Sunday, June 06, 2010

Links: Obituaries, Shakespeare, Ethics, and Psychology

Both Harlequin Mills & Boon author Elizabeth Oldfield and romance cover artist Pino have recently died.


Laurie E. Osborne has written a number of academic articles on Shakespeare and popular romance (they're listed at the Romance Wiki). There is some overlap between the information contained in them and the information which appears on her Romancing the Bard website, but they're not identical. The site explores the uses of Shakespeare and Shakespearean references in popular romance novels:
In my attention to the ways that romance novelists incorporate Shakespearean texts into their generic requirements, I am implicitly agreeing with recent arguments about the significance of romance novel. Critics like Janice Radway and Carol Thurston cite romance's predominantly female authorship and readership, as well as its economic clout in the book industry as some reasons that cultural critics should attend more closely to its generic features and constructed fantasies. Examining the incorporation of the "patriarchal bard" into these popular novels potentially contributes to the ongoing arguments about whether the romance constitutes a reincorporation of dangerous patriarchal ideologies (as most academic critics seems to argue) or feminine empowerment.

Jessica, of Read, React, Review, has put up part 2 of her series of posts on ethical criticism of genre fiction: "This is a sketch of a project I am working on, and of a paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association conference in April."


Marie-Joelle Estrada's recent PhD thesis seeks to evaluate "romantic actions." It's available online via Duke University Library. In it she mentions that
According to the Romantic Construal Model, people’s judgments of whether a particular act is romantic is determined by three factors: the degree to which the action is (a) personalized (personalization), (b) special (specialness), and (c) conveys that the actor values the relationship (conveyed value). Personalization refers to the extent to which an action is tailored specifically to the receiver’s idiosyncratic personality, interests, preferences, and dislikes. Specialness refers to how “out-of-the-ordinary” the act is, the degree to which the act positively deviates from everyday partner actions. Conveyed value is the degree to which receiver perceives that the act originated from or conveys the actor’s high esteem for the receiver and the relationship. According to the model, higher levels of personalization, specialness, and conveyed value increase the likelihood that a particular expression or behavior will be regarded as romantic. (10-11)
It seems to me that romance novels frequently contain romantic actions which are depicted as personalised and special and which convey "the actor’s high esteem for the receiver and the relationship." In a forthcoming essay, "One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in the Modern Romance Genre," in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric M. Selinger, I've analysed some depictions of rings given to heroines by heroes, and one of the things I noticed about them was the frequent personalisation of these gifts. Furthermore, there were also a few contrasting instances of rings which lacked personalisation, and which were given to heroines by men who were not heroes. The correlation between hero status and personalisation of the ring, and between non-hero status and a lack of personalisation of the ring, accords with Estrada's suggestion that
Personalization [...] symbolizes that the actor cares enough to pay attention to details about a partner’s likes and dislikes (thereby suggesting that he or she is important enough to warrant cataloguing the smallest preferences) and knows the partner well enough to make appropriate behavioral choices. Remembering specific preferences also ensures that the behavior is one that the receiver will like, suggesting that the actor ultimately aims to make the receiver happy. (11)
In Cathy Williams's The Italian's One-Night Love-Child the hero's gift-giving to the heroine is very special (it differs from his usual method of gift-giving) and personalised, both of which facts reveal to the reader (if not, at this point, to the hero) that he considers his relationship with her to be of high value:
Cristiano had never, personally, involved himself in the tedious pastime of buying presents for women. Firstly, he didn't have time to waste dithering in shops, peering at items of jewellery and asking sales assistants for help. Secondly, he could think of nothing more soul-destroying than trying to rack his brains and come up with a suitable present for any woman. No, this was where his faithful PA had always come into her own. A woman buying for another woman. Made sense.
For the past six weeks, however, he had ditched the PA in favour of the personal touch and had found the exercise a lot less arduous than he had expected. In fact ... he had discovered that there was a great deal of enjoyment to be had browsing in the shops for things that would put a smile on Bethany's face. [...] Having made the initial mistake of buying her jewellery, which all women presumably loved, incredibly expensive jewellery with super-watt diamonds, only to find his present politely accepted and then equally politely returned, he had revised his ideas. [...]
'I just bet this is the sort of stuff you're accustomed to giving your girlfriends,' she had shrewdly remarked [...].
Cristiano, who had never failed to rise to a challenge, had become imaginative. (136-37)
This passage also reveals another element often present in romantic gestures:
A potential moderator included in the Romantic Construal Model involves the degree to which the personalization or specialness of the action is seen as requiring effort on the actor’s part [...] even though effort is not essential to romantic construal, greater effort on the actor’s behalf serves to increase the intensity of the action’s impact on the receiver because it implies that the actor cared enough to sacrifice time, effort, or other resources for the receiver. (Estrada 14)
Estrada also mentions that
Social supportive behaviors convey affection indirectly through helpful and caring acts. They include behaviors such as giving compliments, offering financial assistance, doing favors, and accomplishing tasks to help the other person. Although supportive behaviors are indirect, if perceived by the receiver as communicating affection, they can “speak louder than words” and convey positive regard more powerfully than verbal or nonverbal expressions. Although socially supportive behaviors are an important way of communicating affection, recipients may construe supportive behaviors as practical rather than affectionate, or they might not even be noticed by the intended recipient. (3)
As regards such gestures in fictional relationships, Jennifer Crusie has offered the following piece of writing advice:
Cut those romantic declarations you’ve been slaving over, the ones that sound long-winded and dorky no matter how hard you try. Go for the action; the telling gesture is infinitely more effective than telling dialogue.
However, presumably this is only likely to be effective for readers if they recognise the actions as romantic. What happens if the readers "construe supportive behaviors as practical rather than affectionate"? And while it might be effective if the actions are not initially "noticed by the intended recipient" within the novel, it's not likely to be so effective if the readers also skim over the actions without really paying much attention to them. Getting back to real life,
Experts from the University of North Carolina in the US studied how couples behave when responding to nice gestures.

They found that simply doing something for somebody else does not automatically generate feelings of gratitude. Instead, people can feel indebted or not notice the exchange at all, especially if things have become routine.

Yet those who respond in a positive way and show gratitude can expect greater feelings of satisfaction about the relationship. Their partners also feel better, too. (Press Association)
An abstract of the article by Sara B. Algoe, Shelly L. Gable and Natalya C. Maisel can be found here and there's a longer description of its findings here.

Now I'm wondering what an analysis of the "supportive behaviors" in romance novels would show, and whether romances would provide support for the Romantic Construal Model.

The image is of some rosemary, drawn by Francisco Manuel Blanco. It came from Wikimedia Commons. Shakespeare's Ophelia observed, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember." My thanks to Tumperkin, who gave me a copy of The Italian's One-Night Love-Child.


  1. I'm glad you got some interesting things out of the categories I gave you - I thought you might. The Cathy Williams I found interesting because I'd read a few of hers before and this one struck me as very like a Lynne Graham - a read like a change of voice to me. The gift giving part I noticed, appreciated and found romantic for the reasons you identified.

    The Delinsky and the Kendrick you mentioned in the last post you did and I you picked up on the points I thought you might. I rather wondered what you thought of the Kendrick character's weight loss towards the end of the book though.

  2. I rather wondered what you thought of the Kendrick character's weight loss towards the end of the book though.

    There was a discussion at SBTB about sudden weight loss, and SB Sarah was complaining about the way weight loss is often depicted in the genre: "that blithe Magically Thin “Oops! I did it and have no idea how!” weight loss trope bugs the shit out of me." A few people then related their experiences of sudden weight loss, so I wouldn't like to say that it isn't possible, and in the Kendrick there is a reason given for it (i.e. the heroine's psychological insight that being overweight was a defence, and the fact that she was now getting lots of aerobic exercise thanks to her relationship with the hero).

    All the same, I did find it a little unrealistic that the same wedding dress that fit her model-sized sister could fit her. The model-sized sister was presumably taller and much, much thinner. So unless it was a magically expanding dress, I was a little unconvinced the heroine could really have got quite that thin. The other thing was that I felt it was unfortunate that the ending seemed to lead one to conclude that what fat women need is sex, and then they'll get thin and fit in with existing beauty norms (which, in fact, sometimes lead to anorexia). I felt this was unfortunate, not least because if

    1) Some women feel their fat is protective, and it's acknowledged that thin women (i.e. women who fit the beauty standards) are likely to be sexually harassed but it is also the case that
    2) being fat is something that can be "cured" by having sex with a man, doesn't that send out a message that what fat women need is to be sexually harassed until they give in, so that they can become thin?

    In reality, since there were probably not many men who (a) read the book and (b) would take it as encouragement to sexually harass women they perceived to be overweight, these points probably are a bit hypothetical. But that's not the case with ...

    3) There doesn't seem to be much middle ground here between model-thin and obese. But real women come in a whole range of sizes. Is it really helpful to suggest that we all need to get model-thin before we'll look good in a wedding dress?

    I suppose it could be argued that I'm reading too much into the ending. But it's precisely because it's the ending that it shapes my reading of all that went before. And Kendrick, in her letter to the reader, does seem to express some anxiety about her own size in relation to her own wedding dress:

    We were flat broke when we got married, and the only way to guarantee a show-stopping dress was to have it made for me (refusing to accept that my curvy shape looked nothing like the supermodel on the front of the pattern!). So I bought slippery satin and filmy organza and the dress was made, and ...

    And I looked like a whale!

    Two weeks before the ceremony, I had to rush out and buy a replacement dress. Luckily, I found one

    So it's difficult for me not to think that the book is, in a way, rewriting that experience, so that the bride does get supermodel-thin enough to wear the dress she really wants and which will be "show-stopping." Which brings me back to (3).

  3. You're much more generous and less judgmental than me. I hated the way Kendrick represented her heroine's weight loss. To me, the 'hiding behind her fat' comments were facile and the weight loss towards the end both associated weight loss with happy ending and with successful love-life. I too noticed the author's note and felt it was a plain case of wish-fulfilment/fantasy.

    On reflection, weight issues in romance novels do seem to provoke quite strong responses among readers - I've read quite a few lively comments threads over the years about this.

  4. "You're much more generous and less judgmental than me."

    Or not judgmental enough? Suppose it depends on one's point of view.

    Around the same time I read this novel, I read (and had to discard, unfinished), a book by Anne Weale which was so horrible in its treatment of an overweight heroine that this one seemed truly delightful by comparison. In the Kendrick the hero falls in love with the heroine and finds her attractive while she's still overweight. And although it may be that "the 'hiding behind her fat' comments were facile," they are actually rather similar to Susie Orbach's, so that possibly makes them seem a bit less facile to me.

    I'll quote the relevant bits of the Anne Weale to you, so you can tell me if the Kendrick seems innocuous by comparison.

    The backstory is that the heroine, Summer, is working as a tutor to Emily, a teenage girl from an aristocratic family who has recently been orphaned. The hero is Emily's uncle and he's trying to work out if Summer is a suitable person to have such an important role in his niece's life, so he asks the local doctor,

    'Have you had much to do with this hulking great girl who teaches Emily?'

    'Summer? Yes ... know her well. Her aunt was a patient of mine. A difficult, embittered woman, and not always kind to her niece. Summer has had a tough time of it since she lost her parents and came to England. She was born and brought up in America. She's a very nice girl, you'll find. A bit overweight, but that's -'

    'Overweight! She's as fat as a pig,' was James Gardiner's caustic interjection. 'She never stops eating. Chocolate biscuits with her coffee this morning. Two servings of dessert at lunch. She must weigh as much as I do, and most of her weight is blubber.' [...]

    Dr Dyer said, 'I seem to remember you used to be able to pack away an amazing quantity of food, James. You always made very short work of any cakes and buns my wife offered you, after I'd stitched you up - or extracted pellets from your backside,' he added, with a reminiscent guffaw.

    James did not join in his laughter. His tone incisive, he said, 'I'm not sure that a girl who's an uncontrolled glutton is a suitable mentor for Emily. [...]'

    Weale, Anne. Summer's Awakening. London: Worldwide Romance, 1984.

  5. So, Summer decides she'll diet, but she finds it hard not to binge. She and Emily are sent off to James' home in the US, and they need to buy swimsuits so that Emily can go swimming:

    Summer had braced herself for the embarrassment of not being able to squeeze into anything. She didn't know what her size was in America, but the colours she saw on the rails suggested that they didn't cater to heavyweights, only to sylphs.

    'Do you have anything which might fit me? Something plain and dark?' she asked doubtfully.

    'Sure we have, honey. [...] I'd think this blue and white would be good. It's a very slimming style. You see, it has this cute little skirt which is great if you have a problem here' - patting the top of her thigh - 'as I used to.' She gave a reminiscent laugh. 'Before I slimmed down, my big thighs were the bane of my life. Talk about flub-rub! How about this turquoise suit?' - selecting another.

    'What's flub-rub?' Emily asked her.

    The saleswoman grinned. 'Oh, that's a Weight Watchers joke. The girl who took my class, Betty, she was a natural comedienne. It was worth going to meetings for the laughs. She had us falling off our chairs. She'd been heavy herself - all the lecturers have. She weighed over two hundred pounds before she joined, but you'd never guess it to look at her. She has a great figure now. [...]'


    While she was writing out the bill, Summer said, 'Was going to Weight Watchers classes really helpful when you were slimming?'

    'Oh, sure - it made all the difference. I'd been yo-yo dieting for years. You know how it goes ... up and down ... up and down. Starving one week, stuffing the next. Weight Watchers was the big breakthrough for me. I've never looked back. You should try it. Don't they have classes in Britain? I thought it was world-wide now.'

    [...] The saleswoman, who was about forty-five and wearing a lot of make-up which made her face look harder than it really was, said kindly, 'You do that, honey. You're young, you're pretty, and if you were to lose forty pounds you'd be really something. But dieting by yourself is too difficult. I know I needed help, and maybe you do. If you join Weight Watchers, the next time you're in Miami you'll be shopping for size eight.'

    'Americans are very outspoken, aren't they?' said Emily, as they walked back to the hotel. 'I don't think an assistant in an English shop would have told you to join a slimming class, would she?'

    'She might - if she'd had a weight problem and could see that I had one,' said Summer.

    You're young, you're pretty ...

    The saleswoman's words had been balm on the still-raw wounds inflicted by James Gardiner. But forty pounds had been a tactful understatement - sixty was nearer the mark!

    So, Emily goes to Weight Watchers. And it really, really begins to feel as if you're reading an advertisement for Weight Watchers, because the scene goes on for pages (149-154). Some of the highlights are this description of the participants:

    "There were women from every age group, and of every size. Several were as huge and shapeless as the manatees from which a nearby river and the neighbouring country took their names. (149-150)

    After the weighing in, which is described in some detail, the teacher

    "talked for a while about bingeing; the uncontrollable orgies of eating, usually between meals and often in secret, which were some over-weight people's way of coping with problems and worries, and their own shaky self esteem.
    She said she herself had been a binger till becoming a Weight Watcher had cured her. She compared a binger's compulsion with that of an alcoholic.

  6. Summer gradually loses weight as the months go past, and it so happens that she's swimming naked in the pool when James returns, thinks she's trespassing, and kisses her because "Young women who trespass on private property at night have to take the consequences" (178). He hasn't recognised her! He's sexually assaulted her! And now that she's thinner, he's attracted to her and even says that "From what I've seen of it already, you now have an excellent figure" (180)!

    So lovely. He goes on to demand that she make coffee and scrambled egg for him and

    Fortunately her beach robe was now too big for her, forming folds which were some help in concealing her still too ample curves from him.

    [...] '[...] Three months in Florida has certainly done wonders for you. As you just found out, you're unrecognisable.'

    She flushed. She would have liked to say cuttingly, 'You mean you wouldn't describe me as "as fat as a pig" now?'

    But dearly as she would have liked to discomfit him, she knew she would never be able to fling his brutal words back at him.

    I skipped to the end, at which point, after they've found out that they love each other, James says

    How lovely you are [...] The first time we met I was struck by the colour of your eyes - even though they were glaring suspiciously at me.'

    I thought you only noticed how ... enormous I was.'

    'That, too, but it didn't obscure the beauty of your eyes and this exquisite skin'

    So I think this one really and truly "associated weight loss with happy ending and with successful love-life" and did so in a way which was very insulting, advertised Weight Watchers, and charted the heroine's pursuit of thinness in such detail that it began to feel like an inspirational romance in which everyone worshipped a God of Skinnyness.