costs decreased and print runs increased, the price of books became cheaper and publishers were able to attract more readers, which led to a greater demand for new content. The cultural impact of this shift was twofold. On the one hand, this decrease in printing costs lowered the cultural entrance level, which resulted in the expansion of popular or trivial literature as well as a wide range of new popular formats, such as dime novels, pulp magazines, comic books, and paperbacks. On the other hand, publishers also attempted to mimic the conventions of exclusiveness through printing and binding techniques in order to preserve the highbrow status of literature as a marker of class distinctions. This led to the rise of competing formats that attempted to challenge the perceived lowbrow status of popular literature, such as deluxe editions and graphic novels. As the divide between highbrow and lowbrow taste widened, the materiality of the text became the primary site where the cultural status of popular literature was both constructed and contested. The same issues also inform cultural debates concerning digital media, as cultural distinctions are now being reconfigured through new forms of electronic display in the post-print era.
Abstracts must be submitted by 1 March 2012. More details here.

After the success of Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Sir Ian Mackenzie and the recent publication of Eloisa James's The Duke is Mine in which the heroine
is torn between a duke with an Asperger's-like inability to express emotion, who relies on logic, and her fiancé Rupert, who is all emotion with almost no logic. (interview with the author)
I wondered if there was some material in romance novels which would be relevant to the following volume:
Bright Lines: Culture On the Autism Spectrum
"Am I on the spectrum?" asks Abed Nadir, a character on the show Community. He then provides an answer: "None of your business." His joke presumes that the audience will understand this reference to the autism spectrum, and Community introduces the topic of Asperger's Syndrome in its pilot episode. Since the publication of Temple Grandin's work on autism in 1986, there has been a textual explosion of work on Asperger's Syndrome and the autism spectrum. Changes to the DSM-V will replace Asperger's Syndrome with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, a broadening that could threaten the culture that aspie/AS-identified people have produced in the form of literature and visual media. This volume would explore representations of autism within popular culture.
Abstracts are due by 1 May 2012. More details here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love in Reality

Some fear that romances might give readers unrealistic expectations about relationships and unhealthy attitudes about sex, a theory posited by relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam in a July essay in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care.
Not so, says Eric Selinger, associate professor of English at DePaul University, who uses romances in his research on love, desire and literary pleasure. "Every year or two someone sends up a warning flare: 'Reading romance is bad for you!' There's no … data, no evidence — just a handful of anecdotes."
To be fair, one could equally well say that there's only a "handful of anecdotes" supporting the idea that romances are good for you (albeit a large handful).  It might be interesting to know whether Burnett and Beto's findings would be replicated across larger groups of romance readers (they only interviewed "15 [...] women between the ages of 18 and 55"), because they found mixed effects:
The women agreed with Alberts' (1986) findings that the fictional conversations in romance novels inform and reflect the actual male-female conversations of the social world. One participant described how she used the communication in the novels to help her "communicate with the people around [her]." Some of the participants explained that they were able to have the right expectations of their romantic partners, but one participant explained that she "sometimes compares" her husband with the hero, which "flusters" him. Other influences of the romance novels include a change in their mood because "it helps you kind of get yourself out of the context of whatever is going on." A couple of the participants explained that romance novels help you to communicate better with your romantic partner, partly because the novels give "a guy's point of view." The comments stating that conflict was handled similarly to that in romance novels were divided almost equally between "yes" and "no." [...]
The final question asked during each focus group was if the participants thought that romance novels have had an impact on their relationships. They explained that there were some comparisons in their relationships to those in the novels, but even when there was not, they still stayed committed to their "real life" partners. However, two of the women said that they now knew why some of their relationships did not work out--because they were not "looking for real substance." They were "looking for the fairy tale romance novel."
The whole of that study is available here. Regarding the question of whether fictions are good or bad for us, Robert Sternberg argues that
All our lives we have heard stories of various kinds, many with love as a leitmotif. We thus have an array of stories we can draw on when composing our own. (26)
We come to relationships with many preconceived ideas. These ideas, or stories, are not right or wrong in themselves, although they may be more or less adaptive - that is, more or less healthy in promoting a good fit to the environment. What is viewed as adaptive varies over time and place. For example, one culture might view love as an indispensable part of marriage; another culture might view love as irrelevant to marriage. In both cultures, these values are likely to be taught not as somewhat arbitrary matters of cultural convention, but as matters of right and wrong. What are viewed as "realities" are rather perceptions of realities - stories. (7)
stories are so powerful in our lives, and also so hard to change. We may continue in a relationship that is dysfunctional in many respects simply because it does represent love to us, "sick" as that love may seem to others. We may even see the culture as supporting the kind of love we have. (221)
Tristan and Isolde - adulterous love
Cinderella waiting for her Prince
Burnett, Ann, & Rhea Reinhardt Beto, 2000. ‘Reading Romance Novels: An Application of Parasocial Relationship Theory’, North Dakota Journal of Speech & Theatre, 13.

Lamb, Joyce. "Readers' hearts remain true to romance novels." USA TODAY, 14 February 2012. [Edited to add: A fuller version of Eric's thoughts on the benefits of reading romance can be found at the end of another post, on the USA Today's Happy Ever After blog.]

Sternberg, Robert. Love is a Story: A New Theory of Relationships. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

The first image is of John William Waterhouse's "Tristan and Isolde with the Potion" and the second is of the cover of Louis Ferdinand Gottschalk, David Kilburn Stevens, Edward Warren Corliss and Robert Ayres Barnet's Cinderella and the Prince; or, Castle of Heart's Desire: A fairy Excuse for Songs and Dances. Boston: White-Smitz music pub. co., 1904. Both came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Linking to Others

Cora Buhlert has a
theory – to be explained at length in my PhD thesis – that the portrayal of “monsters” such as vampire and werewolves became more human as the othering of marginalized people in the real world became less and less acceptable. This also fits in with my findings that the 1960s were the turning point where the portrayal of former monsters began to change. And of course supernatural beings make excellent metaphors for the marginalized group of the author’s choice.
A different way of creating "Others" is explored by Melanie Tannenbaum. It's called "benevolent sexism" and it's
a formal name for all of those comments and stereotypes that can somehow feel both nice and wrong at the same time, such as the belief that women are “delicate flowers” that need to be protected by men, or the notion that women have the special gift of being “more kind and caring” than their male counterparts. And yes, it might sound complimentary, but it still counts as sexism.
Jonathan Frantzen writes in The New Yorker about Edith Wharton and Steve Donoghue is

It wasn’t just Franzen’s pseudo-professorial leather-elbow-patch “let us now consider” air of arrogance, either, although you know you’re going to get plenty of that in a piece that begins, “The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.” [...] the real horror of this piece is the fact that Franzen only needs four paragraphs to get to what’s really on his mind: Edith Wharton wasn’t hot. See, Franzen’s idea is that we like to root for our authors, and that process is facilitated by every flaw the author has. Edith Wharton “wasn’t pretty,” and so, according to Franzen, she spent the rest of her writing life exorcising her shame and anger over that fact in her fiction. Franzen can actually look at a book like The House of Mirth and then write something like this: “The novel can be read as a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be.”

I know we don’t hire Jonathan Franzen to be a great literary critic. We hire him to be a bloatedly overrated literary sexist (the death of Norman Mailer left the position open). But even so, it would never have occurred to Franzen in a million years to get four paragraphs into a piece about F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway and then start talking about how physically attractive they were – and even if he tried it, no New Yorker editor would have allowed it to see print.
The Queen of Sheba was known for her wisdom and her wealth:
Almost 3,000 years ago, the ruler of Sheba, which spanned modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem with vast quantities of gold to give to King Solomon. Now an enormous ancient goldmine, together with the ruins of a temple and the site of a battlefield, have been discovered in her former territory. [...]

Sheba was a powerful incense-trading kingdom that prospered through trade with Jerusalem and the Roman empire. The queen is immortalised in Qur'an and the Bible, which describes her visit to Solomon "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold and precious stones ... Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices."

Although little is known about her, the queen's image inspired medieval Christian mystical works in which she embodied divine wisdom, as well as Turkish and Persian paintings, Handel's oratorio Solomon, and Hollywood films. Her story is still told across Africa and Arabia, and the Ethiopian tales are immortalised in the holy book the Kebra Nagast.

Hers is said to be one of the world's oldest love stories. The Bible says she visited Solomon to test his wisdom by asking him several riddles. Legend has it that he wooed her, and that descendants of their child, Menelik – son of the wise – became the kings of Abyssinia.
Another mine, and another love story, are depicted in Marie Bjelke Petersen's Jewelled Nights, "written in 1923" (Delamoir 115), which was turned into a 1925 silent movie starring and produced by Louise Lovely. This film has now
been brought back to life.

Adapted from a novel, the film follows a 'social butterfly' who runs away from her Melbourne home to a mining boom in Tasmania. She wants to restore her family's fortunes which were lost on the Melbourne Cup.

The film's restorer Bernard Lloyd says it is an epic love story.
"She dresses as her brother and she comes to Tasmania because she's heard that in Tasmania there are riches to be made, there's a mining boom going on," he said. "There, on the mining fields, she finds something much more valuable; true love."
The novel features a heroine who disguises herself as a man, the film was "advertised as being based on 'Marie Bjelke Petersen's virile story'" (Delamoir 119) and
at the novel's romantic climax--at that narrative point when it could be expected that gender matters the most--Bjelke Petersen empties out the categories male/female. Salarno actually seems disappointed at realising that 'Dick' is really Elaine. Indeed, he has to reason himself around to accepting it:
the fact should not make any vital difference between them; for was not his little pal just the same? His personality, his delightful ways, his high courage, the qualities he most admired in him, these could surely not be affected by the circumstances of sex. Besides, his affection for his young mate was by this time of too deep a nature to be affected by the newly-gained knowledge. (75)
Bjelke Petersen goes against the romantic grain by arguing that, in the end, gender is irrelevant to the formation of the couple. Simultaneously, gender is shown to be irrelevant to the achievement of 'masculine' success as a miner; with some guidance from Salarno, 'Dick' is just as good at finding the mineral as the 'typically Australian' men.  (Delamoir 123-24)

Delamoir, Jeanette. “Marie Bjelke Petersen’s ‘Virile Story’: Jewelled Nights, Gender Instability, and the Bush." Hecate 29.1 (2003): 115-131.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Review of a Review of EIKAL

Back when I had time on my hands (ha!), I briefly flirted with starting a blog reviewing chick flicks and romcoms. I like my movies the way I like my books: smart, interesting, sexy, and with an HEA. I was tired of reading between the lines of professional reviews excoriating romcoms and chick flicks for not being Weighty and Meaningful, trying to figure out if I’d like the movie. I was sick to death of movie reviewers expecting these movies to be something they weren’t, something they had no intention of being, something that would defeat their very purpose and goals as chick flicks and romcoms. This kind of reviewing always seemed to be more about the reviewer and their insecurities about genre than the film itself. And that has always felt to me deeply unfair and frustratingly dismissive of a whole genre of creative expression that often does have weight and meaning to viewers who enjoy it.

And thus we come to Jessica Miller’s review of Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels (henceforth: EIKAL). EIKAL, according to Miller, is “boosterism” at its worst – incoherent, badly formatted, lacking distance from its subject, unhip, uncool, fawning even. What the romance genre needs, Miller argues, is sustained academic analysis about its literary merit, not heartwarming (even cloying) stories about what readers have learned from it.

I disagree and do so on a number of levels. Although I (obviously, I hope) believe that romance needs sustained academic exploration, I think that what EIKAL does is a necessary good. I also think Miller is expecting EIKAL to be what it never had any intention of being, what it doesn’t want to be, what – in fact – it has no business being (something, in my opinion, that Wendell understands, although that’s not really relevant to a review of the book itself). And in failing to meet and critique the book on its own terms, the review came across as ironically and unintentionally derisive toward the genre and its readers.

Four paragraphs in, Miller provides three paragraphs of background about SBTB and Wendell’s career as a romance-positive media pundit. Miller strongly implies that Wendell and Tan “scored” a book contract for their first book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms (henceforth BHB), because they destroyed the career of (plagiarizing) romance author Cassie Edwards. As I said in my comments at the review site, the facts are wrong: although BHB was published in April 2009, almost 18 months after the posts in January 2008 about Edwards’ plagiarism, the publishing world being as slow as it is, Wendell and Tan “scored” their book contract in 2007 and were deep in the process of writing BHB when they broke the Edwards story. And while Miller responded to me at the site that “Luckily, nothing hangs on the timeline, as far as I can see. I was trying to give the OLM reader a general sense of the Wendell’s history, not making a judgment in any way about that history,” I think, in fact, that the judgmental – even personally pointed – tone (Tan departs for “greener pastures,” implying, for instance, that Wendell’s career as a “man titty media pundit” is something she has to settle for, is the best she can get) colors the rest of the review. The tone of these paragraphs cradles and contextualizes the rest of the review, almost implying that the review hinges on an incorrect view about Wendell’s history and success more than it rests on the merits of the book itself.

However, Miller follows this highly questionable history with a fairly brilliant summary of the goals and aims of EIKAL:

The premise of Everything I Know is clear from its title: romance novels offer life lessons, especially about love and relationships. The critics who assume romance novels feature gorgeous, perfect people “meeting cute” and slipping effortlessly into a happily ever after are wrong: romance novels tell the stories of flawed people who struggle and face the same challenges as any average reader. Reading romance novels has a positive impact on readers’ lives, teaching them about everything from effective communication and mutual respect to being happy with themselves and enjoying sex. And to the extent that romance novels do contain fantasy sex, perfect love, and the kind of triumphant overcoming of impossible odds that makes for a compelling narrative, romance readers, aware that it’s fantasy, can still be inspired, comforted, or moved in ways that make them better, wiser people. Everything I Know takes the romance genre and its readers seriously, insisting that the genre’s central concerns—especially romantic love, sex, and relationships—are vital human interests that are often unfairly trivialized owing to their association with femininity. Wendell’s claims are substantiated by an abundance of reader testimony, author interviews, and some industry-sponsored research. While Wendell undoubtedly chose the responses that best supported her own hypothesis, Everything I Know offers romance readers a unique platform for sharing the impact these novels have had on their lives.

Yes, this is exactly what EIKAL is, which is why what comes before and after in Miller’s review is so problematic.

I will not comment here on Miller’s claims about EIKAL’s size, formatting, repetitiveness, or audience confusion. I don’t disagree with a lot of what Miller says in this section – EIKAL is not, in fact, even close to perfect – and I appreciate the frankness of her critique here.

I do, however, disagree with Miller’s turn to scrutinize Wendell’s “specific claims” about “reader engagement” and with her subsequent critiques of the book on those grounds.

First of all, Miller seems to imply that Wendell’s contributing readers/authors must be uncritical readers, because how they “manage to glean the good stuff from the bad” amounts to an utter mystery. But then, in the next paragraph, Miller claims that readers have a “diversity of . . . engagement with the genre” that Wendell ignores. It seems contradictory to claim, on the one hand, that readers are so uncritical and morally naive that they’ll be led astray by immoral representations in the novels they read, and then, on the other, condemn Wendell for not recognizing or for deliberately ignoring the nuances of her contributors’ experiences. And this contradiction goes to what I think is the fundamental problem in Miller’s review, which is that the book is being judged against Miller’s personal standards of feminism and literary value, rather than whatever standards the book establishes for itself (and if these are contradictory, then that is another, more pertinent, level of critique to be pursued).

In an apparent attempt to question Wendell’s over-generalizations and simplifications of her contributors’ experiences, Miller next turns to discuss her experience of reading Wendell’s book “as a feminist.” (My reference to Wendell and not EIKAL is intentional here, since Miller often refers to Wendell when critiquing the book, another aspect of the review I find troubling.) In the process, though, she (re)creates a fairly standard Second Wave feminist critique of the romance genre. More often than not, the review comes across to me as a debate between Miller’s feminism and what Miller (sometimes rather condescendingly) perceives Wendell’s feminism to be. This is particularly apparent, for example, at the point where Miller feels “dismay” at the anecdote by the reader who comes home from work and reads 30 minutes of Harlequin before preparing dinner. While Miller notes (echoing Radway almost perfectly) that such an anecdote begs the question of the second shift, she does not consider the possibility that the woman is a single mother, or that for any number of reasons there is no partner with whom the second shift labor can be shared. Moreover, the shifts in the review back and forth between a critique of the reader anecdotes and a critique of Wendell as author further confuse Miller’s analysis and forefront the judgments she is making as personal rather than critically embedded in the terms of the text itself.

Miller then calls for an entirely different evaluation of the romance genre: “It’s time to stop evaluating romance novels in terms of their putative effects on (women) readers, and to pay more attention to their literary merit and ability to provide pure pleasure.” I’m very unclear what Miller means by “pure pleasure.” Why is “pure pleasure” (whatever it is) better (as it obviously must be) than the pleasure that Wendell’s contributors say time and again that they received from romance novels?

More pertinent, however, to my own work and to most valid literary criticism of the romance genre is the combative dichotomy Miller constructs between reader response and literary merit as valid ways to examine the genre. Modern literary criticism is not, in fact, in the business of determining literary merit. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another question with much spilled ink to its name, but that’s just not what we as literary critics do anymore. I can say just as much about a novel that I think is truly bad from the standpoint of literary merit and “pure pleasure” as I can say about one that I think is brilliant (in fact, I spent a whole chapter of my dissertation doing precisely that). Literary criticism is not about picking the good novels from the bad. It’s about analyzing cultural phenomena. From that perspective, EIKAL is more valuable precisely as evidence of reader response to the genre than any list of the 100 Best Romances. Which is not necessarily to say that EIKAL is successful in what it sets out to do; the problem is discerning that initial aim (or aims) and evaluating the book on those terms, something that lies at the heart of both literary criticism and reviewing from an academic perspective.

Academically, for instance, I use BHB as evidence of the “received wisdom” of the deeply-knowledgeable romance reader, the “superfan,” if you will. Which is to say, when Wendell and Tan conflate Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love as pretty much the same book, I use that as evidence in my own discussion of these blockbuster historical romances that this is how twenty-first century romance readers in general see these two books and the disparate genres they spawned, despite their significant differences from each other. I do not expect BHB or EIKAL to be anything other than what they claim to be, what they try to be, and what, I argue, they succeed in being. I do not expect BHB to be a vigorously researched academic critique of the romance genre. Nor do I expect EIKAL to be a rigorous scientific survey of a representative sample of readers. I expect them both to be what they claim they are: BHB is an exploration of the genre that defends the genre for what it does right and lovingly brings it to task for what it screws up, while EIKAL is a loving exploration of reader interaction with the genre that provides readers with both a voice and the arguments to defend their reading habits. Miller may disagree with my assessment of EIKAL’s success in achieving its aims, but I wish she had done it on the book’s own terms, so that any debate about the review could be based on the book itself and not an external standard of academic worthiness.

The difference between applying literary criticism to the genre or to EIKAL is important and generally ignored in Miller’s review. That Miller is writing the review from an academic perspective might account for some of this disconnect, although I don’t think it accounts for all of it. Some is, I think, a product of a conflation of literary critique of the genre from within the genre, and critique of a work that is more about readers than the genre itself.

I think, in fact, that there’s a disconnect between EIKAL’s aims as a proudly fond exploration of reader response, and Miller’s entirely laudable desire to have genuine deep critique of the genre. Wendell is not attempting in EIKAL to analyze the genre, nor does she have any pretentions to being able to perform literary criticism. Wendell is focused on demonstrating that her contributors (romance readers and authors) are intelligent, conscious consumers of the genre they (we) all love so much. She is also attempting to provide readers with a validation of their own reading choices and to provide non-readers with something to think about (hence, as Miller rightly points out, its confusing tone shifts at times). EIKAL might not, as Miller points out, change any minds, but it gives readers a voice to relate the (pure?) pleasure they find in the romance genre. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Miller’s review, on the contrary, suggests that there is, indeed, something wrong with that. This is not only a provocative implication, but also a different question from what the book is and whether or not it succeeds in being what it claims to be.

ETA Full Disclosure: I'm quoted two or three times in EIKAL. I responded to Wendell's SBTB posts asking for input and she quoted me from there, not from a personal interview. I am, however, also friendly with Wendell and occasionally share meals with her. But then I've also shared meals with Miller.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

McDaniel College Receives $100,000 Grant from Nora Roberts Foundation

I've just received the following press release:

Office of Communications and Marketing
2 College Hill
Westminster, MD 21157-4390

Contact: Cheryl Knauer


February 7, 2012


Grant to Help Advance Research and Study of Romance Literature

Second consecutive year that McDaniel has received funding from Nora Roberts, a best-selling author of more than 200 romance novels

WESTMINSTER, Md. – McDaniel College has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Nora Roberts Foundation to help advance research and study of romance literature.

This is the second consecutive year that the college has received funding from Nora Roberts, a best-selling author of more than 200 romance novels.

The grant from the Nora Roberts Foundation supports McDaniel’s academic minor in romance fiction and an online creative writing course on the subject, in addition to the American romance collection in Hoover Library, which has established McDaniel as one of the few centers for the study of the romance genre.

McDaniel English professor Pam Regis, a nationally recognized expert on romance novels and author of “A Natural History of the Romance Novel,” organized an international conference in November 2011 at the college, which included presentations on popular romance in the new millennium.

About the grant, Roger Casey, president of McDaniel College, said, “This gift will allow the college to reinforce Ms. Roberts’ reputation in the academic and literary arenas as a master of and dedicated advocate for the romance genre. It will also raise the profile of the romance novel among scholars and the academic community.”

Nora Roberts is a best-selling author of more than 200 romance novels. Her first, “Irish Thoroughbred,” was published in 1981. More than 280 million copies of her books are in print, including 12 million copies sold in 2005 alone. McDaniel College awarded her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 2006.

For more information about McDaniel College, visit or call 410-857-2290. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Everything I Know About Love: Too Much and Too Little

There has been a great deal of discussion taking place about Jessica Miller’s review of Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels. The review provoked many interesting questions, responses, and queries. I don’t want to engage specifically with the review, but to offer another perspective on EIKAL.

Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse writes: “Everyone will understand that X has ‘huge problems’ with his sexuality; but no one will be interested in those Y may have with his sentimentality: love is obscene precisely in that it puts the sentimental in place of the sexual.”

I’m guilty of sentimental reading and writing, and I find these sentimental or affective responses to reading and writing to be particularly interesting. Indeed, this is what makes romance reading so interesting – romance novels thrive on the sentimental (and sometimes the sexual). But, I don’t think we should treat these “sentimental” moments without criticism.

For instance, in Miller’s review, one of the most interesting lines from my perspective was: “I haven’t said much about the specific lessons Wendell finds in he romance genre. This is because, as a romance reader and therefore a member of her target audience, I’m too embarrassed.” I love this moment in the review, not because I agree with it, but because the reader is “too embarrassed.” Not just embarrassed, but excessively so. Barthes writes: “To try to write about love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes of which love diminishes and levels it)."

The romance is excessive precisely because it is about love. Love is excessive. But Barthes is not alone. Richard Terdiman writes, “people love being in love, and when they are they talk and write about it with an expansive intensity.” Adam Phillips writes that falling in love is “traditionally overwhelming, [an] excessive experience.” To fall in love and to fall out of love (or worse, to be thrown out of love, to be rejected and rendered abject) are excessive experiences and we tell these stories so as to come to terms with them.

Why, for instance, if we know that love is dangerous, can cause harm, shatter, and perhaps ultimately destroy us, do we continue to desire, long for, dream of, and write about love? Just consider the excessive story of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the hero tells his reader: “without doubt, the only thing that makes Man’s life on earth essential and necessary is love.” All of our love stories and romance novels talk about the possibility of love, loving, and being loved. I admit that this reading of love is hopelessly romantic. Romance novels provide readers with ways of imagining love and loss, the muck of language, things being too much and too little. These are stories that need to be told, need to be listened to, need to be read because they are so essential to the human experience. The desire to read about love and tell love stories is a way of coming to terms – a search for lost terms – with a love that cannot and will not be excessive enough.

For some readers of EIKAL, I imagine there is a recognition of not being alone in their love of romance, for others, I imagine they are “embarrassed.” I think varying reactions are testament to the complexity of romance. Readers, like the romance novels they read, are not a monolithic group.

EIKAL puts on full display the wonderful, luscious, beautiful, problematic, heart-breaking excessiveness of romance. Readers of romance, critics of romances, and scholars of love are, I think, coming to terms with, trying to capture, and falling in love with love and its excesses. Perhaps an all too optimistic vision of Everything I Know About Love, but to quote my favourite writer, Marcel Proust, “if a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all of the time.”

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Popular Romance Project

The Popular Romance Project's website includes posts from contributors to Teach Me Tonight but before I list them, here's a bit more information about the project itself:
The Popular Romance Project will explore the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, and internet fan fiction, taking a global perspective—while looking back across time as far as the ancient Greeks.

The Popular Romance Project will include four ambitious, high-profile, carefully integrated programs:
  • a feature-length documentary (working title: Love Between the Covers) for international television broadcast, focusing on the global community of romance readers, writers, and publishers
  • an interactive, content-rich website created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, allowing the website’s users to see romance novels in a broad context across time and place
  • an academic symposium on the past and future of the romance novel hosted by the Library of Congress Center for the Book, and
  • a nationwide series of library programs dealing with the past, present, and future of the romance novel, plus a traveling exhibit, organized by the American Library Association.
The documentary is being made by Laurie Kahn and there are some "behind the scenes" posts on the website about the making of the documentary.

In addition, there are currently three interviews, with Beverly Jenkins, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Sarah Wendell.

The "talking about romance" section of the website features posts from romance scholars. So far there are posts by
To get forthcoming posts from the Popular Romance Project, you can subscribe to the site's RSS feed.

Friday, February 03, 2012

More Conferencing Ahoy: Calling Scholars of European Romance

The European Popular Culture Association is holding its inaugural conference July 11-13 2012 in London. This association is dedicated to exploring "European popular culture in all its different forms. This might include European Film (past and present), Television, Music, Celebrity, The Body, Fashion, New Media, Comics, Popular Literature, Sport, Heritage and Curation. And more."

Because we think it's important to have the field of popular romance be present at this first conference on European popular culture, Amy Burge and myself are organizing a panel on Popular Romance for this conference. We are interested in including all forms of popular romance (literature, film, music, etc.) from any time period and in any medium - as long as it is both European and popular. Please get in touch with us asap if you are interested in joining us in London this summer. We'd love to make a strong showing at this new gathering of popular culture scholars.

The entire CFP is here

The closing date for the call is February 18 2012. Please contact us by February 15 so we can compose a full panel proposal.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Thinking about Learning about Love

In Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell argues that
Inside those stories is everything you need to have a happy, loving relationship. [...] And what better way to learn about relationships and how they start, fracture, and become stronger once repaired, than to read about those relationships in many, many permutations and variations? (4-5)
In her review of EIKALILFRN Jessica Miller, a romance reader and a philosopher who teaches at the University of Maine, suggests that there's something rather problematic about Wendell's line of argument:
Though Wendell is writing a “gift book,” not a work of theory or literary criticism, her specific claims deserve some scrutiny, particularly around the issue of reader engagement, which is central to her arguments on the genre’s behalf. How, for instance, do romance readers manage to glean the good stuff but not the bad? [...] Wendell relies on reader testimonials for her claim that romance readers learn the real lessons, but merely enjoy the fantasy, but then what do we do about readers who testify that romance has harmed them [...]? To her credit, Wendell includes a few comments from readers who claim they learned what not to expect by reading romance [...]

But if savvy readers come to the genre ready and able to suss out what’s just fantasy, what’s worth emulating, and what not to do, then romance novels aren’t actually teaching these readers anything new. Wendell herself admits that the lessons romance teaches are “things you likely learned as a child when you were taught how to treat other people.” In that case, it would be more accurate to say that romance novels reflect or deepen moral beliefs readers already hold. This makes sense—but then it follows that if a reader holds pernicious or delusional moral beliefs (however we define those), given the sheer size of the genre, she can probably find some reinforcing of those bad moral beliefs in romance novels, too.
Miller argues that
It’s time to stop evaluating romance novels in terms of their putative effects on (women) readers, and to pay more attention to their literary merit and ability to provide pure pleasure.
So I'll conclude with a reminder that the 2012 conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance takes as its subject "The Pleasures of Romance" and "asks one large question: What is the place of pleasure in popular romance?" The closing date for "proposals for individual papers, full panels, roundtables, interviews, or innovative presentations for peer-review consideration" is 1 May 2012.

  • Miller, Jessica. "A Fine Romance." Open Letters Monthly. 1 Feb. 2012.
  • Wendell, Sarah. Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011.