An Unexpected and Very Badass Romance Is Why I Kept Watching AMC’s The Killing

tk-s3-gallery-linden-holder-760-21Let me confess up front that one of the principal reasons I haven’t been blogging much is that I haven’t been reading as much as usual this winter. And this is primarily a book blog, right? There’s still a part of me that feels guilty about watching television instead of reading. But the availability of streaming television series, whole seasons and even whole series available for the bingeing, is changing how I consume media, as it is for so many people. I used to occasionally binge on a whole season of something good, back in the days of waiting for the DVD release. These days, hardly a week goes by without a streaming binge of one show or another, from OITNB to GoT to Boardwalk Empire.  I’ve become obsessed with new content from new producers – Sundance (Rectify, An Honourable Woman, The Red Road), Amazon (Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle), Netflix (House of Cards, of course). Downton, Sons of Anarchy, The Good Wife and The Americans are among the few remaining shows in which I didn’t or can’t overindulge.  Oh, and Mad Men, which is maddeningly STILL not back to wrap up its serialized Great Expectations tale of Don Draper.

The thing is, being able to keep watching numerous episodes in one evening, bingeing on a serial television program is starting to feel more and more like my old reading habits, staying up into the wee hours consuming chapter after chapter of an engrossing novel.  Of course tv and books are not the same, and neither is watching vs. reading, but there’s something about some of the most compulsively watchable series that feels a little bit like reading an intricately plotted, un-putdownable novel.

10860051_375675945890414_535456110_aAnd this is how it was for me with watching AMC’s The Killing. At first it was just beautiful and moody and arrestingly sad. Then it bogged down with its own pretension, and some ridiculous plot points, but the relationships, the characters and the actors, and the gloomy vision of a rain-soaked Seattle kept me hooked.

The other key ingredient was following episode by episode commentary from Vulture’s Starlee Kine. Her recaps full of pissed off commentary (about gaping plot holes, leaps of logic, cops being terrible at their jobs, implausible medical miracles and lack of appropriate law enforcement technology) resonated and deepened my attachment to the show. The show did garner a lot of critical attention, both positive and negative, for some of its risky and/or groundbreaking elements. But it seems I am not the only one to fall under the spell of the relationship at the center of The Killing, so much so that you’re willing to put up with all kinds of nonsense, just to keep watching this pair of damaged souls find their way. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) kept me mesmerized.

SPOILERS BELOW ….. (but here’s a spoiler-free review of Season 4 by Jeffrey Bloomer for Slate) 

And at the end of the final season…. a Happy Ending!  As in a real live, romantically-together-at-the-end-of-the-story, HEA, or at least an HFN, for the series’ two protagonists. It turns out Holder and Linden really were the main couple in a four-season-long, made-for-cable-and-netflix, contemporary romantic suspense thriller. This was one of the most emotionally satisfying television finales since the brilliant end of Six Feet Under.  But it felt very different, because of its close focus on just the two main characters, rather than showing us a montage of all the characters and their various fates.  It felt like the end of a very long, very suspenseful, almost-DNF’d-when-it seemed-to-go-off-the-rails, romance novel.

Here’s how four seasons of a moody, pretentious crime drama (based on the Danish drama Forbrydelsen, or The Crime) ended up feeling like a romance novel, in a good way (and I find I don’t care about the tv noir fans who decried the happy ending as “too American” or too cheesy):

2f02f3be-d214-b142-d53d-ed227fa777b7_TK_307_CS_0429_0186.jpgTortured Hero Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), silver-tongued smoldering Swedish 12-stepper. He had a rough childhood, made his way onto the police force as an undercover narcotics officer, got addicted to methamphetamine, got sober, got promoted to Homicide, and has the most amazing soliloquies that are themselves an addicting blend of American street slang, laconic delivery, 12-step taglines, irony, self-deprecating humor, psychological insight, and Kinnaman’s nascent Swedish accent slipping in from time to time. It’s not that he’s always got his shit together, but he manages to rise above even his own most horrible behavior, to own his bad acts, make reparation, and see through his own posing. When he’s crushed by grief and guilt and doubt (there are some really bad and tragic things that happen to people in this show), he somehow even seems to embrace these as necessary steps on the path. His most vulnerable moments are heartbreakingly simple: when he’s forced to let down his nephew on the boy’s birthday in order to support Linden in a terrible circumstance; when he visits the grave of a murdered teen runaway he had tried to help, used as a confidential informant, and ultimately failed to protect.

downloadEven more Tortured Heroine Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), enigmatic single mom; a supposedly brilliant detective whose empathy for victims pushes her to extreme lengths to catch killers even as she neglects her own tween son so much she almost loses him. A hard-knock child of the foster care system herself, she is a mass of denial and self-delusion/self-confusion about what she really wants, where she really belongs. For the entire first season she’s supposed to be leaving Seattle to move to sunny California and get married, but you can tell from the outset that she’s never really going to go that easy route, and that the guy who’s her intended mate is All Wrong For Her. But it’s done with such intensity and misdirection in terms of the writing that it actually feels stunning when it’s finally revealed that he was her psychiatrist during her most recent lockup — she has a history of compulsive obsession with a closed case she’s convinced put the wrong guy in jail, and it’s wreaked havoc with her mental health.

10808688_1406921106271566_586127293_nMeet cute  Still, she’s a star homicide detective, so even though it’s her last day on the job, she gets assigned to mentor the new kid just promoted from Narcotics when they land a high-profile case of a murdered teen who may have been killed by one of half a dozen of Seattle’s leading citizens. The scenes where she’s trying to clear out her desk and leave while he’s trying to chat her up are fantastic. She gives him NOTHING, she’s so convinced she can walk away from the case and all she wants to do is get on that plane to California. Their boss does keep pressuring her to stay for this case because he doesn’t know/trust Holder yet. She insists she will give him only one day, then one more day. But somehow she just keeps missing the damn flight…. And Holder can tell she’s not going anywhere. His self-awareness gives him the compassion and capacity to “get” her before she can begin to get herself. There are numerous times when, in spite of his youth and charisma and hoodies, and her horrible mom sweaters and measured pace, he shows himself to be the more emotionally mature one. Meanwhile, she’s busy writing him off as a recovered-tweaker hipster who happens to have mad getting-street-people-and-teens-to-share-information-and-secrets skills. Their conversations are the best part of the show, and the episodes devoted to watching them ride around talking and smoking were some of my favorite hours of storytelling in a long time.

10729214_773357939410073_326592516_nRescuing each other, literally and emotionally It’s a darkly intense crime drama, so there are a lot of other things going on, from the raw pain of the victim’s grieving parents and siblings to corrupt politicians, snarky campaign operatives, and enough creepy possible suspects from all walks of life to fill at least a dozen different Law & Order cases. And like all noir-ish detective shows, the plot places the protagonists in grave personal peril – there is one beautifully produced sequence involving a kidnapped Linden secretly keeping her radio on and talking to her abductor for hours, using clues and codes that only Holder will comprehend, so that after a whole incredibly intense episode he is finally able to locate her and bring in the rescue operation.  Of course this kind of thing is a metaphor for the ways in which they can rescue each other emotionally, if they are willing to be honest with one another.

A Happy Ending It’s not a surprise that Holder is the first to recognize and acknowledge their deep connection. The challenge, both for the characters and for the viewer, is having the patience and trust to wait for Linden to get there. The final episode delivers with a classic romance novel trope — the last-minute capitulation. It’s a year since they have survived their final horrific case, which includes some very bad business for which both of them have risked prosecution. Linden’s been drifting around the country, visiting her son who she’s finally placed in the more stable environment of his father’s (out-of-state) home. Holder’s been recovering his equilibrium and grounding himself further as a Narcotics Anonymous staff leader. She “stops by” to see him. They talk about how much they mean to each other. But she can’t see herself putting down roots anywhere. They embrace and he lets her go, but not without ratcheting up the sexual tension a couple dozen notches. Still, she walks away. And he loves her enough to know she can’t be chased. All seems dire. But then it’s several hours later and she’s there on the sidewalk waiting for him at the end of the day. And she’s finally all in. And that’s the end of the show – just some quick shots of their joyful faces, and not even a cliche’ clinch. (Not onscreen anyway – show creator and director Veena Sud has said that Enos and Kinnaman did in fact kiss during the final take, but the camera had moved on so it wasn’t captured.)

tumblr_n9omjwbxeJ1ql3i4oo3_250The heroine’s journey It was reading this Veena Sud interview that really affirmed the connection for me between the story of Linden and Holder, and the romance genre. While Holder was the more charismatic character, making it easy to focus on the ways Kinnaman made him really leap off the screen, the overarching narrative is Linden’s journey. Which connects The Killing to one of the ways the romance genre is often read, as a narrative formula that comprises the heroine’s journey from a state of incompletion and lack of self-knowledge, to wholeness, integration, and her emotionally proper place in the world.  Linden finally tells Holder that she’s found her home, and it’s not a place, it’s him. Sud references this directly when she’s asked about a possible fifth season for the duo:

We brought her to the end of her journey. She found the thing that she was looking for all along. It’s the end of the story.

As is right and proper for a satisfying romance. It was such a treat for the show to end this way. Somehow they managed to pull off the happy ending in a way that feels believable, yet unexpected. I did stick with this drama even when I knew I was watching a show that was going off the rails in many ways, because of the chemistry and emotion between these two.  It was often so bleak and damp and dark I certainly did not expect an HEA out of the experience. I don’t know if this is because I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or because Sud and her team just decided very late in the game to give fans the satisfaction.  But I for one thoroughly enjoyed the emotional payoff – and I think people like me who hung in with this show deserved it.

ee866e46c16c6dbae2dd20f768dad275I’m casting around trying to think of other shows where the two leads end up together when the show ends…. Maybe Moonlighting? I honestly can’t remember how that finally ended. How about the fun US Marshal drama, In Plain Sight – nope, that one ended disappointingly for some fans, with Mary and Marshall agreeing she was better as his work wife than she could possibly ever be as his real spouse/lover.

How many other tv shows are there where the ending has the look and feel of a romance novel HEA for the two main protagonists?

 

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Romantic Conversations, from Idle to Burning

More random musings in the aftermath of my RT convention adventures

book cover: SE Jakes, Free Falling, depicts shoulder and profile of rugged white man with black-ink spiral tattoos

In the romance genre, an author’s handling of sex scenes, and a novel’s overall “heat level” are among several principal axes along which readers and reviewers rate and compare books. Because of the centrality of the relationship to the narrative, in the modern romance novel, the depiction of physical, sexual intimacy, ranging along a scale of “Kisses” to “Burning” (these are the two ends of AAR’s longstanding sensuality rating scale), is one of the ways authors show readers what a couple, and the romance itself, is all about. Readers and reviewers use ratings schemes such as AAR’s to inform themselves and each other as they choose what to read.

I know I’m not alone in noticing the difference between when I was younger, and used to skim/anticipate getting to the steamy parts, and my current reading habits, which have me sometimes skimming over them. But regardless, the love scenes in a romance novel, if written well, are an integral part of the emotional journey I go on with the hero and heroine.  The thing is, I’m starting to notice that I only really stop and focus on these scenes if there’s good dialogue happening while the protagonists are in bed (or in a hayloft, or a limo, or a dark hallway, or a moving carriage, or… wherever).

Which made me realize that it’s the conversations, more than anything else, that really make or break a couple for me. And that frequently the verbal intercourse is more compelling than the other kind, regardless of where the scene is set. Even in a crowd, good conversation is a powerful form of intimacy. And an author’s ability to write good dialogue, sometimes interspersed with telling gestures, is a big deal for me in terms of whether I will keep reading, especially when I’m in the relatively unfamiliar territory (to me) of, say, a contemporary motorcycle romance, or a Harlequin Presents…

What are the conversational equivalents of “Kisses” or “Burning?”

After spending much of the holiday weekend browsing around in my ginormous bag of books from RT (The 2014 Romantic Times Booklovers Convention), I started to toy with the idea of a conversation rating or taxonomy… perhaps a way to capture the overall tone and quality of a the dialogue between hero and heroine in several key scenes. Or perhaps, as with sensuality ratings, to identify where the book ranks on a scale in terms of the most intense level of conversational intimacy achieved…?  It’s certainly not a perfect parallel, but I’m having fun pondering the possibilities.

Kisses = Idle Chatter? Subtle = Informational Interview? Warm = Overt Banter, or perhaps Deliberate Provocation? Hot = Heated Exchange? Burning = Massive Argument, or perhaps Intimate Confidence…? Of course it’s best when a novel levels up and among several of these — who wants to read a romance where the couple is always having conversations of the same intensity?  There are also many other categories of conversation that could be added in a more nuanced metric…. some of my additional favorites are the Veiled Accusation, the Flirting via Third-Party Conversation, and of course the time-honored Epic Grovel.

Clearly, this is just a lark (as a taxonomy it’s an unstable, unsustainable structure) …. but here are some examples, expressed as excerpts from books I’ve been reading and perusing. Of course there’s a huge problem isolating a section of dialogue and trying to use it to apply a label to the book overall.  A very vanilla conversation can be part of a very kinky book. So that’s why this is just for laughs.  Also, I should be clear that I’m not pointing to these as all-time top romance conversations (though I really do want to do a post about some of my favorites, if I ever have time for some rereading). I have been noticing as I’m reading around in a diverse and random cross-section of recent books, some of the ways the dialogue serves to reel me in, or not, to the rest of the novel, and the journey to the HEA.

The IDLE CHATTER (“Kisses”… or… avoidance?)

book cover, Own the Wind by Kristen Ashley, depicts chrome and tire of a motorcyle and motorcycle boot from extreme low vantage point, with wide shot of open highway

Tabitha and Shy, from OWN THE WIND, by Kristen Ashley, a Chaos novel, 2013

“What’re you doin’ here?” she asked quietly.

He lifted his to-go cup. “Coffee. Best in town. Come here all the time.”

She looked at his cup then at the two coffee mugs on the table in front of her before her fingers slid through her hair and she straightened in her chair.

When Shy recovered from watching her thick, shining hair move through her fingers and he realized she wasn’t speaking, he asked, “Studying?”

Her gaze went to her books like she’d never seen them before, it came back to him and she answered, “Yeah. I’ve got two tests this week.”

“Harsh,” he muttered, though he wouldn’t know. He’d never studied for tests. The fact that somewhere in the junk in his apartment was a high school diploma was a miracle.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I need to get back to it.” (Own the Wind, p.20)

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading; I can certainly see why/how the writing sucks the reader in, but I’m wary. Seems so derivative of Sons of Anarchy that I can’t really get past it. The opening scene with Shy waking up in bed in the clubhouse with two naked women feels like an exact description of a scene from the show.


 The INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW (“Subtle”… or not so much?)

Book cover, Undone by Lila DePasqua, depicts shirtless white man embracing white woman with dark hair in billowing red satin dressAngelica and Simon, from UNDONE, by Lila DiPasqua, Fiery Tales series, 2012

“I know you don’t understand, but we must return to the convent,” she said. “Transportation there is the only assistance we require.”

Back to that. “You are correct. I don’t understand.”

“It is our home.”

Did she know how beguiling her eyes were? “Then it’s a miserable one.”

“It’s been my home for ten years.”

Mentally, he groaned. Hidden in a convent for that much of her life made her more innocent than he could comfortably accept. Though his eager cock didn’t take exception to the news, his conscience was another matter. He still had a few scraps of honor left. No matter how desirable she was, he was not going to prey on her virtue.

“Why have you been there so long?”

He watched her give careful consideration to whether or not she would answer him.

“My parents are dead,” she said at last. “I’ve been part of the orphanage in the convent ever since.”

“Orphanage? An orphanage is for children. You are not a child.” (Undone, p, 29)

I want to keep trying with this one; I like the 17th century setting and the fairytale/folklore element, and the set-up has potential for good narrative conflict, though I’m a little worried about secret identities and/or a big misunderstanding.


The DELIBERATE PROVOCATION (“Warm” … or rubbing each other the wrong way…?)

book cover, Moonlight on My Mind by Jennifer McQuiston, depicting a white pillared portico with white woman in a yellow dress falling off her shoulders, in the moonlightJulianne and Patrick, from Moonlight on My Mind by Jennifer McQuiston, Avon, 2014

“You are the new Earl of Haversham, Patrick,” she told him. “And because of that, you must return now.”

His mouth opened. Closed. Opened again. “Do not call me that,” he all but growled.

“Which? Patrick? Or Haversham?”

“Either.”

“Then what should I call you? Channing no longer fits. You can deny it, you can hate me, but it will not make it any less true.”

*  *  *

“You had the means to lock the door and yet did not. Do you always abandon yourself to fate without thinking?”

She tilted her chin upward, ” I do not believe in fate.”

“No? You have a means of tempting it, Julianne. You left the door unlocked during your bath. That could have ended badly…not all gentlemen knock first.”

“You, sir, are no gentleman.” (Moonlight on My Mind, p. 50, p.80)

I am inclined to keep reading, though I noticed that much of the dialogue is embedded within paragraphs of the protagonists’ inner dialogue, which interrupts the flow of their banter.


The HEATED EXCHANGE (a.k.a. the MASSIVE SHITSTORM) (“Hot” or “Burning” ….. depends on whether it’s a real fight or a faux fight/Big Misunderstanding. This one’s a little of both.)

book cover, Maisey Yates, Avenge Me, depicts young white man in business suit and tie with stern facial expressionKaty and Austin, from AVENGE ME by Maisey Yates, Harlequin Presents, forthcoming June 2014

“How could you do that without talking to me first?” she asked.

“What?”

“I was handling it, Austin.”

“Oh, forgive me, I thought you were sitting here naked eating takeout.”

“Are you serious right now?” She slammed the carton down onto the blankets and a noodle spilled over the edge. “How much did you pay them?”

He named a figure that made her curse.

“I can never pay that back,” she said, “and you damn well know it. You took…everything from me. My power, and now you’re making me indebted to you in ways –”

“I fucking took everything from you?” he asked, his voice rising now. “Funny, I thought I gave you a whole bunch of stuff to balance it out. A place to stay, access to my father, and help with your revenge. Plus, I recall an orgasm or fifty.” (Avenge Me, pp. 217-18)

She’s a virgin, he’s a billionaire, they discover their kink together and seek justice for her sister’s killer. The BDSM content was not what I expected here, and I’m still not sure it made sense.


The INTIMATE CONFIDENCE (Burning … searing confessions?)

Mick and Blue from FREE FALLING by SE Jakes, Extreme Escapes series, Riptide, (2nd ed.), 2014

Blue tilted his head like he was seeing right through Mick. “Would you have done things differently if you hadn’t known me?”

“Don’t ask me that, Blue.”

“I have to believe you’d have saved whoever it was, even if you don’t believe that about yourself.”

*  *  *

Mick paused and then asked, “The stuff you steal…does all the money go to your sister?”

“I keep some for necessary things, like travel and expenses. And the rest I give to… ah, someone.”

Mick cocked his head and finally, Blue admitted, “I fund an LGBT youth hostel. For kids who get kicked out for being who they are.”

“You’re no criminal, Blue. Never were,” Mick murmured before he bent down and kissed him, a rough, deep kiss that held enough promise for Blue to hold on to. (Free Falling, pp. 89-91)

book cover: SE Jakes, Free Falling, depicts shoulder and profile of rugged white man with black-ink spiral tattoosThe one book I finished without getting totally distracted. Though I haven’t  finished everything listed here, this is my favorite romance of the group thus far. Tight and authentically emotional.

I did not purchase any of the books excerpted above; they are all books I was given by publishers and/or authors during the 2014 Romantic Times Convention in New Orleans.

 

 

 

 

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.

photo (27)

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.

photo (44)

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.

photo (42)

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.

photo (34)

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the HEA Takes a Village: Community, Connection & Romance Dude Groups (part 1)

lovely new cover/sorta silly series about a club for tall, dark & duke-ly war veterans who need a “last bastion” against marriage and “matchmaking mamas”

The lone hero, the lonely spinster, and what happens when they end up in a dude group romance?

What is your favorite term for brotherhoods in romance? Romance series built around a group of badass heroes – a man tribe, a dude group, a wolf pack – are so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable these days. There are aspects of the trope which have, rightfully, been skewered for being OTT silly (secret societies, saving the planet – or England – from evil villains bent on world domination, saving each other from “matchmaking mamas” …. Stephanie Laurens/Black Cobra & Bastion Club series, I’m looking at you…).

But the “band of brothers” structure remains a mainstay, for numerous reasons, many of them quite sensibly and pragmatically publishing/marketing related. When it moves beyond structure, however, in series where brotherhood, or a sense of “all for one and one for all”  is a fully explored theme and trope, the dude group becomes more interesting. And here, I’m thinking of some of my most favorite histrom series – Jo Beverley’s legendary Company of Rogues, or Sarah MacLean’s newer Fallen Angels.

In the hands of a thoughtful and nuanced author, a series centered on a dude group explores a powerful and appealing kind of intimacy that is, yes, about entering the “unknown” world of male friendship (for female readers), but also about the bonds of community and clan that transcend both romance and bromance and offer a vision of collective and communal problem-solving, emotional support, and practical assistance.  For me, this vision, utopian and unlikely as it may be, is often as appealing and satisfying as the HEA. In connected books series as different as Kit Rocha’s dystopian O’Kane chronicles (the Beyond series) and the aforementioned Rogues series, for example, it may take a village to raise a happy couple.

The fate of the individual

I have been pondering my taste for “clannish” communities in romance for several weeks now in light of a recent twitter conversation and a thoughtful  post by Laura Vivanco exploring romance fiction’s preference for protagonists, of both genders, who demonstrate “inner strength” and overcome adversity without being “whiny.”  Laura’s focused here more on the question of whether the genre offers space for characters who complain, or fail, or rail against fate and ill-fortune, than on themes of community. But she notes the connection between romance conventions – valorization of  resilience in order to achieve the HEA – and social pressure, especially for men, to repress complaint and personal emotions, bear up under internal conflict or external woes, and prevail against all odds, without showing weakness or dependence.

It’s possible I’m reading too much in here, but I was quite struck by the idea that the genre expresses a revealed preference for protagonists who are (a) unusually uncomplaining and resourceful and (b) independent go-it-alone-ers.

I often feel as though society, and consequently romance novels, take a very individualised view of personal success and failure which discourages social and economic critique. (Laura Vivanco, “Being Admirable, Repressing Complaint” posted April 15, 2014)

This makes sense when you consider many favored hero and heroine archetypes, from the embittered but valiant ex-soldier to the indomitable impoverished spinster (both of these types can be found in both contemporary and historical incarnations). Yes, all romances must have conflict, and one or both protagonists usually faces, and overcomes, seemingly insurmountable external challenges of one kind or another — severe financial hardship, physical or emotional trauma, bereavement, imminent danger, blackmail, estrangement, or an imperiled reputation…this is the stuff of which heroes and heroines are made. It really doesn’t seem as if there is any space for whiners, but I do think the romance genre offers space for some of its stoic protagonists to suffer in community, and to receive support.

The power of community

I don’t know what percentage of romance novels involve the hero and/or heroine relying on help from a strong community, but I do know that this is a theme that appeals to me, so I read a lot of them. A lot of the books that do this are dude group series. Along about the time I came across Laura’s wonderful post, I was also happily enmeshed in Jo Beverley’s newest Rogues romance, A SHOCKING DELIGHT, which further fueled my musings. I’ll write more about this book, and how the village of Rogues helps the romance along, in a part 2 post.  For now, I just want to throw some ideas at the wall like spaghetti. In terms of the importance of community to the outcome – the HEA – I’m not just talking about the sidekick secondary characters who help with logistics or clearing up the Big Misunderstanding. I’m talking about books where the friendships are as interesting and important (even if not receiving as much of the page count) as the central romance, and/or series where the family tree or secret club are meaningful elements of the emotional arc of the story, not just superficial hooks.

Strength in sisterhood: the Rarest Blooms series

Sometimes, it’s a band of sisters, not brothers, and the community is powerful in less obvious ways.  I’m grateful to tweeps @JanetNorCal and @_Marijana_ for helping me remember the Rarest Blooms series by Madeline Hunter.  The Blooms are female Rogues, in a sense, banding together to support one another through difficult times, and to serve as resource, rescuers and refuge. In the context of a historical romance, any such effort by women is necessarily going to be subversive inasmuch as it may involve challenges to the existing social order. Hunter’s protagonists live communally in a remote country village, supporting themselves with a nursery/floral business, and if I am remembering this right, they are each, for one reason or another, basically in hiding from the patriarchy in one guise or another (lack of financial stability/legal rights, an abusive male family member, or a trauma history). Here’s Dabney’s DIK review of DANGEROUS IN DIAMONDS for AAR, which reminded me that the Blooms series also touched on themes of class conflict and economic critique by exploring businesswoman Daphne’s and ducal libertine Tristan’s reactions to being swept up in labor riots.

Over on twitter, I linked to Laura’s post and a brief discussion ensued in which Donna Thorland proposed that story=suffering and referenced classical drama and the narrative hero arc.  This exchange with Laura and Donna raised all kinds of interesting questions for me about how characters suffer, whether certain modes of suffering “earn” the HEA, and whether the hero/ine must always “go it alone” in order to prevail. (I tried Storify for the first time in hopes of getting the tweets in coherent order, but I have no idea how to embed it so it’ll just have to be a link.)

Historical romance is certainly full of lonely protagonists who suffer their woes stoically, and also flawed heroes/heroines who must tread an individual path to redemption. I’m struck, though, by how many series are structured around communities that, I think, do act in small yet meaningful ways to challenge the status quo, whatever that may be given the setting of the narrative. I need to think more about this, and look more closely at some examples to figure out how these clannish (some are literally family clans, as in Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, or JoBev’s epic Mallorens) communities become more than window dressing or a series framing device.

I’d love to hear about other favorite dude group series, and especially some contemporary/fantasy ones. The Black Dagger Brotherhood has been in the back of my mind since J.R. Ward so clearly set out to write a community of brothers and the books are as much about the friendships as about the individual couples nominally at the center of each one. Where else do you find this? Do you think HEAs that get embraced by a strong community are (more?) satisfying in some way? Or is this whole dude group thing just overused?

 

 

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