If you followed the #MCDROM hashtag on Twitter last week, you saw me, Jessica Tripler and Sarah Frantz trying to keep up with the presentations at the McDaniel College Popular Romance in the New Millennium conference.
It was, in a word, brain-full. As in, my brain is very full now. I will do my best to do a logical and cogent summary, but it may be best for those incredibly curious to wait for the issue of the IASPR journal, JPRS which promises to publish the conference proceedings.
The conference started off with a keynote from Dr. Mary Bly better known as Eloisa James, that focused on: Where is romance scholarship right now?
The simple answer: most of romance scholarship, from local professors to scholars from Utah, Arkansas and Michigan to Belgium, was in that room. But James’ talk focused on the state of the genre and the state of the scholarship.
Three points that James made are still running in lopsided circles in my brain.
1. When Food Network recently hosted a cake challenge where the bakers had to create a cake that was all about romance, the president of RWA was judging. One cake was removed from the final competition because the hero shot the heroine and she was dead (and not coming back). Obviously, not a romance. But another cake didn't make the cut because the hero and heroine were already married, and the judge said that wasn't a romance. The happily ever after IS the wedding.
James pointed out that she growled at the tv at this moment, because that wasn't her understanding of romance. In James' opinion, RWA President Dorien Kelly dated her definition of romance by removing married people from consideration as subjects of romance – and if you're familiar with James' books, you know that many already-married couples are featured among the protagonists. So not even within the genre can folks necessarily agree what exactly encompasses a romance.
2. James noticed that in the upcoming book of scholarship about the romance genre, there were articles that examined her books, but that the scholar in question hadn't contacted her about their reading and analysis of those books, and this lack of contact surprised her. James said she wishes she could call or tweet or talk on Facebook with the authors she studies but they're long, long loooong dead. She thinks, if I am interpreting her comments correctly, that scholarship about romance novels should include conversations with the authors, most especially since authors are so present and available in social media – which brings me to the final point that's doing cartwheels in my brain.
3. James noted that in a recent meeting with her publishers, both HarperCollins and Penguin (publisher of her upcoming Paris memoir in 2012) were very focused on her 75k Facebook friends and 6200+ Twitter followers, as if social media translated to dollar signs. She doesn't believe that it does, but does think that social media has changed a LOT of what it means to be an author.
Social media is “the commodification of the charisma of the author,” and it's no longer nearly enough to write a book. Authors also have to be socially present on these networks, interact with readers, and in some cases, selling books themselves. Because of the affiliate code to bookstores like Amazon and BN, James knows how many copies of a book she sells through an affiliate link. Julia Quinn noted that she sold many copies of James' book due to a recent Facebook post, and James also used EIKAL as an example, as she listed it on her Facebook page so her Facebook folks would know she was one of the authors featured. So, as she pointed out, she's not only book marketing and book writing but book selling, as well. Yet another changing role of the author, and reformation of the genre.
Friday morning marked the start of the conference. At breakfast there was French toast made of glazed donuts. My inner sugar-junkie about expired of complete glee.
The best part of day was the period of time after each session. There were several long conversations of debate and challenge of ideas that didn't necessarily become hostile. Discussion of the meaning and use of cliches, of student and administrative attitude toward the teaching of romance, and of the role of sexuality in romance could have gone on for more than the allotted time, and it made picking a table to sit at for lunch and dinner really difficult because every table had an awesome conversation going on.
Questioning the concept of the “death of author” rebounded in each discussion, because these academics are studying books wherein author is possibly still alive and even more possibly still publishing, and probably online at that moment. While there's plenty of argument for the separation of the text to be analyzed and the author who created it, that separation can create challenges to researchers because the author is important in some context—though she is not the sole master of the meaning(s) of the text. (I'm right now thinking that I prefer separation of the creator from the work, even when the creator is still creating and the study of the genre is so new, because I think each reader's experience is her own, and should not be influenced or corrected by the creator of a book. But I'm still pondering that one).
Yet as James pointed out, researchers and scholars can't ignore the fact that authors are talking with readers, and they are between them creating MORE text to examine. Some of the papers at the conference examined the text of author websites and author/reader communities, such as Stephanie Moody's paper, “‘Convergence Culture’: Exploring the Literacy Practices of Online Romance Fiction Communities.” Others, such as Kat Schroeder, applied network theory to existing communities like IASPR and JPRS, which are focused on the romance genre, studying the connectivity and meaning behind those connections.
I think network theory is my new favorite thing, and if I were going back to grad school, I'd be all over that. Existing forms of literary criticism are molding with new concepts like network theory to examine the books, the women who write them, and the communities of women who read them—AND the communities of scholars who study them. The scholars of the genre are studying themselves while they study. The readers of the genre are creating texts that are as valued for analysis as the works themselves. It's rather amazing.
Also amazing were the number of people who cited me, the site, or the Bosoms or EIKAL. That was amazing, humbling and astonishing. I spent a lot of time feeling my cheeks turning red.
But as I mentioned earlier, it was the discussions after each session that were like brain candy. So much in one comment to ponder, especially when two individuals didn't agree. I love to witness creativity and the creative response to text consumed, especially when that occurs in romance, among people who deploy every brain cell in their investigation and enjoyment of the genre.
What follows are my notes, taken after tweeting or during breaks.
Pedagogy and Teaching the Romance (morning sessions):
Amy Burge presented a session on creative exercises she's used that invite students to physically rearrange text of romance page created statements, interpretations and interactive analysis. She led the session for conference attendees on Friday morning (I wasn't there yet, alas) and created visual art about romance that decorated the conference space.
Here are some pics:
Glinda Hall from Arkansas State presented a discussion of what including romance in courses does to the classroom community. Her course from Spring 2010 was titled “Beyond Heaving Bosoms: Women’s Popular Romance Fiction” (I joined the class via Skype on the last day that semester- it was very cool). Because romances are about intimacy and sex/sexuality, her course focus slowly became about sexuality and contemporary sexual culture because the students focused on that aspect of the text. Hall created a “safe space” for examination and discussion of sex, which isn't something easily discussed in a public forum, and managed to create candid discussions about romances, and the intimacy within them.
The sessions on Canons and Context were eye opening not only because of the enthusiasm from the professors who taught, but the revelations about the student reactions to the courses being taught. Lessons learned:
- – Professors were sometimes more enthusiastic about teaching romance
- – Students were often hideously embarrassed about the novels, buying, or being seen reading them
Dr. SelingerDr. William Gleason** showed slides of the covers he provides, allowing students to hide their romances
**My apologies: I mixed up the two presentations by Drs. Gleason and Selinger. My apologies to both!
Antonia Losano, who due to craptastic weather, didn't make it to the conference, wrote a paper about the experience of teaching romances at Middlebury. Her paper was extraordinary, and is summarized nicely in her abstract:
“Sneaking it in at the end: Introducing Popular Romance into the Small College Classroom” Mounting innovative new courses on popular culture is always challenging, but the endeavor has particular tensions in a small English department at a small Liberal Arts college. If I were to offer a course solely on popular romance, either one of the gateway courses, or a seminal survey, or the Victorian literature course wouldn’t get taught that year (and if English majors can’t get the courses they need to graduate, parents who are spending over $50,000 a year on this education start complaining). My contention, however, is that this constraint can be intensely productive for the study and teaching of popular romance, which need not be lost–it must simply be incorporated. Instead of being taught in a stand–alone course, romances can and should, I argue, be folded into the fabric of the academic canon. A course just on popular romance runs the risk of isolating and marginalizing the popular romance–as if we were trying to keep it from infecting the Beowulf to Virginia Woolf survey, for example. It has been my strategy to include at least one popular romance novel into the syllabus of each course I teach, encouraging students to realize that the boundaries between romance fiction and “canonical” fiction are more permeable than critics of the former would like. In this conference paper I hope to offer suggestions on ways to engage with the popular romance in academic courses within the context of literary history.
I really enjoyed this paper, and also playing “Romance Jeopardy” with Jayashree Kamble, whose presentation focused on using romance and literary canon texts alongside one another to examine concepts such as exoticism, or on horror and genre structure. She provided copies of her syllabus and I didn't think I'd say this about a syllabus, but it was fascinating.
I admit, I was a bit wary of an hour-plus plenary over lunch (which is when I get sleepy) but oh, my stars and thoroughbreds, An Goris' brief examination of her 400+ page dissertation was … well, I am running out of superlatives here. She outlined how she approached her study of Roberts' novels, and why author examinations and author studies were a logical and efficient way, in her opinion, to begin the work of academic research in to popular romance.
Goris' dissertation focused on the paratext of Roberts' novels, examining the way in which the covers and print matter surrounding the narrative text evolved with Roberts' career.
Goris touched on branding, the change in style of the covers, and how Roberts' writing diverged several times from the established conventions of romance fiction at the time. For example, Roberts began writing series narratives, connected stories focused on a family or on a common adventure, creating stories that took place over thee books instead of one. Those narratives that were connected were branded to indicate their connectedness, but not at the very beginning.
Goris' dissertation defense is on 29 November in Belgium. It's a public event, so if you're in Belgium, you can stop by.
My favorite session was probably “Our Novels Our Selves” in which Samantha Sabalis presented a Lacanian analysis of Courtney Milan's “Proof by Seduction” and “Unveiled,” and how the heroine's fragmented identity is restored to self-actualized wholeness by the hero's recognition of her unified self. The ideas of hidden and dual identities are big parts of Milan's books, and Sabalis' analysis was insightful as to what multiple and fragmented identities mean theoretically and textually.
In an interesting twist on the discussion of the separation of author and text, I tweeted the hell out of that paper because I thought it was so interesting, and Courtney Milan responded that she was blown away at the idea that someone was using Lacan to analyze her work, especially since her heroines regularly use false identities.
Jonathan Allan presented portions of his dissertation work which focused on the therapeutic uses of romance novels, or, perhaps better put, how romance novels and therapy are more related than one might think, especially in the work both do to identify ideal self and ideal resolutions and outcomes. I am really not doing justice to this paper – here, have the abstract:
“Transference and the Popular Romance Novel” Jacques Lacan observes that “positive transference is when you have a soft spot for the individual concerned [...] and negative transference is when you have to keep your eye on him.” Though Lacan is talking about the site of analysis, it seems that a great deal of literary labor can and often does mimic the process of analysis both in the role of analyst and analysand. This study considers the place of psychoanalysis in reading, critiquing, and studying the popular romance novel. This paper does not seek to analyze romance readers from afar; rather what can psychoanalysis tell us about the romance novel?
Maryan Wherry presented a feminist literary critical examination of the sex in romance – specifically the sex scenes, and how the established canon of feminist critics apply marvelously well to analysis of the sexual language of romance. As we know, sexuality in romance focuses much on the female sexual experience, both in point of view of the scene, and in the overall progress of the story. Wherry's paper was amazing to me (seriously, I am totally out of superlatives, here. It's becoming ridiculous) (I'm going to have to start using words like 'badger' or 'exposure') because she looked closely at the actual descriptions of the female body in sex scenes in romance, contrasting purple prose (Stephanie Laurens) (No, not the weeping furnace of her sheath) to descriptive but not purple (Loretta Chase). Wherry looked specifically at the descriptions of the female body in romance and applied concepts from French feminist critics Cixcous, Irigaray and Kristeva to the fact that romance sex scenes describing women's bodies are likely written by women. (No, no, nothing feminist or literarily interesting about that, no, nothing to see here, please move along).
Trying to summarize the entire conference is the verbal equivalent of me waving my arms a lot and making excited noises, as if I'd had too much sugar and caffeine and just put a Now or Later in my mouth. It was an entire day of such interesting and diverse commentary and criticism that if you ask me about it, The most I can come up with are noises of excited happiness. It's like Good Book Noise™ except it's good presentation noise. The experience of being in the room and listening to the presentations is not nearly possible to capture in bulletpoints. Being in a room of people focused on creatively examining romance in every possible direction is inspiring – and also brain exhausting. My brain was full like after a good meal. My brain says, “Nom. Sigh.” (Also if I've got any of the details wrong, please feel free to email me so I can correct them.)
Finally, this is the decoration on the mirror in the bathroom at the hotel: