More geeking out about romance from IASPR

If you’ve been enjoying the tempting tweets from #IASPR, I should point out that the entire conference proceedings will be published in JPRS, the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, known familiarly as “Jeepers.”
Also, membership in IASPR is a mere $25 per year, so if you really want to be one of Ravenclaws of Romance, click here:
I’ve been thrilled by the intersection of literary criticism, feminist theory, and gender studies that come together at IASPR. I took copious notes on some of the presentations, while others fascinated me too much to be typing during. I offer here a few of the thought-provoking statements in the papers presented, but this falls far short of the full analysis presented by each.
The very first presentation was one of my favorites of the entire conference, and related very directly to my own work and career. Catherine Roach (U. of Alabama) presented a paper entitled “‘I Love You,’ He Said: The Money Shot in Romance Fiction as Feminist Porn.” The online description of the paper encapsulates the point quite well: “This paper seeks to unpack a key, climactic narrative moment of the popular romance novel’s “happily-ever-after” ending, wherein the hero declares his love for his beloved. In this moment, I argue we see romance fiction as (1) a type of feminist fantasy space, (2) woman-centered porn, and (3) porn with a telos, or narrative goal, superseding the novels’ actual sex scenes.”
The key point that really opened my eyes (because it elucidates exactly the technique I use in the Magic University books, though I had done it unconsciously) is that the sex scenes themselves are foreplay leading up to the emotional climax, which is the declaration of love. I’m taken with Catherine’s idea that the “payoff” for female consumers is the declaration of “I love you” and that this moment in the narrative is not only the goal, it is the “proof of authenticity” in the same way the physical “come shot” is in film pornography. (And even more interesting is the thought that even in a romance novel that has no sex scenes at all, as in Christian romance novels, this climax in the declaration of love is what makes romance still the equivalent of “porn” for romance readers.)
The conference opened with a panel (that I spoke on) about how the line between romance and erotica is blurring. I gave a personal definition in which I said functionally for me the difference is that erotica has the goal of producing a physical reaction in the reader, while romance has the goal of producing an emotional reaction, and as far as I’m concerned what works best is work that does both of these things. This is why even in my erotic short stories there is quite often a romantic element and also why I can’t imagine writing a romance that doesn’t have an erotic element (even if it’s sublimated into longing and fantasizing without on-camera sex scenes).
But where that thought takes me, spurred by Catherine’s analysis, is that in this way modern romance is much more reflective of the way sex interacts with love for many women now rather than sticking with the previous formulas in which all sex comes AFTER the marriage (which comes after the declaration of love). In my own life and in the lives of many of my peers, the sex comes first. We use sex as a way to test the compatibility of a potential mate, and sexual relations as a gateway to love. (I won’t get into issues of physiology, the sexual triggering of oxytocin and its place in bonding, beyond this parenthetical mention.)
The point is that in real life, for some of us, the sex truly is the foreplay to the payoff of the declaration of love. Perhaps this is so obvious as to not merit mention, but it seems notable to me because I rarely find people actually admitting this. No one, of course, wants to appear cold-blooded in a loving relationship, but the theme of the conference is actually Sex, Power, & Money, and much of the analyses this weekend have centered around ways characters in romance novels use status, money, and power as motivators. Both in books and in films, from Pride and Prejudice through Sex in the City, female attractiveness and availability is used to acquire money, power, and status through their men. (In historicals of course the only path to empowerment is via the male.) Nowadays though, at least in the queer- and kink-identified communities I have grown up in, we find sexual compatibility and lasting passion to be of higher value than money.
Which leads me to wonder if I did an analysis of BDSM-based and queer-focused romance if I would find a greater emphasis on the value of the sex (and its place in validating personal identity) than on the more “traditional” romance ideals of true love tied to a diamond ring and landed estate/portfolio? Of course, there are the same-sex romances, for example, which take place in an alternate universe where there is no homophobia, and where everything is entirely the same as possible to a traditional romance except for the one key point that the two main characters are man and man or woman and woman. These would have to be counted separately, I suppose… or I’d have to posit a separate axis on which to divide the genres. Hmmm.
Validation of personal identity for those who are marginalized is perhaps a bigger prize than financial security or the attention and love of a powerful/high status mate. Does that change the rules of romance for queer-identified authors/protagonists/readers? Or does it merely establish the rules more firmly, it’s merely that the prize is different?
Well, this started out as a blog post about the conference, but it’s quickly morphing into a topic I should probably develop into a paper for JPRS. Jeepers…
Later in the conference, after I wrote the above, Ruth Sternglantz presented on WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, on wildness and taming in lesbian romances. She argues convincingly that medieval romance was often about taming wild women and current romance is usually about taming dangerous men. In lesbian romance, however, there is a third option, which is to celebrate that wildness. The declaration of love is a declaration that the wildness is what is wanted, not change and domestication. There are some lesbian romances that follow the hetero model, but many take this third option that is affirming to lesbian identity. She says, “Lesbian romance offers a third alternative celebrating the wildness, where we are loved FOR their wildness and transgression not in spite of it. Wildness is not the enemy of the happy ever after. ”
Ruth was on a panel with Radclyffe and Katherine Lynch PhD (who writes as Nell Spark) where each of them presented on an aspect of lesbian romance. Lynch went all the way back to Spenser’s Faerie Queen, through the Well of Loneliness, through Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker and the lesbian pulps, up to the modern day in her presentation, and Radclyffe topped it off with a terrific presentation on Queering the Alpha, and the differences between the alpha male in old bodice rippers and the alpha butch in more recent lesbian conceptions, especially the alpha paranormal butch. It would appear in both het and queer romance the alpha male, who fell out of favor in the 1990s as politically incorrect, has had a resurgence as vampire, as werewolf, etc… with a magical or biological imperative to be aggressive, territorial, lustful, and protective. Not only does the magic or beast-nature of this character excuse what would merely be character flaws in a human, the paranormal also allows for the heroine now to be able to match the hero with power of her own. Rather than tone down the alpha male here, we have a pumped up and powerful alpha female heroine as well.
Moving on to other topics…
Jonathan A. Allan (U Toronto) presented on the topic of “Too Much and Too Little: On Flirting and Kissing.” His polemic was deeper than I can encapsulate here, but the point that stuck with me was this idea of the “romantic paranoid.” Romantic paranoia is the state the character gets into when attracted to another character but not yet sure of the other character’s feelings, causing constant questioning — was that flirtatious? was that look or that word meant to be flirtatious or is it just imagination/wishful thinking?
This is one of my favorite parts of writing, is the stage where the characters are trying so very hard to understand what might be going on in each other’s heads. This is why, of course, my ultimate fantasy is that of “Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords,” where the guessing eventually not only ends, but is consummated with a merging of thoughts and knowledge of each other.
This idea of mind-reading comes up again in some other papers, as well, including the kind of mind-reading that the READER takes part in, deducing what the characters are thinking, as well as the characters trying to gain intuitive understanding of each other. This is one of my major kinks, of course, and so I greatly enjoyed hearing it teased out as a romance trope and learning once again that one of the things I like best about sf/fantasy is I can take things which are merely metaphorical in other genres and make them real in my own worlds. My mind-readers are literal.
How amusing is it that the word “heteronormative” was uttered when I had not been at the conference even five minutes (by Eric Salinger, one of the JPRS editors), and yet the word “cliche” wasn’t spoken until the very end of the Q&A session at the last panel. (Heteronormative, aka “the H-bomb.” Hee hee!)
Oh and there is much more, about the war between desire and choice, about the undermining and/or upholding of patriarchal structures by the choices of romance heroines, the correlation between richness (as in money) and desirability in a hero, about how desire for the “other” drives narratives, and much much more, but I have to post now before this gets any longer. I also took notes on Bertrice Small’s interview that closed the conference and will try to get those notes live soon, as well! Ms. Small was gracious and wonderful to hear.


  1. You’re getting into some really fascinating territory here. I’m glad it’s filling you up with ideas. Maybe next time we are in the same place we can talk about some of them.

  2. Thanks for a great post, Cecilia! It was a real pleasure to hear you at the conference, and if you’d ever like to write up those thoughts on BDSM and validation, we’d love to see the paper at JPRS. Thanks for spreading the word about IASPR!

    1. You’re welcome! And as soon as I catch up a little on queer theory perhaps, you’ll be seeing a paper from me on the subject! (Pointers to any previous papers you think I ought to read welcome!)

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