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!