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. [...]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:
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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...)