I'll give a bit of background first. Jessica had been asking for recommendations and one commenter suggested she might like to read Loreth Anne White's Seducing the Mercenary. I responded by commenting that
Having read the reviews [...] I wonder if there’s any exploration in the novel of the underlying political situation and whether the US’s involvement constitutes neo-imperialism. The situation, as described in one review, is as follows: “It is up to Emily [the heroine] to determine whether Jean-Charles [Laroque, who's the hero], a former mercenary who arrived in Ubasi [a fictional African state] a year earlier and ousted the dictator, should be captured or assassinated” and Emily “is working with the United States to bring the former dictator back into power, and it will be Emily’s profile that decides what needs to be done with Laroque.”RfP, who had read the novel, responded that
I’d venture to guess that the answer is overall no, or perhaps mixed. It’s a complicated setup for such a short book, so most of it doesn’t get explored. [...]First of all, the reference to science fiction reminded me of Lois McMaster Bujold's speech about science fiction romance (which I came across via a post at the Smart Bitches):
In terms of politics, I’m sorry to laugh, but I do a bit when I try to imagine a Silhouette exploring “the underlying political situation and whether the US’s involvement constitutes neo-imperialism” in much depth. Mind you, the heroine isn’t a conscienceless drone, and I appreciate seeing a romance heroine in such a significant position, but there’s not a lot of space for a twist that deeply questions the initial premise. [...]
Do you disagree with my skepticism on category romance tackling this scale of political theme? I tend to expect that in science fiction more than in romance; and within romance, I expect more in that regard (though I often don’t get it) when I read single-title (i.e. longer) romantic suspense and historicals. Have I missed out on an interesting trend since I don’t read much category romance these days?
There are indeed problems for this Odd Couple partnership between SF and Romance, but subtly not, or not only, the ones I necessarily thought. I certainly learned some lessons about how genre boundaries are maintained not only by publishers but by their readerships. [...]I'd tend to agree with Bujold's view of the relationship between the personal and the political, because I see the personal (in romances this is primarily the romantic relationship) as taking place in a social, and therefore political (in the broadest sense, not party political) context.
I was more surprised to learn something new to me about fantasy and science fiction -- which is how profoundly, intensely, relentlessly political most of the stories in these genres are. The politics may be archaic or modern, fringe or realistic, naive or subtle, optimistic or dire, but by gum the characters had better be centrally engaged with them, for some extremely varied values of "engaged". Even the world-building itself is often a political argument. [...]
Romance and SF seemed to occupy two different focal planes [...]. For any plot to stay central, nothing else in the book can be allowed to be more important. So romance books carefully control the scope of any attending plot, so as not to overshadow its central concern, that of building a relationship between the key couple, one that will stand the test of time and be, in whatever sense, fruitful. This also explains some SF's addiction to various end-of-the-world plots, for surely nothing could be more important than that, which conveniently allows the book to dismiss all other possible concerns, social, personal, or other. (Nice card trick, that, but now I've seen it slipped up the sleeve I don't think it'll work on me anymore.)
In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency. All three genres also may embody themes of personal psychological empowerment, of course, though often very different in the details, as contrasted by the way the heroines "win" in romances, the way detectives "win" in mysteries, and the way, say, young male characters "win" in adventure tales. [...]
So the two genres -- Romance and SF -- would seem to be arm-wrestling about the relative importance of the personal and the political. [...]
So: is the personal political? It does explain the edginess of the mutual rejection between the communities of taste of SF and Romance -- each is in effect rejecting the others' judgment of what is the most important aspect of the world, which naturally gets danders up. My own view is that the political sits atop the personal as upon a disregarded foundation; the concerns of higher status could not even begin to exist without a hell of a lot of unsung and often unpaid or underpaid work being done, and not just by women, to keep the real world running. To even acknowledge the debt would be to court bankruptcy, so it is carefully ignored.
Although RfP's probably right that political issues aren't generally tackled in any depth in romances, that doesn't stop me reading between the lines of the romance in order to catch glimpses of the political. And then there are the romances which, like White's novel, include situations or comments which are quite overtly political, even if the author doesn't explore the politics in much detail. I'm certainly not the only person to notice the politics in some romances. C. J. D. Duder notes that "The study of popular imperialism, how the British Empire was represented to the British people, is now popular among historians" (427). Duder's focus is on Kenya and "It was just as the political battles over white settlement in Kenya were heating up that a minor literary phenomenon, popularly known as the 'Kenya Novel,' began to appear in British bookstores. This was a variety of that much despised popular literary genre, Romantic Fiction" (428). Duder identifies these novels as having had an "immense, if indirect, propaganda value [...] to the position of white settlement in the Colony" (431) because
Riddell and Strange used their novels as a means of presenting the white settler view of Kenya to British readers. The settlers themselves, whatever their personal failings, are collectively responsible for the railways, roads, hospitals and schools, progress in other words, which the twentieth century has brought to Africa. They are the civilization in the Dark Continent. (432)But what of more recent romances? To what extent can and do they include politics? Melissa James has written that the inspiration for one of her novels, Her Galahad (a Silhouette Intimate Moments, reviewed here), was
My university course in Aboriginal History in 1999. I read about the Stolen Generation, ‘half-caste’ children forcibly taken from their parents and either illegally adopted out or sent to orphanages to become Anglicized in culture. I was shocked at the extent to which the governments of the day were willing to go to do this. Such as giving the kids fake death certificates for their parents so they wouldn’t return to their homes. Such as imprisoning the parents on fake charges to get them out of the way. I had to write about it, using all those ideas plus other truths that my abuse counselor mother gave to me, to show just how life is for many who are perceived as “different” in society – and the last documented case of this kind was in 1987, so it wasn’t that long ago.Another Silhouette Intimate Moments romance which devotes a sizeable (by romance standards) amount of attention to politics is Suzanne Brockmann's Get Lucky. Lucky, the hero, is asked by the heroine why he decided to join the SEALs (151) and he points to a photo and says "This [...] is Isidro Ramos. He's why I joined the SEALs" (152). He goes on to explain that his mother
started working full time for a refugee center. This was back when people were leaving Central America in droves. That's where she met Isidro - at the center. [...] Isidro later told me he'd been out trading for gasoline on the black market, and when he came home, his entire town had been burned and everyone - men, women and children, even infants - had been massacred. (154)and
"[...] I used to go with him to meetings where he would tell about these horrible human rights violations he'd witnessed in his home country. The things he saw, [...] the things he could bear witness to ..." He shook his head. "He told me to value my freedom as an American above all else. Every day he reminded me that I lived in a land of freedom, every day we'd hang an American flag outside our house. He used to tell me that he could go to sleep at night and be certain that no one would break into our house and tear us from our beds. No one would drag us into the street and put bullets in our heads simply for something we believed in. Because of him, I learned to value the freedom that most Americans take for granted. [...] I joined the Navy - the SEAL teams in particular - because I wanted to give something back. I wanted to be part of making sure we remained the land of the free and the home of the brave. [...]"(157-58)What I think is happening here (and was also happening in Betina Krahn's The Book of True Desires, which I looked at a while ago) is that the novel is contributing to the construction of, or reinforcing an existing model of, American identity. That's a deeply political project. In this particular case I found it impossible not to think about alternative views of American history in relation to Latin America which were left unspoken by the hero and unwritten about by the author. Greg Grandin has observed that
After World War II, in the name of containing Communism, the United States, mostly through the actions of local allies, executed or encouraged coups in, among other places, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina and patronized a brutal mercenary war in Nicaragua. Latin America became a laboratory for counterinsurgency, as military officials and covert operators applied insights learned in the region to Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. By the end of the Cold War, Latin American security forces trained, funded, equipped, and incited by Washington had executed a reign of bloody terror -- hundreds of thousands killed, an equal number tortured, millions driven into exile -- from which the region has yet to fully recover. (4)As I suggested earlier, sometimes, at least for a reader like me, the politics seeps out from between the lines of a romance, and at others it moves quite directly into view, making its presence felt much more acutely.
Have any of you come across examples of romances, particularly category romances, where politics stepped out from behind the central relationship and captured your attention?
- Brockmann, Suzanne. Get Lucky. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2000.
- Duder, C. J. D. “Love and the Lions: The Image of White Settlement in Kenya in Popular Fiction, 1919-1939.” African Affairs 90.360 (1991): 427-38.
- Grandin, Greg. Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. Macmillan, 2007.
The pictures are of "The 'Glasses Apostle' in the altarpiece of the church of Bad Wildungen (Germany). Painted by Conrad von Soest in 1403, the 'Glasses Apostle' is considered the oldest depiction of eyeglasses north of the Alps" (from Wikimedia Commons) and Franz Eybl's "Lesendes Mädchen," (also from Wikimedia Commons). In my journey around Wikimedia Commons I also came across the cover of this comic book, and as it probably embodies many readers' ideas about the worst possible fusion of science fiction and romance, I couldn't resist including it too. Its title is Rocket to the Moon and the description reads "Could Ted Dustin, rocket explorer, and Maza, beautiful princess of Lunar, stem the powerful hordes of Green Monsters who sought to conquer the world?"