Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Dangerous Lover

That's the title of Deborah Lutz's recent book (full title The Dangerous Lover; Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative ). The central thesis of the book concerns the dangerous lover, and it seems to me that what Lutz has to say about this character type illuminates the discussion we've been having about risk, eroticism and romances which function on a mythical level. There's a synopsis and a link to a pdf of the introduction and first chapter available, but to give you a flavour of what the book's about, here are some quotations:
Standing always under the sign of longing is the dangerous lover—the one whose eroticism lies in his dark past, his restless inquietude, his remorseful and rebellious exile from comfortable everyday living. His ubiquity marks him as always central to what we mean when we talk about existence and the modern self. (2006: ix)
Caught up in an everyday world of all that appears closest and most familiar to us, we believe that our existence can be explained by what we know well. But ontologically, our most authentic selves lie in what is most mysterious and strange — what appears to be furthest from us. Confronted with authentic being, we feel a sense of terror in the face of the unknown. The dangerous lover narrative makes the same argument about ontology—that our “true” selves reside in what is most strange and enemy-like, in the dangerous
other. (2006: x-xi)
The romance heroine finds her most authentic self at the heart of what seems at first most foreign and outside her way of being—an arrogant, hateful other. Romance moves always toward discovery and approaching the impenetrable: what is uncovered is authentic existence in the uncanny other; at the very heart of what appears to be not ours comes what we must fully own as ours. (2006: xi)
In her study of early romance genres (from 1674 to 1740), Ros Ballaster creates two categories of use here: didactic love fiction and amatory fiction. [...] Ballaster’s category of didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question). On the opposite extreme, the dangerous lover type falls under the rubric of amatory fiction. Amatory fiction cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally, nor does it play out in a socially sanctioned realm. The anarchical rebelliousness of the dangerous lover narrative — its moments of frozen inarticulateness — undercut a didactic project. In its aestheticization of failure, dangerous love has its foundations in the finitude of being, on the edge of silence, in fragmentation, and in disintegration. Dangerous love plays with the outside — of possibility, life in society, happiness. (2006: 2)
On some level the dangerous lover hides in myth; he retreats from present being into being an other from the past. And to love a dangerous lover is also to step into the fantasy of mythology and its truth, seemingly frozen yet always shifting. To retreat into myth is to step out of the present and re-create a past, larger than life. (2006: 4)
His seductiveness can be located here: the one who loves him can grasp the power of impossibility; she can make the world possible by being, herself, the plenitude, the immanent meaning of existence for him. The hero’s belief in his brilliance, his superior, misanthropic position above all others and their run-of-the-mill lives, is so very believable to the heroine that to change this decimation to plenitude becomes her reason for being. (2006: 5)
The dangerous lover narrative exemplifies, in its movements and its central concerns, the angst of being itself. The unfathomable mystery of existence in the world and the longing it perpetuates—the longing to fully be, to be sure what to do with the world that surrounds us—is the same desire the heroine of the romance has for the dangerous beloved. This is the desire to desire; it is desire per se. (2006: 20)
Oh, and she mentions Laura Kinsale's essay in Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women in one of the endnotes:
As has been argued about Jane Eyre, often the heroine’s search to read the hero is a search for her own dark depths, her perhaps angry, sexual, insane, powerful, and free side, expressed by the hero, her double. To some extent, the dangerous lover always acts as a placeholder for desire. An investigation of this would be another historical trajectory entirely, one that waits to be written. An analogy is Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, which charts the ways Jane’s anger and sexuality are expressed through Bertha as her double. Also, Laura Kinsdale [sic] discusses the hero as double for the heroine in contemporary romance in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. (2006: 96)
I did have some relatively minor quibbles about the book, which I mentioned on the Romance Scholar listserv, but these were about small details, not about the central thesis of the book, which is interesting and, I think, very relevant to the discussions we've been having lately.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Different preferences - variety and change in the romance genre

In the past week there seems to have been a spate of discussions about what's erotic, and what's not, which has led on to discussions about what romance readers do and don't want. On the 26th of September there was a Salon article in which Esther Perel told readers that:
Erotic desire [...] thrives on mystery, unpredictability and politically incorrect power games, not housework battles and childcare woes. Furthermore, increased emotional intimacy between partners often leads to less sexual passion.
You can find experts who'll tell you the complete opposite:
Real intimacy is frightening. It requires a kind of openness, honesty and self-respect that most of us aren't used to. But Schnarch's 30 years of counseling couples has convinced him that it's worth it. [...] Best of all, the sex often becomes more relaxed, creative and connected. Literally and figuratively, no one's hiding in the dark anymore.
Laura Kinsale made a comparison between what Perel had to say about marriage and the romance genre:
The great mistake about the romance genre is, and always has been, to literalize the stories. The critics make this mistake, the censorious make this mistake, and lately even the readers seem to make it, too. Readers have become self-conscious about their fantasies, largely because the fantasies have been conflated with real life political issues for the last few decades.
she adds that
It sometimes begins to seem to me that a goodly percentage of present day romance readers are actually frightened of reading about a real conflict in a book. It's as if they would prefer a therapy session between the characters, with a moderator present to keep things under control while the hero and heroine get equal time to present their side of the story and work through their issues.
This led to a discussion at the Smart Bitches, (27th September) including a comment by Robin that
I think the core of her position is in her comment about the “literalization” of Romance. If I understand Kinsale’s argument, it goes something like this: while so many of our fantasies, archetypes, myths [...] relate to the taboo, to violence, to dark eroticism, etc., in our Romance novels, we’ve moved farther and farther away from honoring those symbolic and metaphoric and mythic levels and have instead grounded all this stuff by inappropriately writing and talking about it in the same way we’d talk about real life issues.
So, does everyone want a marriage of the sort described by Perel, or romance that functions on mythic levels? I'm not sure we all do. Different readers will have different preferences. Personally, I enjoy romances which relate to 'real life issues', and if they did happen to include a therapy session with Dr Oz Strummer I wouldn't complain. In fact, Julie Cohen's Being a Bad Girl, in which he appears, is a good example of how the portrayal of the development of intimacy, real life issues, psychological analysis, and sex scenes can be combined.

Also on the 27th Larissa Ione, blogging at Romancing the Blog asked if it's 'possible that the “high” we get from reading erotic romance has changed our preferences for content…permanently?'. Again, several readers popped up with dissenting views, saying that they preferred romances which were less explicit, and you can even find a reader such as Daisy Goodwin, who says that she doesn't 'want sex [in romantic novels] unless it is comically bad'.

Getting away from issues of eroticism and fantasy, there are some scenarios which are more popular with some people than others, and the differences make themselves felt at a national level as well as between individuals:
Japanese readers love stories about Arabian sheiks and Mediterranean heroes, but don't like romances set in hospitals or rural American settings," Belinda explains. She also adds that Harlequin book covers portraying pregnant heroines, doctors, babies and children typically sell below average.
Whatever one's personal preferences, this evidence of variety within the genre seems to me to be a positive thing, as long as all readers are able to find some novels which they enjoy. It does mean that an author is never going to be able to please every single romance reader, but publishers have long been aware of this fact: Harlequin's many different lines are evidence of that.

So, without getting into a discussion of what's erotic and what's not, because that's a topic that's been heatedly discussed elsewhere, do you enjoy the diversity of the genre, or do you actually find most romances rather similar? Are you able to find romances which suit your tastes or do you lament the passing of a golden era in romance writing?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Julie Cohen - Being a Bad Girl (2)

Okay, so carrying on from yesterday's post, I'll take a closer look at the themes of fantasy and role-playing.

The novel explores why people choose to take on particular roles, either by putting on a costume or by emphasising a particular part of their personality, and the extent to which this can be liberating or restrictive. Again, as with Oz's comments about the subconscious, one can apply this to the novel itself, but this time to the act of reading, rather than the act of writing, since many readers of romance say that the novels allow them to explore their fantasies without trying to physically act them out.

Readers, like the audience for the bachelor auction at which Oz meets Marianne, know the difference between fantasy and reality. Jack, Oz’s friend, observes that they ‘know that you’re Dr. Oscar Strummer, clinical psychologist, university lecturer, and eligible bachelor. But you’re giving them an extra fantasy to buy' (2006: 13). The reader/viewer has the safety of knowing that what they’re reading/seeing is ‘safe’, but at the same time they can experience the thrill of the fantasy. And when Jack adds that Oz should ‘Forget the Ph.D. [...] Tonight, you’re a sex object to dozens of women. Maybe hundreds’ (2006: 14), we know that Oz’s audience includes the thousands of readers of the novel. Marianne, too, wants that fantasy: ‘Let me live the fantasy, for once. Let me let go’ (2006: 32). Dr Oz remembers that ‘He kept telling his patients that fantasies were a normal, healthy way of expressing their desires and if they didn’t hurt anybody, there wasn’t any harm in trying to act them out’ (2006: 33). Romance novels with strong sexual or erotic elements aren’t necessarily encouraging their readers to act out the fantasies, but they would seem to legitimise the reader’s fantasies, telling them that it’s acceptable to think about such things since they are ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ and don’t ‘hurt anybody’.

Marianne, we discover, is trying to escape her 'good girl' image. She’s spent years trying to be, and succeeding at being, the town good-girl, the beautiful, successful pageant queen. She’s ‘practically the town princess. Webb High veledictorian. Webb County Cotton Queen just like your mama [...] MBA from Duke just like your daddy’ (2006: 9) and, though no-one else knows it, ‘she’d pressured herself into an eating disorder, trying to make herself even more perfect’ (2006: 9). The pressure to be a 'good girl' almost destroys her, but although she now wants to be a 'bad girl', she can’t escape her own personality, and she puts almost as much pressure on herself when it comes to building a 'bad girl' persona. Having run to her cousin Warren (who owns a bar), she decides to become a bartender. Though Warren laughingly exclaims that she’s going to ‘take one load of training before you’re good enough to be a bartender’ (2006: 7) she quickly improves. Oz asks
“How did you become such a good bartender?”
“I practiced. A lot.”
“You said you were Portland’s newest bad girl. Have you been practicing that, too?” (2006: 124).
When it comes to deciding what to wear for the Hallowe’en costume party, Marianne realises that ‘She didn’t need to choose something to fit her new “bad girl” image. Oz had made it clear he didn’t believe in that image, anyway.’ (2006: 132). And yet, the costume she does choose has some ‘cool shoes’ (2006: 132), the bright red, shiny high heels worn by Dorothy, which may recall the ‘pretty red high heels’ (2006: 120) she wore in the previous scene when she was being a very provocative ‘bad girl’ in red high heels and matching lingerie. While Marianne may be mostly a good girl, and thus more suited to wearing a Dorothy costume than a 'bright red outfit she'd seen [...] The Bedazzled devil suit' (2006: 131), she retains something of the confident, red-heels-wearer about her. Like the 'bad girl' Marianne, she is a sexually aware and enjoys the speed and daring of riding a motorbike. Marianne's true nature is therefore somewhere between her 'bad girl' persona and that of the innocent Dorothy. So when she chooses to dress as Dorothy she adapts her costume so that it reflects her personality: ‘though her hair was plaited into innocent braids, her mouth was outlined in red lipstick. Okay, Dorothy was never going to be a bad girl. But she didn’t have to be a nun’ (2006: 132). What being with Oz has taught Marianne is that she can 'not try to be perfect. I can be myself' (2006: 206). Neither her 'good girl', nor her 'bad girl' persona were the true Marianne: neither allowed her to be herself, but both contained elements of the real Marianne.

Oz learns from his role-playing too. In the past Oz had put some effort into changing his image: he was the ‘geekiest kid at Portland High’ (2006: 15), ‘a ninety-eight pound weakling’ so he ‘joined the rowing team when I got to Harvard’ (2006: 123). While his 'bad boy' look, forced on him by Jack, is not one he chose, he recalls that as ‘juniors in high school’ he and his friends used to wear fake tattoos ‘to look older’, and Kitty, Jack’s wife observes that ‘Girls wear makeup to look older, boys wear fake tattoos’ (2006: 15). Experimenting with looking different is part of growing up, and it can also be used by adults who want their outward appearance to be ‘read’ by the viewer. Although Oz thinks ‘Borrowed bike. Borrowed clothes. She liked all the things about him that weren’t really him’ (2006: 29), as we’ve already noted, Oz ends up buying the bike and accepting his love of speed, and, on a less metaphorical and more earthy level, it’s not true that at first sight Marianne only likes the things that aren’t real about Oz – she most certainly appreciates the body within the clothes.

Dressing up is part of the Cinderella story – her fairy godmother gives her a makeover so that her outward appearance matches her inner beauty. Another common motif in romance is the heroine who dresses up as a boy, thus displaying to the reader (and the hero) her ‘masculine’ qualities such as courage and athletic skill. The disguises may not be real (the heroine is not really a boy) and yet they do reveal some truth about the character (she has ‘masculine’ qualities).

Disguises, then, can both conceal and expose, and are a mixture of truth and fiction:
“People think we put on costumes to disguise who we really are,” Oz said. “But I’m beginning to understand that it’s when we pretend to be other people that we reveal the most about ourselves.” [...] “For example, I felt silly in that motorcycle outfit when I first put it on. But as soon as I met you and saw how you saw me in it, I realized that I’d been denying my reckless side for far too long.” (2006: 139)
  • Cohen, Julie, 2006. Being a Bad Girl (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).

Monday, September 25, 2006

Julie Cohen – Being a Bad Girl (1)

No, this isn't a review. It's going to be like the analyses I've done of the metaromances, except that this time I'm going to look at imagery as well as at themes. It got rather long, which is why I'm splitting this up into two posts. I'll put up the second in a day or two.

Before I begin, I should mention that this book is a Mills & Boon’s Modern Romance Extra-Sensual (in the line formerly known as ‘Harlequin Temptation’). Julie Cohen has given seminars on writing sex scenes and you can read an excerpt which demonstrates her skill at this, but it's not something I'm going to discuss here. If you haven’t read the book and want to see a review, there’s one here.

I'm not going to discuss the sex, or the plot development, or the characterisation and I may give spoilers. So, now that I’ve bored or scared off almost all my potential readers, for those who’re still sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.

The hero of Being a Bad Girl, Dr Oz Strummer, is a psychologist and as the novel progresses he makes observations about his own and the heroine’s motivation. However, given that he’s a fictional character, who sprang from the brain of Julie Cohen, and she has an M.Phil. in English Literature (her thesis included ‘a whole chapter on the Cottingley fairy photographs’) and is an English teacher, it’s perhaps not surprising that his statements can also be understood to refer to the processes by which authors create themes and imagery in their writing.

So, what does Dr Oz Strummer have to tell us? Well, when Marianne turns up dressed as Dorothy, while Oz is dressed as the Scarecrow
they burst out laughing together.
“You’re a very sexy Dorothy,” he said, looking her up and down. She felt herself blush.
“It was just the first costume I came across. I didn’t -” Suddenly she realized why Oz had dressed up as the Scarecrow. His name. Her cheeks felt even hotter.
“I didn’t choose it because you’re called – I mean, I closed my eyes. It was a random choice.” She stopped, and looked up into his laughing, knowing hazel eyes.
“You’re going to say that nothing is random, aren’t you?”
“It’s a well-known theory that our subconscious expresses itself in our least deliberate actions,” he replied. (2006: 133)
Romance authors, whether subconsciously or deliberately, use imagery which complements the themes in the story they're writing. Julie Cohen is in the latter group, playfully using imagery and then making explicit its meaning; there are no accidental uses of clichés in this novel. For example, when Marianne, the heroine, muses that she wouldn’t ‘know what a bad boy was like unless one came up and bit her on the behind’ (2006: 11) she immediately pours herself a tequila and raises a toast ‘to an imaginary bad boy. “To bites on the behind”’ (2006: 12). When Oz is given a fake tattoo to wear of ‘a large sword with a snake twining around it’ (2006: 15) he knows that these are ‘Two blatant phallic symbols. Jack and Kitty weren’t being subtle in the least’ (2006: 15). And then Oz takes Marianne to the beach at night, where she can see the lighthouse: ‘ “A pillar of fire by night,” Oz said. “That’s what Longfellow called it.”’ (2006: 52). Julie quoted this passage of the novel and discussed it on her blog, so you can go there and see how the imagery adds to the emotional effect of the scene. What’s particularly interesting is that the same object, the lighthouse, can be interpreted/‘read’ differently by two different people. For Marianne the lighthouse makes her think ‘beautiful, perfect, and alone [...] she wasn’t like that perfect, lonely lighthouse anymore. She’d moved up here to change: to become happy and carefree’ (2006: 52). Oz, on the other hand, says that ‘I brought you to the biggest phallic symbol in the neighborhood [...] I think I mentioned Longfellow, too’ (2006: 55).

I won’t list all the imagery and innuendo in the novel, but I will give just one more example which is key to understanding Oz: his motorcycle, which is not, in fact, his. It’s part of the persona that’s being forced upon him by his friends who are dressing him up for a charity bacherlor auction and making him look like a 'bad boy' biker. Despite this, it does reflect an aspect of Oz’s personality. When he first sees the ‘flame-colored, chrome-girdled Harley Davidson’ (2006: 15) he imagines it ‘thrumming under his hands [...] the feeling of the road rushing under the wheels. Then real life and responsibility came back to him’ (2006: 15). But Oz’s ‘real life’ and his responsibilities are changing, which is perhaps why he buys the bike. Oz, it turns out, likes speed and sometimes wants to be free from ‘Responsibility. My job. My life. Who I am’ (2006: 78). The bike is ‘Freedom on two wheels’ (2006: 17). But speed, risk, and freedom are not enough to make Oz happy. When he goes on a night ride by himself ‘The fantasy wasn’t working. The Harley was a stunning machine. It responded to his every touch with perfect precision and awesome power. And it felt like a stupid, inanimate pile of metal and rubber when he was on it alone’ (2006: 70). He wants both excitement and stability, freedom and commitment, ‘I need something and somebody permanent’ (2006: 103). Stability on a motorbike with a passenger riding pillion can only be achieved through trust ‘I’ll trust you not to crash’ (2006: 39) and physical closeness, ‘hold on tight to me’ (2006: 39), with both driver and passenger having to ‘let our bodies work together with the bike’ (2006: 40). That applies not just to riding the bike, but also to sex, ‘Their bodies worked together, as they had on the motorcycle’ (2006: 171) and to the emotional side of the relationship between Oz and Marianne.

The lessons that Oz learns with Marianne and the motorbike also help explain why he changes his mind about his sister’s forthcoming wedding. He had thought that she was too young to get married (2006: 99-100), but, by the end of the novel he knows that, given the right riding partner, speed and excitement can be combined with safety. His sister, though she’s rushing to get married at an early age is not making a mistake, because she’s chosen her partner well.

I also thought the names of the hero and heroine were interesting. Julie Cohen says that ‘I named Oz after Joe Strummer in The Clash, because he died the same week I invented Oz’, but the surname sounds not dissimilar to the words ‘thrum’. Oz's surname, then, may echo the ‘thrumming [...] the satisfying roar’ (2006: 15) of the motorbike. His first name is Oscar, but he’s known as Oz, and Marianne thinks ‘Oz was a good name for a biker [...] A wizard on a motorcycle’ (2006: 20). Marianne’s surname is Webb, and her hometown is Webb, and that possibly reflects the fact that she’s been caught up in a web of rules, and is now trying to break free: ‘Make up the rules yourself, mused Marianne. After years of having the rules made up for her, that sounded exactly like what she was looking for’ (2006: 11). Marianne is the name of the ‘national emblem of France’, ‘a personification of Liberty and Reason’. These are qualities which are combined in the intelligent, freedom-seeking Marianne Webb. The French Marianne is often portrayed bearing her breast, and Marianne Webb’s bid for liberty involves exploring her sexuality. If we compare this heroine to other Mariannes in literature, we may note that she is much more fortunate than Marianne in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, who also falls in love with a bad boy, Willoughby, though of course Willoughby is a truly bad boy, not simply one who breaks a few rules. Oz combines the romantic and sexual appeal of the bad boy with the stability and wisdom of a Colonel Brandon. Or perhaps her name owes something to the song Marianne, about another Marianne who likes the seaside, sung by Terry Gilkyson & The Easy Riders (Oz's bike is a low rider (2006: 39)).

All of the above regarding Marianne’s name is pure speculation, and I suspect that I may be wrong. Nonetheless, since the reader doesn’t often know the author’s intentions, it can be interesting to analyse the possible associations that particular names have for the reader. Readers certainly have preferences regarding names for heroes, and, as mentioned previously, alpha heroes are not infrequently named after predatory birds and animals. Trying to work out the connotations and derivation of a name is something that Marianne does. Oz’s name makes her think both of the Wizard of Oz and ‘Ozzy Osbourne’ (2006: 47), but in fact he got the nickname for quite another, very innocent reason. So, if my analysis of Marianne’s name is wrong, I’m not in bad company.

  • Cohen, Julie, 2006. Being a Bad Girl (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Category Romances

Do category romances (i.e mostly the ones published by Harlequin/Mills & Boon) get less respect than single titles? In the UK Mills & Boon are pretty much the only well-known publisher printing romances, so I assumed that when Mills & Boon novels came in for criticism, that was because they were the romances with the highest profile, and it just reflected the way that the genre as a whole is denigrated. But as I've spent more time on US-based romance boards and blogs, I've got the impression that even within the romance genre some romances are perhaps 'more equal than others'. I read Jennifer Crusie's article on category romance, in which she comments that
Every now and then, well-meaning friends congratulate me on having broken out of category romance. I love the image this evokes--the sirens, the lights raking the sky, my desperate plunge toward the wall, Birgit and Malle holding onto my ankles--but the truth is, I didn't break out of category, I was evicted. I love category romance. I think it's an outstanding although very difficult form of fiction. "Oh, come on," I can hear some of you saying. "Those little books?"
I assumed that maybe these friends were people who didn't really know much about romance, or that they were thinking of the advantages of 'breaking out' such as having one's work available on the shelves of bookshops for longer. But now I'm beginning to wonder. I know there are some websites which review more category romances than others, such as The Romance Reader and CataRomance (which, as its name suggests, only reviews category romances), but is it the case that category romances are less likely to get reviewed than single-titles? Is it just because of the speed at which they're removed from the shelves? Or is it because people feel that they're of inferior quality to single-titles?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Metaromance (4) - Romance Readers

Nicola Marsh’s Contract to Marry, is another metaromance, since the heroine’s best friend, Liv, is a romance reader and through her the novel ‘systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality’ (Wikipedia entry on metafiction). A discussion about romance novels sets the scene for the meeting between hero and heroine and every so often references to the genre provide a point of reference for reflections on their relationship.

Liv has to face the usual negative comments that romance readers have come to expect if they read their favourite novels in public:
She [Fleur, the heroine] scanned the growing lunch crowd and spotted her friend at a corner table, nose buried in the latest romance novel as usual.
Taking care not to decapitate anyone on the way to their table, Fleur slid into a vacant seat and stacked her load against a nearby wall. ‘Let me guess. The tall, dark and handsome hero is about to rip off the heroine’s bodice and thrust his -’
‘No! Romance novels aren’t bodice-rippers. They’re contemporary fiction. How many times have I told you that?’ Liv stared at Fleur over her rimless spectacles, a faint blush staining her cheeks.
Fleur grinned. ‘All those books seem the same to me. Lots of hot action, with the main protagonist being men with broad, naked chests and big-’
‘OK, you’ve made your point.’ Liv snapped the book shut and held up her hand to silence her. (2005: 6)
The author soon gets her revenge on Fleur, by making her the heroine of a romance and giving her her very own Darcy (though in his case it’s his first name rather than his surname):
suddenly, just like that, Fleur experienced that strange, fluttery feeling that Liv’s romance novels raved about, that once-in-a-lifetime gut-churning, toe-curling reaction that signalled the one. She gazed at the stranger (2005: 9)
It’s playful way of challenging some of the stereotypes about romance, while simultaneously acknowledging that some of them may be correct: as Liv’s blush indicates, many romances do indeed feature ‘ Lots of hot action’ and heroes with ‘broad, naked chests and big-’. In fact, in Contract to Marry itself Fleur will be depicted ‘admiring his toned torso [...] her hands skimming the broad, muscular expanse’ (2005: 126).

Another of the stereotypes about the genre, and one which Marsh seems to be attempting to refute, is that it’s unrealistic in its portrayal of happy outcomes for relationships. As Crusie observes:
Yes, there's still tragedy and suffering in the world, but not unbroken tragedy and suffering, and in fact, most of us are surrounded by good stuff. Specifically, people fall in love, get married, and stand by each other every day, and roughly half of them stay that way. For the first time in a century, the commitment and happy ending of the romance plot is every bit as realistic as the Modernist plot. Unfortunately the perception is that they're just not artistic.
The plot of Contract to Marry depicts a cynical heroine, one who states that she’s ‘not a heroine in one of your novels’ (2005: 91) and who refers to romances as that those ‘corny novels’ (2005: 134). Nonetheless she falls in love and comes to believe in romance. When Liv temporarily becomes disillusioned with the genre, saying ‘I’ve given up on romance. It’s nothing like the books say it is’ (2005: 170), it’s Fleur who tries to reassure her and restore Liv’s faith in romance.

Marsh isn't alone in depicting romance-reading characters and using them to counter some of the prejudices about the genre. Another romance novel which mentions a romance reader, but this time only in passing, is Karen Templeton’s Swept Away. Here Carly, the 14-year old daughter of the hero of says that:
“Mama and I had ‘the talk’ when I was like ten or something. And I’ve been reading romance novels for years. Not that I believe it really happens like that or anything. But I definitely get the general idea.” (2006: 122).
There may not be very many romance readers of that age, but they do exist. According to the Romance Writers of America’s statistics, 1% of readers are aged 13 or younger, and 6% are between the ages of 14-17. Carly's reading hasn't entirely prepared her for adult, sexual relationships, but the romances certainly aren't depicted as having harmed her in any way. Karen Templeton also presents us with a heroine who's been raped, and Carly faces a similar (though different) situation. The result in no way reinforces the 'forced seduction' scenario that can sometimes be found in romances. Instead there's a very clear '"no" means no' message in this romance.

Anyone else come across examples of romance-readers in romance? Do they reinforce, or challenge the stereotypes that exist about both romance and romance readers?

  • Marsh, Nicola, 2005.Contract to Marry (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon Limited).
  • Templeton, Karen, 2006. Swept Away (Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Update on 'Reader, I Married Him'

There are a couple of clips from this programme available on the BBC website. Daisy Goodwin, the presenter, wants to discover whether or not reading romantic fiction reduces her cortisol levels (high cortisol levels are an indicator that a person is under stress). She discovers that it does, but, as she reveals, this may be because it sends her to sleep. I've found an article that Daisy Goodwin wrote about romantic fiction. In it she makes the comment that 'if you want to create a heroine, a fictional character who lives on and off the page, who becomes a benchmark for women’s aspirations, then you have to be female'. She also says that she defines romantic fiction as 'a book that no man would be seen dead reading' since 'if you are a man there is really nothing in these books to interest you'. The Romance Writers of America, on the other hand, found that '22% of romance readers are male'.

The Guardian's Nancy Banks-Smith provided a short review of the first installment of the programme, and it seems to have done nothing to improve her opinion of the genre:
The stars of Mills and Boon seemed less eager to appear. [...] I would have liked to hear from Miranda Lee, writer of The Billionaire Boss's Forbidden Mistress. As Wodehouse said of a romantic novelist: "A simple apology is all that is required."
That doesn't sound like a new convert to romance-reading, then.

But for anyone who would like to know more about Miranda Lee, there's a 2002 interview she gave here. Apparently she's Emma Darcy's sister. And there's a list of her novels here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Librarians and Romance

The American Library Association will be holding a Banned Book Week soon (23-30 September):
Banned Books Week (BBW) celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.
That's definitely something worth celebrating, in my opinion. And as we have some extremely well-informed and helpful librarians on the Romance Scholar listserv , and last week there were two librarians, Kelly Watson and Wendy Crutcher blogging at Romancing the Blog, I thought maybe we should express some appreciation for librarians as well as for the freedom to read books. So it seemed like a good time to blog about librarians and the romance genre. Do all librarians love romance? And does the romance genre love librarians?

Well, as far as librarians are concerned, it seems that their attitudes towards romance have been slowly changing:
library related literature from the 1980s and 1990s suggests a bias against romance novels on the part of librarians. The literature suggests that the reasons for these attitudes include the marketing of romance novels as commodities rather than literature, the presence of sexuality in the novels [...] To counter this negative perception, some library and information science (LIS) authors and practitioners have worked to foster positive views of the genre. Many female, and some male, librarians admit to reading romance novels, while others proudly admit to writing them. (Adkins, Esser & Velasquez 2006: 54)
Research into Missouri librarians' attitudes towards the romance genre showed that 'library directors and staff [...] appear less judgmental and more concerned about patron satisfaction', though some librarians remained dismissive of the genre. For example, one respondent reported that colleagues had joked about romance being shelved in the 'Red Dot District' (Adkins, Esser & Velasquez 2006: 61).

Romance novelists would appear to be considerably more positive in their portrayal of librarians. Margaret A. Elliot’s Master's dissertation
examined the portrayal of 28 librarians depicted in 25 romance novels published between 1980 and 1995. The purpose of the study was to measure how that portrayal compared to the stereotypical image so often criticized in the professional literature. [...] The romance novel librarians were presented as youthful, attractive, and well-dressed; their values were not those of the stereotypical puritanical librarian, and they were comfortable with members of the opposite sex. [...] The romance novel librarians were overwhelmingly female, very refined, and white. [...] Librarians [...] were presented as helpful, friendly, and attractive professionals. (1996: ii)
Elliot noted that:
several of the novels in this study were written by former librarians Cathie Linz and Jayne Ann Krentz (Krentz also uses pseudonyms Jayne Castle and Stephanie James.). Although Linz and Krentz portrayed librarians as competent, attractive and stylish, they allowed the image problem to come up through comments or thoughts from the hero. (1996: 27)
Elliott therefore suggests that:
Librarians who are also novelists could hasten the updated image by refusing to use all images and allusions to the stereotype. If it is never referred to, it will gradually disappear into the annals of library history where it belongs. (1996: 29)
To give you an example of how the stereotype tends to appear alongside a refutation of it, here's part of Anne Marie Winston's Walk on the Wilde Side (it's in the Mills & Boon free Online Read Library, which I can't link to directly, but you can get there from here):
She wore her hair in a too-severe grown-up twist now instead of the bouncy ponytail of high school years, but he'd know her anywhere. Behind her glasses — small rimless ones instead of the big bug-eyed violet ones she used to wear — her eyes were the same changeable shade of gold and green. Her skin was still the smoothest, satiny-looking skin he'd ever seen on anything other than a peach and her face was still a delicate heart shape with a jaw that was just a bit too firm for her to be the quiet wallflower that everyone assumed she was. [...]

"I still live here." She was busy pushing herself out of his arms and tidying her skirt, her narrow, graceful hands moving restlessly as she indicated the house behind her. "I'm the librarian now."

Ethan chuckled, absently wondering what she'd have done if he hadn't let her go. The job was a perfect fit. "The librarian." He shook his head. "I should have put a bet on that before I left town," he said.

She made a small pout of dissatisfaction. "Was I that boring?"

He'd swear her voice quavered, and he quickly tried to amend his bald words. "That wasn't what I meant. You're the smartest woman I've ever met. You were the class valedictorian. Makes sense to me that you'd find your niche helping other people to appreciate books."
Even if the librarians are not portrayed as boring or puritanical, there might still be some element of sexual innocence (whether real or assumed) clinging to the portrayal of some librarians in romance. My sample is even smaller than Elliott's, but I thought it was perhaps significant that the librarian in Walk on the Wilde Side is a virgin, and although Mitch, the hero of Jennifer Crusie's What the Lady Wants has had seven girlfriends who were librarians, and two others whose work involved books (2002: 136) he ends up with Mae: 'She didn't appeal to him the way the librarians had. She wasn't shyly sexy, she was up-front, in-your-face, you-talkin'-to-me? sexy' (2002: 170). And maybe it's just as well - librarians might be in for some nasty shocks if readers started coming in to libraries expecting more than just a good read in the 'red dot district'.
  • Adkins, Denise, Linda Esser & Diane Velasquez, 2006. 'Relations Between Librarians and Romance Readers: A Missouri Survey', Public Libraries, Volume 45, Number 4, July/August 2006.
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2002. What the Lady Wants (Ontario: MIRA Books).
  • Elliott, Margaret A., 1996. 'The Librarian's Stereotyped Image in Romance Novels, 1980-1995: Has the Image Changed?', Master's Research Paper, Kent State University. [Available via ERIC.]

Eric's Guest-Blogging Today

He's over at Romance: By the Blog today, talking about the courses on the romance genre that he teaches at DePaul University, and how his students' attitudes towards the genre change as they learn more about it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Male Authors of Romance/Romantic Fiction

This is just a very short entry to point you in the direction of Wenlock's discussion of a forthcoming series on BBC 4 about the romance genre.
Daisy Goodwin, the presenter of BBC 4's Reader, I Married Him, a three-part series on the novel to be shown in the autumn, said yesterday that, after interviewing writers and readers, she had concluded that "you can't have a really seriously-written romantic book written by a man". (The Daily Telegraph)
I think this is related to the issue of gender stereotypes that I blogged about recently. Wenlock provides some interesting links which show that much of the seemingly scientific 'evidence' provided to support assertions of sex difference are in fact exaggerations or distortions of the research. And according to a meta-analysis of the psychological research on gender differences, carried out by Janet Shibley Hyde,
The differences model, which argues that males and females are vastly different psychologically, dominates the popular media. Here, the author advances a very different view, the gender similarities hypothesis, which holds that males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables. Results from a review of 46 metaanalyses support the gender similarities hypothesis. Gender differences can vary substantially in magnitude at different ages and depend on the context in which measurement occurs. Overinflated claims of gender differences carry substantial costs in areas such as the workplace and relationships. (American Psychologist, September 2005)
I'm not a scientist, so I find it difficult to evaluate the claims on either side, but it seems clear both that (a) there is no scientific agreement that psychological gender differences are immense, certainly not to the extent that they would justify a claim that 'you can't have a really seriously-written romantic book written by a man' and (b) as far as I could tell, many studies are of existing adults, who have been conditioned since birth by their nurture. The brain is an organ which develops over the years and many behaviours and skills are learned. This being so, perhaps some of the observable psychological differences between the sexes (which, in any case are small, according to some scientists) are due not simply to biology, but also at least in part to nurture.

Even if we leave aside the science, both Wenlock and The Independent provide us with examples of popular romance/romantic novelists who are male.

Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to watch Reader, I Married Him (which begins on Monday 18 September) so I'll have to depend on other people to tell me about it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

This subject seemed appropriate given today’s date, and maybe it was inevitable that I’d eventually work my way round to a discussion of death, given my academic background, but I’d been reading romances and not thinking about it at all when suddenly I realised that I’d read quite a few romances recently where characters are recently bereaved and/or still dealing with the effects of bereavement, and where the consequences of bereavement are dealt with in much more depth than the ‘our heroine is an orphan because that narrows down the cast-list and makes her vulnerable’, the ‘our heroine is a virgin widow’ or the ‘our hero’s wife died but only after she’d made him cynical about all women’ plotlines. I’m not saying that these plots are bad, simply that they don’t dwell in any depth on what it’s like to deal with a bereavement. There are, however, plenty of romances in which the effect of the death of a loved one is dealt with in considerable detail.

When the deceased was the hero or heroine’s spouse, he or she sometimes appears as a ghost or vision, as in Linda Lael Miller’s Wild About Harry. Here the heroine’s dead husband suddenly makes his presence felt:
“If I’m not one can short of a six-pack, how come I’m seeing somebody who’s been dead for two years?”
Tyler winced. “Don’t use that word,” he said. “People don’t really die, they just change.” (2000: 12)
He urges her to remarry:
“Harry’s the man for you.”
You were the man for me,” Amy argued, and this time a tear escaped and slipped down her cheek.
[...] “That was then, Spud,” he said, his voice gruff with emotion. “Harry’s now.” (2000: 13)
The approbation of the much-loved, but now deceased spouse doesn’t always occur in such a dramatic fashion. At the end of Karen Templeton’s Swept Away, just after Carly, the heroine has agreed to marry the widowed Sam, he winks at his daughter, Libby, and when Libby ‘looked over at her mother’s photo on her desk, she could have sworn she saw Mama wink, too.’ (2006: 249).

Not all romances dealing with this issue include a sign from beyond the grave which signifies the deceased’s approval for the match. In Elizabeth Bailey’s Seventh Heaven the heroine had an arranged first marriage, which though not unaffectionate, was never loving. There is, nonetheless, a short discussion of how the heroine’s first husband would have felt about her remarriage. She jokingly suggests that she must marry Septimus, the hero, because he, a poet, requires a patron:
“A poet needs a patron, does he not? And it is high time you ceased to waste your very considerable talent on – on gruesome tales or whatever it is.” [...]
“And do you suppose Mr Shittlehope [Louisa’s first husband] would have approved of your sponsoring the arts?”
“Well, he liked me to play the pianoforte,” Louisa offered.
“Then that is settled. You may marry me with a clear conscience!” (296-297).
Clearly this particular example of a discussion about the deceased and his/her wishes is lighthearted, but it nonetheless shows the characters’ need to consider the possible feelings of the deceased. Even in cases such as Louisa’s, the assumed approval of the deceased gives a certain extra legitimacy to the new relationship and demonstrates that the dead are not forgotten.

Given that romances not infrequently suggest that there is one Mr or Ms Right, with heroines often waiting, in a virginal state, for the one man who can ‘awaken’ them, the situation of a hero or heroine who has had one true love, and is now embarking on a second marriage, with a second true love, raises questions about fidelity. Perhaps some readers would feel that a remarriage is a form of disloyalty, infidelity, or an indication that the first marriage was not one of ‘true love’. The widowed father of the heroine in Templeton’s Swept Away says of bereavement after the death of a spouse that ‘I’ve never really bought into the idea that staying lonely somehow honored the person who’d gone on’ (2006: 113), but the idea itself is implied to be one which is prevalent in society and it’s one which seems to trouble a fair number of romance widows and widowers. The supernatural approbation of the deceased is, therefore, clear evidence of the rightness of the new marriage, removing all possibility of guilt or shame on the part of the new couple.

In Claire Thornton’s Raven’s Honour, the characters receive no supernatural sign, and for a time Major Cole Raven, the hero, is wracked by guilt because he’d loved Honor, the heroine, for years, despite the fact that she was married to one of the soldiers under his command. Although he never let her know his feelings, and despite the fact that he did all he could to keep Patrick O’Donnell alive, he nonetheless feels guilty about Patrick’s death. Honor, not knowing how Cole feels about her, mentions the story of Bathsheba and King David, and Cole's responds angrily:
‘You think I’m the kind of man who could order another man to his certain death – just so I could take his woman?’ Raven demanded, his voice low and throbbing with outrage. [...] The Old Testament story of the King’s sinful action had never been far from Cole’s mind over the past few weeks. So Honor’s accusation had cut like a whiplash across his already tormented conscience, laying bare his guilt. (2002: 63-65)
In this biblical story King David’s guilt derives from the fact that he was responsible for the death of Bathsheba’s husband, but guilt can also arise from the feeling that one is benefiting from another’s death, or from the bereaved spouse’s sense that they should remain faithful to the deceased’s memory. The presence in romances of the deceased, who appear as spiritual or supernatural presences, perhaps remind us of the words of Jesus when asked about the status in the afterlife of a woman who during her lifetime had had seven husbands:
Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her.
Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.
For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. (Matthew 22: 28-30)
The dead cannot marry or be married, and therefore the living spouse is not committing adultery when he or she begins a new relationship. For those to whom no supernatural beings or signs appear, they must find other ways in which to come to terms with the past and assuage their guilt. In Raven’s Honour, for example, it becomes clear to Cole, and to the reader, that Patrick married Honor to protect her, and in his final words to Cole, ‘Take care of Honor, sir’ (2002: 34) he passed that responsibility on to Cole. In the novel it is demonstrated that Honor and Cole need feel no guilt, because neither betrayed Patrick. Rather, Cole is respecting Patrick’s final wishes by caring for Honor, and Honor, by returning home to ‘make peace with your mother’ (2002: 38), as Patrick had asked her to do, and laying out his corpse for burial does ‘ “Her last duty”, said Joe. [...] “No one could have asked more of her than that – not Patrick O’Donnell, at any rate”’ (2002: 40). Among Patrick’s final words to Honor were ‘You’re a good wife’ (2002: 38). By giving us these details about Patrick and Honor’s marriage, and showing Honor and Cole behaving honourably with regards to Patrick’s wishes, Thornton convinces the reader, and allows the hero and heroine to become convinced themselves, that they need not feel any guilt. It is also noticeable that Patrick continues to be mentioned throughout the book because he’s an integral part of Honor’s life, and Cole cannot understand Honor’s past without learning more about Patrick.

While the remembering of the dead is not emphasised in Raven’s Honour, it is an important theme in many of the books I’ve read recently. For example, in Karen Templeton’s Swept Away the hero, who’s been a widower for three years, explains his feelings about his dead wife:
“You still miss your wife too, don’t you?”
Sam took his time before answering. “One day, I realized I’d gotten through a whole hour without thinking about her. And at first I thought something was wrong with me, that somehow, it didn’t seem right not to hurt, not when you loved somebody as much as I’d loved her. Then, when the hour stretched to two, then sometimes even half a day, it finally began to sink in that missing somebody implies a vacuum of some kind, a hole in your life where this person used to be. And I thought, hell – after all those years we’d had together...’ He shook his head. “All these kids, each one of ‘em reminding me of her in some way. [....] It was Jeannie’s idea, painting the walls all those bright colors. The snowball bush out front, the lilac over there in front of the kitchen window, the row of cherry trees over there ... all her doing.”
With a gentle smile, he turned to Carly. “I suppose some people would find all those reminders painful. But I find ‘em a comfort. After all, it’s kinda hard to miss somebody who’s everywhere I look.” (2006: 69)
Unlike the dead characters in Sartre’s Huis Clos, condemned to Hell and to be forgotten by those who had once known and loved them, in romances the memories of the beloved dead are cherished and kept alive. In Miller’s Wild About Harry, Tyler’s mother says that ‘When you love someone, they leave a lasting imprint on your world’ (2000: 175). In Marion Lennox’s Princess of Convenience, the heroine’s son died of leukemia just three months before the beginning of the novel:
‘You don’t recuperate from a child’s death,’ she whispered, and she couldn’t stop the sudden flash of anger. ‘But that’s what they all said. You go overseas and forget, they told me. Start again. How can I start again? Why would I want to?
‘Like me,’ he said softly and her eyes flew to his. ‘Only harder.’
‘What ... what do you mean?
‘I believed them,’ he told her, his voice gentling. ‘Or maybe, like you, they just wore me down by repeating their mantra and I hoped like hell they were right.’ [...]
‘You’ve lost someone, too?’ she whispered, though she already knew the answer.
‘My twin. My sister. Lisle.’ (2005: 66)
In the course of the novel, however, they do both recuperate, and in part this is because they realise that recuperating does not have to involve either forgetting or starting again. In the final scene, the family gather together in the kitchen garden, while a priest says a blessing over the ashes of Dominic (the heroine’s son) and Lisle (the hero’s sister):
This kitchen garden was no formal garden. It was used every day, by everyone who lived in this castle. Edouard played here with his baby alpacas [....]. The servants gossiped here. Louise and Henri sat and held hands and watched Edouard play. Raoul and Jess sat here in the moonlight. And soon... In not so many months, maybe there’d be a crib out here, where a little one could have a daily dose of sun.
Home. Home is where the heart is, Jess thought dreamily. Home is here. [...]
They lifted their urns and they let the ash drift across the garden on the soft see breeze to land where it would.
The urns were empty. Jess turned and she held her husband tight, and once again she shed tears. But this time there was no desolation.
This was right.
Lisle and Dominic had come home.
With their families. (2005: 186-187)
Romance novels conclude with an ‘Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending’: often they demonstrate that love triumphs even over death. In the words of Cousin Geillis, a white witch, and relative of the heroine of Mary Stewart’s Thornyhold, writing in a message composed before her death, but delivered after it,‘‘Love is foreseen from the beginning, and outlasts the end’ (1989: 222), or, as Dylan Thomas said:
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
  • Bailey, Elizabeth, 2001. ‘Seventh Heaven’ in Elizabeth Bailey: Three Stories in One (Chatswood, New South Wales: Harlequin Mills & Boon), pp. 7-299.
  • Lennox, Marion, 2005. Princess of Convenience (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd.).
  • Miller, Linda Lael, 2000. Wild About Harry (Richmond, Surrey: MIRA Books).
  • Stewart, Mary, 1989. Thornyhold (Sevenoaks, Kent: Coronet Books, Hodder and Stoughton).
  • Templeton, Karen, 2006. Swept Away (Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books).
  • Thornton, Claire, 2002. Raven’s Honour (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd.).

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Evolution of the Alpha?

Over at Michelle Buonfiglio's Romance: By the Blog this week there was an interview with Stephanie Laurens. She said that:
one thing I’ve noticed over the past 15 years is that our alphas – just like us – have evolved. [...] It used to be that just getting the alpha to bend the knee to love was the culmination of the romance. Now the fantasy goes one step further – he must recognize the heroine as an equal partner and be prepared to negotiate in shaping their future lives.

I see this change in my own alphas, and those of many other major authors, presumably reflecting changing female perceptions of the ultimate romantic challenge. But what do you think?
Given that I tend to avoid alpha heroes, and I haven't been reading romances for long enough to detect trends, I can't say I've noticed this sort of change. Have you?

What did occur to me, though, when reading this comment was that maybe it's not just about 'the ultimate romantic challenge'. Maybe women's ideas and fantasies about the ideal relationship have been changing? Maybe there are fewer and fewer readers who would believe in a Happily Ever After for a relationship in which the hero will never treat the heroine 'as an equal partner', and isn't 'prepared to negotiate in shaping their future lives'? As Monica Jackson rather provocatively puts it:
How about rich, dominant Harlequin Presents type heroes who will go to any lengths to possess you? He throws you on the bed and pounds you into a glob of quivering flesh, begging for mercy. He glowers at any man who speaks to you, including the waiter, his smouldering eyes shooting jealous sparks and catching tablecloths in five star restaurants on fire.

Those suckers scare me and they should scare you too. I always wonder why those silly heroines don’t realize that Him Big He Man is going to beat their rear-ends the next time they fling their locks and act feisty? It gets old after a while, Mary Sue. Yeah, it’s gonna get old to him too and you’re gonna be picking your butt up off the floor. Want an ice pack for that black eye? Keep the abuse hotline number handy.
This doesn't describe the heroes in the recent Harlequin Presents I've read, but I think she does raise an important issue. Control and fierce possessiveness are now recognised as a feature of many abusive relationships. Over the past couple of decades people have become more aware of the issue of domestic violence:
In October 1987, the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month was observed. That same year the first national toll-free hotline was begun. In 1989 the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month Commemorative Legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress. (US Department of State).
The BBC, for example, gives a list of possible warning signs that indicate that a relationship might be abusive. They include
* He has very rigid ideas about the roles of men and women and can't / won't discuss it reasonably.
* His mood swings are so erratic that you find yourself constantly trying to assess his mood and only think in terms of his needs. A healthy relationship has give and take.
* He makes all the decisions in your relationship and ignores your needs or dismisses them as unimportant.
Does this describe some of the earlier alpha heroes? Is Laurens right that Alphas are changing? If so, is it because getting them to treat the heroine as an equal is more of a 'romantic challenge'? Or is it that fewer women can accept a happy ending that includes a relationship so unequal that the hero, confident in his own power and intelligence, believes that he always knows best and won't negotiate with the heroine?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sex, Gender and Stereotypes

Nowadays women made love with the men they wanted without considering themselves fallen, or even slightly tilted. (Donald 2006: 126)
It's a line that jumped out at me from a romance I was reading and made me think. In tone it reminds me of one of the quotations attributed to Mae West: 'I used to be Snow White, but I drifted'. Many romances assert a woman's right to enjoy sex without thinking of herself as 'fallen', or even, as in the quotation from Donald, 'slightly tilted'.

As Jennifer Crusie has observed, in many of the great nineteenth-century works of literature, the heroine who is sexual is punished:
I had to read Madame Bovary , I had to read Anna Karenina [...]. I had to see Hester Prynne as the great American heroine who triumphs by remaining celibate for the rest of her endless life. In the midst of this misery [...] I bought a couple dozen examples of the varied lines of romance fiction [...] I read the stuff for a month. [...] For the first time, I was reading fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds.
Toni Blake recently wrote something similar:
When it comes right down to it, women’s sexual history in the United States can be summed up like this: You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t ; ) When I was growing up, you were supposed to be a nice girl. Now you’re supposed to be a sex kitten. Or that’s what I gather when I watch the E! channel anyway. Thing is, I kinda don’t think most of us are either/or. I think we can all be nice girls and sex kittens and about a gazillion other things in between. Thus, in my books, I really strive to create heroines who personify this – women who are embracing their sexuality but also have a heck of a lot more going for them than just that.
Romance novels with sexually active heroines help to break down the Madonna/whore dichotomy. The extent to which they do so will vary, of course, depending on the level of explicitness and the backstory of the heroine, but as they all end with the heroine in a committed relationship, they are clearly advocating neither promiscuity nor celibacy. Nor are sex scenes in romances just about sex
Basically, good sex scenes are never about the sex, they're about something hugely emotionally important that is played out physically in an act that makes people hugely vulnerable no matter how frivolous and offhand the characters try to make it. That's why sex scenes are so crucial. (Crusie, 2006)
Or, to put it another way, 'Sex is an emotion in motion' (another quotation attributed to Mae West).

Human sexuality and mating behaviour is complex and although the romance genre has its trends, and at some times there may be a proponderance of one particular type of hero or heroine, at any given time there will also be some novels which portray a variety of other personality types and relationships. This is as true of heroes as it is of heroines. The occasional cries of dismay from readers when they think a particular hero doesn't behave or talk like a 'real man' may sometimes be justified, but at others the romances in question may simply be reflecting the huge variety of personalities and behaviours that exists among human beings. If romance were simply to present one type of 'real man', it might well run the risk of exacerbating the existing 'stereotype threat' posed by gender stereotypes.
Numerous psychological studies have examined effects of stereotype threat in areas such as standardized tests, and athletic performance. For example, the commonly held assumption that women are less skilled in mathematics than men has been shown to affect the performance of women on standardized math tests. When female participants were primed beforehand of this negative stereotype, scores were significantly lower than if the women were led to believe the tests did not reflect these stereotypes.
Just as there are plenty of preconceptions and stereotypes about women, our sexuality, emotional responses and intellectual abilities, so there are many stereotypes about what men do or don't think, feel or do. I find it encouraging that romance can portray a variety of heroes.

Emotionally vulnerable heroes, heroes who can talk about their emotions, heroes who are deeply romantic are not simply fantastical creatures who could never exist in real life (though they may well be somewhat exaggerated, just as romance heroines are often a little more beautiful, or adventurous than many of the readers). In a survey of Ohio teenagers carried out in 2001, for example, researchers found that:
On the love scale, boys scored equally with girls. They were at least as emotionally invested in their romantic relationships as their partners. About 100 of the boys and girls were randomly chosen for additional, in-depth, face-to-face interviews that were taped. The responses were revelatory in their passionate forthrightness. "You think of it as this way: [Would] you give up your whole life, you know ... to save Jenny's life?" one boy said, trying to explain his feelings about his girlfriend. "I'm like a little girl in a relationship," another boy confided. "[At first it] just seemed like every time I was around her I couldn't talk. I was getting butterflies in my stomach, I was just, like, discombobulated or something." Such sentiments were echoed across race and ethnic lines. [...]

And here's something that surprised even Giordano [the researcher who instigated the survey]: both boys and girls agreed that girls have the power in heterosexual relationships, including when it comes to sex. "She wanted to do it more than I did," said an 18-year-old male. [...]
A 2001 Gallup survey conducted for the National Marriage Project found that:
Young adults today are searching for a deep emotional and spiritual connection with one person for life. The overwhelming majority (94%) of never-married singles agree that "when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." There is no significant gender gap in this response.
The numbers of male readers of romance probably also came as a surprise to many. The most recent RWA survey found that '22% of romance readers are male (a significant increase from the 2002 survey that showed only 7% of readers were male.)'

Laura Kinsale, in her essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women writes about the female reader as 'the androgynous reader':
as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace [...] can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (Kinsale 1992: 37).
She adds that 'A novel that works, in which reader identification takes place, is a methodological realization of elements of the reader's innermost life. If the taproot isn't there in the reader in the first place, the novel will not tap into anything. (1992: 37) Given that there are now so many male romance readers, it seems legitimate to wonder about the innermost life of male readers. Are they also 'androgynous readers'? I suspect that we all are. And if the romance genre asserts women's right to be sexual as well as emotional, it also suggests that, contrary to some of the stereotypes, men are emotional as well as sexual.

  • Donald, Robyn, 2006. 'The Prince's Pleasure' in Royal Proposals (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Kinsale, Laura, 1992. 'The Androgynous Reader', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 31-44.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Metaromance (3)

Here's one I found online. It's a short story by Liz Fielding, The Secret Wedding and I'm only going to quote from the first chapter, to avoid giving spoilers. You can find it at the Mills & Boon online reads library. The formatting on the Mills & Boon website is a little strange, but you should still be able to read the story. There are 8 tiny 'chapters', each with 3 sections. It used to be on the Harlequin website too, but they removed most of the online reads, which I thought was a bit of a shame, but it could be because they've launched an ebook 'boutique' where, among other things, they're selling 'Harlequin mini' ebooks. I'm sure at least one of the mini ebooks is a story which used to be a free online read.

The Secret Wedding is a story about two writers. The hero, Tom,
wrote bestselling thrillers for men. His readers didn’t want emotional guff polluting the action. Women were included for the sole purpose of providing sex and sympathy while they fixed up his hero’s wounds. And to bump up the body count.
The heroine is 'bestselling romance novelist Mollie Blake', who's giving a writing workshop. The types of novels written by the protagonists, and the way they're described, reminds me of this description of the collaboration between Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, though I think Fielding's story was written some time prior to this:
One evening in Maui [at the Maui Writers Conference, where both were teaching], Jenny Crusie was watching the sun set over the Pacific when Bob Mayer sat down beside her and said, “What do you write?” Jenny said, “Well, basically, in my books, people have sex and get married.” Bob said, “In my books, people have sex and die.”
Tom's publisher is not entirely happy with his writing and tells him that he has to go on a writing course because
" [...] you seem to have lost that wonderful humanity the women readers loved. Get back in touch with your feminine side, Tom." The man hadn’t been making a suggestion. He’d meant it. "Women buy a lot of books."
Women do, indeed, seem to read more fiction than men. In 2005, for example, Statistics Canada published a report including the finding that 'Women are clearly the biggest readers. Women comprise 6 out of 10 regular readers and 7 out of 10 heavy readers'. In the UK, according to a 2002 report prepared by Book Marketing Limited:
  • Men spend slightly more time reading (about 5%) than women, but this is because they spent far more time reading printed newspapers and electronic information. Women are more avaricious book readers, particularly of fiction. Over a quarter of women’s reading is devoted to fiction, compared to one sixth for men. [...]
  • Two thirds of all books started are read by women, though this rises to over 70% for fiction, and falls to under half for non-fiction.
  • Of the new books started, three-quarters are fiction. Over 80% of new books started by women are fiction, whereas for men this figure is nearer 60%.

The story told in The Secret Wedding isn't particularly full of novelties: it doesn't 'push the envelope' of genre conventions. But it isn't meant to. Instead, it illustrates the various aspects of the romance novel that Mollie intends teaching her students. Each chapter begins with a quotation from 'Mollie Blake’s Writing Workshop Notes', and then serves as an example of how to put the writing advice into practice.

The advice given in Chapter One is: 'Begin your story at a moment of crisis, a point in time when your character’s life is about to change forever'. While this advice isn't adhered to by those who commence with a prologue, or many famous authors such as Thomas Hardy (his Return of the Native, for example, begins with a pages-long description of the landscape of Egdon Heath), it does seem to be popular with many contemporary writers of genre fiction. At the site of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, for example, there's an item which asks:
Does the story start at the right place (the beginning?) Most stories by beginning writers start far too early - way before the key action takes place. Some, however, may start too far forward. These writers have taken the advice of "start with the action at full steam" too literally.
At Liz Fielding's own website she gives the same advice as Mollie does: 'The opening is important. Start with the crisis'.

The descriptions of the characters are similarly, and quite explicitly, written to fit genre conventions: 'she was the kind of woman that any one of his heroes would be glad to have hanging off his left arm', and:
the man was a relic from some cliché-ridden romance. Ignoring the pick-chat up line, she straightened, unimpressed with Mr. Cute.

But she couldn't escape the clichés. Even in the darkness of the car park she could see that he was tall, with mile-wide shoulders.

I had a lot of fun with this, reading the story and noticing how it fitted Mollie's guidelines, and how self-aware Fielding was about genre conventions/clichés. There's even a fairy-tale beginning, '"Once upon a time..."' at the very end of the story, which reminds us that romances have a lot in common with fairytales, and usually end with everyone living happily ever after.