Friday, October 25, 2013
The Novels of Edna Ferber, An Important Link in Popular American Women’s Fiction
Deborah Chappel Traylor
The author of women’s romance has been often misunderstood and always understudied. The few excellent scholarly treatments of writers such as Nora Roberts and Jude Devereaux have portrayed them in isolation from the traditions and lineages that inform and attach to canonical writers as well as writers of other popular genres such as science fiction. Some of the blame for this lack of historical development of popular literary traditions such as romance may be attributed to reactions from an academic literary establishment which was initially hostile to any attempts to study romance that did not have as their aim answering the question, “Why would anyone read this at all?” But at least some of the blame, especially in more recent years, may accrue to romance scholars themselves, who in their vigorous attempts to develop a legitimate field of study have too narrowly defined the genre and thus isolated the study of romance from its possible historical connections.
It may be easy enough to see connections between popular romance written today and the novels of Jane Austen, but how do we explain how one leads through centuries and across oceans to the other? How do we present a history of women’s romance without exploring and establishing links to other writers, traditions, and events?
My paper will develop the narratives of one writer, Edna Ferber (1885-1968), as an important link in the history of popular women’s romance. Following the sentimental writers of the nineteenth century, and working within a publishing environment which was markedly different from the one current romance authors have helped to create, Ferber published popular novels which privileged discourses of heterosexual love and marriage. Further, her novels bear many resemblances to novels written and read as romances today. My paper will explore similarities between Ferber’s novels and some of the most popular romances recently published, and will also examine significant differences. Finally, I believe romance readers today would still recognize Ferber’s most popular works such as So Big, Cimarron, Giant, Showboat, and others as narratives written by a woman about women and for women.
Adventure, Mystery, Romance: The Voice and Style of Mary Stewart
Mary Stewart is an important transition figure within 20th century romance. Much of the critical attention paid to Stewart’s fiction focuses on her Merlin tetralogy. This study examines the primary characteristics which identify Stewart’s style in her romance novels. Her early novels reveal the evolution of a style which matures into a series of classics such as Nine Coaches Waiting and This Rough Magic. Stewart doesn’t stop experimenting with form (Wind Off the Small Isles), paranormal (Touch Not the Cat) and historicals (Rose Cottage) in her later novels.
Stewart combines the neo-gothic traditions of Daphne du Maurier and Victoria Holt with the traditional mysteries of Georgette Heyer and Mary Robert Rinehart to establish the foundations of the romantic suspense subgenre. The opus of Stewart’s romantic fiction reveals a distinctive literary style involving structure, characterization and voice which is manifestly Mary Stewart. She employs a pattern of settings and recurring topoi to create suspense through external and internal encounters and threats. Her characterization functions as a significant bridge between the ineffectual heroines of the earlier gothic to the more actively involved heroines of the late 20th century. Stewart’s incorporation of the action and violence of the adventure story into women’s fiction signals a shift in old and new values and practices in the heroine fully involved in the plot action. Stewart’s voice and perspective is literary and poetic, employing an intertextual style and mythic allusions which imbue her style with the history of fiction itself. Stewart’s romance fiction bears a recognizable signature that is an individual style through which Stewart creates an oeuvre which reveals a distinguishing sense of auteur.
“Everyone loves a Lindsey!” Evaluating the historical romance oeuvre of Johanna Lindsey
Johanna Lindsey published her first historical romance Captive Bride – a fusion of E.M. Hull’s The Sheik and the Regency romance novel – in 1977. Since then, Lindsey has published 50 novels, most of them New York Times bestsellers. Approximately 58 million copies of her books have been sold around the world, translated into twelve different languages. The historical settings for her romance novels span the centuries from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, ranging from the American Wild West to Viking Scandinavia and the eastern reaches of the Russian empire.
This paper provides an overview of Lindsey’s historical novels and discusses the significance of her oeuvre especially from the 1970s to the 1990s. Together with her well-known contemporaries Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers and Bertrice Small, Lindsey’s work was an integral part of the ‘Romance Revolution’ which injected sizzling sex scenes into the pages of the romance novel. It was a revolution that contributed to the Americanization of the twentieth-century romance novel and the transformation of the term ‘women’s historical novel’. While many have identified Woodiwiss and Rogers as the more radical of the historical romance novelists, Lindsey’s output has been greater, her reach wider, and the popularity of her books and her characters – especially the Malory family – more enduring. Her novels came to exemplify the historical romance genre in the last two decades of the twentieth century through her romantic protagonists, family sagas, and her many covers featuring the famous Italian model Fabio Lanzoni. If the historicity of her novels was often dubious, Lindsey nevertheless achieved historical significance within popular romance culture with many fan sites today dedicated to her work and her characters, all affirming the slogan on her books: ‘Everyone loves a Lindsey’.
Feminism and the Romance Author
Can romance novelists be feminists? The early word from academia seemed to suggest not. The foundational texts on popular romance—Ann Snitow’s “Mass- ‐ Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” (1979), Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass- ‐Produced Fantasies for Women (1982), and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984)—brought the insights of feminist literary theory to analyze the romance genre as a whole. Each critic presented nuanced, often sympathetic treatments of romance and its readers, but when their ideas became reduced to one or two- ‐ sentence media takeaways, the word on the street was that the intelligentsia had nothing but contempt for the genre. Romance might be for lovers, but it certainly was not for, or by, feminists.
As feminism, criticism, and denigration of popular romance became lumped together in the public’s mind, romance writers took note. Look up “feminists and feminism” in the index of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, the 1992 collection of essays featuring romance authors writing about romance, and you’ll find this: “See also Critics and Criticism.” Yet many of the that volume’s authors not only claimed a feminist identity, but also argued that romance, as a genre written primary by, and primarily for, women, was, by its very nature, inherently feminist.
This talk will take a closer look at romance writers’ relationship to feminism during the past twenty years, not by analyzing their novels, but by looking at their interviews and critical writings on the craft of romance. Key texts will include the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women collection, the writings of Jennifer Crusie and other romance novelists/scholars, author interviews, and author posts about “Why Romance Matters” on 2013’s Read- ‐A-‐Romance-‐Month web site.
Twisting the Romance Novelist: Tentative Thoughts
When Mary Bly urged scholars to think about the author, to seek out the author, to speak with and to the author, I cringed. I embrace the Barthesian claim that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the Author” (148). Nevertheless, since her lecture, I have thought about the romance novelist. In a Foucauldian fashion one is tempted to ask: What is a Romance Novelist? How do we, as scholars of popular romance, think about, theorize, and account for the authors that write the texts we read, study, and teach?
While we admit the author is dead, we must still, and in almost equal measure, Jane Gallop argues, admit that “‘there must be’ in the text ‘a subject to love,’” that, “the text must contain an author to love” (42). For Gallop, this is “twisted love.” My focus, in this paper, is less on “love” and more on “twisted,” which etymologically comes from the Latin torquere, which means a kind of twisting. Torquere is also from where the contemporary word “queer” originates. My paper mediates on what it would mean to “twist” and to “queer” romance novelists, and more openly, what would a queer theory of authorship mean for literary scholarship, particularly popular romance scholarship? Secondly, it must be admitted, that many romance novelists, particularly those writing male/male romance, are accounting for a “twisted love” in their own writing. As such, the authors that I am interested in theorizing and thinking about are authors of male/male romance, which “twists” the genre, “twists” the authority (for these authors are not authority figures of male/male love, many authors are female and married to loving husbands, as we so often learn in the acknowledgments), and “twists” the reader’s interaction with these texts. Like the Foucauldian notion of “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure,” (History 45) the male/male romance novelists “twists” the genre in new and exciting ways that comment on readers, text, and author — indeed, one might argue that for a study of male/male romance to develop at all, we need to build the theory from the ground up, beginning with the author. By “twisting” authorship, I hope to offer a critical model of authorship, that recognizes the particularities of male/male romance, particularly since the subgenre is largely written “by women for women.”
Sneers and Leers: Romance Novel Writers and the Stigma of Sexual Shamelessness
Jennifer Lois and Joanna Gregson
Our sociological research draws on data collected through three years of participant observation in the romance writing community and 50 in-depth interviews with romance authors and industry professionals. In this paper, we show how affiliation with the romance genre prompts outsiders to label writers as sexually deviant. Our work hinges on the concept of altercasting, an interactional dynamic whereby people attempt to cast others into a specific role or identity—either explicitly or implicitly. Our data show that those outside the romance community altercast romance writers as being sexually shameless because of the sexual content (or perceived sexual content) of their work. The nature of outsiders’ altercasting took two distinct forms: sneering their blatant disapproval for the perceived sexual content of writers’ work, or offering leering invitations for writers to display a sexually shameless self. Although authors consistently reported to us that they felt no shame for writing romance, they nevertheless had to manage the sneers and leers to dispel the notion that they were emotionally deviant women who lacked the appropriately shameful orientation toward sexuality. Writers reacted to the sneers and leers in two opposing ways. Some accepted the invitation and displayed personalized aspects of their sexuality for shock value, career promotion, or to reclaim control of defining their sexual selves in a patriarchal culture. Others contested the assumption that their personal sex lives were relevant to their work and chastised outsiders for intruding on their privacy. This second group neutralized the stigma by showing pride in the professionalized and distinctly depersonalized treatment of sexuality in their writing. We conclude by discussing the integral role of emotions in the stigma process and pointing to the ways in which the perpetual stigma of and social control over women’s sexuality limits romance authors’ ability to be taken seriously as writers.
Self-Publishing and the Individual Author as an Agent of Change
Abstract: This is an anecdotal PowerPoint presentation that discusses the effects of a new publishing paradigm, (the self-published/independently published author) as it pertains to the author’s ability to facilitate social change.
Introduction: In recent years, publishing has undergone a revolution, as dramatic as the invention of the Guttenberg Press. For the first time, authors are able to publish without the gatekeeping effects of publishers. In years past, the author – in particular, the romance author - has been subject to censorship with regard to content. With the ease, affordability, and freedom afforded by self-publishing, those censorial constraints of publishing have virtually disappeared, opening doorways to creativity and providing a means for individual authors to brand themselves and introduce a vocabulary, opening a dialogue with regard to socially sensitive issues: race, the LGBT community, politics and religion.
- The role of self-publishing in facilitating social reform/enabling the individual author to be an “agent of change”.
- Race – romance novels and their homogeneity; from Captain Kirk to the way “African-American” romance novels are shelved in bookstores (Lexi Day’s dilemma – “romance with a swirl.”); the recent Cheerios commercial firestorm and how it launched a long-overdue discussion about race as it figures in the modern romance.
- LGBT Community – e-publishing and the effect it has had on the popularity of “LGB” romance with MM/FF/BFM sub-genres; the “new” transgender community.
- Politics and Religion – and all of the accompanying censorship surrounding those topics, publisher constraints, viewer constraints as seen through a contemporary lens, (LOST ABBEY, by Amanda and Clinton Jones and the Amish romance sub-genre), and how to offend an audience in three minutes and forty-six seconds.
Conclusion: By carefully introducing the vocabulary for socially sensitive subjects, the independent author is empowered to effect changes in thought, acceptance, and build an audience, fluent in the vocabulary for enhanced debate and discussion.
Defiance and Definition: Constructing Authorship in Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You
In Kleypas’s best-seller Dreaming of You (1994), heroine Sara Fielding is a novel writer in nineteenth-century England. The daughter of a gentleman, Sara hopes to marry another country gentleman while also continuing her career. Even at the start of the novel, however, it is clear that the two desires may not be compatible. Her fiancée expects her to play the Angel in the House and give up writing after marriage, something she avoids confronting. But she realizes that she will never be able to reconcile being Perry’s wife with being an author after she enters the world of hero Derek Craven, a London casino kingpin; meeting people who love her writing, and falling in love with Derek, who respects her but sees her as too ladylike, forces her to take ownership of her identity and wants. Sara’s character arc thus involves rejecting a situation composed of opposing binaries (author vs. wife, virtuous country mouse vs. sophisticated sexual partner, social activist vs. mother) and toward one that allows her to define herself by blending these roles.
With this move, and in the representation of Sara’s reception by readers, the text lends itself to be read as an analogy for romance authorship. As with Sara’s fiancée, denigrators of romance novelists often refuse to take them seriously, dismissing them as bored housewives. Even when accorded the status of authors, romance writers are represented as empty-headed, hyper-sexual, corruptive hacks. There is a refusal to attribute any serious content to their writing and their popularity is frequently used as an argument against their literary worth. Like Sara, romance authors have had to find and develop their own community. They have had to resist being defined by those who decide that they do not fit the model of real literary authors. Kleypas’s Sara Fielding (whose name evokes a history of women authors) is a claim of authorial self-determination in a genre that is constantly battling for the right to define what it is (and is not).
The World Split Open, Slightly; or, I Fought the Law, and the Law Spanked
In her 1968 poem “Käthe Kollwitz,” Muriel Rukeyser asks, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Her answer gives us the title of a half-dozen anthologies, critical studies, and books of women’s history: “The world would split open.” In her 2009 contemporary romance Talk Me Down, Victoria Dahl revisits this question and answer through the story of Molly Jennings, an erotic romance author whose fiction is taken by others to be the truth about her own desires. A metafictional novel about the shaming faced by romance authors, from women and from men, Talk Me Down offers us both a work of romantic suspense—the shaming turned to outright violence—and a utopian vision of that social shame being brought to an end through courtship and sexual healing. The world is “split open,” that is to say, but inadvertently, and only slightly, and it is promptly made whole through the relationship between Molly and the novel’s hero, Sherriff Ben Lawson. (His name suggests that he’s a new generation of male authority, one that no longer threatens, and can thus safely be eroticized, by both Molly and Dahl.) This consoling narrative, in which the truths told by romance can be easily and pleasurably recuperated, contrasts in several ways with the representations of gender, truth-telling, and the law in Dahl’s Twitter and Tumblr posts, which include impassioned, explicitly political reflections on gendered poverty, abortion rights, and access to birth control. The romance author constructed by Dahl in these media overlaps with, but is not reducible to, the model of authorship we see in Talk Me Down. My talk will explore how the differences between these models might inform how we read Dahl’s other work, and popular romance more generally—including, as a proof-text, The Wicked West, a BDSM historical novella (featuring a spanking sheriff) by Dahl writing as “Holly Summers,” Molly’s fictional pseudonym.
When Authors Won’t “Die”: Diana Gabaldon as Imperial Author in the Books and Writers Community Online Forum
Roland Barthes famously announced the “Death of the Author” in 1968 and handed interpretive power over to the reader: “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (148). But Barthes could not anticipate that authors would reclaim their meaning-making authority through their online discussion forums and become interpreters of their own work. When authors moderate their own forums, they are free to be both “destination” and “origin,” where they analyze and assess as “readers” the words they composed as writers. Such forums allow authors to control the reception of their work and promote a specific authorial persona, all while cultivating a fan base for their novels.
To illustrate this paradigm, I use Diana Gabaldon’s Books and Writers Community forum on Compuserve. Gabaldon, whose relationship to the popular romance genre is a fraught one, helps moderate her forum, where people from all over the world have been meeting online for more than 15 years to discuss her wildly popular Outlander series. Unlike websites that host user-generated reviews of romance novels, or fan-only forums devoted to a specific author or series, the Books and Writers Community forum is distinctive for the influential contributions of Gabaldon herself to discussions initiated by fans.
My paper examines this influence by showing how Gabaldon uses her position as the author to offer the “correct” interpretation to readers’ questions, all while creating an online persona that is friendly to those who agree with her, but caustic to those who do not. Her answers often require her to provide information that would not have been available to the reader, thus allowing her to extend her narratives beyond the novels themselves. In other words, her online forum allows her to keep writing her novels and position herself as the leading authority on them.
The interpretive authority this grants her is considerable, and she uses it, I argue, to be seen as an authorial figure of mainstream literary culture rather than a writer of popular romances. In this paper, I pay particular attention to forum discussions about genre, and Gabaldon’s insistence that she does not write romances, despite the fact that many novels in the Outlander series are either outright romances, or a sequence of romances nested within a larger narrative arc.
L’auteur est mort. Vive l’auteur!
For years the literary debate about the irrelevance of the actual author has occupied not only the German field of literary research. Roland Barthes’ contention that the author is dead “foregrounds the idea of the author as a conduit for ideologically charged discourses rather than an individual responsible for her/his text” (Fludernik). Now narratologists, e.g. Jannidis, propose a ‘return’ of the author not necessarily with anthropomorphic characteristics but as the instance of an implied meaning of a text.
The real author who features as author on the title page and who is responsible for the composition of the novel still seems to be irrelevant for text analyses, other than being regarded as the classifying principle that makes possible the grouping, restriction or comparison of a text. I suppose this is why authors’ works, especially romance authors’ works, have been researched from the point of view of overarching thematic concepts and key terms and have been measured by the same yardstick and not individually.
But in the real not scholarly literary world the modus operandi of many readers is to choose books by an author’s name. I regard this as enough justification to research a real author and her/his works, especially an author of a popular genre which has been focused on only recently.
The talk will address Jayne Ann Krentz’s works and will give answers about changes within twenty-five years of her writing career which lead up to the following questions:
1. What narrative patterns are discerned?
2. What is her writing style and what are her core stories?
3. Are there changing definitions of feminine and male roles in relationships in Krentz’s fictional society?
4. What sexual moral is presented?