My notes from IASPR (updated)


Okay, first: my notes are scattered, because sometimes I wanted to listen rather than write. Second, I’m not an academic or literary critic, so often I had no idea what was being discussed at a high level.

Edited for some typos (there are more, I’m sure) and to add some impressions, etc.

IASPR’s Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies
Can’t Buy Me Love? Sex, Money, Power and Romance.

IASPR is the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.  Its academic publication (online only at this time) is the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

Roundtable: Boundaries and Intersections: Romance, Erotica and Pornography

Cecilia Tan (Author, Editor, Publisher): Gave a historical perspective (from the 90s) about writing and trying to get published when what she was writing didn’t really fit into a specific genre. It was sort of science fiction or fantasy with erotica. Struggled to get published, ended up opening Circlet Press in order to be published and then ultimately got a fair number of submissions from people who were in the same position.

Megan Hart: writes for the Harlequin Spice imprint, which is erotic romance. First wrote porn for men’s magazines.

Raelene Gorlinsky: background in technical writing; began as a part time editor for Ellora’s Cave after corresponding with the company with both praise for the work and criticism of the editing of their books. EC does see itself as one of the foundations of e-publishing and the erotic romance push that began in the early 2000s. Trends come and go: m/m sells now but originally they couldn’t give it away; after an initial poor reception to f/f, they are getting read to (or are already) open to submission.
General discussion during the Q&A:

The beginning of erotic romance was in the 90s, pre-Ellora’s Cave, when anthologies were being published by Red Sage, Kensington, Suzie Brite, and when authors like Robin Schone, Thea Devine and Susan Johnson were writing. There was no such sub-genre, but they were the front line.

Different because they were bypassing the traditional, male-dominated/created porn structure.

Digital published changed the playing field for erotic romance, but also the internet generally – being able to buy books online, without depending on your local bookstore having the book in stock or having to approach a judgmental store employee to order and then purchase the erotic romance.

Q: How is erotic romance (and the industry) different from the male-dominated porn industry? A: The traditional (male-oriented) porn industry was established to make money. It’s changing now because there’s so much free online that consumers are unwilling to pay for crap. Women-focused and –produced often comes from need for validation, rather than strictly financial perspective.

Q: Can you address the politics of women writing gay porn? A: Women like the vulnerability of a man in the romantic and erotic context, times two. Also, it’s not just women writing m/m, there are a fair number of men writing f/f. [This question came from Marvin Taylor, the librarian of the Fales Special Collection, host of the conference, whose areas of study and expertise include queer theory and media. He asked a lot of good questions, I thought. For this question, I do think that the two panelists who answered really didn’t address his specific question, but talked around it a little bit. Or that could be my interpretation of his question, which was less about why women read m/m and whether men wrote it or f/f and more about the question that has been discussed online: what are the political implications of heterosexual women writing and consuming m/m romance?]

Q: Does romance betray the erotic impulse, forcing women into monogamy? A: There are dividing lines between porn and erotica and erotic romance. The need for an emotional rest at the end is the key to erotic romance and to genre. If no emotional rest, then it’s not romance. This segued into a conversation about crossing out of the romance genre into literature, and the use of sex scenes that are not sexy, yet are acceptable in literature, which then prompted a brief discussion of how “literature” gets away with sex that is taboo in romance. Example: Nabokov’s Lolita is lauded, but pedophilia is a big taboo in romance.

Session 1
Formula/Convention/Archetype Narrative Construction of Romance Fiction

Catherine Roach: “I Love You,” He Said: The Money Shot in Romance Fiction as Feminist Porn
All romance fiction is pornography, including inspirational, because they are about sexual love and the woman likes it.

It’s women-centered and feminist porn, as distinct from male-oriented, mainstream porn.

It’s feminist porn with a narrative goal (the HEA) encapsulated in the “I Love You” moment. The ILU is both a narrative triumph and a porn triumph. Any erotic scene is a precursor to and erotic tension leading to proof of passion in the ILU.

I struggled with this presentation, primarily because I don’t think romance is porn. Roach clearly defines pornography in the traditional, classical sense, rather than using the modern usage, but it didn’t really work for me, and I was glad that Eloisa James called her on it – trying to reclaim the word porn is all well and good, but its subtext and modern usage are too much and too loaded, especially given the history and debate that has already occurred within the genre about the lines dividing romance, erotic romance, erotica and porn.

Jonathan A. Allen: Too Much and Too Little: On Flirting and Kissing
When it comes to love, language is both too much and too little. Flirting is duplicitous but leads to kissing, which resists verbal description. What does the kiss mean? It’s an affirmation of the flirting, the embodiment of the declaration, a performative utterance. The kiss enables the romance, readers and characters wait for this moment, although it often escapes description. It both clarifies the relationship (we are together) and muddies it (where do we go from here). The kiss is a promise and a threat (of love).

An Goris: Rape as a Trope in the Work of Nora Roberts
Comparing the use of rape in NR’s books to Radway’s characterization of rape in romance in her Reading the Romance. Radway said that romance is embedded in patriarchal society, and rape as a trope is a function of reinforcing those social structures and mores. Forced seduction by the hero releases the heroine’s sexual desire, which she could not recognize or act upon without him, and “true rape” by someone other than the hero is recovered from only through the hero’s enabling. Goris wants to look at rape in romance as a way to deal with the threat of violence, and to analyze forced seduction.

Fifty of NR’s 200 books include heroines who have been raped, thirty of those are the In Death books, with a single traumatized heroine, Eve Dallas. And the rape is “true rape”, never forced seduction, in which the heroine experienced no sexual desire. The trauma is not ignored, and its impact is reflected in the narrative. There are two types of heroines: 1) those who have overcome the rape in their past, and are no longer dealing with it on a daily basis (Abby O’Hurley, Anna Spinelli), and 2) those in the early stages of recovery, still traumatized on a daily basis (Cassie Dolan, Lily in Montana Sky). The assault is a factor in the relationships, although to a lesser degree in the first type, and there is an impact on the emotional courtship. The heroes always respond ideally to the revelation. NR’s heroes are characterized by restraint, control, power over male self, struggle with their impotence to protect the heroine (in retrospect). The hero also does not downplay the trauma. The heroine’s reclamation of self doesn’t rely on the hero, except perhaps in the reclamation of sexual identity.

Session 2
Love, Power, Justice?

Sarah S. G. Frantz: The Rapist Hero and the Female Imagination
Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love was addressed “to the editor of The Flame and the Flower”, Nancy Coffey, who did not think readerships would overlap, because the books were distinctly different. In TFATF, the hero rapes the heroine but then is celibate for months, all while in the heroine’s company; in SSL, the hero rapes the heroine and they go their separate ways, having sex with myriad others (including other rape) before ending up together. But the readerships did overlap – millions of copies were sold, and a new genre or subgenre was born. SBTB conflate the two in their book, but aside from the early rape of the heroine, they are vastly different books, although they are both “blockbuster historical romances”. According to a Publisher’s Weekly piece from the late 70s or early 80s, there were three distinct subgenres: the Woodiwiss style (sensual); the Rogers style (bodice ripper); and the Sacajawea-style historical fiction with romance thread. SSGF is concentrating on the first two in an examination of the blockbuster historical romance, which will be a chapter in a book to be written.

Linda Lee: The Illusion of Choice: Problematizing Predestined Love in Paranormal Romance
The idea of predestined mates dates back to Plato’s Aristophanes, in which perfect beings are divided, and the other half is the one true love or other half of the soul that can create the single perfect couple. Exhibited in various ways in paranormal romance: loss of color vision, appearance of marks, scents, etc. Looked specifically at the work of Kresley Cole and Christine Feehan. Widely used (and overused) as a trope, some readers have questioned the use of the predestined mate as failing to give the heroine (or hero) a choice. Feehan, frontrunner, appears to have taken some of this criticism to heart, when it comes to giving heroines some degree of choice or latitude in acceptance of the bond with the predestined mate.

Margaret Toscano: Love’s Balance Sheet: Accounting for the Bondage of Desire and the Freedom of Choice in Historical Romance. [I don’t have any notes on this one; I remember the speaker talking about being a feminist Mormon who was eventually excommunicated, but otherwise nothing.]

Session 3
Love in the Stack: Popular Romance Collection Development in University Libraries

Crystal Goldman, San Jose State University
Annually, 9,000 romance novels are published. What is the core collection? Keys are tangibility, ownership, user community, and retrieval system. Where do you keep them? How do you obtain them? How do you maintain them? How do you organize them? Organization is key to retrieval, but popular romance can be categorized in several ways, just look at the summary for Library of Congress on the copyright page. Walked through a catalog search for what might be the core romance library, looking at the UCal and CalState systems.

Marvin Taylor, Fales Special Collection at NYU
The Fales is a popular culture special collection based on the Fales donation of AmE and BrE popular fiction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fales loved Gothic novels, 75% of the books listed in Summers’ Gothic Bibliography can be found in the collection. He enjoyed detection more than romance. They have a copy of Cecil Dream (1868) (Not sure that title’s right), a romance, and A Marriage Below Zero (1891), the first queer novel in the US, published the same year as Dorian Grey. More than half of the collection has not been catalogued. Due to budget constraints, most libraries no longer accept the donations of large collections unless the collection is accompanied by sufficient funding to catalogue the books. I believe he said that it would cost upwards of $500,000 to catalogue a collection of 20,000 books.

Nancy Downs, Bowling Green State University
BGSU had the first popular culture program and library, so they don’t have to justify the existence or collection of popular romance fiction the same way other university libraries must. Dr. Brown collected everything and anything, much through donations. In the 90s the library’s collection was divided into the primary sources and secondary, which do not circulate. Collection includes series/category romances, which are fascinating for their marketing and telegraphing of contents. Relying on donations creates collections that are reflective of the population (good and bad). The collection also includes RWA newletters, dime novels, romance ephemera (author giveaways like bookmarks, etc.)

Marilyn Dunn, Schlesinger Library, Harvard
The Schlesinger specializes in the history of women. Maud Wood Park, a suffragette, tried to donate her collection of pamphlets, newsletters and articles, but was turned down. Schlesinger got Radcliffe to accept her collection. The collection also includes papers of NOW, NARAL, Adrienne Rich, Betty Friedan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, etc. The library sees popular culture as part of social movements, which is how popular romance fits in. The question facing the library is how to have the collection reflect women’s social history?

Keynote Speaker: Laura Curtis
Interested in the unhappily ever after, first began writing about romance in the 90s through a counter-romantic route. Looked at modern coupledom as a text, through the filter of adultery and the political.
I feel like I missed a lot of this address, but I don’t remember why. (ETA: I confess: the Nadal/Del Potro R16 match was being played and I was distracted by the Wimbledon ap and @RadioWimbledon.) My notes about the end of the speech are on SFF as porn, in the sense of being focused on the body as sexual center. Question why the clit is so far from the vagina, center of sex for women. Is the disparity in sexual pleasure a reason that bodies are often reorganized in SFF?

Session 4
Sex, Money, Power: Romance through the Ages

Hannah Priest: “Hit cost a Thousand Pound and Mar”: Love, Sex and Wealth in the Fourteenth Century Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle
Medieval popular romance is NOT the same as contemporary popular romance. It is the forerunner of the modern popular novel, not being epic poetry (which was concerned with the courtly). It was concerned with the hero’s journey, and had adventure and love, culminating in a happy ending. Popular, rather than literary, because no leading French source text existed. Language in English rather than French, intended for wider audience, bourgeois, less discerning, poor taste or education.

The bedroom as key part of construction of gender and identity in romance.

Characterized by Gawain’s sexuality, ability to fall in love and propensity to marry.

Amanda Allan: Charm the Boys, Win the Girls: Power Struggles in Mary Stolz’s Cold War Adolescent Girl Romance Novels
Heroines set within a hierarchical social structure, wealth as power; the girls are interested in “boy capital”, which gives them standing among the girls. Set within a patriarchal society, the women/girls struggle against other girls, not boys or the structure itself. Boys don’t legitimize the girls’ status but their possession does; they are above/outside the hierarchy. Girls as gatekeepers to high school popularity – female dominant society.  [Keep referring to Irigaray – who is this?]

Su-Hsen Liu: Modern Gothic Romance and its Translation in Taiwan: A Case Study of Mistress of Mellyn
Very popular when translated, prompted other translations. Originally did not translate names, etc., and some concepts not translated. Later translations more literal, but done after the boom of gothics, ultimately did not sell as well.

Pamela Regis: The First Ten Silhouettes: Following the Money
Money as abstract, representing future pleasure, unspecified happiness to come, leading to a concrete, happy present.

Looking at the diversity of employment for both hero and heroine in the first ten Silhouettes, along with the relative wealth-status of the hero and the heroine.

Referred to Northrup Frye several times, need to look up.

Session 5
The Erotics of Property

Eric Selinger: Owning the Romance: Crusie, Phillips, and the “Erotics of Property”
Using Jan Cohen’s 1988 Romance and the Erotics of Property: how the heroine gains access to property/power in patriarchal society. The ur-text is Pride & Prejudice – the amorous effects of brass. Economic vengeance – carefully coded and masked in modern romance, must appear to be seeking nothing – economic innocence.

Welcome to Temptation: Phin fits the patriarchy slot but is bored by it. Sophie gets the benefits of it by using her con-artist skills. Also gets to exercise more power via politics. Power dynamics: name, ring, position. Phin is means by which Sophie obtains place in female-defined society.

Natural Born Charmer – brand names –> money, Dean is a brand name in his own right. Consumption is an aspirational act. Blue refused to buy in, results in poverty but also counter-consumption, refusal to participate in the market gains Dean’s attention. Later (epilogue) Blue’s access to Dean’s money is really access to her own artistic power, and also uses her artistic power to earn Dean more money. Middlebrow consumption production more valuable than faked high art production that academics preferred (Blue’s art).

Observation by Hannah Priest: there are different approaches to accumulation/pursuit of wealth in BrE and AmE culture; Cohen was British; but the examples used are AmE, does it make a difference?

Statement there? That authors and readers own genre fiction rather than critics?

Ann Herendeen: The Upper-Class Bisexual Man as Romantic Hero: The “Top” in the Social Structure and the Bedroom
My notes here are pretty brief, just saying that Herendeen in her work defines her gay and bisexual heroes socially rather than sexually, and links the two consciously.

Angela Toscano: The Limits of Virtue, the Limits of Merit: Power, Privilege and Property in Historical Romance Fiction
Romance is not apolitical or un-ideological; the choice of a historical setting is inherently political and subject to ideology. Women’s bodies as other—commodity exchanged by men to reinforce men’s positions.
Derek Craven – uber-mensch, beyond the limits of man, able to impose ideology on the world rather than have it be imposed on him.

Session 6
Worldbuilding Romance in Fiction and Film

Jennifer Kloester: Creating a Genre: The Power of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Novels
New biography of Heyer out in September in the UK but not until 2012 in the US. Had access to the Heyer papers through the children and grandchildren. 1902-1974, Heyer’s formative years were spent in the remnants of Victorian and Edwardian eras, socially-speaking. Raised in Wimbledon, educated by her father, prolific letter-writer and writer in general. Obtained her first book contract when she was 18, has never been out of print since then; 51 of 56 books are still in print. The books no longer in print were contemporaries that were suppressed at her request, published in the late 20s, 30s, because she doubted the value of the writing; Source Books is negotiating with the family to reprint them. Extremely private person, sudden change from early demeanor after her father died in front of her in 1925. Her book Helen may be autobiographical.

Susan M. Kroeg: Regency World-Building, History, and the End(s) of Romance
Worldbuilding was originally a SFF word. (Sorry, that’s all I have for notes.)

Betty Kaklamanidou: The Absence of Sex and Money in the Contemporary Rom Com. Fact or Fiction?
Sex and the City – women having sex because it is owed to a spouse (Miranda and Steve), or women increasing sex in order to avoid risk of unhappy husband (Charlotte)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – women manipulating men in order to obtain desired goals, no sex on screen (parents); progression of sexual relationship (heroine and hero) through the use of kisses only.

The Proposal and Hitch – the transformation of a career woman into a traditional female role, shown through the giving up of profession, change of appearance into more traditional female clothing, etc.

Something’s Gotta Give – ???, heroine is a playwright falls in love with Warren Beatty-type character who dates younger women, writes through her misery, ends up giving up younger lover when older one has second thoughts.

Jayashree Kamble: Temptation and the Big Apple: Bollywood romance goes West in Kabhi Avida Naa Kehna
Film: Never Say Goodbye, Hindi language, 2006

Hero and heroine are married to others; neither was an arranged marriage, both are unhappy. Begin as friends, trying to figure out how to make marriages work, end up having an affair and being caught by in-laws. Ending: father-in-law tells to go and be happy, breaking traditional Indian theme of preservation of family.

Kamble asserts that the movie could not be set anywhere other than New York City, which affords anonymity and the ability for the hero and heroine to meet in public without anyone observing or questioning them. Further, the entire film is taken up only with the question of their relationship; no larger issue of Indian identity or the Indian diaspora are addressed, and no larger Indian social network plays a role in the film.

Session 7
Money Changes Everything; or, Does It?

Elena Oliete Aldea: Greed is Good but Love is Better: the Influence of Economy of Romance in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street Films
In the first film, the family is the rock, as portrayed by Martin Sheen. In the second, the concept of family has become less stable, leading to nostalgia.

Globalization and deregulation lead to risk to local communities; there is a feeling of homelessness.

Women as commodities, referred to as stock, and women are money oriented, willing to be sexual objects for money.

Second film:  large engagement ring as thing of discomfort for heroine (money as representation of safety and family not comfortable?).  Women responsible for maintenance of family, despite uncertainty.

Beatriz Oria: Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend: The Representation of Romantic Love in Sex and the City
Cynical treatment of love disguising wish/ for old-fashioned love relationship. Plus a money-based consumerist philosophy.

Example: apartment going coop, Aidan offers to buy her apartment, she finds the ring before he proposes and vomits; followed by conversation with girlfriends about it being the wrong ring, meaning he can’t know her. Implicit message: luxury consumer good lead to HEA.

Writer/director played with traditional scene set up for proposal, moving away from consumerist scenarios, showing Aidan’s separation from it and Carrie’s expectation of it. Most serious consideration of the ring rather than the idea of spending her life with Aidan. Episode ends with Carrie and Samantha, with the message that friendship is more lasting or important than the romance.

Conversation here about the ring.  First about the ring as being a very American or North American concept, and the ring size and setting in this particular case being extremely specific to urban or NYC setting.  Then also about characterization of the selection of the ring as symbol of knowing the woman and the unacknowledged stress on the man buying the ring — salary wise and emotionally, in terms of getting it right.  From a historic perspective, focus on the ring is not surprising — jewelry was often chattel that a woman would keep as part of her dowry, so the financial value of it was not to be taken lightly. 

Antonia Losano: Value for Virtue in Multiple-Romance Narrative Romance
What is the drive to subplot? It repeats the HEA and relationship arc across novels and within novels. For reader identification? To frame/break ice for the main h/h? To act as a contrast with the main relationship by being either easier or fraught? To create a female community of likeminded individuals engaged in the same pursuit?

Example: Pride and Prejudice
Lizzie: 10,000 pounds
Jane: 5,000 pounds
Charlotte: 1,000 pounds
Lydia: 50 pounds

Virtue reward by financial value. Realistic historical (proto-feminist) statement for women in this situation: financial plot is not submerged. Troubling factor: requires competition for resources, antithetical to sisterhood/community. So is P&P then about competitive individuality rather than being a novel of sisterhood as commonly understood?

Virtue rewarded not by financial capital but by other prize – safety, etc. Money prize not such a big deal or best reward (Sense & Sensibility) (Bet Me) (NR books)

Session 8
Queering the Romantic Heroine: Where Her Power Lies

Katherine E. Lynch: One Small Step for Romance: The Evolution of the Queer Female Hero
Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen has Britomart, who embraces life as a man. But in medieval romance, no full-fledged fomance, but f/f encounters, always as heroine seeks a man, arranged by a man. Not until The Well of Loneliness is there a f/f romance, although it is not genre romance. It narrates a f/f romance relationship that ends unhappily, with the butch hero killing herself. Following, lesbian pulp noire fiction was popular, but no HEA. All ended in despair/suicide. In the late 50s, Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker series changed that, although still not genre romance, which didn’t arise until the 70s. First book, Curious Wine, about the difficulty of coming out to yourself.

Ruth Sternglantz: Where the Wild Things Are: Contemporary Lesbian Romance and the Undomesticated Queer Hero
Is a dangerous woman tamed? Is she analogous to the dangerous man in het romance?

Look historically at Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale to see how women negotiate power. Emily the Amazon didn’t want to marry but hunt, negotiates marriage that keeps her power. Kate the Shrew – superficially silenced and softened by love.

Look at Love’s Melody Lost – retelling of Jane Eyre. Love frees wild women to be themselves rather than taming or domesticating them. Look at Passion’s Bright Fury by Radclyffe. (Bought a copy of PBF, it’s TBR.)

Len Barot/Radclyffe: Queering the Alpha
The female alpha is not the same as the male alpha in terms of character trends. First, no forced seduction or rape. In het romance, the alpha hero (male) faded to beta, then returned in paranormals with claws, fangs, etc., to demonstrate wildness or alphaness. Paired with aggressive heroine.

There was a lot of really good stuff here on unfettered sexual aggression as being biologically programmed and natural, as well as the worthy mate balancing but also retaining autonomy and sense of self, but my notes are gibberish. Experiencing brain fade at this point.

I remember Marvin Taylor asking about the masculinization of the queer heroine and wondering about the feminization of the gay hero in m/m romance, but I don’t recall where the conversation went.

Conversation with Bertrice Small: Charming lady who told us the horror story of how she was first published (or nearly not published), and how she researches. She lamented that the big historical seems to be gone and word counts are so tight, and advised that writers write what they want to read.

General observation: the panels I enjoyed most were the library panel and the queer heroine panel, in part because they felt less academic to me — that’s not to say they weren’t professional or presented by people with academic credentials, but they felt less bogged down by terminology and less self-conscious.

Second general observation: a lot of the papers including arguments about how popular romance subverts “the patriarchy”. Marvin Taylor asked people to define patriarchy a couple of times, because there are different patriarchies. I’m not sure if my definition of the word is the same as any of theirs, since I’m assuming it was being used as a term of art.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “My notes from IASPR (updated)

  1. Thanks so much for these notes!

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