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 QuĂȘte 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,