Thursday, November 24, 2011

Reflections on (Re)Reading Romance: A ‘Hands-On’ Harlequin Workshop

So I’ve finally gotten around to writing about the ‘Hands-On’ Harlequin workshop I facilitated at McDaniel College a couple of weeks ago.

To recap, I ran a creative reading/ writing workshop for undergraduate students at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, using cut-out words from a photocopied page to rewrite a traditional romance novel.

I had a wonderful time teaching the workshop, and the students produced some really interesting work. There’s a write-up (with photos and a video) of the workshop here on the College website, and the conference has been blogged about extensively: here, here and here, for example. I’ve included some photographs of the workshop in action.

I am planning to write up my experiences of running this workshop into an article to reflect on its potential pedagogical use, but I did want to reflect briefly on some aspects of the workshop here. I previously posted here about my expectations of what differences might arise between the two workshops. As I previously mentioned, the first time I ran this workshop was in March 2011 at the Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism, a feminist activist conference, and consequently had a very different set of participants than the undergraduate class at McDaniel. I anticipated that work produced from the two workshops would be significantly different in its engagement with the romance novels.

Having now completed both of these workshops, it is clear that some differences did arise. Participants in the Carnival workshop were not all familiar with popular romance, so I had to provide more of an outline of romance publishing in my introduction. Carnival participants also produced more resistant reworkings, including more overtly feminist and queer responses, which was perhaps a reflection of the conference theme: feminist activism.

The dominance of feminist themes is perhaps to be expected in the case of the workshop at the Carnival, as this was a feminist conference. However, I was surprised, given the level of engagement of participants at the McDaniel workshop with feminist criticism of romance, and queer theory, that their reworkings did not focus so much on feminist issues. It seems, therefore, that the feminist rewritings which arose from the Carnival workshop were not based on well-known feminist critiques of romance (for example, Germaine Greer’s (in)famous attack on romance novels in her 1970 book The Female Eunuch), but reflected participants’ own feminist beliefs (which may or may not have been founded in Greer’s or other feminists’ reading of romance novels).

Many of the McDaniel reworkings focused on sexuality; this is a significant part of the romance, yet the prevalence of rewritings which addressed the sexual aspects of romance was notable. This may have been due to the romance novels selected for the workshop, or was perhaps a reflection of participants’ engagements with romance novels prior to the workshop.

Yet, there was variation within the pieces focusing on sexuality in the McDaniel workshop. Some thought sex was important: one participant captioned her piece with ‘sex should be a wonderful experience enjoyed by both individuals’. Others regretted the focus on romance sexuality; one participant commented: ‘many people only think of sex when they think of romance novels and they miss the emotions that the characters express. The emotions are […] an important part (my favourite part)’. Similarly, another participant remarks ‘When I first started reading romance novels [I thought] [t]hat without the sex scenes that the plots of the novels would not be able to stand on their own […] [b]ut the novels I have read proved me wrong’. McDaniel participants also had oppositional views on violence within romance novels; one declared her enjoyment of aggressive sex scenes, whereas another rejected force and violence, writing ‘I hate anger and bruises’.

As I write up the results of these two workshops into a more extensive, reflective piece, I find myself thinking about what participants gained from taking part in this workshop. They clearly enjoyed it, as feedback attests, and nearly all participants engaged enthusiastically with the activity.

I think, for me, the most significant thing to emerge from the workshops is the ways in which they encouraged participants to respond critically and creatively to romance literature and criticism. Much of the discussion that came out of both workshops centred on a new-found focus on the language and structure of romance novels, something which is often absent from critical analysis of popular romance. Participants in the McDaniel workshop commented that the workshop allowed them to clarify their relationship towards romance novels: to figure out ‘how I really feel about romance’.

Based on these experiences, I believe that this kind of creative teaching could be a crucial tool in encouraging students to think of themselves as creative, engaged literary critics.

Friday, November 4, 2011

(Re)Reading Romance: A ‘Hands-On’ Harlequin Workshop

Next week, I am attending Popular Romance in the New Millennium, a conference at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. I am particularly looking forward to my trip not just because I get to travel to the States and take part in what will be a brilliant conference, but also because I get to run the ‘Hands-On’ Harlequin Workshop.

Back in March I ran a creative reading/writing workshop at the brilliant Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism which focused on critical and resistant readings of popular romance novels. Feminist critics were amongst the first to significantly engage with romance novels and continue to lead the scholarly field. However, criticism has tended to veer between dismissal or condemnation of the genre and interpreting romance texts as entirely positive. This workshop intended to address past and current trends in romance criticism and to allow participants to add their own voices to the debate in a creative way.

During the workshop, participants were given a photocopied and enlarged page from a Mills & Boon novel and an envelope containing each word from the page cut into separate slips of paper. They were also provided with a large sheet of card, glue and inspiration in the form of a brief discussion about romance criticism. During the workshop participants were encouraged to consider their personal reactions to popular romance (as activist, as scholars, as readers) and rearranged these words into their own writing.

The workshop was more successful than I could have hoped, and the reworkings produced were funny, thought-provoking, and beautiful. Participants developed overtly feminist re-writings, queer retellings, genre-bending narratives and even sadomasochistic reworkings. Some of the work was displayed after the workshop and other conference attendees commented on the quality of the work produced. Although I do have copies of participants’ work, I didn’t want to put it online without their consent, but as an example of the kind of work produced, here is the my romance rewriting, which I created as a prototype before the workshop:

My rewriting, entitled ‘passionate books’, is a comment on romance reading and the perception of a distinction between the reality of love: ‘temper temper, fights fights, anger anger’ and the ‘unrealistic’ fantasy of love perpetuated in romance novels: ‘always passion, always night, always perfect’.

As a consequence of the success of this workshop, and the generosity of McDaniel College, I will be running the workshop again for students from the College. As well as being interested to see the creative work of the students I will also be intrigued to see if the results of this workshop are noticeably different to those from the Carnival workshop.

There are some significant differences between participants in the two workshops; the Carnival workshop was held at a feminist activist conference, where several attendees had never read a romance novel and were unaware of currents in romance research. By contrast, participants at McDaniel College will be students who may or may not be feminist, and who are actively engaged in critical learning about romance.

I will be giving a paper on my experiences of running these two workshops during the conference, in which I will try and reflect on the similarities and differences of each workshop. I anticipate that the reworkings produced from each workshop are going to be significantly different, given the differences in participant demographics. However, if the work produced from each workshop is largely similar in theme, that may be the most interesting thing of all.