Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sisters and Husbands

Laura Struve's "Sisters of Sorts: Reading Romantic Fiction and the Bonds among Female Readers" appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of Popular Culture but its conclusion is not likely to come as any surprise to readers of this blog: "Romance readers not only fail to be oppressed by their reading, they also make it an occasion to participate in a female community" (1303). Struve points to the existence of active communities of romance readers, such as those who visit All About Romance, as evidence that "Contrary to the perception that readers are passive, isolated women hopelessly waiting for their prince to come, readers of romantic fiction are active and seek to form bonds among women" (1293) and argues that
When romance readers seek out other readers, they are seeking out other women, and when readers become writers, they identify themselves as writing within a female tradition. These connections are discussed using the rhetoric of familial relationships—kinship, sisterhood, and motherhood. Instead of being obsessed with unattainable heterosexual romantic relationships, romance readers seek out and desire sisterhood. [...] These readers are not trying to find “Mr. Right” or “Prince Charming” [...]. They are trying to find a fellow reader; they are trying to find a sister of sorts. (1297)
Since it's quite possible to have both a husband and a sister and, according to the Romance Writers of America, "Romance readers are more likely than the general population to be currently married or living with a partner," I wonder precisely what is meant by "unattainable heterosexual romantic relationships." Clearly many readers are in romantic relationships, so is Struve is suggesting that there is a particular type of "heterosexual romantic relationship" which is unattainable (i.e. one with a "prince")? Or does she think that many readers have no need to be "obsessed" about attaining a heterosexual romantic relationship because they already have one? Could it be that she has failed to consider the possibility that romance readers may have (or be obsessed with having) heterosexual romantic relationships and develop homosocial relationships based around romance-reading?

Early in the essay Struve states that
If romance novels are perceived to be poorly written, formulaic, and pornographic, then it is easy to characterize their readers as unintelligent, unsophisticated, and neurotic. The idea that “you are what you read” dominates many studies of romantic fiction, and the portrait of the reader that emerges is heavily influenced by the content of the novels.
If, however, one shifts the focus from content to the activities that surround the reading experience—the way romance readers talk about their reading, the way they talk to each other, their connections to writers and publishers, the way they use technology—a portrait of a different reader emerges, a reader who is an active participant in the genre’s production and reception as well as its consumption. Despite the genre’s conservative ideology, which focuses on heterosexual courtship and marriage, romance readers make connections with other women, and they use the Internet to help foster this community. (1289-90)
It is not entirely clear whether Struve herself perceives romance novels to be "poorly written, formulaic, and pornographic" [and I, as the author of a book subtitled "The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance" would, obviously, take issue with that view if she does hold it] but she certainly seems to accept that the genre has a "conservative ideology, which focuses on heterosexual courtship and marriage." While it is true that a great many romance novels do focus on heterosexual courtship and marriage, such a statement immediately makes me wonder if the author is aware of the existence of substantial numbers of lesbian and m/m romances or has considered the possibility that there might be significant variations in the depictions of "heterosexual courtship and marriage."1 Furthermore, when female communities are contrasted with a "conservative ideology," I can't help but note that a group of women do not, by the mere fact of coming together to participate in leisure or other pursuits, automatically pose a challenge to conservative ideologies.

Whatever her view of the merits (or otherwise) of modern romance novels, Struve is very much aware that there are
similarities between the study of romantic fiction and the history of the novel and novel studies. The attacks on the romance reader today are similar to those leveled at novel readers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. [...] During the first half of the twentieth century [...] [s]cholars who wanted to expand the canon to include works by female authors faced accusations that literature written by women was frivolous because it focused primarily on domestic concerns such as courtship and marriage and that these works were poorly written. (1302)
She therefore concludes that
Scholars who are critical of this genre seem unaware of the history of their complaints and cultivate a certain blindness about the relationship between literature and popular culture and the act of reading. Literary scholars have already decided that a lifetime can be spent and a career made in talking about books and reading them, yet romance readers are criticized for being “addicted” to reading. (1303)
Struve, Laura. “Sisters of Sorts: Reading Romantic Fiction and the Bonds Among Female Readers.” Journal of Popular Culture 44.6 (2011): 1289-1306.

Another woman-only social activity
1 Despite the inclusion of some bibliographical items dated 2011 there is a curiously retro feel about parts of this essay. For example, Struve writes that "All About Romance, features an interactive column, 'At the Back Fence' ” (1294) but I knew it had been discontinued some time ago. When I checked at AAR, I discovered that "The last ATBF column was published October 27, 2008" (AAR). Struve writes that:
In addition, romance novels have an extremely shortshelf span; Harlequin publishes c. thirty different titles every month. Readers must rely on word of mouth and recommendations in order to make their purchases before the books disappear from the shelvesand are replaced by new titles. (1294)
There is no acknowledgment here that many romance readers now buy ebooks, which do not have "an extremely short shelf span." Incidentally, this also seems a rather low estimate of Harlequin's monthly output: in December in the Harlequin Presents line alone I counted 10 new novels. I strongly suspect that the essay was first written prior to 27 October 2008 but was not published until this month due to the fact that at one point the Journal of Popular Culture had a massive backlog of articles accepted for publication.

The image is of "Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. These two Church Amish women are engaged in quilting. Quilting bees are popular in this area." The photo was taken by Irving Rusinow and came from Wikimedia Commons which in turn acquired it from "the National Archives and Records Administration as part of a cooperation project. The National Archives and Records Administration provides images depicting American and global history which are public domain or licensed under a free license."


  1. So another "essay" based on outdated research and second hand assumptions? Shoddy scholarship?

  2. Struve's article prompted Sarah to post a trenchant response dealing with the issue of "outdated research". It can be found here. She raises questions about the implications for humanities scholarship.

    Struve was obviously trying to counter some of the "second hand assumptions" about romance readers, but she did so in a way which left me unclear which assumptions she herself was making, and her observation that female romance readers talk to one another isn't exactly new because, as Sarah points out in her post, Janice Radway had already written about that in 1984 (in Reading the Romance), albeit the community Radway describes was based around a bookshop rather than online.

    Curiously, Struve quotes Radway's “Reading is Not Eating: Mass-Produced Literature and the Theoretical, Methodological, and Political Consequences of a Metaphor.” Book Research Quarterly 2.3 (1986): 7–29 but not Radway's Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature.