What I'm up to this semester: teaching, speaking, blogging, etc.

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, but I live on the semester system, so I tend to think in 14 week blocks. In the interest of writing an easy blog post this morning, I thought I’d share some of my plans.

1. Teaching: I’m teaching a feminist philosophy course, so expect a number of related posts. This semester, I added some articles on the transgender experience, and on the Third Wave (over the years, I have tried using some of the popular third wave anthologies, like Third Wave Agenda, and Colonize This!, but, while they may work well for an interdisciplinary WST course, I found them lacking for a philosophy course. Unfortunately, because students love them.). I’m also teaching Ethics, which is not an applied course but a theory course, rooted in the history of philosophy. In a nod to my own personal history, I added Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, something that made a huge impression on me as an undergraduate, but which I’ve never taught, and a section on twentieth century Anglo-analytic ethical theory (Moore, Pritchard, Ross, Ayer), a nod to my graduate training.  I predict great love for the former and great hate for the latter. We’ll see.

2. Speaking: I decided not to go to any out of state conferences this semester. I have a bad habit of preparing papers for conferences and then not turning them into journal articles. I am not allowing myself to go to another conference until I write up and submit at least two papers from conferences I’ve attended in the past two years. Of course, I’m committed to a number of talks in Maine, including for our state’s Breastfeeding Coalition annual meeting, our state’s Family Physicians annual meeting, regular talks for the hospital (I have one on a tough Jehovah’s Witness case next week), and, in a new endeavor, a talk on blogging for our local library, with Kristen of Fantasy Cafe. On campus, there’s a new humanities initiative, and my colleague Kirsten and I are doing a seminar on end of life. Her perspective is phenomenology, especially Merleau-Ponty, and mine tends to be very clinically based Anglo-Amercian ethics. Faculty are supposed to sign up, and we have a day of talking and sharing. There is more I could say about the humanities initiative on our campus, but this is one of those times I’d better keep my own counsel.

3. Ethics consulting: Our formal consult service has been up and running for about five years now (although informally, it is older than that). We’ve decided to set up a database on our hospital’s intranet with “scrubbed” cases, organized by keywords, which staff can search. I’m shaking a little just typing that, because I know how much work it is going to be, but I’m very excited that the IT Gods are giving us server space, and that staff are actually asking for this, which suggests that some people think we are doing something right. I’m still not going to blog about ethics consulting, for obvious reasons.

4. Blogging: I’m not doing any challenges and I don’t set reading goals. I’m not sure why, because I like to have, for example, fitness goals, but reading challenges, like book clubs, take the fun out of reading for me. Last semester, I found that making the blog work to meet my non-blog goals was very good for me and the blog. So, for example, to prepare for class, I would write a blog post. Or I’d write about what I was reading, even if it wasn’t something I felt people would be interested in. It’s a little scary not having a “niche” in the blogging world, but I’m fine with it, and certainly not the only person who blogs this way. I found that staying away from kerfuffles was, on balance, the right choice last semester, so I plan to keep mostly away from drama, although many of them are irresistibly fascinating and also pretty important.

5. Readers’ conferences: I’ve had a hard time deciding whether and which readers’ conference to attend this year. I signed up for a small readers retreat in Manchester, Vermont in April. But for big conferences, it’s looking like Book Blogger Con/BEA in New York is my choice this year. I would love to attend Romantic Times, before all the OTT stuff that once made it the stuff of romance fandom legend is gone, but the timing is (nearly) impossible. We’ll see.

6. Parenting: After 12 years of practice, I continue to be a devious, unsympathetic and reluctant parent. Just kidding. Sort of. I made my sons, ages 10 and 12, sign up for ski lessons. Kids are grouped by ability, not age. They had loads of same age friends in the lodge, but when everybody skied out to meet their groups, my sons went one way, and their peers went another. They ended up in a group composed almost entirely of five year old girls. I have been giggling over it ever since. Here’s a pic (my boys in the foreground, instructors on the right):

 

 

This is the last weekend of winter break. We plan to spend it in our usual relaxed, not to say indolent, manner, with friends for dinner, warm fires, lots of reading, and a couple of walks in the woods with our dogs. Whatever you are up to this weekend, I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

For Art or Money? Guest post by Laura Vivanco

Laura Vivanco, romance scholar, author of For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance, and web mistress of Teach Me Tonight, an academic blog devoted to the study of popular romance novels, is my guest today:

Harlequin Mills & Boon, which is known for its “formulaic” books, has often been praised for its innovative business approach. Its financial success, however, has been accompanied by a widespread perception that the novels it sells are entirely lacking in artistic merit. Jennifer Crusie has commented that

category publishers treat the form as if they were selling soup, and it’s hard to get respect for soup. Even so, the soup approach to romance is not intrinsically bad as long as it stays in marketing where it belongs. When a publisher does a good job of marketing, he sells a lot of books, and his writers make money, and everybody’s happy.

The impression that category romances are artistic failures is undoubtedly strengthened by deeply entrenched beliefs about culture, literature and entertainment. In her paper for the recent McDaniel College conference on romance, Jessica noted that

The Romantic era author gained cultural capital by disavowing capitalism (during a period in which the patron model gave way to a capitalist model of literary artistic production). He didn’t write for money and didn’t “work.” The “valueless value” of the literary work could only be produced by an “Author” who had no financial stake or interest.

This attitude towards money has continued to affect attitudes towards literature:

the art for art’s sake movement of the 1880s and 1890s [...] drew a clear distinction, one that Modernism inherited and reinforced, between the popular and the literary, a distinction that was often expressed as an opposition between the unique and the mass-produced: the genuine work of art is one of a kind, unique; a piece of popular fiction is virtually indistinguishable from others of its kind because it has been massproduced according to a formula (hence the pejorative term ‘formula fiction’). Popular writers (like Conan Doyle) wrote to entertain the masses or to make money for themselves, whereas literary artists (like Henry James) wrote for the sake of their Art. (Clausson 40)

and

[Pierre] Bourdieu [19302002] characterizes high or highbrow cultural production (works of visual art, opera, experimental media, art house cinema, all kinds of avant garde cultural production, etc.) as ‘autonomous’: indifferent to the buying and reading/viewing public, often openly contemptuous of the market-place and the demand for profit, underwritten by a sense of ‘creativity’ and ‘originality’, and using the language or discourse of ‘art’. High cultural producers are self-identified as ‘creative artists’; by doing so, however, they position themselves in what Bourdieu calls ‘the field of restricted production’, necessarily directing their work at small audiences, fellow-artists and like-minded or similarly trained social-cultural groups. (Gelder 13)

Given that, “From a business viewpoint, the romance is the ‘formula of formulas’, an invitingly stable product with low risk elements (Fowler 26), it is unsurprising that popular romance fiction has tended to be viewed as the antithesis of creative, original, highbrow, literary fiction.

The title of my For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance challenges this view, suggesting that those who write (for money) about love, may also write for the love of writing. To prove that there is such a thing as a literary art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon romance, I turned to some of the novels themselves. Their variety and complexity demonstrates that there is indeed a “literary art” to writing category romances.

 

I asked Laura a few follow up questions, and here are her answers:

 

 

1. In your book, did you take up at all the question of the motives of HM&B writers, especially their desire (and/or need) to “write for money”? If yes, can you share anything about your findings? If not, why not?

I didn’t interview authors because I wanted the novels to speak for themselves. In the chapter of my book which deals with metafiction I take a look at some of the ways in which HM&B romances have addressed the low status of popular culture in general, and romances in particular.

2. Do you think there is a relationship between the image of M&B writers as writing for money and the perception of the (low) literary value of the book themselves?

There certainly seems to be a perception that writing romances is, as Anne Gracie puts it, “money for jam.” For those who are “openly contemptuous of the marketplace,” HM&Bs will perhaps automatically fall into the category of sub-literature because HM&B as a company does very much care about the marketplace. On the other hand, those who believe that the market will decide the true value of products may also think that, because HM&Bs are not expensive books, they must be less valuable artistically.

3. What does it mean to you to view M&B novels as a “literary art”?

It means taking them seriously (i.e. not pre-judging them or making assumptions about their contents or merits) and analysing them in the same way that I would analyse any other literary text.

4. What was one (or two) of the most surprising things you discovered in your research for your book?

I found out that right whales are the only whales which have callosities on their heads. I also came across Samuel van Hoogstraten’s “Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House” and its exterior is really quite in keeping with the subject of this post:

Hoogstraten’s box is [...] decorated on the exterior with allegorical paintings [...]. The long side illustrates love of wealth as a motivation for the artist, who appears with a putto holding a cornucopia. Love of art and of fame are the subjects of the paintings on the short sides, while the top is decorated with an allegory of physical love, representing Venus and Cupid in bed, painted in anamorphic (distorted perspective) projection.

Thanks Laura! I already own the very nice looking Kindle edition of FLOM and can’t wait to read it!

Notes:

● Clausson, Nils. “Literary Art in an Age of Formula Fiction and Mass Consumption: Double Coding in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’.” Studies in Popular Culture 31.1 (2008): 3954.
● Crusie, Jennifer. “So, Bill, I Hear You Write Those Little Poems: A Plea for Category Romance.”
● Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
● Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2004.

The top photo is of the “Royal Scottish Academy column[s] decorated with Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can[s]” and was taken by SixSigma who made it available at Wikimedia Commons under a creative commons license. For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance is available in pdf, Kindle and paper editions.

DNF Reflection: Love Ahead, by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban

Love Ahead is two m/m romance novellas published in 2008 by Dreamspinner Press. Here’s the blurb for the first one, Under Contract:

The last thing Nick Cooper expects is for his boss, construction site foreman Ted Lucas, to insanely declare his love right after he finds out Cooper has asked to be transferred. Intrigued, Cooper offers him one night, figuring the “love” will burn out after sex, but it goes far better than either expect. Lucas’s chance comes when an accident leaves Cooper stuck and hurting at home. Lucas does his best to take care of him while hoping Cooper will fall in love with him in return, and Cooper discovers the idea of having Lucas in his life isn’t that crazy after all.

This novella — and this writing team in general — is very popular with m/m readers, so my view is an outlier, but I found the writing style to be wooden and artificial (how’s that for a combo?), and found the dialogue and characterization at times ridiculous.

I liked the premise of a foreman feeling unrequited adoration for an employee who is a near stranger, and blurting out a declaration of love on the first night they actually talk to each other outside of work. The set up of one partner exchanging idolization and lust for real love, and another partner coming to believe in the change, is interesting and, in my (limited) m/m reading, unique.

However, the characters never popped for me, and the lovesick Lucas, in particular, came across as implausibly naive and dull. I’ll explain below a few things that jarred me out of the novella:

I have never in my life heard a man refer to his nipples, especially not to a near stranger, but Cooper says,

“If it gets much colder in this damn trailer my nipples are going to cut through my damn shirt”

to his taciturn boss, while, it must be noted, he is INSIDE. Take away the “damns”, and put this in the third person, and you might be reading about a heroine’s chest in a Harlequin Presents.

I’ve often heard m/m accused of being m/f in disguise, and I have to say that the this whole novella, and the character of Lucas in particular, was very feminized. What man thinks, “Who’d want to love him, a big boorish construction worker?” First, does anyone think of themselves as “boorish”? And why on earth would someone think he is out of romantic contention because he is a construction worker? In general, I hate it when a character believes his career puts him out of the romantic running. It is so often a cheat to create conflict. This happens a lot when he is a cop, detective, or in the military. In those cases, at least you have danger or long absences. But what is it about being a construction worker (and he’s a foreman anyway) that makes someone unlovable? The story doesn’t even take a stab at an answer.

Redundancies in the writing did not add to drama or intensity:

“the foreman’s eyes widened as Cooper looked right at him. Directly.”

The authors resorted to repetitive body movements to convey emotion. For example, someone’s eyes or mouth was always going “wide” (there are ten pages of “wides” according to my Kindle). And then there are lines like this:

“The jeans were being pulled down his admittedly long legs.”

Putting aside the “invisible hand” aspect, admittedly, I have no idea why “admittedly” is in that sentence.

Here’s another passage the exemplifies the wooden writing and the characterization:

Lucas’s eyes got wide. That was Cooper’s tongue. Cooper’s tongue licking Cooper’s lips. He gawked for a long moment before shaking himself. … Christ, he hoped he didn’t do something to really piss Cooper off. It would totally suck if he left and quit. Christ. Don’t think about anything sucking…”

Is this a grown man, or a twelve year old? Here’s another line that stopped me in my reading tracks:

“‘I bet you want me on my knees, don’t you?’ he growled impishly.”

I had some fun trying to make an impish growl in the bathroom mirror. I confess, though, that I was unable to do it.

And another:

Without a word, he headed for the bathroom to dispose of the condom and retrieve a towel for them both. It wasn’t exactly a romantic gesture, but he figured it would be more appreciated than a rose or something.

Adding “or something”, “damns”, and whatever else does not turn such thoughts into believable ones. I have read and enjoyed some m/m romances in which one partner is very open, nurturing, and in touch with his emotions (I’m thinking of some K. A Mitchell, some JF Smith, etc.), so I don’t think my problem is that Lucas (and Cooper at times) has feminine qualities, but rather, that his characterization is so implausible.

I’m no great literary critic, to put it mildly. I read for character and story, and if those are compelling, I can forgive most anything. It takes a lot for the writing to make me put down a novella halfway through, but in this case, I just had to do it.

Review: Promises, by Marie Sexton

Promises is an m/m romance published in January 2010 by Dreamspinner Press. Many m/m authors seem a bit mysterious, so I was delighted to visit the author’s website and see an actual photo, with a bio, not to mention a handy book list, which indicates that Promises is the first of several m/m romances set in Coda, CO (and, it seems, her first book). You can find an excerpt of this short novel (about 228 pages) here.

The blurb:

Jared Thomas has lived his whole life in the small mountain town of Coda, Colorado. He can’t imagine living anywhere else. Unfortunately, the only other gay man in town is twice his age and used to be his teacher, so Jared is resigned to spending his life alone.

Until Matt Richards walks into his life, that is. Matt has just been hired by the Coda Police Department, and he and Jared immediately become friends. Matt claims he is straight, but for Jared, having a sexy friend like Matt is way too tempting. Facing Matt’s affair with a local woman, his disapproving family, and harassment from Matt’s co-workers, Jared fears they’ll never find a way to be together-if he can even convince Matt to try.

I enjoyed Promises very much. Matt walks into the store where Jared works to inquire about a Jeep for sale, they end up taking it for a spin. Jared is immediately attracted to Matt, and thinks:

Getting out of the store for a few minutes, especially to head into the mountains, was enough to brighten my day considerably. Doing it in the company of the best-looking guy I had seen in a hell of a long time sure didn’t hurt either.

This kind of plain delight in seeing an attractive person and spending a few minutes in his company, regardless of whether anything sexual or romantic happens, is very rare in m/f romance. It’s written from Jared’s first person point of view, something else I find to be more common in m/m contemporaries than in het romances.

This is a small town romance, with a hero, Matt, who is not only closeted but unaware of his own sexuality. Jared is open with Matt about his sexuality, and they bond over mountain bike rides, dining out, and watching movies at home. Matt has to deal with a homophobic, alcoholic father, fellow cops who question his masculinity and make fun of Jared, and his own conflicted feelings.

I thought the author did a wonderful job of portraying Matt’s journey. Rather than have him getting a boner around Jared, feeling confused, and then savagely resolving it in a bathroom (yes, I have read those stories), it’s the emotional tug that feels strongest:

I turned to look at [Matt], to see if he felt it, too, and found that he wasn’t seeing it at all. He was looking at me. His head was cocked a little to the side, like something was puzzling him, and he was smiling a little. But the thing that really startled me was his eyes. If I had ever imagined him looking at me like that, it had only been in my sweetest dreams.

He reached up, over my shoulder to my hair. Was the whole world in slow motion? I felt like I couldn’t even breathe. There was a tug, and I realized he had pulled the rubber band free. Then his fingers were pushing up against my scalp and into my hair. My breath caught in my throat, and my eyes closed. I don’t know how long we stood like that. It felt like forever. It felt like only a heartbeat.

I did have to put on my “reality blinkers” to accept that someone so opposed initially to homosexuality as Matt is, a cop, a “guy’s guy” raised a conservative Christian, would really fall so quickly into such an exclusive and close friendship with one of the only gay men in town, the minute he arrives there for a new job in the precinct. On the other hand, having never read a “gay for you” romance, I instantly saw the appeal, in terms of the sexual tension: when Matt finally gives in to his attraction, it’s similar to a deflowering scene in a regency (although the word “cock” appears in the text more often). Still, this is not an m/m romance with many sex scenes, something I appreciated as a reader who thinks this sort of thing is often overdone in both m/m and het romance.

While Matt’s significant issues take up most of the energy in the relationship, Sexton leaves room for some character growth for Jared, too. Although he seems out and proud, we learn he trained as a teacher but feels more comfortable working in his sister’s store. Is this contentment or fear? Jared’s conflicts about the relationship may not be as obvious as Matt’s but he, too, has to come to terms with living openly as a gay man, in a relationship, in a small community that has been his home all his life.

This was a very readable book, with well developed main characters and a touching relationship. I especially liked Jared, an open, straightforward, intuitive, and nurturing character. The secondary characters and portrayal of the “small town folk” were somewhat stock (the Marine-drunkard-homophobic father, the cowering mother, the concerned parent, etc.), yet Sexton managed to wring genuine tension during a catastrophic dinner scene between Matt and Jared’s families, and I appreciated that at the end of the book, there were still issues to resolve and people who would not accept them, just as in life.

Books purchased and read, bookstores visited on my holiday vacation

Greetings and Happy New Year! As I type this, my spouse and I are en route back to Maine from a child free trip to San Francisco to see friends. We ate great food, saw great music, did a ton of walking, and, best of all, got to spend time with dear friends. To ease back into blogging for 2012, and to kill time during a four hour layover in Detroit (don’t pity me. I’m hanging out in the Delta Sky Lounge within slurping distance of both an espresso machine and an open bar) here’s a list of paper books purchased, e books read, and book stores visited, while I was away:

My first bit of travel was actually to the sun and sand with my mom and the kids. During that portion of the trip, I read, or in one case, tried to read, some m/m romance, including Carol of the Bellskis by Astrid Amara, and Love Ahead, by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban. I also finished Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby, and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I also read one non fiction title, Fall in Love Like A Romance Novelist, edited by Amelia Grey. For het romance, I read Miranda Neville’s The Wild Marquis, and, for the second time, started Nora Roberts’ Sea Swept, and for the second time, put it down.

Needing a paper book for the takeoffs and landings, My mom and I both picked up a 2009 memoir about a woman whose husband drops dead at forty seven, after which she discovers his many adulterous affairs, called Perfection, by Julie Metz. We agreed that this book was both terrible and hard to put down. Also in paper was book two of Jordan Castillo Price’s Psycop series.

For the San Fran flights, my paper book was year end issues of various magazines, and The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides first novel from back in 1993. I bought that one at City Lights, the famous San Francisco book store, THE Beat bookstore, the first exclusively paperback book store as well. Other books purchased at City Lights include: The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, by Victor Pevelin, which was a staff pick. Also Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason, a recommendation from Keishon of Avid Mystery Reader.

The next day I got to meet up with @JanetNorCal, and she took me to the fantastic Book Passage in Corte Madera, which specializes in YA and mystery. There, I picked up Warm Bodies by Isaac Merton, a recommendation from The Book Smugglers, and Sun Storm, by Asa Larsson, another mystery rec from Keishon.

On the flight from San Fran to Detroit, I read Falling Off the Face of the Earth, another m/m romance, by JF Smith, and some more of the Eugenides.

The one that got away was The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano, which my friend bought, and is loving. I will need to get that one some day soon.

I had hoped for the usual things, like hyperlinks and photos, hell, even italics, in this post, but as I tried to write it using only my iPad, I discovered what a pain it is to try to post from something other than a computer. I downloaded a free Word Press app, became frustrated with it in about a minute, then bought a very highly rated one called Blogsy, which I noodled around with and which does seem much more promising, especially when it comes to getting images in to the post.

So, sorry for the stripped down nature of the post. I hope to write a proper one tomorrow, a review of one of the books I’ve read over the break. Thanks to everyone for their top ten lists. As you can see, I’ve made three purchases from them just this past weekend.

Cheers!

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