Not only was The Fourth Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies:
The Pleasures of Romance the first academic conference I have ever attended, it was my very first paper presentation. After talking to a lot of people, I get the sense that most of them aren’t nearly so much fun.
If you take a look at the presentation schedule, you can see just how broad and how rich the topics and studies were: http://iaspr.org/conferences/york-2012/york-conference-schedule/ . The presenters were digging deep and unearthing really meaty knowledge regarding all forms of popular romance – books, films, fan fic, etc. I’m sure it isn’t a common academic term, but the whole three days were… juicy.
I spent a lot of the time with my jaw dropped at the level of insight, investigation and genuine passion for the subject that I had the good fortune to play witness too. It was also, I might add, daunting as hell to share space with incredibly knowledgeable people. I think I probably came off a tad goofy, because I could not stop thanking people after their presentations for all the wonderful ideas they triggered in me.
And that’s the central point I think I want to make. This wasn’t just a conference where people show off their research prowess like a bunch of cerebral bodybuilders standing around posing. It was an inspiring and profoundly creative experience for me, both as a baby academic and as a fiction writer.
It was clear, with very few exceptions, that these people were investigating without pulling the subject apart reductively. I think, perhaps, the passion and the genuine respect that people had for the subject meant that, instead of breaking things down into denatured, constituent parts, the approaches were mostly holistic, contextual and – therefore – a very meaty experience.
I have come away so recharged, so full of ideas, so curious about things I had no idea I was even interested in. Three days of that is a life-changing experience. The only negative aspect of it is that my brain is simply not big or agile enough to house and digest all the questions prompted by listening to the vibrant, fresh, delicious ideas being thrown around.
If I were to start to tell you about all the presentations, this post would turn into a novel, so I’m just going to list some of the ideas I brought away with me – they’re abstract, tantalizing, and I need to let them rise like good bread dough and then do something with them:
Romancing Sex, Kink, and Rape
Wonderful presentations, very close to my heart as an erotica writer. I came away thinking about the fact that the ‘vocabulary’ women use to tell sexual stories with is the familiar and historical, re-purposed to discuss their own pleasures. That condemning women for the way they seek to explore those ‘strange yearnings’, as Sarah Frantz called them, is fundamentally unfeminist. We use the language, the semiotics we have available and the one that resonates for us at a deep level. Fictional ravishment is not, as Brownmiller would have it, a sign of our domination. It’s the enabling signifier of something much more complex and unnamed, and essentially liberating.
Male Bodies / Female Desires
What I really came away with from this presentation and a number of others on the subject of fan fic and slash fiction is that publishers and other producers of entertainment media still don’t get it. There is a vast audience hungry for non-normative romantic and sexual stories. In just the way I started writing erotic fiction because I could not find what I wanted to read, the fan fic and slash fic communities represent a huge audience who resort, creatively, to producing what the mainstream media refuses to offer them. Genuine, honest, engaged.
Keynote Address: John Storey
Of all the compelling data Storey presented on the way people use romantic representations in media to reflect and give voice to their own romantic yearnings, the one that struck me most was the use of pop songs as emblems of heartbreak and revisiting romance in memory. It got me thinking… what about the songs we use as markers for the romances that we yearn for but will never be? There’s a story in there. I need to write it.
North / South, East / West: Romance Across the Boundaries
Listening to the presentations on popular romance in Turkey, where the language has no gendered pronouns, I was off in a lateral thought cloud of how one goes about writing sex scenes without gendering the participants. Yeah, juicy stuff. Sexy stuff. Edgy stuff. Yum.
The simultaneous sessions were gutwrenchingly painful, only because choosing to attend one was denying myself the pleasure of the other and they were all so damn tasty, it was frustrating. But I chose to attend the non-Western session because so much of my writing is set in other cultures and the challenge of writing erotics in post-colonial worlds is like walking a tightrope:
Local Heroes, Heroines, and Pleasures: Popular Romance in Algeria, India, and Albania
Different cultures and languages have distinctly unique ways of examining romantic and sexual love. The difference in vocabulary is not just linguistic but semiotic. Digging deeper into other traditions is a way of enriching our own fictional romantic landscapes. I was reminded of how much more frightening the Japanese version of The Ring was, because the rules of storytelling are so different and appear so fresh and unfamiliar to us. I think we can do the same with erotic fiction – there are other tropes, other structures that can offer new possibilities for Western writers too. Yeah, let’s appropriate them. Mwuahahahaha. (ahem, respectfully, of course).
Africa and the Black Diaspora: Empire, Sex, and the Post-Colonial Remix
The first of these presentations was a delicious literary archeological mystery in the form of ‘Rupert Gray: A Tale in Black and White’. By Stephen N. Cobham, it chronicles a mixed-race romance at the beginning of the 20th century. It closes on a strange cautionary note against intermarriage which, in a way, puts the whole text under erasure. It’s like a murder mystery without a corpse.
Julie Moody-Freeman’s paper took us into the world of African American romance – territory I’ve never explored, but am now very anxious to get to. Her talk on the way many of these novels attempt to provide role-modeling for responsible African American men is powerful. It is a type of activism through romance. And cleverly powerful, because mothers raising sons are reading these books. Not only may they influence what women demand of the men they love, but how they raise their kids in a time of HIV and social strife. It bounced me back to my own genre and to question what role-models we are subtly but persuasively championing.
The Allures of Romance: Text, Paratext, and Real Life Love
This session was a lovely investigative journey into the pleasures of immersing in the fictionality of romance. I wish I could say I remember a lot about it, but I think my brain was on overload by this time. My notes make no sense.
Problem Texts and New Approaches: Disaggregating “the Romance”
Lu Jin’s presentation of the Lamia stories in Chinese romances was both, from an imagery perspective, close to my heart. If you’ve never read my story ‘The Baptism“, do it and you’ll know why. But also it brought up the question of how other cultures don’t see happy endings as essential to a romance story. In fact, often, quite the contrary.
Ria Cheyne’s magnificent presentation of representations of disability was probably one of the intellectual highlights of this conference – for what was said, and the myriad overhanging questions it brought up. Disabilities, in the form of blindness and paralysis are frequent in romance. She examined the schism between the reality of disability and what these disabilities were being used for within fictional texts. It got me thinking about the medieval tradition of characters whose disabilities and scars are physical manifestations of inner, spiritual deficits. It also got me thinking of the symbolism of the ‘cure’, the laying on of hands, the concept of love as the miraculous cure-all. But most of all, it got me thinking about a need to rethink the way disabled characters are constantly represented as being in need of ‘fixing’. It got me a little angry and stroppy frankly. Many disabled people don’t need to be ‘cured’, they are who they are. They deserve to be loved without being ‘fixed’. But that might just be me. I’ll cop to the fact that I find most physical flaws erotically intriguing and the people who cope with those challenges attractive because of the strength they have built up living with the realities of their disabilities. But then I’m a ‘let me lick your stump’ sort of perv. I can’t really help but see disability as a garden of creative erotic solutions.
Eric Selinger’s presentation went a little over my head. I took notes, and looking at them now, I can hardly decipher them. It reminded me that I need to do a lot more foundational reading before I can engage with this at an adequate depth.
Romancing Material Culture: Wedding Dresses, “Bella Bedding,” and All the Comforts of Home
Although all the presentations in this section were very compelling, Athena Bellas’ examination of the part textural imagery plays in Twilight was powerfully evocative, because it set me off in many directions. I went to bed with vivid memories of the scene where Dracula enter’s Mina Harker’s bedroom in the early F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu - all the billowing sheers, her filmy, virginal nightgown, etc. But it also got me thinking about the adolescent female fantasy world is always situated in the lair of her comfort: he comes for her in her most intimate spaces, trespassing into her sanctum. The cosy, soft bed – the site of all adolescent girls’ first forays into sexual fantasy and masturbation, with all the attendant romantic and anxiety driven implications of it.
Happily Ever Afters–and Afters: Romance and Repetition
This was the session I presented at. I was very grateful that I was slotted to speak first, because otherwise I would have been so angst-ridden, I wouldn’t have been able to digest the two other speakers, who were both spectacular.
An Goris presented on the dichotomy that emerges from the HEA and serialized romance. She examined the various strategies for producing serial fictions and the ways in which they can either keep faith with the reader/author contract of the emotional safety-net of a Happy Ending and the ways in which that trust can be betrayed.
Susan Kroeg also presented on her examinations of serial romances, focusing on how reader-feedback plays a major role in the lived-experience and sense of reader engagement with the texts, fellow readers and the authors of romance series.
I know you probably want to know about my presentation. I will put up the powerpoints with references attached. Honestly, I don’t know how I did. I felt like a kid playing around adults. I don’t think I did very badly, but I think that both my isolation as a scholar and my practice as a writer, framing my investigations through a lens of practice-based research, played a part causing me to approach my work in a rather eccentric way. However, I received nothing but support, encouragement and a hefty helping of ‘you can do it!’ from everyone around me.
What I’d like to say to fellow writers is… I think it’s important for us to see our writing as practice-based research. The conference wasn’t academic in the scary or dry sense. It was a riot of critical thinking and examination of themes and issues that are fundamental to our work.
We need to go to these things, participate in them, both for our own enrichment but to close the loop between the subject and the object, so to speak. It is a great place to put your practice as a writer into perspective. To understand where our work fits into the cycle of production, reception and consumption. It gives us the opportunity to see the big picture of how what we do impacts on culture in the large. If you’re a romance or erotic romance writer and you can attend the 2013 conference, you really should. You won’t regret it for a second.