Presenting: Alpha Heroes’ best event yet. Seriously, I’m so thrilled about this post and the next one coming up that I can hardly stand it. Wait’ll you see!!
Recently, Jessica of Racy Romance Reviews attended a conference on pop culture, sponsored by the National Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association, where a number of academic papers were presented on topics ranging from comic books and graphic novels, to romance novels, to movies, dime novels, hip-hop, aging and senior culture, motorcycling culture and myth – the list of areas available for submission is dizzying.
It should come as no surprise that my interest level skyrocketed around romance novels in general, and in particular, the two presenters who spoke about JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood in an academic sense.
I should confess right now that I have exactly zero academic credentials for literary critique, and I have no idea where this little blog event might take us (ooo. Exciting!). However, I am one thousand percent in favor of work that adds legitimacy to the romance genre, and the work that these students and others are doing goes directly to that goal. To that end, I’ve been corresponding with both of the women who spoke on JR Ward at the afore-mentioned conference, and they’ve agreed to discuss their papers a little bit with me here at Alpha Heroes.
First up is Maria Lindgren Leavenworth, PhD, Department of Language Studies/English Section, Umea Univerity, Sweden. Her paper was titled Lover Revamped: Sexualities and Romance in the Black Dagger Brotherhood and Fan Fiction. Maria, welcome, and thank you so much!
Maria: Hi Nicola! I am glad that my paper sounded interesting to you. What do you want to talk about?
Nicola: Well, first off, why JR Ward? Are you a fan? what is it about the BDB that makes it a good candidate for literary or social critique?
Maria: I started out with a general interest in vampires, reading a lot in my spare time, watching vampire movies etc. It wasn’t really an academic interest to me until I started researching fan fiction. I am particularly interested in how fanfic authors represent gender, sexualities and queerness and was thinking about what literary tropes lend themselves well to alternative constructions – enter the vampire! The proliferation of vampire fictions today also seemed to suggest that there are interesting things going on and that the vampire is a trope which is intimately connected to the culture which produces it.
As for Ward, I cannot say that I am really a fan of her writing if we by fan infer someone who really, really likes the novels (there are several definitions, obviously). I find that I struggle with several ideas and themes in her novels (and that many of these aspects are connected to the romance genre and not necessarily to Ward’s writing as such). My paper at the conference dealt with the heteronormative framework found in her novels which is really limiting, and unnecessarily so, I would argue, since her characters are vampires.
Nicola: Do you think Ward set out to write a Romance? Or a Vampire novel? Books that might’ve once been marketed as Horror are showing up in Romance these days, probably because the Romance readership is so much larger than other genres. I’m pretty sure that if we were to ask JR Ward, she’d say that the characters were in charge – but her previous books were standard (and fairly mediocre) contemporary romances.
Maria: I do not know what Ward originally intended, but I know that she has written romance novels under her real name previous to starting on the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Perhaps we see lingering effects of that production? I agree with you though – Romance has a large readership and marketing is certainly important.
[Getting back to the vampires...] They could exist outside heteronormative norms and illustrate alternative approaches to gender and sexuality, but they end up being attractive and powerful in ways that are fairly similar to how the male hero is most often represented in romance.
Nicola: True. I think this is why they’re popular, though. The paranormal framework allows the heroes to go into hyperdrive, and fullfill fantasy elements, like the inability to be unfaithful. Heh.
Maria: My point is that Ward does not really do very much with the fact that her characters are vampires other than giving them superhuman strength, long life and fangs. Now, Ward has her artistic freedom – do not get me wrong – but these aspects were what made me want to analyse how slash authors (who ARE fans) approach her texts but realize the homoerotic subtext found in the novels.
Nicola: That is a great point. I haven’t read a lot of the classic vampires, but Anne Rice certainly put the homoerotic aspect of vampirism in front of the mainstream. My thought is that the exchange of blood in vampire novels often proxies for a sexual relationship, and since blood is gender-neutral, vampire characters are frequently not so much explicitly hetero or queer as they are “omni” – in otherwords, gender just doesn’t matter.
Maria: I agree – and in light of this I find it even more interesting that Ward makes blood exchanges into such a heterosexual practice in the novels. Even feeding relationships which are not linked to romance or sex take place between members of the opposite sex (although no explanation as to why this has to be the case is given). This becomes really clear when Butch drinks Vishous’s blood and Vishous emphasizes that there is nothing intimate about the exchange (“I gave him some in a glass”).
Nicola: I found out about your paper through Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews, where she blogged about the conference: Do you think she characterized your points accurately? Anyplace where you'd like to set the record straight?
Maria: It is a good summary of the paper (and I am glad the caffeine kicked in)! I was not sure how the blog-entries would turn out (that is, what the bloggers would focus on) but I see now that this is a really good resource for people who could not be at the conference (or who were there but had to choose between sessions). Sarah’s final note: “Would be interesting to do a study on how the genre affects how vampires are constructed” in some ways corresponds to the project I am currently involved in – tentatively called FAN(G)S – Queer Sexualities in Vampire Fan Fiction. The idea of using different genres as basis for analyses of sexualities and queerness was our starting point. We’ll see how that goes…
Nicola: I like to consider myself fairly enlightened for a straight white girl from the US Midwest (a conservative, often insular area), but I hadn't heard the term "heteronormativity" before Jessica posted about your paper. Would you like to talk about what that means to you, in general or terms of mass market fiction?
Maria: I find heteronormativity useful as a concept because it highlights the implicit or explicit processes that normalize heterosexual behaviours and marginalize other expressions. Often, the heteronormativity is ‘invisible’ and it is by actively trying to identify patterns that we can get to why cultural texts (in the widest sense) are structured the way they are. Awareness and analyses of heteronormativity can make us more active as consumers, readers, and human beings, I think. In relation to mass market fiction, then, I return again to fan fiction because I often see, especially in slash, a resistance to prescriptive roles (keeping male characters in certain roles, female characters in others). That is, fan fiction is one outlet through which otherwise marginalized expressions can become normalized. There seems to be a clash here between the representations we come across every day in commercials, TV-shows, films and literature and the experiences of the readers.
Nicola: Let's talk about Butch and V for a minute. Reading it through my own lens -- het, with hundreds or possibly thousands of genre romances in my reading history -- it never once crossed my mind that they would end up together permanently. But I found their bond -- the sexual aspect, the paranormal/healing aspect, and the extraordinary fraternal aspect -- to be wonderfully complex to read. Through a different lens, perhaps, does it feel that the characters were fighting against the genre norms, wanting the relation to be fully sexual, but not allowed to be?
Maria: I am too wondering about the formulaic structure of the novels and the genre norms here. Each book (up until this point) follows the same pattern – a Warrior meeting the woman he is destined to be with, overcoming obstacles and finding happiness ever after. There is definitely a homoerotic subtext in the novels but the realization of that kind of desire does not seem to have a place within the romance. So why include it?
Nicola: Why not, though? I think it adds a lot of interest to the story and layers of complexity to V’s character. What it said to me, again through my own lens, is that V has been so isolated from “human” contact all his life that he cannot really distinguish between fraternal love and romantic love. He’s literally been unable to fully, physically touch anyone else until Butch and then Jane come along.
Maria: You are right. I too see the relationship between the characters as very interesting (more interesting than many of the other relationships in the novels) because of the intimacy and tension between them. I guess the question is rhetorical rather than ‘complaining’ – I do see reasons for the inclusion and in some ways it paves way for the characters who come out later in the series. Reader comments posted in connection with the fanfic I analyse indicate that some readers see this as a teasing move on Ward’s part and in the slash the authors take the next step by realizing the desire. I am arguing, though, that even in the slash the homoerotic relationship is depicted in ways that signal that it is temporary.
Nicola: Do you think it might also be true that books with this kind of ambiguous storyline might pave the way for more diversity in mainstream fiction? Or is it a cop-out, or a tease? Overall, does it seem like a WIN or a FAIL for the goal of inclusivity?
Maria: Oh, huge question! It seems anything mainstream is more resistant to change than more specific (or marginalized) expressions. In Ward’s case it will (again) be interesting to see what happens with Qhinn and Blay. If that storyline is not developed I’m afraid my answer would have to be that Ward (or perhaps rather mainstream fiction) fails, in a way. That is, if the same level of detail she uses in descriptions of heterosexual encounters is not there when it comes to homosexual relationships then I would have to start thinking (again) about the restrictions of the romance format. I have hopes (perhaps foolishly optimistic), though, that our society in general is becoming less heteronormative. Such a development should become evident in cultural expressions of all kinds.
Nicola: Maria, thank you so much for taking the time to have this discussion! I hope you'll be able to check in a few times over the next couple of days to see what happens in comments.
Readers can stop back later in the evening when I'll post links to the fan-fic that Maria used in her analysis (it's not exactly safe for work and I couldn't WAIT to get this posted). Then, as soon as Jessica P and I get the details polished up, I'll have a second interview post featuring her thoughts on the BDB universe.
Look how long this post is and we barely touched on the actual topic of Maria's paper. I'm going to paraphrase a bit -- and I hope she will correct me if I get it wrong -- her paper argues that while fanfic including slash (erotica) gives fans an opportunity to re-cast traditional roles, the framework of genre romance is so rigid that even in this subversive literary arena, writers are influenced to conform and the realization of the homoerotic subtext (or, not-so-sub text!) is set up in ways that are temporary, unreal, or dreamlike, so that the characters can remain or return safely into their nice normal hetero relationships.
The three stories that Maria cites are “One Treasured Memory”, “Skin to Skin” and the ironically-titled “Forever Lovers”.
Over to you, readers. Comments, questions for Maria?