Panel 1: Theories of Pleasure (Saturday, April 22, 8:00 – 10:00 am)
Laura Frost, Stanford University: “Stories of O: The Language of Orgasm in Women’s Romance”
What do women want? According to contemporary science and popular culture, female sexuality is nearly as mysterious now as it was when Freud described it as a “dark continent.” Despite three waves of feminism, there is still confusion about women’s sexual pleasure: it remains under-researched, underrepresented in sex education and, apparently, still elusive for some women. Yet the genre of women’s romance fiction has always, confidently and consistently, articulated and produced women’s sexual pleasure. Despite science’s tepid efforts to fathom female orgasm in the early- to mid-century, and right up to the FDA’s approval of a misleadingly described “female libido drug” in 2015, women’s romance has, in the same period, generated an innovative and evocative language for portraying women’s erotic experience. While the history of twentieth century female orgasm is marked by the work of psychologists, social scientists, feminist sexologists, and activists such as Freud, Marie Bonaparte, Wilhelm Reich, Marie Stopes, and Shere Hite, or on mid-century “high-brow” fiction writers celebrated for their transgressive depictions of women’s sexuality (e.g., James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Anaïs Nin, among others), this presentation will argue that women’s romance is an equally crucial archive of knowledge about and expression of female orgasm. Close readings of two highly successful and influential women’s romance novels of the modernist period, The Sheik and Three Weeks, will show how romance authors forged an orgasmic lexicon that balanced explicit and evasive, novel and familiar, and cliché and innovative imagery. Working through florid and fanciful euphemisms for orgasm (“crisis,” awakening, swooning, spasm. . . ) and suggestive allusions to anatomy and sensation, the language of women’s romance needs to be understood in relation to censorship as well as tacit contracts between authors and readers that reflect ideas about female desire and sexual response that can be counterintuitive and politically/intellectually disquieting. Romance writers have long known and mobilized the character of women’s fantasy and sexual response that scientists are only now discovering. Finally, this talk will extend these insights to the genre-bending phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, through which we may measure the distance women have and have not come in terms of orgasmic representation across the past century.
Julie Cassiday, Williams College: “A World Without Safe-Words: Fifty Shades of Russian Grey”
Advertised as “The Russian Fifty Shades of Grey,” the trilogy of romances by the pseudonymous Alisa Klever represents an adaptation of erotic BDSM to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Despite its obvious debt to EL James’s novels, Klever’s trilogy is a uniquely Russian work that both reflects and comments on its social context. Revolving around the damaged yet forceful Maksim Korshunov, who demands total erotic obedience from the hyper-feminine Arina Krylova, Klever’s trilogy creates a fictional world, in which the domination and submission underlying the gender regime in contemporary Russia become explicit. The bondage, dominance, and submission that characterize sex in Klever’s trilogy create a space where bodies, emotions, material consumption, and citizenship all intermesh, allowing the author to demonstrate the beauty of well-regulated intercourse among these four, as well as the ugliness when such intercourse goes awry.
By depicting “the real Russian view of love in all of its manifestations,” Klever’s books illustrate the prevalence of a distinctly post-feminist eroticism in Putin’s Russia. Women like the fictional Arina Krylova represent the Russian Federation’s ideal citizens, since they display those traits deemed most desirable by Putin’s neonational, neoliberal regime, namely, a strong work ethic, dedication to marriage and family, a modest materialism, and a pleasure-providing self-discipline. In addition, the substantive changes Klever renders to the Fifty Shades formula include a sinister sadistic subplot—without any corresponding masochism—that fundamentally alters the significance of BDSM in these Russian books. No longer limited to neoliberal transgression-as-liberation, BDSM comes to represent all forms of violence done to the individual in contemporary Russia. As a result, Klever’s trilogy not only depicts, but more importantly critiques contemporary Russian gender roles, urging its female readers to expand those spaces where they can form community and exercise autonomy.
Eric Selinger, DePaul University: “Xenophile’s Paradox: Reading for Pleasure Across the Great Divides”
In a familiar passage from The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes asserts that the “text of pleasure” is one that “contents, fills, grants euphoria,” since it “comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading.” Barthes’ description resonates with the more recent (and rather more poignant) observations of Lauren Berlant that “modes of personhood and aesthetic events are mutually mediated by the affective expectations congealed around generic mappings,” such that the “law of genre” at once constrains the reader and allows her “to pre-experience the flow of unconflictedness unachievable elsewhere than in the genre’s horizon of expectations” (The Female Complaint, 254). What, then, might it mean to “read for pleasure” across the great divides of national, cultural, racial, or other difference: divides which might well disrupt those “affective expectations” and that “flow of unconflictedness,” leaving us too discomforted for euphoria, too unsettled for comfort? In this talk, I will sift through the multiplicity of experiences that we lump together as “reading for pleasure”: some present in Victor Nell’s psychological model of “ludic reading”; others surprisingly absent from that model, like the gratifications of allusive play, the moral pleasures of sympathy and outrage, and the consumerist pleasures of social distinction. My goal is to illuminate the negotiations of familiarity, alterity, appropriation, and learning involved in a xenophilic practice of reading popular romance fiction, a genre renowned for its cultural conventionalities, yet one which circulates on a global, increasingly multicultural scale. I will also look at how particular romance novels represent and think through the complexities and, perhaps, the paradoxes of xenophilia, enacting the freshness, excitement, fear, and erotic attraction of encountering the “foreign” not only through twists of plot and character, but through the contrapuntal deployment of contrasting genres, discourses, ranges of reference, and cultural traditions.
Panel 2: New Subjects and Audiences (Saturday, April 22, 10:15 am – 12:15 pm)
Sonali Dev, author: “Genre Structure and Learning to Dance Within its Boundaries”
Genre structure can be at once incredibly freeing and challenging to a writer. On one hand you have a roadmap, while on the other hand you’re telling a story where the forward motion is not fueled by the ending alone but by the crafting and the telling. For readers, genre structure provides the familiarity and comfort that draws them to reading romance with the promise of both emotional upheaval and satisfaction. Personally, I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of the genre in terms of story while still utilizing convention-familiarity to diversify the worlds and settings. I’ll explore the two unlikely things that have helped me with this: my background in architecture, where you get to dream in form as long as you understand structure and design requirements, and my lifelong interest in Bollywood films, which share the same audience expectations and storytelling conventions as the romance genre.
Hsu-Ming Teo, Macquarie University: “Tigresses, Tang Dynasty and the Ten Commandments: The East Asian Romance Novels of Jade Lee, Jeannie Lin and Camy Tang”
It is well known that romance novels are overwhelmingly white where romantic protagonists and their communities are concerned, even if these societies are culturally diverse in reality. Romance scholar Jayashree Kamblé argues that “the alleged ‘universal’ nature of mass-market romance fiction” contains “a narrative that normativizes Westernness – and more accurately, whiteness.” Mallory Jagodzinski notes that the industry “has had a fraught relationship with race,” commenting that “stories about characters of color or stories written by authors of color are automatically slated in the subgenre of multicultural and ethnic romance,” resulting in “less author support and less resources to market the novel, leading to less reader consumption and less profit for the (often nonwhite) author.” Romance writers and readers of different ethnicities have challenged this white norm. Black American romance is a flourishing subgenre, albeit with its own problems of market limitations, and Hispanic romance publishing is a fast-growing phenomenon. However, romance novels with East Asian protagonists are few and far between, leading writers, readers and bloggers with an East-Asian background to establish websites that compile lists of such books, as well as frustrated blogs that ask “Are Asian Men Not Sexy?” and “Where the Hell Are All the Asians?”
This paper briefly outlines the rise of romance novels featuring East Asian protagonists and considers the extent to which they feature or engage with issues that are deemed problematic for mainstream East Asian literature in English; issues such as boutique multiculturalism, the interplay between cultural and gender stereotypes, representativeness, the creation of “Asia” and the homogenization of “Asians,” pressures towards cultural assimilation, hybridity, the dominance of interracial relations, and a preference for East Asian stories to be set “long ago and far away in a land of exotic people.” It then discusses the East Asian romances of three of successful novelists in this field: USA Today bestselling author Jade Lee’s 19th-century Tigress series, Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty romances, and Camy Tang’s Asian chick lit/Christian inspirational romance novels.
Jayashree Kamblé, LaGuardia Community College: “When Wuxia Met Romance: The Pleasures and Politics of Multiculturalism in Sherry Thomas’s My Beautiful Enemy”
That the romance genre has an international readership (in English and in translation) is widely documented, as is the fact that the texts are predominantly Anglo-American despite the growth of African-American romance. The multicultural strain has expanded in recent years, however, with one or both protagonists occasionally being of Asian/Latino/multiracial descent. While this is often done in token ways (for instance, through the names and descriptions of characters’ skin/hair in Nalini Singh’s paranormal romances), a case study of Sherry Thomas’s Qing-era My Beautiful Enemy (with its prequel, The Hidden Blade) allows for a more fruitful discussion of changing representations of diversity and its appeal for readers. MBE’s heroine is of mixed Anglo-Chinese ethnicity, and the novel’s plot draws on wuxia, a literary and cinematic genre that has a century-long history, both in mainland China, as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand. Thomas, who grew up in China, is familiar with it, and mentions it as an inspiration for these texts, but even readers who may not know the term might find it appealing. For one, it features a warrior heroine (a type that has acquired currency in paranormal and urban fantasy romance), and second, it taps into the appreciation for (or at least, familiarity with) wuxia outside China—known to worldwide audiences through its manifestation in Asian martial arts movies (with the hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers most widely recognized by non-Chinese audiences). MBE’s plot enacts the genre closely, particularly through the aforementioned heroine: Bai Ying-Hua is a righteous knight errant intervening in nineteenth-century Chinese national politics by martial means that are almost supernatural. Her journey would appeal to existing fans of wuxia, might introduce new audiences to this Chinese genre, and deepens the diversity of romance fiction far beyond the token inclusion of a multi-ethnic character.
Len Barot, author and publisher: “Lesbian Romances and the International Market in the Digital Age”
In contrast to foreign sales of “mainstream” romances, the market for translations of LGBTQ genre fiction is small. Sale of translation rights depends upon the interest and financial means of small “niche” publishers in countries where an identifiable audience exists. Of the 1,000 titles published by Bold Strokes Books, an exclusively LGBTQ publisher of genre fiction, less that 6% have been translated into Spanish, Russian, French, or Dutch (in that order of frequency). All of the translated titles are lesbian genre titles: contemporary romance, romantic intrigue, or erotica, and in the majority of cases the same titles are requested for translation.
As a result, the focus of the international market for LGBTQ titles is to an English-reading population, and the majority of titles sold internationally are lesbian romances. Prior to the “digital” revolution beginning in late 2010 when the Kindle and other electronic reading devices made digital versions easily accessible, attainable, and affordable, print dominated foreign sales. Shipping costs often priced LGBTQ trade paperbacks out of the competitive market in foreign countries, and overall sales were small. Post-2010, digital sales far outstrip print sales, particularly in the international market place, allowing more readers to easily obtain previously expensive or unavailable titles.
This study looks at the distribution of digital lesbian romance sales via our largest vendor in the international marketplace from 2011-2015 in terms of the proportion of sales by country, as well as a comparison of popular titles in the foreign marketplace versus the United States. These trends allow us to anticipate overall sales, as well as to competitively price titles for the broadest audience.
Panel 3: New Media Platforms and the Global Marketplace (Saturday April 22, 2:15 – 4:15 pm)
Mary Bly, Fordham University, author: “Romancing the World: How and Where American Romance Sells”
New York Times bestselling author Eloisa James (Shakespeare professor Mary Bly, by another name) will dissect the foreign market from the perspective of a writer published in over twenty countries. She will explain the difference between keeping and giving away foreign rights, international rights agents, international book fairs, and international readers. She will look in particular at reader behavior — why Julia Quinn needed a bodyguard in Brazil, for example. and why readers fainted on meeting Lisa Kleypas in Germany.
Katy Regnery, author: “From Stay-at-Home Mom to NYT Bestseller in 30 Months: A First-Hand Perspective on the Digital Revolution in the Romance Publishing Industry”
When I graduated from Kenyon College in 1994, I had never taken a single business course, nor had my formal education included any English courses after high school. But somehow, I published my first book in September 2013, wrote and published twenty more full-length novels over the ensuing 30 months, and found myself at #14 on the New York Times bestseller list by May 2016.
Some quick facts about my career so far:
- I do not have an agent.
- I have never been published by a “big-five,” New York publisher.
- My 2015 royalties were over $350,000.
- Sixteen of the books mentioned above, including the collection that listed with the NYT, were published independently.
In my presentation, I will provide a first-hand perspective on the ways in which e-commerce, new online tools for authors, and social media are changing the romance publishing industry and allowing writers to manage their careers increasingly independently.
Sarah Wendell, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: “The World is So Big; The World is So Small: The Global Community of Romance”
Hosting a global romance community at an American-based web site is an equal mix of challenges and opportunities for learning. As I have learned in the 12 years since the founding of SBTB, the more things change, the more some frustrations stubbornly remain the same: logistical limitations like DRM, geographic price restrictions, and limited access to new and older romance titles continue to frustrate readers. More importantly, however, I am of the strongly-held opinion that every romance reader should see more than just her own emotional reflection in romance. The genre still needs to better resemble the people who read and write it – culturally, religiously, ethnically, linguistically, physically. etc. In my presentation, I will share some of the insights I have learned from interviews and podcast recordings with readers and writers in underserved and underrepresented communities inside and outside the US. What are they reading, what do they want more of, and, most importantly, how are they changing the genre for the better? The genre needs to evolve to better serve its readership, but as readers who embrace narratives steeped in optimism know, a happily ever after is always possible.
Patience Bloom, Harlequin: “Harlequin’s International Program: A World of Romance Readers”
This talk will examine Harlequin’s global markets and how this publisher is well positioned to satisfy the voracious appetites of romance readers worldwide. An icon in the romance genre, Harlequin has created—and continues to create—ambitious publishing programs, delivering romance in as many as 32 languages and selling in more than 90 international markets. Ms. Bloom will touch upon cultural, linguistic, and topical diversity in select programs (France, Italy, Japan, Australia), listing examples of how we market differently to accommodate our readers. In order to operate effectively, the publisher has deepened its understanding of global markets and added complexity to its structure.
Panel 4: Transnational Romance (Sunday, April 23, 9:00 – 11:00 am)
Jin Feng, Grinnell College: “Time-Travel to P & P: Web-based Chinese Fanfic of Jane Austen”
The rewritings of Pride and Prejudice on the Chinese Web fit the definition of fanfic in that they deliberately borrow from an original work, are written without the initial creator’s expressed permission, and are not published professionally for profit. But they also demonstrate a unique characteristic: deploying the device of time-travel to insert Chinese men or women into the canon universe.
The protagonists can take up any roles in the original, or they become newly created classmates, friends, or siblings of existing characters. They can maintain the original romantic “coupling” (CP), choose different partners, or even enter into a homoerotic rather than heterosexual relationship. But they all accomplish great things: not just finding eligible suitors, but also becoming successful in business, military, politics, or medicine. Short on historical accuracy, the fanfic works nonetheless incorporate many Chinese elements: Chinese objects, Chinese cuisine, and even Chinese social media.
Any fanfic provides the combined pleasure of repetition and difference. It also allows fans to appropriate from existing cultural products to hone creative skills and to benefit from the original’s cultural cachet. Further, P& P fanfic serves specific personal and political ends for the women who write and read them. Some rewrite the fate of the “wronged woman,” whose victimization in the canon universe has roused indignation and generated a tale of redemption. Others use fanfic to recast ideal masculinity and femininity. Finally, reworking this Western classic helps authors and readers re-imagine Sino-British relation and position themselves in today’s complex world.
Discussing, reinterpreting, and refashioning the source text alongside like-minded insiders produce explanation and validation of Chinese women’s lives, offering them a more satisfying experience than reading alone. Ultimately, the works discussed provide examples of the “open canon” that fanfic can create, while querying the dynamics between cultural globalization and localization.
Emily Johnson, University of Oklahoma: “Exploring His/Her Library: Reading and Books in American and Russian Romance”
Contemporary American romance novels often employ a trope that has a rich history in European literature: the use of books and personal libraries as a means of characterizing the hero and/or heroine. Just as Tatiana explores Onegin’s library in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the heroes and heroines of contemporary American romances, often learn about potential romantic partners by looking at and even reading their books. Moreover, clear patterns dictate the books that fill characters’ shelves. The heroines of contemporary American romances are depicted as passionate consumers of romance novels so frequently that this might almost be deemed a standard feature of the genre: their shelves and Kindles are full of popular romances, typically in the same subgenre as the book in which they appear. They often reference favorite authors and compare their own romantic plight and hero of preference to the plot details and characters that they recall from favorite books.
Heroes in contemporary American romance novels are also often explicitly labeled as readers. Although predictably most have stereotypically masculine taste in books (military histories, crime novels…), romance novels do sometimes appear on their shelves. Moreover, even alpha heroes may pick up romance novels at key turning points as a way of learning about the heroine and her desires.
My paper considers the trope of the personal library in contemporary romance and the extent to which it carries over into the romance novels that Russian authors have begun to produce in recent years in imitation of Western models. Are Russian heroines also frequently identified as passionate consumers of romance fiction? Do heroes in these novels ever dip into romance novels as a way of exploring female desire?
Kathrina Mohd Daud, University of Brunei Darussalam: “How ‘halal’ are Muslim Romances?: Shariah Compliance and Contestations in Ayat-ayat Cinta, The Translator, and She Wore Red Trainers”
The discussion of romance novels and their permissibility in Islam frequently revolves around the central concerns of whether the romances depict sexual relationships in Shariah (Islamic law) compliant (“halal”) ways, the glorification of non-Shariah compliant sexual activity, and the intent of the Muslims who read and write these romances. Perhaps due to the predominant scholarly/jurist consensus about the parameters and dubiousness of romance novels as permissible, while of course Muslim romances exist, they have never become mainstream except in a few Muslim majority countries in Asia.
Nevertheless, looking at existing Muslim romances may offer insight into the varying constructions of Shariah-compliant romantic love in diverse Muslim communities worldwide. To this end, this paper will consider the ways that depictions of romantic love have engaged with the spectre of Shariah compliance in Muslim romances from Europe and Asia.
By looking at Indonesian blockbuster romance Ayat-ayat Cinta or “Verses of Love” (Habiburrahman El Shirazy), the critically acclaimed British romance The Translator (Leila Aboulela) and the Young Adult romance She Wore Red Trainers (Na’ima B. Robert), this paper will discuss how these influential novels and novelists have shaped conceptions of the genre of Muslim romance such as it is. This paper will also explore the ways that these novels have engaged and contested Shariah compliance and have been shaped by their particular cultural and literary contexts.
Heather Schell, George Washington University: “After ‘I Do’: Turkish Harlequin Readers Reimagine the Happy Ending”
In 2012, an online survey presented Turkish Harlequin readers with an excerpt from Shirley Jump’s Back to Mr. and Mrs., in which Cade (the hero) and his father argue painfully about Cade’s plan to take time off work to reconcile with his estranged wife. The survey asked these readers whether or not they had read the book and then presented them with open-ended questions about how that scene would resolve, as well as about what would happen once the protagonists renewed their marriage vows. Research on romantic beliefs suggests that romantic Americans and Turks have similar core convictions about the power of true love to overcome obstacles. However, because the United States is one of the world’s most individualistic countries, while Turkey is one of the most collectivist, we might expect to see that conflicts between family and romantic relationships offer a more serious challenge to romantic outcomes in Turkey than they would in the United States. This paper explores Turkish readers’ ideas about how to resolve the challenge posed by Cade’s father to the novel’s romantic relationship; it also analyzes the participants’ imagined endings to explore the role of family in the happy ending.