Monday, April 27, 2015

On my shelfie

You may have noticed that I recently updated my blog's background image of a shelf full of romance novels. Both the new one and the old version are indeed photos of my own romance bookshelf. Today I’m going to talk a bit about where the first one came from, why I changed it, and why I’m still dissatisfied.

In 2013, I participated in a Facebook thread with a group of scholars (mostly medievalists like me) who were sharing shelfies, the bookshelf play on a selfie photograph. While most of the posted photos contained literary and critical tomes, I decided to share my romance shelf, bringing my personal reading into a quasi-professional domain. 

Original shelfie, 2013
At the time, it felt like a brave gesture, a way of identifying myself as a romance reader to colleagues in academia who may hold a derogatory view of the genre. But I got nothing but positive feedback from my fellow scholars, who expressed enjoyment at seeing a different sort of shelf. So when I started designing this blog a year ago, it was a natural choice to incorporate the image as a testament to my own reading experience. And I very much like the personal touch of having a photo of my own collection accompanying my posts on the genre.

A key drawback of this original photo, however, is that because I tended to loosely group my romances by author, the shelfie gave a lot of space to a few authors and did not reflect the variety of romances I read.

So I decided last month to see whether I could update my shelfie to make it more representative of my engagement with romance. While moving over the summer, I had scrapped the sorting-by-author system. I thought that with a little massaging I could include a broader array of novels. The results were not entirely satisfactory.

As I rearranged my books, I was able to bring in a wider range of subgenres, displaying more paranormal and science fiction romance and a few more contemporaries. A greater number of authors are now featured. And the temporal span reaches from the early ’80s to this year. But when I evaluate the end product against my contact with the genre, I still see massive lacunae.[1]

Updated shelfie, 2015
The main culprit, beyond the usual complaints of too many books and not enough space to keep them all, is my switch over the past five years to reading romance predominantly on e-readers. During that time I’ve gone on major reading jags and discovered plenty of authors that can be found nowhere on my physical shelf. Two years ago I tore through Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series. But I don’t own a single hardcopy. I’ve likewise read nearly all of Sherry Thomas’s historical novels. Just about every new adult, queer, ménage, and erotic romance I’ve read is stored on my Nook or Kindle.

I couldn’t buy hardcopies of some of these works, particularly the newer ones, even if I tried. Anna Cowan’s Untamed, for instance, is only available in the U.S. in e-book format, so she’s not in my shelfie. The same thing goes for Alyssa Cole’s Radio Silence and Elle Kennedy’s The Deal, both of which I read last month.[2] So there are substantial obstacles to remedying the situation fully.

This is troubling to me because a casual visitor to my blog could understandably interpret the shelfie as an endorsement of some romances at the expense of others. And I am particularly concerned that certain subgenres as well as diverse authors are still underrepresented.
As I continue to blog and need to consult various texts often I may go back to buying more hardcopies. My bookshelf will not transform overnight, though, so it may be some time before I post another shelfie update. Meanwhile, as a partial corrective, I provide on the right-hand side of the blog a list of the books I read each month. It is my hope that this list can complement my shelfie, which says more about where my reading has been than where it is now.

[1]I want to make clear that I am only comparing my collection to my personal reading history, not to some representative sample of the genre. 
[2]This is not a reproach. E-publishing is connecting me with these books just fine, and a reader’s ability to display a given book on the shelf has got to be dead last among the priorities of any author or publisher weighing print publication.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

An unlikely analogy: romance and seventeenth-century French theater

Note: I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks. I started it as a rebuttal to the notion that romances are formulaic due to generic constraints. (I had in mind the HEA imperative across romance, as well as textual elements strongly associated with various subgenres.) And I do believe that there are three fundamental approaches to generic constraints that can be applied to romance as well as other genres. But I found my argument breaking down as I seemed to be asserting that the genre is at once highly rigid and quite fluid. By the time I was done writing, I was pretty skeptical of my own argument and the way I had framed it.

One of my beta readers, who knows both French literature and popular romance, is likewise not completely on board with the thrust of this post but found it thought-provoking and urged me not to scrap it. So I’m putting it out here very much as a trial balloon, to help me pin down just how codified the genre is. Are there a lot of generic constraints (as opposed to conventions)? And if so, who or what is upholding or enforcing them? With the explosion of subgenres and formats over the past decade, how much of romance is still dictated by textual codes? Please feel free to chime in and help me work through this.  

Romance fiction is often dismissed on the grounds that it is formulaic and predictable. With so many aspects of the text determined by the genre’s codes, there is little room for originality, or so the argument goes.

Enthusiasts of the genre are quick to point out that other literary and artistic domains heavily marked by conventions do not suffer from the same stigma. I have seen romance likened to fixed-form poetry such as the sonnet, and individual narrative tropes and elements compared to the steps in a ballet or chords in a song. These analogies are intended to convey that while the genre provides structure, there is plenty of room in a given text for originality and variation even when many of the elements are dictated.

French playwright
Jean-Baptiste Racine
I’d like to make a related point: Just because the rulebook exists does not mean that all authors ascribe to it. To illustrate, I’m going to evoke an entirely different corner of the literary world: seventeenth-century French theater

Why seventeenth-century French theater? Because its conventions are as rigidly codified as any corpus I can think of. The literary lights of that period were particularly obsessed by the rules governing the genre, which went far beyond the familiar five-act structure and dictates pertaining to comedy versus tragedy. Applying Aristotle’s precepts on theater with maniacal rigidity, they enforced a series of three “unities,” principles governing the structure and content of a play. These were:
  1. Unity of time: the plot of the play should unfold over no more than twenty-four hours (often from noon until the following noon);
  2. Unity of place: the setting should be limited to one space represented on stage, such as a public square or meeting room, where all character interaction could plausibly take place; and
  3. Unity of action: the play should develop only one storyline with no (or few) subplots.

In addition to these conventions, there was a fourth rule, that of la bienséance. This rule forbade showing on stage anything that might upset the sensibilities of the viewers, to wit, acts of violence and bloodshed. Duels, suicides, and battles had to take place off-stage and could only be recounted indirectly.

Versification, too, was typically prescribed: playwrights wrote in the twelve-syllable meter of alexandrin, typically in rhymed couplets. This was the French analogue to iambic pentameter.

Within this rigidly enforced framework, three of the seventeenth century’s most celebrated playwrights—Racine, Corneille, and Molière—offer three different models for how writers can engage with a highly codified genre.

Monday, February 23, 2015

On diversity in romance: a statement of intent

I’ve been preoccupied for a number of weeks by a key point of synchronicity in two communities I follow online: medievalist scholars and romance enthusiasts. Both groups are heavily engaged at present in discussions of practices that promote diversity and inclusion.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to make explicit my own commitment to diversity in romance—as a reader, blogger, and scholar.

When I was growing up, most of the romances I encountered featured white, straight, Christian protagonists. And, as far as I knew, they were pretty much all written by white, straight, Christian women. Some of these books did feature non-white protagonists, but they were often portrayed as an exotic Other in well-worn stereotypes (the “savage” Indian warrior, the desert sheik, etc.).  Some of these depictions were sympathetic, or aimed to be, but most fell short of true sensitivity and inclusiveness.

I was limited in the ’90s to the paperbacks my mother purchased, and she in turn was constrained by whatever the bookstore was willing to stock. And in those days, access to author information was much more limited. There were fewer author websites, and sometimes there wasn’t even an author photo in the back of the book; all I had to go on was a probable pseudonym. So it would have been difficult to know whether I was reading diversely, had the idea even occurred to me.

Times, of course, have changed. Basic information about romance novelists is much more readily available online. Many authors write quite eloquently about how their background or identity informs their fiction. And the recent explosion of self-publishing is increasing the visibility of often-marginalized groups, including authors of color and queer authors. With the increase of access to information and availability, there is no excuse for readers of romance to not be reading diversely in 2015.

Romance is a genre of empathy and of identification. Every reader should be able to see himself or herself reflected in the genre, because love stories do not belong exclusively to those in privileged groups. Moreover, writers of talent and vision deserve recognition, and those who belong to minority groups are all too often overlooked or discounted, whether by readers, publishers, critics, or scholars.

I want this blog to be an inclusive space that accounts for the tremendous diversity of the romance genre, both in terms of its content and its creators. What does that mean pragmatically for me as a scholar who blogs on romance? It means making sure that authors of color and queer authors are represented in my posts. It also entails accounting for other identity markers that may be relevant to either author or text, such as religion, age, disability, class, and nationality.  And, critically, it means recognizing the role of intersectionality between and among these identities.

Here is my working statement of intent:
  • I will make a concerted effort to read and analyze books by authors who are diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, country or region, disability, and language.
  • I will make a concerted effort to read and analyze books whose main characters are diverse, whether or not that diversity is directly thematized in the story.
  • I will engage with the work of diverse scholars and critics, and will acknowledge their contributions to my own scholarship.
  • I will work to ensure that readers of this blog feel welcome and valued, and will respond respectfully and receptively when an interlocutor lets me know I’ve been offensive or gotten something wrong.

Diversity in romance is not my central mission. (If you are interested in a resource that deals predominantly with this topic, I recommend the review site Love in the Margins.) But as a scholar whose goals include promoting the genre to a wider readership, it is important to me that romance’s full spectrum be represented in such discussions. Romance has become a diverse genre, and Penetrating Analysis needs to reflect that diversity.

Because I post once a week, I can’t address all of the above-mentioned areas of diversity immediately. So please watch this space in the coming months to evaluate how well I am honoring my commitment over the long haul. And if you notice a glaring lacuna, or have an idea for a post in this vein, please don’t hesitate to let me know. Promoting diversity in romance must be a collaborative effort, and it needs plenty of partners and allies.   

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Thoughts on medieval literature and popular romance

I was fortunate to be able to attend the What Is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age Conference at the Library of Congress last Wednesday. For those who were unable to attend, tweets from the conference’s panel sessions have been Storified.

It was an informative event that brought together dozens of experts from a variety of fields that intersect with romance. Rather than attempting a comprehensive post on the whole conference, today I’m going to touch on a single highlight that aligns most closely with some of my other scholarly interests.

The second panel featured William Reddy, Professor of History and Cultural Anthropology at Duke, who asserted that contrary to popular belief, modern romance novels do not represent archetypal models of love. Rather, he maintained the birth of the love story as we understand it can be traced to the twelfth century, when the genre of romance largely supplanted other literary modes such as epic; with this shift, romantic love became a source of strength rather than weakness for the hero.

Reddy’s comments could have been a bit more nuanced, in particular his argument that romance represented a pushback against the Catholic Church’s new teachings on sex and marriage. Twelfth-century romance adopted a variety of postures toward love, including courtly and anti-courtly discourses. Moreover, the Church was eventually successful in assimilating romance to a large extent by radically Christianizing it, most notably in La Quête du Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail), in which the ideal knight is no longer the best fighter and lover but rather the most pious Christian.

It is also true that portrayals of love in medieval romance tend to be far different from their contemporary incarnation. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century love stories were typically based on adultery borne of unhappy marriages (Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere). And unlike today’s romance telos, in the Middle Ages there was no guarantee of a happy ending.

That said, medieval literature (including works that predate the explosion of romance) is a fruitful area of inquiry for those who study popular romance in its modern form.

Some disclosure is in order here: My scholarly training is in French literature, with an emphasis on the medieval and post-1968 periods. My dissertation analyzed reworkings of Arthurian legend in recent French novels, plays, TV series, comic books, and films, in particular how they engage with many of the textual strategies that mark the earlier works. So I have been attuned for years to points of resonance across the centuries in various literary traditions.

With that in mind, I would like to suggest that, although the definition of romantic love that guides popular romance fiction today is not transhistorical, the premodern Western literary tradition has a lot to offer scholars and readers of popular romance in terms of productive lenses through which to view current literary trends.

Here are some areas of correspondence between the premodern and the (post)modern that readily come to mind:
  • alternative models of love, in particular possible slippage from the homosocial bond (i.e., bromance) to the homosexual, including iconic male couples such as Roland and Olivier, or Lancelot and Galehaut, as antecedents to today’s m/m romance
  •  narratives foregrounding cross-dressing, role reversal, and gender performativity in texts such as Aucassin et Nicolette and  Le Roman de Silence
  • Marie de France’s Lais such as Yonec and Bisclavret as medieval forebears to the were- and shapeshifter trends in romance, and more broadly, the medieval Otherworld’s link to fantasy-inflected love stories
  • authorship and readerly community in the Middle Ages: Arthuriana as a medieval form of fanfic in which vast networks of writers contributed translations, reworkings, alternate continuities, continuations, prequels, and paratexts
  • hagiography (saints lives) as a parallel genre associated with discourses of passion (both physical and spiritual), sacrifice, and bodily suffering, with particular emphasis on metaphor
I would be delighted to know of any scholars who have worked in these areas, or of popular romance authors who are deploying medieval literary traditions (either stories or textual practices) in their own work.

Monday, February 9, 2015

When the hero puts on a dress

Note: Over the next several weeks, I plan to devote a series of posts to unconventional instances of cross-dressing in historical romances. I will follow up with some theoretical discussion of the trope’s stakes and thoughts on how fresh ground may be broken by authors of historicals who are interested in gender identity and performativity. Today’s post provides some preliminary remarks and investigates cross-dressing in Eloisa James’s Pleasure for Pleasure.

In her 2008 book Historical Romance Fiction, Lisa Fletcher provides an astute analysis of cross-dressing and gender performativity in historical romance novels. According to her research, cross-dressing is almost always limited to the heroine, who wears men’s attire to disguise her female identity and take on a male role, whether as an adolescent gentleman, a cabin boy, naval officer, cowboy, Bedouin, or valet.

In most novels based on the premise, the heroine is truly masquerading as a man, generally for expediency’s sake within the storyline. Cross-dressing offers either protection—for instance, in situations where a woman traveling alone may be particularly vulnerable to kidnapping or assault—or access to exclusively male spaces such as gambling dens or military barracks. Because the hero generally does not immediately realize the heroine’s identity as a woman, secrecy, confusion, and revelation are hallmarks of the cross-dressing romance.

As a trope, cross-dressing also provides the author with a means to subvert the severe delineation of gender roles in various historical periods, allowing heroines greater freedom of movement and experience than their setting might otherwise permit. Fletcher argues that in spite of any transgression the gender politics of the trope tend to reinforce the male-female gender binary when traditional gender roles are ultimately reestablished, and that cross-dressing heroines “stand uncomfortably between conformity and progression.”[1]

Far less frequent in popular historical romance is elective cross-dressing not intended to deceive others, and rarer still is a cross-dressing hero. However, in the past ten years a handful of romances with these features have been published. They may indicate that it is time to revisit cross-dressing in popular romance and assess to what extent Fletcher’s evaluation of the trope still holds true for more recently published novels.

Open male cross-dressing occurs memorably in Eloisa James’s Regency historical romance, Pleasure for Pleasure (2006). It is an isolated event in the story, but critical nonetheless in configuring the relationship between hero and heroine.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Romancing the canon?

A colleague recently brought to my attention a digital humanities pamphlet from Stanford’s Literary Lab on possible methodologies for constructing a canon to represent twentieth-century literature in English.[1]

The pamphlet’s authors, Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl, solicited and compiled lists from a variety of scholarly, popular, and critical sources:
  1. Modern Library Editors list of the best books of the 20th century
  2. Modern Library Readers list of the best books of the 20th century
  3. Radcliffe Publishing Program’s list of the best books of the 20th century
  4. Larry McCaffery’s list of the best experimental fiction of the 20th century
  5.  Publishers Weekly’s bestselling books of the 20th century (by year)
  6. Ranked list of texts complied from responses from members of the Postcolonial Studies Association
Algee-Hewitt and McGurl then mapped out overlap among the lists to create constellations of canonical texts.

While I harbor a healthy amount of skepticism toward canons and their tendency to marginalize certain corpora, projects like this can offer insight into how a given text, author, or genre is valued in literary communities. So I looked to see whether any popular romance had made it onto the various lists. Truth be told, I did not expect to find much.

While science fiction, fantasy, and political dystopia were represented among the various scholarly and critical lists, romances were not. By my reckoning, the closest those lists came were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, all of which foreground love stories but lack the critical HEA.

The list of the best-selling book of each year included a couple of titles that come a bit closer to the popular romance mark: Jean M. Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters and Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett. Both arrive at an end-point, if not of HEA, of the more provisional happy for now (HFN). Auel’s novel in particular bears some other hallmarks of popular romance: the love triangle and the big misunderstanding.

Readers who are familiar with the abovementioned titles: How well do you think they fit the romance label? And are there other works on any of the lists that you consider romance?

[1] Algee-Hewitt, Mark, and McGurl, Mark. “Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th-Century Novels,” Pamphlets of the Stanford Literary Lab, January 2015,  

Monday, January 26, 2015

In defense of anachronism

A frequent charge leveled against historical romance is its tendency toward anachronism. Period-inappropriate technologies, dialogue, and allusions are pet peeves for even enthusiasts of the subgenre.[1]

Some authors bungle aristocratic titles and forms of address among the peerage. Others might put words such as “okay” in the mouths of eighteenth-century protagonists.[2] Still others might incorporate characters who base their actions on then-undiscovered scientific principles, discoveries, or practices (psychoanalysis, germ theory, etc.). Characters might eat the wrong food, wear the wrong clothing, or make the wrong joke. One of the most common complaints against the subgenre is that the mindset of the hero or heroine is incompatible with his or her setting. Often, objections are aimed at the text’s representation of the options available to women in a given period.

While I appreciate rigorous attention to detail in the subgenre, and while certain careless errors do annoy me, I would submit that a little unintentional anachronism isn’t the end of the world.

To demonstrate, I’d like to turn to another type of romance altogether: the Arthurian kind.

The literary tradition of Arthurian romance was largely developed from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries by a loose network of mostly anonymous authors writing in the major vernacular languages of the period (primarily French, English, and German, but also Italian, Spanish, and various Celtic and Scandinavian tongues). Derived in part from Latin chronicles, it began chiefly in verse but was quickly adapted into prose. Among the authors of Arthurian romance we do know, Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Sir Thomas Malory have all achieved canonical status in medieval literary studies.

All of them practiced flagrant anachronism.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thorny terminology: the problem of heroes and heroines

In the course of writing these initial posts, I have often stumbled over two very basic terms: hero and heroine. More specifically, I have paused after typing them together, as a unit, when discussing romance protagonists in the abstract. The hero and heroine must conquer adversity. The hero and heroine reveal their love. The banal but problematic assumption underlying these kinds of sentences is that the text does, in fact, contain both a hero and a heroine.

But that’s not always the case.

While romance novels usually center on the development of a heterosexual romance, gay and lesbian romance is a small but growing subgenre within this literary landscape, and an increasing number of books in the “mainstream” market feature a same-sex romance, whether as the primary plot or perhaps a secondary one. In the subgenre of erotic romance, which traces the development of a romantic relationship through sex, we may not even be limited to two partners. In order to alert readers to the featured gender/partner permutations, many novels are marketed with designations such as MM (male-male), MMF (male-male-female), and so on. Thirty years ago these kinds of works were all but non-existent in mainstream markets. Today, self-publishing, publishers that solicit LGBT and ménage romance, and e-readers are making them accessible to an ever-broader audience.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A reading strategy for romance

A couple years ago, I lent a friend Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke (2011) to introduce him to historical romance. This friend is a doctoral candidate in literature, and part of my aim was to demonstrate that popular romance can feature excellent writing.

A few chapters in, he was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of writing and storytelling but reported difficulty getting hooked. I eventually ascertained that he was reading a chapter or two each night before bed. To which I replied with immediate dismay, “No, no, you’re reading it all wrong! You’ve got to plunge in and keep reading!” It was only in saying that that I realized that popular romance lends itself to being read in a way that may be completely unintuitive to readers who have a background in literary studies.

Those who study literature are used to proceeding slowly, pausing frequently to reflect or reread passages, perhaps even taking detailed notes as they go. I do this as well when I’m considering a romance for its literary qualities, but seldom on a first read. When a favorite author releases a new novel, I attempt to clear my schedule to enable me to read the book in a single day or weekend. Here’s why. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why study romance as literature?

In this post, I would like to speak in broad terms about why romance is worthwhile as a subject of literary study, and why now is the perfect time to be reading and discussing it.

As a genre, romance is actually very tricky to do well.

The rigidity of the genre’s conventions and its formulaic structures make romance difficult to execute. Everything has been done, and the happy ending is a foregone conclusion, so the challenge for a romance novelist is to find some way to make the same well-worn types and tropes ring fresh. But as it turns out, this can be done dazzlingly well.

It’s a fantastic time to be a reader of romance, as authors push the limits of the genre, incorporating casts and settings that were excluded (either deliberately or through oversight) even a decade ago.

The past five years in particular have given rise to a new crop of novelists whose work hinges upon moral and ethical impediments that defy easy solutions. Unlike in romances predicated upon a misunderstanding (e.g., he wrongly suspects her of infidelity, she thinks he only married her for her money), where once all is revealed all is well, these texts place a dilemma at the heart of the story. They put the couple’s interests or the beloved’s interests in opposition to another person, group, or cause that is very near to the protagonist’s heart. These novels demand sacrifice or creativity of their heroes and heroines in order to arrive at the HEA. Excellent novelists currently writing in this vein include Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, and Cecilia Grant.

Meanwhile, the series model of romance has become increasingly prevalent and complex.  The series format constitutes the genre’s solution to a sales/marketing problem: the presence of a HEA generally precludes a sequel. Instead, books are written and published in constellations revolving around the same (often fictional) space, family, or band of friends. This paradigm has existed in romance for decades, but the relationships between installments are increasingly rich and intricate. Indeed, the elaborate structuring and sequencing of certain texts calls to mind such now-canonical projects as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and Zola’s Rougon-Macquart family.[1]

Romance is also intersecting with other genres in unprecedented ways, creating hybrids and new literary niches, each with its own governing systems.