misc-academic

A New Approach to Studying Romance?

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 11 January, 2020

In "The Use of Free Indirect Discourse in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series," Evie Kendal writes that

The purpose of this article is to examine J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance series purely from a narratological perspective, exploring how Ward’s narrative technique serves to satisfy the conventions of the romance formula while also yielding an original and engaging story. The primary area of interest in this article is Ward’s use of narrative voice, particularly her extensive use of free indirect discourse [which is later referred to as FID], and the impact this has on the formula romance plot. (20)

According to narratologist Michael Toolan, FID (also known as narrated monologue) denotes the point where “the narration is no longer detached and external: it adopts the character’s viewpoint.” (22)

and

Julie Choi describes FID as “the effect created by the translation of what ‘sounds’ like first-person or direct discourse, in the present of ‘speech’ or ‘thought’, into the third-person past of the narrative.” Unlike external narration, such as “The man waited at the bus stop,” in which the perspective provided comes from outside, FID is described by Schuelke as a “slipping” into the character’s own words, for the purpose of providing an insight into that character’s personal perspective or consciousness. However, while FID may present the illusion of direct communication between the character and the reader, the narrator is still mediating the exchange. (25)

Thus,

According to Robert Miles, characters “constructed” through FID possess the illusion of being independent agents—an illusion Ward actively promotes for the Brothers through her website and online message-boards. (32)

FID

also has the additional benefit in romance literature of allowing the reader to experience the misunderstandings between the love interests as they occur. FID allows the reader to occupy a privileged space in which they know more than the characters, especially when the characters’ misapprehensions colour their perception of narrated events. (32)

At other times, however,

FID can shift between providing dramatic irony in a romance, and actually involving the reader in the misunderstandings of the plot through unreliable narration. (33)

Furthermore,

the level of characterisation achieved through the use of FID removes any potential ambiguity, lending authority to the genuineness of the transformations of her major love interests. The reader can therefore successfully interpret the signs of change in each character, based on a thorough knowledge of that character’s inner thoughts and feelings, in addition to making intuitive leaps based on accumulated knowledge of the romance form and the rules that govern the fictional world in which it is created. (36)

What I find problematic about this essay is not the main argument but the way it's framed. Kendal argues that "romance criticism need not be limited, as it has been in the past, to gender and reception studies, but can also engage with the narrative techniques involved in the production of the romance novel as text" (39). The problem with this is that romance criticism has not been "limited to gender and reception studies." Kendal seems to believe she is doing "pioneering work" (40) by pointing romance scholarship in an entirely new direction:

there is a definite gap in the scholarship concerning the precise nature of romance novels as text. Radway herself accounts for this gap by claiming there is a “common assumption that because romances are formulaic and therefore essentially identical, analysis of a randomly chosen sample will reveal the meaning unfailingly communicated by every example of the genre.” (21)

Admittedly Kendal's work is new: I'm pretty sure no-one's looked at FID in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series before. But quite a lot of work has been done since Janice Radway wrote the article quoted here (it's from 1983). Given that Kendal quotes from New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays (2012), I'm not sure why she couldn't have quoted from its introduction, which gives a more recent overview of the field and of different types of approaches to it. It's also noticeable that Kendal does not cite Pamela Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2007) despite giving a list of elements common to all romances. And, given that Kendal wishes to "demonstrate [...] that formulaic literature can generate narrative complexity, and that romance novels do warrant literary analysis as individual texts" (21), it seems a pity that she did not refer to the 2011 article in which Regis states that "We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly."

Since Kendal ends with some suggestions for further research, I'll offer one too, jumping off from Kendal's statement that

Ward’s series [...] has the potential to expand current knowledge of the nature of formulaic literature, and the nuanced narrative techniques that can be involved in creating a work of popular romance. (39)

This made my mind turn to guides to writing romance. I know Dirk de Geest and An Goris did some work on them, and it might be interesting to find out whether such guides make similar points to Kendal's about FID; I'm pretty sure they have quite a bit to say about characterization and writing dialogues, monologues and narration.

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Kendal, Evie. "The Use of Free Indirect Discourse in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood Series." Colloquy: Text, Theory, Critique 38 (2019): 20–43. https://doi.org/10.26180/5df1974e1cb20

Omissions in the Field?

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 25 November, 2019

I've only just started reading Jonathan Allan's new book, Men, Masculinity and Popular Romance so what follows isn't a discussion of his book. I'm really just using something raised in its first few pages as a starting point for thinking about how we can/should think about omissions. Allan writes that "What this book seeks to consider is whether or not pornography might be a good model through which to theorise and critique representations of gender and sexuality in the popular romance novel" (4) and observes that

Pornography has become a negative rhetorical device that has inhibited - or at least complicated - the study of popular romance and its connections to pornography.

Consider, for example, two recent anthologies on popular romance that barely mention pornography. In New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (2012), the word 'porn' appears twice and only in a footnote that references Ann Douglas's 'Soft Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman' (1980). Likewise, in Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? (2016), the word porn does appear [...]. In both volumes, 'pornography' does appear with more frequency; a total of eight times in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (nearly all of which are references) and fourteen times in Romance Fiction and American Culture (half of which are references). Thus, porn/pornography is largely ignored or left untouched in these volumes; it is moved to the notes or treated as the antithesis to popular romance novels. While this can hardly be read as an unquestioned truth about popular romance studies, it does speak to a general anxiety surrounding pornography and suggests that the term is certainly not 'neutral'. There are, of course, numerous other examples that could be called upon; for example, Pamela Regis' agenda-setting A Natural History of the Romance Novel only mentions pornography in passing with reference to Germaine Greer and Ann Barr Snitow. (5)

Later, he states that

what is troubling about [...] romance scholars' attempts to distance themselves from pornography, is that it does nothing to undo the pathologisation of viewers of pornography, who are almost always framed as men (as if women do not also consume porn). If romance scholars want to argue that romance novels are not pornography, then they must do the necessary work of engaging with the pathologising impulses of those who critique pornography. That is, the argument as a whole must be dismantled. (7)

What troubles me here is that an absence of discussion seems to be equated with "attempts to distance themselves from" a topic. Could it not be that there are many different approaches to take to romance, as well as many different areas on which scholars might wish to focus, and that this might well explain the absence? After all, how many romance scholars have discussed romance in the context of crime fiction? Of speculative fiction? Of sports? For that matter, given that romance novels have been compared to valium in terms of their effect on readers' mental health, how many scholars have written about this, and engaged with "the pathologising impulses of those who critique" treatments for mental health? Probably not all that many, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there's "a general anxiety" about these topics and that scholars are trying to distance themselves from them.

I can see how lack of discussion of pornography could be disappointing to someone who wants to see more people in the field engaging with this topic, but I don't see it as one which needs to be central to all romance scholarship. Does it even need to be central to all romance scholarship dealing with gender and sexuality? I don't think so, because other people may be asking different questions. For example, Amy Burge's Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (2016) doesn't discuss pornography, but it does discuss ideas about masculinity by comparing modern and medieval romance texts and there's a strong focus on race/ethnicity as part of that.

On the other hand, there may be good reason for concern if a field omits discussion of certain important topics altogether. That's particularly true if it's a well-established field, because then the omissions may implicitly discourage future scholars from addressing the topic and can distort perceptions of the subject-matter. For example,

medieval studies as a field is slowly, haltingly, organizing itself against oppressive ideologies. New collectives of scholars have organized into communities working to transform and destabilize our notion of the Middle Ages and to whom they belong. In recent years, that movement has been led by the group Medievalists of Color, a community of deeply engaged scholars from diverse backgrounds working at all levels of the academy [...]. The scholars in this group challenge the periodization and geographical separateness of a "medieval past" with an urgency fueled by discrimination both inside and outside the academy in an era of rising white supremacy. (Perry)

Romance scholarship, though, is relatively new and there aren't very many people working in the field so omissions may well be due largely to a lack of scholars. Also, I'm not convinced that "one of the longest debates in popular romance studies: Are popular romance novels porn for women?" (Allan 4) is in fact a debate from which romance scholarship as a whole is distancing itself: Jonathan's book is itself proof of that, as is Jodi McAlister's "Breaking the Hard Limits: Romance, Pornography, and the Question of Genre in the Fifty Shades Trilogy" (2015) and Catherine M. Roach's discussion of "romance as porn" in her Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (2016), in which she argues that "Romance fiction is pornography" (84), and Jonathan says he mostly agrees with her approach (7).

Do you think this is a debate from which romance scholars are attempting to distance themselves? Which areas (if any) do you think are currently being omitted from romance scholarship?

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Allan, Jonathan A. Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

Perry, David. "Introduction." Whose Middle Ages: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Literary Criticism: Emotion and Not-so-Objective Criteria

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 29 May, 2018

Following up on my last post, which defended happy emotions as not being any less profound than sad ones, here's a quote from a new book by Catherine Butler which discusses the implications of "most literary criticism [...] rhetorical[ly] positioning [...] the critic as an objective observer and analyser" (54):

one method of marginalising affect in criticism is to exclude from serious critical consideration genres seen as designed to elicit strong (or “crude”, or “manipulative”) affective reactions: popular romances and horror stories are obvious examples. When Aristotle kickstarted Western literary criticism more than two millennia ago, he did so in part by analysing tragedy’s affective power over the emotional state of its audience; but one might contend that the mode of affective engagement elicited by Oedipus Rex and Fifty Shades of Grey are sufficiently distinct to warrant a degree of critical triage. However, such arguments, especially when applied to whole genres rather than to cherry-picked texts, tend to be sustained by question-begging assumptions about what kinds of emotional experience are worthwhile, complex, profound, life-enhancing and so on. Approaches of this type are both arbitrary (excess is more critically “respectable” in Gothic texts than in modern horror, for example) and orientated so as to privilege the tastes of certain groups of readers (men over women, educated over uneducated, adults over children). (46-47, emphasis added)

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Butler, Catherine. Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

A Depiction of Academic Despair

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 13 May, 2018

Possibly not what you'd most expect to find in a work of fantasy, but the first chapter of Robin Hobb's Blood of Dragons (2013), "Ending a Life," depicts a moment of deep academic despair. For "Rapskal and the other keepers" insert the names from a panel of interviewers, or perhaps "the reviewers," or some other combination of academic peers who've made statements which feels career-ending:

her eyes wandered to the stacked and sorted papers and parchments that had occupied her [...]. There it was. Alise Finbok's life's work, all in one stack [...], speculations of her own, careful copies of old documents [...] she had [...] taken pride in her scholarly knowledge. [...]

All the secrets she had dreamed of discovering, all the puzzles she had longed to solve were finished now [...]. She was irrelevant. [...]

Bitterness, hurt, and resignation to the reality Rapskal had voiced formed a tight, hard knot in her throat. [...]

[...] All her research and writing waited by the fireplace. The impulse to burn it all was gone. That had been last night's pit of despair, a tarry darkness so deep that she had not even had the energy to feed the papers to the flames.

Cold daylight revealed that as a foolish vanity, the childish tantrum of 'Look what you made me do!' What had Rapskal and the other keepers done to her? Nothing except make her look at the truth of her life. Setting fire to her work would not have proved anything except that she wished to make them feel bad.

[...] Ah, that temptation lingered; make them all hurt as she did! But they wouldn't. They wouldn't understand what she had destroyed.

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Hobb, Robin. Blood of Dragons. London: HarperCollins, 2013. Ebook.

Academics scandalised: romance fiction outperforms "literary fiction"

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 20 June, 2017

I don't have any particular insights into whether or not reading fiction encourages empathy but Charles Duncan, Georgene Bess-Montgomery and Viktor Osinubi believe evidence has been

accumulating for two decades in the form of convergent lines of research anchored respectively in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, which demonstrate how and why reading fiction enhances social intelligence and cognitive empathy by a process which might be called “biomimesis" (245)

One such piece of research sought to discover whether there was a "possible correlation between the literary quality of a fictional text and its potential to enhance social intelligence" (250). However, Duncan et al. thought the research might well be flawed due to the fact that “literary fiction” had been defined

in terms of its power to “defamiliarize” readers, “unsettle their expectations,” and force them to “search for meanings among a spectrum of possible meanings” (Kidd & Coastano, 377). Not only would such a definition, carried to its logical terminus, confine the greatest rewards of reading fiction to an intellectual elite with a taste for the avant-garde, it also would exclude a vast body of fiction of undeniable merit (or even greatness) which nonetheless positions the reader as a “subject” to be entertained as well as intellectually stimulated. (251)

They note that another study

suggests that rather than interrogate the “literary” quality of the text, we might do better to interrogate the quality of the reader’s engagement with the text, which in turn presumes the author’s craft as a storyteller much more than the status of the text as a work of art. (252)

In this study,

Amazingly enough, the highest RME [Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, a test of "social intelligence"]  scores were manifested by readers whose ART [Author Recognition Test] scores suggested a clear preference for Romance fiction—an outcome which would seem almost scandalous, at least until we remind ourselves that Romance novels succeed or fail to the extent that they involve readers in a deeply vicarious experience, utilizing characters with whom a susceptible reader can easily identify.

So, it seems "almost scandalous" to suggest that romance fiction might be more beneficial in some ways than literary fiction and Charles Duncan, Georgene Bess-Montgomery and Viktor Osinubi therefore scrambled to ascribe this to romance readers being "susceptible." Hmm. Why couldn't they just accept that many romance authors are good storytellers who write engaging works of fiction?

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Duncan, Charles, Georgene Bess-Montgomery and Viktor Osinubi, 2017. "Why Martha Nussbaum is Right: The Empirical Case for the Value of Reading and Teaching Fiction." Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 19.2: 242-259.

Kecia Ali's "Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb's Novels"

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 26 February, 2017

There is a moment in J. D. Robb's Celebrity in Death in which, Kecia Ali observes, Robb seems to "address the place of fiction - her own work - in the world" (152) through the words of an actor who states that:

"I'm good at my work. I'm damn good at it and I feel strongly what I do is important [...] without art, stories, and the people who bring those stories to life, the world would be a sadder, smaller place." (46)

Robb's work may make the world a happier place by entertaining her readers, but perhaps she also expands their world by touching on a range of quite serious topics.

Kecia Ali's Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb's Novels argues that the novels in Robb's In Death series

explore vital questions about human flourishing.  

Through close readings of more than fifty novels and novellas published over two decades, Ali analyzes the ethical world of Robb’s New York circa 2060. Robb compellingly depicts egalitarian relationships, satisfying work, friendships built on trust, and an array of models of femininity and family. At the same time, the series’ imagined future replicates some of the least admirable aspects of contemporary society. Sexual violence, police brutality, structural poverty and racism, and government surveillance persist in Robb’s fictional universe, raising urgent moral challenges. So do ordinary ethical quandaries around trust, intimacy, and interdependence in marriage, family, and friendship.  

Ali celebrates the series’ ethical successes, while questioning its critical moral omissions. She probes the limits of Robb’s imagined world and tests its possibilities for fostering identity, meaning, and mattering of human relationships across social difference. Ali capitalizes on Robb’s futuristic fiction to reveal how careful and critical reading is an ethical act.

For example, although Robb's protagonist, Eve Dallas, "frequently uses violence in appropriate and measured ways to stop criminals or protect herself, colleagues, or civilians," Ali highlights the need to read carefully and critically given that at other times Dallas

abuses her power, or threatens to. Readers - like Dallas' colleagues - become complicit in these casual brutalities. Readers identify with Dallas and root for her. She has suffered traumatic violence herself and commands what P.D. James terms "reader identification and loyalty." [...] Reader loyalty means that when she hurts people, especially but not only when they hurt her first, readers tend to be on her side.

This is the case even when she is in the wrong. (89)

In such circumstances, the novels may prompt the reader to adopt positions which Ali regards as unethical. However, Ali looks more favourably (albeit still with a critical lens) at other aspects of the novels, such as Dallas's rejection of "the claim that some people simply deserve better lives than others" (96).

Death, too, is portrayed as egalitarian:

In December 2060, Dallas' detectives hang a sign over the squad's break-room door, joining a jumble of holiday decorations [...]:

NO MATTER YOUR RACE, CREED, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, OR POLITICAL AFFILIATION, WE PROTECT AND SERVE, BECAUSE YOU COULD GET DEAD.

Erected as a joke, the sign strikes Dallas' fancy. She decrees that it will remain after the sad Christmas tree and other seasonal debris are gone. It expresses a core truth: death equalizes [...] Not only is death universal, so is vulnerability. (95)

Naturally (given my academic background) this reminds me of medieval and early modern depictions of death.

In the illustrations and texts of the Dance of Death, individuals from both lay and clergy, of high to low estate, of a variety of creeds (at least in the Spanish version), young and old, male and female, are forced to join the dance.

Death and the Duchess: Holbein d. J.; Danse Macabre. XXXVI. The DuchessDeath and the Duchess: Holbein d. J.; Danse Macabre. XXXVI. The Duchess

The illustration above, by Hans Holbein, dates from the first half of the sixteenth century and depicts two skeletal representatives of Death arriving to take a Duchess from her bed. Other illustrations in the series show the moment at which Death approaches individuals from different social classes. The modern novels of the In Death series use words, rather than images, to portray variations in social class and how they affect the contexts of individuals' deaths:

the form of difference to which the series attends most clearly is class. Juxtapositions between rich and poor victims pepper the series. Its first installment juxtaposes the deaths of a wealthy woman from a prominent family working as a licensed companion and an older LC struggling to get by. Another opens by contrasting two murders: in his lavish home, a rich man's "death had come to him on the luxurious sheets of his massive, silk-canopied bed." A poor young woman's death the night before had occurred "on the stained mattress tossed on the floor of a junkie's flop." The surroundings diverge, but the end result is the same: hence the protecting and serving that the squad sign proclaims. (95-96)

That "squad sign" with its warning that "YOU COULD GET DEAD" also recalls for me the warning issued by three corpses (who are, however, a little more emphatic about the issue), in the tale of The Three Living and the Three Dead: they tend to state some variation of "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be" (as at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini).

Three Living and Three Dead: Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127vThree Living and Three Dead: Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v (see the British Library blog for more details)

The connection between these medieval/early modern works and the futuristic In Death series may seem tenuous but, as Ali observes "Robb often plays with literary analogues and antecedents [...] e.g. Witness in Death pays homage to Agatha Christie) [...] "Chaos in Death" engages The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" (176) and, in addition, Ali points out ways in which the novels contain more than one "blast from the past" which "connects the future with the past":

Robb's retrograde jargon of "mental defectives" and "violent tendencies" suggests biological determinism [...] the panhandler licenses that beggars must display recall the poor badges of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England. (106)

It seems not inappropriate, therefore, for an academic response to her work similarly to make connections between her novels and older works of literature and art.

It might be a little bit too fanciful, however, to think of Eve Dallas, who "seeks justice for the innocent and beloved as well as the guilty and the jerks" (114) as a handmaiden of the goddess Poena (from whose name the word "penal" is derived) and of whom Anthony Trollope wrote in Framley Parsonage that:

Poena, that just but Rhadamanthine goddess, whom moderns ordinarily call Punishment, or Nemesis when we wish to speak of her goddess-ship, very seldom fails to catch a wicked man though [...] the wicked man may possibly get a start of her. (Chapter 47)

Even so, it's intriguing how closely and explicitly entwined Dallas' role is with death and, moreover, that it has a spiritual element: "For her, being a cop is a calling. A priest compares Dallas' vocation to his own" (46) and "In a dream conversation with a murder victim who had been posing as a priest, Dallas rejects sin as out of her "jurisdiction," telling him, "Murder is my religion" (151). And it is also mentioned that Dallas was "a 'mythical figure' while [Peabody] was at the [police] academy" (48).

Poena/Poine: Atreus, king of Mycenae, sprawls mortally wounded on his throne. [...] To the right of the throne [...] P

Here "Atreus, king of Mycenae, sprawls mortally wounded on his throne. [...] To the right of the throne [is] Poine, the winged goddess of retribution" who was known as Poena by the Romans. In other words, she's on the scene of a murder to investigate and arrives quickly due to her wings; Dallas has to make do with a flying car. The image is taken from a scene depicted on a "Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting the murder of Atreus. Greek, South Italian, Late Classical Period about 340–330 B.C." Appropriately given Ali's academic affiliation, this is also from Boston, albeit the Museum of Fine Arts. "Images of artworks the Museum believes to be in the public domain are available for download" under terms of use which permit "limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use."

 

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Ali, Kecia. Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb's Novels. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017.

To Sheffield, With Love

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 18 September, 2016

The three-person Team @MillsandBoon was joined by Team Romance Scholar to take part in a panel discussion about romance organised by the University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. The event was recorded and the plan seemed to be to put up a podcast of the discussion so if that happens I'll mention it on the blog. In the meantime, I'll just write up a few comments focussed on the academic side of the panel discussions. Here's how we were described on the Festival's website:

On Saturday 17 September from 1-2pm there will be a panel discussion (see below), followed by the lecture at 2pm.

About the panel discussion

Can anyone write a romantic novel? What are editors looking for in their next romance? How do the authors come up with their ideas? And is it all just escapism, or is there literary value to be found in these texts?

Our panel of experts will answer your burning questions about Mills & Boon romantic novels.

The panel:

  • Flo Nicoll, Senior Editor for Mills & Boon
  • Susan Stephens and Heidi Rice, popular authors for Mills & Boon
  • Dr Laura Vivanco, whose academic text For Love and Money, published in 2011, explored the literary art of Mills & Boon romantic novels
  • Dr Amy Burge, whose recent monograph Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) analysed race, religion, multiculturalism and gender in romance
  • Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University’s Vice-Chancellor Scholarship PhD candidate, whose own research explores the romance genre as a feminist endeavour.

Leading the discussion and then giving the lecture on Mills & Boon romance was Val Derbyshire (you can read about some of her M&B research here and here).

Team Romance Scholar fielded a number of questions.

As part of a discussion about heroes, Amy was able to give extremely detailed feedback on the numbers of sheikh heroes in Mills & Boon novels. Anyone wanting more information about that can read Amy's book on Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. There have also been a lot of Mediterranean heroes (Greek, Italian and Spanish mainly) and Flo Nichols suggested that although in recent years authors had been drawn to experiment with Russian heroes (presumably because of Russian oligarchs buying up UK football clubs etc) they've not been as popular as hoped with readers.

In response to a question about diversity, Amy suggested that although the Cinderella archetype may mean there are a fair number of heroines of working-class origin, there is less balance with regards to ethnicity/race. Flo argued that the company's output is diverse but also suggested that readers' responses have a big impact on Harlequin Mills & Boon's attempts at ethnic/racial diversification beyond sheikhs etc because they pay a lot of attention to sales figures when deciding what works and what doesn't. That said, Flo also felt that the submissions they receive have not varied very much, perhaps because aspiring authors write what they think HM&B want (based on what has already been published). She seemed interested in receiving submissions with heroes and heroines from a wider range of ethnicities/races.

I responded to a question about changes in the novels over time but I'm not the best at remembering dates so I'm afraid I might have been out by a decade or so when making some of my comments. Anyone wanting to know more about the history of Mills & Boon should read jay Dixon and Joseph McAleer's books on the topic but I'll quote a little bit of what they have to say here.

Mills & Boon began as a general publisher but from the 1930s "until the mid-1950s, general books were dropped and the firm concentrated on romance fiction" (Dixon 17):

The 1930s witnessed a major shift in the firm's direction which reflected changes in the marketplace. As library sales increased between the wars, fiction displaced the educational and general lists. At the same time, Mills and Boon specialized in its most successful type of novel, the romance. (McAleer "Scenes" 267)

However, McAleer also observes that:

it is difficult to speak of a specific Mills & Boon editorial policy before the Second World War. The reason is obvious: Charles Boon [...] was still a general publisher at heart. The 1930s was still a time of experimentation, and novels were novels in their own right. Boon did not impose many restrictions on his authors. (Passion's Fortune 145)

Nonetheless, it was "During this decade [that] the characteristics of the archetypal Mills & Boon heroine and hero began to fall into place" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 150).

In the 1940s Mills & Boon "added a strong dose of patriotism and social commentary. John Boon believed that Mills & Boon has not been given sufficient credit for maintaining morale with its novels during the war" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 171-72). I've quoted some of McAleer's thoughts on Mills & Boon and the NHS here and he also mentioned that:

when [Joyce] Dingwell's The Girl From Snowy River (1959) was published, a tale of an English woman emigrating to Australia, Boon sent a copy to the Hon. A. R. Downer, MP (then Australian Minister of Immigration), at Australia House, with the message, 'We feel it is good propaganda for immigration.' (Passion's Fortune 103).

Given that the panel was in Sheffield, it might be worth mentioning here that I contributed a few early Mills & Boon novels to Sheffield Hallam University's Readerships and literary cultures collection (1900-1950),  "a collection of books which reflects the wide range of literary tastes during the period 1900-1950". I think the M&Bs are only a very small proportion of the collection, which "consists of over 1200 novels, most in early editions, by 240 different authors" (Middlebrow Network) and I'm not sure how representative their Mills & Boons holdings are. Certainly, the ones I sent them were acquired on the non-academic criterion of whether they could be acquired cheaply on Ebay. As Amy has discovered, though, even the libraries which might be expected to hold a complete list of all the Mills & Boons ever published (such as the British Library and the National Library of Scotland) have lacunae.

When asked whether the status of romance is likely to improve, Flo suggested that (a) it ought to if people paid attention to the sales figures and (b) that the situation is somewhat better in the US. I suggested that perhaps the emergence of the field of popular romance studies would also help improve the genre's reputation. In the study of popular culture more generally, academics working on crime/detective fiction and science fiction have been able to ameliorate the status of those genres so I'm hopeful that academic study of popular romance will be able to demonstrate that romance novels reward analysis in a variety of ways and do deserve to be treated with respect.

As Fiona pointed out, the lack of respect for romance has seeped into the study of authors in other genres too, making assessement of their oeuvres less than complete. She's studying a range of prize-winning authors including Jeanette Winterson and has found that the romantic elements of their novels have been neglected by literary critics. She, however, is focussing on those elements and her work will therefore demonstrate that romance and its conventions can be found well beyond the covers of novels marketed as "romance". This may, perhaps, help reduce the stigma attached to works which are marketed that way.

Fiona has now written a post of her own about the event.

I'm hoping the booklet which gives a full outline of Val's talk might also be put online but perhaps it won't due to copyright restrictions because it includes a lot of images of Mills & Boon covers. As I said, though, the Festival organisers did promise they'd be making some material available online so when they do, I'll post about it. Here's a glimpse of one page via a tweet from Amy:

 

 

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Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

McAleer, Joseph. “Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908-1950.” Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264-288.

An Unusual Use for a Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 29 July, 2016

I just happened to come across this abstract (from the Formulaic Language Research Network's 2016 conference) and thought it was an interesting way to use a bit of Georgette Heyer, whose use of obscure slang can, perhaps, be rather off-putting to some readers.

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Alison Wray (Cardiff University)

Getting a shoehorn in: how we work out the meaning of unknown formulaic expressions

‘Took it off of a fat old gager a couple o’ years back,’ he explained, with engaging frankness. ‘Prigged his tattler, too, but I sold that. I’m a great one for a pinch o’ merry-go-up, and this little box just happened to take my fancy, and I’ve kept it. I daresay I’d get a double finnup for it, too,’ he added, sighing over his own prodigality. ‘It’s worth more, but when it comes to tipping over the dibs there ain’t a lock as isn’t a hob-grubber.’ (The Toll-gate, Georgette Heyer, 1954).

When we first encounter a new expression, how do we work out what it means? Although there has been research into how L2 learners approach unknown formulaic expressions, it has been difficult to make direct comparisons with what native speakers do, because of the ceiling effect that would arise in giving them ecologically valid expressions in their L1 – in other words, if an expression is formulaic in the L1, they will tend to know it already. In this talk, I describe an experiment (co-researched with Huw Bell and Katie Jones) that was able to present both L1 and L2 speakers with genuine, contextualised, formulaic expressions of English that were not known to either group. They were historical phrases researched and used by the British novelist Georgette Heyer in her works set in the Georgian and Regency periods (c.1800-1837). Through a think-aloud approach, participants gave commentaries on what they thought the expressions meant, and why. The results showed some important differences between the approach taken by L1 and L2 speakers, and suggest that increased knowledge of, and/or confidence with, an L2 enables a learner to get increasingly closer to behaving like an L1 speaker when encountering new expressions.

Part III - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

Continued from Part I and Part II. In this post I've written up my notes and comments on the final papers:

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans

 

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Fiona's research focuses on:

the use of romance and the romance genre within contemporary women's literature, and the extent to which its creation of authentic relationships is a feminist endeavour. Combining Jean-Paul Sartre's interest in existential authenticity and his views on the need for authenticity within relationships I will be examining the work of Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Jeanette Winterson and considering the ways in which they have created representations of 'authentic love' within their literature through the re-writing of the romance genre.With Sartre’s theory, and belief that authenticity within a romantic relationship was possible, I will consider the extent to which contemporary women writers mirror this belief within their literature. I will aim to use this research to question borders between high and low culture through an exploration of the practice of romance writing by contemporary women writers and a consideration of whether the current boundaries are typical of, and help define,a contemporary female aesthetic which re-writes the romance.

 

In this paper Fiona outlined the relationships depicted in Zadie Smith's NW and Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries. Fiona contrasted the same-sex relationship between women with the heterosexual ones and also looked at the pressure on women within a heterosexual relationship to have children. Fiona suggested these novels question aspects of compulsory heterosexuality and therefore differ from/re-write the romance.

I haven't read either of these novels but I wonder if they're maybe closer to some genre romances than others. For example, in Karin Kallmaker's genre romance In Every Port, one of the heroines is involved in a heterosexual relationship when she first meets the other heroine and so there is some discussion/contrasting of lesbian and heterosexual relationships. I'm not sure whether Jane Rule would have classified her Desert of the Heart as a romance but it can certainly be considered one and in it:

Evelyn thought marriage was a way to make herself a real woman, but she was unable to have children and is not sure whether she ever really loved her husband. It is her connection with Ann, finally, that puts her in touch with her femininity and all that it encompasses: "She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lovely thing it was to be, a woman."(After Ellen)

Some romances nowadays depict polyamorous relationships between more than two people. So there may be elements of the two novels Fiona analysed which are, in fact, present in romance novels. Maybe romance has been re-writing itself?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Lucy is a "Writer, gripped by the legacy of the Apollo moon landings and currently at work on a fan fiction project". Her Rarefied (falling without landing) was written

in response to the documentary Apollo Wives, a series of interviews with the wives of the Apollo astronauts. They talked about the experience of being plunged into the media spotlight while their husbands were on the Apollo programme and how they formed strong bonds with each other while living in close proximity on a military housing base.
 
Structurally I have been using fairly strict constraints to number of lines and number of beats in a line, but these are significantly longer than the palette I used to work with. I find that it has been very liberating to lengthen my lines and it has felt like reintroducing oxygen into the writing to a degree. The ability to let the writing breathe and allow a vestige of narrative provided an entry point into the work which however I felt I could still control. Some of my earlier work had got so sparse that it was almost visual. This shift meant the text became more expansive, capable of including narrative, memory and speech in quite a different way. (Peony Moon)

Lucy's approach to the texts discussed in her paper (Jane Eyre, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Fifty Shades of Grey) similarly mixed the visual and textual. In Jane Eyre fire represents passion out of control. In Brontë's own life, the passionate romances she'd read and enjoyed in the Ladies Journal were burned by her father because he disapproved of their content. In other circumstances he feared fire and therefore kept the parsonage interior rather austere so that it would be less of a fire risk. Nonetheless, her brother, Branwell, set his curtains on fire while drunk. These events may have affected Charlotte's depiction of the destruction of Thornfield Hall by Mr Rochester's wife, who has been hidden in the upper level of the house.

In Rebecca, it is again the influence of the displaced wife which causes the fire that destroys the hero's home and Lucy also noticed the way in which the narrator of Rebecca had earlier burned some text written by Rebecca.

Lucy was intrigued by the similarities between this burning, the burning of the Ladies Journal and contemporary burnings of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Burning of texts/books naturally led us to discuss censorship and I was reminded of Lady Chatterley's Lover,

one the most banned books in history. Infamous for its explicit descriptions of sex and other vulgarities, it was only published openly in the United Kingdom in 1960. The book focused on the illicit affair between an upper class woman and her lower class gamekeeper, and it was received with outrage and intrigue, resulting in numerous abridged versions being published throughout the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's. [...]

First printings were bound with brown boards with an insignia of a phoenix gracing its front cover. The phoenix has remained a potent symbol for the book, in large part because of the book's victory in the infamous British Obscenity Trial in 1960. (Biblio)

The phoenix, of course, rises from the ashes and it's been suggested that some of the fire in Jane Eyre could be read similarly as a similarly purifying/productive force:

The image of fire might symbolize signifying first sinfulness, then rebirth. Since the passionate love that Rochester and Jane first held was sinful, it was accompanied by images of fire and burning--possibly a portrait of Hell. After Jane leaves Thornfield, and her "burning" desires for Rochester are somewhat subdued, the next and final image of fire occurs. In the fire that destroyed Thornfield, Rochester proved his worthiness to Jane by attempting to save Bertha from the blaze. A feat that indicated that he had tempered his "burning" passions regarding Jane and Bertha and atoned for the wrongs that he had perpetrated on the women in his life. Shortly thereafter, Jane and Rochester reunited and each proved to be reborn. (Vaughon)

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Deborah's "doctoral research seeks to identify left-of-centre Spanish and Portuguese women writers from the early decades of the twentieth century whose works have been excluded from the literary canon. By focusing on novels by politically progressive women in early twentieth-century Iberia, the thesis aims to examine how a selection of female authors used literature as a means of political expression, while uncovering the shared experiences of Iberian women."

That context was dominated by military upheaval. In Spain a Republican government was overthrown after a Civil War which ended with the triumph of the fascists, under General Franco (in power from 1939-1975). Similarly in Portugal

the 28 May 1926 coup d'état, sometimes called 28 May Revolution or, during the period of the authoritarian Estado Novo (English: New State), the National Revolution (Portuguese: Revolução Nacional), was a military coup that put an end to the unstable Portuguese First Republic and initiated the Ditadura Nacional (National Dictatorship), later refashioned into the Estado Novo, an authoritarian dictatorship that would last until the Carnation Revolution in 1974. (Wikipedia)

Federica Montseny

was born in Madrid, Spain, on 12th February, 1905. Her parents were the co-editors of the anarchists journal, La Revista Blanca (1898-1905). In 1912 the family returned to Catalonia and farmed land just outside Barcelona. Later they established a company that specialized in publishing libertarian literature.

Montseny joined the anarchist labour union, National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). As well as working in the family publishing business she contributed articles to anarchist journals such as Solidaridad Obrera, Tierra y Libertad and Nueva Senda. In her writings Montseny called for women's emancipation in Spain. [...]

In November 1936 Francisco Largo Caballero appointed Montseny as Minister of Health. In doing so, she became the first woman in Spanish history to be a cabinet minister. Over the next few months Montseny accomplished a series of reforms that included the introduction of sex education, family planning and the legalization of abortion. (Spartacus)

Heroínas, the novel by Montseny which Deborah discussed, was published around 1936, is set during a revolution and involves a heroine who has two suitors. The first is a socialist who proposes to marriage to the heroine in the event that they win the revolution because he believes she would be an asset to him in his political career. She turns him down and is rather more attracted to an anarchist who seems to embody the romantic ideal but is, however, already involved with another woman and is therefore also deemed unsuitable. Both men are executed but the heroine survives and continues the fight. [Quite a lot of pages of the novel have been put online here by Margaret Killjoy who found it at International Institute of Social History, which "is the world’s largest repository of anarchist history. Of particular note to me, it houses almost-complete collections of La Novela Ideal and La Novela Libre". Unfortunately Margaret "can’t really read enough Spanish to understand these things. So please, anyone with interest in this stuff, let me know. If the stories are good, I’d be happy to make them available in zine format. And if anyone is feeling really inspired, I’d be happy to print English translations as well." (details here)]

Maria Lamas's novel Para Além do Amor (1935) features a heroine who is unhappily trapped in a loveless marriage to a rich industrialist. She takes a lover who encourages her to work to improve the lives of the workers by setting up medical facilities for them etc. He has the opportunity to move abroad and wants them to go together but she rejects him, saying that she stays in Portugal not out of fear, or even from love for her children, but because she must continue her work.

These aren't the happy endings one would expect in a romance novel. I wondered if they could, perhaps, be thought of as romances in which the ideal partner is not another human being but a cause. Perhaps that's a bit of a stretch.

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans

Martina's paper and current research was prompted by an article which stated that Afrikaans women's romantic fiction features active female sexual characters. While Martina thinks this is true of some women's writing in Afrikaans (for example an autobiographical account by a sex worker), she does not believe it is true of the works of a highly acclaimed author (and academic) whose novels sounded to me like "inspirational" (Christian) romance albeit with mild depictions of sexual activity. These Afrikaans heroines do have pre-marital sex and have even had previous sexual partners before they meet their heroes. However, the sexual passages in the novels are not very explicit, give the heroines rather passive roles in love-making and suggest that true sexual fullfilment can only be found with the right partner (i.e. the man the heroine will marry).

Perhaps these novels are aimed at a different audience from the readers of the far more explicit Afrikaans women's fiction?

It was noted that the "elephant in the room" in these novels is the whiteness of almost all the characters (and certainly all the protagonists). Despite this, these novels are apparently read in townships and that's also despite the existence of English-language romance novels about Black protagonists. I took a look at the covers of the novels written by the members of the Romance Writers Association of South Africa and they mostly seemed to feature White protagonists too, unlike the romances published by Nollybooks and Kwela Press (which are discussed in this article by the BBC and also this academic one).

laura Sunday, 12 June, 2016

Part II - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 12 June, 2016

Continued from Part I. In this post I'm summarising the following 3 papers:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

 

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

 

Amy's the Book Review editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies and her Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

A few days before the conference Amy gave a few teasers for her paper on Twitter:

 

As these suggest, Amy's been doing quantitative research on a huge corpus of romances. I'm not sure quite how many romances it was, but it looked to be in the hundreds, at least, given that Amy was looking at 10 or more years' worth of novels in a line which publishes around 8 books every month. In the course of the research for her recent book Amy collected a lot of data on the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern/Sexy line's heroes. In this paper she revealed some of the findings which didn't make it into her book.

This "line" of romances promises readers "glamorous international settings" and Mills & Boon say that "Our heroes are 100% alpha but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Sheikh, Greek, Russian, Italian, English, American...wherever he's from, it's certain that he turns the heads of every woman he passes!"

Clearly the line provides a rich source of primary material relating to masculinity, race and ethnicity because the heroes embody hegemonic masculinity i.e. the current most honoured way of being a man. This masculinity is both performative (it is shown in what the heroes do) and normative (in that it sets a standard by which other men can be judged). Hegemonic masculinity is an idealised version of masculinity and it's hierarchical because it marginalises some masculinities while elevating others.

In this context, it's interesting to note that although, as Edward Said observed, Western orientalism associated oriental masculinity with feminine penetrability, the Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh exhibits hegemonic masculinity.

Given that the majority of the authors in this line are from the UK, North America or Australasia and the line promises exotic, international settings, it's perhaps not surprising that 61% of the heroes in the corpus are not from those countries.

Italian heroes appear to the most popular, followed by Greeks, sheikhs, Spanish, Latin American, Mediterranean (either unspecified or invented countries) and Russians. The popularity of certain nationalities has fluctuated, however. For example, in more recent years Spaniards have declined in popularity while Latin Americans have increased in number. Russian heroes emerged in 2008. There were, however, no African or East Asian heroes at all.

The titles of these novels also reveal interesting trends. They usually reflect aspects of the hero's cultural identity (mainly his nationality) and profession (if you can call being a prince of a billionaire a "profession"). Interestingly, while it is common for it to be signalled in the title when a hero is a sheikh, this is not so likely to happen for Russians. Russians (and Latin Americans) are more likely to be described as ruthless, dark or devilish in the titles while the words "Greek" and "tycoon" are often found together.

Within the covers of the novels sheikhs are often described using metaphors and similies relating to the desert and dangerous desert creatures such as birds of prey and big cats. Harems are often mentioned in order to establish the hero's cultural tradition of masculine sexual dominance. In a nod to the feminine connotations of the orient, the authors may mention the hero's "robes" but immediately assert that they increase, or at least do nothing to minimise, his powerful masculinity.

The number of heroes from India is very small (only 3 novels) so it is more difficult to generalise about them. Susanna Carr's Secrets of a Bollywood Marriage (2014) and one of the other novels were both described by readers as having less alpha/dominant heroes than usual in this line.

We speculated about reasons for the trends in particular nationalities' popularity, including 9/11 and economic crises. This led well into the topic of the next paper.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Even though her "doctoral research concerns a highly respected eighteenth-century poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806)" Val has argued at a "conference, hosted by the University of Cambridge ‘CRASSH’ (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) [...] entitled Art/Money/Crisis" that romance author Penny "Jordan’s novels illustrate her understanding of the sense of powerlessness losing financial independence has and how it affects her characters/ordinary people in society" (see the blog post here).

Today Val looked at a range of novels by Penny Jordan and then at Roberta Leigh's Man Without a Heart. demonstrating that Mills & Boon romances could be used by researchers as social barometers which offer information about the times in which they were written and reflect the concerns of ordinary women, offering insight into fashion, fears of financial crises, terrorism, and industrial relations. Man Without a Heart, for example, features a secondary character (the heroine's uncle) who is a trade unionist and the novel highlights the divide between London's social elites and the working classes.

More about Val's history of romance reading, and details of Penny Jordan's role as social barometer can be found here.

Although it's still relatively unusual for romances to be read and used in this way, Val and a handful of other researchers have demonstrated that romances can be fruitful primary sources for historians and others investigating social history. I've summarised Professor Tom Baum's romance-based research into representations of the airline industry here and Joseph McAleer has argued that "the new 'Doctor-Nurse' novels first published by Mills & Boon in the 1950s [...] reinforced a positive view of the NHS among middle- and working-class readers".

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

Ali describes herself as a "Freelance editor, journalist and academic. Specialisms include #IntersectionalRomances, #StrongRomanceHeroines and #AdaptationandAppropriation". She's an editor of the Pink Heart Society blog, where Harlequin Mills & Boon authors from a wide range of lines post about their books, inspirations and work-lives. That puts her in contact with a lot of authors and when she asked some of them what they thought about social issues in romance almost all of them said that romance could deal with them and one even stated that it was irresponsible for authors not to address them.

Perhaps as a result, Ali works on the assumption that "the death of the author" has been much exaggerated and in her research into the social issues addressed in Harlequin Mills & Boon romances she's very interested in authorial intent, as often revealed in "Dear Reader" letters which appear before the title page. She believes it's a powerful experience for readers to be addressed directly by authors, as Tara Tylor Quinn does in Husband by Choice and Once a Family.

Romance authors approach social issues with the guarantee of a happy ending providing a safety net which reassures readers that the issues can be dealt with and the obstacles to happiness overcome. Tara Taylor Quinn, who has herself experienced domestic violence, does so in her Where Secrets are Safe series, set in a woman's shelter called The Lemonade Stand. In one novel it is revealed that the hero has been a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his now ex-wife. In another an abused secondary character is helped by the protagonists.

Ali has now begun The CatRom Project as an online "exploration of the way in which category romances address and engage with social issues." [Edited to add: Ali's now put the whole of her paper online at the CatRom Project.]