Some reading notes: hiatus update from the sporadic blogslacker

I’ve been reading so much all year, but changed day jobs and haven’t had time to do serious thinking about what I’ve been reading, never mind writing about it. Every once in a while I pull up the blog and see the most recent old post from last summer and it makes me anxious and sad about not participating in rich booktalk conversations here and elsewhere online.

Today as I was driving a daughter home from week 2 of her summer theater program and realized we’re already talking about the end of August, I decided I really have to put something up over the “Summer Reading” post from August 2015. To anyone who receives a notification and takes a minute to read this, my apologies that it’s such a lame post!

The other thing that is prompting me is that just two days ago I wrote an email in response to a friend who wrote asking “Do you read novels? I need something new to read. What have you been reading?” Actually it took me over a week to finish the response that I sent her (which is ridiculous because it was nothing brilliant, just that I am constantly interrupted these days and juggling too much at work).  And then today I realized, the thing about the blog was, it was just supposed to be like writing to friends about books I’m reading….

So anyway, here’s some of what I wrote to my other friend (we haven’t known each other very long):

I read a lot, across many genres and eclectically in terms of the literary/lowbrow divide.  I am always looking for the immersive reading experience and actively resist judgments about literary merit based on distinctions between genre and literary fiction.  I read mystery, romance, some thrillers like The Girl on the Train (though I didn’t much like it and don’t know why I stuck with it), lots of historical fiction, memoir (I am a huge fan of Barbara Ehrenreich’s oeuvre! especially how far out in front she was about the whole inequality conversation), and a smattering of nonfiction, along with novels that I think of as more traditionally “literary.”
I do care  (a lot) about the quality of the writing, and I love finding wonderful sentences, themes, and imagery in “unexpected” places (eg. the much maligned romance genre). I mostly read on weekends and early in the morning with my coffee (I should be exercising then, but have begun using it as reading time since I can’t stay awake reading at night as much anymore).  I don’t read much so-called chick lit, which just goes to show that even an open-minded reader may be prone to dismiss books according to various marketing categories and criteria.
How interesting that we all have a recent experience of All the Light We Cannot See!  I did read this book (in the traditional manner, with my eyes, not my ears) and loved the prose and the feat of it as sort of puzzle-box storytelling.  It wasn’t one of my top books of recent years, however, and I’m not even really sure why.  I remember thinking that the girls might like it; in spite of the serious subject matter, it had a fable/fairytale quality.
In no particular order, a short list  of books I’ve read in the last year or so that either (a) I loved, or (b) stuck with me to the point that I think about themes or characters long after finishing the book, or both.
(Blog friends may note that some of these are in fact books that have been mentioned here in 2015)
We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas
The Traitor’s Wife, by Kathleen Kent
Overwhelmed, by Brigid Schulte (nonfiction)
Perfectly Miserable, by Sarah Payne Stuart (nonfiction)
The Likeness, by Tana French (and all the others in this series)
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer (I may have loved this so much simply because of its sense of place; it’s set in the 70s very near where I grew up in northern California)
 
I do love historical fiction and always have; I haven’t read Room, but I loved Emma Donoghue’s first big book, Slammerkin.  Have you both already read Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks)?  I also think Sally Gunning is an underappreciated and beautiful writer of spare and powerfully moving historical novels set on Cape Cod. The Widow’s War is the first in a wonderful trilogy.
 
My aunt and cousins are all raving about the Elena Ferrante books, and I received the first one as a Christmas gift, but I haven’t started  it yet.  Another book I have on my TBR pile is Hild, by Nicola Griffith – probably appealing for a reader who already likes medieval historicals, and perhaps less so if not.
In a way, I think my email morphed into a draft catch-up post as I was writing it.  I think my friend probably just wanted a couple of titles to look for at the library, but she gave me the opportunity to get the wheels turning again in my rusty writing-about-reading brain.  Now I really am curious who else has been reading Ferrante?  Does anyone else wonder why they have such “romance novel” covers? And why was The Girl on the Train such a big deal?
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Rent burdens: crumbling mansions, trailer parks, recent reading

Hello!  Here I am, and the blog is not entirely defunct…!  But I haven’t been reading very much romance this year.

This spring I started reading a lot outside the romance genre. It actually started at New Year’s during our annual New York City holiday visit. My cousin — who is English — was reading Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. She said she loved the way Waters captured the small details of post-war frugality, domesticity, drudgery and repressive class consciousness. Plus, she can be counted on for a rippingly suspenseful tale. Fingersmith, Waters’ Dickensian novel of thwarted love and pickpockets, is a longtime favorite.

Sometime in March I found a copy of the new book at the library. This turned out to be one of those times when reading one book sets a certain mood which carries over into subsequent reading choices. It was partly that The Paying Guests evoked a Pym-ish shabby genteel world I still find inexplicably appealing. Then more recently I read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, and I realized that for several months I’ve been steeping myself in stories — both fiction and nonfiction — about houses.

I can’t stop thinking about these shabby, difficult domiciles, and their centrality in stories from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum.

A brief digression… A household may be characterized as “rent burdened” when it spends more than one third of monthly income to cover housing and utilities. A troubling, and rising, share of US households use up as much as half of their income to cover housing costs. Many academic and policy experts believe that, in the US in particular, the recession and subsequent economic recovery has intensified the housing affordability crisis, with increasing shares of low- and moderate-income households forced to make impossible trade-offs among food, clothing, education and healthcare expenditures in order to stay in their homes. Homeownership is down, rents are unaffordably high and going higher.

OK, that’s enough of the dayjob-related digression.  But with all this as a backdrop, I found myself thinking a lot about literal and figurative “rent burdens” in the stories I’ve been drawn to lately: agonizing choices when the too-high rent (or balloon payment) comes due; the strain of keeping up appearances; struggling to stay in a house, or trade up to a better one; making ends meet, or what happens when they don’t; the psychic and emotional toll of housing insecurity of one kind or another.

ourselvesWe Are Not Ourselves / Matthew Thomas

This incredibly affecting novel has received so many good reviews, it seems superfluous for me to recommend it. I will just say that while I was utterly taken in by the slow reveal of Ed’s erratic behavior, and the emotional impact of early onset Alzheimers for his wife and son, it was the careful portrait of Eileen’s lifelong governing obsession with real estate that lingered long after I’d finished the book. Eileen’s toughness masks her deep vulnerability and feelings of inadequacy, and she’s convinced that living in the right neighborhood, in the right kind of house, will “fix” all of the bad feelings she cannot even give name to, except to blame the newcomers in their working class neighborhood, with their markers of difference from skin color to cooking spices. It is a powerful meditation on “white flight” from urban neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs, that manages to be both damning and compassionate, though it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Eileen because she’s so wrongheaded. When she finally achieves her goal and moves her fragile family into a suburban money pit of deferred maintenance, her emotional isolation is mirrored by her dysfunctional house. She maxxes out credit cards to fix up one downstairs room — a public mask for the crumbling emptiness, broken fixtures and dingy surfaces throughout the rest of the Learys’ new home.

miserablePerfectly Miserable / Sarah Payne Stuart

This is not a novel, but in her memoir of New England WASP privilege Sarah Payne Stuart pulls no punches in casting herself as an Eileen-like figure of house proud self-absorption. Although Concord, MA is far from Queens and Bronxville, Stuart’s tale is evidence that no matter where you go, the American obsession with “trading up” to a better house is tremendously powerful, and it motivates people to make choices that affect marriages and children in all kinds of potentially damaging ways. It’s sort of a bizarre mash-up of nostalgia, pretension, humility, Yankee ingenuity and charm, bad parenting, self-awareness, mental illness, empathy, and self-delusion.  For me, it was rather compulsively readable, probably because I’m familiar with the neighborhoods described in nearby Concord, and with the quest for approval from an emotionally detached, puritanically self-important, and snobbish mother figure.   Having grown up in Concord and then returned to raise her children there decades later, Stuart admits her somewhat delusional obsession with the Alcotts, and disapproving Marmee figures throughout her life, but the long meditations on Concord’s famous writers, their houses, families, and burdens, became tiresome at times. Stuart’s essays for the New Yorker are probably enough for many readers who won’t be interested in a book-length memoir that comes off as more than a little self-important. But I admit, I was impressed by her ability to capture and articulate (and ruthlessly skewer) a certain set of astringent New England attitudes about old money, genteel poverty, and conspicuous consumption, and what happens when house = identity.

handtomouthHand to Mouth / Linda Tirado

In an accidental offset (I picked up both books at the library one evening) to Stuart’s almost ridiculously self-indulgent eulogy for the succession of historic Concord homes she lived in but could barely afford, I read this book about what it’s like to really not be able to afford to live where you want to, or even to remain in the same undesirable but affordable place with any sense of security. As Tirado points out here at Slate, ANYTHING can make you lose your apartment, because there’s no cushion for household nuisances with financial implications, from the high cost of having your car towed to the loss of income when someone’s sick and misses work. The book is an extension of a blog post Tirado wrote in 2013 that subsequently went viral, was picked up at Huffington Post, and then, predictably, was backlashed across the internet by people suspicious of the veracity of her unvarnished minimum wage story. It’s a bit of a stretch to say this book is about a house, but it’s a powerful narrative about what it’s like to live, now, in “bootstrap America”, in clear and present danger of becoming unhoused, on a paycheck to paycheck basis.

Tirado effectively demonstrates why middle-class judgments about healthy food choices, childcare arrangements, healthcare, and living arrangements are basically meaningless for people who work two or more minimum wage irregularly scheduled shift jobs. She comes across as angry, but rational, and makes her basic point effectively: It’s not being unstable (eg. bad choices) that keeps poor people poor. It’s being poor that forces people into (so-called) bad choices, making stability next to impossible. My background is middle class and I read this, as I read everything, from my position of privilege and relative financial stability. I thought about leaving it out of the post because it almost seems disrespectful to include it with books — novels — I read recreationally, for pleasure. But this was one of those books that ended up powerfully affecting my responses to everything I was reading thereafter, even novels set in remote historical periods, and it’s well argued and hard to put down. I am glad I read Tirado when I did because it offers a clear framing of issues around class, and the disconcerting ease with which we make assumptions about people based on socio-economic status, now just as in earlier periods.

220px-The_Little_Stranger_Sarah_WatersThe Little Stranger / Sarah Waters

I’m a huge Waters fan, though I hadn’t been keeping up since I tend to read in phases, and when this book came out I barely noticed it. At the time I was deep in romance reading, glomming Jo Beverley and Liz Carlyle. But it came along for me this spring at the perfect time — a fantastical gothic tale of a house possessed. But it’s not just an elegantly eerie ghost story. There’s an economic story here that grounds the narrative in very real conditions of postwar deprivation, the declining fortunes of the landed gentry, and subtle but powerful class tensions. The (unreliable) narrator views the residents of the Hall from his position as an outsider of inferior social standing, and the obsessive desire to attain insider status and privilege has a toxic effect far more damaging than the peeling walls and leaking roof.

And of course, as great houses do, Hundreds Hall possesses its people to a much greater extent than the Ayres family can be said to “own” the crumbling country house.  The disconnect between the viscerally unpleasant condition of the grimy living spaces, and the forlorn yet unsympathetic attempt to maintain a certain traditional manner of living in the vast and once-lavish spaces, creates a powerfully tense backdrop for the ghost story. This post is already getting too long, so I just want to say that I really loved this ambiguous, slightly creepy novel, and I agree with almost every word of Abigail Nussbaum’s epic review of The Little Stranger (it does contain spoilers).

rivertonThe House at Riverton / Kate Morton

I don’t usually go in for elaborate past/present time-hopping narratives where there is a Big Mystery lying dormant and information is doled out in ways that feel arbitrary and not altogether organic to the characters or circumstances.  In this case, the device is rather obvious, in the character of the documentary filmmaker who is working on a project about a famously tragic post-war suicide that occurred during a glamorous 1920’s house party. I’m including this here because in spite of the artifice, I rather enjoyed the moody atmosphere Morton created in the Riverton scenes and let the house convey both the pretension and the decline of its aristocratic residents. Similarly, I quite enjoyed Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, in which a beautifully evoked Cornish country estate also serves to ground the plot and (maybe) save it from its own secret baby melodrama.

guestsThe Paying Guests / Sarah Waters

Finally back to the book that seemed to set the theme for much of my reading this year. I found it less compelling than The Little Stranger, in that I could put it down and come back to it several days later, rather than stay up too late reading.  But I do think it’s interesting to see Waters returning to the notion of the house as the canvas upon which she paints a picture of subtle class distinctions with very fine strokes.  The genteel middle class Wrays, mother and daughter, having lost their men (husband/father, and son/brother) to the war, must take lodgers in order to get by and keep their large-ish house in a nice south London neighborhood. The “paying guests” are also middle class, but not “quality.” There is a love triangle and a suspense plot which ends up revolving around a murder trial, but for me the equally fascinating thing about this novel is Waters’s ability to convey the anxious and painfully futile experience of “keeping up appearances.”  Lacking sufficient funds to pay the grocer’s bill at times, let alone keep a domestic servant, Frances strives to manage all the cleaning and household drudgery single-handed and surreptitiously, shielding her fragile mother and their neighbors from the shame of having to see her doing menial work that is “beneath” her.  It’s not that she’s ashamed, but she can’t help feeling worried about her mother’s shame. This self-inflicted pressure to maintain the appearance of a socio-economic status that’s a reach up a rung or two reminded me a lot of Matthew Thomas’s central character, Eileen.  Eileen used her house in the suburbs as the means of reinventing a middle class version of herself, far from her working class roots, but it was more house than she could afford. Similarly, Frances and her mother cling to their genteel way of life in a house they can’t afford, sweeping under the carpet such unsightly details as lodgers and housework.

So many great novels have a house at the center of the story, it seems almost silly to focus on this across these disparate books.  But what I’ve really been thinking a lot about lately is the way in which we rely on information about where and in what circumstances people live, in order to think we understand who they are and how they fit in the world and in relation to ourselves. Where does she live? Do they rent or own? Is that the neighborhood near the park/country club/strip mall/subway stop…?  How long have they lived there?  And for ourselves — how secure is my tenure? Do I wish I lived someplace “better”? What are my housing trade-offs?  Even without the gothic mystery, houses and housing circumstances — the ones we grew up in as well as the ones we end up in — loom and haunt so many of our choices and interactions.

Summer Reading and My Slacker Blogging Slump

The reading slump I noted in my last post continues. Also, it pains me to note that my last post was SIX WEEKS AGO. Without planning, strategy, or any kind of purposeful intention, I’ve basically been on a de facto hiatus from blogging. Feeling like a slacker, I’ve been on twitter only intermittently, and usually feel compelled to tweet about my slacker-ness. It’s partly about the reading slump, but only partly. I am still reading, but not as much, and in addition to reading fewer books I’m also not really keeping up with the wit and wisdom of my favorite bloggers.

photo (76)It’s not just about reading less, though, it’s also about feeling stuck and distracted and scattered. I have a review of a new-to-me HistRom author in progress and it’s been languishing since mid June, about 75% written. I have other stray thoughts for and about posts, but nothing that’s burning a hole in my pocket. Where I usually find myself awash in ideas and connections generated by discussions I’m following on twitter and elsewhere, recently I’ve not been doing a good job keeping up with what fellow bloggers are talking about (though I have noticed other posts and twittering about reading slumps/challenges and blogging blahs, which has helped me feel less blogger shame!).

Summertime for me is sort of a mirage, in concept if not in calendar. Summer exists as a verb in my literary imagination (as in people who “summer” on the Cape, or in Maine), and this fuels the fantasy. Even though I’m working for at least 7 of the 10 weeks, I always think this is the year that summer will be an oasis of leisure and longer days. In fact, usually ends up being just as busy as the other seasons, only in different ways.

Planning and packing and unpacking for camps and trips. The jarring temporary routine of daycamp chauffeuring in place of kids just walking themselves to school. Having to reschedule 9 out of 10 meetings at work due to conflicting vacation schedules. Long drives for summer travel softball games on weeknights. Many family birthday celebrations, including my girls’ shared birthday next Monday — only this year they have requested separate, individual tween (girls only) parties in place of our usual twin birthday bash involving a horde of kids and families.  And of course there are the outdoor housekeeping chores around the yard and garden — these are all things I genuinely LOVE about summer, but I guess I’m finally realizing that it all means more time offline, and the leisure I have to be creative is going in many directions that are outside my online world of books and writing and thinking about reading.

Last weekend we decided to take a weedy, unsightly section of the back yard, and make a fairy garden. The girls had collected and made twig furniture and other fey adornments.

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Boulder is to the left of shovel, not the minor rock on the shovel. Not a great pic but you get the idea.

We pulled up all the weeds and started digging. In the spot where I wanted to put a large-ish astilbe, I hit a rock that felt big. We always have to dig up LOTS of rocks when we plant. It’s New England. But this was a huge rock – when I finally got the hole big enough to see its edges, I realized I’d been digging for well over an hour. It was a boulder, at least 4 or 5 times as big as the shovel head.  The spot is over near the fence, so it was tricky to get leverage and there were numerous mini boulders that had to be removed before I could even get the shovel around all the edges. The time had passed unnoticed, as I was in a state of flow and absorption. Sometimes when I am working on a post, I find that same level of intense absorption, but when it doesn’t flow, I find I am no good at forcing it. Maybe I just lack the discipline for sustained regular installment blogging. I know I lack the discipline and/or skill to write regular concise book reviews (though I still harbor ambitions to get better at it!).

photo (89)But at least we did finish our fairy garden.  And the girls are literally plowing through books (Divergent, The Maze Runner (the whole trilogy), Island of the Blue Dolphins, Loki’s Wolves, Deenie, The Witch of Blackbird Pond – they are in a badass, eclectic YA reading jamboree) in spite of full-day camp programs. Just not having homework frees them up to rediscover the love of (near) binge-reading, and this alone almost makes up for my own reading slumpishness. The concept of summer reading evokes fantasies of hammocks and lazy afternoons and whiling away hours with one’s nose in a book.  When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to spend huge chunks of summer in just such ways.  But these days, not so much.

A few books I have managed to read in the last couple of months have made such an impression I’ve wanted to post about them, but somehow I haven’t had the right combination of time and attention. So these brief notes will have to suffice.

Ironically, the book I find myself thinking about most is Brigid Schulte’s OVERWHELMED: WORK, LOVE, AND PLAY WHEN NO ONE HAS THE TIME. I loved it, and I can’t remember the last time I read a non-fiction book of this ilk straight through, as compelled to keep turning the pages as if I were reading a novel. What made this different and better (for me) from every other book about the role of technology on how we live, gender disparities in the professions and in household “second shift” chores, work/parenting juggling and the “mommy wars” (I basically stopped reading all these kinds of books in the wake of the big flap & backlash over Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story back in 2012, just because I got exhausted by how circular it all seemed) was Schulte’s personal story, and the breadth of her inquiry into time studies, multi-tasking and our distracted work habits, the nature of leisure, the anthropology and history of labor. In spite of the Amazon blurb and other promotional copy, the heart of this book is not just for and about parents and parenting. I started to notice more what is going on when I am focused (in “flow” – a concept Schulte explores with various experts) and when I am not. It’s not like she arrives at any earth-shattering new discovery for how to achieve a better, more manageable life, or solve intractable systemic inequities, but I found her questions, both personal and academic, made compelling reading and her concept of “time confetti” resonated with my feelings of distraction and scattered-ness.

Sometimes a multi-tasking approach to reading works OK for me, and I can be in the middle of several books at once.  I am about 80 pages in to two rather challenging novels, and I honestly don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I’m reading both at once, and in minute segments of 4 or 5 pages at a time.  Given this fickle reading behavior, I’m sure Schulte’s time and labor study experts would say it’s ridiculous I even wonder why I am feeling distracted, but … this is where I’m at.

Galvanized by an inspiring and wickedly smart conversation about reading, challenging books, and Dorothy Dunnett in particular, I finally started reading GAME OF KINGS.  For so many years I’ve heard kiss-and-tell stories about Lymond — even in the Outlander fan community there were those who swore he was hotter and smarter and more of a badass than Jamie Fraser. I never gave Dunnett a real try, though, because I was always waiting for that mythical extra-long summer vacation where I’d have days on end to lie around and read. Instead, I’m haltingly pushing through what everyone says is the rough going of the first 100 pages. I’m hanging in because, well, LYMOND.

Oddly, instead of alternating Dunnett with something “easier” like a genre romance, I’m doing the same small-bites, incremental sort of thing with THE LUMINARIES, by Eleanor Catton. Having just watched Jane Campion’s wrenching, horrific, yet oddly beautiful (incredible cast) BBC series, Top of the Lake, my interest and fascination with New Zealand’s history and its particular legacy of colonialism is renewed. Both Catton and Campion wrestle with old and new worlds, violence, toxic families, racism, and exploitation, and in some ways the isolated yet wi-fi and coffeehouse-enabled community in Top of the Lake doesn’t really seem very far from Catton’s goldrush town of Hokitika in 1866. The Luminaries is certainly a challenge – I haven’t even yet “met” all twelve of the central characters. Starting and stopping this book is more disorienting than the Dunnett, but the twist-y mysteries and keen attention to describing human frailty and foibles are keeping me engaged.

A book I picked up 10 days ago at my favorite used paperback shop turned out to be my only other “page-turner” experience in quite a while: it was Emma Donaghue’s THE SEALED LETTER. Decidedly not a romance, it’s a sharp and compulsively readable fictional treatment of a Victorian-era divorce case that scandalized the media and the public. I loved Donoghue’s Slammerkin back in 2000 (and I can’t believe that was nearly 15 years ago). The Sealed Letter demonstrates she’s still a beautiful writer, with a gift for blending history and fiction in ways that bring me back to the immersive reading experiences of earlier, pre-blogging days. The protagonists are an unlucky triad (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that no one gets the HEA, except maybe the lawyers) of flawed characters: a solid but uninspiring husband, a self-absorbed aging ingenue wife, and a friend to both who has the misfortune to get in the middle of their mess of a marriage. The friend is the most intriguing character: Miss Emily (“Fido”) Faithfull, a printing press owner, literary figure, corset-refuser, implied lesbian, and women’s movement leader. It’s a pretty riveting portrait of  the complex layers of 19th-century female friendship, with its tortured intimacies and betrayals. The cover blurb says “a deliciously wicked little romp,” and I think Donoghue managed to re-create something of the experience of being a gossip-hungry newspaper reader eagerly salivating over each day’s prurient details as the notorious divorce trial took place and was so widely and salaciously reported. I read this book fast, took it with me on a weekend trip to Vermont, and felt keen desire to know what new detail would be revealed with each chapter, even as I experienced the authenticity of Fido’s painful rollercoaster ride through disgrace and the duplicity of her beloved friends.

I don’t know when I’ll finish that next review post. I’m not going to put the blog officially on hiatus, but I’m definitely in slow-blog mode. I may not be summering in the country or at a beach somewhere, but I am enjoying the act of summer, which really still is a time set apart from the long cold months of winter here. Spending as much time as possible outdoors comes with summer in New England. I miss the flow of blogging and twitter and online conversation, but I’m happy to have these moments of digging rocks and watching the girls build fairy houses.

photo (73)  photo (72)

 

 

Badass RT: Not a Duke in Sight

In which I offer impressionistic reflections on a trip to New Orleans that I sense will have far-reaching effects on my reading & blogging & thinking about the romance genre

Corner of building in New Orleans with elaborate ironwork balconies, a photo I took in the French Quarter.Every time I turned a corner in the giant convention hotel with multiple floors of massive meeting rooms, there was another huge line of people clutching totes and books and swag. There was a constant restless feeling that you hadn’t correctly figured out where to be and when. The lobby was open and line-free, but like a giant all-day cocktail party where every time you passed through you had to shout to be heard. After easing into the convention with the cozy & cool blogger pre-con on Tuesday, I was definitely overwhelmed by the crowds and noise as the week grew in intensity. But even with the lines and the swag and the relentless promo, RT (the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention) was pretty much a giant love fest of romance readers and authors and, happily for me, bloggers.

I haven’t begun to digest all the ways in which the amazing women I met, and the conversations I was lucky enough to have, will inspire me and challenge me to keep thinking and writing about what I read, and how, and why. For now, I just want to record some early impressions.

Nicola (@alphaheroes) tweeted a pic we took at the first “morning mixer,” and it cracked me up to hear back from my twitterverse that I look a lot less scary than my handle. Heh. Because really nobody at RT really looks like a super badass — we are mainly geeky and charming women of all ages who like books and read obsessively. But badassery was definitely on display. After a couple of days, you grew numb to it, but who can forget stepping in to the elevator for the first time upon arrival?

Very large (over life size) poster covering rear wall of elevator; depicts a bare-chested white man in a kilt with the tagline "good romance never ages"

There was apparently an exercise/fitness meet-up early in the morning (not that I ever found or confirmed this) and they had shirts that look like old school gym shirts and say RT 2014/ Books/Love/Badass. I’m pretty sure I’m not making this up and I saw this on a blurry slide at the front of a cavernous ballroom at the welcome breakfast, so I’m not exactly sure about the first two words, but I know BADASS was the bottom line and I thought that was pretty cool (you know, because I am so incredibly badass).  I kept asking where to get one of these shirts, but I could never find anyone who knew what I was talking about, so I suppose it’s possible I hallucinated it.

What I didn’t hallucinate were the intensity and saturation of the imagery.

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Everyone (including me) has been tweeting pics of the elevator dudes — but it’s not just the elevators. On the main conference levels, no architectural feature had been left unadorned. Floors, walls, even windows! And curious special laminated round table tops.

Occasional table in lobby area, with laminated image of Lacy Danes book covers; images of fantasy heroes with tattoos and leather jackets

It feels like the vast majority of these giant, expensive promo graphics feature the growth-area subgenres: erotic romance, urban fantasy, romantic suspense, contemporary subthemes like sports romance, lots of super badass tats and abs and leather and weaponry.

Wall-size poster in elevator:

And lots of looming imagery that is dark and suspenseful.

Floor-to-ceiling window covering with Jo Gibson book cover that depicts close-up of one side of a white woman's face, with a very wide-eyed frightened expression. The title is AFRAID.

 

Lobby area wall and window posters, floor to ceiling, with fantasy and suspense book covers, looming over conference attendee seated in armchair.

Also well-represented: Contemporary romance, and m/m romance — and note that not a wall area is left un-promo’ed.

Wall-size posters over escalators, including m/m clinch cover.

The salad bowl elevator was so innocuous, relative to the others!

Another elevator wall poster, with torso of casually dressed white man holding a clear glass salad bowl and preparing and/or offering the salad.

All the edgier romance genres were living large,  from rock stars to BDSM.

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photo (36)photo (43)

In spite of the presence at numerous panels and events of “romance royalty” like Mary Jo Putney, Lisa Kleypas, Eloisa James, Eileen Dreyer, Lorraine Heath and other queens of HistRom, there was nary a duke or duchess in sight as far as the high-impact imagery with which the publishers physically and visually surrounded conference-goers.

I am not whining or complaining about this, nor do I think historical romance was necessarily underrepresented in the conference agenda itself. I just think it’s interesting to look at what is represented, and what isn’t, in the visual culture of RT2014.

The first night I was there, someone tweeted a pic of herself or a friend literally straddling one of these super-size floor heroes in  a prone embrace. And then there are the cover models, some of whom I saw carrying around life-size stand-up cut-outs of themselves, for photo ops with fans — but that’s a whole long digression I won’t do here/now.

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It’s not that badassery and historical romance are mutually exclusive categories. At Wednesday’s grand Author Chat session with several of the aforementioned Queens of HistRom, Eloisa James talked about her forthcoming book’s hero – a “rough duke, a boxer.” There was a lot of discussion about the challenge of making, and keeping, historical romance “relevant.”  And then there was the excellent and thought-provoking conversation at Zoe Archer’s “Beyond the Ballroom” panel discussion of “Gritty Historicals” with Courtney Milan, Lorelei Brown, and Carrie Lofty. I’m planning to write more in future post(s) about the substance of discussions around historical romance these days — it’s a fluid and important conversation I like to keep having. But back to the imagery…

Here are the promo posters that happened to be stationed outside the Historical Author Chat breakout room.

Freestanding lobby posters for contemporary and urban fantasy romance imprints.

So I started to actively search for representations of historical romance there at the New Orleans Marriott this week.

I found this high-impact floor-to-ceiling wallcovering featuring Blushing Books’s erotic historicals.

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An earl! I also found some spots in “Promo Alley” which featured familiar Regency imagery and other historical evocations.

Table-top tri-fold display of Regency book covers, with promo swag including pens and bookmarks.

The Promo Alley tables seemed to feature mainly small press and individually curated author displays, with swag.

Promotional table top display for Norwegian historical romance author Kris Tualla

The Hansen series: “Norway is the new Scotland” !

But you can tell where this is going.  Not one giant supersize ballgown cover to rub up against. Again, this is not a lament.  I’m never really sure what the ballgown covers are all about, though I admit, they’re lush and gorgeous and I love their brilliant use of color trends. And there are plenty of historicals with swashbuckling or Byronic man chest covers. But of the 8 elevators, the only one which referenced historical romance is the leather-kilted dude with the swords I posted up top — and he could easily be a fantasy hero.

I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m mulling it over.  Certainly the big promo dollars are going where the industry believes there is potential to grow audiences. Historical romance has a strong vanguard of established authors with loyal readership. But it doesn’t seem to function in the way it used to, to attract new readers to the romance genre. Among HistRom devotees, there seems to be a lot of talk about newer historicals being “lite” while some readers yearn for more angst-y, substantive reads.  On the other hand, just because a book has a ballgown on the cover, doesn’t mean nothing of substance is on offer.  But as Carrie Lofty pointed out in her panel remarks, for those seeking depth and challenge in historical romance, discoverability can be quite difficult since all the ballgown covers tend to blur, and unhelpfully to elide authors who may be writing with very different tones and voices.

As I’ve said in other posts, I don’t think the historical romance is dead or dying…but with most trends over time there are cycles. Will the effects of the trends in other romance subgenres, especially with regard to “grittiness” and badassery, counteract the frothy historical trend? What can historicals offer in the way of challenge and substance that other subgenres can’t? For me, this is an especially interesting question, and the “Gritty Historicals” panelists offered some intriguing ideas I’m still pondering, especially about exploring and problematizing issues of gender, class, and race, at particular historical moments, as a way of bringing depth and substance to the story, and creating space for heroines with agency.  So this is a To Be Continued, but I loved my time at RT.  I’m deeply grateful to everyone who took the time to talk with me and offer me so much food – and drink — for thought.

photo of RT pub crawl logo fan and street outside Pat O'Brien's bar.

Outside Pat O’Brien’s, abandoning the pub crawl in favor of dinner and conversation…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. (oliviawaite.com / 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…!

 

 

Big Fat Anniversary Post: Late Bloomer in Romancelandia

In which I do some Navel Gazing and contemplate a Paper Anniversary for my Internet “Relationship”

Gift for Boyfriend - Girlfriend - Anniversary Gift - Small Heart with Arrow - I Love You - Recycled Art - Love

Image credit: Folded Book Art by Luciana Frigerio via Etsy; these are gorgeous!

Sometime this month it’ll be the one-year anniversary of this blog. Is Paper still the traditional first anniversary gift? I hope so, because Internet. Ha. I write nothing on paper and nothing I write is ever printed. What lives here are transitory words that I write about books that I read. Admittedly, most of those are still on paper.

I thought about skipping the kinda sorta silly anniversary post tradition. But it’s been a milestone year for me in several ways, so I decided to try and organize some of my thoughts about this first year of Badass Romance. Once I started reflecting on the year in blogging, however, I couldn’t decide whether I feel more discouraged and overwhelmed, or energized and engaged. Depends on the day, I guess. Before I get to the part about being overwhelmed with the existential Why-ness of it all, I will indulge in a brief celebratory moment…

Happy Anniversary! I’m deeply grateful for friends new and old who love books and reading as much as I do, and who take the time to read my posts, share a comment or two, and perhaps also share in some of my other semi-addictive enthusiasms, from RevWar history to baseball to Sons of Anarchy and other serialized melodrama with intellectual pretensions. The blog was a sort of 50th birthday present to myself, but what it really unwrapped for me was an online party full of cool, thoughtful, funny people and ideas. You know who you are, but I think (I hope) I have most of my favorite blogs listed in the Blogs I Follow widget…

Favorite Posts? OK, here are a few, from the different ‘phases’ of Badass Romance’s rookie year:

  • Please Do Not Touch – an early effort at a review, with some art history thrown in
  • Pennyroyal Preacher Man – another early review-ish post, that ended up steering me towards the challenging novels of Patricia Gaffney, and related discussions
  • Never Say Die – ostensibly about Regency romance novels but really an excuse to post a lot of pictures of Sean Bean as Sharpe
  • Widow & Orphan – my love affair with Jane Eyre, and another excuse to post some great movie images (Toby Stephens & Ruth Wilson!)
  • A Subversive Regency – long-ass review of one of 2013’s most talked about historical romances
  • Scare Tactics – how about a little violence with your romance? representing a new focus for the blog, on the ways romance fiction uses (non-sexual) violence, whether there are limits to our tolerance for graphic episodes, and the eroticization of violent heroes

But. It’s overwhelming. I can’t believe I thought I’d manage a post a week. And I find it so much harder to write straight-up book reviews than my usual meandering, side-winding posts about one thing or another, usually book-related but rarely brief. I rarely have posts planned in advance and I never have them actually completed before the day they end up getting posted. I get weirdly anxious between posts when it feels like it’s been too long and I’m not inspired. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have time to read, let alone write a review or a post. So why the heck am I doing this….? (Apologies in advance that this post is going to be wicked long.)

The Blog is Dead As a late bloomer in so many aspects of life (see: first-time mom at 40), I suppose it really didn’t surprise me when I started a blog in 2013 only to discover that, according to a Harvard-certified media authority, and ensuing buzz all over the Internet, 2013 was the year the blog died as a dominant/relevant/exciting platform for the exchange of ideas.

More recently, and less provocatively, some internet and blogging pioneers reflected on the 20th anniversary of the blog and (of course) vehemently disputed the pronouncement of its death:

The people who say that are idiots. Blogging was never alive. It’s the people that matter. There will always be a small number who are what I call “natural born bloggers.” They were blogging before there were blogs, they just didn’t know what it was called. Julia Child was a blogger as was Benjamin Franklin and Patti Smith. (Dave Winer, interviewed for The blog turns 20: A conversation with three internet pioneers, by Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer, for The Guardian, January 28, 2014)

Blogging will persist the way other literary forms persist. I can imagine we’ll see articles about a resurgence in blogging in a few years, with people wondering if the post-Twitter generation now has a longer attention span. …. Is Twitter blogging on a micro-scale? Does it matter? What’s amazing is that we’ve seen the explosion of citizen access to tools formerly reserved for journalists and scribes. “Blogging as a specific online form might wax and wane. But blogging as a chance to exercise our voices doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – hurrah! (Justin Hall, interviewed for The blog turns 20: A conversation with three internet pioneers, by Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer, for The Guardian, January 28, 2014)

Because I also have a family road trip & photo blog that I do with my kids and which is followed by no one, other than the grandparents, family friends, and a bunch of spam followers, I had realized early on that it was hardly likely anyone would read my book blog unless I decided to “promote” it in some way. Some dear book group friends were there to read my first tentative posts, and for a while I toyed with the idea that I was just writing it for myself anyway… the blog-as-reading-journal. Well that was a total bunch of horse-shite (pardon my Regency), because I was reading and commenting on other people’s blogs and it soon became clear to me that it was so much more fun when my posts found their way out into the wider world to join the fast-flowing river of romance-oriented literary critique and commentary, and to receive feedback and questions from authors, reviewers, and other bloggers. So – Twitter. I had declined to join Facebook all these years (still haven’t) but I deigned to try tweeting.

I learned to follow intense 140-character conversations about books, feminism, sports, snowstorms, what-have-you. This opened my world up to lots of people who might be interested in my blog, and, even better, gave me all kinds of inspiration and ideas that helped shape what I wanted the blog to be about. Being on Twitter was invaluable for pushing me to really look around at lots of other blogs and writers and figure out what was and wasn’t going to work for me as a blogger. Within the first couple of months there was a whole kerfuffle about whether historical romance was “dead” – and that conversation was energizing for me, inspiring some of my favorite posts. And it was an early lesson in the fun-tastic Internet party game of dramatically pronouncing the death of something in order to generate discussion and debate.

Never Say Die Since I don’t know anything different, I guess I’ve been OK with “The Blog is Dead; Long Live the Blog” — the notion that blogging is fundamentally different from what it was when many of my favorite bloggers got started, 10, or 8 or so years ago. It’s not death, it’s evolution, but there’s still this kind of talk about how Facebook and Twitter have taken over the discussion space. Perhaps it’s true that the exciting and dynamic back-and-forth no longer happens in Comments sections on individual blogs, since people can quote and link blog content in their own timelines or tweetstreams, and then talk about it there. While I’ve been flattered and honored by the wonderful insights that have been posted here in Comments, I don’t kid myself that it’s really bucking the trend, since I have more extensive conversations and discussions on Twitter — or on a few romance/reading blogs with longstanding reputations for rich & challenging discussion (I’m looking at you, Read React Review, Something More, Vacuous Minx, Radish) — with many of the same people who have graciously commented here.

Which brings me to my next reflection:  So maybe some of the really robust romance blogs ARE kind of bucking the trend? I mean there still does seem to be a lot of rich and lengthy discussion in Comments on the big blogs like DA and AAR, and, even better, on the individual blogs with thriving, well-established communities of thoughtful readers and writers. So maybe if I had to be so late to the party and start blogging in the year the blog died, at least I’m blogging about romance, which still has a flourishing and exhilarating blogosphere… right?  Or… wrong??

On the Wane? Because it turns out that not only is blogging (supposedly) kind of passe’ but maybe the online romance community — what some call Romancelandia (still? right?) — is also on the wane. Jessica at Read React Review posted recently about evolution in the romance blogging community, and she wasn’t the only one to describe the shifts in terms of a sense of decline, or fragmentation. Sunita helpfully framed this over at Vacuous Minx in terms of the loss of “pure” readers as the online community has become part of the romance industry “machine.” I actually think these two big shifts (in the nature of blogging, and in the cohesion / fracturing of the online romance community) are related, but it’s still all kind of forcing me to take a long hard look at what I’m doing, and why.

When “the waning of Romancelandia” came up on Twitter, I rather facilely posited that it might just feel that way to folks who have been part of it, operating as key actors &  insiders, for a while. Speaking as a newbie (to romance blogging, but not to romance reading) I suggested that when you are new to an online community it feels like a cohesive “thing” that you want to be part of, and for a time your very participation is an active engagement in the creation of community. But that once you’ve been inside for a while you start to see the divisions. Things you don’t like about other points of view become more apparent, sometimes conflicting opinions become more rigid, calcification occurs and you’re more aware that what looked like a community at one point now feels more like a very loose confederation of smaller sub-groups.

Maybe it feels like fragmentation, or silos or polarization. You become dimly aware that there are other communities talking about the same things your community talks about (books, ideas, films, whatever) but in completely separate places and spaces because they have come at the shared enthusiasm via other paths. And then there are the bizarre and exhausting flame wars – but I want to avoid that digression.

I still think the cyclical, and simultaneously clique-ish, nature of fan communities and online communities is true — it’s something that I have experienced in other fandoms. But as a theory that attempts to explain or mitigate the effects of shifts and evolutions in Romancelandia it’s also too reductive.

The Business of Book Blogging  I think there are (at least) two other major forces at play in the shifting landscape of romance bloggery. One is the publishing industry’s recognition and utilization of the blogger role, which, as Sunita and others noted, means that even reviewers and bloggers like me who really, truly, REALLY have no intention of becoming authors, nevertheless have an increasingly codified (and in some cases commercialized) role in the promotion of the genre and its products, via street teams, special blogger days at industry conferences, etc. And the role of book bloggers in keeping genre fiction, and romance, at the top of the publishing heap, is well established.

Nobody needs me to belabor this further – there are lots of places this point has been made by people with more experience across the years that romance blogging has become more professionalized  and commercialized (I use these terms very loosely — my understanding is that, unlike journalists or paid reviewers, very few people with individual book blogs actually receive or ever expect to receive financial compensation for the writing they do, regardless of insider status with publishers, ad revenues, or Amazon affiliate earnings). Since this is my personal “reflecting on blogging” post, I will add that I am still wrestling with my own conflicted feelings around various ways one can be “recognized” as a blogger, from my impulsive rookie decision that led to becoming one of Avon’s “Addicts” (though I don’t post the logo or do much else except read and review some of the books I receive) to my somewhat naive hope that I might occasionally receive free books (I had no idea how easy it was for anyone with a blog to get ARCs), to the direct interaction with authors who comment, re-blog, retweet, and sometimes re-purpose, one’s words about them. (I have been very fortunate in that all such interactions to date have been entirely flattering and positive).

Studying Romance But for me there’s another trend that’s affecting the online romance community, and this is the rise of academic and scholarly interest in our genre. I think about the theory that the romance community initially thrived online because there were so many people who moved back and forth across the lines between readers, reviewers, and authors — more (the theory goes) than in other genres. It was an inclusive, open space with fluid boundaries between and among roles.

Now I’m seeing a parallel blurring of the lines between readers, reviewers, and scholars. Academics (from any discipline, not just Literature) who read romance for pleasure now have more and better outlets for talking and writing seriously about the genre. There are numerous, some but not all new-ish, blogs that dig deep into questions about the genre itself, its conventions, tropes, trends, problems, and oversights – smart, thoughtful people (whether they are academics, or simply choose to write with more academic, analytical approaches) writing about romance in ways that are complex and challenging and offering more than reviews and recommendations of individual books (though they may still do this as well – here, I’m looking at you, Miss Bates Reads Romance, Love in the Margins, Reading With Analysis, Alpha Heroes, among others).

At the same time, people who have a formal academic role, eg. professors or Ph.D. candidates in Literature, Popular Culture, Media Studies, Womens Studies (etc, etc), who enjoy and/or are interested in romance, now also have opportunities to engage with the genre as a field ripe for exploration, study, and career-building. It’s another way in which readers who may have been ‘pure’ readers are now becoming something more, something different, as they seek to get published in journals, deliver papers at conferences, and position themselves as experts in a professional sense.

In many ways I love the explosion of more critical academic and/or formal writing about romance novels, both on independent websites and blogs and via academic associations or university-affiliated entities like IASPR and the Popular Romance Project. It is exciting and refreshing to see the outsider genre I have loved since I glommed Barbara Cartland novels in 7th grade treated with interest and respect, as the “badass,” literary phenomenon that it is.

Attention is being paid to romance’s status as the top-selling genre in publishing (this is also happening in mainstream media as well as progressive quasi-intellectual media), and also to the content, literary merit, authorship, and readership of specific novels and types of novels.  I often (semi-)joke on Twitter that if this kind of thing had been going on when I was doing my Ph.D., my entire career path might have been entirely different.

But… Do you sense the ‘but’ coming? I’m not even really sure what the ‘but’ is, because I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it. Something about my own ambivalence as a lapsed academic perhaps, and a feeling of discomfort around the edges of my fascination with romance scholarship. (I have a Ph.D. in History of Art and I work at a university, but I don’t teach or publish research myself and my department’s focus is social science research & policy).

Romancelandia has always enjoyed an incredible richness of experts when it comes to the deconstruction and analysis of texts and trends, but most of these voices have originated outside the academy and undertaken their interpretive work on an extracurricular basis. We have day jobs. Reading romance, and, maybe, writing about it, is a gift we give ourselves, or an obsession, or a habit…but whatever it is, it’s not usually a job (unless you’re lucky enough to work at RT, or Heroes&Heartbreakers, perhaps!). At the same time that I appreciate the ways in which academic interest is creating an expanded space for serious discussion of romance, there’s a part of me that wonders about the down sides of engaging with the academy — about hierarchies both actual and implied, and about elitism.

Should people participating in a conference at Princeton last year with romance authors and scholars be prefacing their remarks with “I’m only a reader, but…” as I have heard was common?  I suspect that many readers who spend a lot of time talking romance online may have academic credentials of one kind or another (there seem to be a lot of librarians and teachers in Romland, along with university types) but my sense is that there has been disinclination to cite these kinds of credentials when opining about one’s pleasure reading, even if it’s a discussion whose sophistication and intensity borders on a graduate-level seminar in literary criticism.

Romance is something we respond to emotionally, even if there is also an intellectual component. Even blogs which directly assert highbrow “smartness,” and have achieved thought-leader status in the industry as well as the reading community (Smart Bitches, Wonk-o-Mance) do so with an ironic edge, and steer clear of wonkery that is actually pedantic or overtly academic language or assertions. What is the relationship between “wonky” blogs, promo blogs, industry blogs, author group blogs, “squee” review blogs, etc? Surely there have always been diverse online neighborhoods within the loose confines of Romancelandia. Are our neighborhoods becoming more like silos? Is there less flow of people and ideas across perceived boundaries? People do choose where to get their news and information, in romance, as in everything else.

Is it possible that as more formal channels for critical discourse around romance reading have evolved in and around the online community, such expressions have inadvertently contributed to divisions by introducing challenging questions and themes that some readers aren’t interested in engaging with when choosing or reflecting on their pleasure reading? Yes, there are problematic books, and people who either do or don’t want to read them. But for every person who is interested in interrogating and contextualizing her own choices in reading material, I feel certain there are more people who just want to read what they want without over-thinking it or being questioned in any way. I guess I am trying in a clumsy roundabout way to figure out if there are ways in which academic or “wonky”  incursions into the online romance community are perceived as a negative development and, if so, where, and for whom?

I have been mulling over the potentially distancing effects of studying romance readers as a “population.”  There’s the danger of “talking down” to or about romance readers, which is something that always made me (and there were critics, I think) uncomfortable about Janice Radway’s pioneering book, Reading the Romance, the 30th anniversary of which will be celebrated with a special session at the upcoming Popular Culture Association annual meeting later this spring.

And at the same time there are all the blurred lines. It’s tricky if, as seems to be the case, many of the academics in the field are also readers and consumers of the genre. A few prominent academics are also authors, “stars” like Mary Bly (Eloisa James), or publishers — certainly romance insiders. But it’s not any easier for voices from “outside,” whether they’re unschooled pundits like Tom Ashbrook or academics who are interested in, but not devoted to, the genre.

Even an academic initiative which is much newer and more expansive than Radway’s limited focus group, such as the Popular Romance Project’s ambitious and inclusive website, can seem to reinforce the divide between the examined and the examining – and, really, who is to say which group has the deeper understanding of what is going on when people read romance? Perhaps these scholarly undertakings simply seem irrelevant to the majority of readers who have plenty of more emotionally engaging forums in which to discuss what they’re reading and thinking.

Copping to my own wonkery It’s quite possible I’m actually over-thinking this development myself, out of my own ambivalence and love/hate relationship with the academy. And I’m sure I am oversimplifying as I try to informally “map” the current landscape of Romancelandia and figure out which territories are connected by a lot of bridges and which ones are more like isolated valleys. I’m curious about the diversity of opinions and voices within the generic category I tend to think of as “wonky” for lack of a better term.  “Academic” is both noun and adjective, after all, and it’s especially interesting to consider whether formal scholarly efforts and informal yet equally “academic” critical voices, are talking to each other or talking around each other?

I guess I really have more questions than answers when it comes to understanding the effects of such contributions and interventions in the romance reader/blogger community, and I’m very curious what others think.  Do you still think of Romancelandia as a thing anyway, anymore? Is it more commercial, or was it ever thus, for book blogging?  Is it getting more wonky, or does it seem that way to me because of where I’m choosing to go?

What about the subgenres – is there more fragmentation of discussion as people segment themselves as Urban Fantasy or  Contemporary or HistRom readers? Do we all think of ourselves as romance readers, whether we’re from the home counties of Category and  Inspie or the frontier of BDSM erotica? Where do you see bridges (or tunnels?) and where are the canyons or mountains that make it hard to get from one region to another?

I realize I haven’t really answered the “why I’m blogging” question, but the best answer I can come up with is that I’m really still finding it appealing to ask such questions and explore multiple ways of answering them.

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Image credit: Folded Book Art by Luciana Frigerio via Etsy; these are gorgeous!

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