Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sarah on Small Acts of Love

Another day, another guest blog for Sarah! Today she's at Romancing the Blog:
Romance novels remind me that it’s the small acts that build a relationship, not the grand gestures. Not that the grand gestures hurt, of course, but romance novels remind me that you can’t build a life on them, that lives mesh and make successful relationships because of shared values and experiences. Romance novels remind me not to take any of this everyday romance for granted, to take the time to appreciate these moments, to live for them, because if we don’t live for these bright sparks of love illuminating our lives, what do we live for?

The picture is by Henriette Browne, and I found it at Wikimedia Commons. If you read Sarah's post you'll find out why some lovingly applied bandages were required at her house recently.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sarah on Brockmann: Singing to the Unsung Hero

Sarah's got a guest post up at Dear Author in which she sings the praises of Suzanne Brockmann's novels and, in particular, The Unsung Hero, which she describes as "one of the most perfect books of all time."

I was very intrigued by Sarah's comment that "Most of Brockmann’s characters are relentlessly American." What is it that makes them "relentlessly American" rather than just "American"?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Breaking News! Brisbane Conference on Popular Romance, August 2009

Yes, folks, it's an official
Call for Papers:


An International Conference

August 13-14, 2009
Brisbane, Australia

Sponsored by

the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR)
Queensland University of Technology
Romance Writers of Australia

and others

For decades, romance fiction has been the world’s most popular literary genre. Scholars from Australia, Canada, the UK, the European Union, the United States, and India have studied popular romance—its readers, its authors, its publishers, as well as the novels themselves—but they have done so largely in isolation: an approach that is hardly adequate to this rapidly evolving, thoroughly global creative industry.

On August 13-14, 2009, Queensland University of Technology will host the first International Conference on Popular Romance Fiction, to be held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Romance Writers of Australia. Featured speakers will include romance authors and academic scholars of the genre from Australia, the United States, and elsewhere.

The conference website will go live later this summer, with full logistical details and registration information; the URL will be announced on the RomanceScholar listserv and will be linked here on Teach Me Tonight. We can say for now that registration will be approximately $150 Australian (lunch included), and rooms at the conference hotel will run approximately $205 Australian / night (more with breakfast included). If funds to help with travel or expenses become available, we will announce them on the listserv and website.

We are interested in papers on all topics related to popular romance fiction as an international phenomenon: its authors, texts, publishers, and audiences, in the past or the present, anywhere in the world. Topics addressed might include:

  • Romance on the World Stage (texts in translation, romance manga, colonial and neo-colonial romance, non-Western writers, readers, texts, and publishers)
  • National romance traditions and the impact of global publishing on local authors, readers, publishers, and texts
  • Studies of individual authors, genres, or texts
  • Theoretical models for, or approaches to, the genre
  • The market for and readership of romance fiction, now or in the past
  • The romance publishing industry (in print and electronic)
  • New directions in Category Romance (recent and forthcoming lines, changing demographics, new markets and shifting audience demographics, etc.)
  • Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Romance, and same-sex love within predominantly heterosexual texts
  • Genre-Bending and Genre-Crossing authors and texts (erotic romance, SF romance, chick-lit, crossover texts, etc.)
  • Elements of the genre: heroes, heroines, plot structures, endings
  • Romance communities: authors, readers, websites, blogs

We welcome proposals from independent scholars, and from romance authors, editors, and publishers, as well as from those with academic affiliation. Feel free to copy and circulate this Call for Papers to other websites, listservs, and professional organizations.

Submit a one-page (150-250 word) proposal or abstract no later than January 15, 2009 to the conference organizers; email is preferred. Early proposals are encouraged, especially from the US, UK, EU, and other locales outside Australia. The earlier we hear from you, the earlier we can respond, and the earlier travel arrangements can be made.

Proposals and questions should be sent to:

Eric Murphy Selinger
Dept. of English
DePaul University
802 West Belden Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614
eselinge [at] depaul.edu

Dr Glen Thomas
Creative Writing and Cultural Studies
Creative Industries Faculty
Queensland University
of Technology
Victoria Park Road
Kelvin Grove, Q. 4059.
T: (+ 61 7) 3138 8284
F: (+61 7) 3138 8238
M: 0412 232 163
E: gj.thomas [at] qut.edu.au

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Breaking News!

Eric, here, everyone, with some breaking news.

Romance fiction--and, just as important, romance scholarship--is heading to Princeton next April!

I've been working on this for a while, and you may have heard tell of it once or twice, but the conference is now funded and ready to run.

The full story here, courtesy of Michelle Buonfiglio, who helped to broker the deal. More details soon--and more about other upcoming romance conferences--here at Teach Me Tonight!

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Guest Post: Classifying Works Containing Sexual Content

In response to a previous post of mine AgTigress said that
I am most uncomfortable about a classification that distinguishes at a primary level between 'didactic love fiction' and 'erotic (love fiction)'. The first level of any typology has to employ definitions that cannot overlap, otherwise the whole framework totters. [...] clearly a novel about love or a human relationship may be both erotic (= dealing with the topic of sexual love) and didactic ( = aiming to teach some lesson or principle) - or it may be neither.
Leaving aside what is or isn't "didactic," the following is a guest post by AgTigress which explores the differences between "erotica" and "pornography." I think it complements Sarah's post "Erotica vs. Porn" and my "Romance Novels: Pornography or Literature?"

The links included in the text were added by me.


Censorship and expurgation have a long history which is interwoven with profound changes in society over the last few centuries, a history that still casts a shadow today. It is too complex to examine in detail here, but some background knowledge is helpful if we are to understand why the current classifications of novels containing explicit sex seem to give people a lot of trouble. We are dealing with the aftermath of a situation that existed from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, in which open references to sexuality were believed to be wholly unfit for the ears and eyes of people whose innocence required protection, then defined as children and respectable adult women, or whose natural tendency towards licentious behaviour required restraint, namely the unsophisticated and uneducated members of the underprivileged classes. Most parents still exercise rights of censorship over their children’s reading, and most adults still do not wish to find practices they regard as intrinsically wrong, such as the sexual exploitation of children, casually featured and described in their leisure reading. We all recognise certain limits, and should be able to understand in principle the setting of boundaries, even though those boundaries vary enormously on an individual, generational and regional basis.1

The difficulties with clear classifications and definitions of erotica, so-called ‘romantica’ (an etymologically regrettable word) and pornography arise because the situation is still fluid and changing today. Those who discuss current fiction genres sometimes know little of the paths that have been travelled within the last few decades. Attitudes to sexuality have altered particularly radically over the last 50 years, and this is reflected in all areas of life, including changes in the legal position regarding censorship, and ongoing debates on what, exactly, constitutes ‘obscenity’.

In the 1950s, a writer could not, in a mainstream English-language novel, describe any acts in which a respectable married couple might engage on their conjugal couch; the bedroom door had to be firmly closed on the reader. Only the most cautiously euphemistic circumlocutions might be employed to indicate that a couple were having a good time in bed. Between the late 18th century and the end of the 1950s, there was no possibility of classifying any widely available book as an ‘erotic novel’. Any fiction with overt sexual description was unquestioningly classed as pornographic, and was in breach of obscenity laws. No distinction was made between well-written works and semi-literate ones; between books with interesting plots or with none; between those with well-drawn characters and those with identikit ciphers recognisable, if at all, only by the size and capabilities of their genitals. If a book openly described sexual acts, it was pornographic, and that was that.2

In the 19th century there were real problems even in the publication of academic non-fiction that dealt with sexual topics. However, works dealing with medicine or with some of the more arcane aspects of art-history or anthropology were not popular, mass-market books: they were expensive volumes, written to inform rather than to entertain and titillate, and were written and read only by highly educated men. They were therefore not expected to pose any dangers to the morals of the man (or worse still, the woman) in the street, who had neither the education nor the leisure time and disposable income to acquire and read them. Sexually explicit fiction was, in fact, published in Victorian Britain, but the publishers ran considerable risks, for their activities were illegal. Their marketing strategies had to be devious and inventive, and their readership was almost exclusively wealthy and upper-class. There were other problems relating to the visual arts, but that is a different, though connected, story.

In the changing society of the post-Second World War world, attitudes shifted dramatically, and this was quite obvious and visible even to a reasonably socially aware teenager at the time. In the UK, better and more easily available education, including university education, facilitated greater social mobility, and many of the rigid puritanical certainties of earlier decades, still based on a Victorian view of class and morality, started to crumble.

A crucial legal test-case took place in 1960, when Penguin Books decided to test the brand-new Obscene Publications Act of 1959 by putting out Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in paperback. The book had first been published in 1928, but was obtainable in unexpurgated form only on the Continent. Raunchy English-language novels were sometimes printed and published in France, Germany or other European countries, and were consequently available to the wealthier sections of society who habitually travelled abroad. Ordinary middle-class and working-class Britons did not do so in the first half of the 20th century. Their holidays, if any, were too short, as were their finances. It has always been assumed by the rich and privileged (as it is by campaigners for censorship), that they themselves are somehow immune from the corrupting effects of obscenity that they hold to be so dangerous to hoi polloi. A paperback at 3/6d placed Lawrence’s notorious novel within easy reach of the masses, and struck at the very heart of the status quo regarding ‘racy’ fiction. (Three shillings and sixpence, a typical price for a paperback novel at the time, is 17½ p. in today’s UK currency, equivalent to about 35 US cents).3

Social and class implications run right through this topic, in the visual arts as well as literature. The most famous quotation from the Lady Chatterley trial was the revealing question one of the prosecution barristers asked a witness – 'would you want your wife or your servant to read it?' (My italics). Those who have read the book will be well aware of its extreme social, as well as sexual, subversiveness in the context of its 1920s setting: not only does it describe sexual intercourse, but it describes it taking place, with enjoyment, between an upper-class woman and a working-class man. That question, posed in 1960, brought home to most who heard or read it just how much the world had changed. The idea that a man had any right to control his wife’s choice of reading-matter, and the mere mention of servants, seemed completely irrelevant and archaic to most of us in 1960. Penguin won their case, on the new legal grounds of ‘literary merit’ as a justification for explicit sexual content. The mere presence of sexual incidents in a book no longer defined it automatically as pornographic, obscene and illegal, and the Penguin edition went on to sell 3 million copies, many of them doubtless to people who had not previously heard of D.H. Lawrence. Definitions had to be changed, but this has happened informally and gradually, and the situation in other English-speaking countries may lack the clear 1960 turning-point identifiable in the UK.

But if we return to the basic definitions from the etymology of the words, which is always a good thing to do, obvious definitions almost write themselves. ‘Pornography’ means ‘writings about whores’ and ‘erotica’ means ‘matters pertaining to eros, that is, sexual love’.

Prostitutes engage professionally, for profit, in a series of sexual acts with individuals whom they do not know personally, and with whom they therefore cannot feel any emotional ties. In a parallel sense, writings that describe a series of sexual acts between people whom the reader never gets to know, or even to recognise and tell apart, and does not care about, are pornographic. However, the prostitute – and the actors in a pornographic text – may find the sex acts perfectly agreeable, and may be engaging in them voluntarily, or indeed with enthusiasm: the sex acts themselves need not be unusual and extreme, as long as there are plenty of them. Written pornography should thus consist of a sequence of descriptions or vignettes of sex acts, often barely connected with each other in terms of story and plot (and frequently set against an unrealistically theatrical or exotic backdrop), taking place between stock characters that are interchangeable ciphers. The aim is solely to arouse sexual excitement in the reader. Like any other fiction, pornography may be well written and enjoyable or badly written and ridiculous.

Erotic activities must, by definition, involve personal, emotional ties of some kind, because the definition includes love. Agape is spiritual love, eros physical, sexual love. If a reader is to feel anything emotional, as opposed to physical, from reading a book, characters have to be rounded; they have to evolve and develop; they have to be real and interesting people who relate to one another in memorable ways. This is why Cleland's 1749 classic is not pornography, but erotica. The Happy Ever After ending is irrelevant to whether a work is erotic or pornographic: that characteristic belongs to romance, erotic or otherwise, and as it happens, Fanny Hill is also a romance, with a strongly emphasised HEA ending.

Erotica should therefore follow the usual rules of novels in having a proper story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and believable, well-drawn characters who grow and change during the course of the story. The reader may still find the action sexually stimulating, but will also enjoy a specific narrative, not simply a sequence of generic sexual acts. ‘Erotica’ should also indicate novels in which the principal theme is the sexual relationship of the leading characters; they are about the sexual relationship(s) above all else. This differentiates erotica from the many other novels, common today, though completely unthinkable and illegal in the past, in which the main story arc is about romance, suspense, mystery, family relationships – any one of a dozen genres – but in which sexual incidents, where they take place in the text, are described in an open, graphic and detailed fashion.

There seems to be a widespread view today that erotica must include descriptions of adventurous and inventive sexual practices rather than so-called ‘vanilla sex’. This assumption has probably arisen because we have come to regard it as normal that the description of everyday sexual acts is perfectly acceptable and is often included in quite unremarkable, mainstream books that are readily available to all. This may lead us to imagine that ‘erotica’ must be something different and less ordinary. The precise types of sexual practices described seem to me to constitute another and separate classificatory system that can cut right across the main genre typology; for example, homosexual pornography, erotica, erotic romance and non-erotic romance are all viable definitions. As it might be hard, though not impossible, to sustain a whole novel on the basis of one devoted couple repeatedly copulating in the missionary position with the lights out, erotic novels probably do tend to display some sexual variety, but orgies with casts of thousands, or unusual uses of household appliances, are certainly not necessary to qualify a work as erotic.

‘Pornography’ continues to be used loosely and, in my view, inaccurately, as a pejorative term, but it is much better classification to avoid such value-judgements and to confine the term to writings that simply describe series of sexual vignettes without much in the way of plot or character-development. Because of the wide range of personal taste in sexual matters, what is offensive to one reader may be perfectly acceptable or pleasing to another. I have heard people declare that pornography is only about ‘bad’ kinds of sex – rape, paedophilia, bestiality, genuine sadism and the like. But some people regard homosexuality or consensual bondage games as disgusting and perverse, while others regard them as perfectly normal. I have even seen people claim that badly-written sex should be defined as pornography. All these approaches define pornography as ‘sexual fiction which I, personally, find offensive’. Individual tastes are a totally unreliable and unscholarly basis for classification; no wonder people disagree on what ‘pornography’ is, when they venture into such subjective territory. A more detached and objective approach is necessary.

If we stay with the basic meanings, both pornography and erotica may be well-written or badly-written; both may deal with kinds of sexual activity that an individual reader finds either exhilarating or repellent or any point between: the big difference is that pornography is episodic and lacks the true story arc and distinctive characters that we expect to find in a fully evolved novel. It is aimed only at arousing physical sexual response in the reader. A simple test of pornography is that the average reader can easily lose track of exactly who is doing what to whom. Erotica, though focusing on sexual activity, should follow the conventional structure of novels in having a proper story and believable characters.

1 The history of literary censorship in Britain and North America up to the late 1960s is wittily and informatively told in Noel Perrin’s Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy (London, 1970).

2 The term ‘erotica’, along with ‘curiosa’, was used chiefly in relation to 18th-century or earlier books and art with sexual themes, privately produced, or produced at times and places with sexual and social mores unlike those of Victorian Britain.

3 [This is a footnote added by Laura] I suspect that AgTigress's conversion doesn't take into account inflation. You can use this currency converter to "Find out how yesterday's prices compares to today's prices." They're using the word "yesterday" extremely loosely, since their converter will convert UK (English) currency from 1270 to 2005. I'm really including this link because I think it might be interesting for everyone who enjoys reading (or writing) historical romances. If you then want to convert modern UK pounds into another currency, you could use the converter here.

[And one final note from me (Laura). The illustration is, of course, the cover of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover from 1960, cover design by Stephen Russ. I found it at Wikipedia.]

Friday, July 11, 2008

Happily Ever After

I believe we talked about this documentary when it was first shown on BBC Four. Some kind soul has now uploaded it in bits and pieces to YouTube:

Reality in the Details and in the Dialogue

In Merline Lovelace's The Harder They Fall the hero tells the heroine a bit more about his family background and
She couldn't believe how relaxed she felt ... and curious. The bits Evan had told her about his brothers had subtly altered her mental mosaic of the man beside her. Made him seem more real somehow. More three-dimensional.
More than just a lazy grin and a pair of sexy blue eyes, anyway. (119)
As a reader (rather than a romance heroine) does that sort of information make characters seem more three-dimensional to you? Given that I've read about some characters who still resembled cardboard cutouts even after I knew about their tragic back-story, I don't think knowing a bit about the characters' family history automatically makes them feel more "real."

Whatever it is that makes relationships in some romances seem both "realistic" and lasting is a subjective and highly personal thing, but I've recently read three which convinced me and which got me thinking about what makes characters and their relationships feel "real". In all three cases it had something to do with the characters' imperfections. They weren't impossibly beautiful, and though they'd all suffered in the past, or were suffering still, they weren't romantically tormented. Perhaps it was this balance between the romantic and the little flaws (which included characters with more than a touch of sarcasm, another with a propensity to babble, quite a few with a dose of cynicism, and one who barely talked at all) which helped to made them feel "real" to me.

The other factor which affects Lovelace's heroine's view of the hero is that he tells her his history himself. They talk to each other. I think that dialogue (if well written) can make the characters feel more "alive," more real. I'm sure it's not the only way in which a writer can achieve this, but in the three novels I'd like to discuss, it was the dialogue which captured my attention and convinced me that these were characters with whom I wanted to spend some time.

The first is Karyn Langhorne's A Personal Matter. [You can read an excerpt here and reviews here, here and here.] The heroine and hero are quite alike, though they don't know that to begin with, and as the novel progresses more and more similarities are revealed. Because they're both rude and extremely difficult to work with, though, the similarities spark conflict, and that's evident in their conversations.

Here's an example of a scene which I think's been given the realistic treatment. It's not uncommon for romance heroines to literally run into the heroes' rock hard chests. But it's not so usual for the encounter to be described quite like this:
Alayna flicked on a couple of hallway lights just so she wouldn't be like some stupid white chick in a horror movie, feeling along in the dark, too dumb to turn on the lights. Hell no. With the lights on, whatever's out there, at least you see him coming.
Only not this time.
Because as Alayna turned from the long, lighted office corridor to the short dark hallway of work rooms, she ran full-tilt into The Freezer himself and let out a scream loud enough to shatter glass. It took a couple of seconds to shut up and realize she hadn't met the Boogeyman and that the surface she was up against wasn't anything more dangerous than a normal man's chest. Torso, really. He was pretty tall ... and the said chest was hard as a rock. But he didn't have a knife. The most dangerous thing about him was a medium-bad case of b.o., but when you run face-first into a man's armpit, it had to be expected. (21-22)
Apart from the less than romanticised method of describing the hero's odour (I've noticed rather a lot of romances which describe their heroes as smelling of X, Y and something uniquely his, but leave unspecified the nature of that uniquely heroic smell), Alayna and The Freezer also have an unusual way of establishing the ground rules for their relationship:
"Okay then," she said, peering over his shoulder as the words appeared on the page. "Clause one: We both get to be ourselves and no one complains about it."
The Freezer wrote it down, then added one of his own.
"Clause two: We both stay out of the other's personal business. No comments, no questions. No exceptions."
Alayna nodded. Keeping folks out of her business was her second career.
"Fair enough," she agreed. "Clause three: Give me as much responsibility as I can handle."
Ice Man gave her another long, measuring look.
"I mean," Alayna murmured, feeling her ambition hanging out like the edge of a frilly slip, "as much as is appropriate."
There was no way to decipher his expression on that one; it was as flat and blank as the frozen tundra. But he wrote it down.
"Clause four: We call each other by out names. No nicknames."
Alayna blinked her surprise. Ice Man cared about what he was called behind his back? The Freezer had feelings? [...]
Alayna racked her brain.
"Clause five: We tell each other the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Now it was his turn to blink.
"The truth about what?" he asked, sounding suddenly as guilty and nervous as a man with bodies buried in his basement.
"Our expectations of each other, what we think of the work, how we're measuring up," Alayna clarified. (31-32)
It's a conversation which reveals both Alayna's prejudice and her ambitions, and foreshadows the way in which she will gradually come to recognise them. It also shows the reader that these are characters for whom the legal profession isn't just a job; they apply negotiation skills, analysis and a competitive, adversarial approach to what will become "a personal matter." At the end of the novel they're still negotiating their relationship, with Alayna insisting that it too should be based on (most of) "the clauses from our working agreement" (377).

The second novel is Roslyn Hardy Holcomb's Rock Star. [You can read an excerpt here, a free mini-sequel (featuring a pair of minor characters) here and reviews here, here, here and here.]

Here the novel begins by showing us the common interests the characters share before confronting them and the reader with all the factors that generate a conflict that may separate them. As with A Personal Matter's reference to horror movies, there's a small metafictional element to the novel. Here's the description of how Callie meets Bryan:
Callie rubbed again at the ropes that held her arms tied firmly behind her back. Her partner Tonya's enthusiasm for this type of thing was wearing a bit thin.
"Come on, Tonya," she urged looking over her shoulder. "Haven't you figured out how you want to tie this thing yet?" Tonya's only response was an exasperated grunt. "Look, we've got a bookstore to run here. Maybe you can do your research another time."
"Just a second, Callie, I think I've got it." Tonya paused, a frown clouding her pretty face. "Maybe if I tie your feet too it would be more in keeping with the character." [...]
Bryan surveyed the scene before him. Two black women of similarly slender size and above-average height seemed to be engaged in some type of bondage game. [...]
Her hands finally freed, Callie walked around the counter to greet the customer. She extended one newly liberated hand. "Hi, I'm Callie Lawson, and this is my partner Tonya Stevens." When the man smiled knowingly, Callie felt the heat intensify in her face. "No, not that kind of partner. She's my business partner ... and a part-time mystery novelist." He nodded sagely. "Sometimes she has to work out the plots literally." (1-2)
I thought that there was an inside joke there for romance readers and authors who know how often romance authors are asked about how they do their research. I was reminded of Jenny Crusie's sarcastic comment that "I get to meet those fascinating people who say, “Romance novels? Do you research your sex scenes? Heh, heh, heh.” (Absolutely. I just keep one hand free at all times to make notes. No, I am not interested in your help.)" (223).

What not infrequently comes across in the dialogue in this novel is the contrast between Bryan's worldly experience in some areas, and his unexpected and almost childlike naivety about others. He genuinely doesn't seem to understand the obstacles and differences that his status as a pop star create between him and Callie:
"Bryan, I thought we'd agreed, no more extravagant gifts," she persisted.
"Extravagant? Look, it was either the bear or a pink Jaguar."
"A pink Jaguar?" Callie gasped. Had the boy totally lost his mind? [...] "And who buys a pink Jaguar? [...] For that matter, where on earth do you buy a pink Jaguar?"
"This is L. A., baby," Bryan replied breezily. "For enough money, you can get whatever you want. But anyway, Jon said you struck him as more of a Volvo kind of girl. I could see his point. [...]"
"Bryan, don't you dare buy me a pink Volvo!" Callie shrieked into the telephone.
"Why not?" Bryan asked, puzzled. "Tonya said pink was your favorite color. But that's okay. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I ordered another color. What would you like? Or would you prefer the Jaguar after all?" he asked hopefully.
"Bryan!" Callie shouted. "I don't want you to buy me a car at all. Actually, I don't want you to buy me anything else, period, okay?" When Bryan didn't respond, Callie asked, "Why do you keep buying me stuff anyway? Aren't you supposed to be rehearsing? You must spend all your time shopping."
"I don't know, it just seems like when I'm buying presents for you, we're closer or something. I got so excited when I found the bracelet because I could just imagine the look on your face when you opened the box. [...] It's been lots of fun. I think in a way it helps me deal with being away from you."
Callie smiled. She knew she would keep the bracelet now. How could she resist when there was such sweet sentiment behind the purchase? He was like a young boy with a crush, making daisy chains for the little girl down the street. Probably the world's most outrageously expensive daisy chains, but daisy chains nonetheless. It was absolutely delightful, and a far cry from what she'd originally thought. (130-32)
The third and final novel I wanted to mention is Kristan Higgins's Catch of the Day [Excerpt here and reviews here, here and here. The novel is a one of the finalists for the 2008 RITA in the Best Contemporary Single Title Romance category (and there are some comments on that from Diana Holquist)].

In this novel the characters are very different from each other, and they remain so. Unfortunately, I can't pinpoint any quotes which would illustrate why these characters and their love for each other felt so real to me, because the words which create this impression are ones which, taken out of context, might have little or no impact at all. This is not a novel in which you can find an equivalent of Captain Wentworth's heartfelt declaration of love
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. (Jane Austen's Persuasion, Chapter 23)
You won't even find something like this:
"I cannot make speeches, Emma," he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing. "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. [...]" (Jane Austen's Emma, Chapter 49)
In fact, despite all I've said about the importance of dialogue, there isn't a great deal of what one would normally think of as dialogue between the hero and heroine. Higgins gives us a hero only marginally more eloquent than Farmer Hoggett in the story of Babe the Sheep-pig. In the final scene of the film Farmer Hoggett stakes his entire reputation on Babe the pig's ability to herd sheep. At the sheep-trial all the spectators think that Hoggett's crazy to bring a pig to a sheepdog trial but Babe proves them wrong and the narrator concludes:
Narrator: And though every single human in the stands or in the commentary boxes was at a complete loss for words, the man who in his life had uttered fewer words than any of them knew exactly what to say.
Farmer Hoggett: That'll do, pig. That'll do.
Farmer Hoggett and Higgins' Malone have a lot more in common than the fact they both wear waterproof boots to work and are employed as "primary food producers". Malone too can stand firm against public opinion, and he declares his love for Maggie with only a few more words than Hoggett used to praise Babe: "Seems like I have a thing for you, Maggie" (376).

The contrast between Maggie and Malone is heightened by the fact that this is a novel told in the first person, by Maggie. Maybe one can think of this as a form of dialogue between the character and the reader. Maggie speaks to us directly, words pour from her, she reveals her emotions both to us, the readers, and to her entire community, while the morose, usually monosyllabic Malone reveals extremely little about himself. And yet, I believed that their relationship would work. Perhaps it's that in a reversal of Maggie's words on the very first page of the novel, to the effect that "even when someone is clearly wrong for you, he might seem ... well, perfect" (9), Malone is perfect for Maggie, even though he seems to be clearly wrong for her. Malone's lack of words is compensated for by Maggie's excess of them, and her growing ability to interpret (both for herself and the reader) his actions:
"Why did you kiss me the other night?" There. Said it. And if my cheeks are now flaming, so what? At least he has to answer.
"The usual reasons," he says, but the lines around his eyes are deeper. He takes a sip of beer, still looking at me.
"The usual reasons. Well, that's funny. Because most times you can tell if someone, you know, likes you. Or is attracted to you. And I never really picked up on that before. With you, I mean."
He doesn't answer. A clock on the wall announces the inevitable passage of time ... tick ... tick ... tick. Finally, I'm about ready to jump out of my skin. "Can I look around?" I ask.
[...] "You hungry?" Malone asks.
"No. I had a late lunch. Are you? Am I interrupting dinner? I should probably go." My heart is thudding away, my eyes feel hot and tight.
"Don't go."
Malone takes my hand. His is warm and smooth and thickly callused. He rubs his thumb gently across the back of my hand and doesn't say anything more. [...] Then Malone frowns a little and lifts my hand for a closer look. He makes a little tsking sound, and my jaw tightens.
"Yes, well, my hands are in the water all day long, and then with being near the grill and all - "
"Come here," he says, pulling me back into the kitchen. He lets go of my chapped, disgusting claw, opens a cupboard and rummages around. I lean against the counter, miffed. So what? So I have chapped hands. Big deal. A little eczema and everyone gets distraught. Malone takes out a small tin and opens it. Then he scoops out a little bit and rubs it between his palms. I guess my nasty skin has reminded him of the importance of moisturizing.
"I've tried everything," I say, looking over his shoulder. "Beeswax, lanolin, Vaseline, Burt's Bees, Bag Balm ... nothing works. I have ugly hands. My cross to bear. Big deal."
"You don't have ugly hands," he chides. It may be the longest sentence I've heard him say yet. He takes my hand in his and starts working in the cream. (135-37)
Maggie's words reveal her insecurity and how she masks it with a perky optimism. In the course of the novel it becomes apparent that she's had almost as many bad dates as she's tried hand creams, and deep down, she worries that she isn't attractive enough, and that remaining single will be her "cross to bear." Malone mostly shows and eventually tells her otherwise.

After all this about dialogue, it seems appropriate to mention that this year's Scarlet Boa Contest is all about dialogue:
This year's Scarlet Boa Contest gives you an opportunity to strut your characters' verbal stuff. Put that action into words and let us hear a gem from your story.
More details here.

So, what sort of details make characters come alive for you? Can you think of any examples? And does well-written dialogue play an important part in making you feel that that the characters are "real"?

  • Crusie, Jennifer. "Why I Occasionally Think About Not Writing Romance Any More." North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 1999. 223-225.
  • Hardy Holcomb, Roslyn. Rock Star. Columbus, MS: Genesis, 2006.
  • Higgins, Kristan. Catch of the Day. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 2007.
  • Langhorne, Karyn. A Personal Matter. New York: HarperTorch, 2004.
  • Lovelace, Merline. The Harder They Fall. 2000. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2001.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Didactic Fiction - A Lesson in Submission

I've read a few romances recently which reminded me of Ros Ballaster's distinction between "didactic love fiction" and "erotic fiction." These books were most definitely "didactic love fiction. According to Ros Ballaster
The early eighteenth century [...] saw a split between female-authored pious and didactic love fiction, stressing the virtues of chastity or sentimental marriage, and erotic fiction by women, with its voyeuristic attention to the combined pleasures and ravages of seduction. (33)
For Deborah Lutz
contemporary romance falls under 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. (2)
However, given that Lutz also writes of modern romance that, "Contrary to all expectation, the dangerous subject appears in this form of didactic fiction" (3) it's probably best to think of the genre as one which exists along a spectrum, from the most didactic, which endeavour to teach the reader what to look for in a potential spouse, and how to achieve a happy marriage, to those in which the focus is really on the "combined pleasures and ravages of seduction" and in which the genre's promised "happy ever after," if it takes the form of marriage between the protagonists, may be less than convincing.

Some of the books I've been reading lately are vintage Harlequin/Mills & Boons and it's interesting to see the advice handed out by the ones which are at the "didactic love fiction" end of the spectrum.

In Jill Christian's The Tender Bond the heroine, Pamela Jane, has realised that she has feelings for both Dominic and his half-brother, Martin. She's engaged to the latter, but
He did not stir her to tingling excitement as Dominic did. Dominic roused in her the instinct to surrender, to give herself body and soul into the hands of a lord and master. He would dominate her, and there would always be a certain awe in her love, a desire for meek obedience. She would never, never win the upper hand with him.
Martin would never seek to dominate her. She would be the tender wife-mother to him; she would guide and shape both their lives, and he would let her mold him into the pattern she wanted. He would come to her for comfort and courage, and she would kiss him gently and send him out into the world strong again.
Which was it to be? Wife-mother, queen of her home, the comforter, the lady; in the old meaning, the loaf maker? [scroll down this page a little to see the derivation of the term "loaf maker"] Or the wife by capture, the weaker vessel, her husband always in the ascendant; a man to love, honor and obey?
One could not obey if one did not honor. Was the reverse true also, that one could not honor if one did not obey? (157)
Christian's novel was first published in 1961, and the edition I read was published in 1981. Between these years Dobash and Dobash wrote that:
"Love, honour and obey", the phrase is now often deleted from the marriage vows, but still stands as confirmation of the fact that the woman enters into the state of marriage in a secondary, subservient position. This omission may reflect the current concern about the position of women in marriage and society, but it does not reflect a change in the reality of married life. The omission is a bow to the trendy new cause called 'women', but it is a superficial, cosmetic patch which has been placed upon the institution of marriage. An institution which has been blemished for centuries by a patriarchal structure and a hierarchal ideology which has institutionalized the subservience of one half of the population and deified and enshrined that relationship to such an extent that it is almost beyond question or scrutiny.
"Love, honour and obey" is the lot of women in marriage. Care for him, look up to him and do as he wishes - or else. Implied in that vow is the threat of rightful control over those who fail to obey; control may take the form of coercion. Thus, foundations of wife battering are written into the marriage contract. (403)
As Lutz observed, didactic romance "attempts to represent a moral way of living [...] (depending on what constitutes the 'morals' of the particular time period in question)" (2), but even in any "particular time period" there are likely to be starkly contrasting moral opinions.

The passage I quoted from Christian's novel is one I found interesting because of the evidence it offers about attitudes towards femininity and masculinity. It is pretty clear from this and other parts of the novel that Christian believes women should both "love, honour and obey" their husbands and have maternal instincts. Pamela Jane's initial preference for Martin is explained by reference to these maternal instincts:
Up to this hour, the strongly marked maternal side of her nature had ruled her life. The instinct to serve, tend and heal had led her into nursing [...] Martin's dependence made an irresistible appeal to an instinct highly developed and active. To progress from nurse-mother to wife-mother was but a natural step, and one she could have taken with happiness if tonight had not happened.
She had not even suspected the existence of another woman within the kernel of her personality. A woman whose instinct was for a man of power, stronger in mind, body and character, a ruler, a king to whom she could submit joyfully.
Dominic had held out a hand to that other woman, wakened her and led her forth, like a king plucking a beggar-maid from the crowd. [...]
The words of the stately old prayer book came to her mind. "To love and to cherish." That was the man's promise. "Wilt thou obey and serve him, love, honor and keep him?" That was the woman.
Those old churchmen knew human nature through and through. They understood it long before psychology was thought of. They knew a man in love would want to cherish, that a woman in love needed to obey.
But they'd overlooked one thing, those men of old time. That not all human creatures have the same needs, the same nature. Sometimes it is the woman whose love is fulfilled by the promise to love and to cherish. There were men who needed to lose themselves in the strength a woman possesses, to love and to honor, serve and obey as a man obeys his queen. (157-8)
Dominic hopes and prays that "she would see for herself that a complete, truly feminine woman, with all the complex needs of her perfect body and lovely mind, cannot be satisfied forever by a perpetual child" (159).

The impasse is broken due to the scheming of Isabel, who wants Martin for herself. Isabel explains that
" [...] Martin will never be more than a big handsome schoolboy. His wife will have to be the man about the house, make all the big decisions, carry all the final responsibility. [...] You're an ordinary girl; you've got ordinary desires, ordinary needs and feelings. Martin's type wouldn't satisfy you six months. [...] I'm not an ordinary woman. I'll never be a little, adoring wife. [...] At my wedding there'll be no such words as 'obey.' In the old days, I could have been a queen." She smiled as if seeing a picture of herself, a cruelly satisfied expression that reminded Pamela of a fed tiger in a zoo. "I should glory in possessing and ruling Martin, and he'd glory in obeying."
Pamela shuddered. "It's horrible, like the spider and the fly."
"A lot of insects eat their husbands. I don't find that disgusting. I find it interesting. [...]" (176-77)
[Isabel] " [...] Can't you see - I'm concerned for him! I love him."
[Pamela] "Love? It sounds more like hatred."
[Isabel] "You wouldn't understand. What do you know of a love that will compel, use force to get what it wants? [...] I can make him eat and like the food that's best for him. He'll thank me in the end."
[Pamela] "You can't force a man to love you."
[Isabel] "Martin will love me because I do force him. He'll love me because I'm strong and completely ruthless [...]" (177-8)
Pamela recognises that
It is true, what Isabel says. He is a handsome boy and I love him as a boy, but that isn't enough to last us through the long years. [...] She is cleverer than I thought, that Isabel. It's she who has the eternal fountain to offer him, with her strange, possessive - and to me, terrible - love. She was right to be concerned about his future with me. (180-81)
In her acknowledgement that Isabel is right, and that "not all human creatures have the same needs, the same nature," Jill Christian may be showing some tolerance for individuals like Isabel and Martin but it's nonetheless the case that female dominance and male submission are depicted as reversing gender roles in an unnatural (not "ordinary") manner that seems repellent and "terrible" to "ordinary" people. The submissive man is described as less than a real man: he is a "boy". The submissive woman and dominant male, on the other hand, are considered to be the norm.

In addition, the dichotomy between dominance and submission within marriage leaves no space for equality. Christian does allow for the possibility of very temporary shifts in roles. Pamela Jane, who feels she has "two women" inside her, "the one desiring to uplift and comfort, the other needing to surrender and accept sweet defeat with joy" (170) is going to be given the opportunity to "uplift and comfort": "It came to her that Dominic needed the mother-woman in her perhaps even more than Martin. He, too, was lonely, frustrated and vulnerable; he had his wounds of the spirit" (171). This temporary granting of power to the "feminine" woman is, however, couched not in the language of dominance and submission, but that of service, which is hardly threatening to traditional gender roles.

The authorial commentary on the action and the particular lessons the novel seeks to convey to the reader, may make the didacticism of this particular romance difficult for a 21st century reader to miss, but contemporary romances can also be highly didactic. I'm planning to put up a post about one of them next week. [Edited to add: A few other things have come up, but I promise I will get back to this topic.]