Friday, April 24, 2009

“Pay Attention, Class!”

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.


Bonus material:
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?


Stacy~ said...

Fascinating article. I'm at work & will have to come back and read it more thoroughly. I'm really interested in reading this. Great job Nicola! And Maria, thank you for taking the time to do this. I'm always happy to read something with a more positive representation of a genre I love so much.

I ♥ Book Gossip said...

Awesome article. Will be back later to continue.

Chris said...

I think maybe the times we're livin' in might provide more flexibility for what acceptable lit crit cred might be - your questions and observations in this post were far more eloquent and intelligent than a lot of things I've read from those with more traditional credentials. (Says the woman who bailed on her Rhetoric phd because of the insanity and insularity of academia.)

Well done indeed, Nicola!

Laura Vivanco said...

"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 haven't read these novels, so I don't feel I can contribute a great deal to the discussion but I do have a couple of comments which I'd like to make anyway.

The first is that I've read reviews of the series, and my impression is that many reviewers feel the series is changing from romance into urban fantasy with romantic elements. Do you think that's the case? If it is, could a lack of detail about a m/m couple in one of the later books be at least partly ascribed to that shift in the overall focus of the series away from romance, rather than being a clear indication of the (partial) triumph of heteronormativity?

Secondly, I'm not sure how helpful it is to judge the entire romance genre by what Ward decides to do with this particular relationship. There are lots of m/m romances published now (mainly as ebooks), which indicates that the romance genre is not limited to portraying relationships between one man and one woman. It's true that not a lot of these romances are yet "mainstream" in the sense of being published by some of the larger publishers, in paperback/hardback but they are being published by mainstream romance epublishers.

As far as paper-published mainstream publishers are concerned, Ann Herendeen's Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander was published by Harper Collins and it's got a main m/m relationship, with one of those men developing an additional relationship with a woman. Suzanne Brockmann's written about a gay couple whose relationship develops over the course of a number of books and they end up married. I think she's published by Ballantine.

Nicola O. said...

You guys, I'm feelin' the love -- thank you! Really, I just feel like I've found another victim... err, discussion partner on the topic of the Black Dagger Brotherhood! And you know how I can go on about the topic...

Laura, there has been "controversy" over whether the books, especially the later ones, should be classified as UF or romance. Some romance fans are disappointed that the development of the romantic relationships has been sharing the focus with, or even taking a backseat to the fantasy/plot elements.

Personally, I think it (the series) qualifies as both, and I'm good with that.

To Maria's point though, the sensuality levels of the book are pretty stratospheric. The Brothers are like testosterone monsters -- everything you'd attribute to an alpha male, these guys are that times 10.

In Lover Enshrined, two of the secondary characters emerge more fully -- one comes out in the course of the book, and is in love with the other, who is, hmmm, how to put it: experimental? but not gay.

I would love for Blaylock, the gay character, to have a fully realized book, relationship, and happily ever after, but I have my suspicions that the series will peter out before then. Including Lover Avenged, due next Tuesday, there are at least two books promised -- John Matthew's and Payne's -- with several potentials: Qhinn, Tohr, Lassiter. Plus Ward has a whole new series starting this fall.

I ♥ Book Gossip said...

A big problem I have with this series is the new intros to new character and they never get finished by the author. Its either don't introduce a new theme or character if you dont intend on finishing it. It just leaves a bigger gap and the readers to imagine an ending for themselves.

Rikki said...

Great article. I'll definitely look up the bonus material.

I don't think that we'll ever see Blay's book. Probably the majority of her readers wouldn't appreciate a gay love story. After all the books are considered (traditional, meaning hetero) romance and people already complained about it taking on too much UF. So I suppose they want to stick to what they know. On the other hand a lot of readers (cellies, that is) did like the V/Butch angle. Oh, I don't know.

What I'd definitely like to read is Lassiter's book though. Hopefully we'll come round to that one in the future.

Laura: It's true, the romance genre has room for everything, but do readers overlap? I don't think they do that much. I started reading the BDB books before I switched to m/m and will continue reading them. But had I not discovered them earlier, I wouldn't start reading them now.

Phyl said...

This is absolutely fascinating! I'm intrigued by the idea that introducing vampires into the romance genre theoretically allows more leeway in developing the romance themes -- and yet the vampires seem simultaneously constricted by the traditional romance themes. I wonder if it really is possible, then, to widen those themes?

I'm at a disadvantage from not having read the books. But as I was reading about this interesting tension, I kept thinking that the North American romance genre may have more problems accommodating non-heterosexual romance themes than, say, Japanese manga has had. It may be that some conventions are so firmly entrenched that any breakthroughs in the romance genre may end up being relatively minor.

Wonderful food for thought! Fantastic interview and post, Nicola -- and thanks to Maria for being willing to do this.

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm actually, and I hope I'm alowed to say this, the author of one of the fanfics mention in the article and all i can say is wow. I found this really interesting, who knew that the BDB could produce such a web of thouhgts.
I love the series as they gave me an escape from reality and once i was hooked i started caring about the characters.
I seriously hope that the series doesn't ubruptly end or peter out as someone said. I'd really like to see how it all works out and I'd like to see a conclusion to the war.
I think it was the romance that first drew me into the books but now I'm "involved with the charaters" (for want of a better phrase) I'd really like to see them end their battles in their favour.

Thank you Nicola for letting me know about this, it was really quite exciting to think that something I had created had been part of something big like this.

Happy Reading Everyone
Xx Shadey xX

Joanna Chambers said...

I don't read BDB so don't have anything to add, but just wanted to say what an interesting post this is!

Generic said...

Very much enjoying the literary/cultural critique.

I think with regard to non-hetero sexuality (homoeroticism with Butch and V), it's possible that Ward is pushing RIGHT UP to the edge of what some, if not most, traditional/mainstream romance readers will accept in their heroes' behavior. Unfortunately, I suspect that a lot of mass market romance readers just aren't ready for a more fluid degree of sexual expression in their alpha heroes. Suzanne Brockmann punched a teeny, tiny hole into this limitation by creating a beloved gay character, Jules, giving him a book and even an HEA - but firmly closing the bedroom door on any physical expression of love between Jules and his partner. Highly disappointing, but it's a start.

Nicola O. said...

Shadey, I'm glad you stopped by!

Rikki, you're probably right about the readership overlapping. Some of us are omnivorous, of course, but there are a lot of folks who *only* read historicals, or contemps, or some particular subgenre.

It's easier for me to list the ones I *don't* like, heh.

As for Blay getting his own book, well, I sort of smell a novella there, you know? Or maybe a side-plot that resolves over the course of other books without ever being the main focus.

I Heart, I really don't mind if there's lots of characters, as long as they aren't involved with plotlines and relationships that don't go anywhere. Like right now, I'm perfectly fine with Lassiter never getting a book. Mind you, I think he's potentionally really fascinating, but there isn't really a bunch of questions I've got for him that would require a whole book to answer. "Dude, why are you here?" is really it, at the moment. ;)

A big THANK YOU to all of you for participating here-- this was a great experience for me as a blogger.


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