Popular Romance in the New Millenium: A Summary (or, Attempt at One)

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:

Each word was cut up from the page of the romance, and participants glued them into place in their chosen order. It says, Trusting him, she became wildly powerful. The explanation reads in part, trusting someone is an act of strength.

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!

The book cover is for something about the history of rocks in Colorado.

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.

Lunch plenary:

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:

It looks like a gold peen! GOLD PEEN!



General Bitching...

Comments are Closed

  1. KBR says:

    Wonderful post, Sarah!

    Do we need permission to print this off and hand it to those still denouncing Romance as bodice rippers? I hope you intend to save this and email it to any of those in the media who tart up the genre. Well done. Brava!

  2. Janice says:

    Sarah, thanks for sharing the “awesomeness.”  The conference topics are clear and interesting.  I find the paper by Antonia Losano fascinating and would love to read it.  The concept of incorporating modern day romances into standard English Literature courses allows the genre to meld into an accepted curriculum for students.  If academia is looking at romance then the genre as a whole will be the better for it.  Prof. Losano sounds like she would be a wonderful teacher.

  3. What caught my attention was the question. What Is Romance?

    I guess the definitions will be as individual as readers because -in the final analysis – it’s readers who vote with their dollars and reviews and author loyalty.  But I’ve been a romance reader longer than a writer so I’ll play.

    To me, romance is two people in a relationship working towards a happily ever after which they will spend together. What the relationship is and what the HEA will be exactly may vary according to the situation. 

    One of the keys to the genre for me is that it focuses on the internal action rather than the eternal action. 

    Great post!

  4. Thanks for sharing this.  As always, it’s cheering to see thoughtful, intelligent discussion of our genre as opposed to what’s usually inflicted upon us in the popular media.

    Does this mean you have another book to write in your future?

  5. JanLo says:

    Thanks for going and for summarizing what sounds like a great conference. Wonderful to see thoughtful and intelligent discussion to a genre that means so much to so many for so long.
    More, more. Are extended summaries of the papers available?

  6. Belle says:

    Beautifully written! I was so glad to read your coverage of this event. You should definitely be proud that you, this website, Bosoms and EIKAL were cited. You’ve done a fantastic job of de-mystifying romance and sharing your passion.

  7. Avery Flynn says:

    This happened just up the road from me and I missed it. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! OK, I feel better now, especially after reading this summary. Thanks so much for doing this.

  8. First – really really great summary, many thanks!

    Second – through the whole of that narrative, and the tweets, it struck me that the conference and the focus was very insular. It concentrated on “American style” romance, and the definition as described in the USA.

    It’s a big country and a huge sector of the market, but it isn’t romance as understood elsewhere.

    I’m a Brit, but I write American style romance. I’m still not exactly sure what that means, except that in the UK, romance has a broader definition. What an American reader, or more precisely, an American style romance reader, would consider women’s fiction or a novel with romantic elements is still considered romance in the UK, at least it is by the principal organisation, the RNA. It’s a broader church.

    Two of the biggest romance lines, Mills and Boon Presents and Mills and Boon Historical Romance are based in the UK, but these are category romances, and only part of the market.

    And there’s another interesting question, and one I’m far from discovering the answer to – why to authors who are hugely popular in the USA not selling outside that country? Very few people in the UK have heard of Christine Feehan, Eloisa James or Julia Quinn, just to take a few names, much less read the books. Even when we had Borders, which carried a large selection of these authors on their shelves, the books didn’t evoke a lot of interest. We have Jilly Cooper, Dilly Court, Carole Matthews. Their books sell by the million.

    It’s easier to understand why American authored historical romances don’t sell abroad (many of the books are expressly tailored to an American audience, with issues and characters that are distinctly US in tone, and they have a lack of historical veracity) but why not great authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Julie James?

    I have no idea. I love reading them, but now Amazon has made books and ebooks universally available, with a few exceptions due to territorial restrictions, they still don’t sell very well.

  9. Sarah Frantz says:

    First of all, SB Sarah, thank you SO much for your fabulous recap of an amazing conference. MY brain is still trying to catch up to itself as well. 🙂 It was so wonderful being there, seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and hearing so many wonderful ideas about the genre we love so much.

    Second, Lynne, anecdotally (HOW do you spell that word?!), apparently SEP sells very in Germany. Go figure. Someone at McDaniel compared her to David Hasselhoff. 🙂

  10. Sarah Frantz says:

    Sells very WELL in Germany. Sigh.

  11. JanLo, the spam filter is convinced my comment is spam, so I can’t include links, but if you google “New Millennium McDaniel College Romance Abstracts” you should be able to find all the abstracts quite easily. The plan is that at least some of the papers will end up appearing in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS).

    Also, if you haven’t already read JPRS (Sarah included the link in her post), you might be interested in some of the essays which are already available, they include a polemical essay on the state of romance scholarship and the way forward by Pamela Regis (issue 2.1), a report on teaching Georgette Heyer at the University of Tasmania (issue 1.2) and an essay I co-wrote which discusses the Mighty Wang (and other body parts).

  12. Oh, sorry, I should have mentioned that my co-written essay is in issue 1.1

    Lynne, IASPR has a broader focus, on all sorts of manifestations of “popular romance,” including film, not just romance as defined in the US market. The next IASPR conference is in York (i.e. in the UK) next year.

  13. library addict says:

    Thanks for the summary.

    Though interviews with current authors could provide some interesting insight, I think the text should be judged on its own.

    And it’s fine for publishers to want their authors to interact with readers via social media, but they should keep in mind a great percentage of readers do not have Twitter or Facebook and even those who do don’t all follow/fan authors.

  14. lazaraspaste says:

    Thanks for the summary, Sarah!

    I really enjoyed the sessions on pedagogy, not just for thinking about teaching romance but for thinking about teaching in general. It gave me a lot of ideas.

    I also thought it was interesting how the author and authorship seemed to be one of the recurring (and spontaneous) themes of the conference. It was really interesting to hear at Lisa Dale’s paper on what is the responsibility of the author to the reader and what kind of moral responsibility does the author have generally.

    I’m so glad I got to be there. It really re-ignited my drive to get things done.

  15. Karenmc says:

    Great summary. Thanks for waking up my brain.

    The romance community convergence idea is so interesting. Is the same thing happening in other genre communities? Is the interaction between authors and readers going on to the same extent, or does the very nature of romance, with its emphasis on the HEA, lend itself to a higher level of involvement than other genres?

  16. Sarah, thanks so much for this post. For one thing, I’m relieved I can post a link instead of another long post! But more importantly, thanks for being supportive of the academic enterprise in popular romance. To have such a strong voice supporting this kind of engagement with romance is terrific.

  17. Fascinating, Laura, thank you! You’re not an associate member of the RNA, are you, because I think you’d be a great asset!
    And York, yay, I will have to see if I can get to that one. Just don’t ask Allison Weir!
    I’m very interested in the US v UK market. I didn’t sell until someone told me my voice sounded like an “American romance,” even though it was an English set historical. I’m still not sure what she meant, but she was right! So what are the differences in voices?
    SEP might sell well in Germany, but I remember a few years ago when Nora Roberts’ publishers decided to really push her new release. The posters were all over the place. People still give you a blank look if you mention her name.

  18. Lynne, I hadn’t thought about becoming an associate member because I thought I probably didn’t fit the criteria:

    Associate Membership is open to publishers, editors, literary agents, booksellers, librarians or any others having a close professional connection with novel writing and publishing.

    My connection with “novel writing and publishing” seems a bit different: unlike publishers, editors etc I don’t have the kind of connections that would help the careers of the RNA’s full members.

  19. We have Jay Dixon, so why not you? Of course it’s up to the committee – they make individual decisions on memberships. I just think you’d be a great asset!
    The nearest I am to the committee is running the as yet unformed Manchester chapter. We need to sort a few things out before we can get going. Like where we’re going to have the chapter meetings!

  20. French toast made of glazed doughnuts? Please tell me more. I’m picturing doughnuts halved laterally, but I’m concerned that the glaze would inhibit uptake of the egg batter, and get burnt to untasty carbon in the frying.

    This sounds like an excellent conference, and I’m just really, really grateful to be writing romance at this moment in the genre’s history.

  21. ev says:

    I loved reading the post and think that studying romance novels as they are today is a great idea. For everyone else but me.

    I want to read them, enjoy them, devour them. And decide for myself how I feel about them and react to them and what I take away from them. I don’t need to know the why’s and what for’s and technical aspects of what I love to read. Same reason I don’t do book clubs. Too many times I have “studied in depth” something that I love, to the point I want nothing to do with it anymore.

    On the other hand, tell us more about that glazed donut french toast please.

  22. JanLo says:

    Laura, thanks so much for the info. I’ll check out the college site and the journal. Go scholars!!!

  23. SB Sarah says:

    As near as I could tell, the glazed donut was dipped in a light batter, then fried on a griddle, possibly pressed down because it was slightly flattened. But the inside remained very moist and puffy, the way you’d expect a glazed donut to be. It was a breakfast revelation, really.

  24. DreadPirateRachel says:

    I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at that conference. It frustrates me to no end that my university offers classes in other genre fiction (hello, Gender & Sexuality in Science Fiction! Nice to see you again!) but completely ignores popular romance. I was once in a class with a student who described romance as, “Stupid stories about working-class women who find a rich guy that they fight with a lot and then get married and live happily ever after. That’s never going to make any difference to anyone, and it’s definitely not going to be taken seriously by scholars.” It made me want to scream, “Well, then, I guess we should just throw out all the scholarship about Jane Eyre and Pamela and Pride & Prejudice, then.”

  25. kaetchen says:

    Can I just say that I *love* this thread? Covered in awesomesauce…

    Dr. Bly’s publishers are right in a way—those FB friends and Tweeps *do* translate into sales. They just haven’t adequately analyzed *how* yet. Studies are pointing more to the engagement than the actual numbers, but most corporations only value the quantifiable, don’t-have-to-pay-for-expert-analysis part. Go figure…

    (and yeah, network theory is da bomb 🙂

    I just can’t wait to read the papers themselves. Especially those from the panels I missed! And, dear lord, I hope there is a video of the interview with Sarah, which was OMG-hi-larious.

  26. Deb Kinnard says:

    Publishers’ minions love Twitter and FB follower numbers only because they’re numbers. Something they can quantify. Do they know exactly how those numbers translate directly into sales? No, and they won’t tell us why they cannot tell us what promo efforts DO translate into sales…they like numbers. End of rant.

    And @ Lynne Connolly—one of the reasons we US romancers don’t appear in British bookstores might be that the rights we’ve sold are only US rights. None of my contracts say there will be foreign sales or even that they will attempt to achieve them.

    Captcha: him22. Well, sure, as long as he’s hunky.

  27. Maryan Wherry says:

    >@Lynne: my voice sounded like an “American romance,” even though it was an English set historical. I’m still not sure what she meant, but she was right! So what are the differences in voices?

    I’d say, yep, there are different voices across the pond. It’s not just about location or genre; the difference comes more frequently in rather ingrained socio-cultural values. The differences tend to appear in dialogue, sense of class, definitions of success, etc. USers also adore violence (honest; our national symbol is the gun), believing that might makes right. Britons have a different sense of class, manners and language; Brits even have heros who can talk without demeaning their manliness.

    The US market also tends to favor the single-title mass market. HQN (New World’s Mills & Bon) is only one of many, and the category romance isn’t so prolific. And then there’s the foreign rights issues. . . . Publishers have an obscene amount of power (which may not be in the best interests of the genre as a whole).

  28. I think you have some really valid points, Maryan. There are differences that you can understand but not put your finger on.
    I don’t think foreign rights is the answer, because of the efforts some publishers have made to send their authors over here. Jo Beverley lives in the UK now, and she says she’s “used to being invisible” now. A British person and five-time RITA winner! (Personally I love her books).
    The Nora Roberts blitz a few years ago didn’t have a huge effect.
    And yes, there are exceptions. Nicola Cornick, Louise Mallory and other British writers have found success through Harlequin, for instance.

  29. rudi_bee says:

    Great post. Eloisa James is a keynote speaker at next year’s RWAus conference and now I’m even more excited to hear her.

    Regarding genre definition I like to go with the one put forward by Jennifer Crusie in 2000:

    A romance is a love story that has an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending.

    Here’s the link: http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/i-know-what-it-is-when-i-read-it-defining-the-romance-genre/

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