Once More With Feeling

I read part of Finnegan’s Wake on a dare and you guys, literary fiction is such an execrable waste of paper and ink. I don’t know anything about that James Joyce guy, but he was obviously a pervert and he lacks a basic command of English conventions and grammar–indeed some of it wasn’t even in English. The part I read was simultaneously puerile and pretentious. There didn’t seem to be a story or narrative at all. It was a collection of words and sounds–crappy ones at that. An infinite number of monkeys working on an infinite number of typewriters could have produced Finnegan’s Wake. In fact, I’m pretty sure they did. That anyone reads it at all is Joyce’s cosmic joke on English departments.

I’m guessing if I sent an essay with that thesis to William Giraldi, whose meditation on 50 Shades of Grey graces The New Republic today, he’d object. He’d probably say something like, “You’re missing the point of Finnegan’s Wake. Finnegan’s Wake is absurd and avante-garde; it is the leading edge of experimental Modernism. It must be read in the context of Joyce’s other works, as the final flowering of the stylistic innovations started in The Dubliners and Ulysses. It’s probably best not to start with Finnegan’s, or to read short bits in a group setting where you could debate its meaning. And even if it’s not your cup of tea, it still has artistic and cultural significance.”

All of which I’d agree with. (Though I don’t really like Finnegan’s Wake. But Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist have lovely, lovely bits. But I digress.) But all of this also applies to genre romance.

I don’t have a lot to say about the genre that I didn’t say to Talking Points Memo yesterday. Giraldi has read part of one romance novel and from this he feels confident speaking about (and dismissing) the entire enormous genre. He didn’t talk to any readers about what they liked or didn’t like about 50 Shades, but hey, that’s okay because he refers to what he thinks he knows about them based on heavily edited footage and interviews from the Summer of 50 Shades. He also thinks Katie Roiphe offers trenchant analysis–which might be the most damning piece of the entire thing. (I’ll leave Roiphe for another time.)

I have a master’s degree. At some point soon, I hope to have a PhD. In a given month, I read like goats eat: I wander from literary fiction to non-fiction to current events essays to popular fiction published in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. A lot of what I read is middle brow. Some is high and much is low. I know enough about history to know that these distinctions are fleeting and culturally and historically bound.

To these texts, I bring many lenses. At times, I read intertextually and closely. I skim. I consider form and theme. I put some things down. I write and talk about some of my reading. Some I keep close for fear of appearing stupid or because I cannot bear to share it. I know that it is possible to read low brow texts deeply and well and to read high brow texts shallowly and badly. At times I have done both. But I know more than anything that I respect readers and trust that they do as much and in as complicated a way as I do.

In terms of 50 Shades, some readers may have read it because everyone else was, some may never have read sex represented graphically and found that liberating, some may never have had any language to express or insist on their pleasure (never mind that Giraldi thinks the language in 50 Shades isn’t the right language), some may have found it silly or stupid, some may have hated it, some may have compared it to literary erotica by Anais Nin, and many saw it in contradictory and multiple ways.

Literary criticism has at its heart a triangle with three points: writer, text, audience. At times, critics have been more interested in one point or pole at the expense of the others. Giraldi thinks text is most important. But without audience, text is nothing. At the very least, he’d do well to admit the kind of criticism he’s writing–but why would I expect a man who didn’t finish the book in question to meet the standards imposed on schoolchildren writing book reports?

ETA: Erm, I fixed a couple of typos. Also, I wrote more about my reading here.

Feeding the Trolls

Yesterday, one of my favorite political blogs linked to a Bill Maher bit where he chastised Rupert Murdoch in the style of a Harlequin Presents (or at least what he and his audience think an HP is). It wasn’t the first time the blog has used romance as a joke; so I dashed off an email in protest. For your reading pleasure, it’s appears below the fold.

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Never Say Never Again

(Religion and Romance Parts 1, 2, and 3)

This entire series began as a discussion of why religion was never mentioned in non-inspirational romance, but we quickly decided “never” was too strong a word—people of faith do occasionally appear in genre romance. But what purpose are these people of faith serving in genre romance in the absence of a larger conversion narrative?

So let us count the ways in which it’s acceptable to represent religion in genre romance!

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The Conversion Imperative

(This is the latest entrant in a series my critique partner, Genevieve Turner, and I have been writing about religion in genre romance. The first two posts are here and here. This and the following post were mostly written by Gen.)

Why are characters with religious convictions rarely portrayed in non-inspirational romance? And how is this absence connected with the prevalence of the conversion narratives in inspirational romance?

Emma and I began thinking about these questions when we were discussing the lack of religious references in genre romance, a state of affairs we found puzzling—especially in historical romances. In her series on religion and romance, author Ros Clarke raised the idea that perhaps we don’t see many people of faith in genre romance because those stories are always shunted to the inspirational subgenre.

While batting around our ideas over email, one of our theory was that religion is not mentioned (often) in genre romance because religious differences (at least differences within Christian denominations) are no longer a source of overt conflict in the modern western world.

(Obviously religious conflict remains a big deal globally. I would love to see more romances from places other than the US and Western Europe, either contemporary or historical. But we definitely don’t live in an ideal world. So while this post and series will be western-centric, this is not say that the genre should be. Yay for more diversity!)

I’m old enough to have a grandmother who told me never to discuss politics or religion at dinner parties. The politics bit is less taboo these days (which is why Emma has written a series of political romances), but the “religion as private” prohibition still has currency.

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Romance as Conversion

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Image used via WikiCommons License, by Sailko

So a funny thing happened after lots of people read and commented on my post about romance and religion: a series of demands ate my time and made it difficult for me to finish this post. I also found the attention somewhat paralyzing. It’s easier to blog if you think no one is going to read what you have to say—because if people are going to read it, then one is under an obligation to say something interesting and unique.

I am sorry about that; and since I can’t leave the conversation unfinished, and because Gen has some lovely posts on the subject that deserve your attention, I want to offer a few unformed thoughts about how non-inspirational (straight genre) romance may still have a central conversion narrative, but one that substitutes romantic love for religious faith.

Conversion stories and genre romance share a narrative structure. In the opening of each, we generally find our hero or heroine untouched by either romantic love or faith and claiming to be happy without it. But beneath the surface there is an aching lack.

Cue the meet cute! Our hero or heroine is exposed to the charms of their future partner in romance, or the illuminating truth of the gospel or the guiding actions of one of the faithful in conversion stories. The hero or heroine begins to doubt the previous aversion to love or faith.

In the final triumphant act, our hero or heroine is fully converted, often in a rush of some strong emotion forcing them to declare their newfound love or faith. And then they live happily ever after–either in this world, or in Heaven if they’ve been martyred.

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On Religion and Romance

Why don’t romance novels tend to feature religion?

To spin it another way, why is it that outside of inspirational romance, religion tends to be excluded from or mentioned only in passing in non-inspirational (or straight genre) romance?

This is a particularly salient question in the historical context as church membership was a significant part of culture–in fact, perhaps one of the most significant parts of culture, especially in some of the popular settings for historical romances.

(For example, in The Feminization of American Culture, a book which despite its title is largely about Victorian American theology, literary scholar Ann Douglass argues that three-quarters of mid-nineteenth-century Americans were active members of churches, perhaps the highest degree of religiosity in American history. The period was also one of great religious fervor in the UK. And while we’re having a bit of an aside, let me say also that for simplicity’s sake, and because it reflects the bulk of the genre, this post will assume a western lens. I would love love love for the genre to be more diverse in terms of ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, class, race, religion, and politics than it is, so don’t take my discussion of the genre “as is” as endorsement of the status quo.)

Even in the contemporary period, religion remains a significant part of the cultural landscape. So if romance is a realistic genre, if it is frequently set in the world that we know, and if it represents scenarios that could happen/are familiar to us, then what gives with the absence of faith?

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All About Romance Top 100 Books Poll, 2013 Edition

I’m alive. I swear.

I’m trying to finish writing the second book in my contemporary series for Carina, not to mention completing my dissertation. I just finished two rounds of edits on the first book for them (the one formerly known as The Easy Part; new title forthcoming). I’m also beginning to think about NaNoWriMo, when I hope to finish Brave in Heart’s sequel. Plus I’ve been teaching and grading. So much grading. Grading like it’s going out of style (which I hope it is).

With all of that in mind, while I was filling out my ballot for the All About Romance Top 100 poll, I decided to share it here.

A few caveats: it’s probably obvious I’m not a long-time romance reader; there’s not much old school stuff here. I did not like the first two books I read by Nora Roberts, so I gave up on her. In general, I don’t like romantic suspense, erotica, and paranormal romance. I’ve read nothing by Susan Elizabeth Phelps, JR Ward, Diana Gabaldon, or Nalini Singh, among others. With all that in mind, I decided to stop at 50 rather than 100.

So, tell me where I’m wrong. Tell me what I need to read.

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This is Not History

HRW

Author and all-around Edwardian expert Evangeline Holland has put together a week long celebration of historical romance that promises to be a thoughtful examination of the state of and issues in the genre. Today, I’m arguing that historical romance doesn’t teach us about history — and that’s awesome. Please join me!

Kern der Sache

What’s the beating heart of romance? What drives the genre? What propels the books off the shelves?

We could say, banally but accurately, that the answer is as varied as the number of romance readers and leave it there. But let’s not, if only because then this post would be so short. (Yes, this tautology fuels much of my life.)

In the anthology Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, a collection of essays about the genre by popular romance writers, we get a number of responses. Penelope Williamson writes that in romance, “The fantasies are uniquely feminine and the story is primarily the heroine’s” (126, emphasis in original). Laura Kinsale disagrees, arguing, “It is the hero who carries the book” (32) and that romance reading “is the experience of ‘what a courtship feels like’” (39). Jayne Ann Krentz says that romance is the un-politically correct fantasies of women readers, including to challenge (and perhaps be dominated by) the alpha hero who is also the villain (107-9).

So the draw of romance is that it puts a woman at the center of the narrative, subverting the Western canon, wherein she must solve (conquer?) the man who is hero and antagonist at once. Got it.

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Against Alpha Heroes

True confession: I don’t love alpha heroes.

Sometimes I do, don’t get me wrong. Like so many before me, I fell in love with romance in guise of one Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain, from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. In my head, Dain looks like Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, only unlike that cad, he’s really very smart, which only makes him sexier. Beyond his brains, Dain is arrogant, selfish, and rakish. He behaves utterly irrationally more than infrequently — like the mewling man-child with very serious mommy and daddy issues that he is. I don’t really know how or why the eminently reasonable Jessica Trent put up with him, but such is love.

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