Ethical Criticism of Genre Fiction Part 1 (my PCA Paper)

Part 1 of a multipart post.

For newbies: this is part one of a summary of a paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association annual meeting in April 2010, with some additional commentary.

I. In what ways can an artwork be ethically evaluated? There are several ways:

    i. in its mode of production (for example, the business of publishing, or ethics of writing)
    ii. the ethical views or attitudes it endorses or rejects
    iii. in the quality of its exploration of ethical issues
    iv. in its consequences (for example, causing readers to accept morally salutary or problematic attitudes)

I am interested in iii and ii

I spent a lot of time in this presentation defending the general idea of ethical criticism, because I was talking to a roomful of romance scholars and readers. Romance readers are used to iv above. The majority of public discourse about the romance novel does not treat it as literature or even as subliterature but as a commercial pop cultural product. More specifically, it has focused on the romance novel as a potentially harmful, singular product (and even my locution there — “the romance novel” — evidences that). As a romance reader, I am aware that this is a sensitive issue, for good reason, so I wanted to take time to explain exactly what I propose to do when I propose to engage in the ethical criticism of romance novels.

For me, as a moral philosopher, ethical criticism of the romance novel is the tiny part I can contribute to taking romance novels seriously as novels. It is also the tiny part I can contribute to broadening the very narrow focus among ethical critics on certain set of literary works.

II. Assuming we also evaluate literature aesthetically, what is the relationship between ethical and aesthetic evaluation?

I am only interested in this question to the extent of ruling out any answer that forecloses the possibility of ethical criticism per se.

a. Autonomism –Ex. Richard Posner, Oscar Wilde: art and morality are entirely separate, irrelevant to one another. No art is subject to moral assessment. Moral value or disvalue has no impact on value of art work. Art is valuable because it is “absorbing” or “singular” or more generally “beautiful”,  or some other aesthetic quality. 

b. Platonism – all art is morally suspect (this has to do with Plato’s onotlogy. Just its distance from the really real, i.e. the Forms, makes art ontologically suspect.)

c. Utopianism – Ex. Herbert Marcuse — all art is morally uplifting (for example, because it shows the world as it might be, supports praxis); Ex. Sartre, who write that there could be no good novel endorsing slavery (like Plato, Sartre has complicated ontological reasons of this view)

III. Problems with these:

As Noel Carroll has pointed out, all of these theories hold a “common denominator thesis”, namely that all art has same relationship to morality (whatever that relationship is). It seems more likely that different instances and kinds of art have different relationships to ethics. For example, while Marcuse may be right that some art has a utopian moment, few would agree that Triumph of the Will, despite its excellent aesthetic qualities, shares that. To say, as Posner and Wilde do, that there is no relationship also seems false, when so much art has been produced explicitly for religious, political and ethical reasons. Art is of the world and the world is political, religious, ethical.

Posner is right that art doesn’t have to have a moral dimension to succeed as art. Nor is art an instrument of morality. Moral edification is just not the function of most good art.

Also, looking at art ethically doesn’t foreclose or distort appreciating its aesthetic qualities, unless we let it. For one thing, aesthetic and ethical qualities are often hard to separate, in part because one of the things that can make a work of art absorbing, asethetically, is the way it engages the moral life of the audience. Can you really say you understand Beloved or Huckleberry Finnif you don’t have a handle on ii and iii above? No one, or at least no one I take seriously, is endorsing reading a book only for its moral message (extracting nuggets of moral wisdom), construed in very blunt nonaesthetic terms. Doing so would not be to read it as art, but as some kind of pedagogical tool, distorting its aesthetic qualities in the process.

When many people hear “ethical criticism of fiction”, they think immediately of looking at fiction’s effects on readers. Although there are certainly folks who do that (on both sides of the fence, i.e., some who say books are great for you morally and some who say they are bad for you morally, as we saw in Plato and Marcuse, respectively), that activity does not describe what many people are doing when they engage in ethical criticism of art. Or at least not what I am doing, and here’s why:

For one thing, what tools would you need to investigate the “effects of art”?  Many of us can recall a book that seemed to affect us profoundly, changing our world view. I think it is fair to generalize this personal observation from our armchairs, as a sort of common sense grounding  for ethical criticism or indeed any art criticism, but it is a long way from that to having any data on the effects of books on readers in general, let alone the effect of a specific book on a specific reader.

How would you gather that data, if you wanted to? Not from sitting in your office thinking about it. One way would be using the tools of social sciences like psychology and sociology, including surveys and ethnography. More newfangled ways would include using noninvasive brain imaging technologies (I can talk more about such studies if anyone wants), to see what parts of readers’ brains do what when they read. I don’t see any “ethical critics” gathering the kind of data they would need to support claims about the effects of books on readers. That is not a suggestion that they do so,  but evidence for my contention that iv above is not what ethical critics are doing (or at least not what we should be doing).

Let’s suppose for a minute that our friends in neuropsychology or sociology gathered this data. And let’s suppose it showed that Something Bad Happens when certain people read certain books. Then what? Do we immediately have a case for censorship? No. The fact that “something is bad for some people”  rarely, if ever, prompts regulation. I need only point to the example of tobacco products. At any rate, we need a new set of tools to consider this very different question, tools that literary critics and philosophers do not, generally, possess. We need our legal scholars, our political scientists, our public policy experts. So, even if someone filled the huge empirical hole where the data should be about the effects of literature on readers, we would find ourselves in another hole, that it would take lot of work to fill in.

My point is that (a) most ethical critics, at least today, are doing ii and iii, not iv above, and (b) even if we wanted to do iv above we would have a long long way to go, and a damnable time getting there.

A couple more points on this topic.  I realize that, in one sense, talk about the effects of books has always been part of literary discourse, staring with talking about the effects on the reader herself. But it is one thing to talk about how a book made you feel while reading it, and another to talk about permanent or even long term effects. It is still another thing to talk about permanent or long term effects on other readers, i.e. readers who are not you.

IV. Romance

Romance readers talk a lot about the good effects of romance reading on their beliefs, attitudes and desires. They might say reading romance has helped them to be better communicators, to understand men, to demand their due from their partners, to get in touch with their sexuality, etc. That’s cool. But if we are going to do that, we also need to consider whether romances have had any negative effects. In other words, if you are going to play the “effects on readers game” you cannot rule out a priori (for example, by saying things like “Women are not just passive readers, i.e. dopes. We know the difference between fantasy and reality. Don’t infantalize  and patronize us.”) any and all claims about negative effects on readers of romance novels. 

Consider: how could it be that you only learned good or positive things from romance novels?

There are two options, as far as I can see. (1) Romance novels, the entire genre, only endorse good positive healthy attitudes towards gender, romance, love, sex, and everything else they take as their subjects (however those good attitudes are defined). That seems manifestly unbelievable to me, given my own experience as a romance reader, and given how large and diverse the genre is. That comes close to saying there is only one romance novel – one very morally good romance novel — and it has been written over and over.

Or (2) you know quite well that there is a lot of stuff you wouldn’t endorse in a romance novel, some of it apparently endorsed by the (implied — more on that later) author, but either (a) you don’t read those books, or (b) if you do, you don’t “learn anything” from them, because you filter the bad stuff out. Ok, but then, you aren’t “learning” anything fromromance novels. Rather, you are applying a moral framework you already possess to your selection of texts, or to your reading of texts, only letting what you have already decided are “good” messages in. In that case, it would be more accurate to say that your reading of romance novels reinforces or deepens or lends specification to moral beliefs you already hold. I think that is much closer to what is really happening, personally. But if it is, then we have to accept that if a reader holds pernicious moral beliefs, she can find some warrant, some deepening, reinforcing or specifying, of those bad moral beliefs in romance novels, too.

Ok, so this post has been all about saying what I am NOT doing when I do ethical criticism. The next post will say more about what I AM doing.

Monday Morning Stepback: Slow Reading, Romance Roots Readalong

The weekly links, opinion, and personal updates post

1. Links of Interest

Abby West at Entertainment Weekly is talking romance novels.

I like soap operas and I like romance novels. There, I’ve said it. Throughout the years, both those pastimes have been guilty pleasures that have gotten me teased an awful lot by my high-brow peers (and even some of my low-brow ones). But I no longer care; they have both given me hours of enjoyment and escapism and I accept your derision with a shrug. They are their own art forms, coming in varying degrees of quality and engagement.

Janet Mullany had me on the floor laughing with her mock tax form for romance writers: OMG.HEA.2010 at Risky Regencies.

Sarah at Monkey Bear Reviews has a great list of Mysteries Which Would Appeal to Romance Readers.

A group of YA bloggers have launched a YA Bloggers Debut Book Battle. It’s “a bracket-style judging contest to pick the best nominated debut work published in the last year (and a little bit of 2010).”

Author Claire Dudman is talking about Slow Reading, my favorite past time  (via Books, Inq). This book looks very interesting. From a review:

Readers make choices in the kinds of attention they give to texts–from scanning, skimming and speed reading to deep reading and rereading. In Slow Reading, John Miedema draws on both his personal reading experience and the extensive research literature on reading to make a powerful case for the deep pleasures of engaged, reflective reading.

Another post about reading from Tim Carmody at Smarkmarket (via @josefurtado)

At any rate, it seems to be the case that these con­ven­tions are depen­dent upon con­text, so that they don’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late if they get taken out of that con­text. Change the for­mat or screen size, change how we encounter them in space, change our rou­tines of how we pay (and get paid) for them or how we incor­po­rate them into our day, and the whole game could change.

Over at Gossamer Obsession, AnimeJune is talking about History v. Romance in The Duchess, Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire.

This post is going to be on how the movie deviated from the book in order to support a modern romantic narrative, which will in turn elucidate how romance narratives operate in today’s cultural climate.

The Washington Post is looking at laptop bans in university and law school classrooms. Regular readers of this blog know this is an issue for me. I banned laptops in the fall, but allowed them this semester. I think I will ban them again in the fall. This pretty much says it all for me:

Two years ago, Carrie B. Fried, a psychology professor at Winona State University in Minnesota, studied the effect of laptops on learning. She discovered that computers were a significant distraction in class and that using laptops negatively affected students. The students admitted that they learned less and performed poorly compared with those who didn’t use them during class.

Masturbation: Literature’s Last Taboo, at the Guardian Books Blog.

Britain’s most distinguished literary quarterly has knocked off work early, picked up some wine on the way home and taken the phone off the hook. That’s right: Granta has just published its sex issue.

Dismayed, the author notes that only one story stands out, and it’s about masturbation. I leave you with a quote, proving yet again that notwithstanding their other wonderful other talents, literary writers cannot write sex to save their lives:

She goes for it, fingers in, too late for dainty refinements, she wants it too much and has been ready for at least an hour now.

Yes, you read that aright. Fingers. In.


2. Romance Roots Readalong

As part of my attempt to educate myself on the roots of the genre, I am going to read and review Jane Eyre for Friday May 14. Anyone care to join me? Let me know so I can link to you. I’ll set up a page where you can comment with your blog name. If you have a better suggestion for organization, feel free to chime in.

3. Personal

By the time you read this post, I will be on my way to the Lone Star State to give a couple of talks. This is my last week of being crazy busy. I hope to blog more regularly beginning next week.

HAPPY WEEK!

Film Review: Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck (1933)

Baby Face was the subject of our culture club this month, and what a terrific movie it is. This movie was so racy that even in pre-Code 1933, several scenes, bits of dialogue, and images had been censored. The original pre-censored copy was discovered in 2004. The Netflix DVD we watched had both versions. It’s only about 75 minutes long.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as the irresistable Lilly Powers, whom we meet working in her father’s Pittburgh prohibition era sleazy speakeasy.

the film's portrayal of working class masculinity, at least in the pre-edit version, is unambiguous

We learn she has been pimped out since the age of 14. When her father dies, Lilly takes the advice of a Nietzsche-quoting (Will to Power and Thoughts Out Of Season) German immigrant cobbler who has been a father figure, and heads for the big city. Once there, noticing the wealth all around her, she proceeds to sleep and scheme her way to riches, leaving a trail of ever more powerful and wealthy brokenhearted men. The original version ends with Lilly married to a man she loves, richer than she ever dreamed (the edit has her — totally implausibly — losing her fortune, returning to steel town, poor but happy with the man she loves.)

Stanwyck is sexy and in control and amazing to watch, and seeing a very young John Wayne as an early conquest was loads of fun, but most of my enjoyment of the movie came from just being amazed at the frank way it dealt with sex and pondering what it was trying to say about it.

Lilly is a very sympathetic protagonist, and in the initial version she goes to Gotham not just to get rich, but to exercise her will to power. Here’s the quote from her mentor:

A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here — Nietzsche says, “All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation.” That’s what I’m telling you. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!

Unfortunately, her quest looks vastly less interesting in the edited version of this speech, which a member of the Studio Relations Committee wrote:

A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. But there is a right way and a wrong way. Remember, the price of the wrong way is too great. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Don’t let people mislead you. You must be a master, not a slave. Be clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success.

In the original version, Lilly was not the subject of moral disapproval: the weak, duplicitous, cuckolded men were. Although they were in suits and ties, and employed at the big skyscraper bank (screen shots of which symbolized Lilly’s ascent), Lilly was the one who was winning at capitalism.

In some ways, the film worked as a kind of feminine (but not feminist) fantasy. Although Lilly undeniably suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father and the men who paid him for her body as a teenager, we don’t see that. What we see onscreen is a woman who, although surrounded by men frequently drunk and in a state of nearly insane lust, is always in total control.

Lilly protecting herself from sexual assault in a scene cut for the theatrical release

In the real world, a file clerk who gets caught having sex in the ladies room with her married boss would lose her job and be disgraced. In Baby Face, the boss is fired and Lilly becomes the mistress of the man who fired him. [This is an amazing scene, especially the moment we see Lilly seeing her lover's boss watching her in the mirror.]

Another interesting thing about this movie is Lilly’s relationship with the one African American character, Chico, Lilly’s friend/maid. It wasn’t easy to find any stills with Chico, but here’s one:

As an aside, the scene pictured above was edited. In the initial version, the camera pans slowly and leeringly up Stanwyck’s body. In the edited version, the camera focuses on her face and shoulders.

Lilly’s complex relationship with Chico provides some of the more poignant moments in the film, as on a Christmas Eve when Chico heads out for a night with friends and Lilly is all by her lonesome (married men can’t usually get away on holidays), and near the end, when Chico tries to intercede and Lilly firmly, verbally and physically, reminds her of her inferior racial and class status.

In the end, love prevails, although it doesn’t clearly prevail over money in the original version (it’s ambiguous whether she and her husband stay wealthy — he’s facing a massive lawsuit thanks to her).

So is this a romance? I don’t think so. It’s Lilly’s story. We don’t even really get a sense of why she falls for the man she does, except perhaps that he’s the bank president, so there’s no higher conquest, and the narrative has to close at some point.

Lilly is smart, tough, beautiful, driven, and, in the end, happy. I think if this movie were made today, Lilly would been raped, beaten, and wound up poor and lonely. What do you think?

Here’s the theatrical trailer for your enjoyment.

“She played the love game … with everything she had… for everything they had .. and made ‘IT’ pay!”

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6tmkW_ykt0

Review: Loch Dragon's Lady, by Christine McKay (Spice Brief)

So, you’re an American woman of Indian and Scottish descent. You’re “the decade’s greatest metal artist” (?!), and you’ve just inherited an island — “Dun Isle” — in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

What do you do?

If you’re the heroine of this short story, within the span of two paragraphs, you find yourself attempting to light a fire on “a deserted bit of rock” in the middle of a rainstorm while arguing with an angry kilt wearing dragon over which one of you actually owns the “isle”.

I’m kidding.

He wasn’t actually in dragon form when they argued. The hero, Robert Dunyveg, antisocial and happy to have lived in his castle, completely alone, for centuries, has two modes: “slightly angry”, signaled by throwing his kilt over his shoulder, and “very angry”, signaled by throwing the heroine over his shoulder. Dragon-mode, only for advanced players, is best left to your imagination, save for this cryptic line: “even dragons had needs.” The only productive non-sexual action Robert takes in the course of the story is to pick up trash on the shoreline while muttering curses at “tourists and their water bottles, plastic bags, and whatnot.” The 21st century has clearly not been kind to dragon men on remote Scottish islands.

It turns out that our heroine, Ellen Kildonan, has some “otherworldy” blood herself, and sex with the dragon man brings it out, by which I mean specifically that it (a) makes her “vulva water like a leaky faucet”, and (b) causes flames to leap free of the hearth and swarm around “like pissed off fireflies”. It is hard for Ellen to accept these magical truths, because “Truth be told, unless she had a sketch and her welding rod in her hand, her imagination sucked.” Taking another kind of rod in hand helps immeasurably as the story progresses.

Probably the most interesting thing about this story, to me, was the metaphysics. For example, why does Robert have the weight advantage of a dragon even when in man shape? And he has a unique take on mind body dualism: “the truth of what could share the same space with a conscious mind and yet remain hidden would drive a sane person insane.”

I downloaded this Spice Brief last night when I realized that today is the day I am supposed to post my review of a fantasy for Avid Book Reader’s TBR Challenge. I haven’t had much luck with fantasy themed Spice Briefs. I think it’s hard to create a fantasy setting and have the requisite amount of sex in such a short space and not have it all sound kind of silly (the sex in this one was pretty tame and euphemistic compared to others I have read). Although not required by the submission guidelines, the Spice Briefs I have read try to invest the relationships with, if not an HEA, a pretty deep emotional connection. That just seems to me to be a tall order for a short read.

Still, there was a kind of straightforwardness and ambition in the author’s voice that I liked, and I think I may enjoy reading one of her longer works.

Monday Morning Stepback: Marketing, Blogs, Freedom, Apple

The weekly links, opinion, and personal updates post

1. Links of Interest

Fascinating discussion of steampunk over at The Book Smugglers led by guest poster and author Meljean Brook.

Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight is asking What is at the Core of the Genre? Is it reproduction (both literal and of the existing social order)? Is it comedy (smoothing a transition to a new social order)? Is it the transformative value of love? Go read and share your view.

As most of you know by now, Rachel Potter has resigned from All About Romance, due to a “reading funk”. I made a donation to my local Rape Response Services to mark the occasion. For those who are fretting that we have lost a rare and precious anti-women perspective on sexual assault, this post detailing the ways that the discourse of victim-blaming for sexual assault dominates speech might be soothing.

[Updated to add: The Sexist at Washington City Paper cites the Rachel Potter debacle.]

An interesting project at Harvard, Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership and Reading History:

an online exploration of the intellectual, cultural, and political history of reading as reflected in the historical holdings of the Harvard Libraries. For Internet users worldwide, Reading provides unparalleled digital access to a significant selection of unique source materials. … [including] historical textbooks that document the principles, and some of the biases, in reading instruction from the 18th to the early 20th centuries

Over at Risky Regencies, Janet Mullany is talking about being Jewish during the Regency:

Other than Heyer’s casual, racist (but probably historically accurate) references to moneylenders and Nita Abram’s brilliant Courier Series about an Anglo-Jewish family during the Napoleonic wars, I didn’t know much about the Jewish population of Regency London. I still don’t. But I’ll share what I have.

Historical romance authors Lauren Willig and Cara Elliott, who are team teaching a course on romance fiction at Yale, were guests at The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, and some of their students chimed in. Great discussion.

Why Crime Novelists Don’t Get Women by Christopher Rice, over at the Daily Beast (Hat tip Book Ninja)

Most women in crime novels and thrillers are such terrible clichés, says novelist Christopher Rice. He identifies the four most common and ridiculous ones—and says writers should stop being so lazy.

Over at Unusual Historicals, author Lorelei Brown is talking about Penny Dreadfuls, “a whole genre of fiction decried as trash and pilloried as not worth the time it took to read it.”

2. Books, Blogs and Marketing

Rebecca at the Book Lady’s Blog is meditating On Books, Blogs, and Marketing.

It seems that, for a certain subset of the blogging community, “marketing” is a four-letter word, and the bloggers who eschew it are somehow more authentic or noble than those who embrace it. It also seems that many bloggers don’t really know what they’re talking about when they’re talking about marketing.

But marketing is not always about a product or service. It is not always about leading up to sales.

Marketing is about creating and affecting awareness, and it’s not just businesses who use marketing. Non-profit organizations, charities, schools, etc. all use marketing to make the public aware of them and to affect the public’s perception of them (hopefully in a positive direction) in order to gain support, funding, you know the drill.

And we, all of us who talk about and review books on our blogs, are engaged in marketing every single day.

And…

If you post about a book that even one person who reads your blog has not previously heard of, or if your review changes even one person’s mind about that book (making them either more or less inclined to read it), you are engaging in marketing.

if you use Twitter, Facebook, Ning, or any social networking site to discuss your blog or your book reviews, you are MARKETING your blog. Even if you just post links to your blog on that site or include your URL in your member profile, you are marketing your blog. When you comment on other blogs (an act that is likely to introduce others to you and your blog), you are marketing. It’s a passive form of marketing—allowing others to discover the link without your directing them to it—but it is still marketing.

I appreciate Rebecca’s effort to think about self-promotion, and have been a proponent of being more reflective about, and taking more responsibility for, our complicated overlapping relationships with people whose job it really is to market themselves or their products. I also agree with her that people who criticize bloggers merely for actively branding themselves or trying to grow or monetize their blogs need to get a life (she put it more diplomatically than that).

I have blogged on this topic before, and here’s what I wrote then:

Being a part of the promotional machine is not something only weak, bad, or dishonest book bloggers do. We all do it. Sure, from my point of view, I am merely talking about the books I read with other readers. But from industry’s point of view (and sometimes also from my own), the strength of my speech can be harnessed to achieve other effects. The fact that we don’t intend all the consequences of our actions doesn’t necessarily make us less responsible for them. If the social media experts are being totally upfront about using informal web 2.0 relationships to sell books, then I don’t see why we can’t also be honest about this aspect of book blogging, talk about it, and try to maximize benefits and minimize harms that may result from it.

But Rebecca’s use of the term “marketing” in this particular way is problematic for me. Either she is using the term “marketing” — which normally refers to conscious, planful efforts to bring buyers and sellers together to facilitate an exchange of goods or services — to describe so many activities that her use of it has little relation to the term as most people understand it, or she is mischaracterizing what many of us are doing in the book blogosphere.

To take the first option: is any attempt to create awareness of yourself in the public sphere really best described by the term “marketing”? When I am at a party and and introduce myself to a person I haven’t met, I am thereby creating awareness, but am I marketing? When I raise my voice to my unruly children in a Target parking lot (purely fictional, I assure you) and draw stares, I am creating awareness, but am I marketing? When I send an invitation to my son’s birthday party, I am not only deliberately creating awareness but actively encouraging participation in an event. But is this best described as “marketing”?

It’s counterintutive to broaden the definition so much. And I don’t think doing so will actually have the effect Rebecca seems to desire, which is to deflect criticism away from bloggers who really are trying to sell something, be it ad space or a book. Why not just admit that some bloggers, some of the time, are marketing (while they are doing other things, surely), and think about what specific issues that practice may raise?

More basically, we need to think about who is doing what, so we can get clear on how to assess it. There is a difference between what happens and what I do ( a difference between events and actions), and figuring out a person’s intentions is significant for deciding which among a set of plausible actions a behavior actually manifests.

Here’s a famous poetic version of this philosophical point (totally gratuitous, but I couldn’t resist):

Not Waving but Drowning

by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

So, sure, when I Tweet or comment on your blog using my website URL, maybe that has the effect of increasing awareness of my blog (although even that’s a stretch), but since that’s not my intention in doing it, it is not, in a very important sense, what I am doing. Rather, I am having a discussion about a book or about something related to books.

Many of us are not actively trying to grow our blogs. We just want our little piece of the web where we can say what we want and chat with people about issues of mutual interest. My blog is a virtual version of me, a virtual version of what I do when I talk to people in real life. On Rebecca’s view, it looks like the only way I can avoid being engaged 100% of the time in marketing, in real life or on line, is to mask my identity, or constantly change it, so that no one comes to have an awareness of me as an individual.

The only thing marketers care about is meeting the needs of potential consumers, so they can attract more of them. And they don’t care necessarily who those consumers are. Like most bloggers, I choose my online interactions carefully.  My online interactions are about interpersonal connection. To go back to the birthday party example, I invite my son’s friends. I am not trying to pack my house with as many children as possible, regardless of who they are or their relationship with my child. Marketing may utilize interpersonal connection, but for an external end: selling something. In contrast, for most bloggers, the personal interaction is the inherently valuable good.

In sum, since, on any reasonable definition, marketing is not merely creating awareness, but creating awareness of a product or service one is trying to sell (and yes, nonprofits sell things), I am not (usually) marketing anything. To describe all of my internet activities  as “marketing” rather than as “participating in a conversation about fiction in a community of like minded readers” mischaracterizes what I am doing here in a way that I really don’t like, not only because it’s too simplistic to be right, but because it totally bypasses the inherent good of human interaction, and it implies that there is no noncommercial speech about anything that can be bought or sold, including books.

That may be a marketer’s dream, but it’s not my reality, at least not yet.

3. Personal/Apple

My favorite place to play is on the web on my Macbook. Unfortunately, most of my work is also on my MacBook. It’s not that I don’t get my work done, it’s that I am always multitasking — constantly responding to email dings, Tweetdeck sounds, “checking” something online that doesn’t really need to be checked right now, etc. It’s not conducive to peace of mind or productivity.

So I am happy to report that I just discovered a great, easy to use (unlike Leechblock, which was cumbersome) program for Macs or Windows systems, Freedom, which

locks you offline for a selected time interval – anywhere from 15 minutes to 8 hours. Freedom keeps you offline: To circumvent it, you need to reboot your computer. Rebooting is a hassle, so Freedom proves to a be a pretty effective way to help you concentrate and get work done.

There is a freeware version for Macs. The windows version is $10.

Speaking of my Macbook, a word about Apple: Did you see that Apple just changed its mind about allowing a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist’s app? From The New York Times‘s coverage:

Political cartoons, it turns out, can violate Apple’s license agreement with developers, which states that applications, or “apps,” can be rejected if the content “may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic or defamatory.”

Apparently over 5000 apps have been banned, mostly due to sexual content, which Steve Jobs is on record saying will not be allowed, but the cartoonist situation is not the first time (or the second or the …) Apple has banned political content. (On the other hand, a Mein Kampf app with a nice Swastika logo, and Playboy, passed muster on the first try!).

Think this has nothing to do with e-books? Check out this article at Teleread

It also leaves e-books, and iBooks, in a position of ambiguity. Is iBooks going to enforce similar family-friendly values, rejecting erotica novels and books with harsh language? Probably not.

We’ve already covered the rejection of an e-book app for making it possible to read the Project Gutenberg edition of the Kama Sutra, and the rejection of an appbook version of David Carnoy’s novel Knife Music because it contained use of the “f-word”.

I think these questions will only get thornier as our conception of a “book” morphs and changes, making it harder and harder to distinguish them from apps and from other electronic media. I’ve noticed that Apple, in sharp contrast to Amazon, gets a bit of a pass in the book blogosphere, but I think some of their business practices are well worth worrying about, and potentially much more problematic than DRM.

Finally, things are still very busy for me as I head into the final stretch of the academic year. Unless I am unusually productive, the forecast for blogging this week continues to be “occasional” and “light”. And that includes responding to comments on this post.

HAPPY WEEK!

Dancing in Romance Novels

Jessica’s note: While reading Meredith Duran’s Written on Your Skin recently, I was struck by how lovely and important a brief bit of dancing in the country was to the couple’s developing relationship. I thought right away about another book, Julie Ann Long’s To Love a Thief, in which the hero teaches the heroine how to dance as part of a general education in how to be a lady, and gets schooled himself. I thought it might be nice to do a post on dancing in romance, and to ask readers to share their favorite dance scenes.  Janet offered to take the lead. Thanks, Janet!

Doing without Dancing

By Janet Webb, aka @JanetNorCal

It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue to any body or mind;—but when a beginning is made—when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt—it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more.
—Jane Austen, Emma

Dancing, in historicals that are accurate (mostly) for the Regency era, can be a time out of time. When else could a man and a woman speak together without the presence of a chaperone or a group of friends? I am speaking in particular about the waltz, although other dances certainly allowed for conversation as well. And more than conversation: sometimes the repartee and just the sensation of closeness seem like a first sexual encounter. Intensely moving and sometimes setting the tone for a relationship.

In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: Darcy is invited by his friend Mr. Bingley to dance with Elizabeth Bennett. He declines and his reasons, rather snobbish and patronizing, are overheard by Elizabeth. Her pride is hurt and she is prejudiced against him. They do eventually dance though, and different feelings and emotions are felt by them both. This is the essence of a meaningful “minuet” LoL: feelings change, sometimes, through physical proximity.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBgaO9Va5cA

Of course, “Our” notion of dancing in historical romances almost entirely focuses on the waltz and the truth is, dancing was more like Scottish country dancing today — dances done in groups. This is why, for example, in Georgette Heyers’s Friday’s Child, there is a scene at Almacks when George, Lord Wortham tries, yet again, to convince Isabella Milbourne of his undying love for her, but  is constantly interrupted by the movements of the country dance — and their increasingly heated and uncomfortable interchange amused everyone watching. Dancing was not a deux, or at least not often, in Regency times.

Or consider Sylvester by Georgette Heyer: Sylvester arranges for Phoebe to come to London after he rescues her from a carriage accident. She is on the road in the first place because she is running away from a marriage proposal from him, a duke! He is quite insulted when he learns she would rather become a writer, living with her former governess, than marry him (not that he wants to marry her!). He’s a duke and very prideful and he’s both intrigued and insulted by her behaviour. Wait, there’s more. Phoebe wrote an extremely clever roman a clef based on her horrific London season the year before: Sylvester is the erstwhile villain. It is published soon after she returns to London and although it is fiction, it is hauntingly accurate. Sylvester is furious. As one might expect, the rumours of authorship start to fly and Sylvester insists that Phoebe waltz with him: ostensibly to quell the rumours but he rips into her and she flees the dance floor. One doesn’t have to be a scholar of Freud to understand the sub-text: both of them have feelings for each other that are by no means entirely negative.

Occasionally the dance floor can be the first place where a couple interact with equal footing, like in An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverley. Lucien is a marquess, a dangerous and glittery blond. Beth, his fiancée, a former school teacher, is quite terrified of the feelings he evokes in her and the power he holds in the relationship. Their first dance is at their engagement ball and it’s a courtly minuet a deux. Here’s a passage:

They turned to face each other. She watched him carefully. When, as she expected, he performed an elaborately deep full bow, she sank into as deep a court curtsey as her skirt would allow, her eyes correctly on his at all times.  Then she rose slowly with smooth control. She did not place her hand in his outstretched one until the last moment to make it clear to all that she needed no assistance in rising.

This was somewhat of a turning point for them. In a pleasing reflection of that pivotal moment, they dance the same dance at their wedding.

Sometimes a dance allows a gentleman – or more likely a rake – to cut through convention. This happens in A Summer to Remember by Mary Balogh. Kit has bet his friends that he can convince the most Ice Princess-like lady of the ton to marry him. Of course, he has not even met her when he agrees on this wager and when he arrives at a ball that Lauren is also attending, he knows he’ll never be able to get past the phalanx of her over-protective family. A friendly matron presents Kit to Lauren as an acceptable partner (remember, there always has to be an introduction if a couple has not previously met) and Lauren agrees to waltz with him. That act of deliberate stepping outside her role on Lauren’s part starts the chain of events moving. And of course Kit speaks to her in an unusually double-entendredrish way.

In Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous, Christine has formed a very poor impression of Wulfric, the duke of Bedwyn. She has been in attendance at a house party with him – and others – for a week or so. At the closing ball she changes her opinion of him. Wulfric asks a homely, overlooked gentlewoman to dance, and Christine is forced to admit to herself that nothing but sheer gentility and grace on Wulfric’s part could have been the impetus. Christine and Wulf also have one of Balogh’s trademark natural surroundings sexual coming-togethers  … because their dance was interrupted when a clumsy oaf landed heavily on Christine’s foot, they continued their waltz outside in the garden and, as they say, one thing led to another.

Concluding with another Balogh, A Christmas Bride, one sees how a dance can restore – or at a minimum, paper-over – a damaged reputation. Pris, the former mistress of Precious Jewel, is now married to Gerald, but their married life is lonely because they removed from the ton because of her former profession. Edgar, the hero of A Christmas Bride, sets a scheme in motion whereby Gerald and Pris join him and his family and an assortment of aristocrats, including the very haughty and reserved Duke of Bridgewater, for the Christmas season. When the duke asks Priscilla to dance with him at the Christmas Day ball the reader knows that from then on, Priscilla and Gerald will be able to rejoin their peers in English society. It is an intensely satisfying moment.

Thank you, Janet!

Like Janet, all of my examples are from historicals. Which makes me wonder: can dancing be significant in a contemporary romance, given we know the couple can just go get naked if they choose? Are couples in paranormal too busy fighting the bad guys to dance?

What do you think are some of the most memorable dance scenes in romance?

Monday Morning Stepback: How women lawyers should dress, neuro lit crit, and plot vs. argument

The weekly (ahem) links, opinion, and misc post

1. Links of Interest

Did you know that, re: hoop earrings, “the bigger the hoop the bigger the ho?” I sure didn’t, and maybe that’s why, despite not being a lawyer, I was fascinated by this piece at Feministe on So What Exactly Should Female Attorneys Wear? Apparently there was a panel on this topic at the recent ABA meeting and

While it sounds like the panel attempted to be gender egalitarian, the advice for men boils down to “make sure your suit fits and is clean,” whereas the advice for women is 40-parts long, all detailing ways to not be trampy.

Roxanne St. Claire and other Space Coast authors are featured in a video and story for FloridaToday.com.

Prompted by the kerfuffle to which I shall not link, Shiloh Walker is pondering Responsibility as a writer, responsibilities as a woman, responsibilities as a person:

I’m not shouldering the responsibility of perpetuating violence against women if/when I decide to write a book with forced seduction or a book with a rape fantasy. Because I have no responsibility in the violence committed against women unless I’m one of the ones who either turn a blind eye when I see (or am aware) of a woman being assaulted, or I’m the one doing the assaulting.

Over at History Hoydens, author Pam Rosenthal is talking about The Heroine’s Journey. Or not:

I don’t have any statistics here (and of course there are all sorts of variations and exceptions). But still, it seems to me central to the romance genre that its heroines very often embark upon journeys before they (literally and figuratively) find their ways home. In a genre that tells the story of its heroine’s quest for her self and simultaneously for her ultimate home in the world, very often that heroine has to leave home, abandon the familiar and the familial in order to see herself (and others, and of course most particularly the hero) outside the accustomed map of understandings she’s grown up with.

Emily Colette Wilkinson has a long essay on Ethical Vampires (Part 1) at The Millions.

The vampire of our cultural moment has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, a Whole Foods shopper–an individual who prefers humanely raised, sustainably farmed food. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt. But maybe it’s only skin deep?

Author Rose Lerner offers up a list of her favorite Ten Angry Heroines.

Janet Mullany is asking How Literate Are You? over at Risky Regencies. More specifically:

How can someone who reads or writes romance have not read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice?

I don’t think I have ever actually finished Jane Eyre, yet folks were arguing at PCA that it’s the Brontës, rather than Austen, from whom the romance genre descended in the US. Anybody want to read it with me?

Have you taken the Book Blogger Survey for Improving Blogger-Publisher Relations? If not, you have until 4/20 to do so:

This information will be useful in helping facilitate more effective communication between bloggers and publishers by giving all involved a more concrete idea of what to expect and how to measure and determine successful placement of books on book blogs. We also hope it will encourage book bloggers to be more transparent about their blogs’ statistics and to provide relevant data when communicating with publishers to request or arrange reviews.

Additionally, we have included questions intended to provide feedback to publishers about how they can better meet the needs of the book bloggers they work with.

Buried By Books is unhappy with author activism — at least within the pages of books:

I’m talking about when those beliefs make their way into their stories in book after book with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Where readers are subjected to mini-lectures over and over every time they pick up a book by a particular author.

… Want another example? Nora Roberts and her fitness/healthy food crusade. It started way back in the 1990s with mentions of healthy living, running etc. The ‘lifestyle change’ crusade overwhelmed the narrative in parts of the Sign of Seven trilogy. To the point that I never finished the series.

2. Neuroscience Gets its Own Section Today

Notice how genre distinctions are assumed by the researchers, and, indeed, provide grounds for various hypotheses:

An Interview with neuroscientist Merlin Donald on digital books at Teleread (actually an excerpt from a longer interview here.)

The ebook may be best suited for fiction, or biography. But for anything that requires a lot of reflective thought, a printed book is so portable, handy, easy to notate, and flexible in its format, when compared with current electronic readers, that I would not see the latter as serious competitors yet.

The New York Times is wondering if neuroscience is the new lit crit:

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

And the Guardian gets in on the neuro lit crit act:

Later this year a group of 12 students in New England will be given a series of specially designed texts to read. Then they will be loaded into a hospital MRI machine and their brains scanned to map their neurological responses. The scans produced will measure blood flow to the firing synapses of their brain cells, allowing a united team of scientists and literature professors to study how and why human beings respond to complex fiction such as the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James or Virginia Woolf. …

[Researchers] have spent months designing their texts, or “vignettes”, and they have been specifically created to different levels of complexity based on the assumption that the brain reacts differently to great literature than to a newspaper or a Harry Potter book. The aim, Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.

And another one from the Times: Can Neuro Lit Crit Save the Humanities? which asks authors and scholars to reflect on the above article. I liked this comment from author Elif Batuman , author of The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

A literary theory should account for what’s special about literature — for the things literature does better than anything else. It doesn’t make sense to me that novels evolved in order to train us to have thoughts like “they don’t know that we know they know we know,” because such training is afforded by many other leisure activities (sports, newspapers, video games, the stock market).

…What does literature do better than anything else? It provides a detailed representation of the inner experience of being alive in a given time and place.

3. Is Plot to Literature as Argument is to Philosophy?

In a recent post at A Commonplace Blog, D.G. Myers writes:

Although an ingenious plot is not a logical structure, it serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy—and may even rival philosophical argument in brilliance. The trouble, or the glory, is that literary critics have never devised a notational system for reducing the plot to its necessary causal sequence. Indeed, critics have an allergy to reducing a novel to its plot. So much else about it seem so much more important!

But the plot is what gives the “so much else” its importance. And when it is airtight, the plot succeeds in establishing, I would hold, the validity of the novel’s central theme.

He proceeds to do just this for Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (1920), claiming that “The novel is written to verify a ‘tragic view of marital duty.’”

In the comments, he adds:

The philosopher seeks to validate his central claim through argument; the novelist, through plot. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton does not build an intellectual case for the tragedy of marriage. She lays it out—by plots and errors moved. And in so doing, she puts on abundant and satisfying display how the greatest novelists think.

Dan Green’s reply to Myers:

If plot is not a logical structure, how can it serve the same purpose as argument? An argument depends on its logical structure. If plot has no logical structure, how can it be an argument at all, much less a brilliant one?

Myers’ reply to Green

Because argument is the organizing principle in philosophy. Logic is the method by which philosophical argument is conducted: it is peculiar to philosophy. Plot is (almost always) the method by which a novel’s “argument” is conducted. It is fiction’s answer to philosophy.

I confess, as a moral philosopher who has turned to literature to get away from abstract argument and a highly cognitive, conscious and non-naturalized take on moral judgment and experience, I found Myers’ assertions a little dismaying.  It’s not just that there are experimental novels that don’t fit the plot mold, as Green has pointed out. It’s that, unless “plot” is being defined include everything valuable about literature, in which case there’s nothing really new here, I don’t see that looking at literature as a sustained argument is really helpful in reading it as literature. Philosophers are very used to reading literature as fancified argument,  as “philosophy with bells and whistles”, of course, as textbooks like Nina Rosenstand’s and Peter and Renata Singer’s , which encourage students to extract moral premises and conclusions from various canonical works, attest, but I always thought that was a pretty reductive way to read even very plot driven fiction, such as genre fiction. I guess I am just not sure what the payoff is, while I can see dangers, for example, in artifiicially forcing the text into a defense of a thesis, creating the possibility of missing what’s secondary or what doesn’t fit. I realize that the claim isn’t that plot is argument, but I am not sure how else to read the premise by premise reduction of Wharton which ends with what looks to me like a garden variety conclusion, that no one had to slog though Age of Innocence to figure out.

And I’m not even sure the role of argument in philosophy is well captured by this, either. Of course, argument is a hallmark of philosophy, a crucial tool of the trade. But philosophers also use literary techniques, rhetoric, autobiography, etc., and there are lots of other things that are just as important to read philosophy for, such as a providing compelling sketches of a worldview which can’t — especially in the case of philosophers in the continental tradition like Nietzsche and Heidegger — be reduced to a series of premises and conclusions alone without losing a lot of its philosophical power. Never mind deconstructive readings like those to which Derrida subjects Plato and Irigaray subjects Spinoza and Levinas.

4. Personal

Author Crystal Jordan has pictures up from the PCA Conference and I am only linking to them because the one of me is actually pretty good. — that’s a joke. It’s a fun post. Check it out!

Speaking of which, my ego would like to whinge for a moment. I have 500 subscribers and that number again of regular daily visitors to this blog. And yet not ONE of you asked me to talk about my PCA paper presentation. The people who were actually present are excused. But what about the other 980 of you? Sheesh!

My first post-tenure review document is due Friday. Guess I’d better get started on that, eh?

Actually, April (and early May) are sheer hell in terms of workload. Not only is the semester winding up, which means loads of exams and paper to grade, as well as end of year awards and celebrations, but I am going to Texas in 2 weeks to give a 2 talks, one on neuroethics and one on feminist bioethics, for which I have to make final preparations.

My reading is down — way down — as the dearth of reviews might suggest. But I have also not been enjoying a lot of what I have been reading, and thus haven’t felt like blogging about it.

Happy Week!

Review: Below the Belt, by Sarah Mayberry

Sarah Mayberry is a Blaze author I really enjoy, and Below the Belt (2008) is no exception. I have a Blaze audio subscription, and Gabra Zackman, who narrates all the Mayberry Blazes, did her usual great job with this one. One word of caution, though: Zackman is a New Yorker, and she voices the Mayberry characters with Australian accents. I think anyone with less of an ignorant ear than mine for accents might not be thrilled with this.

It’s no secret on this blog that while I like all kinds of romances, I have a special affection for romances that play with gender stereotypes.

Let’s see if you can guess whether it is the hero or heroine described below:

  • Seeks to restore the tarnished family name in the boxing ring
  • Named Jimmie
  • Initiates sexual relationship
  • Wants no strings attached sex
  • Gets wasted in a bar and has a brawl in the parking lot

All of those describe the heroine, Jamie Sawyer (also called “Jimmie”), whose father, a former heavyweight champion and Australian sports legend, threw a fight, went to prison, and then committed suicide.  She’s beautiful, tough, extremely talented athletically, and deeply wounded by her past, not just her father’s tragic end, but by an unscrupulous boyfriend who took advantage of her when she was at her most vulnerable. Jamie is the character who needs to grow the most in this book, and it is her story in every way: her athletic achievements, her recovery from past trauma, and her fledgling ability to give her heart to Cooper.

It’s too bad that in this case the cover image doesn’t resemble most women boxers, certainly not at the heavier weight class Jamie is supposed to be.  The cover model doesn’t appear to be able to lift a soup can judging from her twiggy arms. Check out photographer Delilah Montoya’s photo essay on women boxers to compare. That quibble aside, I loved the boxing matches and the portrayal of the sport, one I had had zero interest in previously.

The hero, Cooper Fitzgerald, is a recently retired (due to an eye injury) successful heavyweight boxer starting his own gym. He’s not one of those athletes who has trouble adjusting to civilian life. He’ll miss the ring, but overall, he’s ok with his retirement. After some initial strong reluctance (he has disdain for women’s boxing — something he overcomes a little too quickly to be convincing) he decides to take Jamie on. Cooper is in the “Rourke” mold of heroes. He’s nearly perfect, inside and out, but he’s still human (whenever he says “I’m no saint”, prepare yourself for some steamy pages. Mayberry excels at writing very intense love scenes). I happen to love heroes like that, but if you go for more angst, you might not enjoy this book.

I thought this was a terrific story. I was wrapped up in Jamie’s quest, in her matches, and in Cooper’s struggle with his growing feelings for a fighter he’s supposed to be training. Very romantic (yes, despite the relationship taking place in sweaty gyms and seedy towns), very sexy, very exciting, and, at times, very heartbreaking. Highly recommended.

I find Mayberry’s Blazes to be unexpectedly emotionally gripping and dramatic. I have often wished she wrote longer books, and to my delight I see she has a SuperRomance out, Her Best Friend, which I have already downloaded (for $3.98) to my Kindle.

Vampire Romance: Dead or Undead?

Is it time to stick a fang in a once beloved subgenre?

“No more vampires!” is the headline of a recent interview at GalleyCat with Lit Agent Caryn Wiseman who specializes in children’s and middle grade for The Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She says:

Funny middle-grade, horror, dystopian, steampunk, multicultural fiction. No more vampires, werewolves or zombies. I’d like to see a middle-grade or YA novel that explores a fresh, new paranormal category or a new twist on a dystopian world.

I was preparing for a Vampire Romance roundtable at last week’s Popular Culture Association conference, and it occurred to me that there hasn’t been much buzz lately about vampire romance in Romanceland.

Is this the end of the fang?

I decided the experts would know, so I asked them. And here’s what they said:

Paranormal Romance author Michele Hauf, while agreeing that “straight vampire romances” are a little harder to find lately, notes that:

Urban Fantasy has nudged into the genre and now you find publishers stamping ‘paranormal romance’ on an urban fantasy that may or may not feature a significant romance in the story.   I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.  It’s vamp romance evolving and influencing other ‘genres’ within the paranormal.

As for straight vampire romances that feature either hero or heroine as vampire (and the other could be mortal or another creature) I took a browse through my Ultimate VampList, specifically the Romance list, to see what titles jumped out at me as from an author who is more well known and has had success with a vampire romance series.  Popular authors and series include: Marta Acosta’s Casa Dracula novels, Amanda Ashley, Christine Feehan’s Dark Series, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters, Michelle Rowen’s Immortality Bites, Lynsay Sands’ Argeneau Vampires, Kerrelyn Sparks’s Love At Stake series.

From a writer’s point of view, I have to say that most editors are still hungry for vampires in romance, as long as it’s not same old/same old.  They are looking for a new twist, which may be why we’re seeing the vamp roms alter and morph into something bigger and more than just your simple boy bites girl story.

Michele was kind enough to share with me a graph she compiled of vampire romances published by year:

It would be really interesting to know how 2009 panned out in the end — was 2008 the beginning of a downward trend, or a blip? ParanormalRomance.org has a list with 56 titles for 2009, but I have no idea how it compares Michele Hauf’s list (do they count the same publishers? Do you count pubs like Ellora’s Cave? Should we count YA?).

Marta Acosta, author of the Casa Dracula series, concurs with Michele Hauf on the move to UF:

From what I’ve seen, there’s a strong move toward urban fantasy with multiple paranormal characters in conflict. I don’t know if readers burned out on vampire-only stories, or if writers wanted to move beyond the vampire-only stories. I do sometimes feel as if many writers are going overboard. You have books with every sort of paranormal creature thrown in the mix and sloppy worldbuilding.

But, I asked her, are there any newer successful vamp rom series? After making the point, using Charlaine Harris as an example, that series popularity is often a slow build, she name checks the following:

Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series
Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson Guardian series
Molly Harper’s comic Jane Jameson books

In terms of trends, Acosta notes that YA vampire books are big:

Vampire Academy books by Richelle Mead
Chicagoland Vampire books by Chloe Neill
Blue Bloods books by Melissa de La Cruz
Morganville Vampires by Rachel Caine
Darkest Powers books by Kelley Armstrong
Vampire Kisses books by Eileen Schreiber

And we also now have the “half-vampire book. Generally there’s a protagonist who’s half vamp and half were, which give inherent conflict” she adds.

Margaret L. Carter, horror, fantasy, and paranormal romance novelist, is also the author of Different Blood: The Vampire as Alien (2004) (Amber Quill Press — also on Amazon).

Carter is in agreement that the mixing of genres in vampire fiction will continue as a major trend, but she adds that:

Contrary to the dominant themes of earlier vampire romance, the vampire who hates his or her “cursed” existence has become relatively rare; more often than not, contemporary vampires seem to be well adjusted to their condition.

On the topic of series, she notes that

Contemporary series seem to satisfy readers’ and publishers’ demand for “more of the same, but different” by either featuring a different couple in each book but with the same background and ongoing cast of characters or following the development of one couple’s relationship through several books.

Carter listed a few of the new titles that have caught her eye, including the above mentioned Molly Harper, Jeaniene Frost, and Lynsay Sands, and also Michele Bardsley’s Broken Heart series (the suburban, domestic milieu is interestingly different, and her background for the books featurescomplex world-building) and Trisha Telep’s two volumes of The Mammoth Books of Vampire Romance (1 and 2) (2009).

Speaking of Michele Bardsley, the nationally bestselling author of paranormal romance (In September 2010, the seventh book in the Broken Heart series, Cross Your Heart, will be out in bookstores, and she just sold two more stories in the series) really likes:

Katie MacAlister’s Dark Ones series
Dakota Cassidy’s Accidentals series
Kerrelyn Sparks Love at Stake series

She adds:

The Young Adult genre is experiencing the most market growth thanks to Twilight. Two of my favorite YA series are Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy books and Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires. With shows like True Blood, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries … I think vampires and romance will be around for a long while.

Amanda, of LoveVampires.com, a popular website with dedicated to reviewing a range of urban fantasy, paranormal romances, horror novels, literary classics, and YA, says:

Certainly mainstream publishers are no longer publishing the types of vampire romances that I started out reading over 10 years ago. There seems to be a much greater divergence of paranormal types (shapeshifters, angels, dragons, fey, etc.) chosen to be the romantic leads and a heavier reliance on fantasy sub-plots in the story background to ratchet up the over-all story excitement level. Kresley Cole’s books would be a prime example of this and she gets the mix of romance and fantasy just right each time, making her IAD series books hugely readable and hugely popular. I think authors and publishers have seen the popularity of books like this and obviously want to produce more like them to satisfy the market.

Vicky London of VampireGenre.com, another popular website which reviews vampire novels from contemporary paranormal authors, agrees with the prevailing sentiment:

I do feel like the trend is very much moving towards fantasy and urban fantasy rather than traditional romance stories peopled by vampires. There are a few authors still continuing this type of writing such as Lynsay Sands and Amanda Ashley but I think they are quickly becoming the minority. The vampire books I’ve enjoyed reading in the past few years are as you say about a larger more complex world of supernatural creatures. Writers like Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison and Charlaine Harris are excellent examples of the success of the trend.

Particia Altner, a former librarian, is the proprietor of Patricia’s Vampire Notes. She is the editor of Vampire Readings: An Annotated Bibliography (1998).

There are many excellent vampire romances being published. When browsing the shelves of the local B&N, it’s not unusual to get into a conversation with a customer or a bookseller about the paranormal romances in general, but inevitably the topic turns to “what’s a good vampire romance”. Maybe these conversations happen to me because it’s my focus, but, I do believe there is still a high interest.

I’ve been keeping track (as much as possible ) of new books coming out monthly that have a vampire theme, and many of them are romances or have strong romantic themes. Let’s face it: the allure of the dark, seductive kiss has been around for a long time. Hints of it can be found in Dracula. Even the powerful slayer Buffy had vampire lovers – Angel and Spike. That lucky girl!

In the newer world of paranormal romance the sexual situations are frequent and explicit. That’s the norm and has been for awhile. (LKH may have been one of the first to do this in print.)  In 1998, when I published Vampire Readings, several titles were vampire romances, but the love scenes were mostly smooches with the hero admiring the heroine’s beautiful but mostly clothed body and her shapely ankles. Not anymore! I’m wondering if the rise of e-publishers like Ellora’s Cave, Samhain, etc. have helped stretch the boundaries.

LA Banks, bestselling author of the Vampire Huntress and Crimson Moon series, has a few things to say about the popularity of the subgenre. Banks, recipient of the 2008 Essence Storyteller of the Year award, has written over 35 novels and contributed to 12 novellas, writing under various pseudonyms, in diverse genres including romance, women’s fiction, crime/suspense thrillers, and paranormal.

This really explains my use of metaphor and the use of the genre to make deep parallels to the things troubling me in society. I believe that all fiction is metaphor–and if you look at the work of some of the “greats” in history (not that I am, just using them as a reference point :-) )… they used their platform to speak out against things facing society by making people feel. Take Dickens, Shakespeare, the list is very reputable and long, where social activism came in the form of fiction sometimes hidden in the most obscure of genres.

Right now I believe the fascination with vampires has everything to do with our nation’s perpetual youth consciousness — plastic surgery, supplements, Viagra ( :-) ), face creams, wrinkle banishers, gyms, et al. Americans want to stay young and live forever. Growing old is not a sign of evolution or reality or even a badge of honor any longer… it is looked upon as a weakness or a disease, not the normal course of events. It’s very interesting. Right behind youth is money and fame–put them together and you have the perfect storm for vampire novels :)

When I asked specifically about the impact of Twilight, Shiloh Walker, best-selling author of fantasy and paranormal romance novels with Ellora’s Cave and Samhain, writes:

The vamp genre isn’t done… the fantastic thing about fiction is that it can be limitless. If the writer’s imagination is fertile, there’s no telling what she can do with a particular sub-genre.

Edward isn’t indicative of all vamp romance.  He’s just one particular type of hero, and he’s not necessarily indicative of that many ‘vamp’ heroes-he thinks he’s the monster, but we can shift that to contemporary.  In contemporary romance, he’d be the  ‘bad boy’-the one guy that  is ‘bad’ for the heroine.   We can shift him to historical and he’s the ‘bastard’ son who will never amount to anything.  But he’s certainly not indicative of all vamp romance.  That’s saying all vampire romance is the same, and that’s not true.  It would be like saying all literary fiction is the same, or all science fiction is the same.  Every writer brings their own unique voice to the story-there are dozens of writers who try their hand at vamp romance, which means you’ve got dozens of different twists of vampire romance.

Writers can take this tale and reshape it, retell it a hundred times, and it always comes out different-why?  Because every writer’s voice is different, every writer’s imagination is different.  It isn’t necessarily the tale that’s all that different.  It’s  the individual writer’s spin on that tale, how we see things, how we view things, how we interpret things.

My particular opinion is that Edward isn’t the end unless every writer decides to start writing all vamps to mimic him.

Nor do I think vampire romance is done.  Yes, the market is definitely seeing it’s fair share of them right now, but that is how trends work.  It’s riding a high now, and in a few years, it will level off, but there will still be those readers who want the vamps-I’ll probably be one of them.  I’ve been reading vamps sicen the 90s-then it was Linda Lael Miller and Maggie Shayne-way before Stephanie Meyer, Laurell K. Hamilton or JR Ward came onto the scene.

The trend will level.  That doesn’t mean it will disappear.  Vamp lovers will always be here, so there will likely always be a market.  If there’s a market, there will be a need for stories.  The trick is having a solid story-a solid world-not just jumping on the band wagon and having a ‘brotherhood’ or a ‘vampire hunter’ or what have you.  If writers are writing just because it’s ‘hot’ or just because ‘everybody else is doing it’… eh, then they’ll move on to the next trend.  Me?  I’m always going to have something a little weird going on, whether it’s vampire, shapeshifter, psychic… that’s just how my mind works. But I’m realistic.  I know in a few years, the trend will level.  And a few years after that?  It will swing back up to the top.  That’s how trends work.

So, no, it doesn’t look like the end of the bloodline for our fanged friends, although they are going to have to get used to bumping shoulders with a host of nonhuman beings and finding themselves in a wide variety of perhaps unfamiliar genres.

PS. I have totally lost by mojo, after 10 posts, for talking about PCA, but if any readers want to know more about the vampire romance panel I was on with Heide Crawford of the Dept of Germanic Languages at Kansas University, chaired by Amanda Hobson of Ohio University, just ask in the comments, and I will be happy to share.

A HUGE thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts with me via email!

Is the Happily Ever After A Romance Imperative?

Following are notes from a paper given by Phil Mathews at the Popular Culture Association Annual Meeting in St. Louis. I was not able to attend this final romance area panel, but Phil kindly provided me with a copy of his paper from which to derive a summary. I cannot promise that I’ve got everything right.

Phil Mathews is a Lecturer in Screenwriting at Bournemouth University in Dorset, England. He has degrees in fine arts and screenwriting, and his research interests are in 70s – 00s cinema, screenwriting theory, and the romance genre. He is a practicing screenwriter with credits for both film and television.

Is the Happily Ever After a Romance Imperative?

This paper will attempt to draw direct links between romance literature and film where presently there exists often conflicting definitions of genre and form. The hope is to open investigation into the form and engender further debate.

I’d like to argue that the Romance genre is stigmatised undeservedly because of the imperative for a happy ending. It is easy for critics to cast aspersions over a genre if one of the primary plot points, the ending, and with it an emotional conceit to instill or illicit joy or familiarity in its audience, is sacrosanct. It could be argued that emotional investment in a narrative is tempered when the ending is a foregone conclusion either way, positive or negative. Does a genre need to prescribe specific endings to a potentially infinite amount of stories? What does a genre hope to gain by being incalcitrant? With genres constantly in flux and their patterns, conventions and tropes sensitive to their own cultural and contemporary milieu, is it not conceivable that romances can span the depth and breadth of our capacity to experience and express notions of love in whatever form and to whatever end?

Phil compares Pam Regis’s 8 essential components of a romance novel to a leading screenwriting theorist Phil Parker’s requirements for a love story in film, noting that Parker does not require an HEA. According to Parker, even a love story which ends with the characters apart is a romance, so long as as long as the transformative value of love is upheld.

Mathews recognizes that the HEA need not be solemnized by a wedding, but he notes that two ideas are central to the HEA: (1) true love is forever or at least for the rest of the couple’s lives, and (2) there is some form of validation of the couple’s commitment to each other.

Mathews is aware that critics dismiss romance on the basis of this narrative requirement of an HEA, he feels that more is going on here than a refusal among critics to recognize that, as Regis put it, “narratives end.” He thinks it is worthwhile to ask both why critics perceive the HEA as stigmatizing, and also to ask why the HEA is perceived by readers as necessary to the genre.

Phil proceeds to discuss several films which celebrate the positive power of love and end with the promise of love, but which do not stipulate “how that commitment must or might manifest itself. “

These include:
Good dick (2008)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
Juno (2007)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Paper Heart (2009)
Monsters Ball (2001)

He then discusses The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), Titanic (1997), and Ghost (1990) to suggest that “even the finality of Death need not be a barrier to the happily ever after.” He also mentions the film Love Me If You Dare (2003), in which the lovers consummate their relationship by kissing in the foundations of an office block as they are covered in wet cement. “They are literally petrified in a romantic embrace for all eternity, happily ever after.” Mathews writes.

Mathews suggests that the “cinematic resistance to betrothal” may have something to do with the greater time constraints presented by the medium, in which running times are between 90-200 minutes. He notes that some films address this issue by focusing tightly on the lead up to the betrothal and wedding, such as Meet the Parents (2000) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).

Mathews discusses several other kinds of love story, including star-crossed lovers (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009), Casablanca (1942)), tragic love stories (The Separation (1994), 5×2 (2004), the Break Up (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008)), and love stories as subplots (The Piano Teacher (2001), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Monster (2003), Carlito’s Way (1993),The Prestige (2006)).

He concludes by asking:

Would a more inclusive view of romance conventions, able to embrace the love plot, tragic or otherwise, not serve to consolidate the genre? Is the imperative for the happily ever after the stumbling block to the potential acknowledgment of the romance genre as the most ubiquitous or universal narrative form?

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