Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

As most of you probably already know, January takes its name 'from Latin Januarius mensis "month of Janus" (the Roman god who presided over doors and beginnings)', and like the two-headed (sometimes even four-headed) god, people often look both backwards and forwards at this time of year, remembering what's happened over the past year and thinking about how they'd like things to improve in the coming one.

Looking back, I notice that among those who have have arrived here via a search engine, quite a lot would seem to be looking for someone to teach them about sex. They could probably do a lot worse than to read some romances because, as I mentioned in August, some romances can be read as sex education. I would, however, like to point out that romances can also contain inaccuracies. As Kalen Hughes has observed,
Contrary to what appears to be popular mythology (at least among the writers of romance and erotica) the hymen is not a “barrier” (except in RARE cases that require surgery; 1 in 2000 per Blaustein's Pathology of the Female Genital Tract) nor is it up inside the vaginal canal as it is commonly represented to be in fiction.
In addition, the exceptional stamina and physical endurance of many romance heroes and heroines are precisely that - exceptional. If anyone's looking for a more factual approach to sex education, then I'd suggest they look at a site like Scarlateen, where there are detailed articles about safer sex, first-time sex, emotional readiness for sex and a lot more.

We also get quite a lot of hits from people wanting to be taught what's romantic. I doubt they're looking for the distinction between romance novels and romantic novels (though if they are, we've got a post on that here). If these people are looking for advice on what their partner might find romantic, Germaine Greer thinks that they might do well to read some romance novels:
The hero of romance knows how to treat women. Flowers, little gifts, love-letters, maybe poems to her eyes and hair, candlelit meals on moonlit terraces and muted strings. Nothing hasty, physical. Some heavy breathing. Searing lips pressed against the thin stuff of her bodice. Endearments muttered into her luxuriant hair. ‘Little things mean a lot.’ Her favourite chocolates, his pet names for her, remembering her birthday, anniversaries, silly games. And then the foolish things that remind him of her, her perfume, her scarf, her frilly underthings and absurd lace hankies, kittens in her lap. Mystery, magic, champagne, ceremony, tenderness, excitement, adoration, reverence – women never have enough of it. (1993: 194)
That was written in 1970, though, and both society and romance novels have changed a lot since then. Although some people may find such objects and proceedings romantic, others may well see them as clichéd and lacking in thought.

Still looking back, but thinking about how the past can inform the present, in a recent post at Romancing the Blog, Kassia discussed some old publishers' guidelines for romance novels that she'll be adding to the Romance Wiki:
Her figure is always perfectly in proportion, usually petite, and slight of build. He is usually dark, though we have seen some great Nordic types, and recently, we have been introduced to a stunning redhead. [The Other Woman is] usually mean, over-sophisticated, well groomed. She NEVER gets our hero. [Other Characters are] stock, easily recognized, cameos. (Silhouette Books, Character guidelines, excerpts)
and in the comments she added that 'as I read them [the guidelines], I could also see how so many current day perceptions of the genre developed. I mean, the guidelines out-and-out state that secondary characters should be stock'.

If this is the perception of the genre that's still held by many non-romance-readers, however, that's troubling, because it means that attitudes towards the genre may have been shaped by works written decades ago. One of the genre's biggest image problems is tied to a lack of knowledge about its history: it is precisely because people don't know about romance's long history and its various sub-genres that they can talk of the genre being written to an unchanging formula.* As Pamela Regis has said:
Most critics writing about "the romance" pay, at most, lip service to the forebears of contemporary works. This practice robs the genre of its most distinguished representatives, marooning it in the present, and reducing it to the few works that a given critic has chosen to analyze. (2003: 53)
Over the coming year I'd like to discuss a few of the less well-known ancestors of the modern romance novel. I may well not get very far with this, and, like so many other New Year's resolutions it may be quickly abandoned, but I have got at least a couple of blog posts lined up on the topic so far.
  • Greer, Germaine, 1993. The Female Eunuch (London: Flamingo).
  • Regis, Pamela, 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press).
* Re the romance 'formula', romance author Deborah Hale suggests that perhaps it's (H + h x A) ÷ C + HEA = R and what she has to say is very positive about the genre. Usually, however, the words 'formula' and 'formulaic', when applied to romance, have rather more negative connotations. The online Compact Oxford English Dictionary even mentions the genre in its definition of the word 'formulaic':
adjective 1 constituting or containing a set form of words. 2 produced in accordance with a slavishly followed rule or style: much romantic fiction is formulaic.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Happy Holidays!

I'll be taking a break from blogging until after the New Year. I'm not sure whether some of the others will pop in or not; I do know that some of them have huge piles of marking to wade through before the end of term.

When I was looking for an online Christmas romance, I found one by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin. Her The Romance of a Christmas Card was published in 1916 and demonstrates the miracles that can be worked by three pious women and two Christmas cards. Wiggin's A Cathedral Courtship is an earlier work, an epistolary short story, and with lines like the following, I'm really not sure how seriously one is supposed to take it:
'I witnessed the somewhat unusual spectacle of my nut-brown mayde hopping on one foot, like a divine stork'
They certainly don't write heroines like this one anymore, who can say in what appears to be all seriousness that
It is certainly very queer that the stupidest man that breathes, one that barely escapes idiocy, can disentangle a railway guide, when the brightest woman fails. [...] I do affirm that there is hardly any juncture in life where one isn't better off for having a man about.
She describes the hero thus: 'Mr. Copley has accomplished something, young as he is. He has built three picturesque suburban churches suitable for weddings, and a state lunatic asylum.' Our heroine, according to Mr Copley, is
the concentrated essence of feminine witchery. Intuition strong, logic weak, and the two qualities so balanced as to produce an indefinable charm; will-power large, but docility equal, if a man is clever enough to know how to manage her; knowledge of facts absolutely nil, but she is exquisitely intelligent in spite of it. She has a way of evading, escaping, eluding, and then gives you an intoxicating hint of sudden and complete surrender. She is divinely innocent, but roguishness saves her from insipidity.
Hope you're all saved from insipidity during the holidays too, but hopefully not because you've lost all sense of logic, knowledge of facts and the ability to read a train timetable.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Suspend Disbelief All Ye Who Enter Here

Continuing with the theme of belief/lack of belief I'd like to take a look at a couple of free online works by Holly Lisle. The second is a short re-working of a fairytale and the first is a longer novel, Sympathy for the Devil, which, as I observed regarding many paranormal romances, can be read as an inspirational (but non-Christian) romance. Although it draws heavily on Christian theology and is monotheistic, there is no endorsement for any particular world religion.

The reason I'm paraphrasing from Dante's Divine Comedy in the title of this post is that it seems entirely appropriate in the context of Lisle's Sympathy for the Devil. The original phrase, from the third Canto of the Inferno (the first part of the Comedy, which is followed by Purgatorio and then Paradiso) is written above the gate to Hell and is often rendered as 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here'. Hope is one of the three theological virtues, along with Faith and Charity (Love) and the heroine of Sympathy for the Devil has all three in abundance. This being a romance (or, at least, I read it that way, because it has both 'a central love story' and 'an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending') it seems appropriate that one is forcefully reminded of the words of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13: 13) concerning love: 'And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity'.

Sympathy for the Devil is by turns humorous, emotionally powerful and psychologically insightful, much like C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. Lisle acknowledges her debt to both 'Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis, who introduced me to this territory when I was nine'. Lewis' theology is considerably more orthodox than Lisle's, however, and his work is composed of a series of letter from Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. Through the letters (a sample letter is available here) one learns about the faith journey of Wormwood's 'patient', the human whose soul he is trying to gain. The Screwtape Letters contains a significant romantic thread but unlike Lisle's Sympathy for the Devil it is not a romance.

There are a number of reviews available of Sympathy for the Devil, for example here and here. Holly Lisle has also written about the theologial and personal background to the novel here. I'd recommend, however, that you read them only after reading the novel itself. So, if you're ready to start, here's the first page. I'll be interested to know how people feel about this. Did you think of it as a romance? Did you enjoy the humour? How did you feel about the theology?

The second online work of Lisle's I want to look at is Armor-ella, a reworking of the Cinderella story. As in the previous novel, an important issue is belief in paranormal beings. This time, however, they're ones more often discussed in fairytales than by theologians.

I'm looking forward to reading your opinions on these two.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jennifer Crusie - Hot Toy

As Eric and I are working on the novels of Jennifer Crusie we've inevitably mentioned her rather a lot on the blog, to the extent that one blogger described Teach Me Tonight like this: 'If you think of witty, insightful romance writer and academic Jennifer Crusie as the site's spiritual patron saint and foremother, you'll have an idea of its feel'. I'll take that as a compliment! And, as it's Christmas and our 'patron saint' has a newly released Christmas short story, it seemed like the right time to post about Hot Toy. There's a long excerpt available here, and reviews here and here. As usual, this isn't a review, and I will be including spoilers (though I try not to reveal too much).

First of all, Jenny is well known for giving advice and support to other writers. She's written essays on writing and publishing, set up a site where writers can support each other and compare their experiences of the writing life (though there are also some areas for readers) and in the New Year she and Bob Mayer will begin an online 'year-long workshop, updated twice weekly, on the craft of writing a novel'. So it maybe shouldn't come as a surprise that Hot Toy teaches us about one method of creating a plot, namely the use of the 'MacGuffin':
A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story.

The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "[W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers." [...]

The element that distinguishes a MacGuffin from other types of plot devices is that it is not important what object the MacGuffin specifically is. Anything that serves as a motivation will do. A true MacGuffin is essentially interchangeable. Its importance will generally be accepted completely by the story's characters, with minimal explanation. From the audience's perspective, the MacGuffin is not the point of the story. (Wikipedia)
The explict reference to a MacGuffin was a source of great amusement to many of those who commented on this review of the novella. However, although this MacGuffin may begin the story like any other MacGuffin, it ends up rather differently.

At the heart of the novella is the theme of belief, particularly a woman's almost lost belief in the possibility of a happy ending for romantic relationships and a child's belief in Santa. Trudy is determined that her nephew, Leroy, is still 'going to believe in Santa, since he can't believe in men or nannies' (2006: 62). For me the fact that the child's belief was so important invited comparisons with other texts about and for children. Because of what happens to it the MacGuffin, despite being a 'homicidal doll that spit toxic waste' (2006: 8), reminds me of Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit, which begins 'On Christmas morning'. Here's the part where one toy talks to another:
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
As the Horse admits, love is about pain, as well as pleasure, but for those who love you unconditionally 'you can't be ugly'. Love and the process of becoming worn, faded and shapeless make the Velveteen Rabbit real*, and the object which begins the story as a MacGuffin (in fact it's a 'Major MacGuffin' both literally (it's a military toy) and in terms of the storyline) ends up becoming more real: 'He looked nicer now, she thought, all ripped up and eviscerated and dirty. More vulnerable' (2006: 108). Another character in The Velveteen Rabbit is a fairy, and the central theme of Hot Toy, namely faith/belief in something which all the evidence suggests is not true, reminds me of the scene 'When Peter Pan asks audiences to affirm their belief in fairies in order to revive Tinker Bell, this can be interpreted as an affirmation of the willing suspension of disbelief thought to be an essential condition of theatrical spectating' (Davis 2005). Incidentally, for those who'd like some proof of the existence of fairies, there's a website all about the urban fairies of Ann Arbor, Michigan who create tiny doors in the most unexpected locations, including Ann Arbor District Library.

Another children's story that came to mind when reading Hot Toy was that of Hansel and Gretel, and not just because of the gingerbread houses which Trudy's sister is constructing.** In a reversal of the fairytale it's Leroy's father (Trudy's brother-in-law) who has run off to Cancún with Leroy's nanny, leaving behind Leroy and Courtney, whereas in the fairytale it's usually a stepmother who convinces the father to abandon his family responsibilities by removing the children from the family home (in some versions she's simply called 'the mother', and the extent of the father's guilt and weakness also varies, depending on which version one reads). Of course, Courtney's not a child, but Trudy's planning to buy her 'the doll my little sister never got' (2006: 19) . A further story of fatherly betrayal is that of The Little Match Girl, to which Trudy alludes after she's emerged from the toyshop,
her feet aching as the cold from the concrete permeated the thin soles of her boots [...].
It started to snow.
If I had some matches, I could strike them all and bask in the glow, Trudy thought. (2006: 39)
Just before she dies of hypothermia the match girl 'struck the whole bundle of matches [...]. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight'. The little match girl's father is far worse than Trudy's, who is only guilty of absent-minded neglect, and would not, as in the fairytale 'surely beat her' for failing to sell some matches, but clearly his shortcomings as a father have deeply hurt Trudy and negatively affected her relationships with men.

Another strand of the story is about consumerism and its relationship (or lack of one) to the real meaning of Christmas:
Above her, Madonna cooed “Santa Baby,” the ancient store speakers making the carol to sex and greed sound a little tinny. Whatever had happened to “The Little Drummer Boy”? That had been annoying, too, but in a traditional way, like fruitcake. She’d be happy to hear a “rumpa-pa-pum” again, anything that didn’t make Christmas sound like it was about getting stuff.
Especially since she was desperate to get some stuff. (2006: 8)
Later, while 'Gimme, gimme, gimme' (2006: 55) plays in the background we're very briefly, and in a very quirky way, reminded that Christmas is about Jesus' birthday (2006: 54). And then, with a drumroll as the action really begins to get underway, Trudy gets her wish and 'There was a radio somewhere blaring "The Little Drummer Boy." '"Rum-pa-pum-pum," Trudy said, not at all reassured' (2006: 57).

In the context of the rather worrying traces of the radioactive substance polonium-210 discovered at various locations in London, Hamburg and Moscow and the death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, plots based on international espionage leave me less than reassured too. Fortunately, none of the characters in Hot Toy end up either dead or radioactive.

So, should we adopt Trudy's New Year's resolution: 'My resolution for 2007 is to start believing in people again' (2006: 64)? Or are we wiser, and safer, if we remain on our guard? Do we have to have faith in something in order to be happy, or does that just set us up for disappointment? And do you believe in Santa, fairies or romantic relationships?
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2006. 'Hot Toy', in Santa Baby (New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks), pp. 1-111.
  • Davis, Tracy, 2005. 'Do You Believe in Fairies?: The Hiss of Dramatic License', Theatre Journal, 57.1: 57-81. [My quotation was from the abstract.]
* 'the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful'.
** Gingerbread houses/Lebkuchenhäuschen are not common in the UK, and I've never seen one, but I assume they're part of the Christmas traditions in many German and American families.

And one final note: we had a chicken in the Elizabeth Bevarly novel I've looked at, chooks in Marion Lennox's Christmas novella and here there's a toy cow lobbying for the rest of us to eat more poultry: ' "It says, 'Eat chicken,' when you pull its string."' (2006: 46). I'm sure this has absolutely no significance at all.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Analysing Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels

No, not here. Kate Moore's leading a discussion about this novel over at Dishing with the Divas. Loretta Chase herself has promised to drop in on the conversation.

Kate's already thought of a few questions and ideas to get people started, and they're here and here.

Of Pigs and Paupers

Yesterday I learned that Max, George Clooney's pet pig, had died. Then I came across Debra Salonen's The Laws of Love in Harlequin's free Online Reads Library. One of the main characters is a pig, and as I liked the story and the coincidence, and because I'm not sure how long this story will stay in the Library, I thought I'd post about it.

It's a story of contrasts and similarities, of appearances and social disapproval. Our heroine, Gwyneth Jacobi, is a lawyer known for being a 'barracuda'. Arley McNamara is a rich philanthropist with a short attention span. Cuddles, the pig, is large and at risk. The neighbours object to Cuddles' continued presence in their neigbourhood. Arley's parents object to Gwyneth (she's Jewish). Cuddles knows exactly who she is and what she wants: Arley and Gwyneth need to do a bit more work on deciding what really matters to them.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Romance, Pleasure, and Poetics

Hello, everyone. I've been gone so long, this blog feels unfamiliar: a bit like visiting home for the holidays after one has actually moved out of the house, out of state, into adulthood. Not that what I'm up to elsewhere has been particularly adult; in my other (so-called) professional lives I've been teaching glum undergraduates, grading exams, and working my way through a two-foot stack of poetry by Latina/o American poets, looking for a lead for my next piece. This weekend, though, a discussion of pleasure and poetry got me thinking and writing about romance again, and I thought I'd continue those musings, and that conversation, here. I hope that you all can bring some fresh perspectives to the debate!

A graduate-student blogger named Josh Corey kicked things off with an introspective post about the disparate pleasures he takes in fiction and poetry; or, to be more precise, in certain kinds of fiction and certain kinds of poetry. As my old friend Mark explains,
Josh contrasts the “absorptive” or “immersive” pleasure of your average well-written novel (the “vivid continuous dream” evoked by John Gardner) with the more thorny pleasures offered by “anti-absorptive” poetry – writing in which the language does not “disappear” from the page, to be replaced by an evoked or described world – writing, in short, that foregrounds its own materiality as language, that won’t let us forget that we’re after all reading.
Like many essayists and theorists, alas, Josh doesn't just distinguish between these pleasures; he ranks them. Unlike many others, however, Josh quickly checks himself, refusing to let the hierarchy he sets up pass unchallenged:
Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state [offered by "immersive" fiction], and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry [my link: ES] because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.
Now, on my Say Something Wonderful blog I took issue with Josh over a lot of this. I find his description of "immersive" fiction rather sloppy; it can't account, for example, for my vivid sense, this past weekend, of snuggling up with two entirely different authorial "voices" as I read Eloisa James's Pleasure for Pleasure and Pam Rosenthal's The Slightest Provocation. His sexual and culinary metaphors are both somewhat casual, and likewise won't hold up on close inspection. How, though, shall we talk about the different pleasures of reading different sorts of literature? Are there other discourses available?

In search of them, I'm heading off to read an essay from Sally Goade's forthcoming collection on romance fiction, Empowerment vs. Oppression (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007): "Forms of Pleasure in the Reading of Popular Romance: Psychic and Cultural Dimensions," by Eva Y. I. Chen. I'll let you know what she says, and how it helps. In the mean time, I notice that the theorists and philosophers who get cited in these debates are all men, all modern, and all European: Freud, Lacan, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Adorno. Who are the women I should read? Who are the non-European thinkers? Who are the ancients, the medieval rhetoricians, the neo-classicists, the Romantics? Who thinks about pleasure outside the literary sphere, in disciplines from psychology to, I don't know, marketing?

I'd love your suggestions, and promise to make use of them!

Marion Lennox - A Bride for Christmas

This is a novella, the third in the anthology Christmas Proposals. I've not been able to find a review of it anywhere, but the synopsis, from the back cover, is as follows: 'When wealthy Guy Carver arrives in Australia, to take over Jenny Westmere’s wedding salon, he finds he wants nothing more than to make Jenny and her little boy his family – by Christmas!' Before I go any further, I'd better issue my usual spoiler warning. This isn't a review, and because I want to look at some of the themes in the novella, I sometimes have to reveal spoilers.

This interview with Marion Lennox, from The Age gives a hint of what her books are like: they're romances which combine intense emotion and down-to-earth practicality. She's won the Rita twice - in 2004, for Her Royal Baby in the Best Traditional Romance category and again, in the same category, in 2006, for Princess of Convenience. As one might expect from her down-to-earth side, Lennox has a habit of giving the princess story a bit of a twist. Jenny, the heroine of this novella compares herself to Cinderella and the hero to Prince Charming and then observes:
'I have a feeling that marriage for Cinders had its downside.'
'I've never heard of any fairytale where they divorce,' he said, startled, but she refused to smile.
'No,' she said thoughtfully. 'But being all alone in his castle, with everyone knowing she'd come from rags to riches ... she'd have to be grateful for ever.' (2006: 346)
In her two Rita-winning romances featuring commoners who marry a prince the balance of power isn't always in the Prince's favour and the Princess-to-be is extremely talented and skilled at her job.

Marion Lennox's novels not infrequently feature widowed heroines, as does 'A Bride for Christmas', and characters who've suffered other bereavements (this is the case in Princess of Convenience, as discussed here), but as they're romances, there are happy endings. As touched on in 'A Bride for Christmas', though, Christmas can be a bitter-sweet (or even just a bitter) time for those whose bereavement is recent and even not so recent (Guy, for example, says that 'The first Christmas was the worst, but it's still bad' (2006: 293) after fifteen years), but in time the celebration can bring comfort to some:
The Christmas after Ben had been killed, when Henry's life had hung by a precarious thread, Lorna had decreed Christmas was off. 'It doesn't mean anything,' she'd declared. 'I'm tossing all my decorations.'
Twelve months later she'd rather shamefacedly hauled out her non-tossed decorations. Jack and Jenny had been desultorily watching television, with Henry on the sofa nearby. They'd been miserable, but they'd fallen on the decorations like long-lost friends. That night had been the first night when ghosts and fear and sadness hadn't hung over the house, and this year Henry had demanded his grandparents start sorting the decorations on the first day of November (2006: 277)
Both Guy and Henry (Jenny's six-year-old son) have been involved in car accidents which have left them emotionally and physically scarred: Guy 'worked hard. He kept to himself. He made money and he carefully didn't know people. His life decisions would never hurt anyone again' (2006: 259) and 'Normally when visitors came Henry was seen but not heard. Henry had been a happy, cheerful four-year-old [...] Now Henry's world was limited to hospital visits, physiotherapy clinics and his grandparents' farm' (2006: 279). Henry's physical scars are the more visible, and Guy comforts him by showing him his own, 'He'd learned not to hate his scars, but until now he'd never been grateful' (2006: 326), and telling Henry that
Most people start out as babies with no marks on them, but as interesting things happen they get marked. We all get marked from life. Somewhere I read that the native people in Australia deliberately make scars on their chests to show they're grown up. I think the more marks you have on you, the more interesting you become. ' He smiled at the little boy [...] 'So you and me, Henry ... we're really interesting [...]'. (2006: 327)
The theme of scars, life experience and how it making someone more interesting also turns up, though in a rather different way, in Jennifer Crusie's Christmas novella, 'Hot Toy', but I'll blog about that another day.

There's a second theme, also related to outward appearances, which is about style and different tastes in decoration, particularly kitsch (2006: 308). Kitsch is:
a German term that has been used to categorize art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to any art that is pretentious or in bad taste [...] most closely associated with art that is sentimental; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art that is deficient for similar reasons—whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art. (Wikipedia)
I may be wrong, but I see parallels here between different styles of wedding (the kitsch 'pink tulle' wedding versus the elegant, minimalist celebration) and different types of fiction (romance versus some types of modern literary fiction). Jenny's extremely pink wedding salon was founded by Lorna, who reads 'romance novels' (2006: 358). Romance, like Jenny's salon, is often described as 'fluff' and, like kitsch, is often described as formulaic and overly sentimental. As Guy observes, however, kitsch can be 'fun when you're not forced into it' (2006: 309). Of course, there are only a few romances which are kitsch, but even those can have a certain charm, even if some romance readers think of them as 'guilty pleasures'.

Guy's 'Carver Salons are sleek and minimalist' (2006: 254), whereas Jenny's shop is called 'Bridal Fluff', and it certainly doesn't fit in with the image of the other Carver bridal salons:
what he saw made him blanch. Bridal Fluff was indeed ... fluff. The shopfront was pastel pink. The curtains in the windows looked like billowing white clouds, held back with pink and silver tassels. A Christmas tree stood in the window, festooned with pink and silver baubles, and a white fluffy angel smiling seraphically down on passers-by. The name of the shop was picked out in deeper pink, gold and silver. (2006: 238-9)
Kylie, the first bride Guy meets, is having her fitting in the shop and is being dressed to meet her mother's idea of 'what a bride should look like - which was a vision in every decorative piece of lacework she could think of. The veil even had tiny cupid motifs hand-sewn onto the netting. Seeing the veil turned into a train, Jenny estimated Guy was looking at approximately eight hundred cupids' (2006: 247-8). The second bride-to-be is a celebrity, Anna Price, who 'had been pilloried in the press for her bad taste. Of course she'd want pink tulle' (2006: 264). I suspect that Anna's tastes in wedding dresses matches those of Jordan, with whom she shares a surname. Jordan/Katie Price was married in 2005 in a dress which 'was pink with a tightfitting bodice made out of Swarovski crystals and a large wide Cinderella style skirt, adorned in 1000's of crystals. She had a large tiara with rose and clear coloured crystals in the shape of interlocking hearts' (from this website, where pictures are available if you scroll down a little).*

In some ways, romance novels are like 'Bridal Fluff': they're stereotyped as being pink and fluffy, but they appeal to a range of customers and, in fact, not all are 'fluffy', just as not all the wedding's Jenny's run are 'fluffy' 'pink tulle' weddings: when Guy flicks through the catalogue of past weddings she's organised he sees 'Fluff, fluff ... But every now and then something different' (2006: 259). In fact the 'pink tulle' style is more to Lorna's taste. She was the one who founded Bridal Fluff, and her taste in Christmas decorations is equally over-the-top but 'there was a reason why the [Christmas] decorations were just ever so slightly over the top' (2006: 277) at Lorna, Jack, Jenny and Henry's home. For them the over the top decorations are a way of showing they're going to make the very most of life. Similarly, even the fluffiest, pinkest wedding has a special meaning for the bride who chooses it. Of course, it isn't a style that suits everyone, as Lennox acknowledges. Despite appearances to the contrary, Kylie longs to have a special day which reflects her own tastes, not her mother's:
'that dress ... Mum had you make it for me when I was sixteen. She chose it. Not me. Every week since then Mum gets it out and pats it. Do you know how much I hate it? [...] when Mum rang and said I could have a Carver Wedding I thought suddenly, A Carver Wedding! I could maybe have it like I want. Elegant. Sleek. Sophisticated. Something so when our kids grow up they'll look at our wedding photos and think, Wow, just for a bit our parents weren't assistants in a butcher's shop. If you knew how much I hate pink tulle...' (2006: 306)
Deep down, Guy isn't really a minimalist and he comes up with an inventive solution which gives every bride the wedding that suits her, whether that be pink tulle or something a little different. In this way Guy rediscovers what had first made him take up wedding planning. The first wedding he organised was run on a tiny budget, and 'The bride had been ecstatic' (2006: 256), but Guy faced a lot of prejudice, including from his now-deceased fiancée who had declared:
'If you loved me you'd keep doing law. Your father's expecting you to take over the family firm. Your mother's scared you're gay. Guy, you play with paints. Paints! And me ... How do you think I feel being engaged to a wedding planner?'
She'd said the words with such scorn. (2006: 258)
I may be wrong, but I wonder if there are parallels here with the way in which male romance novelists face even more prejudice than female ones. The big problem with Guy's retreat from emotional weddings is that some of his staff don't just scorn 'pink tulle' weddings, they also scorn women whom they assume would want that sort of wedding, perhaps in the same way that some people mistakenly assume that romance readers have lower educational levels than those who read other genres. When Jenny visited the Carver salon in Paris:
I could have been there to talk about my wedding. I could have been there to make enquiries about anything at all. But I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and carrying a small backpack Lorna had given me. [...] The backpack was pink. Anyway, they obviously sorted me as a type they didn't want. They asked me to leave, and suddenly there was a security guard propelling me onto the pavement (2006: 255)
Jane Austen's novels are romances which get past the literary security guards, but other romances, particularly those with pink, sparkles, clinches, or the Mills & Boon rose logo on the cover probably won't. At their core, romances, like Bridal Fluff's business model, are about emotion. Some romances may not be as stylish as others but deep down, there's a sincerity, joy and hopefulness in romance which is likely to be lacking in sleek, minimalist works.
  • Lennox, Marion, 2006. 'A Bride for Christmas', in Christmas Proposals (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon), pp. 235-377.
* Incidentally, apparently Jordan's 'princess-style fantasy wedding has helped send sales of Barbie dolls soaring' (Louise Barnett, The Daily Record, 26 September 2005).

Coincidentally, the last book I analysed was by a 'Squawker' and included a pet chicken. Marion Lennox keeps chooks, and some appear in this novel. They're described as 'Feathery things that lay eggs' (2006: 294) and if you look at some of the photos of chooks on Ally Blake's blog (e.g. here and here), you'll see that that's really a very accurate description. Ally Blake, like Marion Lennox, is a romance writer who keeps chooks. Seems that where romance writers are concerned, feather boas are out, and feathered friends are in ;-)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Popular but Ridiculed?

Lately it's been popular and analysed. Conferences coming up include
  • The Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association's Annual Regional Conference(February 14-17, 2007, Albuquerque, New Mexico). The call for papers on romance is here and, in an updated version, here, and according to the conference's main page the deadline for submissions has been extended to 1 December.
  • Eric Selinger and Darcy Martin will be chairing a session on romance at the National Popular Culture & American Culture Associations 2007 Joint Conference (April 4-7, 2007, in Boston, Massachusetts).
  • And, as mentioned earlier on this blog, there's a Feminism and Popular Culture conference coming up in the UK in June 2007.
If anyone knows of any other conferences at which papers on romance are being encouraged (and on which the calls for papers aren't quite so imminent or already past), please add details in the comments.

It's not that long since Eloisa James 'came out' and revealed that she's both an academic and a romance author (you can listen to her discuss why she made that decision here). In 2003 Dr Lee Tobin McClain wrote that:
Even though popular fiction has become more academically respectable in recent years, focusing on it can still seem hazardous to a professor's career. Studying a genre as devalued as romance is particularly fraught with difficulty, and writing romance has a reputation even below analyzing it.
As we can see, though, at the moment there are plenty of conferences and lots of academic interest in popular culture, including the romance genre, and over at the Romance Wiki there's a list of academics who write romance, including McClain herself (under her pseudonym) and Eloisa James. In her article McClain urges other academics to follow in their footsteps:
if popular fiction is your passion, working with it can be both productive and playful. In fact, popular fiction can provide a useful window into the scholarly world. As a romance-writing academic, I offer the following lessons for those who want to follow this treacherous path.
So perhaps things are slowly improving, but in the meantime some prejudices still linger. Here's a link to a short romance story by Linda Sole (who writes for Mills & Boon as Anne Herries) which touches on the issue. Avril, the heroine of For Those Who Believe is a fan of fantasy fiction and 'It wasn't unusual for friends to mock her about her choice of fiction. Not many of them shared her love of fantasy books and films'. Of course, it might be that her friends have some valid concerns about quite how seriously she believes in the fantasy world. But my sympathies are with Avril, and I think it'll be the same for most of us who know how to suspend our disbelief, so that (for a short time) the world of romance novel feels real.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Elizabeth Bevarly - The Thing About Men

As promised, here's a post about Elizabeth Bevarly's The Thing About Men. There are plenty of reviews of it, including one at Romantic Times, one at AAR, and one by Mrs Giggles. There's an excerpt here.

Ellen Micheletti, the AAR reviewer, comments that:
The theme of the book is the importance of family. Claire's parents died when she was only three, and she was sent to an orphanage. She was never adopted, so she does not want little Anabel to go through what she did. Ramsey Sage left a bad family situation when he was eighteen and has lived a hard life [...]. He's come to realize how important family is, and he wants that for his niece.
It isn't the theme I picked up on the first time I read the book, though Bevarly does say in the dedication that 'this book [...] deals with second families', which just goes to show that different readers can have very different perceptions of the same book. Ellen Michelleti's right, though, and this is an important theme in the novel, though not, I think, the only one. So I'll begin by taking a look at the theme of family and then turn to gender/gender constructs and what the novel has to say about them.

There seem to be two possible interpretations of the word 'family' offered by the narrative, one the biological family, the other the 'second families' that people create for themselves. That said, Bevarly's second family are her aunt's husband and children (her aunt being her mother's 'twin sister, who shared the same DNA'). At times, The Thing About Men acknowledges the ways in which the biological family can fail: Claire herself is an orphan and 'neither of her parents had left behind any relatives suitable for raising her - all had either been too dilapidated, too debilitated, too disinterested, or too dysfunctional. Or worse, all of the above' (2005: 29-30); it is not known who Anabel's biological father was; Claire's friend Olive 'had never had much of a family beyond her invalid - and now deceased - mother' (2005: 7) and Ramsey's family home 'had been a war zone the entire time Ramsey had grown up. [...] He couldn't recall a single day when his parents hadn't fought bitterly about something, unless he counted the days when his parents were too drunk to even get out of bed (2005: 125-126). Another of the characters is a social worker, and his disillusionment and world-weariness is due, at least in part, to 'the things he'd seen people do to their own children' (2005: 166).

We are shown how people can create family networks of their own, mostly made up of people who are not biological relations. Eleanor Sage's attempt at making family (apart from her daughter), involved no personal contact at all, and was based on her being Claire's '#1 fan' (2005: 13). Although she never met Claire, she
had begun writing [to her] nearly three years earlier [...] At first, the young woman's letters had simply proclaimed her love for the program. But eventually, they had begun to contain snippets of Eleanor's personal life, too. Most recently, those snippets had included anecdotes about the birth and ensuing adventures of Eleanor's daughter, now thirteen months old, whom Eleanor had named Anabel Claire Sage, after her deceased grandmother and her favourite celebrity. [...] Claire [...] had been both deeply touched and slightly appalled. [...] the thought that a television personality would hold a higher place in the woman's life than her family or her friends was just a trifle unnerving (2005: 13)
Claire herself has no family, and it is her friend and business partner Olive who gives her support, love and a sense of community. Olive is Claire's 'best friend in the whole, wide world [...] Claire had known her since they had been thrown together as roommates [...] thirteen years before and couldn't imagine how she would get along without her' (2005: 7), 'They had bonded immediately. And they had taken care of each other. Little by little, each had become for the other the family neither had ever had' (2005: 30). Much later Claire says that 'Family is a relative term [...] it takes more to make a family than people swimming in the same gene pool' (2005: 152).

The message about family and the way second families can be created that are non-biological is somewhat mixed however, because at many points in the novel the importance of biological ties is stressed very strongly, for example when Ramsey thinks 'Claire Willoughby could give Anabel lots of things that Ramsey couldn't. But they were unimportant things [...] What Ramsey had to offer his niece went straight to the heart. Anabel belonged with him. They were family. And that was the only thing that really mattered' (2005: 59). Shortly after this Claire thinks that 'a family was the one thing she had always wanted and had never had, and probably never would have [...] she felt like such an outcast from society because she'd never in her life had the very thing that defined the culture in which she'd grown up' (2005: 64-65).

There are plenty of romances in which the heroine is left in charge of a secret baby which she must introduce to its biological father (who usually feels an instant bond with the child, because it shares some of his DNA), or in which the heroine is the mother of a secret baby and the hero, the biological father, coerces her into marriage on the grounds that a baby needs both its biological parents (regardless if, at the time they marry each other, they at best feel tolerance for each other and at worse are in constant conflict). The Thing About Men does not quite have that sort of plot, but it's nonetheless true that Claire, the orphaned heroine, meets the hero because of his biological ties to the baby niece he didn't know he had. When the hero and the baby meet 'Claire could almost hear a zap of connection resonate between uncle and niece' (2005: 124) and finally the hero and heroine marry and form a two-parent family.

On the issue of Anabel's father one can almost sense the tension between the recognition that some biological familes can be disfunctional, even dangerous and the traditional mantra that 'blood is thicker than water':
He wondered briefly about the little girl's father, but decided that if Eleanor hadn't thought the man important enough to include in Anabel's life, then Ramsey probably shouldn't think of him that way, either. [...] Still, the girl's father deserved to know he had a daughter out in the world. Once Ramsey was more accustomed to his new role as her guardian [...] he'd see if he could find Anabel's father. Surely the guy would want to know about his next generation' (2005: 130).
Of course, Ramsey has a vested interest in stressing the importance of biological family, because other than his status as Anabel's uncle, he has little in his favour were it to come to a custody battle. Perhaps Bevarly's final conclusions on the issue of parental love, and what makes a parent, come through when Claire ponders that
even biological parents didn't learn their trade overnight, did they? She'd read enough issues of Parents and Parenting magazines in recent weeks to understand that no matter when or how one became a parent, one had no idea what one was getting oneself into until it was too late. And she'd learned, too, that no matter how chaotic and challenging the child, parents grew to love them unconditionally.
It wasn't too late for Claire and Anabel. (2005: 306)
Bevarly's said very similar things only recently on the Squawk Radio blog. And, of course, husbands and wives usually aren't blood relatives, but they are each other's 'family too' (2005: 333).

But if family (both biological and chosen) is the theme I missed, the one I noticed was one which touches on biological determinism:

This explanation of gender is based on the belief that all differences between men and women result from biology - the 'anatomy is destiny' argument. Biological determinism is often used to support generalisations about men and women, such as 'men are naturally more able in maths and technology' or 'women are naturally suited to domestic duties'.

These views are based on investigations of genetic differences between men and women, often searching for differences in brain function. However, even by the early 1990s, it was clear that the constant finding of psychological research is that 'sex differences are small, their origins unclear, and the variation within each sex far outweighs any differences between the sexes' (Segal 1990:63 as reproduced in Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998:44). (Queensland Government page on 'understanding gender')

The novel deals with stereotypes, prejudices, and judgements made about people on the basis of their appearance and gender, and demonstrates how these may be proved wrong. The very title of the book, The Thing About Men, invites the reader to conclude the sentence with generalisations about men. The back cover copy gives us a few possible ways to do this:
Three Things About Men:
They think dinner comes in a box ...
They never ask for directions ...
They never admit they're wrong.
Comments like that are, of course, sexist. As Wikipedia notes, sexism can be directed against males as well as females (and intersex and transsexual individuals) and 'some of the arguments for biological determinism come from women themselves—especially from what is described as proponents of “essentialist” feminism' (Barnett and Rivers 2005).

As we discussed in my previous post, Bevarly is a feminist, and one whose husband
was the primary caregiver, a stay-at-home dad, until my son entered school. (Though, as said above, we are equal partners in the parenting these days, since we both work now.)

I don’t think there’s a gender divide in who can care for children better. My husband was much more patient and less anxious than I would have been, had our roles been reversed. (from the comments section attached to this post)
In the novel Beverly frequently sets up expectations (not just about gender) and then confounds them. Ellen Michelleti, for example, writes that ' I am not a fan of Martha Stewart, so when I saw that The Thing About Men was about a lifestyle diva, I hoped for a good plot since I knew I would not like the character. Silly me - the characters turned out to be the best thing about the book.'

In the opening scene Claire Willoughby, the heroine, is trying to work out what to do with a live chicken* (she needs it dead, so that she can cook it on her TV show) and
the irony was that the theme of Claire's nationally syndicated - and live - TV show, Simple Pleasures, like the theme of Claire's nationally distributed magazine, also called Simple Pleasures, was "Back to Basics." That was, in fact, pretty much the mission statement of her entire lifestyle business - to promote a return to the simpler ways of simpler times. Ways and times that had included, for example, raising livestock for the purpose of holiday cuisine. (2005: 2-3)
Claire's deception goes deeper than that (though unlike Martha Stewart's, it doesn't involve insider trading (a fact that's alluded to on page 331)). It is really Olive, her friend and business partner who has the ideas behind the show. Claire 'was actually little more than window dressing for the business' (2005: 8). Claire makes a snap judgement about Ramsey: 'it took only one, very quick, perusal of Ramsey Sage for Claire to know everything she needed to know about him. He was completely unfit to be anyone's mother. Or father. Or guardian' (2005: 41). Ramsey's aim is, despite his appearance, to 'convince you that I'm perfectly capable of raising Anabel being the man I am right now' (2005: 114).

Ramsey, unlike Claire, doesn't trust first appearances: 'Never in his life had he seen two more courteous, more refined, better-dressed people. Which naturally made him extremely suspicious' (2005: 51), 'As cultured and refined as she looked [...], he suspected she wasn't born to this lifestyle. Maybe it was because she tried so hard to appear to fit in' (2005: 53). Even so, he makes some mistaken assumptions too, such as 'neither one of them had the first thing in common' (2005: 53).

There are plenty of generalisations about men, for example when Ramsey 'seemed to understand the attorney's actions when she [Claire] didn't. Ah, well. One of those "guy things" she'd read so much about, she supposed. [...] That was the thing about men. They had a language all of their own. Unfortunately, it was about as intelligible to most women as baseball statistics were' (2005: 50-51). Ramsey has similar thoughts about a unique male-only language: 'Bar brawling was a primitive sort of communication, to be sure, but it had been around for a few millenia and was spoken universally by men' (2005: 56). There's more about male communication only a few pages later: 'Some guy thing that Claire couldn't hope to understand because, thankfully, her body produced too much estrogen' (2005: 68) and her further thought is 'testosterone clearly did something to the human brain she didn't want done to hers (2005: 69). Among the 'things about men' is: 'Diplomacy, after all, had kept the world a reasonably peaceful place, in spite of its being ruled by men. Because that was the thing about men. They could be well behaved if they put their minds to it' (2005: 112).

It becomes more and more obvious that Claire doesn't really know that much about men since, as she admits to herself, 'few [humans] had ever tried to get close to her, emotionally or physically. And none had shown any displays of affection' (2005: 236). Similarly, Ramsey doesn't know much about either men or women in normal situations: 'when was the last time Ramsey had actually had a relationship with anyone, of either gender? Not for a long, long time. In fact, he could think of only one real relationship that he'd had in his entire life' (2005: 240). This, and the fact that Claire's generalisations about men become progressively more and more absurd: 'That was the thing about men. They didn't understand chickens any better than they did cats' (2005: 139) or
that was the thing about men. They only heard the things you didn't want them to hear. The important stuff - stuff like, "Just forget you heard me say that" and "It's really no big deal" and "Lots of businesses are run that way" - went in one ear and out the other. But mumble a little negligible something about being a fraud, and boy, they were all over that (2005: 151-152).
raise the possibility that all these generalisations are simply part of the way the characters distance themselves from others, to avoid relating to others as individuals and falling into a real relationship. In addition, that one about what men tend to hear is extremely specific and relates to what Ramsey has just done, so one gets the distinct impression that although Claire's words imply she's talking about all men, in fact, she's just talking about one man: Ramsey. The second-last generalisation, 'that was the thing about men [...] they were so predictable' (2005: 344) is clearly humorous, particularly as only minutes before Ramsey had done something that Claire would never have predicted. The final generalisation is unlike the previous ones in that this time Claire states explictly that really, it's not a generalisation at all - she's only talking about Ramsey: 'Because that was the thing about men. Or, at least, that was the thing about this man. He knew a lot about pleasures.' (2005: 350). In addition to this rejection of the phrase 'the thing about men' for 'the thing about this man', the fact that many of the previous generalisations are made for humorous effect undercuts their sexism. Ultimately Bevarly's position on gender would appear to be encapsulated in Claire's serious response to a question that Ramsey asks her: 'I think people should do whatever they want to do, regardless of their gender or society's expectations of their gender' (2005: 340). Claire and Ramsey's happy ending is only possible because both are able to reject traditional gender roles.
  • Barnett, Rosalind C. and Caryl Rivers, 2005. 'Biology, Destiny, and Bad Science', Dissent Magazine, Summer 2005. [There is a copy of the same article, with a slightly different title, on the Brandeis University website.]
  • Bevarly, Elizabeth, 2005. The Thing About Men (London: HarperCollins). First Avon Books paperback printing, January 2004.

* As far as I can tell, Squawk Radio, the group blog to which Bevarly contributes and which includes pictures of all the Squawkers as hens, began in 2005 (originally at blogspot, though it's now moved to here). Clearly Bevarly had an interest in chickens even in those pre-Squawk days. And - SPOILER ALERT - the chicken survives and Claire takes it to live in her garden.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Romance Genre and Second and Third Wave Feminism

Elizabeth Bevarly posted yesterday about what it was like to be a girl coming of age in America in the 1970s. Particularly relevant to the romance genre was the message she, and many of her peers, received,
that if we wanted to reach our fullest potential, if we wanted to be strong, independent women, we had to do it ALONE. Movies like “An Unmarried Woman” and “My Brilliant Career” (both of which I loved) told us in no uncertain terms that we had to make a choice: Either fall in love and remain personally unfulfilled forever, or live a solitary life and find complete personal satisfaction.
She adds (in a comment attached to the original post) that: 'I’ve identified myself as a feminist since I learned what the word meant. I still consider myself such. But I think that’s the one place where the women’s movement went wrong. They should have told us, “Hey, we’re all equals now, so let’s work together to achieve great things.”'

Jenny Crusie's written about what it was like to grow up in an earlier decade:
I graduated from high school in the sixties. [...] The madness that defined women's lives back then was based on four Big Lies:

1. A woman wasn't a real woman until she was married.
2. A woman had to distort herself and deny her own identity in order to catch a man to marry. (Remember girdles, spike heels, inane laughter, playing dumb, and flunking math?)
3. Any husband was better than no husband.
4. Staying in a bad marriage was better than divorce because God forbid a woman should be unmarried again once she'd finally achieved the goal.
In many ways, the attitude that Elizabeth Bevarly describes was part of the backlash against the assumptions about women and marriage that Crusie describes. So what happened next? Well, I think that's where Third Wave feminism comes in. It's impossible to give a strict definition of Third Wave feminism, just as it's not possible to give a single definition of Second Wave feminism. Each is complex and comes in many different varieties, because as Jane Freedman, in her introduction to feminism makes clear, there is a huge diversity of thought covered by the term ‘feminism’:
as soon as you attempt to analyse all that has been spoken and written in the name of feminism, it becomes clear that this is not one unitary concept, but instead a diverse and multifaceted grouping of ideas, and indeed actions. [...] Any attempt to provide a baseline definition of a common basis of all feminisms may start with the assertion that feminisms concern themselves with women’s inferior position in society and with discrimination encountered by women because of their sex. Furthermore, one could argue that all feminists call for changes in the social, economic, political or cultural order, to reduce and eventually overcome this discrimination against women. Beyond these general assertions, however, it is difficult to come up with any other ‘common ground’ between the different strands of feminism. (2001: 1)
Broadly speaking,
If the First Wave comprised women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the Second Wave gave us Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Shirley Chisholm, then the Third Wave includes young women who've grown up with the ideas of feminism but who are trying to define what it means for them now.(Baumgardner and Richards)
If you're looking for a quick (and therefore not very nuanced) breakdown of some of the differences between the Second and Third Waves you could look at this article by Alana Wingfoot. Third Wave feminists are often, I think, more concerned with sexism than they are with 'women's rights'. It's not that Third Wavers don't care about the rights gained by the struggles of Second Wave feminists, more that many Third Wavers take them as a given. My own favourite definition of feminism is by bell hooks: ‘Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression’ (2000: viii). As she makes clear, this includes the sexist stereotypes which tell men what is ‘manly’, just as much as the sexist stereotypes which tell women what they must be and do in order to be considered ‘womanly’. Such stereotypes ignore, or seek to disguise, the huge diversity of interests and abilities among men and women. [In earlier posts I've discussed gender and 'stereotype threat' as well as gender and male authors of romance novels.]

These changes within society and within feminism have affected both the contents of romance novels (many romance novelists, for example, consider themselves feminists) and the way that the romance genre is perceived by academics. As Kay Mussell observed in 1997,
Twenty or so years ago, when academic feminists first became interested in the romance genre, there was wider agreement among feminists themselves on what the feminist agenda should be - and conventional romantic relationships, widely assumed to be discriminatory toward women, were not part of it. Thus romances were seen as threatening to female autonomy. But as feminism has matured - and as feminist scholars have come to recognize a broader range of female experience - some scholars have challenged those earlier notions in productive ways.
Mussell pinpoints unease with and suspicion of 'conventional romantic relationships' as the source of much of the feminist criticism of the romance genre. As I mentioned in an earlier post, many (particularly First and Second Wave) feminists have believed that marriage is inherently patriarchal and oppressive to women, and in the romance genre, the Happy Ever After ending usually involves marriage. However, as I also mentioned in that earlier post, not all feminists believe that marriage and feminism are incompatible and, as one Third Waver says about her wedding:
the second wave of feminism is bedrock to us. Wedding traditions carry the vestiges of male dominance, but they also have beauty and power that I feel entitled to. Two rings are better than none. The white dress signifies new life, not virginity. Sexual commitment enriches our pleasure in each other. We both kept our names. Two glasses broke under two heels at the ceremony's conclusion, claiming our cultural tradition but discarding the asymmetry. We took what we wanted from tradition and left the rest.
The feminist critique wasn't just about the institution of marriage, though, it was also about the power imbalances and gender expectations which shaped heterosexual relationships:
Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture [...] supported the notion that one could do anything in the name of love: beat people, restrict their movements, even kill them and call it a “crime of passion”, plead “I loved her so much I had to kill her.” Love in patriarchal culture was linked to notions of possession [...] Within patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect. Yet in so many cases in heterosexual families men did not respond to care: instead they were tyrants who used their power unjustly to coerce and control. (hooks, 2000: 101)

Romance authors and readers were forcibly confronted with these issues in 1999 when:
The close-knit romance writers' community was devastated by the news of Richards-Akers' murder. It was the third such death by domestic violence among romance writers in the past three years (novelists Pamela Macaluso and Ann Wassall were also shot by their husbands in 1997 and 1996) (Salon, 1999)
When, in 1992, Mary Jo Putney described the appeal of the romance genre, her description contained many of the words which hooks used to criticise heterosexual relationships under patriarchy, and these are aspects of the genre which came under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of Richards-Akers’ murder, as discussed in the Salon article. This, though, is what Putney had to say in 1992:
Often the dark hero is obsessed with the heroine, driven by a primitive passion to possess her in every sense of the word. An aura of potential – and sometimes actual – violence hovers over such books. As Jayne Ann Krentz says, the male protagonist of a romance is often both hero and villain, and the heroine’s task and triumph is to civilize him (1992: 100)
She adds that:
The theme of the man who is “saved by the love of a good woman” is common in both life and romance. In reality savior complexes are dangerous because they encourage women to stay with abusive mates, but that is another story [...]. What matters in a romantic context is that healing the wounded hero is a fantasy of incredible potency. (1992: 101)
Unfortunately not all readers make this distinction between fantasy and reality. One feminist reader of romances wrote that:
I knew from the time I was 11 and got my hands on Victoria Holt's House of a Thousand Lanterns exactly what I wanted in a man: he had to be a rake, but not just any rake-oh no. He had to be a rake ready to settle down, a rake I could reform. He would meet me and all the many women he'd known before would fade into the past as he became swept away by my purity and goodness.

I didn't explicitly understand that romance novels were shaping me, but looking back the pattern is clear. I tried to be pure; I tried really hard. To little avail, but still I tried. And I found the worst men I could possibly find. Gorgeous and horrible, men who treated women like objects or angels of mercy but who never, as I learned only too late, had any intention of reforming.

[...] I could not break free from the stories about gender and romance those novels had embedded in my mind. Even when I knew they were unrealistic and sexist, still they stayed with me, as part of me, shaping who I looked to as attractive and who I looked past as unattractive.
One 2001 study of women in violent relationships, conducted by Dr Julia Wood found that:
People commonly use stories to make sense of their lives, placing themselves within those stories, said Wood: "Some of the images of men and women in these romance novels are entirely consistent with the dynamics of violent relationships."

Even if Prince Charming doesn’t hit, he often shares plenty of characteristics with the real-life man who does, Wood wrote: "Prince Charming is strong, powerful, sure of himself and commanding … control, domination and even violence fit equally well with Prince Charming and the Prince of Darkness. Women who seek to sustain a relationship that is fraught with chaos have available to them culturally legitimated narratives that reconcile what is irreconcilable, make sense of what is not sensible. These narratives … simultaneously license women's oppression."
A recently published book on rape law in Australia compares and contrasts these laws with the situations described in romance novels and, according to one reviewer :
For Larcombe, the critical link between rape scripts in law and romance fiction is the way romance fiction reproduces ‘gender hierarchy and a fiction of vulnerable feminine subjectivity’ (6). Larcombe explores the writing, production, distribution and content of Harlequin Mills and Boon fiction in Australia, arguing that love is the critical element that allows for the modification of ‘the hero’s desires’ the renegotiation of the ‘terms of heterosexual exchange’ (34). Despite responsiveness ‘to readers’ desires and preferences and to changes in women’s social and familial roles’ (138), these fictions continue to represent the negotiation of that heterosexual exchange as ‘the ultimate guarantor of feminine satisfaction’ (138). (Maher 2005)

Clearly there are many, many romance readers who do not find their romance reading problematic in the ways described above, and, in addition, it could be argued that romance has changed significantly over the past few decades. There are huge numbers of romances which do not feature abusive/possessive heroes. It nonetheless seems that some romances do tell stories which justify, or can be used to justify, the oppression of women, and which may be damaging for readers who see these novels as recipes for how to find a successful mate. Perhaps the way the alpha male has become more frequent in paranormal romances, where he not infrequently makes an appearance as a werewolf or vampire will help to signal more clearly the difference between the fantasy and reality.

In my next post I'm planning to take a look at Elizabeth Bevarly's The Thing About Men, to see what it has to tell us about gender and relationships.

  • Freedman, Jane, 2001. Feminism (Buckingham: Open University Press). Sample chapter available as a pdf document here.
  • hooks, bell, 2000. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press)
  • Maher, JaneMaree, 2005. ‘Scripts of Rape’, review of Wendy Larcombe’s Compelling Engagements: Feminism, Rape Law and Romance Fiction (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2005). Hecate’s Australian Women’s Book Review, 17.2.
  • Putney, Mary Jo, 1992: ‘Welcome to the Dark Side’, in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 99-105.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Laura Guest-blogging at Romancing the Blog

My guest blog is up at Romancing the Blog today, and I've been discussing how different academics have responded to the genre. I hope some of you might pop in there to give your comments, and for anyone who's just come from there and who hasn't been here before, you're very welcome and I hope you'll find it interesting.

Vicki Lewis Thompson - Nerd in Shining Armor

The title of Nerd in Shining Armor is clearly a play on the phrase 'a knight in shining armour' and given that I'd recently written about chivalry, I couldn't resist picking this up. I'm going to have to give a few spoilers, so if you're just looking for a review, you might want to look at AAR's review of the novel, or the one at The Romance Reader, or Mrs Giggles'. There are excerpts here and here and a sort of epilogue to the epilogue here.

Susan Scribner, at TRR describes it as 'a quick, breezy (albeit silly) read', while Blythe Barnhill at AAR comments that 'When Gen talks about her childhood, she manages to touch on every possible stereotype, and I found it all a little hard to believe'. I'm of the opinion that this book is full of deliberate parodies of romance and movie conventions and clichés, as well as of stereotypes about hillbillies and nerds, an opinion which is reinforced by the titles of some of the other novels in Thompson's Nerd series: Nerds Like It Hot (Some Like It Hot); Gone With the Nerd (Gone With the Wind); The Nerd Who Loved Me (The Spy Who Loved Me).

Parody can be hard to pin down, and people do sometimes say or write things which are meant to be parody but which are not recognised as such, and the reverse can also happen. I happen to think that the parody here is deliberate, but without confirmation from the author I can't be certain I'm right. What I'll do is try to demonstrate how a variety of romance conventions are included, only for the reader's expectations to be confounded by parodic reversals, or for the situation to be described in a comic manner.

Our heroine, for example, is in love and thinks that she will be the one to tame the rake (she's a secretary, he's the boss, a common pairing in romance):
Nick might not realize it yet, but he needed her in his life. [...] He was gorgeous, rich, and single. And wounded. Not anywhere you could see, but deep in his soul. [...] Nick was an orphan who'd had a rough childhood, so he didn't trust people (2003: 2)
We also learn that he, like so many romance heroes, has a smell which the heroine finds irresistible: 'that purely sinful, strip-naked-for-me aftershave' (2003: 2). The hero's unique scent is one of the details that romance authors are often advised to include, and Karen Weisner, for example, gives the example of one of her heroine's who 'loves the way the hero smells, so much so that she tries to buy his cologne to wear herself' and Gail Gaymer Martin writes that 'The sense of smell is often captured in the awareness of perfume or after shave'.

He's also described by reference to a movie hero: 'He was the spitting image of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby' (2003: 4), and that's a technique which is also used not infrequently in romance novels (though it can have its disadvantages). Unfortunately for Gen, though, this selfish, promiscuous man is not going to be changed by the love of a good woman, and he's not the hero of this romance. In fact, he's the villain.

AAR's November 13th At the Back Fence column dealt with obnoxious heroes, and one poster responded by saying that sometimes the main difference between a hero and a villain isn't so much the way they treat the heroine (because some heroes treat the heroine atrociously) but simply that the author has decided that this man is going to be the hero, so the heroine falls in love with him and he has a sudden change of heart and (usually) behaviour towards the end of the novel. Romance readers are also used to the convention that the first eligible man described in a romance is usually the hero. Liz Fielding, for example, says of the hero and heroine that
These are the most important characters in a short romance. The sooner you can introduce them the better. On the first page is good. In the first paragraph is better. In the first line if at all possible. [...] The reader is like a newly hatched chick, programmed to bond with the first likely character she meets. Ensure that it is the hero or heroine.
Because of this convention, readers are primed to recognise the hero, even if he behaves like a villain (this is not the case in Gothic romances, where for much of the book the heroine and the reader remain unsure of the identity of the hero, and may for a long time think that the hero is a villain). Thompson turns the convention on its head, and thus for a time confuses a reader who expects Nick to be the hero.

And here is the nerd-hero:
His eyes were red, his glasses smudged, and his dark hair stood out in sixty-eleven directions. To make matters worse, he'd decked himself out in a sweet-potato-orange plaid shirt and pants the color of a rotten eggplant. Because he was tall, there was a lot of orange plaid and a lot of rotten purple, and all of it was wrinkled (2003: 5).
He has a habit of thinking up computing-related metaphors, for example Jack's thoughts about Gen's eyes sound just a little like a geek version of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, in which Shakespeare rejects the clichéd descriptions of female beauty. Where Shakespeare says that 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips' red', Jack describes Gen's eyes as 'that blue-green color that reminded him of a tropical lagoon picture he'd used once as a screen saver. He'd loved the color of the water in that screen saver.' (2003: 68). Clearly Jack doesn't mean this to be satirical, but I wonder if a description such as this is gently poking fun at the descriptions of other romance heroine's eyes.

Jack never stops being a nerd, but during their adventure his outer appearance is transformed:
"You do have manly sex appeal, Jackson." She seemed quite amazed by the discovery. [...] I would never have thought so, but with your beard, and-"
"It was rough on your face. I'm sorry about that."
"The beard made all the difference. When you kissed me I felt like a maiden captured by a pirate, a maiden who had been flung down on the sand and ... well, you know what I mean."
"Ravished?" (2003: 72)
Pirates are, of course, the swashbuckling heroes of many classic movies and romances. And Thompson even manages to fit in a pretend forced seduction. Jack
lifted her over his shoulder [...] She struggled and kicked, but she was careful not to kick him anywhere that she'd do damage. The more she struggled and wiggled against him, the more she liked his idea. But she didn't want him to know that yet. [...]
"You're going to force me to have sex with you?" [...]
"It won't be forced and you know it."
He had a point. "Then could we ... pretend it's forced?"
His laugh was breathless. "Sure. One ravishing coming up."(2003: 206)
As Candy at The Smart Bitches says, rape and forced seduction has long been a staple of the romance genre, and the original romance genre rapes and forced seductions were not humorous:
Rapist heroes are not nearly as common as they used to be. Between 1972 and about 1988, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rapist hero in the face. Starting in about the mid-80s, though, the tides started turning, and by the mid-90s, rapist heroes were mostly a thing of the past, although forced seductions still popped their heads up here and there. (There are readers who maintain there’s no difference between forced seduction and rape, of course.)
Thompson's example, with Jack cast as the pirate seducer but with an entirely willing 'victim' playfully subverts these romance conventions.

The actions of the villain involve at least 2 movie-villain clichés, though Thompson makes them more plausible than usual by making the villain worried about leaving bullets in the bodies and/or not having anywhere to dispose of them:
  • The bad guy, having finally gotten the good guy into his clutches, will usually spend a few meglomaniac minutes gloating over his victory and his opponent's downfall. This increment of time will prove just enough to allow the good guy to figure a way out of his predicament, or just long enough to allow a rescue attempt.
  • The bad guy, instead of simply offing the captured good guy on the spot, will devise some sort of drawn-out, fiendishly clever method of execution that will take enough time to allow the good guy to figure out his escape.
  • I wonder also if the situation the two find themselves in is intended to recall faintly that of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe manages to rescue some supplies, and so does Jack, though in this case the supplies include condoms and a curling iron rather than the more practical tools salvaged by Crusoe. One might also wonder, in this context, whether Gen, with her knowledge of how to survive in the outdoors, is the female equivalent of Crusoe's Man Friday, and the references to filmstars from the 1940s (see below) perhaps reinforce the possibility that Gen is being cast as Jack's Girl Friday.

    For all that this is a light-hearted romance, there is a serious theme in here, about not judging people on appearances alone. Gen eventually says of Jack 'You're ... you're real, Jack. [...] So many people in this world look like they came right off the assembly line some people factory. They wear what everybody else wears and they talk like everybody else talks." Like she'd been trying to do herself.' (2003: 215). He certainly isn't the usual type of romance hero. Jack also comments on appearances, though, being a nerd, he uses a metaphor from computing: 'relationships were so damned complicated. With computers it was strictly WYSIWYG, What You See Is What You Get, and he loved that. With women you could never tell. Like Genevieve - a perfect example [...] Genevieve had always reminded him of a movie star from the forties - Katharine Hepburn, maybe, or Lauren Bacall' (2003: 15). Jack's exactly right, but this appearance did not come naturally to Gen, whose mother had 'learned everything she knew about manners and fashion from watching Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and Ingrid Bergman. She'd done her best to teach those things to Genevieve' (2003: 14). I'm assuming that the repetition of these names is deliberate, as they occur on adjacent pages and emphasise the extent to which Gen's 'look' has been carefully created. It also takes an effort to maintain, and 'the deeper they got into this mess [the adventure they end up on], the more she was reverting to the little hillbilly she once was' (2003: 65). Jack is a nerd, but his problems with colour-coordination are due to him being colour blind, and underneath them he's got an impressive body and a loving heart. And as for the glasses? Well, Gen has a pair too, she just doesn't wear them, because glasses 'made her look like too much of a nerd' (2003: 30).

    If you've read this book, did you think it was spoofing romance genre conventions? If you haven't, do you think that there are some romance clichés which are ripe for parody?
    • Thompson, Vicki Lewis, 2003. Nerd in Shining Armor (New York: Bantam Dell).

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006

    Feminism and Popular Culture Conference

    The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) 20th Annual Conference, to be held at the University of Newcastle (June 29th-July 1st, 2007), will have as its theme feminism and popular culture.

    Among the suggested possible topics are 'Rereading the Romance', 'Romantic Comedy' and 'Genre Fiction'. The deadline for proposals for papers and panels is 1 December 2006 (more details here).

    It looks as though some of us on the RomanceScholar listserv may be able to attend, and I thought I'd post a note here too, to notify others who are not on the listserv. I'm still busy trying to think of a possible angle to take on the topic of the romance genre and feminism (though I have a few ideas).

    There are plenty of scholars of the romance genre who think it's feminist. Kay Mussell certainly thinks so:
    I don't know how you can read many romances today as anything but feminist. To take just one issue: Heroes and heroines meet each other on a much more equal playing field. Heroes don't always dominate and heroines are frequently right. Heroines have expertise and aren't afraid to show it. Heroes aren't the fount of all wisdom and they actually have things to learn from heroines. This is true of both contemporary and historical romances. I'm not trying to argue that all romances before the 1990s featured unequal relationships or that all romances today are based on equality. That's clearly not the case. But in general heroines today have a lot more independence and authority than their counterparts did in earlier romances. I think that's clear evidence of the influence of feminism on romances and of the ability of romance novels to address contemporary concerns that women share.
    There are also plenty of romance authors who would consider themselves to be feminists, prominent among whom is Jennifer Crusie, who writes that:
    If romance novels are a guilty pleasure, then romantic comedies are the designer chocolates of literature, rich, fun and seemingly without nutritional value. But underneath that sugar coating is one of the most feminist forms of literature ever devised. Jane Austen knew it two hundred years ago and writers like Susan Elizabeth Phillips know it today: romantic comedy empowers women and makes their world a better place.(Crusie: Romantic Comedy)
    She does qualify this somewhat elsewhere, noting that 'not all romance novels are feminist' (Crusie: You Go, Romance Writer). [For an interesting short discussion of romance and feminism, see this blog post which includes a link to a discussion specifically on Crusie, Bet Me and feminism).

    What do you think? Are all romances feminist? Or are only some of them feminist? And what sort of feminism are we measuring the novels against anyway? Do you want them to be feminist or would you rather they weren't? One of the arguments against romance being feminist is that it's heterosexist (though there are some gay and lesbian romances) and suggests that what women need is marriage. But is this actually true? Does the genre tell readers that all women will find their ultimate fulfillment in a monogamous romantic relationship, or does it simply focus on those who do, leaving open the possibility that other women (whose stories might be told in other types of book, including women's fiction and chick lit) may not want it?