Sunday, June 01, 2008

Dangerous Reading

In an article published last year and titled "Harm in reading romance novels?" one could read the following warning:
many romance novels are not as harmless as they look. In fact, some marriage therapists caution that women can become [...] dangerously unbalanced by these books’ entrancing but distorted messages. (Feldhahn)
Concerns about women's reading are nothing new. This week I've been reading Kate Flint's The Woman Reader 1837-1914. She suggests that in this period considerable effort was expended in attempting to answer the question "what moral, sexual, religious, ideological dangers may lie in a woman’s being absorbed by so preoccupying a pursuit?" (4). However, as she also notes, even in that period "the debate about what women should, and should not read, and how they read, was not a new one, nor has it disappeared" (16). According to Flint
Renaissance prescriptive remarks concerning woman's reading were remarkably close, in outline, to ones which were repeated during the next three centuries [...]. Whilst too great an acquaintance with light reading might lead her sexually astray, either in imagination or reality, it would also distract her from developing intellectually and spiritually. Edward Hake makes this point in A Touchestone for this time present (1574): "Eyther shee is altogither kept from exercises of good learning, and knowledge of good letters, or else she is so nouseled in amorous books, vaine stories and fonde trifeling fancies, that shee smelleth of naughtinesse even all hir lyfe after" (qtd. in Flint 23).
One can easily find modern equivalents of this moral condemnation of women's reading of "amorous books" which may ensure that the reader "smelleth of naughtinesse." Just recently one Christian former reader of romances wrote that
An editor casually described the genre's most sexually explicit fare as soft-core pornography. I was horrified. That remark put an entirely new spin on my romance addiction—and explained why these books were so difficult to put down. [...] Romance novels could have caused dissatisfaction with my husband; I knew of wives who compared their all-too-ordinary Mr. Steadys to the books' rich and handsome heroes. (Marvin)
It has often been suggested that women readers are particularly vulnerable, liable to be excessively influenced by fiction:
in an article of 1859 by the critic and moral crusader W. R. Greg, entitled ‘False Morality of Lady Novelists’. He states that:
novels constitute a principal part of the reading of women, who are always impressionable, in whom at all times the emotional element is more awake and more powerful than the critical, whose feelings are more easily aroused and whose estimates are more easily influenced than ours, while at the same time the correctness of their feelings and the justice of their estimates are matters of the most special and preeminent concern. (Flint 4)1
From a very different perspective, but nonetheless also seeking to shield women from writing which may damage their characters, we can turn to Julie Bindel. It wasn't that long ago that we analysed her article about Mills & Boon romances (in considerable detail). She claimed that romance was "propaganda [...]. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech" and her main concern was that "such novels feed directly into some women's sense of themselves as lesser beings, as creatures desperate to be dominated."

Yet others have detected harmful elements in fiction, but felt that the reader could nonetheless benefit from if guided and supervised in her reading:
Mary Hays, for example, writing to a woman friend in 1793, advised her not to be too alarmed at her daughter’s predilection for novels and romances. More, Hays thinks, would be lost by forbidding these than by taking the opportunity to discuss the books with her, since this would damage the daughter’s confidence without correcting her taste. [...] Hays claims that ‘The love of the marvellous, or of extraordinary and unexpected coincidences, is natural to young minds, that have any degree of energy and fancy.’ To avoid risking the loss of these characteristics, a mother should read with her daughters, should converse with them about the merits of various authors, and should ‘accustom them to critical and literary discussions’. Eventually, they, like their mothers, should disapprove of anything that has ‘an improper and immoral tendency’. (Flint 30)
A modern equivalent can be found in the advice offered by Diana Mitchell, a ninth-grade teacher:
I decided I might instead learn to use these books in ways that can provoke thought and encourage readers to look closely at what these novels really say, especially about male and female roles. By helping students become conscious of such issues as the gender expectations shown in the books, I can help them think about their own values and expectations for males and females. [...] this questioning process may be slow, but, over a period of time, with gentle urging from the teacher, romance-series readers can learn to be more objective about what they read.

Thus, since many of our female students have a natural attraction to the romance series either as a way of finding solace in an increasingly demanding world or as a way to reassure themselves of happy endings, we as teachers need to use this interest as an opening instead of fighting the losing battle of warning students against reading them.
Greg was particularly worried about the effects of " 'light literature;' [...] this literature is effective by reason of its very lightness: it spreads, penetrates, and permeates, where weightier matter would lie merely on the outside of the mind" (144). It is true that for all that romance has often been described as "fluff," a sort of candy-floss for the brain, it does deal with a great many serious topics. Linda K. Christian-Smith, for example, wrote in 1990 that
woven throughout teen romance fiction’s saga of hearts and flowers is an accompanying discourse that a woman is incomplete without a man, that motherhood is women’s destiny, and that a woman’s rightful place is at home. These themes are part and parcel of the New Right’s political and cultural agenda regarding women, representing the conservative restoration of women to their “proper” place in society.(2)
Also commenting on the moral and ideological content of romance, though this time romances written for adults, Robin stated that she sees
love and relationships (especially marriage) as inherently political, because of the power negotiations involved. And because Romance is so particularly focused on the idealization of love and marriage (historically, at least, for the marriage part), I see it as intrinsically political, as well — active in creating different images of a social ideal.
and in the same comments thread RfP commented that
A lot of romances strike me as political, though I’m not always sure the author is aware of the strength of the subtext. In that respect it’s much like so many other issues in romances–some authors are mindful of it, some relatively unreflected, some put substantial effort into working through the issue.
Similarly, some readers are mindful of the subtexts, while some may not reflect on them much at all (though they may angrily reject a novel which appears to "preach" at them). It can be difficult to work out the precise relationship between a reader and the books she reads. To what extent is any woman reader influenced by what she reads, and how much do factors such as her own pre-existing attitudes, her social context, her individual personality etc affect both her interpretations of what she reads and the selections she makes when at the library or bookshop?

Furthermore, why is the female reader still of so much interest? It could be to do with the fact that, nowadays, on average women tend to read more fiction than men. Maybe, because I work on romance, which is a genre mostly written by women and mostly read by women, I've just not seen the studies which analyse the dangers of reading for men. But could it be that women are still seen as fundamentally different from men in how we read and respond to literature? Is it that we are considered more likely than men to absorb ideas about who we are and what we should be from our reading? Or is it that because women have traditionally had less power, even small changes in our attitudes are seen as posing a significant challenge to the status quo and so our reading of particular texts must, depending on the author's view, either be strongly encouraged or strongly discouraged?

And finally, isn't it interesting that the centuries-old tradition of concern about women readers seems to have focussed, in the present day, on women readers of romance? This is a genre which has been criticised by some for encouraging women to have overly sexual thoughts and become dissatisfied with their husbands, and yet has also been criticised by others for not making women dissatisfied enough with their husbands, gender roles etc. It would seem that any genre that's thought of as one written by women for women, and which deals with the issues of women's sexuality, aspirations and gender roles, is likely to remain controversial.2

1 It should be noted that Greg criticises a number of novels for not concluding happily but instead presenting the reader with "a picture of love abandoned and happiness trampled under foot in obedience to misty and crooked notions of what honour and dignity enjoin" (155).

2 As I've said before, I tend to stress the diversity, rather than any supposed homogeneity, within the genre and among its readers. If one accepts that such diversity exists, it becomes much more difficult to come to any definitive conclusions about whether the genre as a whole is harmful or beneficial to its readers.

The illustration is Robert Martineau's The Last Chapter (1863) and I found this copy via Wikimedia Commons. Flint describes this painting as one which depicts a woman
reading for escapist pleasures. She is unmistakably caught up in one of the fashionably controversial 'sensation novels'. As we watch her consuming the text avidly, by firelight, we conclude that the book has the power to keep her up and awake beyond the customary hour at which the house goes to bed. Her pose is testimony to the compulsive nature of these fictions: moreover, the lighting of the picture and the angle from which she is portrayed invest her with something of the melodramatic mystery and self-importance of the heroines about whom she reads. (3)
The text of Greg's article, along with a great many other Victorian primary texts on the topics of the "Condition of Women," "Empire" and "Science, Evolution, and Eugenics" are available from the University of Minnesota.


  1. Another great post, Laura, which raises a number of interesting questions.

    I think I've commented on this blog before about there being a perception in some quarters of romance as being somehow childish, that the reader is therefore herself childish and that the pernicious influence of romance should be pointed out to her (or him).

    Of course, it's not just romance readers who are subjected to this. Children's fiction, horror, porn - the same question has been asked of many different types of fiction i.e. what influence does this have? What is interesting though is that the question tends to be asked in relation to young people and women. Not so often adult men (with the exception perhaps of visual porn).

    And if women are being equated with children in terms of their ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, what does that say about the fact that there are many many romances in which heroines are infantilised by heroes?

  2. It's interesting that you should bring up the issue of children and childishness, because women have long been put in a similar category to children. Aristotle, for example, in Politics, wrote that:

    the freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. So it must necessarily be supposed to be with the moral virtues also; all should partake of them, but only in such manner and degree as is required by each for the fulfillment of his duty.

    Or, to give a different sort of example, you have the idea that women and children should be given priority access to lifeboats.

    Both, in their different ways, imply that women and children are similar because both need to be ruled over and/or protected by men, and when it comes to reading, there's definitely been a perception that women, like children, must be protected from dangerous books. And I'd agree that this has often been because women were thought unable to "differentiate between fantasy and reality", because women (like children) were thought of as less rational than men.

    what does that say about the fact that there are many many romances in which heroines are infantilised by heroes?

    I think that many romances (this is less the case nowadays, but was much more often the case in the 70s and 80s) have perpetuated ideas about femininity and how women should behave which cast women as the more child-like gender. Just looking at the ages of heroines compared to heroes, there was a while when a very high proportion of heroines were teenagers paired up with much older men. And on the issue of rationality, in the past it was often the case that the heroine was totally confused by the hero. He would seem to behave irrationally but, in the end, some reason would be produced which explained all his actions. In romances like that it often feels like there's cultural reinforcement of the idea that the good woman is child-like (innocent, young, easily confused, emotional) and the ideal man is strong, forceful, successful, powerful and mostly rational (love can make him appear irrational, but of course he isn't really, because it's rational for him to love the heroine since she's the ideal woman).

  3. I feel I should add that just because we might read these books as ones in the "heroines are infantilised by heroes" doesn't mean that someone else might not read them as challenging a few other gender norms and/or leading women readers to confuse fantasy with reality and/or simply taking up time these readers might otherwise have spent on housework/their children/reading "improving" literature.

  4. The only comparable critique of a male past time I can think of is the concern of the effects of video games - and particularly the levels of mysoginy and violence in many of them, the problem with identifying fantasy vs. reality, etc. That may be aimed more at young men as opposed to adult men though.

  5. That may be aimed more at young men as opposed to adult men though.
    And so we're back to the "child" thing again. Women equated with children. Which I find particularly infuriating--whether it comes from anti-feminists or feminists. Both of them are saying, essentially "You poor benighted, ignorant idiot--you don't have sense enough to know what you're doing."
    It's interesting that the attacks come from both directions--and it's aggravatingly annoying.

  6. "the effects of video games - and particularly the levels of mysoginy and violence in many of them, the problem with identifying fantasy vs. reality, etc. That may be aimed more at young men as opposed to adult men though."

    A gamer friend's comments a few months ago pointed out that some of the audience for games *is* testosterone-bombarded young men, and some of what young men are working out for themselves *is* about sex and violence. My friend feels he's grown out of some of some modes of gaming as he's aged and gained experience in relationships. That doesn't mean gaming is an immature pastime; just that it's not entirely inaccurate to say that certain games, and perhaps even certain themes, are popular with young men. Not inaccurate, just limited.

    I think some of the infantilization and put-downs come from judging the readers, not the book (e.g. "I don't care if it's good, I wouldn't read something that makes me one of THEM!"), and some from extrapolating one group of readers to *all* readers, players, etc. Just because my neighbor's pimply, voice-cracking, malsocialized teenage boy plays a game doesn't make him the sole representative of the game's audience--in fact his mother plays too. And just because his sister reads teen romances doesn't mean all romance readers are juvenile--her parents both love action stories with heroism and sex and a romance at the end.

  7. My favorite reaction to this sort of commentary on romance is from (I believe) Jayne Anne Krentz, in "Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women," where (to paraphrase) she wonders why it is that no one ever worries that men will attempt to act out the lives of spymasters or hard-boiled detectives.