Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bindel and the Beast

First off, thanks Laura for the lovely picture accompanying your post this morning! And the exclamation points!!! Not much action over at my Romancing the Blog post, but I console myself that everyone's probably out doing Christmas shopping, and I'll get scads of comments as the week goes by.

Last week we talked a lot about Ms. Bindel's brief against romance, and the comments we received were long and thoughtful as well. Robin posted more at length here at Access Romance, with comments back already from Laura and Sarah and me.

There were a few comments here, though, that I wanted to pull out and respond to here "above the fold" because they seemed to me to touch on important issues for romance criticism, as well as for the genre itself. I'll do that over the next few days, so that no single post gets too long--as much to plant the ideas deeper in my own memory as anything else.

Lazaraspaste got some excellent points in right away, I thought, about critical condescension:
What Bindel fails to acknowledge is that what one likes to read is just that, what one likes to read. It is a matter of taste. If we must analyze literature and art from a (sigh) sociological and anthropological perspective, endlessly debating whether these books may or may not harm women's psyche, progress, personal quest for self-actualization, etc. then we must acknowledge that different women need different things at different times in their lives. [...]

What I found particularly obnoxious about Bindel's statements wasn't that she thought romance was trash but the implication that she knows what is best for women. That if women want to be free from patriarchal oppression not only must they not want men to behave this way (P.1) in real life but they must not read about it in a book.

And it isn't Bindel alone. Most opponents of the romance genre take a similar tack. Most of these critics write their arguments from this moral high ground, shaking their collective heads at those poor, benighted souls who have failed to see the light (whether it be ideologically left or right) and realize that the only literature worth reading is literature that ennobles us. And if people are resistant to being ennobled then we enlightened few must continue to educate them through a process of shame and condescension.
It's worth revisiting, in this context, Plato's arguments on behalf of throwing "poets" (which is to say "fiction makers," broadly speaking) out of the Republic, precisely because they will tempt the citizenry into liking what they, ruled by reason, should abhor. The discussion is in Book 10, which you'll find here; I'm partial to the commentary by Harvard professor Stephen Owen in his wonderful book Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire. I'm going to quote a few passages and silently change the word "poetry"--which, again, to Plato meant imaginative literature more generally, or so I'm told--to "romance." Watch what happens:

Romance may indeed lead the citizenry astray. It may speak sweet seductive words, catch us up, work changes upon us. We would legitimately call such an event a straying, dimly recognizing in it the joys of swerving from weary and commonplace values of the community, values to which, when asked, we must always loudly reaffirm our adherence. Do not misunderstand: we affirm these values because they are our own. They seem to appear spontaneously whenever there are two or three of us together. They are precisely the words on which we concur and by which we survive as a community. Yet each of us possesses a liberty of desire that renounces nothing and wants all. We tire of our virtuous restraints, and we hunger. There may be something in great romance fiction, even and most perilously in its soothing disguises, that betrays those values we believe we ought to hold; here may be something that subverts the common good and pays honor to the beast.


By words the community binds us, and romance fights back with words: perfect words, double-edged words, weighted words, words made to rebel against the drudgery to which the community commonly puts them. With these words romance addresses us and quietly tries to compromise all who are so incautious as to listen. Perilous conditions may be taken for granted, and unreasonable enthusiasms may become, for a moment, our own; words can cast a glow of desire around some things and expose others to anger and disgust. Most of all, romance may seduce us with a freedom of opposition that can hold all contradictory and unrealized possibilities together in one fierce countermotion.

The experiments of spirit that we pass through in romance pose no immediate or pragmatic danger to the community, but they may work secret changes in the heart; they give sustenance to the beast so that it does not die of our public habits. We live in limitations, imposed by ruthless Nature and by a human society that desperately aspires to equal Nature’s inevitability. But there is in each of us a beast that does not love its chains. Romance would feed the beast with words, calling it back to resistance and desire.

This may be a little campy sometimes--that bit about paying "honor to the beast" makes me want to play an LP backwards, or at least cue up Spinal Tap--but I'm a sucker for it, every time.

"Secret changes in the heart": yes, romance does work those, and it does so by refusing to be embarrassed about self-contradiction, wanting it all--freedom and commitment, feminist politics and nostalgia for traditional sex roles, resistance and surrender--even if its desires don't stick to the moral or political high ground. (There's a moment in Crusie's Manhunting where Jake, "a nineties kind of guy" asks Kate why he always has to row their boat. "'Cause I'm a fifties kind of gal," she replies. She's not, but the two of them seem to enjoy pretending that she is, however lightly, in this particular interaction. That sort of messiness and playfulness is typical of romance, but too self-contradictory for a critic like Bindel to appreciate, perhaps.)

So as Lazaraspaste points out, we don't always read to be ennobled, and sometimes what we really, really want to read (or think, or feel) isn't at all the way we want a whole community, or even ourselves, to behave. At that level, the scandal of romance is the scandal of poetry, despite their very different audiences. That's fun to know.

A later comment from Xandra Gregory also leaped out at me, again because of the broader issue it raises. "Her attitude," Gregory notes, "seems to suggest that I as a reader should stop reading what Daddy (the patriarchy) tells me to read and start obeying Mommy (Bindel) instead. Neither option actually taking into account the possibility that I know my own mind."

I wonder whether part of the objection to Bindel--the vehemence of some reactions, if not the substance of them--stems from this sense that she's striking an unwanted note of maternal concern. Says linguist Deborah Tannen, who has written at length about Mother / Daughter communication:
Mothers subject their daughters to a level of scrutiny people usually reserve for themselves. A mother's gaze is like a magnifying glass held between the sun's rays and kindling. It concentrates the rays of imperfection on her daughter's yearning for approval. The result can be a conflagration -- whoosh. This I knew: Because a mother's opinion matters so much, she has enormous power. Her smallest comment -- or no comment at all, just a look -- can fill a daughter with hurt and consequently anger. But this I learned: Mothers, who have spent decades watching out for their children, often persist in commenting because they can't get their adult children to do what is (they believe) obviously right. Where the daughter sees power, the mother feels powerless.
Obviously we're dealing in metaphors here, and the source I need may not be Tannen (or not this book by her), but there's a dynamic in this fracas that strikes me as distinctively intramural: female readers reacting to a female critic. Tannen's latest book is called You're Wearing THAT? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. Bindel's article might as well have boasted the headline You're Reading THAT? As a man, I'm certainly part of the conversation--but I'm slightly distanced from it, or at least caught up in it in a different way, with different flashpoints and hot button issues. Someone needs to think this through--although precisely because of that distance, I'm not sure I'm the one to do it.

Besides--to be honest, I'm a bit worn out from all this sober, even angsty dwelling on the politics of romance. It's time for me to sign off on that topic for a while, and kick back with my dear Stephen Owen instead.

"Each of us possesses a liberty of desire that renounces nothing and wants all.
We tire of our virtuous restraints, and we hunger.

Laura? Sarah? Toss me that Les Paul. I just remembered a particularly catchy bit of patriarchal propaganda from my youth. (Surgeon General's warning: the following video makes smoking look cool, along with pouting, tossing your hair, and and truly unimaginative lyrics. But you know, these guys were kind of cute...)


  1. what one likes to read is just that, what one likes to read. It is a matter of taste

    My problem with that is that I know for certain that what I like to read is not just a matter of taste. Yes, it's true that in part I choose romance because it's "what I need at this time in my life," but I know that the kinds of romances I prefer reflect my political/moral values, or at least don't conflict with them so much that I feel like ranting at the characters. The way I see things, the personal is very often political.

    here may be something that subverts the common good and pays honor to the beast

    How are we defining "the beast" in this context? I'm assuming it's not the Beast in Revelations, since that would be anachronistic, and it's also not exactly the fairytale Beast we'd been discussing, either.

    In Chapter 9 of the Republic there's a discussion of the "appetites":

    I mean those which are awake when the reasoning and human and ruling power is asleep; then the wild beast within us, gorged with meat or drink, starts up and, having shaken off sleep, goes forth to satisfy his desires; and there is no conceivable folly or crime - not excepting incest or any other unnatural union, or parricide, or the eating of forbidden food - which at such a time, when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit.

    This doesn't sound like a beast I'd want to be honoring. But maybe my outlook is closer to Plato's than to that of the poets?

    female readers reacting to a female critic

    I think I'd have been more disturbed by a male critic telling women what they need to read in order to throw off oppression, as there would be even more of an irony in that.

    these guys were kind of cute

    Now that is definitely a matter of taste!

  2. Hi, Laura!

    I agree that "just a matter of taste" begs the question of where tastes come from. As a book reviewer I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I like things that I like, and the factors involved are legion. Some are, as you say, ideological; others are matters of temperament; others seem to come from family background, influential teachers, formative friendships... The list is long, and probably irreducible.

    "The Beast"? Hmmm... I'm not exactly sure what Owen means, to be honest, which is probably why I like the phrase. Something amoral and endlessly desiring, a bit like Freudian libido? Yeats's "rough beast," without the apocalyptic trappings?

    Actually, I quite like your Plato citation, and think that's probably close to the mark--in fact, having watched American politics over the last twenty years, I'd say that Plato has a good deal of wisdom to offer about rhetorical manipulation, the irrational appeal of fiction to our appetites and fears. The apologists for torture in my national government make all sorts of appeals to the Beast, and have done so with all too much success, alas! (My mini-van boasts a proud "Darcy / Bingley '08" campaign bumper sticker. Now all I need is the "Tucker for Mayor: More of the Same.")

    Re: female critics and male ones, you're quite right that the male voice would be more grating, or grating in a different way. But I do wonder about this. Will think on it some more.

    As for the cuteness of Page & Plant--mostly Plant, to be honest--maybe it's a generational thing? Anyone out there with me? How embarrassing, if not--but no one ever said Romance Scholarship was easy....

  3. I hit "worn out from all this sober, even angsty dwelling on the politics of romance" early on, because I think some of the analysis has still not engaged the ideas Bindel put forward. In part the problem is that her piece is short and not constructed to stand up to such a close read. Her essay is more allusive rather than proof-oriented, which has the advantage of referencing many ideas but the disadvantage of not supporting every statement she makes. IMO some of what she says--separated from its tone--is an interesting interrogation of some important aspects of romance culture. For example:

    Has she shown, so far, that the novels perpetuate propaganda?

    I don't believe Bindel made any attempt to "show" it. However, I have no problem accepting that it's a possibility we should discuss (especially considering Laura's recent post on M&B's Presents line's statement of "values" and the company's frank attempt at cultural "reeducation" in Poland).

    The romance community talks quite a lot about cultural messaging in M&Bs--and in romance more generally. Much of that discussion focuses on the domestic mores of the bulk of the genre, which I think demonstrates that Bindel is onto something relevant and present in the genre.

    To my mind the question is not so much whether romance novels perpetuate cultural messages (of course they do, for SOME readers, etc, etc) as how consistent those messages are, and whether the messages amount to propaganda. Arguments could be made for calling mainstream romance's domestic framing received truth, or plain ol' cultural specificity, or romance industry-defined mass-culture marketing, or many other angles. It can also be argued that these messages are a smaller-scale, less coherent issue to be discussed author by author and work by work. It's a question with a lot of meat to it, and I think Bindel's assertion fits right in as one valid perspective.

    I wouldn't call the video "cute", but how appropriate that it shows a male rock star with long hair and a man-titty shirt....

  4. Hi, RFP!

    So the question or the argument reframed would be something about how consistent the messages and implied values are (in romance generally, or in a particular line, or in a particular author or work)?

    That certainly does sound worth pursuing--especially since the answer might well be that they're inconsistent, in interesting ways.

    I'm more nervous about the second, supplementary question, as to whether the messages amount to "propaganda," but that's because I don't have any clear sense of what that would mean. (Not an objection, this: I just don't have any training in history or cultural theory that would let me distinguish between propaganda and anything else!)

    As for the boys in the band, there's another video of the same song, from a decade earlier, that shows P & P hamming it up at the start in a way I quite enjoy. Plant then forgets the words, which spoils things for me a bit--but in any case, it's here, for those that like such things (long hair & man-titty, etc.):

  5. how consistent the messages and implied values are (in romance generally, or in a particular line, or in a particular author or work)

    Yes, I think that's a reframing that could include Bindel's perspective as one angle on the discussion, and the Feminist and Women's Studies analyses as another. I'm inclined to be inclusive toward Bindel, as I think some of what she says is true for some parts of the genre.

    I'm more nervous about the second, supplementary question, as to whether the messages amount to "propaganda"

    I'm not a trained Propaganda Detector either, and in general I'm not really interested in labeling the genre with loaded words. However, sometimes the term is worth considering. In Laura's earlier post Applbaum represents M&B's Poland marketing as attempting "to influence the entire cultural framework for thinking about love, beauty, and romantic relationships". If that's so, that's wide open for a Bindel-style critique.

    Getting back to romance texts themselves.... Labels like "propaganda" are provocative, and sometimes accurate, but I'd rather look at the messages themselves, including UNintended but persistent messages. I suspect these are more what Bindel is reacting to--the common themes of domesticity, childrearing, etc. I wouldn't call such themes propaganda (in the organized/intentional sense), but taken en masse they could certainly be taken as normative. To a reader who feels excluded by that norm, I can see why words like "propaganda" might come to mind. (I'm not saying anything new: of course the same could be said of race, one man/one woman, pursuit of material wealth, alpha male/innocent female, and other common themes.)

    Speaking of music, men, long hair and man-titty, JMC recently linked to an article on guyliner's rock 'n' roll origins.

  6. And yet.....and yet........

    Jayne Ann Krentz, in essays and lectures, consistently reiterates that the popularity of genre fiction is due to the fact that it affirms the core values of our culture: love, honor, courage, fidelity, trust, faith, and the like. Certainly this is true of romance as well as SF and fantasy, mystery, and the western--the last perhaps the archetypal example. This is the context in which the actual or potential violence or passion is released.

    Perhaps we are neither chaining nor releasing the Beast, but training it to walk on a lead.

  7. As for the video, what can I say?

    My cat liked it...

  8. Jayne Ann Krentz, in essays and lectures, consistently reiterates that the popularity of genre fiction is due to the fact that it affirms the core values of our culture: love, honor, courage, fidelity, trust, faith, and the like.

    Was that directed to me? I don't see a conflict between this and what I said. Romance novels can be about love and all those splendid things you listed. But the romance is realized through specific characters, types of relationships, and goals striven for and achieved. It's at that level that I'm suggesting some readers may sense cultural messages. In other words, is that love, honor, courage, etc, achieved exclusively by wispy young girls, or by wealthy white women, or by large sports-playing men? (Of course not--I'm exaggerating to illustrate my point.)

  9. I think more directed at me, RfP--or, rather, at my deployment of Owen and his discussion of "The Beast."

    For Krentz, romance is more about virtue, or a set of communally-affirmed core values, rather than about the sorts of unsettling, even unspeakable desires that Owen associates with poetry in the passage I paraphrased. The Krentz passage fits well with my post over at Romancing the Blog this morning, but not with this one. Hmmm... What to make of that?

    Does romance somehow do both? Does it affirm values that are only unspeakable in certain political contexts? Am I simply WRONG? I might be--Lord knows I have been before! (Look at my taste in music at 13, after all... And believe me, you should have seen my hair.)

    I'm off for a long plane flight tomorrow. With luck, I'll have some time to think this through, & report back.

    All of this is very useful for me, everyone! I can't thank you enough--


  10. Indeed, my comments were directed to Eric, and to his quotations from Owen.

    Perhaps we need to refine or clarify exactly what we mean by "the Beast." I tend to think of it more in the sense of the Jungian Shadow, dangerous but a source of power when properly directed or controlled or accepted.

    And here is the link I tried to post above:

  11. Eric, I wonder if it might be helpful to look at Deborah Lutz's book, The Dangerous Lover; Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative, again?

    The dangerous lover that she describes is one

    whose eroticism lies in his dark past, his restless inquietude, his remorseful and rebellious exile from comfortable everyday living. His ubiquity marks him as always central to what we mean when we talk about existence and the modern self.

    That sounds like the Beast you're describing, the Beast within which in literature can be personified through an external other. He might also represent the dangerous side of eros which Talpianna and I pointed out has been associated with madness, and which Robin, on the same thread (at Readers Gab) summarised as follows:

    the Romance genre has to passion. On the one hand it’s the foundation of Romantic love, but on the other hand it can be dangerous and uncontrollable — a curse rather than the rapture. My own opinion is that the passion, generally embodied in the hero, must be “tamed” and “domesticated” — made socially productive and channeled into family and children to keep society from exploding under the force of the irrational forces of passion. Sort of like the balance Euripides tries to draw in The Bacchae (the Apollo-Dionysus dynamic).

    But is the "Apollo-Dionysus dynamic" ever resolved or does it represent two distinct traditions within the same genre, which weave in and around each other but never quite fuse together?

    That's the impression I get from Lutz's summary of Ros Ballaster's work:

    In her study of early romance genres (from 1674 to 1740), Ros Ballaster creates two categories of use here: didactic love fiction and amatory fiction. [...] Ballaster’s category of didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question). On the opposite extreme, the dangerous lover type falls under the rubric of amatory fiction. Amatory fiction cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally, nor does it play out in a socially sanctioned realm. The anarchical rebelliousness of the dangerous lover narrative — its moments of frozen inarticulateness — undercut a didactic project.

    I suspect that in the modern romance genre the dangerous lover is sometimes rather arbitrarily "contained/leashed" in the happy ending, but that these amatory elements can still feel wild and unresolved, and as the Beast strains against the bonds imposed upon him, the HEA begins to look unconvincing. In other romances, however, the ones which are more like didactic love fiction, it's "honor, courage, fidelity, trust, faith" as well as a more containable sort of love, which are being described, and so the HEA fits well, and society feels "reconstituted" in the way that Pam Regis describes.

  12. Didactic vs. amatory--as described, this sounds like simply the difference between comedy and tragedy. Darcy--good; Heathcliff--bad.