Romancing the Academic

Catherine M. Roach describes the joy of falling in love with a whole new field of inquiry and style of research.

June 23, 2016
 

Goddamn, I love my job.

I’m sitting in the 38th-floor bar of a swanky Dallas hotel, quaffing champagne and listening to lounge music. The hotel is hosting the annual national conference of the Romance Writers of America. This organization of 10,000 members -- almost all of them women -- is the professional association devoted to the best-selling genre of popular romance fiction. After a long day of interviews, workshops and keynote addresses, I’m eating a late solo supper.

The waiter sets before me a perfect plate of calamari and a Texas merlot so dark purple it’s almost black, served in the biggest glass I’ve ever held. I’m a happy woman, although I alternate between self-satisfied pleasure and self-conscious doubt. Coincidentally, the International Women’s Peace Conference is meeting in the same hotel as Romance Writers of America. When I checked in for the romance conference, I caught sight of one of my former professors from Harvard in the lobby. She wore the name tag of the peace conference, and I found myself ducking.

Tomorrow evening poses another worry. It’s the Romance Writers of America awards ceremony, the dress-up grand finale of the conference. I’ll have to cross the lobby to catch my shuttle bus to the event. What if I see my old professor again? What would I say to her? My plan is to be strapped into a long velvet gown of midnight blue. It’s got sparkles on it. I’ll be wearing a padded push-up bra to hoist my breasts into place and my mother’s diamond bracelet. Concerned about panty lines and thinking about going all out, I was flirting with not wearing underwear.

No conference I’ve ever attended -- and in 20-plus years of academe, I’ve been to quite a few -- has ever been this much fun. I am overwhelmed and bemused by it. Am I allowed to enjoy myself so much while researching an academic book on the romance narrative (“find your one true love and live happily ever after”)? I feel no guilt over leaving my husband and kids behind for four days of this Shangri-la. But long sparkly velvet? Scholarly intellectuals aren’t supposed to wear velvet -- especially without underwear.

The presence of my professor makes this point acute. She’s a kind woman and a well-respected scholar, author of multiple books and articles on ethics, peace, Christianity and community. For all I know, she may read romance novels in her spare time. Maybe she’s a closeted romance-writer wannabe like me; maybe she’s not wearing panties, either. My cowardly ducking is certainly not fair to her.

But seeing her stirs up my confusion. At Harvard, I was studying feminist ethics, as she did, and issues of sustainability in the context of religion and culture. In one trajectory of my career, I’d be here with her at the International Women’s Peace Conference, doing righteous work against war and oppression. Instead, I’m hanging out with the Romance Writers of America. I’m up in the sky lounge, gorging now on some damn fine chocolate bread pudding.

But -- and here’s the rub -- I don’t want to be at her conference. I want to be exactly where I am, excited and engrossed by mine. Does that make me a failed feminist ethicist? A lousy academic? A bad girl? Surely not, I reason with myself. My friend Alexis teaches at a university here in Dallas and took me out for Mexican cuisine. When I laid out for her my tangle of emotion and response, she assured me that the two conferences were but flip sides of a coin. Romance is all about peace, she said; go for it! There are intellectual puzzles galore to work through here and writing challenges to test and expand my craft. A project on love and romance raises questions about shifting norms of femininity and masculinity, liberating changes in the portrayal of female sexuality, stigma and empowerment in publishing’s only woman-dominated genre, and more. Issues germane to feminism, ethics and world peace abound in romance fiction.

I know all of this. So why do I still feel awkward, even a little embarrassed? It’s not the novels that cause my discomfiture; I’ve read romances without shame all my life, glorying in their racy covers and escapist pleasures. I know that women’s popular fiction has nothing to apologize for. Probing my feelings in the sky lounge between licks of crème anglaise off my spoon, I realize the problem is me. It’s my newly emerging researcher self that has me flummoxed. I am discomfited by a sense of wrongdoing in leaving behind some serious and sober part of my professional identity. Surely my work should not be this rip-roaring, when others have to scrub out the tanks of river barges to earn a living. It takes an academic gal some getting used to.

So what does it means to love your work when your work is to suss out the meanings of love? Especially when that work involves chocolate -- huge in the romance community -- velvet and the most fun group of women I’ve ever hung out with? I recognize one deep root in my struggle over the meaning of my new research enterprise. It’s an old conundrum, really. As a girl, I fretted about how I could enjoy my family’s Sunday roast when children were starving in Africa. As a young professional, I worried over how I could celebrate getting tenure -- that gold ring of the professorial career path -- when other graduate students, through no fault of their own, didn’t get tenure-track positions. It’s an uneasy awareness of good fortune. Yes, yes, I am privileged, was sheltered and no doubt spoiled growing up with loving parents in my quiet Canadian suburb. The Dallas Morning News sits beside me on the lounge banquette; I’ve been reading stories of war and death and child abuse. But somehow my reality adds into the mix, and I am safe, sated, in love with a good man who’s back home with the kids and giddy from my immersion in the romance narrative.

What to make of it all? Desire, ambivalence, confusion, pleasure. I am drunk on the wine and passion of this place.

*  *  *  *  *

I spend almost a decade in this research world, figuring out how the story of love functions in American popular culture. I fall in love with my project: truly, madly, deeply. Eventually, I work through my confusion and shed the guilt by forging a new and different sense of self as an academic researcher. I give myself over to enchantment with my topic. I end up writing not just about romance fiction but writing romance fiction itself. I become a romance novelist so that I can understand better -- from the inside -- this genre that I love to explore. And I find other professors so engaged by what they study that they, too, become it in various ways: a growing research movement with overlapping methods that go by terms such as “observant participation,” “participatory action research” or “performative auto-ethnography.”

I end up inspired by the writings of an art historian who studies representations of the body and who competes in a bodybuilding figure competition as Feminist Figure Girl. I find an anthropologist who starts a goth band -- who performs as Detonator of the group Blood Jewel -- as part of his research on cultures and aesthetics of violence. I read a sociologist, Loic Wacquant, doing urban ethnography on the boxing gym who gloves up himself. The latter gushes about the “carnal joy” the gym provides and how his participatory boxing research takes him “way beyond seduction!” (The exclamation mark is his.) These fellow professors hearten me, uniting passions for knowing and doing, embodying their research.

This “carnal joy,” I submit, is serious and important stuff. It has wider implications for the status of academic research, traditionally steeped in norms of objectivity and distance: staid and, on bad days -- dare I say it? -- boring. The style of research for which I’m aiming suggests there are other ways to live a life of inquiry and to share its fruits with interested communities inside and outside that sphere of inquiry. Or as Feminist Figure Girl puts it with pithy verve, “Look hot while you fight the patriarchy.” This embodied playful pleasure -- this carnal joy -- is seriously seductive stuff indeed.

In Dallas, on the final night of the Romance Writers of America conference, the women of the romance community seduce me with their lusty embrace of the writing life. I heed their siren call to dress up -- no women’s peace conference-goers in sight -- and schmooze at a chocolate-fountain midnight dessert buffet. Champagne again in hand, I trawl a ballroom of caramelized fruit skewers, shot glasses of brandied berries and mini éclairs. (Texas is the land of big, and in romance fantasy, bigger often is better.)

I meet such interesting and energized women, gorgeously decked out in all manner of flirty sequins and lamé, dressing for themselves and each other: a mother and daughter in attendance together, the mom an avid reader and her college-aged daughter hard at work on a vampire romance. A woman who tells me how her full-time responsibilities for two small children had left her feeling “all mommy” and little else until writing romance novels gave her a sense of voice and newfound self. A lawyer turned top-selling author who jokes with me, flipping the putative stigma of popular romance fiction on its head: “Sometimes I’m embarrassed to tell people I’m a lawyer!”

Among these women I am Kurtz in my blue velvet (or are we all Ginger on Gilligan’s Island?), lacking only a feather boa (mental note: buy one next year), gone native, up the river, out of my academic closet -- who needs a closet when such fascinating questions are at stake out here! -- over the bridge into Romancelandia, exactly where I want to be.

I am the fan, excited by all the free romance novels they’re throwing my way.

I am the newbie fiction writer, shy, unsure, dreaming of publication.

I am the academic, thinking endlessly about dynamics of gender, sexuality, shame, power and fantasy.

I am in love with my work.

Bio

Catherine M. Roach is professor of New College and affiliated faculty in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She is the author, most recently, of Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. She writes romance fiction as Catherine LaRoche.

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