Some (More) Scattered Thoughts About Romancelandia, Overthinking, and Balance

This is sort of an experiment and, like most true experiments, has the real potential to go horribly wrong. I’m sitting here pulling together some truly off-the-cuff thoughts in response to several articles and posts I read last night and this morning, and a brief yet compelling twitter conversation last night about reading and responding with romance scholar @DrLauraVivanco.

Laura has posted a beautiful meditation on questioning what we read, critical distance, and the challenge of being both a romance reader and a romance “wonk.” I am incredibly flattered to be mentioned in her post. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to talk more about these questions and issues — whether on twitter or on the various blogs where there is/are exciting dialogue(s) swirling around these themes — I’m thinking about Olivia Waite’s tantalizing introductory post for her month of posts about intersectional feminism and romance, for example – this was all over my tweetstream last night and promises some very interesting conversations coming in April.

iPhone pics 2011.2012 4 005Since my usual post-writing process is labored and slow, it’s a challenge to try and “think out loud” here in this space and kind of toss some more ideas at the wall to see if anything sticks. A lot of what I’m thinking about relates to the rich and challenging discussions earlier this week at DA and Vacuous Minx. I’m hoping I can throw out some additional thoughts and links too lengthy to put in comments threads, without irrevocably annoying anyone or blowing up this experiment in blurt-blogging.

But back to my conversation with Laura, who suggested :

…in a utopia perhaps there’d be an inclusive, egalitarian, non-fun-spoiling, yet still critical way of discoursing.

If I try to boil down my response to Laura’s questions, the reflections on blogging and reviewing floating around Romancelandia this week, and the issues I’ve been pondering since I indulged in my navel-gazing “big fat anniversary post”, I think it comes down to a quest for balance — can I love what I read and surrender to the reading experience, and still think and write critically about it? In her (much too flattering) comment on my post earlier this month, Jessie (@RomanceProf) asked

So my question to you is this: can you read a romance purely for pleasure anymore?

For better or worse, once I became that academic, my approach to any book was never the same. It always come bundled with the disciplinary training I spent years acquiring. There are a few moments when I’m reading when I get sucked in and forget how I read now, but those moments are sporadic; the academic reader in me always breaks through, and while that way of reading doesn’t ruin the “spell” of transportation, it alters it by making me aware that it’s happening.

I am also more mindful now of the social nature of reading. As a kid, reading was a solo act I did as a means to get away from people; now it drives me _to people_. Today, I often feel driven to discuss what I read with someone else, someone who has the expertise to challenge and enlighten me. You did just that for me many years ago, and while it wasn’t in an academic setting, the nature of our conversations was grounded in our academic training and a drive to find someone we could have that type of conversation with.

If I do want to have fun with what I read, and immerse myself in an emotional journey along with the characters, is “overthinking” and writing a critical response part of the fun, or does it spoil the fun? Our fun, or other people’s fun, if one asks too many questions in the wrong space? What about the pleasure of reading as a social practice, which many bloggers have noted can deepen the reading experience?

My response to Jessie, and to Laura, is another question… Does critical thinking take me out of the immersive experience, or is writing a long analytic response that interrogates the mechanics and messages of a novel actually another way I immerse myself? Perhaps I seek to have my cake and eat it too, and this is possible for me because I’m actually unschooled in formal literary theory (I was trained as an art historian) and I have sort of an a’ la carte approach to critical thinking… that is, while I derive great satisfaction from reading romances that challenge me, questioning my choices, and seeking deeper meanings and connections, I also reserve the right to read just for fun and to share and compare notes about what I think is fun and entertaining and engaging, without always going deep. I can’t be one or the other; I want to be both.

I see these questions about my own emotional connection vs. critical detachment as separate from, yet obviously related to, the parallel set of questions that have been surfacing about academic or “wonky” participation in the fandom and/or author space that is the online romance community. I guess I really do find myself hopeful about Romancelandia’s capacity to grow a space for the kind of serious discussions Olivia proposes:

The question I most want to answer is this: What does this book do as a machine? I want something more about symbols/motifs/mechanics than the reviews at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, but something more accessible than the high-critical work being done by IASPR and academic journals. And nobody’s itching to write that kind of criticism except me. So I’m stepping up. ( / March 28, 2014 / Blogging from April A-Z: Intersectional Feminism and Romance Series!)

I think a lot of people will be happy to see this kind of stepping up! Yesterday I couldn’t believe it when I saw bulb tips poking up in my frozen muddy garden. And I see other spring-like signs of a kind of “in-between” space for talking about romance reading, especially as Sunita, and others in the amazing comments thread that’s still going at Vacuous Minx, look at ways to create more connectivity between and among blogs and readers who seek a similar middle ground.

I also think it’s useful in this context, though it came as very sad news to me, to look at what’s being said about the announcement this week of the demise of Television Without Pity. I especially enjoyed what Margaret Lyon had to say, writing at Vulture about TV criticism pioneered by TWoP:

TWoP certainly popularized the recap concept — which is now utterly pervasive across entertainment-based and general-interest sites — but it also introduced a new vein of what TV coverage entails. At one side of the spectrum is obsessive, effusive fan coverage, and at the other is formal, detached criticism. There’s a place for both of these things in the universe, of course, because man is meant to live in balance. What TWoP did is insist that television criticism could be both arch and informed, that you could watch a lot of Roswell, you could care about Roswell, and you could still think Roswell is dumb garbage. Prestige shows like West Wing or The Sopranos don’t get a pass just for being fancy — even a recap praising a fabulous episode still had jokey nicknames for people, or wry labels for various TV clichés. Many of the recaps are incredibly funny, but there are plenty that had serious ideas about storytelling or costuming or characters’ gender politics, too. (Vulture/ March 28, 2014 / How Television Without Pity Shaped Pop Culture)

Now I realize the phrase “dumb garbage” is going to blow this up as a parallel for romance readers. “Junk” TV is not the same as “trashy” books, right? It’s got a lot to do with who gets to use the terms, and as a literary medium romance has a much more problematic history with snobbery and perceptions of trashiness than does television. (Also, I’m not even sure I’ve heard of the show Roswell, but I’m addicted to reading TWoP’s Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Boardwalk Empire, and Idol recaps, so I’m taking this news kind of hard.)

But I do think there are useful parallels across fandoms in different genres and media, and I like the idea that there is space to insist that writing about what we love can be serious and fun, “arch and informed”, emotional and critical. And that critical “academic” voices can be welcoming, and welcomed, rather than distancing. Utopian thinking?  Probably. The balance may shift depending on the book(s) under review, and the context, but I like listening to the voices that have this kind of range, and I think they’re out there.

Now if only I could get my own reviewing juices flowing again and write about books I’ve actually been reading this month…!



23 thoughts on “Some (More) Scattered Thoughts About Romancelandia, Overthinking, and Balance

  1. What I was wondering, after last night, is whether we need to acknowledge that there are different kinds of fun one can have while reading, that different people (or the same people at different times) can want different kinds of fun, and that some people’s fun may at times upset other people’s, and that maybe that means there sometimes need to be separate spaces or spoiler warnings?

    There’s a parallel, I think, with spoilers and trigger warnings – for some people, spoilers enhance their enjoyment of what they’re about to see, and trigger warnings help them to identify the kind of media they want to stay away from. Other people find they spoil the fun by revealing surprises in advance, or labelling the texts in ways they feel stigmatise it and the reader.

    Maybe it would help to have separate spaces for different kinds of fun when reading? In some ways I think that happens already a bit, but maybe not enough to stop upset/offence happening. I liked Sunita’s idea of trying to find a way to link together like-minded blogs, as I think it would help bring together readers who want similar kinds of conversations/fun.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Interesting! I am now intrigued to think about the spoiler warning model — “warning: hard/boring questions ahead…” It’s so hard to convey without seeming to condescend, isn’t it? And I do think you’re right that it’s both different readers looking for different kinds of responses as well as an individual reader (in this case me) looking for multiple modes at different times, or sometimes together, in a kind of mode mash-up. I think Miss Bates does this exceedingly well – conveying both her emotional response to a novel as well as a critical response to the novel as a text.

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        “It’s so hard to convey without seeming to condescend, isn’t it?”

        Maybe it’s utopian thinking again, but maybe not, if one could adopt the model used by some publishers as described by HJ:

        some of the “warnings” used more frequently in m/m publishing […] have actually become a way for people to find what they like as well as avoiding what they do not (and providing opportunities for humour, too.) I put the word “warning” in quotation marks, because although that is the term which is used, it is clear that many reject the implication of danger, evil or undesirability which it implies. But I think it is likely that having the ability to label a book and give a warning about an element which may not appeal to some readers has actually enabled authors to write much more freely, in a way which would not be possible if they were trying to be all things to all men.

  2. Sunita says:

    Wonderful post, Pamela, and a perfect followup to Laura’s post. The relationship between unfettered enjoyment and critical engagement is a tough one to understand or explain, not least because it differs across individuals and is fluid. I remember when I discovered foreign films in college (the UofChicago had a fantastic film series) and then started critiquing films I saw with my father. He was initially resistant and had that “can’t you just watch it and enjoy it?” response but then he warmed to the idea (being an inherently analytical person). After a while he told me that he was glad he was more critically aware when he saw films, and that he’d found a way to continue enjoying them despite being able to see their flaws.

    I think that’s what a lot of us do with genre fiction. Sometimes it doesn’t work, like with me and a lot of historical romance. But many other times I have no problem watching or reading a piece of fluff and having a great time even as I mentally tick off the problematic elements.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Yes, that’s it — there is something so fluid about all of this – the cultural products, our consumption practices and the language we use to describe them – that makes it very difficult to articulate. Sometimes fluff isn’t entirely fluffy, and sometimes for me the practice of critical analysis is not in opposition to the enjoyment but part and parcel of it. I think where it becomes more of an either/or for me is when there is a tension between pleasure and problem, and the “fun” of that alchemical combination of emotional response and critical engagement gets unbalanced by too many problematic elements.

      In terms of historical romance, it’s authors like Jo Beverley or Joanna Bourne who I think deliver the “alchemy” of an emotional journey along with elements that provide meaty fodder for critical engagement. When I feel the author is “in” on the problematization, I get more intrigued. But it’s harder to have an unfettered experience if I feel that there are real problems in a portrayal or a setting, and it reads as if the author is unaware or less able to pull off a challenging element.

      Thank you for the great comment, and for inspiring me to think more about “pure” reading in many new and exciting ways since I started blogging. It has been a delight and a thrill to find discussions spaces like the one you’re providing at VM.

  3. Miss Bates says:

    Miss Bates thanks you very much for the nods and gracious analysis. I’d never even realized what I was doing, whether well or badly, as trying to strike a balance between emotion and detachment. Like you, I hold an old grad degree, when structuralism reigned, and haven’t kept up with any critical trends or directions. I never necessarily approach a book with an analytic edge; though, as a reader, I always note those things that strike me in a text: sometimes, it’s how it makes me feel and sometimes how it makes me think. And often it’s both. I’d say that whatever academic and/or professional training we’ve had, as well as our prejudices, propensities, and sensibilities, speaks through our reading choices and what we say about them.

    And that is what I find has enriched my reading experience and why I love reading, writing about, and reading others writing about romance, or the issues around it. The plurality of voices is what is most valuable for me, not uniformity of opinion in lauding or condemning any given text. I enjoy reading even the most academic of discussions and even occasionally and in tiny doses the unbridled squeeing enthusiasm of the “uncritical” fan … when it, in both cases, is done with love and respect for the genre, but not self-importance, when I don’t feel as if there’s an agenda, commercial or otherwise, that is being served or sold to me as if it was kale hidden in a smoothie (and I apologize to the kale-lovers, but Miss B. is one not).

    That being said, with all the talk of blogger/reviewer-bashing that has been under discussion, it does not mean that we owe love and respect to each and every romance we read. It is not an either/or situation. I feel a certain loyalty to the genre, but not to all its incarnations. And I like to see a certain tongue-in-cheek approach adopted as well. What we owe each other, academic and fan and everything in between, is as honest an opinion, or thought, or question to those who read us, especially the silent “lurkers” who don’t necessarily feel comfortable about dropping a comment, or connecting on Twitter. The only anxiety that I sometimes have is that I’ll lose sight of you all (the Internet is a nebulous place, is it not?), so I loved the idea that was mentioned at Sunita’s Vacuous Minx about a coffee-shop-type cyberspace-place to keep track of like-minded, wrong word?, like-motivated blogs?

    I went to a wonderful lecture this summer, given by Brian Little, a Harvard psychologist, on the importance of “restorative niches,” something you do not for any pragmatic, or professional reason, but for the sheer love of it. And because it gives you respite: reading romance is this for many, but it doesn’t mean that it is mindless. And that is what reading your blog or those run by the people who’ve commented here, or that you’ve mentioned, or found in our blogrolls, do for me. So, please keep doing it … whenever you can. 😉 (Rereading this, what a jumble … but, for what it’s worth, I hit the “post comment” button.)

    • pamela1740 says:

      So happy you hit the “post comment” button! I especially appreciate your notion that one’s critical thinker (as you say, in our case, a semi-dangerous combination of “vintage” academic training, obsessive reading habits and love of long sentences 🙂 ) reveals herself not just in the response to a book but also in the reading choices we make. I so agree that even something one does for respite need not necessarily be a “mindless” pleasure.

      I’m starting to wonder if this space we’re talking about for “wonky” discussions about genre fiction is kind of another way of describing what (I think) used to be referred to as “middlebrow” — that space between literary fiction and formal literary criticism and “lowbrow” pulp novels. I haven’t read it, but I think someone’s written a study about Book of the Month Club as an exemplar of this “middlebrow” literary culture in the mid 20thc.

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        I think someone’s written a study about Book of the Month Club as an exemplar of this “middlebrow” literary culture in the mid 20thc.

        I haven’t read it either, but would you be thinking of Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-class Desire?

        I’m starting to wonder if this space we’re talking about for “wonky” discussions about genre fiction is kind of another way of describing what (I think) used to be referred to as “middlebrow” — that space between literary fiction and formal literary criticism and “lowbrow” pulp novels.

        And now, I’ll admit to being self-centred, because this made me wonder if, by your definition, my academic work counts as highbrow or middlebrow. I feel like I’m in the middle ground because I was “brought up” academically in a Spanish Department and for one reason or another it’s true of me too that “I’m actually unschooled in formal literary theory.” Q. D. Leavis made me feel distinctly middle- or low-brow and when I read up on Northrop Frye when writing For Love and Money he appealed to me partly because his ideas seemed relatively uncomplicated and easily intelligible and partly because, in the introduction to An Anatomy of Criticism, he was very snarky about self-appointed arbiters of good taste.

        The idea that “formal literary criticism” on romance is wholly inaccessible to the rest of the romance community upsets me. Robin/Janet’s series on captivity narratives got a good response at DA, so presumably it was quite accessible, which makes me think that it is possible to make “formal literary criticism” accessible/middlebrow. I would like to think my writing’s broadly accessible too but I know it’s easy to delude oneself about the real accessiblity of one’s own work.

        Um, and, obviously, you don’t have to reply to the more self-centred parts of this comment. I just thought I’d post them because it would be disingenous of me not to admit to some rather personal interest in the subject.

      • pamela1740 says:

        I admit I hesitated a good long while before throwing “middlebrow” out, because it’s mainly been used as such a pejorative term, I think…! But I like the idea of recuperating, even celebrating, the middlebrow space, perhaps in a way that promotes critical AND accessible thinking and writing, but taking as its subject matter books (or other forms of cultural production) that can be anywhere on the canonical hierarchy, from lowbrow to highbrow. I feel as if that is what is going on in many of the discussions on blogs hosted by people I’ve mentioned and/our in our respective blogrolls. People are reading everything from Booker Prize winning novels to Harlequin Presents, or watching Sons of Anarchy, and engaging in intelligent, meaningful conversations about all of it. And there are academic underpinnings, even in these spaces not officially designated as “academic,” which supports your idea that there is an audience for accessible yet serious criticism in romance. It may be that it’s not the content that makes such discussions feel inaccessible to broader audiences, but the location or framework for the content — which takes us back to the discussion of why the PRP site hasn’t taken off as a discussion space. Places like Dear Author or Love in the Margins, or the other blogs I read regularly feel more “fun” and open, and they don’t suggest the examined/examiner dynamic that comes into play when it feels as if the romance community itself is being “studied” by a group of academics. 🙂

        I haven’t read Robin/Janet’s captivity narrative series but now I am going to go find it!

        And if I understand your reading of Leavis, I’m inclined to agree with him that “highbrow” writing usually leaves me cold because I find it a closed space and while I recognize there is something as taste/quality in fiction, I don’t much like self-appointed arbiters either.

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        It may be that it’s not the content that makes such discussions feel inaccessible to broader audiences, but the location or framework for the content

        I think you may be right, and the framework’s a lot more than the LOLcats at the top of Janet/Robin’s posts. That’s part of it, but I don’t think sticking one at the top of a densely-written jargon-filled article would automatically make the whole thing fun. I wonder, though, if academics are trying to get that “fun” dynamic into their work (at least for other academics, if not for the general public) by using puns in the titles of their articles.

        If it helps, Robin’s articles are:

        Gimme Shelter
        Can’t Find My Way Home
        Take the Long Way Home
        Life During Wartime
        Together We’ll Break These Chains of Love
        It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me

        I posted some of Northrop Frye’s snark here

    • Nicola O. says:

      I love the idea of “restorative niches.” Without having heard the term before, I think this is what I’ve been striving for with Alpha Heroes — protecting the restorative, non-worky, non-pragmatic aspect of it, but still pursuing it actively and looking for ways to engage more deeply without “breaking” the restorative nature.

      • Miss Bates says:

        Isn’t it a wonderful term? I loved this lecture and Little’s idea of the “restorative niche.” It was something he talked about in relation to introverts (of which Miss B. is one) because they, in particular, need much “recovery time” from interaction! And I love the idea of the “non-worky”!!

  4. Miss Bates says:

    I love Northrop Frye and am particularly interested making a connection to his book on “romance,” to which he refers as “the secular scripture.” Moreover, I think that one of the reasons that sent, and sends, even an informed, literate, but not professional-academic, reader running for the hills is the the critical “jargon” that has take over literary criticism. I don’t want to read something that requires me to be a specialist to understand it. What I’ve loved about discovering these blogger spaces in romance is that they are doing work that does fall in the interstices of what the academy does and an unselfconscious appreciation of the genre. Again, and I feel I’m getting tedious here, sorry, all voices have their place and value.

  5. I have been following the conversation at DA, here, and on Sunita’s blog and am excited to read Olivia’s posts. I do feel like there was a time, when I first came back to reading romance in the mid-2000s, when there was more critical discussion of ideas online, and I miss that. I have been longing for a true Presents-lover to chart the points of similarity between 50 Shades and the ingenue/older man plots of the category (50 Shades of Sara Craven…) and I’m starting to wonder if the emerging tropes of New Adult have more to do with the paranormal worlds of the Black Dagger Brotherhood or the virtue/reputation plots of the category regencies where Mary Balogh and Mary Jo Putney cut their teeth.

    These are conversations I’d be excited to have, but I find myself refraining from comment even when I am enthused about the discourse because I do think that the intrusion of commercial speech has changed the community, and I’m not sure that I can comment under my own name without the effect being essentially commercial.

    This is all by way of saying: bring on the heady discourse about romance and forgive me if I comment sparingly–I’m reading and enjoying!

    • Sunita says:

      Donna, I’m crashing Pamela’s space to say that I really hope you’ll comment at VM if the conversation is interesting to you and you want to contribute to it. I have never felt inundated by author perspectives at VM and would love to hear more from the ones who visit. DA is a different venue and while there are great author contributions there every day, the commercial-speech issue is more live there than at smaller (tiny) blogs like mine. I purposely do not advertise VM much (although I appreciate when regular readers “like” it and RT it), because I want it to be a regular reader space, not one that pays a lot of attention to traffic or relies on a stream of new people. Authors have commented in the past, sometimes as readers and sometimes as creative/crafts types who have specialized knowledge to contribute. It’s always been welcome and it improves the conversation.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Could not agree more with Sunita, that these conversations, especially in non-commercial spaces where you might not have to worry as much about whether your speech is being judged, and feel free to jump in, could only be enriched by your input. This sounds self-serving to point out in this context since my last post was the Q&A we did together, but one of the reasons I am gravitating towards that format is that it gives me the chance to hear from authors or other “impure” (tongue firmly in cheek!) voices, to ask them meaty questions that I hope give space for critical responses. I know it veers close to the edge of being promotional, but I’m pretty choosy about who I ask for one of these conversations 🙂 and it’s my hope/belief that the posts are substantive enough to be read for the subject matter as much, or more, than for the book which may have been the original excuse for asking for the “interview.” I wonder, though, how it comes across to other readers, and whether I too should be more concerned that it introduces a greater degree of commercial speech than I intended.

      And I completely agree about the category romance/50 Shades parallels – it came up for me when I read my first Betty Neels and did a post about her ingenue career gals.

    • Nicola O. says:

      The 50 Shades phenomenon continues to puzzle me — I don’t actually find any of the elements there fresh in any way, but maybe as someone who has read widely in BDSM fiction over the years AND has a passing familiarity with the controlling billionaire/feisty ingenue category, I’m… unique? idk. It’s weird. The best explanation I’ve seen is that “it went viral.”

      “Going Viral” is not something that could have happened to a book before 2011 or so, and if anyone ever figures out a reliable way to make that thing happen, well. I hope I can get in on that particular IPO, is all I’m saying.

  6. Thank you Pamela and Sunita 😊 I really do value these spaces. And I am all for recuperating the middlebrow. In television I see the boundaries sliding, particularly in cable. True Detective has the high brow imprimatur of HBO and feature film talent, but it’s riffing on the decidedly middlebrow horror of Robert Chambers and the mixing it up with the tropes of the crime genre. I don’t know if similar elisions are occurring in fiction–but I do think that this crossing of boundaries may affect how we read.

  7. […] 7. I’m reading Sarah Mayberry’s Satisfaction ($2.99 for Kindle), which just came out and everyone is reviewing. But then I read Brie’s post about the penis-in-vagina syndrome it succumbs to and I had to put it aside. And that reminded me of another great post, by Pamela at Badass Romance, on Some (More) Scattered thoughts about Romancelandia, Overthinking and Balance: […]

  8. […] loved Pamela’s post on “Romancelandia, Overthinking, and Balance,” as well as the discussion sparked by […]

  9. I think a blog can avoid commercialization of reader spaces vis-a-vis author involvement by ignoring all of the extraneous parts of book blogging (that are book/author-based)!

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks for weighing in! I am really thinking about how to include the author voice in substantive conversations without going “promo” since so many authors are such experienced and thoughtful readers.

  10. […] post on “Overthinking and Balance,” in which she asks, “can I love what I read and surrender to the reading experience, […]


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