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.


  1. I've just heard about a recent exchange of views on Jane Austen in The Times which illustrates two different readers' preferences and how that makes them assess her novels very differently, so I thought I'd mention them here.

    Celia Brayfield is a novelist who found herself

    in my very first editorial conference at an immaculately feminist publishing house, being firmly told to cut the Second World War scenes in my novel because they didn’t belong in “books like this”. Every popular woman writer I know has had the same experience of being cut down to Austen size.

    I can hardly see how this is Austen's fault, but Brayfield seems to think that things could have been so much better

    Had Jane ever looked out of the window, she would have seen her starving country neighbours herding into slums. Had she read of the molecular theory that preoccupied scientists, or joined the philosophical fight to the death between reason and romanticism? Reformers debated A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the feminist polemic by Mary Wollstonecraft, a weaver’s daughter who was politicised by all the horrors of unwed poverty that Austen’s heroines are so frantic to avoid.

    Libby Purves responded in defence of Austen:

    The accusation of ignoring her era’s history is common enough, but misguided. Poverty is not ignored; it is not dwelt upon probably because it was ubiquitous, and even daft Emma spends a lot of time helping cottagers. The most telling descriptions are the Portsmouth scenes in Mansfield Park, with dirt and sluttishness and a rough drunk father to remind Fanny Price what happens if you marry without judgment. This is as stark as any modish fictional slumming of today: starker, because closer to home. As to foreign wars, fringe characters vanish into them and sometimes die; if we are honest, that is all that most of us would know of wars today, if you discounted television pictures watched from a sofa. [...]

    But here we come to a wider modern error: the self-important belief common among writers that their work is worth nothing unless it plonkingly takes on current “issues”.

    Brayfield's opinion also sounds rather like a re-run of the comments Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic made, as reported by Maureen Dowd in a piece which criticised chick lit and was, in turn criticised by, among others, the Smart Bitches. Wieseltier had apparently said that:

    “These books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels,” Leon said. “And when we’re at war and the country is under threat, they seem a little insular. America’s reading women could do a lot worse than to put down ‘Will Francine Get Her Guy?’ and pick up ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’”

  2. I loved your post, Laura. Sorry it took me so long to get to read it. ::sigh:: Life has exploded.

    Part of the Austen issue is that in the biggest way that counted, she was recording one of the most important social changes of her era and dealing with its implications. One could argue that the rise of the companionate marriage has had greater implications and effects on society than the other more violent and obvious revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She didn't need to look out her window to see the soldiers to write about something incredible changing in society. Looking in the drawing room, she was recording the differences between the marriage between Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins--a type of marriage that has basically a thousand years of precedent to say that it will be the best kind of marriage--and the marriages of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy or Jane and Mr. Bingley, marriages based on the relatively new concept of love and love alone, chucking all other, more socially acceptable considerations. Revolutionary indeed.

    Anyway, in some respects, the debate about "literary merit" and what's "good" and what's "trash" seem ridiculous to me. Defoe was trash when he wrote. Shakespeare was a hack. Who is to say we're not going to be studying King and Roberts in 400 years.

  3. The idea that women exert 'enormous power over men' is at the heart of Victorian chivalrous ideals

    I'm sure I must have already commented on this when you first blogged about it, Laura. :) IMO, the big difference between Victorian chivalry and gender relations in romance today, is that in Victorian chivalry the woman is passive (she's tied naked to a tree to wait for the knight in shining armour to slay the dragon) and she only exists for man; her goodness shall heal him, redeem him, while her vulnerability and passivity allow him to display his might. Victorian chivalry was indeed primarily used to emphasise traditional genderroles.

    In romance, by contrast, the heroine becomes active and, as Penelope Williamson points out in her article in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, she is often given the same characteristics as the hero. A nice example of this can be found in Gaelen Foley's Lady of Desire: when the heroine first meets the hero, he is described as a lion (with the heroine in a situation of powerlessness). By the end of the book, it is the heroine who saves the hero and while doing so, she stands on the roof of a building -- looking like a lioness.

  4. Yes, you certainly did comment on this last time we discussed Victorian chivalry, Sandra, and it was very interesting.

    I wasn't saying that romances give the heroines exactly the same type of power over men as Victorian chivalry did. Rather, I'm using that as an example to suggest that 'power over men' isn't always an intrinsically feminist or radical thing to argue for. Krentz was saying that 'Romance novels invert the power structure of a patriarchal society because they show women exerting enormous power over men' but it seems to me that in the past women have been portrayed as having 'enormous power over men' but in such a way that it didn't invert the power structures of a patriarchal society. In other words, if Krentz wants to say that the type of 'power over men' depicted in romance is subversive of patriarchy, I think she needs to go a bit further and give a more precise definition of the type of power she's talking about (e.g. its extent, source and scope).

    Also, I don't think that all romances are the same in their portrayal of the 'triumph' of the heroine. Some romances use the 'power over men' type of triumph for the heroine in ways which seem to me to reaffirm traditional gender roles. There are romances where the rake/playboy is changed because of the love of (and intercourse with) the virgin/chaste woman. She's pure, he's in need of redemption. He finds her so irresisible that he wants to please her so that she will be 'his'.

    And re 'she is often given the same characteristics as the hero', again I'd agree that this is true for some romances, but I also think that there are others where the differences between the hero and heroine are emphasised: they're the ones where his hard male strength, flat male nipples etc are constantly contrasted with her soft curves, her rounded womanliness etc.

  5. I wasn't saying that romances give the heroines exactly the same type of power over men as Victorian chivalry did.

    Oh, I see; my bad. I was reading too fast.

    RE: hard male body vs. woman's softness: Ha! This is the starting point of my paper for the Newcastle conference. :)

  6. Ooops. Pushed the Enter button too fast.

    On with hard male bodies vs. woman's soft curves: this contrast came up in more or less all romances I've read. At the top of my head, I can't remember any romance in which the heroine's soft, small body wasn't contrasted with the hero's tall, muscled body. So initially it would seem that the heroine is the more helpless one. However, at least in most historicals I've read, this first impression was proven to be wrong in the course of the story, and the protagonists achieved a relationship in which they were both equal partners.

    What I meant with "characteristics of the hero" are things like courage, a sense of adventure, curiosity, daring, etc.

  7. my bad. I was reading too fast.

    No, it wasn't you reading too fast, it was me assuming it was clear when it wasn't. Of course, it was obvious to me because I knew what I was trying to say ;-) That's one of the things I like about the comments - I get to elaborate on all the points that weren't clear in the initial post. It makes it feel like presenting a paper at a seminar and getting feedback from the other people present.

    RE: hard male body vs. woman's softness: Ha! This is the starting point of my paper for the Newcastle conference.

    Ah, so this is partly what “Revised Damsels-in-Distress: The Heroines of Modern Historical Romance” is going to be about. I'm looking forward to it.

  8. At the top of my head, I can't remember any romance in which the heroine's soft, small body wasn't contrasted with the hero's tall, muscled body

    That's really interesting. I've definitely come across it in some romances, particularly where it's constantly emphasised, but it's the emphasis which made it jump out at me. I don't remember it happening in my favourite romances. I'm not saying that my favourite romances don't contain comments about the characters' physiques but as far as I can recall, they're not presented in such a way that they read to me like a deliberate exercise in presenting contrasts in 'femininity' and 'masculinity'.

    When I read a romance in which the reader is constantly reminded of the hero's hard maleness and the heroine's soft femaleness it makes me think that

    (a) the author is making some point about the differences between the sexes (i.e. it's not just about these two characters and how they happen to look).
    (b) there may be a later point made about the triumph of the heroine, in a way which makes me think of cultural feminism.
    (c) it comes across to me as rather aggressively heterosexual, because of the way the male and the female are attracted by their physical differences (even if they later find that they share some emotional characteristics).

    I'm maybe not making myself very clear. I suppose it's that for me, when difference is emphasised and the heroine's triumph is framed in terms of 'power over men' it makes me think of a gender war, and although the two may ultimately share some characteristics, the ways in which they are manifested are still gendered so that 'female strength' is shown to be different from 'male strength', for example.

    Like I said, though, I don't get this sense from all romances. But it's just that, a sense: I've not studied it in detail as you obviously have, so I haven't got any concrete examples to back this up. Hmm. Off the top of my head, I have a feeling that in Heyer's The Grand Sophy, this isn't something that happens, for example. And there is a difference between (a) the heroine noticing that the hero is taller than her, or being attracted by the fact that he looks different from her and (b) a constant repetition of how these differences relate to masculinity/femininity. The 'male nipples' is an example of this, because the reader already knows the hero is a man. So why do we need to be told that he has 'male nipples'? It feels like there's a point being made here and it's not just a description.

  9. One of my favorite romances is LaVryle Spenser's Spring Fancy. I particularly enjoy it because the heroine is very fit--she and the hero play a lot of raquetball together and she is a physical therapist. There is a line I'm going to have to paraphrase told from the hero's POV: something like, "her muscles were so hard under her skin. He didn't understand how anyone could prefer feminine softness to what he was feeling now." I love the book for many reasons, but it's stood out in my mind as almost the first time I read a book that focused entirely on the heroine's beauty through fitness, rather than on the beauty of her feminine curves and softness.

    Which is not to say that I don't love Laura Kinsale's zaftig heroine in Seize the Fire and how the hero adores her precisely for her curves, especially for the curve of her stomach, which I find particularly romantic and erotic, for some reason.

    Just random thoughts created by your comments.

  10. You get this playing up of gender differences even in slash fanfic and yaoi manga. It's common for one of the heroes to be assigned to the female role and described in very feminised terms, and there's a clear pattern in who gets picked to play the girl. The joke in slash circles is that the older/taller/darker one tops the younger/shorter/blonder one -- and there's a prime example of such on the cover of my yaoi prose novel "Lord and Master".

    I very deliberately went against this in one of my books, with the one who was in charge being older and more experienced (in a number of ways, not just sexual), but short and blond, and the younger one tall, dark and muscular. And I'll bet that there are people whose mental image of those characters doesn't match the physical description I gave in the book.

  11. Hi Laura,
    Sorry I haven’t been by lately – I ate some bad food 48-72 hours ago and haven been a prisoner on the couch. Feeling a little better now though, at least enough to think somewhat rationally.
    Nice blog… raises many issues.
    I am intrigued with Sandra’s Comment… “On with hard male bodies vs. woman's soft curves: this contrast came up in more or less all romances I've read. At the top of my head, I can't remember any romance in which the heroine's soft, small body wasn't contrasted with the hero's tall, muscled body. So initially it would seem that the heroine is the more helpless one.” After 33 years of a private practice, I realize I still think like a psychologist… why does a person’s body structure necessarily have to suggest being or feeling “helpless?” I think she may very well have identified a societal belief, but I don’t subscribe to it (nor am I suggesting that she does). Maybe in my next novel, the heroine will have a soft, small body and be psychologically tough as nails and the tall, muscular hero will be a cowering wimp. And for the record, I’ve seen it many times.

  12. Bill, I'm coming at it from the Victorian chivalry corner, thanks to the diss I'm writing on dragonslaying and genderroles. There's a great article by Joseph A. Kestner on "The Return of St. George" in the late 19th century. Kestner describes a development in Victorian painting which culminates in stark-naked woman chained to tree (or rock), threatened by evil, evil dragon (or dastardly knight), but - hey-ho - enter our knight in shining armour, who easily slays evil dragon (or the dastardly knight). While at the beginning of this development, the woman is at least clad in the traditional flimsy white dress, she's naked at the end of it in order to emphasize her helpness. Thus, these paintings contrast the naked, helpless, passive body of the female, with the armoured, powerful, active body of the male. In a way this is perpetuated in romance, only the hero's outer armour is replaced by a kind of internalized armour, when his body is described metal metaphoras and similes (steel-gray eyes, bronzed skin, iron-hard muscles, etc.). These almost always occur in relation to the heroine's (softer, smaller) body, thus emphasizing the greater physical weakness of the heroine. Which, of course, often turns out to be deceiving.

  13. they're not presented in such a way that they read to me like a deliberate exercise in presenting contrasts in 'femininity' and 'masculinity'.

    I guess it's usually done quite subtly. But since I looked at it in some detail, it tends to jump out for me.

  14. Hi Sandra,
    Thank you for your Comment -- firstly, it's comforting to know I was correct when I said (nor am I suggesting that she does), and secondly I appreciate your enlightenment regarding Victorian chivalry. While I am not all that familiar with that subject, I know enough about it to appreciate your portrayal of it (and jeez have we come a long way since then!).
    Thanks again,Sandra!