Category Archives: Event Review

Symposium: Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing

An Events Report by Lucy Sheerman

I went to the PGCWWN conference on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre with a sense of burning shame. I wanted to address a theme from the conference call out that fascinates me – the idea of shame which is so often linked to reading romantic fiction, namely ‘The perception of romance as a low-brow genre, and the extent to which this perception offers critical and intellectual insights into debates about how we define women’s writing and cultural contribution’.

In answer to the question about why romance is so often and so frequently denigrated Sarah Wendell editor of the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Fiction writes, ‘Are you a woman? Look in your pants. That could be why.’ It is a genre ‘written mostly by women, mostly for women’ with what Nora Roberts calls ‘the hat trick of easy targets: emotions, relationships and sex’.

I had been struck by the descriptions on Wendell’s website of how readers had had their romance books confiscated, thrown away and even burned and the resonance with Charlotte Bronte’s description of how her father burned her collection of ‘foolish love stories’ which had belonged to her mother. It seems that the idea of shame is rooted in the earliest origins of and attitudes to romantic fiction. Later, her husband Arthur Bell Nichols insisted that her friend must ‘burn’ Bronte’s letters to her. According to Bronte their ‘communication’ was something which ‘men don’t seem to understand’ and ‘dangerous as lucifer matches’.

The representation and correlation of sexual desire with both shame and fire is pivotal in Jane Eyre and in its subsequent iterations, Rebecca and Fifty Shades of Grey. In Jane Eyre desire erupts in the flames set by the passionate wife, flames which also threaten to engulf Jane literally and metaphorically. In Rebecca the narrator’s gaze is continually drawn to DeWinter’s compulsive smoking which masks the blaze or blush of his own shame and the experience of repressed and conflicted desire. Fire and burning, the heat and blaze of skin, eyes and touch in Fifty Shades of Grey is figured as sexual arousal and desire without literal fire. No longer a metaphor it is the experience and state of desire and climax. What does such a shift in meaning suggest and what has happened to the representation of ‘burning shame’?

My focus has mostly been on the authorial process at work in romance – I am interested in how writers use the conventions of the form and how these can, in turn, be read. The PGCWWN symposium offered a wide-ranging analysis of romantic fiction with approaches ranging from literary theory to social history and political manifesto.

Amy Burge gave a keynote on the representation of masculinity and nationality in the Mills & Boon Modern series. She looked at how the representation of otherness – foreignness and masculinity – is portrayed in the figure of the exotic Alpha heroes of these books. Her talk included a meticulous breakdown of the frequency of different nationalities for heroes, (how many Italians, Greeks, Sheiks, etc – the made-up tiny European principality had its own category) as well as a rather stunning spreadsheet of the buzzword titles which look like putative and subversive titles in their own right:

His, Billionaire, Millionaire, Boss, Tycoon

Italian, Sicilian, Billionaire, Boss

Greek, Tycoon, His, Boss, Millionaire

Martina Vitackova, by contrast, gave an account of the huge success of a white South African author writing romance novels in Afrikaans which, despite the focus on white protagonists, attracts diverse and widespread readership and sales. In part this must be because, according to Vitackova, it is almost the only contemporary romantic fiction currently available in the language. However the reception resonates with the link between escapism offered by reading romantic fiction and the process of othering or displacing desire which this can also permit implicit in Burge’s work and in Jane Eyre. I’m thinking, in part, of Esther Wang’s article ‘Watching And Reading About White People Having Sex Is My Escape’ about the experience of racial dissonance between the reading and written worlds.       https://www.buzzfeed.com/estherwang/why-i-love-watching-and-reading-about-white-people-having-30?utm_term=.fdDEEQgqPD#.mmz33pwdqa

Many of the papers concerned themselves with the nature of the metaphoric freight which sexual desire carries in romance novels. Political ideology, social and sexual dissonance, the othering of desire onto a foreign, domineering male challenger, the possibility of happiness within a compromised and far from ideal social order, sexual agency and control are played out within the trope of sexual attraction, desire and consummation. Fran Tomlin considered the use of the romance genre in the work of A.L.Kennedy and in particular its negotiation and resistance of the HEA (Happy Ever After) trope. Val Derbyshire discussed how Penny Jordan reflected the social impact of economic recession through characterisation and story arc in two of her Mills&Boon titles. Alicia Williams also took an instrumental view of category romance and the degree to which writers engaged with social issues. She looked specifically at the way in which the ‘Dear Reader’ letters which open many books set up direct communication between reader and author. This gesture, she argued, subverts the assumption that these books are only to be viewed as escapist fantasy and have been abstracted from real-world concerns.

Veera Mäkelä looked at the development of female agency in the novels of Mary Balogh while Deborah Madden, considered novels of1930s Spain and Portugal whose politically engaged heroines subvert the tropes of romantic love and an HEA in narratives which mirror their own resistance of the social and political worlds they inhabit. Fiona Martinez also considered the link between feminism and romance and the degree to which the tropes of romance permit a place to renegotiate and interrogate the feminine.

And so back to burning shame. The OED gives the roots of the word shame as ‘infamous man or woman’ and ‘to cover .. covering oneself being the natural expression of shame’. In her paper Elizabeth Dimmock discussed Fifty Shades of Grey in relation to Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. The reception and readership of the book linked to a ritualistic subversion of normative behaviours ‘played out via kindle under a cloak of erotic invisibility’ which reflects that of its protagonist whose sexual contract with his lover specifies ‘no piercing of skin’. Grey masks the redness and soreness he causes by spanking with the application of cream – an act both tender and dissembling as the evidence of his desire and need for control is covered up.

All in all? A shame it had to end so soon. So much to think about – I’m still mulling over the talks and chatting to participants and following up leads that were tantalisingly trailed throughout the day like so many breadcrumbs into the forest. Laura Vivanco gave a detailed review of all of the papers on her blog which is a comprehensive record of an inspiring day: http://www.vivanco.me.uk/blog

I’m enormously grateful for the chance to take part and for the generous award of a bursary which supported my travel and accommodation expenses.

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Review of the CWWA’s 10th Anniversary Conference: ‘Legacies and Lifespans’

 

By Jessica DayScreen-Shot-2015-07-07-at-18_55_56

On Saturday, 17th October 2015, the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association welcomed an international audience of academics, writers, and postgraduate students to the University of Brighton to celebrate their 10th anniversary conference aptly named ‘Legacies and Lifespans.’ Whilst considering this thought-provoking theme in relation to contemporary women’s writing, the delegates explored the evolving spirit and concerns of women writers from the 1960’s and 70’s onwards through a range of interesting topics, genres, and theoretical analyses. Featuring not only three keynotes from leading scholars Professor Mary Eagleton, Professor Lucie Armitt and Patricia Duncker, but also the launch of The History of British Women’s Writing, 1970-Present (2015) and seven panel sessions, the diversity and insightfulness of the conference was truly beyond measure – and, so too were the stimulating discussions which were generated. Now, with the impossible task of capturing the full breadth of activity that the conference emanated, I will focus this review on the keynotes and overall sentiment that the conference inspired.

For those eager delegates that were able to arrive a day previous on Friday, 16th October 2015, this is when the initial considerations of the legacies and continuities of contemporary women’s writing began. Having received a warm welcome and opportunity for delegates to acquaint themselves with one another, Professor Mary Eagleton proceeded to introduce the conference with her paper ‘Chance and Choice: the Literature of Women’s Upward Mobility.’ Whilst analysing the implications of using the terms ‘chance’ and ‘choice’ in relation to the mobility of the ‘Scholarship Girl’ (a term formulated by Eagleton in order to accommodate for Richard Hoggart’s lack of attention to the ‘Scholarship Boy’s’ counter-part) Eagleton examined the transition of women in higher education since the 1950’s. It soon became apparent that, for women, the neoliberal ethic of the “self-made effect” relied upon a sociology of gambling, as well as upon the notions of choice, hope and serendipity, more than it did on the prospect of choice. Eagleton’s historical account of women’s upward mobility continued until the focus became the situation of mobility in today’s society, and concluded by drawing on Lauren Berlant’s notions of ‘cruel optimism’ and ‘depressive realism.’ Which, considering that much work from the weekend focused on writing in an age of crisis, were certainly themes that lingered in the minds of delegates the next day.

At first glance, the agenda for Saturday’s programme looked not only impressive but also rather fast-paced. So, following a relaxed introductory tea and coffee session, the energetic and animated tone with which the programme demanded of the day was quickly realised. Yet, this lively momentum in no form took away from the dazzling success of the conference, as instead it only matched the passion for the subject matter at hand and led to a continuous flow of spirited discussions to fill the day until the very end.

Patricia Duncker was the first keynote speaker to initiate this vigour, as her enthusiasm for contemporary women’s writing was discussed from her position as both academic scholar and novelist in her paper ‘Historical Figures and Fictional Lives.’ In reflection of her own fiction, particularly her recent novel Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance (2015), Duncker examined the traditions, rules and customs of creating historical fiction. To example but a few of the many areas that Duncker addressed, the main thinking at the heart of her paper stimulated from a critical examination of the implications and possibilities of “playing” with historical time; the dichotomy between what is myth and historical fact; as well the role of paratexts in historical fiction. Duncker interlaced this critical insight of the genre by looking at the self-imposed limits of fiction from her perspective as a writer, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the broader traditions and situation of women’s writing in the last few decades.

Having received such an engaging introductory paper, the delegates then began to disperse to the various panel sessions that took place for the majority of the morning and early afternoon. With panel sessions focusing on topics such as ‘Legacies and Dis/continuities’ or ‘Popular Fictions and Cultures’ right through to ‘Social Institutions and Feminist Strategies’ it was apparent that there were few aspects of contemporary women’s writing not accounted for and discussed. As for the panels that I attended, there was certainly an identifiable echo amongst the papers in that most not only engaged with how the legacy of contemporary women’s writing had developed in the last forty years, but, more predominantly and specifically, questioned what may define contemporary women’s writing in the future.

Following on from these seven panel sessions, as well as an exceptionally poignant presentation by Jane Anger (one of the co-founders of Silver Moon Bookshop) on Women’s publishing, Professor Lucie Armitt was the final keynote and speaker of the day. Despite being proceeded by such a varied array of work, Armitt’s keynote on ‘Unspeakable Seas: Flooding, Climate Change and Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ could not have produced a more fitting manner with which to conclude the overall sentiment of the conference. The true interdisciplinary manner of Armitt’s paper accentuated to what degree contemporary women’s writing is produced from and should be assessed through an innovative, experimental, and speculative lens. Her paper pushed the analysis of contemporary women’s writing into new territory, almost literally, by examining the encroachment of the sea upon the British coastline as an area for twenty-first century Gothic Literacy exploration. Thus, not only did the audience leave questioning ‘the role that twenty-first century literature might play in helping us negotiate our shared cultural anxieties about encroaching seascapes’ from a geographical and literary point of view, it emphasised the imaginative and innovative essence of contemporary women’s writing itself.

It is in the process of writing this report and in reflection of the conference’s success that I wish to say a huge thanks to the CWWA for organising such an insightful, diverse and beneficial event- especially, from my perspective as a PhD student in the early stages of their research- thank you.