Sunday, January 04, 2009

More on Politics and Romance

I've written about politics and romance before, particularly here but also in two separate posts about individual romances. I'm returning to the topic because RfP asked me a question elsewhere which (a) would be difficult to respond to in a short space there and (b) which I thought perhaps some readers of TMT could help me answer.

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. [...]

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?
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):

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 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.
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.

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?




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 M├Ądchen," (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?"

15 comments:

  1. Alicia Scott (aka current best-selling author Lisa Gardner) wrote SIMs about dark subjects. One of the first I read was Walking After Midnight, which was about runaways, and the heroine was, I think, a former child prostitute.

    Re Suz: The books that focused on Mary Lou and Ibrahim and the prejudice against Arabs come to mind. Not category, though.

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  2. Thanks for that, Wendy. I haven't come across any romances by Alicia Scott, but I suppose that's not so surprising, given that she only wrote 13 for Silhouette.

    I found a list of them at the Romance Wiki. I also found a review of her last one, Marrying Mike ... Again, at The Romance Reader and it's obviously a romance with a fairly overt dose of politics in it:

    The police department in the small industrial city of Alexandria is in deep trouble. Corruption, nepotism and an abysmal relationship with the city’s minority population have led to the dismissal of the police chief. With faith in the department at an all-time low ebb, the mayor has no choice but to hire an outsider to shape up his police force. And what an outsider! Sandra Aikens may be a member of one of the city’s leading families; she may have successfully run her family’s security firm. But she’s a civilian and a woman! No wonder she is greeted by a nameplate that reads b**ch on her first day. [...]

    Marrying Mike...Again is [...] a compelling examination of the fissures between rich and poor, black and white, that so trouble our society. That Scott can pack all this into 250 pages is a testament of her skill as a writer.

    I didn't look for reviews of all the others, but from what you and the TRR reviewer have said, it seems as though Alicia Scott's novels would be a good place to look for romances which deal with politics.

    the prejudice against Arabs

    That brings to mind an interesting issue about the genre. There are so many romance novels which don't address this, despite featuring a hero who's a sheik. Like romances about pirates, they seem to be more about a particular kind of fantasy than an attempt to explore cultural differences, prejudice etc. On the other hand, the very fact that they're so obviously trying to avoid politics perhaps invites a politically-minded reader to read between the lines and speculate about what's not being said, why its not being said, and how that relates to the appeal of these novels.

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  3. Thanks so much for the detailed answer, Laura.

    As you know, I do think romance is often political--both overtly and otherwise--and I don't even cavil at the idea that category romance can set forth a political agenda at the level of the line, e.g. as you've discussed here, on capitalism and romantic love. I also agree that national identity is an important theme in romance. I think ideas of national character are inextricably part of some of the British-girl-abroad strain of Hqn/M&B Presents, some of the Australian and New Zealander "Presents Down Under"s I read in the '90s, and some of the Americana romances I've run across more recently. It's present in all varieties of romance; e.g. Loretta Chase's Your Scandalous Ways makes frequent reference to national character: Italians are passionate, Englishmen are cold fish, etc.

    However, while you say you read those statements as "construction of, or reinforcing an existing model of, American [and, I would say, several English-speaking nations'] identity", I tend to think of them more in the other direction. When I read *isolated* political statements in romances (and they often are isolated, without much sustained attention), I read them much as I do a brand name or a description that conflates character with physique: as relying on a particular view of national identity as a form of shorthand to character development. I appreciate you making me consider them in a different light; I wonder how much of the difference in our perspectives is about authorial intent and how much is about novels' function in exporting culture.

    I haven't read Brockmann's category romances forever, but Lucky's monologue demonstrates that they're a great example of romantic suspense delving into overtly political territory. You probably remember them much better than I do, but my reaction from reading a couple a *long* time ago is that I wouldn't hold them up as an example of addressing the subject in depth. I remember being bothered by the combination of simplistic politics and desert fantasy in Prince Joe, though I was much younger and can't guarantee I'd have the same reaction today. I may be misremembering why I reacted that way, though I clearly recall the way I felt at the time. I'm not sure I read any more of her categories after that one, though I haven't reacted so strongly to her single-title romances.

    Overall, I think my view is similar to the Macleans article I quoted last year:
    "Sometimes... the serious plots are too intense for their format. A recent book featured the European sex trade, physical abuse, pornography and the hero's prostitute sister beaten to death by the heroine's father. The mandatory happy ending after 187 pages felt anything but romantic."

    I think the short length *is* one reason category romance is prone to being read as political propaganda. However, I think the wish for an ultra-happy ending is an even stronger driver. It's rare in romance to find an equivocal ending or a sense of failure, and often the protagonists find personal happiness alongside a larger social justice; they aren't simply characters but heroic ones. (I think urban fantasy and science fiction romance series are more likely to leave the world a mess.) So, while many romances hinge on a realization that things aren't as they seem (romantically or in the external plot), that's typically resolved in a fairly concrete and triumphal way. Too many twists or too much politics, and the happily-ever-after is in question; and furthermore, readers call the novel a non-romance (as happens to both Brockmann and JD Robb books).

    In addition, length and perfectly happy endings aren't the reason for the views expressed by the characters, e.g. in the Brockmann novel. That quote reminds me of the conflicting views expressed on the news by U.S. servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; their (reported, soundbite-sized) experiences seem to range from "we're helping; we need to do more" to "we're occupiers; get us out of there". It's difficult to synthesize, in part because of the medium. My feelings on short, emotional news pieces like that are similar to my feelings on romance novels tackling huge issues with a "sizeable (by romance standards) amount of attention to politics": I think much of the time it's well intentioned, but how often does that brief treatment really suffice? That's a problem even in tackling individual-scale issues such as vaginismus (back to the Macleans article), let alone a topic like child trafficking, for which there isn't much need to make a supporting counterargument. The brief treatment's all the more problematic for a larger issue with multiple viewpoints and complicated history.

    BTW, in terms of my actual comment on RRR, I'd like to point out that the quotes are missing the bits where I said I *do* think the book can be read with a subversive subtext. Also, remember that I didn't actually finish the book (though it wasn't a dreaded "DNF"). If it ended with a political statement, I'd have missed it.

    BTotherW, have you read Kathleen Thompson Norris' Beauty and the Beast (1928)? It's full of overtly didactic messages about national character and romantic love. It's appalling; I chortle at something on nearly every page.

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  4. Thanks so much for the detailed answer, Laura.

    Thank you for asking inspiring questions (and for the detailed comment you've just written).

    When I read *isolated* political statements in romances (and they often are isolated, without much sustained attention), I read them much as I do a brand name or a description that conflates character with physique: as relying on a particular view of national identity as a form of shorthand to character development. I appreciate you making me consider them in a different light; I wonder how much of the difference in our perspectives is about authorial intent and how much is about novels' function in exporting culture.

    At some times there perhaps has been direct authorial intent to export culture. I'm thinking of Mills & Boon romances which encouraged readers in the UK to think about emigration to the colonies. I'm not sure how usual it is, though, in general nowadays, for authors to think about their many possible markets.

    I suppose my reading of the Brockmann is an instance of what happens when a novel is exported to a reader who isn't one of the "intended readers" and the "shorthands" you mention start to be questioned or interpreted differently from how the author intended. This can happen because of a distance of time as well as of place or culture, of course. Your description of Kathleen Thompson Norris's novel (which I haven't read) seems like an example of a novel which is full of shorthands which would have been absorbed without much questioning by the intended audience at the time it was written, but which we now read rather differently.

    Anyway, my feeling is that novels which rely on "shorthands" do reinforce them, at least among the intended readership. Whether it's literal brand-name goods which are almost being advertised in the novel (and thus are validated as desirable e.g. chick lit heroines who talk about their Manolos) or novels which describe the heroine's beauty routine (and thus reinforce the beauty myth) or shorthands of the kind we're discussing here, about national characteristics.

    my reaction from reading a couple a *long* time ago is that I wouldn't hold them up as an example of addressing the subject in depth.

    Oh no, I wouldn't either: "at length" isn't the same as "in depth." The discussion does cover quite a few pages and Brockmann seems here to be a lot more explicit about her political assumptions than many other authors.

    I think the short length *is* one reason category romance is prone to being read as political propaganda

    That, and perhaps the lack of nuance? Or at least, the perceived lack of nuance? Propaganda tends to rely on "shorthands" too, rather than really going into subjects "in depth." At least, that's my impression of propaganda. I do think, though, that sometimes the subtleties and contradictions present in romances can be missed. Julie Bindel, who made that comment about M&Bs being "propaganda," certainly didn't have a very nuanced or in depth view of them herself.

    Too many twists or too much politics, and the happily-ever-after is in question

    Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose that for me, the happy ending's already in question if it's based on racial, class or other sorts of exploitation, but even I manage to suspend my political disbelief while reading romances, most of the time. If I couldn't, there's no way I could make it through even a single Heyer.

    I think much of the time it's well intentioned, but how often does that brief treatment really suffice?

    Given that even some very long treatments of this kind of subject might not suffice, I can acknowledge the lack of depth while still appreciating the intentions. But I have come across a few romances, mostly historicals, where the politics of class did play more of a role throughout the novel and did, therefore, seem to me to be explored in more depth than in the Brockmann example I quoted here.

    BTW, in terms of my actual comment on RRR, I'd like to point out that [...]

    I know. Sorry if I wasn't clear enough. The blog post was in danger of getting very long so I felt I had to cut things somewhere. I did link to the discussion, though, so I thought that if people were interested in reading your thoughts in full and in context, they'd be able to follow the link.

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  5. I think category romance has a stronger fantasy element as well. Not that longer books don't, but when a Harlequin Presents tackles a tough issue (drug abuse, vaginismus-sp?-, or politics), we notice because it's unusual. The shorter format plays a part, but the purpose of the category novel is less to inform and more to entertain.

    I also assume it's hard to address political issues without getting didactic. In any format.

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  6. The point about pop culture now being popular among British historians is very true. If you had told me 15 years ago that my spouse's latest book would have a chapter on dance hall songs in late 19th century London I would have plotzed!

    I also agree with both of you (RfP and Laura) that political messages may be overt or implied. I am also very sensitive to the way "political" is being defined -- or not -- here. What counts for you as "political" and why?

    Someone whose work I admire (because he is always trying to question the division between art and everyday life), David Novitz, offers a fascinating example of how political messages are conveyed in all sorts of ways in art. The example he uses is of an interracial romance! Pardon the long quote (and feel free to cut it Laura):

    David Novitz, "Messages In and Messages Through Art", Australasian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 73, No. 2; June 1995

    "During the heyday of apartheid, the Afrikaner novelist Andre Brink wrote the novel
    Kennis van die Aand (later translated as Looking on Darkness). In it Brink portrayed
    a romantic relationship between a white man and a woman of colour, and he did so with delicacy and insight. The then South African government, the self-proclaimed
    guardian of Afrikaner culture, banned the novel.

    Brink did not deny that his novel contained a clear message. On the contrary, he hoped, by means of it, to bring Afrikaners to the view that romantic relationships
    between black and white South Africans could be as beautiful, as open, and as unexploitative
    as any relationship conducted within the bounds of colour. His aim, in part, was to undermine prevailing racial attitudes in South Africa.

    However, since Afrikaners (through their Government) had effectively declined to read and to attempt to understand his work, Brink responded in a curiously
    unusual way. He refused thereafter to contribute to Afrikaans literature. He chose instead to write in English. There is no doubt that Brink did this deliberately. He wanted each of his future English novels to stand as a rebuke to a Government that,
    despite its pretensions, was effectively destroying Afrikaner culture. The message
    to all Afrikaners was clear.
    There are, however, two things to notice about this message. The first is that it does not properly attach to, and cannot be derived from, the content of any of his later English novels - that is, from their various plots and themes. As a result, it is
    difficult to think of it as a message in art, for it is a message that novels as diverse as
    A Dry White Season, States of Emergency, The Wall of the Plague, and A Chain of Voices all share. This suggests that some of the messages conveyed by works of art are not to be found in the artworks themselves. They are messages conveyed by means of art, and are what I shall call messages through art.

    A second point to notice about the shared message of Brink's English-language novels is that it can properly be isolated as a message even if it was not intended or
    even believed by Brink. "

    Sorry for the length, but I think it demonstrates how complicated at least one aspect of this issue is.

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  7. the purpose of the category novel is less to inform and more to entertain.

    I've read in Radway, but also in other books/articles about romance readers (though unfortunately I can't remember exactly which ones) that some readers said they liked reading romances because they felt they learned lots of useful things by reading them e.g. details about exotic locations, history. Radway did her work a long time ago, so perhaps few readers would say that kind of thing nowadays. I really don't know. Although I personally would admit to learning things from romances. I'm sure I finally remembered/learned the ABC (airways, breathing, circulation) of first aid thanks to a M&B Medical romance, for instance.

    I'd agree that some lines are more likely to touch on difficult issues than others, and some do seem to have more of a "fantasy" element than others. It actually says in the guidelines for the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern line that "these fast-paced stories are essentially escapist romantic fantasies."

    I am also very sensitive to the way "political" is being defined -- or not -- here. What counts for you as "political" and why?

    That sounds suspiciously like an essay question, Jessica! ;-) I could say I was being deliberately vague, to encourage discussion but it would be more truthful to admit that I hadn't precisely thought it through. I do have a fairly wide concept of what's "political." What we eat and wear, for example, have political aspects to them because of how it ties us to the world capitalist system. Then there are issues of fair trade, sustainable development, environmental pollution etc.

    How would you define it?

    Pardon the long quote (and feel free to cut it Laura)

    I can't edit people's comments. I can delete them in their entirety, but not edit, which I think is probably for the best because if Blogger allowed for editing by blog owners/admins, some of us might abuse that power and significantly alter the meaning of people's comments.

    In any case I wouldn't want to edit that quote. It was very interesting.

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  8. I think the reason most of Brockmann's SEALs become SEALs are overtly political. Harvard, from Harvard's Education not only becomes a SEAL instead of an english professor, he stays enlisted rather than jumping to officer, because of being harassed for "walking while black." He's the one I remember explicitly, but they're all pretty much like this, one way or another. Her duology, Freedom's Price and....the one that goes with it, are about Central American wars. Ditto Letters to Kelly, in which the hero is saved from his Central American prison by Amnesty International letters.

    I know I've read other overtly political categories, but it's been a while and hers are the ones I've read most recently.

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  9. Laura,

    I am doing syllabi right now, so maybe I am in professor mode, but I tend to see everything as political, or at least about power.

    Also, Sookie Stackhouse credits genre fiction (mystery and romance, I think) for much of her knowledge base!

    That's interesting about Blogger. I like the CONTROL Wordpress gives me, although I've never used it.

    You know, this is a O/T, but I started researching Radway a bit and it looks like the city she claims as her research locus cannot exist, when compared to the US census for the time. Isn't that weird? I wonder what the status is of her research today: are her conclusions still considered valid, even within her own framework?

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  10. I never said readers don't or can't learn from category romance novels. I've learned plenty from reading them. And not all of it when I was 11, LOL.

    I did say the purpose is more to entertain, and I stand by that. In fact, I'm proud of it. Does a book have to teach a lesson to be worth reading?

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  11. I wrote a blog not long ago about The Two Dukes of Wyndham which brought up for me issues of class and rulership and how they should be approached and dealt with in the romance genre. Too often I think that the aristocracy and its attendant political and social ramifications are glossed over because titles are glamorous. And yet, the glamor is the very aspect of the romance that I find most appealing. I tend to read historicals the most, possibly because the history acts in those books the way magic does in fantasy, as a glamor that both defamiliarizes the usual horrors while at the same time making them more distinct and easier to see. This is why I don't care about historical accuracy much. I am more interested in the way that history is viewed not in the way that it was and what it says about how we live now.

    I think that romance is political in the same way certain types of fantasy are political. This is a distinction from science fiction which in my reading experience tends to edge on dystopian/utopian narratives. That is, romance doesn't approach the political directly, the political is hidden. Unless the society is itself in upheaval most people experience the political only as a tangent to their own everyday concerns. Even in revolutions this is true because then it becomes a question of individual survival. In any case, just the fact that historicals are awash in Dukes and Governesses means that they are political because they deal with class, whether it is a class of economics or a class of gender. I'm not sure if it is the themes of genre that distinguish them but rather the solutions that the proffer.

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  12. I think the reason most of Brockmann's SEALs become SEALs are overtly political.

    Thanks for clarifying this, Sarah.

    Harvard, from Harvard's Education not only becomes a SEAL instead of an english professor, he stays enlisted rather than jumping to officer, because of being harassed for "walking while black."

    I've read that one too, and I have to say that I really didn't understand the logic behind Harvard's decision. Then again, it's not as though I can really understand why someone would want to become a SEAL (the training process sounds horrible, just for a start, and that's before active duty even starts) so it's perhaps not that surprising that I wouldn't fully understand his reasoning on the whole issue of his job, unless it were explained at even more length. However, it wouldn't have made any sense for Brockmann to have included that kind of detailed explanation in the book, because the heroine has a similar job so she'd understand that side of things already, as would all of his fellow SEALs.

    I started researching Radway a bit and it looks like the city she claims as her research locus cannot exist, when compared to the US census for the time. Isn't that weird?

    From what I can gather, "Smithton" is a pseudonym she gave to the town in which she gathered the data. It seemed a bit weird to give a town a pseudonym, but I don't do anthropology or sociology, so maybe it's not uncommon in those disciplines? Or are you saying that there's no town in the general area she mentions, with the characteristics she describes, at the time she says she visited? That would be very, very weird.

    I wonder what the status is of her research today: are her conclusions still considered valid, even within her own framework?

    Some of her conclusions seemed to be an adaptation of one of Nancy Chodorow's theories. It says on Wikipedia (which I know isn't always entirely reliable) that Chodorow

    is widely considered the leading psychoanalytic feminist theorist and is a member of the International Psychoanalytical Association, often speaking at its Congresses. She spent many years as a professor in the departments of sociology and clinical psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Chodorow sees gender differences as compromise formations of the Oedipal complex.


    Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering, like Radway's book, was republished in a new edition. The blurb for the new edition of The Reproduction of Mothering (which is, of course, designed to sell the book) says that:

    When this best-seller was published, it put the mother-daughter relationship and female psychology on the map. The Reproduction of Mothering was chosen by Contemporary Sociology as one of the ten most influential books of the past twenty-five years. With a new preface by the author, this updated edition is testament to the formative effect that Nancy Chodorow's work continues to exert on psychoanalysis, social science, and the humanities.

    I get the impression that both Chodorow and Radway's work are still considered valid and important by many. That said, my impression is that a fair number of people currently doing research on romance have got concerns about Radway's conclusions about the genre. Even if one leaves to one side the psychological conclusions she reaches about readers, it's not unproblematic that she drew conclusions about a massive genre on the basis of a very small sample of readers and novels.

    I did say the purpose is more to entertain, and I stand by that. In fact, I'm proud of it. Does a book have to teach a lesson to be worth reading?

    But what happens when someone's "entertained"? There are probably a whole range of conscious and subconscious effects that a book can have on us while it "entertains." And don't the most entertaining books have some emotional effect on us?

    Whether or not you'd call that "a lesson" I don't know. In many circumstances I think I would.

    Also, the effect any book has is very much dependent on each reader and her/his personal response. Even the most didactic of non-fiction texts might not teach anything at all to a distracted reader. I know I've read some non-fiction which seemed to only have the effect of making me feel sleepy ;-)

    Conversely, something that one reader dismisses as "fluff" might be deeply moving for another reader and might have a life-changing effect on them.

    I wrote a blog not long ago about The Two Dukes of Wyndham

    Do you mean this post?

    Too often I think that the aristocracy and its attendant political and social ramifications are glossed over because titles are glamorous. And yet, the glamor is the very aspect of the romance that I find most appealing. I tend to read historicals the most, possibly because the history acts in those books the way magic does in fantasy, as a glamor that both defamiliarizes the usual horrors while at the same time making them more distinct and easier to see.

    That's interesting, because I don't think I find glamour particularly appealing. Having a story set in the past does, though, make certain political attitudes a little more palatable for me, inasmuch as I can ascribe them to the mentality of their times. As you say, the historicals often say as much or more about how we live now, but at least while reading a historical I can temporarily pretend that isn't the case. However, if I disagree with the characters' attitudes and views in a contemporary, I can't make that excuse for them so I'm forced to think "this hero/heroine and I would have a flaming row with if we ever met." That doesn't necessarily stop me enjoying the book, but it does make my relationship with the text a little different.

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  13. Jill wrote: "I did say the purpose is more to entertain, and I stand by that. In fact, I'm proud of it. Does a book have to teach a lesson to be worth reading?"

    I see a big difference between "teaching" in the narrower sense, and "being political" or "containing messages". "Teaching" is a very specific practice, or set of practices, with a specific intention (or set of intentions), goals and methods.

    Didactic literature, like children's books with moral lessons, which attempt to "Teach" in this way, are not so much fun, and they often do not even succeed on literary grounds.

    But I can take anything, even a pile of dirt, and think about it, and learn something from it. This doesn't mean the pile of dirt is teaching me anything in the narrower sense.

    Angela wrote: "I tend to read historicals the most, possibly because the history acts in those books the way magic does in fantasy, as a glamor that both defamiliarizes the usual horrors while at the same time making them more distinct and easier to see."

    This is really a very helpful way to put this -- I never thought of the history in historicals as like fantasy, but it is, of course.

    Laura write: "Or are you saying that there's no town in the general area she mentions, with the characteristics she describes, at the time she says she visited? That would be very, very weird."

    Yes. It can not exist.

    I know all about Chodorow. If I start down that path I will never stop. suffice to say the heydey of Feminist appropriation and reintrpretation of Freud is over.

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  14. Yes. It can not exist.

    Oh dear. I suppose you could email Janice Radway and ask her.

    I know all about Chodorow. If I start down that path I will never stop. suffice to say the heydey of Feminist appropriation and reintrpretation of Freud is over.

    I didn't know about Chodorow. Still don't know much about her. But I'm glad the "heydey of Feminist appropriation and reintrpretation of Freud is over" because I couldn't make sense of it, particularly as the theory didn't seem to take into account the possibility of stay-at-home fathers or a variety of other child-rearing possibilities. Have you read Modleski's book on romance yet? She adds to Radway's theories derived from Chodorow to make them even more complicated.

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  15. Angela: "I tend to read historicals the most, possibly because the history acts in those books the way magic does in fantasy, as a glamor that both defamiliarizes the usual horrors while at the same time making them more distinct and easier to see."

    That's a nice connection through the word "glamour", with its connection to magical fantasy: to cast a glamour meaning to create a spell, particularly one of illusion or attractiveness. Which is closely connected to what fiction does (and nonfiction too, of course).

    I think romance's versions of history are often more overt in their fantasy aspect than some genres, but I don't in principle have a problem with intermingling history and fiction. I often read dukes and vampires as similar types of unreality. At the same time, I might be more likely to feel I "learned" something about an historical period rather than a paranormal phenomenon, so there may be some inherent difference; but a lot of people believe in paranormal phenomena, so perhaps some readers are more likely to draw "teaching moments" from were fiction than historical fiction.

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