Romance 101: Can romance novels turn non-readers into booklovers?

A conversation about teaching, reading and romance with @RomanceProf Jessie Matthews

In the romance reading community we frequently talk about “converting” people. What we usually mean is getting friends or relatives who don’t read romance — and may even disdain romance — to open minds, to discover and enjoy romance novels. We talk about which books to put in the “conversion kit.”  For those who care about such things, there can be immense satisfaction in converting friends or relatives from uninitiated book snobs to romance aficionados.

But what about people who don’t like to read (fiction) at all?  My good friend and fellow romance reader Jessie Matthews teaches “the basics” of reading romance to undergraduates at George Mason University and many of her students arrive at the course not having read a novel since they were last required to in high school.  To get an idea of how she builds the course and chooses the required reading, check out Jessie’s recent star turn in this video and this one for the Popular Romance Project.

ENGH-202-Banner Liotard

Jessie’s course website banner, featuring Jeanne Etienne Liotard’s painting of Marie Adelaide of France (1753), now in the Uffizi, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about my lifelong relationship with the romance genre and the ongoing conversation about how we define what is or isn’t a romance novel, along with musings about how the genre is evolving (younger readers, New Adult, erotica, etc.), I thought it’d be interesting to talk with Jessie about what happens when her reluctant-reader college students meet up with some of the best and/or most widely-discussed novels that romance has to offer.

The truth is I’ve actually been begging Jessie to “visit” Badass Romance since the beginning. Without her cheerleading, pragmatism, and feedback, I’d never have gotten over the hump from thinking about a romance & book blog to actually starting a romance & book blog. Never mind that I had been writing nothing but grants and university administrative wonkery for my dayjob, for nearly two decades. Jessie is one of the true-blue book friends whose encouragement helped me rediscover my love of writing about reading. From the time we met — 10 years ago in an online fan community of booklovers — we have always had the kind of big, exhilarating discussions that get us both excited to read more and do more with our shared love of reading romance.

Jessie jumped in and persuaded her department to support a literature course about romance novels; she’s now a regular at the academic conferences that focus on our genre. It took me a little longer to get around to doing something about romance, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun with the blog and many new friends in the romance twitterverse.  And it is a long-awaited treat and tremendous delight to have Jessie join me to chat about her groundbreaking course.

Pamela: Your course isn’t actually called Romance 101, but are there ways it is kind of like a (mini?) survey course? My (totally guesstimating) sense is that there actually aren’t very many undergraduate courses that teach romance novels in such a concentrated way. At the graduate and post-doctoral level there has been a real explosion of scholarship about romance fiction, from dissertations to documentaries, journals and conferences. But this is using romance fiction to teach undergraduates the fundamentals of textual analysis and composition. What made you decide to try framing a college literature and composition course around the history of the romance novel?

Jessie: I teach best when I am teaching literature that fascinates me, and romance fiction fits that bill. I like the genre’s diversity, its history, and the questions it generates, such as why are romance novels so popular, and, in some circles, still so widely disparaged? But I chose to teach romance novels for a general education literature course, the one–just one–required literature course for undergraduates at my university, to see if studying the genre could change student attitudes toward literature overall.

So many of my students are resistant to anything literary because “literary” equals “difficult” and time-consuming. They proudly boast that they don’t read novels, hate poetry, and rarely, if ever, see a play. I wanted to see if I could change that “group think” and get students reading fiction (as well as poetry—we do a bit of that as well) by choosing a genre whose outsider status in the academy might make it less threatening, and a genre that focuses on a topic that is of great interest to college students: intimate relationships. I guess you could call this a pedagogical bait-and-switch, but so far it has worked.

Pamela: How did you pick the books for the syllabus? Had you read them all when you started out?

Jessie: Aaagghhh!! Choosing texts! It’s the love/hate moment of designing the course. I begin my course planning with maybe 20 novels in mind, all of which I have read and want to teach, and all of which I feel have much to offer my students. Then reality sets in, and I remember that my students will read no more than five to six novels in a 15-week semester, and my buzz vanishes: I know it’s time to get down to business and make the hard choices. In the end, choosing what to teach boils down to novels that are good ambassadors of the genre, novels that showcase a range of literary elements, and novels whose context offers a productive area of exploration for students. Romance fiction offers an abundance of riches for each of these criteria, and having to choose only a few is one of the great drawbacks of teaching the course.

GMU Bookstore 50 Shades Display Feb 2013

George Mason University Bookstore, Feb 2013

The first time I taught the course, I aimed for representation and some points of connection (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary), but I learned that students dig more deeply into the literary aspects of the genre if there is an element that unites all the novels. So the next time I taught the course, I organized it around a theme. I used the Byronic Hero as the focus, and that made it easy to move from Jane Eyre to The Sheik to Rebecca to Fifty Shades of Grey. (This also made it possible to sneak in a little Byron and give my students at least some exposure to poetry). I would have called it the “Badass Hero” course, but you beat me to the punch on that title!

I want to emphasize, however, that there are many, many ways to organize a course like this.  Since my department requires that the class focus on context as well as literary analysis, I could have chosen romance novels that focus on activism (see Kelly’s recent post about social activism in the romance novel). I could also focus on a specific social issue, such as women and body image, where novels Jennifer Cruisie’s Bet Me and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had to Be You would work quite well. I’ve thought about designing a course around a specific subgenre, such as romantic suspense or paranormal romance. Of all the romance subgenres I have taught, these two have generated the most interest in students.

In the end, choosing the novels to teach in my course makes me more aware of what I couldn’t include and how those omissions will affect my students’ grasp of the genre. For example, I am always asking myself if “representation” is even possible in a undergraduate course like mine. Have I really taught the romance novel if I haven’t taught a Regency by Heyer or a Harlequin? I can’t really say yet that students finish my course with a good grounding in the genre. All I can say is that they enjoy the reading experience and liked having their assumptions about romance novels overturned.

Pamela: I was fascinated when you told me virtually none of your students fell for Lord of Scoundrels. Can you share a little bit about your students’ reactions to an iconic historical romance novel like that? And Jane Eyre — how did they fare with my beloved Jane and Rochester? Did they actually read the book or was this one of the ones where students “movie-d” the assignment?

Jessie: Literature challenges my students primarily because of its heightened use of language. Why spend so much time untangling the words in a poem or a novel when you can get the “quick and dirty” about it from Sparks Notes? I want them to grapple with the language, but I needed a way to seduce them into the work first so that I could show them why it’s worthwhile to do so.

Because romance novels end happily (a criterion that is becoming more flexible when assessing romance series), they get painted with a broad brush as formulaic and trite, but romance readers and scholars know that isn’t true; romance fiction is very diverse, including its use of language (even Jane Austen and Helen Fielding differ), so I knew I could introduce a range of texts that represented various literary elements and rhetorical moves, and even literary theory (we cover post-structuralism in Dark Lover) in a way that would gently coax students into the world of literature.

Pamela: OK, I’m guessing they didn’t fall head over heels with Jane and Rochester… But do you think over the several years you’ve been teaching this course, any of your students have become romance “converts”? Have you spawned any serious fangirls or fanboys? Are they aware of and/or participating in the online romance community?

Jessie: So few men take my romance novel course, and of those who did, all but one took it because they thought it would be easy, or it was offered at the time they needed, or they just wanted to meet some women. None of them has become a convert to the romance genre.

But I always have a few women in my course who become enamored of some book and begin reading other romances. When I assigned a Nora Roberts novel, a great many of my students began reading her work. They find her writing compact, her plots appealing, and the characters easy to “relate to.” But I don’t see obsession in those who read Roberts; I see comfort in knowing what Roberts will deliver.

Then there are my “bitten” students who fall in love with a series like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I’ve assigned Dark Lover and Lover Eternal and had plenty of women in the class finish the novel in two days rather than the two weeks I allow for it. Once they’ve embraced the world of the Brothers, they go on to complete three or four books in the series before the semester ends. I can see in their faces that look of obsession, and it’s these students who head to online communities. They come to class telling me facts about the brothers, their shellans, and Ward herself, all gleaned from online communities, and I hear them sharing those facts with each other before class begins. I love hearing them become fluent in the vocabulary of that series (“Because he’s her hellren, that’s why!), but what fascinates me is seeing the joy they experience in becoming an expert about the books. More than a few of them have come up to me several semesters after our course ended to tell me things like, “Hey–The King is coming out in April! Are you going to read it?”

Pamela: I love that. I hope they find their way to some other great series with badass worldbuilding — maybe the steampunk romances of Meljean Brook, or the intense and erotic dystopian Beyond series by Kit Rocha…

I could ask you at least a dozen more questions, but we’ll stop for now since this did turn into yet another longish post. I hope I can convince you to come back for another chat — as you know, I’ve got several topics in mind and I am very keen to get your take on the intersections and exchanges going on between the romance reader/blogger community and academic scholarship about the genre and its readers.  To be continued!

Jessie-Matthews-Romance-Bookshelves-Web

in the office of the romance professor

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Defaulting to the Duke: A funny fairytale romance and seeing through and around titles

Making an exception for ROMANCING THE DUKE by Tessa Dare

I keep thinking I’m done with dukes. I read a great deal of historical romance but, like many others, I feel poor old England’s been duked to death with a surfeit of fictional aristocrats. I guess I did also make an exception for Sarah MacLean’s “Killer Duke,” but only because he suited my purposes so well as an example of the “brutal” hero with a violent way of life that is both redeemed and eroticized.

Now along comes an over the top romantic cliche’ of a duke from Tessa Dare: He’s brooding, surly, half blind, and living in sulky squalor at gloomy, bat-infested Gostley Castle. Oh, and he’s also a shining example of the once and forever popular Duke of Slut archetype, with an apparently near-constant cockstand (whenever the heroine is present) and delightfully dirty repartee. (My thanks to @PennyRomance, @IsobelCarr and @SmartBitches for the assist with Duke of Slut research!) He’s joined by our equally predictable heroine, a penniless, writerly spinster who believes she’s inherited said castle and arrives just in time to save him from himself, and turn the keep into a home. It’s book one of Dare’s new “Castles Ever After” series. (The series title alone should tell you this is either saccharine silliness, or it’s going OTT).

I know it sounds too predictably ridiculous, but this book. Cracked. Me. Up. And when I was done laughing, I realized there’s also a lot going on here, some of it very cool and clever.

The Setting Regency England, the aforementioned Gothic ruin of a castle:

‘To Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight, I leave the property known as Gostley Castle.’ Is it pronounced like ‘Ghostly’ or ‘Ghastly’? Either one seems accurate.

Yet Another Duke Ransom William Dacre Vane, Duke of Rothbury

“So while I read, you’re just going to lie there. Like a matron reclining on her chaise longue.”

“No. I’m going to lie here like a duke, reposed in his own castle.”

Yet Another Penniless Spinster Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight

“Oh, but this gift isn’t the same as an ermine. This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

The Tropes Clever Spinster Left In Poverty By Thoughtless Male Relatives; Wounded, Jilted Duke Doesn’t Trust Women; Loyal & Trustworthy Manservant Aids & Abets the Course of True Love; Female Friendship Where We Might Have Expected Rivalry (absolutely love that she pulled this off!); Spooky, Ruined Castle with Super-Romantic Turret Bedroom; Evil, Scheming Lawyers; Charming Band of Admiring Ordinary People become Main Couple’s Team Romance.

Romancing_the_DukeTruly Madly Deeply Romantic Comedy Romancing the Duke (Avon, January 2014) captivated me in ways I absolutely did not predict. Dare is a master at taking the tired and trite and refashioning it as something that’s somehow hilarious, sweet, and deeper than it seems at first glance. She succeeds because she’s so entirely willing to go over the top in a direction that is two parts farce and two parts sizzle, and she does it without taking anything about the enterprise too seriously. Her light touch results in a thoroughly enjoyable romance and a very satisfying, faux fairytale HEA.

So I’m glad I didn’t let my Put Away Your Dukes policy keep me from reading this. I have been a fan since Dare’s first trilogy, especially Goddess of the Hunt. I just had to google to find out what that trilogy was called, and I’m a little bemused to find …  The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy ..?? But that’s the thing about Dare — she’s always winking at the reader, and with the Spindle Cove series she impressively balances compelling love stories with fun and frothy ensemble romcom.

I do have a few quibbles. It really is a feat to strike the right balance between breathless comedy and compelling romantic tension, and there are a few wrong notes for me. I don’t love horny girl virgin lust-think, especially in a historical romance. This was the chief reason I really didn’t like the Spindle Cove cross-class romance novella that consisted almost entirely of a well-bred young lady ogling and lusting after the hardworking, hard-bodied village blacksmith. And there’s a bit too much of it here, with Izzy’s inner panting about Ransom’s buckskins and boots. I’m sure this actually says more about me and my own internalized heteronormative perspectives on male vs. female maturity and sexuality than about the writing. I can handle the hero’s inner horny adolescent in most cases, especially when it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Somehow it doesn’t work for me in reverse, maybe because with this type of heroine it comes across as more clueless and breathless, instead of lusty and funny. Mostly, thank goodness however, there’s a lot of snap-crackle-pop dialogue that’s plenty lusty and funny.

“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”

“Oh, there’s a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.

Blind to Love? And then there’s the disability theme here. I’m not sure what I think about the blindness of the hero. Ransom’s visual disability, which is partial and recent — due to an injury sustained in a fight over a woman — is a major plot hinge.  There are a couple of minimal glimpses of self-pitying “you deserve better than me” nonsense, and there’s Izzy’s oddly swoony realization that he’s “overcome” his affliction through intense concentration on mapping the castle and its furnishings by feel. Plus the part about his refusal to eat in front of anyone, which causes a train wreck of a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get Ransom to “accept” help.

On the up side, there’s a whole back-and-forth theme running through the novel, about who, exactly, is “saving” who.  She’s penniless and fainting from hunger as the novel opens, and he picks her up in his strong arms and revives her in dashing romance-hero style. At the end of the story she is saving him emotionally, from himself  and his wounded isolation. He’s saving her, emotionally and sexually, from an oppressive and repressive public image as “England’s Storybook Girl” (more about that anon). She’s also, with his permission, “rescuing” him from the aspects of his disability he truly cannot overcome without aid (she reads and scribes for him), and which almost lead to a disastrous end (his lawyers have been skimming funds and selling property out from under him, while he’s been moping around ignoring his mail).

It’s frankly hard for me to tell whether all this comes across successfully as part of the ironic exploration of over-used romance conventions, or merely re-produces an unwelcome set of disability dynamics. Unlike other disabilities, blindness also works as an easy metaphor in romance — he can’t see her, but in the end, when he acknowledges his love for her he’s the only one who really sees her… for who she is… her inner beauty…. etc etc. I did like the fact that neither his blindness nor Izzy’s “plainness” are reversed in order for them to love or to HEA. And the question of Izzy’s appearance remains open-ended, which is also refreshing — there is no cheesy miracle recovery enabling Ransom to see her with his eyes and tell her, and us, that she’s really actually a paragon of beauty.

The Enduring Appeal of Gothic Tales Overall, I think the first half of the novel is cracking good fun and I loved the blend of frankly bawdy banter with burgeoning awareness between Izzy and Ransom of each other’s isolation and deep loneliness. In spite of the apparent effervescence, there are difficult emotions surfacing and real shadows lurking — poverty, neglect, exploitation.

Things decelerate and get more sentimental after they start having actual sex and figure out that someone is out to steal the duke’s fortune and title by having him declared incompetent. The final section of the story is a bit like a caper, as they join forces with Duncan (the trusty manservant) and Abigail (the friend from the village) and a roving band of enthusiastic LARPers, to prove the lawyers are defrauding the estate and the duke is neither insane nor unfit.

And yet in spite of the sentimentality, this is where I really got hooked. It was the nutty LARPers that did me in. You see, our heroine, Izzy Goodnight, is not just any old penniless, bookish spinster.  She’s a celebrity.  She has a dual identity as both the inspiration for a leading character in England’s best-selling serialized fairytale, and the daughter of its wildly famous author (recently deceased). The Goodnight Tales are the 19th-century equivalent of, say, a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings phenomenon, set in the fictional world of Moranglia, and featuring a princess in a tower, a dark brooding hero, and a Shadow Knight villain. Izzy is ambivalent about her public image as “England’s precious innocent.” She lusts, she’s pissed off at the injustice of her financial situation (her male cousin got everything), and she’s more steel than satin, with a hidden history of strength and unheralded accomplishment. Yet she is never cynical, and neither is this novel, in spite of the element of farce.

The existence of a massive Moranglian fandom, complete with LARPing knights and maidens, could easily have been the big joke here. Ransom is amused and mocking at first, while Izzy drops into character (“Good Sir Wendell, please be at ease. I’ll come thither anon!”) to welcome the clankingly costumed Knights of Moranglia and Cressida’s Handmaidens, who’ve tracked her down on the way to a re-enactment and encampment.  The “fancy-dress fools” are figures of fun, but in the end, it’s a shared belief in doing the right thing – sheer old-fashioned honor and loyalty – that forge bonds of trust and mutual respect between the ill-tempered duke and his newfound fans.

“Make up as many stories as you wish. Just don’t make me the hero in them.”

Of course the Moranglians, like the reader, can see plainly that he’s the romance hero — I loved how cleverly and yet simply Dare accomplished all this, without over-writing or over-thinking it.

“Even if you did read my father’s stories, I doubt you’d enjoy them. They require the reader to possess a certain amount of…”

“Gullibility?” he suggested. “Inexperience? Willful stupidity?”

“Heart. They require the reader to possess a heart.”

There are knowing winks and nods to medieval romance from Lord Tennyson to Laura Kinsale, but the meta-story is an unabashed appreciation and celebration of gallant deeds and happy endings.

“You don’t have to admire my father’s stories,” she said. “But don’t disparage the readers, or the notion of romance.”

Defaulting to the Duke? I so appreciate a book that can make me laugh, even as it’s teasing out something fundamentally important about the nature of fiction and fandom, romance and reading. I don’t even mind so much about the surfeit of dukes anymore, at least not in the context of a book that’s thoughtful and genuine. I recognize Euro- and Anglo-centric romances about white aristocrats offer a privilege-reinforcing fantasy for some readers. There’s no doubt the genre will be better off as we see more and more historical romances about other kinds and colors of people.

Bitch Media published a great interview with the Love in the Margins team from last week that provided an interesting foil – and rich array of other options – as I pondered the pros and cons of the mainstream dukely regency, which has become such a dominant default in the genre.  I’m still ambivalent about it overall. But a cleverly told fairytale is always welcome, and who wants to live in a world where readers are disparaged for the books they enjoy — as long as those readers, and the writers of such books, are willing to interrogate their choices?

ROMANCING THE DUKE is available from Avon in the usual formats and places. I received a copy from the publisher as part of the Avon Addicts program, in exchange for an honest review.

THE ANNOTATED TBR: Winter Reviews & Recommendations

Here’s another round-up of books from my TBR — women of endurance, breaking down gender & war is hell

Some of these are actually sitting on my shelves and some are on my mental list, waiting to be purchased or checked out, depending on the relative levels of my patience and my budget.  The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of my reading aspirations.

HILD by Nicola Griffith  reviewed by Natalie over at Radish Reviews  A historical novel that shatters conventional wisdom about the lives of ordinary women is based on the life of a medieval saint who lived at the court of King Edwin in 7th centrury England? With strong female communities plus a focus on material culture (textiles and tapestries)? Yay!  Back in my own Dark Ages (college) I studied English medieval architecture, and even read me some Venerable Bede, and I still harbor a lingering fascination with the “strange but true” tales of anchoresses and abbesses and other female acts of virtue (or vice) deemed important enough to find their way into the written record.  Natalie has mentioned this book on twitter often enough that it’s pretty much topping my wishlist right now. And then there’s the reviewer at NPR who says this book shatters the myth that women of the middle ages were too oppressed to make interesting subject matter for historians. I’m curious to see for myself how this work of meticulously researched historical fiction might “read” like fantasy. For some reason I want Hild to look and act a little bit like Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, but since I haven’t read this book yet I should probably refrain from ‘dream casting’.

REVOLUTIONARY by Alex Myers I am eager to read this not because of a particular review, but because once I saw it reviewed a couple of places, it just sounded like a book I need to read. RevWar history is one of my side obsessions. I live less than a mile from the path Paul Revere’s horse trod out to Lexington on April 19th, 1775  and last summer I tracked down the grave (in Blacksburg, Virginia) of an ancestor who served as a private in a Maryland regiment and, according to family lore, witnessed the surrender of the British at Yorktown. This novel tells the story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who hid her gender and fought as a man in the American Revolution. Alex Myers himself has experience living both male and female lives; he was recently interviewed by The Daily Beast about the book, and his life as a female-to-male transgender person. Of course this seems to be a big part of the buzz around this book, but it’s really not the main reason I’m interested in reading it. I am always on the hunt for a well-told Revolutionary tale and I’m hoping this one will soon have a place of honor on my Best Of Minutemen shelf.

AncillaryJustice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie   reviewed by Janine Ballard at Dear Author This is pretty far outside my usual territory, but Janine’s review grabbed my attention since she loved it so much and I consider her the right kind of tough critic. Also, she’s read Outlander and is willing to entertain a deconstructionist conversation about whether or not it’s a romance, so when she talks about falling “headlong” into a novel it makes me think something pretty interesting must be going on. So even though this is science fiction, and the protagonist is an artificial intelligence who may or may not be female, it sounds like this is a novel about relationships, loyalties, and the construction of gender, and I am happy to have a hold request for this book pending at my library.

THE SHATTERED ROSE by Jo Beverley  I’ve been thinking a lot about JoBev recently, thanks partly to Janet Webb, who is a fellow appreciator and fans the flames of my Malloren/Rogues obsessions.  I’ve read nearly all of Beverley’s canon, but none of the medievals. When I posted about Lucien hitting Beth in An Unwilling Bride, the ensuing discussion revealed that The Shattered Rose also involves jealous anger and violence between hero and heroine.  Because Beverley can always be counted on to be challenging, even in the context of an engaging and absorbing romance, I’m very curious to see how this plays out in a medieval setting, especially with the story told from the hero’s POV.  A brief review and summary are here, at The Romance Reader.

THE OUTCASTS by Kathleen Kent I just feel like reading something western.  Also, Kent is the author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Heretic’s Daughter, both of which rank among the most beautiful and haunting historical novels I’ve read in decades. Possibly ever. Set in and around Puritan Andover and Salem in the years prior to the witch hunts, the former is so achingly romantic I reviewed it as a romance even though it is so not a Happy Ever After story. It was a beautiful HFN, though. Sigh. But on to Texas, and a book that sounds possibly even more menacing — a ruthless prostitute on the run from the law (after escaping from a brothel where she was a virtual prisoner).  In the Salem novels Kent’s portrayal of frontier justice and hard women chafing in the cages society places around them was breaththaking and I found I quite liked her female protagonists’ rough edges. Since the Dallas Morning News did not seem to like her very much, I’m very curious about Lucinda, and what happens when she runs into a Texas Ranger tracking a murderer. I’m a little afraid I may not like her, I’m not sure it’s going to be romantic, and I’m definitely not betting on an HEA, but I am definitely going to read this book.  

In fact, several of these books are making me think about female characters who are unsympathetic in one way or another. Since I haven’t yet read them, I can’t speak to their likeability but sometimes unlikeable heroines are actually my favorite kind.

Happy reading!