Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hidden Treasure and Convenient Arrangements

Last night I read a couple of books and the contrast between them got me thinking about the relationship between the plot of a romance, and the type of love-story it is. In other words, it seems to me that often the plot becomes a metaphor for the protagonists' experience of love. For example, some romances are road-stories, with the two characters travelling somewhere. As they travel, they discover not only new places and new landscapes, but also new things about each other, and usually once they reach their destination (or soon after) they realise that they've reached a romantic destination too, and their love is mutual.

The first romance I read last night was June Drummond's The Meddlers, about a rake who's facing ruin, having been left with huge debts by his now-deceased father. It's proposed (by one of the meddlers of the title) that he marry his rich neighbour, Kate, a young woman whom he's known all his life, but he refuses since he doesn't want to be thought of as a fortune-hunter, and besides, he's known her since she was a little girl. She proposes instead that they should hunt for another fortune, an ancient treasure buried on his land, and she hopes that the reward the Crown will pay for its recovery will be sufficient to pay off the debt. As a result, there's a lot of travelling around, discovering historical clues, but what also becomes clear is that Dominic, the hero, has hidden layers just like the layers of Roman, Danish, medieval and subsequent history that lie beneath the fields of his estate. The treasure may be found by digging, but the depths of Dominic's character are only exposed by love:
Lady Letitia [Dominic's mother] gazed thoughtfully at his rigid back. Though he had always shown her love and tenderness, she was aware that he had the reputation of being cold-hearted and arrogant. The careless indifference he displayed to those outside his own intimate circle had caused her many a sleepless night.
Today she saw him in a different light, his hurt made plain, his self-blame and regret beyond doubt. She did not have to look far for the cause of this change. Her rakehellion son had a last fallen in love. (2004: 239)
Dominic himself comes to realise that the true treasure is Kate: 'I knew that you're more precious to me than any treasure' (2004: 294). He has to dig beneath the surface impression of Kate that his memories gave him, and look at her as she really is:
If he remembered Kate at all, it was as a thin little snip of a child with a tangle of beech-brown hair. [...] He imagined Miss Safford must have grown up meek-mannered, malleable, and dull.
Over the past few weeks [as they've been travelling together, trying to find clues to the location of the treasure] he had found this image to be very wide of the mark. Kate was possessed of a strong will, independent views, and a lively imagination. She was brave, honest, and loyal to her friends. [...] But that was not all. He was discovering in Kate a delightful companion, with a sense of humour that matched his own. (2004: 208: 209, my emphasis).
The plot, which involves the protagonists in detailed historical research, and travels to seek the advice of authorities in the field, is paralleled by their gradual 'research' into each other, with the developing relationship encouraged by the 'authorities' in this field, the 'meddlers', or adults who have known them all their lives and who think they are perfect for each other. This metaphor is of love as something which is gradually revealed, and which is based on evidence of compatibility and good character.

The second book I read had a very different plot. In Leigh Michaels' The Corporate Marriage Campaign, the hero, Trey, asks the heroine, Darcy, to pose as his fiancée as part of an advertising campaign for the department store he runs and part-owns. This reminded me of the many other 'fake fiancée' or 'fake wife' scenarios I've read, and also of many of the arranged marriage plots. What tends to happen is that, as here, the protagonists are wary of love. They maybe don't trust it because they've been hurt in the past, so they decide to have a business arrangement, but then, while they thought they were 'just playing the game. [...] Throwing yourself into the role, for the sake of the public image' (2005: 182), it becomes real. These plots, it seems to me, are acknowledging that many people are cynical about love. The characters are a bit like Scrooge, who doesn't believe in Christmas. The plot forces the characters to reverse their opinions so that they do believe in love. They have to have faith in something intangible, that other people are sure doesn't exist, rather like Scrooge, who comes to believe in the Christmas spirit(s), or the audience of a performance of Peter Pan, who have to shout out their belief in fairies when Tinkerbell is lying ill and dying:
she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.
Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.
"Do you believe?" he cried.
Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.
She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn't sure.
"What do you think?" she asked Peter.
"If you believe," he shouted to them, "clap your hands; don't let Tink die."
Many clapped. (Peter Pan)
It reminds me of something Crusie wrote, about why she writes romance:
even though I have seen the relationships of famous people crash and burn, even though I have seen the relationships of my friends crash and burn, even though I have seen my own relationships crash and burn (oh, Lord, let me count the ways), I truly do still believe in the existence of unconditional love, I still believe that it’s what holds humanity together, and I absolutely believe it’s the best of all possible things to write about. (1999: 226)
The story of a fake relationship which becomes real, against all the odds, is saying that, despite high divorce rates, despite all the cynicism, real love does still exist.

Crusie, Jennifer, 1999. ‘Why I Occasionally Think About Not Writing Romance Any More/Why I Know I’ll Continue to Write Romance Until They Pry My Cold Dead Fingers from Around My Keyboard’ in North American Romance Writers, ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press), pp. 223-226.

Drummond, June, 2004. The Meddlers (Bath: Chivers/Thorndike).

Michaels, Leigh, 2005. The Corporate Marriage Campaign (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon).

Friday, July 28, 2006

Why Do We Read Romance Novels?

There's a thread at All About Romance on this topic, and so far there's been quite a range of responses. Despite the fact that some readers like the comfort that comes from the happy endings, and the reassurance that despite all the horrors that take place in the world, love and happy endings are possible, not all readers seemed to care about the happy ending. Some even said they disliked the extremely 'sweet' endings to some romances, in which everything is resolved in what they see as an artificial and overly tidy way. Some readers just enjoy the way in which the genre asserts that relationships are vitally important, and they like reading about relationships and how they develop. And some enjoy the twists and turns of the story as the couple must overcome the various obstacles which stand in the way of the development of the relationship. This latter answer is the one given by a character in Amanda Quick’s Wait Until Midnight.

Adam, the hero, asks a reader of the ‘sensation novels’ written by the heroine
“Doesn’t the fact that you already know the identity of the villain and that he will meet with an unpleasant fate take all of the surprise and astonishment out of the story? What is the purpose of reading a novel if one knows the ending before one turns the first page?”
Harold regarded him with acute bewilderment. Then Adam saw the light of comprehension strike.
“I take it you are not a great reader of novels, sir,” Harold said, sympathy as thick as cream in every word.
“No.” Adam sat back in his chair and gripped the arms. “I do not count novel reading among my vices.”
“Allow me to explain, if I may. Of course one knows that in a sensation novel, the villain will pay for his villainy, just as one knows that the hero and heroine will be rewarded for their good hearts and noble actions. Those things are givens, as it were. They are not the point of the business.”
“Indeed? Well, what in blazes is the point?”
“Why, it is seeing how the characters arrive at their various fates that compels our attention.” [...] “It is the series of startling incidents in the various chapters that entertains and amazes, all the twists and turns and emotional sensations. That is why one reads a novel, sir. Not to discover how it ends, but to enjoy the strange and exotic scenery along the way.” (2004: 108-109)
That's not why I read romance. I'm one of those readers who still takes sneak peeks at the endings. Yes, I know I'm reading a romance, and yes, I know it'll all end happily, but I still double-check sometimes. I really do need the happy ending. Why? Because, as the RWA suggests, these endings are ones which are 'Emotionally Satisfying' to me. I read romance because I like happy stories, and I can't think of any emotion that's made me happier than feeling requited love. I'm an unashamed romantic, and in the world of romances, I read about other people finding that same happiness.

So why do you read romance? Or, if you're not a romance reader, is there something about the happy endings and the focus on relationships which you find off-putting?

Quick, Amanda, 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Books Ltd).

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Eric's Summer Reading

Well, everyone, I'm off for a little vacation--how nice to know that this blog will keep humming along without me, unlike my other two!

I have some new books stacked and ready to go, including jay Dixon's The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon: 1909-1990s, Juliet Flesch's From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels, and Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction, by Lynn S. Neal. We'll see if they can compete with the stack of Georgette Heyers, Julia Quinns, and assorted other primary texts my wife and I have been hoarding for the getaway. (All of this premised, of course, on the kids giving us a minute's peace in which to read, but they're at their summer best right now, and I won't be entirely upset if I end up reading nothing but Treasure Island, their choice for a paternal read-aloud this year.)

See you in August!

Metaromance (2)

The metaromance for today is Hannah Bernard’s The Marriage Adventure. Unfortunately, according to a cached version of her website, she has now ‘retired from romance writing and turned to another career’. This was, as far as I know, her last published romance. The metaromance element both deepens the characterisation and gives the reader a little bit of insight into a novelist’s creative processes.

Maria, the heroine, ‘started out illustrating other people’s books, but now I’m working on writing them as well. It’s a challenge.’ (2005: 21). And she’s having a few problems:
“I have most of the story down in my head, except for the very ending, and some minor issues.” She sighed. “Well, a huge issue, actually.” [...] “The hero. I can’t get him to materialize properly on the paper.” She looked at Eddie and frowned, trying again to picture Marius. Eddie raised an eyebrow in question and his face was superimposed on her mental picture of Marius.
Yes! (2005: 22-23)
The heroine of Amanda Quick’s Wait Until Midnight has had both a similar problem and a similar sudden burst of inspiration when she spots the hero: ‘No doubt about it; he was a perfect model for the character of Edmund Drake’ (2004: 11) who ‘is very important to the story but I have been having difficulty getting him down properly on paper. There has been something rather vague about him, I’m afraid. He requires sharpening up’ (2004: 30).

Of course many novels come with the legal disclaimer that:
All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all the incidents are pure invention.
But be that as it may, authors do seem to get plenty of inspiration from images of individuals ‘known or unknown’ to them, for example, Monica McCarty recently wrote about a couple of male actors who’ve been the inspiration for the descriptions of some of her characters. Another Monica, Monica Jackson, has photos on her website of the man whose face (and body) are those she’s given to Raziq, the djinn, hero of Love’s Potion. There are plenty of other examples, and authors who like to collage may well include photos of real people. But, from what I can tell, authors don’t just cut and paste real people into their writing without making any changes. Their process is like Maria’s drawing, taking elements of the person and then merging them with something else to create a composite which is rather different from the original:
She’d always preferred to use human models, even if her characters were anthropomorphic animals. She liked to catch a person’s personality and transform it to paper in a figure completely different from the model. [...] Usually it was impossible to see who the drawn figure was based on – but there was something she needed from her human models.
Perhaps a soul. (2005: 57)

Another aspect of Maria’s problems with her story also remind me of what I’ve read about some authors’ creative process:
“It’s Marius. He’s giving me endless problems. Not cooperating at all.” [...] For one thing - he changed the plot on me.”
Eddie blinked. “Wow. He can do that?”
Maria nodded [...]. “It’s so infuriating when a character does this.” (2005: 124-125)
Sometimes the characters seem to lead the author in a new direction from the one she’d expected. At other times authors can actually encourage their characters to speak to them and change the plot, for example, one technique used by some authors is to interview their characters.

So, back to Eddie/Marius. Maria had a crush on Eddie when she was a teenager, but he was a few years older and went off to explore the world, leaving her behind. Now he’s come home and, as Marius, has taken up a starring role in the picture-book she’s writing. Here Maria tells Eddie a bit more about Marius:
“Marius...” [...] “Well, Marius is a hero. Pretty standard hero material. Good guy. Very passionate about what he believes in.”
“Sounds good.”
“He’s a hard worker with a big heart.”
“My kind of guy.”
“He’s just starting out in the hero business. [...]
“And...” She took a deep breath. “He’s ... a penguin.” (2005: 93)
The description sets up parallels between Marius and Eddie. Eddie has come home to help his sister, who has an autistic son, and in taking that responsibility, and planning to run an adventure-holiday company, he’s just starting his life as a ‘hero’. And then we have his heroine:
“And his lady is another penguin, I presume?”
“No. Viola is a swan.” [...]
“Marius is a bit depressed because he’s having a hard time getting her to notice him. You know. She’s a swan after all. Her head is too high up on that long neck. [...]
“Poor Marius. Unrequited love. But he’s rescuing her from the evil dragon anyway?”
“Of course. Marius loves a challenge. He’s hoping she might notice him after he saves her from being broiled by the dragon’s fire” [...]
“Viola is on a quest of her own. She’s searching for the perfect feather (2005: 98-100)
Maria has always thought of herself as different from both her parents and Eddie, because they’re adventurous and she’s not. In a way, she’s the ugly duckling of the group, the one who never seemed to fit in. But, of course, the ugly duckling isn’t a duckling at all, and while she might not make a good duck, she makes a very fine swan indeed. As Eddie says, ‘You don’t have to measure yourself by their standards! You’re smart and talented and beautiful...’ (2005: 177). She, however, thinks that she and Eddie, just like a swan and a penguin, are too different for a relationship between them to work: ‘We’re total opposites’ (2005: 148). But, just as Viola and Marius are both water birds, so Maria and Eddie both have an ‘adventurer’s spirit’, it’s just that Maria ‘liked working on adventures inside her head’ (2005: 22).

Maria, like Viola, is apparently in need of rescuing. She’s planning to do a parachute jump, despite the fact that this terrifies her, because she doesn’t want to admit defeat and admit that she will never live up to what she thinks are her parents’ expectations. The jump is, for her, the equivalent of a dragon’s fire or a dangerous quest. And she would very much like Eddie to be in love with her. You do have to wonder if the choice of name (Marius, which is rather similar to Maria) is a reflection of how Maria feels about Marius. She wants them (or rather, her and Marius's real-life counterpart) to be a pair, just like Mozart's Papageno and Papagena, who, while not birds, are a bird-catcher and his beloved. And although Maria doesn’t make the connection between her behaviour and Viola’s, Eddie does:
“You’re playing hard to get. Just like Viola.”
She looked up, surprised enough to forget to protest. “Viola? She’s playing hard to get?”
Well, it’s obvious she really likes Marius, isn’t it? She’s just afraid he doesn’t like her.” (2005: 128-129).
Eddie’s right about both Maria and Viola. And so, at last, both stories conclude happily:
“Marius discovers that Viola’s long journey, and all her perils were made for one purpose – finding the feather he’d admired so much so she could give it to him.”
“So she did it all for him?”
“Yes. [...] She was just too afraid of rejection. So she pretended never to notice him.” (2005: 184)
The Marriage Adventure is only a short romance, 184 pages, in the Mills & Boon Tender Romance line, but the use of the metafictional device, by providing a commentary on the feelings of the heroine in a way that shows, rather than tells, gives it a depth it might otherwise have lacked. Or maybe the truth is that I just have a soft spot for Marius the penguin.

Bernard, Hannah, 2005. The Marriage Adventure (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).

Quick, Amanda, 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Books Limited).

The photo of Papagena and Papageno was taken from the website of Opera Japonica. I used to have just a link to the photo on their site, but they currently have a new site under construction, and so quite a lot of people came here looking for the photo (which I think is a particularly good one) and couldn't find it. Here's a link to the original location of the photo of Pagageno and Papagena. I hope they don't mind me putting it on this page temporarily, so that other people can admire it. Sometimes that link works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rainbow Romances

Sarah’s already written a little about gay romance, and I can’t mention the topic without adding a reference to Scott and Scott’s description of their heroes, but what I want to focus on are the ways in which homophobia, as well as acceptance of homosexuality, can be expressed via the secondary characters in romance.

The controversy that was triggered last year about homosexuality in romance is still alive. It began, or at least garnered a special report at All About Romance, when
we learned that RWA sent out a questionnaire to its 9,000 members presenting them with possible new definitions of Romance. I have not seen the questionnaire, but have been told by those angered by it that it was part of a calculated plan to close off RWA membership to writers of Romantica and Gay/Lesbian-themed Romances.
Whether or not that is true, in fact, is almost besides the point. Because by now many of RWA's members believe it to be the case, and quite a few authors have resigned their memberships in protest.
Now Kate Rothwell has commented on
a letter published in the Romance Writer’s Report written by Jan Butler, in which Ms Butler argues that the Romance Writers of America’s definition of romance should be changed to exclude homosexual romances. She brings in morality, slippery slopes and paedophilia to justify her argument. This prompted a characteristically strong rebuttal from the Smart Bitches. As many on both these threads have pointed out, paedophilia is completely different from homosexuality, but the technique being employed here to smear homosexuals is one which is used worldwide. For example:
The “Australian Family Association” (AFA) represents itself as a guardian of the “traditional family” of mother, father and natural children. In its campaign against the Western Australian law reforms [‘affecting the status of homosexual men and lesbians to ensure equality in the eyes of the law’], it used newspaper adverts, leaflet drops and billboard posters inter alia, to represent its position and to try to influence public opinion and to persuade the government not to proceed with these changes. These public representations consistently focused on the "age of consent" issue and portrayed homosexual men as sexual predators against young boys - rapacious paedophiles.

In contemporary Australia conscious vilification of the “other” has been increasingly apparent as a significant tool in stirring group fears and mobilising paranoid-schizoid anxieties. (Shafer, 2002)
This technique is one which is identified as homophobic by PACE, a UK charity ‘promoting lesbian and gay health and wellbeing’:
Homophobic attitudes may consciously or unconsciously be expressed through:
  • stereotyping
  • pathologising (not normal/deviant - mad, bad or sick)
  • hostile/aggressive (verbal & physical abuse)
  • ridiculing (e.g. jokes, offensive slang)
  • pitying (e.g. "what a shame")
  • ignorance/confusion/embarrassment voyeuristic (e.g. prurient interest in what lesbians do in bed)
  • sexist (e.g. "not a real man/woman", "all she needs is a good ****"
  • marginalising/seeing as "other"
  • rejecting
  • indifferent to suffering caused
  • confusion of homosexuality with paedophilia, leading belief that lesbians and gay men should not be around children
  • discriminatory - aware or unaware, formal/institutionalised or informal
  • over-compensating (e.g. insincerely "nice", "some of my best friends ...")
It seems to me that homophobic attitudes in the romance writing and reading community are expressed within romance novels as well as in the opposition to gay and lesbian romances.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I mainly read historicals, and in the medieval, Regency and Victorian periods when most historicals are set, homosexual activities were illegal, so a lack of gay and lesbian characters isn’t unrealistic. They’d mostly have been well-hidden inside their closets. But there are a few romances which do have gay characters. I’ve also read some contemporaries, and come across a few gay and lesbian secondary characters. I’ll also draw on All About Romance's (AAR’s) resources, since they’ve read far, far, more books than I ever could, so their conclusions draw on a much wider base of evidence.

Let’s begin with the first manifestation of homophobia mentioned by PACE, stereotyping. This can be both positive (to an extent) or negative. The positive stereotype is often mixed with ‘over-compensating (e.g. insincerely "nice", "some of my best friends ...")’, because this type of gay secondary character is often the ‘heroine’s best friend:
Usually braver, spunkier, more daring than the heroine, unless the heroine herself is super-spunky, in which case the friend will be the voice of caution and reason. She appears in all subgenres, although in contemporary romances, her role may be played by a gay male. She often gets a secondary romance of her own, or a starring role in the author's next book. (Note: the latter does not apply if the part is played by a gay male.) Colleen McMahon, AAR
A gay male ‘best friend’ is useful because, as in the case of Miranda Lee’s Marriage in Peril, he doesn’t pose any competition for the affections of either the straight hero or heroine:
‘You and Vince are going to make a great team. I can see my investment will be in safe hands. Besides’, he added, smiling ‘with Vince being gay, I have no worries on that little score.’
Brooke frowned at that remark. ‘Would you ever really worry about me on that score, Leo? What if Vince hadn’t been gay?’
‘Then I wouldn’t have let him within a million miles of you,’ he replied in all seriousness.
‘But why? Don’t you trust me?’
‘I trust you. I simply don’t trust men.’ (2000:153)
Vince is a fashion designer, and another of the gay best friends I’ve read about works with the heroine in the cosmetics department of a large store, in Kylie Adams’ Fly Me to the Moon (2001). Ricky, as the AAR reviewer says, is ‘gay and her best girlfriend’. His problems with a lack of acceptance by his father may be realistic, but not much else is. So why are gay men stereotyped as being honorary women, interested in clothes and perfumes? In addition, as noted in AAR they’re extremely unlikely to get their own romantic relationship, and they aren’t often even seen with a boyfriend. This portrayal makes gay men seem as unthreatening to straight men as eunuchs, and given their apparent celibacy, they don’t offend the sensibilities of those who believe that gay sex is immoral.

So much for the 'positive' stereotype. The negative one manages to combine ‘pathologising’ attitudes with ‘marginalising/seeing as "other"’ and ‘confusion of homosexuality with paedophilia’. In AAR’s At The Back Fence, there was a segment on a stereotype they dubbed the ‘Gay Villain’. Candy Tan commented that
It seems that almost every time I pick up a romance, most of the really sicko bad guys turn out to be gay. I, personally, am fed up with the constant and pretty much consistent association of homosexuality, bisexuality and almost anything other than regular heterosexual sex with everything evil including (but not limited to) pedophilia, psychosis, misogyny, incest, sociopathy, bestiality, abusive tendencies and bad personal hygiene.
a fellow contributor to the column, Mary Novak, agreed:
I share Candy’s distaste for the Multi-Pervert Gay Villain cliché. I don’t have a problem with gay characters that are obnoxious or even evil - obnoxiousness and evil are traits available to all classes, creeds, and genders. I do object, however, to the wholesale bundling of every pathology under the sun, particularly misogyny and pedophilia, with homosexuality.
Candy cites Robin Schone’s The Lady’s Tutor as having this sort of gay character, and I came across one myself in Sally Mackenzie’s The Naked Duke, although possibly one should describe the villain as bisexual, since he enjoys raping and murdering female prostitutes.

Not all romances descend into cliché and prejudice when it comes to the depiction of homosexuality, though. Suzanne Brockmann states that:
gay characters in romance novels (along with TV shows and many contemporary movies) tend to be asexual. They come in, redecorate the heroine's house, say something witty and exit stage left.

Don't get me wrong -- I think it's great that gay characters are showing up in more and more books. This kind of diversity is a big step toward tolerance and acceptance.

But the truth is -- and I believe this completely -- that love is love is love.
So she gave a gay secondary character his own romantic subplot in Hot Target.

Jennifer Crusie has a number of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters: there’s a gay couple in Faking It who’ve been an item for years; the heroine’s mother in Crazy for You has a lesbian lover as well as a husband; in Bet Me Shanna, a lesbian character, has a relationship during the course of the novel and later ‘Shanna and Linda parted company after a year with no hard feelings’ and Shanna soon meets the love of her life with whom she ‘went to China and adopted a little girl. Shanna is a stay-at-home mom’ (2004: 390).

I’ve also just read Amanda Quick’s Wait Until Midnight, and I’m certain that the aunts who brought up the heroine are lesbian lovers, although, perhaps in deference to the sensibilities of the Victorian age in which the book is set, we are told this in a somewhat coded way:
Emma and Milly [...] were both women of a certain age. They had been something more than very good friends for years, sharing not only a home and the responsibility of raising a child, but a seemingly endless variety of enthusiasms and interests. (2004: 55)
I'll end there, but I hope I've given just a tiny flavour of the range of attitudes towards homosexuality in romance novels.

Crusie, Jennifer, 2004. Bet Me (New York: St Martin’s Press).

Lee, Miranda, 2000. Marriage in Peril (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).

Quick, Amanda, 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Books Ltd).

Shafer, Allan
, 2002. ‘ “Wanted, Your Teenage Son!”: Homosexuality, Paedophilia, And The Vilification Of The “Other”: A Socio-Analytic View Of Some Fundamentalist Organisational Dynamics’, paper presented at the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, 2002 Symposium.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Metaromance (1)

In honour of the forthcoming Romance Writers of America conference in Atlanta, and the recently concluded Romantic Novelists' Association conference in Penrith, I thought I'd post about metaromances. We’ve mentioned them on the listserv a few times, but haven't really gone into a lot of detail about why metafiction intrigues so many of us. Metafiction is:
a type of fiction which self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction.
It is the term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
and one of the most common forms of metafiction, and certainly of metafictional romances, is ‘A novel about a person writing a novel’ (both quotations from Wikipedia).

On the listserv we were using the term ‘metaromance’ to describe romances in which one of the characters (usually the heroine), is a writer, and usually the author of a romance. I thought I’d mention the author-characters of the metaromances, so they could take their place alongside the poet-characters discussed by Eric. In that post, Eric mentioned that questions were often asked about possible negative consequences resulting from reading chivalric romances, and he alluded to Cervantes’ Don Quijote, who went mad from reading too many of them, and as a result ended up tilting at windmills. Here’s a picture of Don Quijote in the world of his imagination, surrounded by all the strange creatures and exotic people who inhabit the world of the chivalric romances.

I thought I'd start with Amanda Quick's Reckless. Gabriel Banner, Earl of Wylde, is the anonymous author of The Quest, ‘the most popular book of the Season’ (1997: 24) and Phoebe, the heroine, is Wylde’s anonymous editor and ‘the mysterious backer who had rescued Josiah Lacey’s faltering bookshop and publishing business’ (1997: 24). Both Gabriel and Phoebe are collectors of manuscripts of chivalric tales. The owning, writing and editing of chivalric romances, as well as a shared love of the genre set the hero and heroine on a quest of their own. In the process, it raises the issue of whether Phoebe and other reader of romances and chivalric romances are mad, or at least, naive, to believe in chivalry, love and happy endings to quests. This being a romance novel, not a parody of the chivalric romances, the answer is that they’re not.

Other metafictional works by Quick, The Pirate, The Adventurer and The Cowboy (all from 1990) have been discussed by Pamela Regis (2003). She writes that:
As a romance novel with a heroine who is a romance novelist and a hero who reads one of her books (208), The Pirate is self-referential. This novel points explicitly to its own genre. Krentz uses the romance novels that her character has written to create a perspective - an echo, a mirror, a doubling, an ironic contrast - for the essential romance elements of the actual novel, The Pirate, that we, the readers, are holding in our hands. Through mirroring or echoing an element of the core romance novel, Krentz adds a set of meanings to the actual romance novel, intensifying them, commenting ironically on them, but never actually undercutting them. This generic self-referentiality becomes part of the courtship. (2003: 171)
This being the season of conferences for romance authors, though, it's interesting to explore not just how metafiction comments on fiction and the conventions of fiction, but also the ways in which the metaromance can explore issues such as the marketing of novels and what is involved in being a published author. The metaromance aspect of Reckless, for example, touches on issues related to the marketing of romance novels. Phoebe describes The Quest to a potential reader as a
novel [which] engages the most lofty of the sensibilities. Very inspiring treatment of the subject of love. You will be especially pleased with its hero. He is even more exciting than one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s heroes (1997: 110)
It’s the verbal equivalent of the modern back-cover blurb and I imagine Quick/Krentz would consider this a fairly appropriate description of Reckless itself. Reckless even concludes with a publicity event which will boost sales of the book, though Wylde is a somewhat shy author who has trouble coping with the adulation of his fans: ‘Wylde was very set against being identified as the author of such a successful book. I believe that when it comes to that sort of thing he is rather shy’ (1997: 368). Wylde comments that:
“I do not like this business of being a famous author.”
“Nonsense”, Phoebe said. “ [...] Surely you can handle a few admirers on the rare occasion such as tonight.”
“The occasions had better be extremely rare,” Gabriel warned. [...]
“They will be,” Phoebe promised. She gave him a gloating smile. “And just think of what it will do for your career. I’ll wager we shall have to go back to print for another five or six thousand copies after this lot returns to London. Everyone here cannot wait to inform his or her friends of the true identity of the author of The Quest. Lacey’s Bookshop will make another tidy little fortune.” (1997: 369-370)
Clearly this is an extremely close editor/author relationship, but the reclusive author’s reluctance to court publicity, and the editor’s desire to have the author meet his/her fans in order to boost sales remind me of comments I’ve read on the blogs and websites of modern romance authors. Here's one such description of writers, from Susan Holloway Scott/Miranda Jarrett on today's blog post at the Word Wenches:
Writers cherish anonymity. We’re not by nature a glamorous bunch. Books may be considered part of the entertainment industry, but writing is not a performing art. Which is why when we have to “go public” –– whether at a big conference like RWA, or a small book signing at a local store –– the results can be, well, challenging.
Quick, Amanda, 1997. Reckless (London: Orion).

Regis, Pamela, 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

Sunday, July 23, 2006


There was an item on US public radio recently about romance which I heard about thanks to a member of the listserv. It started well enough, mentioning current bestsellers:
"Angels Fall," by Nora Roberts. It's billed as a novel of romantic suspense. Number two is "12 Sharp," by Janet Evanovich. About a sassy female bounty hunter. Chick lit rules the lists, you could say. But bookstore worker and commentator Moira Manion is a bit worried about what women are reading these days.
So why is Moira worried? Because she’s been reading the titles of books in the Harlequin Presents series:
I noticed a theme in the "Harlequin Presents" series. Titles like "Mistress Bought and Paid For," "Bought By a Billionaire," "Bought By Her Husband," and "Traded to the Sheik."

When and why did women start fantasizing about being bought and sold? Women have fought against being property. Some sacrificed their lives. I can't believe women would pay to read a story of a woman so desperate for money that she sells herself to a Greek billionaire or a Zanzibar sheik.

But it makes sense. We live in a time when everything is for sale. Why work yourself to death for little pay when you can become the property of a rich man?
First of all, lets have a look at the guidelines for the Harlequin Presents series:
these fast-paced stories are essentially escapist romantic fantasies that take the reader on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Written in the third person, they can be from the male or female point of view, or seen through the eyes of both protagonists. All are set in sophisticated, glamorous, international locations.
With its focus on strong, wealthy, breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes who are tamed by spirited, independent heroines, the central relationship in a Presents novel is a provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict, emotional intensity and overwhelming physical attraction
So yes, the hero is likely to be a ‘rich man’, and that’s part of the ‘escapist’ element. And he’s going to be ‘strong’. But the other side of the equation in this line are the ‘spirited, independent heroines’. These are not books about women who find a wealthy man and immediately latch onto him in order to get his money. They are, however, often about women who are mistaken for ‘gold-diggers’, but, and this is a point that Moira seems to have missed, because she doesn't appear to have read further than the titles, they are not mercenary or materialistic women. For example, one Harlequin Presents novel that I read recently is Kathryn Ross’s Mistress to a Rich Man. The title is exactly the sort that Marion’s talking about. And the hero early on decides that the heroine is ‘a cold-blooded gold-digger and a damn good actress’ (2005:23). Is the heroine a gold-digger? No, of course she’s not, she just wants to meet the father she hasn’t seen for twenty years, and he happens to be a rich and famous movie-star. She doesn’t even become the hero’s mistress, though they do start a sexual relationship before they declare their love for each other.

The misunderstandings about the heroine’s motivation, and/or the nature of the circumstances in which the heroine is forced into close proximity to a hero that she often initially dislikes (but is attracted to) are not, I think, written so that women can indulge in ‘fantasizing about being bought and sold’. It seems to me to have a lot more to do with ensuring that each story is ‘a provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict’. And clearly the readers enjoy both the conflict, which serves to raise the sexual tension, and what is often a Cinderella-like fantasy of a poor, virtuous woman becoming the wife of a rich, handsome hero.

Some of the stories I’ve read do involve the hero and heroine entering into an arranged marriage, perhaps because the heroine is being ‘sold’ by her father or other relative, or perhaps because she needs to marry in order to save her family, or pay for medical treatment for a sick child. But the heroine generally struggles against her fate and she certainly doesn’t marry a rich man just because she wants an easy life of luxury. Furthermore, the heroine is never a ‘mistress’ according to the dictionary definition of ‘a woman (other than a wife) having a sexual relationship with a married man’, though she may occasionally be a ‘kept’ woman if she’s living in accommodation he provides. Very often, as in Mistress to a Rich Man, the word ‘mistress’ just seems to mean that the heroine is the hero’s lover.

The moral of this particular story, it seems to me, is that it’s not wise to judge a book by its title, and it’s even less sensible to judge an entire series (or genre) on the basis of their titles.

Personally I prefer less ‘glamorous’ settings and non-alpha heroes, so maybe I’m misjudging the appeal of this line to other romance readers. But if there are any of you out there who love the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern Romance line, what is it about these books that appeals to you? Is Marion right that you’re just ‘fantasizing about being bought and sold’?

Ross, Kathryn, 2005. Mistress to a Rich Man (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).

Friday, July 21, 2006

Reading the Emotion

Several days ago I was searching the internet for items to add to the Romance Scholarship pages when I came across this statement on Shirley Jump’s website:
Good fiction and non-fiction does two things [that] makes you keep turning long into the night and triggers your emotions. It's the books that make us laugh and makes us cry that we remember, which is why writing with emotion is so important.
Mills and Boon evidently agree, since their romances currently have the slogan ‘Live the emotion’ printed on them. But which emotion is it that the reader is supposed to ‘live’, and does the reader want to do this?

A study of ‘heavy readers’, i.e. ‘people who read upward of a book a week’ (Sheldrick Ross & Chelton 2001: 52) found that:
The bedrock issue is the reader's mood [...]. Mood, of course, varies. When readers are busy or under stress, they often want safety, reassurance, and confirmation. They will reread old favorites or read new books by trusted authors. When life is less stressful, they can afford to take more risks. They may want to be amazed by something unpredictable and might pick books on sheer impulse, even through random selection of an author's name. (2001: 52)
The study also found that:
The interviewed readers were emphatic about what they don't like and used cues on the book itself-e.g., foul language or mass market fiction. Typically readers ruled out books with particular content (too much sex/violence/horror/profane language); books with an undesired emotional effect ("makes me depressed"); books with unappealing characters (drippy heroines, violent heroes, and alpha males); and books written in an unappealing style.
When readers reject a book as "poorly written", they often mean that the book was successfully written to achieve an effect that they personally dislike - too sexually arousing, too scary, too sentimental, too full of verbal effects, too descriptive, or too literary for them. A fan of the stripped-down Hemingway style might dislike the sensuous language of romance and declare that all romances are "poorly written." (2001: 53)
Thus while there are many readers who are happy to get caught up in the drama of a developing romantic relationship, this isn’t what all readers want to feel. If they don’t, they may reject even a well-written or relatively well-written romance as ‘bad’, because it doesn’t fulfill their emotional needs and expectations. In addition, if feeling the emotion is dependent on the author having built up a sense of emotional connection between the reader and the characters, this may explain why some passages (e.g. love scenes) which work well in context sound strange when they’re separated from that context and read aloud in a sarcastic tone of voice. I have the suspicion that it’s harder to ruin the mood of love poetry in this way, because poems are often written to be read aloud: and their construction (e.g. the use of iambic pentameter and line breaks) shapes the way they are read. Also, with the exception of very long narrative poems such as epics, poems are usually already fragments of thought or emotion, carefully pre-prepared excerpts from the poet’s emotions or thinking processes.

But if books can be rejected because they create a mood or emotions that the reader doesn’t want to feel, they can also be embraced precisely for this reason. I’m sure most of us have read a romance that somehow touched a chord, and despite the fact that this particular book may not have been the best-written romance ever, we love and cherish it, perhaps returning to it and using it as a ‘comfort read’. If the emotion is right for us, we may be willing to overlook technical problems such as the fact that an author ‘headhops’ or often ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’ what’s happening. On the other hand, some techniques which tug on a reader’s heart-strings may work in the short-term but then leave the reader feeling manipulated if the emotions didn’t resonate deep within the story. As Shirley Jump says: 'I knew family, children and sacrifice worked as emotional triggers for me, so I used those elements in my novels'.
But, and this is a very important point, one which makes clear the distinction between the merely emotionally manipulative and the book in which the emotion resonates, she adds that:
It isn't enough to just throw in a baby or a sick dog and hope everyone gets tears in their eyes. You have to make those things matter to the character for deep, fundamental reasons we all can relate to. Find out WHY your character cares and what would happen if he lost what means most to him and you have an emotional trigger.
It’s also important to note that not all romances produce the same emotions, despite the fact that all of them contain a ‘central love story’ and should ‘end in a way that makes the reader feel good’.

Different sub-genres, for example, specialise in eliciting particular emotions. For example, romantic suspense should create tension related to the suspense, and an erotic romance is probably failing if it doesn’t leave the reader feeling at least a little hot under the collar. Some romances deal with particular issues, such as being overweight, dealing with addiction or coping with divorce. These scenarios can create different emotions in different readers, depending on their life-experience.

I wonder how the emotions in romance affect the atmosphere in the classroom where they're being taught. Maybe Eric will have time to come and comment on that, though he's rather busy teaching at the moment. I'd guess that the students are less likely to end up feeling miserable or cynical than if they'd been studying works such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But that's assuming, of course, that they began the course feeling in the mood for reading romance.
Catherine Sheldrick Ross & Mary K. Chelton, 2001. ‘Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material’, Library Journal (February 1): 52-55.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Summer Time

We’re in the middle of a heatwave here in the UK. The weather does affect our mood, as well as our bodies, but some authors manage to demonstrate this more successfully than others. In literature, of course, authors can reverse the relationship and alter the weather to suit the mood of the characters:
In literary criticism, the pathetic fallacy is the description of inanimate natural objects in a manner that endows them with human emotions, thoughts, sensations, and feelings. The term was coined by John Ruskin in his 1856 work Modern Painters, in which Ruskin wrote that the aim of pathetic fallacy was “to signify any description of inanimate natural objects that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations, and emotions."
There are other ways in which the weather can be used to enhance the mood or drive a plot and romance writers are well aware of them. For example, Maria V. Snyder, a meteorologist turned romance-writer says that:
I discovered, much to my chagrin, that forecasting the weather wasn’t one of my skills and in order to chase tornados you had to find them first. Creating fantasy worlds where I have complete control of the weather is definitely more fun.
The most obvious examples of the use of seasons in romance are those anthologies of short stories which appear around particular holidays, such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Then there are the dramatic weather events, such as hurricanes or snow-storms which put the couple at risk, forcing them to work together to survive, or simply trap them and keep them together long enough for them to find their HEA.

Since we’re having a heatwave, I thought I'd discuss a seasonally appropriate romance, Barbara Delinsky’s 1987 Heat Wave. This was published in the ‘Temptation’ line, so the title was an indication not just of the weather, but also of the sexual ‘heat’ between the hero and heroine. The story begins with Caroline undressing, and from the context we deduce that she’s just got back home after a long, hot day at work:
Caroline Cooper untied the wilting bow at the neck of her blouse, released its top button and peeled the damp fabric from her sweaty neck. [...] Freeing the last of the buttons, Caroline carefully separated the blouse from her shoulders and arms. [...] Caroline breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped out of her skirt and an even greater one when she rolled the nylons from her legs. [...]
Clad in panties and bra, Caroline padded wearily to the bathroom. [...] she unsnapped her bra and let it fall to the commode before rewetting the cloth and dragging it slowly over those parts of her that hadn’t breathed all day – the insides of her elbows, the curve of her waistline, beneath and between her breasts. (1987: 5-6)
It isn’t till page 7 that we’re told that ‘The dog days of summer had arrived suddenly and with a vengeance, but it wasn’t even summer. It was the sixth of June. She shuddered to think what July and August would be like.’ The slow, detailed opening pages make us feel the heroine’s sticky hotness with her, and they may also make the reader feel just a little bit voyeuristic as we ‘watch’ her slowly peel of her clothes. If so, that’s no coincidence, since the hero has also been watching the heroine from his window, fifty feet away from hers, and their relationship (or courtship) begins with them watching and fantasising about each other across the courtyard. Hot, literally and metaphorically.

But even if we’re boiling in the summer heat, poetry and prose can conjure up the mood of different seasons. Here, for example, is autumn:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
(From John Keats’ Ode to Autumn)
Just reading that makes me feel the lazy, gentle warmth of that season.

Lydia Joyce’s The Veil of Night is a particularly good example of how weather can be used to set mood, assist in characterisation and drive the plot. There are examples of this throughout the novel, but I'll just give one example, from the very beginning, when Lady Victoria Wakefield arrives at a lonely mansion, ‘its saw-toothed crenellations pierced by random, unbalanced spires stabbing the slate-gray sky’ (2005: 3) . As she and her maid walk up the hill
A fat drop of rain fell squarely on her nose as a gust of wind caught the cage of her crinoline [...] Another drop splatted against Victoria’s cheek, then another soaked through the fabric of her wrap and the gown beneath to wet her shoulder. She pressed her mouth in a thin line of displeasure, wishing fifty hells on the arrogant duke. [...] They reached the door just as a peal of thunder shook the ground and the sky let loose, releasing a torrent of water over them. Victoria didn’t pause to knock. She jerked the iron latch down and threw her shoulder against the battered door, half stumbling inside as it opened. (2005: 6)
Victoria’s reaction to the weather gives us a clue to her resilience and determination, as well as to her unconventional side which prompts her imaginative curse and which is then demonstrated by her decision to open the door herself rather than wait for a servant to do it for her. The scene also works to create atmosphere, since it is decidedly gothic: the heroine arrives in near-darkness, accompanied by the roll of thunder, at a remote and imposing building. This is no mere pastiche of the gothic, however, instead it is a work in which appearances are shown to be deceptive, and the author, having created expectations in the reader, leaves many of them unfulfilled, thus reinforcing one of the themes of the book, about the need to look beyond the surface appearance of a person (or a book, or a house), if one is to truly understand it. Later parts of the book, which is set in September 1864, create the same impression of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ as Keats’ poem, particularly in the creative application of peaches, which the Duke uses to give Victoria her ‘just desserts’ (2005: 131) while she lies back, her blonde hair loose, like Keat’s autumn,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies
Anyone got any favourite weather scenes? And do you prefer to match the weather in the books you read to the weather you're experiencing?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Writers Who Bare All

Not literally! But I was thinking about what's involved when authors write about themselves, their books and their genre. There are so many authors who have blogs and websites, and on many of these one can read the writer's thoughts about the romance genre. Similar essays can be found in Mussell and Tuñón's 1999 North American Romance Writers and in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992).

It's an issue which is discussed by writers and readers alike, with some readers declaring that they've been put off buying books by certain authors because they don’t like their personalities.

As someone interested in studying romances from an academic perspective, I find all this extra information fascinating, and sometimes extremely useful. The essay collections in particular offer an important insight into how writers were thinking about the genre at a particular moment in romance history. Many author websites also include articles offering writing advice, some of it about writing craft and some of it about the business side of being an author (e.g. about how to write a query letter). These essays can give readers an insight into the business and into an individual author's technique. Blogs can help build up a picture of events which may have shaped the author and her writing and of the author's personality. It's not that we need or want to psychoanalyse the author but rather that blogs and essays can sometimes give us a few clues about whether we’re going in the right direction in our analysis of the novels. One of the points brought up in the recent discussion about academic analysis of romances both at Romancing the Blog and continued here is that we might ‘OVERanalyze, looking for deep meanings that may not be there’ or that ‘maybe people do tend to over-analyze and see hidden meanings that really aren’t there for the sake of academics’.

Knowing a bit more about the author can help keep us on track. It’s not essential, of course, and there are plenty of authors from the past about whom we know extremely little and whose works have been studied in huge detail. It could be argued that knowing next to nothing (or even nothing) about the author just adds to the mystique of the work and opens up more possible interpretations. That’s particularly helpful if one’s interpretation is more focussed on the reader’s responses, and on the reader’s interpretations. But a bit of background knowledge about the author really does come in handy if

(a) one doesn’t want to look like an idiot. Getting details wrong about an author, details that any real fan knows, is not going to make an academic look either knowledgeable or serious about their subject.

(b) one perhaps wants to find out a bit more about their background. No-one writes or lives in a vacuum and it may well make a difference whether a writer is from Australia, or New Zealand, Canada or the US, England or Scotland. There's already a book just about Australian romance, for example.

(c) One might be interested to know which romance authors are really men writing under a female pseudonym (particularly if one were writing about male authors and male readers of romance). It could come as a big shock to discover that an author was actually two authors if one had been speculating about ‘her’ background, but it might also help explain certain differences in style or characterisation or plotting that might otherwise have been put down to uneavenness in a single author’s writing.

(d) Titles, like covers, are something that romance authors often lack control over, and academics need to be aware of that. For example, I happen to think that Jennifer Crusie’s Manhunting has a really appropriate title. But it turns out that it wasn’t Crusie who thought it up. So while the title may tell us a lot about the book, we have to be careful about drawing assumptions on the basis of the title alone.

And there are lots of other minor details about books and authors that could be helpful to know. Anyone want to add to the list? Or do you think the less we know about the author the better? And maybe there are some authors with items to add to the Romance Wiki list of resources?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Aphrodite visits Parnassus

Academic critics of romance fiction have long been preoccupied with a single question: is the genre good for women readers? This worry may be patronizing, but it has a pedigree. Doesn't Don Quixote pose the same question about chivalric romance? Certainly Plato fears that a steady diet of poetry--by which they mean fiction, made-up things, and not just verse--will rot the minds of the populace as surely as Krispy Kreme doughnuts will rot their teeth. (I know, I know, but what's the classical equivalent? Some sort of baklava?) Sir Philip Sidney's defense of poesy might then serve as a defense of romance, too, with a little judicious editing:
The lawyer saith what men have determined, the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech, and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weigheth the nature of man’s body, and the nature of things helpful or hurtful unto it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he, indeed, build upon the depth of nature.

Only the romance writer disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of her own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as she goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of nature's gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of her own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as romance writers have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; nature's world is brazen, romance writers only deliver a golden.
The debate J sparked a few days ago about why romance heroines have to be so good--not patient Griseldas, to be sure, but drawn to virtue even at their caustic best--makes new sense if we read the genre through Sidney's eyes. "Now, to that which is commonly attributed to the praise of though therein a man should see virtue exalted and vice punished,—truly that commendation is peculiar to romance fiction and far off from history. For, indeed, romance ever setteth virtue so out in her best colors, making Fortune her well-waiting handmaid, that one must needs be enamored of her." Or, I suppose, we might cite Wilde: "The good end happily, and the bad end unhappily. That is what fiction means."

Recently I spent some time thinking about romance fiction and poetry in another, less high-flown context: an essay on novels with poet-protagonists for the wonderful journal Parnassus: Poetry in Review. I wasn't just being a naughty boy, smuggling a copy of Georgette Heyer up to the High Table, although I won't deny that it was fun. I also wanted to contribute, in however small a way, to the new front of academic writing about romance: that [insert preferred adjective] body of criticism which does not ask whether the books are good for their readers, but tries to read them otherwise.

Here are the opening sections, in which romance fiction appears. The piece is called "Foils and Fakers, Monsters and Makers," although I will always think of it by its original working title, "Buffy the Poetry Slayer":

Foils and Fakers, Monsters and Makers

In my twenties, newly married, eager to please my wife, I cozied up to her six best friends, the novels of Jane Austen. We didn’t get along. Maybe Elizabeth Bennett’s quip about “the efficacy of poetry in driving away love” hit a little too close to home. (Like Darcy, I preferred to consider poetry the food of love, especially on our honeymoon.) A hundred pages into Persuasion, I balked again, this time on behalf of poor Captain Benwick, “a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry,” to whom Anne Elliot recommends “a larger allowance of prose.” What was Austen’s problem? Had I known that Charlotte Brontë once wondered, with Pride and Prejudice in mind, whether there could ever be “a great artist without poetry,” no doubt I would have quoted her in defense of my slandered art. Lucky in my ignorance, I held my tongue, and have lived to find myself, like all good husbands, properly humbled.

In the last year I have become an aficionado of the poetry-bashing or poetry-praising novel, and still more of the novel-with-a-poet-protagonist. (Der Dichtersroman, I guess this last would be.) As you might expect, such books are a disparate lot. Some authors merely lift a verse, like a champagne flute, to toast a character’s passion or aplomb:

“I like my afterglow with you in motion. I measure time by how your body sways.” He bit her earlobe and she rolled to look up at him. “Okay,” he said. “I just like my afterglow with you.”

His eyes were dark as ever, but now they were hot, too, intent on her, and he took her breath away. Good grief, she thought. Look at him. He’s beautiful.

“By how my body sways?” she said instead.

“It’s from a very hot poem,” he said. “It comes to mind whenever I watch you move.”

Poetry, she thought. He’ll be surprising me forever.

-(Jennifer Crusie, Fast Women)

Others, like Austen, use poetry to limn their own genre. Persuasion, for example, hints that the novel can offer not only the pathos of Captain Benwick’s beloved Scott and Byron and the sober moral precision that Anne Elliot prescribes in its place, but also a dose of forgiving, tender humor foreign to both.

When it comes to poets as characters, the diversity continues. If many novelists treat them lightly, as foils or poseurs, still more trade on the ancient glamour of the Poet as archetypal maker, and pour out their prose as an offering to raise that noble ghost and question it on topics that more sophisticated critics now avoid. (Sappho, Ovid, and the British Romantics get this nekuia-treatment most often, thanks to their mysterious and ever-compelling lives, but the same rite summons the confected Victorian poets of A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.) Neither indulgent nor spellbound, a few novelists patrol the graveyard of verse like Buffy the Poetry Slayer, poised to unmask a monstrous ego or put a stake through the heart of an undying, undead reputation. Milton!” they cry—and it is Milton, often enough—“Thou should’st not be living at this hour!” And the battle is on.

Foils and Fakers

For an introduction to the pleasures of the poet- or poetry-novel, however, you’ll probably want to start with something less fraught than Paul West’s Sporting with Amaryllis or Peter Ackroyd’s Milton in America. The book that won me over was a classic Regency romance: The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer, inventor of the genre. The poet here is one Augustus Fawnhope, with whom Miss Cecilia Ombersley has, unfortunately, fallen in love, despite his slim prospects. A youngest son with no inheritance to speak of, Fawnhope lacks—because he’s a poet, naturally—any inclination to take up a “humdrum” position in government. Alas, he seems just as unlikely to win fame or fortune through his verse. As Cecilia’s mother observes in the opening chapter, “though his poems are very pretty, bound up in white vellum, they don’t seem to take very well, I mean, not at all like Lord Byron’s.” The billet-doux that arrives a few pages later bears this out: Nymph, when thy cerulean gaze Upon my restless spirit casts its beam— Cecilia’s older brother and financial guardian, Charles Rivenhall, is outraged:

“I thank you, I have no taste for verse!” interrupted Mr. Rivenhall harshly. “Put it on the fire, ma’am, and tell Cecilia she is not to be receiving letters without your sanction!”

“Yes, but do you think I should burn it, Charles? Only think if this were the only copy of the poem! Perhaps he wants to have it printed!”

“He is not going to print such stuff about any sister of mine!” said Mr. Rivenhall grimly, holding out an imperative hand.

Heyer nicely pokes fun here not only at Augustus, whose ill-timed and wispy effusions punctuate the novel, but also at Charles, our stuffy-but-goodhearted hero. Among the many things our heroine, the freewheeling Sophy, will teach him is a lesson about poetry familiar (like so much of Regency romance) from Pride and Prejudice. Fawnhope’s work isn’t “about’ much of anything, really, except its author’s need to churn out euphony. As for his love of Cecilia, one good sonnet—or, in this case, one good verse drama—will starve it away entirely.

Although The Grand Sophy aims to melt in your mouth like the best English trifle, Heyer takes her role as dessert chef quite seriously, and her sure hand with Fawnhope shows throughout . His poetic self-involvement, for example, may be a familiar caricature, but Heyer uses it deftly to underscore the novel’s concern with “fit conversation,” in Milton’s fine old phrase, as both the proof and the embodiment of love. The more Sophy and Charles square off, like the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn of 1816, the better they suit each other, and that suitability plays out as a shared mastery of language. Unlike Charles’s erstwhile fiancée, Eugenia Wraxton, but quite like Charles himself, Sophy can turn on a shilling from the high-society pieties of the ton—from the French bon ton, don’t you know—to boxing slang to blunt negotiation. Fawnhope, by contrast, fawns and hopes, and the more he murmurs verses, the more he proves himself, in Sophy’s words, “the kind of man whom the waiters serve last,” too lost in thought to procure a covered chair for his female companions when it starts to rain. By the time Fawnhope has failed to help Cecilia’s younger sister through an illness—he dashes off a pretty pair of verses, wistful and grateful, respectively, as the girl first fails and recovers—we know the affair is over.

It feels just, then, not malicious, that Fawnhope should be the only major character who is not engaged to anyone, in the end. Like Austen in Persuasion, albeit more comically, Heyer makes poetry seem an art of the solitary self. It may be recited, even given to others, but it’s fundamentally about its own concerns, its own artistry, and Fawnhope admits as much. “Marriage is not for such as I am,” he shrugs to Cecilia when she breaks off their engagement, echoing the words of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Reginald Bunthorne, left single at the close of Patience:

BUNTHORNE. In that case unprecedented,
Single I must live and die –
I shall have to be contented
With a tulip or lily!

Takes a lily from button-hole and gazes affectionately at it.

ALL. He will have to be contented
With a tulip or lily!
Greatly pleased with one another,
To get married we/they decide.
Each of us/them will wed the other,
Nobody be Bunthorne's Bride!

Bunthorne, of course, famously parodies Oscar Wilde, and there’s a none-too-subtle jab at his sexuality in that rhyme about his love of a “li-lie.” Does Fawnhope, too, sketch the Poet as sexual introvert? My sense is no, given his closing work-in-progress, an ode to Sophy. “I have abandoned the notion of hailing you as Vestal virgin,” he declares, moments before Charles finally proposes to her. “My opening line now reads, Goddess, whose steady hands upheld—but I must have ink!” Exit Poet, pursuing a Muse. The story may now come to its properly comic, properly marital conclusion.

As you may have guessed, I’m rather fond of Fawnhope—and so, one suspects, is his author. Effusive, abstracted, entirely silly, entirely sincere, he stands at some distance from his more devious relative Bunthorne, a fake who lets us in on the game:

Am I alone,
And unobserved? I am!
Then let me own
I’m an æsthetic sham!
This air severe
Is but a mere
This cynic smile
Is but a wile
Of guile!
This costume chaste
Is but good taste
Let me confess!
A languid love for Lilies does not blight me!
Lank limbs and haggard cheeks do not delight me!
I do not care for dirty greens
By any means.
I do not long for all one sees
That’s Japanese.
I am not fond of uttering platitudes
In stained-glass attitudes.
In short, my mediævalism’s affectation,
Born of a morbid love of admiration!

Gilbert, throughout Patience, stages a fencing match between poetry, whether of Archibald Grosvenor’s “Idyllic” or Bunthorne’s “Fleshly” school, and the exact, exuberant wit of his libretto. The former tend to the banal and the meaningless, respectively. (“The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind,” Bunthorne observes in his patter-song.) The librettist, by contrast, is a master craftsman. Like Wilde the master of epigram, and unlike Wilde the poet, he offers sprezzatura and not overwrought Rites and Impressions. When he’s funny, it’s deliberate.

The Grand Sophy stages a rivalry between the most admired, least popular of genres and the most despised but most read, with Heyer using Fawnhope to pin down what makes a novel novelistic, at least in the limited instance of romance fiction. Or rather, Heyer restages this little debate, which was carried out in earnest back when novels were an upstart form and poems still commanded a share of the literary marketplace. Neither Captain Benwick nor Anne Elliott, you’ll remember, is an intellectual, yet both agree on “the richness of the present age” where poetry is concerned, and their conversation assumes a reader familiar, at least by name, with Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, The Bride of Abydos, and The Giaour, although perhaps as puzzled as Austen’s characters as to “how the Giaour was to be pronounced.” There are, to be sure, recent popular novels that take poetry seriously, but they do so as boosters, to show that it, too, can be a popular art. A Wild Pursuit, by Eloisa James, boasts several scenes where poems are put to use for seduction or courtship, and James—the nom de plume of Fordham English professor Mary Bly—observed in The New York Times that readers contacted her eagerly, afterward, to ask where they could obtain more work by her featured sixteenth-century poet, Richard Barnfield. (Here, at least, a sonnet gets to be the food of love!)

What would a contemporary novel look like that considers poetry to be an actual rival, an equal, alternative art?

At which point I shift to the rest of the novels--the only other romance I discuss is A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance, and I'll save my thoughts on that for another day.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Important Themes

Brenda Coulter's made some interesting comments about this blog which I'd like to comment on (I know, it begins to sound incestuous, with me commenting on her comments on our comments). She writes that:
the unwritten assumption [on Teach Me Tonight] appears to be that the best romance novels contain “important” themes; most often about gender roles.

I chafe at the idea that every romance novel should mean something. Sometimes a good story is simply that. Sure, there must be a point to it, something my publisher calls the “take-away value.” But in general, I don’t expect every romance I read to contain Big Thoughts. In fact, I believe I prefer that they do not.

Obviously I can't speak for any other contributors to the blog, but it seems to me that one of the things that academics do is look for themes, and because we're looking for them, we find them. I don't think we're just forcing books to yield up something they don't contain (though I've seen academics do this on occasion, when they have a particular theory that they're committed to, and the text is shoe-horned into fitting the theory - rather like the Ugly Sisters' feet). All romances deal with love. And that's a Big Theme. Then there's the hero and heroine, who have a relationship. As soon as you start comparing them to other heroes and heroines, and wondering if their relationship bears any relationship to real life, or to the relationships in other romances, you begin to explore Big Themes. As soon as a reader gloms an author's backlist and starts saying things like 'I prefer author X's earlier work, she or he is beginning a process which could lead to Big Thoughts. I can't think of any story that's simply a good story. Zipes says of the fairy-tale, for example, that

any definition of this genre must begin with the premise that the individual tale was indeed a symbolic act intended to transform a specific oral folk tale (and sometimes a well-known literary tale) and designed to rearrange the motifs, characters, themes, functions and configurations in such a way that they would address the concerns of the educated and ruling classes of late feudal and early capitalist societies. (1991: 6)
I wouldn't argue that all romance authors 'intend' to address Big Issues, but the issues will be there nonetheless. Romances deal with sexual mores (virgin widows anyone? disputes about erotic romances?). Does the heroine have/not have a job? Does she want/not want children? Does the hero carry a gun/fight a duel? Do they own property (and if so, how much)? If so, the story can be seen as telling us something - about women's sexuality, about working women, about family life, about the use of violence, about capitalism.

So, if academics can find Big Themes and think Big Thoughts about almost any text, surely this means that we're not making the 'assumption [...] that the best romance novels contain “important” themes; most often about gender roles'? I think, and I'm speaking for myself here, that the 'best romance' novels speak to our emotions. They also have rich characterisation and a skilled use of language. In fact, when lists of 'great literature' are drawn up, I'm sure the 'speaking to the emotions' aspect of the text plays an important factor in that selection too, whether or not this is always admitted.

I've heard it said that authors of fiction can get inspiration for story ideas from all sorts of places including objects and news items. Did the creators of those objects mean them to spark an author's imagination? I doubt it. But they do nonetheless inspire the author. Academics are similar - we read texts and are inspired, and by making comparisons with other texts, the cultural context etc, we end up discussing Big Thoughts.

We can read for fun too, though, sometimes.

Zipes, Jack, 1991. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Routledge). First published in 1983 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More Musings on the Alpha

Radway writes that
in ideal romances the hero is constructed androgynously. Although the women were clearly taken with his spectacularly masculine phallic power, in their voluntary comments and in their revealed preferences they emphasized equally that his capacity for tenderness and attentive concern was essential as well. Chodorow’s theories seemed helpful because of their capacity to explain what I thought of as the twin objects of desire underlying romance reading, that is, the desire for the nurturance represented and promised by the preoedipal mother and for the power and autonomy associated with the oedipal father. (1991: 13-14)
I’m still trying to understand why the hero who shows a capacity for ‘tenderness’ is ‘androgynous’, since this seems to me to be suggesting that a ‘masculine’ man would have a very limited emotional range. It could be that the heroes described by Radway shade into the alpha 'she-male' as described by Robin who:
finds a lot of alpha heroes bullying and condescending. Or cleverly disguised she-males, aka the alphas who drag the heroine off to their isolated mountain cabin, where they proceed to draw her a bubble bath, cook her a gourmet dinner, wash every dish *by hand*, and then empathetically anticipate her every emotional and sexual desire.
Whatever sort of alpha she was describing, though, Radway got me thinking about mothers, psychology and the alpha hero. Then, in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women one of the authors suggests that ‘the romance maps out the first segment of the journey’ that ‘Everywoman’ makes ‘from ‘virgin to mother’ (Barlow 1992: 48) and the hero represents a ‘split-off portion of the heroine’s psyche which will be reintegrated at the end of the book’ (Barlow 1992: 49). Barlow associates the masculine traits within women with the male child:
If the heroine’s primary role in the myth serves to encourage us to cope with our fears, the hero’s is to provide us with the means of facing and accepting the angry, aggressive, sexually charged components of our personality that we have been taught to associate with masculinity. From childhood, males have more outlets for their aggressions – sports, horseplay, roughhousing [...] Females, on the other hand, are instructed from childhood to control, repress, or even split off their aggressive and erotic drives. (Barlow 1992: 49-50)
So, is the hero a way for the reader to get in touch with her inner child, while the heroine, in transition from virgin to mother, represents the reader’s inner adult and (perhaps in the epilogue or a sequel where she’s a supporting character) inner parent? It’s all beginning to sound rather like transactional analysis and I’m extremely hesitant to analyse the genre this way, since I’m trained in literary criticism, not psychology. But the way the hero is described, both by Radway and in Dangerous Men did make me conclude that alpha heroes often seem rather like toddlers.

I know there are different opinions about exactly what an 'alpha' hero is, and the ways in which he differs from 'beta' and 'gamma' heroes. Some people distinguish between the true alpha and the ‘alpha jerk’, just as they distinguish between the assertive, ‘kick-ass’ heroine, and the ‘too-stupid-to-live’, ‘feisty’ heroine. But with that qualification made, when I thought about the alpha hero, as discussed in Dangerous Men, the image that came to my mind was that of a toddler. Maybe that’s because in Dangerous Men there's a lot of mention of how the alpha is 'tamed', and I've heard a lot about Dr Christopher Green’s Toddler Taming. Nonetheless, the process of the alpha hero’s development, as described by Krentz in Dangerous Men, does, it seems to me, resemble that of bringing up a child:
the heroes in the books undergo a significant change in the course of the story, often being tamed or gentled or taught to love, but they do not lose any of their [...] strength in the process. [...] The journey of the novel, many writers say, is the civilization of the male. (1992: 6)
Toddlers, like alpha heroes, can be both immensely appealing and, simultaneously, incredibly irritating. They can be extremely strong, but they don’t always know how to control their own strength. While they may behave well in a very structured environment where they know the rules (such as nursery, or, in the case of the alpha hero his group of spies, or his band of warriors), they may act out in the presence of people from whom they want an emotional response. Sometimes they behave far, far, worse with the person they love most than they would with the people with whom they interact in the structured environment. In the case of the toddler, it’s not just because the staff are strict and the parents aren't (though this is sometimes the case), but because the child wants to know that he or she will still be loved and accepted despite bad behaviour, in other words, he or she wants to know that he/she is really and truly loved unconditionally. The parent has to show the child that he or she is indeed loved unconditionally, and that there’s no need to keep testing the boundaries.

Alpha heroes sometimes remind me of toddlers, still seeking the love of their ‘mother’ and attention-seeking by throwing tantrums and acting badly. In fact, quite a few of the alpha heroes really do have ‘mother issues’, with a mother who abandoned them, or some key female figure who has somehow betrayed them. They imprint on the heroine (rather like Konrad Lorenz's ducklings, though alpha heroes are a lot pickier about who they imprint on than a duckling is) and make her the focus of their desire, much as the toddler wants the love and approval of his/her parents. But, because the alpha hero wants to know he’s loved unconditionally (and he not infrequently doubts whether he’s actually deserving of love at all) he often mistreats the heroine. The heroine, like a good mother, forgives her toddler (though she may, like all mothers, feel irritation and occasionally slap or shout back). In the end the toddler, from being a terrible, almost monstrous, chaotic creature, is ‘tamed’. Just like the alpha hero.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On Comfort, Challenge, and "Importance"

J has posted a variety of thought-provoking comments on Jennifer Crusie, and more generally on the enterprise of treating romance fiction from an academic perspective. I've replied to some of these already (the exchange is over here); the most recent ones, though, deserve to be addressed "above the fold," I think. I'm not sure I can do them justice under current circumstances (I'm blogging in the basement, with my daughter foraging for entertainment not three feet away), but let me throw out a couple of ideas.

J began by quirking an eyebrow at what seems to her (to him? I don't want to presume) to be a recycling of formulaic elements in Crusie's novels, devices that have been around so long they have grown, in J's word, "trite":
I am not criticizing her use of pets and children. Of course the pets are cute and need rescuing, and naturally the children are loveable and need rescuing. That's what the heroine is for -- to rescue the weak and helpless. And then to be rescued herself by the hero with his sweet kiss.

The other day I was reading an Amazon review of one of her books, and found the comment "First off, where were the dogs?!" Okay, it's every reader's right to expect love and romance from Crusie, but must our author also deliver canine companionship, as well?
The first thing that strikes me about these comments is their witty, debunking tone: the tone of a reader who is not, by gum, about to let an author pull a fast one on her. I actually rather like that tone, since it reminds me of Min in Bet Me, but as a professor, it also puts me on my guard. Whenever my students strike it--heck, whenever I strike it myself in my own reviewing--I'm generally about to say something funny, but reductive: something that breaks whatever spell a book has tried to cast over me. I'm not a sucker, it says. And, indeed, a moment later, J offers this observation:
I suppose if I had to write a paper on Crusie, it would be on the topic of women's tendency to seek comfort in familiarity. Time and time again I read women's comments that they read a certain author because "they know what to expect." It's the key to Nora Roberts' empire, I think.
Now, maybe it's just because I've been properly humbled one or two times in my day, but I'm awfully wary of generalizations about "women's tendency" to do anything. Are women more likely to seek comfort in familiarity than men? Two days ago I was at a Cubs game with my son: we ate familiar ballpark food, wore familiar sports fan clothing, watched an utterly familiar, indeed utterly rule-bound activity for, what, 3 1/2 hours or so, and drove home listening to extra innings of yet another baseball game. Was there anything unpredictable in what transpired? Well, the Cubbies won, which is certainly an unfamiliar experience this season. But that's a little condiment of unfamiliarity spicing up an utterly comforting-because-familiar, even ritualized activity.

Suppose, then, we change J's comment to read: "If I had to write a paper on Crusie, I'd write it on the topic of the human tendency to seek comfort in familiarity." Fair enough, say I--but to get anything more than a C on that paper, you'd have to address not only the familiar elements in Crusie's books (say, the motifs she comes back to over and over again, like the animal friends and pop culture references), but also the way these novels address familiarity thematically, and also how Crusie attacks the aesthetic problem of over-familiarity, too. What does she do to vary her material, if only just enough to avoid boredom? In which novels is she more successful at this, and in which is she less effective as an artist? Does she ever address the question of familiarity directly in narrative or dialogue, or otherwise show some literary self-consciousness about the issue? (She was, after all, an academic before she became a novelist, and her dissertation was on narrative structures in men's and women's fiction. Surely she's as aware of this issue as any of us are.)

Now we're not asking snarky questions, but serious ones: in fact, the same serious ones we can ask about Petrarch, or about the Jewish poets of the Golden Age in Spain, or about qasida writers in Islamic world, of haiku poets in Japan, or about virtually any other literary artist working within a highly conventionalized framework. (Such conventionalized frameworks are, I would hazard, the norm in literary culture, except in isolated periods that value individualism and originality. Those are the exceptions, not the rule.) We may call romance fiction "romantic," but it's a classical art, and needs to be read as such.

Bet Me, I would argue, is a profoundly self-conscious book: probably Jenny's most visibly structured, visibly "designed" novel, and one in which the appeal of the conventional, the familiar, and the predictably appealing is addressed in many ways. J could write about how the superfluity of fairy tale material in the novel--allusions, both subtle and obvious, discussions of fairy tales between characters, and so on--makes the text both familiar and playfully self-conscious about that appeal to narrative and explicatory comfort. (It's a literary game as old as Alexandria, but here it's one that many readers, not just the cultured elite, can play.)

Min's resistance to the fairy tales, and her need to give in and articulate her own HEA, would then seem to match the reader's need to give up his or her cynicism in order to savor the text. (I think here of J's later comment that "I don't believe in fairy tales. They have much to teach us, like don't eat houses made of candy and don't expect your birth parent to keep your wicked step-parent from tormenting you. But if you lie around waiting for your prince to come and rescue you, you'll end up sleeping for 100 years.") It is also congruent with her resistance to fats and sweets, which suggests that fairy tales are the literary equivalent of those culinary pleasures, all of which we are suckers for, simply due to biology. We slim ourselves down by refusing them, the novel suggests, but at what cost? Is that cost worse than throwing up if we eat too much of them, as Harry does? Certainly we can't cook [create] our own chicken marsala [HEA] while leaving out essential ingredients, although we may want to, since those ingredients are the ones that some Nanette voice inside us insists we refuse. (It took me longer than I'd care to admit before I caught that joke about "No, No, Nanette.")

J finished that particular post with this challenge:
That stated, I reiterate that I enjoy the books; I enjoy the cute little pets that never seem to make nasty puddles on the heroine's carpet or chew her favorite shoes; I enjoy the children who are never hideous, spoiled brats. The writing is funny. But is it more than an entertaining and comforting formula? Is it "important"? Does it challenge us in any way?
I don't have time to address each part of this at length. For now, suffice it to say that I do not admit that "importance" is equivalent to "challenge," nor do I buy the notion that entertainment and comfort are unimportant, unworthy of intellectual inquiry. These seem to me the cliches of modernism, beloved of English teachers everywhere who want to show their students that the texts they enjoy are not as worthy of attention as the ones they are now being forced to read and write about for credit. In many moods, I think that NO literature, no art at all, is "important" in the way this question assumes. Rather, there are works that let us flatter ourselves that we are doing something important when we read them, like thinking about, I don't know, war and famine and political corruption, as opposed to the pleasures of food and sex. Less cynically, let me just suggest that Crusie herself addresses this question in Bet Me, embodying it in the pair of restaurants her characters visit.

Other kinds of art may get more credit, more acclaim, than romance fiction, Bet Me suggests, because they "challenge" us. In the end, though, they are the Serafino's of literature--places where an author "makes a statement," but does not please. We may convince ourselves that food that tastes bad must be "important," especially if the restaurant critics all concur. But do we really want to, in the end? Emilio's may boast innumerable cliches both of menu and decor, like romance fiction itself, but it also satisfies: not least, it satisfies our most embarassing, because most conventional, cravings.

That's not a full-blown essay, J--just an hour on a Tuesday morning. Give me time and coffee and I can do the job better, but this will give you some idea of how I think about this novel, and about the very good questions you raise!