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.


  1. Can't WAIT. I'll be arriving Wednesday night specifically so I can observe (dare I even hope, participate in) your workshop. :)

  2. I can't wait either! We'll try and find a space for you :) See you next week!

  3. Space is not a problem! We're doing this in the Library, and we can spread out. Books are not a problem-- I bought 40+ Harlequins--we'll have more than enough.

  4. The workshop was absolutely amazing!!