Friday, June 27, 2008

Society Defined

Pamela Regis has written that "Near the beginning of the [romance] novel, the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt" (31). This impression of a flawed society is changed by the end of the novel:
In a scene or scenes the promised wedding is depicted, or some other celebration of the new community is staged, such as a dance or a fete. The emphasis here is on inclusion, and this scene is promised in every romance, even if it is not dramatized. Society has reconstituted itself around the new couple(s) and the community comes together to celebrate this. (38)
Of course, one of the flaws in society may be that it expects people to pair up as "heroine and hero," female with male. What happens to those who are rejected by their families because they can't? One hopes they'd find a new community, a new "family," as supportive as the one depicted in Ann Somerville's Means of Support (Chapter 1 and Chapter 2).

Somerville's fantasy/speculative fiction story Slipping Under further explores the connections between the individual and the rest of society and reaffirms the importance of love and human contact in a world which, in its busyness and increasing use of the internet and telephone, can leave individuals feeling isolated, anonymous, unknown. Being "in the closet" (or being rejected by one's family for coming out of it) doesn't help to foster feelings of connectedness either. The fact that this is fantasy/speculative fiction enables Somerville to explore this theme in a way that I found very powerful, because it makes real what could, in a contemporary romance, never go further than a metaphor. I don't want to say more because I don't want to give any spoilers, but maybe we can discuss it further after people have read the story, which is available for free here.

Ann gives a warning on her webpage that
The stories on this site are intended for mature audiences. They will include, from time to time, some sexually explicit scenes between couples of various genders within the context of longer stories, and address adult issues. There may also be occasional descriptions of explicit violence. Please don't click on any link on this site if you are underage, or likely to be disturbed by this kind of content, or stories with mature themes of any kind.
She has a lot of free stories there, but the ones I've chosen to highlight here don't contain "explicit violence."

  • Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
The illustration can be seen in more detail at Wikipedia where it is described as a "Half-section of the Chinese painting Night Revels of Han Xizai, handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 28.7 x 335.5 cm. Original by Gu Hongzhong (10th century), 12th century remake of the Song Dynasty." Another Wikipedia entry observes that "the painting, which is a masterpiece of the era's artwork, portrays servants, musicians, monks, children, guests, hosts all in a single societal environment, serves as an in-depth look into 10th-century Chinese social structure."


  1. I have to say, I loved the piece by Ann Sommerville. I found it haunting. It's been in my mind for days. As a geek who loves my privacy, it rings a bell warning of complete disconnection and the dangers of isolating oneself from the rest of the world. Thanks.

  2. I found Slipping Under very thought-provoking too, which was why I posted the link to it. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. It was one of those stories that had a definite "unreal but not untrue" feel to it, because there was so much emotional truth revealed via the fantasy/speculative element.

    I got the phrase "unreal but not untrue" via Jenny Crusie:

    Folklorist Max Luthi says that fairy tales are "unreal but not untrue" because they deal with the greatest themes in literature and life, and much of genre fiction, grounded in myth, legend, and tale, retells those primal stories for adults.

    This story doesn't retell a "primal story" but it does offer an insight into contemporary society and I thought the way it dealt with the reality of emotional isolation in the midst of/encouraged by greater and greater virtual connectedness felt emotionally "real". As someone who spends a lot of time online it certainly got me thinking.

    And today I saw the following item in the news:

    Children growing up alongside the rise of social networking websites may have a "potentially dangerous" view of the world, says a leading psychiatrist.

    Dr Himanshu Tyagi said sites such as Facebook and MySpace may be harmful.

    He told the Royal College of Psychiatrists annual meeting people with active online identities might place less value on their real lives. [...]

    Dr Tyagi said that people born after 1990 did not know a world without the widespread use of the internet.

    He warned that the current crop of psychiatrists were perhaps not fully prepared to help young people with internet-related problems.

    While social networking sites offered great benefits, he said, there were potential pitfalls.

    Another expert disagreed, of course, but I think it's true that the ability to have relationships online, to change identities/maintain anonymity etc can change the way people relate to each other. Having photos linked to identities, particularly if the photo is a real one of the person using it, maybe makes the identity feel more real to other people, but you still can't touch, smell or taste in cyberspace or via the phone and those are important senses.