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.


  1. Hi Amy, I read about your work on Jessica's RRR blog and followed the MCD conference tweets. This sounds so interesting and fun and I love your thoughtful approach to engaging others in thought. I wonder how these two experiences would contrast with readers who are deep romance genre readers, like those who attend conferneces and follow blogs and/or read mega numbers of books a week? I see a lot of discussion about 'language and structure of romance novels' on romance blogs for example. It would be interesting to see what emphasis comes from this group and how it compares and conrasts with the others.

  2. Hi Merrian,

    Thanks for your comment. You make a good point, and one which I have thought about myself. The Carnival workshop did not contain, as far as I am aware, any regular popular romance readers or scholars. However, several established romance scholars and a romance author participated in the McDaniel workshop.

    The most striking differences between the pieces the scholars produced and those made by the students (who are also romance scholars, but perhaps not as experienced as those I am defining as 'romance scholars' here) was that the scholars' pieces were both queer readings of romances - two of the few queer pieces that emerged from this workshop.

    I believe that the experience these participants had as romance scholars had a hand in producing this kind of critical, scholarly re-reading. I don't have the piece in front of me right now, but as I recall, one of the scholars said that their piece was a specific reflection of their position as a romance scholar.

    I think what makes the biggest difference for this kind of approach, is the way participants feel about romance before they begin. If a participant hated popular romance, they were more likely to produce a resistant re-reading. Conversely, if the participant was an avid reader and a fan of romance, they would be more likely to offer a sympathetic re-reading (although this was not always the case).

    Perhaps someone who is a 'deep romance genre reader' would be more likely to be a fan of romance, and therefore produce a more positive re-reading?

  3. I was also thinking that romance readers are schooled in the sub-genres ( I can think of around 13 of the top of my head)and the motifs that go with a Highlander story for example so what might they respond too in one of those stories? I was also wondering about m/m stories - what a reader of this genre might do with a 1980's Mills & Boon. There have been two quite angsty and lenthy comments threads on DA and SBTB recently about the (poor) representation of disability and chronic illness in the genre. I was wondering what those of us who identify as PWDisabilities for example might do too. So while I think we would lean to the positive there are other possibilities that could draw out the conversation readers have with their genre.