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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.

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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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

25 Comments

  1. Jessica
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 16:36:07

    Thanks so much for the post, Karen, and the repost, Jane. It’s nice to see a complete narrative and get a reader’s POV.

    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.

    This point about porn being cooler is 100% true in my experience. Better to scrape bottom of cultural barrel than go for anything middlebrow (Merchant Ivory despised by most faculty of my acquaintance, for example). Also, it’s common for academics to develop a boilerplate talk and tweak it for conference after conference. No idea if that was what Bly was doing, of course.

    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”.

    I am so sorry Sarah had to make. this. point. a. gain. If I were her, I would be ready to commit some kind of ritual suicide over a flaming banner reading “criticism = respect.”

    he 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 hope both are true. I would love to attend next year and will definitely be reading the edited collection!

    Thanks!

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  2. SarahT
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 16:40:52

    I find it interesting that Mary Bly/Eloisa James and Jennifer Crusie had such different experiences of being romance writers in an academic environment. I wonder why. Different universities, different ethos?

    Although I quite like her books, I found Mary Bly’s ‘outing’ of herself right before a new book was due out just a bit too calculating for my tastes.

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  3. Hydecat
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 17:28:46

    I imagine the difference between Bly’s and Crusie’s experiences of being romance writers in an academic environment is that one was a professor and the other was a student. As a professor, all of your writing is held up to a certain standard and how well you meet that standard determines whether or not you’ll get promotions/tenure. There were probably two things going on. One might be that her department would think that if she was spending time writing “trashy” novels then she wasn’t spending enough time writing criticism — her job. The other (implied in “trashy”) is that most people, and very many academics especially, see romance as an inferior type of literature. If she wrote poetry or philosophical fiction she most likely wouldn’t have had that reaction. As a student, Crusie wouldn’t have faced those pressures as much, especially since she decided to pursue a career as a romance writer rather than an academic.

    As an academic myself, I think it’s very exciting that this conference happened, and thanks Karen for writing up the summary!

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  4. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 17:50:04

    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 [...]

    I wonder if it was Chaireas and Callirhoe. There’s a synopsis of it here and it sounds like the plot you’ve outlined.

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  5. Danielle Thorne
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 18:53:08

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting stuff and so helpful to those of us who can’t get out to every conference. Great notes.

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  6. Janine
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 19:12:28

    I really enjoyed reading this, so thanks Karen W.!

    ReplyReply

  7. Karen
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 20:12:41

    Laura, thanks for identifying the book in question! I tried to look it up on Google but had no idea how to spell the names.

    Jennifer Crusie talked more about why her experience was different from Mary’s. She said that she grew up in a very different environment – Mary Bly’s parents were academics and weren’t very happy about her reading romances, while Crusie said her family was happy for her to read and write romance. And Crusie went back to school when she was in her 40′s, and by that point, she wasn’t bothered by any criticism.

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  8. Maria
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 20:15:11

    Very interesting! Just one little typo to note (don’t know if correctable): intro to piece gives date as 2007, but I think it’s supposed to be 2009…unless I am confused…

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  9. Robin
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 20:26:05

    Emily Haddad’s work on sheik Romances is very interesting, and I would have loved to have seen Pamela Regis, too.

    Although I enjoyed the conference only second or third hand, I must say that I am absolutely fascinated by the issues raised around inspirationals, in large part because it’s something I haven’t really thought about or talked with anyone else about. Talk about a whole new world opening up; I would love to have copies of those presentations.

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  10. Kat
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 20:42:57

    Australia, you say? Were there any details?

    ReplyReply

  11. romsfuulynn
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 21:22:25

    Oh – I love some of Stephanie Coontz’s previous work – particularly “The Way We Never Were.”

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  12. Barb Ferrer
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 21:56:51

    Michelle Buonfiglio’s address was embarrassing. On a lot of levels.

    ReplyReply

  13. Evangeline
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 23:15:01

    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.

    But haven’t all sheikh romances been essentially white American alpha males in caftans? The few sheikh romances I have read, which were written long before 9/11, featured “Oriental” heroes who usually turned out to be half-Anglo whose only interaction with Muslim/Middle-Eastern culture was the harem. We can go back further than E.M. Hull’s novel, to the titillating stories of young women stolen and sold into harem during the height of the Barbary Coast pirates, and even the crusade against “white slavery” 1880s-1910s. Middle-Eastern and Native-American men are acceptable romance heroes in a way neither black nor Asian men are allowed to be (the former too “brutish and rapacious,” the latter too “feminine and sinister”), but all deal in perpetuating stereotypes that were nurtured during the 19th century and given life in the early days of cinema.

    But this emphasis on love led to the idea of men and women having “separate spheres” and gender roles became more rigid.

    I love this analysis and would like to read more about it. I find it extremely fascinating that the rise of romantic love created differences between the sexes, when the ultimate goal of romance, love and marriage in modern-day society is for a blending, a sharing of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. In light of this, perhaps the romance genre exists to bring the sexes back together?

    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.

    Ha! I believe this. Just last year a Christian magazine was pulled from some bookstores because the current issue profiled and featured on the cover a group of female ministers. Heavens to Betsy sounds really interesting, so I’m going to pick it up.

    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.

    I am extremely interested in the number of non-white and non-black aspiring writers who write and submit romances with other ethnic backgrounds. I remember Warner (now Hatchette) launching a line aimed at Latinas, and I could be wrong, but Kensington may have published a Latina romance imprint, which folded. Many non-black writers have published with the regular romance imprints, unlike black romance writers, and I wonder whether their presence proves that the separation between black and non-black romances should exist–or at least allow those who don’t want such a narrow focus market a choice to be published, promoted and marketed to the general romance reading crowd. But I still wonder why there are not more romances with Asian characters, or Latino/a protagonists, etc, and then I also wonder why romances with non-white/non-black characters do not have their ethnicity played up the way black characters do.

    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”

    I don’t see this personally as a slap–MB’s agenda notwithstanding–but an offering of variety, or tiers of involvement, I might say. I remember when I first began to read romance novels and then discovered sites like AAR. I was flush full of love and excitement, and since it was all brand new to me, it never occurred to me to dissect or review or deconstruct the romance genre. As time progressed, and also as I added writing a romance to the mix, I began to view the romance genre with a more critical eye and began to involve myself in the more critical and deeper discussions. But I can say that there is a slight chance that if I remained a reader and a reader only, the progression may not have happened. Plus, not only do we have to realize and accept that there are people who love fluff and fluff only, there are many readers out there who love the fluff because they have no support for their reading choices.

    I believe MB referenced a reader who felt they didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss their reading, but they felt she and the regulars (Bellas, I believe is the name for the community) put into words what she had difficulty articulating. Yes, we want academic discussions of romance novel, a greater level of critique of this genre we love, but there’s a danger in wanting to slough off people who don’t read romance and want to discuss the books in minute detail because it fosters the same resentment many of us feel when literary folks sneer at the genre. There’s room for everyone and all types of input into the genre, and putting a “wine and cheese” face on romance at the expense of hiding our hillbilly cousins in the closet is the complete antithesis of the positive elements romance is supposed to foster and that which we are supposed to be celebrating.

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  14. Evangeline
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 23:20:49

    should not exist!

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  15. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 02:11:04

    Kat, the conference in Australia will be held in Brisbane from August 13-14, 2009. There are a few more details at Teach Me Tonight, but there isn’t an official website yet. I’m sure Eric Selinger (who’s organising the conference with Glen Thomas) will post more details at TMT when they’re available.

    ReplyReply

  16. Kat
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 04:14:05

    Thanks, Laura!

    ReplyReply

  17. Colson Whitehead, Amazon, audiobooks | WriteBlack
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 04:46:15

    [...] report from the Princeton Romance Conference (Gwyneth Bolton and Beverly Jenkins were among the [...]

  18. SarahT
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 05:05:02

    I imagine the difference between Bly's and Crusie's experiences of being romance writers in an academic environment is that one was a professor and the other was a student.

    Point taken.

    Personally, I never had a problem saying I read (and aspire to publish) romance novels. But then my speciality is history, not English literature.

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  19. Ciar Cullen
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 07:30:23

    Because I work at Princeton, and only left the office intermittently, I caught only three talks.
    Having been to many academic conferences (on archaeology), I’ll say this was a different mix for obvious reasons. Beverly Jenkins made me tear up, for sure.
    It struck me, though, that this was an odd mingling of speakers and perspectives, and I’m not sure the mix works. Typically, the analyzers (from an academic viewpoint) are not in the same laboratory with the subjects. Something was off, there, and I can’t put my finger on it. Anyone else?

    ReplyReply

  20. Susan/DC
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 10:53:21

    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).

    I liked Patillo’s two books about Betsy and her struggles in her job and in love. The books were smart and amusing and portrayed someone for whom religion was central without being preachy or exclusionary. I’m sorry to hear that they didn’t sell well but must admit it confirms some of my biases when I hear that many Christian bookstores wouldn’t stock it because the heroine was a female minister. Of course, I also liked her Regency, written under the name Bethany Brooks, so perhaps I just like her voice and POV, whether faith is an integral part of the book or not.

    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.

    Perhaps all romance writers need to get the t-shirt that is ubiquitous on tourists in Vietnam: “Same-same, but different”. It refers to the common response in restaurants when the waiter is asked about a food that is unknown to Westerners, the food is “same same like chicken” or “same same like apple” but “different”.

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  21. MaryK
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 11:04:28

    Emily Haddad … talked about sheik romances, particularly in Harlequin Presents. … It's interesting that these books have become very popular over the last few years.

    Isn’t this kind of dated? I thought the heyday of the sheik was pretty much over. Aren’t they mostly Greek and Italian billionaires now? Maybe I’m just not paying enough attention to category romance.

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  22. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 11:18:23

    I thought the heyday of the sheik was pretty much over. Aren't they mostly Greek and Italian billionaires now?

    There are still plenty of sheiks, maybe not as many as there are Greek, Italian and Spanish billionaires/tycoons, but still a fair number. This month’s Harlequin Presents include Annie West’s The Desert King’s Pregnant Bride:

    Sheikh Khalid Bin Shareef has vowed never to get entangled with virgins. But innocent Maggie is too hard to resist-’and he takes her…

    The Sheikhs and Desert Love website keeps a “boutique” of sheik romances.

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  23. MaryK
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 11:29:57

    @Laura Vivanco: Cool website. I had a lot of fun collecting all of Alexandra Sellers’ sheik books, but she doesn’t write any more apparently.

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  24. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 11:44:16

    Mary, they used to have a map of all the fictional countries the sheiks come from, and it was really quite funny because it was so extremely crowded. If they were all real an extra half continent would have to magically appear to accommodate them all.

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  25. Erum
    Apr 30, 2009 @ 15:09:51

    Ciar Cullen:
    Because I work at Princeton, and only left the office intermittently, I caught only three talks.Having been to many academic conferences (on archaeology), I'll say this was a different mix for obvious reasons. Beverly Jenkins made me tear up, for sure. It struck me, though, that this was an odd mingling of speakers and perspectives, and I'm not sure the mix works. Typically, the analyzers (from an academic viewpoint) are not in the same laboratory with the subjects. Something was off, there, and I can't put my finger on it. Anyone else?

    No, it wasn’t just you – I also work at Princeton and I’ve attended many academic conferences here, as well. (In religion, politics, and philosophy.) And that was the thought I had, too. I think that having the authors in be part of the panel discussions somewhat tied the hands of the academics. They were all careful to be respectful to the genre (for the most part) and did not fully convey their thoughts as to why/how romance literature can be analyzed from an academic perspective. It was a fascinating conference, no doubt, but I was left wondering how much it really deviated from a standard RWA conference.

    Mary Bly, while there as an academic, did not really give an academic presentation. Her whole presentation focused on the theme of homosexuality in JR Ward’s “Brotherhood” series. I thought it was an interesting idea, but there are so many other “sexual taboos” themes to explore in romantic literature.

    I was also kind of surprised that not even one panelist (either academic or non-academic) discussed the history of the way rape has been handled in romantic literature. “Claiming the Courtesan” made such huge impact in the romance literature world when it was released because some people loved it (well written) and others thought it was a throw-back to the dreaded bodice ripper cliché. “Bodice ripper” is even a term that is synonymous with romance literature and the image evoked is of a woman being brought to climax by rape and submission. Yet, in the panel devoted to sexuality and taboos, no one discussed this.

    MaryK: Isn't this kind of dated? I thought the heyday of the sheik was pretty much over. Aren't they mostly Greek and Italian billionaires now? Maybe I'm just not paying enough attention to category romance.

    That was actually part of Haddad’s presentation (which was fantastic, btw). Her point was that Sheikh romance sales have actually gone UP since 9/11 and she wanted to try to figure out why readers were attracted to these sorts of stories. Of course, what makes this interesting is that the heroes of these books are not really anything like real Arabs or Muslims. Islam is never mentioned. The heroes are all “modern” characters who want to bring modernity to their people, but the authors are not selling the reader the idea of democracy, either. (The book always ends with the hero being the king of the country and a benevolent dictator. The heroine will bear him the heir who will go on to rule the land, etc.)

    I had a long conversation with Haddad after her talk and I’m not certain she has a come to the right conclusions as to why these books are popular and what makes an American woman want to read it. Some members of the audience thought that it was the thrill of the “foreign other” or that some people just want to read about inter-racial romances. Haddad argues that this cannot be the case, because the heroes are so generic, it’s actually not an inter-racial romance. I’m not so sure that I agree, but it was a very good discussion, none the less.

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