We're delighted to have Dr Amy Burge delivering our very first #ConferenceReport as she feeds back from the PCA | ACA 2017 Conference!
Amy's report is split into five different sections, each focusing on academic papers with different themes: Place and Space; Genre; Form and Convention; Industry; and Round Table Sessions. We hope you enjoy reading about academia's take on the genre we love!
Every year, the Popular Culture Association (PCA) conference hosts the second-biggest gathering of popular romance scholars in the world (the biggest being the biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance which is next taking place in Sydney in June 2018. In April 2017, in a warm (but windy) San Diego, a group of romance scholars gathered to share their latest research, to discuss the state of the field, to meet new (and old) friends and colleagues, and possibly to have a couple of beers in the process (San Diego is famous for its beer, after all).
The Romance stream is one of the largest and most popular of those at PCA and the quality of scholarship represented is consistently high. As the PCA is such a huge conference (over 5000 delegates), panels are organised into streams which run back-to-back like a mini-conference within the larger conference. This means that most of the audience attends all of the romance panels which makes for a real community feel and a chance to develop a conversation across the entire conference.
While this year’s crop of papers ranged over a wide array of romance-related subjects, there were some overarching themes that came up time and again in papers and conversation. These were: place and space (which is coincidentally the theme for the Sydney conference next year); genre and its development; the form of romance (including conventions); and industry. I’ve given a detailed overview of these papers here, but you can follow Tweets from the conference as it happened via Storify.
Place and Space
Several papers this year presented on topics to do with the spaces of romance: both the spaces represented within romance novels and the places romance novels are published. Hsu-Ming Teo’s paper – ‘Once Upon A Time in China: The romanticization and westernization of Chinese history in the novels of Jeannie Lin’ – analysed the Western idea of romance love in China asking: what is romantic love in culture and how culturally specific it is? She pointed out that there are different words in Chinese literature, history, and culture but there is nothing meaning romantic love until the twentieth century. Indeed, Chinese culture does not distinguish between love and lust. In romantic novels set in China family becomes the greatest barrier to the relationship; it is how this is negotiated and the romantic story made acceptable to readers that concerns Teo. Her key question is how can romance plots work in the context of Chinese history and culture?
Teo argues that Jeannie Lin, author of The Lotus Palace and The Jade Temptress among other Chinese-set historical novels, echoes Chinese culture by making her heroine prostitutes (something much more common in Chinese culture than western culture), moving away from aristocratic characters (who are more limited in what they can do), and exploiting the genre-blending Wuxia style of martial arts fiction in which the heroine has more agency. So, in some ways, Chinese history and culture is modified to fit the Western romance plot; by the end of Lin’s novels that the Chinese family needs to be sufficiently Westernised by the end of the novel so the children can marry for love. But, in other ways, Chinese culture continues to disrupt the romance; Teo notes that the Chinese narrative or motif of self-development for the heroine is not something that love can overcome.
My own paper (@dramyburge), ‘Romancing our Scottish selves: Representing Scotland in Scottishauthored early Twentieth-Century Romantic Fiction’, looked at a selection of novels by early-twentieth-century Scottish women authors (Annie S. Swan, Jean S. MacLeod, and D. E. Stevenson) to see how Scotland and Scottishness was represented. I wanted to trace the tradition of Scotland in romance novels back beyond Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (seen as hugely influential for the twenty-first century boom in Scottish romances) to the ‘kailyard’ tradition of community romance that was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Furthermore, these women authors are often excluded from Scottish literary history and are owed their rightful place in the history of romance. I found that these authors created ‘Scottishness’ through use of dialogue – contractions, Scots and Gaelic dialect, and proverbs – and the characterisation of parts of Scotland as ‘backwards’, meaning either therapeutic or a deprivation of comfort. A particular feature of those romances featuring non-Scottish heroine is that the heroine becomes more Scottish as the novel progresses, gradually seeing Scotland as her true home (‘the home of her heart’). Ultimately, the Scottish romances that are popular today owe much to their earlier relatives, indicating a much longer tradition of Scottish romance.
Amira Jarmakani presented a paper entitled ‘Radioactive Love: An Affective Exploration of Desert Romances and the War on Terror’ looking at romantic narratives (not technically romance), affect theory and the War on Terror. The two central texts Jarmakani looked at are The Girl Who Escaped ISIS by Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann and Bride of ISIS by Anne Catherine Speckhard. Her central questions was: ‘how do romantic stories shape our understanding of the War on Terror’; in other words, how do these narratives make use of romantic tropes? She focused on the example of ‘intimate killing’ (one-on-one combat in close quarters) and the emergence of ‘hugs of death’ to point out the connection between intimacy and death in the way we talk about the War on Terror and the differences between cultures when talking about war (as distant or as embodied).
Maryann Wherry, a scholar working on a cultural history of the American romance novel, presented a paper – ‘Love, First Nations and the American Dream in the Romance Novel' – on ‘buckskin’ romances, a subgenre set in the early Americas where the hero is native American and the heroine is white. Wherry, highlighting the racist overtones of the genre, noted that the novels present a white woman choosing a native American man as lover invokes danger through fear of miscegenation (something, by the way, I’ve also argued is present in sheikh/Orientalist romances).
The novels homogenise native Americans (even if different tribes are named, they are all described in the same way) and the space of the American west in these romances is a place of regeneration; it is dangerous and savage, but it is also a Garden of Eden idyll. The novels fetishize the native character, drawing on the romance trope of ‘taming the noble savage’. Wherry ended by asking, what is heroic about the native American male? After all, they are not royalty, they represent an ostracised group, and they do not stand to inherit anything. Wherry ultimately concluded that the attraction of the native American hero comes from the inheritance of the 1920s buckskin romance novels and their influence on the genre as it stands.
Jessie Matthews (@RomanceProf) too talked about native American romance, focusing on ‘Hybridity in the Romance: Mourning Dove’s Cogewea, The Half-Blood, A Story of the Great Montana Mountain Range’. Matthews called this novel “a hive of hybridity”, as Cogewea navigates her identity as simultaneously white and native American. Matthews notes that Cogewea was published at a time when hybridity was virtually demanded of native Americans – showing cover images of The Red Man, a Carlisle Indian Press publication from 1913, it was clear that the images were of hybrid characters (for example, ‘The Sioux Rancher’ who appeared on the cover of Volume 5, Number 7 in March 1913). Matthews reads Cogewea as a metaphor for the angst of the nation and social/industrial ills; the wild native American is a counterpoint to urban environments (this echoes Wherry’s findings).
Matthews also noted Cogewea’s determination to write a romance novel that conformed to the genre’s expectations. She was a fan of the western romance and wanted to be a writer, and she was worried that revisions made to the manuscript by her co-author McWhorter were too hard on the white characters. Matthews concluded that her reluctance to change the ending to a sad one were either her refusal to acknowledge the decline of Native American culture, or her familiarity with the conventions of the romance genre. Ultimately, the rhetorical strategy of the book is that Native Americans don’t have to be Indian or white (as evident in the lack of cohesion in tone and characterisation) and the romance plot that Cogewea fought to retain is what resolves these issues.
Ania Malinowska’s (@ahmalinowska) paper – 'American Romance Fiction in Poland: Transfer Challenges and Sexual Revolution' – examined romance fiction in Poland, where romance constitutes 12% of the book market (the fifth most popular genre). Malinowska noted that 90% of romance titles published in Poland are from Anglophone authors and are read in translations – there is no tradition of the romance novel in Poland. Malinowska argued that this is partly because there is no language for sexual expression in Poland.
Malinowska identifies three discourses for sexual expression that existed in pre-1989 Poland: medical/scientific; metaphorical/religious/philosophical; and vulgar/obscene. This caused issues when translating English romance novels into Polish in the 1990s when Harlequins became popular. After the 1990s, Polish authors began to write their own novels (for example, Katarzyna Michalak and Katarzyna Grochola) including erotic fiction, which initially developed from fan fiction (just like 50 Shades). Because the Polish language does not have slang or casual terms for sex and romance – the default is either the medical, vulgar, or highly poetic term – these authors are creating new words and a new language to express erotic standards for women.
Several papers this year related to the genre of romance and its development. Katie Morrissey (@_katiedidnt) presented a paper called ‘Digital Romance: Crowdfunding & Multiplatform Love Stories’ on romance stories distributed online. These stories, known for their interaction and the specific media platforms they use – are an example of convergence culture – ‘where old and new media collide’ (to borrow a phrase from Henry Jenkins, whom Morrissey cites). Focusing on Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukasi, a story about two male hockey players falling in love disseminated on Tumblr and Twitter, and Fresh Romance, a multi-author serial comic which has appeared online and in print.
Morrissey described Check, Please! as difficult to define and analyse. She noted that it is difficult to know what terms to use for these texts – are they romances? Fiction? Chick lit? These texts also self-define as not romance – they label themselves as more diverse, savvy and sex-positive, defining themselves against a monolithic idea of romance. Morrissey proposed that such romance could be labelled ‘born digital’ – a term she applies to romances that began online but have now moved to print (although she does wonder what might we ‘lose’ by calling something ‘born digital’?). She argued that, as scholars, we look at romance in very fixed contexts and that we need to expand out methods to include convergence items like these. She proposed three strategies for this and asked for feedback:
Focus on a single text and trace its development through different media forms
Conduct a macro/micro level genre analysis
Look at individual readers and patterns of how they read
Jayashree Kamblé (@jayu77) also focused on genre in her paper ‘What’s a Heroine To Do? The Sub-Genrification of Romance Fiction’. Beginning with a February 2017 clip from the podcast Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me featuring uber-romance novelist Nora Roberts, Kamblé focused on Roberts’ claim that she doesn’t write romance novels. Kamblé proposed that three genres in which women can enjoy agency are: detective fiction; late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century supernatural fiction; and science fiction. But Kamblé proposed that these genres are not opposition to romance (as has been claimed) but that the genres feed into each other. The development of heroines into different roles (as with Eve Dallas in Roberts' In Death series, written as JD Robb) and the desire to see the heroine in roles others than the romantic relationship is part of the sub-genrification of the romance novel. In sum, Kamblé is arguing for a move away from what we have previously thought romance means – Romance 2.0 – to something generically more slippery – Romance 3.0.
Maria Ramos-Garcia’s (@MTRamosGarcia) paper, ‘Genre Hybridization in the 21st Century: Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy’, explored the differences between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, tracing the generic and historical differences between the genres. Drawing on both reader/public and scholar distinctions between the genres, Ramos-Garcia identifies paranormal romance as focused on a couple, with an HEA, whereas urban fantasy can involve multiple lovers. She traced the development of the genre from entirely separate in the 1990s, to a convergence in the ‘discovery narrative’ from 2002-2007, a move towards fantasy and dystopia in 2008-2016, and more overt political commentary in 2017.
Ria Cheyne’s (@riacheyne) paper, ‘DisRom: The Disability and Romance Pilot Project’, outlined a project she is currently undertaking to explore disability in popular romance (Ed: Ria is also talking about the #DisRom Project with us this month). Historically, disability has been represented in literature as stereotype: the tragedy model; sexually incapable or deviant; child-like. While one might expect disability to be absent in romance, Cheyne revealed that it is actually quite common, although it is not usually shown on the covers of romance novels. In terms of scholarship on disability in romance, this began to emerge in 2010, although this is all textual analysis. Cheyne proposes a new, reader response approach, with a survey of readers and authors. She shared her research questions, including: what motivates authors to write disabled characters? What barriers are there to publishing disability romances? How do agents and readers respond?
Angela Toscano (@angelartoscano) presented a paper focusing on romance scholarship, tracing early scholarship on Gothic romance (‘Haunting Romance: Rereading Early Feminist Criticism on the Gothic’). She noted that the romances analysed in early criticism of the romance genre were Gothic romances and argued that this is because it represents the dark underbelly of heterosexuality and seems like it should be more feminist than it is. She noted that critics find the genre frustrating and this is why early criticism focused on it. Giving detailed outlines of the work of Joanna Russ, Kay Mussell, Toscano concludes that this scholarship is problematic because it marks all Gothics as the same, sees repetition as bad, does not see any nuance or tension in representations of gender difference and considers texts to be complicit in women’s real-life oppression.
Eric Murphy Selinger’s (@emselinger) ‘Disaggregating “Attraction”: Asexuality and Genre Critique in Alex Beecroft’s Blue Steel Chain’ explored Beecroft’s m/m romance, arguing for its textual and paratextual motifs designed to educate readers about asexuality. He argued that Beecroft shifts from defining sexuality by absence (i.e. what she is not) and moves towards a goal of teaching about asexuality as orientation, rather than pathology, and to demystify and ‘dethrone the erotic’. She allows characters to not experience sexual attraction and makes asexuality ordinary. In sum, Beecroft allows for more nuance in the accounts of the romance available to us.
A few papers focused on adaptations of romance across time, medium, and scholarly discipline. Gwen Erin Kirby’s (@farfromgruntled) paper ‘From Pride and Prejudice to Clueless: Adapting Austen (and Why It Matters)’ transcended genre insofar as it examined the variable merits of different adaptations of Austen. Her approach, as a creative writer, was to explore the assertion that books for women are not serious because they are not universal, as well as the claim that some adaptations matter more than others (for instance, those that have a big cultural influence). Kirby argued that successful adaptations must occupy the liminal space between women’s reading and serious literature, and that the best adaptations do this and also address the tension between serious and women’s literature. She pointed out that the best adaptations find a way to recreate the society and confinement of the original Pride and Prejudice – the film Clueless does this well, said Kirby. Equally, the diary structure of Bridget Jones’ Diary is a good way to recreate the stifling structure.
Leah Larson gave a paper on many women’s favourite Cornwall resident: Poldark (‘From Foamy Cravat to Barechested Scything: Ross Poldark and the Evolution of a Hero’). Larson compared the 1975 BBC version of Poldark with the 2015 version, noting major differences. The 2015 version has more advanced costumes and filming techniques, and also had the author, Winston Graham’s, family as consultants. In 1975, the production crew were all men, and in the show, women’s bodies were shown off while men remained clothed. In 2015, on the other hand, women are modestly dressed and the gaze is centred on male characters; there are now women in the production crew and a woman is the central director.
Larson pointed out that the shift from a male to a female gaze is probably because the audience are now more likely to be women. A key difference Larson focused on was that of the representation of the titular character, Poldark. In 1975, Poldark is superior, addressed as captain, and more violent with female characters. In 2015, Poldark is called by his first name (Ross), seen as an equal, and is more scarred by previous battle experience. The only aspect that is largely unchanged is a problematic rape scene where consent is not clearly defined. In the end, Larson concluded that “Poldark remains catnip for viewers”.
Matthew Hoffman and Sara Kolmes presented from a philosophy-perspective in their paper ‘Infinity Gauntlets and Eternity Rings: Marriage, Mind Control, and Vows of Eternal Love’. Their thesis is the philosophical issue of promising to love someone forever and the extent to which this is morally possible or justifiable. Hoffman and Kolmes presented a series of examples from popular culture (including the unbreakable vow from Harry Potter and the Marvel world), exploring how this has affected real people’s decisions around promising to love (we were shown real-life examples of people making unbreakable vows). Hoffman and Kolmes argue that promising to love is at least morally binding, if not mortally binding, but they also highlight potential harms in promising to love forever: that you are still inclined to do it even when you don’t want to (thus stories of coercion and feminist critiques of marriage). The duo concluded that these popular culture reactions mean that we need to think more seriously about promises to love.
Form and Convention
Motifs, models, and conventions of romance are always the topics of research papers, and this year’s conference was no exception. Veera Mäkelä, (@wilthepony) in her paper ‘Who Loathes, Who Loves, Who Tells Your Story? Mary Balogh’s Other Women’, explored the motif of the ‘other woman' in Mary Balogh’s fiction. Tracing the characterisation and development of characters across a number of novels, Mäkelä notes that the other woman is usually a barrier to the romance plot, unsympathetic and a foil to the heroine. In Balogh, the other woman conforms to some of these features but is, in addition, commonly misunderstood by the hero, but understood by the heroine. Yet, the fate of the other woman is left open at the end of the novel, requiring resolution in a future novel where she becomes the heroine.
In ‘Cinderella and the Power of a Kinship Model in Explicating Romance Literature’, Leila Monaghan argued that the distinction between citizenship (reserved for men) and kinship (the domain of women) can be helpful for reading Mary Jo Putney’s Regency historical novels. Basing the argument on the thesis that men have citizen power and women are reliant on men and male solidarity (i.e. Cinderella) or kinship (i.e. ugly sisters), Monaghan argued that kinship allows for community and thinking beyond patrilineal lines. She pointed to a matrilineal line of inheritance in Cinderella (stepmother/fairy godmother) and in Mary Jo Putney, where warmth is used as a metaphor for home and family. Citizenship and kinship of duty is about men, but the kinship of love at work in romance is about families, putting women back into the social structure, demonstrating the deep power of the romantic relationship.
Lucy Sheerman (@LucySheerman) presented on that most famous of romance tropes: the happy ending. In her paper, ‘The Strain of Joy - Jane Eyre and happy endings’, she presented Rebecca and 50 Shades of Grey as Jane Eyre fanfiction. Jane Eyre contains a series of false endings, where religious passages are invoked or there is a supernatural or apocalyptic mise en scene. The romantic and spiritual love in Jane Eyre is also evident in Rebecca, which then influences Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting. Sheerman argued that as Jane Eyre is developed further each time, it moves further away from its romantic motifs.
Heather Schell (@schellhm8), too, examined the happy ending, although her paper, ‘After the Happily Ever After: Turkish Harlequin Readers Imagine What Happens after the Wedding’ looked beyond the ending to ask readers in Turkey what they thought happened next. Schell noted that many western-authored romance novels do not necessarily require a happy ending for the families of the couple – indeed, sometimes the happy ending is despite the family. This western focus on the couple is very different (individualism) to the family-oriented culture of contemporary Turkey (collectivism). Schell was interested in finding out to what extent the happy ever after (HEA) depended on reconciliation with the family. Schell conducted a research project in 2012 where she asked readers what happened next after the end of the romance. She found that 77% of respondents imagined reconciliation between the couple and family in various forms, concluding that the current reality of Turkey is blurred between individualism and collectivism (US and Turkish culture) as political and social change continues.
Rita B. Dandridge presented a psychoanalytic reading of tainted love stories shown on the Lifetime TV channel (‘A Theoretical Perspective of Lifetime Movie Network’s Tainted Love Romances’): The Wife He Met Online, and The Husband She Met Online. She mapped the story model onto Pamela Regis’ eight elements, but notes that these two films veer away from the tainted love formula at a point of violence suggesting, Dandridge claims, that online dating is presented as risky. In these films, the anonymity of online dating is problematic, and geographic distance means the couple have a lack of knowledge about each other. The heroine, indicated as suffering from Reactive Detachment Disorder, becomes obsessed with the hero and wants to form an immediate attachment but, in a plot mirroring her own mother’s fate, ends up killing his secretary after she is consumed with jealousy. For Dandridge, the psychopathic flaw in the heroine is used to underscore the message that online dating is dangerous.
Jessica Chadbourne’s paper, ‘What happens in the Carriage (doesn’t actually stay there): The carriage as a liminal space of sanctuary and revelation in the historical romance’ took a focused look at the liminal space of the carriage, where ideas and preconceptions are changed or suspended. Chadbourne argued that carriages are places of confinement and liberation simultaneously, where women can move around unobserved meaning carriages can become ‘rolling brothels’ or ‘moving boudoirs’. The carriage can also be a rolling confessional, where the enclosed space encourages revelation. The carriage as roving bedroom is the idea that acts can occur in the carriage that don’t happen elsewhere (although Chadbourne pointed out that this isn’t actually the case as these things do also occur elsewhere). Ultimately, as with all liminal spaces, the carriage opens and breaks what was permitted in the carriage. This is usually at the point of conflict, after which the characters need to return to who they were before in order to get over the barrier (after which the heroine is no longer the same as before).
Jen Lois (@jenlois1) and Joanna Gregson (@joannagregson1) expanded their work on romance authors to focus on ‘Negotiating the Professional Artist Identity: Romance Authors, Emotions, and Precarious Work in the Arts’. They note that the creative industries are precarious for workers, and that women are disproportionately disadvantaged. Precarity is tolerated for several reasons: getting a foot in the door, autonomy, and risk-taking entrepreneurship. Lois and Gregson looked at how romance authors encounter and mitigate precarity, centring on the point that they give up. A lack of publisher support (particularly for midlist authors) really surprised authors, as did low royalty payments. Publishers were very discreet about disclosing payment amounts and procedures, which didn’t help. There was also a degree of industry naiveté.
Lois and Gregson found that authors mitigated precarity by diversifying their genres (jumping genres to more popular ones), starting side businesses, and adopting a do-it-yourself approach (i.e. self-publication). They concluded that delayed socialisation to precarity leads to increased vulnerability, so authors must be aware from an early stage how precarious publishing really is. However, self-publishing can be used to off-set career precarity, with differential results.
Jodi McAlister (@JodiMcA) and Lisa Fletcher (@lmfletcher72) presented on their current materialist book project: ‘Tracking #loveyourshelfie: Harlequin Mills & Boon Novels as Objects in Twenty-First- Century Australia’. This project treats romance novels as material objects, rather than narrative items, sidestepping questions about ideological narrative and asking different questions about where category romance novels (as objects) travel after their publication. Using social media, the #loveyourshelfie project team identified 50 romance novels by Australian authors and asked followers to take photographs of the novels where they found them. The results indicated that the most common location novels were found was in private collections, suggesting that category romances are perhaps not as disposable as previously assumed but continue to have a circulating value. McAlister and Fletcher argued that the project demonstrates the complexity of the relationship between people and books.
Pavla Stefanska, (@xichteeze) in ‘Selling the Romance Experience: Nora Roberts and her Inn BoonsBoro Fantasy’, explored the commercialisation of Nora Roberts. Stefanska identified the moment that Roberts referred to herself as Coke (and her JD Robb persona as Coke Light) as her inspiration for thinking about Roberts as a brand rather than a person. This conceptualisation reached its zenith in Robb’s Inn Boonsboro trilogy, where three brothers are renovating a hotel which chronicles an actual real-life inn that Roberts and her husband were renovating. Stefanska argued that each novel in the series further intertwines Roberts in with the romance story.
For Stefanska, romance novels aim to appeal to people’s emotions; a goal also seen in advertising and marketing. She argued that the Boonsboro books make use of narrative transportation (when readers imagine themselves in a narrative) to make readers desire to visit the inn to verify the novels’ accuracy. Furthermore, connecting special moments with the inn makes people more like to visit and share the fantasy of the couples in the romance. Stefanska concluded that the trilogy is the pinnacle of Roberts’ branding yet her marketing strategy is subtly embedded into the novels. Reading romance is an intimate act, and therefore using a novel to manipulate readers’ emotions into buying a product is, Stefanska argued, distasteful and “kills the romance”.
An altogether different industry was the topic of Sarah Ficke’s (@DameMystery) paper, ‘Brewing up a Romance<