Hey! Check out my new weekly romance fiction column at BarnesAndNoble.com's new Book Clubs blog, 'Unabashedly Bookish' here! And please visit me there every Tuesday. Unfortunately, your still stuck with me here as well. Too bad; so sad, as my daughter says.
Since you couldn't be with me at the Princeton Romance Scholarship Conference in the flesh -- although you most decidedly were in spirit -- below you'll find the text of my presentation during the "Romance Reads the Academy" panel. Grazie mille to everyone who sent suggestions and well wishes. Please understand that my being there was all about you, and couldn't have been w/out you. Hope you enjoy, or can at least tolerate it...
If I may, I want to share with you a cool announcement. As of today, I’m bringing romance to another major digital platform as BarnesAndNoble dot com’s, romance expert on their new Book Clubs blog, “Unabashedly Bookish.” If you pop online today, you’ll see my first post, “Re-reading the Romance” in which I dish a little about this conference, the state of romance scholarship, and a topic Mary Bly discussed yesterday, shame among romance lovers, albeit from a different angle. I hope you’ll join me every Tuesday at Barnes and Noble,com to help me support romance fiction.
This conference is a victory for nerd girls and boys everywhere -- we who strong-armed our ways into the front-row seats of English and Lit classes, yet at some point were enticed by the other love that dare not speak its name – the love of romance fiction.
I’m not so presumptuous as to thank you on behalf of all romance readers. But on behalf of my online community of readers – from those who didn’t make it through high school to the doctoral candidates and everyone in between – I thank you for welcoming to Princeton and acknowledging as important the books about which we care deeply.
My viewers – The Bellas – have sent with me many messages of gratitude today, as well many suggestions of topics they’d like you to consider taking a crack at. Just a few: First, A study of how romance fiction is used to help women recover their sexualities after sexual abuse; Second, how female empowerment in heterosexual romance isn’t about a woman *needing* a man to feel complete, but choosing a man because she's happier with’m than w/out him;
Third -- and Gwendolyn Pough and Esi Sogah addressed this earlier, thanks, please study why there seems to be a large crossover audience of African-American romance readers who read books written by all ethnicities, but we don’t seem to see the reverse unless it’s by established authors like Beverly Jenkins and Brenda Jackson; And, finally, my favorite: the reader who’d like someone to study “the proliferation of headless heroines and heroes on romance covers” which she said she prefers, so she can plug in her vision of the characters. She describes this as “a sort of visual Derridean gap. lol.” You see why I love my Bellas.
No other medium of communication since telephony has had a greater impact upon the landscape of American culture than the Internet. It allows real-time connectivity -- and with WEB TWO DOT OH’s emphasis on creating a digital commonwealth, anyone with an Inet connection hooks up instantly with tons of folks they may never meet -- to talk about things they've never seen, books they've never read... Because of the Internet’s “long tail,” we can find sites where the nichiest topics will find life even with just a few viewers. But relevance is created when we build – as I and others have – what Tania Modleski yesterday referred to as an Intimate Public – a group we speak to w/the assumption they feel as we do.
How many of you use the Internet to communicate? Well, you know then that the beauty of the Internet is its being a conduit for First Amendment-type discourse at its “freest.” The Internet’s also ugly for that same reason. Most of us wouldn’t give up the former to eradicate the latter, and as scholars I’d imagine the Internet’s made your jobs by turns easier and more challenging.
As someone whose job is working IN Internet – as opposed to hanging around ON the Internet -- I may bring a different perspective to the value of the online romance reader and community to romance scholarship – and why the way you choose to build relationships with the Intimate Public actually can make your research among online readers more efficient – and affect positively the online community.
While some readers hang online at romance blogs and sites, the larger portion does not. And in general, we make romance more relevant online when we regularly present it outside the romance community on platforms whose viewership includes non-romance readers.
But for the small portion of romance readers online, the immediacy with which we access information and content at romance sites can give us the impression that what’s being written about is a) true, and b) important.
Which is why – especially in the online romance community – we’ve noted the phenomenon of “Perception as Reality.” Basically, the Internet user who isn’t media savvy believes mostly that if it’s written online it must be true. That includes content written by anybody with the impressive skill it takes to register for and own a url -- and even User Generated Content (UGC), otherwise known as blog comments.
As academics, you know to take everything with a grain of salt, right? But that doesn’t mean you don’t fall prey to the biggest trip-up folks face when looking online for information – and even entertainment, which sometimes passes for information – the brutal problem of not being able to separate the heat from the light.
For instance, in online romance commentary, what gets the juices flowing of a small group of the small group of romance readers who hang online, probably won’t get you much viable research product, since it flashes, crashes, then burns after it’s bounced from blog to blog, been ranted and screamed about, then forgotten once something – or someone else – comes along to get riled up about.
What’s that worth, all that unbridled, uncontained sound and fury? Well, you tell me what sound and fury signify...
All that heat and no light to be found, let alone the illumination we strive for as scholars and lovers of erudition. And speaking of love, if, as belle hooks says, it’s the practice of freedom, and in loving we move away from oppression? Then dayum, why is it that reading books about love – reading romance – seems to piss people off so much and makes em end up trying to oppress readers and authors online, cyber-bullying folks about perfect-right choices like how much sexual aggression they dig in a love scene, or whether a book is the worst or next-to-worst book of the year.
Yeah, I sed it! When those who gather romance communities nurture heat, they invite and instigate their viewers to reactionary, inflammatory commentary that doesn’t just ‘feel bad’ to a lot of people, it literally reduces the commentary’s relevance.
Because in Internet, we want content that's search-engine friendly and interests more people for a longer period. High-impact, topically short lived content – especially tempests in teapots more about the emotional needs of the community gatherer than anything else -- doesn’t interest many folks in the long term. So fewer people interested in romance information are gonna search for it repeatedly – and fewer eyeballs’ll see your ads if your monetized.
And for researchers, it means you’ve gotta dig through the heat to get to the meat of any romance discourse you might want to study.
All’s I’m saying is this: In the online romance community, there’s room for dissent, there’s room for having fun by mixing it up. But there’s also room for civility that doesn’t muck up the information that we want and need and would be silly keeping readers from giving us for any reason.
What if we were to encourage readers to work through the light toward illumination? Well, here’s how it works @ Romance: B(u)y the Book. It’s meant wooing readers who love romance, but feared commenting about their knowledge cause they’d seen the digital carnage elsewhere. To woo them, I earned their trust by letting them see me respect those who did comment.
I showed them how I gently redirected commenters who tried to rile others up – or suggested simple language to folks who wanted to disagree with comments, but didn’t know how to do it in a constructive way or any way at all. Those who wanted to learn and play, stayed. Those who were disappointed they couldn’t get a good bitch on were happily welcome to leave and take their mean spirits with them.
But rather than my self-aggrandizing, what I want you to understand is what I got from the tricky, arduous practice of empowering viewers and giving them ownership in the digital commonwealth that is RBTB: I struck flippin’ illumination pay dirt. And I got big gigs with major companies, bringing romance every day to a broad audience that includes non-romance readers, not just members of the choir. I like to think of that as Pollyanna’s revenge.
Seriously. What I have is a digital record of thoughtful commentary about romance fiction and related topics without miles of vitriol and anger to wade through to get to the gems of reason and respectful dissent and thoughtful counterargument.
If we nurture the heat, we instill fear in online readers and they don’t comment. They fear being jumped ugly on. And we lose viewers and the opportunity to build trust and learn what they had to teach us.
When we go to the heat to study or research, we miss the illuminated, considered information of romance readers who’ve been nurtured and given language so they can offer you invaluable information about the romance genre that might take you years to learn otherwise. Because often, these folks have been reading and considering romance longer than us, and some longer than we’ve been alive!
You know, the first fan letter I got after RBTB went online was from a woman who apparently never met either Strunk or White. But she was eager to let me know she appreciated having a place to go online where she could talk about romance without anyone making her feel embarrassed – especially not other romance readers. She told me how much she learns from romance novels, and how she works that into dinner conversations with her romance-eschewing family.
This woman whom some might deem ‘limited,’ considered romance novels in a literate way, and had more to say about them when we began exchanging emails. She knew way more than I.
I learn every day from my viewers, yet they call me the expert. In fact, we generally think of illumination as private property of ‘the learned.’ But I challenge you: The next time you go close to the ground to research, check out the light and look to sites where the readers say things with simplicity and dignity. I challenge you: When you interact with your viewers, try giving them the tools to move through the heat toward illumination.
You may find the thought of doing so unappealing and woefully naïve. Still, in the words of the heroine of one of the best works of romance fiction, Loretta Chase’s “Lord of Scoundrels,” --
“I should like to see you try.”
(The recorded version of this will differ because of errors in my presentation).