History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 August 2010

Further Travels of Theorygirl

I'd been working on the paper forever, it felt like -- the rather formidably titled "The Queer Theory of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick at the Edges of the Popular Romance Genre," to be delivered at the second annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, to be held in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday August 5 through Saturday August 7.

And it was a pretty sensible plan, I thought, to show up in Brussels on Wednesday, to shake off my jet lag, make some final, fussy, changes to the paper and get the thing slimmed down at long last, to the 20 minute length the conference organizers had asked for, before I delivered it at at the 11:00 am panel on Friday, the conference's second day.

A sensible, even a good plan. But a plan, alas, that required the cooperation of American Airlines and the weather (as in no thunderstorms in Chicago in August).

So instead, I and my husband Michael found ourselves dragging our wheelies into the Paleis der Academiën (Palace of Academia) some fifteen minutes before the event got underway on Thursday, trying our best not to yawn through a day of fascinating and exciting presentations (Eros! Agape! Shame and Other Good Stuff!) before we tumbled into bed.

We figured we'd sleep in, say to nine or so, before I did the final polishing on my piece. I'm an early riser, accustomed to getting to my desk around dawn. I honestly can't remember ever sleeping past nine in the morning...

...but you see where this storyline is inevitably tending, don't you? So you're surely less surprised than I was when all-too-suddenly I was awakened by the phone ringing in our hotel room, to hear that we'd slept until eleven on Friday, the morning when I was supposed to present my ideas... at a panel that was scheduled to start at, uh, eleven.

Yes, I told long-suffering conference organizer, Professor Eric Selinger. Yes, of course I'll be there. And yes, I was soon running down the street to the Palais, talk clutched in one hand and flash drive (with my first PowerPoint ever on it) in the other.

Amazingly, it came off quite well. Theory, I think you could say, was served -- in my case in under twenty minutes (since the people who'd gotten there in time to present first went way over). And since I do have a pretty good sense of the absurd, I simply rolled with it, felt pretty good about what I was saying, and even pulled a decent ending line out of nowhere.

And now that it's over, I think that I just might have a take on this strange business of how and why recent popular romance, which any non-romance reader would certainly assume to be the most heterosexual of reading activities (not to speak of heterosexist) -- has suddenly developed such an exuberant engagement (at least at the margins of the genre) with m/m and m/m/f love and sex.

All based, of course, on the Queer Theory of the brilliant Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died last year after a long bout with cancer, and whom I deeply regret never having met.

And the substance of which will constitute my next Hoyden post, written at leisure and at my own desk rather than at O'Hare -- which is where Michael and I are now, en route to home after that delicious if all-too-brief trip to Brussels and thence to Amsterdam, a city we fell in love with for its overwhelming richness of art, canals and bicycles and coffeehouses, delightful cityscapes (as a small person, I take especial joy in small spaces deftly arranged), and its huge, painterly skies. (Has anybody out there read Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches? I've got to finally get to it.)

And although we saw oodles of extraordinary Big Great Art -- not to speak of contemplating sad, sober, awful history (the Anne Frank House is not to be missed), what I want to write about in the remainder of this post is the lightest, most frivolous of our sight-seeing expeditions, the whipped cream on top (also see below), our visit to Amsterdam's fantastic Museum of Bags and Purses (which my sweet and generous husband deserves hugs for having found in the guidebook, knowing I'd adore, and good-humoredly suffering through).

Because what is the fascination for women about handbags? Why can we never have enough of them and why are we willing to spend such indecent amounts for them -- Doreen, are you out there? -- even my beloved consignment shop Prada bag was hardly cheap (and who knows if it's even authentic). You'd think that if I could theorize m/m romance, I could take this on (at some point during the conference, IASPR guiding spirit Professor Sarah Franz said that "you could theorize all day, Pam").

Well, I can speculate, anyway.

Is it something about how we feel ourselves not entirely human without our stuff? Or, purse-shaped as we are, carrying our vital organs in the sacs of our bodies, do we somehow mimic that effect and dress it up?

Or some other bodily metaphor suggested by the Tassenmuseum's awesome, oldest piece, this "buckle bag [of goat leather from 16th century France] with 18 secret compartments was worn attached to a belt by men... a status symbol for men of the aristocracy" but also reminding me childhood memories of those Breugel guys with their codpieces in the paintings section the World Book Encyclopedia.

While a few other marvels featured on the museum's web site prompting me to Hoyden-ish astonishment at the pure, spirited exuberance and also the wretched excess of this stuff are:

This bridal bag of sablé beads, France, 18th century -- called sable because it's made of glass beads that are the size of a grain of sand, having a cross-section of between 0.5 and 0.6mm (did the beaders -- I imagine them as women -- go blind?)

Or this beaded bag with an image of a giraffe, France, ca. 1827, to commemorate the first giraffe shipped to what was perhaps the first French zoo, a gift from the Egyptian viceroy to the French king Charles X, the giraffe (named Zarafa) "walked to Paris in 6 weeks, accompanied by 2 Egyptian carers and 100 cows that provided her with milk. The procession attracted immense crowds and on arriving in Paris she became the highpoint of the fashion season."

And if all roads lead to chicklit, this "Cupcake" evening bag, completely covered in Swarovski crystals and featured in the film "Sex and the City."

And reminding me, that since I'm having dessert, our feast of a trip is almost over and it'll soon be time to get on our plane for the last leg of our journey back to San Francisco...

Where I fully intend to let go of the theory jones for a while and write some romance for a change.

But until then, I'd love to hear your thoughts on handbags, Amsterdam, theory (queer and otherwise) or the joys of travel.

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Blogger Miranda Neville said...

Welcome home, Pam. Wonderful pictures. I love these little specialist museums. Ever been to the museum of Wallpaper in Kassel, Germany? Brilliant place.

Almost you make me love purses. But only almost. I have a love-hate relationship with them and it's mostly hate, leading me to frequently address my handbag in Lady Bracknell-ish tones. I have far too many but only because I'm ever in search of that elusive Grail, the Purse that Works. To big, too, small; too many pockets, not enough pockets; straps, handles, clutches; magnet, zipper or buckle closures. I have a purse to fail for every occasion. They all have one thing in common: I cannot locate my cell phone until after voice mail has kicked in.

Thank you for letting me rant. I look forward to further reports from Amsterdam and Brussels.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wish I could have heard your talk, Pam! I'm sure it was fabulous, and I look forward to your post expanding on the ideas. And loved the pictures of the bags and purses. It's funny, I was just picking out a detail to describe about a character in a scene at the opera last night, and I picked her reticule. I confess I loved purses. My splurge on my trip to New York last fall was a new one in a wonderful Regency-ish autumnal stripe. Big enough to hold a note book (and ipad when I get one), but dressy enough to take out at night. And then just in time for summer, I found another great bag on sale at Nordstrom's...

6:53 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Actually, Miranda, I do have a rather ideal one for everyday, though it's not very pretty: a black Tumi travel bag with a good cell phone pocket and room for my laptop. It's microfiber -- the weight of a good leather Coach is adding insult to injury. There are some nice-looking ones like it at MOMA in NY -- I'd go there if I every wanted to replace it. And my maybe-Prada is a wonderful dress bag -- of lovely, quilted cloth, and somehow large enough to carry a pair of flats, tho it doesn't look bulky. Should I check it out to see if it's real or live in blissful ignorance?

So I'm reasonably good with the basics, and since I'm lousy at remembering to transfer stuff from bag to bag, that'll have to do. But in another life, I'd have hundreds, and sometimes I just go to the Prada store in Nieman Marcus to meditate.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

re reticules, Tracy, this museum doesn't buy the word derivation that I've sometimes heard, from "ridicule." It goes for the Latin "reticulum":

1. A netlike formation or structure; a network.
2. Zoology The second compartment of the stomach of ruminant mammals, lined with a membrane having honeycombed ridges.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Interesting, Pam. I've heard ridicule used for reticule, but somehow I always thought reticule came first and ridicule was a take on that.

I too am woeful at transferring stuff from purse to purse. I tend to have one mainstay for fall/winter and one for spring/summer (both of my latest purchases have nice cell phone pocket, Miranda, which are are great). But I do love using different little bags evening bags.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous RRRJessica said...

I couldn't care less about handbags, but I cannot wait for you to post about your talk! Glad you had a good trip.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Looking forward to writing it up for the proceedings, Jessica, and seeing if it still makes sense to me. And thanks, it was a great trip.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Pam, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during your speech (or, more aptly, perhaps, given your photo display of 18th c. purses, a mouche).

My visit to the Ann Frank house in Amsterdam remains vidivly etched on my mind (and my esophagus). After viewing the photos the Nazis took of dead and dying Jews (and piles of shoes, etc) downstairs in the house's museum, I had to run to the nearest ladies' room to vomit. The entire experience overwhelmed me; and it didn't help that an American guy my girlfriend Caren and I met there, kept cracking inappropriate "jokes." I don't think I have ever wanted to haul off and deck someone as much as I wanted to hit that guy, channeling all my rage against anti-Semites into my fist.

On a lighter note -- I love purses, and yet I seem to schlep the same one every day until it starts looking so shabby that I'm ashamed to be carrying it around. And I am in awe of people who carry small purses. I tend to carry my life around with me. And even if it's just my fat sunglasses case, my slimmer reading glasses case, and my wallet, along with keys, pens, business cards, perhaps a hairbrush -- I can't squeeze that bare minimum into something dainty. I have several evening purses that belonged to both of my grandmothers; marvelous "vintage" affairs that are fun accessories, but they seem so impractical, barely fitting my reading glasses, let alone anything else. And what's the point if I won't otherwise be able to read a menu or a Playbill?

Then again, the images of the purses you used to illustrate your post are odes to whimsy and extravagance, rather than practicality; these litle embroidered and sequined gems are purely intended to show off the wearer's wit, wealth, and personality.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

For me the strongest moment of the Anne Frank House experience was seeing the original diary itself. Because even when I was quite young, I'd read it, and even then, I knew that this was A WRITER.

And if that perhaps oughtn't to matter as much as it does to me, well, here's what Primo Levi had to say:

"One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way: If we were capable of taking in the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live."

12:44 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

A particularly eerie comment, Pam, coming from Primo Levi.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Another very very great writer, a holocaust survivor who killed himself perhaps because of his understanding (gained from experience) that it wasn't the best who survived the concentration camps. A hard lesson, and for me an unforgettable one.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Pam, I adore that Judith Leiber cupcake minaudieure! Saw it in Neiman Marcus with a hefty price tag attached. Totally gorgeous though.

For myself, the bag obsession is about keeping private and beloved things with me at all times. Ever since I was a child, I wanted bags to put MY STUFF in. Looking over at my POTD (Purse of the Day), it carries wallet, cell phone, favorite pen, Moleskine, keys, sunglasses, and lipstick.

About the M/M in romance, my theory is that it's about women needing access to male sexual agency. Even the "spunkiest" of heroines (to use a cliche) still have to put on the brakes, or at least think about putting on the brakes, when they're in sexual situations. Men don't have that double standard applied to them. M/M is all about having sexual power and sexual freedom which women still feel uncomfortable claiming for themselves.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Interesting about m/m, Doreen. Not where I end up, but fits in, I think.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I do, however, think there's a lot to that business of male sexual agency. I think that Nora Roberts is playing with that stuff in the J.D. Robb books with the power variations/gradations between Eve and Roarke (smartly mirrored in the variations/gradations of legality/illegality they embody/play/perform).

6:39 AM  

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