Sunday, January 31, 2010

Interview: Sarah on Women Constructing Men

Sarah has co-edited a volume of essays on "women constructing men", and it includes an essay she's written herself, on the topic of Suzanne Brockmann’s Sam Starrett. I thought it would be interesting to interview her to find out more. But first, here are some details about the volume:

Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009.
Female novelists have always invested as much narrative energy in constructing their male characters as in envisioning their female. The collected articles in Women Constructing Men demonstrate that the topic of female-authored masculinities not only allows scholars to re-discover almost every novel written by a woman, but also triggers reflections on a host of theoretical questions of gender and genre.
Here's a list of the contents of the volume:
LV: Could you explain very briefly how "the topic of female-authored masculinities [...] allows scholars to re-discover almost every novel written by a woman"?

SSGF: I don't know about the "briefly" part. :) When I first sent out the call for proposals for this book, someone expressed interest in writing about Rochester in Jane Eyre. I did a little bit of research and found one article on MLAB that was focused on Rochester. One. To my mind, very reductively, feminist literary criticism started when it realized that male critics were analyzing female characters in books by men (Pamela, for example) with very little understanding of what it meant to live the female experience. Feminist literary criticism quickly and logically moved from examining female characters written by men to female characters written by women. With the rise in masculinity studies, people began to study male characters written by men from a gendered perspective, as constitutive of gender expectations as much as female characters. But there's a gaping hole there. Very rarely do critics of gender studies and gender creation examine the ways in which female-constructed masculinity is equally as constitutive of gender dynamics as the other three possible permutations. Surely women are revealing a lot about the world as constructed by gender when they create male villains or fathers or brothers or lovers or ideal heroes? There has, up until now, been very little work done on female-authored masculinity. Even authors like Austen have only very recently received extensive evaluation of their construction of ideal masculinity. So Women Constructing Men allowed us to bring together some cutting edge research by some very smart people about the ways in which female novelists--both in the canon and on the fringes--construct masculinity in their books.

LV: The volume spans three continents and 250 years. As you've noted elsewhere, those years include the period during which what came to be known as "the Great Masculine Renunciation" took place:
Gone were the scarlets and purples, satins and velvets, lace and embroidery of conspicuous consumption that men wore in the middle of the eighteenth century. Romantic-era men wore instead dark blue or black wool coats, stiffly starched, blindingly white shirts, and skin-tight, skin-colored pantaloons [...] But this Great Masculine Renunciation entailed more than Romantic era men suddenly realizing that dark blue wool and starched shirts were more masculine than red velvet and pantaloons. Indeed, the ideological work that went into making that realization a reality demonstrates the radical transformation that representations of and assumptions about masculinity experienced in the Romantic era. I argue, in fact, that the total transformation in men's fashions in the Regency era was an outward manifestation of a similar renunciation in men's ability to express their emotions. This emotional change was of particular concern to female authors of novels in which a man and a woman had to fall in love with and express their love to each other--female authors of which Jane Austen was one of the earliest.
For her part, Katharina Rennhak has previously written that
A study of gendered authorial identities around 1800 seems especially promising: As has been shown by recent scholarship, the later phase of the long eighteenth century not only saw the triumphal (discursive) procession of the ideology of separate spheres and (as a consequence?) the beginning of the marginalisation and exclusion of women writers from literary histories; but it was also the time when female novelists were rapidly gaining a significant market share.
But the volume also takes us right up to the end of the twentieth century, and very significant social changes had occurred during the 250-year period. Were there any aspects of women's constructions of men and manhood that remained constant?

SSGF: A fascination with men! The vast majority of women, after all, are attracted to men and enjoy their attentions and want from them companionship and relationships and sex and love. Female novelists, then, get the opportunity to create their own romantic ideal. It's amazing how much time and effort over the centuries that women have put into doing precisely that and its equally amazing to me that this aspect of their writing hasn't yet received sustained study.

I guess something else that's consistent is that women consistently attempt to write ideal men, the perfect mate, the one man who can solve all problems. Sometimes their construct succeeds and everyone lives happily ever after, but often it fails and that spirals everything in the book down into destruction. But the impulse to write Mr. Right is a strong one and seems to be universal.

LV: We were discussing slash fiction and m/m romance recently, and you've mentioned that "the book I will be writing for the next few years is about the power, appeal, and history of the modern American romance hero." Could you tell us a bit more about why you and others find romance heroes so fascinating?

SSGF: Personally, I find romance heroes fascinating AS female constructs. I'm not much interested in male characters written by men. I'm interested in what female authors include when they write a hero. I'm fascinated with why angsty, dark, tortured heroes are so popular. I'm fascinated with what we, as woman, consider ideal, with what we consider attractive in a romance hero vs. what we'd like in real life mate. And I'd have to say I'm not alone, considering the success of all the many hero-focused romance series out there. As to why we find them fascinating? Well, we're surrounded by men, we like men, we have to work with men every day, and I think the ideation of good and bad men is a way to work through issues in our lives and relationships.

LV: Sarah, you summarised Brockmann's oeuvre in an article published in Teaching American Literature in 2008 and you've written elsewhere that
A game I like to play in all of Brockmann’s books is finding the tears. Because Brockmann’s heroes like to cry. The entire of personality of her most famous character, Sam Starrett, and his love affair with Alyssa is built around his relationship to his own tears, and they’re pretty powerful stuff.
Is it Sam's tears that make him your "Ideal Romance Hero"?

SSGF: Heh. Well, the famous scene in Over the Edge when Alyssa finds him crying after he's torn up his room is quite wonderful, to be sure. I guess I like vulnerability in my heroes, the proof that they can be moved. And I really enjoy seeing how Brockmann plays with her heroes' tears now. But my article on Sam is about how Brockmann uses him to explore the romance hero tropes (rapist hero, rake, the unforgettable former lover, and the superhero), only to discard them all as inappropriate to a truly heroic masculinity. I show how "a true, lasting masculinity, deserving of a happy ending, cannot be built without love as its foundation," which is a really sweeping thing to say, I know, but it's the conclusion of my paper and I think it does a pretty good job of showing how I get to that point. Overall, I'm very proud of the book as a whole. I think it does a wonderful job of showing what can be done if we open our eyes to female-authored masculinity and I'm very interested in what might happen to the field in the future. And thanks for this lovely interview!

LV: Thank you for telling us more about Women Constructing Men!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Guest Post: K. A. Laity on Joanna Russ on Slash Fiction

Joanna Russ on Slash Fiction
K. A. Laity

K. A. Laity is both a fiction writer and an academic scholar. Her short story collection Unikirja (Aino Press), for which she won a Eureka Short Story fellowship and a Finlandia Foundation grant, grew out of her love for Finnish myth and folklore. She writes and presents scholarly essays on medieval literature and culture, gender, film and comics. As C. Margery Kempe, she is also a writer of erotic romance such as Chastity Flame (Ravenous Romance), Spinning Gold (Noble Romance), Sex Cymbals (Freya's Bower) and many more.
In response to a recent post at Teach Me Tonight, K. A. Laity responded that
people writing about M/M romance and slash fiction really should read Joanna Russ's far-too-seldom read piece on it in her unfortunately OOP collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985). Very insightful about how readers tend to use these M/M pairings in fan fic.
Laity then offered to write this post about Russ' "Pornography By Women For Women, With Love," published in Russ' Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing P., 1985. 79-99.

One of the moments in romantic scholarship herstory that gets too often overlooked, is the work by "the first openly gay, feminist spitfire of fantasy and speculative fiction," Joanna Russ. To be fair, much of Russ' work has been overlooked for far too long because of the lingering reputation of her work as "difficult"—particularly her innovative 1975 novel The Female Man. Its taut examination of gender roles and intertwined time lines, which challenged readers upon its release, now fit easily into the mainstream of postmodern literature.

Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays was written when the MacKinnonite anti-pornography movement had reached its peak. In the collection, Russ not only writes about her own process of coming out and the cultural forces that mitigated against it, but also about the larger questions of pornography and female desire. While the entire collection makes fascinating reading, I want to focus on the chapter "Pornography By Women For Women, With Love" as it provides some interesting roots for the ongoing academic dissections of romance writing today and its sometime step-sister, slash fiction. Russ draws specific parallels between the two genres.

Russ examines Kirk/Spock slash fiction, which was still largely unknown at the time beyond its practitioners. She finds herself delighted that "all of the editors, writers and readers are women" and finds that fans portray Spock and Kirk "like Tristan and Iseult, the two are fated to love" (81). Russ compares the focus on postponement of desire to romance novels of the time, where "the lovers must be pushed together by some force outside themselves" and "somebody is always bleeding or feverish or concussed or mutilated or amnesiac." This element is key, Russ argues, for "the stories over and over set up situations in which the two are not responsible" (82), allowing them to give in to the urges that society—or more often, their own scruples—would condemn.

While the pairing appears to be M/M, due to the actors involved, it's important to remember that it is a human/alien pairing. Referring to Lamb and Veith [Lamb, Patricia Frazer, and Diana L. Veith. "Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines." Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. New York: Greenwood P, 1986. 235-56.], Russ reminds us that Spock's "alienness is a way of 'coding' into the K/S fantasies that their subject is not a homosexual love affair between two men, but love and sex as women want them" (83). This is key to the appeal of slash, but also perhaps to that of the modern M/M romance. Russ points out that the traditionally masculine and feminine traits fluctuate between the characters, creating an ideal relationship:
Neither has to give up 'his' work in the world; both have adventure and love; telepathy provides lifelong commitment and the means of making such a union unbreakable and extremely intimate; and while both partners are 'masculine' in the sense of being active in the world, they provide tenderness and nurturance for each other in a very 'feminine' way. And the sex is marvelous. (84)
Why use male characters then? Russ agrees with Lamb and Veith's conclusion that no one "can imagine a man and a woman having the same multiplex, worthy, androgynous relationship, or the same completely intimate commitment" (84). While we might hope that things may have changed since 1985, I suspect the plethora of supernatural titles that have made paranormal romance the pre-eminent genre suggest that this is still not possible for many to envision that kind of relationship with human males.

In part, Russ believes, this sexual fantasy, which commonly relies on the repeating "hurt-comfort" motif, developed because "we have—ingeniously, tenaciously, and very creatively—sexualized our female situation and training, and made out of the restrictions of the patriarchy our own sexual cues" (86). But she also makes clear that "sexual fantasy can't be taken at face value" and that the situations depicted in K/S stories are not ones the readers and writers would like to actually experience, just like the rape fantasies of the earlier bodice-rippers. "We know that women don't want to be raped; episodes in female fantasies that look like rapes really are something else, i.e. Will somebody, something, for heaven's sake, enable me to act?" (88). Russ ties male rape fantasies to the same patriarchal restrictions, exacerbated in the States by the tendency to substitute violence for sexual enjoyment in popular narratives.

And as scientists would agree even now, Russ is right on target when she writes that "we do not have nearly enough knowledge about female sexuality" (94). What she is certain of is that slash fiction offers something "raw, blatantly female and very valuable and exciting" (95). It also offers an important insight on the popularity of M/M romance and the reasons women choose that palette, though it still skirts the issue of the exploitative aspects of that appropriation. For Russ, the appeal is clear:
What they do want is sexual intensity, sexual enjoyment, the freedom to choose, a love that is entirely free of the culture's whole discourse of gender and sex roles, and a situation in which it is safe to let go and allow oneself to become emotionally and sexually vulnerable. (89)
The continued popularity of M/M slash and romance suggests that even in 2010, it is still difficult for women to imagine that happening between heterosexual couples.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Real-Life Effects of Fiction

Amanda B. Diekman, Mary McDonald and Wendi L. Gardner's “Love Means Never Having to be Careful: The Relationship Between Reading Romance Novels and Safe Sex Behavior” should perhaps have been included in my summary of academic studies of romance readers' sexuality, but I thought it really needed to be given a post of its own because of the discussion it contains regarding the relationship between reality and fiction.

Romance readers are aware that what we are reading is fiction, and we can and do distinguish between fantasy and reality. In particular, I recall many readers making statements to the effect that while they enjoy reading about alpha males, rakes, werewolves, etc, they would not want to have a relationship with this kind of being in real life (although some other readers mentioned that their spouses were "alpha males").

That being said, however, romances clearly do have some effects on some of us, at least some of the time. As mentioned in my previous post, Anderton found that
Most of the study participants (75.5%) reported that reading romance novels has had an impact on their sex lives. This occurred in several ways, including making participants more likely to engage in sexual activity and by making them more likely to try new sexual activities.
One of the effects of romance reading that I've most often seen mentioned is the way in which it can make people feel happier. Jennifer Crusie, for example, has mentioned that after reading romances for the first time "I’d come out of my reading transformed, feeling more confident and much happier."

Diekman, McDonald and Gardner suggest that
The inevitable happy endings and escapism of romance novels are a major selling point (Maritz Marketing Research, 1999; Radway, 1984). Evidence suggests, however, that such fantastic qualities can influence readers’ real-life beliefs and attitudes. Fictional information is incorporated into memory (Gerrig & Prentice, 1991; Prentice & Gerrig, 1999; Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Wheeler, Green, & Brock, 1999), and unless cognitive resources are available, even blatantly false information is remembered as true (Gilbert, Tafarodi, & Malone, 1993). Women often read romances to escape from busy lives (Radway, 1984); therefore, they may not be motivated to engage in the effortful processing needed to discount false information or to scrutinize persuasive messages (Chaiken, 1987; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Prentice & Gerrig, 1999). Moreover, fiction’s narrative form and its ability to transport the reader into a vivid and involving fictional world are powerful persuasive tools in and of themselves. Green and Brock (1996) found that persuasion increased to the extent that readers were “transported by what they read, despite the fact that all stimuli were clearly labeled as fictional. Especially important for our present concerns, this persuasion effect was greater for abstract beliefs and general attitudes than for more concrete items of information. These accumulated findings suggest that, although romance readers may be fully aware that the portrayals of spontaneous, passionate, and risk-free sexual encounters are fictional, they nonetheless are likely to form beliefs and expectations based on such reading. (180, emphasis added)
This, I think, tends to support Robin/Janet's suggestion, made at DearAuthor, that
the relationship between the genre and larger society is complex and not directly translated or translatable.1 We see some of the same tensions in the genre we see in society, vis a vis the way women define themselves and manage relationships and love. But I also think the genre, like society, passes things along without a whole lot of reflection and examination, including attitudes about how women are valued and value themselves, and how different standards of value apply to men and women.
Robin wrote this in the context of a discussion about the value the genre often places on female virginity. Diekman, McDonald and Gardner's evidence that romances can influence attitudes and behaviour is focused on condom usage, but this, in turn, is tied in to a central fantasy that is common in the genre:
According to the sexual script portrayed in romance novels, true love is demonstrated by being "swept away" in passion. To the extent that this traditional romance script influences romance readers' own sexual scripts, readers may express greater reluctance to engage in precautionary sexual health behaviors, such as using condoms. We explored the relationship between women's reading of romance novels and their attitudes toward condom use, reports of past condom use, and intention to use condoms in the future. A systematic content analysis of modern romance novels documented the extremely low incidence of portrayals of condom use in initial sexual encounters.2 Study 1 demonstrated that high levels of romance reading were associated with negative attitudes toward condoms and reduced intent to use condoms in the future: Study 2 showed experimentally that including safe sex elements in romance stories increased positive attitudes toward condoms and marginally increased intent to use condoms in the future. (Abstract)
What I find particularly important about this study is not so much what it has to tell us about condom usage in romances, or romance readers' perceptions of condoms, but the evidence it offers that novels can influence readers' real-life attitudes and behaviours.
  • Anderton, Gretchen E. Excitement, adventure, indifference: Romance readers' perceptions of how romance reading impacts their sex lives, Ed.D., Widener University, 2009, 165 pages; AAT 338383
  • Diekman, Amanda B., Mary McDonald and Wendi L. Gardner. “Love Means Never Having to be Careful: The Relationship Between Reading Romance Novels and Safe Sex Behavior.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 24.2 (2000): 179-88.
  • Sturgis, Susanna J. "What's a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This?": A Few Answers and a Few Questions."

1 In response to my previous post K. A. Laity left a comment recommending an article by Joanna Russ. I followed up her suggestion and although I couldn't find the article itself, I did locate some commentary on it by Susanna J. Sturgis who has written that
My favorite among the essays in Joanna Russ's wonderful collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts is "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love." In her essay [...] Russ suggests that "sexual fantasy can't be taken at face value."
Robin/Janet seems to be suggesting a similar need for caution in interpreting romances.

2 Their sample of 78 novels included only contemporary romances, not historicals, as they "felt it would be unrealistic to expect portrayals or discussions of condom use in historical romance novels" (181) and "The sampled novels represented the work of 46 authors and 21 publishers. Publication year ranged from 1981 to 1996, with 54 (69.2%) of the novels published after 1990, when awareness of HIV and other STD among heterosexuals was relatively high" (181). They found that "only 9 (1 1.5%) novels portrayed condom use" and
the male character initiated the discussion or use of a condom in every instance. Furthermore, the female character was portrayed as rejecting condom use in almost half of the discussions. [...] In fact, the female characters who rejected condom use gave reasons such as “I want no barriers between us.” (181)
They note that the lack of condoms in so many of the novels, and the rejection of them in others,
cannot be attributed to an idealized version of the modem world. The romance novels in our sample portrayed a host of other concerns: divorce and remarriage, single motherhood, dual-career conflicts, caring for aging parents, substance abuse, mental illness, and breast cancer, to name but a few. (181)
I think it might be more accurate to say that the authors of the novels, like all authors, select which aspects of reality they will include. In romances it seems that there are certain realities which are often deemed unromantic and which therefore tend not to be included in romances. Kris Kennedy's list of "Top Medieval History Facts You Won't See in Romance" provides some examples (although some of her "facts" are disputed in the comments).


The photo was taken by Shane R. and I am using it in accordance with its creative commons license. If you can't work out the connection between it and the topic of Diekman, McDonald and Gardner's essay, you might need to look at it a little more closely, or read Shane R's description of it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Sex Lives of Romance Readers

Laura Clawson, in her recent post about the genre, attempted to refute the "myth" that "Romance novels are just porn for women":
romance has not become a $1.37 billion business on the basis of people too embarrassed to admit that they want porn buying 400-page books for the 3-4 sex scenes within. See, they also contain characters and stories, and some people like those. In fact, and I realize this is going to sound as ridiculous as claiming to smoke a lot of pot without inhaling, I mostly skip the sex scenes. I read the books for the stories, and I doubt I'm unique in that.
Since various other romance readers commented in response that they, too, mostly skip the sex scenes, Clawson is clearly not alone in this particular reading behaviour. Still, there's obviously a perception that romances are "porn for women" and the question of how romances affect their readers' sex lives is one that seems to have intrigued many, including a few academics. What follows is a short summary of the existing research (that I'm aware of) into the sex lives of romance readers.

Coles and Shamp (1984) - In their “Some Sexual, Personality, and Demographic Characteristics of Women Readers of Erotic Romances” Coles and Shamp begin by describing the novels under discussion and they state that
Given their tremendous sales, the reading of these books must be a significant behavior for the 20 million loyal readers [...] who buy them. Since these stories are neither well written "literature" nor informative, in the sense of being original or historically accurate, their appeal can only result from some emotionally compelling quality in plots or settings. (188)
Bearing in mind that in the court case over Lady Chatterley's Lover "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" (AgTigress), one might suppose that a work with "explicit sexual content" which is deemed to have no "literary merit" is likely to be labelled as pornography or erotica. Certainly Coles and Shamp write: "it can be suggested that erotic romances are so popular among their readers because they represent a socially acceptable form of mild pornography that is not recognized as such either by those who read them or by the rest of society" (207-8). I do wonder if, however, their article subsequently helped at least some sections of "the rest of society" feel secure in describing romances as "pornography."

If we turn to what Coles and Shamp have to say about readers, we find that they first surveyed "college women" and,
In support of the hypothesis that reading erotic romances is related to sexual deprivation, readers in this group who are more often married or cohabiting, report a mean frequency of 1.45 sexual acts per week, while nonreaders report 2.50 acts per week. (196)
However, the picture of romance readers changed when they surveyed older women:
Older readers reported having sexual intercourse twice as much as did nonreaders and, indeed, more frequently than the national average for all women [...]. In addition, housewife readers reported being more satisfied with sex than nonreaders. These data do not support the simplistic idea, which might have been suggested by the college sample, that lack of sex is forcing women to find other outlets through erotica. (206)
Thurston comments on this to the effect that
While the Coles and Shamp (1984) study, which was conducted in 1978 and focused on the bodice rippers of that period, does not say that erotic romance readers make love twice as frequently as non-readers because they read romances, it does establish a correlation between frequency of intercourse and reading erotic romances, and between reading erotic romances and use of sexual fantasy. (158)
It should be noted that when Coles and Shamp refer to "erotic romances" they are referring to novels which are rather different from those in the sub-genre known by that label today, and they are also different from the novels focussed on by Thurston.

Thurston (1987) - Thurston also refers to "erotic romances" but in her book, The Romance Revolution, she was using the term to refer to both "The erotic contemporary series romances which began appearing in 1981" (Thurston 92) and the "erotic historical romance [which] as an identifiable entity is widely considered to have appeared on the American scene with the 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. Two years later Avon again struck gold with Rosemary Rogers's Sweet Savage Love [...], setting off an avalanche of feisty heroines, high adventure, and sex that sounded the death knell for the suddenly tame gothic and regency romances" (Thurston 67). Thurston, whose The Romance Revolution was published in 1987, states that "the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types - the sweet romance and the erotic romance - with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities" (7).

In Thurston's view, "Other story characteristics (contemporary or historical settings, for instance) create secondary divisions in the two subgenres, but it was a specific kind of sexual activity, more and more explicitly described as the 1970s progressed, that created the first and most significant division within the genre" (8). Thurston states, however, that "Sexual content is the most important classifying characteristic [...] because of the kind of sex-role portrayal that came to be associated with it" (7) and that
More and more explicitly articulated after 1972, female sexuality became increasingly complex in the most evolved erotic romances (heterosexual in the genre examined here), and by 1982 it was generally being portrayed as inextricably intertwined with both economic and personal autonomy, and ultimately with a joyously feminine sense of self. (141)
In other words, Thurston seems to be suggesting that in the romances under discussion, sexual freedom and freedom from particular gender ("sex-role") norms have become inseparable.1 Thurston also notes that there are many reasons why people would choose to read romances:
For almost all of the readers surveyed [...] reading romance novels is primarily entertainment-seeking behavior that provides pleasure, escape, relaxation, and renewal because it stimulates and challenges the imagination. Thus the romance as a form of entertainment and escape encompasses a web of complex motivations and gratifications, serving as a means of exploring new ideas about the changing role and status of women in society - a kind of test run or sounding board for a variety of ideas, attitudes, and behavior - at the same time that it provides the security of the familiar. It is the formulaic nature of genre fiction that opens the door to the unfamiliar, and through time and repeated exposure converts unusual or new elements into the ordinary and familiar. (131-32)
Thurston also has something to say about the sex lives of romance readers. She found that "about half of the readers surveyed in 1985 said they use erotic romance novels as sexual fantasy" (134) and that
Seventy-seven percent of the romance readers surveyed in 1985 agreed with the statement "Many of the love scenes depicted in romance novels are sexually stimulating," attesting to the fact that erotic romances contain fantasies that many women can and do relate to sexually. Furthermore, most readers consciously perceived these novels as erotica and said they use them for sexual information and ideas, to create a receptive-to-sex frame of mind, and even to achieve arousal. (10)
Thurston believed that in romances sex "was generally being portrayed as inextricably intertwined with both economic and personal autonomy" (141), perhaps at least in part because at the time she was writing, during the 1980s, many of the novels contained
The New Heroine [who] generally is experienced, confident, self-sufficient, assertive, and even daring - all traits traditionally assigned to men - which means she no longer needs the male guardian, the rake, or the sugar daddy. What does she require in a man? Still a strong-willed character (he must be if he is to be her equal), the New Hero also exhibits many traits traditionally assigned to females - openness, flexibility, sensitivity, softness, and vulnerability - transforming him from invincible superman into fallible human being. Thus androgyny has burst into full bloom. (Thurston 98)
Not everyone saw this as a positive move, however. Jayne Ann Krentz, in her essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992) discussed the
pressure exerted to make romance writers and romance fiction more politically correct. During the past few years, even as romance novels have commanded a spectacular share of the publishing market there has been an unrelenting effort to change them.
Much of this effort was exerted by a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing [...]. The first target of these reforming editors was what has come to be known in the trade as the alpha male. These males are the tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels. (107)
It is not difficult to see the "New Hero," so pleasing to Thurston, under attack in this scathing comment by Krentz:
you don't get much of a challenge for a heroine from a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start. You don't get much of a challenge for her from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel. (109)
According to Krentz "The second target of those who attempted to change romance novels was another familiar convention in the books: the aggressive seduction of the heroine by the hero" (109) and she concludes that
The effort to make romance novels respectable has been a resounding failure. The books that exemplify the "new breed" of politically correct romances, the ones featuring sensitive, unaggressive heroes and sexually experienced, right-thinking heroines in "modern" stories dealing with trendy issues, have never become the most popular books in the genre. (113)
Wu (2006) - Perhaps it is at least in part because of this "resounding failure" that some, including Wu, believe that "Most romance novels promote deeply constraining patriarchal values" (131). Wu's
results reveal that female readers self-reported greater sex addiction, greater sex drive and greater number of orgasms required for sexual satisfaction than female non-readers. [...] Contrary to expectations, readers of romance novels had fewer sex partners, a lower level of self-assessed femininity than non-readers, and were older when they had their first thoughts about sex and had their first sexual intercourse. [...] The overall results of this study suggest that the general attitude-behavior pattern of readers of romance novels fits the Harlequin stereotype of nourishing a satisfying sex life in the context of romantic monogamous fidelity, while at the same time vicariously fulfilling sexual desires through fictitious characters in romance novels. (131)
Wu's essay is available online in full and for free.

(2009) - Widener University's Center for Education announced that Gretchen E. Anderton had successfully defended her Ed.D. dissertation on "Excitement, Adventure, Indifference: Romance Readers' Perceptions of How Romance Reading Impacts their Sex Lives." Some details about it are now available from ProQuest. Unfortunately you need to have a subscription to the database in order to read them, and a copy of the whole dissertation can only be ordered from ProQuest for a fee.

The dissertation is based on information provided by "Fifty-three women romance readers over the age of 18 [who] completed an online survey composed of multiple choice and open-ended essay questions." That's really not a lot of romance readers, so it's possible the results are unrepresentative of the genre's readers as a whole. In addition, if the online survey is the same one discussed on the romance scholar listserv in August of 2008, and which was titled "Opium or Viagra: The effects of reading romance novels on women's sex lives," then it should be noted that various members of the list who attempted to answer the questionnaire had their responses automatically rejected, and at least one of these rejections was due to the person living outside the US. It's perhaps no coincidence, then, that the introduction of Anderton's dissertation opens with statement that "Since the first modem romance novel was published in 1972, romance novels have contained sex" (1). Since this seems to be a reference to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower it perhaps indicates that Anderton is following Thurston in taking an American-centred view of the genre's readers.

Since I haven't been able to read the whole dissertation, many of my questions about it remain unanswered but its main findings seem to be included in the abstract and are as follows:
  • In this study, it was found that participants use romance novels primarily to relax and escape the pressures of everyday life and only secondarily to produce sexual arousal.

  • Most of the study participants (75.5%) reported that reading romance novels has had an impact on their sex lives. This occurred in several ways, including making participants more likely to engage in sexual activity and by making them more likely to try new sexual activities.

  • A smaller number of participants (24.5%) stated that reading romance novels has not had any impact on their sex lives, sexual behavior or knowledge about sexuality. These participants emphasized the fictional nature of romance novels and stated that they read strictly for pleasure and do not learn anything or make any behavioral changes based on what they read.

  • With regard to safer sex practices, participants said that romance novels present incorrect or misleading information about safer sex and that they regard them as unreliable in this area.

  • Most participants (85%) reported that reading romance novels has not had an impact on their feelings about their sex partners or has had a positive impact on their feelings about their sex partners.

  • Another major finding of this study was that women who read romance novels and who are satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that there is no basis for comparison between their sex partners and the male protagonist or hero in a romance novel, or that their sex partners compare favorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels. In contrast, women who read romance novels and who are not satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that their sex partners compare unfavorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels.

1 Specifically with regard to romances, Thurston acknowledges that "Traditional attitudes or viewpoints are still present in a number of stories" (104) and she found that "It is in the area of childbearing and how it functions in the context of sexual and social relationships that the contemporary romance most often is murky" (107). Thurston also notes that
Feminists early on rejected the simplistic assumption that sexual liberation equals women's liberation (a familiar cry being "the sexual revolution is not our revolution"), asserting that it increased the availability of pornography and in general made women more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. They also realized, as Edwin Shur (1983, 118) warned in his comprehensive work on the social control of women, that "when women's active sexuality is acknowledged, it may be misleading presented as the main path to full female liberation," ultimately distracting women from the pursuit of real social change. But while a fully developed sexuality does not predict a conscious sense of self, it is difficult to imagine that such a self could be achieved without it. (140)
The danger warned of by Shur has been explored more recently by Ariel Levy:
Only thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were "burning their bras" and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time?

What was almost more surprising than the change itself were the responses I got when I started interviewing the men and -- often -- women who edit magazines like Maxim and make programs like The Man Show and Girls Gone Wild. This new raunch culture didn't mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We'd earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. [...]

There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda. It doesn't work that way. "Raunchy" and "liberated" are not synonyms.
Janet/Robin, of Dear Author suggests that in the romance genre, however, traditional versions of female sexuality still predominate: "So-called Dukes of Slut can be heroic, but not Duchesses of Sexual Liberation." She does, however, note that there are more
heroines who have been damaged by sexual promiscuity. [...] In one sense I appreciate the willingness to investigate the darker connections between self-esteem and sexuality in Romance heroines. But I also think it’s interesting that the sexually promiscuous woman written within a construction of romantic love often endures a great deal of shame or punishment (inflicted by others or by herself) before she receives the gift of romantic happiness. Those heroines who are unashamed of their sexual polyamory may, more often than not, be pushed into erotica, where there is no expectation of a romantic happy ending.
Of course, not all romances contain heroines, and the sexuality of the characters in romances featuring gay men has also come under scrutiny recently. Spark in Darkness has summarised some of the issues as he sees them:
M/m fiction as I see it, is literature centring around a male/male relationship. It is also primarily written by straight women.
And I know some gay men loathe it with a fiery passion. And I don’t blame them - because most of it is bloody awful.
No, really. It’s full of gross (and often insulting) stereotypes, focused entirely on the sexing [...] I have read good m/m. But the majority I’ve read doesn’t come close - in fact it goes a long damn way from coming close. In fact, let’s be frank, most of it is porn. The m/m characters have as much relation with actual gay men as the nigh obligatory “lesbian” sex scene in porn aimed at heterosexual men. And, naturally, that has strong implications of appropriation, exploitation and voyeurism to say the least and potential consequences for young gays looking for something about them come across a stereotypical, angst filled, sex obsessed one-hand-reading piece of m/m fiction.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Sandra posts about Kathleen Givens

As mentioned at Kathleen Givens's website, "Kathleen passed away in early January 2010" and there have already been a number of posts written by people who knew and loved her and her works. Sandra, in her post at Unusual Historicals, writes that Givens's Kilgannon
was one of the first romances I read as romance fiction (I had read Victoria Holt and Penelope Williamson before, but had thought them historical novels), and I still remember how thrilled I was to have found a genre of historical fiction where heroines are strong and happy endings are guaranteed. And so Kilgannon became one of the books that inspired me to write my first romance novel.

In 2005 I was working on a paper on the depiction of Scotland in American romance novels and decided to use Kilgannon as my main example. I contacted Kathleen and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the book. [...] She was a great author and a wonderful person, and I will miss her very much.

Sarah on BDSM romance

Sarah's guest-blogging at James Buchanan's blog (over-18s only, on James Buchanan's blog) about BDSM romances. In case anyone is unsure what's meant by "BDSM," Wikipedia gives the following explanation: "The compound acronym, BDSM, is derived from the terms bondage and discipline (B&D, B/D, or BD), dominance and submission (D&s, D/s, or Ds), sadism and masochism (S&M, S/M, or SM)."

Sarah's reached the conclusion that "If the author is brilliant with no experience in BDSM, she (let’s assume she for the ease of use, okay?) can still write a brilliant book" but
Where the author is a good author (but not brilliant) or enjoys a little slap with her tickle and thinks that’s kinky enough so doesn’t bother to do much or any research: that’s where things turn sticky, and not in a good way.
She goes on to elaborate on some of these less than good ways and would "love some feedback on these conclusions, especially since I’m going to write a paper about them at some point" so please do head over there if you think you might have some feedback to offer her.

The photo came from Wikimedia Commons and is the work of Tibor Kádek.

Sunday, January 03, 2010


The new quarter starts Monday, here at DePaul, so I'm hard at work on the syllabus for English 469: Topics in American Literature: Popular Romance Fiction.

At the moment, our Required Texts are:
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer
Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm
J. R. Ward, Dark Lover
Joey Hill, Natural Law
Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down
Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander
Beverly Jenkins, Captured
Nora Roberts, Montana Sky
I say "at the moment" because I've just heard that the Victoria Dahl may have been hard for the bookstore to come by. NOT that I heard this from the bookstore, mind you--but I've called to follow up, and won't rest easy until I know for sure that it's in stock. (If it isn't, I'll use another Dahl--but the topics I wanted to pursue with Talk Me Down don't come up the same way in the next two books in that series, so I'll be thrown off, just a little. "Recalculating," as the GPS unit likes to say.)

Of those, I've taught five before (SEP, Kinsale, Ward, Hill, Herendeen); three are new, although I have a ringer in my class to help with the Roberts: An Goris, who's writing her dissertation on NR, has come to Chicago to work with me this year.

Here's the tentative Course Description:

American academics began to study popular romance fiction seriously in the 1980s, with the publication of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance and Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, by Tania Modleski. The conventions, genres, and readership of romance fiction have all evolved dramatically since this time, however, and critics have not always kept pace with them. In this course, we will explore some of the varieties of popular romance fiction (and of romance criticism) currently published in the United States. Using tools from cultural studies, feminist psychoanalysis, the philosophy of love, and aesthetic analysis, we will learn to read popular romance from a variety of contemporary authors and subgenres; in the process, we will get to know something about the lively, reflective on-line romance community. Our challenge, week by week, will be to make the novels as interesting as possible, by any means necessary.

As for the Course Requirements:

All students in this course will be expected to do three things:

  • Come to class with the books and / or articles read, and contribute to class discussion;
  • Deliver a thoughtful, well-organized in-class presentation on one of our novels—think of this as a succinct mini-lecture, about 10 minutes long, with an accompanying handout of quotations from critics, discussion questions, or anything else that can provoke subsequent discussion; and,
  • Write a scholarly or creative nonfiction essay (12-15 pp.), probably based on the presentation, that uses critical approaches studied in class to analyze one of the course texts.

My next big task is to assemble the secondary texts we'll read in the first couple of weeks.

Week 1: Introduction to the class, to each other, and to the novels we will study. Initial assignment of presentations. Discussion of "romance" as a literary term, especially in American literary history, with passages from Hawthorne, James, and Northrop Frye.

Week 2: Introduction to some of the critical debates surrounding popular romance fiction.

  • Germaine Greer, selection from The Female Eunuch (1970)
  • Tania Modleski, “Mass Produced Fantasies for Women” and “Harlequin Romances” (Loving with a Vengeance, 1982)
  • Janice Radway, “from New Introduction” (1991), “The Readers and their Romances,” and “The Act of Reading the Romance: Escape and Instruction” (Reading the Romance, 1984; rpt. 1991)
  • Laura Kinsale, “The Androgynous Reader”; Linda Barlow, “The Androgynous Writer”; Susan Elizabeth Phillips, “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women” (Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz, 1992)
  • Tania Modleski, “My Life as a Romance Reader” (Paradoxa, 1997)
  • Jennifer Crusie, “Romancing Reality: the Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-vision the Real” (Paradoxa, 1997), “Defeating the Critics” (1998), and “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women” (1998); available on line at
  • Pamela Regis, “The Romance Novel and Women’s Bondage” and “In Defense of the Romance Novel” (A Natural History of the Romance Novel, 2003).
  • Eric Selinger, “Re-reading the Romance” (essay-review of recent criticism, 2008)
  • Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, selections from Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels (2009).

That's the list I have so far--but it's more or less the same list I used two years ago, which leads me to believe that I've missed a few things. If you can think of anything for me to add, let me know!

After that, we turn to the novels themselves. Here's the order so far:

Week 3: Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer (Contemporary)

Week 4: Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm (Historical)

Week 5: J. R. Ward, Dark Lover (Paranormal)

Week 6: Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (Historical—mmf)

Week 7: Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down (Contemporary)

Week 8: Joey Hill, Natural Law (Erotic—BDSM)

Week 9: Beverly Jenkins, Captured (Historical—African American)

Week 10: Nora Roberts, Montana Sky (Contemporary)

If anything occurs to you about the sequence, let me know that as well. (I've been wondering whether to assign the Dahl before or after the Hill, for example.) I'll begin assembling ideas for secondary reading, topics, questions, etc., as the next week proceeds.