A Reader’s View of the Princeton Romance Conference
This account of the Princeton Romance Conference, Love as the practice of freedom? which took place on April 23 and 24, 2009. This account is from reader, Karen W, who helps organize the fabulous Celebrate Romance seminar, wrote this up for another group and I asked if I could repost it. I’m sorry I missed the seminar. It sounds fascinating.
I just got back from a romance conference in Princeton – this was an academic conference that had presentations from scholars, authors and bloggers, called “Love As The Practice of Freedom? Romance Fiction and American Culture”. I heard about the conference from a friend, and we thought it would be a chance to see each other before I moved, as well as hear some of the talks. (Plus, it was free, and we both had Friday free.)
Several people are blogging about it – Sarah from Smart Bitches was there, as well as Sarah Frantz from Dear Author, and it’s also been covered at the Teach Me Tonight blog. But I thought I’d post about what I thought, in case any of y’all were interested. Some of the talks were a little too “academic” for my tastes, but several of them were very interesting. There were about 75-100 attendees. A lot of students and academics, but a fair number of authors and readers as well.
Sorry this is so long – I couldn’t figure out a way to condense my 15 pages of notes any better than this.
The conference started Thursday night. The two organizers were William Gleason, who teaches a course on American Bestsellers at Princeton, and Eric Murphy Selinger, who teaches courses on romance at DePaul. I had dinner with William Gleason on Friday night, and he said that he got interested in genre fiction because his father wrote for television – including co-creating Remington Steele – and he thought the constraints of writing a TV script were similar to the constraints of writing a genre fiction novel. You can still be very creative within those constraints.
On Thursday night, there was a roundtable on “Romance Fiction and American Culture”. The first speaker was Tania Modleski, who teaches at USC and has written a book called “Loving with a Vengeance”. I wasn’t that interested in her talk – her theme was romance as a reflection of “female complaint”. Ehhh…
The second speaker was Stephanie Coontz, who is a historian who has written a book called Marriage A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. I’m going to be checking out this book at the library, because her talk was very interesting. She talked about the change in marriage and courtship in the 17th to 18th centuries, when love became a reason for marriage, and women were able to choose their partners. This led to great anxiety, because on one hand, women were able to choose, on the other hand, what happened if they chose badly and were victimized, or if they were seduced and abandoned. You can see this anxiety in novels like Clarissa. She also said that it led to more emphasis on men and women being opposites – before this, men and women were seen as more similar, and the differences were more between classes. But this emphasis on love led to the idea of men and women having “separate spheres” and gender roles became more rigid.
She also said that today, our biggest problem was figuring out how to overcome this, and figure out how to find sexual tension in equality. Today, a woman wants a man who can wash the dishes and do the laundry, but this goes against our conditioning to see men and women as opposites – and this is part of what we find sexually attractive, someone who is opposite to us. So contemporary romances are trying to work out this problem.
Eloisa James aka Mary Bly spoke next. I’ve heard her speak before, and this was basically the same talk – she talked about how she wrote romances in secret while working as an English professor, and how her work was put down – her department head told her she’d never get tenure if anyone found out she wrote romance. She commented that any other type of writing would have been respected – even porn would have been considered more “cool” than romance. One interesting comment – when she wrote an op-ed for the NY Times, outing herself as a romance writer, the NYT promised they’d never use the term “bodice ripper” again. But they didn’t keep their promise.
Jennifer Crusie was the last speaker of the evening, and she said that unlike Eloisa, she’d never had to keep her romance writing a secret, even when she was in academia. (She was a PhD student but never finished.) She said that romance was a very American form of writing – it says “if you struggle, if you try hard, you will succeed, and the world is emotionally just”. This is why romance is so popular, and why it keeps selling even though it’s considered “uncool”.
On Friday morning, there were four more sessions. The first session was “Love and Faith: Romance and Religion”. I wasn’t that interested in this topic, so I’ll skim over some of it.
Lynn Neil, a religion professor from Wake Forest, mentioned Redeeming Love as the ultimate inspirational, and talked about what evangelical readers were looking for in romance. (Escape, but also a way to reinforce their faith.) Pamela Regis, who wrote A Natural History of the Romance Novel (another book I’m going to look up) talked about the history of inspirationals – going back to Pamela by Samuel Richardson, as well as American books like Vivia from 1857. Marie Griffith talked about religious self-help books.
Beth Patillo, who wrote Heavens to Betsy, was the most interesting one in this group (to me, at least). I was surprised when she said that Betsy sold very poorly. (It got a lot of buzz online, but I guess that doesn’t necessarily equal sales.) She said that she was stuck between two markets – the Christian market is specifically evangelical, and many Christian bookstores wouldn’t sell her book because it featured a female minister. But she couldn’t get a lot of publicity on the secular side of the market (and her publisher was Christian, so they were focusing on the religious sales). She said that the Christian religious market is focused on personal purity, and there’s a long list of “don’ts” for any book that can be sold in a Christian bookstore – not just sex and language, but also no alcohol, no gambling (even Bingo is a no-no), no mention of Halloween, no violence, etc.
However, she felt that with the rise of internet bookstores and the decline of the small Christian bookstores as gatekeepers for Christian fiction, that there might be more acceptance of books with Christian characters and themes that weren’t specifically evangelical.
Eric Selinger talked about Flowers in the Storm and the references to Milton’s Paradise Lost in the book. (I’m going to have to go back and reread it now!) He also talked about Quaker beliefs in FFTS – on first glance, Maddie’s belief in women’s equality seems like a 20th century messaage, but it dates back to the 1600’s in the Quaker community.
The next session was on “Memory and Desire: Romance, History and Literary Tradition”. The most fascinating thing in this session was Margaret Doody, who talked about Greek romantic novels from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD. She talked about a specific book, which I think was named Charleroi (I couldn’t find a reference to it online but I don’t know the exact spelling). It could have been a modern novel – it’s about a heroine who marries, her husband thinks she’s unfaithful so he hits her, he thinks she’s dead but she’s actually sold into slavery, she finds out she’s pregnant and marries someone else, her husband realizes he loves her and tries to find her and is sold into slavery himself, etc. These romantic books were not translated until the 1980’s and were mostly ignored by the academic establishment until recently.
Rita Dandridge spoke about historical African-American romances, which date back to just after the Civil War. Sally Goade talked about the differences between Last of the Mohicans, the movie of Last of the Mohicans, and Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati, which was inspired by Last of the Mohicans. Then Ann Herendeen talked about her book, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, which is about a threesome. I found it interesting that several people said this book was immediately picked up by academics who study romance and put on syllabuses (syllabi?) in courses about romance. Although I’ve heard about this book, it certainly wasn’t hugely popular in the romance world, and other authors have done threesomes before (most notably, Emma Holly). But this book came in trade paperback and maybe that makes it more “respectable”.
Then Beverly Jenkins talked about her historical romances, and made everyone in the audience teary-eyed when she talked about the story that inspired her book, Indigo. (A book I’ve been wanting to read for ages but haven’t been able to find, at least at a reasonable price.) She said that she was inspired by interviews with former slaves, done by the WPA in the 1930’s. She heard a story about a freed man who sold himself into slavery, for the love of a woman. She didn’t know anything else about the story, but fictionalized it and turned it into Indigo (which is actually about the child of this couple). She read two fictionalized letters that she’d written from the point of view of this hero, and they were absolutely heartwrenching.
I had a fascinating lunch conversation with two editors, one from Avon and one from Harlequin. We talked about back blurbs and titles, and the Harlequin editor said that they did a lot of research to find out what sells. The Avon editor said there was a disconnect between selling books to publishers, where authors have to emphasize how their books are similar to other books that have sold, and selling books to readers, where authors have to emphasize how their books are different. She said that back cover blurbs are an attempt to do both, but they don’t always succeed.
We also talked about e-books and DRM, and both editors groaned and said they HATED the restrictions on e-books, and were hoping they would disappear. They both felt that e-book sales would take off if people weren’t so worried about whether their books would work on different devices.
After lunch, there was a session on Romance and Sexuality, which was surprisingly boring. (I only took half a page of notes in 2 hours.) Eloisa James spoke again and talked about homoeroticism in J.R. Ward’s books. Sarah Frantz talked about BDSM romandes. Julie Moody-Freeman talked about sexuality and older women in African America romances. (I sat next to her and had an interesting talk with her later – she’s writing a paper about how older women (over 50) are depicted in romances. I just sent her an email telling her about the shortlived category line, To Love Again, which featured older characters.) And finally Guy Mark Foster talked about his love for interracial romances.
The fourth session was about Romance and Race. The most interesting talk was by Emily Haddad and talked about sheik romances, particularly in Harlequin Presents. She pointed out that these romances leave out a lot when it comes to the Middle East – religion is never mentioned, democracy is never mentioned, 9/11 is never mentioned – but the heroines are always depicted as bringing Western values to the prince heroes and securing the succession. It’s interesting that these books have become very popular over the last few years.
Gwyneth Bolton and Esi Sogah (the Avon editor I talked to at lunch) both talked about African American romances. The Avon editor talked particularly about marketing and said that there were a lot of people who would like to read AA romances but weren’t finding them. A couple of students in the audience asked why there weren’t any romances featuring characters with other ethnic backgrounds – Asian, Indian, Arab, etc. The two editors both said that they thought there was a market for these books but it was hard to know how to sell them.
Then there was a closing roundtable called “Romance Reads the Academy”, which featured non-academics. I suspect this session will be discussed quite a bit online. The first speaker was Michelle Buonfiglio, who blogs at a site called Romance B(u)y The Book. She talked about how it was important to have a place where readers aren’t “intimidated” by “too much criticism” and that “most romance readers don’t want to read negative things”. This certainly sounded like a slap at Smart Bitches, and Sarah from SB was sitting right next to her. (Jane’s note: you can read most of MB’s address here although some of what she said at the conference wasn’t included in her printed remarks).
Sarah looked a bit annoyed, but she got up and talked about the freedom of being a blogger and how it empowers romance readers to feel more free in their reading choices. She did talk a little bit at the end about the difference between saying “I don’t like this book” and “I don’t like you”.
Diane Pershing, an author and president of RWA, talked about how she started reading romance (she always thought she wouldn’t read “those books” until she finally read one, and then was hooked and read 300 in one year). She also spoke about how RWA supports authors and scholars, etc. And Krista Stroever, the editor from Harlequin that I mentioned earlier, talked about Harlequin and their demographic research – 22% of romance readers are men, since Harlequin started they’ve sold 5.8 billion books, a Harlequin is sold every 4 seconds, etc. She also talked about Harlequin’s move toward e-publishing, which she said was a business decision that was made to help with the short shelf life of Harlequin books – if someone misses a book in the month it’s released, they often can’t buy it later. This is a way to make backlist books available forever.
At dinner, we talked about whether this conference will continue in the future. (There are similar conferences planned for Australia and Belgium in the near future, but I don’t think I’ll be going to those!) The organizer, William Gleason, said they hoped to make it an annual event, and they also hoped to put the papers that were given at the conference into a book form – I promised him that some romance readers would buy it! I enjoyed the conference and I might consider attending in the future, depending on who was speaking.