Sunday, April 27, 2008

Preferences and Prejudice

I'd like to bring together the two topics we've been discussing most recently here at Teach Me Tonight, namely genre and sexuality. The two seem to be inextricably intertwined for some readers:
We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. [...] Naming a favorite book or author can be fraught. Go too low, and you risk looking dumb. Go too high, and you risk looking like a bore — or a phony. (Rachel Donadio in the New York Times, via a post by Mrs Fairfax at AAR)
John Mullan has observed that
When culture can be bought and sold, taste becomes an increasingly useful social marker. It was commerce that gave 'culture' to the middle classes, but commerce could also sully it. So the Georgians set about building a national culture - from the plays of Shakespeare to the music of Handel - that only the qualified could properly enjoy. As this culture widened, paradoxically the separation of high and low ('polite' and 'vulgar') sharpened.
And yet, between "high" and "low" culture, lies the "middlebrow," which arouses even greater disgust from a "highbrow" such as Virginia Woolf than the pure "lowbrow" ever would:
what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. [...] The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that. (Woolf)
However much her intent may have been to amuse, the fact is that Woolf is classifying people according to the types of cultural products they prefer, in a manner very similar to that of the modern individuals described by Rachel Donadio. They too single out for particular scorn the "would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes."

Could it be that the "middlebrow," attracts such disgust because by upsetting the neat binary opposition of "high" and "low" it perhaps hints that all cultural products might lie on a continuum? Does the existence of the "middlebrow", the offspring of cultural miscegenation between "high" and "low", cause concern because it provides evidence that the two terms seen as opposites are not, in fact, as different as the clear distinction between "high" and "low" would suggest?

Rosina Lippi has observed that,
the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is artificial and has more to do with social and class issues than anything else. [...] to call a novel 'literary' is the end result of a gatekeeping process with very few admissability criteria. [...]

I might call any given novel a mystery because it's got the elements that are commonly held to be part of that genre. Somebody who subscribes to a simplistic definition of 'literature' as serious or superior doesn't approach it that way. In extreme cases the question is more along these lines: do I feel comfortable admitting that I, with my superior taste and understanding, consider this novel worthwhile? If the answer is yes, then the justification given is: character driven [...], serious, insightful. Regardless of what elements of better-defined genres might be in evidence.
Lisa Fletcher, in the Introduction to her soon-to-be published book, Historical Romance Fiction, argues that romance poses a particular challenge to those attempting to maintain the distinction between "high" and "low" culture: "the permeability of the border between “high” and “low” culture is not simply displayed by, but characterizes romance" (4),
Romance, it might be said, plays the division between high and [...] “low” culture. As noted above, in this study I look at texts from both ends of this scale with a view to exposing their common ground. This study reveals that there are underlying similarities between all of the novels I discuss, most particularly in the way they use an idea of “history,” which preclude any easy distinction between them in terms of their literary sophistication or erudition. (7)
If this is the case, and if those people and texts which challenge dichotomies by hinting at a fluidity or continuum between binary opposites are particularly feared and mocked for it, could this help to explain why the romance genre has so often been derided and marginalised?

I am in no way wishing to suggest that discrimination on the grounds of race, sexual orientation or biological sex is identical to the sort of discrimination that has affected the modern romance genre and its readers. Nonetheless, I think some of the insights provided by theory written about these areas may provide a framework in which to think about how romance and romance readers have been viewed. It may also provide some romance readers with a framework for understanding other forms of discrimination. For example, Richard Dyer, writing about race, has noted that
stereotyping - complex and contradictory though it is [...] does characterise the representation of subordinated social groups and is one of the means by which they are categorised and kept in their place, whereas white people in white culture are given the illusion of their own infinite variety. (12)
One can perhaps see a parallel here to the way in which readers of certain genres (e.g. romance readers) have been stereotyped (as bored, stupid housewives, for example), as compared to the diverse body of readers of complex, "high," literary texts.

Smart Bitch Sarah recently raised the topic of feminism and romance:
In my more ambitious moments in writing on this site, I ponder whether romance and the online community of women who read and write it are a microcosm that mimics the larger state of women in the US, one that is representative of the political polarity and diversity of women in this country [...]

Sexism and RomanceLandia have a long dance-card full of history - are romance novels sexist? the opposite? both? neither? a duck with sheep’s clothing? a pocketful of kryptonite? - but conversely, racism and/in RomanceLandia is debated with shouting or whispers. Debates about romance novels written by or perhaps about black women and where they are shelved in comparison to white romance novels usually end up with much hollering online or use of capslock, or devolve into a complete lack of solution and much offense.
As I commented in response,
it’s really discouraging when groups that have known oppression and that recognise how it works when it’s directed at them, don’t recognise the similar processes going on when they turn around and oppress another group in a similar way. [...] even people who might not have privilege in one context [...] might have privilege in another.
Kimberle Crenshaw, examining the workings of racism and sexism, "understood that we can all stand together as long as we think that we are all equally affected by a particular discrimination, but the moment where a different barrier affects a subset of us, our solidarity often falls apart."

Sadly, an example of this sort of situation arose very recently. A feminist author's book contained racist illustrations (there's a follow-up post here). Many of those who commented on the situation, including Holly (who wrote the first of the posts I've linked to) used the words "intersection" and "intersectionality." The theory of intersectionality, "a term invented by Kimberle Crenshaw and utilized during the 1990s by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins" is a way of looking at differences between individuals:
Collins’ entire approach [...] shifts our understanding of social categories from bounded to fluid and highlights the processes of self definition as constructed in conjunction with others. Intersectionality implies that social categories are not bounded or static. Your social nearness or distance to another changes as the matrix of domination shifts, depending on which scheme is salient at any given moment. You and the person next to you may both be women; but that social nearness may be severed as the indices change to include religion, race, ethnicity, sexual practices or identities, class, and so forth. (Allan 10)
Identity, then, is complex and an individual's primary identity may change depending on the context in which they find themselves. Sarah described how this might occur within the context of sexuality:
For every individual, one or more alignments dominate the others, acting as the primary sexual orientation(s), with the others relegated either to secondary or to absent status, a subtle, complicated balance that has a different combination of fulcra for each person. For example, domination could override gender attraction as a sexual orientation: the gender of the partner being dominated is then immaterial to the arousal caused by the act of dominating someone, and the dom is, for all intents and purposes, bisexual.
Without wanting to trivialise the issues with which I'm making comparisons, I think one could use this insight to understand why, for example, one reader might usually enjoy similar books to those given good reviews by one reviewer, but might on occasion feel very differently from them about one particular novel. Perhaps that novel contained a theme or type of plot or character which that reader dislikes, but which is not so central to the reviewer's preferences. It also explains how and why some of us might slip between genres, and between "high" and "low": if a reader's preference is for love stories, for example, they may, as Fletcher has observed, find such stories in books which span what turns out to be not a cultural divide between "high" and "low" but a continuum of novels dealing, in their different ways, with a single topic. For a great many of us, it is probably the case that our identities as readers are not simple ones centered around "high" or "low" culture, but are made up of a variety of different preferences and inclinations, with each individual book able to satisfying only some of our preferences. Not many books, and maybe none at all, will contain our favourite plot or theme, stimulate us intellectually to just the right degree, seem well-written and leave us feeling utterly content with every aspect of the work.

In addition, "Intersectionality motivates us to look at just how our identities are constructed at the expense of others" (Allan 10), and that brings us back to serious issues such as those mentioned by SB Sarah. As readers, reviewers or literary critics who appreciate a genre which is often stereotyped and mocked, it can be easy to feel defensive and want to present an impression of harmony and unity. There's a tendency to want to proclaim, for example, that all romances are feminist and/or empowering to women. Such an approach, however, would mean ignoring the insights that might arise from that very experience of literary oppression and from thinking about intersectionality. Without joining those who dismiss the entire genre, I think we do need to be able to express legitimate concerns about ways in which some romances, or trends within the genre, might contribute to the marginalisation of some romance readers.

I've chosen to illustrate this post by including a Venn diagram (from Wikipedia). This type of diagram is a way of representing sets which overlap, and identities which are created by the intersections of sets.


  1. To be honest, I find it both depressing and quite surprising that the quaint idea of 'high' and 'low' culture still has any currency at all. As you indicate, the whole thing is a continuum; there are no sharp dividing lines, and certainly no hierarchy of virtue.

    In an area that I know much better than I know literature, there is a similar, not completely parallel, but equally specious, classification: in the visual arts, 'fine art' is considered more noble (and valuable) than 'applied / decorative art'. Anyone who thinks about it for more than about 3 seconds HAS to realise that this is total, pernicious rubbish, twaddle and tosh. To believe that an object of beauty is somehow downgraded because it also has a practical function is really breathtakingly stupid, and yet, this traditional dichotomy survives.

    There are so many interesting and valid ways of classifying creations of the human mind and hands; by the artist's intention and vision; by the technical skill of the execution; by performance and interpretation, too, in the case of music and drama; and by its reception by viewers and readers, the layers that are added by the ultimate effect of the work of art on those who experience it. To sideline all this intriguing and complex stuff into a blatant appeal to social class and pedigree, education and status, which is what the 'high and low' thing is about, leaves me speechless.

    A taste for arcane and 'refined' art is not confined to those who are well-born and highly educated, any more than a liking for accessible and demotic entertainment is confined to hoi polloi. These preferences are, quite genuinely, innate and personal and individual, and can be very mixed: I am not the only person who loves Bach and Bob Marley with equal passion. It is time for the terminology and classification that attempts to grade art according to social class to be swept aside.

  2. Excellent post. I really have little to add except you are right about oppressed groups not recognizing how they can oppress within themselves. The romance genre is a great example.

    But I've noted with dismay the distain some black romance writers have for grittier street fiction authors and the scorn street lit authors can have for the romance genre.

    Sterotyping. Bigotry. No group is immune from it in some form or fashion.

    The struggle continues...

  3. To believe that an object of beauty is somehow downgraded because it also has a practical function is really breathtakingly stupid, and yet, this traditional dichotomy survives.

    My family had an acquaintance who once described my father's art as "craft" in the patronising tone of voice that a famous chef might use when describing a dish cooked by a 10-year-old as "home-made." I think he also uttered the word "representational" as though it was faintly obscene.

    Sterotyping. Bigotry. No group is immune from it in some form or fashion.

    The struggle continues...

    And we don't just have to struggle against the stereotypes we might be imposing on other people/groups, and the stereotypes that other people/groups seek to impose on us, we also have to struggle against the stereotypes and prejudices we've internalised about ourselves. For example, after I became a parent I eventually came to recognise how often I was judging myself against an impossibly high and totally unachievable standard (50s super-efficient housewife crossed with an earth-mother ideal and grafted onto a successful career-woman), which meant that I felt, at some level, that I must be a failure as a parent and a woman.