Saturday, March 31, 2007


There have been some interesting discussions going on over at Dear Author in the past week. I don't want to start a discussion about them here, since the threads are still live over there, but I thought I'd bring them to the attention of any readers of this blog who don't visit Dear Author.

The first was about authorial 'voice' and style. Janine was asking 'why there aren’t many genre authors whose sound effects, imagery, and metaphors engage my senses the way the words of many non-genre authors do'.

And if you want a bit of a contrast, over at Dishing with the Divas Brenda Novak is holding a competition to see which blog posters can write 'the absolute worst first line for a romance novel (or any romance subgenre) you can think of'.

The second discussion that caught my attention at Dear Author is about rape in the romance genre. The initial blog post was written in response to a post by Michelle Buonfiglio at Romance: By the Blog. Michelle described a novel in which 'there is a scene that could be read by the uninitiated romance fiction reader as flat-out rape'. Michelle then asked 'What kind of learning curve did you have to experience before you understood the nuances of historical romance?' The reviewers at Dear Author felt that the particular scene Michelle referred to was a rape, not a 'forced seduction' and much discussion then ensued about the difference between rape and the romance-genre construct of 'forced seduction', whether it's realistic to think that a raped woman would ever fall in love with her rapist and many other related issues. It's a topic which, unsurprisingly, generates a lot of responses every time it's discussed. The Smart Bitches discussed it in 2005 and it's been raised and discussed many times at All About Romance.

Photo is made available from Wikipedia under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Regency Romances

The RITA finalists for 2007 have been announced and this year there will be no 'Best Regency Romance' awarded at the Romance Writers of America's RITA ceremony. The guidelines for this category were as follows:
Best Regency Romance
Romantic historical novels with primary settings during the Regency period, typically 1795-1840. The word count for these novels is 40,000-85,000 words.

Judging guidelines: The category includes comedy of manners as well as darker stories, and the books may contain a variety of story elements, such as sexual content, paranormal elements, mystery, suspense, adventure, and non-traditional settings. (RWA)
According to The Nonesuch, 'Signet had the longest running Regency series, beginning in the late 1970s and ending in February of 2006' and 'Zebra began publishing Regencies in the mid-1980s. [...] Zebra stopped its traditional Regency line in October 2005'. Given the disappearance of these print 'traditional Regency' lines it presumably seemed more practical to include any shorter regency novels in the 'Best Short Historical Romance' category since 'The word count for these novels is 40,000-95,000 words'.

The tone and content of Regency romances was summarised by Jo Beverley in a piece at AAR which focused on this sub-genre:
Beverley says that before the birth of the Regency historical,"It was a given that books set in Regency society were in that sub-genre 'Regency Romance.' This sub-genre was marked by storylines that were located within the English upper class (rarely if ever were the principals Scottish, Irish, or Welsh) and character behaviour that stayed within that society's rules, more or less. If characters behaved otherwise there were consequences, or at least the risk of consequences, so they had to be discreet. This led to there being very little explicit sex as most books were courtship books, but limited sex became a mark of the genre and I'm not sure why. I think it has to be because the roots were clearly Heyer and more distantly, the Austen angle on the Regency."
Jo Beverley's got some short stories on her website and although they're much shorter then a traditional Regency romance, they have a very 'trad Regency' feel to them. The Duke's Solution and The Christmas Wedding Gambit are both very Heyer-ish and both feature characters who are not quite what they first seem. Beverley's Jane Austen and the Mistletoe Kiss, as its name suggests, pays homage to Austen.

The traditional Regencies haven't vanished for ever, though. Many of the older Regency romances are being republished by Belgrave House in ebook format (they also offer a free novella, Lady Bountiful, by Laura Matthews, though you do need to email them an order before you can read it). Some new ones are still being published by Harlequin/Mills & Boon, while other new Regency romances are appearing in e-book format. Cerridwen Press has a small Regency line named Cotillion. Lesley-Anne McLeod has been published in ebook format by Awe-Struck E-Books and Uncial Press, and she has some free short stories here.


The illustrations are of a lady wearing 1815 walking costume, from Ackermann's Repository (at Wikipedia), and a sketch of Lord Grantham by J.A.D. Ingres, 1816, also from Wikipedia. In this context I think the lady looks as though she's been highly distressed by the ending of the Regency romance lines, or it may be that she's upset that Lord Grantham isn't paying her any attention.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Metaphorical Medicine: Diagnosing Lovesickness

'Lovesickness' wasn't always thought of as just a metaphor. In the Middle Ages authoritative sources which were thought to justify the classification of lovesickness as a real disease included the works of Ovid, which 'taught that sickness could be an artful strategy in the game of love, and that unwanted love could be cured by his remedies' (Wack 1990: 15) and
the story of Amnon and Thamar in 2 Samuel 13 (2 Kings in the Vulgate) and the refrain in Canticles, “for I am sick with love” (Cant. 2.5, 5.8).
The biblical episode of Amnon’s love for his sister Thamar both portrayed the reality of lovesickness and, in its narrative details, offered a vision of the disease that overlapped with those of medicine and secular literature. (Wack 1990: 19)
Medieval physicians were of the opinion that love was
a disorder of the mind and body, closely related to melancholia* and potentially fatal if not treated. [...] The university physicians were trained to recognize symptoms of love. By interpreting signs in the patient’s body and behavior (for example, by testing his pulse to see if it changed dramatically when the beloved was mentioned) the doctor could diagnose the malady even if the patient were unwilling to reveal its source. He would then prescribe a regimen designed to restore the body’s strength and to distract the mind from its obsession. Baths, good food, wine, and sleep insured the return of physical vigor, while therapeutic intercourse, business affairs, legal difficulties, real or concocted, and various types of sports and games, like riding or chess, distracted the mind from its fantasies. If left untreated, however, the disease of love could degenerate into melancholia, thought to be even more difficult to cure than lovesickness. (Wack 1990: xi-xii)
That tastefully worded phrase 'therapeutic intercourse' refers to the fact that medieval doctors thought one of the most efficacious remedies for lovesickness was
intercourse with the desired person; if that is not possible, then with another. All the authors recommend it highly; Avicenna and Gerard claim that the disease cannot be cured perfectly without it. If the desired person cannot be obtained legally and according to the faith, then recourse was to be had to "buying girls, and sleeping with them, getting fresh ones, and delighting in them". (Wack 1984: 56-57)
It makes me wonder if some romance heroes also ascribe to this medical theory since there are a fair number who seem to believe that one night of sex with the heroine will help them get over their feelings for her and they're often quite prepared to resort to blackmail in order to get the 'cure' they desire.

Medieval doctors may not have understood the mechanisms by which illnesses were caused, and we may question the efficacy of many of their suggested cures, but they weren't completely wrong in their diagnoses. Modern doctors are concluding that the strange effects caused by love may be due to chemical changes in the brain:
Science is beginning to pay more attention to the chemical storm that romantic love can trigger in our brains. Recent studies of brain scans show that being in love causes changes in the brain that are strikingly similar to serious health problems like drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. [...]

Studies in Italy looking at blood levels of the brain chemical serotonin have suggested that love and mental illness have much in common. They compared serotonin levels of people recently in love; patients with obsessive compulsive disorder; and a "control" group that was neither. The researchers found that the love-struck participants showed a drop in serotonin levels similar to those with obsessive-compulsive problems. (Parker-Pope 2007, Wall Street Journal)**
For all that medieval doctors' scientific knowledge was lacking by modern standards, their descriptions of lovesickness nonetheless demonstrate an understanding of the symptoms and feelings caused by love and in this respect they may have a lot in common with modern romance authors.

Most romance novels (with the obvious exception of medical romances) don't make accuracy in medical matters a high priority and it's perhaps better to think of many medical details in romances as having a strong metaphorical and psychological significance rather than view less than total accuracy as a flaw. I'm not suggesting that romance authors never bother to get medical details right, because many do make great efforts to ensure accuracy, but it's certainly not always the case. Some romances seem to use medical matters almost metaphorically, with the emphasis on emotion and psychological exploration rather than strict attention to medical detail. This really isn't very different from the ways that 'wallpaper historicals' use historical details and settings to create a romantic backdrop for the drama but are not overly concerned with total historical accuracy, or, to take some more literary examples, the way in which Ionesco uses the metamorphosis of his characters into rhinoceroses to describe the spread of fascism, or the role of cholera in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, where the disease can be read as an indicator of moral decay.

One of the most common romance medical metaphors concerns the location of the hymen. As Kalen Hughes observes,
Contrary to what appears to be popular mythology (at least among the writers of romance and erotica) the hymen is not a “barrier” (except in RARE cases that require surgery; 1 in 2000 per Blaustein's Pathology of the Female Genital Tract) nor is it up inside the vaginal canal as it is commonly represented to be in fiction.
Here's an example of a description of the piercing of a romance heroine's hymen:
Her hands were scrabbling through his hair [...] blindly seeking some course that would answer the tumultuous need within. And finally he answered it, lifting himself over her, knowing she was open to him, open and waiting tremulously, wanting the ultimate fulfilment of all he could give her, and she sighed with intense relief as she felt him push into her, felt her inner muscles contract around him, felt the glorious fullness moving slowly onward, meeting the resistance of her virginity, pausing.
Even in that brief moment of panic she couldn't bear the thought of him stopping. If there was pain, there was pain. She didn't care. (Darcy 2003: 95)
While this heroine has clearly got a hymen located somewhere anatomically impossible, the barrier here represents the way the heroine is letting down her emotional defences, opening herself to the hero emotionally as well as physically. Where she had previously avoided falling in love, now she is willing to take a risk, even if it causes her pain. Another medical condition common to romance is what Maria K labels 'AIR Syndrome':
The word amnesia may sound scientific and impressive but Amnesia In Romance (AIR) has nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with air-headed research. Many novels romanticize head injury and portray amnesia patients in a completely unrealistic manner.
I recommend you read Maria's article if you want to know more about the reality of brain injury and how it compares with the descriptions in romance. Maria concludes, with her tongue firmly in her cheek, that AIR Syndrome is probably
caused by conversion hysteria, some sort of confusional state or delirium, dissociative disorder or psychosis rather than a head injury, although romance authors seldom choose these alternatives. Someone might forget a traumatic event to protect herself from severe emotional distress or they might have a multiple personality.
I agree, and I think that yet again what the romance authors are trying to do is portray for the reader the emotional intensity involved in falling in love.

Another medical problem I've noticed in romances are heart conditions. A striking example of almost literal broken-heartedness can be found in Anne Mather's Jack Riordan's Baby. After Jack becomes estranged from his wife, Rachel, he tries to take his mind off his problems by devoting himself to his business (one can imagine that the medieval medical practitioners who suggested that the love-sick individual should be distracted by 'business affairs' would have approved), unfortunately the treatment is not successful (though his business flourishes) and he develops physical symptoms of heart disease, collapses and ends up in hospital. It also appears that, as feared by medieval doctors, his illness has almost developed into melancholia (a term which ancient and medieval doctors used to describe a variety of different mental health problems, including what we'd now term 'depression'*):
He certainly didn't believe the shrink who'd come to see him while he was in the hospital. Obviously someone who was recovering from an attack that had limited the amount of blood entering the heart might be suffering depression [...]. His diagnosis - that Jack's problems were possibly as much psychological as physical - hadn't won him any favours. [...] Okay, he [Jack] thought now, so maybe their estrangement had played a contributory role in the way his body was behaving now. Losing three babies [his wife had miscarried three times] and the wife you loved more than life itself could do that to you (2006: 155-156)
Once Jack and Rachel are reconciled Jack's health returns and in fact 'had never been better. He'd had a comprehensive check-up [...] and according to Dr Moore his arrhythmia had corrected itself' (2006: 181). I'm not sure what modern doctors would think about Jack's symptoms and his rapid recovery, but I'm sure that their medieval colleagues would have had little problem diagnosing Jack's problems as being caused by lovesickness, nor would they have been surprised by his swift return to health. There's another Jack with heart trouble in Maggie Cox's The Pregnancy Secret and here the heroine quite explicitly makes a connection between emotional heartbreak and his heart attack:
clearly Jack's lifestyle up until now must have been impossibly stressful to have caused him to need heart surgery at the too young age of thirty-seven [...] She already knew that he was angry and bitter about what had happened between them. If he'd been carrying around that rage inside him all these years and on top of that the stress of a demanding job, then no wonder he had suffered a heart problem!
Caroline had read in a self-help book she'd bought that one of the possible metaphysical causes of a heart attack was when a heart felt deprived of joy due to a person's pursuit of making money over everything else ... that, plus long-standing emotional problems that eventually helped harden the heart. (2006: 164-165)
If, rather than feeling upset at a lack of accuracy in modern romance novels, we treat the descriptions in the novels as metaphors which use medical terminology to describe emotional states, and accept that these texts are more concerned with describing emotion than with medical realism, we will have a more satisfactory reading experience. 'Heart-ache', 'Heart-broken', 'Lovesickness', 'Love is blind' are all expressions which do precisely the same thing: they use the language of medicine to describe the experience of falling and being in love.

* According to Jackson:
The term 'melancholia' suggests modern syndromes of depression, and it certainly did designate cases of psychotic depression and probably other severe depressions, but it also referred to a variety of what would come to be called functional psychoses, including schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychoses; and probably some disorders now recognized as organic psychoses were included. (1972: 289)
Medieval doctors also ascribed to the theory of the humours, and melancholia and lovesickness might sometimes be ascribed to an excess of black bile.

**There's more on this topic here (from The New York Times) and here (from the BBC).

  • Cox, Maggie, 2006. The Pregnancy Secret (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Darcy, Emma, 2003. The Bedroom Surrender (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Jackson, Stanley W., 1972. 'Unusual Mental States in Medieval Europe I. Medical Syndromes of Mental Disorder: 400–1100 A.D.', Journal of the History of Medicine, 27.3: 262-297.
  • Mather, Anne, 2006. Jack Riordan's Baby (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Wack, Mary F., 1984. 'Lovesickness in Troilus', Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 19, No. 1/2: 55-61.
  • Wack, Mary Frances, 1990. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The ‘Viaticum’ and its Commentaries, University of Pennsylvania Press, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania).

Image from the Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection. This particular image isn't actually of a doctor diagnosing love sickness. It shows a woman visiting a doctor (he's the one examining a urine flask) and is taken from the Mer des Hystoires, Paris 1488-89. In general medieval medicine considered lovesickness to be an illness which afflicted aristocratic males:'the sufferer was typically thought to be a noble man' (Wack 1990: xi).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fairytales vs. Bible Stories

I'm certainly no expert on the inspirational romance sub-genre but it seems to me that, just as with the genre as a whole, it may be helpful to look at it in the light of Northrop Frye's comments about how literature is on a spectrum from the high mimetic, which 'seems to be connected [...] with [...] myth' to the low, which has a 'tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description' (Frye 2000: 51). In this context Frye describes the Bible as 'a definitive myth' (2000: 315) which 'presents a gigantic cycle from creation to apocalypse, within which is the heroic quest of the Messiah from incarnation to apotheosis' (2000: 316).

Secular modern romances which are closer to the high mimetic end of the spectrum may draw on myths, legends and fairytales. Jenny Crusie has observed that
There is something in the fairy tale that resonates in the romance [...] Former Harlequin editor Sherie Posesorski has said that all romance novels are “built on” fairy tales, and romance author Tiffany White writes that “fairy tales were the beginning of my love affair with the romance genre” (Crusie 1998)
Some romances display their debt to fairytales quite openly, some draw on them in more subtle ways and yet others, those which are low mimetic, seem to be grounded almost completely in 'real life'. And although the secular romances at the high mimetic end of the spectrum may not often be described as having didactic elements, neither they nor the fairytales from which they draw their inspiration are value-free. As Zipes says,
We tend to forget the socio-historical frameworks of control when we talk about reading and especially the reading of fairy tales. Both socialization and reading reflect and are informed by power struggles and ideology in a given society or culture. (1991: 55)
Fairytales tend to have a didactic purpose:
one can speak about the single literary fairy tale for children as a symbolic act infused by the ideological viewpoint of the individual author. Almost all critics who have studied the emergence of the literary fairy tale in Europe agree that educated writers purposely appropriated the oral folk tale and converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values, and manners so that children would become civilized according to the social code of that time. (Zipes 1991: 3)
The guidelines for inspirational romances tend to make it quite explicit that these texts will reflect the authors' religious beliefs and have a didactic, inspirational purpose. The editors of Harlequin's Steeple Hill lines, for example, 'are looking for authors writing from a Christian worldview and conveying their personal faith and ministry values in entertaining fiction that will touch the hearts of believers and seekers everywhere'.

High mimetic Christian works take their inspiration from the Christian equivalents of myth, legend and fairytales, namely Bible stories and parables, but there are also low mimetic inspirational romances. Michael Kechula's Shotsie is low mimetic, in that the characters are ordinary people (it's a revenge of the nerd story). It's got a rather hyperbolic opening metaphor, but that's in keeping with the first person narrator's voice and I certainly didn't find it 'preachy': in fact, the ending has a rather funny twist.

The picture which accompanies this post is the equivalent of writing which falls somewhere in the middle of Frye's two poles, since its religious subject matter is depicted in a way which makes this less than obvious at first glance. It's Caravaggio's Magdalene and
there are none of the usual signs of a religious scene such as a halo. A young girl, seen from above, is seated on a low stool [...]. Discarded jewellery - a string of pearls, clasps, a jar (perhaps holding precious ointment) - lies on the floor. The girl's hair is loose, as if it has just been washed. Her costume, consisting of a white-sleeved blouse, a yellow tunic and a flowery skirt, is rich. Bellori, who gives a careful description of this picture [...] regards its title as an excuse; for him it is just a naturalistic portrayal of a pretty girl. This seems to show a willful failure to understand Caravaggio's intention or the wishes of the man who commissioned it, Monsignor Petrignani. The repentant Mary Magdalene, like the repentant Peter, was a favourite subject of Counter-Reformation art and poetry, which valued the visible expression of the state of contrition 'the gift of tears'. Caravaggio's heroine is sobbing silently to herself and a single tear falls down her cheek. She is, as it were, poised between her past life of luxury and the simple life she will embrace as one of Christ's most faithful followers. (Web Gallery of Art)
Lacey, the heroine of Diana Mylek's Hook, Line & Sinker, regularly hears messages from God which, I think, makes her not quite usual and there's a framework of Biblical symbolism, yet Lacey's not a high mimetic heroine and her quest is a very domestic one. God tells Lacey that she should 'go buy a bass boat'. She accepts His advice and, when her sister Emily raises objections, points out the parallel with Noah:
Emily shook her head in confusion. “It sounds kind of…weird to me.”

“Yes, like building an ark. But look what happened to Noah for obeying.”
Lacey had been praying for God to give her guidance on 'what I needed to do to attract a man' and the bass boat idea is scripturally appropriate. Noah match-made the animals, pairing them up before they were told to go forth and multiply (Genesis 8: 16-17). Lacey's plan also means that she becomes a fisher of men (Matthew 4: 19). The humour that results from Lacey's 'fishing' is tempered by her sister Emily's need to escape from an abusive relationship. Her boyfriend has destroyed her self-esteem and as one character puts it, 'She needs to learn the difference between meek and weak'. Domestic violence and emotional abuse are clearly issues which affect a wide range of people, but religious beliefs can add an extra layer of complexity. According to Dr Lynne Baker of the University of Queensland:
“Christian women, particularly those from more fundamentalist denominations, can suffer more because of their faith,” [...].

“They may experience exactly the same issues as secular women, but have the added pressure of Christian faith, which when handled correctly can be a help, but can often serve as an extra burden.”
The fact that Emily's faith hinders her escape is touched on in this story.

I'd place J. Kathleen Cheney's haunting, bitter-sweet romance Stains of the Past (which could probably be classed as an inspirational fantasy romance) at the high mimetic end of the spectrum. Both the inspirational nature of the work, and the element which makes it high mimetic are revealed its opening paragraphs:
I believe in redemption. Every week when I go to confession, the priest tells me my sins are forgiven. I am a new person now, he has explained, and my penitence has created in me a clean heart. [...] When I touch people, I know their hearts. I know their motivations, their dreams, and their fears. That talent made me successful in my former career, for I could easily judge what a man wanted of me.
Both heroine and hero have powers which are uncommon and which remove the story from the realm of the low mimetic. And, to return to the artwork with which I began the post, the heroine's spiritual journey is reminiscent of Mary Magdalene's (at least, in the version of her story in which Mary is identified as a repentant prostitute), while the hero, like Christ, suffers for her sins. As in the Gospels, touching is sometimes associated with physical and emotional healing, but it can also be forbidden, as it was when Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, 'Touch me not' (John 20: 17). Touch, then, both in this story and in the Bible has symbolic, emotional, spiritual and physical effects and meanings.

Though this story, like Shotsie, is told in the first person, it's not just the distance between the high and low mimetic forms which separates the two: the open-endedness of the story and the depiction of sexuality are also very, very different.
  • Frye, Northrop, 2000. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, with a new forword by Harold Bloom (Princeton: Princeton University Press). First published in 1957.
  • Zipes, Jack, 1991. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Routledge). First published in 1983 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
My thanks to Brenda Coulter and posters at her blog who gave me links to online inspirational romances. Reading them has helped me to feel slightly less ignorant about this sub-genre. If you'd like to read more online inspirational romances there are novellas and short stories, by a variety of authors, available here and Brenda has a list of several more here.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Good, Bad, Myth and Realism

A post written by Barbara Samuel at Romancing the Blog on the topic of the RITAs has now spawned a somewhat wider-ranging discussion at the Smart Bitches about how one judges what's 'good' and 'the best' in romance. I'd like to take a closer look at some of the comments made there, along with some of the comments made here as a result of my last post, in the light of some of Northrop Frye's ideas about literature (which we discussed some time ago on the blog, but I hope those who read them then will forgive the repetition).

Sandra commented that she couldn't think of 'any romance in which the heroine's soft, small body wasn't contrasted with the hero's tall, muscled body' and Bill then asked 'why does a person’s body structure necessarily have to suggest being or feeling “helpless?”' Meanwhile, over at the Smart Bitches, Robin set this phenomenon in a broader context:
there is a tendency to do what I call “shorthand Romance” these days—to cue the reader with specific descriptions and types (i.e. flame red hair = feisty, dark craggy features = brooding hero), leaving it up to the reader to fill in the rest. And quite a few readers, who have these incredible stores of generic information and emotional receptivity to Romance, cue very easily, IMO. Lots of readers, IMO, don’t notice the difference, for example, between showing and telling because they are so open to receiving the emotional payoff in a Romance that they don’t realize they’re generating it themselves in many instances (I think this is especially a problem with ever-shrinking page and word counts). I sense that this may be especially true of readers who tend to gravitate toward the same sub-genre and type of Romance novel—that the vocabulary of those Romances is so much a part of their reading experience, that the reader can take on a portion of the craftsmanship responsibilities without even knowing or caring. Please note that I’m not suggesting that these readers are mindless, stupid, ignorant, or possessing of bad taste—only that they are so schooled in the genre and so open to its promised emotional payoff that they automatically fill in whatever is absent from the book itself
Now maybe I'm being a Pollyanna, but I think that although one could accept that this "shorthand Romance" is an indication of the authors' failure at writing complex characters, it may at times be due to the fact that different romance authors have very different aims and styles.

Some time ago Eric posted a series of quotations from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. Pertinent here is the following:
the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle’s word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. [...] We note in passing that imitation of nature in fiction produces, not truth or reality, but plausibility, and plausibility varies in weight from a mere perfunctory concession in a myth or folk tale to a kind of censor principle in a naturalistic novel. (2000: 51-52)
Frye explains the difference between the high and low mimetic modes. If the hero 'has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature' then he 'is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy' (2000: 34). If, on the other hand, the hero is
superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet [or author] the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction. (2000: 34)
Certainly a novel which is intended to be written in the low mimetic mode fails if the characters are, as in fairytales, lacking in verisimilitude. But if an author, rather than attempting to create 'realistic fiction', is hoping to create a high mimetic romance novel, akin to myth and fairytale, then the use of techniques such as 'shorthand' references to hair-colour, reliant on the reader's prior understanding of the conventions of the genre, are in keeping with the traditions of this mode.

Neither the high nor the low mimetic mode is superior, but some readers may have a strong preference for one or the other. It seems to me that criticising a romance novel written in the high mimetic mode for using shorthand is, in a sense, criticising it for not being something it was never intended to be. Romance, as Sandra observed, is a form which, particularly at the high mimetic end of the spectrum, is very close to fairytales. Romances, even the high mimetic ones may not go so far as to give their characters only 'nicknames like Little Red Riding Hood or commonplace names like Jack/Hans, Gretel', but there are certain names which are considered more 'appropriate' for heroes, just as certain physical attributes have become associated with different character types (see this post for more details).

I may have a personal preference for romances of the low mimetic type, and I may have some concerns about the ways in which certain romance 'shorthands' may reinforce society's existing binary oppositions such as those between male and female, dark and light or right and wrong (not all uses of the shorthands do this, but some may), but I don't think that one can automatically assume that they are a mark of low literary value. If we take Lorca as an example, 'Perhaps the most significant features of Lorca's rhetoric are his brilliant metaphors and his use of archetypal symbols' (Palley 1967: 74). Lorca's Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding) relies for its impact on the viewer's knowledge of symbolism and 'None of the characters in the play have names except for the lover, Leonardo - the rest are named according to who they play, such as La Novia (The Bride), El Novio (The Bridegroom) and La Madre (The Mother)' (Wikipedia).

  • Frye, Northrop, 2000. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, with a new forword by Harold Bloom (Princeton: Princeton University Press). First published in 1957.
  • Palley, Julian, 1967. 'Archetypal Symbols in Bodas de Sangre', Hispania 50.1: 74-79.
The pictures are an icon of the Theotokos and Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez's 1619 The Adoration of the Magi. I've included them not because they have much to do with the romance genre but because the two paintings depict the same subject (the Virgin and Child) and yet are in very different traditions. Is the icon 'worse' art because it's not as realistic looking as the Velázquez? One can, of course, find examples of both icons and more realistic paintings which are worse than others, just as one can find better and worse romance novels at both ends of the mimetic spectrum, but the tradition in which they are painted/written is not in itself an indication of either failure or lack of quality.

P.S. If you click on the Velázquez you'll be able to see it in much more detail. At something of a tangent, as the 25th March 2007 is
the 200th anniversary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. This Act outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire and made it illegal for British ships to be involved in the trade, marking the beginning of the end for the transatlantic traffic in human beings (UK Government website)
I thought it seemed appropriate to point out that in this painting King Balthasar is depicted as a black man. As Wikipedia notes, 'Occasionally from the 12th century, and very often in Northern Europe from the 15th, the Magi are also made to represent the three known parts of the world: Balthasar is very commonly cast as a young African or Moor, and old Caspar is given Oriental features or, more often, dress'. Velázquez had a black servant (or possibly slave), Juan de Pareja, of whom he painted a portrait.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Quality, Patriarchy and Popularity

In the comments on my last post Kimber said
I have a troublesome theory that's been nagging at me for some time I wish you would discuss on the blog. The romance blogosphere seems to accept as a home truth that romances are empowering women's fiction unfairly maligned by the patriarchal, white-male establishment.
So I thought I'd oblige. It seems to me that any generalisation about a genre as big as romance is going to be problematic because there are bound to be exceptions, perhaps quite large numbers of them, to almost any claim one chooses to make. Karen Kosztolnyik, who's worked as a senior editor at Warner Books said something about the genre that I've read quite a few times before: 'this is a genre of books where the product is written by women for women'. It's true, but only up to a point. We all know that there are male authors of romance and, according to the RWA's 2005 Market Research Study, '22% of romance readers are male'.

Other claims are much more difficult to either prove or disprove. Jayne Ann Krentz, in her introduction to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, writes that a
strong theme that emerges from the essays is that of female empowerment. Readers understand that the books celebrate female power. In the romance novel, as Phillips, Clair, and several others point out, the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman. (1992: 5)
What is indubitably true is that the romance heroine is always given what the author thinks, and/or hopes the readers will think, is a happy ending, but readers may disagree about whether the HEAs in particular books truly represent a triumph for the heroines of those novels. All About Romance had a column about 'heroines who need to be slapped upside the head [and] heroes in need of a good kick in the you-know-where'. It seems to me that when readers classify a book as being about a doormat who marries a jerk, they aren't considering the outcome to be a 'win' for the heroine.

Jenny Crusie says that
The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys' stories were about doing and winning but that girls' stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories, and the less active they were--do NOT be a pushy, knife-wielding stepsister--the better their chances were of getting the castle and the crown.
so she
rewrote the fairy tale and recast the canon so that I was at the center of the story. It told me that what I did made a difference, that the things I understood and had experience with were important, that "women's stuff" mattered. It gave me female protagonists in stories that promised that if a woman fought for what she believed in and searched for the truth, she could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born
Romances can do that but I think it would be impossible to deny that some don't. Are Barbara Cartland's novels empowering re-writings of the fairy tale? Or do they tend to imply that a powerful man can only be 'tamed' by a sexually innocent, startling beautiful young woman? Cartland's heroines get their happy endings, they 'win', they show courage and certainly gentleness, but does the emphasis on the ways in which the heroine is exceptionally lovely, gentle and innocent empower other women? Or does it suggest that we will never be as deserving of a fairytale ending because we lack the qualities embodied in the heroine? And why are we offered so many heroes who are rich, rakish, distant, sexually experienced older men? Is the implication that a man who was poor or only comfortably off, of a similar age to the heroine, lacking in sexual experience and emotionally open wouldn't be worth winning? And what if we prefer not to think of the relationship between the sexes as a competition or battle to be 'won'? Why does it have to be about 'winning' anyway? Can't we have heroes and heroines who co-operate? Actually, we do, and that's acknowledged by many of the authors whose essays appear in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, even as they state their strong preference for heroes who need to be 'tamed'. So, while it's (almost) always the case that a romance has a heroine and she's rewarded at the end of the novel with requited love, the nature of the heroine, who/what she struggles with and the precise nature of her reward (is it a reformed rake and motherhood? is it a new career and a younger man?) can vary.*

Krentz also writes that the essays in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Woman explore:
A third theme, one related to empowerment, [...] that of the inherently subversive nature of the romance novel. Romance novels invert the power structure of a patriarchal society because they show women exerting enormous power over men (1992: 5)
I'm not sure how subversive this really is. I wouldn't deny that romances can be subversive, but I certainly don't think that all of them are. The idea that women exert 'enormous power over men' is at the heart of Victorian chivalrous ideals and in an earlier post I discussed why I don't think that was generally 'empowering' for women, despite the fact that proponents of chivalry claimed that women exerted enormous power over men. Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, was considered subversive:
"Educate women like men," says Rousseau, "and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us." This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves. (from her Vindication of the Rights of Women)
And she wasn't at all anti-sex or male/female relationships:
Mary worked on a final book, The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria, a kind of sequel to The Rights of Woman. In it she revealed the need of women for companionship and freedom to express their sexuality, as well as for reason and independence. The originality of the book lies in its depiction of a working class prostitute who, along with the sensitive and adulterous heroine, is allowed a voice as she tells her story of immense and continuing suffering. The novel was unfinished, for death came tragically to Mary. (Todd)
Another point to bear in mind when it comes to defining 'subversiveness' in romances is that a work can only really be labelled 'subversive' when compared to other novels and/or societal norms. I'll use Crusie as an example again. She'd been reading the classics, in which there were
miserable women like the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then ate arsenic; or the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then threw herself under a train; or my personal fave, the one who pursued the life she wanted, had lousy sex with a masochistic dweeb, and spent the rest of her endless life atoning by doing good works in a letter sweater.
In comparison with Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina or The Scarlet Letter, yes, of course the treatment of sexuality in many romances looks subversive. Juliet Flesch comments that 'In general, the moral, social and ethical stance adopted by many Australian romance writers is tolerant and progressive, most notably in relation to the rights of women, children and ethnic minorities' (2004: 295). One person's 'tolerant and progressive' can be another's 'subversive' and yet another's 'deeply conservative' because so much depends on which books or social norms you're measuring them against.

Kimber also commented that some people claim that
the very fact romances sell like hotcakes proves they are not only a commercial force to be reckoned with but they deserve more literary respect.

I've gone along with this for a while, and tried to broaden my horizons beyond historicals, thinking that perhaps there existed a bright world of top-notch romances out there. But even though I've tried hard to give them benefit of the doubt, I'm forced to the conclusion that most romances are indeed filled with cardboard characters, clichés and bad writing. The blogosphere decries the double-standard applied to fiction written by women for women, but I think we're guilty of applying a double standard ourselves. I think we just accept lower-quality writing in romances because they're "fun" to read.

This isn't to say there aren't good romance writers out there. But I have to disagree with the argument that because they're popular and profitable, romances as a genre deserve more respect. Popularity does not imply quality.
High sales can, I think, be taken as an indication that the genre is a popular culture phenomenon which should not be ignored. They also tell us that the books contain something which appeals to a large number of people and that they may therefore give some insight into the aspirations and tastes of a great many readers.

However, readers select books for a number of reasons. These may include: literary style; complex world-building; complex, realistic characterisation; intellectual stimulation; emotional impact; fast-moving plot; 'escape'; validation/reassurance. Some books work on more levels than others: while some novels may combine an exciting plot with well-drawn characters, an engaging underlying theme and complex use of imagery, others may only only succeed in a few of these areas. As Pacatrue commented: 'If a novel can be enjoyable without good characters, that simply means its found a different way to accomplish the task. I'm just wary of the notion that we forgive bad novels because we enjoy them. If we enjoy them, then they aren't bad.' It might, however, have been even more enjoyable (and a better book) had it had 'good characters' too. If one could exclude the effect of external factors such as good promotion and distribution, quirks of survival (some texts might be classics had they not been lost in the centuries since they were written) or some element which leads them to become 'set texts' in schools and universities, my intuition would be that novels which succeed in more areas (characterisation, theme, plot, style etc) are more likely to become classics, because there is more chance that some element of the novel will continue to appeal to readers even while other elements of the writing go out of fashion. Success on many levels also makes it more likely that the book will continue to appeal to the same reader when she or he re-reads the novel. Pacatrue asked 'are romance novels like cotton candy that vanishes in the blink of an eye, or are they a savory treat that you can go back to over and over?' I think some can be read and re-read but once the element of surprise is lost, a novel must depend on success in areas other than the plot twists if it is to engage the reader.

Success in characterisation, style etc is, however, a subjective matter. Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Mary K. Chelton carried out a survey of 'heavy readers' and found that
When readers reject a book as "poorly written", they often mean that the book was successfully written to achieve an effect that they personally dislike - too sexually arousing, too scary, too sentimental, too full of verbal effects, too descriptive, or too literary for them. A fan of the stripped-down Hemingway style might dislike the sensuous language of romance and declare that all romances are "poorly written." (2001: 53)
I've mentioned their findings and discussed them in more detail here. The tastes of academics, and their judgements about literary merit, are also subjective. To take an example from medieval literature, cancionero poetry placed many restrictions on the poet:
This restriction is a sign of ingenuity: to operate successfully within the very narrow limits allowed by the new convention is a supreme test of a poet's skill. [...]
The skill and the restriction are conceptual as well as metrical [...] the vocabulary is remarkably limited both in quantity and in type (nearly all of the words are abstract). This, of course, makes it very difficult for the modern reader to concentrate on even a short poem like a canción [...] It is tempting to regard these late canciones as displays of ultimately pointless ingenuity, and this may prove to be the right answer - some cultures do take disastrously wrong turnings. It is, however, also possible that modern readers have somehow missed the point. (Deyermond 1971: 198)
Or, to take a more recent example which I mentioned in my comments on my last post,
Dickens has always presented problems for literary criticism. For theorists whose critical presuppositions emphasise intelligence, sensitivity and an author in complete control of his work the cruder aspects of his popular art have often proved an unsurmountable obstacle. (Alan Shelston)
What constitutes 'literary merit', then, seems to be at least partly a matter of taste.

  • Deyermond, A. D., 1971. A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages (London: Ernest Benn Limited).
  • Flesch, Juliet, 2004. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle, Western Australia: Curtin University Press).
  • Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. 'Introduction', Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 1-9.
  • Sheldrick Ross, Catherine & Chelton, Mary K., 2001. ‘Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material’, Library Journal (February 1): 52-55.

* To state the obvious, there are no heroines in m/m romances.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Romance Novels: Pornography or Literature?

In her last post, Sarah was looking at the distinction between 'erotica' and 'porn'. Her conclusions are very similar to the definitions given by Passionate Ink (the erotic romance special interest chapter of Romance Writers Of America):
Porn: stories written for the express purpose of causing sexual titillation. Plot, character development, and romance are NOT primary to these stories. They are designed to sexually arouse the reader and nothing else.
According to Passionate Ink, erotica is about 'the sexual journey of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals', whereas erotic romance is about 'the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction'. That might be clear, but it's certainly not the only definition of porn. Joseph W. Slade observes that
For most Americans, pornography means peep shows, striptease, live sex acts, hardcore videos, adult cable programming, sexual aids and devices, explicit telephone and computer messages, adult magazines, and raunchy fiction. Conservatives might add prime-time television programming, soap operas, Music Television (MTV) and rock music, romance novels, fashion magazines, and all R-rated movies. Conflating sexuality and violence leads some critics to think of sexual representations as inherently aggressive. Others, noticing that most sexual representations contain no violence, condemn only those examples that mix the two. (excerpt from Pornography in America: A Reference Handbook, via PBS, my emphasis)
The entry on pornography in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that different people choose different criteria when defining what constitutes 'porn' and some of these critera, which may be used singly or in combination, are:
  • sexually explicit material
  • material which is obscene
  • material which includes the depiction of degrading and/or violent acts
  • material designed to create arousal in the viewer/reader
  • material which damages the viewer/reader and/or encourages the viewer/reader to harm others and/or harms those involved in the creation of the material
  • material lacking in artistic, literary, or political merit
Of course, judgements about what is 'lacking in literary merit', 'obscene', 'degrading' and 'damaging' are still highly subjective, so what is or isn't pornography remains very difficult to define.

Sexually explicit material

Many romances, including the inspirational romance sub-genre and the novels of authors such as Georgette Heyer and Betty Neels, contain no sexually explicit material, at least, not by contemporary Western standards, though as the Stanford Encyclopedia notes,
Displays of women's uncovered ankles count as sexually explicit in some cultures, but not in most western cultures nowadays (although they once did: the display of a female ankle in Victorian times was regarded as most risqué)
Nonetheless, derrogatory comments about the genre often focus on its depiction of sexuality. I've read of a comparison being made between reading romances and using prostitutes, for example, and in the 2006 Texas elections for State Comptroller, one candidate, Fred Head, described his opponent as 'the author of the pornographic book' and provided extracts of the sex scenes to prove his point. The book in question was a romance, and there were swift responses from many in the romance-reading community, including the Smart Bitches and All About Romance's Robin Uncapher. Anne Gracie listed this as the third of ten myths about the genre:
Myth #3* they're soft porn for women

I don't know how many times I've heard critics of romance read out salacious passages from a sexy M&B. I dare say I could pick out passages from almost any novel and mock it out of context. Cheap laughs.
Some romances contain sex scenes which would be difficult to mock even when taken out of context. Two sex scenes chosen for analysis by Rosina Lippi, Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation and Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart, fall into this category. Crusie's novel in fact includes characters who are involved in the making and viewing of pornography but as Lippi observes, although 'The passage sure comes across as explicit', 'there's no explicit vocabulary here, no naming of anatomy being engaged beyond breast'. Welcome to Temptation may be read as an exploration of the differences between porn and romance novels, but it isn't itself pornographic, at least not in my opinion.

Material designed to create arousal in the reader

Clearly some of the people who call romance 'pornography' do so because of the explicit sexual content in many romances. I don't, however, believe that this is the only criteria on which some people judge romances to be pornographic. Ann Barr Snitow, for example, in her essay 'Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different' was of the opinion that they are pornographic because they create arousal in the reader, they 'are written to elicit sexual excitation' (1983: 257), but not because they are obscene or explicit:
The Harlequin formula glorifies the distance between the sexes. Distance becomes titillating. [Note that this is the word central to the Passionate Ink chapter's definition of 'porn'] The heroine's sexual inexperience adds to this excitement. What is this thing that awaits her on the other side of distance and mystery? Not knowing may be more sexy than finding out. [...] In romanticized sexuality the pleasure lies in the distance itself. Waiting, anticipation, anxiety - these represent the high point of sexual experience. (1983: 250)
Snitow's essay was first published in 1979, so she was writing about Harlequins published before category romances became sexually explicit:
By 1981 [...] the romance market was poised for more sweeping changes. American writers of sexy historical romances had demonstrated that the market was growing and evolving. Recognizing this alteration in their traditional market, Mills and Boon/Harlequin had responded to that challenge by featuring slightly more overt sexual content, especially in the Harlequin Presents series. But the new and more open sexuality of these novels fell far short of the explicit sexual description that had proved so popular in the “bodice-rippers.” (Mussell 1999: 4)
The 'romance wars' of the early 1980s ended in 1984 when 'Harlequin bought Silhouette Books from Simon and Schuster' (Mussell 1999: 5) and after this 'Almost all romances, with the exception of the few remaining “sweet” romances and the romances published for Christian readers, featured not only sexual relations before marriage but moderate to explicit detail about the sexual act itself' (1999: 6).

But while works can arouse without being explicit, others may be explicit and arousing yet still not be written with the sole or primary aim of arousing the reader. Even the authors of the most explicit romances, the erotic romances, state that their aim is not titillation but the depiction of relationships. Clearly some readers do read romance in order to be titillated, and some authors may wish to titillate their readers, but this is certainly not the stated primary intention of any romance author that I know of, and I would assume that many readers share Sarah's preference for characterisation and relationship development even when reading erotica: 'whether that romance has its foundation in a short, sweet, pure romance or in a hot, gay male menage, I'm not interested in reading either unless the story is based on character and relationship development'. Erotica is, of course, a different genre from romance, but if erotica authors can state, as Keziah Hill does, that their work is 'for the body, mind and soul' it becomes very difficult to sustain a claim that authors of romance write primarily in order to sexually arouse their readers.

Material which damages the reader

Ann Douglas, in her essay 'Soft-Porn Culture' also describes romances as porn, but she does so at least in part on the grounds that they are damaging to the readers:
in the soft-porn fantasies of the Harlequins, woman's independence is made horrifically unattractive and unrewarding, her dependence presented as synonymous with excitement.
Admittedly incomplete surveys of readers suggest that Harlequins [...] are consumed not only by schoolgirls but by "normal," active women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. If true, this statistic hardly assures us that the Harlequins are harmless [...] but provokes instead serious concern for their women readers. (1980: 28)
Similar concerns about the effects of reading romances have been expressed by other critics of the genre:
The stereotypical, gender-based roles encouraged by this genre, along with its pathogenic communication model and naturalized violence are not only and by default a poor preparation for egalitarian, mature spousal relationships, they actively propagate a dysfunctional family model. (Kramer & Moore, 2001)
and the authors of another study, this time of romance readers, stated that 'The participants in the three focus groups held romance novels in great regard. This is unfortunate, as it appears that not only do readers establish parasocial relationships with the characters, but the novels influence their "real life" relationships' (Burnett & Beto, 2000).*

It's worth noting that there are many different types of relationships portrayed in romances: for example, an 'alpha' hero won't treat a heroine the same way as a 'beta' hero will. I've read plenty of comments from romance readers who prefer some of the more extreme alpha heroes but who make it quite clear that they can distinguish between fantasy and reality and there is therefore no risk that they would expect or tolerate the behaviour of, say, a Carpathian hero in their own real-life relationships. It's also worth pointing out that romance as a genre has not remained static. Kay Mussell observed that nowadays
Heroes and heroines meet each other on a much more equal playing field. Heroes don't always dominate and heroines are frequently right. Heroines have expertise and aren't afraid to show it. Heroes aren't the fount of all wisdom and they actually have things to learn from heroines. This is true of both contemporary and historical romances. I'm not trying to argue that all romances before the 1990s featured unequal relationships or that all romances today are based on equality. That's clearly not the case. But in general heroines today have a lot more independence and authority than their counterparts did in earlier romances.
Material lacking in artistic, literary, or political merit

I suspect that when romance is classified as pornography there's probably often some judgement being made which is related to what Anne Gracie lists as 'Myth #4', namely that romances are considered to be 'full of cardboard characters, clichés and bad writing'. As she points out, 'In every genre, there are novels that are clichéd and poorly written, and some books that are wonderfully written with unforgettable characters and prose that sings'. But, of course, people don't expect to find 'prose that sings' in a work of 'porn'.

Legally, not all pornography is 'obscene' and literary merit may be a determining factor in whether or not a work is judged to be obscene:
The Miller test is the United States Supreme Court's test for determining whether speech or expression can be labeled obscene, in which case it is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and can be prohibited.

The Miller test was developed in the 1973 case Miller v. California. It has three parts (from Wikipedia)
To quote from the full text of the judgement:
Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. [...] A work may be subject to state regulation where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. (my emphasis)
In the UK the Obscene Publications Acts was amended in 1954 so that
Convictions would not occur if the publication could be proved to be 'in the interests of science, literature, art or learning'. Expert evidence would be allowed if it were literary, artistic, scientific or meritorious, the publication must now be examined as a whole. (BBC)
Clearly not every romance is a work of literary genius. Literary geniuses are rare. But I do think that the literary merit of romance novels is often severely underestimated.

Given the criticisms levelled at Harlequins by both Snitow and Douglas, I think it's fitting to end this post with a quotation from a Harlequin Mills & Boon romance. There's one section of Sandra Marton's Naked in His Arms which I can't help but read as a subtle, metafictional defence of the genre's literary merit. Here's the heroine, Cara, having some of her assumptions challenged:
"Iron bars do not a prison make," she said coldly.
"It's stone walls. 'Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.' " His smile thinned. "Gotta get it right, if you really want to impress the peasants."
She knew her mouth had dropped open. She couldn't help it. Alexander Knight, quoting an obscure seventeenth-century poet?
"Unpleasant, isn't it?"
His voice had gone low, his smile dangerous and very male. Cara told herself to hold her ground.
"What's unpleasant?"
"Being labeled. [...] You've written me off as something a lady like you wouldn't want anywhere near her." (2006: 86-87)
Clearly Cara's misjudged Alexander, but it seems to me that this passage could also be read as being about romance novels and romance readers (as represented by Alex) and the people who, without knowing the genre well, 'write off' romances as lacking in literary merit. I can't imagine many of them would expect to find a quotation from Richard Lovelace in a Harlequin Presents.**

  • Burnett, Ann, & Rhea Reinhardt Beto, 2000. ‘Reading Romance Novels: An Application of Parasocial Relationship Theory’, North Dakota Journal of Speech & Theatre, 13.
  • Douglas, Ann, 1980. 'Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman', The New Republic, August 30, 1980, vol. 183: 25-29.
  • Kramer, Daniela & Moore, Michael, 2001. ‘Gender Roles, Romantic Fiction and Family Therapy’, Psycoloquy 12,#24.
  • Marton, Sandra, 2006. Naked in His Arms (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Mussell, Kay, 1999. 'Introduction' in North American Romance Writers, ed. Kay Mussell & Johanna Tuñón (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press), pp. 1-9.
  • Snitow, Ann Barr, 1983. ‘Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different’, in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 245-263. First published in Radical History Review, 20 (Spring/Summer 1979): 141-61.

* Neither Kramer & Moore, nor Burnett & Beto discuss whether the damaging content makes the romances 'pornographic'.

* The full text of the poem, 'To Althea from Prison', can be found here and you can read a bit more about Richard Lovelace here.

Another of Alex's comments, made just a few pages after his reference to Lovelace, might also be read as having a metafictional dimension:
"I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of in my life, Ms. Prescott," he said in a tone she knew she'd always remember, "but rape isn't one of them, not even when it's meant to accommodate a woman who'd rather be forced than admit she wants to get laid." (2006: 90)
Modern romance heroes in general don't rape heroines, and even 'forced seductions' are rare:
Between 1972 and about 1988, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rapist hero in the face. Starting in about the mid-80s, though, the tides started turning, and by the mid-90s, rapist heroes were mostly a thing of the past, although forced seductions still popped their heads up here and there. (Candy, at the Smart Bitches)

P.S. While I was doing research for this post I came across an article about universities which offer courses on pornography:
Undergraduates taking Cyberporn and Society at the State University of New York at Buffalo survey Internet porn sites. At New York University, assignments for Anthropology of the Unconscious include discussing X-rated Japanese comic books. And in Cinema and the Sex Act at the University of California, Berkeley, undergrads are required to view clips from Hollywood NC-17 releases like Showgirls and underground stag reels.

It's called the porn curriculum, and it's quietly taking root in the ivory tower. A small but growing number of scholars are probing the aesthetic, societal and philosophical properties of smut in academic departments ranging from literature to film, law to technology, anthropology to women's studies. Those specialists argue that graphic sexual imagery has become ubiquitous in society, so it's almost irresponsible not to teach young people how to deal with it. (Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, 2006).

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Eric's at Romancing the Blog today

You can read his post here. It's about what's been on the syllabus of the course on romance novels that he's been teaching at DePaul University, and he's asking for advice on which novels to include in the future.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Erotica vs. Porn

Like Laura, I've been bouncing around between free short stories the past few days. Two stories in particular caught and held my attention and have been niggling at my brain because of my completely different reactions to them.

The first story was one on Ally Blue's website, called "Jingle Bell Fuck" (obviously NOT one of the sweet shorts Laura directs us to!). A gay male threesome, it "began life as a bandslash fanfic," Blue writes and "all I did was change the names and the speech patterns to protect the innocent." Two men in a relationship invite a third in for some sexual escapades. The focus on the story is the sex between the three. Although there is a delightful twist at the end, the story did very little for me beyond my prurient interest in the sex. There's little focus on any relationship building or character development. And I'm sure that wasn't her purpose, either, but it left me...not cold, but kind of bored.

I've enjoyed Ally Blue's stories before, which is precisely why I was on her website. I own and loved Easy, a sweet story about a growing relationship between an ex-hooker and a closeted professional. The short "Nicky" is a bitter-sweet story about two lovers too set in their ways to be together permanently and "Happiness is a Warm Boy" is a wonderful story of hope and the beginning of a relationship. In fact, in Blue's long list of short stories, "Jingle Bell Fuck" seems to be an anomaly--most of the stories examine the growth of a relationship or the growth of at least one of the characters. "Jingle Bell Fuck" is just a fun sexy romp, and I probably shouldn't expect it to be more, but it seems I need more than that in my erotica.

Jules Jones has available on her website "A Trifling Affair", a 5500 word male/male erotic short that apparently also started its life as fan fiction. "This version," Jones writes, "has had the serial numbers filed off," which is to say that the characters are no longer specifically associated with the original show about which she was writing fan fiction.

I adored this story, not because it was hot m/m sex, my current obsession, but because, in 5500 words, Jones manages to reveal a complex relationship between the two colleagues. Darryl, used to topping during sex, used to taking charge no matter what, tries to seduce Colin but instead is so nervous that he drinks way too much. After a fire alarm, they go back to their room where Colin, not incapacitated from too much wine, seduces Darryl, topping him instead. As Darryl figures out after the encounter:
The bastard had deliberately sat back and watched while he'd made himself incapable! Why? It was a mean bloody trick to play on someone, it meant that he'd had to just lie there and take it, when he'd intended...

When he'd blithely intended to fuck Colin, without considering whether that was the way Colin liked sex.
Darryl apologizes for having made assumptions and Colin kisses his hand:
Message received and understood. Darryl shivered slightly, both from pleasure at the sensation of lips brushing his palm, and from wondering how receptive Colin would have been tomorrow night if he hadn't apologised.
While the sex is a nice bonus and is certainly hot, the focus of the story is on the emotional growth of the relationship. We read about two characters who are attracted to each other making the compromises necessary to come together in mutually agreeable and pleasurable ways.

To me, that is the essence of romance. And whether that romance has its foundation in a short, sweet, pure romance or in a hot, gay male menage, I'm not interested in reading either unless the story is based on character and relationship development.

This is why paranormal stories like Jory Strong's Spirits Shared do very little for me either. I loved the premise of the shapeshifting in the book and I enjoyed the multi-cultural aspects, and I bought it because it was a m/m/f book. The problem for me is that, as soon as the characters meet, they know they are meant for each other and the rest of the story is about the logistics of finding time to have sex, rather than the emotional path and relationship growth it takes to be attracted to a third and let that third into an already established relationship.

My "revelation" here is not a ground-breaking discovery. I think most romance readers would be able to articulate this requirement for character and relationship development in some way if asked why they enjoy romances. In fact, Bronwyn Clarke's blog does ask this question, and that's what most readers answered. I guess I'm just surprised that I find this self-imposed requirement even in my erotica reading. It's not all about the sexorating, as the Smart Bitches would say. It's still about what makes two (or three) people tick, what brings them together, what makes them work each other into their separate lives.

Documentary about the Romance Genre

The documentary “Who’s Afraid of Happy Endings?” will premiere on BRAVO! Canada on Thursday March 8, 2007, 8:30 pm EST. This broadcast will be in Canada only but the documentary makers hope to have a US broadcast date in the next year. According to GAPC:
Who's Afraid of Happy Endings? is a witty, revealing and often surprising one-hour documentary that takes us into the fascinating realm of romance fiction.

Weaving together the personal stories of three romance writers as they manoeuvre their way to the top with an insider’s view of the romance-writing world, Who’s Afraid of Happy Endings? shines a spotlight on an industry that has turned the unending desire for love into a cultural phenomenon and a booming world-wide business. [...]

From the hallowed halls of academia to the book pages of daily newspapers to suburban monthly book clubs - romance fiction has been labelled as trashy, formulaic, bodice rippers – even female porn. It’s truly the Rodney Dangerfield of the fiction world.

Who’s Afraid of Happy Endings?
cracks the romance code and reveals the secrets to its enduring appeal.
The documentary features comments from our very own Pamela Regis and the producers say that they've
filmed in Reno, NYC, Toronto and Halifax (and a few other places in between). It's been fun and we've met a lot of great people - multi-published romance authors, aspiring romance writers, editors, agents and of course NY Times best-selling authors! Our documentary focuses on three Canadian romance writers - two are multi-published (what you'd call "mid-list") authors who are shaking things up a bit in their careers and the third writer is as yet unpublished and working towards that goal. [...] Kathryn Smith (currently living in the U.S.). Kathryn has a new book out with Avon Harper Collins called "Be Mine Tonight"(the first in a series). It's a paranormal historical (very hot sub-genre) and features a vampire hero living in the Victorian era who falls in love with a mortal woman (Bite me baby!). Kelly Boyce is based in Nova Scotia. She's an aspiring romance writer who is currently shopping her manuscripts around. Her latest manuscript is the first in a series about a group of spinster friends living in the Victorian era who set out to marry only for love. The first book is tentatively called "Desire and Brimstone". And we also feature Kayla Perrin who is based in Ontario. She's getting into some hot and heavy territory with her first erotica novel for Harlequin's Spice line. It's called "Getting Even".
Re the 'NY Times best-selling authors', the makers add that the programme will be 'Featuring interviews with some of the brightest stars of the romance world, including Jo Beverley, Jennifer Crusie, Eloisa James, Debbie Macomber and Nora Roberts'. A short clip which includes comments from Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber is available here. Maybe some Canadian readers could get back to the rest of us about this programme and let us know what they thought of it? I'm hoping it does a better job of breaking down stereotypes about romance than Daisy Goodwin's recent programme for the BBC did (which I discussed here and here).

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Self, the Other and Love

For Valentine's Day the Romance Divas held an e-book challenge. Some of the resulting works were published online in the authors' blogs, so if a link takes you to an author's main blog page you might have to search for the entry on or around the 14th of February in order to find the free story.

I'd like to take a closer look at four of the stories that, in their very different ways, made me think a bit more about how love for oneself relates to love for the other. Should the lover be different from the self? Similar? A bit of both? The Biblical injunction 'thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Leviticus 19:18) seems to imply that you should love yourself, because unless you do, you won't be able to love others as much as they need to be loved. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) explains who Jesus considered to be a 'neighbour' and it suggests that some differences are unimportant when it comes to loving others. Of course that's not precisely the sort of love described in these short stories, but the underlying insistence on the link between love for oneself and love for others, and the ways in which love helps to overcome initial impressions of difference are present in both the Bible and these texts.

It was Elisabeth Drake's In Dreams of Mine which really got me thinking about the theme of love for oneself. It's contains blasphemy, references to incest, frequent use of obscene language and some lesbian sex, so it may perhaps seem rather odd to juxtapose it with the Bible, but I think if one reads some aspects of it metaphorically then the thematic similarities become more apparent. Caryn has very low self-esteem and she doesn't love herself. She's been in an abusive relationship and she mourns the loss of her twin. Caryn's love for her twin, and what happen with the intruder are the parts I read metaphorically as being externalisations of her need to learn to love herself. And a metaphorical reading is textually justified, quite explicitly so in the case of the intruder.*

Set in Chicago in 1893, Eva Gale's The Seduction of Gabriel Stewart again deals with learning to love oneself in order to be able to fully love another, and this story includes explict descriptions of sex. In accordance with the Passionate Ink Chapter of RWA's definition of an erotic romance, which is the sub-genre that Gale writes, this is a story 'about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction'. As the characters learn to love themselves by accepting their bodies and their sexuality, they are able to admit their deep love for each other. It also involves a challenge to Gabriel Stewart's understanding of his religion.** I seem to have got into the habit of giving warnings about the content of the free online reads, so here are some regarding this story: it includes fairly explicit descriptions of sex and quite a few typos. I know the latter can upset some people, but in this case I think one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

For reasons of space Grace Draven's Bathsheba's Lover has been split in two: Part 1 and Part 2. According to 'the Diva rating system, it's considered medium heat level and may not be appropriate for anyone under 18'. It's the story of how, 'On a sunny spring day Ann MacLeod celebrated her fiftieth birthday by getting divorced, going shopping and getting laid'. Again we have a character who doesn't believe that her body is attractive, certainly not to a younger man. But as the story develops we discover that they may have far, far more in common than she first thought. I've taken a quick look at ageism in romance in a previous post, so I won't repeat myself here, but I found it refreshing to come across this much older heroine. As in the story of King David and Bathsheba, David feels attraction at first sight; unlike the biblical Bathsheba, the newly-divorced Ann has no husband.

Imogen Howson's Meeting in Darkness is a paranormal, so the differences between hero and heroine go beyond even the social and economic. At first glance, they would appear to have nothing in common. Love, though, goes more than skin deep. And this story is chaste and won't even cause an adverse reaction in people who're allergic to felines.


* If I sound a little defensive about my metaphorical reading of this text it's because the last time I tried expounding on a metaphorical reading of sexual activities in romance novels both my husband and a friend of mine who'd come to visit looked at me incredulously, began to laugh, and variants on the phrase 'but if you look at it metaphorically' were forthcoming for the whole of the rest of the evening.
**The work is not anti-Christian. It is, however, against Gabriel's understanding of the role of sex within a Christian marriage. Nowadays there are Christian websites like this one, preachers like Jim Beam and a 'Vatican-sanctioned sex guide'. None of these were available to Gabriel. Portia, on the other hand, has reached the conclusion that 'she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was a woman who loved her husband, and was trying to find a way to make their marriage better'.