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Thursday, March 14, 2024

March 14, 2024: NeMLA Reflections: Guilty Pleasures Panels

[This past weekend I attended the one scholarly conference I never miss: the Northeast MLA. It was a great time as it always is, so as usual here’s a series of reflections on some of the great work I heard, saw, and shared there! Leading up to a few more reflections on NeMLA as an organization!]

On two interesting throughlines I took away from a pair of provocative panels.

Before the Saturday morning panel of my own about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, I had the chance to attend a pair of interconnected sessions organized by literary scholar Melodie Roschman around the same topic: Guilty Pleasures: Sexy Stories, Female Desire, and Resistance. A number of the talks understandably focused on aspects of the Romance genre (and related subgenres like Paranormal Romance, Romantasy, etc.), which is not a topic about which I know a great deal (although I did write a Grad school paper analyzing audience expectations and experiences through the lens of Janice Radway’s influential 1984 book Reading the Romance) and so I was happy to learn more from these scholars of it and the particular authors and works they discussed. But as with all of the NeMLA panels I’ve attended in my multi-decade association with the conference and organization, I also found ways to connect these conversations to my own work and ideas, and wanted to mention two of those thought-provoking throughlines from these sessions here.

One debate which came up in a number of the talks across both sessions, as you might expect with this overarching topic, was whether it’s a good/productive or bad/destructive thing to use literary/cultural works as escapism (or related frames like enchantment). To be clear, none of the presenters bought into the longstanding narratives that novels and other cultural works are themselves “bad,” not for women and not overall; but there was a great deal of thoughtful analysis of the potentially limiting but also potentially liberating effects of getting lost in such works. In particular, the chair of the second session, Babson College Professor Samantha Wallace, provocatively used a J.R.R. Tolkien essay to frame these questions in her talk on Romantasy novelist Sarah Maas and the dangers and benefits of becoming enchanted by such books and their worlds. Which was especially thought-provoking for this audience member as I’ve been having very similar conversations throughout my current section of Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy, beginning with our first reading, Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. I always love when a NeMLA panel can inform my current semester and teaching, and this was an excellent example of that effect.

I frequently glean such lessons for my teaching at NeMLA, but I always learn a great deal about American literature, culture, and history—there’s a reason why I decided to serve a three-year term as the organization’s American Area Director, after all. And in this case, it was an excellent paper from the chair of my own panel (about which and whom I wrote yesterday), Vaughn Joy, that offered the most fascinating lessons about American history and culture. Vaughn’s paper discussed the Hays Code, the multi-code policy (first created as a set of recommendations, but shortly thereafter and for many years an enforced set of restrictions) through which Hollywood authorities sought to control and censor film productions. I had long seen reference to the Code as a part midcentury Hollywood histories, but Vaughn went into significantly more detail about its origins, evolutions, specific provisions, effects, and, most inspiringly, the manifold acts of resistance through which artists and filmmakers (including none other than Frank Capra himself) challenged and eventually helped end the Code. I’ve never attended a NeMLA conference without coming away thoroughly impressed by at least one scholarly presentation, and this was the paper that did it for me in 2024.

Last reflection tomorrow,


PS. If you were at NeMLA, what would you share? If not or in any case, other organizations you’d highlight?

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