Sunday, May 1, 2011

And all the other words they're using

Because I'm relatively new to this whole blogging thing, and since I'm essentially thinking aloud here, this particular entry is going off in a different direction.  That's allowed.

A few days ago, our writing and thinking community lost Joanna Russ.  I discovered this remarkable woman's remarkable writing when I was working on my undergrad honors thesis at Arizona State University West in 2000.

She didn't write it.  But if it's clear she did the deed. . . .

She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.  It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.

She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.  The bedroom, the kitchen, her family.  Other women!

She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it.  "Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever. . . "

She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art.  It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book.  It's sci fi!

She wrote it, but she had help.  Robert Browning, Branwell Bronte.  Her own "masculine side."

She wrote it, but she's an anomaly.  Woolf.  With Leonard's help. . . .

She wrote it, BUT. . . .

(from the cover of How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ (c) 1983).

As Dale Spender wrote, too, it's not what's written that counts, it's who writes it.  And romance fiction is still primarily written by women.  Therefore, it gets little to no respect.

In the 11 years since I wrote that honors thesis, has the picture changed?  I don't think so.  At the Teach Me Tonight blog -- -- there's an enthusiastic discussion about an academic paper recently published by graduate students/psychologists A. Dana Ménard and Christine Cabrera.  Briefly, for anyone who's not inclined to check out the site, Ménard and Cabrera studied changes in how sex and sexuality were portrayed in romance novels over a period of 20 years, from 1989 to 2009.  To do this, they studied 20 novels.  Not 20 per year, but just one per year.  How did they determine which one to study, out of the hundreds or thousands published each year?  They chose the winners of one of Romance Writers of America's annual awards.

Was that winning book necessarily representative of all the books -- and writers -- for a given year?  Well, what do you think?  I think not.  And quite a number of the academic posters on the TMT blog seemed to agree:  The sample was not sufficient to yield reliable conclusions.   Ménard herself posted to the blog and said the minimal sample was a matter of time and money, as if that were some kind of explanation that would be readily understood and accepted by the presumably academic audience.  Teach Me Tonight describes itself as "Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective," so one assumes Ménard and Cabrera's fellow academics speak the same language and understand the same concepts.

I'm not an academic and I've never taken a single course in statistics, but I know enough about the scientific method that if you want reliable conclusions you need reliable data.  One novel a year for 20 years is not reliable.

So, why didn't they read more?  The money excuse doesn't really fly.  They could have picked up a bunch of books for half price or less at a used book store, thrift store, flea market, garage sale.  Not to mention the local library, although I suppose it's possible the educational institution they're affiliated with doesn't have one.  Yes, I'm being very facetious.  Hundreds of books are available for vitually nothing, so let's just skip the whole "we're underfunded grad students and we couldn't afford it" routine, okay?

Then there's the matter of time.  She said they didn't have time to read more than 20 books.  Excuse me?  Now, I understand, having done it myself, that reading a romance novel for analysis takes longer than just sitting back and reading it for fun.  And if they were "coding" the texts to track specific elements, that takes even more time.  The conclusion seems to be, however, that reading and coding sufficient books to be sure they had a reliable sample wasn't nearly as important to Ménard and Cabrera as just reading enough to get some data to support some theory or other and publish the results in an academic journal so they'd have something really cool to put on their CVs.

I mean, it's not like a study of changes in depictions of sex and sexuality in romance novels really mattered or anything.  :sarcasm: again.

Well, it matters to me.

The opening paragraph of Pamela Regis' review of another academic study of romance fiction ( seems apropos of Ménard and Cabrera's study especially since the Journal of Popular Romance Studies is a product of TMT, or vice versa, or whatever.:

Romance criticism often conveys the impression that it was written by a scholar on holiday, as it were, from more important work on worthier fiction. Interesting things may be said about the genre, but the formalities of intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication have often been shrugged off, as though they were not really expected, let alone required, in this more casual context. What happens in romance criticism stays in romance criticism, this attitude suggests. No shoes, no Sedgwick, no problem.

The "intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication" certainly seem to be lacking in the Ménard and Cabrera study.  But Regis, herself a member of the TMT crew, makes another comment in that review that stung like a whip:

She seems at home in this environment: as in so many of these critics and thinkers, the compression of her exposition and professional specialization of her vocabulary make few concessions to the reader’s comfort.

"She" is Lisa Fletcher, author of Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, a 186-page, $99.95 ($89.96 online) academic look at historical romances.  And Regis is apparently saying that Fletcher has used language that is deliberately not accessible to the non-academic, non-pomo, non-lit crit reader.  And at that price it's not accessible to anyone but academic libraries.  Why do this?  What's the purpose?  To flaunt one's intellectual superiority?  And that's a good thing??

The point is, I don't think Joanna Russ would have encouraged that kind of elitism. 

Because it's not about the academics.  It's about the writers and the readers and the stuff that goes from one to the other and connects them.  If the academic draws more attention to herself or himself or themselves as though the study of romance fiction is more important than the romance fiction itself, that's wrong.  Those are wasted words, meaningless words, gibberish even if it is elite gibberish.

Joanna Russ didn't do no gibberish.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Linda,

    I'd be happy to send you a copy of the finished article and of my research proposal explaining why we went about things the way we did, if you'd like. The short answer is that we are two PhD students with no funding at all and very little time on our hands. We assumed (perhaps wrongly) that some information was better than none, hence the small sample.

    Although there may have been more research done on romance novels from different academic perspectives (e.g., literary criticism), there was really very little that had been done from the lens of Psychology. Our goal in doing this project was essentially to start the discussion within our field.

    My e-mail address is Feel free to drop me a line and I'd be happy to continue the discussion with you.

    Dana Menard