History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 May 2009

Promissory Notes: Reading Theory on Vacation

Amanda's not the only hoyden who's been on the road lately. I recently returned home to San Francisco after a fantastic three weeks doing my Northeast Family Corridor Circuit (New Haven-New York-Philadelphia) for many hugs, visits, and bigtime celebrations, including my sister's wedding (more soon at my own blog) and my son's PhD conferral from Columbia (next year the Corridor gets longer, when Jesse begins teaching English at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore; I'm delighted that the cheap and comfortable Bolt Bus goes there too).

Unusually for me, I didn't make a lot of plans, except to get to the celebrations on time. With more people to visit than I had time for, and my husband, sadly, only able to get off work for the wedding and the degree ceremony (the last long weekend of the trip) I decided to take the solo part of it slow, to follow my nose and my luck: as when my friend Barbara Garson introduced me to an artist friend of hers in the locker room of the Chelsea Piers gym -- who sent me to the glorious Picasso:Mosqueteros show at the Gagosian Gallery on 21st Street (still showing until June 6: run, don't walk, if you're in New York) -- after which, strolling down 23rd Street on the way to the subway, I stopped at a movie theater to see what time Star Trek was starting.

In five minutes? Sure, I said, I'll take a ticket, even as I wondered if there'd be a decent seat left (which is no small concern for someone measuring five foot one on a good day). How nice that I wound up in the best seat in the house, a single in the nicely-banked last row of the theater.

Because it was that kind of a trip. The best, the luckiest kind, that makes a high-and-low culture vulture like me eager to live long and prosper (not to speak of go all soft and happy inside over the absolutely right and absolutely Obama-era Spock-and-Uhura pairing).

The kind of trip where the next thing to do is obviously also the right thing.

And the next thing to read is the right thing as well -- as I sat in this or that New York cafe, w.i.p. on my laptop; pens and notebook, books and drink on the table; with a lovely, leafy late spring just outside, and myself only mildly, occasionally pricked by the exquisite guilt of being in this most wonderful of cities at the wonderful moment when spring rain stirs dull roots even if I hadn't earned it through suffering through an East Coast winter.

East Coasters may understand the guilt thing (I was born in Brooklyn); Californians probably won't.

But between the pricks and twinges I took the season as a gift, even as I took my reading seriously. I've already listed what I was into during those weeks, in my response to Kathrynn's What-Are-You-Reading Hoyden post, but what made it particularly great was checking in with my awesomely erudite son, who knows oodles about the history of the European novel throughout the nineteenth century.

Like when I asked him what he knew about D.A. Miller's lit crit study The Novel and the Police, that Lisa Fletcher makes sound so interesting, in her lit crit study Historical Romance Fiction?

Jesse went to his bookshelf. "Miller's book is very interesting," he said, "and it's important too." Important enough, it seemed, that he had two copies, and graciously handed me one of them.

So I read The Novel and the Police, and began to think about what Miller has to say about novels and "open secrets," and how that works out in romance novels where the hero and heroine are always the last to know.

And which led me to think more about what Lisa Fletcher has to say about historical romance -- popular and literary -- and more particularly about historical cross-dressing romance, which she says occupies a place of some importance for understanding historical romance as a whole. She even makes a few small observations about my cross-dressing historical romance, Almost a Gentleman (that was interesting to read!) among many other texts on her way to an extensive and thought-provoking discussion of Georgette Heyer's cross-dressing romances.

So I also read These Old Shades, and am queuing up The Masqueraders. And then a reread of Possession (A. S. Byatt, I learn from Fletcher, being an outspoken fan of Heyer and doubtless an instructive one), and then perhaps what sounds like a fascinating study by Alison Light, called Forever England: Femininity, Literature, and Conservatism between the Wars, which I hope will help me understand the Tory aspects of the romance genre (as I've groused about it on this blog from time to time, even as I've indulged my early passion for the great popular/literary English between-the-wars writer Dorothy Sayers, of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries).

While back in San Francisco...

"You're so intellectually hungry these days," my husband told me yesterday, and I suppose I am. Not only because I take a wonky lit-crit interest in literary history and in what (still and always a bit mysteriously to me) is called "theory," but because I can't help but think that at least some of that weighty stuff does have something to do with the lighter-than-air stuff I write, and with whatever instinct or memory or desire caused me (not much of a romance reader, in truth) to become a reluctant yet enthralled romance writer.

Also because I write my own stuff better if once in a while I evoke the old shades and stir up the roots with a little spring rain of research, self-understanding and reminiscence. (Leading me to give thanks for the spadework the romance scholars of IASPR are doing, and to encourage anybody else who's interested in this stuff to join the newborn International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. And to thank Dr. Eric Selinger, one of the organization's blithest guiding spirits, for turning me on to the Fletcher book).

And because I think this stuff -- or at least the best of it -- works.

Which is why (drawing upon hoyden Lauren Willig's endlessly helpful Theory of Productive Procrastination) I hope, in some future post, as a break from my own w.i.p. (yes, there is one, I promise!), to give some account of the critical commentary that most helps and interests me, both as reader of popular and literary fiction, historical and erotic romance writer, theory groupie, and even (swear to god, Jess, I'll never be this embarrassing again) proud parent of the smartest, most erudite literary scholar I know.

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Yet another intriguing post, Pam! Congrats again to your family! And thanks for the mention of the exhibit at Gagosian ... why does it always take a visitor to remind native NYers like myself what's going on right under our all-too-busy noses?!

5:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"You're so intellectually hungry these days," my husband told me yesterday, and I suppose I am.

I'm always blown away, humbled, and slightly guilty when I read your posts. I feel unworthy, unread and intellectually lazy (which I think I am at the moment). I can’t remember the last time I read a book that was “important”. *sigh*

Pam, I think I need a summer reading list. And I’m going to start with Miller’s The Novel and the Police and Fletcher’s Historical Romance Fiction. There, I feel better already.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

OMG, Fletcher's book is $100. Guess that's not jumping to the fore of my TBR pile after all . . . *sigh*

7:40 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Sorry, Kalen, I didn't realize the post would have that effect. Humbled, guilty -- STOP please! -- no need, just because *I* have this odd theory jones causing me to wonder about the romance thing and its strange power over me...

The test is whether I make anything out of all the scraps and patches I'm taking away from my reading -- which still remains to be seen. I wrote this a little bit as a goad to myself, to put my cards on the (cafe) table.

As for you being unread, Kalen -- I remember one of those how many-of-the-great-novels-have-you-read contests someone posted over at History Hoydens once -- and you and Megan Frampton wiped the floor with the rest of us.

Oh, and you can get the Fletcher book at the SF public library (via link-plus, their wonderful automated inter-library loan system).

7:58 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ooooo, I'll have to IIL it! Thanks for the tip.

I’ve just been feeling like my brain is atrophying lately, so a bit of “heavy” reading is so in order. Need to stretch the grey matter a bit.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

why does it always take a visitor to remind native NYers...I know, Amanda, it's like that. Which is was also wonderfully done in the Barrow Street performance of Our Town that I saw. Did you happen to see that?

And I know what you mean about stretching the gray matter, Kalen. Like my heroine Carrie, I can't think sexy unless I've gotten those conceptual/linguist nerves engaged as well.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the wonderful post, Pam! Congrats to Jesse (and to his parents!). I too loved the Spock/Uhura pairing in the new Star Trek movie--it felt so right and organic to the characters, at least the characters' in the movie's alternate reality.

Possession is one my favorite books. I've heard of Byatt being a Georgette Heyer reader. I think you can catch glimpses of a Heyer influence, particularly toward the end, in the modern scenes.

It may be an excuse for procrastination, but I do think it's true that writers are always working, that everything we take in in some way goes toward what we write. I'm always amazed when I examine all the influences on one of my books (which I sometimes don't quite see until the book is finished). It's a mix of plays and operas I've seen, tv shows, movies, books, news stories heard on NPR. All of that somehow helps me form the tapestry of the book. It sounds like you're putting together a wonderfully rich tapestry :-).

10:50 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Tracy has just explained my deductions to the IRS . . . *grin*

12:43 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh yes, mine too -- and eloquently as always, Tracy.

Ideal would be to absorb influences at a nice steady rate, into a set of waiting, well-structured salable narratives instead of the on-again off-again way it happens to me.

But rendering account of one universe in writing is a blessing no matter how fraught, nutty, or confused the process.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

Beautiful post, Pam. Like Kalen, when I read what you write I am humbled and blown away---wishing I was more of a directed student when it comes to reading. That I studied and explored more, like you do!

Just curious, were your parents writers?

11:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Kathrynn. And no, my parents weren't writers -- my dad was a mathematician, my mom's a librarian (and perhaps the most passionate reader I know), and I'm the lone word-person in my generation (all three sibs are doctors -- one of them with a daughter who wants to be a writer and a veterinarian).

And I've only begun to read with any direction at all these last few years after getting early retirement from my day job.

12:41 PM  

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